Miss Mary Mack

That night Dieter lay in bed pondering the scene from Goethe. He got down the book and read it over. Here Faust wants to call up the ghost of Helen of Troy: Mephistopheles explains that he has no power in the pagan hell, that Faust will have to bring his request to The Mothers, the primordial goddesses older than God or the Devil. Faust, of course, very bravely undertakes the journey which Mephistopheles reluctantly proposes, through the trackless nowhere of ancient chaos.

Dieter re-read Faust’s conversation with Mephistopheles, pausing at the point where Faust overrules Mephistopheles’ caution and good advice:

I’ve never chosen to do nothing, to stay safe,
the thrill of fear’s the best part of being Human,
whatever usurious price it exacts,
at least when you feel terror, you feel something great,
something great enough to be real!

Dieter felt like Faust: brave, wise, subtle, incomprehensible, doomed. Doktor Faustus! He wasn’t anything that other people could understand. And he was leaving now!

Dieter hastily dressed. It was getting near to twelve. He could still make it to the Chickering tomb before midnight. A sliver of waning moon showed through the window. He felt fear, and in that fear, greatness. He opened his bedroom window and swung his legs over the sill. It was only a six-foot drop to the ground.

He didn’t notice this, or anything, as he loped along across the blocks, cutting through backyards to save time, until he reached the high school. He circled around to the woods behind it, then along the old road leading steeply uphill. Dieter was in pretty good shape, but he was panting as he sprinted.

He liked the pain of his cramping stomach muscles and his raw throat; it was good to feel and not to think! He reached the cemetery at the top of the hill and slowed to a jog, then a walk, catching his breath.

It was a quiet October night after a rain. The sliver of moon was very clear in the cloudless black sky and by its light the grass glistened. The headstones and monuments glimmered grayly against the black.

Dieter stood in the midst of the graves and waited. His breathing and heart rate slowed, he felt his sweat becoming cold under his clothes. Now nothing mattered. He was far from everyone; from his father, from schoolwork and what was expected, and feelings he wasn’t supposed to have.

He felt nothing. Not even the fear he had come at a run hoping to feel. Supposing it was just an October night and nothing more, and he had to go back with nothing more than wet feet and a head cold?

Dieter looked towards the pyramid. “Please,” he thought, “Please. . . Bitte.”

There was a faint smell of carnations in the air.

And now fear shook Dieter. He made his feet move forward one after the other. The smell of carnations intensified. He heard dogs barking in the distance. The paved path seemed to shift beneath his feet, as though it were composed of flowing layers of darkness. The smell of carnations grew even stronger as he approached the tomb.

In the shadows on either side of the path things seemed to be moving. Dieter imagined serpents coiling and slinking alongside it. Now he stood before the door to the tomb. It opened slowly and soundlessly inwards. Everything was happening in slow motion now. The howling of the dogs slowed as well, until it sounded like a low continuous roar.

It was a very long way across the threshold of the tomb. In the dark interior of the pyramid he saw the face of Mary Mack. Calm, gray, somewhat wizened, the great pupils of her narrow eyes gleaming evilly with unnatural intelligence. She took Dieter’s hand and led him in.

As he passed the threshold of the tomb, he found himself in a broad ruinous structure, like an abandoned railway station, which arched overhead on rotting girders into a lofty vault that could have held a hundred Chickering pyramids.

It was night inside there too, at least there was that much continuity with the world Dieter had left. The interior darkness was illumined by occasional dangling electric lights that gave equivocal light with their few dirty unbroken bulbs. There were some people on the platforms, huddled among their luggage. Homeless people, bag ladies, hunkered down beside their bundles, arms spread protectively over them as Dieter and Mary Mack passed.

An obese woman in a filthy fake-fur leopard skin coat from the 1970’s slowly pushed a shopping cart with her things, weeping and talking to herself. A thick layer of gray dust covered everything, deadening Dieter’s footfalls, so he walked along beside Mary Mack as soundlessly as she.

Between the platforms, where there should have been rails, there was water: an oily black water irridescing in shades of blue-black in the forty-watt twilight. In one of these inlets waited a boat: a shabby paint-chipped gondola. Once it had been enameled in the glossy and over-saturated colors of a carousel animal, but now it was worn, grimy, its glazing crazed and flaking away.

Mary Mack climbed into it and pulled Dieter aboard. The boat was much larger than it had first appeared. Once standing inside it, Dieter could only make out the ends with difficulty; it seemed to extend a great distance fore and aft, and also from side to side. Which was good, since his weight made the boat sink halfway to its gunwales.

“You are a heavy cargo for this boat because you are alive. It wasn’t built to carry great hulking breathing things like you, just souls,” said Mary Mack.

In the general reversal of space and proportion, Mary Macks’ change from boding silence to speech didn’t seem particularly odd to Dieter. Rather, he was glad to find she felt like talking. It made the whole affair seem slightly less sinister.

Dieter looked at his guide; she no longer looked wizened and unreal. She now appeared to be a young woman all in black, very presentable, though turned out in the manner of the last century. Her waist was pinched in very narrowly above a long skirt that reached down to her buttoned boots with sharp toes and square heels. Above the waist her dress puffed out at the bosom and in the sleeves, giving her a distinctly hourglass figure. She wore a high collar, and her hair was pulled back very tightly, covered with a round hat held in place by a long cruel looking hatpin. Her expression was disdainful and impatient. Dieter gazed at her with a fascination he had never before felt.

