Illustrated by J. Michael Walker
It had gotten boring, hadn’t it? The touring back and forth of the misguided families who wound their way over to the river by accident, calling up on the callbox, crying and crying. Ole Skelly and me worked for the International Red Cross, and we got sent each time to take the families across the river of fire to the other bank where there were people’s items such as trees and a lake. And the families screamed at first when we rowed up but then were all grateful when dropped off and neither reaction—screaming nor gratitude really interested me or old Skelly.
What we were into was the row part, me having been rejected from Devil Crew, long ago, when I was trying out the college route which never worked for me. I couldn’t focus on the books, I was too interested in all the butts of all the Devil ladies. Who all then went on to get regular jobs, and call me a bum. When really I have a good job and I work for a good and useful organization, called the International Red Cross. Skelly herself never went to school, never wanted to row, but she had good coordination, and she made a real good lead. She cut through water with precision.
And the families didn’t appreciate that either, just who was at the helm of their canoe, well none other than the best lead rower we ever saw. And there was lots of murder and pillaging to look at as they cut through the river, it was full of ghosts that way, the ghosts of all violence, sort of wrapped up in the fire flames, and everyone would scream. They scared the shit out of themselves in that manner.
The little boys would look close at my horns because they always kind of wanted them, I could tell. Though if they knew about the itching in the growing-in stage, they might reconsider. I will agree that they are very good-looking once finally grown in. Once a little girl asked old Skelly if she was ever a person with flesh and Skelly said sure, sure, and the girl burst into tears and said what happened? and Skelly said, it just got too heavy to carry around little girl. Too heavy, she said, to be anything but bones. And she smiled with those teeth and she did seem very feng shui, in her way. Very uncluttered a body in its way.
She’s a good person, ole Skelly. That time, when, while rowing, I had a panic attack, in thinking about my past and my inability to hold onto things. A job, a woman, a friend from the olden days, even my siblings who I have not heard from in years. We all grew up in the same one-room cabin, and sometimes that will drive you away from each other for the rest of your lives.
I was crying to myself about it all, as we were rowing to pick up another family and take them through their family crisis, and Skelly said, you’re a shepherd in your job, you have me as a friend, you will find a companion one of these days, and your cabin has three rooms now and only one person in them, and she looked at me hard from those big deep eye sockets. Stop being such an idiot devil, she said. And it relaxed me inside, what she said. I even rowed a little faster than usual. It’s not often that a devil is called a shepherd.
And then the day they gave us the uniforms? That was funny. We’d been proper naked, because usually a devil doesn’t wear much of clothing, and I do like to have all my business out there in the open, to tell you the honest truth. I like to check on my business when I can, just to make sure it’s there. And Skelly could care less, she’s just bones and then bones. But they sent us a package—we’ve never actually seen the employers, because they send us stuff from way over in Texas—but it was a package with First Class stamped all over it, and in it were these two very good fitting blue-gray uniforms with collars. Smart, aren’t they?
I personally do not enjoy the wearing of clothes, but Skelly looked so sharp and I wasn’t about to be the bum of the duo, the one who couldn’t summon up the wherewithal to put on some clothing like a professional rower should. And I think it does look good on me, and interacts with my tone and cheekbones, and it did change how the families viewed us, like the officiality of it all became clearer.
The families of course wear no clothes. They need to be birthed like babes on the other side. It’s in the contract. But Skelly liked the uniform so much that she wrote a letter to the employer saying hers had fallen into the river of fire by accident, and she needed a replacement, and she got one, which she used to wear on the weekends.
I was surprised she had lied, being that she is usually highly truthful, but she also has a mind for herself that way, in a good way, and knew that having two uniforms would improve her quality of life and therefore also improve her performance in the boat. Me, on weekends I am naked as I like, and I go to the devil bars and try to improve my scooping-up skills. I like the devil ladies a lot so I think I come on too strong. I like the devil men too. I like them all. I am working on restraint. That is Skelly’s lesson, for a devil like me. Restraint.
That’s what a down-to-business skeleton can teach a devilman. I am helpful to her, in terms of desires. She’s a little vague on those, a little lackluster. But for me, she is always telling me to hold onto my horses and I listen as best I can instead of always just jumping and jumping. I am trying, Skelly. We were paired up together for a reason.
So Restraint and Hunger, rowing a boat together. That’s us. I said at the top that it was boring but that’s not really true. If anything in my life has made sense to me, it’s this. On certain days, when the people are scarcer than usual, Skelly and I have a trick that we do.
