by James Pepe
I racked the Mosin’s extraction bolt, but it stuck halfway. Oh, Jesus. Oh, man. The toxic smoke of corrosive ball ammo drifted in the hallway, and my ears were ringing with a high-pitched blacksmithy piiiiiiiiiing. Jesus. My teeth chattered like a wind-up toy; my hands felt heavy, alien, and distant. Jesus. The bolt finally obeyed, and the spent cartridge hiccuped onto the carpeted floor between my sneakers. A bolus of half-digested Breakfast Bar rose to the back of my throat, and I swallowed hard, forcing the gorp back down.
Go away. I worked a live round into the breach, shouldered the Mosin-Nagant, and waved its muzzle at the front door, as if the vintage rifle was magic–a talisman that could make what was on the other side simply disappear and go away.
A bullet hole–an orange dime of light–glowed in our dim apartment right beneath the peephole. The smell of gunpowder and Hoppes solvent filled my nostrils, stung my eyes.
Hit him. Must have hit him. Dead on. Know I did.
My heart slammed against my sternum like a jaybird in box, and my shaky Mosin was trained on the door. But I wasn’t fooling myself. Mom always said that no one deserts Prester John’s Land. No one.
My mother’s first and last suicide attempt was on my seventh birthday. She baked a chocolate cake, let the oven cool, and then put two pillows inside so that our heads could be close to the gas, á la Sylvia Plath. She then untied her apron, kicked off her pink flip-flops, unzipped her olive-green jumpsuit, and towered above me, soft and godlike. I gagged on the rotten-egg smell of Southern Connecticut Natural Gas as Mom’s face glowed in the darkened kitchen, illuminated by seven electric birthday candles. Projection Reptiles were coming, she said–and this was the only way to stay safe.
Like a theatrical scrim, the front door faded into transparency, and I could see the Reptile, who wore an olive-green jumpsuit and a ballistic vest. His Gila-Monster skin was an Indian-corn motley of green, red, and white. Through the sheetrock, through the door, his feral Romanticism penetrated, stinging like wet sleet.
“Strip for me, sir.” His bulldog jaws narrowed down to a wedge-shaped smile–a sharky smile that wrapped around his face like a serrated yellow zipper. Emerald tendrils of combustible emotion floated above his dead eyes. “Do it: Go nude.”
On my seventh birthday, I woke up in my darkened bedroom, nauseated, with a wet cloth on my forehead and a slice of chocolate cake on my nightstand. The windows were wide open; October air rattled the blinds. I could hear Mom in the bathroom across the hall, sobbing and retching, shuffling and cutting her Tarot cards, begging the King for forgiveness.
“Mom!” I shouted. No answer. “Mom!” My voice echoed in the empty living room. A gum-snapping pop, an ozone snap–and I heard the smoke detector squawk and the Frigidaire’s motor die. The Reptile had just jolted the whole room with pathos, maybe the whole building. The oily suction of the Reptile’s Christian heart called to me, begging me to blow him, even though Projection Reptiles were neutered males.
“Just kidding about that last part, sir.” The Reptile’s psyche was a barrage of subatomic ice picks, and my soul bubbled out through each needle puncture. “I know you’re butch. That commie slug hurt.”
The very air in our fifth-floor apartment began to twinkle with dew-sized buds of manifest emotion. I fitted a bayonet over the rifle’s muzzle and turned until the eighteen-inch spike clicked into place. The emotional knots orbiting my head blinked a deep firefly green.
“Those surplus Mosins are a bargain, but they’re gluey with cosmoline. Have you tried soaking the bolt? They say kerosene helps.” The Reptile’s ectoplasmic tongue licked my brainstem as if it was sugar. “Your mother was my wrangler, back when I was a newt, and we often bathed beneath the Tree. It was beautiful. Now do it for me; do it. Strip, just like your mom. It’s a Fool’s Journey, and everyone here is family.”
Slats of morning light shone through the balcony blinds, and Mom stepped out of her bedroom as if sleepy. Wearing a man’s white-sleeved shirt and no pants, she Weeble-Wobbled on her feet, running a hand through her short red hair, streaking it with viscous green emotion.
“Mom!” I had just set up an enfilade fire position across the opposite hallway. Oblivious, my mother gazed at the ceiling and waddled toward the kitchen, with green flames wreathing her head like a gas range set on high. In her left hand, she held her favorite coffee mug.
“Oh, God, no–Mom! No!”
