I suppose I have always known him.
He is etched on my hands like indigo dye, the bright stained-glass blue of his iris embedded in my skin. I cannot look at my fingers without thinking of how his interlock with mine. It is a strange thing to know your flesh is haunted. When I look in the mirror, I see him, grinning arcanely back at me.
I know that in the womb, he molded me to his will – I am as much his creation as God’s, perhaps more so than the Lord lays claim to me. Like my old china doll, he crafted me, with pale skin and flaxen hair. He says I am delicate as a robin’s egg, with eyes like silver coins to pay the ferryman across the Styx.
My fate is inscribed on my palm in indecipherable lines. Only he can read them. What he utters ices the marrow of my bones: “I have written my memories into you.” He read stories from my hands in my youth, would tell me tales of a Paradise long lost. Whether that place is now dust or a graveyard, I do not know. Still, he longs to return to Gan Eden, to at least tend the roses and thorns that choke the mausoleums of angels and demons alike, under the shade of juniper, willow, and elderberry trees.
He goes by many names, none of which I knew in my childhood. My restless shadow, brought to life by my father’s sins, would whisper sweet promises in my ear: “The time will come when I will show you the world, Jean. Together, we will travel it, and all the fruits of beauty will be yours for the plucking. I want to see their juices stir desire on your lips, to taste the world through your tongue, drinking down your visions. You are my poem to the world. How I will delight in breaking you.”
He has not broken me yet.
We sit in a Parisian café, him closing his eyes to inhale the rich scents of mochas and espressos and croissants as he pauses from his novel. It is The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of his favorites, and like the titular character, he is unchanging. After all these years, that self-same smirk still burns on his face. I take a slow sip of my white mocha confection, too sweet for my liking, and study him: that visage too cruel to be handsome, the cutting eyes like chips of glass. A predatory quirk of the lip. His fangs may be retracted, but he is still a vampire, immortal, midnight blood black as sin, his skin pale as bone.
He catches my gaze and smiles, unsure, then takes my hand in his. I allow him this small contact. Our fingers lock together, snug. Electricity zings from his palm to mine.
“You should paint your lips crimson and sparkling like frost over holly,” he muses, looking out the window upon the crystalline snow. “My winter queen Jean, blush on her cheeks from the cold’s bite. Oh how I want to bruise your neck with my kisses and make your skin the color of dusk.”
“Fat chance,” I scoff, retracting my hand. “God, Sam. You need a Thorazine drip.”
He laughs low. “Perhaps. Shall we take a walk? Find some alley to warm up in, Jean?”
I shrug, my voice ambivalent. I toy with his thin pinky. “It doesn’t matter to me. Nothing matters to me, your incessant questions or not. Perhaps that is the burden of limitless time. Just let me finish my coffee, you absolute mad demon of a man.” I smile, poking out my tongue to tease him. He laughs.
“Very well. If that is your price: time, I’m afraid you’ll find it rather cheap in the nether realm.” He downs his black coffee in one fluid gulp and watches me, amused. I take one deliberate sip after the other, reveling in the taste of oversweet heat on my tongue. The snow falls like an elegy outside. It reminds me of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in winter, when the foundry is iced with ghosts. My shadow loomed the largest, and we would play in the iron and rust, hide and seek. I always sought the hollow places. Maybe that’s because I’m marrow, more quicksilver soul than body, and I wanted Samael’s bones to fill.
“I’m ready,” I finally say. We return our cups and walk outside into the winter air. Samael offers me his arm, bent at the elbow and ramrod straight, in an outdated manner. Demons always pick and choose mannerisms they favor from different epochs or cultures and play hard and fast with their humanity.
If they can be said to be human at all.
I rest my forearm atop his. Silent, we walk through cobblestone streets, jaywalking and dodging traffic. A bakery warms the wind with delicious scents. The crowds part, subconsciously making way for the Shadow Man and his betrothed. A gale follows Samael; black ice blooms in his wake. Nature curls up and dies at his touch, and my hand burns cold where it meets his, like freezer burn.
My wing stains shift their birthmark shape, and I wonder what they will look like tonight. Canary, eagle, sparrow, hawk. Perhaps some kind of owl. I’m feeling vaguely vespertine. I have an Audubon Society book that I’ve used to decipher the port wine stain shadows. Like silhouettes of avians in flight against an iron sky. It is my favorite feature.
Samael pauses as if eying a reliquary.
“What?” I say.
Frosted ivy husks twine over a trellis that stands at the entrance of a darkened alley between two brownstones. Samael grins like a shark, baring sharp teeth. “Perfect,” he hisses. His eyes gleam. Samael smooths snow from the neck of his tailored blazer. A light dusting of white has collected in his shoulders and hair, refusing to melt. Just my luck, my chthonic betrothed is cold as a morgue. He’s the original morgue after all, with billions of corpses on ice inside his manifold gullet. Satan devouring frozen sinners.
The Beast, the Dragon, Aleister Crowley be damned.
“This alley is perfect for what?” I ask, wary. “It looks obscure and dirty. Are we turning into hobos?”
