“Can you help me?”
“Are you positive of what you lost?”
“You’ve lost your soul?”
“I’m not sure. I awoke one day hollow.”
There was a pathway beyond the wildflower meadows. My brother told me the noises from there were the product of trickery. Auditory hallucinations sent from devils and pagan worshippers. On a night not entirely unforeseen, my mother took her final breath in bed. I held a dying candle at her side. The embers cast a dreadful shadow upon the wall as if her soul was a silhouette. Dysentery had robbed her of her humanity.
The smell tormented the house for days after. I suppose that was her way of saying she wasn’t ready. It left a silence in my home, which was filled with the sound of my brother’s voice. The only other voice available aside from my own. My father’s voice I had never heard, and I contemplated if he ever existed.
“Tobias, be sure to find as much firewood as you can before the approaching storm. Preferably oak,” my brother said, yelling from the front of our small farmhouse. “I can tell it’s coming from the east. Please make haste. I don’t want to be alone with Mother. We need to burn her soon to stop the spread. If you cannot find your way back, search for the rugged dirt path.”
I’d heard his request, asking for firewood, but I’d already begun to make my way to a section of tall trees. The materials in my bag were rationed enough to survive a full moon cycle. I had a slight cough and stomach pain the night before, but miraculously, all my ailments subsided when I awoke from a dream in which I drowned in blackwater.
“I’ll be back shortly,” I confidently fibbed, knowing well that I was running away from home. My mother’s love had tethered me to our lonely way of life and staying with my brother would rapidly age me. I never viewed selfishness as an internal wound. To me, there was nothing worse than denying yourself.
During the first few hours, the woods were playing tricks on me. I’d memorized where the wildflower meadows were, but every time I approached them, there was nothing but another section of tall trees. Myriads of rivulets, bramble, grasslands, and woodland creatures scurried about—a spectacle that seemed to replay itself at my arrival and reset at my departure. I sat on a log that could barely hold my weight and ate an apple from my bag.
That’s when I noticed it. The paths on the ground began to shift as if I was the only thing still on a rotating earth. Where east had been moved to the south, and suddenly the looming thunderstorms were behind me. I’d been running in circles, and on several occasions, I thought I heard my brother screaming in the distance, calling me home.
When the earth stopped shifting, a specter wandered into my pathway. The antiquated clothes on the phantom defied gravity, and there were several strands of seaweed gathered on his neck and arms. I’d gotten the impression he had drowned in some far-off ocean. Perhaps on his way back home.
The core of my eaten apple slipped from my hands and hit the dirt. It alerted him. He turned to me.
“Do you know where I am?” The specter’s voice echoed inside and outside my head, bouncing off the walls of my skull. “I am very tired.”
“This is Rabaris. The forest of Rabaris,” I answered. “Have you come from the meadows?”
“I’ve come from the grave.”
“Do you know the way?”
“Each one has their own path to eternal darkness.”
“No, I mean to the meadows.”
The specter ignored my question, enamored by the forest surroundings. “The closer I get to my destination, the more my shell becomes hard. I’m allowed to walk on land now. It took me seventy years.”
“You’ve come from the shore? I’ve never seen where the land meets the sea.”
Before he answered, he sat on the log next to me. A wave of empathy invaded my chest, and I struggled to hold back foreign tears. He then placed his face close to mine and summoned his trauma from my body. I was able to breathe again.
There were rows of deep scratches on his nape, and where his eyes should’ve been were tiny falling stars, descending into the darkness of his head. A worm traversed his face beneath his skin. As he talked, a gentle breeze of cold air rode the words that exited his mouth.
“I was in love with two women. One old and one young. Both flames from different times. The young one had become two, and in my attempt to discard her from my life, she attacked me. We both fell off the cliff. I survived. However, unable to walk, I watched the tide slowly rise on the shore. I counted the full moons. I tasted the salt as the water kissed my lips. I embraced the punishment and spent two-hundred and fifty-seven years on the ocean floor.”
“What did you see?”
“Where is your destination?”
“The path beyond the wildflower meadows.”
“That’s where I’m going as well, but the path seems to mutate.”
“If you’ve seen it before, calling you in the distance, that’s not the direction it’s in.”
“How is it to be found?”
“Through hearing at the peak of night. The sound will guide us. It guided me to you.”
