Bitumen wandered the city sprawl delighting in the polluted nature of it, the strangely symbiotic relationship between the concrete jungle that came to replace the ancient woods, and the flora and fauna that had adapted under the duress of humanity’s blunders under the flag of progress.
Grimy, raggedy and very much malodorous, Bitumen did his name justice. His appearance at first was that of a beggar, a hobo, a homeless person, wandering the streets scavenging for refuse and scraps. Most people don’t look twice at a beggar or one resembling the stereotype, so no one ever really noticed anything amiss with him, with his anatomy.
He was a manner of shaman, a channeler of what would have once been the ancient forest, but now flourished in the asphalt and iron, the concrete and smog. A druid, some would have called him centuries ago, a naturalist, even. He was all that and more.
Being a creature in tune with the urban foresta, Bitumen had undergone changes becoming of one who was one with the city, the jungle of it. His body had transmuted its flesh from meat – fallible and wanton – to bark and concrete, a strange marriage unlike any seen before. His bones had grown hollow, from which marrow formed strange insects, vermin, preternatural versions of their naturally occurring counterparts. Such totemic creatures would exit through strange orifices which had opened around various parts of Bitumen’s body, openings resembled the hollowed-out fleshy cavern left by the draining of a large pustule. They were as his children, his to command, and they ran rampant throughout the city, watching, listening, keeping him abreast of tidings big and small. He was the first and so far only one of his kind, and he was so thanks to the blessing of The Anchorite.
His patron, his priest, his god; The Anchorite was the man who had shown him the truth of nature, how all adapted and, despite what much of humanity thought of as the destruction of the natural order, the expansion of the species and its bent on changing the geography in its advance was simply that, a transformation of nature into a different state.
Having been a young runaway of no more than 16 years of age, Bitumen shed his name and became something else, something greater than himself as an individual. He became the herald of The Anchorite, thus named because it cannot leave the little realm it calls its home.
A strange cockroach approached the area where Bitumen was sitting, a dirty alley strewn with garbage heaps. It scuttled imperceptibly across the dirty, oily rags that covered its master’s misshapen body, climbed up the large beard that reached down to his belly, crawled over to the bald, tattoo-and-grime laden head and stopped, its antennae moving frantically.
“Thank you, my bone-child,“ he said quietly, almost a whisper, and he stood up. He ambled deeper into the alley, hobbling, walking with a semi-colon gait product of the rigidity of his bark-and-concrete afflictions, the changes in his physiognomy. He appeared to melt into the brick wall at the deep end of the alley and was no longer there.
Picking an instrument for his art was always something that required meticulous consideration, attention to detail and a knack for seeing a few steps ahead of what manner of reaction – physical and otherwise – a tool might elicit from his raw material. Elliot wasn’t about to just inflict another rage-fueled session on his prize, who sat inside a metal and leather contraption, blindfolded and gaged with what would at other times pass for a sexual toy consisting of a red rubber ball and an elastic band attacked to each opposite end of the ball, used to fasten the ball to the submissive’s head.
Even now, nearly six months removed from the day he chose Matusal Xul as his next target, he could scarcely believe his extraordinary fortune. At first finding nothing particularly special aside from a certain magnetism exuded by Matusal, whose middle-eastern features, while not particularly agreeable, did possess a certain elegance that might do for attractiveness. Indeed, nothing other than that almost psychic beacon was remarkable; just another well-to-do man at a charity fundraiser, newly migrated to the U.S. from Palestinia, where he was some sort of independent entrepreneur, nothing of note.
In the days Elliot spent surveying his quarry he noticed some eccentricities that just added to the magnetism, the allure, but he paid them no mind. Matusal Xul’s apparent interests were heavily focused on archeology, alternative history, and fringe topics especially touching on the topic of immortality and mythical races reputed to have possessed remarkable longevity.
It wasn’t until he actually sequestered him, took him to his hangar-turned-metalworker’s garage, and visited a series of horrors Satan himself would blush at that he found out the man’s secret.
After killing him, having slit Matusal Xul’s throat as the finishing touch to an evening of most intimate suffering, Elliot left the body still restrained for a few hours. As there was no danger of the reclusive man’s disappearance becoming known soon, and having taken utmost care in leaving no evidence of his involvement in the crime, he could busy himself with other more mundane matters such as the commissioned metal works he produced as a front and somewhat tamer hobby. Upon his return to the armature where the corpse was housed, the restraints still fastened, to his immense surprise he found that Matusal Xul was, against all probability, alive once more. More astounding even was the fact that his throat and all the other transgressions visited on his flesh were fully healed.
