Feb 4, 2024, 1:20:20 AM
Natsumi had so many questions whirling in her head.
Where were they, like where were they really?
How long is that beach?
What the heck was that eyeball thing?
Did what happen, actually just happen?
Where does this boat go? And... are we there yet?
It was a lot to process and she took it silently which surprised her. Anyone less astute than her might start ranting and raving, vocalizing their descent into madness, or maybe this was how she took in the absurdity of the situation. She clamped her hands around the edge of the purple-gray plank of wood serving as a bench beneath her. It flexed between her seated weight and the slow rhythmic up and down motion of the waves lapping against the hull as they cut across the sea. Aside from the waves, the only noise came from behind her -- a long oar dipping into the inky water and cutting through it with a sharp and resounding splash at the end.
She half expected Eyeballs to catch up to them and resume his ranting and raving, calling her "a crime." She didn't look forward to it, but as they moved away from the shore, his voice had receded until the only noise was the tall woman applying her strength to slipping their skiff over the body of water. To Natsumi's left there were soft silhouettes against the fog that projected a sense of closeness towards some land. Sometimes between the tuffs of low clouds something hard and jagged appeared, something solid that alluded to the thing hidden out of sight.
Natsumi realized how tight her grip was on the bench and eased up. There was no danger now. No Eyeballs to yell and scream at her. Even her own heart rate seemed to drop -- did she, in fact, still have one of those?
All of this self-reflection was getting to her. There needed to be a break in the silence.
"So," Natsumi said turning around and planting her right hand on the back of the bench. She put on her most winning smile. "How much is the audio version of this gondola ride?" She groaned internally at her own cringe-worthy icebreaker. It reminded her of all her other ill-begotten attempts at flirting and falling flat on her face.
The tall woman was statuesque and loomed over her. For the first time since her arrival here, Natsumi could get a good glimpse of her face. She was older. Pretty. Maybe, more handsome? She couldn't imagine what cozying up to her would be like. The black orbs for her eyes made it impossible to tell what she was looking at and hard to know how she felt. Her long flaxen hair billowed behind her like a massive cloth sheet. Her fingers were long, longer than they should be, but her hands guided the long oar back into the water again and again. Natsumi peeked under the folds of her cloak but whatever accounted for a body was impossible to make out. Instead it was like black against black. She squinted her eyes and made out a gentle sparkle, like tiny diamonds. It struck her that she wasn't looking at cloth (not in the traditional, non-relativistic sense), but rather as if she were looking at the naked universe itself. If she lost herself in staring, she might fall into eternity. But, the thought of falling into her wasn't off-putting at all.
"Hmm?" The tall woman said, her eyes never turning towards Natsumi. She pursed her lips and her face turned neutral again. Natsumi glanced away wondering if those black orbs saw everything. "Ah," she said. "Forgive me. I am not accustomed to company. Least of all one who is willing to engage me so earnestly."
"You do this... whatever it is... by yourself?"
"And..." Natsumi paused for a moment. "What do you do again? I don't think you ever said."
"I ferry the dead."
"Grim." She looked at the woman to see if her expression would lighten up. A smile. Anything to break the ice.
"...And the living."
"The gondola is a means to travel to and fro, is it not?"
The fog cleared around them and revealed quite a sight. To the port, there was an ivory white island. The beach looked pebbly. Somewhat inviting but not really to frolic and build sand castles on. The terrain further up startled Natsumi and she leaned back out of awe and a bit of trepidation. The mountains were also ivory white, distinctly round, and were in fact a heap of giant skulls piled up as tall as mountains would be. It raised more questions than answered. It troubled Natsumi to think what put those skulls there.
The tall woman made no response to this veil being lifted, but of course, if she made this journey to-and-fro she would be accustomed to its sight. Natsumi wondered if every soul that took this voyage pointed it out, and to be cooler than those supposed souls, she decided not too.
Natsumi instead focused on what the woman said and after a moment's thought she replied, "So you take... new living souls with you across, back to where we were, and then wait for the dead, and ship them back to where we're going."
"Aye," the tall woman said.
Natsumi studied the beach and realized that maybe what she was looking at wasn't pebbles but... more skulls. As they drifted by, a black fortress of some kind rolled into view. From her vantage point the walls and towers were brutualist and in varying states of decay.
Were there people?
"Huh. And, you don't get a lot of talkers."
"My charges are oft wrought with varying states of distress. To pass between life and death is no simple thing."
