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Before and After

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I rip open the plastic and fold out the book of darkness. White gothic script floats up at me like a mist, like a powder. I breathe in – and something enters me. A momentary fogginess, as if I’ve inhaled a drug, or a poison. I scrabble for a wall to hold on to, but there’s nothing. I have nothing to steady me, nothing to give me support.

The ornate piece of cardboard falls from my hands and hits the floor.

When the mist clears, I see hands putting the record on the player. Gloved fingers carefully placing the circular sheet of vinyl, lowering it over the hole - so precise, so gentle. Dropping the needle in the groove with a flourish, and it starts with a spin. I look up, and there he is. Papa. It makes no sense, but it’s him.

But you’re dead, I think, and there’s the hint of a smile on his immobile face.

No, my child. Haven’t you seen through the illusion yet?

I wish I could say yes, I’ve seen through it. I’ve seen through so many things, I’ve prided myself on knowing the unknowable, on taking that step back and seeing the world for what it is. But there’s one thing left I haven’t understood, one thing I haven’t seen.

So do you want to see it? he asks and extends a hand, palm upturned in supplication. Papa asking, begging, a gesture of humility? It's so wrong. The sight of it rebels against everything I know to be true, but even as I struggle to object, my flesh grows weak. Because of the sickness, or because of something else? I try to locate a decision in my head, but the decision doesn’t reside there, in my rational self. It resides in my body.

And so my hand acts on its own. It reaches out, and is enveloped by his. The world swirls, the vinyl spins, and the whiteness swallows me whole.

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There’s the sound of children, the smell of urine and rotting food. I open my eyes on a scene that's strange and all too familiar at once. A society on the brink.

Blinking, I look around at the harbour, the scurrying people. The boxes unloaded from distant shores, carrying riches beyond reckoning. Tobacco and rice, raisins and sugar. Stolen treasures, knick-knacks for nobles to display in their towers of stone. Foreign objects transported over turbulent seas, fanciful artifacts made to boast.

We all fall down.

I look at Papa, who's mouthing along to the ominous lyrics. There's a music box in the vicinity – but music boxes aren’t invented yet. How do I know that? I try to frown away the illusion, but I can’t decide which level is the illusion: the crooked cross beam houses around me, or the layer of music and knowledge that hovers above it.

Never mind that, he says. Just embrace it.

I want to. But when are we? I ask.

When do you think?

I look again, and I see Saint Paul's without a dome, I see a theatre flying a rose flag. But the children are singing a nursery rhyme, and nothing fits. New ideas are mixing with the old. Scraps from my memories, snagging in words from another time. Like a double exposure of fact and fiction.

So what? he whispers. Embrace the chaos. It's all now.

He leads the way through the throng, and I can do nothing but follow while the children sing. Ring of roses, of buboes: a prologue to chaos. Like a Greek chorus of tragedy that knows all but can’t stop a thing. They’ve seen it, in their ignorance and apparent innocence they’ve seen it. Like vessels of the great unknown, like a host of minuscule pied pipers returning the favour, like a band of tiny Cassandras. Humming the tune we'll all hum before the end. Ushering in a new dawn.

But first: the night.

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Suddenly they’re everywhere. They scurry past like shadows just beneath our feet. Dart inside houses, beneath piles of rubbish. Eating their way through our human waste, drawn by what we’ve discarded. Too many to kill. Too quick to capture.

But we catch something else.

Nobody knows it yet. Fleas are nothing new, their rashy legacy such an integral part of this tapestry that no one notices the scratch. Nails rend skin in your sleep, fending off the banal discomfort. They live in walls, in beds, on rats. They're as invisible as electricity, and they prey on the sleeping. When you wake, you're already dead.

Left and right, I see walking corpses, but they smile and haggle and argue like they have plenty of tomorrows. Papa looks at me, dead eyes filled with something I can’t decipher. Pity? It can’t be. Papa has no sympathy for humans. He just wants them to follow his piping trail into the river and drown.