“I’ve heard it before. It speaks to me. Sort of a lullaby mixed with moans and chants.”
“If we both hear the same message . . . how long until nightfall?”
As the specter finished his question, a loud boom of thunder roared above, bringing with it the sweet melody of rain splashing on the leaves. In a flash of lightning, I spotted shelter in the nook of a giant tree. The trunk opened itself, inviting me into its orifice.
The sound of the moving bark was like grinding teeth. Gripping my bag tightly, I covered myself beneath my blanket. It smelled like my mother when she was alive. I watched the specter marvel at the feel of the rain splashing off his shell body. Although, on a few parts, the raindrops went straight through him, mainly around his chest area.
The storm passed with silence in its wake. Unnatural silence, as if the world had ceased all communication with the living. I gazed heavenward at a constellation of stars, pondering my decisions. At times, regret would stab me in the chest when I envisioned my brother, all alone, cursing God as to why He would take away his family. Why had his kin abandoned him?
The feeling would fade quickly. The love I had for myself surpassed all, and amid inner cheer, I heard a noise. It rose from below the dirt and swirled above my head. A song lyric in a language I couldn’t decode, repeated over and over. As I began to memorize the melody, the specter appeared.
“Do you hear the folklore song?” The specter asked.
“I do. Are you able to understand the words?”
“No, but I can follow the path.”
What seemed to be spherical trails led to new entrances at pastures and open fields. Hills and smoke were arising from far-off areas to the west. Assorted clothing appeared in the grass. Undergarments, socks, shoes, masks, and others. All of which worn by women. We didn’t see any signs of men. Fatigued, I requested multiple stops and resting areas. The forest obliged every time. Beneath a waterfall, we spoke as the sun hit its peak in the sky.
“I feel heavy. All the weight is carried in the sins. I am fortunate to have met you. I’ve seen others, but none of them could hear the song,” he said.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the spirits. As a child, they wouldn’t let me sleep. They would fill my head with requests, secrets, and sadness. Until I came of age. Now they whisper fantasies and ideas. Most of which I would like to indulge in.
“Unless it’s angels, all voices from the underworld are marred with trickery. Despair disguised as pleasure or rebirth.
“I’ll admit, as of late, I cannot differentiate between angels and demons and wayward souls. Sometimes I think the voices are all my own. Speaking in different inflections.”
“Does my voice sound like the one in your head?”
I waited and tuned my ear to each syllable he spoke.
“The opposite,” I replied. “It’s the most distinctive I’ve heard. Next to my brother’s, but he’s not dead.”
“Are you sure?”
“He was alive when I left him.”
“When you abandoned him?”
“How do you know that?”
“I came across your mother when I arrived on the land. She was going in the opposite direction but told me of you. Told me how her sons could hear the song.”
“My brother does hear it, but it sends him warnings. My mother? Where is she?”
“Going to a place we cannot go.”
“I thought you couldn’t communicate with anyone else?”
“She understood me without speech.”
A bit flustered, I put some distance between us. Hearing someone use the word ‘mother’ filled me with emotions I did not wish to resolve at that moment. Namely, grief.
“Speaking without talking is communication. I’m going to need you to understand that,” I said, in my brother’s tone when he was mad at me. When he wanted to flex superiority. When his logic was sound and my emotions were worthless.
“I require nourishment before we go on. I too am feeling a certain level of weakness that I can’t explain,” slowly, I went to grab my bag, and for a moment, my hand went through the material.
“It isn’t weakness you’re feeling,” the specter whispered.
“Nonsense,” after three attempts my flesh was able to grasp the bag, and I quickly took out a fig and sank my teeth into it.
I ate two more, but the tiredness remained, and somehow my hunger hadn’t subsided. I closed my eyes and homed in on my surroundings. Suddenly, I was able to hear the message.
“Flesh and desire will lead me to you. Or you to me, whichever comes first. In your thirst, you will lose thyself. I will become whole with shards from thee.”
“Are you able to make out the words?” I asked the specter, now wide-eyed, as we descended a steep hill towards a foggy swampland.
“No. But I still hear it, and I can trace the origin,” the specter rubbed his hands together. “I’m becoming whole, little by little. We haven’t gone astray. This direction is correct.”
“Doesn’t that mean we’re hearing different messages then?” I tried to rub my hands together, except, they went through the solidness of my body, as if translucent. I slowed my breathing and was able to get my fingertips to touch.
