~ Catherine Hansen
Easter, who was three, was trying to climb onto my back while I did pushups. It delighted her how I groaned and teetered but did not stop. Mommy was weak yet Mommy was strong.
I had long since stopped leaving our apartment during the day. Except when I bore my daughter’s weight, I hardly felt I was myself. And these repetitive movements—pushing, lifting—were a way of dwelling in this flimsy body, confessing that it was still my own. I savored it like the company of someone I planned to jilt.
Sometimes I kept pushing up until my arms shook and gave way, and I lay there stunned and annoyed while Easter crowed. In the other place, in the other body, nothing could tire me.
When I first started harrowing hell, it was on the night shift. It was a second job like any single mother might take when ends are not meeting. One famed harrower, the monk Ksitigarbha, is supposed to have refused nirvana just on the edge of reaching it. It was unthinkable to scale the heavens until the hells and all their seas were empty of suffering and their inhabitants freed. If I don’t go to help them, he said, who will? I never glimpsed or refused enlightenment. No ends had met. I had no idea what I was doing.
The day it began, I was home with Easter on a weekday holiday. For much of the morning, as I caught up on chores long postponed, she had pressed for my attention. Life with her was often a matter of two irreconcilable sets of priorities, grinding their gears. Now, as the early drizzle turned to a hard rain, she was playing with her toys on her cork mat and I was listening to the cozy burble of their imaginary conversation.
“Yes please, I would like to have a birthday!” said a stuffed dragon.
“Then we must bake a cake,” said an owl.
Suddenly, I felt watched. Rather, I felt framed by an awareness that was not mine. The sensation sharpened. I knew in the way I know in dreams: something had cast and cast about for me, and then had fixed upon me, and now already was coming for me. Full cry, headlong, it grew in my inner vision and filled it. And then it replaced me. There was no other word for what I felt. I had been replaced.
An observer might have noticed nothing, and my daughter didn’t even look up.
In a fraction of that second’s sleight of hand, another mind had stirred beside mine. A fraction after that, it was extinguished. Someone’s will or emotion had risen and thrashed, like a shape under bedsheets—surprise, triumph, or shock—and now it was gone.
But it had left something behind, at the back of me. My inner surface followed its curves, as if I were a mask upon a scowling face. I was now a mere shadow of a thing more real.
“Mommy?” said my daughter. I had been silent too long. Swinging my chair around, I heaved her to my lap. I hugged her as she squirmed and tried to gather my thoughts as they scattered.
All the following morning as I made our breakfast and laid out our two sets of clothes, and then all day at work, it was there—my real body. That was the phrase that rose eerily in my mind. I tried to live our life for us like before, dropping Easter off at daycare on the way to my crowded desk. But its presence rang in my ears like a key struck deep down the scale, the minor note that darkens the chord. It was late November, and night by five. Among the last to leave work, caught in the amber of the last lighted floor, I seemed to see my real body one floor below, in the dark – mirroring my movements down the halls, stooping through the doorways.
One night I finally reached back for the thing that was reaching for me. After Easter was asleep, I locked myself in the bathroom. What I did then, with a frightful minimum of effort, was like closing one eye and opening another. Very suddenly my shoulders filled the tiny, lightless room as bottles clattered from shelves. As my head bent against the low ceiling, I thought I heard my daughter calling for me. First I froze. Then I recoiled in every way I knew how, trying to escape without daring to look down at what I was escaping from, but nothing changed. I was a hand jerking back from a hot pan, but the hand would not move. The matter of minutes it must have taken to return to myself passed for eternity.
Twenty-four hours later, I cowered in the foyer with my back to the shoe cabinet and did it again. I revolved slowly in the half-mirror that rattled on the hall door, turning my head as dancers do to keep vertigo at bay. Easter wasn’t sleep-talking this time, but at the faintest noise from outside I was already clawing myself back, hysterical and guilty. Easter’s mother’s body was still right there, slipped into an adjacent, invisible slice of space. But it eluded the grasp, like a bar of soap in bathwater. It was not forthcoming. My real body was.
On the third night, the low clouds glowed with city lights. I was gaping in the tottery mirror at something that resembled large black ferns adhering to my back, busily overlapping from neck to waist. Bending over to study my real face had made me faint and sick. Nothing prevented my daughter from simply waking up, opening the door, and coming barefoot and dazed to look for me—the huge, jagged, cringing shadow in the corner. We would have to face each other in mutual terror, or she would just bolt senselessly for refuge in my arms, finding me nowhere until at last I flickered back.
The thought was unbearable, and so I decided I had to strike out alone. The city was a glowing dome with darkness pressing in all around it, and I imagined I had to get to that darkness. I found a babysitter and told him I was helping a friend’s band record an album: a story he could have done without, as it wore thin over the weeks.