Doesn’t he?

I look around at the rats running us over, so much like us and yet so different. So fast, and yet so much shared DNA. Such juicy flesh for fleas from far off shores. The jump is a short one, from rat to human. They don’t care. Our warmth is the same, we nourish the same. Rat meat, human meat. It’s all one to them. Tastes like chicken.

We’re a feast for lice.

Take of my body, drink my blood. Infect me. How can we blame the rats? They’re just the messengers. On their backs ride a host of disease, and they’re not to blame either. It’s our own susceptibility, our bodies welcoming the plague. Our blood screaming for company. Flea spit seeping into tiny gashes, skin torn to invite an Other, whatever it is. Anything to make us not so alone in this sack of meat and bone. If our skins didn’t open the door, we’d be immune. But we’re not immune. We’re sitting ducks, walking targets. Not even trying to hide.

Because we think we’re invincible?

Pitter-patter, hide and seek. Now you see me, now you don’t. Yank that dangly-toy, the cat will pounce. Almost out of reach, and oh, do we reach, like kittens jumping straight into the furnace. All to escape what’s here and now. Deliver us from boredom, from loneliness. Sleep with the rats tonight, if that's the only company you have to keep.

But Papa frowns at the fanciful image. No time to sleep, he says. You can sleep in the grave. You wanted to see, to hear. So follow me.

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The dance starts somewhere. We’re not taking part in it yet, but I can hear the music from another part of town. Papa pretends he doesn’t care, but I know he’s leading the way to the source. Always, always the guide to the source. We drink from him, and he lets us. That’s what it’s all about.

We walk deeper into the city, deeper into the nest of vipers, the cesspit of contagion. The havoc is wreaked in silence and in bustle. On the stages, at the outskirts of the city, the coming horror is portrayed in mock security. Tamed and controlled, the spectre of death is conjured in play after play, repeated ad nauseam until no one is afraid anymore. Until they think they know what's coming, because they've already seen it.

And above it all sits a pale, cold queen who supervises the carnage, tries to harness it. Laws are passed to prevent the disease from spreading, but each letter of the law plays into the hands of the enemy. Someone, somewhere benefits from this. This confusion, this running around in circles. To someone, we are the rats. To someone, the medication brings in the bacon. Big Sister conducts the orchestra, and we play along, play along until there’s nothing left but an empty battle field, waiting for crows.

But that’s still in the future, just an image in my mind: we’ll be standing on a scrap heap, huddled together like refugees, and we’ll wonder: why didn’t we see? But we did see. Why didn’t we run, didn’t we fight – but we did run, just in the wrong direction. We did fight, but only each other. Because when your nose is to the floor and your plump little body can’t reach, you scurry to the nearest pile of garbage because that’s where safety is, that’s where security seems, that’s what your primitive little mind is programmed to seek. You can’t subvert your DNA, that DNA you share with rodents and swine. You search for nourishment, even if it’s rotten. You seek the crumbs from the rich man’s table, even when the crumbs are poison.

The venom sings in my veins, and a part of me is back in that room, watching the vinyl spin. Part of me knows this is just a fantasy, that this is my life flashing before my eyes. A dying brain sending out an SOS, a final flare to celebrate the end.

Yes, I’m dying. In both worlds, I’m dying, always dying, but in this one, there’s one dance left and Papa is leading me to it while the congregation sings. Already there’s the faint aftertaste of forever, long before it’s happened, but I don’t care. I just want the juice.

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Deeper, deeper I follow him, because that's the contract we have. I've let him drop the needle in the first track, and I follow the track like a preset path no one can deviate from. That's the old-school agreement, and one I'm willing to follow. At the back of my mind, I know this reminds me of something, of rules I've sought to fight free from, but just as the thought wants to take hold, the keys start hammering. They're cutting, precise, and tinkly like rain. Drops of water, drops of vinegar on my thirsty tongue.

I'm learning to like the taste of obedience.

