THE NINTH CIRCLE
The small child with a young man’s voice whispered in my head as he weaved closer, “I’ve come for you.”
It came on with the sun at its zenith on a clear July day. I sat fogged and sleepless on the foot of the bed staring absently through the French doors leading onto the cantilevered deck suspended over our small, steep canyon. It didn’t come on with a thought or a feeling, or both in tandem. No, it started as a sensation, but where the sensation originated, I couldn’t say, because at first it was hardly noticeable, like thin clouds threading a violet sky barely dimming the sunlight. Like those clouds, the sensation lingered a bit on the gauzy edge of my awareness. But it soon stopped toying with me and came on hard, unmistakable.
I was descending, without restraint, into myself; the slow sinking sensation nearly familiar. With it came a bone-weary exhaustion that deep sleep couldn’t enliven. I could hear only the muffled pulse in my ears.
The descent folded me into myself. Darkness, like a coal-black curtain, fell across my eyes.
My mind cracked open like fractured polar ice heaving on arctic seas; something vague and formless slithered loose from the Stygian water.
My descent bottomed with a soft bump.
A ragged sigh stuttered up my clotted throat.
I suspected what was coming.
A thought weaved and circled in my head, turning towards me, turning away, a seductive child coaxing my attention. Runny nose, scabbed elbows and knees, dried blood tattooed a ragged cut across his mottled thigh; he smelled sulphurous in the bargain. Not a child I wanted to talk to; not a child I wanted burrowing into my lap again. I averted my eyes. Maybe if I didn’t look at him, if I didn’t acknowledge him, he would stop circling and disappear. Yes, that was it. I wanted him to vanish.
Wait…that might not be what I really wanted. Not really. Maybe I wanted to hear him out? As repellant as he was, I might’ve been able to tolerate what he saw festering in the back alleys of my mind. He might know…who am I kidding? He knew; he’s known for years.
I didn’t have to pretend cluelessness. I could guess what he wanted to say; and pretty sure I’d heard it all before. I just didn’t think I had the will to resist him. God help me. Did I want to resist him?
He always came at low ebb. Over the last six weeks with Dr. Rinehart I had been under general anesthesia five times ferreting out the cause of the severe pain in my lower spine and feet that had plagued me since my extensive spinal surgery three years before. I was desperate for even the slightest relief. The diagnosis pronounced, treatment plan agreed to, and I knew, finally, what was what. And tomorrow, yes, tomorrow, I’ll do it again. But all that exploring along my spinal cord after being knocked senseless with anesthesia had emptied me; left me pallid and limp. I was perilously open to suggestion.
I knew that if I let this child onto my lap he’d settle in and I’d be fucked. Fucked or released?
Released. Yes, liberated!
Ah, Christ, at what cost, though?
He silently circled closer, a white wolf stalking open water on a broken ice field. He locked onto me with glittering eyes; dazzling, probing eyes. As much as I hated to, as much as I tried to resist, I couldn’t help looking at him. A malignant smile seemed to flash across his placid face, so slight and fleeting the change in his features I wasn’t sure I’d really seen it. The same as it ever was: I couldn’t trust him. But that didn’t keep me from wanting to.
“I’ve come for you.”
That voice…that voice. My shoulders tensed, slumped.
He climbed into my lap. I neither welcomed nor resisted him.
“We’ve been over this before,” I said, as wariness unlimbered through me.
“And now, again.” I didn’t hear his words, but felt them in my mind; a form of telepathy suggesting empathy that might have been more apparent than real.
“You’re always around, always on my periphery. What makes you think now’s the time? Why not yesterday, or next week? Next year?”
“You know why.” Damp and pungent, he rummaged deeper into my lap. His red hair matted and greasy; breath like a tanning factory drain pipe. Decay lived easily in him as if he’d never known a blood-red dusk, or the laving touch of a mother’s love. He wanted me to believe that he lived on the bank of the river Styx in a mud hut where he clung to the rasping voice of Charon as that infernal boatman herded the shuffling dead onto the slick, warped deck of his boat. The child claimed that he was the river pilot’s prized acolyte, and that acolyte was very patient. For the last eight years he’d been scouring the shadows of my mind setting snares for weakness.
