The Purgatory Blues: Chapter 1

I was ready to die when it happened. I’d been ready for months. And as I lay in that hospital room, as they pumped serums into me and pick out all the splinters of skull, I knew the moment had come. And I was not afraid.

I was relieved.

There was no pain. I think I was beyond it then. But I could hear everything – the shouts of the nurses as they ran down the corridor, the murmur of the surgeon as he concentrated, the rustle of his sleeves. I heard the monitor flatline. My surgeon started cursing as the crash cart rumbled in. I don’t know how many times they tried to resuscitate me. But eventually they had to call it.

That was when I opened my eyes. Not my physical eyes, but the eyes – or perhaps awareness – of whatever was left of me once my physical body was gone. My body lay next to me, cold and motionless. Pale. Red matted the side of my head and my face was a mass of bruises. I looked away from my former shell. I didn’t need to see the damage. I’d lived it.

The surgeon pulled down his mask, revealing a thin, downturned mouth in the middle of an aging face. A nurse came around the side of the bed, walking right through my non-corporeal self to fold my body’s arms. She didn’t seem to notice a thing. When she was finished, she went over to the surgeon and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Do you think they’ll catch the guy who did it?” he asked. He sounded weary and frustrated. I reached out for him almost instinctively, touched that he cared. No one else in my life had.

She just patted his shoulder. “Come on,” she said, and turned him toward the door.

When they shut that door, I saw him. He stood behind it, barely more than a shadow. But when all the people were gone, he stepped into the light.

I knew he was like me, because he was staring straight at me. He was tall and thin – almost skeletally so – with jutting cheekbones and a sharp chin. His eyes were large and lilac-colored, and black hair hung to just above his shoulders in greasy strings. With his wide eyes and pale face he looked like a rag doll.

“Are you ready to go to the afterlife, Rachel?” he said. He extended his arm.

I nodded and placed my own, translucent ghost-hand in his. I’d always wondered what kind of a place Heaven was.

Unfortunately, Heaven wasn’t where we were going.


Click here to read Chapter 2.

This lengthy story came as the result of listening, over and over, to the incredible song “Meadows of Heaven” by the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. Its original name was also “Meadows of Heaven,” but I don’t have permission from the band to use it as the name of my story so I don’t wish to put it in the public domain under that name.

A lot of my poetry is untitled, but an untitled short story feels as though it’s lacking in a home. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a name that feels appropriate. Any ideas on what this story should be called? 

As always, I am open to suggestions and constructive criticism.

No Elysian fields are these pillared halls. The greyness expands in a mass, the walls define a space large enough to contain earth a thousand times. Yet everything has been sapped of colour, and her underworld is neither a paradise nor a dark hell-hole. It is a waiting place. And to her mind, it is also nothing. The halls are neither light nor dark, they have no beginning and no end, they are devoid of life and they lack real substance. When she wanders them, she dreams of her lover and his sweet voice, chanting her name as though it would absolve him. She remembers as well as she can the thick smell of honey and high summer, the warmth and vibrance of the Mediterranean, the life that lent a kind of urgency to the whole world—and she is filled with such a longing that she cannot remember having felt anything else.

It used to be that she was awaiting her rescue, at the hands of her love. The memory of her wedding is still so clear to her—she can recall the grass with its sharp blades, pricking her feet, its pungent scent, the poppies and thistles that were first her bouquet and then her funeral garland. Her love had played the lyre for her until the wedding guests had wept from passion or longing or despair. The music he pulled from his lyre was legendary even in his own lifetime. But it was not his fingers that were so skilled, nor his voice, which was pure and full, but as human as anyone else’s. He seemed to know the internal rhythm of things, the beat to which the tide came in, the pauses every bird took note of—and his fingers plucked out a melody that harmonized with the cadence of the world.  Sometimes she thinks that he could have made anyone love him.  Sometimes she wonders why he had to pick her.

In the underworld there is no rhythm.  Nothing breathes, for there are no bodies—the form she wears is just a vessel, a temporary state that was supposed to hold her until her soul met her earthly body again.  When she walks through the cavernous hallways, she can feel the contact her feet make with the floor, but no sound emits.  If she concentrates enough, she can recreate the sound in her mind, but she understands that it’s only a memory of another world.  When she converses with other denizens of this bleak kingdom, the words roll into her brain without passing through the air first.  Even the river, which is deep and wide, engorged with the souls of the damned, trickles in silence past the rock banks and the ferryman’s oar dips soundlessly into the water.

