by Carlton Herzog
WHAT DO you suppose an anthropologist from Mars would make of us through our novels, plays, painting, and sculpture? I think he would find creatures full of holes and gaps, riddled with doubts and negations, and laughably finite. He would see us as I see us: a temporary accumulation of dust and fluid in a callously indifferent universe. Like it or not, our bodies are our tombs and life is about learning how to die. Mind you, as a mortician I see things from the viewpoint of my specialty. But why shouldn’t I? Sooner or later, everyone has a date with the undertaker.

I loved to walk through my graveyard at night. As I watched my gravediggers finish up their business, I would ponder whether a thing of bones and my bowels such as myself could actually have a soul. Or were we all, as Job so eloquently puts it, little more than blobs ‘poured out as milk…curdled me like cheese…clothed me with skin and flesh, and fenced me with bones and sinews.’ If so, then for all the pomp and ceremony of funerals and burials, was I nothing more than an existential garbage man taking out the human trash for a fee? It seemed likely that anyone in my position would have to face these questions. Whether one is reinflating a sunken face, denuding grotesque nose hairs, or reattaching an arm, one is always left with the idea that the human body is not an act of divine intent, but a sad mistake born to die.

You may be asking yourself what would prompt a sane person to become a licensed proctor of the dead. To that I must reply: a decided lack of other career options. Born with a mountain on my back, I joined the world as an object of revulsion. Normal people hold a deep-rooted contempt for the deformed because they are terrible reminders of the forces of disorder in the world. So clever though I was, the world saw me as just another of Quasimodo’s children: a pitiably ugly side-show freak fit to ring a bell, kidnap an Esmeralda, and then be hunted like a wild animal. To my mind, the countless atoms of life had coalesced into a monster that meant to grind me down. So, when the worms of self-loathing gnawed at my mind, I let them feed. Hence, I remained a constant prey to morbidity and the other convulsions of the spirit.

Then I met her, a blind woman dragged to my funeral home for her mother’s farewell viewing, I loved her at first sight. She was beautiful, compassionate, and kind. She had no idea that the man she had just befriended on that cheerless day was a triumph of the grotesque.

With her mother’s death, she had become an orphan, for none of her relatives wanted her. I provided her with a cottage and had my housekeeper tend to her every need. I hired a tutor so she could stay current with her Braille and other studies. As much as it pained me to do so, I seldom visited her tiny abode, and then strictly as a paternal figure. I studiously avoided compromising her morals. It was enough that I had found a sliver of unsullied goodness in a corrupt world.

I wanted to ensure she was provided for should I predecease her. A likely prospect since dwarves and hunchbacks tend be ephemeral creatures. To that end, I set about restoring certain features of the estate I had inherited. My immense graveyard sat atop an extensive network of crisscrossing tunnels that had serviced the underground railroad. Given the historical value of the artifacts left behind as well as the tunnels themselves, I began converting the subterranean beehive into a museum, which provide a source of steady income for Ophelia.

When I was not preparing bodies for viewings, I spent much of my time working in the tunnels. One day as I was polishing an antique desk in my secret burrow, I felt the ground rumble and vibrate. Sprouting from the moist earth, a nightmare creature wormed its way free from the dirt and presented itself to me. It had a centipedal body topped with a primary head. Its flanks were arrayed with three types of appendages: secondary snakelike heads, grasping four finger hands, and sucker-mouthed tentacles.

I thought I had lost my mind. Then it spoke in sibilant tones echoing from its multiplicity of mouths, tones that seemed consistent with its other serpentine features.

‘I am Opoboquo. I come from Nibiru, also known as Wormwood, a world of icy tonnage in the blackness of space. I have been stranded on your world for some time. I want to go home. But certain members of your race found my drop ship and moved it to an unknown location. They are studying its propulsion system.’

‘I didn’t hear of any UFO landings around here,’ I said, choking back my terror.

‘It was a small stealth craft designed to avoid detection. My mission was to retrieve the Orb of Safa, take it to my mother ship, and then return it to my world.’

One of its snake-like arms held out a glowing round egg that pulsed in all the colours of the spectrum.

‘The Orb was stolen from our Queen’s sacred vault. We thought it lost until intelligence came into our possession indicating the thieves had hidden it on your world for the time being.’

