Chapter 7 from the Ama audiobook
The immense pain relented and Jason collapsed to the ground. His vision came back in a flash of brilliant white light, which faded to torrents of grey. He checked himself for any cuts or broken bones. The pain Lilith had inflicted on him had been so extreme, so brutal, that it should have left marks on his body as evidence, but he found none. He stood up.
The ground was soft, no longer the vinyl floor of his old kitchen. It was… sand? He squinted and tried to discern his new surroundings through a harsh wind. A raging sandstorm whipped up, rushing past in a turbulent wash, blasting and cutting into his skin.
He yelled into the wind, “Send me back. You…” He spat out sand. “Bitch! You fucking twisted bitch. Send me back to my daughter.” He closed his mouth and felt the sand grinding between his teeth. With no idea where to go or what to do next, he crouched down and made himself a smaller target for the violent storm. He brought his hands up to his face to protect his eyes from the thrashing wind.
As he waited for a revelation about what to do next, he wondered who or what the demoness was. He knew little of Biblical history but was sure that hell—if this was indeed hell—was supposed to be lorded over by the Devil: Lucifer; Beelzebub; Satan. An unmistakable character who spends his time spit-roasting the damned over lakes of fire. Not a woman called Lilith. She might be a mere messenger, or a guide of sorts, with the Devil and the delights of hell still to come. He felt a moment of relief as he wondered if this might just be a nightmare, the likes of which he hadn’t experienced before, but no more than that.
But this was no mere nightmare, and as the storm continued to rage around him, a moment of clarity emerged from deep within his mind. Lilith had told the truth about giving the memory of his death back to him; it flooded back in full, with the fervour of a friend relaying a dirty piece of gossip. He recalled the last moments he had spent in his cell with unmistakable lucidity: I was looking out the window, he remembered. I was watching a bird, a hawk flying over the hospital grounds. A sound from behind… Footsteps… A rope around my neck… Oh, Christ.
The knowledge that his life was over shocked him, but the realisation that death wasn’t the end filled him with dread. Instead of eternal nothingness, God had judged him and sent him to hell. Jason’s mind became as frenzied as the surrounding storm.
Emotions he couldn’t discern rose within him until they stampeded all at once. He pleaded to the storm, “I have nothing more to give. You’ve taken everything.” He inhaled sand and coughed, then shouted, “You can’t make me suffer any more than I already have.”
The storm began to abate. He looked down at the sand beneath his feet and leant over and scooped up a handful. It looked and felt like sand—grainy and rough—but it was dark grey. Volcanic ash? Jason looked about. Vague shadows flitted into existence, dancing with the wind for a moment before becoming part of the rush. His surroundings took on solid form and the rushing sand became nothing more than a smear across the emerging landscape. A desert landscape. His gaze fell upon a human silhouette emerging from the receding storm, about thirty feet away.
He opened his mouth to call out to the figure, but caution tripped his tongue. The figure remained motionless. The wispy waves of sand were still enough to obscure any discernible detail.
He walked towards the figure in slow, cautious steps. He looked up. The sandstorm raged overhead in turbulent monotone, still close but climbing fast. He returned his gaze to the figure and stopped walking. The solitary figure became two, three, then six figures. As the storm receded further and further away, more and more figures appeared, all looking the same as the first, standing with the same passive posture: arms hanging relaxed at their sides, with heads bowed. Jason could see one hundred or more figures now, and as the landscape gained perspicuity, more and more came into view. He looked on in bewilderment and a growing sense of unease as the hundreds of figures became thousands. All were facing the same direction. Jason looked to his left, to see what they were all facing.
About a mile away, a wall of rock appeared from within the receding storm. A moment later the rock became the biggest mountain Jason had ever seen, an almost sheer face stretching high into the sky, its peak hidden by fast-moving sand. He gave a quick glance to his right and saw a vast canvas of dunes stretching off to the distant horizon. Small at first, then rising in size to high static waves across the landscape. He could see that he stood on a plateau between the high dunes and the mountain. An army of people stood with him on this otherwise featureless terrain. He walked towards the figures once more, curiosity quelling his fear and driving him on.
As he drew nearer, he could see that these weren’t living beings—not people—but stone statues. Although more feminine than masculine in shape, he couldn’t be sure of the artist’s intention for their sex; there was no hair carved upon their heads and no impression of genitalia either. The statues stood about six feet tall. He stopped a few feet from one and looked at it for a moment, still expecting its eyes to open. Then he reached out and touched its face. He was expecting his fingers to touch hard stone but, although it felt rough and cold, it depressed like human skin. He could also feel the bones beneath its skin.
