The body becomes, eventually, like a vest of chain mail in peaceful years, too hot in summer and too cold in winter
"Um, and can I get a pack of the lucky strikes?" the young man asks dropping a Red Bull and a handful of power bars on the counter of the dingy liquor store.
"Very well," I say, putting down the New York Times crossword puzzle and slowly turning to the cigarette selection. I move with the creeping achy joint shuffle of a cold-blooded creature.
Once, long, long ago I sat in a great hall, on a throne like a God. No. God's only dreamed of that kind of power. Such dominance, such stupid arrogance and for all its splendor, as meaningless now as selling little paper lotto tickets. I would be angry about it, but he don't have the energy.
I hear the boy sigh and inwardly frowned at his impatience. I'd like to see how agile his body is when he's polishing off his second millennium. The young, it seemed more and more, had so much contempt for the old. Children used to respect their elders. When did that change?
"Is that all?" I ask, while I hunt out the correct brand. That was another thing I didn't understand. Wasn't all of it just tobacco wrapped in paper? Why must it have so many different names? So many crazy colors. So much convoluted advertising hocking virtually the same thing.
"Yeah, dinner, caffeine and smokes. Wild Friday night cramming for finals. They're in the far left corner on the bottom," he adds helpfully.
"Oh yes, so they are," I agree, reaching out tentatively with gnarled fingers. How strange these hands look. It is like operating the parts of a puppet, one that has tree branches for hands. Nothing works right when the weather turns this cool. My joints lock up. "So you are a student at the University?" I ask. I don't really care and besides it is clear that he is, but people seem better able to wait out my ringing up their purchases if I talk to them at the same time.
"Uh-huh," he says pulling out his wallet in anticipation of the total.
"That will be eleven eighty-six," I inform him. "Would you like a bag?" I look up slowly into his face for the first time and my breath catches. I let it back out in a slow hiss as I take in his pale heart-shaped face, bruised fruit mouth, and mop of dark hair, dyed with shots of blue.
I am not above occasionally admiring the pretty ones when they come into the store, with their flawless young skin and lovely bones, but it is the eyes that have my attention now. The best secrets of the universe are hidden in places such as this. They are so very very green, like twin emeralds looking back at me.
Like treasure. I used to have such a treasure a very long long time ago, the kind to partake of at your leisure. I remember the smell of warm nights in the orange groves, those dark globes heavy with juice and the clean sweet taste of well water from a ceramic jug, honey and pistachios on the tongue as I rolled such a slim little body beneath me and took from it what I wanted again and again late into the night.
Before it was stolen from me—my treasure—taken. I feel an ache in my heart like the hot heat of a sword, a splitting terrifying pain. I raged then. Oh yes, how I raged. Cracking bones and letting the flames roll down until there was nothing left, no palace, no women, no precious stones or metal. I went on like madness itself, until I no longer had a body as strong as a mountain and the cruel fingers of time had finished reducing me to this.
"I need to see your ID," I say softly, not meeting his eyes, "for the cigarettes." My memory shimmers like some mysterious gauzy substance that comes and goes with the change of the light. I blink my glassy old man eyes and try not to think too hard about whatever it is that is trying to rear its head in my subconscious. Remembering can be a kind of vertigo, a timeless falling into the abyss. It is better to stay with the now. That is the funny thing, the more I remember about the past the more I forget the particulars of the moment and that is always dangerous. Maybe I will sleep and dream about it later, but for now I must stay here. If I let go, let the memories swallow me up, I will inevitably awaken in the homeless shelter again, months or even years later, and then there is only suffering. I avoid suffering whenever possible.
"Oh, all right," he says, removing his California driver's license and handing it to me. Owen Byrne. He is nineteen years old.
I want to keep the picture, but then I remember that I have to give it back and my heart sinks. I slide it towards him as my fingers twitch to pocket it. My tongue darts out and passes lizard-like over dry and cracking lips.
"What's another word for a mournful or plaintive poem or lament?" I ask, my rough skin accidentally brushing across his fingers as I take the twenty dollar bill from him to make change. The touch causes me to shiver. I cannot remember the last time I touched someone or was touched. It could have been years ago.
"What?" Owen looks confused.
"For the puzzle," I explain, gesturing to my paper, "fourteen down."
"Oh." He smiles then and his eyes sparkle exquisitely. I long to own something so beautiful.
"How many letters?"
"Yes, of course, yes, you would need to know that wouldn't you?" I check and he waits. "Five," I say. "I believe it ends in the letter 'y' if that is helpful."
"Yeah, okay." He considers for a moment, biting into the flesh of his plump bottom lip. I want to be the one doing that. I would bite hard. I imagine the coppery taste of his blood and what kind of sound he would make at the sudden sharp pain. I shiver again. Owen, Owen, Owen.
"Try elegy," he tells me as he puts his purchases into the satchel slung over his shoulder. He never did tell me if he wanted a bag.