I can get liquidy, especially if I throw myself into the fire. I can get all liquidy, like fire itself, just with a body shape. It’s a special devil skill, all devils have it. Anyway, once I did that, threw myself in the fire for a little swim, and in my liquid form I crawled back on the boat and climbed inside Skelly’s bones. We rowed amazing that day. It was an amazing day. I would do it more often except the employer has designated that the boat needs two, for liability reasons. But it was incredible. I felt like there was some kind of house around me, holding me. It was like love, I guess. And Skelly refers to it too, in her understated way. She tells me to do it again, but just not too often. She’s worried her bones will fry even though I try to explain to her that that is ridiculous, that the laws of physics do not apply in this landscape. That it’s love, happening, here, in this river of fire crazy canoe. The families are a side-dish. They go off to do their thing, families upon families, birthed like babes upon the shore, but we will row this back and forth for a long, long time.
I don’t mind. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I never would’ve guessed it, that the International Red Cross would have something for me too.
Me n ole Skelly. Rowin and rowin.
Rowin and rowin and rowin.
At first, they hired us for the kids’ birthday party. But the truth is, the kids didn’t like it, we were too realistic for the kids. The kids wanted a devil and skull that were almost real but on some level obviously not real, so that they could be spooked to a point and then unspook themselves; for example, they would’ve liked to glimpse the cap that the devil’s horns plugged into, just so they could see how it worked with the hair. Then they would pretend not to have seen the cap, and they would have been in charge of their own fear levels. But they could not see any cap with old Devilly, because of course the horns grew out of his actual head.
With the skeleton, me, they wanted to see how the light was so tricky it made my fleshliness melt away, but of course the light wasn’t tricky at all, was flat and badly made by the fluorescent lights of the office building where the party was held due to renting problems, and so the kids screamed and ran away and we invaded their minds without even intending to. What we wanted was not to overly scare them, but to make some extra cash, and what we received instead was no check, no cash, and a bunch of parents threatening to sue. That is, one parent had the balls to threaten to sue, when in fact, according to the legal principles that I understand, we would be the ones with a court case of some validity, because we would be the ones who got scrimped on our cash.
We showed up! We fulfilled the advertisement: Realistic Devil and Skeleton for Halloween Kids’ Parties. The fact that we actually ARE a devil and a skeleton is not something that is our fault, and in fact should make us charge higher prices anyway. Screw ‘em. People are nothing if not underappreciative.
So we went back to rowing. I was tired of the party circuit and Dev’ly was never that into the birthday gig anyway—due to the fact that he does not know his own birthday and always has experienced some jealousy about that—so he was glad, plus he never did as much rowing anyway.
He is sort of lazy, and you’d think he’d be tight in the muscles but he really isn’t and he sat in the back and chatted sometimes with the people we had to row over. He’s a perfect extrovert; I am the introvert of the two. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to the families even though sometimes they do try to engage me in conversation. They think they’re in Hell and they cry and cry, and when they see Devilly it’s even worse, even though he is just the evolutionary shape that belongs in this landscape. Usually, at the end, they are so flooded with relief that they’re not dead, that the kids aren’t dead, that no one is dead, that they give us a tip, which is useless for us, which we toss into the river, and then they go off and have a better family life for at least six months.
For me, it has been about the rowing back and forth. I have studied Zen Buddhism a little bit, and it seems that as a job, this is useful for me. I respond well to routine, and the river is extremely beautiful. A raging, active beauty. The reds and oranges are always shifting, and inside the curve of a wave you can sometimes glimpse that bright blue flame that one finds hovering about the wick of a candle. It is like rowing through the sunset, over and over.
Devilly complains about the arm aches, but complaining is part of his nature and I don’t mind. And sometimes I miss the birthday parties, the feeling of being on land, walking around like I used to so, so long ago, but there are too many things on land, it’s exceedingly distracting, and for me, there just isn’t a whole lot of room for the wanting of things anymore. Everything pretty much flows right through me now.
Bones are like that. On occasion, I do experience moments of great joy, when Devilly jumps inside me, and in those moments I am reminded of the best of what it meant to be a full human. The giant mind and alertness of heart. But I have to set limits. It can muddle the thinking sometimes, that kind of glory, and I am grateful for the general clarity I have at this stage of my life. The fire and the river and the rowing are my guides, and they are steady enough to let me have those moments, now and again, of the liquid devil inside me. And how bright the world is then! How electric!
Me and Dev’ly. Rowin and rowin.
Rowin and rowin and rowin.
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