Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition

You cannot stop an angel who truly wants to fall. This is the first thing you learn in Pandemonium.

The second thing you learn in Pandemonium is how to drink absinthe.

***

The Suicide sets the silver-tipped pen across the manuscript, weighting the sulfur-tinged pages with their leopard coats of coiling, sensuous handwriting against the cool breeze. Here in Pandemonium, on the patio of the tidy nameless café at the corner of Broadway and Mulciber Avenue, it is always an unseasonably cold April afternoon at the end of the nineteenth century, and the Suicide is always writing the first lines of the city’s only literary classic. New editions of The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition appear irregularly, bound in soft green leather and stamped in gold leaf, illustrated with black ink in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. (Or maybe they’re genuine Beardsley; I don’t know what he’s up to these days.) According to the moldering dead-eyed waiters at the Suicide’s café, the year I died saw the debut of the most successful edition yet; there was an unsettling realism in the frontispiece of sugar cubes and angels’ wings, a morphine injection of Goya or Doré.

My copy of the Guide is a tattered coffee-stained fourth edition, a gift from the Suicide. The inside cover displays an apocryphal Oscar Wilde epigram. The Suicide signed it for me in a flourish of oil-green ink. Hell has very few traditions, but this is one of them: Whatever your poison, ouzo or sabra, vermouth or crème de cassis, everyone in Hell is an alcoholic, and we all drink with the Suicide eventually.

“Beastly cold,” the Suicide says pleasantly, pointing me to the other chair at the patio table. I sit down, my body shielding the manuscript from the wind. Four or five empty glasses litter the table between us, and the Suicide is already smoking a heavy opium-tainted cigarette. I decline the proffered case. “They always told us Hell would be hot, and the company excellent. Shows how fucking much they know.”

I submit a brief smile. A dead-eyed waitress with a nose like Sarah Bernhardt’s hands me a glass of something white and tongue-curlingly dry. It smells like perfume—like Chanel No. 5, that Freudian bouquet of maternity and seduction. “Milton got a few things right,” I say, for the sake of argument. “Darkness visible and all that.”

There is no sunlight in Hell. Here, darkness is the positive quality, snuffing the sickly glow of brimstone. It rains down on rooftops and café sunshades, slips through cracks in bedroom curtains, slides beneath locked doors like an unwanted letter. The damned carry umbrellas to keep it off their heads.

“Milton.” The Suicide savors the name, eyes closed, lips curving with just a whisper of pity. “There was a man who understood darkness. If I ever go blind, you’ll be my amanuensis, won’t you?”

“Sure,” I say. I’m flattered, although I know better. The Suicide loves everyone in Pandemonium, trusts everyone, drinks with everyone. I don’t trust anyone. The Suicide is the closest thing I have to a friend in Hell.

I imagined, once, that the Suicide might actually be an old friend of mine, someone I’d shared an apartment with back when I was alive. Someone I’d loved and trusted. Someone I’d watched die. Shows how fucking much I knew, before I was damned. We all think we know who’ll be waiting for us in Hell, but we’re all wrong.

***

When I was twenty-six, I watched my best friend step off the roof of a nine-story building. My friend had what the reporters called a history of depression—a melancholy disposition—some paint-an-inch-thick veneer of diagnosis that I can’t recall and haven’t tried to. I remember the paranoia, because that’s hard to forget. Opening my bedroom door at three in the morning to warn me about secret messages in the infomercials and sitcom reruns, drugs in the water supply, cameras in the lime-stained showerhead. A manic cocktail of delusion and psychosis, neurotic distrust of psychiatry, and somewhere behind that angelic pouty-lipped smile and those hurricane-blue eyes, the determination and the resolution to die.

We had last spoken about twenty minutes before, had argued between London souvenir mugs full of fucking awful coffee. The White Tower, Big Ben, the restored Globe Theatre. All the world’s a stage, and presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play. My friend was working out a code in the crossword puzzle on the back page of a liquor distributor’s trade magazine. Twelve down: an anise-flavored liqueur, illegal in the United States until 2007. Eight letters, ends with an “E.”