He smirks, the left corner of his mouth curling deviously. He says nothing, then guides me under the trellis. Remnants of summer roses leave behind thorns on the brownstone walls. He pricks his thumb dumb and blind and wounded on a briar. Inky black blood wells up, thick with the stains of zuhama. He leads me into the shadow of the buildings, far from the streets. Swollen clouds block out the sun, pregnant with the yetzer hara
Samael gently presses me against the bricks, his eyes glowing flame blue in the black, oceans away from their usual Mariana Trench indigo darkness. My nostrils flare at the smell of must and trash left out to rot. Moss has found a haven by my ankles on the wall.
Sam presses his thumb to my lips, smearing them ebony with his galaxy life force. My mouth parts in surprise, the salt and chocolate and wine taste of his blood on my tongue. I swallow it like candy and wonder what his seed must taste like, all thick with Original Sin and licorice damnation.
It is something I have refused to ever let pass my esophagus. Something I refuse to even see. Tasting him like that would be the point of no return, and make my damnation come round full circle. Better to lay down next to Death than to sleep eternally with him. His kiss is utter destruction, but his vittles are arcane, forbidden fruit one must not touch nor taste. To see the Angel of Death exposed as God made him would mean oblivion. My Tam Lin and I may tease at deeper lusts, but never set the kettle to boil. Instead, the dregs of wine blossom in the noonday Isaac sun, kissing, caressing, and when he tastes me below, my wing stains burn as if I am a phoenix.
“You are so strange,” I murmur, then laugh slightly. I bite his thumb to tease him.
“I know, but I’m yours,” he replies, leaning in as if to kiss me. Instead, he licks the blood from my lips with a serpent tongue and presses my wrists to the wall, trapping my hands. “I could paint you any color, and still, your lips would be bee-stung rubies underneath, pliant as the petals of a rose,” he breathes, his sinuous body pressed against me. His voice grows husky. “Tell me, Janet – underneath that red flesh, do winter berries grow in your frozen heart? What will it take to thaw you?”
I contemplate the question. I am dwarfed by his presence, like a tiny planet orbiting a star. I can’t resist his erotic pull, the inescapable gravity between us. But he is a cold star. I shiver under him.
“Nothing will melt me,” I say, laughing softly like an ewe. That is how it goes – if I give him even an inch, he will claim a mile. I cannot relent.
Not yet, anyways. I’m not cheap in the ways of love, not even with Red Samael the Seducer, as Cabell says in The Devil’s Own Dear Son.
“I can give you anything, Janet,” he says, voice rough. “Jewels, riches, talent, fame. I care not if you take other men to bed. Whatever captures your imagination shall be yours. All I want is your word: marry me, and I will give you the world.”
I spit back the blood at his face, suddenly flustered. “Never! God, you don’t relent. I’m barely an adult! The last thing on my mind is marriage and a queenship over fucking Hell.”
He laughs, wiping spittle from his cheek. “But you love me.” It is more of a question than a statement.
I cannot deny the twisted affection I have for him. He is a lungful of air ten leagues under the sea. The only thing that makes sense in this cold world.
“Love is a disease,” I say, toying. That is my favorite game, playing with him. Just as he plays with me.
“Everything is fatal. Why not gamble, peach princess?”
“Because I’ve never been lucky.”
“Fair point.” He lets me go and reaches into his pocket, withdrawing a cigarette. He spits sparks onto the end and lights it. “But a promise is a promise.” He takes a contemplative drag. “Your father said you would be mine. And so you are. The seven times three tithe to Hell.”
“What about my choice? Don’t I choose whom I belong to, hmm? Are you so centuries out of fashion feminism has yet to dawn on your archaic empire?”
He smirks again. “You chose a long time ago. In the womb. I came to your sleeping soul and made you an offer: your life for your father’s salvation. Like a dutiful daughter, you agreed. Also, I am Nachash, Hebrew for Shining Enchanter. Look what happened to Eve. She was a moth of a girl to my scintillating snakeskin. I am all bestial fire dragging twelve sisters down to Hell out of love for a wicked dance. How could you ever resist me? Admit it, I’m irresistible. Even to a bookish girl like you.”
I step away from him, crossing my arms. “Infant promises count for nothing, Sam. You’re beating a dead horse to death! I am yours to hold, but never have. At least give me some semblance of a choice.”
“And yet, the deal is binding. I have the contract in fetal blood, if you’re so inclined. That’s where you get your wing stains from, my love. The blood of the covenant is thicker than the waters of the womb, my dear.” He stamps his cigarette out on the icy ground.
“I don’t need to see a document full of lies,” I snap. “Stop pushing! You know I hate it when you push. Let me be a Millenial obsessed with self-aggrandizement in peace!”
He shrugs. “Alright then. Temperamental today, aren’t you? Surprising. I’m actually getting a response from my cold diamond.”
“I’m nobody’s jewel, to be set in silver or platinum and displayed like some gaudy fashion statement. I’m more moldavite, a meteor that crashes to Earth in fury. Don’t deny the impact my temper has, Sam Sam.”
He ignores me, opening his mouth to catch a snowflake on his obscenely long, prehensile forked tongue. It flicks out, like a serpent’s, collecting the falling white. “Mmm. The taste of the sky.”
“Are you even listening to me?” I ask, exasperated. “You hate Sam Sam.”
“Partially. I’m too distracted to curse you to oblivion over that heinous nickname. Say, shall we go ride camels in Morocco? Or explore Venice in a gondola? Paragliding in the Barrier Reef? Swimming in the Amazon? I have an ache for travel.”
