The Greater Darkness

The bones of the angel were found protruding the muck and brine like the enormous ivory tusks of some long extinct mastodon. Here they lay in the shadow of a great dense forest, alongside untold generations of primitive man, born and dead with the inconsequence of the passing of the sun. These bones were illustrated in ink by men who only heard the tales and exhibited on the front pages of newspapers as natural fact and horrid proof that the divine at least once existed.

So much the haze of those moments, the frenzy of possibility, the rapture of priests, weeping in the streets, pummeling each other, the blood-glistening crucifixes and blood-drenched collars, scientists decrying the bones as fabrications, deliriums, hoaxes, and now advertisements for a steamship voyage hastily printed in papers and plastered in shop windows and nailed to lampposts. Onto these decks swarmed the diseased, the ruined, the maimed, the deformed, some chattering aloud, to no one, to their children, to their wives, brought in tow, brought with similar disfigurements, diseases, some silently gazing at their hands, at the water, the gulls. Some missing arms, the empty sleeves pinned up and hanging limply, or missing legs and leaning on crutches or tottering on stumps or the jut of a wooden leg, and some disfigured in the face, scarred or burned or born with a lipless scowl.

And you too stood in the ruined midst of these travellers. Some were already weeping and praying and bowing to the deck, even as the whistle of the steam, the black smoke and ungainly lurching and chugging, the shouts of the captain, the hustling of his crew, and the shore slowly vanished. The priest who walked amongst them, dashing their brows with fluid from a flask, waving his book aloft, reciting what you assumed were verses from his book. The deformities wept and grabbed his shoes and kissed the glinting black leather and he called them “children,” blessing them in the name of the god they assumed they held in mutual esteem.

This priest in his white-collar, his wire-rim glasses, their sun glazed lenses. This priest, light and slender, white-haired, and yet as-if-ageless, his skin translucent and with neither blemish nor line. This priest who remained above deck with the captain and his crew while you and the others were ushered below. And some said the priest remained above for he had chartered this ship and so must surely keep better quarters than your hard, musty bunks while others, those especially stricken, insisted such a man, one who lived in the glow of the divine, would refuse gentler quarters to make his bed with dignity upon the wooden deck.

And you were led below, the dank-dripping from exposed pipes, the faint wane of the oil-fixtures, the steel walls fissured with rust, and divvied into various rooms at seeming random. In each room the same bunks, the green-wool blankets, moth-disturbed and splotched with the discharge of common sailors, workers, stowaways, a faded national flag, a tin-framed portrait of a long ago president. Now within the hive of the ship, the constant ministrations of the pilgrims, their murmuring prayers, their idols clasped, the pills they shook into their palms, the medicines that sent them to red-eyes and absent gazes, the tincture of Opium and the Opium itself. The air took on the smoke of their pipes, the hum of their prayers. And beyond those who medicated there were those who simply awaited the divine.

And you in the rumpled hounds-tooth of your only suit, the threadbare cotton of your only socks, your shoes sickly with frayed threads, your hands laced behind your head, and in the opposite bunk, one man held a child’s head upon his lap, the child asleep with a thin wheeze. An ancient man and woman lay curled on another bunk, the faint glimmer of their eyes. You said your name to the others, and the father said his name and the name of the child, her soot-smudged face, her hair tangled with pins and seashell-combs. And the old man said his name and the old woman made a sound that seemed to be her own until the man said, “No, you remember now, that is not right” and now he said the name he insisted she bore.

The little girl who wheezed as she dreamed, her father whispering the story of her mother dead from fever and the girl who had never seen nor heard. The old man who simply said they had known each other for eighty-years, their closeness unrelenting into the failure of the flesh, but now when his wife looked upon him most days she knew him not. “I have contemplated unspeakable deeds,” he began, until his voice caught.

And when they wondered of your purpose aboard this ship, you pressed the father’s hand to your chest. His eyes widened, “It’s a trick,” he said. “No,” you answered, shaking your head.

Now there were those aboard this vessel who said you had always lived with a stilled heart, born into the condition of death, anointed with the last rites even as you wailed your first breath, and there were those who said your father, the doctor, gave you ether and laid you to the table, and there he plumbed your chest for the source of your life, if not the mortal pulse of a heart. And there were those who said your father found a faint and barely moving organ, while others said he found it trapped within absolute stillness, and still others said he found no heart at all. All agreed you wore now a father-given scar along your chest, ever enflamed and aching.

