Vlerd and Mara have been huddled in the corner of the gallery since I finished telling the story. They speak loud enough for me to hear the bulk of their conversation. They are holding a critical discussion of Babarenfeld’s Folly, lambasting continuity problems yet praising the general imagination and my delivery. I stand with Mr. Reno at the painting like I’m waiting to hear about a job offer. I turn my head to face him, and the damn corn stalk meets my eyes. Such a superfluous addition to the group.
“I thought you did pretty well,” says the bear, scratching a spot of dirt off the white wall beside Babrenfeld and Catalyst. “Telling it, that is.”
“But you could have done better?” I say.
“Well, I’ve had years of practice, Survival. Visitors to the farmhouse don’t often want to leave without a tour. I, of course, tell the story as it is meant to be told: as truth.”
Vlerd and Mara join us at the tail end of Mr. Reno’s words.
“You lie?” I say.
“No, Survival. Why would so much time be spent telling a lie?”
Mara pulls a notebook and a writing utensil from her left pocket.
“I wrote down some questions we have,” she says, pushing a group of hairs behind her immaculate right ear. The Astral Plane has healed all but half of her face -- the process seems to have stalled.
Mr. Reno holds out his paw, stopping Mara’s intent to speak.
“Let’s head to the other room for this,” he says. He leads us through the back door of the gallery to a sitting room containing three chairs assembled in a perfect row before a long wooden table on a raised platform across the room. There is no life to the room-- it has a function, but no depth beyond that.
“Survival,” says Mr. Reno. “If you and your corn friend would be so kind as to sit at the table -- the rest of us will take the chairs.”
It’s not my corn friend, but I don’t press the issue. We each take our positions. Mr. Reno pulls a typewriter and stationary stand from under his wooden chair—he sets the paper and adjusts the ink ribbon, then gives Mara the go ahead. I look like I’m on trial—being judged by a jury of a vampyr, a dead girl, and a mystery bear. Mara raises her hand. I point to her. Upon hearing the first of her words, Mr. Reno clacks away at the machine’s keys. He’s writing a transcript of the proceedings—how many of these has he done?
“Mara Lithe, freelance,” says Mara, tapping her notebook with her pencil. Her features bend to a look of hard-hitting inquiry. “So, how can gods die, Mr. Survival?”
I clear my throat.
Expositive Press Conference X0414-34
Notes of: Mr. Reno
Mr. Survival: I already told you. When we’re forgotten. If everyone forgot that dairy was a thing for some reason -- should all milk and cheese production cease the world over -- the god Moom would go poof.
Mara Lithe: Would she actually go ‘poof’?
Mr. Survival: Well, we wouldn’t know. We forget them. They’re gone.
Mara L.: Any other ways to die?
Mr. Survival: No.
Mr. Reno: This is not a trial.
Vlerd: Oh, vell still. Being eaten completely?
Mr. Survival: I have no way of knowing if we die that way, Vlerd. Maybe we just become part of the god that ate us?
Vlerd: Ve’ll just mark that down as death to streamline things.
Mr. Survival: Would you consider burning through an inhabited body to the point where you have melded to it, and it to you -- and then tearing out of it as not you, but an amalgam of both you and the body as death?
Too physical to go back to the Astral Plane? Too Astral to be seen in the physical one?
Vlerd: Yes, I think so. Mara?
Mara L.: Absolutely. Mark that down.
Mr. Survival: Okay, I guess I can see that.
Mara L.: Now, how does ‘burning through a body’ work?
Mr. Survival: If we escape the Astral Plane, we need to find a physical hold. Something living——mostly living, at the least. Some have had luck with skeletons.
Vlerd: How do you get in? Through the blood?
Mr. Survival: No. Not even Vespertil went in through the blood the first time, vampyr. Standard possession, nothing more. Strobe light and rattling chains.
Mara L.: Rattling chains?
Mr. Reno: Sounds effective. I——nah, nevermind. Stenographer types, Reno. Remember.
Mr. Survival: Do share, Reno.
Mr. Reno: Stenographer types, Survival. The one in that chair speaks.
Mr. Survival: Right. Mara, the chains were my way of frightening Kafele into a vulnerable state. I call it spookification.
Mara L.: That’s dumb.
Mr. Survival: You’re dumb.
