An interesting sequence of events did not happen on the subway to me this morning. However, the main characters in this story did share a subway car with me this morning, though I suspect they were perhaps slightly more quotidian than the depiction I have assigned here. This is not an endorsement of any supernatural hierarchies described, just a bored flight of fancy.
* * *
A girl, probably in her early twenties, got on the subway at Whitehall Street this morning. Her face was unmemorable. Pale, ordinary, a hint of a freckle here and there. Her hair was brown and curly, and it had no luster, as if she hadn't washed it in some time.
She sat down in the seat across from me, and in the crowded morning bustle was soon occluded by -- in order from left to right, my side -- a portly contractor with bleached jeans, a teenager chewing bubble gum and wearing a sparkly silver belt buckle proclaiming "DESIREE!", and her friend, a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed stick with stringy hair. Oddly enough, as the traffic in the car did its complicated dance of ingress and egress at the station, the eclipsers mysteriously parted like the Red Sea, as it were, leaving me to contemplate the Girl. For some reason, the sight of her compelled me, and I lowered my book and raised my head to stare.
She was wearing a black sweater and a red skirt, all of which looked completely devoid of synthetic material. Her shoes were leather, scuffed and darkened by the relentless step-after-step of New York City. As I looked on, she pulled out a tattered journal, turned to a page, and took out a generic black pen. It was then that I noticed. Her fingers and hands were entirely doodled with henna, intricate patterns vining around her digits. The effect was utterly inimitable -- it was as if the bones of her hands were completely visible through her skin. The faded crimson of the henna had a surreal skeletal impression on me, as if her skin and blood and bones were nothing more than transparent Zip-Loc bags holding in her soul. Even as I reeled, those crazily decorated fingers began to scratch symbols on the page in front of her.
I began to ponder what it is she was writing on the page. A shopping list? A daily recounting of her thoughts? My brain tended towards the less obvious. Involuntarily, I conjured up an image of her Gestaltplastiktasche being punctured, shattering, her essence collapsing into a puddle on the floor of the subway car, her clothes, no longer being worn, and all of this inconsequential, because she was, in a manner of speaking, not real.
Not real? Preposterous. One thing that we all learn about life and its little details is that physical reality is one thing which is seldom anything but black and white. Either something is real, or it is not. There is no in between. This is not a complex philosophical construct. Unbidden, my mind began to whisper to me in a voice strangely unlike my own mental perception of it. "The devil is in the details," it suggested.
The book -- black. Like a blank Bible being rewritten. Her clothes -- black at top, red at the bottom, sinuous but completely unsensual. My mind flashed through possibility even as the girl noticed me, caught my eye, and began to write again, not even looking down at her book as she calmly scribbled while fixing her gaze on me intently.
All of this happened in the space of one stop, and as the train lurched into Rector Street, I was reminded of a rectory, a proverbial safe haven in the hierarchy of mystical Christianity, and wondered if I should get off the train. I began to process this ludicrous idea to flee from what could only be an innocent girl writing a diary that I, for some reason, had transliterated into the speech of the Otherworld itself! Even as I began to decide to appease my increasing desire to rest for a spell in the station for the next train, the trio of man, girl and girl who had occluded my view previously moved in such a way as to render it impossible for me to leave my seat. Suddenly claustrophobic, I attempted to stand, and found my way entirely blocked. I was beginning to become irrationally fearful, but I swallowed it with a gulp and resolved to hold on until my stop.
The train ground to a halt, and the doors opened. Since I could not see anything in front of me except for those three people, I had no idea if the Girl was getting off, or who else was getting on. "Stand clear of the closing doors!" the intercom barked, and the doors shut me into the noisy red and yellow demon world again. Like magic, the Three Stooges sidled rightwards, somehow merging with an amorphous mass of commuters that had appeared impenetrable to me. The net result was that I was left to stare at the Girl, unmoved and unperturbed, and -- strange but not unexpected -- sitting on a row of seats alone, despite the people crowded like souls into Hell throughout the rest of the car.
She had returned to ignoring me. Instead, her eyes flickered around the car, and as they alighted on one person or another, she would scribble something and then draw a long horizontal line underneath with one determined sweep of her pen. I struggled for the right description, and finally settled on a demon reporter for some hellish newspaper, taking notes on the list of the damned. At some point, I imagined she would return to her inexplicably spacious hotel room uptown and send them all by wire to the Press Room of Eternal Doom. Like obituaries for the living, or something. It was not a heartening thought.
Even, I reasoned, if she were just an ordinary girl, going about her ordinary business, were people simply experiencing an aversion to her, to not want to sit on the seats next to her, to not want to stand in front of her grasping the bars to brace against acceleration, to bump and jostle her and integrate her into the rushing human river like everyone else? I closed my book (Vladimir Nabokov's "Speak, Memory") and slid it into my bag. My heart began to sink. I was beginning to feel -- like an Egyptian on his deathbed -- that it was growing heavier than a feather, and that I would not pass into the gloried Afterlife, the Elysian Fields, Heaven. I was doomed, as so many of these people imprisoned in this subway car were, and we would all ride it until it exploded in conflagration, colliding with the sun! Even as I turned my Fate over in my hands, the Girl was still glancing around the cabin, raising the tip of the pen to her mouth, and then nodding satisfactorily and scribbling some more. By now, she had surely taken the salvation from all of us.
