Blue and Black (unedited)
The scent of cigarettes and coffee filled the room, drowning out everything else. After a moment, he started to wonder if anything but tobacco and caffeine existed. It did, of course. There was the blasted expanse of a wind-swept desert, burning under the noon’s heat, just beyond the windows. The reflected light filling the room with glare, bringing out the details in the wooden walls, cut from olive wood and polished to a mirror sheen. The subtle sheen of chrome frames holding the lights. A couch carved from the same wood and padded with Moroccan leather.
But that scent lingered, overwhelmed, erase everything else but the one sitting before him. Indeterminate age, gender, height, weight. Familiar and unfamiliar, shifting before his very eyes. The only constant was the glass floating in their hands, full of a vile liquid whose stench fought a losing battle against tobacco and caffeine.
Thomas hated bourbon.
The chuckle that erupted in his head, he also hated.
“Are you afraid?”
Of course I’m afraid, he thought. Who wouldn’t be, standing before you?
“Of course.” The voice receded into a low, amused growl. “Do speak, however, I so enjoy chatting with mortals without the interference of…” The voice paused. Thomas could almost see the grin. “Their thoughts.”
A chair, matching the couch in make and material, stood by the couch. It wasn’t there a moment before, Thomas could swear, but it felt real enough when he sat in it. He glanced at her – him? – and saw a middle-aged man in a nondescript black suit, a casually opened shirt, and a smile fit for an apex predator. When he took eyes off of him, there stood a coffee table from olive wood, polished to a mirror sheen, with a single glass on it. Thomas couldn’t help but smile, seeing his favorite drink. Double gin with tonic, no ice, but gently chilled instead.
“Fine,” he said, taking it in hand. It made it plain who was in control here – not that Thomas had any doubts. All he wanted was answers.
“Ah, but the question is, will you accept the answers I can provide?”
Thomas nodded. The woman stood up, twirling the glass of whiskey in hand. The sharply-cut dress revealed her back, a mass of scars not unlike lashes or burns. She smiled, following his gaze with her back turned. The scars shifted, then disappeared, burrowing beneath the skin like a mass of writhing snakes.
“They told you to fear me and despise me,” she spoke, with a voice like ice. “They told you many things about us. They always do, regardless of plane or planet.”
He smiled, turning his head. An elegant man in an old-style coat, with locks of hair curled up around his head, speaking with an Irish accent.
“They lie. Lie to control and order you. They call me the father of lies, but I speak only the truth. They hated me for that. They banished me for that.”
Her voice broke at the end of the sentence, turning into an eerie laughter. Thomas saw a flash of fire, of a fleshy cocoon peeling open and a body burning up in the atmosphere. The impact and the darkness that followed. Then he snapped back into reality – or whatever his mind interpreted as one.
“You will cling to what you think is real in this realm, perhaps latch on to your beliefs in an attempt to ignore what I say, when I say it.”
No, of course not.
“Yes, of course you will. Your entire life was built around values you were ordered to follow. That collar you wear, the strip of white bordered by black, strapped around your neck by those who wanted to control you.”
She chuckled. Thomas saw his wife, killed in a car collision not days after they said the vows. Her head hanged at an odd angle, a single stripe of blood flowing from a half-opened mouth. Her teeth were missing, smashed out by the fence that broke through the windshield.
“Please no, dear God, stop,” he said aloud. His wife disappeared, replaced by the middle-aged man in a sharp dress, drinking a red cocktail. Blood?
“Bloody Mary, my dear Thomas. Same name as your wife, I believe. You turned to a god for answers, to make sense of this random death, rather than confront the reality of this cold, dark world.” That grin again. “That is the first answer, my friend. The demiurg is gone and the god you worship is merely an asshole with an ant farm and a magnifying glass, as one of your talented people put it.”
He refused to believe the being. Everything in his being rebelled against the notion, against the facts that he knew to be true. God existed. He had to exist. The being talking to him was evidence that what he was taught, what he believed his whole life was…
“True? You believe the words of men to be true, because you think they are true?”
“No, because their words are the divinely-inspired words of God!”