“You’re always antsy, dragging me halfway across the world on a whim. No, I don’t want to. I want to go back to my flat and paint. You can pose for me or not, I do have some fruit fitting for a still life.”
His shoulders slump. “Please, Jean? Just a quick trip to the Mediterranean? Don’t you crave warm weather? I admit it, I’m a reptile – I need to bask in the sun to restore my vitality. That’s why I made Hell so hot.”
“No. I prefer the cold. I’m not a lizard like you, o great Dragon.”
He narrows his eyes. “You truly are a creature of winter. Born on the longest night of the year, with a heart made of stone. I’m surprised you don’t melt come spring. But just wait, I will melt you something yet.”
“Air conditioning is the key to my survival,” I say drily. I turn from him, marching out of the alley, pissed at his outdated commitment to the institute of marriage. He follows like a shadow. He might as well be wearing a tuxedo bearing a wedding band. Devoted as the Sword of Damocles ready to slice off my head on the guillotine of holy matrimony.
I hail a cab. A gruff driver stops.
“Where to?” he asks.
“The Rimbaud Building on Rue Merlebleu,” I answer.
“Ah,” the driver snorts. “That place.”
I bristle at the driver’s judgment but say nothing. True, it’s hipster beyond belief, but it fits my aesthetic, Instagram be damned. Samael settles into the seat beside me. He casually rests an arm over my shoulder, as if we are an idyllic couple caught in a winter storm. Not the king and future, if ever, queen of Hell arguing over a centuries outdated institution meant to control women. He doesn’t even have a last name I could take. Jean Doe.
We drive past the Arc de Triomphe. Snow drapes the ground like a fur coat.
“Here you go,” the driver huffs, turning onto sleepy Rue Merlebleu. He eyes the Rimbaud Building skeptically, with its Gothic architecture and converted cathedral appearance. The driver mutters under his breath, depositing us on the cobblestone sidewalk.
Sam helps me out of the taxi with long, muscled arms. We make our way to the elevator, all gold metal, with painted cherubs on the ceiling. He smiles at the angels in a predatory fashion.
“So,” he asks, “what is the subject of today’s royal masterpiece?”
The elevator dings and the doors open. We walk down the narrow hallway, each door painted with stanzas of French poetry by Verlaine. Ironic, as he shot Rimbaud in a lover’s quarrel, but that’s kind of the whole French hipster point. The airy views are in stained glass from the Rimbaud Building’s cathedral backstory. It’s more artist commune now, and there are creative spaces and workshops where us poets, painters, and writers can collaborate in artistic harmony.
“A still life,” I answer, “you’re too antsy today, my love.” We arrive at my flat – I unlock the door with my old iron key. The lock clicks and we enter.
Sam settles on the antique leather couch in my living room and pulls out The Picture of Dorian Gray from his messenger bag. I go to the kitchen and select some ripened fruit from the fridge – a pomegranate, apple, and grapes – and arrange them in a glazed russet bowl. I grab a loaf of bread and fetch some eggs, then arrange the food on a black walnut table in the living room. Sam nods approvingly as I set up my easel and paints. I smear the paints onto my easel and dab a brush in, making broad strokes for a green underlayer.
“I love the way you paint,” he sighs. “It’s so delicate, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing.”
“I don’t paint for you,” I say. My words bounce off the robin’s egg blue walls. “And remember, I’m a wasp, not a butterfly or a damn useless moth. I sting.
“I didn’t mean that. You are your own creature. I am merely here at your disposal. Don’t you know that, Janet?” He closes his book and rises. The book shakes in his grasp. “All I want is your happiness.”
“All you want is my hand,” I snort. “That, and for me to rule a kingdom at the tender age of 21. Ix nay on that, Beast.”
“Your hand?” Sam draws closer, stroking my shoulder. “In marriage? Yes. But also your joy. And in the true End of Days, just your fingers to interlace with mine and hold for all my days.” His face is earnest, his cruel features softened.
I set my paint down, turning to him. “I am betrothed to you because the universe demands it. I’m with you because I love you. But I will never be more. This arrangement will be the longest engagement you have ever known. Marriage is for WASPs, not actual wasp girls.”
He grins, sly. “I’m the Grim Reaper. I can wait. And time has stopped for you. You aren’t growing any older.”
I sigh, weary, reminded of the burden of my immortality. “You had to remind me,” I whisper.
Anger rises in me. He just keeps damn pushing, like a broken record. “No you’re not!” I snap. “You don’t care about me.” I swat his hand away. “All you care for is what I am! Your perfect china doll you’ve stowed away in the attic next to a hammer for the day you feel like smashing it. But you’ve forgotten something: that doll is adamantine. That doll cannot break.”
His eyes flash. “You are the thing I hold dearest, Janet. My finest creation. Of course you are indestructible.”
“Then why do you want to break me, if you know you can’t?” I whisper, almost crying. Emotions I like to suppress suddenly bubble over. I hate to lose my cool, but I’m doing it anyways.
He leans close to me, murmuring into my ear. “Because everyone delights in pressuring coal into diamonds.”
