I pushed through the sunflowers, a frantic sense of urgency overtaking me. The sunflowers refused to bend and they pushed back. Vines grabbed my ankles and I tumbled to the ground, my scream ruining the melody of the garden and the anvil. The sunflowers whipped their heads down and struck me as their vines cut off the circulation in my legs. Sprawled on my back, I stared through the sunflowers’ billowing petals and at the sunless and pure sky. A shadowed figure soared through the air with its silhouette stretched out as if flying.

It was the cloaked figure! The stranger landed with grace, the cloak billowing and flapping like wings of an archangel. The stranger hopped rapidly about and sliced through the vines with a buzzing dagger that collapsed the sunflowers like a poisonous sting. The flowers were not being severed but stung by the strange dagger as they drooped in paralysis. I could hardly glimpse the dagger, the stranger moved so quickly. It appeared to be shaded with a red-orange glow and it crackled like fire.

The strange figure wielding the weapon remained an enigma. He was flipping about and making short work of the ferocious sunflowers, but his body and face remained covered. At last, after an astounding double flip, the cloak’s hood fell back as the stranger struck the last of the whipping sunflowers in an acrobatic flourish. It was a toad; a toad that stood upright like a human, even with its severe hunch.

“Come with me. Come with me,” it said. “My name is Cherub. You must understand that these flowers are the terrible price of paradise. It takes a certain kind to walk through untouched. Not always a good kind, yes?” Cherub spoke in a throaty gurgle that spat words out with a ferocious haste, as if he were afraid of losing his speech.

His cold arms enveloped me and he carried me like a child to his hut in the clearing. The sunflowers bowed to him as he made his way through. I shivered; his skin was slimy and clammy, and I was relieved when he finally put me down beside his anvil. I rubbed at my ankles and sat there. He blinked and stared with his hood pulled back, and I tried my best not to gape too openly. A human-sized toad. A talking, warrior-blacksmith toad at that! Named Cherub too! I wanted to laugh, but instead I shook my head and tried to think.

“What makes the sunflowers serve and not strike? Why do they not harm you?” I asked, pulling my knees to my chest.

Cherub hopped over to me and sat down like a toad is supposed to. I smiled as he squinted his eyes at me in contemplation. “Only one who is nothing can serve and be served; so far nothing that nothing is not nothing enough. To acknowledge this is to become someone and a something.”

I lowered my head and frowned, gripping my knees tighter. The peace of the garden seemed cracked, broken in the suffering I’d faced. Was the Seething still inside me? Was I still possessed by my desire for the Goddess? Was I simply contriving all of this nonsense merely to feel meaning at my stumbling to survive? I could never become nothing when there was always something dragging me away. Away and towards…I didn’t know. I ran my hands through my hair and pulled back, too perplexed and muddled to make any sense of this nonsense.

Apparently noticing my distress, Cherub pointed at his anvil. There was a makeshift hammer of wood and stone on the ground. On the anvil was a silver pike that was incredibly thin, like a strand of hair, but as long as twice my height.

He slowly stood and walked to the anvil. He lifted the spear and held it preciously, eyeing its shimmering metal in the glare of the empty sky. “I’m making my spear to catch the golden four-winged flying fish. The problem is that it refuses to fly and use its wings! It’s hunkered down in the mire of my pond. It’s as tiny as a gnat, and the only one of its kind. To catch it is to bring about the end.”

“But why is your spear so thin?” I said.

“It is up to me to catch it. But with a spear so fine, time will tell me when my time is. Until that time, I work on perfecting it. When not working, I stare fearfully into the face of this black pond, wondering when it will be our time.”

“Is the pond nearby?”

“The pond is.”

“You said us?” I said.

“Yes,” Cherub said, nodding. He put the spear down gently on the anvil and pointed at his hut. “He sits in there on his wooden throne. His name is Seraph and he hasn’t spoken or moved for eleven years. He is the closest to Power.”

“Power? What do you mean?”

“Ask him yourself.” Cherub unceremoniously flung the door open and I swallowed, following fearfully behind.

A white sheep with black spots splotched on its wool sat in a chair, slumped and unmoving. The sheep’s eyes were vacant and glossed over, appearing to stare at the wall but really not seeming to see at all.

“Seraph?” I whispered.

Nothing. No reaction. Seraph sat there. I stepped slightly closer and looked at his face. He had an odd shaped black splotch above his mouth, which comically made him look like he had a walrus-styled mustache.

“Caiaphas was put in chains by Seraph. This sheep is a god.” Cherub hung his head in reverence, drawing his hood to cover his face.

“A god?”

“He was crucified with madness.”

“A god?” I repeated incredulously.

“You too! You too! You must be divine! A fool is all the wiser. A madman is sane.”

“I need to get going.”