Why are we like this all of a sudden, I wonder? Mr. Reno’s rhythmic striking of the typewriter keys pulls words from my mouth before I think of speaking them. Vlerd and Mara are not themselves either—what prompts these specific questions? What prompted my story in the art gallery?
The bear. He is no bear—a god, perhaps. No, I already said he wasn’t a god earlier—neither I nor Vlerd had the pangs of hunger when we met him. Even if Vlerd has corralled his devouring instinct with regards to me, there would have been some physical outburst in the presence of a new god—unless he has hidden all but his eyes, somehow. But I have no idea how that would be done. I need to direct my answers better.
Mara L.: So, burning through a body?
Mr. Survival: Say a raving vampyr tries to eat me while I’m in Kafele. He bites into his neck, there’s blood everywhere, and Akil removes the sealing hat. I heal the wounds from the inside when I wake up, but that takes effort on my part——a surgeon always leaves something of a scar. We are only energy when we enter the physical plane from the Astral. Traces of it remain in everything we heal. Right now, I am fighting Vespertil off with everything I can muster——imagine the damage being done to the body in this war. There is as much of me as there is Kafele in here now. Should this bear attempt to do what only the farmer can, I fear for both our lives.
Mr. Reno: I have seen the procedure for removal done a thousand times, Survival——both god and biota survive. This is not a new journey these apes have taken. There are as many gods as there are ideas——many have escaped the Astral Plane and many have been sent back through this house.
Mr. Survival: I’m not going back.
Mr. Reno: Well, I can put you in a jar if you’d like. We do get visitors from time to time that want to be possessed. Cults and the like, from other lands.
Mara L.: Hey. I want to know about the Astral——
Mr. Survival: You are a god, aren’t you?
Vlerd: Are you?
Mr. Reno: I have known gods——I have broken bread with them. But I am just a bear living with his wife and a farmer on the edge of this plane.
Vlerd: Vhere is this vife, Reno?
Mr. Reno: Oh, she’s around here somewhere. I——I’m just not sure where. But I know she’s here——maybe in the billiards room.
Survival: Do you? Or are you forcing yourself to remember that you even had a wife?
Mr. Reno: Don’t say that.
Survival: You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe you’re just holding on to the idea of having a wife because you think that’s keeping her in existence somewhere. I bet this “tour” and this prying into long dead backstories is all about the slim chance your forgotten god wife might be remembered. Yes, hanging on the edge of this plane——Mara claims she saw the farmer, but who knows what tricks you have up your arm fur? Her eyes aren’t really the best.
Reno: Stop saying she’s forgotten! You’re making it worse. Addressing her loss only keeps her away. She is somewhere in this house!
Survival: Wow, and the crazy curtain lifts. This is the one we are to entrust my extraction to? Hah! She’s gone, Reno! We are forgotten when we’re forgotten!
Reno: I don’t choose to believe that, Survival. I can’t.
Mara L: Wait, so are you a god, Mr. Reno?
Vlerd: He must be, Mara. Keep up.
Mara L.: Like you know either.
Reno stops typing. We share barbed stares.
“He’s no god,” I say. “His wife—probably. The farmer—maybe, if she exists. But not him. Certainly not him.”
“Do you think there will come a day when you tire of being an ass, Survival?” says Reno. He kicks the typewriter and stand across the room. Ink splashed white papers climb the air in a spasm of sin, and then float in grace back to the splitting wood floor.
“No,” I say. “Who are you?”
“As you said, this place is on the edge of existence.” Reno stands and flattens his honey colored hair back with several motions. “So too are its inhabitants—but not just in place. In thoughts and minds as well. You say you don’t know me—you may think you know every god in existence. You may think that you should have had a physical reaction to my godly presence. But the physical is slave to the mental—I am a god. Older than you—older than Instinct, Harmony, and Melody. And I am being forgotten—this is a place for gods like me—like my wife.”
Mara and Vlerd scurry to my table, setting a clear divide between us and him.
Mara says, “Are you the god of procrastination? Mystery? Bears?” Her pencil is at the ready.
“Discourse,” says Reno. “Exposition, narrative, argumentation, description, and so on. I was born not soon after Babarenfeld’s showy entrance into the universe. I have very nearly almost always been—behind the curtain.”
“And you’re being forgotten?” says Vlerd. “Who forgets discourse?”
