The Offering by Thomas N. Tsekerides (soon to be a minor comic book?)
A searing fanfare cuts through the silence, horns firing out staccato blasts into the crowd.
The guitar strums, and Eima begins to sing, calling out into the blackness, a red glow cast on her from above, illuminating the angular beauty of her face, heightened by the dark makeup around her eyes. She undulates her vocal folds, slipping between octaves effortlessly. She swoops up to an incredible high, then plummets down to an impossible low. She lingers down there, pushing out waves of sound in a guttural chant. With each thrust of her body, her voice whips out, sharpened by the percussive growl from her throat, slicing the audience indiscriminately.
The initial massacre complete, the full band returns. Syncopated rhythms of the cowbell, cajon, and guitar are punctuated periodically by the brass section, all tied together by Eima’s vocals. The lights in the bar feel brighter now. I breathe a sigh of relief, finding myself still intact, albeit mesmerized by the glitter of her jewelry, especially the large flower medallion on her chest (more apt than she knows, I suspect)
She will suffice.
But for now, I’ll wait. Her set just began, and although I’m on a schedule, I wouldn’t dare interrupt this performance. It could be her last public concert, at least for a while. Glancing at the patrons in this saloon, a large crowd for such a rural town, I can tell they’re enjoying it. I’ll let them. Hopefully, she won’t be too badly missed.
I’ve been searching for Eima for quite a while, a couple of months I suppose. This Anciano in Santo Teotino, a small island off the northern coast of Brazil, told me about her. Ignacio Sumac. He’s a half-Peruvian, half-Portuguese fellow with a chinstrap beard, a thin moustache, healthy, chin-length hair (all of it white), and a little gold hoop in his left ear. He’s a bit fat, but you expect that from Ancianos. They don’t work for Him for that long without a penchant for decadence. Anyway, I paid Ignacio a visit back in March.
We sat in the atrium of his villa, surrounded by tropical greenery, shouting at each other over the cawing of the technicolor birds that resided there, gently nursing glasses of sangria. These were prepared by his maid, a young Russian girl named Natalya. A paper from that morning sat on the table, a crossword half filled in.
“So, what brings you to me, old friend?” Ignacio called across the table. He wore a broad wicker sun hat, and fondled his earring with his stumpy, smooth fingers.
“He wants a singer,” I said.
“A WHAT?!” The squawking was deafening.
“A SINGER!” I yelled. “You know what, here, let me skootch, closer.” I grabbed the handles of my wicker chair, lifted it up with my butt still in it, and waddled over next to him.
“Why does He want a singer?” he said.
“I don’t know. Maybe He’s feeling nostalgic.”
“Nostalgic? Nostalgic?!” he guffawed. “My friend, He lives in the past. You cannot be nostalgic if you’re always in the past.”
I smiled. “Well, that’s the impression He gave. But why He wants one doesn’t matter. He does. A cultured man such as yourself seemed the perfect person to help me locate a candidate. So I repeat: I need—“
“A singer,” he interrupted. I said yes.
He chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then took some of the marijuana I had brought as a gift and began to meditatively transfer it to his wooden grinder. A beautiful thing, it was inlaid with gold in His symbol with little mother-of-pearl dots along the sides.
“You know,” said Ignacio. “He gave me this. After the first offering I gave him. To take the sacrament.”
He turned the cylinders a few times and knocked the green powder into the bowl of his silvery pipe. I sipped my Sangria.
“Is that so,” I said.
“Uh-huh.” He held the pipe out in front of him and bowed his head. “Our Lord of the Invisible Barriers, our King of Glass and Prince of Mirrors, the Shatterer, the Uniter, carry us closer to the Open Path.”
He lit the pipe, took a few pulls, then passed it to me. I took a long draw, held my breath, and blew out a plume of smoke, leaning back in my chair. Ignacio took the pipe back.
“I think I know someone who could work. I take it they need to speak Qachuan?”
“Yeah,” I chuckled. “I think He’d like to know what the songs are about.”
“Ha, yea, I expect he does. One moment—NATALYA!!!” he screamed across the atrium, hoping she’d hear him over the birds.
“DA?” Natalya bellowed back.
“Bring a bowl of nuts and a new pitcher of sangria. And, maybe some fruit.”
“WHAT?” She scampered over to us.
“FRUIT!” cried Ignacio.
“Ah, da, sí, okay. Oranges are fine?” she asked in her usual light, pretty voice.
“Sure,” he said.
He took another hit. I sipped the last of my Sangria. Natalya went to fetch the snacks.