“They’re telling me to do it today,” my friend said.

“Do what?”

“You know what.”

I took a sip of cold coffee. The hand resting on my knee was shaking visibly. It wasn’t the caffeine, although this was my sixth cup. “No, I don’t. Who the fuck are you talking about?”

Silence while my friend looked out the window. We lived on the third floor. A bird had built its nest on the narrow sill; it was a ragged thing, brown with streaks of gray. “They put something in the coffee,” my friend said.

It had a too-sweet aftertaste. I spat it out on the clean white carpet, where it spread like rust, or a bloodstain.

It might be possible to survive a nine-story fall; my friend did not. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Or in its landing, head-first on the concrete, spraying blood and slippery gray tissue and sharp slivers of skull all over the sidewalk. The left eye socket shattered on impact, and the eyeball flopped out onto the cheek, round and soft and incredibly blue. I ran towards the body but a crowd was already closing around it. A trickle of blood with chunks of thick black hair in it swirled around my feet.

I was closed out of the elite circle of trained medical personal, doctors on their way to work at the clinic down the street. I remember wondering how their training was not, apparently, sufficient to let them admit that a body with its brains sticking to their shoes was irrevocably dead. Good night, sweet prince. And me in the gutter, closed out by the dismayed Good Samaritans and would-be miracle workers. Closed out, but that was nothing new.

***

Not everyone drinks absinthe in Pandemonium, but it is tacitly encouraged. The menu in the grove of Suicides is varied and extensive—Pernod and Sambuca, pousse-café of vinegar and virgin’s blood and silvery crème de menthe—but these feeble substitutes lack the class, the culture, the wormwood. It is so bitter, the wormwood of perdition. Once you’ve tasted it, even the trinity of coffee beans floating in your ouzo will seem as sweet as grenadine.

It is almost impossible to become intoxicated here. Many have tried, mostly fallen angels, but it never lasts long enough—no longer than an afternoon in April. So you drink and you drink, watching the slow traffic on Mulciber Avenue, your thirst forever unsatisfied, the patio lights flickering forever on the razor’s edge of night.

***

I live across the street from the Suicide’s nameless café, on the third floor of a Gaudi-esque chimera with no elevator, no air conditioning or heat, and unreliable electricity. All the luxury of a tenement with none of the charm, though it has a certain beauty—the desperate beauty of a mirage. The traffic below on Mulciber Avenue is never still: oil-burning automobiles and demonic streetcars, black-curtained carriages drawn by horses with bat’s wings. Everything stinks of sulfur and cheap gasoline, boiled cabbage and rotting flesh, but it could easily be worse. The more habitable flats—the ones with William Morris wallpaper and niches in the foyers for Chinoserie statuettes or Sevres bowls filled with rose petals—these are the ones that most frequently look out on the plunge of a falling angel.

The damned don’t know where the angels fall from, rooftops or bridges or clouds or the hard slippery eggshell of some goodly firmament—no light could hold out that far above the ground. Perhaps the angels and the darkness fall from the same place. In the hours before there might be a barometric tension in the air, a crackling of electricity that raises the hair on your arms, a distant stumbling of thunder. Not angels bowling, as grandmothers used to say. More like drunken angels in an unfamiliar house, tripping and bumping their shins.

The waiting is the worst. Looking up into that inhabited darkness and the searing flashes of lighting, blue as the afterimage of something pale and dead. You sometimes imagine that an angel’s eyes are watching you, that if you can only find the right words, the right gestures, you can convince It not to fall. But they aren’t, and you can’t.

I avoid the fallen angels as much as possible. They dress like the young tubercular poets of the romantic era, or like decadent fin de siècle dramatists who’ve whored and smoked and drunk themselves into premature old age—frilled white blouses, velvet evening coats, smooth furs and pinstripes, careless neckties in shades of purple and green. Canes in ebony or walnut with yellow ivory handles, patent leather shoes, silver cigarette cases with inscriptions from Horace, or Ovid, or Catullus. You don’t see so much as smell the stains in their dark wings—ink, and blood, and semen, and brandy.