***

To follow were days of beauty: the trembling, blue clarity of the water when the sun lit the sky, the oil-blackness when clouds flowed in doomy-sheets, bursting with light; the roving packs of dolphins, skimming alongside the ship; the enormous mournful calls of whales; the sunrises pulsing from the horizon, the sunsets burning out over the waters; the passengers wandering the decks in their various distorted ambulations, the elderly couple fixed in embrace upon their bed, the father and the daughter at the railing, the father describing the scene to his daughter in easy cadences, his hands upon her shoulder, the tangle of her hair, his lips near her ears. She seemed to smile in the breeze.

And you too walked the deck, your lungs filling and unfilling with the briney-air, until the young boy of the crew stood before you, a summons clasped in his smutty-hands. Now you were brought before the priest, and there you each supped on what he called water and hard tack but was actually roast chicken and wine. Soon you forgot yourself, sucking greedily at the bones, the grease of your fingers, and as you supped the priest said, “You are ______” and here he uttered your name and you nodded. He said, “I studied with your father, long ago. I know what he did to you.” You watched his lips as he continued speaking, the reflections of furniture and light fixtures in his glasses, how he spoke of your mother’s doom. The many ways you were made to be alone. Of your father he offered, “I still believe he was a good man,” he finished. You said nothing in reply until the priest asked where your father now was. “I believe he’s dead,” you said. “Yes,” the priest nodded. “He would be. Most of them are.” Now he brought up his book, a small bottle housed within the casket of its hollowed pages. This he shook into his palm, the mound of pills he washed down with wine. His flesh seemed to slacken. His eyes glazed and he spoke as in a dream, “It stood a thousand feet tall, roaring and gnashing, and then it consumed us all.” You were silent some moments before you said, “The angel?” and the priest smiled in his hazy manner, “Yes, the angel.”

***

It was the girl who woke the others with her weeping, crouched and wrapped in her own arms, her pale eyes swollen and pink from her position in the far corner. And when her father went to her, petting her arm, her brow, she moaned and spat. And in this noise, now the old man cried out, for in his arms lay the ragged body of his wife, her neck limp and eyes glazed and mouth fallen open. Now the little girl wailed the louder and so it was she would not cease her cries until the old woman’s body was wrapped in her green wool blanket and even then she would come no nearer to the bed. “You’ll have to remove her,” the father said. The old man petted the shroud in his silence and when the little girl again wailed the old man looked up with his red eyes and said that he could not lift his wife. “I will do it,” you said.

You brought the body to the deck, the head jostling through the blanket, and there she settled as a loose collection of limbs. In the hours to follow, the priest stood before the form, uttering phrases most believed originated from his book while the old man sighed throughout, “It is so, it is so.” But when you raised her he shouted that if you threw his wife overboard you must murder him as well. Now the others murmured and one man said, “I’ll do it too!” until the priest held the man, blessing his name and the name of his wife, and now offered the old man his own cabin as a crypt. Soon the priest’s unlined brow as he stood before the cabin door, the boy who brought from within a satchel, a stack of leather volumes, a lamp, placing these upon the deck while the body was laid upon the bed. And there the old man was said to lie alongside her. And none wondered aloud if he pulled open the blanket.

***

It was night when you arrived. All seized up when the bells clanged and the chugging slowed, when even the smoke dispersed for the air of the jungle, the shrill yammering of monkeys and birds and the hooting and snarling of creatures unknown. And many now clamored onto the deck, pressed to the railings, to the shrouded darkness. And no native torches lit the shoreline nor did missionaries row in greeting. And some called to the angel in the darkness, and some swung their ravaged frames over the railings, or cried out to be thrown over, and now the screaming, the frenzy, the gnashing, the weeping. And when none obeyed the captain’s command to “clear the decks” he fired his revolver and when none heeded this shot he ordered his crew to force the passengers below.

And through the clamor, the old man waited in the priest’s cabin, murmuring his wife’s name, his wretched hands stiff upon her mound.

And through the night, the little girl pawed at the darkness. And when finally all were lead to the deck and loaded into lifeboats, she refused to leave the room, gripping the doorframe and throwing herself beneath the beds, cowering in the dust. And when you pulled her into the light she gnashed until your hands dripped. And when the priest touched her brow she thrashed and tore at her eyes, her chest, her throat, until these bled.  Finally, the father took her, his hands engulfing her wrists, petting her brow, whispering near her ear while she hissed. So he carried her by the shoulders and you carried her by her feet, and in this way she was loaded into the boat, never ceasing her screams, her bucking and thrashing.

