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The next morning, newly suspicious, you go through Abi's address book and copy down the names of her male clients.
You finally come down with whatever it is you've been coming down with and are dog-sick for two weeks, debilitated for several days thereafter.
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by Lucius Shepard

The next morning, newly suspicious, you go through Abi's address book and copy down the names of her male clients. It's not that you believe she intends doing you harm, you tell yourself. You're the one with a problem. It's your ambivalence toward her that's causing you to pursue these fantasies. You did the same kind of thing with Carole, suspecting her of cheating on you, then dumping her before she could. By making a thorough investigation, you're certain you'll be able to defuse your suspicions.

You dedicate the weeks after Thanksgiving to checking out Abi's clients. Your master's thesis is circling the drain, but you hope that by cutting classes following a vacation holiday, you can build the grounds for an excuse, an emotional crisis, illness in the family, something, and perhaps your committee will be lenient. You don't much care one way or the other, though. The relationship is what's important. Five of Abi's clients have moved away, including Phil Minz. With the others, you pretend to be taking a survey for a study designed to improve handicapped services. Those you interview during the first week have all been injured prior to meeting Abi and have discernable reasons for their disability, whether disease or accident or congenital defect. The investigation doesn't seem to be leading anywhere and you think you must be coming down with something. Your energy's depleted, you're running a mild fever, and you're having trouble concentrating. To top things off, Reiner has reentered your life, popping up here and there in the U District and issuing profane threats. Two or three more days, you decide. After that, you'll pack it in.

On Tuesday of the second week, you interview one Nathan Sessions, a muscular young black guy with a spinal injury who's three years older than you. He opens the door wearing gym shorts and a gray T-shirt, a pair of dumbbells resting on his lap, and asks if you would mind talking in his bedroom? He's been exercising and would like to lie down. As he precedes you in his wheelchair, you observe a backward seven tattooed at the base of his neck, and, when you enter the bedroom, you see an aquarium set on a table, almost obscured behind stacks of books, pump gurgling merrily. No fish. Books are scattered about the room, on the floor, in chairs. The pile on the chair beside the bed, which you clear in order to sit, consists of works dealing with the nature of time. With practiced agility and a notable lack of effort, Sessions transitions between the chair and his bed, settles himself, and cheerfully tells you to fire away. After a battery of inessential questions, you ask how he came by his disability. He says it's a degenerative condition that relates to an injury he suffered on the wrestling team in high school and later exacerbated when he was "messing around." His basic attitude strikes you as buoyant and energized—you remark that he seems extraordinarily well-adjusted compared to most of the others you've interviewed.

"Why shouldn't I be?" he says. "I'm more alive now than I was. I can do things better… I can't begin to tell you how much my life's improved."

"What do you mean? How's it improved?"

"Before I was paralyzed, I was bored with life … though I didn't understand it that way. Not so I could say it. I was disinterested in the world, except for the momentary pleasure it could give me. Now I'm passionately interested in things. There's not enough time in the day. I suppose my attitude's at least partly compensatory. I've been determined not to get depressed."

This seems right out of the Abimagique textbook of New Age morality, and you wonder if Sessions actually feels that way or if he's been drinking the Kool-Aid.

"There must be some things you miss," you say.

"If I sit and think about it … sure. I don't like being in crowds anymore. Can't see over people. Things like that. But nothing important. I don't dwell on those things."

Employing as much sensitivity as possible, you ask about sex.

Sessions fold his arms and gives you a cool stare. "Isn't that outside the scope of your survey?"

"Not really. I'm hoping to get a complete profile on everyone I interview. That way, when I analyze it, I'll be dealing with more than just statistics. But if you prefer not to answer …"

"No, that's fine. I'm fully functional."

You pretend to make a note. "That's unusual with your type of injury."

Sessions starts to respond, pauses, and then says, "My massage therapist, she …"

It seems that he's debating whether or not he wants to touch upon the subject of his therapist. You wait for him to continue.

"Okay," says Sessions. "My therapist, this girl … We had a little thing, you know. She did stuff to my body, man, that you wouldn't believe. With her knowledge of muscles and the chakras, she could really get me off. Especially when she did this one thing with my back. It was like … indescribable. Incredible. So one morning after we had sex, I woke up with bad pain in my back and I couldn't move my legs. My doctor said it would have happened eventually, anyway. But what she did probably accelerated the deterioration. I was pissed, man. Full of negativity. But Abi, my therapist, she wouldn't let me go that way. She brought me back physically and mentally. She helped me with my diet, my rehab … everything."

"She must have had a lot of guilt."

"With Abi … She's not easy to figure out. But I never tripped on her about what happened, you know. I was the one begging her to do her thing, so it's on me."

It appears that Sessions has said all he intends to about the subject, and you're having difficulty framing a question that will start him up again, one that won't give away your position—you're not sure about Sessions' disposition toward Abi. It's possible he's complicit with her, though to think that would be quintessential paranoia. If true, he would be aware of who you are and there would be no need for circumspection.

"That's a cool tattoo on your neck," you say. "The backward seven."

"It's not a seven, it's a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. I had it done when I was with Abi. She's got one like it."

"Does it stand for anything?"

"I think it's got something to do with angels." Sessions shifts uneasily, flicks a glance at the door, as if expecting someone.

"Seems like this woman's been a big influence on every part of your life."