You can see where their delicate kohl-and-carmine faces have been reassembled, the stitches as white and clumsy as the scars on my wrists. The demon-doctors in Pandemonium do their best, but there are always pieces missing or mismatched, jigsaw edges that don’t quite fit in a forehead or a jawline or a yellow-gloved hand. It is a very long way to fall. Death would be kinder, the crematorium finishing the work of a nine-day plunge, but how can you euthanize an angel?

They sit at the cast iron tables on the patio of the Suicide’s café, their wings held awkwardly over the backs of green-cushioned chairs. They keep to themselves, mostly, staring into the mouths of whiskey tumblers with broken-heart lipstick stains on the rims. A few have spoken to the Suicide. They claim not to remember Paradise, but everyone in Pandemonium knows this is a lie.

***

The absinthe of perdition is served with cold water and salt. You place the salt on a slotted silver spoon and pour the cold water over it, baptizing it in the name of your dissolution, your damnation, your despair. The water turns the absinthe cloudy and pale, with a taste like the ocean, but brinier—like tears, but not as sweet.

***

The Suicide spits out a stream of pale blue smoke, which slips out from under the table umbrella and is lost in perpetual darkness. It’s beginning to rain, scorching round drops that stink of sulfur. Rain in Pandemonium is almost a miracle—there’s always a drought here, and the dry unwashed sidewalks accumulate the residue of fallen angels. Blood and tissues and crusted feathers, variegated smears of grace like oil stains. “How’s this for an epigraph to the new edition?” the Suicide asks, and intones decorously: “The War in Heaven was fought between the angels who rebelled, and the angels who let them.”

Milton by way of Wilde, or vice versa—the peculiar and paradoxical aesthetic of Pandemonium. I lean forward, running my thumb along the edge of the hard leather folder that now protects the Suicide’s manuscript. “Good,” I say. “Great. And which angels are the ones in Hell?”

“Both, probably. Heaven’s an empty nest.” The Suicide does not laugh often, but the reflection of my wry smile tugs at the absinthe-sweetened lips. Thunder sounds in the distance like a shelf of liquor bottles knocking against each other, and the umbrella rattles over our heads. “Poor God. All those molted feathers, and nothing to cushion.”

“Yet the angels have to fall from somewhere.”

“All those molted feathers,” the Suicide repeats. I rest my chin on my folded hands, used to being ignored. Or heard and disregarded, which is not the same thing. “Do you ever imagine that if enough angels fell, the sidewalks would be so soft with feathers that nothing would break on impact? It would be like falling into a featherbed.”

“Listen,” I say. The other diners—a pair of fallen angels and a woman with the puce burn of an electrical cord around her neck—are leaving the patio, retreating to the yellow dryness of the café. “About the fallen angels. Have you ever tried to help one, afterward? After they’ve already fallen?”

The smile falters. Thunder rolls again, raising the hair on my arms like a caress. The stinging smell of ozone mingles with the sweet headiness of opium. “Yes,” the Suicide says. “Yes, once.”

“Me too,” I say.

***

Fallen angels look out for their own. That is to say that they hide their own, the sticky crippled messes on the sidewalks of Pandemonium, until they are able to walk again, to speak, to remember. I’m not sure if it’s kindness, or merely pride. Fear that the damned might see and comprehend too much. Every angel looks the same after the fall. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, and all that—these brains, this blood, these molted feathers are yours, or were yours, not so long ago.

If you are walking down the street when an angel lands, carrying your greasy paper bag of groceries or peering at the dusty junk in the store windows, the other angels circle you like vultures, beating you away with their canes and fans and parasols. Only the demon-doctors can pass through the wall of wings, and they are always blindfolded.

Only once did I try to help. I was new then, among the ignorant recent dead—that goes without saying—walking with my head lowered to my apartment on Mulciber Avenue. Something electric swept across my spine, and I heard the hollow echoing crack of a skull or a pinion. Before the other pedestrians could stop me, I was running back down the sidewalk. They say I muttered prayers under my breath—no no no please no, or not again, please God not this fucking shit again.

