Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
Spreading across the gate is a black banner of cast iron with dimly polished bronze letters.
Arrete! C’est ici Royaume de la Mort.
Roughly translated: Stop! Beyond lies the Kingdom of the Dead.
Centered on the gate is a coat of arms, a shield embossed with a brutish pegasus ridden by a hooded reaper and wrapped with Gothic black-letter text.
La mort règne suprême!
Woeful to decipher: Death reigns supreme!
The gate has a life of its own and doesn’t care to open out. Like the jaws of an apex predator, this brass-fanged gate is fashioned to thrash souls in, its rows of menacing barbed teeth designed not to let go but to forever ingest the prey into the dark innards.
Yet, not even a push is needed to be let in. Effortlessly, a soul can slowly drift into the Kingdom. But panic and turn, try to reverse? Needles taper to spikes, spikes to sabers. Searing hot pain and not a thirty-second of an inch of travel is permitted back toward the Land of the Living.
Resigned to let the gate consume, each victim passes through to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Inevitable indifference takes over, all is lost. Each limp casualty finds himself on the road everyone from the past has traveled, trudging the polished granite pavers on which everyone in the future will plod.
There is no life on this side. There is no sign of color, only shades of gray, though that's generous; mostly there is black with a few dim swellings of that shade of gray just before black.
There's a city down in the valley. No lights, no movement, no signs of life amid its Gothic French spires. The valley floor is a shallow pan filled with motionless dry fog.
Walking forward with only hesitation left in the heart, a soul quickly dries out inside. All the moisture evaporates from the tissues and the body sags, hollow and sad. There is no desire to turn back. Whatever organ that was, the one that energized its possessor to fight or flee, is now empty ... dissolved.
The Kingdom wasn't always presented in a French Gothic style. Previous to its current incarnation it was South American Day of the Dead–themed: everywhere in sight were papier-mâché skeletons with ridiculously oversize skulls and nothing to do all day but wear sombreros and play the maracas. It worked for a while, but the Latin culture was fundamentally inappropriate for a society of lost souls organized around the principles of hopelessness and sorrow.
When the Gothic style from northern France’s dark age first emerged it caught on like wildfire. The French culture’s enthusiasm for morose suffering along with its passion for fatalism was a perfect match.
Along the narrow streets of the city there is barely a soul in sight. A few spirits here or there are milling around, leaning in an alleyway, pacing under a dead tree. None of the surprised-to-see-you, look-who's-new-in-town, let-me-show-you-around kind of welcoming. They knew you were coming.
None of the Kingdom's citizens make eye contact as they drift among gray chalky buildings, hollow and still inside. Threadbare curtains limp out of unglazed windows. Doors are left ajar; they creak and complain when moved.
The fashion that holds sway in town is of long, tattered robes dyed the color of dust. The frayed tails leave lazy streaks in the dusty floor. Younger women have taken to wearing their hair back in a tight bun and accentuating the dark circles under their eyes with a heavy tamp of dust.
There are no clocks, no shops, no day or night. Every so often, the silence is rippled by distant sobs and sighs. The stench of Jean Naté perfume and mothballs stagnates in the wilted stillness.
This necropolis is a hopeless place.
99 Rue de Cadavre
It was preferable to have an apartment on the lowest level of a building. Basement flats were the most prized. Top floors were despised for their views of the barren, bleak sprawl of misery in every direction. There were rumors that the Kingdom's elite lived in dark, cavernous subbasements with no windows. Most apartments were decorated to look like crypts, with sculptures of skeletal remains littered about in archaeological excavation style. Narrow grottoes lit by weak candles were the only light.
Only the newest residents got stuck renting the top floors, and in the penthouse of 99 Rue de Cadavre sat Hugh Rudd. He hunched over a rickety table, staring at a smudged barista glass with an inch of inky black wine at the bottom. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave him sweeping views of the city in every direction, and a dome of leaded glass above him hazed the room in a dead gray wash. He sat and stared at the wine, motionless and not breathing. He tried to imagine the flat, black liquid having just a hint of red to it.