The train pulled into Cortlandt Street station. Another train must have just come before mine, because only a few people idled about in the station, now uniformly walking to the edge of the platform, waiting for the doors to slide into place, to slide open, for their chance to slide into the mass. I craned my head around to the window behind me as the car stopped to see one such person waiting for our car. I began to send him mental signals: No... not this car. You don't want this car. A devil-girl waits here silently with her Pen of Judgment and her Book of Damning with which to send you away forever... lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate! Alas, it was no use, because he purposefully strode into the car, looked around for a seat, and upon finding none, sat down next to the demon.
A shock coursed up and down my body as the Girl recoiled with shock, her mouth opening slightly. She stared unabashedly at the newcomer with the look of a territorial wildebeest whose personal space has just been violated. He turned to her and grinned with impunity. For a moment, I thought I saw a bright ring encircle his head, but it may have been a figment of my imagination. (Right. And so was this whole demon personification I was imposing on a random girl who may have just been enigmatic and liked to tattoo her hands. How do you do that, anyway? Do you have to be ambidextrous?) I watched, rapt. The doors closed again and the train continued into the darkness.
The Man was maybe thirty, and unshaven. His hair was short, red, curly, and only on the top of his head. His face was narrow, but his coloring was hearty. He had a suit on -- white shirt, black tie with stylized suns patterned on it, pinstriped pants. He was carrying a spiffy brown briefcase, which looked recently polished, but old. It seemed to be inclined to spill out its contents at a moment's notice, and it was perched precariously on its lap like some sort of vaguely sentient pet. He appeared fully aware of the Girl without even casting a glance at her. It was as if his very studied disdain for her cast a shadow wide enough to cover her entirely. She continued to stare on, with even a hint of anger, but she seemed reluctant to express it, as if her continued existence might depend on it.
The train shuddered and squealed through a turn, and the power drain caused the lights to flicker momentarily. Darkness enveloped the car for half a second, and then the lights came back on.
The moment was broken. Actually, all the moments were broken.
The train was frozen in the tunnel. The signs were frozen and unchanging. The normally shaking car had completely stopped moving. Everyone in the car besides myself, the Girl, and the Man had disappeared. I was gripped with shock, totally overlooking this fortuitous uncrowded subway ride due to the manner in which it had occurred. I tried to stand, to run, to do anything, but I was frozen in place. The Man and the Girl, however, were not. They were facing each other at opposite ends of the car. I could only barely see the Man out of the corner of my eye, being towards the other end of the car and my head immobilized.
"Last stop," the Man said. His voice was mahogany, deep and resonant. I wondered why I was still in the car.
"You first," responded the Girl, who clasped her book firmly in her left hand and her pen in her right hand. (Odd. I expected her to be left-handed -- after all, doesn't "sinister" come from the Latin for left?)
The man turned slightly and focused his gaze on me. "You, there." My head was freed. I looked over. I still could not speak. "You, there," he repeated. "You are here so the destruction can be witnessed. After all, if a tree falls in the forest..." I began to wonder what sort of matchup, exactly, I was witnessing. He turned back to the Girl.
A contest I could not even begin to imagine commenced. I felt the pressure build up behind my eyes, but I could not comprehend what was occurring. There were no physical gestures, no words, just pure inhuman mental energy unleashed. Finally, after an interminable infinity of momentless not-passage of time, the Girl raised her pen like a wand, and a crackle of imaginary energy surged from it. The Man raised his briefcase as a shield, and the energy bounced back and -- shattered the girl. How I know this, I am unsure, except that I perhaps imagined I saw it, as in a dream, but I am simultaneously aware that nothing was physically visible. Her enclosing bag of flesh ruptured pretty much as I had envisioned, although her clothes remained dry. The sound of scalded water rose from the end of the subway car, and a miasma of colored smoke formed into a sheet of energy that coursed out through the crack between the doors of the subway. The skirt and sweater, and -- curiously, no other garments -- rested formlessly in a pile where the Girl had been standing. The Man walked slowly towards me. "It is pretty much as you guessed," he said. "Except you don't know which side took the victory. Not everything is black and white." And, laughing to himself, he stepped through the closed doors of the car and into the tunnel, and the lights went off again, briefly. When they turned back on, the car was moving again, and people filled it to the brim, ignorant of the very stage they were standing on. I fought inertia to stand up and make my way to the end of the car, where a leather book lay. I picked it up and found that it had a golden bookmark in it. I opened up to the page the bookmark indicated and read what I saw there.
"In every Game of Chess, the Prime Mover must send His pawns out into the firmament, fully acknowledging that they must sometimes be sacrificed for a greater good. I am a small part of a greater strategy, and I ask for capture willingly, knowing that my loss is but a small part of His Victory." And nothing more.
As the train pulled into Union Square, and I exited, emerging into the crisp autumn air, I wondered precisely what kind of square it was, after all.