‘So, it’s a sacred relic, like a crucifix.’

‘It’s more than just a passive object worthy of veneration. The Orb contains the cosmic power of life and death. It is what allows our Queen to live for aeons and provide continuity of leadership. It can also persuade the most obstinate mind to do the holder’s bidding. I must, therefore, take it back. To do that I need my shuttle so I can reach my mothership, which lies hidden on the far side of your moon. Will you help me find it?’

‘If I can?’

‘I have the name of one who may be involved. He may or may not be human. In any event, I need to interrogate him. Would you be willing to bring them here to me?’

‘Why don’t you do it?’

‘I cannot move about your world without being seen as a monster. And as you can see, I am far too large to operate one of your motor vehicles. I need a human proxy.’

‘Precisely how am I, a hunchbacked dwarf, supposed to corral this guy? Do you expect me to do it at gunpoint?’ I asked.

‘No, I will use the Orb of Safa to bestow a cloud of obscurity around you so that others can only see you as you need to be seen. You will seek out Edward Henshaw, who serves as an executive at Archon Industries. The power of the Orb radiating from you will compel him or it to accompany you back here,’ Opoboquo explained.

‘Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to help. But I’m not your guy. I have a very special responsibility to someone who resides with me. I am not about to undertake anything that might compromise my ability to do so. If you want to stay here and figure out a way to get your Orb back, that’s fine. But count me out of your machinations.’

I left Opoboquo to his problem. I debated whether I should call the local police or the Army to have him forcibly removed as a trespasser. But as a monster myself, I had a certain empathy toward him. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure if he were real. Perhaps, some odourless gas accumulating in the tunnels had sent me around the bend, so much so that I had had a conversation with a figment of my imagination.

I used the encounter as a pretext to visit my love. When I told Ophelia about my underground encounter, she, gentle soul that she was, started to cry.

‘Poor creature. All alone on an alien world. I know how he feels.’


‘I am a prisoner of circumstance. Being blind is like being buried alive. My life is so restricted, it’s like being in a lightless casket.’

‘How can you say that? I do so much for you.’

‘You wish to remake me, to turn this sightless slug into a butterfly. I have written a poem to commemorate your efforts as they seem to me. Would you like me to read it?’

‘By all means,’ I said.

‘I call it Buried Alive.

Buried Alive
Why so sad my dear?
You should rejoice
For you have risen from the grave.
My last two wives were not so fortunate.
No doubt from weakness of their feeble wills.
Standing there in bloody cerements,
You are the picture of grim determination.
Do I detect a hint of wrath?
Was it your bitter struggle to reach the light?
The grave soil in your hair and mouth?
Or did you catch a splinter
When you raked your nails across the coffin lid?
I can imagine what you said:
‘He put me living in the tomb.
Does he not hear my screams?
My frantic beating on the coffin lid?’
Of course, I did.
My senses are that acute,
I even heard the breaking of your nails,
The surge of blood from your stumped fingers,
While the picture of it all
Flashed before my inner eye.
Let me explain the cause,
Of your surprise descent.
It came to pass the prior day,
An unseen power
Cast a shadow over me.
It spoke in cosmic semaphore
With glowing lights inside my head:
‘There can be no true love without some strangeness.
Give to her a little slice of death.
Somewhat wanton and bizarre,
With something of the terrible
And that which excites disgust.
Bury her alive to ripen, not punish.
For her heart chords cannot otherwise be touched
Like the worm who weaves his gossamer coffin
And hangs it in a tree
Her spirit shall emerge on golden wings
Perfect in its full design.’
Never were you alone: the spirits of the dead watched over you,
As did the hungry worms tearing at your coffin.
Did you learn their language?
Sightless, but most assuredly supersensible,
Those eaters of the dead
Have digested many brains.
And learned a word or two
Along the way.
When I heard your raucous ripping at the lid,
And felt the volcano in your overheated soul.
I wept for you in that sad hour
I walked as in a fog,
Dull, sluggish, and leaden-hued.
A wet-eyed dreamer
Forcing himself awake,
Praying our love, our hope, were not dead
But sat like dew upon a sleeping flower,
Or a dreaming tear loosened from my brain.
Think you that I have been unfair
That I too need some correction?
Know that I have another internment box
Like yours
Ready for me to enter
And make my descent.
When you are yourself again
All that needs be done
Is close the lid,
The machine will do the rest.
Sending me down into the earth
Then throwing the dirt over me
As I did you.
Then we shall see
If I am worthy of your love.
And you may weep or not
As your spirit moves you.
Should you feel I have been excessive
In my method,
Know that next the pre-dug grave
Is a large leaning slab of stone
Connected to a catch and lever.
Pull the handle
And the slab will drop
And flatten over the grave
Preventing my return.
Then I will experience the same awe and horror
You felt.
Then the lamp that is my life
Will flicker
As its light joins the dust.
In that melancholy moment, at least I will have died
For thee! For thee!
When she finished, she asked, ‘Do you like it?’

