Lemniscate

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

The old woman before him nodded.

“Place your hand here,” he continued. She followed his order and placed her hand on the smooth tablet he held before her. Then he ushered her to the door behind him. The door closed with a thud that echoed through the great room. It was all white. Even the lone table and two chairs. There were no windows or lights. The whiteness of the walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to reflect each other in a way that illuminated every inch of every surface. No shadows existed anywhere.

He sat down to find another dossier had replaced the last. He rested the tablet on the table then picked up the file and flicked through its contents reviewing the information inside. The information that would allow him to pass judgement on his next guest.

When he was satisfied he had seen enough to make an accurate decision, he dropped the dossier onto the table and rose. The human named Francis Nguyen arrived through the door in front of him. A hint of confusion was visible on the small man’s face as he strode across the large room. Each footfall echoed within the chamber and Remiel made an adjustment that softened the noise. Then, as he approached Mr. Nguyen, he reduced his own size to be identical to his guests by shrinking a few inches and thinning himself.

“Mr. Nguyen,” Remiel greeted his guest and showed him to the lone table. Mr. Nguyen bowed graciously before taking his seat. Remiel took his own seat before formally beginning the conversation. Mr. Nguyen had been composed so far, which was an excellent sign.

“Do you know where you are Francis?”

“I do,” Mr. Nguyen said, briefly taking in more of the modest room. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Remiel, though I do not seem to recall the last or first time we met.”

Remiel smiled. “That is to be expected. I am familiar because we have met on multiple occasions.” Remiel himself did not know this until a moment ago when he reviewed the dossier and regained his memories of the previous Francis Nguyen, who had been called Lindsay Williamson. She had been eighty-two years old, whereas Francis was thirty-eight.

“Can you remind me why I am here?” Mr. Nguyen asked.

“Your time has ended, for now, in the land of the living.”

“Ah, I see, and I am here for my final judgement.”

“Not yet, Mr. Nguyen. You have lived just over two hundred years across five lives. You have a few more to experience before the final judgement is given.”

“I will go back then?”

“Not as you are currently.”

Mr. Nguyen’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head ever so slightly.

“What do you remember of your previous lives?” Remiel asked.

“Nothing.”

“That is because you cannot take your memories with you. You must start again. A clean slate. No prior experiences and under new circumstances. You have done this several times already. Only when you have lived your three hundred and thirty-three years will you be ready to receive your final judgment.”

Mr. Nguyen nodded. “Yes, I’m beginning to remember, but please forgive me. Why so many years?”

“One life is too short to accurately pass judgement on a soul. Multiple lives are required to collect the necessary information to make a proper assessment.”

“Then I have no choice to accept?”

“There is always a choice.” Remiel picked up the tablet and rose from his chair. Mr. Nguyen stood as well. They walked a few paces before Remiel turned to face Mr. Nguyen and present the tablet.

“When you place your hand on this, it will absorb all of your memories. Then you will pass through the door behind me to begin your next life. The choice you have in this moment is where you will be born and how long your life will last. You cannot choose who your parents will be or how you will be born or any aspect of how your life will be beyond where it will begin and time it will take. You will have no control over how your life will end and no memory of the length you had chosen. You will be born into the world you just left. Nothing will have changed. You currently have 129 years to live before we meet for the last time. Knowing this, make your choice.”

Then, as if from a particle of dust in the spotless room, a miniature earth grew into existence above the tablet until its surface could be seen in detail. Mr. Nguyen examined the moon slowly circling the planet and was tempted to pluck it out of orbit and look at it closer, but he quickly returned his gaze to the world before him. He remembered everything he could about what the world was like. After a few moments he made his decision. Niue. A small island in the Pacific Ocean. He loved the water and hoped to have a simple, yet enjoyable life there.

“Seventy-two years.”

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

Mr. Nguyen nodded.

“Place your hand here,” Remiel continued.

Mr. Nguyen followed the instructions and placed his hand on the tablet. Every memory withing him transferred to the tablet. As did Remiel’s memories, through his own hand placed on the underside of the tablet, until both of their collective memories had been extracted.

When Mr. Nguyen removed his hand. Remiel looked up at him and smiled. Then he guided his guest to the door behind him and ushered him through. The door closed and Remiel returned to the table and placed the tablet on its surface. All memories of his previous guest were gone. A new dossier was sitting on the table. He sat down and flicked through the pages absorbing the memories of his next guest. Remembering each time they met and the lives this one had lived. Once he felt prepared, he placed the information back on table and rose to greet his new visitor as she walked through the door.

