When Shaun came home from the grocery store, he found Devin lying naked on the floor, curled up in the fetal position and surrounded by black cables and multi-colored wires. Devin breathed shallowly and was covered in a sheen of sweat. His head was shaved and clumps of parti-colored
red and purple hair were scattered around the room. He had red, angry bumps on his scalp and scabbed-over places where he had nicked himself.
Shaun dropped his bags on the floor—the eggs were crushed beneath the bottle of indifferent chardonnay—and stumbled clumsily over the cords and cables and wires that snaked over the carpet. He pushed Devin onto his back. Devin’s eyes were glazed over and dilated. They focused on nothing. A coaxial cable protruded from his navel. Shaun struck Devin hard across the cheek. There was no response. He shook Devin by the shoulders; Devin’s head lolled backwards and cracked hard against the floor, but there was still no response.
Shaun wailed, an inarticulate, wild sound. The songbirds in the olive tree outside the window scattered in fright. He began to tremble and sob. He said one word over and over, “fuck.” Tears rolled down Shaun’s cheeks and mingled with the snot streaming through his nose. He held Devin in his arms and rocked with him back and forth.
Shaun wiped his nose with his sleeve, narrowed his red-rimmed eyes at Devin’s slender, inert form and said softly, “So, you’ve done it. And you don’t leave me much choice.”
Shaun kissed Devin’s pale, clammy cheek and gently slid him to the floor. He paced away and stared out the window for a time, before leaving the room to gather his supplies.
Shaun came home alone to his one bedroom walk-up in Leimert Park. He frowned at the thin layer of dust on the pitted and scarred hardwood floors. Those floors were advertised as a feature, but their condition left much to be desired. Wishing for ordinary wall-to-wall and a vacuum cleaner, he slumped onto his overstuffed couch for a while and stared at the ceiling. The cracked plaster moulding at the top of the wall always reminded him of the toes of dead men.
It was a hot, muggy evening. Sweat plastered Shaun’s shirt to his back. The windows and the French doors were all open to take advantage of some non-existent breeze. Purple-blue jacaranda blossoms littered the balcony. The air was oppressive with the fragrance of decaying flowers.
Shaun walked over to the corner of the living room he called his office. Shaun turned on his creaky, oscillating fan in the vain hope that it would somehow cool the room. He stared at his computer for a while before logging onto the internet. It wasn’t real human contact, but talking to someone is better than staring at the wall. In a chat room that advertised itself as “The Place for Young Gay Intellectuals,” and politely rebuffed clumsy advances from people with handles like HotAzz4u and TopBoy28 before he got a private message from someone whose first question was not age, sex, location?
<PaladinWhite> Ur profile says ur personal statement is “Every angel is terrible”. That’s Rilke right?
Shaun blinked for a moment. No one he’d ever talked to in this chat room had ever caught that. Eagerly, he typed back:
<Raziel> Yes, it is. Do you read much poetry?
<PaladinWhite> Not really. I like philosophy. But this guy got me Duino Elegies and I really dug it.
<PaladinWhite> So, do U play those Legacy of Kain games?
<Raziel> Uh, no. My nick actually comes from an Angel. The angel of secrets.
<PaladinWhite> What kind of secrets do u have?
Shaun smiled at this and waited a moment before typing a response.
<Raziel> If I told you they wouldn’t be secrets anymore.
<PaladinWhite> LOL. Want to meet for coffee or something?
<Raziel> I talk to you for four minutes and you want coffee? Or you always this forward with strange boys?
<PaladinWhite> No. Just U. Don’t want a hookup. Just want 2 talk. Coffee?
Shaun grabbed a Kleenex from a box next to his monitor and wiped his hands dry; they were sweating and shaking and his heart was beating rapidly in his chest. He had met guys from the internet before, it wasn’t a big deal, he told himself. But his hands were still sticky and clammy.
<Raziel> Ok. What’s your name?
Shaun traced a complicated sigil on the screen of the monitor with a piece of chalk. He poured rum into two mugs; he drank deep from the chipped and faded mug with a crack on its side that once read “Virginia is for lovers” and he offered the other mug—which read “My heart belongs to papa ” in lurid red letters— up to the air. He chanted in a low, even tone, “Legba open the barrier so that I may Pass. Legba, open the barrier so that I may pass. Legba open the barrier to the spirit world so that I may pass. Legba remove the barrier.”