Around us are doctors wearing beaks, priests bearing beakers. We creep into a musty crypt to take their sordid communion, hoping it will save us. There’s a flock of us now, a mindless little train of sheep all shuffling after our father, and when the host slides down our throats we don’t think we’re eating bodies. We've already become the host, we've already invited the parasite. When the wine trickles past our glottis, who ponders the fact that we’re drinking blood? We’re just following the dictate set down by generations before us, by rules and regulations lighting hordes of fools the way to dusty death.

If they say eat this, we eat it. If they say drink this, we drink it. We quaff it down, hoping to find the illumination they promise. Sign away your soul and you’ll be invited to the buffet. Look at the opulence! Carcass after carcass, honour your brothers by eating them. This is the world, and don’t you want to be king of the scrap heap? Because the alternative is nothing at all. Welcome to the swirling drunkenness, take and eat. Be a part of the violation. Close your eyes and burn. Soon there’ll be nothing left, just take and take of what there is before it is no more. The clock is ticking - dance, my children. Eat!

And the pageant plays on. On altars and stages, in clubs and meeting-houses, in brothels and cinemas, everywhere human beings can draw breath to tell a lie, tell a truth. Oh, my sweet child, this is a church! Everywhere you gather to worship is a church.

And while we gorge ourselves on myths and legends, the mist rises.

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It creeps in from the river, from the sewers: the deathly haze that’s almost invisible. As we tip-toe back up the stairs, we feel it lick our bones, freeze our necks, and we realize we're not going out there. We've taken refuge in this house, behind its leaky walls. We're not searching for the exit anymore. We're planning to stay, to join the circus.

We step into the church, all eyes on us, and we're a part of it now. Pretending not to see, not to smell the vapours snaking in through cracks in the door. Hear no evil, smog has no sound. Inside the soothing cocoon, we follow the beauty of music instead, move our fearful feet to shades of aural melancholia. Let ourselves be hypnotized by departed souls conjured by magicians wreathed in light and smoke. We love it, and we love it to death.

If music be the food of love, play on! Papa raises his hands, replete with quotes, with knowledge I want, knowledge I already have. Bathe in the excess of it, because nothing is the same when filtered through him, drown in the sewer water swirling in, don’t you want to choke on nostalgia, on emotions that are illegal out there? Come unto me! In here, it’s all fine. Rage and lust and maudlin apathy, it’s all good.

And out there the fog gathers, thickens. You can no longer see the river, or even your own hand. The clouds gather, eyes are useless now. But who cares, we got the golden ticket. We’re in here, safe and sound, bathed in sound. We can dance in a trance until morning. The crescendo eats us up, smiling with sharp teeth. Welcome, my children. You’re the chosen few. The ten percent who always survive, who live to see another night.

Yes.

Tomorrow can wait. For now, just feel the juice, the euphoria of a roulette more rush than Russian. Just open your bodies to the pleasure of pestilence, bodies that haven’t contracted anything yet: just your immortal autograph, a scribble in blood – you have so much, what’s a mere pint? Donate to the cause, gather round. Sign your name and enter. Here’s where the ultimate feast is. The masque of the red death.

At least our tunes are good.

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Yes, we dance. We all dance to the same pipe. Writhing bodies in purple light, overlaid on ancient bodies falling, dying in a heap of disease. This is it, this is the end: we’ve felt it so many times, in our lives, in different times: après nous la deluge. We’ve always believed we would play the final scene, that no one would come after us. That our generation is the ultimate one, the pinnacle before the pit.

So dance, dance like there’s no tomorrow, because this time it might be true. Fin de siècle twenty years too late, thirty-five years too early. How are we hoodwinked, how are we fooled into a sense of security? By the magic of numbers. We started counting when Jesus was born, and now we think we’re safe because it’s not the turn of a century. But what number have we really reached? Maybe the clock started ticking the day He fell?