***

You and the priest rowed, his translucent face without strain save those veins which seemed to pulse with increasing blueness, into the dense swollen air, the mosquito clouds, their long bodies hunkered upon your arms, your throats. And the father held the girl on his lap, buckling and foaming at the lips, her cloudy-eyes bulging. And the old man whispered to his blanketed and stinking wife. And when finally the boat lodged into the sands of the shore, the little girl let one last scream and now she lay silent, yellow foam crusted at her lips.

***

Some wept, some fell to their knees, some ran into the new world before them, the trees laden with red and green spiked fruits, the shrill monkeys, hopping and bobbing about the shore, beating their fists, screeching, while lizards lounged in the dirt, their scales and loose hanging necks. And some monkeys beat the lizards with rocks, chewing the soft meat from the devastated skulls. And some lizards turned and hissed and the monkeys fled up the trunks of fruit trees, their brown emaciated faces and crisp blue eyes. And along these sands what seemed a hillside of chalk was actually bone, a mound of hip or a leg, and you wandered atop the apparent fragments of a monstrous spine. And some wept and beat the ground. And some called out “It glows! It glows!” and some said they heard the angel humming and some insisted they sensed a lost limb beginning its regeneration.

And here the old man settled his mound, unfurling the blanket, her eyes yet open, her putrid skin yellowed and swollen. Flies swarmed as he fell upon her, smoldering her with tears and kisses, pleading with the bones to resurrect his wife as she had been in their youth.

And now the little girl was made to sit in audience before the bones, thrashing and moaning flatly from her delirium. And her father too wept as he held her to the mounds, moss tufted and otherwise unblemished. And the father begged the god he believed omniscient and benevolent to heal his daughter. And he dared not say his wife’s name. And he dared not dream her returned unto him.

And it was the priest who saw the skull rising from the soil, the horrid snout, a tower of long bone and teeth and eye caverns, tufted with moss and rusted with ancient murder.

And he commented not on the teeth, as tall as any man. Nor did he speak of the reptilian curve of those nostrils, those fathomless caverns. And he said nothing to those pilgrims who wept and prayed and investigated the bones along the shore even as he looked upon them with horror. And his mouth opened and closed while he looked to you with eyes filled with tears. And now he fled into the forest.

You followed through the brush, his huffing and terror, the insane chortling of monkeys and the screams of birds until in the midst of a clearing stood the priest. And there the bloated bodies of natives, afflicted with lesions, black and dripping and swollen the size of apples. The priest staggered amongst the tangled bodies, mounded to his knees. And some distance beyond strode a man, touching a torch of bound sticks and grasses to the thatched roofs of huts, the mouth of flame drifting over these structures, collapsing into waves of heat, the flickering light upon the glisten of his skin. And while one building burned he went to a pile of bodies, selecting immediately a figure and the trail of dead limbs in the dust and across the threshold of another home.

The man amidst his fires, the entirety of his figure illustrated with the apparent literature of his kind, geometric depictions of birds and monkeys and enormous lizards circling and devouring their own haunches and tails. Now the crashing of houses into cinder and ash, as he took the priest by the shoulder, wrapping the smaller man until he seemed to disappear, into the smoke and horror and blood, into lost gulping sounds and soft moans and noises vaguely like thrashing. And the smoke came over their figures like a veil. And you coughed and your eyes blurred and when you looked again the tattooed man was dragging another blackened body through the dust. The priest was nowhere apparent in all that land.

***

When the last of the bodies was disappeared and the last of the houses devastated now the tattooed man dipped his hands in the coolest of the ashes, raking these hands across his face and chest. He looked to you, while behind him the smoke coiled into the shapes of birds and lizards and monstrous unnamed apparitions.

***

So when you emerged from the forest the pilgrims were covered in sand and sweat and tears. And some sat upon the bones and some crouched before the bones and some slept in the sand and some yet murmured their prayers. No dead had risen, no frailties or impurities healed. And the little girl sat dumbly in the sand beside her father, who stroked her brow while he watched the sky taking shape. Some claimed they felt a tremor within their ravaged limbs, and others believed a humming in their skulls and a light flashing in their eyes, indicated the coming of miracles. “It will happen before long,” one woman nodded, both her limbs mere withered stumps. And none had known you were gone, so they looked upon your smoky, stricken figure with wonder, as you said, “We must leave. Immediately.” And when you indicated the tattooed man, saying he had come from the depths of the forest, they wondered of your sanity, for they knew the man beside you as the priest, appearing to them as ever before.

