It’s getting cold. The animals have gone to sleep and except for The Babies showing a film on a sheet tied between trees, the forest is quiet. I walked slowly upstairs and entered my dismal little room for the first time in months. Books lie open where I left them, the stiffened petals of summer wildflowers are scattered across the floor, and a pair of cut-off jeans, turned half-pink with spilled wine, are thrown over a chair. She didn’t get a chance to soak them, the narrator says as the camera zooms in. The voice is genderless, robotic, but speaks in a manner that is purely human. Such a shame, it says, after all those years they were finally soft and perfect.
I look through a circle I make with the fingers of my right hand. I’m wearing a necklace strung with the teeth of mountain lions and some kind of reptile, and a dried deer tail that I like to stroke. I puff tobacco inside, despite the house rule against it and treat everything I see–no matter how dirty or disheartening–as being merely one shot in a long and unwieldy cinematic sequence: a cut and paste hack job of memories juxtaposed with selfies I’ve taken over the years in art gallery bathroom mirrors. In addition to my breath going in and out through my hand and the narrator’s continuing commentary (impassive, it said, her breath remained impassive, despite the gravity of the situation), the soundtrack contains a field recording I made on my phone of humans calling out from deep within a mountain, whether in pleasure or pain the echoing makes it impossible to tell. Perhaps it’s both, as is often the case with drug use or multi-person sex. Only my edit determines what is real and what is fake.
I pivot and the cameras in my eyes zoom in on the neatly made bed. It’s so perfect, I wonder if The Babies came up here and ironed the sheets in my honor. (It seems more likely they would do that than actually wash them). I take in all the information, remembering the week I spent sweating and crying under the covers. Back when the rotting summer was ready to reveal its hard seed nut center. Thoughts swarm and try to attach themselves like leeches. Bruce says it’s because I’m a witch but not a properly trained one that I’m so susceptible to energies around me. Which is one of the reasons he didn’t want me to come back here. Behemoth sends and receives from the basement but the entire house and everything in it works as a transducer, turning spirit signals into energy waves.
“The air itself is popping with messages, most of them hella dark,” Bruce said a few days ago while we stood on the porch. I nodded and took notes in preparation for going back inside, most of which would prove to be illegible.
“It’s like how a crystal ball needs the presence of a sender (the customer) and the palms of a receiver (the well-qualified fortune teller) to make an image appear–Behemoth works in a similar way. It pulls in information from the spirit world in the form of millions of tiny pixels, the same way it gives us Matlock and Hollywood Squares. In this, Behemoth is not unique: all TV’s have the necessary technology to tune into ghosty channels. All that’s needed is a strong intention. I’m telling you, Swim, never downplay the power of willing something into existence. Back in the days of Behemoth, the process was more hands-on, allowing for a single set to receive the full blessing (or curse) of a determined practitioner. Now, an entire shipment of several thousand screens might get doused with a capability that, while greater in the number of households affected, is by measure several degrees diluted from that of the giant monster downstairs.”
He smiled, just for a second. He never looked at me once while he was talking but the smile made up for it a million times over.
“Of course, the transmission ultimately depends on who ends up watching it. For instance, someone with precious witchy ways such as you got the full dose.”
“It’s not me, it’s the Pink Light inside me,” I said, to which he furrowed his brow. He wanted me to be a certain way and I wasn’t going to convince him otherwise. I knew he had us on the porch so I could get a sense–while remaining safe–of what I was up against and change my mind about going inside. The energy in the house isn’t contained: it spills out and coalesces into quickly dissipating forms for 50, maybe 100 yards in every direction. That’s why I saw those giant devil eyes form out of clouds and hover over my bedroom window. And why The Babies hang out on the roof at night to watch the UFO’s they claim zoom by overhead. They don’t realize that what they see is coming from the basement, like that cheap star projector I bought from China during the pandemic. Behemoth is fucking with them like he fucked with me, getting us all liquored up on the darkness so we’ll come down to the basement looking for more.