And like that, he lets me go, returning to the couch, absorbed in his book. I sigh, shake his venom off, then return to painting. I paint all the fruit displayed as rotting. There are little violet-black flies on their skin on my wet easel.
Night settles into the city like a nesting cat. Hours pass, the painting is finished, and Sam yawns, rousing me from my reverie. I blink, considering the canvas. A photorealistic rendition of the still life dries before me. That, besides the gangrene of the fruit.
He whistles low. “Nice. I’m hanging that in my office, if you’ll allow me. Very morbid. Kind of like my soul?”
I set to cleaning my brushes in the kitchen. “Whatever, your soul is more just a black hole,” I call. My stomach turns in hunger. “Ugh. I’m starving!”
Sam peeks his head into the small kitchenette. His black hair is mussed from the pillow. I have the instinct to smooth it but quash the impulse. His gaze is dreamy. “Dinner…” he echoes, looking like a lost boy from Peter Pan. That’s the thing about his face: it’s ageless, but can seem extremely young or infinitely old, depending on his mood. “Let’s go home, Janet. Back to Pandemonium. We can go to Pandemonium for supper.”
“This is my home. A hipster artist’s collective in the middle of Paris. Or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania if I’m feeling my roots.
His nose curls. “This is not your home. Your home is Hell now. My palace. This is just a place to while away the hours. A place I bought on a whim.”
I narrow my eyes. “Hell will never be my home. It’s always summer. Do you know what that does to my complexion? I have to moisturize constantly.”
He exhales heavily. “Whatever you say,” he says, tired, that dreaminess still about him.
My stomach rumbles again. I clutch it, embarrassed. Sam smiles.
“Ready to leave?” he asks.
“Wait. Let me change. You’re the one that demanded Mulciber make the entirety of Pandemonium hot.”
I go back to my room and select a scarlet sundress from the closet and strappy gold wedge heels. It’s always hot in Pandemonium, the heart of Hell. Some of the lower circles get colder, down to the icy heart where Samael likes to take his ice baths and chew on sinners as toothpicks or whatever. I don the dress. “Can you zip me up?” I call.
“Of course.” Sam enters my room. He obliges, his touch cool at the small of my back. He traces my shoulder blade, his fingers gentle, and runs his hand up to the crook of my neck. I turn to face him, blushing.
“Don’t do that,” I say. “You’re turning me on, idiot.”
“What?” He smiles like a cherub with a toothache, then cups my breasts and massages them.
I moan, then remember my hunger, and dash his hands away. “Let your hands linger on me. I need personal space, hah!”
He nods, sticking his tongue out. “Of course you do. My apologies.”
I falter. “Don’t think…”
“What?” he asks, confused.
“Don’t think I don’t like it, though,” I mutter. “I’m just… frustrated. With the whole marriage thing.”
“You’re always frustrated, dear. Your temper is legendary. Other demons quake at the mere mention of it.” He smiles slightly. “I remember when you were little, and you would build block towers. You would stack them so tall, taller than your head, and then be furious when they weren’t perfectly aligned, or they fell. I would have to rebuild them. You are a perfectionist and demand the best in yourself and others.”
“I am, huh?” I echo. “Well, being a perfectionist is a bitch. My expectations are never met. Look at my life, Sam: it’s in ruins. A starving artist with an expensive college degree. No one will exhibit my artwork, on Earth anyways, your office be damned. My career as a painter is frozen like the lowest circle of Hell.”
“No, Janet,” he says, voice fierce. “Your life has only just begun. Paint what you want. In truth, you are my queen. You belong by my side ruling with me, my tithe.”
I cross my arms and draw away from him, feeling suddenly cold. “You’ve caged me,” I murmur. “Clipped my wings. How can I be myself when I am so entwined in you? How can you say my life has begun when everyone I loved is dead and my friends have forgotten me through your magic?”
I shiver. He sighs, takes his blazer off and drapes it over my shoulders. “The answer will come in time,” he says, cryptic. “And not everyone you love is dead- you have me.” His eyes are almost pleading, searching for some sign, any sign, of affection in my face.
“You like your girls weak and reliant on you, don’t you?” I ask, my inner stone walls flaring up to block intimacy.
“You are my only girl,” he hisses. He closes the distance between us and embraces me. I stand rigid, unyielding. “Now let’s get away from these paint fumes and fill our stomachs, eh?”
“I won’t bend to your will, dear Samael. Ever. I have no head for infernal politics.”
“It’s just dinner, Jean.”
My stomach roils. He laughs at the sound, smoothing my midriff fondly. I blush at his affectionate touch.
“Let’s feed the beast,” he whispers, his breath tickling my ear. And like that, the world spins around us, bending to his arcane will, and the fairy realm swells up like a pregnant sow. I instinctively grab him to steady myself, out of breath as I watch darkness envelop us in its womb. The thick tomb is like suckling at the breasts of a rampaging black boar, and I lose my throat in the black milk, coughing until doom.
Gasping, I land on the cobblestone streets of Pandemonium, Hell’s capital city. Samael’s arms are wrapped tight around me. I pull away and gather myself, smoothing the skirt of my dress. He looks at me with longing and reaches out to tuck a stray lock of hair behind my ear. I blush.
