The demon smiled at me. That's when I knew that it was a demon- demon smiles are quite different from human ones- even evil human ones. This is when I decided I would like to get going. "No jewelry for me today, thank you, though that bracelet certainly is tempting," I placed the turquoise strand back on its hook and grinned awkwardly, avoiding looking into the intent eyes of my salesman.
"Oh, but you see, it really is the finest material, of this place or any other!"
I now knew he was not speaking of places on earth, but rather those that sprawled out far below our feet, places where fire birthed beauty, but only the transient, dependent kind, the kind that Faust must have known well. I politely shook my head no, again, but thanks anyway.
"I really don't have the cash today," I managed, while pretending to passively admire a pair of earrings. I knew he was still staring directly into my face, I could now feel the heat that seemed to move from his very line of sight, but still I stayed rooted to the spot.
"I see," he said, finally, to which I may have replied "I know that you do, now please see someone else," but I continued to memorize the face of the jewelry I had already studied for what seemed like eons. "I see," said he, "that you're onto me." I laughed as one should laugh at a salesperson- noncommittally- but the way in which he made his statement sent chills that bypassed my spine and went straight to my neck.
"The funny thing about this situation, then, is that you do not run."
"Why should I run away from a harmless salesman? I'm just being polite and conversational."
The grey clouds now shrouded the marketplace, and I began to notice that the market was packing up. A raindrop fell on my shoulder, followed by several more. The peddlers began to flee, seeking refuge.
"I'm glad they've left," It said, as it began to change. "I cannot abide keeping the same shape for so long under threat of water." As it spoke, its face grew longer, its sparse facial hair vanished, as did all hair, its eyes widened until they occupied most of its face, and what seemed to me like exceedingly long eyelashes began to grow from its now gigantic forehead. Its limbs stretched, tangled about itself like so much excess shoelace or a tired spider- long and useless. Now it just looked to me a bizarre, lazy creature, more like a giant bug than an advocate of hell. But then it smiled again, this time a much wider smile, and the sound of its wet, elastic skin stretching in order to accommodate all of the leering teeth on display made my heart briefly cease to beat.
"What is your occupation?" It asked me, as if it were interviewing me for government purposes.
"I'm a doctor," I said, glad that I had the presence of mind, even with teeth the size of my face staring at me, to make a correct answer.
"I see. And What do you Do as a Doctor, madam?"
"I take care of people. Make them better."
"Yes, yes. Of course you do. Well, though you seem young to be called Doctor, I shall call you that, if you so wish."
"You don't have to call me anything, as I'll be going soon."
"Of course, Doctor. You know, if we are to keep playing this game I suppose you could call me Martin, or perhaps Peter?"
"I don't understand."
"No, no I propose that you do understand."
We stood-- or rested, I guess, as I could not begin to guess what kind of posture the demon had taken.
"I mean to say, doctor that you are, I myself am a businessman, an artist, an apostle, what do you think of that?"
"You mean that I'm not a doctor?"
"I mean that I find it amusing for you to lie as you are perfectly aware of what I am, which, as some may say, is head and shoulders worse than a silly nurse, which you are."
"Nurse, doctor, all the same."
"No, no, it isn't at all. Don't be stupid. You HELP people, Olivia. You are called on to take care of them, to wipe their spit from their drooling chins as they near their last days. You are like me, you helpful nurse, you bring people into the next world as gently as you can. If only you were inventive enough, dear."
"Yes of course."
"At any rate, a clever nurse like you, a good, sweet and helpful nurse like yourself should not be bothering with jewelry, should she?"
"My husband said I deserved something nice today."
"And why did he say that, Doctor? Have you been through quite a lot this week? Oh, I beg your pardon, I see you are wearing black. Colors, you know, I miss them sometimes." It blinked for the first time and its somewhat effeminate voice took on a slightly deeper tone. "Anyway. Rough month its been? Seen many souls to the other side, have we?"
I paused at this.
"You could say that."
