Shantih Shantih Shantih

by S. Boyd Taylor

The Watchers took Marlo yesterday. They whorled around him like a black hole. Little bits of shadow with yellow eyes. Fluttering. Feeding on his gravity.

When they swarmed him, he was sitting on the garden steps in the dawn light with me and an orderly. In the hissing drizzle they came. Down out of the invisible sun and up out of the clammy earth. A million little eyes crawling all over Marlo and digging deep between his cells until at last he straightened his spine and stared out across the vast and somber horizon of the world and whispered, "But I don't sew."

And then he was gone.

The next day the nurses pretended not to notice. They folded back his sheets. Brought him bowls of food, supplications to some unseen god. Even set out his pills—the big blue one and the two little red ones and the yellow one with the black stripe like a race car. As if by pretending he was still there, still something, they could lure him back and his sheets would suddenly rise up like the bed had taken a huge breath and his hand would appear from underneath and clench the rail and he might heave himself wet and shivering back out of the stomach of whatever had consumed him.

The Nurses are mad, you see. Madder than Marlo. Madder than me.

It is only a matter of time before the Watchers take them too.

I am walking around the chessboard in a circle, twitching my left arm like I'm throwing a Frisbee, saying "Jeeezus, jeeeeeezus saaave us!"

If someone bothered to ask me about it, I'd tell them. That my father was a preacher. Small and quiet and meek during the week. But on Sundays when he stepped up to the pulpit and took that first breath his body stretched from floor to ceiling, a giant shadow of God's wrath. That when he cried "Jeeeeezus, saaaave us!" it shook the plaster off the walls in the pool hall three doors down and when he spoke he spat glowing coals and sulfur and blacksmoke damnation. That after his call he collapsed down into himself again, small voice and small body, and the whole world shrank with him. That to me there is nothing more terrifying than his transcendental mortality—his words booming across the universe in an instant and then in one more instant crushing back down on itself to one perfect and immeasurable point.

But no one ever asks.

No one likes my dance. Not me. Not the Nurses or the orderlies. Not the other patients. But the Watchers don't like it either. I am too loud. Too un-still. It makes me taste bad or something. This dance is the only reason I still exist.

Pete and Clyde yell at each other in the corner complaining the other is cheating at cards. But there are no cards. There never are. But they never stop fighting, and that's why they're alive.

Mikey and Minnie are the opposite, too still. They lean back in their chairs, bodies loose like wet clay and mouths drooling. Such peace. Buddha and Gandhi have nothing on them.

On my fifth circle around the chess board, I feel that weight in the air again. Heavy shadow like a cloud pressing down.

Minnie blinks twice and her eyes come into focus and she rolls them toward the ceiling. Clyde and Pete stop yelling and start screaming. They run to the doors and pound on them and beg to be saved. I just keep on dancing.

But Mikey. Mikey closes his eyes and smiles and the hungry gravity drags his sheets and his clothes down tight across his skin. Buzzing fills the room until there is no other sound and then the yellow-eyed nothings bleed up through the floor and out of the chair and down out of the ceiling and settle on his skin. There is a terrible pause, three shuddering breaths, and Mikey whispers, "Shantih shantih shantih."

Then his skin turns clear as a glass bell and the treelike branches of his blood and bone stand stark and lonely against the walls before they fade.

The Nurses send the orderlies in with cattle prods. One zap. Two zaps. Clyde and Pete are down twitching. They zap me too to keep me still, but I keep mouthing my chant even as I spasm on the floor. They zap Minnie as well, even though she hasn't walked on her own for two years.

Then Head Nurse Vicky comes in, carrying a cattle prod of her own. She reaches it toward Mikey's chair as if she expects it to touch him. It catches on something. As if the invisible curtain of his soul still hangs there, just for that moment.

Then the curtain tears and Vicky pushes the prod into the back of the chair and the stuffing explodes. White clouds. White clouds.

In the morning the orderlies line us up. Stand us against the walls in our powder blue bath robes. Make sure our shoulders touch the walls.

The biggest orderly trembles all over and can't stop panting. He is fat and looks like Santa Claus, but we still don't have a name for him. The orderlies don't have names. We patients all agree on that. Orderlies have no souls, just cruel smoking coal inside. So their parents never gave them names.