“I suppose you’ll tell me that you’re not here by your own lights?”
“Thought so.” A chill windswept through me. “He doesn’t need another passenger.”
“There’s always room… all these years you’ve toyed with wanting a seat in his boat,” he said searching my eyes.
I’d learned years ago not to look long into his eyes. They were startlingly green, fathomless, full of promise and oblivion. The first time I looked into those eyes my mind emptied. Not just of thoughts, but insights, conceptions, memories. If I hadn’t looked away from him I’d have become an empty vessel, a sucker for any reckless notion, any ruse. I forced myself to turn away from him. As much as I wanted to slip through those eyes onto that lolling dory, I knew to avoid those eyes and focus on nothing.
“We both know that it isn’t a question of room,” I said looking away, pressing my palms hard against my eyes.
“I know. It’s just been too much; way too much to bear,” his voice low and compassionate. Was it compassion, or scarcely disguised subterfuge? Even though saturated with ambivalence and suspicion, I still longed to sink into his sympathy. But I also wanted to flee from it, lose myself in the whiteout of a snow-bound ice field.
“How much pain should anyone have to bear, Mark? This is slow, mindless murder.”
“Don’t do that,” I whispered. Frozen tears thawed.
“It’s really okay to lay your burden down and step away.”
Icy tentacles slipped around my heart.
“I’m so weary,” I whispered.
“I know. Five times under anesthesia in the last weeks, and a sixth tomorrow. You know it’s too much. And the relentless pain you live with every second of every day, year after year…”
“Your right. It’s the relentless pain. It’s remorseless. Nothing knocks it down. Nothing.” A burst of laughter rolled up my throat. I tried to choke it back, but it burst out of me like the rifle crack of a calving glacier. “That’s funny, knocking it down. Hell, I’d be happy if it just let up a bit, you know, give me a breather. But it never happens. I look into the future and all I see is the blackness of stalking pain. I can’t do it. I can’t.”
“Yes. You’ve been worn down. Depleted. You have nothing left. You need me. Admit it; you want to cross the river.”
“Stop. I’m tired, that’s all.”
“No, Mark, this has nothing to do with tiredness. It’s not even, if you’re wondering, depression or despair.”
“Right,” I said weakly. “I don’t think I’m despondent… I know I have a dark streak…diamond-hard cynicism, rage, a barely concealed vein of bleakness, but that isn’t what this is about, is it? It can’t be.”
“No, Mark, this is a cold-blooded, steely review of your lacerated body. We don’t need to go over all that’s happened to you, what it’s done to you, to your family. All you have to do is look at the pain you are in right now, this minute and all the minutes past and to come,” his damp hand patted my bare arm.
My skin crawled.
If only I could quietly disappear the pain would stop. But I can’t. He’s wrong. I can’t lay my troubles down. I have to find a way to endure. Yeah! Endure. I can do that, right? I’ve endured this long, why can’t I go on?
But do I want to?
Really want to?
My endurance account’s overdrawn. There are no bridge loans, not for me, not now.
“Don’t you see? I’m your salvation? Always have been.”
He shifted in my lap, the heat from his gritty body laid against my chest; oppressive and cloying it didn’t penetrate the ice blue horror looming in my heart.
“I simply can’t go with you.”
Who was I kidding? Of course I could go with him, I wanted to. I needed to. What if this was my last chance? If I get rid of him now I’ve lost my last way out. The door’ll close. Forever?
“Yes, you can go with me, and you want to. No, you yearn to. You ache for it, Mark.”
“You said it.”
“You say it.”
I held my ground and sighed deeply looking down at the top of his head, I inhaled his drain-pipe breath. He looked up at me and whispered, “You don’t want to live with this anymore…you want to die.”
“I’d like to go to sleep and not wake up”.
I froze as if encased in ancient ice.