"Yeah... I'm not a part of that anymore, eh?" Natsumi asked.
"Your cycle of life, death, rebirth... 'tis broken."
"Can it be fixed?"
"Dost thou wish it so?"
"I... don't know. Would Eyeballs be after me calling me a crime?" That would be annoying to return as a mortal only to have weird things follow her around until the end of her life...again.
The tall woman spoke, her voice measured and slow. "I know not what the stewards of the Kingdom would do, but child, wouldst thou want to return to a mortal form? Live and decay, born and reborn from one epoch to another, a new face, a new circumstance, another roll of the die."
Even the tall woman face the strange castle and they both watched in silence as they floated by.
"Okay, okay, you've made your point."
The tall woman returned to rowing. Natsumi kept her eyes on the black castle. She pictured in her mind that the walls of the castle might wrap around in some kind of geometric shape, probably a square. She thought that because in the middle of this square was an obelisk, a massive tower disproportionately sized against it's supposed-square courtyard. It rose high into the sky and appeared newer than its stony surroundings -- stones that appeared round from the way the light hit them. Were they... skulls too? If it was a castle built on an island of skulls, yeah, she pondered, it might just all be skulls. But the tower looked modern and strangely out of place, like something minimalist that an architect would conceive to make a statement about a place. The only statement it seemed to make was how phallic it was against the roundness of everything else surrounding it. What went on there? There had to be people -- who would have built it otherwise?
Another question slipped from Natsumi's mouth, "Say... what's your deal. Why do you do this? It seems like the most... perfunctory and lame job anyone could have." She found herself trying to match the tall woman's seriousness and speech. Maybe that would ingratiate her with the tall woman better. Open her up. Big words weren't really a part of her vocabulary though. At least not ones she used everyday.
The tall woman didn't answer right away. They drifted further, but still parallel to the skull island. "I keep order," she said at last. Her voice was deep, husky, and old sounding. "When a dispute arises, I am the arbitrator. I remain... dispassionate. They seek to become form, place, time, the bits and pieces of the ten thousand things." The tall woman didn't bother to relate who "they" were, but Natsumi could take a guess.
Natsumi squinted at the black tower. It looked like a cutout against all of the ivory white behind it. On the top of the tower she noticed a small figure come into view. The figure was cloaked and she couldn't make out a face or anything identifying. The figure planted a tall spear down and stared back.
They continued to drift by. "Huh," Natsumi muttered. Cloaked guy's business was their own. And her business with the tall woman was their own. She turned back towards the tall woman. "You... You literally turned me into a god. But you cut yourself from all that? You didn't want any of it?"
"I did not." Her answer was firm, as if she were trying to convince herself.
"How come?" The best way to test someone's convictions (ancient god or otherwise) were to poke at it and Natsumi couldn't help but prod her.
The tall woman let out a faint sigh. "I..." she broke off, her voice trembled. Now this was interesting. The waiver in her voice. Was it regret? Anger? Jealousy? She faced the tall woman to examine her further, but her billowing flaxen hair covered most of her mouth and face. Her forlorn eyes stared at no fixed point off to the starboard side. What did she see with those black orbs? Natsumi leaned closer to listen.
In response the tall woman paddled their craft.
Natsumi ruminated out loud, "If I had your powers... I'd..." She tipped her gaze up and thought. "...fix the world?" That seemed dumb. What did that mean anyway? What needed fixing? Maybe things in the world were fine the way they were -- including all of the evil and negligence. It was, what it was, right? How could they know good and justice without the bad and unjust? "Maybe not fix, maybe..." It was a thought she never gave much too and it proved too difficult on the spot to come up with something better.
"But thou wilt have what is mine," The tall woman spoke up as if she were prodded by something unseen to force the words from her own mouth. A moment later she added in a calmer tone, "I may bestow upon thy soul the rite of godhood, but 'tis only through practice and intentionality will the shape of thy true nature be given form." She dipped the oar into the water and pushed them along the sea's surface. "The question remains, what shalt thou do?" As the oar came up she examined the end of it. "It piques my interest. Perhaps, I am, indeed, even giddy at the notion of it." Her hair hid her face again, but for a second Natsumi thought she saw a brief smile. "Thou art new, different..."
"What if I'm not. What if I'm just a screw up. And... you know, by the transitive property, you screwed up." The question surprised her. Well, it felt honest. Anything spoken in the moment always did to some degree.
"Doubt not thyself, child. Thine hour is the pink before the dawn, judge thyself when the sun shines down from above."
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