Order. Order. The Dead Assembly will now hear
the testimony of the late Arthur Young—who claims
he found beauty in cowardice.
I paced back and forth in a small bedroom
made infinite by midnight darkness
spilling through the windows faster than light
ever had. The floorboards churned
while I stepped from plank to plank, wobbled
so much that I doubted their ability
to keep me from falling through the ground
into an entirely different hemisphere
where no one knew not to call an ambulance
because my temporary insurance had run out
the day before.
Tin-can remedy in one hand, ballooning
gut in the other, I sipped and shuffled—pausing
only at the bathroom threshold to imagine
intestines flying out of my mouth like a can of snakes—
when suddenly manifold images floated
out of the dark like phantom movie projections.
My fellow corpses, I confess,
these visions unspooled all at once.
Yet I remember them all:
Memories floated by—
the budget healer reiterated disregard
as I plead in pathetic tones. Help me,
it’s been a week since I’ve eaten, mend me,
or prescribe drugs. We’d only met the once,
but she spoke as if she knew me: are you sure
it’s not just anxiety? Maybe she was right
to ask the question. When a single word
defines a life, the word cannot be overlooked—
how could I rebut? I,
whose adrenal mechanisms had long been locked
in perpetual fight-or-flight; I, who flinch
at the clatter of dishes and still dream
of basement sanctuaries housing bearded men,
jabbing at the ground with pointed fingers, testifying
to flames forever lurking beneath our feet. She saw
me as I was. She shrugged and referred me elsewhere,
but there is no use lingering on that failed attempt
at healing when yet stranger projections flared
up with absurd revelations—draped in a wool-
trench coat, cigarette dangling between amused lips,
a man stood gazing with the intent to keep
silent, occasionally gesturing at the smoke
pouring out of his mouth, as if trying to illustrate
what ghosts looked like before dissipating
into stardust. Behind me, a disembodied baritone
claimed there was nothing
to be afraid of—when you’re dead
you aren’t aware of death or dying, so what
do you care? I turned to see who spoke
but there was only a desert stretch so barren
that every mile repeated itself in infinite
cycles of sunburnt earth. I did not embark.
I did not move. I had once known a soldier
who spent years in such a place, how he spat
bullets—blooming pinpricks of light
flung from the dunes like hurled stars—and laid bare
the utter ridiculousness of war at the expense of himself
and holy places. I couldn’t be sure
the desert was where all things ended,
I couldn’t disbelieve in an afterlife, terrifying
in its spectral secrecy; it suddenly seemed likely
God was displeased with me. His smoldering gaze
might reveal that he hated everything I had ever done,
just as the basement men had warned. Even the penitent
thief was presumably saved at the last moment,
so I, too, made a final gambit and cried out
for salvation and spent agonizing moments
guessing at the thoughts of my sudden patron
saint as he suffocated publicly, dangling above
crowds bored by the spectacle’s slowness.
The astral projections faded
but I did not perish. Not then, not yet. I lived
past that fevered night, trapped beneath
the question of how to die without fear.
In the intervening days, I crept quietly
among serene enclaves, courageous blowhards,
and chaotic dreamers, observing their loneliest moments.
Before dawn, I stole into my city’s temple—
ancient in appearance for tourists’ pleasure—to watch
the monk’s pray. I hid beneath the floorboards;
light spilled through the cracks like planetary fissures
until bent knees and silent footfalls passed over
the light in prayerful eclipses. Chants spilled
from throats like a rising mist, filling
the air with hushed precepts. Among these faithful
one had taken a vow of silence. Esteemed for his age
and devotion, he was called on to hold vigil
from sunrise to sunrise. The room emptied,
leaving him with no one to bear witness
to his integrity save for a body unseen
beneath his feet. The ground rattled
as the monk slammed his fists
over the very place I lay hidden,
and for a harrowing moment, I believed
I’d been discovered, but he did not tear
away the floorboards and expose me
to the enlightened air, only wept, then spoke
loud enough for me to hear. A terrible instinct
caused me to slam my palms over my ears—
still, I heard the first word of his broken vow:
When I emerged, shoving aside the loose planks,
fleeing like a spider over whom a boot hovers,
the monk merely wiped his eyes and pointed
at my heart with a tear-stained finger. Two days
later, still having not slept, I drifted
through downtown, in and out of bars
wedged between tenements past redemption,
where a grizzled traveler wearing rags
as filthy as my own spun around in his stool
and offered stories in exchange for anything
fermented. He laid a bizarre memento
on the counter—a fang as big as my thumb.
