Do not mistake the Devil for a metaphor, Dante. Returning home one Saturday afternoon from a morning of errand-running, you find the Devil sitting on your living-room sofa, its legs crossed, reading a book about love or politics or flower-pressing—it could be about anything, really, for that matter, because when you look closely, you realize that the Devil is only pretending to read. It’s holding the cheap paperback the wrong way up. The Devil won’t utter a word, partly because it has nothing interesting to say, and partly because it has already seen the fear in your eyes. It already knows that you’re trying to hide your discomfort; it noticed your eyes darting around the room looking for places where you could tuck away your distress, perhaps in the folds of the window curtains, or under the rug. You barely have time to ask the Devil what it’s doing there, how it managed to break into your apartment, whether it waltzed in from the kitchen window or the balcony door, because, as quick as that, it gets up and leaves, exits through the main door. You wonder if it even was there in the first place, because you cannot hear its steps going down the stairs to the communal landing.
Do not mistake the Devil for a metaphor, Dante. It really was there a few seconds ago—the dent in the cushion on which it sat is proof enough of that. You try to remember what the Devil looked like, but it’s a blank memory. But that’s because the Devil looks like nothing and like everything. The Devil is like a nightmare you can’t consolidate, except, it’s real. Believe me, trying to recall the size of its hands, the shape of its head, the curve of its neck, whether it was wearing jean trousers or a suit or a dress or a hat—it drives you crazy.
Do not mistake the Devil for a metaphor, Dante. It’s gone now, but you notice that the gravity in your apartment has tripled. Suddenly, the armchairs, the lamps, the TV set have become heavier. And then you see it: ice. What you’re left with is ice. It’s everywhere, all around you, inches deep; you’re waist-deep in it. You move with great difficulty, the ice cracks and breaks against your body and you manage to get to a window. You open it; the day is hot and humid but the ice doesn’t melt. Getting rid of that ice is a task you’re devoting yourself to like a religion. It’s like figuring out the best way to pull down a temple, trying to decide whether it’s better to let the columns and statues crumble down on their own accord or to start chipping away with a chisel at the stone and marble, until there’s only a thin layer of dust left on the ground. You need a strategy.
Days pass, weeks even. You’ve managed to get around your flat somehow. You’re bleeding around your waist, because the jagged edges of the ices keep scratching against you like claws. You’re never even hungry anymore. The fear has turned your heart into a car alarm. It’s so loud you think it could easily be heard from outer space, but no one passing by outside your open window seems to be paying any attention to it, or they might be pretending not to. You can’t really blame them; I suppose they know it wouldn’t be easy, dealing with Devil-made ice and a freezing neighbor.
But then, one day, you finally manage to make your way to the kitchen, to wash the pile of dirty dishes you left in your sink two Friday evenings ago. And as you’re scrubbing the frying pan clean, you let your mind wander beyond the walls of the room. I guess you could describe it as distracting yourself, pouring liquid soap on the cleaning sponge and not really knowing you’re doing it—or something like that—and suddenly it’s gone. The pounding noise coming from inside your ribcage. Gone. You look around. The ice. The ice is gone. Vanished. Your rugs are dry. It’s like the frozen water was never there. But you know better than to question whether it was really there. Because you know that the Devil is not a metaphor, Dante. It’s as real as the torment you felt. It just took you a while to understand that it’s also as fickle as forgetfulness. That’s all.
I’m feeling lightweight, as if all the organs inside my body have disappeared, and, in their places, fluttering bird wings have materialized. My liver’s an eagle’s plumage, my stomach canary bird feathers, my heart a hummingbird, tiny, frantically beating.
Or maybe I’m just inebriated. Or maybe, maybe, a surgeon found my body, on the side of the road, where I’d passed out a few nights ago, and purposely removed my entrails as a sort of experiment. He might not even have had to anaesthetize me—I might’ve been so out of it that I wouldn’t have felt a thing: the slitting open of different parts of my skin, the dislocation of my guts, the neat stitching up that followed. A throng of people must have come out of the night club nearby, hanging out under the neon sign above its doors, its letters, in bright pink cursive, electric, glowing against the night sky. They would’ve pointed, the people, and laughed. A few of them might’ve even recognized me and cried, “Can’t you see it’s Virgil? Can’t you see his papery tendons strewn across the ground? His worn-out bones? His brains, spilling out of his skull, their contents scattered everywhere: a memory here, a miniature Doric column there?”
Take me back to the sea we drove by on our way here, Dante. Take me back. Didn’t I hear you say we could go back to it any day? You said we’d visit it tomorrow morning, when the waters will be clear and when we could spread out our towels on the warm rocks. But I want to return to it now. Walk with me down this hill. I’d like to trace, with my fingertips, the moon’s reflection in the murky black waters. It’s not dawn yet, is it? Is it? I was once the growing forest behind your shut eyelids. There’ll come a point when there’ll be nothing left for me to do, except to leave, to make my way back to that beach, pick up a spade, the forgotten object of a child’s play-day by the sea, and dig into the ground, until I’m covered in sand grains and dust and seashells, until I’ve discovered the truth about the bodies and the souls deep beneath my feet.