I didn’t have a car. I took a late train one night into the city’s upland outskirts, got off at the last little unmanned station, and chose a street that meandered uphill. The dark display of a closed shop framed the last streetlight. At the last house, the one lit window displayed a row of near-empty detergent bottles. The road turned steep and gravelly, switchbacking up for a mile or more to arrive at a deserted field, where a lonely sodium lamp gilded a pit full of planks and rebar. The field’s far edge lay in the deep shadow of trees.
I had only been in my real body for minutes at a time. The first thing I thought to do with it now was to speak. Squatting in the dark under the trees, I heard its voice for the first time, and I was enchanted. It was thunderously deep. Every neutral phrase I tried to utter was heightened and haughty, a stage villain’s repartee. I talked just to keep hearing it.
“My name is Griet,” said my colossal, pitch-black voice, several times.
“I have a baby,” it said. “Bay-by.” I started to giggle and stopped short.
“I think I’m going to find out if I can fly,” I said out loud to myself. I had guessed that the fronds on my back—pleated in intricate shrink-wrap patterns—might be wings. Since I had no idea how to make them function that way, I walked instead, and ran, and loped in circles. I broke a stone by crushing it in my left hand.
That moment of disconcerting triumph gave me pause. I saw with what half-conscious intensity I had been seeking something to crush. Insights, instincts, and desires lay tightly folded in every exploratory movement I had made. Now, under my silent self-regard, they loosened and drifted dimly before me. This thing, in whose reality I dwelled, was combative and proud. It hummed with anger and delighted in violence. It might find its truth roaring with joy astride vast ruins.
If I saw no place for that in my life, then I had no business returning to the field the following night, and then night after night. Yet I did—appalled and exultant.
Soon I started trying to photograph myself. I became fixated on one shot in particular.
It cut me off at the ankles and across the forehead as I crouched awkwardly and hugged my shoulders to fit my whole frame in. The lips drew back in an involuntary snarl at the flash, and the eyes lit up like a cave pool a mile beneath the earth. For a time, I was more in love with myself, specifically as I appeared in that photo, than with anyone I’d ever been with. I burned with the thought of myself. Sometimes I imagined being shown off like statuary: standing counterpoised, at my full height, with the extravagant crests like some ferocious ornamental bird and the smile full of murderous teeth. My imagination embarrassed me—like someone who casually alludes to a secret obsession in conversation, and feels the blazing glory rise to his cheeks. To this day, if it is a day at all, I am afraid that somehow I chose this, or that I brought it on myself.
Sometimes Easter freed me. When I picked her up every afternoon, holding her hand on the way to the station, I felt calm and empty. As she stopped at every pretext, to exclaim over a puddle or throw handfuls of leaves, I had no desire to be anything but the thing she called, the thing she called into being over and over, when she said “Mommy.”
But the night field took on irrational, ritual contours in my mind, lost in the mountainous dark that pressed upon the dome of light. It was like going to see a lover. I blew my strained budget many times over on the babysitter and the train, and lost untold hours of sleep.
One night, I found a rusting utility trailer in the woods around the field. I thought of nothing better to do than to pick it up and throw it down a ravine, like a teenager trying to impress his girlfriend. As I did, a broken spar of it gashed my side. When I looked at what I had done to myself I was paralyzed. I had wrecked something I didn’t know how to fix. That is when I noticed that the pennons on my back had partially separated, and hung like wet, black saran wrap. I had insulted my body by injuring it, I thought in my rising fright. Now it was going to fall to pieces in self-destructive vengeance. I tried gingerly to touch the place under my ribs, but misjudged the distance and instead thrust two serrated talons right into the bleeding flesh. My body roared at me through my own mouth with rage and hurt. Now it was clear I was disintegrating: I couldn’t see my legs anymore. I was standing on vapor, wading in it. Panicking, I fled myself like a sinking ship.
As I returned by train that early dawn, unable to doze, I knew my body was a shattered ruin. I thought I could wait until nightfall to be sure of it, but I was so desperate to learn what had become of me that I did it in the bathroom at work that day, right in the open because the stalls were too small. And there I was, over the row of sinks, stark in the tawdry light. Utterly whole and restored, rueful and smirking, heedless of passing footsteps in the hall—the being in the mirror was, for all I knew, imperishable.
Several nights later I deliberately injured myself to see what would happen. The effect was immediate. At my back, the fern fronds separated again and hung in damp webs. Now my legs were gone; I was waist deep in a fog driven by wind, and this time I waited. The fog rose, and took me with it. After that, I was somewhere else.
I saw bare slopes, red like the threat of fire. A vacant phrase rose in my mind: the other side. At that time I still understood nothing, but that is exactly what it was. One of the other sides. As if I had emerged from a chrysalis, my wings (this is exactly what they were) stirred at my back, then briskly rose and tautened. Taking first flight felt like a new species of emotion, borne up by the landscape. The land sustained me because it knew me. It knew where I was from and what I was for.