“Hello,” he said, and then wondered why he had spoken at all. He watched its chest, willing it to move but hoping it wouldn’t. It did not breathe. As Jason continued to study the grey figure, a sudden explosion of sand hit him. He turned in time to see a grey ribbon of sand ascending in an elegant spiral. He backed away and moved up onto a nearby dune—a small one, compared to others in the distance—raising his height mere feet above the heads of the statues, but high enough to enable him to see deep into the crowd. The people—the statues—all stood in regimented lines, hundreds of rows, stretching far off into the distance. Grey human forms, too numerous to count, all bowing in silent meditation to the mountain.
Jason turned around and saw many more uniform, regimented rows. “There must be millions of them.” Not an army but a nation stood with him on the plateau, and they all maintained the same passive posture. He watched as more of the strange figures exploded and began a graceful journey skyward. This transformation of a stable solid form to a spiralling column of sand continued at random points among the multitude without pause. One moment a grey human figure, the next a spray of sand heading upwards.
A hand grabbed Jason’s arm.
“Do ye know where it be, friend?”
“Jesus,” Jason exclaimed, turning in surprise to see whose was the hand now gripping his arm. “Who the… Who are you?”
“Didn’t mean to scare ye, chum. I is a daft fool for jumping up on a fella like that, but I won’t do thee no harm. Did ye find it? Oh, tell I ye found the thing.”
The man looked about the same age as Jason, although his life appeared to have been a lot harder, judging by the dry flaking calluses on his hands and crags on his leathery face. His hair sat atop his head in an uneven mass of black greasy waves. His oversized shirt and baggy trousers hung as a patchwork of unrelated materials, stitched together with thick brown thread. More of the same thread held a piece of leather around each of his feet, formed into makeshift shoes.
“Found what?” Jason asked.
“What I be seeking. What thee be seeking, too, I imagine. What all us dumb fools be seeking. Dead rabbits says more. Some found it, I is sure of that. God smiled on them. He vomits on me.”
“I was trying to help my daughter, but… I can’t stop her.”
“Stop who? Yer daughter?”
“No, my wife. Need to stop her killing my daughter. But, Lilith…”
The man let out a nervous laugh. “Me dumb club foot. Ye can’t stop Lilith. Lilith is… Well, I got no knowledge of who she be, but I does know she can’t be stopped. No reckoning with the old beast woman. She’ll put yer innards on the outside for jollies. Did it to me, so she did. Tore off me manhood too and gobbled it down, right before me bulging eyes. She gets in yer head, sees right in there, and tells ye to do things.” He tapped the side of his head. “Sees it all, everything ye got upstairs, like a clear day in the fields. No hiding away from Lilith. Pig shit in yer head if thee raises it up to her.”
“I don’t want to fight her. I’m just trying to save my daughter… I was in hospital… I know I’m dead now, but…” He wiped sand from his eyes and noticed his hands were shaking.
“Hospital? What ye blathering about? Feast on thee own shit this morning, or bang yer head against a rock? Aye, thee in hell.”
The man considered Jason for a moment, and then smiled and announced, “Derwood is me name, chum.” He grabbed Jason’s hand with a firm grip and shook it. “At the bottom of God’s cesspit, so ye are, with His fat ass bearing down.”
“I don’t believe in hell,” Jason said without conviction. “I mean, I didn’t… This makes no sense.”
Derwood looked thoughtful for a moment as he looked off towards the mountain. A moment passed and then his gaze shot back to Jason. “Belief’s got nought to do with it, me daft chum. Thee in hell and there be no way yer getting out. Not unless ye finds it.”
“Find what? There’s a way out of this?”
“Aye, there be a way out. Find the thing Lilith left here for us, that be how we get away. Ain’t ye been listening? Lugholes full of dead moths, or what? Says it be in the dunes by that big old thing.” He pointed towards the mountain. “Looked everywhere, dug till me hands were raw bone, but nothing. Even died a few times, too, when I got too close to the silent folk. The caretakers don’t like it when ye touches ’em, see. But even then, there be no peace. Caretaker turns ye to black ash and then back y’all come, and the game goes on, and on, and on. Even searched over there by the…” Derwood’s face dropped again, as he pointed once more into the distance with a tremulous finger, towards the mountain.
“The mountain,” Jason offered.
