to the Merciful Sister
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Ten men dressed in sleek leather coats, black boots shined and laced tight, enter a hospital. It’s night. They march down sickly lit, deserted corridors till they find the room they are looking for, and inside, a body in a bed, swathed in blankets, breathing in narcotic sleep. Something, a twitch, moves across his face, just before in the span of a few seconds 38 gunshots ring out, filling the building with echoes. The ten are standing around the bed bearing the now dead body. The first step is complete. Each one reaches into his coat, pulls out a hatchet, and begins meticulously chopping up the body. Not exactly surgical precision, but their hacks are firm and purposeful, they all work in unison, focused, no one speaks, no one gets in the other’s way. They place body parts and parts of body parts throughout the room with the same silent deliberateness. One will take a step back, move a piece somewhere else, or adjust a pose, as if following very precise rules of composition. Eventually the shuffling subsides. They seem satisfied with their arrangement and leave the room, walk down the silent corridors the way they came, and disappear into the purple winter night.
Photographs taken by investigators at the crime scene are in the archive of the (now defunct) Bureau for Citizens’ Safety and Security, having survived two catastrophic wars, one revolution, and decades of improper storage in cardboard boxes in humid basements, what with budget cuts and institutional neglect brought about by a newfangled purgatorial capitalism protracting itself all the way to the end of the world like receding lines in a painting. Storage conditions have damaged the photos, some beyond recognition, while also granting them a new aesthetics, a ghostly quality, with their faded details, how some pictures seem to dissolve into abstraction, while others have splotches and creases through which the viewer must squint and focus to be able to piece together the whole grisly scene. There’s the man’s head, by the radiator, right under the window. Before it, his arms lie crossed, severed fingers forming a half-circle around the whole ensemble. The legs are laid upright on their cut ends in opposite corners, knees bent by gravity, giving the impression of a sleeping figure. Pools of blood radiate from each element of the arrangement, while trails of drops and speckles like constellations could allow one to reconstruct their journey from the bed. If one should be so inclined. It is unknown whether the investigators bothered. The photos may have been purely for protocol, perhaps for a propaganda piece in the paper. What little forensic knowledge could be drawn from them is pointless because, in spite of a suspicious lack of witnesses at the hospital, the perpetrators and motive are well-known, both to the police and, likely, to the hospital staff, too. Tomorrow they will make their deed known to the whole country.
But seeing the photos, the contemporary viewer can’t help suspect that behind their declared motive of revenge, petty political power struggles within a movement that only spoke the language of violent purification, lies an additional—and not incompatible—more occult motive, the former to be read with a shudder by every horrified citizen, every rival political organizer, and every vengeful police officer, while the latter was only for the eyes of initiates or gods or forces that elude naming.
It’s night. She stumbles out of the shadow of an arched doorway. She flails her arms and, with a stomp, succeeds in stopping her fall, in which process she bites her tongue. She allows salival blood to fall from her mouth onto the street, running thick between the cobblestones. She takes a hard, deep breath, as adrenaline and red anger spread throughout her body, offering momentary respite from the cold outside. A thin red thread still clings to her lip.
A rhythm throbs dully from somewhere behind her like an anxious heart. But she cannot go back. The sticky floor and the red strobe and the person, the way they stared and shifted in and out of darkness like a nightmare and. She murders the thought before it can take shape. She stuffs her hands in her coat pockets and starts the long walk home before her, down ancient cobblestoned streets, boarded-up houses holding golems and darkness within, a stone bridge over the river, a metal bridge over railway tracks that seem to go on forever, under a hill through the tunnel and past the old factory, now derelict and abandoned apart from a few artists’ studios, past the powerplant, that vast humming complex sealed off from the outside world by stone walls and metal fences. Past the cemetery and the quiet neighborhood with its neat brick houses and rows of trees. Then up the hill, behind the city lights, before only darkness and stray points of brightness like lanterns or stars.
