By Mehra Gharibian
It was a slow stirring from a frazzled and dismembered haze; it was a reawakening of consciousness, brought upon by a quick, indiscernible hum of energy occurring at once in the body and the mind. It was not, as is so familiar and largely unmentioned, the static, woolly spindling of waking sentience. It did not start in his toes, sending small shocks so that they curled and uncurled reflexively, and then afterwards bring life groaning back into his legs, his groin, his chest, his arms, and then finally his mind so that he was pulled roughly back into reality. It was not life.
And, yet, the Cardinal was breathing. His chest puffed in and out with dense, ugly motions as his deadened lungs ripped life back into him. His eyes, settled into nests of wrinkled skin, fluttered open together. The soft blue irises darted back and forth, surrounded suspiciously by bloodshot and twisting webs. They saw nothing but a tangle of colors: beige and red, and in the distance a pale blue. Through his stupor he could process only the foggy hues before him. Even so, something was not right. The red seemed foreboding; it seemed to consume the other colors. It was eating away at them in an angry tirade, blocking them out until there would soon be nothing left. He struggled weakly to resist as it blotted out the right side of his vision, but he could not move.
Then, all at once, his body turned on. He felt his arms and legs folded in, pressed tightly against his body and wrapped in what felt like a sort of crushing, weighted pillow. He felt his head exposed; lengthy tufts of soft white hair shifted gently up and down, moved by light, markedly pleasant gusts of wind. Blood trailed leisurely from a spot near his temple, staining the ground and leaving it dark and oiled.
He was lying down on the ground. The Cardinal felt his face pressed flatly against what felt to be soft layers of sand, and as he shifted his eyes sideways, that is to say in the upward direction, waves of sand seemed to be floating overhead, swirling gently in all directions. The sand was mottled with debris, chunks of wood and stone and marble, in all shapes and sizes, polished or painted white. They seemed familiar.
From the sky rung a deep, cold reverberation that he instantly recognized as a church bell. It wrapped the Cardinal in another layer, enveloping him in its sweet noise. He could feel the vibrations against his skin, lapping up against him before sheepishly retreating. Time and space were swirling around him, passionately provoking each other with traded displays of immense power. In a bout of panic, the Cardinal struggled desperately to extricate himself from where he was held down. He thrashed his body back and forth, gasping like a fish gulping desperately for water and swallowing only air. His kicking legs flipped a section of cloth upwards. They were simply his robes!
The ceremonial garb he had been wearing had folded itself on top of him, so that he was being flattened by the weight of the heavy layers and embroidery. Now that he understood his predicament, and with considerable trouble, the Cardinal managed to slip himself out from under his subjugator. His head dragged against its polyester interior, painting a streak of bright red down the center. The clock struck again, and this time he let the sound engulf him. He brought his head low to the ground, now on his hands and knees, and felt the waves rush around his body, rhythmically gripping and then releasing him. Then, as if having never existed, they were gone.
The Cardinal was reduced now to his undergarments— thin white shorts and a white, short-sleeved shirt. His pale legs seemed so frail now, with the light wind blowing their long, wispy hairs lazily backwards. Carefully, and with trepidation, he placed his hand on his heart. It was not beating. He took a deep breath, and then another. How then was he breathing?
He racked his brain for possibilities. He had been standing in the cathedral; it had been a Sunday procession as always. Quickly, his eyes moved to the wreckage submerged in sand around him. He examined it closer now, and he realized: This was the cathedral. Or, rather, it had once been. It remained now in hundreds of pieces. They were strewn about, littering the area around him. The sand had nearly eaten them whole already. The Cardinal, musing for a moment, considered how the sand absorbed its prey, engulfing them slowly and with terrifying hunger. He had never noticed this before and he wondered, briefly, how many other great treasures had been consumed by these uncharted oceans over the centuries past.
He brought his hand to his right temple, letting his fingers lightly touch the blood still letting from behind his skin. Floating sand, lolling across the air in a fashion more whimsical than malicious, nevertheless delivered stinging pain as it collided with the wound. The Cardinal acted quickly. He bent down into a crouching position, covering the side of his head with one hand and with the other sifting through the sand for an object by which to cut off a section of his robe. He found a jagged edge of wood, and he scraped at the robe’s bottom until he saw the thick fabric begin to fray. Hastily, for fear of further injury, he tore off a long, thin strip of cloth and wrapped it around his head. This, at least, would stem the bleeding.