I backed out of the room and ran. I crashed through the sunflowers in a random direction. They put up no resistance this time around. I might have imagined it, but they seemed to just ignore me as if I were nothing. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the respite. The cult back there was too much. I didn’t hear any signs of pursuit at the very least.

As I jogged through the outer rim of sunflowers, I stumbled onto a grassy slope and rolled down an unseen hill. I kept rolling and rolling, bouncing about like a rubber ball. My mad descent finally ended with a splash. I’d tumbled onto a pebbly beach. Groaning, I got to my feet and examined my body for what I expected to be ghastly wounds. Nothing. My skin looked somehow healthier than it had ever been. I still ached, though. The pain sloshed inside my bones like lava, I felt as if I were on fire. It was the kind of hot, prickly pain that made you pull your hand back from the stove. I couldn’t pull myself back from myself!

I shuddered at the thought. I held my hands up in front of my face and examined them with detachment. An uneasy feeling arose; the hands were my hands, but my thoughts didn’t feel anchored in whatever reality those hands were in. My mind tremored: the more I thought, the less grounded in reality I was. The surroundings seemed unreal. Most frightfully of all, I didn’t feel real. I’d had this kind of depersonalization before, but never to such an extreme as this. It was as if my thoughts were trying to leave existence behind. In a sense, I had ceased to exist, at least in my subjective experience. My thoughts spiraled out of my body like smoke through a chimney. I was still a body, but nothing was real. I wasn’t real.

No longer truly myself, I wasn’t anything else but a ghost; a specter spectating my body and thoughts. No me. As not-me, I tried to cling to whatever falsity I could convince myself of in this body and this world. Accepting the falsity of me, and the falsity of reality by believing in another, I managed to calm myself down. I was still disoriented, but at least I could move about.

Taking a couple of drawn-out breaths, trying to reconnect my thoughts to my body, I looked at the lake in front of me. Or was it an ocean? There were no waves, just gentle water lapping refreshingly at my feet. Good waves for ants, I guess. I couldn’t help but picture Detherwheel trying to surf these ripples. Even he might be too large for that. I wondered where the lizard had gone off to? He’d probably gone to Sixela to inform her of my failure. But I was still here, still going; patient and longsuffering. If she didn’t wait for me, I could still hope to finish and wait for her.

Sighing, I sat down on the pebbles and let the water gather around me. It was cold, but the soothing kind of cold. It had been a long day…or year…or century? Honestly, it was hard to tell with the banquet fiasco. It could have been millennia, or even an eternity. Was this the afterlife? If so, I wasn’t a fan. It was awfully lonely and the characters I met were all insane. I yawned and stretched onto my back, the water covering me in a half-finished burial.

“Insane,” I muttered. I was going to try and start enjoying this if I was going to be stuck here forever.

“Who are you calling insane?” a voice dinged. Moocha peered worriedly at my face, casting her shadow over my sprawled-out form.

I squinted at her. “What happened to your bell-head? Now you’ve got a silly silver triangle for a head! I guess it sounds better than that rusty thing from before.”

Moocha shook her head. A delightful and timid ting sounded each time she moved in the slightest. “I was the mooiest bell-cow. Now I’m the mooiest of all cows. The trooiest too!”

Not wanting to leave the comfort of the tickling water, I closed my eyes and sighed. I could feel her presence just as much as I could hear it…and smell it too. I smiled. Rich chocolate, so fragrant that I could taste it simply with my nostrils. That was one way to bring me back into myself, experiencing such a joyful sense.

“Where have you been?” I said, my eyes closed and voice distant.

“You ask where I’ve been, but have you not thought to inquire about your spider?” Each word she spoke raised to a higher note that became more delicate and beautiful as she went on.

“Bog? Bog?” I slurred, opening my eyes in surprise confusion. I frowned. “He’s not my spider. But he abandoned me to this quest, to my desires, to my suffering and to myself.”

“A spider does not abandon. A spider keeps its victims close.”

“Am I a victim?” I said.

Water covered my face and I started choking as I was suddenly submerged. I blindly reached out for Moocha’s neck. Feeling the warmth of her fur, I hugged her neck and she lifted me out of the water and to my feet.

“Are you?” Moocha said, her ringing a sudden sharp and harsh alarm.

Surprised at myself, I hugged her tight and took in her warm and sweet scent. With my head buried on her shoulder, nuzzled against her fur, I whispered, “I’m alone.” I wept.

She gently chimed a lullaby-like melody as her fur absorbed my tears. “We are only victims of ourselves. To be a victim of a spider, one first must be caught. One must then surrender,” she dinged soothingly.

A humming from the lake joined her in cherubic chiming. The sounds arose to a rapturous fever pitch. I felt anew. I smiled at Moocha, patted her back, and gazed at the symphonic lake still harking aloud like a perfectly tuned orchestra: an angelic choir.