‘I found it most instructive. Perhaps I have been overbearing in my expectations. In any event, I am pleased you are developing your mind. If you are so inclined, I wish to make you a part of my new business as an administrator.’

She said nothing.

With that I bid her adieu. I retired to my library for a glass of sherry and some Schopenhauer, the patron saint of pessimism. Although I had all the material wealth a man could desire, I was still a prisoner. A noble soul buried alive in a freak’s body. The consolations of optimism seemed incongruous with my situation. Then again pessimism, like literature, often takes itself too seriously.

A day later, Ophelia fell ill with a mysterious ailment. My doctors were baffled as she wasted away from no discernible cause. Her skin acquired a ghastly pallor; her eyes became large luminous pools of liquid; her hair took on the ethereal fineness of cobwebs. Her rosy cheeks and smile faded.

At the same time, the estate’s greenery went sour. It devolved into a dreary tract of land filled with brown grass and withered, leafless trees. The great stone wall around the estate began to crumble and the woodwork in the house began to rot. The cloying smell of mildew was ubiquitous as it blackened the walls and veiling. It seemed that whatever was afflicting Ophelia was spreading beyond the confines of her body.

Her catalepsy had intervals of lucidity. Whenever I asked her how she felt in that moment, she would say, ‘I no longer exist.’ That was a phrase I had heard once before. It was associated with the delusional state called Cotard’s Syndrome. Afflicted individuals believe that their body is a putrefying corpse.

My encounter with Cotard’s Syndrome involved a cadaver the police had brought me. Thomas Meyers had eaten the skin and muscle of his right arm down to the bone. From there, he sliced open his belly, pulled out his own entrails and was gleefully chewing away when the police arrived. Truly, it was a remarkable feat of self-immolation unaided by chianti, fava beans or fentanyl. Even most die-hard cannibal would blink twice at a man feasting on his own flesh and sucking warm marrow from his own bones. Before Meyers passed from lack of blood, the police asked him why he had made a meal of himself. He said, ‘I wanted to prove my own existence.’ Given my knowledge of Cotard’s Syndrome, I hired nurses to sit with Ophelia around the clock. I could not bear the thought of her eating her own entrails.

Ophelia’s malady took its toll on me. My normally keen mind seemed clogged with a pestilential fog that blocked my rational capacities. In my unnerved state, I sought supernatural explanations. So, I turned to my grandfather’s extensive library of the occult. I researched zombie lore of Haiti and curare, and anything else that might shed light. I studiously read St, Thomas Aquinas’ De Malo, Francesco Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum, Vastarian’s The Voice of the Dammed, and Jean Bodin’s Demonomanie des Sorciers. I also thumbed through Wade Davis’ Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. But nothing in any of those pages shed light on Ophelia’s condition.

Then Ophelia died. I was like a planet detached from its sun. Unmoored and adrift, I died inside my mind like a sickly and paralyzed Hamlet. Everywhere I looked, I saw nothing. It was all nada y pues nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. I buried her as my unravished bride, childless in life, now the mother of silence and slow time. Insensate to the passage of time and anything else in life’s realm. Or so I thought.

At first, she made herself known by a distant grating sound from no discernible source. Then there was her voice singing in my head, and I rocking side to side in tune with it. I could hear her calling to me from beyond the grave.

‘Hugo, I am dead now, the food of worms and maggots. You have the power to resurrect me so we can be together again. And if you do, I will become your wife.’