“It is communication without speech. I hear a melody hummed.”
“I see . . .” I responded as we approached the swampland.
I couldn’t feel the water rising above my ankles, stopping below the knee. The path was littered with moss. Trees lined both sides, wide and high like pillars, with weeping willows brushing the top of our heads. Floating near us were more women’s undergarments. At first, they were all dull-colored, but as we pressed on, they became more vibrant. Green, then blue, and finally red brassieres, like a village of ladies had drowned and their clothes rose to the surface.
It was enticing. It reminded me of why I abandoned my brother in the first place. Why I secretly would seek out my mother’s clothing when she wasn’t around, and marvel at the design. Why all my indulgent dreams ended with my mother standing over me, ashamed, holding a rag to clean myself.
“We are not far now. The melody is louder,” the specter claimed.
The swamp house was cradled on tree trunks that resembled skeletal hands holding it upward. Constructed by decaying wood with fungus growing in abundance, the house was one level with a small pointy roof. There was an upside-down cross at its peak, along with one shabby window in the middle. Behind the shattered glass, the color crimson pulsated from within.
I felt a presence rise from beneath. A crown of endless lavender hair shimmering in the sun. The face of a siren. A retrousse nose, round eyes made entirely of sapphires, skin the color of sand, and an elongated neck void of protection. Nothing but towering vertebrae supporting the massive head. Awestruck, I watched it traverse the space between us in a slithering motion.
As it opened its mouth, a gigantic tongue made of wildflower meadows sprouted out, stopping at my feet. Naked women with horns and black wings circled its uvula. In the depth of the creature’s stomach, heavenly music escaped. The melody.
“Flesh and desire will lead me to you. Or you to me . . .”
“This is where we depart,” the specter said, heading towards the swamp house behind the creature. “The red calls me home.”
I simply nodded my head and stepped into the creature’s mouth without hesitation. The wildflowers swayed, mimicking my movement, kissing my legs as I walked. I continued until the end of the path. Down in the expanse, floating in the air, was an eggshell-colored platform of infinite space. I squinted my eyes, visualizing hundreds of women, curling their fingers at me, calling me by name. They all looked like one moving organism, nearly insect-like from a distance.
“Tobias, you have found Cucaniensis. Join us,” the female voices became an amalgam of euphoric musical strings creating words. An inviting chorus welcomed me to its utopia.
“We have been waiting for you.”
“You are the only one we serve.”
“We will take care of you.”
Two of the black-winged angels swooped down. A crown of burgundy leaves was placed on my head. My clothes and bags were removed. In its place, gold slippers covered my feet, and a soft black robe caressed my shoulders. Soon after, they carried me down. Suspended in mid-air, I turned to look back at Rabaris, the forest, as the siren’s mouth began to close.
I felt no melancholy. I embraced a quest fulfilled. The closer I got to the center, the more I began to forget my brother’s voice, my mother’s face, anything associated with pain, and love unrequited. My skin became sensitive, and my heart palpitated dangerously. I labored to keep my eyes open as the soft feeling of the infinite platform touched the bottom of my slippers.
I sank into a sea of hands. Every orifice of my body was felt at once. A thousand scents of pheromones entered my skin. I fought to breathe as a multitude of lips kissed my own, some with tongue, some without. The faces became a blur, and their distinct features shimmied between each other. A kaleidoscope of human flesh. I experienced earth-shattering releases. Waves of them, crashing over and over. Somehow my body had become impervious to human limits. When one release was completed, my member prepared for the next without work or discomfort. I felt lighter after every orgasm. I was positioned, stretched, rotated, and altered without soreness.
Trapped in a symphony of moans and screams, I finally closed out the visuals, attempting to enhance the experience. Behind my eyelids, vibrant colors were born. Out of the color yellow, I saw the small farmhouse. I grimaced but kept my eyes shut. Suddenly, my mother and brother appeared headless in a sea of green.
“You’ve killed him,” the siren spoke to my heart, or I spoke to myself. There was no distinction, and I rebutted immediately.
“My brother . . . he was alive when I left.”
“A life without family is a life not lived.”
“A life wasted is death.”
“Soon I will pull you.”
“Pull?” I asked.
“Essence from the flesh. Inside of me half of you belongs.”