I was close enough to see the grace leaking in an iridescent puddle across the concrete when a fallen angel dropped in front of me. Its wings were open, talons extended, the stance more like a bear than any bird of prey. Something gray-red and clumpy already stained the breast of Its satin waistcoat.

“I only want to help,” I said.

The angel caught both my wrists in one cold, cold talon. “You can’t,” It hissed, giving me a shake. “You’re human, you’re damned, you’re useless. Why do you think you could make a difference?”

It raised Its wings higher, shielding Its face from the darkness. I choked on horror. I was no longer new enough to feel horror, but it was there, lodged in my throat like a sleeping pill. That face was familiar, that pouty-lipped smile—but the hurricane-blue eyes were gone, the empty sockets buzzing and crawling with flies.

***

There is a second way to drink the absinthe of perdition, but it is not very popular. You begin by soaking a cube of sugar in a fallen angel’s alcoholic tears. Hold the sugar between your lips, or on the tip of your tongue, and set it alight with the tip of your lover’s cigarette. Pour a shot of absinthe over a mirror and kiss—like Narcissus—your own reflection. Watch your face burning in the glass.

There is a rumor that Lucifer himself invented this method. They also say that this is how Christ drank His absinthe when He descended into Hell, and that is why Pandemonium now welters in a lake of fire.

***

The nightmares are always the same. I’m running and running over the damp concrete, but my legs aren’t fast enough. I scream until my lungs burst, but my voice isn’t loud enough. The fall, the landing . . . nothing changes, nothing deviates from the dictates of physics and anatomy and fate. The crowd presses around the body, as thick and useless as ever. And I batter my way through, as eager as ever—as though I don’t know what I’m going to find behind them, as though I haven’t seen it in a thousand other nightmares exactly like this one.

You’re human, you’re damned, you’re useless.

What they never tell you about watching your best friend’s suicide is that you must carry it like the weight of a city in your arms, heavy and awkward. Therapists and damp funeral flowers, sympathy cards and sinking your fingers into the letters on the headstone—it’s all just trying to find a place for it, trying to set it down, this utter tremendous weight. And you can’t keep carrying it. You have to let it go. You have to let go, or the weight of it will drag you down, down to the very depths of perdition.

***

The rain falls faster and faster, almost in sheets now, curtaining our table like a canopy bed. The Suicide takes my wine glass and holds it out into the blackness beyond the umbrella, filling it with water. Water from heaven, or the closest thing to it.

“We all learn eventually,” the Suicide says, offering me the cup. “Some slower than others, but everyone, eventually.”

“Learn what?”

“That you’re all worth saving. Even when you’ve fallen, even when you’ve let one fall.” The ink-stained hand brushes mine. I take the glass and drink, tasting anise, tasting wormwood. “What’s the opposite of perdition?”

Neither linguistics nor theology; I imagine I know what’s being asked. “Salvation.”

“No.” The Suicide looks at me, just looks at me, and for a moment I can almost believe that I am being seen. “Wrong opposite.”

***

The third way to drink the absinthe of Perdition is only used by the lovers of suicides, and rarely even then. You take a shot of absinthe straight and hold it beneath your tongue. Hold your begging, your railing, your pleading, your curses. Hold your protestations of innocence and your declarations of guilt. Hold your prayers. Hold your knowledge that this cup will not pass from you, your knowledge that you are useless, your knowledge that it was somehow all your fault.

When you have held your words for a lifetime, for an eternity, for an unseasonably cold afternoon in April, the absinthe will no longer taste of anise or alcohol but of wormwood, of desperation, of your own bitter sweat. Swallow it like so much despair. You will find that there is sweetness in the wormwood of perdition. You cannot stop an angel who truly wants to fall; this is the first thing you learn in Pandemonium.

The hardest thing to learn in Pandemonium is absolution.

© 2012 Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg

Megan ArkenbergMegan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. In the name of story research, she racks up late fees at the college library, gets dizzyingly lost along the shores of Lake Michigan, consumes a steady diet of M.R. James, and lusts quietly after the architecture and costume of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.