A voice, gruffly from the shadows there. The darkness, even. The nothing. No such thing as the shadows without the light, and the light had been gone for some time now. How much time exactly, you couldn’t say. A while enough, anyway, that you couldn’t even remember the world it showed.
Actually, you could. A bit. You remembered the nurse, all austere and indifferent, her eyes these tiny black pits scarcely offering a glance as you sat across from her. They looked down at a sheet laid out on the desk in front her, upon which she let a pen drift up and down in vertical scribbles. She’d barely spoken, but when she did, her voice had been exactly as you’d expected it to be, with all the bedside manner of a concrete dildo.
“Have you ever been dead before?”
You didn’t quite know how to respond and you were fairly certain your response didn’t matter anyway. So you didn’t.
“Do you even know how to be dead?”
You didn’t. But you had a feeling you were here to learn.
“But you’ve come here to learn how to be dead.”
Yes, right enough. She saw it fit to rest her hand a while and raise her empty gaze to meet yours. She might’ve been pretty, somewhere deep beneath all th—
“For me, personally, death does little other than give me the horn. The stonking horn, death gives me. All ten leagues of it. Not my own, mind you. I’ve never had much use for it. But oftentimes …”
Stop her if you’ve heard this one before.
“I remember on the wards you’d see them on their way out. Lying there, all white-wrapped and taut, that grey gloam coming over them. Sometimes silent, sometimes screaming. I had no real preference. Some of them had people with them, but I liked it better when they were alone. Properly facing it, no distractions. There’s a vulnerability in that. A colossus of everything they ever felt, pissing down on them, a crescendo of that and then … nothing at all. All gone. There’s something about that. Not ‘beautiful’, but thrilling for sure.”
She stared at you, perhaps a few moments too long. Something in you tumbled and crashed down in your deepest guts. But then she broke it off, flicked her little eyes back down to her paper and continued to draw.
“Anyway. It gives me the horn.”
You couldn’t tell if it was howling into the darkness or from within it. You supposed it sounded more or less male, more or less human, but no … not really though. It was actually a type of noise you didn’t recognize at all, and if that was a language it was speaking, it certainly wasn’t one you’d heard before. And yet, you knew it. Somehow. You knew what it meant.
—Agnes, get over here now, ye!
From somewhere further: a sort of lady version, next.
~~Oh, what? Whatsit? Yellin’ at me, I tell ya!
—It’s the dogs, Agnes! The dogs’ve been at it again!
—The dogs! The fucking dogs!
Before long, you felt something else join you in the nether. You couldn’t move. You knew that you weren’t anything anymore, other than whatever was left. Assorted meat.
~~State of the floor!
—The floor? Arsed about the fucking floor! Least of our worries!
~~Oh and it smells, too!
—Always does. C’mon, help me flip them over. Let’s get a look at them, anyway.
Despite being absolute nothing, you felt that. You felt the phantom of their grip, all over where your shoulder parts would be and turning you onto your … back? Something like that.
—Might’ve been, anyway, ‘fore they got into it.
~~Ugh. State of it. Why are they making us do this, again?
—It’s meant to be one of their ‘test’ things, innit? All that ‘learn how to be dead’ carryon. But then they bring ‘em right back from it. Quicksmart. Not even the decency to let the poor sods stay dead. Fucking stupid, innit? We’ve been dead forever and it’s fine.
Was it fine? Perhaps it was, actually. It certainly felt no worse than before, anyway.
—But nah. They’re committed to this cockamamy wankoff gubbins they’ve been at ever since they went immersive.
—‘Theatrics’, they call it. As if being pterglendyl isn’t ‘theatrical’ enough in and of itself! We’re winged plague doctors with syringes full of ragù in genitalstead! Could they not just show us to them? Is that not immersive enough? Fucking plague doctors with big ol’ fucking cocks all full of fucking sauce?
~~Let’s just get it over with.
—Fucking red tape.
~~The quicker we do it, the sooner we can go about our sherming.
—We’ve not been able to sherm properly since …
~~C’mon, pronounce it. Do the honors.
—I miss Papa.
—For whose sake?
~~For ours, ‘sake.
—‘Sake. Right. So. Ungh. This Doris seems to have suffered from … death. Tears consistent with garden-variety Dogflesh mauling ‘cross throat, stomach and tits. Reckon the Death got in through here, at the end of it all …
Two fingers - claws, digits of a sort anyway - probed around where you expected your jugular might once have pumped its wares.
—Yes. This Doris has been well and truly bodied.
Then, to the guts, more digits pressing inwards. Feeling. Did you feel it? No. But you knew it, somehow.
~~‘ere! The Death’s all the way down here, so it seems.
—Really? That far down so fast?