I felt unbound as if I were being disassembled body and soul. Mad rushing delirium consumed me and showed me forbidden things. Death is not the end, I told myself. There is a way to bring her back whole. It does not involve the abominations of the Black Mass or the study and practice of sorcery. The thing in the tunnel holds the key to Ophelia’s salvation: the Orb of Safa. Go to it, plead with it, bargain with it. In exchange for what it wants, ask that it use the Orb to bring her back.

I hurried to the tunnels. I didn’t know if Opoboquo had remained there, and if so, where in that honeycomb he might be. For want of other means, I called his name in urgent shrieking tones. I waited for an answer or some sign he might be nearby. But all I heard was the rumble of hungry worms within the tunnel walls. A vermicular parliament filled with annelid voices deliberating matters of moisture, nitrogen, and pulpy flesh.

Hours passed. Finally, I heard a voice.

‘Who has called me hither? Ah, Hugo, you have returned. On what business, may I ask? Not some tragedy I hope.’

Tremulous and quavering I answered, ‘My Ophelia is dead. Buried in the family crypt. You said the Orb of Safa can raise the dead. If I do your bidding, then will you bring her back to me?’

‘I don’t know. You seemed so sure of yourself before. How do I know I can trust you with the changeling power as well as that of gentle persuasion?’

‘I will kill a thousand men to have her back if that is what it takes. Just tell me you will do so, then set me loose upon the world to work your purpose.’

‘It shall be so. But first, I must temporarily confer the changeling and persuasion powers upon you and synch your mind to the drop ship’s mind. Now you will appear to others in whatever form you choose, but only for a time. So, make haste to Archon Industries in Memphis and bring Edward Henshaw here to me.’

‘Why can’t I use the persuasion power to get the information from him in Memphis?’ I asked.

‘It is only good for numbing the mind and will. It has no penetrating power to reveal well-hidden secrets, such as the identity of an illicit lover, the commission of a crime, or the location of my alien trophy ship. But once under my direct sway, it will be child’s play to extract the information. If his mind has been compromised by a third party, then there will be walls within his mind that must be taken down brick by brick.’

‘What third party?’ I asked.

‘Any group that does not want to see it returned to Nibiru. Perhaps those who stole it for commercial gain. Or my kind’s political enemies who wish to ransom it or use it against us. In the right hands, it can devastate entire eco-systems and kill entire populations. It is the Power Ultimate, The Spark of Life, The Maker of Kings, and Empires.

I was a gliding phantom who entered and left with my zombified quarry in tow. When my docile prisoner awoke, he found himself on a gurney and Opoboquo’s many heads and my own staring down at him.

‘I see you are awake,’ Opoboquo hissed.

Henshaw became unceasingly agitated then hysterical.

Either to calm the poor fellow or to be rhapsodically sarcastic, Opoboquo said in even modulated tones, ‘Be of good cheer, Sir. This fair and stately palace is by good angels tenanted of which I am one.’

With Opoboquo unfolded his heretofore hidden wings—transparent and reticulated. Continuing in his mock poetic vein, he said, ‘See my seraph’s wings so fair,/Down here are Seraph’s everywhere.’

Henshaw tried to answer. But the only sound he made was a series of whimpers and moans. His thin voice rose and gave out one sound after another. At times there seemed a rhythm to it, an illusion of a melody. But it soon baffled my ear with a welter of noises, harsh, unpleasant, and unintelligible. Every now and then he stuck out a scarlet tongue and moaned.

‘I can see our friend here does not appreciate the happy valley to which he has been brought. But in the interests of charity, I will pose my questions without any form of coercion. Now, Mr. Henshaw, I believe you know the whereabouts of a crashed ship. Tell me where it is and you can be on your way,’ Opoboquo commanded.

Henshaw gave him a blank stare behind which was the mad hilarity of one whose mind was about to snap.

‘Let me ask him. Any more questions from you, and his brain will liquify,’ I said. ‘Henshaw, tell us where the ship is and you can go.’

His lips trembling, he said almost inaudibly, ‘What is that thing? And what ship are you talking about?’

Opoboquo said, ‘Play time is over!’ Four tentacles with sucker mouths shot out from Opoboquo’s neck and attached to Henshaw’s head. I watched Henshaw’s eyes roll back in his head so far, the only thing visible in the sockets were the whites. Blood poured from his ears, then his nose and mouth. It looked as if his head were imploding on itself.

‘You’re killing him,’ I yelled.

