C wasn’t the sharpest duck in the tub, but something about xir friend’s flustered gasping and waving of the arms gave xir the slightest hint that all might not be well on his side of the ink-stained pond.
“Everything alright?” C managed to ask, waiting for the opportune moment between paces four and five in V’s six step circuit, before the guy turned around and marched chaotically back the other direction and wore a deep grove in the dirt where he trod. V’s fluffy dog ears were looking more rustled than usual, and countenance more grave, though with his eyes tucked firmly away under a great big hat it was hard to tell.
“Can’t talk,” said V. “I’m thinking.”
It was an easy afternoon, the sky a deep fractal purple, when the two of them engaged out there at the edge of the forest. In a better mood, V would call it his hideout, but really it was an enormous field with no obstruction in sight, save a single broken television. Sometimes they would duck out of Yannabel’s watchful eye there when they were up to shenanigans.
C let out a whistle. “Watcha’ thinkin’ about?” xe said at last. Xir friend wheeled around mid-course to face him.
“Things.” And he was back to pacing again. Seeing this wasn’t enough to satisfy his interrogator, he gave in: “I got a huge order of scriptures to sell today. Huge. Some of the awful mushy kind.”
The awful mushy kind, as all angels and preachers knew alike, was the absolute worst kind. It was the type of nonsense that had Aesop’s about singing turtles learning love conquers all and how to get in 48 grams of whole grains a day, and everybody hates those parables except C’s distant cousins Heal C and Cleanse C, and everybody else hates Heal C and Cleanse C, or at least the other C likes to think so. The last time xe wrote to the latter, Cleanse C was in jail anyway, serving up some detention for beating up pedestrians in the name of vanquishing evil! and resembling some familiar senile hero from an underwater children’s television show.
And preaching alone didn’t put bread on the table – whole or refined – unless it was of the self-help VHS variety, and since V had watched enough Donnie Darko to know where that led you, he took up a new job as a bible salesman instead, spreading the fantastical word of all the lords of the angels. Many of C, C, and C’s past adventures would be told within the bindings of these books, perhaps even the ones V had just received in this recent, unfortunate shipment, and C personally thought the idea was both modern and exciting. But people like the Bari, yet unfamiliar with “pets” and “clothes” and “dictionaries,” were people whose first and only concerns were the secular. It had not gone well the first four times, and it would not have gone well at the present moment.
C promptly muttered his condolences and offered his comrade a deft pat on the back. “You should have been a Sunday school teacher,” xe said, hanging his baggy head.
“Tried it,” said V. “Apparently parents prefer their kids to be chastised in paperback.” The angel shuddered.
“The stock is five hundred,” V continued, his throat aquiver. “Five hundred gosh-darn bibles.”
“There are only like, ten people in town.”
“I know. I should have just tried paperback.”
The two of them schlepped their canvas sacks full of books across the forest roads, which were particularly soggy around noontime. Dried mud and skins of soft, fleshy bush berries stuck stubbornly to the heels of their boots like slush. On their way to town, they passed the old grass patch of Fuzzymother, fat head perched safely in the furry nest of her neck feathers, shouting out to those who would listen to keep away from her babies and still shouting about the same matter long after they were gone. A friendly sphinx approached them with xir daily riddle and supplied them frog stickers when they couldn’t answer. The worn sign towards the first forest clearing declared “Beware of Animals!” uselessly. Things were friendly and usual, and V spent the duration of the journey remarking on the weight they carried and how that luggage would duly ail them with back problems, and according to this study and that newsletter, the current generation is doomed; C listened to his tone and not the words, the rising fall and lift of pitch that betrayed his fluttering nervousness.
“V," at last xe called out his friend’s name. This interrupted a particularly juicy bit about the science of some muscular dysfunction, and V nearly toppled over himself to hear it.
“Calm down,” said C.
“Ok,” V stuttered.
