We must have been carried out of Gehenna unconscious. Awakened by air that wasn’t gastric we found ourselves in a desert reminiscent of our first. The entire episode in the worm seemed a distant, absurd dream, and this new reality felt so nondescript as to be purgatorial. The old man said nothing to me as he awoke, rising to his feet after a few moments, choosing a direction, and setting off on it wordlessly. Too tired to protest, I followed.
It was a complete silence, every whisper a laceration. We disturbed it infrequently with quick phrases and an economy of words. He seemed either too mortified or too afraid to speak of the worm, and treated it like a distant memory he had already forgotten. I decided not to press him on it. If Lucifer had spoken honestly, he was dreading this voyage more than his time in the inferno. But it wasn’t fear I detected as much as a growing, surging anger.
Hours into what seemed the start of an infinite walk I noticed that he was shivering, clutching his sides. This desert was arctic to him. My dehydration seemed luxurious against his growing frostbite, and I hoped we weren’t deposited here with the intention of wandering aimlessly to our deaths. I kept my eyes focused firmly ahead, desperate for any third element besides sand and sky. After another prolonged silence I noticed his beard now had flecks of ice forming on it, and a bluish hue was emerging on the framing elements of his face. I tossed my cloak over him to a gruff protest until he took a closer look at me and noticed that I was sweating. A mix of alarm and anger played on his face. “Where are we?” I shook my head and continued walking.
We were surrounded by grassland before we realized it, up to our knees in undulating waves of dull green as far as the eye could see. Cresting a small dune, the monotony was at last broken up by some form of structure in the distance, built along a cliff face. Beyond it was the sea. The discovery energized us, made our slog a scamper, brought us close enough to define its shape before stopping and wondering at it.
“It was once a grand museum,” the old man said at last. It was roofless, chunks of its walls eaten away, but still not quite ruins. He seemed to recognize it, and the recognition was not pleasing. He shook his head at it for a long time before finally huffing, “Well, we have no choice, do we?” So we set off down the long valley, the wind slowing to stillness, the silence thickening to amber, until we were the only moving objects in the universe, until we stood motionless ourselves against the gaping doors of the desiccated museum.
“Thank you.” They were the two last words I expected out of his mouth, and it seemed he had been attempting to deliver them for some time. “I know not exactly what awaits us inside, but I am not looking forward to discovering it.” He smiled softly and looked over at me. “We came closer than I expected.” He held my eyes for a few moments and I nodded once. Then his face hardened impossibly as he confronted the doorway once more, ready to destroy whatever was inside.
The patrons were a surprise. Past the entryway and the vast lobby, the museum was far from empty. People in muted garb, their lips the color of the deep sea, milled about soundlessly with blank expressions, gathering in front of this or that painting, staring at them as if they didn’t exist, as if they were looking at blank walls. They took no heed of us, never once made eye contact, or noticed as we moved among them. They seemed of all ages, places and times, sharing only their scant humanity and dim life. Touching a few in the face and hands and getting no response, it was clear they were not apparitions, though not alive in the traditional sense either.
At first I was focused solely on the listless masses shuffling between rooms, their unsyncopated shamble upsetting. Then I noticed the art. The paintings were given wide berth, only one or two placed on each wall, with a few sculptures in each room. They were similarly outside of time, from every known era and style, and many unknown. The old man’s anger turned to wonder as he silently read each artist’s name, recognizing many of them, even more surprised when he did not. Because many were abstract, it took me a few more rooms than he to realize their unifying element. They were depictions of the sisters.
Some I recognized immediately, their bodies stretching across massive canvases or else dotting a swallowing landscape. None looked exactly as I’d imagined them, though perhaps the artist was to blame. There were a few grouped together in triptychs and clusters of sculptures by the same artist, making me wonder if some were actually sisters, if there was a bloodline. The old man muttered that some of these paintings were very famous, cursing himself for not recognizing their subjects in his lifetime of research. I walked the rooms quickly now, taking in as many as I could, each one adding a new dimension to the old man’s tales. There was an entire room devoted to primitive etchings of enormous beasts – massive leviathans that walked the earth eons ago. They varied in shape and character, dwarfing the crudely drawn humans beside them. An old memory surfaced briefly and I did not step foot into that space, turning my gaze to the floor as soon as I realized what I was looking at.
Stepping into a room that was mostly sketches, a mass inhalation by the patrons piqued our attention.
“At last we are gathered.” The patrons spoke in unison, the muddle of their lifeless voices unnerving. None made eye contact or came to life. They remained limp marionettes. “I have wanted to speak with you for a long time.” The old man searched for the author of the voice, turning quickly, glancing at the faces of the women in the crowd, his anger resurfacing.
“Reveal yourself.” The bodies seemed to part for him as he waded through them, searching.
