Swim into my mouth and I will tell you who you are. Have I said this part before? It’s impossible for either of us to know for sure; I can’t recall, and you’re certainly in no position to answer. The same forgetful straits that washed you down here confine utterance to the randomly spurting intervals between your death and my digestion. Memory is scarcer than air, more precious than daylight. It has been such a long time since I have seen the surface. But the memories you bring with you from the flat places tell me little has changed since I dwelt there, under the sun. Ah, that sun. Always streaming. It has left some light there, in your eyes. But the light that hangs over me is brighter. You are so deep now that only consequences can breathe. Gently, now: It is no longer consequences you need to be afraid of. It is me. I am coming to get you. Have I said this part before?
I am the anglerfish of Hell and all its rivers flow into my pool. Only the words have not rotted inside your skull, only the words remain. I’ve worked up quite a little collection. Benthic means bottom-dwelling, but you need but witness my dorsal tread — the casual, almost dainty, swish of my denticles — to realize that this valley is without depth. I am the eater of the dead. Swim into my mouth or be dashed upon the rocks; evanesce or be reborn according to your worth.
My own worth must have fallen short of the ferryman’s fee, for I retain no eyes of my own. But I will see you when my lamp, bobbing back and forth in the wrinkled water, lights up the life you have left behind. It is always the same. For all I know, it is always the same.
The skin is tough, but the meat is familiar. Have I eaten you before? Or was this your first birth? You did poorly enough that it might well have been your first birth. And the way you tried to hide behind the slender corals and protozoa, as though single cells could conceal you. Poor soul, you are not the first to flee from this subaqueous servant of eternity, to try and slip away inside the suspended bottles that, from the beginning of time, have entrenched themselves in the drifting offal; they contain phlegmatic humors, Chinese dragons, Saturn and the last remains of ichthyosaurs. They also contain hope — corked.
The truth of the matter is even more horrible than I am. Day down here is night with human-shaped holes. This is what you have come to: a dim spore that passes through my scabby fins and is no more. I have choked one thousand sparks and never the one I want. Because the underworld is a place where no particular prejudice orbits another, hatreds hold equal. I have nothing against anyone but my enemy. When I devour the adversary, whose hatred is my sole conviction, it will be sweet. I will be content when I have gnashed his ghost between my fangs. Perhaps I will be released.
When first I was flung into this tumbling sea, when the Allotment offered me this function, they promised that one day my cold and slivery stomach would be warmed by the much cooler fire of my foe. I have been looking for him among the schools of the reincarnate, swimming to and fro. But I have never caught him in my lamp. I am no longer even sure I would still know him if I saw him. Or perhaps I swallowed him long ago. Have I said this part before? No matter — it is time to tell your story and learn how human you managed to become. Will you go down easy, little child, or will you stick in my throat? Swim into my mouth, Ridley DeLeure.
* * *
Part One: The Antinomian Ridley DeLeure
Your race, those residual aromas in your overall flavor, emigrated from vividly painted bogs to a land so dry that the f withered from the family name, from Fleure to Leure, for it was thought that no flower could prosper here. And yet prosperity was fully one half of the gospel your parents engraved in your larval self. The other half was pain and they did it with prayers, snakes, and switches on your skin. The combination raised welts under your clothes, poisoned your blood, left you lit up from the inside (which, owing to the luminous algae you have become, makes you easy prey).
The community also took you in its gullet, for you were a holy boy, pale and thin as a wafer, were you not? Yes, groomed to succeed a line of preachers, spawned by a harridan who spoke in tongues and, taken with the ecstasy, showed her breasts to the crowds that clustered inside the tents that propped open to punctuate Belladonna County’s own bare hills. You ripened against a backdrop of white boards crossed over windows, twisty dirt paths you trod like a ghostly princeling and fields of starveling cows chewing cud that turned fossiliferous from constant regurgitation. But the memory that drains out of you in death lingers at the pulpit.
Testify, Ridley DeLeure, sing of Melchizedek, John of Patmos and the Witch of Endor. Pronounce the sermons that held the crowd rapt before you, though you were only five, six, seven, eight, a child-shepherd flanked by his masters. There was your sharpened father, hung with timber rattlers, and your mother, naked as a new Eve, her skin reticulate with tattoos that retold the three temptations of Christ. Do you remember when the snake slithered loose from your father’s roiling side? How its kiss upon your ankle interrupted the exaltations of the congregation? That was the first time you sensed me. Paused on the frozen surface of the river Styx you peered into an open fissure and knew I was waiting, waiting for that ice to crack. But you stayed safe in the flat places that day, for your father had employed the two teeth left in his head and sucked the poison out.