When they reached the worn trail by the fence where the woods ended and civilization began, one helping the other cautiously step over the burnt remains of a shattered lamp bulb, the place was empty. Usually there were a few stray children or transcendentalists who would wander out to these portions and recite something incorrigible about the borders of life and how nice it would be to get out of this place before they got bored or caught lying and wearily turned homeward. But the only sound in that blaring lavender heat of a quarter past twelve was that of their own echoing footsteps.
The town fared worse. Nobody was out in the streets. Mailboxes were stuffed full of unread letters. V turned to C, and C shrugged at V, and V shrugged at C.
They decided upon the nearest house south. V ham-fistedly pounded on the glass window used as a door, where just enough light filtered through to show a startled Bari with xir face in a book, cushioned soundly in a beanbag chair. Xe lollopped to the window, poking xir nose out around the edge and comfortably enough close to a working lock, with a sleepy expression.
There was a second’s pause, during which C glanced at his partner expectantly. The preacher cleared his throat with a quick urgency and swung his bag around to grab a bible from inside, which he waved around in front of the window.
“Afternoon!” said V, with a wide grin. “My good friend and I noticed you were reading a book!” He refused to break the ice if not casually destroy, fall through, and drown in it. “We sure do like books, my friend and I, and we thought you might be interested, since you like books, assuming you like books, in this book, which is a book.”
The Bari blinked and stifled a yawn. “Nah, I’m okay,” xe said. “Duneed more books right now.” Yawn. “Some guy wassere earlier n’ gabe me this nifty bible.”
V seemed to suddenly gasp an intake of wrong air, which he choked on violently, shoulders bucking, before at last spitting out a hurried “wh-wh-whaaaat?” and dropping his merchandise to the ground, which C hunched over to hastily pick up.
“Yeah,” said the Bari. “Lemme show youguise.” Xe dodged back behind the window and brought out xir reading material: a large, hardcover, chunky thing, totally white with little engraved lines of silver all along the spine. Xe opened it up, scanning through the pages like playing cards before coming upon one especially ripe illustration of foliage. “Sssome guy who looked like-a golem ga’me thissere book. Sayss all-bout being healfy and stuff.” The massive rock of a bible was turned around so the two guests could see.
Beginning on page 171, a startling header outlined the various disastrous effects of local food groups; a bulbous berry, rendered crudely in marker, was captioned, “GET SOME BED REST AFTER THIS ONE!” and at the bottom, the word tumors was written in strawberry-red bold, following a “you likely have numerous.” V thumbed to the inside cover, where a chicken-scratch signature told its readers to fight the good fight, from some illegible series of loops and crosshatches, and the title read “THE BLACKBIbLE.” Or screamed it.
“Just take a look at this,” V whispered to his friend after this review. And C was shown, too, the frightening outlines on personal hygiene and well-being, before at last its owner not so subtly coughed and remarked on how xe needed to finish up the fascinating chapter ten on maintaining relationships, grabbing the tome back and becoming recluse and in the darkness before V was even too late to get his foot in the door.
And so it carried out at the next house, and the next, and by 1:30, terrible, dreadful 1:30, the two commiserators were taking a lunch hour beneath a streetlight by the edge of the abyss and under an awful hot sun with not a single book sold.
“Well,” said V.
“Well,” said C.
That was that. Not much more was to be said. Everyone and their grandmother and their lesbian crush had all bought into this strange, published health fad, and it seemed with only so much room on the bookshelf, not a single body owed any need to Aesop and his singing turtles. And what’s worse is that they believed it, they really did; the TV grocery store on this same side of town had closed faster than it had opened, after the BlackbiBle’s apparent declaration that “fasting was the new nutrition” mid-way through chapter five. They were all inside reading and starving, while V bit into his packed apple and C chipped away at a bag of sugar cubes, and still so when at last in the baked heat they decided to take a look at what this garbage was really about, anyway.
“Let’s take a look at what this garbage is really about, anyway,” offered C, “and buy one of these BlackbiBles.” And the old preacher, half nodding in his own distinct reverie, uttered a throaty consent.