The chalk outline began to glow in a soft green. Shaun’s voice became louder and more insistent, “Papa Legba at the crossroads. Papa Legba behind the mirror, remove the barrier so that I may pass.”
The window was closed, but a hot, spicy wind whipped through the room, tossing loose sheets of paper around, causing the sheets on the bed to rustle and flap. The venetian blinds began to rattle and shake.
Shaun cried louder, “Papa Legba at the Crossroads, remove the barrier so I can pass. Open the barrier so that I may pass. Beyond the mirror, open the barrier so that I may pass into the world beyond.”
A humming sound emanated from the wires. Shaun modulated his voice so that it harmonized with the humming. “Papa Legba, Royal Legba remove the barrier so that I may pass. Gather together beyond the mirror so that I may pass. Open the barrier so that I may pass. Papa Legba open the gate!”
The clear, bell-like tone of an instant message rang from the desktop. The swirling pattern of the screensaver was dispelled. A yellow bordered dialogue box appeared on the screen with a single sentence written in all caps, “ARE YOU SURE?”
Shaun walked over to the computer and clicked the button for yes.
The wind roared and the monitor cracked from side to side. The smell of ozone and burning plastic filled the air. Behind the fracture in the monitor auroral reds and oranges danced. Shaun reached toward the screen and vanished.
“Do you believe in magic?” Devin asked Shaun on their third date together. Shaun watched the steam waft upwards from his cup of coffee for a moment, then smiled secretively. The sunlight streamed through the leaves of an oak and cast dappled shadows on his face.
“Why do you ask?”
Devin leaned forward, resting his elbows on the wrought iron table. A shock of violet hair fell over his mild blue eyes. The sidewalk café was still busy with the lunch crowd, and the background conversations and the clinking of spoons stirring coffee and sugar into frothy mugs of cappuccino kept the noise level at a constant, cheerful din. Shaun had to strain his ears to hear Devin’s quiet reply. “Because I want to know. Do you?”
Shaun closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. His stomach felt tight, it reminded him of the way he felt when he was very small and had jumped off the high dive for the first time. The water seemed so far away and the thin blue plank he stood on had seemed so insubstantial. He drummed his fingers on the edge of the table, opened his eyes and answered, “Yes.”
Devin reached out and covered Shaun’s hand with his own, “Good.”
Shaun found himself standing on a grassy plain. Twin golden moons hung in a starless sky the color of cheap merlot. Snow-capped black mountains towered in the distance. The tall blue-green pampas grass waved gently as if being caressed by a breeze, but Shaun could feel no wind. He neither felt heat nor cold, and there were no smells. This world is beautiful, but unfinished.
At the base of the black mountains he could see lights of many colors shimming in the early evening gloom. So he’s built N’Chala.
Shaun inhaled deeply—although he did not actually need to breathe—traced a pattern in the air with two fingers on his left, exhaled sharply, and thought “up.” Nothing happened. He smiled wryly. He could levitate in the real world with some effort and a little concentration, but here in this artificial world he was bound by its approximation of gravity. Shaun said aloud, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown and what strength I have's mine own, which is most faint.”
Shaun turned to the shining city lights and prepared himself for what promised to be a very long walk.
“So, what I’m really interested in is technomagic,” Devin said in-between mouthfuls of cotton candy. Shaun was distracted by the fireworks overhead; he loved the red and gold bursts that looked like skyborne roses of flame. Devin nudged him in the ribs and he replied sleepily, “What’s technomagic?”
“Well, most of ordinary, everyday magic is using a bunch of symbols and words to change the world around you, right? Well, computers work on symbols and words! Why should a spell written on human skin in blood under the full moon be any less effective than something cast with a laptop? You can use computers to change the world around you, or even create--” Devin’s eyes took on a faraway look.
“Create what?” asked Shaun, frowning at the long line for the tilt-a-whirl.
“Nevermind,” said Devin, full of false cheer, “Hey, you should teach me some of the stuff you know, like that invisibility trick you used to sneak us behind the velvet rope of the Club Cherry last night.”