“The world, apparently,” says Reno. “Mara. Vlerd—think about your land. The entertainment, the media, and even the way the people there converse with one another. Look what happened to you both. Brains sucked from your skull at a frat party. Loss of complete identity as a vampyr. Both of you hurt at the hands of stagnant ideas that wouldn’t let go of your society.”
Mara and Vlerd look at each other, then the wood floor. They follow the grains with their eyes. Mara scrunches her face like she ate something sour.
“Wait, even if there has been a diminishing of the overall and ongoing,” she says, pausing here to find a word, “Conversation, there are many—dozens, at least—who are keeping it going and evolving. That must keep you alive, Mr. Reno.”
Reno, stepping through spilled ink and paper, heads to the only other door in the room—this one’s metallic and cold. Black footprints follow him. He wraps his paw around the gray handle and shakes his head, looking back at Mara.
“You would think,” he says, “But an idea like me needs complete furtherance to survive. A few biota here and there won’t satisfy my hunger—for comparison, it’s like eating just a tater and nothing else for dinner. Or drinking the blood from one fly.”
“You’re feeding off us,” I say. Static. I shake it away, but a low rustle of its presence remains.
“I am,” says Reno. “That is the price to pay here for the farmer’s help. Gods in the process of being forgotten come here, and together we all weave whispers and legends through the trees—through cities and lands. ‘The farmer can help,’ and biota come, for one reason or another. And we—the wife, farmer, me, sometimes others—get to ‘eat,’ if you want to be crude about it. But it‘s not all devouring fire and bloodshed like you two seem to think. That is a tradition begun by the faulty first of Babarenfeld’s gods—there’s a reverence to what we do here.”
I say, “You’re forcing us to shove food into your gullet—there’s no reverence in that.” But I understand—of course I do. “This tour is your meal. Babarenfeld’s narrative in the art gallery took care of the main course, this proceeding added some lovely exposition soup. What’s for dessert?”
Reno swings the door open to show us a marble hallway with two doors on each side. One bloody and dripping. One made of brain matter. One of smoldering fire. One carved from the elder wood of an ape tree.
“Well, you five—Kafele and Akil included, not that corn—are outliers of the world when it comes to discourse,” says Reno. “You are those, as you would put it, Mara, who ‘keep it going.’ I have not had a meal like this in ages. But yes, dessert—this last hall here will take care of that.” He smacks his lips.
Vlerd hisses, turning away in a curling hunch from Reno and the hall. “Ugh, are ve chosen ones or some ugly thing like that?—I have had enough stale twists for one eternity.”
Reno slapped his belly and laughed himself through the doorway and into the hall. “Trust me, vampyr,” he said. “You are not chosen—your coming has not been prophesized or what have ya. Get over yourselves—you’re meal tickets. Besides, would the god of narrative be so trite?”
Vlerd huffs. “Vell, no—so, good. I’m in.”
I stand from my chair, then stretch my arm and wing—one cracks, the other flaps. The vampyr is in—what else does he have to do? Mira, too, appears ready and willing to enter the hall—she’s transfixed by the pink, brainy door. I am the lone holdout—I buy some time.
“What about Akil?” I say. “Doesn’t he need to be here?”
“No.” Reno shakes his head. “He has nothing to offer me in his state. I know all there is to know about him—he is the stock scientist. The father who flew too close to the sun.”
I’m not allowed to leave. Reno could stop me and so could Mira and Vlerd. We move forward together, into the hall. The blue, marbled corridor smells of its doors: blood, wood, brain, and fire.
Reno points to each door, stating the obvious. “Blood for Vlerd. Fire for Survival. Brain for Mira. Wood for Kafele—that means you, Survival, will enter twice. The Astral Plane will take care of the rest, sort of. So, who first?”
Vlerd steps to his door. He puts his hand against the blood cascading down its front, and he licks it from his fingers. Everyone in the hall squirms just a little.
“This is my blood,” he says. “My line, at least.” He turns, with a puzzled look, to Reno, and then back.
“Fascinating, right?” says the bear.
Vlerd grabs the red, brass knob and turns it.
His steps forward send small and quickly
doomed ripples through the red puddle at
the door’s base. Reno goes in after—then
Mira, and then me.
Moonlight grabs our eyes.