"Oh, yeah. Abi's unique. I told you some of the things she can do … Man!"

"Like for instance?"

"That's okay," says Sessions. "You can live without hearing it. I'll tell you this much. She made me realize that we can change our destinies. Abi's all about destiny. Hers, mine … everyone's. She's trying to change the world, and I think she just might do it."

You don't know how to respond to this; you shuffle through your papers, pretending to be searching for something. "So … you're not with her anymore?"

"We're doing a project together, but we're not …" A distracted expression comes over Sessions' face. "Listen, I need to get working here."

"You mean work on the project?" Grasping at straws, you pick up one of the books you cleared off the seat. "Does it have anything to do with time?"

Sessions swings himself back into his chair and precedes you toward the door, obviously eager to have you gone. "That's right, man. There's never enough of it. We need to make some more."

· · · · · 

The Hebrew letter tattooed on Sessions' neck and Abi's thigh is Chof. As far as you can determine, there's no connection whatsoever between this letter and the various hierarchies of angels, but while searching the internet for such a connection, you happen across a webpage entitled Fallen Angels, a section devoted to a group of such angels known as the Grigori, also known as the Watchers. According to the page, they looked like men, only larger, and were appointed by God to be the shepherds of mankind, there to instruct and lend a helping hand when necessary, but never to interfere in the course of human development. Sort of like that Federation rule, the Prime Directive, that Captain Kirk used to break every other episode of Star Trek. The Grigori, too, broke the Prime Directive by teaching man the forbidden sciences of astrology, divination, herb craft, and magic (the very disciplines, you note, that Abi claims proficiency in). To compound their sin, they began to lust after human women, to cohabit and have children with them. For this, they were banished from Heaven. Two of the princes of the Grigori were the angels Michael and Remiel.

Mike and Rem Gregory.

Abi's friends, the purple sweatshirt non-twins.

… they're angels, really …

You wish you hadn't stumbled across the webpage; you don't want conjecture about angels, or any peripheral matter, cluttering up your head and interfering with your ability to make judgments, now that the essential circumstance that's confusing you has been revealed. Though Reiner and Sessions corroborate each other's story to an extent, the stories have different outcomes. Sessions may have been under pressure to tell you what he did—that could explain his haste in getting rid of you; but his anxiety could also be chalked up to boredom or, as he indicated, to time considerations. Whatever, the bottom line is clear. Either you're misinterpreting a series of coincidences, or Abi is serially fucking and crippling clients for purposes unknown, purposes that may involve the complicity of angels and will, if Sessions is to be believed, affect all of mankind.

After interviewing everyone on Abi's client list, you conclude that if Reiner is correct in his assertion, if she's crippled six other men aside from him, five of them must be the five who have moved away from Seattle, because—except for Sessions—none of the rest qualify. Accepting Reiner's thesis that he was Abi's mistake, those five men plus Sessions plus you equals seven, the same number as Abi's tattoo … yet according to Sessions, it's not a backward seven, it's Chof, thus the number seven is irrelevant. Maybe it's both a seven and a Hebrew letter. Maybe an upside-down L, too. You can't fit all the details into a single theory. Angels, sevens and Hebrew letters, time, empty aquariums, Abi transforming men into cripples, the end of the world, etc.—you consider the possibility that one or more of the details may be extraneous, and if you removed it from the mix, the rest would cohere. That's the crux of your problem. Your witnesses are unreliable. Reiner's vituperation and Sessions' nervous evangelism equally nourish your capacity for doubt and serve to cast everything you yourself have witnessed in a shaky light. You can't tell how much to keep of what they've said and how much to throw away. Confronting Abi won't provide an answer. She'll only dissemble, or she'll speak the truth and you'll mistake it for dissembling.

You finally come down with whatever it is you've been coming down with and are dog-sick for two weeks, debilitated for several days thereafter. Abi nurses you through the illness, a consolation for which you're slavishly grateful, but your gratitude is tempered by the dreams that accompany your fever. Their basic architecture is always the same—you're crippled, bedridden, you're in Abi's house. From those fundamentals, they diverge wildly in character and have different endings, some ordinary, some dire, some ecstatic, some perplexing. Especially memorable is a dream in which Abi proves to be a mental patient escaped from an asylum in the future and has come back to the twentieth century to save the planet, but bungles the job. In one, she assumes the role of an alien, a member of an invasion force bent on destroying the environment; in another, she's a sexual demoness, a spirit named Lilith devoted to torturing young men; in another yet, she's a Gaian incarnation with noble intentions and extraordinary powers. In the remaining three dreams (there are seven in all), she's the Abi with whom you're familiar. In the first of these, she makes your life hellish with her psychotic fits, eventually setting fire to the house and incinerating you both; in the second, she nurses you back to health, you walk again, and the two of you embark upon a life of accomplishment and good works. In the final dream … Well, all you can remember of the third is a dark figure in a doorway that might be Abi but could as easily be a pizza-delivery guy or a symbol of the unknown.