He claimed that he had been slain by dragons
in a past life,
all for the love of a king who did not know
his name. No terror in the now, he claimed,
thumping his chest. Not when you have fallen
as I have fallen. And yet, as his trembling
fingers clutched a drained glass, I saw
his eyes clouded by dragon’s breath, pluming dread.
I knew then he had nothing to offer beyond life
already lived, and that my burden was his own.
Who was left to turn to if not heroic reincarnations?
I snatched the fang from the counter and hurled
the trophy over the heads of brooding patrons
and morose dancers. The traveler sighed and disappeared
into the bar’s shadowy fringes to retrieve the relic—
I tried to follow, or at least I remember trying to follow,
but past this moment, I lost my grip on time’s passing.
I drifted like vapor from strangeness to strangeness,
unable to distinguish hours from days—how long
did the buildings shake like quivering limbs
until I collapsed in a street gutter? So many
faces hovered over me like confused constellations
doubting their portents. I do not remember
their features, only their arrangement
as they held a frantic debate
over how to cradle the body of a stranger.
Blink once and surge through garish tunnels
where disinfected air scythes through every breath.
Cords, incessant beeping, dapper gentlemen
radiating cold. Blink again and the glare of neon
crosses at your back will paint the raindrops red.
Admitted, discharged, admitted, discharged—with no end
in sight to the senseless shuffle. My eyes turned inward
and gazed at my guts, shriveled coils and broken tubes
carrying nothing but the faintest traces of virulent blood.
Yes, my vision darkened, or perhaps was renewed; I believed
shadows cast bodies and that all light was an illusion
perpetrated by the self. I prayed no longer, but screamed
their inverse, shouting at streetlamps spilling lies
all over the road in flickering pools, hoping God
himself would meet me on the nighttime road, if only
to shut me up with all the searing brightness I disbelieved in,
but there was only the necropolis, emerging out of nowhere
like some long ignored promise. Surrounded by gravestones
poking through the earth, the tomb I now know is no tomb,
but an entrance to your hallowed undercity, sat moldering
like any other I had wondered at as a child.
I would have ignored the crypt
had it not been for the cloaked figure crouched
in front of its iron door, pouring over a heavy tome,
incanting deep-throated syllables. Creaking,
the door swung open, and the figure stood, arms outstretched
as if to receive an army. And you did come forth,
not to obey any spell-weaver’s summons, but to avenge
the presumption that any among you might be controlled.
The magician did not think to stand his ground.
He fled from the tattered mass
surging from the tomb’s mouth, cloak billowing, escaping
with his life.
I did not move so quickly. In fetid hands
you carried me off, where we roam
underpasses and catacombs, discussing
grim histories, as if all life amounts to demise.
Now my memory meets the present moment.
My late friends, I’ve heard so many testimonies
in the name of fifth-stage acquiescence—noble,
dignified, many of you exemplify strength
of spirit, but I will not remain with you. I reject
unlife below. I will call out the hated ones
lurking in this pallid crowd:
Hades and Hel, I defy you, death-driven
harbingers in the lowest spaces, I defy you,
clamoring voices shrieking let go, let go,
I defy you.
No monk or hero or waking vision
healed my fear. Only the spell-weaver
made me understand that I sought fearlessness
as if it were an escape hatch, that my disease
was in seeking a cure. Have I gone beyond
simile and metaphor? Has speech failed, at last?
Then I will show you what the magus taught me.
I will show you the beauty of a coward
pivoting on a heel, fleeing to the surface
of his beloved earth.