"What did you do with her?" he says.

None of us speak because we don't know what he means.

He walks down the line staring at us. I twitch as he passes and he stops in front of me and tilts his head toward the other orderlies. They lay into me. Fists across the jaw. Knees to the stomach. Then I am spitting blood and teeth onto cold tiles. I can't see out of my left eye.

"What did you do with the Head Nurse?" the big one asks me.


"What did you do with her?"

"The Watchers. They got her too?"

Clyde laughs then. "Finally. They got a Nurse!"

"Maybe they'll stop taking us now," Pete says.

The big orderly stands up and stares at the others. "What the hell are you talking about?"

So Pete and Clyde and I tell him.

Minnie just drools.

Six days later I am sitting in the Recreation Room with Minnie. We are the only two left. She stares at me as I dance my circle.

"It's one of us," I say. "Me or you, or you and me, or maybe it's the walrus koo koo kachoo."

She nods a little.

She is looking thin. Since everyone disappeared we've been trapped in here. No food. No water. And I have had no sleep.

The sun is bright today and it pounds in through the barred windows and the room is molten gold and then I am I am eleven again. I am at the lake where my father used to bring me and the golden sunset on the black water stretches so far and so smooth it looks like desert sand. I sit on the planks of the old pier with a fishing pole and my jeans are rolled up to my knees and my feet describe neverending circles in the water.

I hear a caw. Far away a kingfisher skims the lake. Wingtips carving parallels into the surface with each beat.

My pole bends. Dips deep.

I pull. A face lingers a foot below the water.

I pull again. A nose and chin lurch free of the dark gravity.

I lean close. Grip the boards of the pier with my fingers. Afraid to fall in. Afraid of the black water.

"Marlo? Is that you?"

His face looks wrong. Putty molded by children. Eyes rolled back like pearls.

"Are you dead?" I ask instead.

"Fear death by water." Then he sinks. Under the golden glaze, under the dark depths.

When I wake I am standing. Half-frozen through one of my contortions. Leaning forward as if over the edge of the pier with my lips frozen on the first syllable of Jeeezus.

Minnie is still with me.

Wine-dark night stretches through the windows and across the endless universe. How empty it is. So many miles. So few stars. Like this building. All empty space inside. I wish I was that empty. Free of my father. Of the Watchers. Of the dance.

Minnie's head falls sideways and she is looking at me.

"Wr-n-rl," she tells me. She doesn't speak often, and never to me before. Now I know why.

"I'm wrong? About what?"

She tilts her head, shaking it. "Wernull ding," she insists.

I feel the cloud on us then. The dark weight pressing on my skin. Yellow eyes crawling over me. Compressing me. Crushing me into myself.

I've stopped moving for too long. I start my dance again but the gray tatters dance around me, yellow eyes staring deep deep deeper into me. Through me. Beyond me, as if I am a window and the far side of me is a vast and glorious horizon.

I dance faster. Yell louder. But I can't shake them.

Then Minnie is standing and she has eight arms and four pairs of hands. She puts two palms on my shoulders and I stop and stare her in the eyes.

"We are nothing," she says. Then: "Shantih shantih shantih. Peace everlasting."

The words wriggle around in my skull and then I am outside myself—a pair of yellow eyes looking down between the strings of molecules, between the lines of DNA twisted in arabesque, between the energy and matter—the quarks and leptons and bosons of self collapsing. Like tiny letters on a page, but every squiggle I read folds down and stacks on top of the next. Until I see at last that inside my atoms and inside my protons and neutrons and electrons I am nothing but tiny specks of matter lost in void.

With my nothingness squeezed out, millions of me could fit in the eye of the sewing needle Minnie now holds in her bottom left hand.

She offers it to me, loop first, and my invisible fingers close around it. "This is the truth, the fabric of things."

"But I don't sew either."

S. Boyd Taylor lives in Dallas, Texas, where he dotes on his family, practices Internal Martial Arts, writes weird stories, and attempts to play guitar.

S. is a Writers of the Future Semifinalist and has stories in ChiZine, Farrago's Wainscot, and Behind the Wainscot. He was first published at age 13 in a 'zine called Longbow (1988). There's an autographed copy roaming around somewhere, but the signature unfortunately reduces its resale value.