“It wasn’t invisibility. I just made us go unnoticed. People who didn’t know us well would look in a different direction. It wouldn’t have worked on anyone who knew either of us well. At any rate, it’s hardly magic.”
“Whatever! You’re being all modest again. Next you’ll tell me you can fly, but that’s nothing much either.”
“Well, I can fly, actually.” Shaun hid his smile behind his right hand. “But it’s very difficult and not much faster than walking. Not very inconspicuous, either. Mostly, it’s useful for getting cats out of trees.”
“Whoa! What else can you do? Shoot lightning bolts out of your hands? Throw fireballs?”
“Don’t be silly,” Shaun punched Devin playfully on the shoulder.
“So how do I know you didn’t hex me into falling in love with you?” Devin said impishly.
Shaun laughed. “You had to come willingly, of your own accord, or I’d never be happy with you, darling boy. What would I want with a mindless zombie?”
Devin kicked at the gravel with his cerulean Airwalks and wrung his hands behind his back before asking, “So, your father was a Voodoo doctor?”
“He was a houngan, yes.”
“Could he do the same stuff you do?”
Shaun stared at the moons at the base of his fingernails. “He could do everything I can and more.”
“But you didn’t learn magic from him?” Devin furrowed his brow.
“Voudon is more than a series of hexes and incoherent babbling. It’s a religion. The faithful take it very seriously. But no, I did not learn from him.”
Shaun looked away from Devin. Bright flashes of green and red light from the fireworks were reflected in the tears welling up in his eyes. He took a measured breath and said quietly, “My father—there’s a phrase that describes him. They say he served the loa with both hands. He was a bad man. He enjoyed bringing harm to people.”
“So, you don’t practice Voudon?”
“No,” Shaun shook his head emphatically. “I don’t ask favors from the Loa. Their prices are too high.”
The city of N’Chala had no gates. It was built on a hill and its streets all stretched up inexorably to a palace perched atop it like a broody mother hen on an egg. The houses along the marble streets were small stone cubes, but each was painted in different colors-- vibrant blues and purples, reds, golds and greens-- and from each house to its neighbor hung strings of paper lanterns, each lantern a different pattern and color. Atop the flat roofs of many of the houses were flower gardens that bloomed in riotous profusion. Multi-colored orchids hung down the sides of the houses in thick intertwining vines. The orchids perfumed the air with a fragrance like vanilla.
For the first time, Shaun saw animals. Peacocks and flamingos wandered freely down the streets, sometimes squawking noisily as he passed. There were people, too, although they looked unfinished and bland, their skin waxy and without pores. They had unlined, unremarkable faces and colorless hair. The people all lay still on the ground as if they were sleeping. Shaun laid a hand on a small boy’s chest. It did not rise or fall.
As Shaun climbed the winding street that led to the summit, the houses became grander and larger. Vaguely Greco-Roman statuary rested beneath trees in the gardens in front of some of the homes. Elaborate friezes depicting heroic scenes lay just beneath the roofs of some of the homes. The paper lanterns vanished and gave way to tiny chandeliers that swung gently in the breeze. Artificial waterfalls and fountains trickled pleasantly.
At last Shaun came to a great square just beneath the hill’s summit. A monumental fountain stood at its center before a great obelisk. Four guards in gleaming parodies of medieval armor ringed the obelisk. Weary in soul, if not physically fatigued, Shaun took a moment to sit on the rim of the fountain.
“You are not allowed here!”
The guards rushed towards him, weapons drawn and visors down. They staggered towards him with movements both mechanical and clumsy. Shaun easily ducked the maladroit slash that the first of them had aimed at his head. But there were four of them and the halberd of the second nearly sliced Shaun. What would happen to him if he died in this world? He tumbled backward into the fountain to avoid the spear thrust of the third guard. The guards moved to encircle Shaun. The fourth missed him entirely with his warhammer and Shaun was able to kick him in the chest. The guard tottered for a second, off-balance, and then began to advance again. This part of the world is more complete, Shaun thought, maybe I can work sways. He quickly traced a pattern in the air and thought forcefully at the guard with the spear, “Sleep.”
