aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 13: The Image Of Eternal Death

October 10, 1990
Gulf of Mexico

I.

“Good morning,” said Sohu as she stepped out of her cottage. Technically it was already afternoon. She hadn’t slept late, but she’d stayed inside, studying, dreading to open the door. Uriel had no concept of small talk, and precious little concept of scheduling. She knew the moment she walked outside he would start expounding kabbalah at her, talking faster than she could follow and demanding impossible feats of scholarship. It wasn’t that she dreaded it, exactly. Just that she wanted to be able to steel herself a little before facing it. As for the archangel, he never seemed to notice or care about the time. She suspected she could have just stayed inside all week and spared herself any lessons at all, if she had been so inclined. But then why live with an archangel in a hurricane?

He had heard the greeting. She took a deep breath, readied herself for what was to come.

“KNOCK KNOCK,” said Uriel.

“…what?” said Sohu.

“LAST WEEK I SAID YOUR HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT WAS TO LEARN EVERY LANGUAGE,” said Uriel. “DID YOU – ”

“Wait,” said Sohu. “What was with the knock knock?”

“YOU HAVE SEEMED SOMEWHAT LOST RECENTLY. I BORROWED A HUMAN BOOK ON EDUCATION. IT SAYS THAT IN ORDER TO KEEP CHILDREN ENGAGED, YOU SHOULD TELL JOKES THROUGHOUT YOUR LESSON.”

“And someone told you that was how jokes work?”

“NO, BUT I WAS ABLE TO FIGURE IT OUT MYSELF AFTER READING SEVERAL EXAMPLES.”

Sohu mentally assessed whether this was better or worse than the normal way Uriel did things, came up blank.

“No. You have to – here, let me show you. Knock knock.”

“UM.”

“Now you say ‘who’s there’. It’s a joke.”

“IT IS NOT VERY FUNNY.”

“That’s not the joke. When I say ‘knock knock’, you say ‘who’s there?’ Knock knock.”

“WHO’S THERE? THIS IS STILL NOT VERY FUNNY.”

“Slow down! I say knock knock. You say who’s there. I say a name. You say that same name, and then you add ‘who’. And then I make a joke.”

“I THINK IT WOULD BE MORE EFFICIENT IF YOU STARTED BY MAKING THE JOKE.”

“It wouldn’t work that way! Knock knock!”

“WHO’S THERE?”

“Avery.”

“AVERY WHO?”

“Avery silly knock knock joke.”

“AVERY SILLY KNOCK KNOCK JOKE WHO?”

“You only say who one time!”

“OKAY.”

“You…didn’t seem to find that very funny.”

“WHICH PART WAS THE JOKE, AGAIN?”

“I said Avery, like it was my name. But actually, I was using it as part of the phrase ‘a very silly knock knock joke.'”

“WHY?”

“It’s like…it’s like what you were saying about kabbalistic correspondences. Two different things that have the same structure. The name Avery, and the words ‘a very’, and you don’t see it at first, but then later you do.”

Uriel stood quietly, glowing letters swirling all around him. He seemed to be thinking deeply, as if this were a far harder problem than merely stabilizing the El Nino cycle (his project for yesterday) or defragmenting mammalian DNA (the day before).

“SO A JOKE IS LIKE A SURPRISING KABBALISTIC CORRESPONDENCE?”

“Sort of.”

“KNOCK KNOCK.”

“Who’s there?”

“‘NACHASH’ IS THE HEBREW WORD FOR SERPENT, BUT IT HAS A GEMATRIA VALUE OF 358, WHICH IS THE SAME AS THE HEBREW WORD “MOSHIACH’, MEANING MESSIAH. THUS, ALTHOUGH THE SERPENT INTRODUCES SIN INTO THE WORLD AND THE MESSIAH REDEEMS THE WORLD FROM SIN, BOTH ARE KABBALISTICALLY IDENTICAL. YOU ARE NOT LAUGHING.”

Sohu’s expression was somewhere between horror and pity.

“THAT WAS NOT FUNNY?”

“Probably not in the way you intended it to be.”

“OH.”

“I think you might not be very good at jokes.”