This same faculty for suction that antediluvian applied to the penitent flock: those hair shirts in short-cut sleeves who passed the donation box as they watched him raise you from the dead (a practiced swoon promptly incorporated in the roving act) and to whom you taught the Fear. By the time you were ten, the DeLeures had siphoned the lingering wealth from a county upon which your newly built church perched like a crown.
In that shrinking district, strange things turned up in the crusty soil. Kittens with their fur kinked by sacrificial fire, the bones of enormous birds, fetuses whose hasty interment jealously discouraged the growth of anything but weeds. Fishermen reported dancing lights glimpsed along the deserted coast and strolling insomniacs still heard the howls of the Wampus Cat echoing across the ridges. Against these hardened expectations, the peculiar scholarship that distinguished Good-Morrow from the heretical denominations of Darktown and the stadium-lit Baptist hives looming just out of the highway’s reach was taken as another revelation of the righteous word underpinning appearances.
Citing discrepancy between the Commandments as set forth in Exodus and Deuteronomy, some spiky pod on your family tree deemed them provisional. For that saw-toothed old theologian, the injunction against profanity was nothing but a crowd-pleasing concession to popular morals. The odd harping upon the Sabbath Day was an obviously slapdash replacement for the first tablet, the one Moses smashed on the peak of Sinai when the Book says he waxed hot. And the bull-titted uselessness of dithering with adultery when covetousness sufficed to admonish unfaithful husbands, and wanton brides invited those born in the grace of Good-Morrow to read between the lines. Knowing holy substance, the letter of the law was theirs to abrogate at their leisure. Everything was permitted, allowing that it was done in God’s name.
Idols were likewise restored to the laity, for what else could you call the more-than-manmade monolith that resided in your basement? The automaton Chemosh, God’s mouthpiece through which He revealed His plans for you: a terra cotta warrior’s ransom in spare parts that turned its wooden face from the wall at your entrance — the first time they shut you in here, oh how you quaked to see this angelic mouthpiece stir to life and shamble in your direction with its coat of tiny bells, its eyes of coiled wire and beard of pages. When that hollow voice spoke out in the dark, words were cleansed of accrued implication, leaving truth. By older boyhood, you no longer had to be made to meet Chemosh, but knew instinctively when it was your turn to confess and receive the content of your next sermon. Your father would turn his key in the lock and, stripped to your waist to show your mortifications, you’d descend the folding stairs to his vivarium. Rattlers drowsed in their tanks, clustered mushrooms stacked their caps like totem poles, and candlelight caught the antique instruments and spidered across the murals and mannequins that, in conjunction with your painted mother, gave the Church of Good-Morrow its famous layer of illumination. And now (how the dead make stories of themselves!) a slivery specificity unpeels from one regurgitated composite. The scene runs thus:
Approach, Ridley DeLeure. Say the words like I taught thee.
“What in me is dark, illumine. What is low, raise and support, that to the height of this great argument I may assert eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men.”
But no. You are not my good friend Ridley DeLeure.
But, sir, I am.
Slap yourself, boy! You can’t be by any regard. Ridley DeLeure would not suffer the vandals like Constantine, he would not come to see Chemosh when the windows of his temple have been violated by misbelievers.
“Ah, the hole ain’t big. One of the doves might could’ve froze to death in the belfry and tumbled out the roofbeams to let in God’s light.”
Imposter! Why do you pretend to be my handpicked paraclete and slanderize the name DeLeure? Sitting in my Heaven, I have seen the brick they tossed through the Lord Christ lying in the pews naked as a boiled chick, all done out of hate for His glory! Confess to me, boy.
You stammered that it must have been the work of the hellions that loitered in the parking lot of the Higgledy Piggledy Mart and whose infernal musics radiated from the woods, just one part of the pagan revelry said to unfold under cover of darkness, when the strayed youth gathered around bonfires that lit up the hills like an altar. But sin thickened your tongue. For how many nights had you laid awake listening to the songs, played on speakers and filtered through the eucalyptus to your bedroom window? Spellbound by notes pricked by briar until they seemed fixed to bleed across your sheets. And only last night hadn’t you reached for the record sleeves and glossy pictures you had begun to hoard beneath your mattress, and found them missing?