I planed high over billows of earth mottled red and black. I began to see helpless bodies rolling in the heavy swell, as winged forms circled above—coal-shaded scars on the low sky. There was so much I didn’t understand then: that this vast shipwreck with its circling raptors was mere appearance, a sediment of myth; but that its brutish matter repelled the meaning made by myths; and that both of these were true to say. Twisting bodies pushed up from deep in the red, curdled earth, to collapse exhausted and be carried away to the pits. Yet these bodies were immaterial, invisible. The pits, crammed full of limbs and lament, were also empty holes in the ground. The immaterial bodies were here for reasons they would never know. For reasons of justice, for reasons forgotten and long superseded, for inane or for implacably logical reasons.
The winged creatures, who looked like me, swooped down here and there like unwieldy peregrines to attend to the bodies. They took heavy flight again, or fell casually on each other, rending and maiming. They did not know the reasons either.
I landed at the crumbling edge of a pit. Petals in a broken thicket, the faces turned up in unison. Reaching down thoughtlessly to take the hand of the nearest one, I forgot myself until I saw that the others were trying to bury themselves and hide from me. The man struggled too, but I would not let go of his hand, and he went slack as I worked him free. As I folded him in my arms, he began to shake, and I shook too. There was nowhere else to go, nowhere to carry this body with its wobbling head and moaning mouth.
Some of the winged figures had stopped short in their orbit around the pits that pocked the earth into the endless distance. They were heading toward us. One of them paused low above us in tightening gyres. I laid the man between my feet just as it fell to the attack, clawing at my shoulders as I shielded the body beneath me. When I turned, and gripped the jaws of the creature at my back, and tore, and kept tearing as it buffeted me with desperate wings, I didn’t think to wonder why I could do such things. I should have. When it was over I only stared at what I had destroyed, drawing the fading rapture close around me like a squalid mantle. Then I was certain I had made a terrible mistake—that I had let myself feel and do something ghastly, and now I was trapped, and lost. I groped in emptiness for my old, my own, my kindly shape, as I would have done in the field, ready to jog back down to the station. It wasn’t there.
It was the man I was trying to rescue who showed me the way back out. I had gathered him up again and was cradling him to my chest. His knees were drawn up and his eyes were tightly closed. My mind kept helplessly reaching, and finally it touched something. It didn’t belong to me, but to him. It was close by us, though he surely could not have known it existed, as perhaps it always had. Right then, because I perceived that I could, I spread my wings and simply stepped across to where it waited.
Tall grass surrounded me, under a muted sky the color of a long-postponed sunrise. I was no longer carrying anyone.
The man stood across from me, on unbroken legs, gazing at me with a strange expression as if he understood something vast. Then he simply turned and walked away, parting the grass.
This was not earth, nor the hell we had come from. It was a silken fringe springing like sedge from the wall that divided those places—it was the merest sliver between them. I was far out of my depth. But now, from this vantage, I could almost see myself waking under the trees and riding the dawn train home, half asleep and full of longing. That truth was breathingly close again. It tugged and drew me back.
I still thought, somehow, that daytime life could go on as before. I stopped making the long train journeys. I knew the owner of the little bistro on the ground floor of our building, who had a storage annex she kept empty. I explained that I needed a dark place to retreat and meditate that wasn’t far from home. The room had its own key and I don’t think she ever realized how much time I spent there. I held on to my job for a while. Then savings lasted a matter of months, then I borrowed for a time from friends. During the days Easter and I lay in bed, watched TV, and had breakfast for lunch and lunch for dinner. Our little gaieties and struggles weren’t much different than before, even with all I did and saw every night, but I don’t doubt that she felt something was different. Once, during the dramatic dialogues between her toys that occupied much of her time, she shouted,
“You are not listening to me! I will come and eat you!” She thought it was very funny when I dropped the folded towels and rushed to gather her up, murmuring into her hair.
Harrowers of hell, whatever form they take, are expected to free those who are worthy. If such a distinction could actually exist, I had no way of making it. I was not a creature designed for that. I was not meant to divine what laws subtended the other side, though I had surmised that going to hell exacted a toll of pain, and that escaping hell required something wholly contrary: mending, comforting, slicing the old ropes, forcing open the sprung trap.
More than any sense of duty or even compassion, it was simple base passion that made me return to hell to despoil it, joining the ranks of all the saviors and bodhisattvas, the knights and the harridans, the women and men (or former women and men), who had gone down to the shores of hell not to be lost but to retrieve the lost. But I believed that at least it was the passion of a great task of mending, so great it could be imagined only in fractions, in stitches and cross-stitches, through to the other side and across, and back through, and across, with my arms full of souls. Delivering, in an ecstasy of delivering, every night until I died, if I could die.
