‘Avatar on the Belts 3: Aither’, William J. Piovano

Illustrations © 2008 Sarah Cerulean

(Previous chapters: Avatar on the Belts 1: Tartaros; Avatar on the Belts 2: Eros)

 [ Aphrodite, © 2008, Sarah Cerulean ] Someone once wrote that dying creatures find their way to secluded corners where they will have peace in their passing. I already spoke of how I did die, in a way, but like the souls swarming the banks of the river Lethe, I was drawn back by the perverse desire for earthly existence.

It is also said there is a dark place between that earthly existence and the shores of the afterlife, and that's where I was in the limbo of my indecision. The books never described that limbo, but I knew it all too well. It was like the swamps of Lerna, only instead of still waters there was darkness, and the few dry islets were the sectors with their cots and the washed out cones of yellow light. And belts. Endless criss-crossing webs of conveyor belts humming in the darkness. Those were all around me as I cowered and wept, but I could not see them. There is no light in this place, only the droning of the wheels, the thick slipperiness of engine oil on stainless steel, and the smell of rust. Rust which smelled so much like blood. I crept, I crawled, under the belts and away from my Aphrodite who had betrayed me. Had the Red Men come to drag me away, it might have been a mercy. Where was Aphrodite? With that man, surely.

An indefinite time later, the blanket of darkness slowly parted to reveal the bustle of my Brother's sector. In my confused mind, a rational cog still worked, and I had devised a plan, a solution which was the only possible one. Standing, I made my way to my Brother's cot. People turned to watch me, murmuring to each other; I was not aware of my state, of the vomit which caked my linen shirt, and my swollen eye, smashed into some steel edge before reason had returned to me. My Brother's shocked expression gave me a clue.

"Where have you been?" he asked, sliding out of his cot. "You're ragged."

"I need you to do something for me," I said, every letter burning my cracked lip. "Right now."

"What do you need?"

"You have to take my place," I said. "Take my place in my sector, so I can take yours."

Confusion deepened on my Brother's face. "But we can't do that. It's not allowed."

"I have done it already. I know others who have."

"Did you dream of this?"

"No." I realized the dream had the power to manipulate my Brother better than anything else, but I didn't take my words back. I did not want to manipulate anyone, not me. "I just need you to do it."

"If they see us... isn't there a safer way–"

"If you don't do it, I'll just run to the belts and die." A threat. It should not have come to that.

My Brother raised his hands, mouth open, obviously unwilling to be responsible for my death. "No need to do that!" He sighed. "You leave me no choice. Ah, I suppose it's all the same."

"For you, yes. Not for me." I felt some guilt, treating the one person left loyal to me with such harshness. More softly, I said, "I thought you told me you hated everyone here."

He shrugged. "I don't hate them. If anything, they hate me. I'm alone—I was until now, at least. Do I not have a right to resent them?"

"You have a right to forget them," I said, "and go to a place where you can start again. As for me, being alone is all I need right now."

"You won't be alone like me. You don't have this." An index finger ran its tip across the lacerated skin, the eye which would never open. Strangely, I did not feel guilt.

"Be proud of it," I said, and I meant it. "You have something nobody else has, and that makes you one of a kind."

He nodded, and said, "Very well. I shall trust you, as you are the only one who has ever made an attempt to garner my trust. Lead the way." He gestured forward. I led the way.

A most peculiar mix of emotions boiled within me on that journey, both ways. The ever-present sickness, the inevitable visions haunting my open eyes (all the more stark in the darkness) of a tangle of sweated bodies devoid of any linen. But at the same time there was relief, like a gentle current under stormy seas. My Brother's near presence did something of anesthesia to my soul, and at least I did not retch.

Creep. Crawl. Torment like lapping waves. Progress was slow with my inexperienced Brother lagging behind me, but we did eventually reach our destination. Some remained in their cots, I saw, and others sat on belts or read the occasional book, or licked their bowls clean of porridge. We were still in time.

"That's my cot," I said, pointing. I spied Aphrodite's cot—I had to, for an instant— saw nothing. She was nowhere in sight, and I preferred not to speculate further on her whereabouts. My heart raced just at the knowledge of her vicinity.