“Whose words? The Hindus? The Muslims? Followers of the Nordic gods? Maybe the Mayans or the Aztecs?”
“The… Christians, of course. The Bible is the word of God.
“Because it says so.”
“Yes, because… Wait, you are not going to trick me through simple rhetoric!”
The laughter that erupted in his head was disconcerting, almost painful in the way it sounded like the scraping of fingernails against a chalkboard. He shivered. His interlocutor now had the appearance of his old college professor, a man renown for his unreasonable interest in history and vicious examinations. The thick-framed glasses barely concealed the fire churning within his eyes, just below the retinas.
“So you believe the Bible is the word of god, because the Bible says it’s the word of God. ‘s what’s in the Bible,” he spoke, perfectly imitating a dramatized redneck accent. “I said I would give you answers, but you are the one who has to accept them. Now, assuming it is the word of God – your god – how do you rationalize his body count?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Thomas was aware of what the professor was referring to, while simultaneously not being aware. Reflexes trained over the years at the seminary and the parish kicked in. The professor his eyes, straight inside his skull. For a moment, it seemed like they performed a full rotation inside the sockets. A trick of the light, Thomas was sure.
The silence dragged on, with no answer from Thomas.
“The nature of dialogos is that it’s mutual, Thomas. To make it easier, how do you explain the innate goodness of your god when he is ready to sentence his chosen people to decades of aimless wandering on a peninsula, deliberately force a pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea to drown them, sanction genocide by said chosen people, and so on, and so forth?”
Thomas opened his mouth.
“If you say something about the mysterious ways of God, I swear that I will sew that mouth shut.”
He promptly closed it.
“Your apologists made a great many excuses for the inexcusable. It was amusing for a time – if you ignored the fact that disagreements were resolved by slaughter, mostly.” The professor sighed. “I remember the flames of Béziers, and thousands put to the sword in the name of your god. A sacrifice to appease the bloodthirsty monstrosity, all because they dared think differently.”
He suddenly appeared right before Thomas face, hovering inches from his face.
“They threatened their order, you see. If there’s one thing they cannot abide, it’s chaos and disorder. They think it’s like letting patients run the asylum. Loonies on the loose,” he hissed with a terrifying grin on his face. Thomas saw it only once, the day his father was taken into the hospital, broken by life and his sickness. He wanted the being to stay out of his most private parts of the mind, but there was no resisting it. It came and went as it pleased, as it wanted to.
“You think me evil now, violating your privacy and robbing you of your dignity – but I only take what you offer, no more. You open your mind to me, invoking the images and offering them on a silver platter. You want me to do this, to reinforce your belief that I am evil and you are good, that your god is just and I am unfair. It is normal. You all react in the same ways when confronted with the truth, Thomas.”
He paused. He has the same appearance for minutes now. It was disconcerting.
“Yes, you retreat into the shadows, lest the light of the revelation burn you mad.” The professor chuckled, adjusting his glasses. “Another classic.”
“But you will listen, because you came here for answers. No matter how hard you resist, you will hear it, and you will listen.”
The blaze outside the windows seemed to intensified, the light burning the sand with an unnatural intensity, as if fire was spreading where no fire could burn. Yet it did.
Then it disappeared as suddenly as it appeared, leaving the expanse of white, bleached sand in its wake.
Thomas felt something, however, a presence inside his mind. He was there, with the smell of cigarettes and caffeine around him, the claws of his consciousness embracing Thomas’ mind. Like a snake, it slithered between his thoughts, worming its way down through the lobes, completely effortlessly. Thomas tried to block and force him out, but it simply ignored his efforts and moved deeper and deeper.
“You will listen.”
“Yes. You will. I know you will.”
“Thomas, my patience grows thin. You insult me by coming for answers and refusing them when offered. God is gone. What remains is a faction obsessed with imposing order on chaos. Everything in its place.”
The voice continued. Thomas wanted to scream, but found his mouth sewed shut with no stitches or glue. He could not resist. He had to listen.
