She Had Forgotten All the Red

The sky is brilliant. It’s crisp. It’s blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars.“It didn’t used to look that beautiful,” says Sid.

He is in a glade. The guardian spirit of the glade is sitting beside him. She is a woman clad in the colors of the place: in the crisp green of the wet grass, the muddy brown of the dirt, the thick deep color of the trees.

The clothing of her blends into the world.

She says, “It’s been a long time.”

There’s a sadness to her as the spirit says, “In the days of my childhood it always looked like that.”

“What happened?” says Sid.

“It rotted,” she says. “The sky just rotted right away.”

When Sid gets home there’s a proclamation posted on the neighborhood kiosk. It’s got nice scrollwork and a fancy font.

“Be it known,” he reads, “that in pursuit of justice and democracy, the Drug Enforcement Administration hereby adopts the following zero-tolerance policy towards drug use and participation in the drug trade;

“That those alleged to commit such crimes should have their house taken from them;

“And their vehicles;

“And all their earthly goods;

“And as another matter, should it be deemed by the Agent on the scene that such a person has tainted their soul forever with the murk of drugs, so that redemption is impossible in this earthly frame, the Agent may take that soul, for sale or retention as befits the necessities of the time.

“Signed,” and then an illegible scrawl.

Behind Sid a lamp post sheds golden sparks into the night.

“Harsh,” says Sid.

He finishes going home and sleeps that night in peace.

Sid is sitting outside on his lawn chair on a Sunday afternoon. An ant crawls along the house’s outer wall behind him.

The ant encounters a break in the boards. It hesitates. It wibbles its antennae furiously.

“Little help?” it asks.

“Hm?” Sid says.

“I want to go up,” says the ant. “I can’t go up.

“Oh,” says Sid.

He holds out his finger against the wall. The ant uses it as a bridge. It climbs upwards and away.

“Sometimes, when I’m hungry,” Sid says, “I can see a palace in the sky, made of shining gold and suspended on four great lotus blossoms. It is east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

“That’s a long way away,” says the ant.

“It’s very big,” says Sid.

“Bigger than the stars?”

“Bigger than galaxies.”

The ant pauses. It contemplates the grandiose scope of Sid’s vision.

“Dude,” it says.

“Why do I see these things?” asks Sid.

“It’s probably because you’re practicing austerities,” the ant says. “That often opens you up to spiritual visions. Like, this one time, I smelled funny and no one would disgorge food into my mouth? And then I fell into an ecstatic trance and saw a terrible vision of the Avici Hell!”

“Wow,” says Sid.

“My heart was moved to great compassion for the suffering of the sinners there,” says the ant. “But then I found a crumb and I was like, ‘hey, crumb!’ and I woke up.”

Sid turns away from the ant. He looks off into the sky.

“Radical,” Sid says.

Far above them, an unmarked black car pulls out of the driveway of the palace made of gold.

It drives down towards the earth.

Sid’s sitting in his living room staring at his lava lamp when there’s a knocking at his door. So he gets up. He answers. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown skin and white white teeth, hair like black wood, and eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid, charmed.

“I’m here to inform you,” says Agent Summers. “There’ve been allegations made against you. That you’ve fallen in with a bad sort. That you’re participating in the drug trade.”

“Come in,” says Sid.

He steps away from the door. He lets Agent Summers in. He gestures Agent Summers towards the table.

“Just allegations, right?” says Sid. “I mean, you don’t have any reason to suspect me?”

“I know you’re a good man, Sid,” says Agent Summers.

He walks in. He sits down. Sid sits down opposite.

“But I don’t know if you’ve fallen from the path of righteousness.”

Sid frowns a little.

“You look disturbed,” says Agent Summers.

“You’re acting weird,” says Sid.

“Ah.”

Agent Summers says:

When the world was made, it was full of endless beauty.
Joy and love cascaded down from Heaven and filled the things on earth.
They soaked into the world like water into a sponge.
They spread through the world like fire leaping from blade to blade of prairie grass.
The sunrise was this brilliant orange like a chemical reaction.
The night was as deep as silence.
And then as the years went by, bit by bit, all that was lost.

His eyes are bright. His words are like a river. He catches Sid in their spell like a preacher or a rock star catches their flock.

“That’s why the work we do is so important,” says Agent Summers. “That’s what the DEA is for. To halt that breaking of the beauty of the world. To pull back from it. To restore what has been lost.”

He holds out his hand. He pulls Sid’s soul from his chest. It’s a lump, like an egg, but it’s clear and crystal and blue. It’s glowing from within.