Once his wound was attended to, the Cardinal rose shakily to a standing position. His feet sank slowly into the sand. The church bell rang again from all around him, sending vibrations through and surrounding his body. He was beginning to grow accustomed to the feeling. He wriggled his toes, and then brushed himself tenderly off. Now, finally, he crinkled his nose, held his hand flat over his eyes to block whatever waves of sand he could, and then looked at his surroundings.
Two suns stood just below the horizon at either end of his peripheral vision, leaving the area in a cold, perpetual dusk. Before him the dunes rose steadily in altitude, until they leveled off at what seemed to be a vertical column of light, suspended above the ground and reaching upwards to a destination that he could not see and, he felt vaguely, that he could not reach. The column stopped just feet above ground level.
The bell struck yet again. A total of two winged pegasi around the column beat the sky with immense wings as they bellowed out ferocious judgment. Underneath it lay what seemed to be small thickets of lush verdure, standing juxtaposed with the ominous sand like a garden oasis among ruins. Behind the column stood a sea of water. Instead of the customary blue, however, it had a deep scarlet coloring. At its shores two more pegasi bathed and sloshed to and fro in the slapping water, spraying red mist onto each other and staining the sand ahead of them.
The Cardinal shuddered. He turned clumsily, lifting the sand up along with his feet and letting it slide slowly down beneath his toes. When he had turned completely around, he plodded them back down into the granular earth, and took another look at the vast expanse before him. The sand in which he was standing sloped slightly upwards again for about a mile, before it dropped precipitously into a thick forest. The trees seemed thick and greenish, and it gleamed with an ominous élan that made it seemed alive and pulsing.
Behind the forest was a third sun, which he had not previously noticed. This sun, similar to the others in the trinity, lay just out of sight. It was torturously close to visibility, casting its glow upon the land below but leaving it cold and without the solar vivacity by which we are so accustomed to thriving. The Cardinal stood for many minutes, staring back and forth between the two ends, and the hidden forms of the three suns. The church bell continued to chime, its visible waves of sound tangling across the horizon like dancing dragons. The airborne sand continued to flutter, heedless of destination or direction. The Cardinal ran his fingers backwards through his hair. This was the land between heaven and hell. Somehow, he had died.
He was dead. Slowly, delicately, he began to cry. Tears rolled in plump swellings down the front of his wrinkled face. He tried to scream; from his throat came only a hoarse bleating. He tried again, and a faint, raw noise rose from his vocal chords and echoed recurrently around him. The bell rung again, and this time it caught him off guard. He fell back onto his bottom and, angry now, he pounded the sand with his fist. It lingered in the air for a few moments before floating back down to the ground, as if deciding that it was tired of being in the air and that it wanted, instead, to rest a while.
Sniffling loudly, he brought himself back up to his feet. He wiped away his tears with the bottom of his shirt, pressing it with his index fingers against the inner corners of his eyes. He would have to go now, to meet the lord. He turned around and slowly began the trudge over to the pillar of angry light that was to be his salvation.
* * *
It stood, robust and alive, floating in the air as if it was a taut cable firmly anchored into some unreachable spot in the heavens. Now, with his more raw emotions left far behind, the Cardinal felt the corners of his mouth twist upwards into a slight, smug grin. This was his prize, for a life devoted to the church. For years being forced to babysit children he neither liked nor cared for; for years being forced to listen to woes of pompous churchgoers he did not care about; for years forced to banter with those who he would ultimately use to allow him the luxuries he so deserved.
Yes, the life of the parishioner was not an easy road! In a world where luxuries were life, he was given none. He had been made to connive his way into those simple pleasures, but that would happen no longer. He would no longer need deceit. Finally, he had earned salvation!
And, as he drew nearer to the shining behemoth, the Cardinal realized that he could not help but stay fixated on it. It was beautiful— it was mesmerizing. His consciousness became dilated, succumbing to the power of the column as he drew nearer to its pulsing form. Thoughts, those assets, by which we define our very being, seemed insignificant now. They were slowly being wiped clean by this glowing providence standing before him.
He was no longer afraid of the snarling and bucking animals tearing at the skies above him, eyeing him maliciously. He was no longer afraid of the screaming church bells sounding in the air around him, increasing their tone and power as he drew nearer to this monolithic wonder. He was no longer afraid of the approaching sea, its snarling waves roaring and clawing at the red stained shores, as if they were trying desperately to escape some shackled confinement and the bleeding beaches ahead of them were the only barrier.
