All through devout boyhood, Ethan wore the skin off his knees, praying. Ecstasy rewarded him, burning bodiless unpolluted transcendence. Then the gift vanished, replaced by litanies of thou-shalt-nots, catalogues of sin and penitence, admonitions to caution and the avoidance of scandal. Devotion became Pascal's wager, cost-benefit analysis.
He found ecstasy again at seventeen, kneeling to a boy who took Ethan's worship lightly, who was a true deus absconditus. And again at twenty, in the blood stench and candle flare of the liminal god, the doorway of possibilities. The rending god, who grinds caution into madness, who keeps no tally sheets.
He'd drink absinthe if he could. The drink of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, those mystics of the cobblestones and cafés. Absinthe is magic, is ritual, water trickling over the sugar cube, melting sweetness into the wormwood, turning the liquor opalescent. Absinthe is derangement, synesthesia, chaos in a bottle.
Absinthe cannot be had for money or spells. Ethan has substitutes: gin, whiskey, brandy, vodka as colorless as a good poison. Tabs of E, hashish-laced cigarettes. The heroin he allows himself weekly, injected, pain before pleasure.
Ersatz, false, foul as margarine, unsatisfying as the men he fucks. He needs the taste of wormwood.
Faith, they say, is the evidence of things not seen. But Ethan has seen. Demons, monsters, vampires; once, as a boy, an angel. He's seen gods lay their clumsy hands on the world and reshape it. He's seen chaos and order locked in primal embrace, beyond the veil of matter, battling and coupling infinitely. He's seen hells and heavens, seen that all philosophies are as distorted as maps, truths compressed into too few dimensions.
His visions are not beatific.
He's seen love twist into hatred, a perverse transubstantiation, keeping its essence and losing its form.
He has faith in paradox.
Hope scalds him every time, like steam, first cool and then blistering. It's only later he realizes the damage.
Ethan hopes for a bed he's pictured but never lain in, for the smell of semen on clean sheets and just-showered skin, for Ripper's voice caressing his name like it used to. For Ripper's fists to unclench, for the angry distaste to leave his expression, for a conversation that doesn't begin in treachery and end in blood.
For a sea change, transforming Ethan into a man who could repent and be forgiven.
Hope is too costly to waste on the possible.
It's empty, he knows, meaningless, the eviscerated corpse of a good deed. Still, he gives to every beggar, handfuls of coins, pounds and pence intermixed with cents, centimes, dinars, rubles. Sometimes, if it's cold or he needs good luck more than usual, a twenty-pound note.
He'll as soon give to a raddled junkie as a nursing mother. What happens afterwards, whether his money goes for soup or spirits or skag, he doesn't really care.
Charity, Father Martin said once, means love.
Eyes averted, Ethan drops coins into grubby palms and dashes away. He can't stand to look at their faces.
Lucifer, the morning star, brightest of the angels, fell into his dominion. Exiled from heaven, denied the sight of God, he reigns in hell forever.
It has magnificence, that fable, as Ethan's story does not. Nothing to do in this prison but pace, daydream, wank himself empty, wait.
Ethan's been half a lifetime in exile; like Lucifer, he is hell. For years he battered himself bloody against the gates of heaven, kicked them, cursed them, smeared them with obscene graffiti. Until his lost god noticed him at last, condemned him deeper.
Here, he is not Lucifer. He is a number.
Tortured, mutilated, dying, the martyrs never wavered. Cecilia sang in her scalding bath, Lawrence joked as he was roasted.
Ethan is sick with terror, just waiting. Screams reverberate nightly through the air ducts. His turn is coming.
Pain in ritual, in worship, is transcendent. But no god will glory in his torture. The state will break his body dispassionately, measuring degrees of agony, taking notes as his magic flickers and dies.
Ripper thought him a coward. Every beating proved it.
The spell will kill him, but this place will shatter to dust and metal fragments. It's a martyrdom worth having.