Past all that. Home. A long way away. She has time to follow the threads—thin, but seemingly indestructible—running deep into her past through a sea of darkness.
My biography is written in bite marks.
The sentence comes to her, fully formed and silent, as if asking to be deciphered. She turns it in her head, takes it apart and puts it back together. Then memories come to her, trying to supply meaning. The girl is crying and being comforted by the teacher. She points at her, saying anna bit me, anna bit me. She recalled this same memory as she grew up, at key points in her life. To bite, to intimidate, always a response to their attempts at intimidation, which she knew spelled annihilation. A message: stay away. And deeper: you will not annihilate me. Practicing on her own skin: fresh wristwatches with traces of saliva.
They asked her: what do you want to be. And she thought, nothing, feeling their question ran deep with annihilation. You will not annihilate me by forcing me to be something, she might have thought. Freedom the most precious thing to her. Then, on the cusp of maturity, she was forced to choose, the final iteration of the question, the world spread out before her like a city panorama in the night, cradled by forests.
Grey clouds cruise above in the November wind with the straight determination of razor blades.
She was forced to choose and she did not choose nothing. She could have refused the choice itself. Leaped into her own mind like in a well, locked herself in her room and fused her skin with the fabrics of her bedsheets and mattress, fled her town on a motorcycle, chewed her tongue off, to say nothing of that great abyssal choice that had accompanied her all her life, devastating in its simplicity. All of those options would have been close to nothing—though not quite nothing—but filled with a horror she realized she would be unable to bear. So, instead, she chose to become a historian.
It was cold. He had followed the other boy, who said he had to show him something. He said he wouldn’t believe it, and refused to elaborate. It was something so unbelievable it could only be appreciated by seeing it first-hand. No, they could not wait till morning, yes, it was dangerous in the woods, in the snow, at this hour. But he had to see it. Then maybe he would believe it. The woods were quiet, and after a momentary lapse of attention, as his vision was focused inward, perhaps, or else wondering what could possibly be so unbelievable, the child from the village realized that the boy guiding him was no longer at his side. He looked around, tried calling his name. His cries seemed to reach far and wide but were quickly snuffed out by the snow and silence descended once again. The child from the village was the center of an uncharted world. That is to say, he was lost. He turned around and around dizzy with the infinite directions he could go in. He did not know which way the village was, or where the unbelievable thing lay, though he did not much care for the latter anymore. He wanted to go home. Then, between the obscure shapes of the tree trunks, he saw a light twinkling, radiating. He trudged through the knee-deep snow. His terror gave way to warm hope, as he realized the light was a fire. A few figures could be seen swiftly moving around the flame. Then, suddenly, the fire was put out and darkness reigned once again. He continued in the direction where the fire had been and tried crying out for help. He received no answer, but he thought he heard movement all around him. Finally, he arrived at a small clearing and stood in the snowless circle where the fire and the moving figures had been. With the little light afforded to him by the purple sky he can make out the fire pit and the four dead bodies crowded inside. He could cry out, he could run, but he does neither. He stares at ashes and bones and bits of charred flesh that were so hot a moment ago, now cold like everything else around him, and he himself feels frozen outside of time. His extremities are numb, beyond pain, his body shivers. In a brief flash, fragments of memory come to him, he remembers overhearing his father, this morning, talking to a neighbor about how they loaded them into a horse cart and carried them off into the woods, how they were so light a single soldier carried all four of them at the same time. The memory had the light of a revelation that was not destined for him, neither to understand nor to communicate. He spares a thought for the person for whom all this might make sense one day and succumbs to his instincts. He is so tired. The cold no longer seems hostile. He could lie down, rest, just a little bit, then head home, surely he’ll find his way back, or else his father will come from the village and cart him back home. Behind his eyelids he sees the man’s kind, wizened face and the light of a warm fire.