The dreams are exceptionally vivid and too organized to be typical expressions of your subconscious, but you don't concern yourself with them until they begin showing up in rerun, variants of each repeating night after night. The most significant variant elements are the endings: the dream about the time traveler, for instance, ended badly the first time but ends well in rerun. The aquarium, Rem and Mike, and other facets of your life with Abi figure in all of them to one degree or another. You wonder if Abi's responsible for the dreams, if she's gotten into your head that deeply. But then you imagine that you may be on the wrong track altogether. Suppose you and she are at the center of a cosmic hiccup, an eddy in time, a branch poking up from the surface, disordering the flow, that must be cleared before the temporal stream can resume its customary race? The way the dreams are circulating in your head lends a physical resonance to this idea, and you have the sense that you've given up your destiny to a game of musical chairs; when the music stops, you'll be stuck with one of seven possibilities. In essence, if not in actuality, you'll wind up with a well-intended madwoman from the future, an ordinary psychotic, a seeker after truth, an alien, a sexual predator, a unknown figure in a doorway, or a goddess. It's ridiculous, you think. Yet each of these roles signifies a color you have assigned to Abi's character at some point or another, and you can't avoid the feeling that one of your dreams will come true.

You understand that you should put some distance between yourself and Abi, that the relationship has become entirely too unrealistic—in your head, anyway—and you should tell her that you need time apart; but the thing is, aside from the fact that you love her, this has all come to seem normal, this world of mystic possibility, of dreams and portents, of secrets and Tantric orgasm. You're dizzy with it, yet you don't mind being dizzy; you've come to enjoy the spins, the drama, the metafictional weirdness. As is the case with Abi's food, you've adapted to her ways and you don't believe you can function without them. It could be simply that you've gone too far—or are too far gone—to jump ship. You're in a canoe going over a falls, right at the edge, and it makes no sense to start swimming now.

· · · · · 

The day after Christmas, 2004. You wake early, before first light, and, leaving a note for Abi, who's still asleep, you go for a walk. You intend it to be a short walk, but the day dawns clear and crisp, a rare sun break in the gloom of winter, and you keep on walking until you reach the U District. Around eight thirty, you're idling along the Ave, browsing store windows, and there's hardly any traffic, pedestrian or otherwise, but suddenly there's Reiner, recognizable by his cane, his crookedness, standing on the opposite side of the street about a half block away. In reflex, you start down a side street but decide that this would be a good time to deal with him, with nobody about. As you draw abreast of him, he stares at you grimly but doesn't speak or try to approach. Though easier to live with than his shouts and curses, his silent regard is disconcerting, and you suspect that he sees some crookedness in you that has made you not worth hassling.

You call Abi, but she's not up or not answering; you step into a chapati place, just opened, and order the Mandalay Combo, watch patches of ice melting on the asphalt outside. Once you've eaten, you call Abi again—she's still not answering—and head home, keeping to the sunny side of the street. By the time you reach the house, it's gotten cloudy and colder. You hear the TV muttering in the bedroom as you enter. Abi's sitting in the chair by the window, still wearing her robe, watching CNN. "I tried to call," you say, and fling yourself down onto the bed. On the screen, in a tropical setting, people are weeping, being consoled, digging into a wreckage of palm litter and concrete. You ask what happened, and Abi says it was a tsunami.

"A tidal wave?"


She makes it clear that she's in no mood to talk. The screen shows a replay of the wave, caught on tourist video, striking a Thai resort; then a pulsing red dot in the Indian Ocean with little cartoon waves radiating away from it to strike the coasts of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Indonesia. The death toll, it's estimated, may rise into the hundreds of thousands. A commercial for L'Oreal intercuts the news, and you try once again to talk with Abi, but she flounces out of the room, goes to stand by the kitchen sink, staring out the window into the backyard. Her shields are up, maximum power, and she's sealed inside her envelope of intimacy-rejecting force. Though you go after her, you don't say a word. You sit at the kitchen table and wait for her to speak.

"I knew this would happen," she says without turning from the window.

With anyone else, you would offer comforting platitudes, but she takes these natural disasters personally; platitudes would only provoke her.

"I didn't know it would be today." Her voice catches. "Over the holidays … Yeah. But I didn't expect it today."

You stretch out your legs, enlace your hands behind your head.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" She whirls on you, her face full of strain, spoiling for a fight, needing to vent the frustration and pain she feels. You no longer doubt that she feels it, that she has this kind of general empathy (though she lacks empathy in the specific), but you remain dubious as to its authenticity, thinking that she may be like a Method actress, submerged in her role.

"What can I say? This is so huge, you can't feel it. Maybe you can, but it's tough for me. I walk in and see a little red dot on the TV and cartoony wave symbols striking map countries. It might as well be a hundred thousand cartoon people are dead. After I've had some time …" You shake your head, as if sadly bewildered. "I think there's something that protects most people from feeling so much death. A basic indifference that kicks in when it's needed. You don't seem to have that protection."

Practice makes perfect, and, whether or not it's pure fantasy, you've said exactly the right thing; perhaps you even halfway believe it. Mollified, she sits beside you and caresses your arm. "I'm sorry," she says. "You know how I get."

You shrug. "It's all right."

She draws circles on your arm with a finger. "I have to start making things ready."


"Me, mostly. I have to prepare myself."

You've got a feeling of numbness in your left foot, sciatic damage from the old car accident, and you react to this with a noise that, it appears, she assumes to be a sign of disapproval.

Exasperated, she says, "Do you remember the conversation we had months ago? I told you I wanted you to accept that I knew some things you didn't?"


"I knew this would happen in late 2004. I didn't know what form it would take, but I knew where, more or less, and I knew it would involve water. In 2007 there'll be a second cataclysmic event. Much worse than this. In Mexico, I think. It'll involve the earth. Not an earthquake, though. Something else. From that point on, there'll be a string of disasters, all coming close together. Then in 2012 … it ends."

