by Zach Lisabeth
Beyond the Sea of Remorse, a rocky promontory called the Fang juts westward over an unapologetic shoreline littered with limestone, broken shells, bone fragments and glass. The moon over the Fang is always bloody and full, and depending on the night its florid light stains the seas the color of viscera or poppies or wine. A stone staircase with 1,313 steps, each one too narrow to accommodate a foot and too slick to grant a drunkard purchase, winds its way around the Fang and up to a black cathedral, a mile tall and set with stained glass windows depicting violent, gnostic scenes.
Father Talmai the Blind serves there. He is a clean and patient man. Using a rag that once swaddled incubi spawn, he polishes the soapstone floors with scented oil so that the penitents can see their faces reflected back at them as they crawl towards confessional. The walls of the cathedral reach up to a lightless singularity; words uttered between those walls persist for a hundred years in the afterlife of the echo. An organ leers at the penitents from the one corner of the cathedral that Talmai never cleans. The instrument grins with jagged pipes chiseled from Azazel’s yellowing ribs. Only the organ’s keys retain their luster. They were carved from the perfect white of unicorn horn, and every note wrought from their depression is a sin. Talmai has never played the organ. He leaves it alone, guarded by cobwebs and disrepair, to prevent the horror its baleful chords might toll.
When he isn’t cleaning, Talmai spends most of his time in the confessional booth – his cathedral’s most awesome fixture. It is a terrible thing hollowed out of a fallen angel’s carapace, which looks not unlike a leper’s knotty fist. Even the greatest artists could never depict an angel in its truest form – they are gruesome to behold and even more difficult to describe. They appear more like magnified insects than men. Their rocky bodies are tangles of symmetry wrapped in fractal layers of phi. One willingly gave its life so that Talmai could build his confessional booth and absolve the most helplessly damned.
Father Talmai has never given sermon on the Fang. His cathedral does not contain any pews. He has no congregation other than the ghostly utterances bound in reverberation as they claw for the spire of his hall. Few men brave the journey to the Cathedral of The Fang, a path rendered even more perilous by the weight of fermenting sins. Those who arrive are too weary to stand, so they crawl on hands and knees into Talmai’s confessional booth and whisper their transgressions through barbed wire mesh. There are no prayers in the Cathedral of the Fang – no holy gestures or exhortations to God. There is only the penitent, Father Talmai, a story and a cost.
A woman enters the booth on broken wrists, her cheeks irrigated by centuries of falling tears. She tells Talmai of her children – seven, five and four – all drowned in a river by her unwavering hand. She blamed her husband for the murders and saw him hanged from a poplar tree in the village square. Remorselessly, she basked in her new life, freed from constraints to enjoy her family’s bountiful wealth. Talmai nods. His authority permits him to absolve far worse. He takes her dreams and replaces them with vivid scenes of drowning, terrors so real and so tactile that she will awaken every night in hell with bloodshot eyes, hacking little fistfuls of river water onto the pillows she and her husband used to share. Her anguish will blossom into actual remorse and only then will she be delivered from perdition.
A man enters the booth with bleeding knees and abraded palms. He tells Talmai of the businesses he bought and dismantled, leaving throngs of impoverished people in his wake. He reveled in the broken lives that lined his pockets and cursed the poor for their failures of intellect, attitude and grit. Talmai sighs. He has learned not to judge. His authority permits him to absolve far worse. He grants the man an extra lifetime for every lifetime he destroyed. The penitent will live out the sorrow of each and every one of his victims. He will weep through ten thousand years of frustration, disappointment and bitter regret. Only then will he finally be redeemed.
A devil finds the Cathedral of the Fang. This happens from time to time. Even devils were once men who did wrong and were damned, and though they’ve been reduced to their meanest parts, some devils can still be redeemed. The devil hasn’t come to confess, it says. It’s come to gloat. It tells father Talmai that for every soul he saves, the demons of men will damn a thousand more. Talmai listens. Talmai sighs. The devil tries to goad Talmai into an altercation, but Talmai is stoic. Frustrated, the devil breaks the door off of Talmai’s confessional booth and roars at the infinite ceiling. Its compound eyes focus on the organ.
Soapstone crackles under the devil’s claws. Cobwebs sizzle and burn away, sending wispy trails up, up into oblivion as the devil sits to play a forbidden song.
Talmai watches it all from the safety of his confessional, as if he has countenanced this scene a thousand times before.
The devil marvels at the pipes. They stand like rows of spearheads poised to impale the heavens. It parts the glutinous webbing of its fingers and gleefully strikes the Triad of the Foul – three notes, played as one, that were never intended to join.
The sound surprises even the devil as the wind from the organ pipes encircles its bloated, goaty form and courses upward to join the last century of penitent moans. Rocks tremble, grazed by the touch of their natural tone. The Cathedral of the Fang shudders, cries and collapses around its inhabitants.
Angelic residue from the carapace delivers Father Talmai, but the devil is buried with its sins and with its chord. It will dig itself free one day, while the memory of the organ’s sound peels away the substance of its mind. It will rise one day, reborn from the cold earthen womb of the Fang. Father Talmai will instruct what remains to rebuild his timeless cathedral.
Only then will the devil be redeemed.
Zach Lisabeth is a Los Angeles-based speculative fiction author and Weirdo. He was born on Long Island and took a circuitous route west by way of Brooklyn, NY, Burlington, VT and Chicago, IL. He is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop at UCSD, an experience he credits with exacerbating his Weirdness. His work has appeared in several publications including Liquid Imagination, Freeze Frame Fiction, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Gaia: Shadow & Breath vol. 2 (Pantheon Press), Burningword Literary Journal and the anthology RealLies (The Zharmae Publishing Press). You can follow his intermittent outbursts on Twitter @zachlisabeth or check in with him any time at www.zachlisabeth.com.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
From careful and intentional observation of the world around me. From real people and real interactions. From keeping an eye out for the surreal in everyday life and letting my imagination literalize those images and occurrences. There's plenty to be learned from reading broadly and voraciously and I would encourage any aspiring author to do so, but the careful study of fiction comes with the attendant danger of derivation. There's a fine line between inspiration and regurgitation.