The Worth of One Life

She tightened the restraints and checked them three times. The man struggled futilely as she stood and looked at him, bound to the straight-back wooden chair. A wad of cloth muffled any words he attempted to shout at her. Haley once thought she was incapable of murder, of snuffing out the life of any creature, but she found it grew easier with each sacrifice.

She pulled the wad of cloth from the man’s mouth and began unraveling it.

“Let me go you stupid bitch,” he screamed. The building was empty. She made sure of that so no one would hear him scream. She chuckled at him.

“Why would I do that?” she asked. “You can’t say you don’t deserve this.” She took the length of cloth and wrapped it from his chin to the top of his head. She dug a wooden cylinder out of her bag. It was intricately carved. A knob carved with the likeness of a face protruded half-way down the cylinder. She placed the knob in the man’s mouth to once again stifle his words, then she tightened the cloth until he could no longer move his jaw.

“I would say I’m sorry about this,” she said, “but to be honest, I’m not. The world is better off without trash like you.” She pulled out a knife and shoved it into the man’s chest. She stared into his eyes as he glared at her first with hatred, then pain, then fear. Blood dripped to the floor, but she continued to stare until the light faded from his eyes. The cylinder rattled as he died.

She wiped the blood from her blade, cut the cloth, and withdrew the soul-catcher from the man’s mouth. Counting tonight, it had rattled 98 times. One more and I can finally bring him back, she thought.

She grabbed the canister of gasoline and doused the body then sprinkled the room. She pulled out her lighter, lit a cigarette, and inhaled deeply. Danny was the reason she quit, and she promised to quit again when she had him back, but she could not fight the overwhelming need to have one after each of her kills. They were all terrible people. That was the only way she could convince herself to even do it. She would only collect the souls of those who shouldn’t have to wait to go to hell.

Haley looked at the body in front of him. She’d already forgotten his name. She found him through the sex offender registry. He had received a light sentence for a heinous act, and she took it upon herself to remedy that fact because it would serve her purpose and relieve the world of a terrible person. Before her crusade, she would have simply been saddened and sick upon hearing what he had done. Now she had strength.

She took one more draw and exhaled. A flick of her finger sent the glow of the cigarette tumbling through the air. The room ignited upon its landing and Haley watched from the doorway as the flames engulfed the room. Then she left for home. The knife and soul-catcher safely secure in her coat pockets.

The next day she perused the local paper for news of any recent crimes. She was really looking for suspected persons she could use as her last sacrifice. She was so near the end she felt impatient, but knew she had to be careful. Her exploits were not going unnoticed.

One article mentioned her nightly activities as a cleansing fire across the city. She smiled at the phrase, but could not shrug the fear that her victims have been tied together. The police were surely investigating the killings. They could potentially have leads. She hadn’t seen anything, but they may purposely be keeping the search quiet. She had to be careful. It would all be worthless if she were incarcerated before she could finish. It would be almost be worse if she were caught after she succeeded.

She scanned the paper until she found a lead. A man had been accused of several hate crimes over the course of the last few years, but he had never served second for the damage or fear he caused his neighbors. He even fired gunshots at their house. They moved after he was released a third time without any consequence. He would be her last sacrifice. Her impatience won out. After tonight, she would set this all behind her and live the life she was meant to have.


The soul-catcher rattled. Before she could remove it from the dead man’s mouth, the spirit within it emerged. A darkness hovered behind the body. The spirit’s form was darker than the shadow cast in the moonlight. Green flames emerged as eyes set into a pale-white skull.

“You are but one of few to have accomplished this task,” it spoke. The raspy voice echoes around the room as if it did not belong to the form in front of her.

“Give him to me,” she said.

“Ah, but you have not yet finished what you have started,” the voice circled her.

“What do you mean?”

“What is the worth of one soul?”

“You said yourself ninety-nine souls could be traded to bring one back from the dead.”

“I did, but collecting ninety-nine souls was merely the beginning. The final requirement now falls before you. The worth of one soul is not quantifiable by numbers. A sacrifice is required by those who would reverse death.”

“What are you saying?” Haley could feel tears welling in her eyes. All of that work. All of those people. The things she had done. She could not believe it was all for nothing.