Papa conducts the orchestra, marks the beat in untouchable majesty, and I succumb to the honey high of it. There are people screaming outside, but in here the music is loud and thumping like a giant heart. Who has the time for pain when there’s so much pleasure? Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, I raise my hands like him, join my voice to the congregation. Learn the lines, hum along. He's spooning out the message, cloaked in his own lies, finger on fast forward until everybody dies. This is a piper we'll all willingly follow.

The chorus of children has grown into a choir of men. How did it happen so quickly? One bite and you're it. One sip and you're out. And yet we offer our throats, throw our last pennies at his feet. If we're going to die, at least it can be Papa wielding the blade.

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The sun doesn’t quite rise the next morning. There’s just a pale, cold brightening over a city that’s decimated. The disco is silent, only piles of bodies left of the night’s revels. A raven caws on the roof as we step out into the Sunday quiet. God have mercy on our souls is written on every door, but to what end? What entity are they calling to? Papa turns a blind eye.

As we walk through quiet streets, I keep looking over my shoulder, but there's nothing to see. The air is clean now, the fog all gone. We find horses and ride towards the city wall. Silence is everywhere. That feeling of being seen, always seen by someone – it’s gone. They’re all gone.

And yet we're nowhere near safe.

There’s no one at the gate. All the guards are dead. We ride out to the other side, beyond the city wall. We’re heading into the unknown now, into the world beyond the plague. Survivors venturing into the promise of tomorrow.

But the promise is an empty one. We won’t always be here. This air we breathe is only ours for a moment. One day our lungs will stop functioning, and the thought makes the streaks of apple blossom smell all the sweeter. There’s a warming of the air as Papa almost-smiles. Lap it up, child, because I’ll take it away from you when you least expect it.

We ride and ride, wind in our faces. I feel free, but I’m not, not really. There’s an end goal, but it’s not in sight yet, just a fleeting memory of something I’ve never experienced. Ride on, ride over plains and fields, there’s no one to stop us now. We’re at the western frontier, we’re the first and the last. We’re the ones who’ll have to build it all up again, make new cities, new laws. Are we up to the task?

If we're not, there'll be no one left to grieve it. All we can do is try. All we can do is travel further into the wilderness. This is the world after the scaffolding is gone. No structures, no walls, nothing. It's exactly what we wanted. So what are we going to do with this endless sea of contourless being? Sooner or later, we'll have to name the beasts, to code and categorize, to impose new structures, new rhythms and bars, new ways to divide the world into understandable chunks. Soon we'll be the oppressors, the stagnant old crones.

The wind whistles in my ears, and the Papa I never had is smiling in my heart. The seduction is complete. The choir sings.

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Psycho strings slash into the perfect picture. Echoes… echoes… We’re at the top of a hill, looking down into a valley strewn with corpses. There it is again, a reminder of things to come. There’s only one life and it is what you make it.

We may regret, we may still have thoughts snared to the bodies we left behind in the city, but it’s too late to do anything for them. The only thing we have is now, and what we build for ourselves. We were spared, but for what? Those who sleep in rotten heaps have nothing more to achieve, nothing more to prove. They’ve done their day’s work, but ours is still to come. The ultimate test of the survivors: how do we shield the weakest of the herd against the night? How do we spin new lies for them to eat, to protect their sanity?

We’re here. We’re still here. Our brothers left behind, like we always knew they would be. We knew it all along, knew who would die, and we didn’t care. So why care now? Why pay with regret what we bought with a smiling heart? Own the consequences.

Again he whispers, This is what you wanted. To be the only ones left.

But you're here, I protest, and he looks at me sadly.

Not really. You know I'm not really here. It's all up to you, I'm just a voice.

The truth of it slashes through the only heart I have. I thought I'd found a Papa, but he's just a shadow. I'm not prepared to admit it, but he's already starting to disintegrate before my eyes.

What did you think? he asks. That death was all fun and games? Death is THE END.