~~Feels like it enough. How’d’you reckon they got it in this time?
—You wouldn’t want to know, really. Best not to.
~~The fucking dogs. Smelly fucking bastards.
You tried to remember.
It felt as though you’d agreed to something, but you didn’t know quite what or why. There was some sort of transaction going on here. She spoke to you like a customer, though not an especially valued one, and you knew that you wouldn’t be ‘right’ once, let alone always.
After what seemed like a sort of self-contained forever, she’d risen from her seat and beckoned you to follow her somewhere.
“Here’s one thing to remember, before you go. It’s important, so make sure you’re listening. What happens in there only happens to your body vehicle. What happens to your fleshy outer vessel does not occur to your innermost spiritual soup.”
She let these words slide listlessly out of her mouth like a bad oyster, and they were a combination of words you never imagined you’d hear, but there was weight to them. It meant something.
Her fingers reached up and in, prying your eyelids wide and letting the light blind you.
“They ought to teach this in home economics.”
They’re not real dogs. That’s a thought you had at some point, but …
—Right. On with it, like you say.
~~How d’you think we should do it? Through belly, gooch, or shall we go Venus Aversa?
—Oh, gooch, most definitely.
~~Good call, I reckon. It’ll be nice for ‘em. Like giving birth to their own Death.
—And it’s fun, besides.
Something sharp was getting sharper nearby. Preparing. And what was that they’d said? It seemed as though they knew you would be able to sense whatever they were about to do to you. To experience it, bodied or otherwise. But as for fear, even mild trepidation, that had all gone. It was beyond your access now. Had you done this before?
Yes. Even as your would-be thighs were spread open, even as the coldness began to press into you. The sharpness. Even as …
~~Right, then. Three, two and …
—One sec. Hang on.
A series of thump-whacks to the belly, prodding around for the Death.
—Not sure this one’s best pulled goochways after all.
—Aye, did you get a good feel of this thing? Fucker’s huge. They got dosed with a big ol’ lump of a fucking Death, this one.
—So lunking this out goochwards will split their pelvis wide, all butterflied-like. They’ll get their life back, but they’ll walk the earth like the proverbial crab-folk for the rest of it. As if we need any more of those!
~~Ah. Right you are, love. I’m sick to death of the fucking crab-folk.
—Yes, tiresome as glenhell itself
~~Smelly fucking bastards.
—Good card players, mind you.
~~So what instead, then?
—Say we grab it right at the source, bellywise.
~~Right you are. How dull it is, though.
—All of this is dull. It’s been that way since -
~~Wish we could die properly.
—We all do. This one doesn’t know how lucky it is. Or will be, anyway. Yeah, you! You in there! We’d be doing you a favor if we just left you to rot away, you know that?
~~I haven’t shermed proper since the Pliocene Epoch, ya cunt!
~~Can they even hear us down there?
—I think so. They’re down there gloaming upwards. Or is it the other way round? I don’t even know anymore.
~~Can they understand us? We don’t talk like them.
—The expositio script seems to think so. Mentions something about them having ‘full clarity’ in death. Of everything. They’ll probably forget it all once they’re back, though. Totally useless.
You had already forgotten how we started. In fact, it seems as if you don’t even remember me.
It was just a room, really, where you found them all contorted around each other in serpentine congress. There must have been light somewhere, since you could see them, but you didn’t know where it came from and you could hear nothing but the storm.
The nurse had gone, but had she said something before she left you there? You knew you weren’t supposed to be afraid. You were, though, especially when they spied you and went still.
They’re not real dogs.
Two of them. They were rising up on their hind legs, just their actual legs, and you saw what they were. They were a bit like you were, really, underneath it all. Perhaps taller, perhaps stronger, and so extremely nude. You’d never seen anyone quite that nude before. No human anyway.
But you didn’t recognize their faces, did you? Not yet, at least. Those faces, all lupine and blacker still, stretching out over and above the flesh body beneath them, and through those dark empty holes they saw you well.
And they smelled, too.
—Three, two, and here we go …
Something that might once have seared with pain, next, right down your abdomen from heart to mons. But it was fine. You barely even leaked, and the ooze ran cold when you did.
They absolutely fucking honked.
What is it?
I don’t know. Does it work?
Where’s its light?
Does it know how to bleed?
How did it learn to come?
Does it move?
Where did it go?
What can it show us?
How deep does it beat?
Where does it begin?
The stench was closer now, stronger, rendering you more or less floppy as they tore at your clothing, stripping you bare. You, too, would become nude, though not as extremely so as they were. Not just yet, anyway. There was still something altogether you about you. They wanted that gone, and soon it would be. You even felt it begin to disa-
—And across …
~~Big ol’ splitter.