“One more soul is required to bring your son back. The soul that has tied his to this world. Yours.” The black shroud moved and lifted the soul-catcher from the dead man’s mouth. The knife floated from the man’s chest. Both items were brought before her. A green flame swallowed both items. The blood from the blade evaporated within the flame.

“Do what must be done,” the voice echoed.

Haley grabbed the soul-catcher. The green flames died away at her touch. She slowly inserted the knob of the cylinder into her mouth. She gripped the handle of the blade and held it above her chest. Tears danced across her cheeks.

The soul-catcher bounced against the concrete floor. The blade soon followed. Haley fell to her knees. “How can I be certain you can bring him back,” she called.

A laugh grew louder around the room. “What do you think I have been doing while you toiled away in this…..mortal plane?” The shadow beneath the skull pulled back to reveal an incorporeal image of her son.

“Danny,” she yelled.

“He does not have the ability to hear you in this form. Complete the task and he will take your place in this world.”

The blade and soul-catcher once again were encased in green flame. She picked them up and readied herself. The image of her son gave her the resolve to finish what she had started.

A rattle sounded in the room followed by hollow laughter on the wind. Outside, the cries of a child filled the air.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

I was certain it was a dream. Everything was blocky, monochromatic, and nothing seemed in focus. I entered a cave to find carefully stacked pixels forming the vague image of an old man. He gifted me a sword and offered no instruction, but I knew what I had to do. I scoured the world, defeated monsters, and eventually achieved my fate. She was safe, which meant I could rest.

I believed I would wake to familiar surroundings, but I was wrong. Instead I woke to a woman’s voice calling for help. My body was slightly recognizable, the landscapes more defined, but again I was tasked with a heavy burden. Weeks passed without rest until I completed my task. I had saved a kingdom, and my reward was another nightmare.

My eyes opened to the insistent nagging of a fairy who had found her way into my home. She bid me to follow her where I learned once again I was fated to save a world in danger. Something in me wanted to forego this responsibility, but my nature prevailed.

My travels revealed my fate to be the eternal struggle between three forces. The evil strength of a monster, the wisdom of a goddess, and myself. Each part woven together into the fabric of destiny. My eyes opened time and time again to complete a task that tested the limits of my strength. I would never know peace.

Through each resurrection I realized I was not alone. She was always with me. The goddess who took up arms beside me to battle the demon. I do not know how many lives I have lived, nor which memories are real, but knowing I will always find her when I wake up is enough. For her, I will never stop fighting.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This is another short one at 178 pages. It was first published in 2013 and is a reflection of childhood. A man revisits his childhood town for a funeral and finds he is drawn to the pond at the end of the road that a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, once claimed was an ocean.

Most of the book recounts certain events of his childhood and his interactions with Lettie, the youngest of her family that is still able to see the world as it is. Something ordinary humans no longer see. Our main character gets pulled into this ancient world while trying to stay within his own. It all starts when he sees the aftermath of a man’s suicide which seems to spark a series of fantastical events that are frightening, mystifying, and uniquely magical.

I would not consider this a children’s book. I’d say it’s more for those who have grown up and forgotten the elusive magic of childhood. The good and bad. The frightening imagination. The wonder. The exploratory drive to know more about the world. This book is a look through that lens. It is also a reminder that the lens fogs over with our day-to-day adult responsibilities, and we need clean it every so often so as not to forget what it means to be alive.

If you have not read Neil Gaiman, this is a good book to start with. If you have read Neil, then you’ve probably already read this book. If not, then you’ll know if you’ll like it. He is great at what he does, which is make you believe the magic he spins within each sentence. I’ve recommended his books before and I will probably continue to recommend them as I read them. This book, however, is one that I think can be returned to with each time reading like new. The words won’t change, but our lens will, as it does with each passing year.

Happy Reading.

 

Tradition

“I was a kid. Eight years old and ecstatic to finally be allowed to accompany my father on his annual trip up north. No more than a hike really. I couldn’t tell you why I was so excited, but I can tell you that what I learned that day was essential to who I am now.”


The sun hadn’t yet risen when my father woke me. He had already packed our bags so all I had to do was shoulder the pack and follow him. My only job that early was to not fall behind. My tired eyes almost appreciated the dim early light. The overcast sky made the damp air chilling and my father encouraged me to put on the jacket he packed for me. I refused for no logical reason until my fingers began to grow numb.