“Judgment.” Pseudopods of lime uncoiled from her emotional fire crown, corkscrewing and wriggling like drowning worms. She stopped, tottered, and finally blinked in recognition. She held a Tarot card in her right hand. “I drew Judgment.” Her eyes watered, and she puckered her thin lips–a mother’s lips–for a kiss. She always blames herself. Always.
The circumference of the Reptile’s psyche now engulfed all five stories of Marseilles Towers, our North Haven apartment building, transforming it into a constellation of fifty-six souls, all joined by a permeable atmosphere of emotional humidity–the dew point of Card XX: Judgment.
On floor three, Ms. Estancia untied her bathrobe and anointed her stretch-marked belly with handfuls of aloe and lanolin; on floor two, room eight, Mr. Seacrest opened his refrigerator and ground a stick of margarine into his salt-and-pepper chest; and Aditha Ganeshe, the CrossFit instructor down the hall, looked over her bare shoulder, becoming a living statue–Bernini’s fleeing Daphne made flesh, except that Aditha’s body was a rich maple brown. In their shared two-bedroom apartment, her mother prepared a mixing bowl of jasmine, vanilla extract, and coconut oil. Mrs. Ganeshe smiled, wept, and stirred because her little sapling–Aditha, The Root–was finally getting married.
“Full nakedness!” The reptile’s skull plowed right through our apartment’s front door, tearing it off the hinges with a crash like a T-boned mini-van. Standing in the kitchen, coffee cup in hand, mom didn’t even flinch as he charged past, turning to the left, then to right, spotting my firing position down the hallway. “John Donne approves! Go nude!” A melon-sized fireball ignited above his sloping head.
But my hemorrhaging psyche didn’t catch fire. Instead, oozing out of multiple stab wounds, my soul began to solidify and crystallize on the surface of my buzz-cut scalp. An icy crown for an icy boy–a Prufrock life of coffee spoons spent in service to a Reversed Queen. Losing myself in mom’s world, I did what I always do: keep her safe from Projection Reptiles, both real and imagined. I let out a half-breath and lined up my rifle’s front post on the reptile’s center mass. The Mosin spat a meter of flame; its metal buttplate rammed my shoulder. Beneath my frozen coronet, I felt so calm, and I wished I knew why.
On my thirteenth birthday, mom sat me down and begged my forgiveness because she was a bad mother, a killer–and, most of all, a deserter from Prester John’s Land, where everyone is naked, except the King, who rules in silence from within the Holy Rose Vault.
Mom started to unzip her jumpsuit, stopped half-way, and then covered her eyes. “We all went crazy.”
She said I was too young to remember the violence. The Rosicrucians lost faith and cracked the Vault; the griffins lost faith and torched the Tree; and the Projection Reptiles–the Land’s natural antibodies–punished these desertions with red tracers, white phosphorous, and emotional terror.
“My team hit the Vault with breaching charges.” Mom paused to gulp air. “I was first in. Then the Reptiles counterattacked–hard. Effective enemy fire on our flank. Screaming, screaming, everyone screaming. The Tree was in flames. I ran. Oh, God–I ran. I held you in my arms and jumped off the edge.”
Mom says that the kingdom used to touch the ground, but that was before the His Silence. Now the Land floats high in the Abrahamic subconscious, riding on the surface tension of a billion sleeping sighs for God.
My mother knelt before me and bowed until her head touched the Persian carpet. “It was crazy.” She hissed. “Crazy.” Mom sobbed so hard that her shoulders frog-jumped with each gasp and hiccup. “You can’t forgive me.”
I forgave her and asked her to stand up.
Bracing herself on the edge of the table, mom rose on shaky legs. “When my chute opened, I almost dropped you.” She wiped her bloodshot eyes. “Right over the North Haven. It was so beautiful up there. All those lights getting closer.”
I shook my head and told her I loved her. Everything was going to be okay.
A green flame, as small as a pilot light, hovered above her spiky red hair. She smiled weakly and promised to get a job, keep her clothes on, and attend PTA meetings.
“I want to feel safe.”
I agreed and hugged her tight. Afterward, we pigged out on chocolate cake, ginger ale, and vanilla Breyers. While she did the dishes, I watched PBS on our tiny black-and-white.
But that night, Prester John’s Land floated low, skimming the treetops and chimneys of Hamden County like a vast mothership of basalt and red granite. Thecadonts, Sauropods, Therapods–every suborder of Projection Reptile stood perched on the edge of this subconscious Laputa. Unzipping their jumpsuits, barring their sexless bodies, the terrible lizards dangled bronze-tipped spears, .50 caliber sniper rifles, and the severed heads of extinct griffins into the shared narrative of 50,000 unsuspecting sleepers. Then every Reptile sat back on his haunches and moon-dog howled, screaming and screaming until a thousand scaly heads crackled with green plasma.
