The Sand Ritual
She'd gone out that night, I knew, to kiss herself goodbye.
– William Gibson, Winter Market
In the broad daylight of a bright May morning my mind is
rotting from the inside. I feel as if my soul has been exchanged for
something unfamiliar, weak, broken; something that crawls because it
doesn't have the strength to walk.
It's hard to describe. People will say: come on, others have
to cope with worse things. Just tough it out. And everything only gets
worse when you realize how different you are from others, who
occasionally feel sad or blue or lonely, but never have to struggle
under such a load of shame and despair and self-loathing. You keep
staring at yourself through a pair of glasses that distort reality into
a crooked mess, and you can't take them off, and you feel like a rat
pinned under the sole of someone's boot. The weight of everything
you've failed to achieve in the past and everything you'll mess up in
the future crushes you flat. At night, you lie awake thinking about the
seemingly endless responsibilities you don't have the strength to
handle. It's like being surrounded by a crowd of jeering phantoms and
having no way to escape.
Caught in this downward spiral, I could cry for several hours
until exhaustion sets in. I know only one way to stop this.
I shut myself in the bathroom with a packet of tissues, a
small bottle of hydrogen peroxide solution and a razor. I pull up my
sleeve, hold my breath and make one, two, three, four, five parallel
cuts on my arm above the elbow. Carefully, because it's not a good idea
to cut too deep. Everything has to heal without stitches.
The first cut is always the deepest, because the sharp pain
makes me hesitate before making the next one. My body has its own
reflexes. My body fears pain, even if pain is a surprisingly good
I feel wet blood welling up from the cuts. Little red beads
swell and fuse into large glistening drops that cause a tickling
sensation when they finally decide to trickle down. I watch for a
moment before dousing my arm with peroxide solution. It bubbles into
yellowish foam and intensifies the bleeding.
The stinging makes me flinch a little. Weirdly, all this
actually feels good. I relax and the lump in my throat subsides.
I wipe my arm with a Kleenex. Then I take another one and dab
the cuts again, as fresh red drops appear.
I feel better now. It's easier to look at pain than to carry
* * *
I have cuts on my palms, too. They sting whenever I wash my
hands. This reminder of their presence makes me feel smug; they're my
little secret. My badge of bravery nobody knows about.
My flat is an unholy mess. I should dust and vacuum, arrange
my books neatly, clean the bathroom, do something about the perennial
pile of stuff in the closet. Sooner or later, I probably will. Now,
slowly rising up from the dark depths, like a dead fish floating to the
surface, I don't care much about anything. My mind has gone numb; all
the thoughts that seemed unbearable earlier are now moving lazily like
worms behind thick glass.
Before going out, I change into cargo pants and a
military-style shirt from H&M -- the only clothes that make me
feel remotely like my old self, rather than a blob of extra pounds and
acne. As I walk down the street, I try not to look at my reflection in
the windows of parked cars. My face seems swollen, flaccid somehow, my
hips enormous. You're disgusting, I tell myself.
I need to buy groceries. I'm not quite at the stage where
people just lie in bed and stare at the wall. Not yet. My body wants to
eat, even though I count every calorie I swallow, repulsed by my own
animal appetite. My body craves bread, cheese and chocolate. (Later on,
I will shudder in disgust every time I see myself in a mirror.) My body
still has the energy to shower everyday, toss clothes in the washing
machine, sort the laundry. I even attend classes, mostly from force of
habit. I don't care much about the term exams yet. I'll worry about
them when they come.
Heading towards the checkout lane at the supermarket, I pass
the magazine stand, and immediately notice the headlines on today's
newspapers. A twenty-year-old woman has been stabbed to death on the
campus. Why her? Why not me?
When I count out change at the checkout, the cashier, a pretty
girl with purple hair and big earrings, notices the cuts on my hand.
"What happened?" she asks, pointing.
"Oh, my cat did that," I answer cheerfully. I'm getting so
good at lying, I could almost consider a career in politics. The girl
smiles and nods.
Cat scratches are never this deep and this symmetrical, but
people don't have a clue.
The skin on my shoulders, scored with cuts, burns under the
faded olive fabric of my shirt.