She emerged into the afterlife in wailing agony, drenched in sweat and river-water. When she had taken that first gasp of stale air around her, she had thought she was dying. It was only after she had recovered from her delirium that she realized she was already dead.  The bite marks were sewing themselves shut, and the poison leaked away from her pale, wasting form.  With her memories still fresh and aching as her wound, he came to her and said that her love would come for her and lead her back to the meadows and mountains of her birthplace.  It’s in the story, he said.

When? she asked, shivering from her imagined fever.  Now?

Soon.  After you are better.

Better was a term to be considered highly relative.  For her, better was her transference from corpse to image, and along with it the loss of each sense.  The way she sees things now, the smells she catches drifting on the ghost of the wind, they’re all pulled from memory and used as tricks to convince her new body that it exists.  She can still see, still hear, still feel in technical terms, but this is the underworld—there is nothing to sensually experience.  She finds it hard to believe that this is better than anything.

But the day her lover came for her, there was a change.  Music rippled through the hallways like the smooth flow of molten glass.  He sang the summer down into the underworld with him, and the scent of honey and wild clover filled her.  She shivered as, for the first time, her substitute body experienced warmth.  The noise of the river was a crashing turbulence on her senses.  With his clear voice he began to lament for her, defining her beauty and sweetness as the underworld bloomed around her.  Even though she could not see him, his music travelled through the passageways and pleaded to everyone who heard it.  He walked steadily, providing his own percussion, and he called for her with every chord, every pluck of his fingers upon the lyre, every footstep until the very walls of the underworld were crying for her, begging her to return with him to the heaven they had lived in.  Her own face was wet with its first tears; they tasted sweet, and a little sticky, as though her new self had tried so hard to make them, but had erred somehow.  Every limb shook in an agony of longing, crying to be reunited with him.

After a time the last chord fell into the air, and there it hung for long, impossible minutes as the world below clung desperately to the one above.  Finally a voice resonated in the mind of every lost soul that wandered the halls, the voice that had greeted her when she first woke, assuring her that a day like this would come.  The voice’s owner seemed bemused, curious at this interruption that had put the realm of his existence into an uproar. It inquired:

Who are you?

I am Orpheus, her lover replied.  Even in a place where his voice did not truly touch the air, it had a lilt and rhythm to it that kept it in line with the music he had brought down with him.  I can make the music of the gods, he said.  And I will play for you.  She imagined him lifting his slender fingers to the lyre’s strings, opening his red, red mouth, tapping his right foot as he concentrated.  In this place, where time is so immaterial, she could not have said for how long he sang.  She can only remember that he sang about everything—the formation of the bare earth, the violence of the gods and the giants, the beginnings of men, the development of her own race as they tamed the fire, the mountain and the sea.  And then he went on to speak about love, that overriding force which made even the gods act like fools and turned a man into a hero worth singing about.  He spoke of her, the unequalled beauties and perfections that she has never seen in herself, her myriads of virtues, her boundless love for a creature such as him.  Such a misery pervaded the hallways when he sang of his loss and his despair that she was sure she would have killed herself, if only she had not already been dead.

Who could say how much time passed between when he started and when he was finished?  After hours—or perhaps minutes—his voice, just as lovely and strong as when he had started, died away.

Everything was silent in reflection of his outpourings.  The birdsong that had drifted down from the world had stopped.  The breeze that, laden with summer, had wafted through the halls, left only the seasonal heat as a mark that it had ever been.  Even the river had stagnated and turned into a murky pool on which the ferryman’s small boat drifted.  The ferryman himself was lost in tearful contemplation.  The Kindly Ones set aside their vengeful ruminations.  After a period of silence that lasted nearly as long as the music had, she felt something lodge between her breasts, an insistent and invisible hook that pulled her makeshift form away from where she stood, through the endless hallways that had been her labyrinth and prison.  As she was navigated through the twists and turns, she heard the soft voice of her queen.

You have performed a great service for us today, she said.  To experience such passion and feeling is an accommodation not afforded to the lost wanderers who must find solace and companionship within this realm, and we are grateful for the brief moments you have brought to us.