Hugh had arrived in the Kingdom only three years before, struck down in his late twenties with a full head of simple brown hair and an average body that fit comfortably into Banana Republic's size medium. He left behind his parents, a few friends, some well-wishers and a fiancée, though technically she was no longer a fiancée at the time of his death. The wedding had been indefinitely postponed.
The grandfather of the bride was tasked with announcing the "schedule change" to the packed church. He tried to be tactful, thanking everyone for coming, pleading with them to stay and eat, but in the end he threw up his hands, exasperated. "I just wrote a check forseven thousand dollars’ worth of salmon terrine. Unbelievable."
Hugh leaned back in the creaky old chair and stared up at the dome of gray above him. The thick lead muntin bars made it feel so much like a cage. He never slept, nobody did. The Kingdom had no day, only restless nights to suffer from the memories of his brief time in the land of the living. To sleep was to dream. To dream was to hope. To hope was treason in the Kingdom.
Hugh was the only child of a professional couple that split in their fifties. His father, Dr. Rudd, immediately remarried a young woman from a lower social class, a dirty blonde with moxie who had made sales calls on his cosmetic surgery practice. She sold a tissue-firming face cream made from ground-up corpse beetle excretions mixed with a fungus that causes blight in strawberry crops.
Dr. Rudd was on several lists of firsts. He was the first graduate of an American medical school who refused to take the Hippocratic oath. He was the first plastic surgeon to break down the stigma surrounding junior high school girls getting lip and butt augmentations. His claim to fame, however, was the invention of high-end breast implants filled with St. Barth’s saline and flecks of 24-karat gold. He later sold the patent to Versace
who had a runaway success marketing them with the ad copy, "Considering implants? Remember, it's what's inside that matters most."
Hugh's mom didn't remarry. She took up homesteading in the family’s condo in Vail, where she worked part-time selling fractional ownership in luxury properties. In her free time she skied, played tennis and pressed the limits of her rediscovered sexuality. Documenting her erotic proclivities on high-def video, she was able to share her passions with an eager worldwide audience. Her maiden name didn't ring any bells, but at the mention of Ms. Mountaintops, eyes went wide and mouths made the O shape.
Tired of staring at the wine, Hugh sighed and looked at the floor. Everything reminded him of his wedding day; even his shoes betrayed him and sent him thinking back. They were rented black loafers with elastic bands that automatically adjusted from size 9.5 to 11.5. This was a shoe that would fit eighty-five percent of the male population. He died with them on and was now stuck with them for all eternity. Rubbing the scuffs on the toes, he wondered how they got there. Were they from him, on his wedding day, or from some other groom who rented them? Some other groom who was still alive, probably still married, maybe even still in love?
Hugh's childhood was unremarkable. He spent a lot of time pretending to be sick so he could stay home and play video games. At the age of twelve he waited in line with his best friend’s family to see the first
movie on opening night. The movie made a huge impact on him but by recess the next day he had come to the soul-crushing realization that no matter how hard he tried, he would never become a Jedi, and worse, he would never own a real light saber.
He wasn't much of an athlete in high school so he turned to performing rock and roll to woo the ladies. When that didn't work he defaulted to being the guy who could score booze and sometimes weed. His parents would leave him alone for long stretches while they traveled to beach resorts. He leveraged this abandonment into an above-average amount of adolescent heavy petting and dry humping. On December 27, halfway through his junior year of high school, he sealed the deal with a drunk college girl nicknamed Crash who was home visiting for the holidays.
High school blended into college. He was often criticized for not applying himself but he was under the impression that if he tried too hard in college he'd burn out and be useless to the real world.