Her head slides down from her fist, jolting her back into awareness. The library is almost empty at this time of night, at this time of year. Beyond the soft light of the green desk lamp she can see the snow falling against the void outside. The desk before her is a mess of papers: dusty, yellowed books, opened and unopened, old issues of newspapers, reproductions of archive photos, maps of the city from various years, multiple notebooks as well as loose pages of handwritten notes, including annotated floor plans that she doesn’t remember drawing and rows of indecipherable scribbles.
In a project she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to integrate into her dissertation or not, she doesn’t care, she tries to map out the mass graves, execution sites, and secret prisons in which members of Ø were involved, either (often) as executioners or as prisoners. Ø, short for Ø , the infamous fascist apocalyptic death cult, though they presented themselves as a nationalist movement, from almost one century ago, with their violent diatribes and inflammatory pamphlets decrying the abuses suffered by the nation at the hands of its stronger neighbors, announcing the rebirth of the nation from the ashes of a great conflagration, one which was indeed only a few years away, though they would never get to see it. Her thesis was that that was all a façade, only really believed by gullible members of the public, and that the movement could be better understood as a cult worshiping death, believing they could become transformed through acts of unspeakable cruelty and other mystical elements that had little to do with any ideas of nationhood or of the state religion that they so fervently presented themselves in service of.
She has been officially researching this topic for four years with a mixture of fascination and nausea which had their roots deeper than she ever shined a light. In high school their history teacher told them stories of fascist factions brutally murdering each other, whole magazines unloaded into already dead bodies, bombings, stabbings, ax murders and dismemberments, as blood rushed to her head and her ears hummed, and the intoxication persisted, she wanted to hear more, she wanted those men to die in the most horrible way possible, and to see those men dying in the most horrible way possible, and, finally, to see their executioners meet the same fate. That spectacle offered her an object against which all her bile, frustration, and, most importantly, cruelty could be invested guilt-free. By placing themselves outside of the community of humanity (they themselves dehumanizing those they slaughtered), pledging their lives to a political cult of violence and mass murder, they became something other-than-human, their bodies loci for burningly righteous violence, even though it was rarely the righteous who murdered them (they only watched or read about it from the comfort of their own innocence, but surely if they had the chance they would commit the deed). But it did happen, sometimes. And she maintained a deep hope she would one day play in such a drama, that she would crush evil and stain her teeth with blood.
But there was a counterpoint to the enjoyment of their deaths, and that was the simple exposure to their ideology. The fear of contamination facing anyone with a fascination for evil. A fascination that one must then follow to its logical conclusion. One cannot remain in the apolitical coziness of true crime, handsome lone-wolf killers, or in the complacent definition of evil as merely the opposition to an oppressive social order. One must instead confront the gaze of the machinery of death, the distillation of absolute evil, evil on a social scale, evil on an industrial scale. One must stare into the Ø and accept that one might not return fully human from the encounter.
When you return from the cursed territory, others might regard you with wariness, not knowing if you’ve been contaminated or not. You yourself might not know.
Months after the hospital murder, a State of Exception was declared, and state repression against Ø was underway. There were firefights in the streets, raids, imprisonments and executions without trial, torture, all carried out with maximum efficiency. No pomp, no ritual. Unlike for Ø, for the state cruelty was a means to an end, not an end in itself. And their end was the concentration of power, forced cohesion of the instruments of violence and discourse in an increasingly unstable context. The king was on his way out, various political factions were at war with each other, and war would soon break out like a rash over the whole continent, and beyond. It wasn’t even that Ø’s ideology and crimes conflicted with the state’s. In fact, they mostly overlapped. But they refused to be assimilated into the state, and instead took violence into their own hands. That was not allowed.
When investigators arrived at the crime scene, the four bodies hanging on hooks from the ceiling shocked them very little. It had the makings of an Ø hate crime, not that dissimilar from what the general population had done in the year prior in the entire quarter. Outbursts of violence by the citizenry were a tolerated, even encouraged, form of expression, whose nationalist undertones served to combat emerging class consciousness.