The babysitter arrived every night around Easter’s bedtime, dropping his sleeping bag on the couch. I went four flights down, turned the corner, unlocked a heavy door, and closed it upon pitch darkness. I carried countless souls to refuge, striding through the walls between worlds. Sometimes they writhed out of my embrace and tried to stumble away, wailing when I caught them. Afterward, when they met their real bodies, they smiled at me, and sometimes wept for me.
I was a different thing than I had been, in ways not fully beyond my control. The winged demons were always present, if more cautious than before. I reserved all my pent-up wrath for them. When they came after us, I tore them to pieces. Often I cackled and howled. My laughter drove its taproot into the deeps from which this place springs and into which it flows.
I’m not sure how much longer I could have continued like that. I never found out, because finally one night, I couldn’t go home. The dark storage room, abiding in the small hours of a Monday morning in spring, tugged me on its tether. Soon the babysitter would stir in his sleep on the sofa and try to phone me. But something had changed. The nameless faculty I had possessed, which had let me follow that tether back, was gone. I was furious, gnashing, helpless, racing in circles. What would dare? To bar me from where Easter slept, with her knees tucked under her and her face buried in the pillow? But I could only continue carrying over the immaterial bodies one by one or three by three, and pause to try again, and fail, and wait, and snarl and rage, and fail again.
Gradually, I understood—and maybe all of us, suffering bodies and fiends alike, understood it. Something had withdrawn from the worlds. Some upholding ground had not crumbled, but drawn back, and left everything to fall into the foundations. Some obscure negligence far above had taken catastrophic proportions below; some minor transgression below had raised great storms above. It could easily have been my fault. Or it was something humanity had done without knowing, or despite knowing, accidentally-on-purpose, bringing everything down with it. What had happened to me was a side effect of this calamity. Or was its cause. Or both were true.
Already the people were coming. Wherever they would otherwise have gone, here is where they all came, and the black-red earth couldn’t hold them. Wave upon wave struggled and kicked to the teeming surface, bewildered and blind. The demons came flapping dutifully down but even they were taken aback by the great multitude of the newly dead. None of this should have happened, but now it was the end. Perhaps not the end of all things, but the end of many, many things.
When Easter used to drop a full glass of juice or trip over my laptop cord, I would calm her and myself by sing-songing, “these things happen.” I let those chiming words carry me as I toiled—these things happen. All would be well with us, I knew, when we were together again. I began to see people I knew. I saw my daughter’s father, spat up from the soil by the force of all the desperate others beneath, lying face up in blank pain. I carried him to the place of strange, tall grass under a muted sky, where he rose and walked. He didn’t know me, but he cried for me. And after that, I did nothing but search for Easter.
Time failed. It spun like a toothless flywheel. I don’t know how long I looked for her, digging down into the caustic earth while all the others suffered, unaware I had abandoned them. Over and over I clawed my way back up, wings ragged and freighted with dirt. Time spun and sputtered—and then I found her.
I lifted Easter and held her curled up on my chest, her head under my chin. The instant after we crossed over together, I wasn’t holding her anymore. She was standing before me, staring and serious. Then her attention shifted: the world beckoned, just as before. She gazed all around, and began humming and singing to herself in little snatches and fragments, as she always had when she was happy. She stroked the grass and peered into it, looking for living, moving things.
“Mah-mee-mee . . .” were the syllables I thought I heard her chant, just as she turned and marched carefully away, in search of me or something else. I almost followed her.
Everyone came. It took time—just shy of forever and evermore—but in my arms and on my back I carried every single one of them over. This hell is empty now, as far as I can tell, except for the demons, who have nothing now to occupy them except me, and so soon they will be gone too. If there are other hells, I don’t know how to get there, or how to leave this one anymore. If that thin place I entered and left so many times had any claim to be called heaven, I can’t enter it again without someone to carry, to hold close. If I could, I believe I could not stay.
I have lived in this body now for time out of mind. It consumes, transforms, and expels nothing. It takes nothing in and ushers nothing back into the world. I think there is nothing it would not survive. If anyone or anything ever comes to retrieve me, they will find me in it.
Here I lie, in a hut I built of the bones of my enemies. Somewhere far from this darkened plain, beyond my ken, the last true battle has long ended. I try to remember my old, freckled, stretch-marked body, whose uses and wherefores are lost forever—my dark secret kept from no one, my irrational and consoling fantasy. I lie and dream about it, drifting as an anchorless bark into fog.
Catherine Hansen lives with her family and teaches literature in Tokyo. She grew up between rural South Carolina and urban Japan. A book with Strange Attractor Press, titled In Search of the Third Bird, represents—at the same time—her latest creative work and her latest scholarly work. One day, you may well find her on Twitter.