—Ooh, that’s nice.
—I wish I could still eat.
You were stripped, ripped and rawed, and you had never felt such pain before on the outside. They knew exactly what they were doing and how to best go about it. They wanted it to hurt. They existed to … they just existed. They were what they were, making you what you are. Now.
Though at the apex of it, when there was no pain left to feel, they gave pause. Was that Death? No. You didn’t have your Death yet. You’d have to earn that.
They waited. They stood above you and they waited for him to come.
~~You sound like a right arsehole when you sniff.
—It’s like bovine … Uruguayan or something. Or off the continent. That’s good quality inside, that is.
—I’m doing it, I’m doing it.
—Not just, look down! I’m well in there.
—I’ve got it, I think. It’s a big’un.
And then he came, towering over you like a canine monolith. He was like them, really - he’s not a real dog - but somehow larger. Yes. He had learned to be significantly larger than anything else around. Anything else you knew, really. Quite large.
His hand gripped yours and oops up you got. You supposed the pain had become so intense that it had broken your very nervous system, the parts which tell your mind what the world feels like.
You didn’t feel anything, really.
You did nothing but fall into his largeness as you swayed, tiny victim to his dance.
—Hark, a boy!
~~Oh shut yer fucking noise, would ye.
It all came out with the final tug. The very thing that had made you sink so deep in the first place, the thing that had made you not. It was gone now, and you were floating back upwards.
—Ah c’mon now, I’m only entertaining.
~~How can this possibly be entertaining for you? It’s been too long. The same modae, same exact patter, over and over again. ‘Entertaining’, is it? I haven’t been entertained since the Plioce-
—Yes, fine, you’ve made your point.
~~It is mighty large, though.
You couldn’t see - they’d seen to that. You could scarcely b r e a t h e.
All you really remembered was a whisper in your ear as you knelt down at the end. A voice so large it would have driven you to madness forever had it lay in your head for more than the instant.
That momentary deliria, fluttering away on the back of his breath before your own was ripped from y-
—Huh. Y’know, holding it in this light, the Death it … it almost looks Korean.
~~Mule, can you help me please?
—Not Korean, maybe. Something though. Like a little puffy … who’s that fella? Dustin Hoffman!
~~Gah. What in the ever-fucked minge are you on about? How can a Death look anything li- Oh fuck, it does look like Dustin Hoffman as well!
~~I mean, it’s the absolute spit of him!
—Well that’s something good to come out of all this.
~~Heh. It’s scowling, almost …
From down there, somewhere: Myyyaaaaghm. Muuuuuughm.
~~Ah, and it’s making little noises an’ all!
—It even sounds like Dustin Hoffman!
The dogs had left you here, and you sank quickly and without struggle into the nether. You didn’t know you would be found. Or you couldn’t remember if you knew.
Like I say, you were an absolute nothing.
—Heh. ‘Ere … shall we keep it? For ourselves, like.
~~Oo I dunno about that, Mule. I mean, taking care of a little death? Sounds like a right hassle.
—It’ll be fiiine.
~~It’ll be a headache is what it’ll be.
—I’ll take an ache. At least an ache is something.
~~Hmph. Are we even allowed to keep these? What’s the expositio got to say on the matter?
—Who’s arsed? We deserve something, I reckon. The work we do. I don’t think it’d even be noticed.
~~Aren’t we s’posed to put them in the can? Would they notice a lighter can?
—Nah. You know how many of those things they get through? It’d be like noticing a single hair missing from your head. Oh, but we have to leave the Deathheart with the Doris.
~~Right. Can a Death live without its heart, even? Don’t want a dead Death on our hands.
—’Course it can. The heart’s mostly symbolic anyway. ‘Ere, vis …
—Simple as that. See? It’s still going.
~~Heh. It looks angry now.
—Angry Dustin Hoffman.
~~Right, we done here, then?
—Aye, they’ll be up and about soon enough. With a whole arseload of worthless ‘understanding’ to go along with them. Let me just zip ‘em up.
~~Is there any point zipping them up like that?
—I don’t know. I think it’s for effect. Adds a bit of weight to the transcendent nature of it all, y’know? Metaphor.
~~It’s strange that I have to ask these questions every time.
—I don’t understand it either. I think it’s for their benefit.
~~Aye, probably is. Not as if I don’t know the answers.
—Not as if I don’t know the questions.
~~Probably best not to dwell on it, aye?
—Aye. I’m sure we’ll be explaining it all over again soon. To this little bugger, if not them.
There are many ways to be dead.
I can teach you them all.
One day. Perhaps later.
Ah, here you come. Right where I found you. Here you are.
B r e a t h e i n . . . . . . . . . . . . .