He is dressed in severe black robes, the traditional attire of the Grim Reaper. Cool tendrils of the hem of his robe snake out to skirt my ankles, as if in affection. It is a garment of living darkness, ebony as spilled ink. I step on the tendrils, squashing them with enthusiasm. They spring up hissing and new. Samael laughs low.
“Your defiance is amusing,” he says quietly.
“You find everything entertaining,” I counter. I stomp another snake. It squeaks and deflates. “This is as addicting as crunching leaves.”
“You have to find everything amusing, when you’re immortal. Otherwise things become very boring, very fast. Eternity is an extensive time to be bored.” The snake inflates again and wraps around my ankle, then kisses it. I laugh and shake it off.
Pandemonium’s citizens form a wide berth around us, instinctively avoiding Samael. As one of the seven princes of Hell and chief of Satans, he ranks above all others, and the demons can feel the power washing off him in waves. As a human, I have no such sixth sense, but even I find his presence intimidating. It is almost over 21 years that I have grown accustomed to standing in Samael’s immense shadow. My wing stains stretch, and I can feel the impressionistic feather strokes expanding to my forearms.
My stomach rumbles again. I clutch it, wincing. Samael snickers. “Come, Jean.” He extends his hand. “Let’s get a bite to eat.”
I do not take his offered palm. Instead, I turn from him, knowing full well he will follow like a shadow. I giggle. He sighs, gliding after me, leaving no footsteps in my wake. His ‘walk’ is an illusion put on for my sake, to make me feel as if he is not some Lovecraftian entity underneath his illusion of skin. Full of eyes, ells tall, burning and bleeding out despair. I know that pale, milky flesh masks horrors the void birthed.
I have seen him below freezing on a glass throne in the lowest circle, ice for bones, choked on regret in seas of blossoming red. The blood of the Damned as succor, the mutilated limbs of corpses his font. He is the abyss, pain, the severity of God. How the hell could a thing like that love? How the hell could a beast like him have a heart?
And yet he does, and I covet the Beast. I will have all of him in due time, but it will be on my watch, at my say, not his.
An open-air market surrounds us, wedged between the looming buildings of the street. Gray and black stone dominates, and the pale evening sun picks up the rich reds and yellows of the market tents. Fairytale spices scent the air, and everything is for sale: wishes, desires, sex, violence and hearts. Raw sounds echo from fighting rings as onlookers place bets on mythic creatures egged on by matadors. Vendors try and catch my eye, calling out as they offer firebird feathers and golden apples. Goblin fruit glitters under the early stars on the dusky purple horizon.
Strange love makings are enacted in alleys and demonic passion plays block intersections. There are sellers of souls, dealers in death, and strange drugs that can bear a man away on the whimsy of dreams. Above all, there is dancing, a chaotic frenzy as the night market comes alive with music from all quarters of the city. It truly is pandemonium. I weave my way in between dancers, keeping my eyes open for restaurants and food stalls, taking in the strange twists on ethnic cuisine. Samael laughs quietly at different distractions.
He puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Look. Pomegranate sweet wine, fresh from Hades’ groves. You must try some. Persephone lost her heart to Hades over it. It wasn’t six seeds she ate as the myths lead one to think: it was six sips of this intoxicating aphrodisiac that convinced her to stay in the underworld. Vintage of Hades was always sweet, not full of wrath like Up Above.”
“Aphrodisiac?” I ask, skeptical. I rib him. Pest.
Samael grins like the Devil he is. His smile could break bones. “Yes,” he says, quiet. He silently glides over to the vendor and pulls ancient coins out of his pocket and hands them over to the stocky demon. The demon smiles, the corners of his mouth reaching his ears, baring multifold rows of shark teeth. Combined with his pupiless gray eyes, the smile has a ghastly effect. The vendor hands over a bottle of rosy wine. Samael takes it and bids him good night, putting the bottle into his depthless pocket.
“Anything for your majesty and his lady, Prince Samael,” the vendor says, bowing deeply. I scoff at the display of fealty.
“Is that really necessary?” I ask him as we walk away. “For them to treat you like royalty?” I shake my head. “Hell is so backwards.”
“Tradition is sacred here, Janet,” he explains. “Look around you, at the dancers and music, at the wares and goods from all realms. We hail from all over the otherworlds. The fallen of all ages. It is tradition that binds demon kind together and unites us. These are the children of a third of heaven and spirits from all cultures. All walks of life find refuge in Hell.”
“I wouldn’t call it a refuge. It’s Hell. More of a holding pen until the End Times. Or a cesspool of wayward souls that got the short stick in the pile.”
Samael shrugs. “One man’s Heaven is another one’s Gehenna.”
I look down at the cobblestones, my eyes weary. “I’ll never find peace here. It’s not home…”
Samael loops an arm around my shoulders, his cool robe extending to cover me in its comforting darkness like a security blanket from childhood. It is like being enveloped by a bat’s wing, all silky sweet and warm.
“Find some peace in me?” he says softly, leaning against me. I sigh, yielding to his suggestion. I close my eyes, allowing myself a minute of silence in these bustling streets. But just as soon as I close them, I collect myself, pulling away.
“Impossible,” I say, my voice fiery. “I haven’t had dinner yet.”
Samael’s blue sea glass eyes shimmer. “I wish you would learn to trust me,” he whispers, regretful. He smooths the hem of his sleeve and sighs.