* * *
"I know what's wrong with you," says the bandaged woman,
emerging from my closet. Her pupils are twin red sparks glowing between
the filthy strips of cloth that obscure her face.
Whenever my mood becomes really bad, I dream about her. She
crawls out from the shadows, rises up from the earth or rides down from
the sky on a hair-thin thread. And all those dreams always end in the
"You don't know anything!" I yell. "Leave me alone!"
Her laugh is quiet, like the rustle of a candy wrapper.
"I am you, sweetheart. You feed me. I'll never leave you.
You're too weak to die and too weak to live."
"Get out of here!" I shout and hurl a book at her. With a
laugh, the phantom disintegrates into dozens of tiny black dots -- ants
that scurry away, disappearing in nooks and crannies: behind my closet,
under my desk, behind the bookshelves.
I go to the window and open it wide. City lights flicker in
the distance, just like in the real world.
I climb up on the window sill and look down. The building is
ten stories high.
I jump. And, instead of falling, I soar -- but not freely like
a bird. An invisible hand drags me through the air like a kite on a
string. And then suddenly I'm standing on the sidewalk.
I want to pound my face with my fist -- the pain would help me
feel better -- but the air is as thick as cotton wads, and my hand
can't get any momentum. In my dreams, I'm too weak even for this.
Between my depressive phases or whatever they are, I feel
drained of all emotion, but otherwise fairly normal. Life no longer
feels like endlessly running the gauntlet, pounded by my own thoughts.
Why am I still alive? Because the difference between cutting
yourself and actually committing suicide is as significant as, say, the
difference between ugly fantasies about kidnapping, rape or murder and
actually doing the deed. A healthy body is like a solidly ticking
machine; it's not easy to convince your own brain to pull the emergency
brake lever. I would need a better reason to swallow a bottle of pills
or slit my wrists than just feeling like crap and wanting to die. Also,
even though I'm not afraid of death itself, I'm scared of the
consequences of a failed suicide attempt. No need to make things any
worse than they already are.
Today, a slight drizzle is falling and the sky reminds me of
an old dishrag, so gray with use it's impossible to tell the original
color. After school, I go for a stroll through the city center. Just to
hang around by myself without having to think about anything much. On
an impulse, I drop into the discount bookstore to see what's on sale;
afterwards I walk on, heading towards the pedestrian area and the Old
Town. The rain has stopped and the clouds are dispersing.
An old man is feeding pigeons under the monument of a Polish
war hero. Children are playing by the fountain, while their mothers
watch and chat. As always, the nearby benches are occupied by elderly
people and drunks.
"Culture is dead!" shouts a hoarse, disheveled fifty-year-old,
waving a can of beer. Passersby glance at him and quicken their pace.
Dressed in mismatched clothes, with a ski headband over greasy hair, he
wouldn't look out of place on the People of Walmart site. His swollen
feet can barely fit into unlaced running shoes. I know him by sight; we
occasionally ride on the same bus. I've heard that he used to work at
the university and his mental health took a plunge after the death of
his wife. I wonder how he perceives the world; perhaps we have more in
common than one would suspect.
Yes, of course I know that I have a problem. So what do you
think should I do? See a psychiatrist? Antidepressants will just make
me gain weight and hate myself even more.
One of the kids runs straight into a flock of pigeons, causing
them to fly up into the air. The kid's mother scolds him. The incident
actually makes me smile a little. The sun has come out, and spending
some more time by the fountain suddenly seems like a nice idea. I could
browse through the book I bought at the bookstore -- a small album of
paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
I look around for a place to sit. And that's when I see him. A
street artist has set up his workshop on one of the benches. An old
backpack, a small easel, a folding picture stand.
Intrigued, I come up closer to look at the pictures. Painted
with tempera on stiff cardboard, all of them are views of ruined
cities. Some consumed by fire, in bright tones of red, orange and
yellow; others in somber grays and blues -- silent, empty and dead.
The artist's clothes are faded, shabby: a plaid flannel shirt,
the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, old dark jeans spattered with
paint. A broad-brimmed suede hat shades his face.
