I am in that between place, beside the sea, on the border of worlds. A storm brews above. An elegant skyscraper, all black polished sides like a stone, juts up before me. Rain slicks the surface of the window pane that I stare into. I touch the caustic surface, feeling the slight acid tingle of sulfur carried in the poisoned clouds. My face is reflected back at me- eyes like slices of sky, hair the bronze of an old candelabra. My face blazes with curiosity and wonder at this dangerously beautiful dreamscape. I know that I am waiting for someone.
Suddenly, my reflection shifts. It changes to a skull, stripped of skin, with gleaming lights in the eye sockets. I take a step back in horror, only to hear quiet laughter as I back into someone. A bony hand at my shoulder- I turn, and he is there, decked in the inky black robes of Death, an imposing skeleton with a perpetual smile. My reflection returns, and it is two faces that glance back at me- one me, the other my shadow. My face had fused with the Reaper, or perhaps it had been a trick of the light. No matter now. My image has returned.
Perhaps the surface before me is a literal window to the soul. His reflection shifts like Tam Lin when Janet breaks his curse: one, a horribly beautiful seraph, another, a devil with majestic horns, the last, the Angel of Death. His form ripples like circles in water, finally settling on a human guise. Onyx hair, eyes like crystal, and skin the alabaster of secret things.
“Nice trick,” I say as he sits on a bench in the shadow of the skyscraper. I stand opposite him, hands on my hips. He smirks.
“It is no trick, little one, but truths I show you,” he says, voice like the bells of Notre Dame. “I am a part of you, as you are like a cutting from me, planted in a different world to grow and flourish under another sun. Underneath your skin, we are not so different.” His smile becomes almost sad. ”You will face the same challenges as me, girl. Fighting back your destructive impulses, walking like a haunted soul through your life. We both have ghosts, you and I. A train of spirits follows in our wake.”
“That doesn’t sound comforting,” I say, and shiver.
“And yet you must make peace with it,” he advises. ”I will be here for you. Remember that. Even in the depths of your madness.”
Lightning cracks like a whip. The downpour intensifies. There is hell inside my head. Voices and bruises on my brain. I crave peace but know it is impossible.
“But I can’t live like this, Samael!” I say, voice raw. ”What if I hurt someone? What if I hurt myself? How do you live with yourself? How do you conquer madness?”
“As anyone combats an illness. You take it day by day.” His blue eyes bore into my skull. “Battle by battle, you fight. I’m not saying it will be easy- no, it is anything but. You must endure.”
I sit beside him, head in my hands. ”I hate this,” I sigh “I feel like a monster. I’m repulsed by myself.”
Tears sting my eyes. He takes my hands in his. Our reflections meld in the window pane once more. Death and the maiden. Two sides of the same coin. I wonder if I am made in his image, fettered on account of insanity. All the things that limit him are like chains binding me. I know, if we were set free, that we would consume the world, and all the fruits life has to offer, savoring each discovery like the finest of mulled wine. It would be a beautiful horror, gutting the sky of its stars. Letting go and releasing everything.
“We are all monsters, in our own way, girl. But each of us is also an angel. The best of us dare to dream that we can be more than our demons.” He pauses, looking out upon the sea. Waves crash tenderly onto the shore. “I have the utmost respect for outcasts, those society labels insane. They are brave, brave to face nightmares each morning. I honor those who swim against the current, trying to mount waterfalls. The vagabonds, the exiles, the refugees- the different. I raise my glass to them. They have a peculiar strength.” His gaze returns to me. “Just because you are not the norm does not mean that you are broken.”
“But I feel broken,” I explain. ”Like a vital part of my humanity is missing. Like a puzzle lacking the most important pieces.”
“Then you must learn to feel whole.”
“How do I do that?”
“Seek completion in those you love, in the things that set you on fire with passion. Live honestly, live truly, and cultivate inner peace. Life at the bone is the sweetest. Suck the marrow out of life.” He releases my hands, putting an arm round my shoulder. I sink into him, so tired of the war in my head.
“I try to be fulfilled. But even in sleep I’m not safe,” I say, shuddering.
“No one is ever safe. Not from themselves,” he says sadly. “I wish I could tell you my protection will fix all your problems- but it won’t. There is no miracle cure for suffering- not even the gods have that power. But please, remember this: I will be there for you. I will always do what I can.”
“Thank you,” I whisper. “But my brain is diseased. Sometimes I wonder if you’re my own inner demon given life. My sickness personified“I laugh bitterly. “That you’re a delusion. I’m an idiot, aren’t I? I’ve taken the devil on my shoulder and made him my friend.”
“No, you’re not an idiot. Foolish, sometimes, but not a fool.” He holds me tighter. ”And so what if I am your imagining? Would that change things?” he challenges.
“It would prove how sick I am.” I choke back tears. “I want to believe in angels with such desperation, Sam. In beauty and deities and a loving God. But I have such a deep-seated fear that all of this is just the pathetic wanting of a lonely girl. One who still hides under the covers from the terrors of the night.” I hide my face from him. “Isn’t that what religion is?” I murmur. “An opiate to allay our fears? I mean, who could really believe that a dead man rose from the grave after three days, or that souls reincarnate, or that anything awaits us after death beyond the cold, hard ground? They’re all child fantasies, and the critic in me doesn’t buy them. And even if they are true, I’m supposedly fraternizing with evil incarnate.”
He has shifted into the Grim Reaper, perhaps to hide tears. If my words have hurt him, it doesn’t show, not on his bleached face. “Is that really what you think of me?” he asks quietly.
“No! Yes? I don’t know. You can be cruel. Of course you can be cruel. But so can I. And, I think, God must be cruel- to have invented something like madness. To rape minds with insanity.” I shake my head in dismay.
“I was made in my Father’s image. Remember that, little one,” he reminds me. “We are all the dust of stars.”
“But stars’ hearts are black holes,” I point out. “Like you. They seek to devour everything.”
He laughs, a deep, echoing noise that comes from the depths of his rib cage. ”We are all born hungry and starving. Those that burn brightest cast the deepest shadow.”
I contemplate that, watching the pitter-patter of raindrops between my feet. “So you’re saying the most intense people have the most problems?”
He shrugs. “Interpret it as you will. And even if I am a thorn in your side, at least you’re not alone.”
“You mean you won’t leave me, even if things get really hellish?”I ask, shy.
“You will see me reflected through the ages, within you, and without. I wear many masks- that of an angel and demon, fleshed and bare bones. Some will terrify you, others will move you to write poetry. Sometimes, you will not recognize me.” His forms shift as his words gloss over his aspects, until they settle on the Reaper once more. “Only remember that it is me, behind every face reflected in the rain.”
“Each raindrop is like a mirror, isn’t it?” I wonder. “Like a facet of you.”
“Or shards of you,” he counters. “Perhaps this storm is your heart.” He reaches out a hand to touch the rain, letting it fall in rivulets through his finger bones.
“Maybe so…” I drift off into silent ruminations. The storm is like an elegy. There is a curse, between us, and I am neck-deep in the serpent’s coils. My lips drift over old parchment and ink detailing heavenly wars. I taste the sweat of gods; the ichor of angels runs thick on my tongue. It is all a breakneck dance, a tango with Death-
Roses twine round us as we turn to stone.