Beatrice. I have something I need you to see. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about that time I climbed a mountain to reach the sky observatory on its peak, to name a star after you. I journeyed on my bare feet, clinging to the rocks whenever I staggered, with the cold wind biting through my bones like a mad dog.
After three days and three nights, I got to the building at the top, its walls as silent as the air, the surface of its silver dome gleaming with celestial reverence, protecting the cluster of telescopes inside it like a mother protects her children.
I walked through its doors and found myself in a lobby, brightly lit, empty, except for an old and haggard-looking man who sat at a desk in the middle of the room. His beard was as long as a river, his face was an unknown map. He beckoned me over and told me that the observatory was out of heavenly bodies—they’d fallen from the sky, been sold or stolen, or simply lost. All that he could offer me was the smallest star ever found, that he’d managed to save. He took it out of one of his desk drawers, where it had remained forgotten and unwanted for years, and handed it to me. I cupped it in my hands—it was no bigger than an apricot, but it blinded me with its incandescence.
I told him I wanted to name it Beatrice, made sure he wrote that down in the big registry book in front of him. I put it in my pocket, where I knew it would be safe, and made my way back down the mountain, made my way back to you, Beatrice. I stopped by a 24-hour mini market, to buy a box of Brillo, so that I could polish the star, just in case it lost its shine by the time it reached you. It blazed and burned in my pocket. The particles of the galaxies fell off of it and left a trail on the shop’s tiled floor; a trail barely visible to the naked eye, but there nonetheless, a reminder of how much I indisputably love you.
I stand here before you, Beatrice. Look at the star, your star, in my hands. It bears your name. I was told it does not have much longer to live. I hope you do not mind my untrimmed nails.
You look away; your shoulders slightly hunched forwards, your hair unkempt, like you don’t have a care in the world. You are looking at the universe. You know all of its paths; you know what’s round every one of its corners, what lies behind every planet. You could give clear and precise directions for the quickest way to the nearest solar system, without hesitation, if asked. And I’m here, offering the ancient dust on my hands, pathetic, hoping someday you’d forgive my sins, hoping that the entirety of my being could match up to the entirety of your being, of your beauty, your brilliant, triumphant beauty.
Dante, would it bother you if I told you I wanted to sleep next to you only to write about it? We could lie down here together, just the two of us, balanced on the edge of this universe, our bodies poised with the precision of a mathematical equation. This is only heaven, after all. Don’t panic; there are still many hours to go, as many as there are photons on the sun’s surface and atoms at the tips of our fingers. Look at what’s left of us after hundreds of years.
I’ve seen you at it, many times, sitting at your desk, trying to figure out the sum of my parts—my eighty-five thousand veins, added to the five point five liters of blood that flows through them, added to the one hundred thousand and seventeen hairs on my head, added to one hundred and thirty-four eyelashes, added to the fifteen times per minute my eyes blink. You go over them again and again, making sure you’ve got your calculations right, and finally divide the answer by the number of times you would’ve uttered my name on that day, desperately praying that the result would be an infinite recurring decimal, some holy number that might help you work out the accurate measurements by which to construct miniature versions of the spheres of heaven, a sort of shelter that you’d build in your back garden, out of wood or metal or paper, so that if I came to visit I’d have somewhere to rest and take an afternoon nap.
But what I’d like you to understand is this, Dante. I know that you’ve been taking my beatitude into your veins, like smack, for years now, and I’d like you to stop for a few seconds and to take a closer look at the marks on your body. You’ve come so far, you can’t possibly lose track of what’s coming. You know what’s coming. You’ve always imagined this moment, of us meeting, as a great heart thump, a significant miracle that would make the whole world below us pause; the people in their homes, on the streets, in the supermarkets, halting on the spot, whole civilizations stalling, giving you enough time to peel off your scarred skin and to emerge, out of all that deadness and stillness, as clean as an egg.
The thing is, Dante, that, in truth, our coming together is no less inconsequential than the empty liquor bottles on your bedside table, or the lit cigarettes you and your teenage friends used to pass around, on the street corners and disused tennis courts of the city you grew up in. You’ve come to think that there had been no goodness in all that, tried to distract yourself from your own desolate thoughts, by observing, for hours on end, the behavior of the planets, attempted to track their orbits, always failed at it. And now I want to observe you in the same manner, with the same determined concentration. I hope this doesn’t seem strange to you. You made this, you made me, the way I can move in and out of heaven, in and out of stories. You gave me my face, my soul, the soles of my feet, delicate and untouched. This ground remains untrodden, because you made me glide. I am your Beatrice, and I know you’d rather keep it that way, but you might want to consider letting me go now.
This is what we’re going to do: I’m leading you to God, and then, you’re letting me go. Because I feel that I’m true enough, autonomous even. I’m taking a mental note of all that’s happening right now, of your arrival, of your furry tongue and bleary eyes, of your weary human frame. I’m going to jot it all down on tiny pieces of paper, which you’re going to take back home with you, and, as maudlin as it may sound, you’re going to attach strings to them, and you’re going to hang them up on the telephone wires on the streets, for the winds to move to and fro like pendulums. And there’ll be a kind of placid beauty to it, Dante, because each time the world will look up, it’ll see our lives swinging right below the skies.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.