The Cannibal Choir – Paul Jessup
…and she sees apartment roofs all holy in the moon, fires on top to keep them warm, the rain stopping now, suddenly, suddenly. Yet, the water rolls and rolls and blows on by, with people sitting, drinking, talking. Every once and awhile, yes, yes, they laugh too, even in the land of death, here they are, they laugh. Even in flooded city, submerged city, even now, they laugh.
Here is a secret (shhh):
The zoo has flooded as well and the animals have all escaped, every last one of them.
Sally’s brother says nothing in response, he’s busy looking down at the water, and seeing his own reflection. And in his own reflection are the scattered lights of stars, and he’s staring, just peering on through. Like he can see something else, something distant and holy on the otherside. Maybe it’s his soul in the water, maybe it’s his being, his essence, his duende, his spirit, his geist, his ghost. He reaches hands in, outstretched, planning to have a séance with himself, planning to contact himself, to contact his spirit that’s gone by, gone missing in the void of the world. He’d felt so long ago that he was born without himself, that he was a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces missing. And he’s been reaching out, reaching to the dead, to try and fill that part of himself.
And now, and now, here it is, right below him. Spinning. Swimming.
The dog is barking, people are laughing and singing, and he doesn’t even hear them.
How can that little girl breathe? How can she do it? How long has she been under there?
-You’re dead! Don’t get back up Annie, you’re dead!
-You, you drowned! Stay under the water!
-But I can’t breathe you assholes.
-You knew the game when you started.
-Yeah you knew it, you can’t chicken out now.
-Yeah chicken shit.
-I don’t see any of you guys playing dead, huh? Why do I have to be the drowned one?
-Because you’re dead!
Sally can’t deal with this now, so she doesn’t even respond. She kicks her feet against the stairs leading down, granite ancient things, and watches pebbles skitter down on the water. Ripples, ripples, circles spinning out, the water is filled with the reflection of stars and scattered circles. More laughter from behind, more and more, and then quiet, like they realized Sally and Eustace were there.
-Hey Sally, come on, come on over here. I won’t bite, I promise! Come on.
Dave’s got a guitar and then he starts playing a song he makes up on the spot, serenading her on the spot. She cracks a smile, she can’t help it. He stops and smiles back, he has a beard and short hair, but his body is like a bear’s body, all big and hungry.
-There, there, I saw a smile. Come on, it’s not all bad. Get over here and play with us, enjoy the night. Don’t let the flood eat you, don’t let all this water get you down.
She looks down, closes her eyes, doesn’t know quite what to say to any of that. She has no words for Dave, big bear man, he who was trying to make her smile, to fill her with life again. She almost falls for it, almost goes for it, when Eustace sits up, wide eyed.
-Don’t go, don’t go! He’s a ghost, don’t you see? They’re all ghosts. They’re going to sing you over to the edges and push you in and drown you.
Dave doesn’t respond at all, like he knows they’re lost causes after all, and just gets out the guitar again and starts strumming away. He’s got no lyrics this time, no words to hang the delicate melody on, so he just plays a few minor chords, plucking sadness on his strings.
Over head, that night, there was the Milky Way stretched out over us, and the songs of crickets in the relentless pine trees. Everywhere was silence in that night, and in my own house, my own hours of his death, there was silence. All the way out here, all the way an hour away, in the next state over, I couldn’t hear him singing as he died. I just had the emptiness of my own sleep, the quiet of my own mute dreams. When I woke I didn’t know, how could I know? I should’ve known by the silence.
A girl is dancing next to the fire, and one of her friends laugh, and it’s all bright and light and happy again. Sally is pissed at all the laughter, at all the joy. Didn’t they know the world was over now? She’s been surviving too long to get happiness out of a little flood. This was just one more death for her, one more piled ontop of all the others. They’re stacked, the corpses stacked like firewood in her life. All the people she’s loved, dead, dead, all the poets and husbands, mothers, fathers, all the places she’s lived, all the houses she’s had, all the homes she spent hours in playing dolls and reading stories. It’s all dead now, all invisible now.
Sally knows she should do something, do anything. She is too far away from her body to act, to move forward and stop them. She knows the right thing to do, but she can’t do it, she can’t do anything, she’s frozen in terror and remembering her cellar, and her brother telling her they were going to hell, going to hell to talk to mom. All those spiders, and the darkness, and her screaming.
-See Sally? I told you. We’re all ghosts.
And she wants to dive into the water and save that little girl, whose head is still down there, down there while everyone’s laughing. The air fills with fire and everything is burning and she’s falling, she’s falling again.
-Even that little girl, she’s a ghost too so don’t worry. Ghosts can’t die.
And then the girl’s head surfaces again. She spits out water, and coughs and coughs and the boys are looking at her, staring at her. Everything is silent, everything is still. A crow caws out, and it sounds so solitude, so singular in the air, that no one speaks again. The crow says everything for them and that’s how it is. That’s how it always is.
-So what’s it like? Being dead?
-Shut the fuck up and leave me alone.
And then silence. Eustace is smiling knowingly and Sally doesn’t say anything. She’s still frozen, unstuck in time. Some part of her is still back there, back in the cellar, covered in spiders and screaming while her brother’s laughing. And some part of her is back in that pool, back before mom dies, and everything was normal and right. Some part of her is still drinking lemonade with rum smuggled in it, and flirting with Zack from next door, and the sun’s hot summer sun, and then she’s cold in the cellar again and somewhere, she can hear ragged breathing, harsh, river clogged breathing, and there is a shivering girl, with her arm out, asking Sally to pull her up, for help.