As the land sailed to the west, gaining preconscious altitude over Sleeping Giant State Park, I felt a chest-crushing sense of guilt. I wished I knew why.
On my eighteenth birthday, I woke up slouched in a hard-back wooden chair with my arms manacled behind me. Across from me, with his back to the living-room wall, the reptile sat cross-legged on our Persian carpet. His skin was the color of petrified wood, and his jumpsuit was sticky with multiple Pollock splats of blood. Like a Somali warlord with a mouthful of khat, the reptile cradled my Mosin in his arms and chewed on a cud of Tree leaf until his eyelids drooped.
In the far corner of the living room, my mother sat on the floor, bare knees to her chin, as if she was a child being disciplined. “Thomas.” Her voice was a whisper.
With a panzer turret’s grace, his head swiveled and his long tail, skirting the baseboard, undulated, rolled, and thwacked the wall just above her nose. She flinched and looked away.
“Don’t be shy, ma’am: get comfortable, just like the old days. Take it all off.”
“Please, please, Thomas, don’t hurt him.”
He crooked a sharp finger at me. “Is he circumcised? God, I hope so.”
She shook her head. “He’s a good boy, Thomas.”
From the neck down, my whole body tingled like a limb that’s fallen asleep. The reptile had tasered me by whispering a pre-Edenic syllable in my left ear. Before that, I managed to shoot him center mass, buttstroke his jaw, and bayonet his right thigh. My cheek muscles ached. I was smiling so hard because today I was getting married.
“He really loves you.” The reptile nodded to himself, as if something just made sense. His head was a silent green Borealis, and the walls of our living room danced with Jack-’o-lantern shadows.
My ice crown was still intact and the size of beehive. Plip, plip, plip–water drops from my soul’s pericardium continued to leak upward, adding to the crown’s growing mass.
“This is my fault. Let him go!”
Lava-lamp blobs of congealed emotion hung in the air, floating like a brood of glowing jellyfish. The reptile click-clacked my Mosin’s bolt until the rifle’s box magazine surrendered its last cartridges.
“This is about Judgment, ma’am–about desertion. About doing what’s right. I’ve been inside the Vault, you know. Me–can you believe that? Me.” The reptile thumped a fist against his ballistic vest. “That took guts. And I used to be such a good dog.”
Mom crawled toward the Reptile on her hands and knees. “You were never a dog.” She pushed aside our thrift-store coffee table and knelt beside her former pupil.
We all went crazy: that’s what mom always said. No one had seen or heard Prester John for centuries, but it shouldn’t have mattered: He sat in his Rose Vault, and all was right with the world.
“I won’t make excuses.” Mom blindfolded herself with a cloth napkin, rested her hands on her hips, and exhaled through her nose. “And neither should you.” She was ready. The Mosin’s spike bayonet, still slick with the Reptile’s femoral blood, was an inch away from her throat.
“My brothers have gone feral; the land’s dying. Nothing grows. And the Vault–Ding an Sich–the Vault. I was inside, and it was knowable.”
Plip, plip, plip–like an anti-grav stalagmite, my liquid soul kept dripping up, up, up–ascending–freezing on contact with the air. My ice crown was now the size of a bishop’s mitre. I was smiling so hard that my lips were beginning to split.
Like an octopus shifting colors, the Reptile’s skin changed to a violent cedar red–the third color of the Tree, under whose sacred branches blood was shed. My mother leaned forward so that the tip of the rifle’s bloody spike rested in the notch between her clavicles. The tears running down her cheeks pooled in this hollow at the base of her throat. Blood and water. I smiled and marveled at the alchemy.
“I love you, Thomas.”
“I love you, too, ma’am.” Without taking his eyes off me, the reptile palmed her head as it was a basketball.
My spent slugs were proud of themselves. Lying nestled in his lungs, they congratulated themselves on penetrating the vest’s trauma plate. “Ya tebya lyublyu,” the Soviet bullets whispered: I love you. I could hear the sound of 112 bare feet marching up our apartment’s western stairwell. I could hear Sir Thomas Mallory, across the centuries, snoring on his prison-cell cot, waiting in vain for a royal pardon–and dreaming of the three colors of the Tree: green, red, and white.