"Everything ends?"

"I can't explain it," she says. "I could make up a story that would present an explanation, but no matter how hard I tried to be truthful, it would be so far off the mark, it might as well be a lie. I could tell you I've seen it happen, but how I've seen it, it's too diffuse to explain. What you said about me not being protected like most people? That's more accurate than you know. I've exposed myself to a force …" She clicks her teeth in frustration. "I'm sorry."

"Does it have something to do with time?" you ask, recalling Sessions and his books.

"Yes, partly. And the Tantra … and other things."

"So us having sex, that'll be part of it, too?"

She meets your gaze frankly. "An important part."

"Do I have to prepare, too?"

"I'm going to fix you a special tea that'll help you be more receptive."

"It'll get me in the mood, huh?"

She smiles at your joke, takes a pause, and then says, "I realize you're worried about a mistake. I won't make one. I won't hurt you."

"But you've made mistakes before?"

"Things haven't always gone how I wanted, but I didn't know as much as I do now. You'll be safe, I promise." She worries her lower lip but keeps her eyes level. "I can't walk you through this. There's too much for you to learn, and I don't have time to teach you. What I need now is for you to trust me."

"Okay, but …"

She sits up straight, hands in her lap, her preannoyance pose. "What?"

"Given it's true what you say, the disasters … You're going to stop them? Just you?"

"My friends are going to help," she says. "It's a coordinated action. Believe me, we've been preparing for this a long time."

"Mike and Rem?"

"Among others."

Sleet begins falling, sounding like a series of little slaps against the kitchen's tarpaper roof, slimy drops oozing down the panes like the thick crystalline blood of some magical creature—a translucent angel, a hazy gray gargoyle—who's been crouched up there for years. Abi studies the tattoo on the back of her hand, waiting for you to say something, but not pressuring you—it's a conversational habit the two of you have developed, these bursts of dialogue that border on argument, followed by silences during which an accord is reached. The room seems colder and smaller than when you entered, as if it's settled around you, revealed its mystical drab, the secret order of second-hand refrigerators and chipped coffee cups; the air is aswarm with tickings and small hums, and out in the wild world, the horn of a Chevy Suburban or a Volvo, three quick blasts, gives voice to urgency or impatience. You have a feeling of great sobriety, the sense of an enclosing moment.

"I trust you," you say.

· · · · · 

For the next seven days, the house reeks of bitter incense and herbal candles that Abi's had custom made—tall candles placed at the four corners of your bed, sallow in hue, with dark thready stuff embedded in the wax. The overall scent reminds you of Les Halles, the Paris market (which you visited one undergrad summer), but damper and more cloying. Abi speaks rarely, but you gather she's purifying herself for a ritual that must be performed soon. She sits naked on the bed, meditating for hours, and when she's not in bed she's taking baths in hot water so dense with herbs a greenish brown matte is left in the tub after it drains, or she's bent over the kitchen table, scribbling symbols on scraps of paper, which she will burn later in the special candles, as if she's writing cheat sheets for a supernatural exam. Twice a day, she asks you to fuck her Yab-Yum style, with you sitting in as close to a Lotus position as you can manage and her facing you, astride you, scarcely moving. During these encounters, you notice that her eyes have rolled back, the whites visible beneath half-lowered lids, and at these times you appreciate the strangeness of her sexuality, its eerie mix of the sublime and the sensual; but you mainly appreciate her power. It's like you've embraced a dynamo. She throbs, shivers, undergoes surges of heat and tremor. Even after you've disengaged, you feel her energies coursing around you.

You no longer doubt that she has the power to cripple you (well, maybe there's a little doubt), and while you can't quite wrap your head around the whys and wherefores, how a union of crippled men and friendly angels and Tantric witches is going to be of much help to the world in its hour of need, you've gone a ways toward conceding that she and her pals might have the power to avert a planetary disaster, or at least to minimize it. The issue of trust … You understand that trust isn't really at issue. You've been drawn into unnavigable waters, committed yourself to Abi's deep, and you have no choice except to let her steer. If it eventuates that you've opened yourself to a particularly vile form of torment, if Abi turns out to be a psychotic, or the embodiment of a demoness, or a more ordinary crippler of men, a deluded Goth chick who's wrong about everything, you're going to have to deal with that. And you will. You'll find a way. You won't be anybody's chump. With that settled in your mind, you give up your pursuit of answers and live as happily as you can in the green house—it seems to have gone green from the fresh charge of her vitality, so much so that you half-expect the furniture to put forth sprigs of leaves and blossoms—and assist Abi by fielding her phone calls.