“The cave at the bottom of it. Lilith says it be by the cave entrance, somewhere. She says there be one for each of us to find. Don’t like it over there though. Hear the screams and howls, so ye can. Flowers me ass. Someone must have moved it or something, maybe lost, because tis not there no more. I’ve been looking for a long, long time.”
“The caretakers can kill you? But we’re already dead, aren’t we? Who are the caretakers?”
“They be like ghosts, but they can be solid like us, too. A lot stronger though. Break ye like a twig, they can, then they burn ye.”
“This is madness.”
“What’s yer name, chum?”
“Jason. Good name. Strong name. I like ye, Jason. Yer not like the other daft fools around here. Yer eyes still seem straight and yer mind still seems to be turning. But thee should know, yer in hell now. Damned, just like the rest of us. What did ye do?”
“What do you mean?”
“What ye did to get sent here. Caught me a thief, so I did. He were trying to steal old Gert.”
“Gert, me old hen. Caught him with old Gert in his hands. She were not happy. Flapping her feathers all over the place. No way I be standing by like a dumb post while someone steals old Gert. So, I cut him with me old axe. Meant to give him a scare, tis all, but the bastard bled out. Now those flowers are growing. Flowers! Me aching arse. They’re not like any flowers I’ve ever seen.”
“The flowers? Lilith said I had planted a seed and flowers would now grow. What did she mean?”
“Aye, tis right. So ye killed someone. The flowers—that’s what the beast woman calls ’em. Can’t get me head round it. Lilith told me the fella had children, but I knew him, that bastard thief, I knew him well, and I know he had none.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, I got a fuzzy head over it, too. But I got to find the thing Lilith left here before the flowers die.”
“Why? What happens when they die?”
“Oh dear. Ye got to get away before they die. If ye don’t get out of hell before then, yer never leaving. The mountain is always too far, and ye have to get back here before the first one dies. If one goes, the next will be quick to follow, then another, then another. Just keeps getting faster and faster—the dying—faster, until ye end up with a…” He looked off into the distance again, towards the mountain.
“How long have you been here, Derwood?”
“Don’t know. There be no sun, and no night nor day either, to count the days by. Would keep a tally of the times I slept, but…”
“There be no sleeping in hell.”
“What year do you think it is?”
“Tis an odd question. The same year ye think it be.”
“There be no dung heap in me head. Don’t ye be calling me a fool.”
“I won’t call you a fool, Derwood. I’m just curious about something. Please, what year?”
“I didn’t know that before I came here. Never had a reason to know the years. Just know when to plant and when to dig a plateful. The weather told me all I needed to know.”
Jason thought for a moment, and then asked, “Have you ever used the net, Derwood?”
“No. No need to. The sea was a ways away and I don’t much like fish, anyway. Used me friend’s funny-looking basket to catch an eel once, in the river, but it tasted much like it looked: a soggy turd. He laughed when he saw me trying to catch the wriggling thing, but that was all right.” Derwood scratched his head, as if corralling a wayward family of lice. “I don’t mean harm to no one and I wish I hadn’t killed that man. If I can find the thing Lilith left here, then maybe I can make things right again somehow.”
They both flinched as a statue exploded a few feet away.
“What are all these statues about?” Jason asked, as he watched the spiralling cavalcade of sand.
“They not be statues, Jason.”
“They’re all turning into sand.”
“Aye, they do that. Puff, and then they’re gone.”
“Why do they do that?”
“They have their time, and then they die.”
“They die? You mean they’re alive right now?”
“Aye… Well, no.”
“No. They appear, and at some point they die, that’s when they goes puff, but they don’t get the bit in the middle—the alive bit. All they do is stand there in the desert. Never get to open their eyes and see anything. Like I said, I can’t get me head round it. The mad woman says she knows what it’s all about, but she be… well, she be mad. A lifetime of emptiness, so she said. Get more sense from one of these here statues.”
“Mad woman? Can she help me? Where is she, Derwood?”
“Over there, by the mountain. She lives in the temple, a temple in the middle of an enormous hole in the ground. But I’d stay well away from her if ye knows what’s best, because she’s mad as that damn eel. Sings to the grey folk, so she does, and when they goes puff, she cries. Thee needs to watch out for the strange ones down here in hell, Jason. There be dark wonders everywhere.”
“Can you take me to her?”
Derwood’s face became fearful. “Don’t ye be going. Please, stay awhile.” He reached out for Jason’s arm.
“I’m not going,” Jason said. Then he looked down at his arm and realised he was going. He watched as Derwood’s hand passed through his own. His hand had become translucent, as had the rest of his body.
A blinding white flash of light seared his eyes.