“What of the rest?”
“The remains of the human vessel. Existence outside of oneself.”
An out-of-body experience, I watched myself from beyond. The women continued to devour my body but I was unable to feel. I watched my face painted in jubilation. At that moment my body turned to stone. All of the women melded into one and emerged as a little girl in a flower dress with long black hair filled with butterfly bows. An image of innocence. She casually lifted my statue and dropped it into the immense darkness. I heard it crash instantly. How many had answered the siren’s call?
Inside her throat, I stared at the back of the siren’s teeth whilst her mouth was closed. There was no one flying around her uvula, and the wildflower meadows were replaced with a large hideous tongue.
“Have I forfeited all that I’ve known?” I asked as I lost all shape and features. I transitioned into a will-o-wisp. My humanity ceased to be.
“A sacrifice for hearing the song,” the siren spoke, as I saw glimpses of the swampland from inside her mouth. “You are free to do whatever you like.”
Unbound by physical entities, I floated back to the swampland. The siren’s face descended into the water. All of the undergarments were replaced with twigs and dirt. The specter was gone, but the house at the end of the path remained. The crimson color still pulsated. I drove my weightless form heavenward to obtain a better view.
At my old small farmhouse, near the backyard, I saw a small bonfire. My brother was covered in sweat, dropping wood on a raging fire. As I approached, I watched him go back inside the house. I placed myself at the door. When he reemerged, dragging my mother’s body, he walked straight through my new form. I was nothingness, unable to interfere.
The cloud of smoke was thick when the body was first placed on the flame. She was hollow. The specter had told me so. I pondered the smell. My brother didn’t flinch as the skin charred. He placed a ceramic urn next to his feet. It had elephant designs.
“You always wanted to be cremated,” he said internally, staring into the embers. “I supposed I’d want the same. But who would do this for me when I die?”
The question lingered. I’d become privy to his inner thoughts. Normally the cremation process would take two to three hours, but due mother’s emaciated state, he found himself reaching for the shovel in forty-five minutes. Afterward, he took two pieces of clean firewood and a piece of twine, created a cross out of it, and began carving the bottom into a stake.
“He should’ve been back by now,” my brother thought. “The storm was pretty weak,” he nicked his thumb with the small knife he used for carving. He sucked the blood from his thumb and kept on. “He’s probably out by the watering hole again. Searching for other people. Spying on them. Begging for change to get a drink. Trying to escape reality. Poor Tobias.”
I hovered over his bed that night. I watched him say prayers I’d never heard before. I watched him pray for me for ten days straight. I learned his secret quirky behaviors, such as putting on a sock then the shoe on one foot before the other. The interesting conversations he had with plants, both living and dead. The painted-on smile he practiced when he felt like he was crumbling from a cycle of loneliness. Within five months, he prayed for inner peace. Within a year, his prayers turned into full discussions with our mother.
“I sent for the messenger weeks ago, mother. Why hasn’t my shipment arrived?” He swept minuscule dirt from the front porch. “Do I need to go into town myself? A thirty-mile trek for half a gallon of drinkable poison? I think not.”
He moved further towards the forest’s entry of the house, peeking into the unforgiving woods. He dropped the broom and stared at the space between the trees.
“Please. Before sundown, that’d be nice. I can drink while the sun is out.”
I observed from an aerial view. To my surprise, I saw a person with a straw hat bouncing atop a carriage heading in the direction of the old farmhouse. I descended right next to my brother’s shoulder to see it from his perspective. As the sound of hooves reached his ears, he waved his hands wildly.
“Hello, over here!” my brother said aloud in anticipation. “I’ve waited patiently!”
The carriage slowly arrived in his view. The man in the straw hat dismounted, reached inside his cargo, and took out a crate of wine.
“Yes, thank you,” my brother provided a pouch full of gold coins, dropped it in the man’s hand. “Eggs will be done in a day or two. Chickens and pigs as well, whenever you need.”
“The gold will do.” The man in the straw hat got back in his carriage and exited.
Once inside, my brother grabbed one of the bottles, uncorked it, and downed an unwise amount in one gulp. He reached around blindly looking for a chair to sit in. Once seated, he brought the bottle to his face to verify the logo in front. He scratched at it delicately with his index finger. It was a knight’s helmet with blue roses decorated on the side. He took another swig before diving into a monologue.
