Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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The Sand Ritual

by Agnieszka Halas




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 medicine.

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 it inside.

* * *

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 same way.

"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.

2.

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 basements."

"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 thoughts.

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 cheeks.

"I need one more thing before I can help you," she says.

"What's that?"

"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 effort."

"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 wanders."

"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 Gerda."

"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 the paper.

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 best one.

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.

* * *

I'm flying.

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 eyes.

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, perhaps?"

"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 gaze.

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 divine permission?"

"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 many countries."

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 bird bones.

"Who told you where to find me?" he asks after a moment of silence.

"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 thoughts.

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. Cardiff, perhaps?

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.

"You've paid."

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 and jewelry.

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.

3.

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.

"Fahrschein, bitte."

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.


THE END


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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