He doesn't raise his head when I look over his shoulder, just
adds more splotches of cinnabar and brownish gray to the upper part of
his newest painting. It depicts smoldering ruins with charred figures
lying in the foreground, under a sky heavy with smoke.
"What's that?" I ask.
"Dresden in nineteen forty-four, after the Allies firebombed
the city," he answers without turning around. "I was there. I saw the
firestorm. People burned to death or died of asphyxiation in the
"Oh," is my diplomatic answer.
The artist turns towards me and takes off his hat. He's
younger than I thought at first, thirtyish. Dark shoulder-length hair,
intelligent eyes, a hippie-style string of beads around his neck.
Definitely "artist" rather than "mentally ill".
"I saw the bombing of Hiroshima too, you know."
I nod politely and walk off without another word, feeling like
an idiot. A twisted sense of humor deserves a sassy response, but
clever dialogue has never been my forte.
"Yesterday is always better than tomorrow!" shouts the
mentally ill man, still sitting on the same bench with no company. I'd
like to know whether yesterday was worse than tomorrow will be.
Probably better not to know, though.
Whenever I feel normal, I try not to think about the next wave
of blackness waiting for me somewhere around the bend.
* * *
I take a bus back home. It's fairly early in the day, so most
of the seats are empty. I sit down by a window and sink into my
After a few stops, someone behind me murmurs with distaste. I
turn my head. An old homeless woman has boarded the bus. Greasy locks
of hair stick out from under her knit cap. She's wrapped in layers of
unwashed clothing and stinks like rancid cheese, her body coated with
months-old grime. The second I see her, I can't help but think that my
future might look like this. If I live long enough.
The woman walks unsteadily down the aisle until she reaches
the seat next to mine, and sits down there. Great. I get up, but she
clearly isn't willing to let me pass. I don't want to struggle with
her, so I sit down again. Three more stops to go. I clench my teeth and
hold my breath.
A couple of minutes later, when I rise, so does she. I
suddenly feel uneasy.
The homeless woman gets off the bus first, moving with
difficulty down the steps, and I follow. The bus drives away. I want to
walk past her, but she turns and blocks my path with a leering smile
that exposes her rotten teeth. My body tenses all over. Will a red
gleam suddenly appear in her eyes, and will her face peel off like a
mask, revealing the dirty bandages underneath?
"I know you," she says hoarsely.
"I don't think so."
"Oh yes, I do. Gerda always recognizes people like you." She
lowers her voice. "I know how you can get rid of the bandaged woman."
"Tell me, then."
"I don't tell things for free. Give me some money.
"I don't have any cash," I lie.
"I know you do."
I'm beginning to feel intrigued in spite of myself, so I take
out my wallet and give Gerda some change. She gazes at me thoughtfully.
Her eyes are bloodshot, teary, their irises a nondescript color,
neither brown nor gray. A web of dilated veins covers her nose and
"I need one more thing before I can help you," she says.
"A little bit of your blood."
I dig out a bloodstained Kleenex from my pocket and hand it to
her. The homeless woman glances at it and tut-tuts.
"How sad. You young people don't appreciate the value of life."
She slips the Kleenex into her toothless mouth, chews for a
moment and swallows, then sighs a heavy sigh.
"You've met the artist in the town square, haven't you? He's
going to spend the night at the railroad station, watching the nameless
creatures. Find him and ask him to perform the sand ritual for you.
"Yeah, thanks a lot," I answer. "You do realize that I don't
understand a word of what you're saying?"
"Find the artist tonight," she repeats. "Ask him to perform
the sand ritual. If he finds out that you see the invisible and you're
not afraid of the nameless creatures, he might decide it's worth the
"Who is the artist?" I ask.
Gerda passes a hand over her forehead, then wrinkles her brow.
She seems surprised.
"I don't know," she answers slowly. "He's . . . someone who
"One of the nameless creatures?"
"No, no. The nameless creatures live on bus stations and
railway stations. He's a traveler."
"Do you know his name?"
"I have no memory for names ever since I forgot my own."