“Regal stuff. Potent stuff, Mother. Do you see? I’m drinking royal booze. Only the finest. Regardless of whether I’m alone or not, I enjoy myself just the same. No, no, I don’t need a family. Of course, it would be nice. No one’s debating that. But I’m better here. You know me. Tobias is . . . Tobias was the one lured by temptation. I thrive in structure and solitude. Plus, even when I’ve gone to town, not a single woman, young or old glances my way. I assume it’s my demeanor or the attributes of my face. It bothered me as a child, but as a man, I have no desire for them at all. I do not fear dying alone. I think it’s my destiny.”
As the years piled on, the bottles collected. Near a lit candle every other night, he’d take a quill and inkwell, dab it, and write on parchment. He penned deeply profound confessions of his own emotions. His inability to enjoy himself. Regrets from all stages of life, and finally a paragraph about contentment. When he was finished, he’d create a fake address so the letters would return. Eventually, he had bags full of letters to himself marked as our mother, and sometimes me.
Every time drunkenness was reached, he’d make a few coherent sentences then whisper pronouns into the empty rooms, waiting on a response.
“There’s nothing else to do, Mother,” He flung his neck back and drank the bottle down. “I’ve done all my chores. I’ve done all my reading,” He threw the bottle aside and replaced it with another. “I’ve grown tired.”
By his forty-fifth year, he’d lost all muscle tone. A slave to the spirits, he succumbed to a drunken hermit lifestyle. By fifty-five he’d forgotten the meaning of life.
“I’m ready,” he said aloud, holding a quill, letting the ink drip onto the blank page.
A moment of feeling came to me in this form. I was wrong to abandon him.
“You,” My brother said into my old room. “You are here.”
There were things I wanted to say but I couldn’t communicate. My brother was not sensitive to the astral plane. Therefore, I watched him wither. Unencumbered by time, it felt as if a week had passed, not the entirety of his existence.
On a night much like the night of my mother’s death, my brother stood outside in the rain. Before he could bring his hand up to block his face, a shock went through his body, stopping the activity of his heart. In the spot he landed, the earth began to shift, and it swallowed his body then regurgitated my own.
I appeared alien to myself. The corpse was young and clothed. The color gray was pulsating in its core. Suddenly, a thick, long blade of grass sprung from the ground. My brother had been reincarnated. I cautiously laid my nondescript form inside my corpse.
After several seasons I was able to stand. By the time I stood, my brother was a sapling. All around me were specters trapped between here and the underworld. Some with mangled bodies, dragging along with their hands digging into the earth. Lost souls in full flesh were providing them with company and information. Much like my previous self. Runaways. Every conversation was similar.
“Do you know where I am?”
“This is Rabaris. The forest of Rabaris. “Have you come from the meadows?”
“I’ve come from the grave.”
“Do you know the way?”
“The place beyond the wildflower meadows.”
I followed them. I watched every lost soul enter the siren’s mouth as I approached the swampland. By the time I arrived at the swamp house I’d transitioned to a coreless shell. Hollow, I could touch all things, but I had an infinite emptiness of emotion. Earth no longer served what I’d become. The red light from inside the house was darker than I remembered. I opened the door.
“And then you saw me,” the entity inside finished my sentence.
He occupied most of the space, stuffed inside a tiny prison. All the features on his face were goatlike. There was a large star carved into the center of his forehead, scabbed over but still bleeding. It leaked down his cheeks and entered his long beard, turning it from black to burgundy.
Though his shoulders were squeezed by the ceiling, I could make out four sets of reptilian wings. He had two horns protruding out his skull, one was broken, and the other curved inside the walls of the house. Each time the entity spoke, people were reaching out his mouth, struggling to escape.
“You are the king of this world?”
“King of all.”
“Did you oblige the one who lured me?”
“Where do I go from here?”
“A place below.”
“And I’ll be able to rest, and feel?”
The entity unhinged his jaws and opened his mouth. I placed my foot at the edge of its tongue.
Derrick R. Lafayette is The Fictional Café’s 2021-2022 Writer-in-Residence. He’s written four novels and over a dozen short stories, published in print and online. When he’s not working as an IT Engineer or studying chess gambits on the astral plane, he’s reading or writing profusely. You can find more of his work on Amazon.