Ignacio grinned after her, then, without looking at me, said, “Ahhhhh, quite an ass on that girl, no?”
I glanced at Natalya as she left the atrium.
“I suppose,” I said. “Why are you avoiding the subject, Ignacio?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Am I? I didn’t intend to.” He licked his lips, looking towards where Natalya had gone. “You can have a taste of her, you know. I’m sure you’d enjoy that.”
“Ignacio!” I shouted. “You are lucky these fucking birds are so loud, ’cause if they weren’t I might be able to think up a more scathing putdown than the one I’m about to give you: I am here for business, not pleasure.”
“Is our business not one of pleasure?” he said with a smile and a light laugh.
“Ignacio, don’t be cute. Who is the singer.”
He sighed, puffed some more, and offered the pipe.
“You need to relax,” he said coolly.
I waved the pipe aside. My mouth was dry, and I was out of sangria. Not to mention, Ignacio was making me anxious and annoyed. He sighed again.
“My bastard daughter, or, uh, one of them at least. Eima Allegra. She lives in a small town on the coast not too far from Him. She’s a brilliant singer, with a, um, I think a five-octave range. Impressive to hear! She is one of the only ones I visit. She should work for Him.” Ignacio took a deep breath, set the pipe down, and coughed a little.
“She speaks Qachuan?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, gnawing his lower lip.
“Well, she sounds perfect, Ignacio! Why should you deny Him this girl?”
“Well, in all honesty,” he paused. “Ehhhh…. I think He would like her so much, He just might want to marry her.”
“What’s so wrong with that? To have Him marry one of your daughters, well, that would be an honor!” I exclaimed.
He sat in silence. Natalya arrived with the sangria and food, placing it on the table. I turned to her.
“You would let Him marry you if He asked, right?” I said to her, grabbing an orange and digging my fingers into its skin.
“Who, him?” she pointed at Ignacio.
“No no no, Him,” I said, grinning. I chucked the peels on the floor as they ripped away from the meat, pulpy flecks of rind sticking underneath my nails.
“Oh! Hiiiim! Of course! I’d get to live in His palace, right? And drink His wine? Take His sacrament?” She savored the fantasy in her mind.
“Of course, of course!” I laughed. Ignacio said nothing.
“Well, then, I’d love to marry Him!” she giggled.
I motioned at her and looked at Ignacio. “See, old man? You’d deny your own daughter what any woman would love?”
He said nothing and reached for the pitcher on the table. As his fingers brushed the glass it exploded, showering us with sangria and tiny pieces of crystal. Natalya, spattered with red, screamed and ran away. There was total silence, broken only by a sigh and what sounded like a sniffle from Ignacio as he wrote an address down on a slip of newspaper.
And that’s where I am now, in the usual spot at the usual time for Ignacio to meet up with his bastard. I’m drinking scotch, despite hating the taste, because I always enjoy saying “scotch on the rocks” and I need something to break the barrier with. Eima finishes her set and comes to the bar, sits two stools down from me, and begins talking to the bartender in Spanish. Wishing it was English or Qachuan, I slam back my drink. A feeling like my skull shattering, my eyes begin to water, and understanding floods in.
“… time this month we’ve had this many people on a weeknight.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s good shit, good shit,” the barkeep says, handing her a beer.
“And still next to no pay for me, huh Cisco?”
“Look, I just work here!”
“Don’t give me that.”
“Uncle Santi doesn’t like me. Not enough to warrant me trying to help you, at least.”
“How do you expect me to pay rent then, huh?”
“From who, Cisco?”
Ah, my cue.
“If you’re looking for a gig, my boss may be more than willing to provide”
They both look at me, scowling mean, wormy little scowls. Very unfriendly.
“And who might you be?” One or the other asks, or maybe thinks, it’s so hard to tell.
“That’s a lovely question!” I squeal. “I’m a friend of your father’s, Eima.”
“My father?” She looks confused. Who is this creep, she thinks? “Ignacio?” she says.
“Gazuntite. I mean, wait, sorry, yes, Ignacio.” My head is spinning, His power overwhelming me a little. You never get used to it.
“How do you know Ignacio?” She’s a little angry, but she’s not showing it on her face.
“Well, I just said. He’s my friend. And a colleague I suppose. Beside the point,” I said, waving my hand, “look, I’ll pay you well.”
What the fuck kind of gig is this? she thinks. “How much?” she asks.