"You are a prince!" I exclaim. So clever I think and then I am transfixed by the shimmer of his nose stud as he moves his head. It has a dark sapphire jewel in it, but it is not a real one. The color matches the dye in his hair, though. I lick my lips again.
"Have a nice night." Owen tells me and gives a little wave as I watch him leave with rapt interest. Pretty, pretty, pretty…when I was younger, oh yes, how I would have made that mine in an instant.
I live in a run down hotel room by the freeway. It smells vaguely of cat piss, but mostly when I turn the heater on. Tonight I hum a forgotten tune, in a better mood than usual, as I open the package of noodles I brought home from work. They are the kind that come in the plastic bag with the metallic pouch of powdered broth.
I go about the steps to prepare the meal in the small electric kettle by the sink. In life, I fear cold and hunger the most and the majority of my energies go towards keeping both at bay.
I think of Owen while I slurp my soup. He reminds me of something I cannot quite remember, but it feels important. Maybe I just liked talking to him, liked looking at his attractive features and the sound of his voice, but something inside me screams that this is not the answer. That there is more to the puzzle.
Owen Byrne. I say the name like a prayer and when I sleep I dream about horrible things: snakes, rats and beetles eating away at my flesh. I dream of the stink of death and the heavy metallic blood smell of war. I thrash and call out, until the boy with blue sapphires in his hair and emerald eyes rimmed in kohl, comes and wraps his cool limbs around me to make it stop.
"Shh," he says. "Sleep. You will destroy everything if you wake, so sleep."
"Are you perhaps a troll?" inquires the crow at the bus stop, causing my fingers to hesitate with the next chunk of cheese sandwich I intended to share with it.
"No," I say my voice laced with annoyance. "I am not."
"Well, you certainly look like one," it feels the need to point out to me. This is why I do not make a habit of talking with fowl. They gossip too much and all have birdbrains to boot.
"Fuck off," I growl.
It cocks its head inquisitively. "There is no reason to get snippy. It was merely an observation. What is your name?"
I shrug. "I don't remember," I admit. Truthfully, I cannot recall the last time I used it.
"Well, you're turning to stone like a troll, in any case," the bird informs me flatly. "You'd better find your name before you go all stiff. You won't be able to get up off that bench one of these days."
"Thank you for your concern," I reply chucking my offering at the creature's head and then frowning in disappointment when it catches the morsel in its snapping jaws. "But I think you should mind your own business. My age passed a very long time ago and I have no intention of anything but a very quiet existence. Surely the matters of the world are for the young now."
"You could be young," it suggests slyly. "After winter comes spring you know."
The skin of the pomegranate cracks so easily, pouring forth its ruby-like drops of blood in response to the injury as I open it over the sink. I suck the seeds, crushing them with my teeth, methodically plucking each from its fleshy cavity until my fingertips turn red and my mouth tickles with the sweetish-sour flavor. It is a practice that usually calms my nerves, something so familiar it eases me into an empty frame of mind.
Today, however, my efforts have no such reward. My sleep has been troubled, my heart agitated. I think dark and lonely thoughts, spiked with old memories that haven't been stirred in ages.
It draws small creeping, crawling things to me. The walls fill with mice and the floor becomes littered with beetles and cockroaches. "Stupid," I mutter to myself, crushing those poor unfortunates underfoot. "You are a stupid old man and nothing more. Your time has passed." The crow was right. I might as well be a troll, too toothless to feast on man-flesh anymore. Only pride would make me claim to be anything different, to demand a grander position.
If once I carried a shield and sword, if I split limbs from the bodies of my enemies and painted the ground sticky and red, who would care about that now? I look down at my fingers like tree roots, tinged pink at the tips. Horrible like snakes. I let out a miserable howl, frightened by my ugliness, and my own relentless decay.
"Holy hell!" I shout at my discolored ceiling. "I cannot bear this eternity of damnation. Would that I died in battle. Would that I was as faded and scattered as the songs they used to sing about my wrath." My face flairs hot in shame at my own cowardice, but it is the truth. I cannot face this existence. "I played my part," I whine. "My role is finished, let it be over already. Let the serpent's head be cut off. Let me be burned on the pyre and buried for fuck's sake. I grow bored of my own pitiful company."
My yelling makes all the little animals gathering around me rustle about, scratching and squeaking. I am exceptionally self-conscious. Something is starting here and I do not like it. Unbearable is what it is.
"To hell with the lot of you," I yell as I flee my room and go for a walk in the butter yellow light of evening. My hands are in my pockets, my gait shuffling and slow as I pick my way up the sidewalk and off the main street into a neighborhood of neatly arranged houses, each with a little square patch of grass in front. Strange these modern customs. The people have put out pumpkins, onto which they have carved monster faces. They are crude, an act of a peasant warding off spirits. It makes me laugh and the sound seems dry and hollow to my ears, like the way the wind sounds moving through the autumn leaves. The air smells like wood smoke and cooking meat. It makes my stomach rumble in complaint. I grit my teeth and resist the urge to kick at the orange gourd faces watching me. I do not remember the last time I felt so angry. It is strange, like visiting a place you have not been since childhood. I blink in the fading light and try to sort out the source of my sudden hostility.