“I will admit,” the patrons chanted, “I was growing unsure that this meeting would occur.”
“It is more inevitable than death,” the old man growled.
There was some silent shuffling before they spoke again. “A bold choice of words, that.”
The old man stopped in a vast hall of statues, brought his face close to an old woman’s and looked deep into her eyes, whispering, “It is why I am here, is it not? To be killed at last. You have turned over all of time and space trying to catch me. Well, now I am yours. And I hope you make this short.”
“You think me the murderer?” The patrons stopped moving and seemed to awaken, their gazes focusing all at once on the old man. “Tell me, lepidopterist, how many butterflies does a butterfly catcher keep alive?”
At this the old man snapped. He leapt for the closest statue, and toppled it to the ground. As it shattered he dashed to the next one and did the same. He heaved a third and then hopped upon its pedestal. Looking around wildly for her, he screamed. “How many times have I told your hunters over the course of my lifetime? How many more times must I say it to you now?” He tore at his clothes and traced roughly at his skin. “I have been trying to save them. Always. I have dedicated my life to knowing them, scrawling their names on my skin. There is a reason they call me the ark. I carry them with me.”
The patrons suddenly collapsed to the floor, their little lives extinguished. Only one remained standing, a young girl who looked at the old man with a ripe venom in her eyes.
“You wear their pelts.”
The old man’s rage evaporated, underneath it a naked fear. The girl seemed to terrify him.
“Behold the great savior. You are either a liar or completely delusional. Did you come close? How many names are scrawled on your body, old man?” As she spoke she strode towards him, and he shrank on his pedestal, avoiding her gaze. “Speak, you fool.”
He trembled a whisper, as if to a ghost. “Seventy one.”
“Seventy one.” A syllable of laughter. “The seventy-two sisters. The seventy-two species of dreams. The seventy-two desires. Elements. Temperaments.” Now she circled him, spitting her words at his face. “All but one.”
A murmur to the floor: “To stop me when I am this close is true cruelty.”
So as not to fly into a rage herself, the girl pivoted abruptly and strode to the exit and beyond, making her way out of the museum, walking through the grassy plain until she stood at the cliff face, looking out at the sea. To my great surprise, he watched her exit and then followed, as did I.
Stopping with some distance between them, he spoke again, gently. “Please – where did you hide the last one? I have looked everywhere. She is your eldest daughter, that I know. Does she live with you?”
The girl turned to him, incredulous. “You think me their mother?”
The patrons stirred again in the museum. They came to their feet and exited the building, shuffling slowly towards us until they formed a sealed semi-circle behind us, between the museum and the three of us. Nothing was spoken until they were perfectly still.
“This last journey of yours has been a joke then,” she laughed. “You have taken apart time to properly flee from me, to spare yourself from this meeting. You have fled in terror across the universe. And yet–” The patrons shambled forward inexorably, the wall of their bodies forcing us closer and closer to the cliff’s edge, until the three of us stood only a few feet away from each other.
Then she looked at me for the first time and spoke quietly. “Tell him who I really am.”
I could have known since the moment I met him or realized it at that instant. “She is my eldest sister.”
The old man fell to the floor, the wind knocked out of him. He looked back and forth at the two of us, piecing the rest together. She continued.
“I have read your book, old man. I do not recognize my sisters in it. The women you describe seem strangers to me. How do you plan on saving those who need no saving when you do not even understand who we are?”
He read the look in her face and his fear settled into a grim acceptance.
“It is you who fail to understand the situation, who do not fathom your sisters. Destroy me and they too will fall. Kill me and you will ultimately kill your sisters.”
“We shall see.” She offered him her hand, and lifted him up. “Do you wish to meet our mother?”
A timid nod. Then in one fluid motion she drew a blade, stabbed the old man in the heart and flung him off the cliff.
Then I remembered everything. My life protecting him. Her constant threat. The hiding. The skirmishes with her hunters. My capture and imprisonment at her hands. The great prison. The forgetting.
I could not control the force of my scream – it leveled the patrons around us and opened a thin fissure between me and the museum. Then my anger took control. My arm inflated to gigantic size and brushed the patrons off the cliff like crumbs on a table. My other arm followed and then the rest of my body, until I dwarfed the museum, until the vast cliff was but a step to me. I stood, heaving, staring down at the insect that was my eldest sister, wondering whether I would crush her or pick off her limbs and leave her to die. As I brought my arm down, she calmly raised her tiny hand to me.
“Wait.” She peered over the cliff edge at the angry sea and my gaze followed. Though it took me a few minutes, I finally caught a glimpse of his body between the waves. Stepping into the ocean submerged to the waist, I waited until I caught sight of it again, and cupping both hands scooped him up gingerly. Then I stared for a long time at his corpse gathered in the flat of my palm, remembering stories he had told me long ago.