Cause of death: traumatic head injury. Minimal traces of a struggle. The one odd detail about the scene was the state of the bodies. There was barely any blood, apart from what had stuck onto the victims’ bodies, suggesting it had been either collected as it dripped from the victims, who had been hung up dead, or that it was allowed to drip freely onto the floor and then cleaned, the former being deemed likelier. A series of wounds inflicted post-mortem resembling bite marks such as one would see from a large dog or wolf were also noted on the victims’ neck and face, 2.3 meters from the ground, suggesting the canines had either jumped to that height or they were made before the bodies were hung up. These details were recorded but not followed up on, as no immediate explanation could be found and they were deemed of no consequence. That night, three Ø members were stopped on the street and asked for their papers. They were summarily dispatched on the spot.
Thus, the case was deemed closed, and officers were mobilized to deal with more pressing matters.
It’s night, pre-dawn. Her skin is creased, radiating heat, as she emerges from dreams nameless, shapes and fragmented images still swelling and churning in her mind—a pirate ship, ziplines, a massive oil tanker, train stations out at sea, a city she remembered but never visited—everything else would have to be recovered later. The air is heavy, her head throbs, her mouth feels unholy, noxious, her saliva some kind of thick poison that only her sick body can survive, produce. A new headache day announces itself. A day of lying in bed with the television on impatiently waiting out the pain from within the pain.
The magic box comes to life, suddenly there is sound, there is light revealing the piles of clothes and books and wrappers turning the floor into an alien ecosystem. The next few hours, during which the darkness outside is slowly replaced by cold and then warm daylight forcing its way in from the sides of the blinds, are a blur. Fragments of TV shows that might’ve come out of a nightmare, hideous hybrids of half-awake imagination and the humor of a generation she doesn’t belong to. Early morning news of murder, corruption, evictions, in that cadence that has embedded itself deep in her very dreams. Footage of throngs of masked men marching through the streets with banners imprinted with suns dredged up from hell, and her vision blurs and flickers, a filmic memory come to life, this has happened before, mass evil has been here before. It never went away. She remembers the bombings and shootings, events radical and shocking in their singularity that then coalesced into a false pattern, what the authorities read as “gang violence,” as they went down a path of politico-Gnostic insanity about parallel societies and metaphysical vendettas, leaving the true culprits in an almost impenetrable obscurity, true invisibility. Visions of being swallowed by the serpent of that obscurity and murdering it from the inside, bathing in its blood and the blood of its victims now redeemed. A question barely formulated—where were you, the people like you, the good people?—but never understood, as the image of red clashes so discordantly with the color of her half-awake mind that she is forced to open her eyes, climb out of herself back into the world.
She crawls out of bed, groggy, heavy-eyed, famished, she scans her environs and homes in on a familiar shape, yesterday’s cold remains of a kebab, carelessly left on the floor, like a carcass, wrapped in its sauce-soaked wrapper. After years of strict vegetarianism, consuming flesh now gives her a pleasure that goes beyond taste. She unwraps her prize, deliciously unappetizing, with all the ingredients stuck together in one mass. The bread is soggy, the vegetables soft, the meat fatty and well-seasoned. She eats voraciously. It might be a good day after all.
Later, as she’s returning home in a rushed, slightly imbalanced gait, with a fresh loaf of bread under her arm, she finds it in her mailbox. An object as anodyne—almost forgettable—as it is obscure. A small rectangular piece of paper with a stylized spider printed on it. Nothing else. She takes it home and misplaces it within a day. She forgets about it, until some days later. Another paper. The Sign, she thinks to herself. She doesn’t know why she just called it that. This one has words printed on the back side, the spider reserved for the very end as a pseudo-full-stop. She knows each word individually, and there even seems to be some syntactic logic to their arrangement, but no matter how many times she reads them, their meaning seems to slip, to slide just out of reach. She tries reading it out loud, the words fall like an incantation, but there is still no meaning to speak of.