"But you've just introduced yourself to me. Your name is
"No, child. That name is like an artificial leg. I don't
remember my own name any more. I haven't been able to recall it for
years and years, ever since I came down from heaven and crossed the
river Styx." Her face suddenly becomes contorted with anguish. "I've
passed through hell and deep water to save someone who didn't really
need me, only to lose myself along the way. But that story isn't fit
for your ears. Give me some more change and I'll tell you the last
thing I have to say."
Without any hesitation this time, I reach into my wallet and
hand her another coin. The old woman slips it into her pocket and
begins to laugh hoarsely.
"Don't think so much about death, you silly girl. You don't
really want to die. You only want the pain to stop. But nobody will
help you if you aren't able to pull your own weight."
In a flash my irritation turns to anger. I could strike the
homeless woman down and kick her, stomp on her filthy face with my army
boots. I restrain myself with difficulty, and walk away.
When I look back, Gerda is gone.
* * *
When evening comes, I toy with the idea of actually taking
Gerda's advice, but ultimately laziness and commonsense win. No, I
won't go to the railway station just because a homeless woman told me
some strange things. Perhaps I dozed off on the bus and the whole
encounter with her was just a dream?
Ten o'clock. Eleven. It's Saturday night and I'm reading a
cheap crime novel in bed. When I start to feel sleepy, I simply put the
book away, turn out the light and close my eyes.
I dream about mountains. I'm a bird of prey now, flying high
above the rocky peaks, alone and free. But suddenly everything
dissolves like a picture painted in watercolors when water spills on
I wake up, and although my room looks familiar, I feel
sickeningly certain that something isn't right. I sit up on the bed and
see the flash of red eyes. I stiffen. The wardrobe door opens slowly
and the woman in bandages emerges, laughing.
"You'd like me to leave and never come back, wouldn't you? It
won't happen, dear. You already know how maladjusted you are.
Oversensitive. Immature. Too weak to die and too weak to live."
She falls silent, waiting for me to react: scream, hurl a book
at her, or perhaps begin crying. Not this time. In the silence of night
I can hear Gerda's words very clearly in my head. And suddenly a
thought flashes through my mind. Sometimes the simplest solution is the
I spring up and begin to throw everything down from my messy
bookshelves. Books, magazines, keepsakes. I grab armfuls of clothes
from my closet -- T-shirts, hoodies, jeans, cargo pants, my one single
black trouser suit -- and toss them onto the floor, too.
"You don't have to go on living inside me. Just go ahead and
take everything I have! It's all yours, now have fun!"
The phantom bursts out laughing. I've obviously given her what
she wanted all along. She pounces upon my books and clothes, fingering
them greedily. A long skirt with a paisley pattern catches her fancy,
and she drapes it around herself like a shawl, then throws herself onto
the bed and rolls gleefully around.
"Idiot!" she shouts. "Idiot, idiot, idiot!"
"Have a wonderful existence!" I yell back.
I open the window and climb up on the sill. I look down. The
building is ten stories high.
"No!" cries out the bandaged woman when she sees what I'm
about to do. She hurls herself towards me, but not fast enough. I jump,
and this time I soar into the air like a bird, with nothing to pull me
down or hold me back.
* * *
The city below me resembles a huge and intricate puzzle,
dotted with lights, alive with the distant sound of cars. Everything
looks vaguely different than in the waking world, but I can recognize
some of the streets and buildings.
This time I am in full control of my flight. I know perfectly
well where I'm going, and I manage to reach my destination without any
problems. The railway station is situated in a different location than
the real one, but I have no trouble finding it. I drop down to the
parking lot, climb the steps and enter the large building.
The stench makes me stop in my tracks, so thick and nauseating
that it's almost a tangible presence, a living thing. Even Gerda's body
odor was nothing compared to this.
The railway station is lit with a flickering red glow and full
of creatures, some with rats' faces, others with pig snouts. Still
others resemble bundles of dirty rags, a hand or a long tail sticking
out here and there.
I look around, intrigued and a little frightened. The roof of
the railway station is gone, with only a row of steel girders jutting
out like ribs, and the area in front of the ticket offices looks like a
refugee camp. Beds of rags, rickety tin stoves. And more strange
creatures. Some are chewing food, others just stare at me with blank
Everything seems dreamlike and yet very real. I pinch my
forearm. It hurts. And suddenly I feel a wave of doubt; am I really
dreaming? And if yes, will I ever wake up? Perhaps my encounter with
Gerda on the bus stop was really a dream? What if I actually committed
suicide two days ago and have no memory of dying?
