This piece was published in 2008. It is a science fiction story about a man banished to a distant world, cursed for a sin he can‘t remember. The original title was “Shoel.”
Mine is a quest, a journey into a planet of gnarled tree stumps and two suns that don’t light the land beyond shadow. This place is damned by the gods, if the gods have taken enough time to grant it such, and I have journeyed a thousand miles in search of her: I’ve heard of a woman who can help me. She is a conniving and unpredictable old coot esteemed to be a hundred and seventeen years old, and now, before me, between valleys and massive rises of earth, I have found her.
The town where she lives, a place called Sheol, lies a thousand feet below the ledge where I stand, a town that clings to the cliff face like a desperate child to an unwilling mother. Sheol. Means something awful in Hebrew. A strange name in a place where there are no gods, not my gods.
Forgive me. I get morbid at times. I allow myself such from time to time but do my best not to make it a habit. They call me the Intruder, and in this dark world I am just that, an intruder. This land isn’t mind, and I would never wish to claim it as such. But memories of my own world have grown distant. I pray to the northern sun, asking for return to my own world, but she doesn’t answer. I am not a religious man. Perhaps she knows this. She mocks me, even fears me. Or perhaps I don’t come from any world, and she is too kind to shed tears for me.
My prayer doesn’t take long. When I am finished I rise to my feet and take the path down to Sheol. In this land there are no cars or helicopters. Only paths. Weak, insubstantial paths that quickly lead you astray if you let them. It takes hours to descend, between dead-ends and half-humored falls, and my arrival reveals the same old tragedy: a carcass lies at the bottom of the path – a goat, bled dry by the thirst of wolves, its eyes fixed in a glassy stare.
Sheol is silent. Its inhabitants know of my coming. They have boarded up their windows and doors, doing their best to protect themselves, but I need their kindness – I am hungry – and once again I am left begging for food. On the occasion someone slides a piece of bread under the door – as though it were an offering to the gods, to me, something meant to appease and keep me away – and I eat the food in silence. No. I am not evil. But I don’t blame them for thinking me so.
Today there is an open door.
“So you are the Intruder,” comes a voice. It is not a question. “You look human. I hadn’t expected that.”
I am human, I think. I don’t say it out loud.
The old woman invites me into her house. I lower my eyes, as always, but I can see her hands, ten trembling and thin, bony fingers wrapped about the handle of a kitchen knife. I can imagine Hebre’s eyes, alert and intelligent, devious things buried in a devious face. I have not looked at a face for many years – not without it happening – but even then I dream of them, obsess about them, even try to imagine what a face is like by the sound of a voice, the way someone moves, or the scent of his body left behind after he runs away.
“It just takes an exchange of glances, doesn’t it?” she says. I don’t answer. She knows already. The old lady is silent a moment, standing before me with a bent shadow that speaks of severe osteoporosis and a cane that somehow holds her up. “How dare you come looking for me,” she says finally.
“I had no choice.”
“And what do you want?”
“I need a way out,” I say.
Hebre almost chuckles. “You won’t find a way out with me…at least not a fair one. It is your fault that our skies are dark, that the land is barren. It is your fault we are dying. Do you think you deserve such? A way out? Ha! You aren’t worthy of a way out.”
“Please.” I study the floor, the sink, the fire burning in the corner. An emaciated chicken has been plucked and is roasting itself into a small meal. A dying plant sits on the table. There is a sheet hanging across the back of the room. Through the holes I can see a bed behind it. I look at everything except her. I will not catch her gaze. I will not do this. “I need your help.”
“My help? That I conjure up some magic to forgive you?” She is watching me. I feel my face redden with the attention. “So it is magic you want,” she continues. “That isn’t too difficult. Though it won’t be altogether pleasant, and certainly not forgiving.”
“Then get it done, old woman.”
She doesn’t answer. Instead she sits down, resting uncomfortably on a weakened stool, and whispers something under her breath… whispering? No, she is singing, singing with a soft, rough voice, singing a song of songs, and it fills the small hut with a coldness that hadn’t been there before. It isn’t kind. I know that. But a gift is a gift, and I am prepared to accept anything.
The song ends, but she doesn’t say a word for a few minutes. The air is still cold, and the silence hangs powerfully about us. I will not break it.
“You want help?” she says softly. “Fine. The God of Disease will rise up and help you himself. Now he comes without pity. He won’t have problems finding you. Your pathetic soul will guide him.”
I’m not sure why I do it. Perhaps it is a reflex, that natural pull to the eyes of a voice that pains me. Or maybe I am angry. I want to see the person, the owner of the voice that is hurting me, find her eyes, see her crooked teeth and the foul-smelling hood she has over her head. I want to see the trembling lips. I want to see a face. I want to see a human being that doesn’t die the moment I lay eyes upon her.
Hebre’s eyes cloud over with tears as she sees what I have done. They are not forgiving tears. These tears are the type that sting when they touch you, that reek of hate and vengeance, and once again—as I have done thousands of times before – I watch as it happens, helpless, impotent. I help her to the bed, but she claws at me and draws blood. She whispers final words, “You will rot away into nothing.”
Hebre’s skin turns red, prickly, then rises into blisters, face, arms, chest blistering over, blister upon blister, and yes, as always, the blisters open, weeping thick fluid and leaving raw flesh underneath, scathing the healthy skin to the side, and the old lady cries loudly, too loudly. She will survive a week, maybe longer, and she will live through every moment.
I’ve tried to save them in the past. Tried to get them through the vomiting and diarrhea, the infection, gangrene, and amputations…through the screaming and agony…but they don’t survive. They suffer, and they never survive.
How many minutes? How many days?
I am trembling as I leave. I walk slowly, and soon I hear it: a hoarse, raspy breath upon breath behind me. It walks in the shadows, its hands gnarled into crooked stumps. The air is filled with the scent of decay. The creature is massive, and it follows.
Hebre’s gift comes for me.
Alex Natalian is a penname for psychiatrist KRR.