And gaze across the barren land and know that it was you. It was no one else. It was not “them.” You were complicit. You’re alive, reading this, which can only mean you were—you are—complicit. I hope each gaze stacks hauntings inside you that grow tall and stretch wide until they are the exclusive and permanent residents of your formerly vacant insides.
While I carry the paralyzing fear of encroaching death, I do not—not for a second—envy your lifelong sentence of mobilizing guilt and shame. Better to be dead than to be a subhuman mass of unfeeling cells. You will try and chase your guilt away with your survival. Yet it will be as inescapable as your flowing blood. You will shed it as easily as you shed your skin. It will mark your existence with a permanence, and you will suffer. So much more than me, you will suffer. And that—in these, my final hours or minutes or seconds—that is what gives me solace.
Ironic, isn’t it? When that which fills you makes you suffer. Good. Have your fill.
Have your fill and suffer.
He held the torn letter a second longer. He had memorized it long ago, yet he still made himself read it in its dirty, crumpled, bloody, scratched-out entirety. He didn’t want it to lose its potency. He couldn’t have that. She wouldn’t have that.
He nodded, swallowed his last drop of whiskey—the last he’d ever taste—and started to weep before he passed out.
Morning came and he began the ritual. He pulled back the flaps of his tent and sunlight came charging in, punishing him for last night’s decision. The bottle of cheap Jamison was the last of his stache of alcohol. It may well have been the final drops in all the wide world. Sure, he could’ve made it last. He wasn’t a master of many skills, but he could take Olympic gold in rationing. Still, the bottle was his only sleep medicine, and not a drop short of empty would do.
He shielded his eyes and continued to step out. In this moment at least, he was happy this would be his last hangover.
He closed his eyes, like always; sucked in a long and measured breath, like always; and followed the letter’s instructions.
He gazed across the barren land.
He began with the land around his feet, for beneath it was much terror and darkness and guilt . He made his eyes wander over every grain of dirt, each one containing its own measure of condemnation. Individually they stabbed his soul—a knife for every person he had hurt. Together they were the executioner’s sword.
“It was me,” he recited. “It was me,” he confessed.
The tears flowed without effort, as they always did. It’s what she would want, so he gave in. He let the haunting come; let it stack on the thousands of others. It was the price she demanded, so he paid it. She was right. Every last word she scratched out was the gavel of a just judge, so he accepted his sentence and carried it out. It was all he could do to have his fill.
His eyes turned to the stretching, haunted land beyond his feet, for it held above it a silence so total he couldn’t help but hear its scream. A land so empty the wind could not help but whisper what it used to hold.
“It was me,” he recited. “It was me,” he confessed.
The tears continued to flow, raining down upon the barren land to which they belonged. It was all he could do to suffer.
Finally he turned his gaze to the land he was least eager to see, for it held within it the memory of the fallen and the fallen themselves. It lay laden with unapproachable grief. It was not the land around him or beyond him. It was the land inside him. The most barren of all, and the land he knew she most meant for him to gaze across.
“It was me,” he recited . “It was me,” he confessed.
It was the price she demanded..
She was wrong!
She said he would try to chase the guilt away, but he wore it like skin. Said he would try and outrun the shame, but he drank it in. Let it flow through every inch of him like blood. It was all he could do to have his fill, all he could do to suffer, all he could do, all he could do, all he could do, do, DO!
It was all he could do for the woman he had eaten.
“Don’t move,” said the voice. The voice was not his own. Click, said the gun. The gun was not his own.
“Wasn’t plannin’ on it,” said the man without turning, his eyes never leaving the barren land. “Say, could you give me just a minute? Kinda in the middle of somethin’.”
The woman laughed. “Yeah… you’re in the middle of dyin’, friend. Try and wise up to it. Or don’t. What do I care?”
He laughed. “What an odd thing to try and wise up to. No, I think I’ll stay wise to that which demands my attention. Dying slipped off that list long ago. You go on. Do what you have to do.”
He paused, looking down at the land around his feet and trembled, hearing the screams of the dead. “Worse ways to go out.”
Worse ways to stay in, he thought. Or she thought. Her thoughts had melded into his own long ago. He made sure of it. Every meal has a cost. Once, in another life, that cost was simple. Labor. Dollars. But it had long since gone up. Now, the cost of a meal was blood. And if that wasn’t high enough, it also required a trade. Some humanity for something animal. You make the trade enough times, you lose every bit of what it once meant to be human. You become something else altogether. You embrace the sharpened, red-toothed beast that lives inside you.
He had crossed that threshold long ago. Anyone still alive crossed it long ago. But when he found her, he didn’t know the cost of the meal. It was only after. After he found the letter. The check. The most expensive meal he’d ever eat. It was irreversibly inside of him so the bill was irreversibly due. So every day he made payments. Until death would they part. The debt was the greatest weight, the most thorough horror he’d ever endure, but it had done something unexpected. It had returned some of his humanity, bit by bit. To be haunted is to be human, and the letter flung open a door to a never-ending, forever-stretching haunted house, so he packed up and moved in. Her words were the gavel of a just judge, and they sentenced him to feel again. He loved her for it.
Had he paid enough, though? Was he ready to enter the land of eternal rest to which he had sent her? That land wasn’t barren, he had heard. It was an ocean that washed you inside and out. What a thought that was, what a counterpoint to this existence.
But you had to be human to jump in those waters. Had he let enough of the horror inside to become human again? To trade all these barren lands for an ocean?
“Oh?” the woman said. “Let’s find out.” Click.
The hot searing pain flowered across his stomach. He grunted, fell to his knees, then his back. It hurt. So much more than he ever though it would, it hurt. The pain so inescapably real it demanded every ounce of his attention.
“And what are you wise to now?” she asked, holstering the gun.
He tried to produce words, but they were stuck in his stomach, sticking to the blood, so he grunted.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I figured.”
His vision began to darken. He knew this was it. The line from the letter came unbidden: I do not—not for a second—envy your lifelong sentence of mobilizing guilt and shame.
The weight of the words began to slide off of him with the dripping blood. He smiled. The letter had been a sweet gift. But the bullet was sweeter. It was the gavel of a just judge. It meant the sentence carried out. It meant the check was paid. It stripped away the skin of guilt and let flow the blood of shame. It’s what she had wanted and he gave it. It was the price she had demanded and he paid it. He had had his fill. He had suffered. Now it was all he could do to be emptied, all he could do to be free. All he could do to be buried, become earth, grain, sand.
It was all he could do to gaze across the barren land.
Cover image by Patrick Hendry.
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