“I THINK IT IS VERY SURPRISING THAT THE MOST DIRE THREAT TO THE WORLD IS PROPHESIED ALSO TO BE ITS REDEEMER. TAKEN TOGETHER WITH ISAIAH 53:12 STATING THAT THE MESSIAH WILL BE NUMBERED AMONG THE GREAT TRANSGRESSORS, IT PRESENTS A VERY UNUSUAL VIEW OF SIN AND REDEMPTION.”

“It has to be a special type of surprising. Uh….why don’t we get back to the lesson.”

“OKAY. LAST WEEK I SAID YOUR HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT WAS TO TO LEARN EVERY LANGUAGE. DID YOU COMPLETE IT?”

“I told you, humans can’t do things like that.”

“OH. RIGHT. THEN I TOLD YOU TO DO SOMETHING HUMANS WERE GOOD AT. LIKE START A WAR. DID YOU COMPLETE THAT ONE?”

“I thought you were joking!”

“NO. YOU CAN LEARN A LOT OF THINGS FROM STARTING A WAR. FIFTY YEARS AGO SOME PEOPLE STARTED A WAR AND THEY ENDED UP LEARNING THE SECRETS OF THE ATOM. IT WAS VERY IMPRESSIVE.”

“I’m not starting a war!”

“OKAY.” Sohu tried to read his face. Was she disappointing him? “TODAY WE WILL LEARN ABOUT THE TWO PILLARS ON THE TREE OF LIFE. THE RIGHT PILLAR CONSISTS OF CHOKHMAH, CHESED, AND NETZACH. IT REPRESENTS THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD AND IS ASSOCIATED WITH MERCY. THE LEFT PILLAR CONSISTS OF BINAH, GEVURAH, AND HOD. IT REPRESENTS THE LEFT HAND OF GOD AND IS ASSOCIATED WITH JUSTICE. MY BOOK ON EDUCATION SAYS I SHOULD STOP TO SEE IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS. DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS?”

She didn’t want to disappoint him further. She tried to think of a question. “Um. You talk about these correspondences all the time. So…uh…how does this correspond to human politics. We also talk about a right side and a left side, but in human politics the Right is usually more concerned with justice, and the Left is usually more concerned with mercy. How come in kabbalah it’s the opposite of that?”

“THAT IS AN EXCELLENT QUESTION. YOUR HOMEWORK FOR NEXT WEEK IS TO FIGURE OUT THE ANSWER.”

Oh. So it was going to be one of those types of lessons. Sohu scowled.

“IT IS A COMMON MISCONCEPTION THAT THE RIGHT HAND IS GOOD AND THE LEFT EVIL. AS ASPECTS OF THE DEITY, BOTH ARE GOOD AND NECESSARY TO PRODUCE BALANCE. THE RIGHT HAND CREATES AND SUSTAINS. THE LEFT HAND DIRECTS AND PURIFIES. BUT AFTER THE SHATTERING OF THE VESSELS, WHEN ALL ASPECTS LOST THEIR CONNECTION TO SUPERNAL DIVINITY, THE RIGHT HAND BECAME AIMLESS IN ITS BLESSINGS, AND THE LEFT SWITCHED FROM THE CAREFUL DIRECTION OF A LOVING FATHER, TO PUNISHMENT FOR ITS OWN SAKE. THE MIDDLE PILLAR REPRESENTS THE COMPROMISE BETWEEN THESE TWO EXTREMES. BALANCE. UNION. HIDE.”

“Um, another question. What do you mean by hide?”

Uriel pointed at the edge of the hurricane and Sohu’s little cloud shot in that direction so quickly she fell over onto its puffy surface. Her own cloud rotated ninety degrees and smashed up against the wall of the storm, so that she was sandwiched between them as they merged. Trapped. She clawed frantically, trying to break free, until she was rewarded with a view of clear sky, the four hundred foot vertical drop to the ocean below, and a tiny figure suspended in the air at the level of Uriel’s face.

II.

Uriel was talking to someone. She could barely see him at this distance. Human-sized, she thought. His voice carried, cool and emotionless, solid like ice.

“Would you like to get this over with and kill me now?” he asked. “Or do we have to do it the hard way?”

“THE HARD WAY,” said Uriel.