The first four days of Abi's purification, you catch twenty, thirty calls a day, all announcing themselves by giving their first name and the call's point of origin. This is Frannie from San Diego, Ted from Vero Beach, Rene from Medellin, Jonathan from Perth, Lisa from San Francisco, Forrest from Madison, Pat from London, Syd from Duluth, Pauline from Chapel Hill, Jean-Daniel from Nantes, Lamon from Paris ("Kentucky, dude …"), Patrice from Diamante, Juana from Taxco, and so on. They don't need to speak to Abi, they say. Just mention they called. Most sound young. Since the phone hardly ever rings under normal circumstances, you assume these folks are the mystic warriors of her alliance signaling that they're ready to rock 'n' roll. Your personal favorite is Mauve from Oberlin, whose voice is such a fey, wispy instrument, you imagine a pixie hovering beside the receiver, and that two other pixies have helped her lift a pencil that dwarfs them to punch in the number. Then there's Marko from Volgograd (baritone)—you picture a bullfrog the size of a compact car wearing a tattered pro-Satan T-shirt. Ving from Chiang Mai (lisping tenor) becomes a gecko in a spandex body stocking. Anne from Mataplan (grating contralto) you morph into a Sasquatch transvestite. You become downright chatty with some of the callers—making light of what's happening helps dispel your nervousness. On the fifth and sixth days you receive far fewer calls, but you get one that, albeit brief, achieves the opposite effect.


"This is Rem … from Olympia." A hoarse voice that sounds squeezed-out, as if he's been gutshot or has a great weight on his chest and, unable to use his diaphragm, it's an effort to speak. He may have, as well, a slight accent.

"Abi can't come to the phone. Take a message?"

"Tell her … I called."

Like, "Tell her …" Heavy breathing. "… I called."

"Hey, Rem?"

A grunt that may have been a mangled "Yeah."

"They say the eagle flies on Friday."

Silence, then: "I don't … understand."

"It's the password, guy. You're supposed to say, 'Yes, but I have yet to feel its shadow.'"

"Abi told us … you had an … inelegant sense of humor."

"She did, huh? She used that word? Inelegant?"

A round of heavy breathing, then: "Good-bye, fool."

The seventh morning, Abi makes a few calls of her own; she cautions you that tonight, should you wake up and find her still involved in the ritual, you're not to interfere. She pounds home this point until she's sure you grasped it, then retreats into seclusion. You try to study but give up after an hour and veg out on the living-room sofa, alternately napping and catching up on your comic book reading. It's late afternoon, already dark outside, and you're deep into Alan Moore's collected Promethea, when Abi emerges from the bedroom, goes into the kitchen, and fixes you a cup of herb tea. You take a sip. The taste is horrid and you ask what's in it, but Abi's not communicating. She's withdrawn, pulled back inside herself; she urges you to drink it all and returns to the bedroom, leaving you to contemplate a cupful of brackish liquid with pieces of brown vegetable matter floating on the surface. You know it's a drug—nothing else could taste that bad—but you drink it. At heart, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, you don't buy any of this. The only part to which you lend the least credence is the possibility that your back will get screwed up, and, at this juncture, that's not enough to do more than give you pause.

An hour, two hours, or twenty minutes later, you're not sure, your sense of time has been wrecked, and you're not sure about anything, especially your decision to drink the tea. You've passed through a period of sweats, intense physical discomfort, and major stomach pain, and now, though your head's not in a bad place, it's not a particularly good place, either. It seems you're sitting beside a fire, included in a circle of old half-naked men who're talking in booming voices in a language you don't understand, and you're terribly confused—you get that they're discussing you, that by being there you're making a kind of expiation, but you're confused by the flickering firelight, by noises in the vegetation beyond the light, by an inner unsteadiness. Furthering your confusion, this hallucination winks on and off, and when it's off, you have a distorted view of the room, of yourself lying sweaty and disheveled on the sofa, tossing and turning. There's all this relationship stuff about your mom, too. Scenes from the past. Arguments, emotional confrontations, and the like, replayed at lightning speed, a fast-forward mind movie.

Your dad's in some of the scenes, but he's a peripheral figure. It's all about your mom, really, and you're overwhelmed by sadness on realizing how many of these conflicts remain unresolved. And then you reexperience your first childhood memory. You're two or three, you still have blond hair, and you're playing on a hooked rug, the sunlight falling around you, and you're seeing yourself from a height, from your mom's perspective, through her eyes, her mind, and you feel love, the powerful bond between mother and child that can never be entirely broken …

Suddenly you've left pain and confusion behind. You're in a small boat passing along a green river bordered by low jungle. You sense the old men are somewhere close by, but they're no longer participants in your life, merely observers, and you're content to lie there and think long riverine thoughts. You find you can switch off the hallucination at will, but the house is too cluttered, too modern in its complexity, and you go with the flow of the green, green river, content to lie back and let its serene current carry you nowhere and everywhere the same …

And that's when Abi comes back into your world.

At first, you think she's a creature of your hallucination, a river goddess, a spirit made flesh. She's painted her body with elaborate green designs, vines framing her face and spiraling round her breasts, columning her arms and legs, most profuse about her sex, as if it's her center or is central to the issue at hand. She is, without question, the most beautiful woman you've ever seen, the manifestation of a fabulous unearthly tropic, and, in a daze, you allow her to lead you into the bathroom, where she bathes you meticulously, using aromatic oils afterward to polish you, drying your erection with her hair, never speaking a word, and neither do you speak, not wanting to break the erotic spell she's weaving with her hands and tongue and breath. Her eyes, heavily adorned with kohl, resemble caverns with green fires in their depths. You both smell of flowers. As she leads you from the bathroom, you notice that her back and buttocks also bear designs. Someone must have assisted her; they must have come to the house while you were going through your changes on the sofa. That doesn't trouble you. Nothing does. You're atop a chemical peak, too high above the world for trouble to reach.