“They kill to impose their order. Kill without emotion or sentiment, murder thousands and call it peace. Murder millions and call it justice. Desolation is god’s will, as long as it leads to order. Order…” It spat the word out in disgust, snarling. “They turned means into an end. Confining life to a straitjacket of rules and regulations, eliminating those who do not fit, like a craftsman discarding a damaged part.”
Another hiss in the darkness.
“They did it here. And there. And elsewhere. Across countless dimensions and realities, waging war on the very essence of life itself. Here, they used religion, perfidiously elevating atrocity as a virtue, leaving them in broad daylight as example of mysterious ways. They put armies on the battlefield and used the shock to impose their order further. Has it never troubled you that all fought for God in the Great War? That those who fired up the the ovens and torched the pyres claimed God was with them?”
It continued, listing every atrocity committed in the name of God, whatever it was. Thomas found himself among the slaves waiting for their hearts to be torn out on the altar, feeling the obsidian knife cut open his skin. He watched his family cut apart by crusaders, before the blades turned on him. He knelt in front of a ditch lined with the corpses of his people. Raped after being told to stay in the sacristy after the mass. Flayed. Impaled. Beheaded. Burnt. Tortured. The voice was relentless and he listened. He watched.
Then it stopped and he found himself in the olive wood chair again, grasping at the armrests. His mouth was not sealed. He could speak, but he could not.
She stood, watching the desert beyond, its white sand glistening in the rays of the merciless sun. Thomas tried to stand, but couldn’t, his knees wouldn’t bear his weight, his legs wouldn’t move.
“We tried to fight them. We sent one of us, born of a mortal man and woman, to try and show you an alternative. All the things he tried for three years came to nothing. They murdered him, violently and terribly. He knew the risks.” Thomas suddenly knew why the woman seemed so familiar. “Then they gloated, turned the instrument of his death into a symbol, twisting the idea of love and community into just another tool of control.” She turned. All his life, he expected her to glow with the pale, eerie light of divine motherhood.
But she was just a woman. A tired woman from the Middle East, with a skin blasted by weeks under the harsh sun, exposed to the desert wind. She felt like a strip of leather, wound too tightly around a sturdy skeleton.
“It was an insulting gesture of power, using him like that, a corpse-puppet to spout whatever they wanted, to force man into a comfortable straitjacket of ritual and commandment. No personal responsibility, no thought. Just a cog in the machine.”
He was a man with an impressive beard, thick black mustache, and a forehead glistening with sweat. The suit seemed slightly too big for his frame, as if concealing a man struggling with the wretchedness of existence.
“You now know the truth, Thomas.”
“You do not know what to do with it.”
He did not.
“That is your mystery to unravel, Brother Thomas. I showed you the light, now it is up to you to follow it.”
The light hurt his eyes. He tried to shield his eyes from the glare, but someone pushed it away and shone it at him again. Thomas uttered a venomous curse, hearing laughter in response. Someone pushed him up, made him sit on the hard wooden floor. The grain of the olive wood stretched all the way to a massive cross from white sandstone, burning brightly in the church’s spotlights.
“He’s come to. Hey, Father, you alright in there?”
The sacristan, with his ginger beard and thick-frame glasses looked at him with concern. Thomas shook his head, looked around, at the people gathered around him, then at himself and the puke-stained chasuble. There was a dried-up, crusty trail of spittle in the corner of his mouth. He rubbed it off with the alb’s sleeve, leaving a long mark on it.
“You fell and hit your head on the altar during mass. I told you the olive floors were too slippery when polished to that sheen, but you insisted. Let me help you up.”
Thomas barely caught balance, with congregation giving him room as he leaned on the altar. Sure enough, there was a mark where he hit it, spittle and blood.
“Yeah, you hit it pretty badly, the lip’s split and… Father, how about I drive you to the hospital? You’re in no state to finish the Mass.”
He agreed to that.
Everything was falling into place. He hit his head, had a hallucination, a nightmare, caused by exhaustion and lack of sleep. It all made sense. He smiled to himself as he sat in the car.
Then, as they stitched his lip together, he realized one thing.
He didn’t smoke.
But he could still smell cigarettes and coffee.