At the touch of the lizard’s hand, my mother’s short hair began to grow, Rapunzeling down her shoulders in long scarlet waves. “So, where is the King, anyway?” He rose, stretched, and stood on the balls of his clawed feet until his head scorched our popcorn ceiling. “Does he even exist?” The reptile gestured toward me with the Mosin as if it was a walking staff. “How about you, kid? Any ideas?”
“If you drew a card today,” I said through gritted teeth, “what would it be?”
“Me? Oh, in the suit of Cups to be sure. I’m not here to punish her.” He jerked a taloned thumb at Mom, who was still kneeling blindfolded, hair cascading down her back like time-lapse photography. “So tired of being angry, tired of blaming her. She simply opened a door.”
Blood dripped down the reptile’s pants leg as he walked toward me, fertilizing our Persian carpet’s threadbare pattern. The rug’s hand-woven riot of blue-green vines and Mandelbrotian seed pods began to grow and curl around my ankles.
“I went to the Vault alone, and guess what: all I could think of was you. Now, why’s that? Have we met before?”
My ice crown was heavy. Beneath its weight, I began to remember. Like Vercingetorix surrendering his arms to Caesar, the reptile unscrewed the bayonet and laid my rifle at my feet. Every floating globule of emotion in the room contracted into hard glossy knots the size and shape of candied apple.
“Your father’s name was Feirfiz.” He laid the spike bayonet across my Mosin. “Your real mother was the Grail Maiden Repanse de Shoy.” He revealed a gold coin and placed it between my sneakers. “And my old wrangler found something newborn and helpless in the Vault, didn’t she, my sweet lord?” The Reptile leaned his burning head close to my face, and my eyesight purpled into a grainy sea of UHF static. “My beloved Prester John.”
My crown began to melt, sending spring-thaw rivulets down my neck and back, baptizing me in my own divorced soul.
“Today is my wedding day, serpent. Crucify me. You have the right.”
“Oh, my sweet lord,” Thomas knelt before me and gripped my knees in clawed supplication. I turned my head away in shame. “Don’t punish us anymore. Say something. Share your new wisdom.”
“A second childhood–a failed experiment. I learned nothing about innocence. Punish me.” My face and chest were wet and freezing.
“What? Look, innocence is overrated, but a wise sinner–ah, now that’s something. We need each other, sir. Be the Cup; be worthy of our nakedness.” Thomas unlatched the straps on his BP vest and slid it off his shoulders. “Deus Vult, Prester John. God wills it.”
“L’Impératrice,” I said. The Empress.
“She stands before you.” Thomas gestured toward my foster mother, and her blindfold and Arrow shirt fell away. She stood exultant and chaste–clad only in the divine red hair of her Edenic youth. Noli me tangere. Oh, my sweet lord. Do not touch me.
“Le Pendue,” I said. The Hanged Man.
“He crosses you.” Zip-zip. The handcuffs unlocked, surrendering my wrists, and I rose, standing on tip-toe as if pulled up by an unseen cord. My receding ice crown was now the size of a late-August snow cone. Down to my socks, my jeans and sweatshirt were drenched.
“Le Soleil,” I said. The Sun. On their own accord, our living-room blinds slid back, revealing a sunrise that crowned North Haven in glory–the final Tarot card drawn in this living Celtic Cross.
“And that, Prester John, completes you.”
Lead by Aditha, The Root, who bore my mother’s coffee cup before her like a chalice, a procession of fifty-six Tower residents entered the room. Their bodies were anointed with oil and cream because they were here for a coronation; they were here to get married.
Thomas unzipped his jumpsuit, revealing the third color of the tree. Yes, the Tree itself, whose leaves hid the first nakedness, whose roots drank first blood–and whose white heartwood is grace and compassion. Every node of emotion in the room became a young star.
Presiding over their marriage, I saluted everyone in the room as fellow Kings and Queens, because I now understood what Brother Rosenkreuzt, the first Rosicrucian, standing at the edge of the Vault’s threshold, whispered to me from beneath his wide-brimmed hat: to enter the Vault is to become royalty; and to become royalty is become both bride and bridegroom–to marry yourself, to fully trust yourself as an active and worthy inheritor of the Garden. And to forgive. Always to forgive, because that is the true forbidden fruit–the sweet pomegranate flesh that we most deny ourselves.
Yes, I am Prester John, the Priest King, and I love you. I urge you: Seek me out. Find me, forgive me, and strip for me, dear friends–and perhaps we can all go home.