Then they both took a step skew to any of the dimensions her normal eyes could see. She felt new senses opening up as she tried to follow their path, senses that inferred their presence from the paths of the colored letters that swirled around the storm. The hurricane abstracted, became a series of perturbations in the seed of the world. She traced them back. SA’AR. Then along another set of threads. TEMPESTAS. Still another. HURRICANE.

The stranger seized the threads, pulled them forward, sheared them to their essence. HRCN. Then he rearranged them, made them dance. CHRN. Then fleshed them out. ACHERON. The river that formed the boundary of Hell. Sohu felt the storm darken, become deathly hot. Somehow the transmutation was affecting reality.

Uriel reached out, his flaming sword now in his hand, and parted the threads. CH. RN. He fleshed them out. Turned the first set into CHAI, meaning “life”. The second into AARON, brother of Moses, progenitor of the priesthood, who bore the Shem HaMephorash upon his forehead. The darkness broke. Waves of holy light rushed forth from where Uriel had made the change.

The stranger snarled, hurt.

“GO AWAY, THAMIEL,” said the archangel.

Sohu froze. Thamiel. The Lord of Demons. Was here. Was fighting Uriel.

Thamiel touched both sets of threads. AARON shifted vowels, became RUIN. From the whistling of the wind he drew an S, added it to CHAI, shifted it into CHAOS. Chaos and ruin. The carefully arranged threads of symbols that made up Uriel’s machine began crumbling, falling apart in the wind.

Uriel drew water from the sea in a great waterspout. The Semitic pictograph for “water” was the origin of the Hebrew letter mem. He turned the water into an M, then grabbed the CH from CHAOS and the n from RUIN, made MACHINE. The remaining letters R and S he stuck together, slashed at the S until it hardened and became a Z. RZ. RAZ. Secrets. Through the angel Raziel, the secrets of kabbalah in particular. A machine of kabbalistic secrets. His machinery stopped crumbling, starting putting itself together, glowing with renewed light.

Thamiel grabbed the Z, held it in the plume of water until it softened back into an S, then used it to make RASHA, “wicked” and NACOM, “punishment”. The punishment of the wicked, the Devil’s task. Thamiel began to grow bigger as the power of the storm drained into his essence.

Then he paused. pointed at the letters. Of their own accord, two dropped away, made a new pattern. MEREA. “Friend”.

“You have a friend here,” he told Uriel.

“NO,” said Uriel.

“The letters don’t lie,” said Thamiel. He pointed to them again. Another two dropped out. SOHU.

Interesting,” said Thamiel.

They were the scariest four syllables Sohu had ever heard.

The two stepped back into the regular world at the same time, and Thamiel flew right towards her.

She could see him clearly now. He looked like a man. He was dressed in a very black suit. His face evoked a military officer, or a high-level executive, or a serial killer, or a cop who always had rumors of brutality swirling around him but nobody could ever pin anything down. Not the kind of impulsive brutality of the guy who loses his cool every so often, but a very calculated brutality. The cop who knows way too much about how to hurt people without leaving marks, and who has no crime at all in his precinct, and nobody wants to ask why. Gaunt, empty grey eyes, close-cropped hair.

To the right of his head was a second head. It looked like a deformed infant. Its eyes were firmly shut and its mouth was locked into a perpetual silent scream.

“Sohu,” he said, with his normal head. The other one was still screaming. “I’m Thamiel. We meet at last.”

He had two bat wings on his back, no bigger than they would have been on a bat. On him they looked ridiculous, vestigial. They held him aloft nonetheless. In his hand was a bident – like a trident, but with two points instead of three. He looked straight at her. Held out the bident, and the clouds hiding her melted away.

“DO NOT HURT HER,” said Uriel.

“Ah,” said Thamiel. “Perhaps now you’re more interested in killing me?”

Uriel said nothing. Thamiel stared at the girl. Sohu didn’t say anything.

“Your father’s sign is on you.” He pointed to her left hand. To her eyes there was nothing there. It just looked like skin. “If I harm you, it calls him here.” She had known nothing of this; still it made sense. “But,” said the demon, “it thinks of ‘harm’ in very literal terms. I don’t.”