Someone tugs at my sleeve. I turn to see a squat, dumpy figure
in a filthy Superman T-shirt and a red baseball cap. The creature holds
out its hand, showing a Ziploc bag filled with a grayish powder.
"Would you like to buy a little bit of death? Or a new life,
"I don't want anything," I answer, pushing him away, because I
have finally caught sight of a familiar figure.
The street artist is sitting alone on a window sill not far
from the entrance. I approach him.
"Good evening," I say for want of a better idea. He raises his
He looks slightly older here than in the real world, a little
more tired. His face is very pale, gaunt, with a shadow of stubble
along the jaw; his eyes black and piercing. And suddenly I know deep in
my heart that Gerda was speaking the truth. I can guess who he is, even
though he's wearing paint-spattered jeans, a flannel shirt and dusty
military boots, and shows no trace of the majestic demeanor of a god or
demon. He looks like a weary traveler who has traversed one route too
many. But I know who he is.
"The world sleeps sometimes, but nightmares never do," he
says. In the real world we talked in Polish, but here in my dream he
speaks English, with a slight but noticeable accent. "That's why you've
come to the station, right?"
"I would like to ask you a favor," I say.
"Well, before you say anything else, look here." He points to
a sheet of paper attached to the windowpane with clear adhesive tape.
"Consider yourself warned."
I look at the sheet. It seems to be a missing person poster,
probably hastily put together by a family member or a friend. Printed
on an ordinary inkjet printer, it contains only a single paragraph of
text and a photo. Moisture has blurred the ink in places, forming pink
and blue smears, but the face in the snapshot remains recognizable. A
young smiling girl, maybe twelve years old, with long blond hair.
"Is this your doing?"
The artist smiles. His teeth, which looked normal in the real
world, are now small, pointed and wickedly sharp. As sharp as needles.
"Do you know what used to happen on February 10th?" he asks.
"Centuries ago in Romania the common folk used to believe that on this
date, Saint Peter gathers all the wolves together and tells them how
many humans, cows and sheep each wolf will be allowed to devour over
the coming year."
"Should I take this to mean that you're a wolf who hunts with
"Let's just say I'm a predator."
"And you're from Romania? That's . . . not very original."
"From Wales," he corrects me. "I remember the times of the
Celts. But I've spent some time in Romania as well. I've traveled to
He touches his necklace. In the waking world it looked like a
hippie-style string of beads, but here, in my dream, it is made from
"Who told you where to find me?" he asks after a moment of
"Gerda." I can tell by his look that he's confused, so I
explain: "An old homeless woman who says that she has passed through
hell and deep water, and has forgotten her real name. Do you know her?"
"I don't. But that doesn't matter. You've found your way
here, so what do you want?"
"I want to ask you to perform the sand ritual for me."
"Really?" He raises an eyebrow in ironic disbelief. "And who
are you, child, to come to me with such a request? Have you brought a
reference letter from Ereshkigal? From Hades? Sedna? How many names of
pain do you know?"
"Only one." I hold out my hand. "Look."
The artist takes my wrist and looks hard at the cuts on my
palm. Then he gazes deep into my eyes, and I shiver. His pupils are
like windows looking out over a landscape where time has stopped, into
the darkness of the desert where Lilith shrieks over the silent dunes.
He gently touches my neck.
"Come with me."
* * *
We leave the railway station, the ragged creatures staring
blankly after us. My dream becomes indistinguishable from reality as we
cross the railway tracks and then walk further on into the night,
following a footpath through the grass and bushes. The moon is now
hidden behind a bank of clouds, but the lights of a nearby street are
bright enough for me to see where I'm going.
"The city has forgotten what a true, genuine night looks
like," whispers the artist with a slight smirk, as though reading my
We walk past ruined storehouses and abandoned, weed-covered
slag heaps. Given enough time, nature will purify and absorb anything.
One day, perhaps centuries from now, the ruins of my hometown will be
swallowed by a forest. I wish I could be around to see that.