“You want to kill yourself.”
The cup passed to me.
I shuddered viciously, but relief quickly bubbled up against horror and its spidery arms sinuously entwined around me.
“Face it. You want to die…you want to kill yourself.”
I stared at him unseeing. We sat in silence while the minutes ticked by. Ambivalence swirled in me like a white tornado dancing in a blizzard. Is he right? Do I want to die? To kill myself? What I wanted was relief, rescue. But suicide? More silent minutes passed and the blizzard eased. The landscape brightened. I could see and with returning sight I knew:
He was right.
“And you want to do it in a way that doesn’t look like suicide, an accident, perhaps, but you do want to kill yourself.”
I nodded my head weakly. “You’re right,” I admitted in a wounded voice, as if injured by the thought, by its implications, by shame. “It looks like suicide is my only way out…So, yes, I d want it to look like an accident so Judie and Russell would get my insurance pay out. It’s not much, but it sure could help with my boy’s education.”
“I get you,” he nodded examining his gnawed finger nails. “Look, car accidents are perfect. to order. Slamming into a tree or bridge abutment at high-speed is almost always the ticket. Everyone would think you fell asleep at the wheel or lost control of your car. They couldn’t prove suicide even if they suspected it. It’s perfect,” he said bouncing up and down on my lap with delight. With menace?
“I’d have to disable the air bag, and that would raise suspicions. I wouldn’t want the damn thing to go off and save me. I’d hate to come away from a crash alive and permanently injured; a turnip in need of constant care. That I can’t do.”
“I’ve thought this through for you, got another option” he said confidently with a fleeting smile. “All you have to do is take more than your usual dose of narcotic, get in the car, drive up into the mountains, and when you’ve reached the summit of a high rocky cliff, you simply lose control of your car on a tight curve and plummet into the abyss. Easy, huh?”
A tiny muscle twitched below my left eye. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but I could imagine the grisly scene that rescuers would come upon when they found me.” If I’m going to kill myself I don’t’ want to leave a macabre scene for others to clean up.”
“That’s quibbling. Think about it, Mark. People will think that you inadvertently overdosed, got sleepy, lost control of your car and accidentally sailed over the cliff. It’s open and shut, and, again, if there are doubts nothing will be proven.”
“This is all well and good, but what about postmortem blood tests? They’d surely find the extra Oxycontin. Would I make the mistake of taking too much of my medicine? Everything you’ve come up with leaves unanswered question: accident or suicide? I can’t let that question rot through my wife and son. “
“Understandable, completely understandable. I’m with you on this. Really. There’s another choice I thought of, ballsier; just right for an honest man. Stick with me on this, I’ve given it careful consideration,” he said, exhaling his caustic breath. “You openly kill yourself. I know it wipes out the insurance, but listen. Here’s the beautiful part: You leave notes. Honest notes from the heart; one for your wife and one for your son. You explain it all rationally. You lay out your reasons, the cold un-deniable facts. They’ll get it. Believe me, well written notes are the ticket.”
“Notes? Ticket? “I growled. “As if a note had the slightest possibility to console or explain. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Cold sweat like melting stalactites dripped down my back; plastered my clammy shirt against my ribs.
“Hold on! Hear me out,” he said as he twisted around to look at me.” You write to Russ and explain: “There was nothing you could do to stop me, son. What I did was rational and not done out of depression. I loved everything about my life with you, but I looked long and very carefully at my life and decided that I could no longer live with this pain. I’m terribly sorry I’m causing you so much anguish, but it’s unavoidable. No one could save me, not doctors, nurses, healers, and not you, Russ. I love you beyond comprehension, I wish my love for you was enough to keep me alive, but I need release from this agony. Do not blame yourself; blame the diseases that carried me off. I Love you eternally, Dad.”
I was stunned. I shook my head left and right violently as if I could shake his words out of my mind. I stopped shaking and tried to think but my mind was blank, a wasteland. But as the moments drew on I had to admit that his note was perfect, it was really me.