"And I did, didn't I? Yes. You know, that's the funny thing about us. People think we're either omnipresent or nonexistent. The facts are, we can't see flibberity whats-it without being shown, you know. Just like your kind. No walking through walls or floating around. But we do have eyes."
"I can see that."
"Yes. Ahaha. "See." But I digress. This week. Many deaths. Lots of hard work for you."
"You sent some of those our way, by the by, and don't think we don't appreciate it. Nothing worse than those nasty nurses giving out tracts and singing hopeful hymns when they think no one else is listening. Gets the dying all thoughtful, and sometimes they just don't make the appointment. I must tell you, there's nothing more disappointing than expecting a present then being denied at the last moment. Like one of your children at Christmas--"
"I understand the comparison."
"Yes, you're smart. I suppose. Smart enough to help these people along. And your sister."
"What was that you said?"
"Why, dear lady, dear Doctor, your lovely sister, may she rest in peace. Marsha, I believe it is."
"What about her?"
"Oh, she tells me you were the one looking after her when she died. That must have been difficult on you, poor woman."
"She spoke to you? Don't be silly."
"Oh no, no, I'm not known for my horseplay, if you can believe that."
"Somehow I can."
"But enough about me! We were talking about dear sister. Hm yes."
A strange thing happened then. That is, stranger than the fact that I was having an extended conversation with a demon. Since then stranger things have occurred, so I must remind myself that everything since that day has been on the unusual side. But the strange thing that happened then, Stanley, was that I saw, suddenly, in this demon's eye the eye of my own sister Marsha. I never quite understood the concept of the windows to the soul being found in one's eyes, but I certainly grasp it now. Nothing physical in the demon changed, but for a moment I felt as though I was looking into my sister's soul. Then she went away. Instead, Stanley, remained the reflection of me, your wife, smothering my sister with a pillow. Dead.
"No," I said. "That was a very long time ago."
"But is it still not true?" The demon asked.
"I have been forgiven for my sins."
"There can be no forgiveness without recompense. He understands that, of course. What have you done to make up for this heinous act against life?"
"I'm married. I love my husband. We lead good lives. We give to the poor and--"
The demon sighed, completely disappointed in my lack of understanding.
"I hate to use the phrase," he said, "but get on the proverbial ball, Iris."
"Life equates to life. In the matter of you and dear sister, life exactly equates life. You were each other's equal. I quite think she would have done away with you were she given the chance. But anyhow, that's neither here nor there, no, anyway: each other's equal. Rather a nice deal on our side of things, but probably not to your taste."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, dearest, that a life equals a life. You take one, you give one, you understand, yes? Of course, there's a lot of paperwork. Takes rather awhile, thus our little meeting in the market here. We apologize for the inconvenience. However, the equaling out must occur. So, my dear. It comes down to this-- no, Doctor, don't cry, the climates aren't quite what they say they are-- it comes down to you signing over your husband's life property-- his soul, that is-- to us, with this rather nice pen of finality here, or you coming along straight away."
"Give my husband over? To you?"
"Yes, as it turns out he is also in the equal sector. Amusing how that works out."
"But I love him. That's why-- he's why I did what I did."
"Well, you can both come then, if you like."
"It was worth a try."
I was in tears, Stanley, such tears, knowing my soul, my life, my universe was about to be sacrificed.
"Do take the pen, my dear," he said, the snake, his eyes glowing purple and some other color that I'd not seen before. The rain had stopped-- the burning had evaporated the sky in reverse. I signed.
And this is just the 50th letter I've written you, Stanley, from where I am. They condemn me to it, this bittersweet punishment of always speaking to someone just out of range. You will never get this letter, just as you will never receive the next 700 that I am to write, nor the ones after that or before this, but my mind will never stop aching for you to hear my story, all of my stories, the stories that I never told you. I'm sorry, Stanley, and the guilt will most likely consume me for the rest of my time on earth, until, finally, they take me as well. I hope, Stanley, that when they say eternal pain they don't mean it, and that regret cannot outlast infinity.
Incidentally, say hello to Marsha for me. And know that I did buy quite a nice turquoise bracelet that day-- it looks simply stunning with my new evening dress.