His only answer was another poorly aimed spear thrust. Shaun couldn’t do this alone, maybe the Loa? No, that way led to the choices his father had made.
He dodged another warhammer blow, but not in enough time to avoid the next slash from the sword. It grazed his chest, cutting through his shirt and the skin beneath. A thin line of red appeared on his chest. Blood. He couldn’t do it by himself.
He raised his voice to the sky. “Ghede, aid me! Ghede, aid your child. It is not my time to journey to Guinea. Protect me from those who wish me harm.”
The sky was still. The guards advanced closer still and three of them struck at Shaun at once; he barely managed to avoid them. The sword and the halberd met with a shrill clang.
“Ghede!” Shaun cried.
Three black shadows stretched out from behind the guards, independent of the sun’s light. The first of them stretched and lengthened into the form of a man wearing a top hat. The shadows flew towards Shaun then, vanished. He smiled. The guards moved forward again, but Shaun waved his hand as if swatting away a bothersome fly. All four guards flew backwards. They lay there motionless for a while before Shaun moved over to look at them. Their flesh was gone. The armor, once shiny and immaculate, was rusted and riddled with irregular holes. Inside the armor lay white skeletons, picked perfectly clean.
Shaun continued up to the city’s summit.
It wasn’t until after they had moved into the bungalow in Eagle Rock that Devin brought up his mother for the first time. Shaun was busy unpacking cardboard produce boxes they had filled with books; he smoothed out the creases on the covers of paperbacks and vainly tried to straighten pages that had become dog-eared or rumpled with use, then stacked them in neat little heaps to be organized later. Repetitive busy work soothed him and he did not immediately hear Devin’s brusque announcement. “You know, my mother is dying.”
Shaun dropped a book and it careened into a small tower of paperbacks, which crashed down in a heap.
Devin stared out the window. “I said, my mother is dying. Cancer. It’s gotten into her bones. They’re riddled with it. Sort of like lace, I guess.” He laughed, a short, guttural sound. “Mona always liked lace.”
Shaun got up, slipped an arm around Devin’s waist, and laid his head upon his shoulder. He whispered, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Devin kissed the top of Shaun’s head. “You know, when I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me the best stories. My favorite was about the city of N’Chala. It was a city full of colors and light and fountains in the foothills of these black mountains. And there was no suffering there, and everyone loved each other. And things like race and how much money you had didn’t matter and everyone danced there. When I was a little boy, I believed so much in those stories that I could almost see the city when I closed my eyes before I went to bed. There’s no cancer in N’Chala.”
Shaun squeezed Devin. “I’m so sorry. I-- I wish there was something I could do. I love you.”
Devin rubbed his cheek against Shaun’s short, kinky hair and said wistfully, “I don’t suppose you can magic away death.”
“No,” said Shaun sadly. “That comes to us all.”
The palace loomed at the top of the city. Seven tall, alabaster towers worked with silver filigree, fitted with faceted crystal windows and elaborately carved with intricate figures, gave the palace a delicate, fragile air despite its massive size. Two gilded doors studded with sapphires and pearls opened into the palace’s interior.
Shaun said wryly to himself, “This must be the place,” and walked through gilded doors three stories high.
Water gently coursed down the walls in the entry hall to vanish into nearly invisible drains. The milky light rippled gently with the motion of the water. The hall was bare of ornamentation except for a lush, lavender carpet that led inexorably deeper into the palace’s interior. At irregular intervals, archways opened onto corridors that branched away from the main hallway. Shaun walked along the lavender carpet until he came to a pair of mahogany doors carved with scenes of the world’s creation. The door was flanked by twin caryatids whose unseeing gaze seemed ominous to Shaun. He placed a trembling hand on one of the doors and pushed. It opened easily, as if it had no weight. He entered the room beyond.
Shaun found himself in a cavernous audience chamber whose recesses were lost in shadow despite the series of chandeliers along the ceiling and the luminescent pearls that shone from pillars in regimented rows beneath the chamber’s high dome. Elaborate bouquets of orchids and cabbage roses overflowed urns that flanked windows along the wall. At the far end of the chamber stood a marble throne inlaid with nacre, sculpted to resemble an oyster shell. Devin rested on the throne’s velvet cushions with a smile of dreamy anticipation.