Whatever the message was, what’s certain is that at 11 p.m. she is at a bridge on the other side of town where she finds a blue-and-white duffle bag that she brings to a house that looks abandoned. She then heads home and sleeps a dreamless sleep. The following morning she reads about an axe attack on two fascist organizers whose group has ties to official parties as well as the national police force (this is nothing new). Serves them right, a voice from behind a frosted window seems to whisper. Days later, a new note. This continues for a while, with tasks ranging from innocuous, such as placing leaflets in mailboxes and graffitiing certain symbols on abandoned buildings, to inexplicable, like throwing pieces of chalk into the river and asking a lone fisherman for the time, to violent, like what will happen tonight. Sometimes there are other people involved. They don’t talk, but she assumes they are doing the same as her. Following instructions. (During this time her sleep improves, and she generally feels happy. Her apartment is clean. She takes walks in the sun. Her research however grinds to a halt, but she doesn’t think about it.)
Tonight they are four. First they go to an abandoned house on an otherwise quiet street where a tram passes every hour. There, they find four blue-and-white duffle bags. Each carries one. They arrive at the location, an apartment building in a new residential area, everything quiet, uniformly colored, and neatly geometric. Just then, a person exits the building, so they get in without issue. On the top floor, one of the duffle bags is opened, revealing two police uniforms, two sturdy ropes, and a roll of duct tape. She watches as two of her companions change into the uniforms, while she and the fourth person take the ropes and duct tape and step out of sight as the two faux officers knock on door 18. Finally, under the threat of the Law, the door opens, just an inch, but that’s all they need. In a flash all four are on him. He—they had seen him in the news, at rallies, raising his right hand triumphantly, defiantly, never prosecuted due to a lack of evidence, a man who has committed no crime—and a woman they don’t know are tied up in their underwear on the living room rug, their mouths taped shut. The broken lines inked into their skin betray their allegiance. Their faces are contorted in expressions of pure hatred. The four, meanwhile, take their time destroying random things in the apartment as quietly as they can, ripping books and clothes, taking apart furniture, emptying the fridge of its contents onto the floor.
Gradually, the four wind down, gather around the second bag, and open it. Inside are a blowtorch with an extra gas canister, thick metal wires, a piece of cloth, and a few large bottles of water. They hesitate for a moment but quickly get to work. In pairs, they take the man and the woman to opposite corners of the room. The first group, which she’s part of, heat up the wires and apply them to the man’s skin. They aim for sensitive areas, neck, stomach, thighs, genitals, face. Then they use the blowtorch on him directly. He squirms and screams into the tape, a muffled sound from far away, and begins to cry. Principles of masculinity will only get you so far when facing the reality of pain. Meanwhile, the other two place the woman on her back and the cloth over her face. They pour water over it, and soon she begins to squirm and thrash about, so they need to hold her down. They remove the cloth, wait a little while, and begin again. The woman’s eyes are wide in animal confusion, terror, she could not have imagined this.
Eventually, the four begin to fear that the two will pass out, so they stop. She’s curious what they would say if they removed the tape from over their mouths. In any case, they can’t risk the noise. Besides, nothing they could say would make them stop. It’s time for the third bag. It contains a can of white paint, a brush, a knife, and two small jars with an unidentified liquid. First, they paint something on the floor. Let’s say it’s a square inside a circle, or the other way around, on which they mark four points. She thinks of the points as the hands and feet of a decapitated man. They paint more marks on the walls and in the corners, though it’s hard to discern a pattern. Perhaps later it will make sense. Then they use the knife to mark the two on their foreheads. Afterwards, they pick up the jars. Clearly none of them know what’s inside. The liquid is an off-yellow color. A few oily patches can be discerned on the surface. Small white flakes, like breadcrumbs, float inside. She opens one of the jars and cautiously takes a sniff. She almost passes out. Her ears ring. She hands it to one of the others. Then, without solemnity of artifice, they pour the fluid over the man and the woman’s heads. Everyone in the room gags, their eyes water. They open a window and wait for the intensity to subside. Meanwhile, the man and the woman seem to have lost the will to struggle, and are just sitting quietly, slumped forward, eyes half-closed. A brief intermission, a moment of silence. A necessary drop in tension, before the final act. One of the four smokes a cigarette. A sense of anticipation tingles in her hands.