I reach into my bag and hand her a wad of cash, a mix of pesos and dollars. The Benjamin on top was minted five years ago and had changed hands 10 times. It started its career at a bank in Chicago, where it eventually was withdrawn by an art dealer named Jake Nichols who used it to purchase a (unbeknownst to him) fake Monet at a bar in DC. The fiend who ripped him off was a mobster, Tony Garboni, who used the bill to snort coke with a hooker, who went by Krystil but was born Janet Jeanette, who killed Tony later that night and took the bill, and several others, along with his gold watch, a gift from his grandfather in Sicily. She herself was mugged the next day by fourteen-year-old Jack Nichols (no relation), who in turn purchased a large stack of comic books, a new switchblade, and candy to share with his little sister. From there, well, it’s a long story.
Holy shit, Eima and Cisco both think.
“This is half,” I smile. “You’ll get the other half after.” Maybe, I think. We’ll see what happens.
Eima says, “What do you want me to do? Just sing?” She thinks this is some weird sex thing.
“Oh of course, of course! I’m not nefarious, nor is my boss. He’s an esteemed individual, performing for him will be an honor.”
“What is he, a politician or something?”
“Yeah, something like that, that’s pretty close. So? What do you think?”
She has to do it, thinks Francisco, you used to be Francesca, although no one but him, Eima, and Uncle Santi know that. And me I guess.
“Okay,” says Eima. “When and where?”
“Tonight. His palace. I’ll drive you!”
She agrees, and we head out into the chokingly humid night through a door in the back of the bar, leading to a dead-end alley and my red coupe.
Eima laughs awkwardly. “That’s an old looking car. And why did you park like this?”
I say nothing and motion for her to get in. The alley is thin, and she opens the door slowly, carefully resting it against the wall and sliding her thin body through the resulting slit like a letter into a mailbox. The driver’s side window being open, I climb in through there, and she snorts.
“I don’t want to risk the paint,” I explain. “It’s my boss’ car.”
“Okay” she says.
I reach into my left pocket, take out the keys, and turn them in the ignition. The car gags, yawns, stretches a bit, then purrs, ready to go. I squeeze the car out the hard way (I don’t want to scare her off here), and start the journey to His palace.
“So, uh. What exactly is your boss?”
“Oh, He’s marvelous! Simply incredible. He’s majestic, brilliant, powerful. He has a thousand servants here in His palace, and many thousands more all around this feeble, fragile world, and he’s very excited to meet you!”
“Okay, but what is he? What does he do?”
“He, you mean.”
“Your emphasis, it’s not strong enough. It’s He, not he.”
“Okay, what does He do?”
“Do? Oh, hmm, odd question. He serves his servants, I suppose. Does some charity work, just generally tries to promote freedom and such.”
“But how is He so powerful? Did He inherit a bunch of money?”
“No, not exactly. People recognized His power and brought Him all He asked for.”
She stares at me, squinting. “What?”
“What’s to what at?”
“What do you even mean by that? Are you saying that He’s just talented? A good public speaker?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Is this some sort of cult?
“What even is His name?”
“Oh well that’s an interesting question. He has many names. Lord of the Invisible Barriers, King of Glass, Prince of Mirrors, the Shatterer, the Uniter…”
She’s silent now, looking out the window.
“This has nothing to do with cults. You have nothing to worry about.”
“So it’s a sex thing then?”
“No, it’s not a sex thing. Would you just be quiet? You have, what, ten grand stuffed in your bra right now? Just hush.”
“If this is a sex thing…”
“It’s not a sex thing.”
“I won’t do any sex things.”
“It’s not a fucking sex thing!” I shout. “Get your mind out of the gutter. He just wants to hear you sing.”
“Why me specifically? Has he come to one of my shows?”
“Well, no, not exactly.”
“What do you mean ‘not exactly’?”
I sigh quickly and heavily. “No, he hasn’t.”
“Then why does He want me? Hell, what does He even want me to sing?”
“He doesn’t want you, exactly. He just wants someone who can sing in Qachuan. There’s not many these days.”
“Oh.” She calms down a bit. After a few minutes of silence, she pipes up again. “So He’s old, I guess?”
“Yes, He is old.”
“Extremely. Older than either of us. Older than anyone we’ve ever known. You’ll be in the presence of one of the most ancient and powerful beings to ever live on this planet.”
“I’m serious. Be proud of this honor. And show some respect. Cut it with the questions.”
She’s silent for a while longer. Fidgeting. Upset and wary, but also excited. I keep driving, scanning the road and glancing at a map I stored in the glove compartment. After about twenty minutes, I find what I am looking for: a little spur shooting off the side of the main road. I turn onto it. Eima is confused.