Surely the bringer of such a service deserves a small reward, her lover said.

That reward which you desire, you shall have.  It was the Lord of the underworld who spoke now.  He had known this would happen, from the moment she had awoken in his care.  And with the final turn, she found herself in the company of the three of them—the king, the queen, the bard.  He stood in a large, open space, without much definition, like the halls she is used to wandering through.  In here, though, were two tall, sparse thrones, the only furniture she has ever seen in the realm of the dead.  They were of the same grey material as the rest of this world, and in them sat her lord and lady.   The lord was a gaunt man, with pale and clammy skin and a feeling of thinness, as though most of him wasted away from some sickness.  His consort looked ill as well, with large pouches under her eyes as though she had not slept, and her hair lacked luster.  From the time she spent visiting the world above she still retained some of her curve and color, but it appeared to be fading fast.

And Orpheus—even though she could not see his face, she knew that a toll had been taken on him.  His hands shook when they were not playing his lyre.  His unkempt clothes hung on him, more like dyed rags than the finery in which she had last seen him.  He had not troubled to trim his hair, and it was tied back in a knotted, greasy ponytail.  There were scabbed lines that ran across his shoulders and continued under his shirt, as though he had carelessly scratched himself somehow.  The sight of him seemed to open up her breast like a birdcage and push her heart out through the gap.  The pain of it was physical enough to take her by surprise, and she let out a cry—but the air around her was suddenly thick and humid, and the sound she made was swallowed up before it reached his ears.  When she stretched out her hands, they met with that same thickness and it seemed that the more she pushed, the more solid it became.  She could not even touch him.

The Lord of the underworld turned and with his hands made a strange, complicated motion— a spider weaving his web— and in front of Orpheus a hole appeared and began to worm its way outward until it was a ragged, unfinished passage, with slick grey steps and an unholy gleam to its walls.

At the end of this passage is the light of the world above, said the lord.  Reach the earthly realm and you will be able to renew your life with your love.  Turn back and she will be lost to you.  Orpheus nodded and began, haltingly, to walk, as though the journey had made him old before his time.  And she followed, forever kept back by that invisible barrier that had imposed itself between her and her love.

She wonders now if she had expected him to fail—Orpheus the perfect, Orpheus the tragic.  Or perhaps she wanted him to fail, this selfless, obsessive prodigy.  When she was alive she never did anything extraordinary except fall in love with an extraordinary man.  Sometimes it was difficult to be loved by him, for everyone else to whisper how lucky she was, with never a thought to how it might go the other way.  No one ever thought of Eurydice without thinking of Orpheus first.

They walked and walked, ever upward.  At first he went quickly and eagerly, taking two or three steps at a time, even counting them under his breath.  In the solemn and silent passageway, every sound he made was echoed and echoed again.  But she made no noises.  Her feet had no weight to press upon the ground, her nose and mouth did not breathe.  She had died, after all.  She could hear the creeping doubt in him when he first called her name.  When she tried to answer the barrier between them absorbed her words like a wall of water.  With each hopeful inquiry his voice seemed less and less certain, and the resolution faded from him.  Soon he was trudging onward, one slow step at a time, up a staircase with no end.

She smelled the world above before she saw it.  The newness of it, the delicacy of its scent that could only come from the mixture of a million elements—she remembers it as the perfect perfume.  And that first sweet smell was accompanied by a sharp pain, in its own way just as sweet, as the simulacrum of her body began to be replaced by flesh.  When at long last the first pinpoint of light appeared, Orpheus sprang forward with renewed jubilance.  The brightness of it was excruciating on her renewing eyes, turning her blind so that she tripped on the next step and fell, hitting her palms and knees on the sharp stair corners.  Her skin was almost immediately scraped raw, and she cried out more in frustration than pain.  But her lover could hear none of this, and left her to blunder behind him a blind cripple.  Still, she stumbled on, no more able to resist the call of her homeland than she had been able to resist the invisible hook that had pulled her toward Orpheus.