Very very gingerly, he touched the two points of the bident to Sohu’s forehead.

She remembered a poem: “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…”

She remembered it because it was the only thing that could describe how it felt. All the light vanished from the world. Everything stable, everything comprehensible. Like a vertiginous nausea of the mind, like every fiber of her being was united in an urge to vomit that would never be satiated. Not like she had cancer; like she was cancer, like there was nothing pure or orderly left within her, like she needed to be excised from the universe, like the universe needed to be excised from the cosmos, or like the whole cosmos needed to be killed with poison to put it out of its own misery. But that doing so wouldn’t help, couldn’t help, there was no poison outside and separate from the cancer, everything was going to be horrible forever and it was all her fault.

“Uriel!” she shouted with her last ounce of strength. “Kill me!”

Thamiel opened one eye a little wider on his first face; the eyes of the second were still glued shut. “I was going for ‘kill him‘,” said the devil, “but your way works too, actually.”

The second head continued to scream. Uriel stood silently as the colors and symbols whirled around him, no emotion on his face.

“You should know,” said Thamiel to her quietly, “that if one were to compare a single water droplet of this cloud to all the oceans of the world, the oceans above that are seen by Man and the greater oceans below in the wellsprings of the earth – that as miniscule are the torments you suffer now to the torments of Hell that are prepared for you and everyone you love. And that even if you escape those torments, as some do, you have friends, and you have a family, and even those who seem most virtuous have secret sins, and so the probability that neither you nor any of those you care about end up in my dominions is impossibly fleeting, a ghost of a ghost of a chance. And that I will be given dominion over the Earth, and that it will be no different, and everything beautiful and lovely and innocent will become no different from what you feel now, only it will last forever. And that I don’t care at all about you, but I wanted to see whether Uriel did. And that he could stop this at any time. And you’re probably blind by this point, but you should know that he’s standing there, watching all of this, and he knows exactly what’s going on, and he hasn’t even changed his expression. And I could do this for an hour, a year, an eternity, and he would still be standing there.”

The second head just kept screaming.

“Still,” said Thamiel, “I’m busy, and duty calls.” He lifted the bident from Sohu’s forehead, and she collapsed onto the cloud. “I’m changing my mind,” he told the archangel. “You don’t need to kill me today. I think it will be more interesting watching you explain yourself to Sohu. We can do the usual death-return thing the next time.”

“GO AWAY, THAMIEL,” said Uriel.

“Of course,” said the devil, and he dove into the sea and disappeared.

III.

Sohu lay there for a moment. Let the light and fresh air slowly leak back into her sensorium. The horror seemed oddly distant now, like she could barely remember it. A nightmare retreating after break of day. But the words she could not forget.

A rush of air, as Uriel summoned her cloud back beside him at the center of the storm. A bulge in the center gradually took shape and developed, bud-like, into her cottage. The flying kayak was still there, somehow, tethered to the edge of the cloud just as it had been before.

“ARE YOU OKAY?”

She struggled to speak. Finally she just said “What happened?”

“THAMIEL DOES NOT LIKE ME. HE WANTED ME TO DO SOMETHING BAD TO SAVE YOU. I DID NOT. I AM SORRY.”

Sohu turned herself over, so that she was supine on the cloud. She saw the angel’s head leaning over her, filling the sky, his eyes as bright as the sun, and she covered her own eyes to avoid being blinded.

She thought for a second. So many things she wanted to say. She formed the responses, compared them, mulled them over in her mind.

“I…trust you to do the right thing.”

“YOU DO?”

“I…Uriel, it was really bad. You have no idea how scary that was. Please don’t let him hurt me again. Please don’t let me die.”

“UM. I WILL TRY TO KEEP YOU SAFE.”

“I don’t want to be kept safe. I want to…you fought him, Uriel.”

“NOT VERY WELL.”

“But you did. I want to learn how to do that. I want to learn how to fight.”

“I WILL TEACH YOU MANY THINGS. BUT YOUR HOMEWORK FOR TONIGHT IS TO REST AND FEEL BETTER.” He stopped himself. “OR IS THAT ONE OF THE THINGS HUMANS CANNOT DO?”

“I…I’m not sure. But I think I can try.”

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