A female form cut out of shadows, broken up by the light of the sun, pushing a makeshift raft down the street with a long stick for a pole. The raft was made of debris, bits and pieces of random garbage tied together with thick twine. The woman is pushing towards him, struggling with her pole, to keep her moving forward, forward. The water doesn’t flow or crash with waves, it is the still water of after-flood water. She has dead flowers in her hair, yes, he can see it as she struggles closer, rowing around floating cars and corpses of animals half lion devoured. She pushes hair out of her eyes, brown hair, brown eyes, takes a deep breath, rows further.
Eustace knows he should call out, say something, do anything. He opens his mouth, fish mouth, puckering up, ready to spit out words like water, when he stops, the language caught inside of him, frozen inside of him. Overhead: loud noise, corrupting noise, noise of copter, a thundering of twirling blades of sound. He looks up, she looks up, to see the copter, then another, then another, all heli flying past over head. They are haloed by the sun, and then disappear, over there, towards the hills.
She stops, turns, looks at him and smiles.
Sally watches that poor little girl dunk her head under the water again. Her hair floats around her, whips around her, and some part of Sally is sinking with her. She feels her whole body sinking, falling, she wants to throw up, but she can’t. Her body is too far away, everything is too far away.
Black mane, silver fur, two eyes like ice in the skull, scars all over the body: a lion is on a rooftop, overlooking the city. Behind him are scattered corpses of birds and dogs and other animals that have gotten in his way. His fur is clogged and matted in their blood, and he is breathing rapid, heavily, fast. His hunger is unquenchable, it is a hunger that crawls up and takes hold of the blood. It is a hunger like a meth addict hunger, like an all consuming hunger, one that picks up and shakes you, drives you to kilkillkill in order to eateateat.
No people yet, no, no, no people has it tasted yet. Just some animals, here and there, leaving a trail of corpses behind, yet not satisfied. The lion will never be satisfied. It has a darkness growing inside of it, like a void inside of its ribs where a heart should be. This is the source of the endless hunger: this void. This void is like space, like dark matter, like black holes, like emptiness and heaviness and entropy itself. This lion is the heat death of the universe, it is ennui incarnate, coming to devour each of the galaxies, bit by bit.
The lion moves again, his head bobbing, searching, his eyes glancing around. Also in his mane, stuck in with blood clumps and flesh clumps and other clumps, there are shards of broken stained glass, where it had jumped through a church window just hours earlier. It had found a deer, nice plump deer, grazing amongst the river drenched pews. There it had ripped and tore, and even pulled the body onto the alter, and the creature screamed and tried to run away. But there is no escaping this lion, there is not escaping his emptiness, his entropy, his hunger.
The stained glass in his fur sparkles as he moves, catching the sun, glinting off of him in a prism of colors. His fur becomes light then, his fur becomes a reflection of the sun then, the blood holy on him. As he prowls he smells something, mmm, yes, something fresh, something wonderful. Salty sweaty smell, tasty, sausage smell, steak smell, licking lips, oh yes, teeth are now snapping in the air, and he is in a frenzy again.
The entropy commands it of him, the void inside of him commands it of him:
eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat
Eustace is all lonesome and alone and he’s wondering how it came to be yet again. Why don’t the ghosts love him enough to stick around? Even the ghost of his sister’s gone gone gone, right gone away and disappeared, right left and fled, right went up in smoke and drifting off like a cloud. The sky is empty, no clouds at all, just big hot and holy sun, cutting out the shapes of buildings with the song of its light. He’s stopped now, that Eustace, stopped and wondering how he got so alone, his eyes looking out amongst the sunken city streets that are now fish swamped canals.
His heart is a big lonely heart, too big for his chest. He’s got so many emotions, so many that they threaten to devour him, his heart like a chomping hungry lion inside of him. Ever since his ghost left and he followed it here, here to the land of the dead, he’s felt so many things he thought were gone and missing in his life. Like the feeling of his mother’s hands on his face, his lips brushing against her fingertips. Talking to her ghost last night brought all that back and it brought with it such an ache, such a yearning. She’d died when he was only four, yet those small memories, like jewels of light in his mind, floating, always there, never gone, bringing out such great pain inside of him.
And then she laughs. Eustace sees her face light up when she laughs, and she is like a million stars, and her ghost is so bright, so filled with light, he can’t help but laugh himself. He doesn’t even know why he’s laughing, but he loves it. It makes him happy, and he hasn’t felt happy in so long.
-You know, we don’t need to shout! Hold on, I’ll paddle over!
And Eustace, well, Eustace can’t wait. He is filled with the light of her laughter, and it’s just making him giddy and delirious, and so he jumps into the water. Spash! Oh, so cold! So ice burning on skin waking him up cold! Yet, he laughs from the cold, feeling it cover his whole body, and he can’t help it, he slicks his hair back with the wet and laughs. He is in the River Styx. Would he be like Achilles? Immortal and unpenetrable?
She rows over to him and he grabs the edge of her garbage raft.
-You want to help me look for her?
-That’s right, June.
-You know, yeah. Yeah I would love to.
And they sit there for a moment more, the sound of copters racing in the sky over head. He clings to the edge of her raft, frozen still in that moment, her smile beaming down on him, the sun caught in her hair, her smile crooked wonderful and her cheeks freckle coated. Eustace thinks that he needs to find his ghost now, more than ever before. He wants to be whole for this woman, whole whole and never broken anymore.