Was it? Really?
Unnamable emotions spun mercilessly in my chest. I looked away from him. Oh, god, could I really say that to Russell? To Judie? This could be it, I managed to think as the spinning slowed. But what of the grief I’d leave behind?
“Good letter, don’t you think? Brief, concise, steers clear of maudlin, and lets him off the hook; lets you off the hook; a thing of beauty.”
Iron cold wintered through me. Just how badly did I want to die? What price was I willing to ask my small family to pay for my death? Could a note, no matter how heartfelt and honest, exonerate me and protect them?
Clapping his hands, he went on: “I can easily write the same note, with, of course, a few appropriate changes, to Judie. They would both be off the hook. Neither of them will have to live with survivor guilt. I know it will be bad for them for a while, but they would get over it and go on with their lives. Scarred, perhaps, but okay. They would realize that what you did was right and they’d forgive you. Best of all, they would no longer have to watch helplessly while you fade away.”
It sickened me, but it also made appalling sense. Maybe I could exonerate myself. I wouldn’t have to leave a charred and blackened landscape in my wake. Maybe Judie and Russell really would, after a time, be okay? It’s what I wanted more than anything, even more than my death.
I could sense his eyes on me; feel his heat in my face. How could I be sure? As much as I ached to protect my family’s future, I wouldn’t be there to help them. No matter how much I hungered for oblivion, it was a fool’s errand, and I knew it. What anguish might encircle them if I killed myself? What sorrow? What selfishness possessed me? Was I really willing to go that far? Could I irreparably harm my defenseless family? But, god damn it, I didn’t want to live anymore. Christ! I was entombed in icy impossibilities. I wanted to die. But could I really leave Judie and Russell in a frozen, endless night?
I closed my eyes and tuned away from the child’s tidal pull.
I could see Russell and Judie silently eating dinner alone together on a rainy evening; Judie, sleepless, vacantly watching the Shopping Network in the lonely hours; coyotes below their bedroom windows crying in the wild night.
Then I could feel Russell’s strong arms hugging me around my waist, trying with all his strength to lift me; Judie breathing softly next to me in bed. I could hear a mocking-bird on a soft May night in the canyon below, Judie sighing under its midnight spell. I could see Judie and me holding hands in a cold rink watching Russell gliding down the perfect ice with the puck on the curved blade of his hockey stick.
My eyes opened.
Some things just aren’t done.
“Tempting, isn’t it?”
I grabbed him under his thin shoulders, lifted him from my lap and set him standing on the floor next to me. Free of his grave yard breath I snarled, “Of course it’s tempting, you miserable fuck! But it’s all bullshit and we both know it. My suicide would drop a wormy shroud across their shattered hearts ready to smother them in any dark moment.”
“But the notes, the notes will prevent that from happening! You will have explained yourself and absolved them of any guilt or responsibility!”
“Of course you’d like me to believe that, and in my worst moments with you jack hammering in my head, I believe it, too… Oh, god, I want out!”
“Take my hand.” His words fell like rose petals on my heart. Tempted, I struggled to stand.
I looked down at his open palm and splayed fingers.
Whispering, he said, “I’ll take you away from here.”
“No,” I sighed.
I turned towards him, looked deeply into his pellucid eyes and held his gaze. He smiled wryly, his predatory gleam nearly submerged.
“Come with me, you know you want to. Take my hand, it’s so easy. Just sit in the boat, listen to the water lapping low against the bow and let it rock you to sleep.”
Holding his bloodless gaze, I blinked once. Twice. Horror drained away. Tilting my head back, I eased myself away from his emerald eyes, whispered one syllable on the still air between us, turned my back on him, and, thinking clearly, stepped out into the hot sunshine on the deck overlooking our tangled canyon. Exhausted, looking unsparingly into the feral shadows below, I knew…he is me.
Charon’s acolyte vanished as if he had never tried to invite me, tempt me. Destroy me.
Relief swept over me.
But I also knew that low ebb, surfing lunar tides, would surely return.