"Why are you doing this?"

"A woman." I saw no reason to lie, not to him.

"An actual woman, not on the belts?" It was a foolish question, but understandable.

"Yes. You'll see soon enough."

"And she took herself away from you?"

"She shared herself," I spat.

My Brother raised an apprehensive eyebrow at my sourness. "Be careful in judging things too quickly. Sometimes–"

"There's nothing to judge. It just is. Believe it."

He nodded. "As you say. I'll take you to your word."

I sighed. "Thank you. I really need your faith right now." He nodded, and I clapped him on the shoulder. "Thank you for doing this."

"You took me away from a place where I knew only hate. I should be thanking you."

"I'll be back as often as I can, I promise you."

"All I've ever done is wait." He grinned. "I've become quite good at it." Clasping my own shoulder, he stepped out into the light.

Alone, once again, I turned away and crawled back.

Little was left of the rest period when I finally returned. I dropped my aching body into my Brother's cot, and waited for an eternity. The cot smelled strange (a welcome distraction, for a few moments) and it seemed even more scowls came in my direction than when I had entered Aphrodite's sector. To be fair, I did not care one bit. I would have been loath to defend myself had they come at me with sharpened spoons, charged with intents of murder, let alone return their stares. All I cared about was the fact that for the first time in... well, a long time, I was sleeping in a cot alone.

At some later point in time, I found myself lying in a different cot, with far more light and bustle. When I tried to move and was unable to, I knew I was in one of those dreams. Two eyes gazed down at a slim female body, barely clad in linens. My heart drummed a more frenetic beat, recognizing that figure, but I felt none of the lust, not here. Nostalgia, rather, sinking jagged into my bones.

It took only four days for her to find me.

She did not come herself, of course; she did not know the way. My Brother did. In those three days I had stolen him from his sector, brought him back so that I might teach him the way to mine. In the end I decided to leave my thread, like a map, between our two sectors. It proved to be an important decision.

I could not handle seeing Aphrodite, not yet. The thought of glimpsing her with anyone else, unburdened by my absence, brought bile to my mouth. I would never even have returned to her sector, those few times, lurking from a distance, if not for my Brother. My Brother gave me strength.

But on the fourth day it was he who came to me. I saw what he must have seen when I first came, a stranger appearing out of nowhere, only this time it was a one-eyed man and already acquainted. I embraced him, pleasantly surprised by his visit, until his tidings stole the smile from my face.

"Aphrodite sent me," he said. My bleak mood rotted a little more.

I had told him her name, revealed it to him when I hadn't even revealed it to her. Somehow I had had to explain the circumstance, the reason behind the tumult. It comforted me that we shared a secret, something small that Aphrodite did not have.

"She did?" Was that hope in my voice? Or surprise? I think it was fear.

"She wants you back."

I forced a scowl on my face, forced it with all my strength, for nothing but a great joy welled inside me when my Brother's words registered. I fought that joy for pure dignity—summoned my pride. "Do you take her orders, now?" I asked mildly.

"No," he said, "though she did try. I think she's scared of me, like everyone else." My Brother seemed amused, this time, rather than offended. "She looked rather desperate—desperate enough to try and order me around. I told her we were linked, you and I, and that she meant nothing to me. So she tried other methods."

I closed my eyes. "Did she...?"

I braced myself for a knowledge I knew I would not be able to endure.

"She offered me food, yes. And when I refused, she begged, and begged." My eyes opened. "I can see why you so covet this female. There is something different of her, very different. I knew better than to touch her; she is yours, like your porridge. Everyone else tries to steal it, however."

"They already have," I said, and my voice cracked.

"Not that I've seen. She was alone the whole time, weeping, and even made me promise I would tell you so. In the end I caved. She is relentless, that one. She says she wants you and your stories." He paused, quirked an eyebrow. "I hope you don't mind my coming here."

Relentless, that sounded just like her. It took me a moment to answer, filled as I was with a greater swelling of... something. The opposite of that sickness which had emptied me for the past few days. But at the other end, I knew I'd never have what I wanted.

"No, of course not," I said, and added more firmly, "You're always welcome."