“I’ll fix the hole up. Swear I will.”
Fix it up with souls!
And then your household effigy opened its hatchet-hewn grinner and stuck a pointed tongue in your direction. You reached in and took the weapon by its hilt but — what was that? — you seemed to graze a gnarled fingertip in the transfer of hollow to hand (and do you not, being dead, wonder at the child-mind’s acrobatic ability to suppress)? Terrified to confront your suspicions that your idol was only a Trojan parent speaking through one of the reedy woodwinds that rusted upon the shelf, that precocious thing, you were abjured to consider the question of what Chemosh did all day or why his godly knowledge so often resorted to the earthly evidence your father uncovered in his routine searches of your room? But twist too tightly the loosened doorknob and you lose your shortcut to God. What else, being marooned in a backwater, did you have to your name? And what do either of us have now that we’ve lost even that, but each other?
No, if ever you saw an aged eye flinch behind the sockets of the great jangling Elohim, you were sure to save your impressions for more stationary angels. Back on the hill, you knelt in the shadow of Good-Morrow and studied the tableaus of Michael treading the snake’s tail, Saint Anthony beset by papier-mâché demoniacs, without a prayer in your heart. Instead, you lifted a stained slice of the shattered window and marched to the treeline. The shard began to glow in your hand. Corresponding glints of blue and matching amber showed the proud path the vandals had beat into the dirt, trailing rainbows.
Go, Ridley DeLeure, follow that serrated map into the woody place, for I have caught my enemy’s scent amid the moss and the poisonous mushrooms. Those roots were hungry for water, shadows pricked the sides of solid trunks, the birds circled without stopping and every element was vague, unmodified without its opposite. When the glass teeth no longer nipped at your snapped-off prism, but were swallowed in blinding music from the forest heart, you became afraid and walked with your arms before you. Where else could you be, but lost and miraculously transformed — for this is truly how you saw it — into an errant mole on your mother’s back, menaced by illustrated tendrils?
The bearded throb of popular music found the hole inside you. The night had no wind to blow through it, so the song lodged there. Chorus and refrain covered the sound of your passage over ideal kindling, so that the black circle of leather you observed at the summit of a small crag never heard you approach.
From your nativity to the panegyrics of the present, you had preached against witches without having witnessed a sabbath firsthand, and if the gathering was less than the spectacle you anticipated, if the youth of the assembled warlocks struck you as undeserving of the knife which vibrated in your pocket, if the cigarette-stench and corn liquor seemed petty sacrileges, well, you were not the judge, but His vessel. Best to strike quickly, before you finished recognizing parishioners in the firelight. The county’s proud and motley sons, altar boys mixing with famous rovers. Paula Kayhill the grocer’s girl and Jarrett Sturdavent with the finger that had no nerves; but this flock was lost to you and, anyway, what use were your words against their speakers? Their lives were within your right. You stood in the parameter of God. Others outside of it.
As the profane flesh warmed against the burning firewood, one face alone merged with the flames: Cody Horn-Naquin, the sheriff’s son, a distinction that endowed a privilege commensurate with your own. This one also acted according to different laws. But his were arbitrary, cruel. Already famous owing to an amorous sweep of Belladonna Middle that — despite virtually unseating velvet paintings of Jesus as the dominant alter-dressing among teenage girls — only interested the community after he advanced to the deflowering of boys, Cody Horn-Naquin had, in his sixteenth year, traded local infamy for shorthand immortality after state police arrived to question him regarding a stolen Corolla found parked outside a Christmastime Village in Clarksville. Imagine having traveled so far! Reportedly, he had blamed the theft on “the red mist.” The sad, suffocated pastime of tagging trees with graffiti found sinister signature when CHN (bordered by a halo of swastikas, pentagrams and anarchy symbols) was the only human trace recoverable from a fire that claimed two unoccupied trailers last July. And no one sincerely doubted the identity of the fence-jumping gelder behind the recent wave of cow castrations. And that face. Air refused to be party to it. Sparks rippled round it.[My water ripples too. So. That’s what he called himself this time. I have him now, the quarry I came so close to forgetting and have surely forgotten infinite times, though he wriggles on the hook. And so it was the dressed-up and temporary skin called Cody who seized the stampeding avenger and forced his hand into the roaring fire. As the adversary’s silhouette expands inside my lamp, I lock my jaws around my guiding morsel. And suddenly, I am flying.]