In the bedroom, where candles are pointed with glittering flames, smoke ghosts thinly rising from them, the air disturbed by currents only you can see, you sit in the Lotus posture, achieving it easily, as if the tea has made you more flexible, and when Abi mounts you, when her weight descends, the gorgeous intimacy of your union seems to have rendered you both weightless and you're floating up from the green satin bedspread, levitating, nudged this way and that by impalpable eddies. Abi begins chanting softly, but with prayerful intensity, and the rushed rhythm of her words, impassioned utterances followed by turbulent silences, her breath shuddering out, it becomes your mutual rhythm, orchestrating miniscule squeezings and shiftings. Her eyes are wide open, all white, and you have the idea you're making love to an idol come to life, that she's possessed by a spirit too vast to fit within her skin, compressed to the point of exploding. But the distance created by that thought closes quickly, and soon there is only the feel of her body and yours, indistinguishable one from the other, trembling with energy, an engine harnessed to the vital task of salvation.

How long this goes on, you can't say. Hours, minutes, days … Your time sense is still wrecked, and that strikes you as odd because time is flowing all around the ship built of your two bodies, a green river carrying you everywhere and nowhere, its currents visible even when you shut your eyes, so real it seems you could lift your hand from Abi's waist and cause a splash that would disrupt its flow and destroy some yet unenvisioned future. She brings you to the verge of orgasm over and over again but holds you from the brink, her chanting slowing, easing you down into your animal self, storing up power until it can no longer be contained and achieves maximum release. It's almost painful, this denial, but pleasure and pain are blended together, even as you and Abi are blended, and your mind admits only to delight. She kisses you, tongue of idol flicking forth to taste your soul, tongue of animal flicking forth to taste hers, and her fingertips fit to ten familiar places along your spine. Your hands glove her breasts. You're enthralled by their softness, by her dress of vines, her white-eyed stare, her scarlet mouth and Halloween hair. It's a mental snapshot you'll keep forever … or wherever it is she's about to send you.

· · · · · 

You're in and out of consciousness for a while. Mostly out. Your eyes open once and you see her standing at the foot of the bed, head bowed and arms upraised, like a diver preparing for her big finish, the air watery and rippling around her. Your dreams are muddled, images and vignettes, nothing special, and when you wake, cracking an eye to see a faint lightening of the sky, thinking you haven't slept all that long, you realize that you've moved your legs. Not only have you moved your legs, you have no pain—your back's sore, but it's always a little bit sore in the morning, and you feel incredible. Strong and well-rested, as if you've slept for a week. You test your legs again and lie there for a minute, thankful that you're not crippled and that you didn't make a mistake in trusting Abi … which seems an upset, because what she did earlier, it felt as if your nervous system short-circuited. You swing your legs onto the floor, and, keeping one hand on the headboard, afraid that you'll collapse, you stand. You stomp your feet, bounce on your toes. All good. You pull on pants and a shirt and go looking for Abi … and for food. In the kitchen, you cut a thick slice of bread, a hunk of cheese. You cram it in. Shit, you're hungry. You hope Abi's okay. It might be that you're going to have buck her up. Boost her spirits. Because the chances are, all that Yab-Yum boogaloo abracadabra worked out to be was a great fuck. Chewing, you push open the door to the living room.

Abi is there.

Either you're still high, and why wouldn't you be?—you only slept a couple of hours … Either you're high or you're still asleep and dreaming you're awake. What you see can't be real, though you deal with it as if it is; you try and understand what's happening.

Let's say, metaphorically speaking, that time is a river, a green river consisting of currents, separate and discernable, and that seven of these currents have pierced the walls of your living room, penetrating windows and walls, bookcases and doors, visible as six translucent scarves looping through the air, liquid spokes joined to a central scarf, which is much thicker than the rest, a column connecting the ceiling to the floor. In sum, a vaguely treelike shape, an exotic anomaly among the thrift-store furniture and cheap oriental rugs.

Let's further say that the water in those currents has been frozen, transformed into tiny ice particles, trillions of greenish particles, each the size of a dust mote, hovering in place … that's how you interpret what you're seeing. The metaphorical representation of time, or something to do with time—its underpinnings, its internal structures. Abi's encased in the central column, poised within it, her right arm lifted, looking as if she's about to pick a flower from a branch above her head. Naked, white-eyed, skin decorated with vines. She, too, appears frozen. And then she moves. The slightest of movements. The thumb and forefinger of her right hand rub together, as if she's selected one of the particles, pinched it loose from the rest and is rubbing it away between her fingertips. She makes a quarter-turn inside the column, and now she's facing you, smiling a ghastly smile. Any smile might seem ghastly in context of those white eyes, but it puts fear in your heart and you take a step backward.

Witch, you think.

The smile grows more ghastly, displaying fine white teeth.

Vile, unholy witch.