Me and my stories. Perhaps it was time to resume the storytelling. Could I truly ask for more, when I already had a thousand times what anyone else in this place would ever have in a lifetime? If everything always worked as I wanted, I would have been a God, sitting on the top of Mount Olympus in the Outside. Aphrodite was a Goddess, and that's why she always got what she wanted.

She did this time, too.

Creep. Crawl. The beaten dog came back for more. I lingered for a long time at the sector's edge, half-way between the yellow light and the belted darkness. I lingered because I saw her, lying in her cot, and the presence of her was a blazing beacon and a humbling blessing. She was staring out towards the ever-moving files of narcotized women. The hens. Aphrodite was not a hen, but she was not one of us either. She was a Goddess. I could not let a Goddess wait.

Her eyes and mouth were the first to react as I crossed her gaze. They dilated unanimously, but she did not move. I stood there as well, silent. This moment had played in my head a thousand times over, and in none of them had I kept mute. Until at last she shifted, reaching out under her for something, and when she drew her hand back I saw it was my spoon, or rather the wrapping of linen with the steel at its heart. She held it out.

I took it, willing my hand not to tremble. I might as well have asked myself to dance. Squeezing the spoon, I glanced back to see my Brother sitting on the grate floor, sipping his porridge, picking at it with his fingers. Nobody has a spoon, I thought, nobody; I'm one of a kind.

"I want you to come back."

Her voice. Even had it been muffled by an infinity of feathers and garbled by shattered teeth and the withering of age, I would have recognized it instantly. My Aphrodite... I turned back. She begged me with her eyes, moist-rimmed.

I climbed into the cot.

Sometimes it's good to be weak. Pride can serve its purpose, but I believe that more often than not it's better to swallow the stone and take what you really want. I did so, that day, and in some ways it felt just like it had that first time. I rediscovered her completely, worshipped her every curve. The latent sadness receded, kindly shrouded by Eros with his last gift. Indeed, I do believe the true Gods visit us here, once in a while. They give us a glimpse of themselves, that we might not forget. I knew I never would.

But Aphrodite and I both knew the truth. She had not acknowledged it, consciously, but I needed only her whispered request, the longing which had by then far surpassed the lust, to be reminded that this was not meant to be.

"Tell me of the Outside," she said, finding that niche in my shoulder.

I did. I spun the most fantastic tale ever told, worthy of the annals of Mount Olympus. She listened, rapt, until I finished, and we lay as we always had, breathing into each other.

There did she break it.

She said it firmly, so firmly I was worried I might believe it: "I want you to come with me to the Outside."

It didn't even surprise me. I was past surprise. Instead I sighed and brushed aside her hair.

"I can't," I said simply. Not because of the certainty of death, of the absurdity of that hope, or the fact that the Outside might be, for all they knew, a darker place than this; no, it was that one-eyed man sitting quietly on the grate floor who kept me there. Kinship, something only we had, unique.

She, of course, could not understand. Her customary scowl came on. "I want you to come with me."

"You can't have everything, every time, Aphrodite." I struggled to avoid eye contact.


I tensed, realizing my mistake. "It's... ah... nothing."

"Nobody ever gave me a name before. What is it?" Her voice had softened.

"Nothing..." Her name almost slipped from my lips again.

"If you won't come with me, at least tell me who I am."

I hesitated, then said, "The Goddess of love," and was surprised at the twinge of bitterness.

"Love." She tasted the word, then took me by the chin and forced me to look down. "Love? By what I've read in these books of yours and all that you've told me, I'd say it is just what I feel for you."

I might have laughed, I might have cried. Some mongrel cross came out of it, a sobbed chuckle. How I wished it were all true. I wanted nothing more than to believe her, for her to feel that way, to really feel that way. But the truth of the matter was in all ways more painful.

"No, Aphrodite. You love the Outside."

And I loved her. She wasn't only Aphrodite, she was my Aphrodite, no matter how many men had possessed her.

I waited for an answer, but got none. Perhaps it was better that way. She didn't even seem troubled; more like... enlightened. For my part, happiness was in my hands, then and there, and I was burning it with words and blowing away the ashes.