The Cardinal drew nearer now to the pillar, and he saw that it was not a pillar at all but a spiraling staircase, coiling up and around a central light column. The steps refracted the light and shimmered so that they seemed almost to be made of edgeless, shapeless stained glass. Indeed, the column and all of its components seemed completely formless. Shards of pink and gold formed measured rectangles, but the rectangles had no apparent ends or evident depth. They seemed to be suspended, winding delicately until they were indistinguishable in the distance.
As he drew underneath the stairway the airborne sand died down, no longer spinning and swirling around him; at this, he was not afraid. His bare feet crunched atop the short pockets of vibrant foliage, crushing the bristling leaves and petals. The chlorophyllic life wilted away with a terrifying immediacy as he passed, until it was reduced to dust in his tracks, and he was not afraid. Even as the sound of the church bells and the sand and the ocean stopped so that he was blanketed in a silence unattainable by Earthly measures, he was still not afraid.
The world around him was silent now, watching his every move in hushed trepidation. He had been partially numbed; he could no longer hear or feel, and his vision was blurred by the glare of the three suns around him. Had they risen above the horizon? The Cardinal squinted, but he could not tell. He could see the sea from where he was, lapping with great strokes back and forth. Now, with only his sight to cast observations, the monstrous body seemed almost silly, as if he were watching the muted, angry motions of a child having a tantrum. It smelled hot and metallic, like blood.
The Cardinal felt a tingling sensation go through his body, so that he shivered almost imperceptibly. His eyes channeled the light of the pillar and the suns, glowing, but they were illuminated beyond simple reflections. Had he a heartbeat, it would be felt beating against his chest at this moment. He moved with an enlightened spark, possessed as if he had uncovered a vast treasure. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, and licked his lips greedily. This is what he had been waiting for; this is what he had earned! He reached out a tentative hand, and lifted it slowly upwards.
In the gyrating light his hand appeared golden-red. It was bony and gnarled, and a vein snaked irately down its back and into the arm below. Long, unkempt white hair grew sparsely across the back of the hand and arm, hanging tightly from weathered follicles. The Cardinal held his hand out hovering for a few moments before he could resist no longer. In a wide lunge he stretched it upwards, attempting to feel the light. It was just out of reach. The Cardinal’s eyes narrowed with concern. He tried again once more, but still could not reach the bottom of the staircase. He felt the perspiration begin to bead at the top of his forehead, and his ears were ringing now with mad desire. It was as if the pillar was singing to him. Its siren songs were calling his name. Why could he not reach this, which was his? After multiple strained attempts on the tips of his toes, he began to grow desperate. He would have to accept the futility of his situation. His mouth was a thin line now, and sweat dripped from his forehead onto the heavy sand. It left dark stains dotting the ground around him, glowing red in the light along with his body.
He would reach it! He must reach it. The Cardinal felt the edge of his mouth raise, in snarling concentration. He bent his knees, braced himself, then jumped— but the sand sank further as he left the ground. Still, he could not touch the light. He jumped again, sinking further this time into the sand. The Cardinal shouted out in anger, pounding the sand in front of him with his fist. This time, it did not rise. He took deep, successive breaths, attempting to swallow his anger but instead taking great gulps of air. Finally, he was ready to try again. He rose back up with novel resolution. He would touch the light, no matter the obstacle. Salvation was his! After all, was he not a Cardinal of the Catholic Church?
He lowered himself and moved slowly, primitively backwards, like a jungle cat preparing to pounce upon its pray. He was nearly out from under the pillar now. Then, with all his strength, he bounded forward and sprang up with all of his strength from his left leg. The Cardinal felt his hand close around the bottom step of the staircase and, now suspended in midair, he gasped. It felt warm and comforting. He had made it— now he would have to climb, to ascend.
He tightened his grip on the step and swung his second arm up so that he was now holding on with both hands. He hung there for a few seconds and then curled his arms, pushing the muscles to their limits as he lifted himself up and over the top step. And it shattered. The bottom step of the monolith burst in the Cardinal’s hand, throwing his body to the ground under showers of violent light. The other steps followed one by one, like glass panes each shattering in one hundred separate places at once. He watched them implode in frenetic succession, sending shower after shower down upon his writhing body. The panes gained a searing heat as they descended, burning against his skin as they fell. He lay screaming on his back like a wounded animal in a terrified confusion, screaming as the light shards continued to pummel him.
