Tara Campbell "Two Stories"
In the City of Praying Devils
It never occurred to you that devils would have anything to pray about, but here you are, in the city of praying devils. You can’t pronounce its name, even when it’s broken down into syllables for you, because it sounds a bit different every time they say it, and your mouth doesn’t make those kinds of sounds anyway.
You expected it to be hot and smell like sulfur, but it’s actually quite pleasant. The air is slightly humid, but there’s relief in the cool breeze carrying the fragrance of magnolias toward you. The concierge has brought you up to the rooftop deck; a glass of some drink that tastes like cinnamon lemonade sweats onto a coaster on an end table beside your rocking chair. You try to relax, but begin to feel awkward sitting back when the concierge stands—the chairs are only for esteemed guests, he’s explained. For those bringing their money into the city, you understand.
You rise, gripping your drink so it won’t slip out of your hand, and give the concierge a quick, polite smile before stepping to the railing at the edge of the deck. Below on the ground all around you: devils. They’re not all red, as you’d imagined; some are purple, or blue, or green. Many are part animal, covered to varying extents in shaggy brown and black fur, but some are smooth-skinned, and others are scaly, and still others are covered in something that shimmers like velour.
Many of the devils are busy bowing or walking in circles, palms upturned, faces tilted back in supplication. Others crouch, and you can’t tell if they’re on hands and knees in worship or if they’re simply comfortable on all fours. Some rock back and forth, some are still, and more than a few crawl between them like ants through blades of grass. All around you their prayers rise, a series of hisses and clicks as unintelligible as the name of their city.
You sense a presence and turn your head. You startle, but are instantly embarrassed because it’s just the concierge, of course, come to join you at the railing. He doesn’t look like the rest of his kind down below, which is the very reason he’s been hired to care for visitors like yourself, to keep you from descending into the city and entangling yourself in the prayers. Still, there’s a sharpness to his cheekbones, a piercing quality to his eyes, his upturned nose reminiscent of a bat.
“What are they praying for?” you ask.
“Oh,” he says with a smile that tells you he’s answered this question many times before. “Everything, really. Each one has different troubles and hopes. But let me see what I can pick up on at the moment…” He cocks his head and closes his eyes in an attitude of listening. “Some are praying for more power, others for more riches. One wishes to couple with another. Yet another one is praying about a sick child.”
“They’re praying to heal a child?”
“No. They’re praying for the child to die. This is a city of devils.”
You take a step back from the railing.
“I assure you,” the concierge says, “we have no interest in your demise.”
You release your held breath and nod. “So, it’s not just death and mayhem for the sake of it? There’s a point to it all?”
“We are not so very different from you,” he replies, inviting you with a gesture to have a seat in your rocker, which you do. “We all want certain things for certain reasons: pleasure, pride, sustenance yes, but also love.”
“Devils know love?” you ask, incredulous.
“Of self, certainly.”
Your glass of lemonade slips, almost landing on your lap. You think about why you wanted to come here, why you continue to visit all of these impossible cities. What you’ve done to reach them.
“We are all the heroes of our own stories,” you murmur.
The concierge pauses, regarding you, then looks out over the city of praying devils. “Indeed.”
In the City of Bleeding Books
These are books that don’t want to be held. And yet you do, and here you are, wishing, perhaps, that you had never come. Your hands are sticky and red, and you’ve barely cracked the first cover. This book might once have held a confession, a cry for mercy, a plea for help. These books are sopping and fragmented, and it is your task to put them back together.
You have come to pick up these books, to scoop slimy red pages up off the floor, to reconstruct them and figure out which memory goes where, which war to which era, which genocide to which land. You will read the pages, and as you read they will straighten, unwrinkle themselves, knit themselves back together and become plain. One by one, the books will remember themselves and stiffen, spines will reveal themselves, and as each title reappears you will find a place for it, clear a spot in the gore on the shelves with a sweep of your palm, and slot the book in, still bleeding, but now whole.
All around you are sodden red piles, books that need sorting, pages slid out from dissolving covers. The air smells of copper and pulp, the floors are slick, the shelves endless. You peer down the aisles receding endlessly into the gloom and try to recall how you got here.
Others working farther back in the stacks have long since forgotten why they came. There is so much to be done, so much to repair, so many things that need to be read and saved, you know there will never be enough of you to do it all. You don’t even know if you’re reassembling the most important things.
Look at this other traveler, reading and sobbing, smoothing pages, shuffling them around until they settle into place. There’s no one to tell him if he’s done it the right way. He spent decades preparing, studying and conferring, only to find that so much is not as he thought it would be. By now he can’t be sure of anything, and yet he continues to work, scooping up page after page, reading, smoothing, solidifying what he can. We can only hope his motives are pure, his methods correct.
Is he crying because the task isn’t what he’d expected—or because it’s exactly what he’d feared? Or perhaps he weeps because there is so much yet to save, so many more bleeding books to put back together, no matter how much it hurts. Every person is needed for the work that will never end.
And you: how did you get here? Why are you here? Is it some sort of penance; are you seeking justice; did hubris call you to this task? Or are you merely lost?
Now, after everything you’ve seen, do you really wish to stay?
Bio: Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University. Previous publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT Literary. She's the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and four collections: Circe's Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, Political AF: A Rage Collection, and Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her at www.taracampbell.com or on Twitter: @TaraCampbellCom