Kali lacking her necklace of skulls would look no more fearsome, her face no more devoid of human qualities, and you believe this is her nature revealed, this voodoo bitch in her green viney gaud. She's been waiting for this moment, waiting to show you, waiting to laugh at you. She stretches forth her hand, and you know she's about to snatch out your spine and brandish it aloft, a dripping bone spear to plunge into your heart, mash it into meat pudding, and then she'll snap up your soul as it squirts from your torn flesh. Her vast life surrounds you, surrounds all things. She dwells in the timestream, a pearl spider god dances on her finger, and she is reaching out to slaughter whatever her hand encounters, be it a single strand of DNA or to snuff out the flames of a burning city and inhale the fumes that ascend from its dying …

You've forgotten that the kitchen door only swings outward, and you slam headfirst into it. The impact stuns you, sends you staggering sideways, and you flail off-balance, instinctively groping for something to hold yourself up. Your left hand catches the top of the bookcase, the same pierced by one of the frozen currents, and, as you fall, your hand locks onto it and the bookcase falls on top of you. Digging out from beneath a cascade of trade paperbacks, you hear a loud crack, followed by an ear-splitting shredding noise. You come to one knee. Abi's staring at you, her eyes no longer rolled up into her head. The voodoo bitch of whom you were so terrified has been replaced by a terrified woman who realizes she has lost some crucial measure of control. Behind her, it looks as if something has bitten a chunk out of the corner of the room, creating a ragged hole that's as wide as a church door. The treelike structure, the green confluence of time, has lost its shape, and its currents, all unfrozen now, are washing past Abi, flooding through the hole and merging with a flux of darker stuff that appears to be flowing just beyond it. She's about to be washed out along with them, but she's struggling to keep her feet, still reaching toward you, fingers splayed, silently imploring you to help. You have an instant to become aware of this, but before you can regain your feet, she's gone. There's a scream, fainter than you'd expect, muted by some imponderable distance, as she's sucked through the hole, striking her head on a broken board and pinwheeling away, her pale figure dwindling against the dark flow of … You don't know what it is, but if you had to give it a name, you'd call it God.

You stand there, racked first by the beginnings of grief, then by guilt (she told you not to interfere), then by disbelief. The tea, the drug she gave you … Maybe this has all been the drug. But the hole in the wall presents incontrovertible evidence against disbelief, stable and solid, its edges displaying strata of plaster and insulation; though the dark flux beyond it lacks a certain reality and may be, like the tree of green time, metaphorical, the simplified rendering your mind has made of an incomprehensible darkness.

Something begins to gather in its depths, accumulating form from the void. A face, you think. It acquires detail, growing larger, swelling from the darkness, and it's definitely a face … It's Abi's face, pale and painted with vines. Improbable though it seems, she must have found a way to fight against the flow; she's forging upstream, coming back into the world. But the larger the face grows, the less you believe that. It's rippling, wavering, more like the painting of a face borne upward on a dark water, threatening to dissolve at any moment … and it's enormous. Close to the hole, all that's visible is its lower half, chin and lips, a bit of jawline, the point of her nose, and, drawing closer yet, it's reduced to a huge photo-real scarlet mouth that's pressed up against the hole.

The lips purse convulsively, making a squelching noise that reminds you of someone worrying at a sliver of meat stuck between their teeth. The mouth opens and an immense human tongue lolls forth, expelling the mass of bloody tissue, bone, and hair that was resting upon its tip. It lands with a soggy thump on the floor and is, most assuredly, no metaphor. Among the pulped organs and bone shards, you recognize Abi's remains by the orange streaks in her hair. Something breaks in you, or you break and something remains of you that races through the kitchen and out the back door, knowing that God will swallow you, spit up your bones … but you don't care. If extinction's what it takes to wipe these images from your brain, let it come.

The cloudy sky is ancient water-damaged wallboard, the motionless firs are stage props, the dim rush of the freeway is a sound effect. It closely resembles the world you once knew, but now you've seen what lies behind it; you know it was never what it seemed. The black chow mix chained in the yard next door goes mad. You move to the opposite side of the house and sit, resting your head on your knees. Grief sets in. You welcome it, you seek refuge in tears, in the weight in your chest, the absence in your skull. You still can't believe what's happened, and these physical proofs of loss are all you have to rely on. She warned you not to interfere and you fucked up, you made the mistake. Grief and guilt mixed together are too much to bear. Shivering from the cold, you get to your feet and walk stiffly to the kitchen door. You can't bring yourself to go inside, and that's when the problems of what to do next and what to do ultimately surface from the moil of your thoughts. Call the police. Run away. Join a monastic order. Off yourself … Tempting, but you're not that kind of coward. Not yet. The chow takes up barking again, like barking is its fucking religion, and that drives you inside.

The phone's ringing.

It could be your mom, forgetting again what time it is back west, or your neighbor calling to complain about how you upset his dog, or a friend who knows you wake up early … Whichever, it offers you temporary relief from being alone. You pick up the kitchen extension and say hello.

"Is Abi there?" The inimitable voice of Mauve, the pixie from Oberlin.


There follows a silence that she's apparently not intending to fill.

"Abi's …," you begin, but can't finish.

"Yes? Is she all right?"

Your voice catches. "No."

"What happened?"

Picking up the phone, you think, wasn't such a great idea. "I don't know you."

"Goddamn you! Tell me what happened!"

Hearing her curse is like hearing Tweety Bird getting salty with Sylvester—it's almost funny.

"Who are you?" you ask.

"Is Abi dead?"

It's a question you can't resist answering. "Yes."

A pause, and then: "I want you to tell me what happened."

You glance up to the ceiling, and, as if that flat white surface were a poignant reminder of Abi, or just by lifting your head you disturbed a frail emotional balance, you burst into tears.

"Get it together!" Mauve says. "Do you know how many people died tonight? Nobody gives a fuck how bad you feel. If you cared about her, tell me what happened. It's the only thing you can do for her now."