“The only thing I trust you to do is prey upon me,” I say over my shoulder, walking off at a fast pace. “Oh, Janet, your hand in marriage! Oh, Janet, rule with me! Oh, Janet, my sweet tithe, sign a fetal contract in blood!”
He narrows his eyes. “I do no such thing,” he says, following.
“You want to wound me. To bleed me dry, until I am a husk of myself,” I challenge. I’m toying with him again, I admit it, but I can’t help it. It’s so, well, tempting, his apples be damned.
Samael blocks me, his breaths heavy, cornering me against the side of a building.
“You don’t mean that.” Without warning, he spears his tongue into my mouth and near devours me. Sucking, licking, biting, pushing my hands above my head and locking them in his grasp. I moan, wrapping around him with my hips as his wings envelop me, white and spackled gray feathers unsullied by the ages warm where he is cold. My own port wine stain wings blossom in response, and I run a ragged hand through his hair. I love him, I love him, I love my Tam Lin, though he be the death of me.
I sigh as I break away, his black venom saliva a string on my lips. I lick it. He growls.
“Come back to my embrace, you damn woman.”
Suddenly, I am exhausted. “I’m not fooled by your gestures, Samael,” I say, not meeting his gaze. It is a weary dance we have performed countless times. I make an accusation of truth, he tries to convince me I don’t mean it, then lures me further into his web of lies. I tire of it, sometimes. “The wine-buying, the trips to Andalusia, Tunisia, Brazil, New Zealand, Rome, granting my every wish: it’s all a plot to keep me complacent and blind to your intentions. Like a fat cow fed on sweet grasses, only to be lulled into trust and led by her master to slaughter. I’m no more than a prized heifer you’re keeping around until you grow hungry, milking me dry until the hour of my departure and the meat factory calls.”
Samael’s face grows shadowed. He smiles an empty smile. “When you put it like that, it sounds almost true. I do wish to tuck you away in safe pastures and shelter you from the world, taking from you what you’ll allow. But I can’t. To do so would be a lie.”
“Take from me what I’ll allow?” I scoff. “I allow nothing. None of this was my choice!” I grind the heel of my gold wedge sandal into the ground. “Fuck, I need a drink. Take me to a bar. Now.”
Samael bows. “As you wish.” He offers his hand to me. I grab it with a vengeance. I stomp away, trying to drag him after me, but just end up having Samael glide effortlessly by my side.
“Walking a bit fast, are you?” he teases.
“Talking unnecessarily, aren’t you?” I snap.
He sighs. “Fine, if you want my silence, you only have to ask.”
I round a corner and storm into a seedy bar, my flowing red dress a war flag warning sign of my wasp queen stinger. There are low wolf-whistles from several low-born demon men, who immediately choke on their cat calls when they see Samael enter after me. He glares at them but says nothing.
Samael speaks: “We can have the wine I bought-”
“No.” I stake a seat at the bar. “Double vodka on the rocks,” I tell the bartender, a wolfish demon with yellow eyes. He nods and fixes the drink. Samael asks for a fluted glass and pours the pomegranate wine. He swirls it and brings it to his lips, savoring the rosy liquid. I down my drink in one gulp and slam it on the table in challenge. “Another!” I say. The bartender obliges.
I drink until my tongue is numb and the world is a blur around me. A hot buzz builds in my stomach and spreads like fire to my limbs. All I feel is rage, rage at him, at my condition, at my celestial cage. Samael lights a cigarette and smokes it contemplatively. There are deep bruising bags under his eyes, and his cheekbones are painfully prominent. I reach out to touch his face and trace the jutting bone.
“I could cut my finger on your face,” I sneer. “There’s nothing about you that’s not sharp places and shards of glass.”
He has finished the entire bottle of wine. He takes my hand drunkenly and kisses it sloppily. “Let’s get out of here. Back to my palace. To the courtyard in my quarters. The cherry trees blossom so beautifully there, like the pink blush on your cheeks, and the water falls from the fountain like your hair-”
“No,” I cut him off, drunk as well. I stand, only to be caught off-kilter as everything shifts. Samael rises to catch me. “Fuck!’
“You can’t walk, can you?” he laughs quietly.
“I don’t need your help!” He lets me go. I trip and curse. Everything swirls around me. “Damn it,” I say, bitter.
He helps me up. “I’m carrying you, Jean. Don’t struggle.”
“No! That’s humiliating!” I yell, a loud maudlin. He does so anyway, lifting me up gently. His robes snake around me to stabilize me, and he folds his sooty owl wings to shepherd me away from the public’s eyes. I flail about, too disoriented to put up a united front, and end up with a mouthful of owl feathers.
“What did you think would happen, pounding back all those drinks?” Samael says, his voice dry. He carries me out of the bar and further into the dusky hubbub of the streets. “You don’t have a demon’s temperament for alcohol, and you’ve never been able to hold your liquor.”
“It’s called drowning your sorrows, asshat. Alcohol is my crutch. The problem is you. Let me go.”
“If I do, you’ll fall again.”
“I’d rather fall than be carried by you.”
Despite my protests, he keeps me aloft, gliding like an omen through the streets. His robes are cold against my cheek, so eternally cold like his skin, just like the grave of his flesh. It is almost comforting in the summer heat of Hell. I relax, mind hazy under a bower of owl wings and inky black void, hating myself for enjoying being in his arms.
