The sex wasn’t as bad as you might expect, though I tended towards despair in the meantime.
Oh, what? What did you think, that I was going to fight that thing? Heroically climb the walls and make my escape? Don’t be ridiculous. I capitulated without even thinking. I’m only human, and sometimes the gravity of events is enough to simply shatter a human’s illusion of free will.
I suppose you might call it pollination. I don’t really want to get into the details, to be perfectly honest with you. Floralingus? No, never mind. A matter for botanists of the future to decide. Anyway, she had her good points. Our interactions were fairly one-sided, obviously, but she expressed nothing but the dearest love and affection towards me. She spoke from a single-minded perspective. No notion of any conscious intent outside herself. I guess living alone for too long does that to you. Her emotions were like that of an animal, uncomplicated and unidirectional. I wonder, if she had had the capacity for self-reflection, whether she would have treated me so harmlessly. I wonder too, if I were not so obsequious and had tried to reject her, would I have suffered more under her repulsive, smothering kindness? We were both trapped, after all.
There wasn’t a lot to distract my attention in the cave. Thank God I was dead and didn’t have to eat or drink anything otherwise I’m sure it would’ve been dismembered bark soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She bore no fruit. We mostly slept, and she talked. I was the little spoon, of course. In a way, it was all so unspeakably awful that I think it altogether broke my capacity to know pain, distress, or embarrassment. I had ascended and become a higher being, appreciating all the small things. I felt like Jesus, you know? Once you’ve surrendered so completely to an outside force like that, you can suffer any ordeal life throws at you without all the normal shakes and blows to the ego. The more you allow reality to pound you into submission, strangely enough, the freer you become.
[Is that right?]
I’ll ignore that.
Nonetheless, despite whatever silver linings an optimist might be able to find, something had to change. Each second I spent trapped seemed not only a neutral moment lost but a deliberate step backwards. The path ahead of me was stretching, elongating all the time. There was no finite limit to my quest, but how many days had I, in fact, to waste? Was I immortal, unchanging? What did the trauma of the spirit world look like? Had the creature with whom I cohabited always been this way? Was she human once? What was an afterlife, anyway? Could it have a goal? Could one fail? If not, where were the trumpets and cherubim? Where was my glorious feast, my seventy-two virgins? Did I imagine destiny’s call drawing me inexorably towards those distant peaks? Was it my monkey brain that fabricated the feeling of purpose in order to make sense of things, or was ambition an irrevocable property of the universe? Was meaning itself directional, desirous? Was I asking the questions, or were they asking me? What did this strange world want from me? Infinite reflections. Concentric horizons. Endless uncertainty I could explore only in the stuffy echo chambers of my mind. God, it’s a blessing to speak. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could stand to be a rock for very long.
[I’m not so sure I would mind.]
Shut up. Don’t interrupt.
One night, an alien whistle startled me from my little purgatory. It was tuneful, exact. Like a pocket watch on a deserted shore it signalled its design to me immediately. Without disturbing my keeper I searched the vast blackness for its source, but its soft reverberations filling the cavern made echolocation impossible. Stranded on my lonely desert island, I panicked, sensing that this passing vessel would likely be my one and only shot at rescue. I slipped quietly away from the monster’s embrace and began to creep forward into the centre of the room.
‘Oi, you there!’
The voice that bellowed into the frozen silence rattled my head like a cartoon character. It rippled my little prison world back and forth like an aquarium under stress. I turned in great shock, prepared for the awakening of doom, but nothing came. She slept as calmly as before. Soundlessly I screamed.
‘What the hell are you doing truffling around in here? Can’t you see that beast?!’
Loudly again he spoke. I desperately searched the void for his presence, to no avail.
The one word exploded in my head. This time the voice was right beside me. I made the noiseless physical equivalent of a ‘yelp’ and twisted to face him, landing clumsily on my arse. Twigs and leaves crackled under the sharp movement. My heart beat painfully halted as a low moan emanated from the demon’s bed.
‘Shhhh. Are you trying to wake her up?’, he yelled.
If looks could kill.
‘Seriously, what are you doing here?’
A human. It was a goddamn actual real person, I thought. I could just about make out the fuzzy outline of a man crouching before me. His voice was youthful, confident and booming. He had an American accent, or perhaps Canadian. The playful rhythms of his speech intoned a complete contempt for the seriousness with which I regarded my own situation. I wasn’t at all sure he was there to help me.
‘Look, buddy, I was just passing through and I noticed this freaky situation you’ve got going on in here, and I thought maybe you were stuck and wanted a way out. But if you’re not even gonna speak to me, then I’ll just be on my way.’
I gesticulated as wildly as I could without disturbing the foliage. My windpipe wouldn’t permit even a muffled sob or whimper to escape. It was like the strangulating strictures of a night-terror. I went so far as to risk beating my hands painfully upon my chest just to make a noise. He pretended not to see or hear me.
‘Well, I guess you’re not interested. Gotta say though, Idunno what you see in this place. You and that thing aren’t… are you? Eurgh. Well, you can keep your weird cave life, pal. Didn’t mean to intrude. See ya.’
With that he straightened his legs to a stand, and then he was gone.
For perhaps ten seconds I remained wide-eyed and inanimate. Disbelief overwrote all the pent-up, solipsistic bullshit I had been feeding myself. The bubble had finally burst. I didn’t think. I just ran. I knew precisely where to go, even without the slight trickle of moonlight entering through the slit in the ceiling. I had studied the walls of that cavern in the greatest detail during my time there. I had planned a few possible routes by which I might climb to reach the exit, given the chance. The wood-chip carpet rustled and split beneath my tread. I didn’t care. I didn’t even bother listening behind me to check if my worst prognostications had come true. With no time for anticipation, fear was just an empty prophecy.