‘It cannot be helped. He has been psychically altered to conceal his knowledge of my ship’s whereabouts. Somewhere below all those layers of grey matter lies the nugget of information I seek. To reach it, I must peel away layers of consciousness, and to do that, I must obliterate any layers in my way. I suspect that by the time I’m done, there will be nothing left inside his skull. But I have no other choice.’

‘What about physical torture? He could lose some blood a finger or two but remain a person, as opposed to the living husk you are creating,’ I suggested.

‘Fine, I will do the honours,’ he said.

Opoboquo retracted his brain sucking tentacles. But a moment later one of his many rummaged through my tool chest and picked up some pliers.’

‘Let’s start with the digits.’

Before I could object, Opoboquo had applied the pliers to Henshaw’s index finger.

‘Ready to talk, Mr. Henshaw? I should hope so, because if not you can say goodbye to Mr. Pointy.’

A disoriented Henshaw turned his head and vomited. Mentally and physically, he was beyond the pale of interrogation. Opoboquo didn’t care. He took the finger and when he did Henshaw howled like a banshee. But he offered still no information as to the whereabouts of the shuttle.

That scenario repeated itself nine more times with each of Henshaw’s screams more bloodcurdling than the last. By the time Opoboquo was finished, Henshaw’s hands had been denuded of fingers. Only bloody stumps remained.

‘Well, the finger approach didn’t work. I say we do something more intimate. Hugo, pull down his pants and let’s get a look at his semen shooter and two ammunition cases. I think some snipping down there should remove any reluctance he might be harbouring about disclosing the needed information,’ Opoboquo said.

‘If he were going to talk, he would have done so by now,’ I said.

‘Are you getting cold feet? Hugo, the information I seek benefits you in ways other than the resurrection of your wife. I can use the Orb of Safa to make your body whole. Fix your spine, shrink your head, and grow your body. In short, I can make you normal. Doesn’t that sound good? And didn’t you say you would kill a thousand men to bring Ophelia back? But here we are killing one at best. From an ethical standpoint, you are—if we do kill him—considerably lower on the Index of Evil than you expected to be.’

‘Well, I feel better already,’ I said sarcastically. ‘By the way, how do you know that he knows where the ship is?’

‘The Orb affords me a limited clairvoyance and reach. I can see things very clearly around your estate and project my influence accordingly. But that power diminishes with geographic distance. All the Orb could show me was this man conversing with another about my ship, but the details were sketchy. The other person was shrouded from me, but he did name Henshaw in the conversation and where he worked,’ Opoboquo explained.

‘Did it ever occur to you that Henshaw’s mind has been wiped since that conversation? Maybe you are digging for a treasure that is long gone,’ I suggested.

‘With your permission, I want to try one last mode of physical interrogation, and if that fails, then we are done with him. But I warn you, it is not for the faint of heart. Just remember you said you would kill a thousand men to get your beloved Ophelia back.’

‘Do it,’ I said.

Opoboquo undid Henshaw’s restraints. Then he held the Orb of Safa and connected with its eldritch power. Henshaw jumped off the table, grabbed the pliers, and first gouged out his left eye and then his right. Then he froze. He had become a blackened statute charred by some unearthly black ice. As he stood there erect and rigid, Opoboquo repeated his questions. But while the baleful Orb had caused him to mutilate himself, and rendered him an immobile ebon thing, he said nothing in response.

Again, Opoboquo looked deep into the Orb. This time Henshaw used the pliers to pull away his own nose, and when he was done, yank out his own teeth one by one. Caught in the agonizing rapture of a malign omnipotent force, Henshaw did not cry out but worked in a mechanical fashion to dissect himself. I admired his workmanship. No doubt because I was seeing it from the viewpoint of my own specialty but in reverse order. That is the moral blind spot that always comes with being assimilated more and more to one’s social function.

I did not object to what happened next. Henshaw tried to cut open his own throat with the pliers. Blood shot everywhere. During this attempt at involuntary immolation, Opoboquo barked the same questions over and over to no avail. Hence the carnage continued as Henshaw stabbed himself in the chest, thighs, and calves before attempting to slit his own wrists. Finally, with his larynx protruding through his throat, he said, ‘Your ship is being held seven miles east of here in a warehouse owned by my company. The name on the building is Archon Technical Service and Supply.’