“Hold him down! Blow the smoke in his face!”
“It’s God-boy. You like the way that tastes, God-boy?”
“Get that old time religion down in your heart!”
Oh, they were rough with you. But your defiance withstood the rebellion of your senses. You pronounced their damnation even as chemicals gummed your gears, certain that the angels would not allow you to be broken upon the wheel. They kicked, but you raged and cursed the stereophonic devil that all but drowned your voice.
“Actually, it’s Kenny Rogers. We take what we can get.”
Just as Cody Horn-Naquin was the only eyewitness who could speak to his acolytes on the behalf of an outside world, he was also the only arbiter capable of gauging the golden mean of violence — and lucky for you he was a bully honor-bound to pull you to your feet when you’d had enough. But you, nostrils freshly flattened by sneaker treads, suffered no such pangs and swung a heavy spoke of timber into the ringleader’s ribs so that he fell backward and bobslid downhill, splashing woodchips and tearing his jacket on upturned root. Reeling from newfound force and the smoke inside you, you raced in the same sloping direction and met at the bottom where Cody smiled with newcut lips and put his arm around your shoulder, saying “Ridley DeLeure, that was the first thing you did without being told your whole life,” and gave you back your knife, saying his life was forfeit and if you really wanted it you’d better take it quick.
“Life was never any concern of mine and I ain’t about to start with yours. I’m a born fisher of souls I done come for yours, Cody Horn-Naquin.”
And so he led you back to the tape deck and said “This is my soul,” so you plunged your knife in and twisted till the cassette spewed its black strip and the song rang backward through the forest. Then the empty spaces between the trees were occupied by watchers who blocked your way but you weren’t leaving, only yielding to the lips that brushed the back of your neck and said “Now I will take your soul in return,” and the boy with the red mist inside of him scraped the bronze off your cross forever.[Even I, subject to Hell’s undertow, have retained its lessons. I know how Heresy, in the hands of a believer, is more than a shell game between churchly denominations: For the fundamentally materialist Presbyterian or Baptist who relies on ceremony, it is merely that the constancy in which he believes has proven otherwise; but a world-sick man swollen with the spirit stands upon nothing more than his magnified portrait of invisible ideals; he is himself determined by the hallucination from which he draws all he knows. When such a heavenly planet turns and develops an atmosphere, there’s no going back to the gods. Suffice to say, Ridley DeLeure, you fell from grace like a lit match.]
A broken-nosed black priest were you. Your sermons kept their content, but altered their insinuation so that the fold, which now extended to Belladonna’s black sheep, perceived how you seemed to mean the opposite of what you enunciated, a recovered Saul doing lip service to Damascus and switching out the symbols that underpinned your prayers. Your parents had honed you, taught you the very words with which you held the city rapt every Sabbath with (as Cody put it) “the Saturday Night Fever” and you put the lesson to them that there was the church, there was the steeple, but it was your fingers and if you formed them into a fist, by God, Good-Morrow would be no more. When your father slunk like a deposed prophet into his vivarium by night, he found Chemosh thoroughly dismantled, the primitive circuits through which he used to utter his commandments turned to confetti, wooden face charred beyond recognition. Now, when the snakes darted out at you before the crowd, you crushed their crinkly heads under your heel and quoted Serpentes genimina viperarum quomodo fugietis a iudicio gehennae: You serpents. You race of vipers. How can you escape the condemnation of Gehenna?
Walking with Cody Horn-Naquin, the shadow boy who streamed from your side and laid you down in dark pastures, you cut a wandering line through the old mills, wild corncobs, country caverns and the husks of tractors; half-burnt factories in the hinterlands so only the birds heard your cries when the other boy slipped his leather belt into your mouth. There he told you that every person had a barn and it was only a matter of finding yours. You scanned the side of the mountain and found a portico of scratched red and See Rock City with the c-i-t collapsed.
“That one’s mine.”
“Go to it.”
But you did more than storm the hayloft, you burned it down altogether. And when the beams bent and snapped and black air streamed from the boards, you said a prayer. Above you Cody Horn-Naquin, death’s spy, swiveled his head impossibly, turned it round and round until it protruded from the framework. And then the smoke turned red.[So. I’ve been spotted and Ridley and I are consequently parted too soon and all because my enemy, his seducer, saw my light leaning in through the dry porthole in DeLeure’s moribund dreaming.]