And when finally all returned to the ship, the old man remained beside his wife, and none could move him from her position. “I must be here,” he said “for when she wakes.”

***

The little girl fell ill some days into the return voyage, her neck and arms bulging with lesions, her brow pulsing with heat. And soon her father too sickened, and from the old man’s former bunk he gazed through the swelter of his fever. And in this vision his daughter opened her eyes and seemed to regard the man before her, the oval darkness of her mouth as she spoke of the land she had these years dreamed, a place of far greater darkness than any he had ever known.

***

When she died, vomiting and spitting blood, the tattooed man entered with the hacked-apart remnants of a wooden chair and a velvet upholstered stool, his hands and forearms laced with splinters and dripping blood, and these he slid beneath the girl, along with crumpled bunches of pages ripped from logbooks, journals, stray newspapers. And he took the oil lamp from the wall. The father moaned while over his daughter a blue flame grew and consumed, the tattooed man’s eyes and his teeth shining with the light of his fire, his skin hued with the blur of the smoke. Now he grabbed his skull, ripping his hair, weeping and bellowing. And then he set upon the father.

***

Then followed days of formless gray, islands of ice drifting the sea, and upon these bears and flippered mammals wandered in blood crusted scenes of murder, the tufts of slaughtered fur and teeth and skulls heaped while the ship radiated with the sounds of agony, of doom, of moans and then silence.

And now the tattooed man ravaged chairs and stools and dressers and desks, heaping the pieces and dashing upon them the liquor of lamps. And some murmured in their final moments while their rooms became as infernos. And some wept and begged the man to preserve them. And some simply lay stiff and bloated.

And while black smoke coughed from below, and the ship seemed to swell and buckle with the heat of the fires, you took over the captain’s cabin, bolting shut the windows and sliding wool jackets beneath the door. And you dressed in his spare clothing, the shirts immaculately folded in the top drawer of his lacquered dresser; the thick wool jacket slumped over his chair. The photographs fanned out on his desk, a hairless child in a dress, a young woman holding a bouquet of daisies, a saddled horse. What had been his wedding band was likewise left upon a stack of anonymous papers. The captain himself extended upon his bed, his boot tips pointed up, his mouth open, eyes and tongue made the feast of rats.  And you bundled the captain in his sheets and slid him beneath the bed.

***

When the tattooed man finally sought entrance, he came wielding an axe, hacking and splintering and pounding with the handle, his eyes reddened and gleaming. His awful rhythm. His muscles pulsing and rippling while the wood gouged and tore and the wood bulged inward.

And the door buckled while you drank brown liquor from a crystal carafe, weeping and smearing the photographs with tears and splotching them with drink. And when you lay upon the bed, you spoke to the child from the photographs, the woman, the glint of her smile, her eyes in the oil light. And when you closed your eyes you heard either the beating sounds of your heart, or the tattooed man’s feet against your floor.

 

***

When finally your vessel moored on some distant wasteland you lay as all the others, collapsed into the ash of his fires. In this land rocks and dirt protruded the snow, wildflowers, purple and yellow and red, and reeds of grass, slender and brown and bent before the gusts. And here lay the devastated remnants of bears and birds and whales, pulled ashore and eviscerated by a creature far grander than they. And some hours came the sound of its hissing, its lumbering. And in the days its blood-crusted teeth jutted from the horizon like crimson monuments. And in the nights its eyes, yellow and throbbing, thrived with the light of your ship ablaze.

And had some ship come across your craft, adventurers or explorers or just those in search of what had gone missing, perhaps they would have found this tattooed man living on the bludgeoned meat of birds and making his home upon a ship that was no more than a burned out husk, he and the fire purified corpses become as cronies within his mind. And perhaps they would have found him bloated with lesions. And perhaps they would have found the husk abandoned of all life. And perhaps they would pass over those waters without a second notice, the ship sunk to the bottom of the seas, mangled and torn apart. And perhaps they would have found only the bloated body of the priest amidst the char and ruin of the rest. But no such vessel has ever passed by those waters.

————————

Robert Kloss is the author of The Alligators of Abraham (Mud Luscious Press). He is found online at robert-kloss.com.

Illustration by Nick Francis Potter, who can be found here…