After graduation he moved home and took a job at a local sporting goods store, where for some reason he was required to wear a shirt and tie while selling kayaks, fishing poles and complicated ski jackets. Still not sure what to do with his life, he would take his lunch break at the local library and page through magazines and books, trying to get a clue or just a hint of his true calling. Nothing grabbed him, but he liked the library and went back to school and got a master’s in library science. Eventually he got a job working at a posh law library at a private university, an institution that catered to the sons and daughters of successful attorneys who didn't want their children's lack of wits to be exposed at a more prestigious, well-known school.
His love life was frustrating. He kept trying to date law students who were younger and on a path to being better than him. He was lonely, terribly lonely. Then, on a whim, one Friday after work he followed a group of rather attractive hair stylists into an Applebee’s. To be honest, they weren't all attractive, but they had all made a special effort to look good in skirts and heels, hair done up in fancy dos. There was one girl in the mix who was a natural beauty. Maybe it was the first few sips of choco-rita, but he swore it was love at first sight.
Suddenly Hugh felt a dreadful plunge into deep despair. It wasn't just the memory of his lost love, it was the fickle pall that fell over the Kingdom several times a day.
There were no clocks or calendars, no way to record the passing of time in the Kingdom. Devices to keep track of what was left of eternity seemed frivolous. But still, people had to be places to do things to keep the city in order. Instead of a clock, an elaborate contraption was created and housed in the spire of the Head Minister's cathedral. Cobbled together from gears, springs and hissing pneumatic hoses, it worked on the principles of soul barometry. At random intervals it would heave and whinge casting a sudden gloom over the entire Kingdom. Its origin and workings were a mystery. Some suspected that deep inside the machine was the essence of ultimate darkness, blackest evil and desperate despair. A few of the Kingdom's scientists had theorized that the thing at the center was the polar opposite of love.
Hugh whimpered a little sob and held his chest. The pain of something heavy was compressing his rib cage. It was time for him to go to work. He stood up from his chair, walked over to the kitchen sink and dumped the black wine down the drain.
He slowly walked along a boulevard of dead trees. There was no reason to be on time. The jobs in the Kingdom were devoid of purpose. There was no reward for doing well, no punishment for making mistakes. There were just miserable tasks that had no meaning other than to make periods of malaise seem longer than they actually were.
Hugh ducked down a narrow brick alley choked with dead vines. The tunnel of tangled branches and brown leaves was barely big enough for a man to pass. Deep in the thicket and off to one side was a hatch leading to a small courtyard. Cleared of its debris, the small oasis was surrounded by a stone wall scrubbed as bright as could be. Up and down its jigsaw of fieldstone and mortar were black charcoal sketches of a flower, fuller than a rose but more graceful than a carnation. Hundreds of them were carefully illustrated in chalky black sweeps.
Through the hatch emerged the artist, Anastasia. She was in her sixties with a white crew cut and dark-rimmed glasses. Like every other woman in the Kingdom she wore the requisite tattered shroud with a voluminous hood that when draped over the head left the wearer's face deep in darkness. Hollow eyes peered out, dim headlights parked in an empty tunnel. But when she moved, an observer watching closely might get a peek at her fantastic shoes. Hidden under her dark drape were muted black, almost red, Givenchy pumps with three-eighths inch of platform and an exquisite gold charm buckling the slender ankle strap. It was a shoe that exuded confidence and timeless taste, with just a hint of naughty seduction.
"I got lost again," she admitted in an eastern European clack. "It would be so much easier if the streets didn't have names that all sounded alike. Left on Avenue of the Damned and then another left on Damned Avenue, cross Corpse Road and then right on Corpse Lane or Corpse Boulevard, or is it right on the Avenue of the Damned Corpse?"
"I don't bother learning the street names," Hugh said. He reached out to stroke the gentle arc of a flower stem. "They all lead to nowhere, to nothing."
Ana almost smiled. "You play the part too well. So tragic and sad. So tell me, if all is lost, everything hopeless, what brings you to this place, my hidden garden?" She searched her pockets for something.