Sid stares for a long moment; then, in the midst of Agent Summers’ next words, he blinks and shakes himself, hard, and opens his mouth in protest.

“See,” says Agent Summers.

He rubs his hand along the soul. He holds up his fingers. They’re coated with a little bit of gunk—sticky grime, like one might find under a never-cleaned sink.

“This is the impact of the material world on your soul,” says Agent Summers. He stands up.

“Hey!” says Sid.

“I’m going to have to confiscate everything,” says Agent Summers.

“Hey!”

Sid is staring at Agent Summers and his face is horrified. He can’t quite form his protest into coherent words; the situation has turned into something Sid can’t grasp.

“Hey!”

“It’s the allegations of drug use,” says Agent Summers. “Can’t be helped. You can keep your clothes. They’re not druggy clothes. And—do you have a dog?”

“No.”

“Goldfish?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take the rest.”

Agent Summers slips the soul into his breast pocket.

Sid is on his feet, still incoherent with protest. “But— how—”

“It’s necessary,” says Agent Summers. “We’ll let you know if you can have anything back.”

He puts his hands on Sid’s shoulders.

Agent Summers says, “Buck up. We’re not arresting you yet.”

Sid pulls his fist back to punch Agent Summers in the face; but Agent Summers has skated back three steps and his hand has fallen to the gun at his side.

Sid stops.

Agent Summers turns, as Sid stands there.

He walks away.

When the paralysis breaks in Sid and he charges to the door, Agent Summers is already pulling closed the door on his unmarked black car, starting the engine, and driving away.

Sid sits on the confiscated sofa in his confiscated house.

He’s been sitting there for sixteen hours, except when he uses his confiscated bathroom.

Sometime or other, he’s pretty sure, someone’s going to show up to kick him out and take his keys. Maybe they’ll rough him up. Sid is aware of this in a distant fashion.

He finds it hard to care, without his soul.

“What if I die?” Sid wonders.

Sid goes to the public library. He takes down all the books on souls. Five hours later, he’s come to the conclusion that a soul is inseparable from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part; that the habit of speech that would identify “Sid’s soul” as a meaningful object in the world is imprecise and imprudent; and that in physically seizing Sid’s soul and carrying it off, Agent Summers of the DEA has committed a poorly-defined executive act. This does not answer Sid’s underlying question.

“It’s irresponsible, is what it is,” Sid says, to the librarian.

“Hm?”

The librarian’s a woman named Donna with a short blonde mop of hair.

“Stealing people’s souls without properly defining them,” Sid says.

“That’s the kind of thing that gets resolved in the courts,” the librarian says. “Scratch v. Stone, Hotep v. Stiggens, U.S. v. Persephone, and so forth.”

“Oh.”

Sid slumps.

Donna looks Sid over. He’s thin and getting thinner right before her eyes, and there’s a raging grief in him.

“I can help you find a lawyer,” she says.

But there’s something nagging at Sid’s mind.

He shakes his head. He says:

There is no court that could constrain him.
He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Whose?”

“Agent Summers’.”

The pages of the books then blow.

“Huh,” the librarian says.

“Hey,” says Sid.

He’s on the phone with the DEA Information Office.

“Hey,” says Sid. “I had my house taken by this guy. And my soul. And I was wondering—”

“I’m sorry, sir,” says the man at the other end. “But that’s just an urban legend. The DEA doesn’t confiscate people’s souls.”

That gives Sid pause for a moment.

“But you can sell them to raise money,” Sid points out. “I mean, traditionally, they’re worth a mint.”

“You can only exchange currency for fungible goods, sir.”

“Wait, what?”

“Well,” explains the DEA Information Office agent laboriously, “it’s impossible to separate a soul from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part.”

Explaining this to Sid is part of the man’s job as a fully-empowered information agent of the United States government.

“What this means,” the DEA Information Office agent concludes, “is that while souls have concrete monetary value, one cannot meaningfully exchange them for that value. To sell a soul means to slight it; to diminish it; to sacrifice some portion of its value in the interest of other goods. This is not the official policy of the DEA or the United States government.”

“Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Agent Summers—”

There’s a chill.

The information agent clears his throat. He interrupts Sid. He says, “We don’t know of any such person, sir.”

“You know that just from his name?”

“Yes, sir.”

The DEA Information Office agent recites:

He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Is it not so?”

“It’s so,” concedes Sid.

“There’s no one like that with any connection to this agency, sir.”

So Sid sighs.

He sits down in the pay phone booth.

“If there were—”

There’s a pause.