Next came the aches in her feet and legs as they tried to remember how one used muscles in the physical realm.  Her steps became slow and shuffling, although the blindness was beginning to recede so that she could make out dim shapes in the hazy whiteness around her.  A stabbing, throbbing sensation made her right leg buckle as her ankle remembered the bite of the serpent.  He seemed so far away now, calling back for her, real worry in his voice.   She drew in breath to shout, but her voice came out as a hoarse exhale devoid of power.  Tears stung her face as she pulled herself onward, her insides and outsides reforming themselves into a neglected and wasted form.  But the light of the world grew ever brighter, and she pushed ahead.  Soon she could hear the birdsong, the gentle buzzing of insects, the rustle of the wind, a symphony almost as perfect as the music of her lover.

Sometimes she wonders whether she was in more in love with Orpheus or with Orpheus’ world. Sometimes she wonders if this is why he failed.

The hallway opened as a gash on the face of the earth, revealing to any who looked in a rocky blandness.  But to those who looked out, the world was an explosion of colour, yellows and greens and blues and browns and shades that she had never even noticed before she had lost them.  The verdant grass of the meadow outside was host to reds and yellows and blues and whites, lifting their petaled arms in homage to the sun who, nestled in his cloudy chariot, graced the summer earth with warmth.  She could see olive trees with their fat fruits hanging off of silver-green branches, sweetening the air.  And the blue above them was so full and deep that for a moment she could not tell whether she was looking at the sky or the sea.  The world hummed, danced to a rhythm that its counterpart lacked, with such a fundamental power that she felt one final, excruciating lurch in her chest as her heart began to beat.  She would need no afterlife at all, if only she could be privy to such experience again.

He was standing at the entrance to the underworld, pleading for her to answer, to take him by the hand.  But she could no more touch him or speak to him than she had at the beginning of their journey.  All she could do was struggle onward.  And although she screamed for him, cried and shouted and begged, she saw the profile turn in the bright, hazy light, away from the world and toward her.  Her screams died within her as she saw what being a widower had done to him.

His eyes were sunk deep into their sockets and lacked the spark of his spirit.  There were two red lines descending from his eyes to the tip of his chin, tear-tracks that had been fed so often they had created scars.  His cheeks were hollowed as well, revealing the sharp outline of his skull.  The excess flesh hung on his neck like the sagging wax of a candle that had just been lit.  His lips, once full and proud, had become a pigmentless gash, a bare opening from which his teeth emerged.  For one brief instant, those eyes lit as he recognized her, still far behind but beginning to run, trying to reach the top of the underworld before the curse of her lord could be enacted upon them.  He held out both his arms and cried for her again and again, in elation and desperation and despair as he realized what he had done.

She ran faster as the pain began to leave her body, piece by piece, and for a few moments it looked as though she would reach the top of the steps, but even as she saw the world above receding she understood why she no longer hurt.  Her body, made real for a little while, was reverting to its underworld form.  The feeling in her chest, in her legs, her breasts and arms and lungs began to fade and when she screamed it was loud without power, full without force.  The brightness vanished and so did he, and although she ran and ran she soon found that it was only through those endless, pillared halls into which she had first awoken.

How much time has passed since then, she cannot say.  Her memory of the event is as vivid as it ever was and will be—the sight, the smell, the feel, the last experience she ever tasted of the life she should have had.  She wanders now, without purpose.  This is a temporary abode, she has been told, and she has seen people come and go, but she missed her chance to escape and her place has forever been uncertain.

She saw her love one more time, coming down the river.  But he did not pay the ferryman, he did not sit proudly in the boat as he was poled across to begin his afterlife.  He made his journey in pieces, limbs, torso, hands, feet—asunder and swollen in the water.  She had fished out his head, wondering if it would still sing for her, if she could bring back any of the feeling of summer in a world above.  But it was as lacking and lifeless as the rest of this place, and after a day or two she threw it back in the river.

The fault is his, she sometimes thinks, that she has been trapped eternally in this limbo.  But she no longer has the energy to be angry with him for looking back, or with her lord and lady for keeping her trapped, or for her mother and father for bringing her into the world and its cruel fates.  She roams and she thinks, but she no longer cares.  The only emotion she is privy to is a fierce longing for all those summers that have escaped her, the feel of a warm breeze upon her back and fresh honey on the tip of her tongue.  She wishes that he had played for her, once more before he was lost, that tune to which the world turned.  But music belongs to other realms: the perfect harmonies of the Elysian Fields, the mortal dance of the natural world, the atonal cries of the lost.  But here no one has need of music, or summer, or half a love.  This is a waiting place.