“Uh, I think you made a wrong turn. This road goes to an aban-”
“No, this is the right turn,” I interrupt.
The coupe trundles along the pavement towards a bridge to nowhere, originally designed to go across the harbor, construction on which was stopped by nimby locals on the other side. I reach into my breast pocket, take out His key, point it at the tunnel and turn it. I feel the pins click in the gears of space, and slam on the accelerator. Eima screams as I drive over the edge of the bridge, popping out the other side of an abandoned tunnel in the mountains 500 miles away. Eima keeps screaming, then starts laughing, then crying.
“Oh, hush” I say. “You’re in one piece, you’re safe, there’s nothing to be all—.”
“WHAT THE FUCK JdԿՇՉԿՁԳՐայդԿԻՖվցՁԾ!‽”
Oh, shit. Spanish. The barrier’s beginning to rise again. I welcome it somewhat. With some exceptions, people’s minds don’t stop thinking! The internal monologue is fucking endless. Like this drive. I suppose someone as exalted as He is shouldn’t be easy to reach, but the self-consuming roads, which repeat a random number of times before going on, are a tad much, and the forks which bear the risk of leading to infinity always make me nervous, despite knowing the correct turns. Although the climate seems to change every half mile, oscillating between rolling hills with cruel looking grass topped with small yet menacing yellow flowers, inscrutable black jungle, and endless volcanic wastelands, it all melds into one.
I politely demand we switch to Qachuan, and she confusedly assents.
“What just happened?” she shouts.
“We crossed through a barrier. That’s my boss’s business: getting rid of barriers.”
“You have got to know that explains nothing.”
“Perhaps, but you know, despite the long drive ahead of us, I don’t really feel like explaining. You’re not gonna try to run, we’re in the middle of nowhere and that would get you nothing. But if you shut up for the rest of the ride and do the gig, you’ll get a fat payday and go home safely.”
She starts to say something. “Eh! Ah! Uh!?” I vocalize. She stops and slumps in her seat, fiddling with her necklace. I smile. The rest of the ride goes smoothly, and after an unknowable amount of time we arrive at our destination. The land around us becomes an endless red desert, and a single oasis of overpowering greenery bursts forth on the horizon. As we near, I can start to make out the magnificent manor behind the wall of tall trees, vines, and out-of-place topiaries. There isn’t a water source in any conceivable proximity, but as we near, the sound of sprinklers becomes overwhelming. Some attendants mill about with hoses, carelessly spraying the plants that require more direct attention. One of these, Priscilla, a round, middle-aged woman dressed in the silk fineries of the lower ranks of His entourage, approaches us. I slow down the coupe to a crawl, but not a stop, and crank down the window.
“Ah!” she exclaims, strolling alongside us. “You’ve found a singer!”
“That I have,” I reply. “That I have. Priscilla, meet Eima.”
“Hello Eima!” Priscilla purrs. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“H-” Eima clears her throat. “Hello Priscilla, nice to meet you,” she squeaks out.
Priscilla chuckles. “Quiet ride?” Eima looks startled.
“You already know exactly how it was,” I reply.
Priscilla smiles. “You’ll both have to change into proper regalia for the occasion.”
I nod, Eima squints, prepares to ask something, then thinks better of it. Priscilla jogs up to the wall of foliage, disappears within, and returns with my burlap loincloth and a cotton toga for Eima. I open my door and climb out, the car still rolling.
“Come on, hop out.” I tell Eima. She hesitates.
“I know the car is still moving, you’ll be fine. Hop out.” She assents, tripping on her heels which I’ve just noticed, and covering her fine clothes with red dust.
“Take those off,” I say to Eima.
“Take what off?” she responds.
“Everything. Shoes especially, but everything, and put this on.”
I take the toga from Priscilla and hand it to Eima. She looks at the attendants, the endless empty desert around us, and snatches the toga from my hands.
“Turn around at least,” she mumbles. Priscilla and I stand there still, looking at her. Eima frowns, turns around, and strips. Priscilla wolf whistles, and laughs. Eima quickly slips into the toga and turns back around, mumbling something about ‘sex things’. I myself strip, suffer a light slap on the rear from Priscilla, and put on my loincloth. All throughout this, the car rolls towards the manor and is consumed by the surrounding vegetation.