Everyone in the house suffered from headaches and sore gums, digestion issues and eye infections. Some of them, like Blackbird and 3, intuited the danger and were reluctant to spend time inside at all. Em insisted on the windows always being open, saying she felt like she would suffocate if they weren’t.
But as far as I know I’m the only one who took a direct hit. The Babies saw Behemoth, they caressed and polished him in awe, but once it was determined that he didn’t work, they quickly lost interest. I know it’s only a matter of time before they rediscover him. They shouldn’t go through this shit. It’s taken me a while to recover, and some things linger. I have pains in my neck and legs, and my mind still glitches out at the sight of flashing lights, or sunshine dancing across shiny surfaces. At first, I didn’t leave Bruce’s studio. He put me on a mattress on the floor while he sat in his big chair, wearing his surgical glasses as he worked in exquisite detail on his various pieces. He asked me if it bothered me to see them, but it didn’t. I liked him working above me on eye sockets smooth and soft like raw onions, or jaw bones thick and sleek like car fenders. I ate miso soup and drank fresh fruit juice. “Nothing processed,” he said, “Nothing we don’t make here ourselves.” The curtains were pulled tight all day. He smudged me with white sage that he’d been gifted from “folks who have a right to use it” and took me out in the sun when he was sure the coast was clear. As it shined on the crown of my head, I could feel The Babies watching us from deep within the house.
“I have to get them out of there,” I hissed. “I have to save them.”
“You’re not ready and neither are they,” he said, firmly, and he was right. Often it was like I was still in the basement, with everything moving slower than it was supposed to. I watched myself from faraway, until I had to struggle to hold on to the dot of me that was left. Then the tremors took over. Bruce wrapped me in special, hand knit blankets (he never hugged me directly, he used textiles instead) and spoke to me in a calm, soft voice about all the beautiful things in the world, the rivers and oceans where the water was clean and pure, and the warm, sweet scents of flowers gathered in bunches–he told me to imagine them all around me and to picture people off in the distance, laughing and free.
“There’s a place in the forest, where there are no roads or cars or televisions. I’m going to take you there so you can get better.” The journey was a long one, but he was adamant. We took short trips outside, testing my strength, sometimes pushing it too far, so he had to carry me back again, my legs swinging limply from his arms.
Eventually we made it, all the way to the ancient mines deep in the side of the mountain. I lay in the timeless dark within the earth, my body covered with the flowers the others had picked, listening to a distant hum that seemed to be coming from outside as well as deeper in. The distance from the house helped me think clearly. It allowed me to ask Bruce some of the more difficult questions.
“Sometimes I had the sense that something was with me in my room…in my bed. I felt like it was Heir Max. Do you think it was? Could Behemoth conjure him and make him appear?”
“If you believe he could,” he said, his face reddening, the shame I felt rubbing off on him.
“Sooooo, if I believe there’s a beautiful angel by my side, Behemoth will make that come true as well?”
“I doubt it. The vibe, as you call it, is definitely not high. When you’re in the house you won’t be able to imagine an angel, you can try, but nothing will come through.”
I worked hard. Time went by, and I was eventually able to pick up everyday objects and contemplate them without the terrible thing happening, in which all context and meaning was removed, and I was confronted with The Thing hidden inside, a raw being, inscrutable, senseless, a stark presence that extinguished all language.
I told Bruce I was ready, despite his concern. It was time to get The Babies out of there.
“Ok,” he said this time, and then didn’t say anything else, pretending not to watch as I packed a small day bag.
He gave me the necklace, and pouches of tobacco. I was to keep some to smoke and put the rest in corners and on windowsills.