“If there were,’ says the agent, moved to a certain sympathy, “then he would live in a golden palace in the sky, supported by four lotus blossoms, east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

Sid walks out of the phone booth and he’s thinking hard.

He goes to the glade. He sits there in the clothes that Agent Summers left him and he waits.

He gets hungrier and hungrier.

And the night sky is as beautiful as anyone can imagine. It’s crisp and clear and it makes his heart ache to look at it. It’s blue and black and purple and it’s pure. Set amidst it there’s a palace made of bone and wheat and ice and sorrow; and Sid blinks three times and sees it as the moon.

Then there’s the day, and the sun is a great and endless fire; and off to the northeast there is a golden palace that glimmers with its light.

And Sid says, “I shall not eat save sunlight, nor drink save the morning dew, until Heaven grants me a path into the sky.”

And many days pass, and Sid grows as thin as a stick, and he is sprawled on the grass and he shakes with the footsteps of the ants as a leaf might shake to the footsteps of a man.

And he eats only sunlight, and he drinks only the dew that forms, crisp and pure, on the blades of the grass.

And one day, in the musty late hours of the evening as the sun is descending towards the horizon, he looks up and Heaven has given him his answer.

The branches of the trees form a staircase of living wood. It rises endlessly into the sky and Sid goes up.

And he thinks as he walks the endless stairs:

I am lucky;
I am blessed;
for it is only the DEA whom I must fight,
and not Intelligence.

Sid knocks on the door of the golden palace. It opens. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown with white white teeth, hair like black wood, eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid. “I’ve come for my soul.”

Agent Summers’ eyes narrow a little, but he doesn’t blink.

“Come in,” he says.

And he leads Sid in; and Sid sees that the shadow of the man has eight arms, like a spider practicing to be a centipede.

“Take off your shoes,” says Agent Summers. “Stay a while.”

Sid does not take off his shoes. Instead, he stares. In the living room beyond the foyer there is a mosaic on the floor. It is full of stones that are blue and purple and black. They are the night sky, as crisp and perfect and beautiful as Sid had ever seen.

There is a long stillness, and then Agent Summers sighs.

“Go ahead,” he says.

Sid kicks off his shoes and walks out onto the mosaic; and it is past twilight, below, on earth, and Sid’s passage casts shadows over the night sky.

Sid kneels beside his soul and rests his fingertips against its shape.

“How did it happen?” Sid asks.

“A sickness,” says Agent Summers. “A long slow sickness. Bit by bit the sky rotted and its pieces fell into the world.”

“This bit is mine,” says Sid.

“Is that so?”

“I grew up with it inside me,” Sid says. “It’s my soul. It’s what defines me.”

And Agent Summers gives Sid a deep and solemn bow, because insofar as that is true Sid is a person who deserves his great respect; but then the Agent rises, and he is stern.

“It is for the people of this world that I have taken it; it is in defense of a public trust; and for this reason there is no one at the Agency or its oversight who will object.”

The man is cold; and certain; strong; and clad in black.

In the mosaic that is the sky resides Sid’s confiscated soul.

“Please,” says Sid.

Answers Agent Summers: “A man who clings to a portion of the sky and will not release it—isn’t that the height of presumption?”

“I need it,” Sid says.

“Or is it that the sky refuses to be the sky?” asks Agent Summers. “That it demands to walk around on earth with the feet and hands of a Sid?”

Sid rises.

“This thing is a wonder,” he admits, and his voice is unsteady.

Three hundred souls, perhaps, he thinks. The light in them and the color in them and the sweep of them—put together in the sky, they are infinitely larger and grander than souls had seemed when the man from the DEA had seized Sid’s from his chest.

Sid tries to move away, but he can’t.

“But that’s mine,” says Sid, a strangled noise. He seizes the stone that is his soul.

Agent Summers draws his gun.

He shoots Sid in the head.

The spirit of the glade is reclining on the grass, and casting her eyes upwards, and wondering what has become of Sid.

The sky is like it was when she was a child—blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars. It is beautiful.

Yet there is something missing in it: something that fails in its evocation of the memories of her youth.

In the golden palace of Agent Summers, above the mosaic of the sky, there is gunfire.

“Oh,” says Sid.

And all through the world there are screams of horror.

All through the world there are children staring, and people pointing, and others covering their eyes.

“Ah,” breathes the spirit, understanding.

The sky is dark with blood and bits of bone and brain. There is a shadow on it as Sid falls, a heavy weighty shadow that remains until Agent Summers drags his corpse away.

“I had forgotten all the red.”

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