He collapsed in a heap. I tried to help him up, but he was already dead from loss of blood.

Nonetheless, I was ecstatic.

‘You have the information you want. Time to pay up: bring Ophelia back to me and fix my body,’ I demanded.

‘Not so fast, Wee Man. I need you to retrieve my ship and bring it here. Only then will I perform the promised resurrection and restoration,’ Opoboquo said.

‘How in God’s name am I going to get it and fly it back here? There is probably all kinds of security around it, and I am not rated for spaceships.’

‘I will use the Orb to create another cloud of obfuscation around you. You’ll be fine. Orb will also forge a connection between you and the ship’s mind. That will activate the autopilot.’

Opoboquo’s sketchy reconfiguration of our initial agreement sent up a red flag. He was probably lying. And if that were true, it could be that Ophelia’s enigmatic death might be his doing. But what choice did I have? If I refused, then any chance of getting Ophelia back would be lost. So, I nodded my assent and made for my garage. Although my cars were designed to accommodate someone with my disability, I didn’t think it prudent to leave my car at the Archon warehouse and then fly off in a stolen spaceship. I directed my driver to drop me outside the fence and leave.

I had no problem gaining egress to the facility. To the security team I was, as before, just another guard there for shift change. When I saw the ship itself, I marvelled at how compact it was. No bigger than a Honda Civic. But the biomorphic forms on its hull told me the thing was organic. As I approached the ship, it began to hum louder and louder, and then strobe in all the colours of the rainbow. A dog wagging its tail at a familiar face. The seamless hull opened, and a gangway slid toward me. By now, the security team knew the perimeter had been breached, and tried to stop me. But the ship radiated concussive acoustics that knocked them flat. I got on board without further incident.

In the King’s English, the ship told me to ‘Sit down. I will do everything.’

‘Before we blast off, I have a question,’ I said.


‘Is it true that the Orb of Safa was stolen and Opoboquo was sent here to reclaim it?’ I asked, not expecting to get a straight answer.

‘I am compelled to answer truthfully because you have been blessed by the Orb. Opoboquo is the one who stole the Orb from Nibiru. He intended to sell it to a third party. Nibiruans intercepted him before he could. He fled his ship taking the Orb with him.’

‘Who were the people guarding his ship?’

‘Humans possessed by Nibiruan detectives. The assumption was that sooner or later Opoboquo would make a play for his ship. They did not realize the true power of the Orb. Otherwise, they would have taken more stringent precautions to contain me.’

‘He promised to resurrect my Ophelia from the dead and make me normal. What are the odds he’ll make good on those promises?’

‘Zero. The life energy required to perform such divine functions would be tremendous. It would give the Nibiruans the ability to pinpoint his exact location,’ Ship answered.

‘If I took the Orb from him and resurrected Ophelia and fixed myself, then what are the odds I will be successful?’

‘The odds are fifty-fifty. While it is true your consciousness has been synched to the Orb and to me, your cognitive architecture might prove too weak. In that case, the results could be catastrophic. You could bring back something not to your liking and turn yourself into something more abominable than you are now,’ Ship cautioned.

‘Thanks. I have one more question: is there a weapon of any kind on this ship?’ I asked.

Ship replied, ‘No. Opoboquo is a remorhaz. He has no need of prosthetics because he can shoot ballistic acid from any one of his many mouths. I believe the farthest he has done so is one hundred of your metres.’

‘Good to know.’

We lifted off from Archon and were back on my estate in matter of minutes. Opoboquo met us as we touched down next to Ophelia’s grave. I saw that one of the gravediggers had forgotten his shovel and formulated an insidious plan that called for it.

When I debarked, I said, ‘Here’s your ship. Time to make good on your promise.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t do that. The energy expenditure would be like a dog whistle for my enemies. You’ll have to be content with the knowledge that you met and helped E.T.,’ Opoboquo said.

I said nothing but inched toward the shovel. As Opoboquo turned toward Ship, I snatched the shovel, and jumped on his back. I drove the tip into the back of his head. A green sap slimed out as he staggered. I drove the shovel in again and again as his multiple arms tried to grab me. But I was so short, and the angle so awkward, he found it impossible to reach behind and grab me. Eventually, I chopped his primary head clean off. When that happened, the other appendages whipped and snapped in a lunatic fashion. Some sprayed venom that missed me but caught him. A few moments later, he collapsed with me still riding his back.