The Gods have it easy. Mortal lives are so much more complex in their ephemerality.

We said nothing more that day. Farewell and affection was expressed through our fingertips, our lips and our eyelashes. We made love, and it was to be the last time.

I took comfort in that night by knowing that although she loved the Outside—the dream I had helped create—she did love me more than any of the others. We had shared, given each other something special.

Only in our world is a final kiss worth the same as a dented spoon.

Despite my knowledge of the inevitable, I was not fully prepared for what happened later that day. I was working on my stool when I heard the running, feet rapping on the conveyor belt. I knew which belt it was before I turned and saw that pale frame skipping away. My heart-rate tripled in an instant. Slender legs, so familiar, carried my Aphrodite towards the tunnel, towards the light. Inside his barred cage I saw a Red Man turn, and I yelled.

Fortunately or not, the loud bang which echoed in the caverns of steel suffocated my cry. She never heard, just crumpled under the sound, one hand extended towards her dream.

In all directions, I heard gasps. Shock at the Red Man's lethal weapon, but mostly desperation at the definitive loss of the only special thing this sector had ever known. I wanted to stand and scream at them all, wail into their faces that what they felt was nothing close to my grief. But that one rational cog in my mind reminded me 'routine and similarity', and for the sake of my Brother, if not for myself, I remained quiet. My stool squeaked, absurdly rusty amongst all the engine oil, as I swiveled slowly round to face another woman. A million had gone, prone and ripe, another million would come, but none would compare. Aphrodite had been a Goddess, one of a kind.

* * *

The baby is still crying in my calloused hands, flailing against thin air. I lower it into the pool, reach under my tunic, and pull out the spoon. The linen wrapping has clotted and hardened, decades of use hardened it nearly to plaster. Reluctantly it yields under my nails. Four full loops unwind, the brown-spotted length falls soundless to the floor, and in my hand is the naked metal, glinting in the filament illumination. Identical, it seems, to its counterpart in memory.

I never told my Brother about the Outside. After what happened to Aphrodite, I never could. We have each other, and in this place, it is more than enough. But can I deny my Sister such knowledge? I don't think so.

The Gods don't dwell here; they come occasionally, to remind us of themselves. This, in my hands, is a Goddess. I can feel it, and as such she doesn't belong here. I place the spoon in her grasp, and she needs nothing more than the metal's cold contact to take hold. "No markings for you," I say. "The Gods don't need marks."

I lower the green water tank onto the belt. That belt. So strange, to use that one. I did so once in my life, and at the time I had been ecstatic, proud and nerve-wracked. It could not begin to compare to what I feel now.

"Let us know what it's like, on Mount Olympus."

 [ The belts, © 2008, Sarah Cerulean ] Belts don't wait, they roll. The tank glides away from me, and I smile. So many others, seemingly identical, sliding in every direction. But my Sister is alone in her journey, heading for the light.

Now she's there, just where Aphrodite fell so many years ago. I like to think they never moved my Goddess of love, that the belt carried her slender body on to its destination.

None of the Red Men move. The green water tank moves on. There are no loud bangs. I sigh in relief and, blinking my Sister goodbye, return to my duty.

Old, so old, I limp back to my cot. My one-eyed Brother helps me, hoisting me with an arm. He's all grown and strong now, thick black hair where mine has gone white and sparse. Others nod in his direction as he passes; they've learned to respect him, as they do me.

"I think I'll lie in your cot, so I can see the light," I say, clapping him weakly on the shoulder. He grins, my faithful kinsman.

"If only there were more," he says, and sits on the grate floor beside me. Divine words.

A man once said that death is a debt which all of us must pay. But in this limbo, floating between life and death, we may just be shadows, taking darkness for light and death for life. We forget we are shadows, but sometimes a flicker of memory makes us look beyond the fields of belts, to a dawn, a different landscape, a kingdom of life where light has made darkness unknown and love never dies.

Sliding into the cot, I close my eyes. They may not open again but it's okay, for when the dream comes it is one of those dreams. I know, for my mind could never fathom such a chorus of light.

© 2008 William J. Piovano

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