I know, but I can't take it in. All I have is this moment, but it's slipping through my fingers even as I try to squeeze the remnants of bliss out of it. I end up choking it instead, and in seconds it dies. The moment is gone. Papa is gone.

Memento mori, and this time it's real, more real than it has ever been. Even I will fade away.

And I fall to my knees and weep.

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As our bedraggled little group ventures into the unknown, the rain lashes our faces. The euphoria of last night is a blue memory now, a thing of the past, something that almost never happened. Now there’s just us and the desolate waste and the rest of our lives, and nothing but our own hands and minds to till the land we don’t recognize. No authorities, no one to go crying to. No one to tell us what to do. What you can’t make for yourself you’ll never have.

That was always the message, wasn’t it?

But now it’s true, now it’s here. This is reality now. The dance is our own. We invent the steps even as we tread the ground, even as we test the firmness of earth that may give way at every turn.

You’re the conductor now.

Papa is gone, but I can still hear the echo of his voice. He’s left us with no instructions. The wind howls through lifeless trees, and it’s up to us to make them live again. Will this land respond to our call? Will it yield fruit for us to eat, or will we have to eat our brothers again? Will it all repeat itself, will we orchestrate the same old endless da capo ad infinitum, or can we find a new way? Is there a path through this wilderness with all of our ideals intact?

We’re the raft of the Medusa. Look out over the sea of grain and stone: it’s horrible and beautiful. This is what our ancestors saw when they first came here, when they thought they could make a life. And they did. Will we? Will we make a green growing patch of this piece of nothing? Will we one day dare call it home?

If we don’t find the way, no one will.

A bell tolls by itself, moved by the wind. We look up at the dark silhouette, so sharp against the overcast sky. We don’t need to heed the call if we don’t want to. We don’t have to resurrect its lifeless carcass. We can find a new path - but how? How can we know what the right way is? This is the fork in the path, in the tongue. The deceiver will always deceive, and you can never know who he is. Every step is another roulette, but standing still is not an option.

Take that step.

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So this is where we ended up. This is where we till the earth, the only thing we have. We have this seed, and the decision where to plant it. In the crumbling church? In a graveyard? On the howling plain where it might well perish?

A new era begins. Souls of old departed, we're the captains now. Their truths buried with them, their secrets gone forever.

We put a pole in the earth, and it's the first part of a new building, a new theatre, a new town. New feet tramping a path to the source of water, to the golden fields. New life, stretching into death, like it always did. The wheel turns, the wheels turn, and new inventions supplant the old. Days pass in weary toil beneath a pitiless sun, and at night we weep for fallen brothers and gods long gone. We thought we'd found something to hold on to, but it was just another illusion. Everything was just a loan, including Him.

It hurts too much, and slowly, so slowly that we don't even notice what's happening, the building we erect becomes a shrine to Him. Memories turn into stories, embellished by longing and dreams, shackled by dramaturgy and fading into myth. Soon the face that was once among us has changed beyond all recognition. Some say He was never there. Others are prepared to kill in His name.

But I know He exists. I know there's something else. My senses didn't lie. The new truths are growing tired in our frontier town, but the fire still burns in me. I don't recognize Him in the idols carved into oaks and ashes. I don't hear His words in the sermons they preach in the market square, the coins they toss into the fountain for alien wishes. There's too many words and too much adulation. There's a desperation for truth that results in a body of lies. What was once pure is rotting as surely as the corpses in the city.

But for a chosen few, the song remains the same. At the very edge between waking and dying, there's the echo of that distant voice.

And one day, we set out to find Him.

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The vinyl spins to a stop. The fog disintegrates, and the clouds part. Where am I?

Cardinal Copia smiles, but I can’t see it. It’s just a feeling. You thought this was a joyride? That the powder was an illusion? He chuckles. Welcome to the afterlife.

Stricken, I look down at my hands – at what used to be my hands. They’re translucent now, the floor visible behind them. But… I just wanted to hear the music.

The cardinal nods slowly, knowingly. And now you have.