“What is this boat?” asked Dieter.

“This is the barque of Ra you’ve been reading about. Clearly, your studies have done little to improve you,” snapped Miss Mack.

“That is the ship the Egyptians called ‘the boat of millions’ because it held all who have ever died,” said Dieter, anxious to show he had indeed learned something, and weirdly, in spite of himself eager to please this imperious creature.

If she heard him, she ignored him. Looking back, Dieter saw the shrine in the middle of the boat where Ra stood, a Ram-headed human figure with a gleaming sun-disk on his head, holding a tall staff. Around him stood the gods of his entourage, Horus, Hu, Sia, Maat, though all of them looked rather unwell. Their faces were green and white, they were not like the splendid figures one sees sculptured in museums. They were a pantheon of the living dead, visibly decaying. Some of them were already mummified from the waist up, their bandaged arms stuck helplessly at their sides.

Ra was making his nightly voyage, and the way led through death and corruption. He and all on the boat of millions would have to die before they were reborn.

“This is the journey to regeneration isn’t it?” asked Dieter. “Is that why everything is falling apart?”

Miss Mack looked at Dieter with disgust.

“You really are quite a stupid person, aren’t you?”

Dieter looked at her with puppy-eyed embarrassment. Miss Mack didn’t seem to notice.

She took a deep breath and said, as if to no one in particular, “Ideas from the day world only make a muddle down here. Try to understand.

“Up there you have material things, which are held together by their spiritual essences. Mostly matter, with a minim of spirit to make it go and hold the physical element together. Once the soul leaves, the creature dies and falls apart; resolves into the elements that constituted it. That little flicker of soul goes and you’ve nothing left but rubbish.

“Here the proportions are reversed. Mostly soul, with just enough matter to give it form. That’s why everything here looks half-built or dilapidated up close; this is the backstage of the world where the stage machinery of the cosmos is kept. Out there, in the day world, everything is as material, as real, as it has to be. Down here, there’s only as much material being as leaks in from the day world. Out there, there’s only as much spirit as leaks out from here. You might think of it like this: here we’re very literally on the seamy side of reality, where all the welds and stitches and carpenters’ marks show.”

“I see,” said Dieter. “But if this is the ‘Boat of Millions,’ aren’t we moving towards regeneration?”

“It’s the dead who are regenerated, child. You are still living. You can’t be restored to life. You can only lose life. And that is precisely what you want, isn’t it? You want to be with me? To be here with me always?”

Dieter looked at Miss Mack. She would take away his life. He wanted her to. As she spoke her face looked cruelly beautiful and beautifully cruel.

He wanted to be with her very, very much. It must have shown in his eyes, for she patted him on the head like a dog.

“What a good boy you are.”

The boat slid forward over the greasy Lethe, slowly leaving the station. They emerged onto a vast black waveless sea,

Dieter thought of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The City in the Sea”

For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass —
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea,
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.

“You’ve been here before,” said Miss Mack.

“No, I only read about it in a poem,” said Dieter.

Miss Mack gave him a disgusted look.

Across the waters, little funereal islands were scattered. Improbable cemetery architectures rose from each in turreted stalagmites, adorned with urns, wreathes, angels pointing upwards, Greek and Egyptian mausoleums, tombstones projecting at angles like mushrooms from the thick gray fern that seemed to cover the base of each island.

Miss Mack placed a large box on the seat between them and opened it. Inside were large chocolates. She indicated that Dieter should eat.

They were excellent, the best he had ever had, richer and finer even than the best Swiss. The milky richness of it melted slowly on his tongue, coating it thickly in sweetness.

“Here in the world of the dead, all we ever eat is candy,” explained Miss Mack.

   “That can’t be very wholesome,” observed Dieter.

   “I have lived on sweets alone for the last ninety years!” snapped Miss Mack in a low insistent hissing whisper.

   “But you’re, well, dead, aren’t you?” asked Dieter.

   “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s rude to make personal observations?”

   “I — I’m sorry,” said Dieter.

   “Don’t be trying. Sit still and eat your chocolate.” said Miss Mack in a tone that indicated the discussion was over. Poor Dieter! Even in the world beyond, people were telling him what to eat!

 The islands became more sparse as they glided on, until there were none at all, just the obsidian expanse of the waters reflecting the night sky. Not very probable stars were mirrored in it; silver and apparently five-pointed. Looking up, Dieter saw that the sky was sprinkled with just such stars, made from silver foil, with candles in front of them.

 Looking down, he saw the same child’s drawing stars, reflected with frightening clarity. He reached his hand over the side of the boat; there was no water there now, only more night sky extending illimitably downwards.

 “Stop fidgeting!” said Miss Mack.

 Dieter sat upright again. They were floating in empty space amid stage stars in a boat piloted by Egyptian gods who looked like bad taxidermy.

 Dieter felt dizzy and unwell. Perhaps the chocolate Miss Mack had been feeding him wasn’t agreeing with him. He closed his eyes. The world swung from under him, and he lost consciousness.

[This is an excerpt from Rabinowitz’ novel Miss Mary Mack which may be found on Amazon by following this link.]

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