Then, as the spiral wound its way higher, the bright implosions became no longer visible. The beams began to stop falling. Soon all that was left of the ordeal, almost surreal to the Cardinal, was a faint glassy din far overhead. Eventually this too was gone, and he was left again in silence.
The Cardinal lay still now. His eyes and fists were clenched tightly shut, and large red welts peppered his wrinkled skin. He was trembling violently, not in pain, but in angry disorientation. He sat up, wincing as pain shot up his spine. Why had it rejected him? He bent his head backwards, and saw the faint light still beaming just above him. They were no longer any stairs, however, and there were no longer any illusions. He heard the sound of wind, of wings flapping. The pegasi were circling now lower to the ground, almost at his level. In the distance his ears returned to him the sound of church bells, of sand, and of the angry tide. The suns were no longer glaring; in fact, they seemed less visible than before. It had grown darker, and the dusk seemed to be ending now as if this world was just now beginning its descent into night.
He stood up, just as a large, snorting Pegasus touched down on all fours in front of him. It had the frame of an extremely muscular stallion, and its coat was white. Great feathered wings sprouted from its back; they were now folded down at his sides, rustling impatiently against the drifting sands. The creature’s head while standing at full height was substantially taller than his so that now, as it drew closer, it bent downwards to meet his face. It had no pupils, and its nostrils flared as it walked towards him. The animal was blind, but its lifeless gaze bored into him. It was staring at him.
The Pegasus snorted, and brought the Cardinal back to cognizance. He touched its face, ignoring how its brow furrowed uncomfortably in response. Of course— the rejections had simply been final trials! This beast was here now, in front him, to lead him up to his heaven! Here was the moment he had been waiting for, brought down for his convenience. He walked over to the Pegasus’ side and grabbed at the top of its wing as a handhold. It tensed up, narrowing its eyes. With the full force of his weight he pulled himself up onto the back of the creature, so that he was sprawled out on top of it. It flexed its bulging muscles and allowed him up without difficulty.
Then, with a haughty grin, he sat up to his full height on top of the beast. His legs dangled at its sides for a brief moment before he tucked them under its wings. He grabbed its mane and gave it a hard jerk.
“Well come on then! Let’s go!”
It did not move, but instead turned its head slightly in his direction. He jerked its mane again.
“Up! I said let’s—“
He stopped yelling. Something was not right. The creature had fully raised its head, looking at him behind those lifeless eyes. It seemed to be almost grinning. Suddenly, a heavy breathing sound pervaded his mind, so that fear sank down through his stomach. The Pegasus was smiling now, malicious and terrible. At once, hundreds of screeching, retching voices filled his mind
“Now, Cardinal! We shall rise!”
And it rose, flying straight up into the sky, parallel to the beaming light. The Cardinal laughed in nervous elation. It must be taking him to his Providence. He was here. This was his salvation. The Pegasus flew higher and higher still, until the light grew brighter and he could barely see. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut. Then, suddenly, he felt his insides lurch. The world fell back under him. He felt himself gliding not up, but straight. And he opened his eyes. The pillar was falling rapidly away, and he was sailing across the sands. Past the red sea, past the debris of the cathedral, still further he sailed. The Cardinal banged his palms frantically against the beast’s neck. They were drawing nearer now to the forest. He looked around in vain for any kind of escape. The pillar of light was almost out of sight behind the angry glare of the three suns. He continued pounding, in sheer desperation. They were reaching the beginning of the forest. It looked dark and foreboding.
“Stop! Please, I beg you.”
The Pegasus halted immediately, on command. It stayed still for a moment, sharing with the Cardinal the trembling realization of his fate. In one fluid motion it batted a wing and flew back towards the beam of light now far in the distance, as the small man plummeted screaming towards land before he was lost amidst the trees.
Mehra Gharibian is currently a freshman undergraduate at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. While there he is studying English with a focus on Creative (Fiction) Writing, with minors in Art History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. His work has been accepted by Danse Macabre and is forthcoming in the Monongahela Review. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Looseleaf Tea, an online literature & arts journal promoting cultural expression and hidden voices.