"Hey, hey, hey," the crow calls down to me from a tree, "it's you again. I know you."
"What? Following me now?" I ask in annoyance. "I thought I told you to get lost."
The crow gives me a sideways look, "I know where there is a dead cat. Do you want to split it?"
"No," I say frowning darkly, "that's disgusting."
"Oh and you're so lovely to behold," he retorts sarcastically. "I thought you might like to suck the bones. It's your loss. Hey, hey, I know what you are now," it adds, "and it's not a troll."
"Yes, I am too a troll," I say dismissively. "I just forgot. They called me Ghul of the waste. I feasted on man flesh. I remember now."
"You're a very bad liar," it points out.
"And you are a Birdbrain," I snap in retaliation, "and I'm really tired of talking to you. Why don't you go choke on your cat?"
"You're just cranky because you've lost your treasure and your name," it states knowledgeably, "and with it most of your power."
"You do not know what the hell you are talking about," I hiss as the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Since when do birds know more about my business than I do?
"I know that a few rounds with the right sweet and you'd be a lot more pretty to look at."
I snarl, turning my back to the stupid creature's incessant chatter. But I cannot fully resist the ideas it stirs. "And then what do you propose? What army is there to defeat? What foe would I focus my newfound rage on? My battles ended a long long time ago, Birdbrain."
"Call me names if you wish, but there is a new war coming," it croaks behind me and I still my slow advance to listen. "You could start a new clan. You could take this city as your own. Then you could have whatever you want: houses, gold, drink, women…"
"Now you're just stirring up shit," I observe, "and I don't want those things. I am too old for that kind of nonsense."
"You need treasure. I will find you a nice treasure and then you will find your appetite again."
I snort and shake my head. "You would open the gates to hell, simply because you can. What's gotten into your craw anyway? I know for a fact that your people don't do favors out of the kindness of their hearts." The bird makes a noise that is a mix between a wheeze and a sort of clicking laughter.
"I will fly over your right shoulder and have my fill of carrion," it informs me. "You will flatten and scorch my enemies. You will give me many many shiny things. You will give me the eyes of the dead and in return I will find you your treasure and never let anyone take it from you again."
I think of beautiful Owen and sigh. I know suddenly what he is, and what I could be with him at my side. A jewel of indescribable power. Like the old days, again. The thought both excites and sickens me. He is only a child, living in a world where monsters have been eradicated alongside gods and plague. I was a wicked thing once, but this time I have a choice.
The boy's expression turns confused as he comes down the stairs of his apartment complex. He's wearing a University sweatshirt and scarf, a cigarette already on his lips. "You're the guy from the corner store right?" he says with a frown as he cups his hand over his face and lights up. "What are you doing standing out here in the cold?"
"Owen," I say, and then watch him recoil at a stranger using his name and an ugly one at that. "I'm sorry," I explain, "your name was on your ID."
"Okay," he says slowly, tiny creases forming between his eyebrows, "but what are you doing out here?"
"I wanted…" I pause and study him. Sometimes we are tempted to do things simply because they are possible. Sometimes they are horrible things. It is, for example, my understanding that during World War II it was not necessary to employ the atom bomb to defeat the Japanese. But once possible, that great atom splitting behemoth was always going to be unleashed. It is the nature of things, especially monsters. "I wanted to ask you what you know about slaying dragons?"
"Dragons?" he asks and there is laughter in his voice. He take another drag of his cigarette. His mouth emits smoke like he has hot fire in his belly.
"Or monsters in general. We do not have to start so specific, I suppose."
"Oh." Owen blinks at me. It is cold enough for his breath to mix with the cigarette in white puffs that linger in the air. His cheeks are slowly flushing. "You realize you sound insane right?"
"Yes, I suppose I do," I agree. I put my hands in my pockets and look at my feet.
"But the real question here, man, is sure you know my name from my ID…but did you remember my address from that too? 'Cause that's where the real creep factor kicks in…"
I look up and my eyes widen as my brain considers this suggestions. "I…suppose it's possible," I say. "I don't recall."
"So that's a big stalker yes?" He does not look excessively frightened by this conclusion, but then I am not excessively frightening.
"Owen." I want to drop to my knees: to weep, beg, crawl, but I stay standing. "I am worse than worms. I wish I were dead, but I am not. I am terrible and hideous, I know, but…but…I still have to feel things." The tears slide hot, cooling on my chin and dripping off as a nasty choking sound emits from my throat. My fingers ball and grip in my pockets. "Have mercy and end my suffering. You are the only one who can."