“A moment awaits. A boat to row you forever in the now. Do not look back, because looking forward is looking at forever, which might as well be this moment. And now, the moment arrives.” Moocha’s ringing lowered in volume until it sounded as if it were my own thoughts.

I didn’t need to look behind me to know that Moocha was gone. The lake abruptly stopped singing and all was quiet but for the sloshing of the water. Then, as if materializing from the water itself, a rowboat glided towards me. A spindly man with a more wide than tall black top hat calmly rowed. As the boat neared, the figure before me remained stooped and casual, rowing as if not knowing he was about to strike land. He wore a high-collared peacoat and his hair tumbled out his hat in wild blonde locks.

A feeling of intense, fearful passion arose inside me and it was all I could do to keep myself from running the other way. I culled the bile of fear and smiled, wading out into the water. I feared not getting into the boat more than the uncertainty of enjoining myself to such a strange enterprise. The boat teetered and swayed as I heaved myself aboard. Yet, the rower kept on rowing, still headed towards land. As I was about to warn him, I fell back and yelped with a start. The shore was gone. Endless water surrounded us, or at least that’s what I could only assume. A heavy fog had descended over the surrounding waters like crows feasting on a carcass. Only the rowboat remained untouched by this impenetrable fog.

I peered at the rowing man’s face. He had gentle yet passionate features; his crystalline eyes were fixed on the bottom of the rowboat. Almost angelic, he was a strikingly pretty man. I coughed, but he remained staring at whatever it was he was staring at.

“Don’t you know where it is you’re heading?” I said. He remained silent and rowing so I tried again. “Don’t you need to look?”

“I’m not looking where I’m going because I’m already there, or always going there. I don’t need to look because what isn’t yet, isn’t ever. There is only this eternal instant, which is right now and always right now. I’m going where I am not, but am.” His eyes connected with mine, his blue irises drowning me with intensity. His eyes were loud, yet his voice was as calm and quiet as the lake.

The sloshing of his ancient, sea-stained wooden oars droned constantly in the background like the ticking of a grandfather clock. I hoped there wouldn’t be an alarm.

“Why do you row?” I asked, not understanding what he was getting at in the slightest.

The man grinned. His entire body seemed to smile as he sat up straighter, still rowing at the same pace. “I row because to not row is to not be. Rowing is a faith in itself. To not row is to not have faith, and to not have faith is to not be yourself. Rowing without looking is simply seeing what is already there, what is already me. I know that time is what it is. I know that I am privy to time’s decaying embrace. I know this. But it is my unseeing rowing that brings me to now. This moment is a now, but it is much more when free in the infinite.”

I rubbed my eyebrow and attempted to recline as comfortably as I could in what little space there was for me in the rowboat. “I prefer my eyesight.”

“And what if you lose that?”

“I prefer my mind. If I lost that, I wouldn’t be alive, now would I?” I shook my head. This man sounded like a fool. Blind faith was something I refused to entertain, especially with how quixotic the man’s dialectics were. Reason must prevail.

“Reason is unreason. Please.” He laughed and I crossed my arms self-consciously. I hadn’t said that last bit aloud. “We try to live by reason. Is it reasonable to suffer living when everything eventually ends, all emotion and meaning forgotten and dissolved into nothingness? Struggle for struggle’s sake is a nice lie we tell ourselves to keep us going. That’s just our biology lying! Are you reasonable for loving a specter that in all likelihood is just a figment of your imagination? Reason. Yes, very reasonable indeed.” He finished his spiel with a guttural laughing fit that was unbecoming of his gentle voice.

“I refuse to be blind.” I frowned at the madman and pulled my arms to my chest in a vicelike grip.

“Any way we look, we are blind. The finite cannot gaze into the infinite. And the finite gazing at the finite ends in blindness: the black endless nothingness of the eternal abyss. Instead of succumbing to the abyss, instead of gazing stubbornly at it, I leap over it. The other side is just as uncertain. Yet I leap to it. That is why I row. That is where I am and am going. It is who I am. Without it, there is no me or you, or truly anyone at all.” The man had returned to his determined rowing, staring once more at the bottom of the boat.

“What is your name?” I asked, my voice shaking. I could sense an uneasy shifting in the air. The fog surrounding us seemed to be pressing into our space, running against the edge of the boat with tendril-like talons eerily scraping away.

“Graveyard.”

All at once, his face melted away. His skin was gone. A skeleton was all that remained, yet he kept rowing. The fog pounced on his bones and covered me in a complete and colorless gray. I felt as though I were dissolving, and once more, darkness enveloped me.

***

“Skin” is an excerpt from Malmagne’s new novel, Spider in the Sun.