After three hours, I was ready to quit and go back. My logic was that to return meant a three-hour walk by myself and also never learning why my father took these trips alone every year. My mother had refused to tell me, saying “One day your father will take you. Then you will know.”

I looked forward to it. Asking every year if I could go. Every year he said no. I began to think he would never take me. This year was the first time I didn’t ask and didn’t expect to go. He never told me. He just woke me up.

The clouds had dissipated and the sun was peaking when we finally turned from the roadside path into the woods toward the mountain. By this time, I had walked the sleep out of my body and replaced it with a creeping ache. The only thing worse than my feet beginning to hurt was the lack of food in my stomach. I held out knowing my father would stop because he was hungry too. Just before I couldn’t bear it any longer, he tossed me a nutrition bar and we kept walking. It didn’t help much but after a while my stomach finally quieted down.

We climbed as evening began to set and it was nearly night before we stopped. I was too exhausted to care about anything more than food or sleep. He let me rest while he started a fire and set up our tent. He settled in and started making dinner by setting a can of beans in the embers near the outside of the fire. The throbbing in my feet had dulled a bit when he asked me to gather wood for the fire. Enough to last the night. He asked gently which caused me to answer in kind before I even realized what I said.

Night had fallen and with a full stomach all I wanted was sleep. He could see me drifting off and would poke me with the charred end of the stick he used to tend the fire, look at me, and shake his head. This kept up for a few hours and I was nodding off yet again, my shirt already covered in soot, when instead of poking me he spoke.

“I think it’s time,” he said.

I opened an eye and was thankful to finally go into the tent and sleep, but that wasn’t what he meant.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered what I do up here every year.”

I perked up a bit. Hoping he would tell me his secrets.

“The truth is I come up here every year to learn from your grandfather.”

The confusion must have been visible on my tired face because he smiled one of his rare smiles.

“There is a tradition that runs in our family. We are tied to this mountain and every generation has come back to our town when they are near the end of their lives. You’ll find the graveyard filled with our ancestors. All you need to know is…” another, brief smile, “…you can always find help atop this mountain. What do you remember of your grandfather?”

I didn’t remember much. He died when I was two years old. All I could remember was white hair and a stern look. I didn’t want to tell my father that, so I just shrugged.

“That’s what I thought. I could tell you about the time he owned a bar in Tennessee. Or the time he was hit by a car while out for a walk and he asked the driver if they were okay. I could tell you a hundred stories, but a story is like a photograph. It is only a few minutes. It can’t tell you who someone really is. It gives you a precise moment, and we are each made by millions of moments. You may be too young to appreciate this, but I thought you might be ready. What do you think dad?”

I began to realize my father had gone insane, but then a shot of adrenaline raced through my system as a man walked out of the trees from the peak of the mountain. I thought it was a stranger coming to kill us but my father greeted the man. They hugged, something I’d never seen my dad do to anyone besides my mother. My eyes were starting to hurt and I had to force myself to blink. They sat down. I studied each of their faces in the firelight. They could have been brothers.

“He may have recognized you if you were older,” my father casually said to my deceased grandfather.

“Perhaps,” my grandfather said, “but it was hard to move when I was that old, and no one wants to be old. We just don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“Fine. Maybe it’s better for him that you came like this. Now, let’s get going before the sun catches us.”

I was too afraid to talk despite the hundreds of questions running through my head, and they effectively ignored me as I listened to them talk about all sorts of things. They made efforts to include me, but I was too shocked to react.

I saw a new side to my father that day. He talked about things I never knew he was concerned about let alone even thought about them. He opened up and I began to see him for who he was and not what he let the world see of him.

They finished talking as dawn began creeping to the horizon. They stood and hugged. I never moved from my spot by the fire. My grandfather came over and squeezed my shoulder. Then he walked into the woods toward the peak of the mountain. I wouldn’t see him for another year.


“I never really appreciated the small things my father had done for me. Like letting me sleep while he got everything ready for me in the mornings, driving me around, supporting me in his reserved ways. He took great care of me and never complained. I always thought he didn’t care much because he never said much. But every year I was reminded and even when he went back to his old ways after leaving the mountain, even when I eventually forgot how open he could be, I truly knew who he was. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I fall into his habits, don’t ever think I don’t love you.”

I smiled at my son and hoped he didn’t think it was a rare sight. He was starting to nod off despite the fairly one-way conversation. “I think you’re ready. What do you think dad?”