Haltingly, you tell her everything, you hold nothing back, and when you're done, her voice cold like the voice of a teensy prison warden, she says, "She should have paralyzed you. I would have."

"I wish she had." Then, thinking about what Mauve said, you ask, "Why didn't she?"

"Because she didn't like hurting people, because she loved you … Fucking jerk!" A second later she says, "I'm sorry. You don't deserve that. It's not all your fault."

You don't want to deny it.

"I have an—" Mauve begins, but you break in: "You said some people died tonight. How many?"

"A lot."

"They died as a result of what I did?"

"Don't concern yourself about that. What you need to do now …"

You laugh. "Don't concern myself?"

"You haven't got time for guilt. Bottom's got your scent now. It'll find you again, you can count on it."

Bottom, you say to yourself. Bottom dweller? Like in A Midsummer Night's Dream Bottom? "What the fuck's Bottom?"

"Didn't Abi explain about the Bottomland?"

"No. What is it?"

"Jesus." She lets the word hang for a few, then she says, "You need to be protected. I want you to take the next plane you can catch to Detroit. Call me, and I'll meet it. You've got my number?"

You check caller ID. "Yeah."

"Get out of the house now. Don't pack. Don't—"

"What about the body?"

"It'll be dealt with. I'll make a call. Now get out quick. You're not going to be safe 'til you're here."

"You can protect me?"


You've been flipping back and forth between despair and mild hysteria, but her saying this jams you up into full-blown hysteria. "It looks to me like you're seriously fucking up here. There's all these guys with busted spines and people are getting chewed up. How can you protect me when you don't know what the hell you're doing?"

"All right," Maeve says. "You have to keep it together. Or you're not going to make it."

"What's the Bottom?" you ask again.

"If you don't leave, you're going to find out about it firsthand. I'll explain it when you get here, I swear. I can protect you. I may not be able to always protect you, but I can protect you now."

"Why? Why would you?"

"Because Abi would want me to. And because you've become a resource. I need another partner, and you've been prepared to an extent."

The implication is that she intends to perform the ritual with you, or a similar ritual. You tell her you're not interested in having sex with her and she says, "Don't worry. I'm nothing like Abi. I'm not going to be your lover. Try to look at it as a job. An onerous duty that just might keep you alive."

"So I'm supposed to come to Oberlin and let you paralyze me?"

"You're a big-time skeptic, aren't you? I can see why Abi didn't tell you much—she'd always be explaining herself. If preparations go well, if you can put aside some of your skepticism, I might not have to. But if I think it needs to be done, you bet I'll do it. You'll be taken care of, but you're not going to be walking for a while. Now you have a choice. Get on the plane, don't get on the plane. Up to you. Give me a call if you're coming."

· · · · · 

The bus to the airport is only about a third full. At first you sit in the back, far away from everyone, but then you think that if anything happens, if the freeway, for instance, bursts asunder and a giant claw thrusts up from the Bottom, snatching the bus, you wouldn't stand a chance; so you move up to a seat with a window that can be popped out. Wearily, you rest your head against it. Transmitted through the glass, the sound of the tires is amplified into a high-pitched insect choir chanting Abi Abimagique, Abi Abimagique, Abi Abimagique over and over. You don't need your grief pounded home, and you sit up. It's funny, albeit not funny ha-ha, that here you are again, off to Oberlin to hook up with a woman who's no less a ballbuster than Abi, off into the same mystery, the same not-knowing, the same basic relationship, because no matter how firm Mauve's expression to the contrary, the Tantra involves emotion. Unless it's a trap, unless she's bringing you to Oberlin for the purpose of revenge, to wreck your health and torment you in payback for the people who died, one probably being her partner. You hate the word "partner" in context of relationships. It's no less redolent of inequality than husband or wife or indentured servant; it omits the modifier. Managing partner, junior or senior partner, sex partner, et al. It makes juiceless and dry the concept of a life together; it presents the idea that it embodies a rational decision to hand over your heart to another animal for safekeeping.

Those thoughts, bleak as they are, provide a short vacation from even worse thoughts—when you return from it, you find your head's in awful shape, full of tears, recriminations, regrets, and you rest it on the window glass again, preferring insect choirs to the alternative. The rhythm's changed slightly: Abimagique Abi Abi, Abimagique Abi Abi. You kind of get into it, singing drowsily along under your breath, and that starts you thinking about how she was, how when she wasn't all deranged about the cause, she could be so damn funny, she had this dry sense of humor you sometimes mistook for insult and didn't get until later how clever what she'd said really was Abi Abi Abimagique Abi that time in the lab when no one else was around and you made love by the light of Bunsen burners and she wandered about afterward in the dark, materializing as she passed the flames like a voluptuous spook Abi Abi Abimagique Abi you're not sure you want to fly to Oberlin, to Mauve, you don't know if you can go through that again even if it's only a shadow of what you had with Abi Abimagique Abi Abi what the fuck have you gotten yourself into, what the fuck is going on, what the fuck Abi Abimagique Abi and you're glad the bus is getting close to the turnoff onto Airport Drive, it runs for miles past all the hotels shitty burger joints topless bars, and if you decide that's the way to go, if you don't want to know how it all ends, you can tell the driver to let you out anywhere Abi Abi Abimagique …

The End
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© 2005 by Lucius Shepard and SCIFI.COM.