That is the problem that killed Schrodinger’s cat: I crave closeness from Samael, but I abhor him. He is the only thing that comes close to a family member anymore, and I hate him for it. I feel like a hothouse flower lovingly tended in solitude, kept separate from the rest of the plants. Just look at how his wings and arms and cloak chain me!
I love him beyond all words, but in the end, he is my ruin. The trap of eternal matrimony. A throne I don’t want. In the penultimate sense, responsibility for a whole race. This is nothing I had ever asked for, and the question remains, why me? Why did he choose me as his tithe? Has this ever happened before? Am I the first girl to dance in the Devil’s red shoes down to the bone of her soul or have others, hundreds of others, failed before me as tithes to Hell? What, oh what, will it take to win my freedom?
“You’re finally quiet,” he murmurs, ascending the great steps that lead to his imposing palace gates. He brushes back some flaxen baby hair from my brow. Samael’s palace is set miles back through the Screaming Hollow forest and rises over the trees in needle spires. The towers pierce the sky like arrows, obsidian black, reflecting the moonlight and stars.
I cannot help but think his sorcerous keep a thing of wicked beauty – it is the very essence of dark fairy tales, like beads of blood on angels’ lips. The scent of flowers hangs heavy on the air, and as the gates clang open, the aroma of a fallen paradise rushes past the castle walls, flooding the streets. Some memory of Eden haunts the gardens through which he ferries me. The trees grow tall and twisted, hung with emerald leaves and ruby fruits, and they whisper in the wind: I can almost make out their voices through my intoxicated haze.
Samael nods to the guards at the entrance and enters the palace. The Hellopolis and central focus of Hell’s courts, as Samael is crown prince of Hell, and the focal point of his halls is the fulcrum around which all infernal politics revolve.
The Hellopolis is an exotic blend of Grecian and Gothic architecture, with looming caryatids and long barrel-vaulted ceilings. The stone is alive, carved with gargoyles and fantastic beings. A marble manticore roars before me, but its voice is silent, for stone tells no tales.
The halls are quiet save for the strains of a violin from some distant room. Attendants and staff members from the arcane hierarchy of Hell pace the corridors, greeting Samael with familiarity. They look at me regretfully, as if I am a disgrace. No one much approves in Samael keeping me around, as long as I eschew my queenly duties as the tithe. I flip them the bird and fix them with a killing glare. Samael laughs off my rudeness. I give him a withering glance.
“I hate your associates. They hate me. Why do you even bother bringing me here?” I sigh. “I’m never happy in Hell. Here, I’m not free. On Earth, I don’t have chains. They hate me because I am a caged bird.”
“They don’t hate you, Janet.”
“God, I feel awful,” I moan, rubbing my temple. My other arm hangs limp by my side. “Why did you let me drink so much?”
“As if I could have stopped you. Better to let you settle your disputes with alcohol on your own turf and terms.” He enters the narrow, tapestry draped corridor that leads to his quarters. The ceiling is painted with constellations.
“You’re an enabler, Sam. It was your money that paid for the drinks. Doesn’t that make you the least bit responsible?”
Samael half-smiles. “When you put it that way, I suppose so. What can I say? You’re easier to deal with intoxicated.”
“I resent that, asshat.”
We reach the end of the hall. Samael utters a word in demonic speech and the great mahogany doors before us open. He enters the spacious personal library that fronts his quarters. Great windows peer out onto the moonlit courtyard that is surrounded by his rooms. The shelves rise dozens of stories into the air, built for winged beings, with narrow decks at each level that run the length of the library. Samael was thoughtful enough to install stairs for my use, seeing as I lack the necessary anatomy to fly between shelves. The library is one of the few treasures I now have, filled with books that span the ages and worlds. Classic human novels and new books line the bottom shelves, within easy reach for me. After human writers die, in Heaven, it’s said they continue writing even greater masterpieces, so books that never tasted mortal tongues are here – there are also a few damned romance novelists to boot. And of course, endless spell books.
He’s even included mysteries and psychological thrillers by my favorite authors, a kind afterthought. But there’s more: living grimoires, erotica by demons that may well be written by Cenobites, and people’s wickedest sins recorded like the Screwtape Letters littering the place galore. There are the life records and deeds of every Damned in Hell, recorded in lurid detail by Penemue, the fallen angel of writing.
He notices me look longingly at the books. “Shall we read?” he asks. “We can devour books on a blanket, out under the stars.”
I shake my head no. “I’m too drunk to read – my eyes wouldn’t be able to focus. The words would blur. Read to me instead, my demaniac.”
Samael laughs softly. “You really did a number on yourself. Perhaps I can read to you? My Father used to…” He peters off, a raw look touching his face as he remembers his heavenly Father.
“He what?” I ask.
“He told the most fantastical stories to my brothers and I. What you would call folktales.” Samael comes to my favorite wingback leather couch and deposits me there, smoothing a blanket over me. I snuggle into it, a pounding headache bearing down on my skull. I cringe.
“I shouldn’t have drunk on an empty stomach,” I say. “We never had dinner…”
“I’ll cook. Something light. Breakfast food. I know you love breakfast for dinner.”