Neither of them had any real thought as to where to find the man in charge of it, but by the descriptions received from unwilling customers – stony, seething, big yellow eyes like shining locusts, about the size of a small building – the two of them gleaned at least a decent idea of what he looked like.
They took the bridge in leaps and bounds deciding they’d ask old Yannabel. Yannabel was the wise, mysterious cat-friend who spent his eternal days keeping strict vigil over the endless abyss and seemed to know everything about everybody at all times and always had some sort of maxim.
The old friend spied them coming from a long distance away. “Ah, if it isn’t the dynamic duo, V and C!” xe said in cryptic beeps and boops. They jogged up to xir with their armloads and looked up into Yannabel’s great glassy green eyes that sprouted from xir head like uneven gourds.
“Hey,” said C, bending over to catch xir breath. “Yannabel, we have a huge problem.”
“Really?” croaked the old cat. “Me too! Little friend, it’s the worst thing in the world!”
“What’s up with you?” said V.
“This book of mine keeps telling me I might have a tumor.”
It was only when they dug through Moro’s mailbox-- which V had to stand on C’s shoulders to reach—that they finally struck gold. In amongst the unread Valentines and a month-old copy of some Bari tabloids was at last one of the damned health books, and V held it in his big furry mitts like a kind of toxin.
They sat over by the edge of town, feet dangling off the space where the land ended and the empty air began, the covers spread open on their two laps like a horrible health guru sandwich. V cleared his throat and began to read the introduction:
"Congratulations! If you're reading this, it means you're a step closer to the new and improved YOU! Are you tired of being tired? Stressed and depressed in the mind right now? Worry no longer! The solutions to all your bodily woes will be displayed in a convenient, easy-to-read format over the next seven hundred and seventy-six pages. I, Blackbile, will be your guide through this magical journey through the healing process. Be careful not to strain your eyes for extended periods while reading the texts. I recommend you get some BED REST first if you get sleepy."
C snapped xir tiny fingers. "So the fiend's name is Blackbile! Who would have known?!"
"Hush, I'm getting to the next part," said V.
Over the next few hours the two of them thumbed through so many crude illustrations and CAPS-LOCKED LEXICON the young angel wished they had followed the man's advice and taken a nap before the misery had all started. Xe was stretched out on xir back listening to V read the stuff aloud by this point, half-asleep and stomach growling. V's face was pressed into the margins.
"How many chapters left?" whined C.
"Right now we're on chapter four," V replied.
"Out of how many?"
"Twenty-four," V replied.
The words of chapters five and six were read out loud, individually, between bangs of C's paper bag skull on the nearest lamppost. By seven xe was on the ground again, rolling back and forth, wimpering; by nine xe had taken to cat-napping. To C, this was the most awful thing xe had ever heard, and judging by the fragments of it xe could remember, before xir cerebral cortex had abandoned ship and tried to drown itself, the gospel of this Blackbile fellow was far worse than any reptilian fiction. xe whined to V how xe was beginning to miss those damned turtles, anyway; V swiftly shut xem up.
"I don't get it," said C, at last sitting up. "How can anyone stomach this garbage?"
V turned at xem with a deep scowl. "Excuse me," he barked, "but I think this is the work of genius. Clearly you angels don't read enough."
C stared at him with big white eyes like eggs, swiftly did a 180 and ran off in the other direction, burst into the nearest residence and came out with a steaming mug of coffee, swallowed the coffee in three gulps and spat it all over both V and xemself.
"What!" xe bellowed like a great and stupid walrus, slapping the mug down so it shattered on the grassy trail. "So now he's got you, too, huh?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," V said. "I just think perhaps you're not cultured enough to stand the rich complexity of the work."
C gaped at this person, probably span around a bit, and gaped again so xir big egg eyes stood like deer in headlights over a big egg mouth in the shape of an O.
"Now, if you'll excuse me," -- V straightened his furry pilot hat -- "I've got to get to reading this BlackbiBle. I fear if I don't get all this knowledge in by the end of the night, I might miss something important and continue to conduct myself in some form of vile ignorance." WIth a huff, he threw his nose into the pages again and set off to scanning the next fourteen sections, apparently extremely fascinating so that C's appalled glances at the preacher went unnoticed.