I body-slammed into the rock and began to heave myself up its sheer face, jamming my fingers into the razor-sharp handholds I knew to be there. My muscles had atrophied over weeks and months, but my will was renewed. As sinews stretched and outer flesh flayed against the jagged edges of my prison cell, I only pushed harder. I was ten feet from the opening. Six feet. Four feet. Two. I was falling. My desperate hands had slipped at the last mark. I watched the aperture receding in slow motion, and I knew that it was over.
Fear flooded back in. I would land and break my body. She would already have awoken in a rage at my betrayal. Her previously affectionate veneer would slide into a world of memory, revealing beneath it the broiling pit of unthinking animal passion that I had predicted. Unable to move, I would be unceremoniously stomped to a paste and consumed with vengeful appetite. Perhaps my everlasting soul would live on, enclosed by her foul entrails. I would be reduced to nothing more than a pulp of gut bacteria and enslaved for all eternity. Perhaps instead there was an even more disturbing after-after-life waiting to torture me beyond this one. Or perhaps the fall alone would be enough to obliterate me once and for all, even in the malleable spirit form I had gotten so used to. That would be nice.
As the torrent of dread coursed through me, I became unaware of physical sensations. I was somewhere else, a hyper-world of projected futures, overlayed realities, simulated demise. For a second or two I didn’t even notice that my fall had been completed, but strangely I felt no agony upon impact. What impact? It had been so gentle. And now, what was this? I seemed just as softly to be rising. The stone fissure was once again approaching. I could see the night sky beyond the gap. I was thrust back into my senses as I twitched my body around and realised what was happening.
She was lifting me up. I could not move much to look, supported shakily as I was by her knotted palms. I heard the splintering of her body as she strained hard against her cracked and mouldy form to reach the target. My mind was too shaken to reason. I remained still until close enough to grab at the sides of the cleft, and I heaved with all my might. I pulled myself through the crack and slid a few feet down the rock before coming to a rest. There I lay with my back against the hard ground, heart pounding, cold sweat pouring. I reached out with shaking hands and tried to grasp the cool evening atmosphere, to hold it close to my chest. The stars shone like muzzle flashes. I was free.
I don’t know how long I remained there. Probably only moments, but that was all it took for that stuffy, sticky, suffocating micro-world to leak from my pores and orifices. It was like stepping out of a sauna filled with sewage and diving into the freshest spring. My body was already beginning to cleanse itself. I was re-absorbing the infinite cosmos. The trees, the clouds, the delicious clean air, the distance between me and everything else; it all rushed in to purge the rot from my soul. I looked down at my forearms, and my skin even seemed to be aglow. Strange, I thought. It felt like I had shredded them against the rock, but there were no wounds at all, just the residual filth of the monster’s touch.
The monster. She helped me escape. Why? Had I been wrong about her jealous, twisted nature? Was all that fear and hellish deliberation merely a fantasy of my own making? Could I have left at any time? It couldn’t be true. It made no sense. My suffering was real. Wasn’t it? I crept up to the opening to peer inside, but my eyes had already adapted to the presence of light outside the cavern. I saw nothing but what might have been a motionless shape slumped in the darkness somewhere far inside – a taciturn shadow that would judge me for the rest of my days. There was no sound but the wind.
I couldn’t bare it. These conflicting emotions were causing too much strain after my ordeal, so I hardened my heart to them, sealing them away somewhere never to be looked at again (I thought). I was free. I had escaped from hell itself. That was all that mattered, not how I had managed it or how long it had taken. I turned away and surveyed the horizon. There it was, my aim, my calling, the tallest peak illuminated in starlight, right ahead of me where it had always been. I began to descend the mountainside, and I was on my way once again.
As I neared flat ground, the treeline was thickening. Soon a wall of dense jungle stood ahead of me. I was just ready to begin fearlessly clambering through it when a familiar voice broke through the night.
‘Aaaaayyyy! I knew you could do it, chief!’, his gleeful twang echoed through the darkness, ‘Get over here! I’m proud of you!’
He emerged from the undergrowth with his arms held wide in celebration. Striding towards me, his features became clear. He was actually smaller than me in stature, which I had not expected. His build was muscular but his shoulders not that wide. He wore some sort of loincloth around his waist and shoulder, covering his genitals, adorned with what looked like colourful plumes from tropical birds. He had longish, wild hair of a dark hazel colour but no beard, a strong chin, and large eyes that shone bright with awareness. I didn’t know whether to punch him or hug him. It was too late, anyway. He threw his arms around my back and caught me in a spirited embrace. I couldn’t help but reciprocate. Soon parting, he clapped my shoulders and smiled.
‘You did it! Honestly, bro, I’ve been watching you for weeks now, and I’d almost completely given up hope, but I guess all you needed was a little push in the right direction. It’s good to have friends, eh?’
He pulled round a satchel previously hidden behind his back and tossed me something from within.
‘Here you go. I’ve made you one of these’, gesturing towards his own garment.
‘Don’t put it on yet though. There’s a river over this way. You can wash all that nasty crap off you first.’
He turned to walk on and I faltered for a few seconds, trying to think.
Returning to me, he beamed, ‘Come on, man, you look like shit!’
End of Chapter 3
Written – July 2020
Published – July 2020
Check out the next chapter here – https://anxiousplanet.blog/2021/08/23/c-g-gundersons-travels-in-the-afterlife-chapter-4-prose/