“Yay,” I sigh, head pounding. I groan. “Ugh. Why is vodka in Hell so heavy?”
“Everything is richer here. I’ll be back. I’m making French toast.” Samael glides off, glancing back over his shoulder at me fondly. I roll over, avoiding his gaze, and close my eyes and groan, trying to make the headache lessen as I massage the side of my head. Flashes of color burst against my closed eyelids. Restless, sleep eludes me, and I realize regretfully that no quick nap will be had. Instead, I rise, determined to read, my flagging vision be damned.
I choose a Stephen King paperback – Salem’s Lot – from the lower shelves and struggle to decipher the pages, my curvy body sinking into the cushy couch. I’ve always been more size 12 than two, and look like those dumb pictures of Eve – soft sloping stomach, pert breasts, and hips for days. The words of my chosen book all turn up like mush. The leather smells like the cigars Samael smokes, the spice of his orange and musk cologne, and rain. It smells like him. I close my eyes, inhaling the scent. Memories of him from my childhood haunt me, the man cloaked in shadow, the owner of my soul.
The trauma of his words stretch across my mind: “How I will delight in breaking you.”
I let out a soft cry, tears forming in my eyes. Here, in solitude, I can give in to the empty ache within me and cry over the childhood I never had, over the life I never will possess. I blot at my tears, cursing them.
“Janet?” Samael asks with concern, suddenly materializing at my side with a plateful of French toast. He catches the wet rivulets on my face. The plate wobbles in his hands and he nearly drops it as he hurries to sit beside me. The syrup slides around.
“Go away!” I sniff, not meeting his gaze. I hate this sign of weakness I’m exhibiting, the admittance that I feel pain. Any pain at all goes against my wiring, of keeping my father together, of raising myself in darkness in the clutches of Death. After my father died, many times, I just feel empty.
“No,” he says, his voice fierce. He gathers me in his arm, wrapping the blanket tight around me, and wipes the tears from my cheek. “I refuse to let you ever cry alone. What kind of monster do you think I am?”
“The kind with sharp fangs,” I say, my voice uneven.
“Janet, I will never harm you. I say many things I don’t mean. It’s the poetry of the fallen, inherent to my nature as fey, other, a sorcerer king. But to lay a finger on you would be a cardinal sin. You have to know that.” His eyes implore.
“All I know is that you want to break me,” I say.
He bites his lip. “That was… a poor metaphor.”
“That’s a sad excuse for a justification!” I pound his chest in anger. He recoils at the display of violence, shocked. “How does that feel, Sam? Can you feel your heart dislodge under your ribs?” I punch him again. Again. “Can you feel it break? Like you broke me!” He lets me hit him hard with a volley of right and left hooks. I sob, bruising my knuckles, punching until I have spent every last ounce of energy and I collapse in his lap. I weep, an ugly crying with snot and gasps like a dying man. Samael rocks me, crying himself, a low, raw sound.
“I break every time I look at you. What have I done?” he laments. “What have I done to your soul?”
I can’t take his question. His guilt. As if I can explain his madness! I stumble to my feet, distancing myself from him. I can’t breathe in the same room as Samael. I trip over my feet, out into the courtyard. The fresh air floods into my lungs. I sputter, my body wracked with sobs. I am finally doing it. Breaking. For the first time since my father’s death, I am crying. Something I promised I would never do in Samael’s clutches. I sink onto a stone bench and watch the heartbreakingly beautiful fountain stream water into the air. It is in the shape of a gorgeous woman pouring water over herself from an amphora. She is as curvaceous as me, ample-bosomed, derriere like the doublet of two moons. I focus on her, and only her. She calms me.
The glass door onto the patio opens. Samael approaches cautiously, bearing a plate of French toast as an offering. Tears still shine in his eyes. “I… well, you must be hungry. Jean.”
I shrug. “Maybe.” I make no withering comment, my olive branch to him.
I eat the French toast in silence, dipping it in the maple syrup that is pooled on the plate. It feels good to have something in my stomach – I hadn’t realized how empty it was until now. Samael watches me from a respectful distance, sitting on another stone bench in the shadow of a blooming cherry tree.
“It’s really good,” I acknowledge. “The food.”
He nods but says nothing.
A breeze picks up, spreading the cherry blossom petals like rice thrown at a wedding. Samael catches a handful idly, crushing them between his fingers. I cringe at his act of destruction. He winces at my reaction and discards the pulp.
“I didn’t mean…” he trails off.
“I know,” I say, too quick. I chew my upper lip, cheeks burning. I am embarrassed for my show of weakness and even more for lashing out with violence. “I- I shouldn’t have hit you.”
Cricket chirps and the gentle buzz of cicadas stretch in the silence between us. Fireflies light the air like will-o’-the-wisps.
“I – I wouldn’t mind if you told me a story,” I say.
Samael looks at me in confusion. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Like you did when I was young.”
He smiles tentatively. “If you’re sure…”
He rises, coming to sit beside me. He drapes his cloak over my shoulders to keep me warm.
“Thank you,” I say.
“It’s nothing. Shall I – do you want me to begin?”
He does. The tales spill from his tongue like jewels. I fall asleep somewhere in the space between his words, leaning against him, only fully trusting of his plans for me in sweet black slumber.