Finally, they unzip the fourth bag. Inside are four sturdy axes, brand new, their blades gleaming silver. So this is what they would have to do. This is how it would end. Nobody moves. The other members seem to hesitate. The torture was all fine and good, but this was truly radical. Once you use an ax there’s no going back. Something shifts in the atmosphere as a decision is silently reached. With resolution in their step, the other three walk out, one after the other, closing the door behind them, leaving anna alone with two bound bodies and four axes. Not a single word has been exchanged between the four the whole night. Perhaps it was in their instructions to leave. Even if not, she does not blame them. They all played their parts exceptionally well, she thinks. She could also step out, like the others, if she wanted to. She imagines the Spider’s network as vast, and her role a minor one. The network would go on, would achieve its goals, whatever they might be, without her. But she doesn’t want to go. She wants to stay and play her part.
She wonders if they enjoyed all of this. If so, they certainly didn’t show it. She is surprised she didn’t feel enjoyment. For a moment she sees herself within the evil that she has only contemplated, read about. Within the lawless territory where things happen, before any thought or systematization. The bodies of these two would serve as conduits through which she could crawl out of political evil into a radical evil that not even their ideology could contain. The thought sends a glimmer of enjoyment sparkling in her. But for that to happen, she needs to step out of her head. She returns to herself, drinking in the reality around her, the ruined apartment, cold from the open window, the life barely emanating from the two tied-up bodies. She can feel all of this, the truth of the situation they were all together in and the truth of what she is about to do.
That night, back home, she sleeps a dreamless sleep. In the morning, right before daybreak, she wakes up with a miserable headache. She turns on the television and manages to fall back asleep. She dreams of a fire at the fascist’s apartment, consummating the offering, sealing the ritual while also erasing it. Something in her chest burns, shivers, subsides. She drifts back into a quiet sleep. A light rain from a low sky beats against her window.
Past ancient cobblestoned streets, boarded-up houses holding golems and darkness within, a stone bridge over the river, a metal bridge over railway tracks, through the tunnel and past the old factory, past the powerplant, the cemetery, and the quiet neighborhood with its neat brick houses and rows of trees, anna sits on the grass, on a hill looking overlooking the city lights, a map of all her walks until now and those she would ever take here. Above her, the sky lightens, sharing a moment of brightness with the lampposts and sleepless windows, before the latter inevitably go out. In this sacred silence, with the sounds of birds she cannot see, she feels at peace.
Neither the police nor the Spider have followed her to this city, though they could have. What meaning there is to this, she will never know. She doesn’t care. One day a new disaster will fill the sky, and she will be ready for it. She won’t anticipate it, but she will know what to do. As for what happened, she feels no remorse. She hasn’t reached any kind of spiritual transcendence, no insight into the nature of evil or justice, but she still sleeps well. She has wondered what it would be like to fall into the hands of the Law, an abstract standard against which both victims and perpetrators exist only as deviations from an abstract, pure state of affairs.
These have been some of her thoughts on this night. Not all of them make sense to her. But she would maybe make sense of it all when she got back home. Write it all down. She finds solace in the thought that if she ever came to regret it, if she sealed her own mind in a dark cell of her own making where the walls are invisible, the voices communicate in screams, and every fingernail is worn down, she would make sure to hide a key for herself, somewhere in the dark, perhaps in a mousehole. That is exactly the kind of small act of kindness she would do, for herself.
M.K. is a writer. Their work has appeared in Propagule, DON’T SUBMIT!, and Alienism. Their short story collection (Descents) and poetry book (The Book of Fire) can be downloaded at https://iftheflames.wordpress.com/. M.K. sometimes posts at https://twitter.com/MKUndefined.
Read M.K.'s story in Propagule 2 here.