Devin clapped his hands in delight. “I knew you would find a way here. I knew you would come. We can rule this world as gods.”
Shaun said, “Come home.”
Three days after Mona’s funeral, Shaun came home from work to find Devin unshaven and unwashed, staring intently at the computer monitor. The windows were closed tight despite the heat of the day. The air felt thick and the smell of sweat was cloying. Books surrounded Devin: a Latin dictionary, a C++ manual, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and texts on hermetic magic, pinned open to specific pages with thumbtacks or held open with paperweights. His red-streaked violet hair hung greasy and limp over his forehead. A thin bead of sweat trickled down his chin and pooled in the hollow of his neck. He muttered out loud, “Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.”
Shaun said, “Devin?”
Devin whipped his head around towards the sound. His eyes were feverish and he smiled manically. He shivered despite the heat of the day. His dilated pupils appeared black instead of their normal cornflower blue. Devin licked his lips and said, “Oh, hi, Shaun. You’re home early. I didn’t quite expect you yet. Sorry. Not quite ready for dinner.”
“I’m forty-five minutes late. I tried calling all afternoon but you never picked up the phone.”
“I didn’t hear it ring. I—I’ve been working on a project and I guess I--” Devin trailed off. “It’s just I’m so close. I must have gotten preoccupied.”
Shaun pursed his lips, “Seems more like obsessed. Look, we don’t have to go out to dinner tonight if you’re not up to it. I know it’s really soon. Just tell me what you need.”
“No, I’m fine. Just let me shower first, “Devin said glibly.
But when he got up to leave the room, he didn’t take his eyes off the computer the entire time.
Devin leaned back into his throne and opened his hands. “I’ll give you whatever you want. Whatever this world lacks, I can put in. Say the world and I’ll build for you deserts of gold dust, or forests of giant, delicate orchids that only blossom in the light of the moon. Or perhaps you’d rather have crimson seas where enormous, iridescent oysters feed. We’ll harvest pearls the size of spinning wheels. You can have one as your throne.”
“You’re not listening to me!”
“We could start the whole mess over.” Devin rubbed his hands together, “We could have children with your caramel skin and my blue eyes and violet hair. We could be Adam and Steve.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I thought it was,” Devin said peevishly. “You really should learn to relax.”
“Relax?” Shaun laughed bitterly. “You want me to relax? I asked a favor of the Loa to get here. I crossed your endless plain. I climbed the winding paths in your sleeping city. I fought past your guards.”
Devin rubbed his chin. “Fought? They should have just let you in.”
“Well, they didn’t.”
“I’ll have to fix that. Don’t worry, I can fix anything here.”
“But none of this is real. This isn’t flesh and blood and bile and shit. This is pretty pictures. Come home.”
Devin laughed, “Real? Real is what I say it is here.”
“Say you will come. Willingly and of your own accord.”
“I can’t! Stay with me here, please, we could have everything.” Devin’s voice cracked.
Shaun took a step forward and reached out his hand. “Say you will come.”
The room shook. A crack appeared in the fresco painted on the ceiling and plaster rained down on their heads. Shaun took another step forward, “Say you will come!”
“I can’t!” Devin wailed, “And what are you going to do if I don’t? You could try and drag me out of here, but then I’ll only come back and hide better, next time.”
“You have to come willingly, or else why would I want you?” Shaun said mildly, still holding out his hand.
“You don’t know how hard this is,” said Devin. “You don’t know what I’m going through.”
Another tremor rocked the great hall. A marble statue standing at attention in an alcove veered left, then right before crashing off its pedestal.
“No.” Shaun shook his head. “I don’t. But I’m still asking you to come.”
Devin stared at Shaun’s outstretched hand for a moment, then bit his lower lip. The shaking intensified and a sudden wind crashed against the windows, shattering a pane the size of a cathedral door. Chandeliers swung ominously overhead, their candles flickering and crystals crashing into each other. Shaun pitched forward, lost his footing for a second and stumbled against the dais, still reaching out.
Devin grabbed Shaun’s outstretched hand and held onto it tightly.