“Alright!” I say, clapping my hands. “Let’s proceed. Follow me.” I take Eima’s arm and gently lead her to and through the foliage, which we slide through without resistance, exiting into the manor grounds. The manor itself is a boxy affair, with walls of white limestone, windows with yellow shutters, and black metal awnings which slope slightly out from the edges of the three stories. The windows have no glass in them, and the front doorway too is empty. We walk through this, into the reception hall. Eima’s eyes widen, perhaps at the opulence, perhaps at the realization that the manor is, very obviously, bigger on the inside. A forest of composite columns sprouts around us, framing the set of golden stairs leading down into the bowels of the building. I gesture towards these.
“Shall we,” I say with a smile.
Eima nods. “What… What songs shall I sing?”
“Whatever you’d like, as long as they’re in Qachuan, and preferably old.”
“Okay, I think I have some good ones I can perform.”
We walk down the stairs, me still leading her by the arm, continuing onwards and downwards for a fair amount of time. The lighting becomes dim and dramatic, and a faint, deep hum can be heard all around us. Eima warms up, singing out some scales and trills and such. As we descend, the hall becomes narrower and narrower, until they reach an impressive but small door that would look like the entrance to a broom closet were it not wrought in gold and encrusted with gemstones.
“Bow your head,” I tell Eima. “Keep it down until he tells you to lift it, then you may begin to sing. But until then, keep your head bowed.”
She nods. I put my hand on her head and firmly tilt it down. She winces out an ow, which I ignore.
“Step back a bit” I tap her stomach with the back of my hand, and she inches away from the door. I knock, feel His welcome in my mind, and open it, pulling Eima in with me and keeping her head down, then releasing her into the hall within. I gently nudge her forward
Eima walks, head bowed slightly. At the end of the hall, He stands. Tall. Regal. Beautiful. His green arms shoot out from his skinny torso, tapering down into pointy ends. His feet are planted firmly in the soil beneath Him, surrounded by his ceramic pedestal, his whole form encased in a glass box. A single light of unknown origin shines down from above, illuminating Eima’s face as confusion sets in. Rudely, she turns to me.
“He’s a houseplant?”
“He is Himself,” I say indignantly.
“Oh my god, you brought me through all this to sing for a houseplant?”
“No, to sing for Him,” I say, gesturing to His verdant splendor. He sits there, motionless yet kinetic. You can’t see his speed but you can feel His weight, His momentum, His gyrating and pulsating in the dim light.
“This is completely ri-”
He is being impatient, and decides to momentarily let her know everything, to witness everything, to hear everything. With the barrier gone, I take the brunt of the thing vicariously, for her thoughts are my thoughts and his thoughts and vice versa and the other way around. The barrier is only obliterated for a second, but this is the barrier, the full barrier, not the measly language one I hopped over earlier. A second is all anyone can handle so suddenly. The whole mission of following Him is the barrier’s gradual removal. We are so comfortable with its presence that its absence is something to which a tolerance must be built. So a second is all it takes to make Eima sing.
She begins towards the peaks of her immense range, with some sweet, floating, Phrygian melody, haunting and wailing, with tritone jumps piercing her throat. She drops down low, almost speaking the lyrics, laughing a little, then settles the rest of the melody in the middle, only occasionally spiking one way or the other. The words are unclear, but the words are unnecessary: the feeling could be communicated perfectly without them. It is the sentiment of the sacrifice on the altar. It is the thoughts of the lamb as the knife blade slides across its throat, and the emotions of its hot blood as it spills onto a graven idol. It is ecstasy. Eima knows what this is. It’s an offering, an immolation. Of course He wants to marry her: and to marry Him is to leave the world of barriers for the world of the Open Path, to leave the ego behind. The distinction between life and death, animal and plant, past and present, can only be obliterated by obliterating the flesh. But a death cult is bound for, well, death. So we, His humble servants, open the mind only a little, breaking only the barriers built by mortals—the social, the cultural, the linguistic. To give not only to him, but to the world. Giving over Eima is as much a gift to her as to Him.
His glass case shatters, as does his pot. Eima keeps singing.
His roots spread forward, snaking and slithering closer to Eima. She wails her melody.
He clings to her ankles, rises up her legs, wraps around her thighs, embraces her hips, circles her chest, grasps her shoulders, then grips her neck, squeezing tighter and tighter. Despite the pressure, Eima sings on, her voice coming not from her throat but from the walls, the floor, the light, her cells, the microtomes of dust drifting through the air. Well after her total pulverization, she keeps singing and singing and singing and singing—
And then it’s over. Eima and her voice are gone. His pot and case reform, glowing a little.
The barrier returns.