“Listen,” he said, as we stood together on the porch before I went in. “It was inside this house that my whole family turned against one another. We were close before we moved here. We lived and played on the green hills. Evenings and mornings the ground was covered with pearl white clouds, the mountain that we’re on now was far in the distance, sometimes not able to be seen at all…we talked long into the night, giddy with the beauty all around us, but something changed when we came here, especially after we got the TV. Behemoth, as you named it. Behemoth, the centerpiece, the shrine, something I think I read about once, in a poem or was it a comic book? It told me things, I heard them in my dreams. My mother made us promise never to have it on during dinner but it wasn’t long before we tilted its massive body towards the dining room. The act of eating, of consuming precious nutrients got twisted into its opposite. In its presence we became greedy and angry, but not for any specific reason, which only made it worse. There was a general sense of disease, accusations were leveled without reason, and were impossible to refute.”
“That you kids were able to sleep at all and had times of laughter, even joy, is amazing. I was hopeful. Before you arrived, I’d gone down and unplugged the fucker, and then thought even better of it and tore out some of his wiring. Well, he didn’t like that, I can tell you. I was trying to do the right thing for you kids, I mean, I’m not an asshole. But deep down I knew it wouldn’t matter, and it didn’t.”
“I can’t imagine what you had to suffer in order to pull all of that off.”
I reached out to hold his hand, feeling his nerves jumping beneath his skin.
“Thank you,” I said. “We did have good times, no doubt a combination of these children’s pure hearts and your self-sacrifice.”
“Fool them all but I can tell, you’re no stranger to the street.” He was speaking in song lyrics, the way he did during the rare occasions when he was nervous.
“I know you think we should go, but I can’t leave them here. Not with that thing.”
“I thought you wanted to save Odious.”
“Look, it’s all good. I mean, that’s what you keep telling me. That you have it, you’ve got the plan.”
“If by plan you mean the way in which we’re going to stop your robot friend, then yeah.”
“That’s it, that’s what I’m fucking talking about! We’re going to get him, both of them, these fuckers, these metal death machines.”
He nodded and gently hi-fived my outstretched hand.
“And you’re sure you don’t want to tell me about it?”
He shook his head, the sparkle of his silver hoops in the low afternoon sun rattled my nerves, but only for a second.
“It’s of paramount importance that I don’t. Otherwise we’re defeated before we start.”
The porch, I realized, was a liminal zone. All those pics I like to save from the internet, the shadow strewn hallways and highways, underwater passages and overfilled indoor pools–they were all just an approximation of this, a true boundary between worlds. It wasn’t until we stepped up there today that I realized how sunken it was, half in the earth and half in my mind.
“Inside, there’s no protection,” he said. I figured this was his way of telling me he wouldn’t be there to save me like he did the last time, carrying my half numb ass out.
“I won’t let it get me. I won’t even go into the basement.”
“There’s nowhere to turn, because nothing works,” he said, grimly. I nodded and promised him I’d be careful. And I have been. I looked all around and blew smoke in front of me, clearing the path. I looked for eyes, or for little flashes of static congealed in the corners, which could easily be mistaken for sunlight. There was nothing. The house was quiet, peaceful even, and it wasn’t until just now as I stare out the window that I realize what he meant when he said, “nothing works”. The camera zooms in on the sheet tied to the branches of the pine. It’s taut. It’s impressive. But as I think about how it’s good they’re outside watching movies and not in here I can suddenly see that I only feel this way because it makes me feel better. Everything, in fact, is all about me. I came in here to save them but really it’s about saving myself from the guilt I don’t want to feel. Instead of doing the right thing and going forth with the plan to save Odious, I’m letting the plan get me derailed, the same way I did by going off with Lil Mountain or coming down here. I should be back in Brooklyn with Odious. If I hadn’t left none of this would have happened…
But that’s just one possibility. There are others, millions in fact.
Inside here nothing works because there’s nothing that can stop me from getting sucked into myself, to become intensely aware of every thought that comes into my head. I’d been caught up prepping myself to meet a monster that I forgot what it was really like in the house.
The real monster is in her head, the narrator says, smugly.
Image: Zdzisław Beksiński
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