We climb over the last heap of slag and enter a copse. It has
been raining recently; the nettles are high and rank. The cool air
smells of grass, of dead leaves and moist earth.
"Why have you brought me here?" I ask.
"There are several ways to do this. Choose the one you want."
I stay silent. Here, under the trees, the artist is only a
black silhouette in the darkness. I can't see his eyes, but I can tell
he is watching me expectantly and somewhat ironically, perhaps waiting
for me to ask what he means.
I don't need to ask any questions, though. I know everything I
need to know.
I stand on tiptoes to kiss his unshaven cheek, feeling no
fear. It's like making the next move in a game of chess.
He's obviously surprised, but laughs quietly in response. I
detect a note of approval in his voice.
"All right," he whispers, "if this is what you want."
* * *
Propping himself up on an elbow, the artist gently touches the
cuts on my upper arms, thighs, hands and ribs, counting them one by one.
"Ninety-six," he says quietly. "I like that."
Afterwards we make love again, more slowly. As alike as two
raindrops; two shadows melting into one. Comforted by his warmth, I
savor the moment, the pleasure flowing through my body in slow, lazy
waves. I listen to his quickened breath, shiver a little when his teeth
sink into my shoulder in a short spasm. We kiss, the artist's hair
brushes against my cheek, and when I close my eyes, for a moment I see
the image of a city lit by fireworks on a snowy New Year's Eve.
Then I return to the cool grass, the smell of decaying plants
and silence; the promise of eternal sleep in the darkness under
low-hanging branches, among wet leaves and spiders' webs. The artist
strokes my face, then moves away.
And desire falls from me like a dream, like a robe no longer
needed. I vaguely recall the myth about Ishtar descending to the land
of the dead, about the nine gates where she had to leave her clothing
The artist dresses, and so do I. He kneels in front of me.
"I'll grant your request. Look at me."
He suddenly sinks his teeth into his own wrist. Black sand
begins to flow from the wound. The artist raises his hand so that the
tiny sooty grains fall over me like rain.
"I give tears to the wind," he whispers, "and bones to the
cold earth. In the name of Seth and Nephthys, I give light to the
darkness and emptiness to emptiness."
A cold shiver passes over my body. I blink. The moon emerges
from behind the clouds, and as I expected, a shadowy shape appears over
the artist's head. The outline of wings.
"Welcome to this side of the looking glass, little sister."
He stands up, kisses my forehead and closes my eyelids.
Snow is falling from a December sky. On the railway platform,
pigeons are pecking at scattered French fries -- the remains of
someone's hasty lunch on the go.
The ICE express to Basel approaches the platform like a huge
white slug. Passengers file up, waiting for the doors to open. No one
spares me a second glance, although the weather is freezing and I'm
bareheaded, dressed only in a denim military-style jacket over a black
T-shirt and cargo pants. I am like air to them, and they to me.
I wait for my turn, and get on board. A moment later the train
jerks into motion. With my face pressed to the window, I watch the
platform slowly move away.
This journey won't end anytime soon.
I'm dead and free, like pigeon feathers swept up by the wind.
My head is full of music, ideas, faces.
My backpack contains a package of oil pastels and a
stiff-backed pad of drawing paper; pictures full of suffering,
rottenness and blood waiting to be painted.
The train picks up speed, leaving Cologne behind. I watch as
the winter landscape of the Odenwald moves past, bathed in pale
sunlight -- densely wooded hills, now shrouded in white; now and then a
village or a small town, their snow-covered roofs and church towers as
dainty as wedding cake decorations.
Someone taps my shoulder. A German train conductor in a
navy-blue uniform and red cap.
I hand him a dead leaf I picked up earlier from the concrete
surface of the platform. The conductor nods, stamps it and leaves.
I am dead. I have finally relearned how to smile.
© 2016 Agnieszka Halas
Bio: Agnieszka is a Polish freelance translator and
writer who has published a number of short stories and four novels in
Polish (a dark fantasy trilogy and a standalone entitled "Olga i
osty"). Mrs. Halas' last Aphelion appearance, Winter in Ziegelberg, appeared in
our April 2016 issue.
E-mail: Agnieszka Halas
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