And because things were so empty like this, and everybody was inside or outside of town reading their absorbing BlackbiBles, C was the only one there, too, then, when xe slammed xir hand down on the bar counter and asked for a tall cold one, hold the ice and whisky and scotch and general alcohol, because xe had never drunk before and this was scary so xe'd think xe'd try a glass of milk.
"You don't have any money, do you," said TV Face. The reply was something slurred and sullen, and C looked like such a mess he decided to give the poor sucker what xe'd asked for anyway, because there were no other customers except the one other television-headed fellow who sat in the corner with an oafish grin, drawing carcitures, who didn't actually buy anything either. He set a cup on the table faster than you can say foreclosure!
"What's your problem, kid?" TV Face asked, because silence scared him.
"You really wanna know?" Sips of milk.
"Nah," he said. C gulped down half xir glass and pretended it was much more effecting that it had any right to be.
"Alright, I'll tell you," C said, throwing xir arms up in surrender. "The whole town's gone bonkers over some goddamned book."
"I thought angels weren't supposed to say that. Goddamned."
C's glass was empty and xe stared at its dry bottom with some mixture of confusion and despair. "Another round on the house, please," xe said.
"You don't get to decide that," replied the bartender, though he obliged xem anyway. C thanked him.
"But now everybody's following these dumb rules about health because they're dumb paranoid dumb and not actually following the word of the gods or whatever."
The silly man in the corner asked xem what xe meant by gods.
"There's got to be somebody giving out orders," said C, feigning innocence. "And besides, more importantly my friend's got to sell half a thousand actual bibles soon, it's how he makes his money. And now he's been hoodwinked by all this health business."
TV Face rolled this around in his thoughts for a moment. "Hey, C," he said. "We're talking some sort of diet rule-book, right?"
"Sure, I guess."
"One, say, maybe about fasting 24/7 and shutting down the local economy and grocery store? You know, just for example?"
"Sure, I guess."
"Great galloping Gatsbies!" cried TV Face, throwing his TV fists on the counter and startling all two bar patrons. The corner artist nearly had a heart attack and looked around suspiciously as though he were surrounded by vultures. "That's the book that put my new supermarket line out of business! Why, I'd do anything to get my dirty mitts on the jerk responsible! He stole my money!"
C stood up. "And my best friend!" xe added.
"Me too, I agree!" said the third man.
TV Face closed the gang in with a wave. "We've got to get back at him with passive-aggressive violence," he said.
"I was thinking maybe more of a whap on the wrist with a ruler." C looked at xir partners cheerfully. "I'm not sure I condone outright violence."
"But I know someone who does. You've still got that crazy cousin of yours, right?"
"Cleanse C?" C shook like a cat in the rain, obviously perturbed. "Um, I'm pretty certain last I saw him he was serving jail time." It seemed like a decent cover, but TV Face had already grabbed the nearest barstool and was shouting out orders, far beyond listening.
"Nevermind that! Gotta get him out of there! Write to the boys in heaven and tell them we have an emergency!"
The TV artist was all for this, and clapped excitedly. It was early in the evening, and C knew that if the higherup seraphs got in on this, they could send Cleanse down by tomorrow morning, which was as assuring as it was discomforting. And xe knew, they all knew, that if and when the seraphs sent xem down here, things would get hectic and violent quickly, because it was common knowledge by this point xir cousin's absolute hatred of fad diets and workouts which all began during his self-conscious years in high school. C figured they should send Heal down too, just perhaps to balance out the crazy, or consult any nearby pregnant mothers and children and people on heart medications and maybe the artist man when this rabid, insane paper bag with a justice complex rolled into town and started breaking things.
But other than that, it seemed like a good plan. The other two cheering on and hyping each other full of energy, C turned to the bartender with a sigh and simply said, "hand me a phone and another round."