I asked Ship why it had not come to his aid.

It said, ‘You and I are in harmonious balance ever since he altered your quantum wave signature. My loyalties were to you both, so I did not intervene. I know what you are about to do. I caution against it.’

‘You could help me unlock the Orb’s power safely,’ I said.

‘He put protocols in place that locked me out from such a thing. You are on your own, for better or for worse.’

I picked up the Orb. I concentrated as hard as I could, willing Ophelia back to life along with new eyes. I could feel myself radiating some sort of energy in all directions. The potency of my spell caused the earth to shift beneath my feet. I heard moans all around me. Then I saw what I had wrought. Gnarled hands one after the other pushing up around the tombstones. Bodies began crawling out from the earth. Some as cadavers, others as fully restored but none in their right minds.

I heard a commotion in Ophelia’s tomb. I opened the door and standing before me was a shrouded and bloody Ophelia. Emaciated and trembling, her eyes tightly shut, she rocked back and forth moaning. I hugged her to me. I sniffed for the scent of formaldehyde and embalming fluid but smelled none. Just as Christ had turned water to wine, I had transmuted chemical preservatives into living blood and restarted the heart that pumped it.

‘Ophelia, you have come back to me. Open your eyes, it’s me, your sweet Hugo. Now we can be together as husband and wife as you promised.’

She opened her eyes and looked at me. Gone were the dead whites and in their place the bluest eyes I had ever seen. She stared at me, then asked, ‘Hugo? You are my Hugo? My God, you are a monster. A freak. Let me go or I will scream.’

I was saddened by her understandable change of heart. But I could not stop to ponder the matter. The newly revived dead were moving toward me with menace in their eyes. I would remake myself later.

‘Ophelia, curse me if you must, but we must seek the safety of the house for now.’

We ran. She was fleet of foot as befits a young woman, I the ponderous plodding dwarf on short misshapen legs. I assumed that once we were behind closed doors, I could use the Orb to make me more agreeable in Ophelia’s eyes. But as we reached the front door, an alien airship landed between the house and us. Two large cyclopi in metallic suits exited.

‘Human. You have something that belongs to us. Hand it over and you will not be hurt.’

Even as I said the word ‘Certainly’, I focused my mind on the Orb. The two aliens turned to ash before us. I looked at Ophelia and said, ‘I will not let anyone take away this opportunity to be free of this hideous body.’

I focused my mind again. I felt a searing heat as the cosmic power reshaped me into an image of my choosing. No longer a freak, I stood tall and proud and handsome. Ophelia took one look at me and ran into my arms. It was a fairy tale ending with but one loose end.

I turned to the army of the dead shambling our way. In one grand orbicular flourish of my hands, I turned them to dust in the wind. At that juncture, I could care less if another group of aliens came for the Orb. I would gladly hand it over.

The universe, however, has no use for happy endings. It is every bit the asshole I had known it to be before I met Ophelia. For as we stood there in each other’s arms, the power that had made the moment possible faded. Ophelia returned to her former dead state, even as I spun retrograde back down to my former misshapen self. Then I remembered that whatever aptitudes and abilities I had were ephemeral. Opoboquo had made that point clear, but in my zeal, I had forgotten the insoluble truth that my godlike ordination would not last:

‘But first, I must temporarily confer the changeling and persuasion powers upon you and synch your mind to the drop shift’s mind. Now you will appear to others in whatever form you choose but only for a time.’

It seemed I had become as Sisyphus, rolling the stone of my deformity up the hill only to have it roll back down once I had reached the top. All my labours to become a real person, to join humanity as an equal, and to find a modicum of happiness, had turned to ash.

Doubly interred, I was, on the one hand, no better than someone with Cotard’s Syndrome, seemingly alive but dead inside. On the other, buried alive inside the suffocating delusion that I could become a butterfly when fate had predetermined, I would remain a worm.

Life it seems is an advanced class in Thanatology. In it, I learned that I have been clothed in skin and bone, fenced in bone and sinew, and given an unspecified graduation date. My final exam is on the Dust Cycle. In a sublime fit of egalitarian largesse, the universe will give a passing grade to me whether I answer the questions or not. 

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