Being a reasonable thinker despite his penchant for torture, Elliot took a screwdriver from his utility belt and jammed it straight into Matusal’s right eye. Perhaps he hadn’t quite cut the man deeply enough, he thought, his mind grasping at every possible rationalization of the amazing event he had been witness to despite the fact that even such straws of rationale broke every natural law themselves.
After a few seconds of convulsing against the thrust of the screwdriver, blood streaming down Matusal’s face, leaving the tool inserted in the man’s newly inert flesh, Elliot removed his think protective gloves and fished a pack of cigarettes from his belt. Lighting one up with a lighter, he put both away back in the belt and sat down on a metallic chair a few feet away from the armature and its gored guest.
An hour passed and in that time the screwdriver slowly extracted itself from Matusal’s eye-socket, the flesh healing and rejecting the foreign object until it fell to the concrete floor. Watching patiently, chain-smoking through the pack, he saw life progressively return to his quarry who spasmed into wakefulness, eyes blinking, one through caked blood.
Smiling with both elation and satisfaction, he put the cigarette out on the sole of his boot and stood up. Here was a prize unlike any other. Elliot Cummins had hit the jackpot.
For untold eternities he had endured. For vast gulfs of time he had be subjected to such demeaning and base horror and pain that he wondered if the great martyrs of history could ever have compared their plight to his.
Matusal Xul was 107 years old but he didn’t look a day over 30. He was dark-skinned as most of his fellow Palestinians, sharing some of the hard features often associated with his ethnicity. He was born there but his family had migrated to Holland where he got a better chance at life than he might have otherwise, had his family remained in their war-torn homeland. He had returned to it later in his seemingly immortal life out of a combination of curiosity for his roots as well as the bright enigma that was his condition, his inability to just die.
He had wondered often, long and hard, whether his condition was a gift or a curse. As the years had gone on after his accident, one that should have otherwise killed him and effectively had, he had found it increasingly difficult to find mirth and hope in his unusual longevity. Now, a painful eternity removed from the night this psychopath before him had captured him, he was left with no evidence to favor the gift theory.
He was currently blindfolded but had become so accustomed to sightlessness that his hearing had grown acute, heightened. His tormentor had developed a taste for avulsing his eyes, leaving him painfully blind while blood poured from his empty sockets like some perversion of the act of crying. The pain of having such a thing perpetrated on him was so terrifyingly unbearable that even now, after countless days of this treatment, he could still not affirm that he had developed some tolerance to it. On the rare occasions when his captor didn’t pluck out his eyes in some creative way – like this day –, the memory of the pain filled the void left by the absence of ocular severance, unrelenting and clearly etched into his physical memory.
The sound of tools being picked up and then after a pause placed back on a wooden table, likely after being examined and their uses considered, he surmised, were all he could distinguish above his own breathing and the beating of his heart as it thrummed in his head, amplifying the pain.
The months – he was sure it had been many months, perhaps even years, he didn’t have any grasp of time’s passing through the haze of constant pain – had brought nightmares made flesh. He had been beaten in unusual ways with unusual objects. He had been sodomized in that fashion as well. His intestines cut out and pulled before his very eyes, his body parts systematically amputated, his bones broken, he had been poisoned, drugged, mauled by animals, rats eaten through his midriff after having them placed on him in an upturned bucked set afire while the rabid rodents ate their way to freedom. There was scarcely a horror he had not been a subject to. His tormentor must eventually run out of options, of ideas, the well of sadistic creativity bled dry.
He had been bled dry in different ways, he recalled. Dying that way, seeping cold while his life veritably drained from him, had been almost a reprieve in the terrible parade of torture he had endured. If only he could die…
On two occasions – and only two alone! – his psychopathic jailor had not visited any physical horror for a prolonged period of time, what he thought might be a day. That was not to say that he had not been subjected to horrors then. On the contrary, the tension that had engulfed Matusal on those occasions had been so jarringly disturbing that he had suffered through chain panic attacks all the while.
On the first such instance of absence of physical torture, his captor had been present in the general area, going about his tools, likely all a deliberate act to get Matusal’s mind working, thinking and trying to anticipate all the possible terrors forthcoming. On the second, his captor was nowhere near as far as he had been aware. The terror then had been no less.
On one occasion his tongue had been cut, the wound cauterized with a burning iron and a cloth stuffed in his mouth as a gag, his eyes customarily removed with a sharpened spoon, and finally been placed in a vehicle’s trunk. He had then been driven around for hours, with long stops where the vehicle’s driver would step out but then come back many minutes or hours later. He was eventually killed in some way he did not know, coming back to life in the contraption where he was usually kept some time later, back in the hangar.
The only time his captor had shown any range of emotion beyond callous detachment was when he had attempted to starve Matusal to death. Given his peculiar condition, his body simply would not be starved. Any damage that might be incurred from lack of nourishment was quickly repaired. After a few days of showing no signs of emaciation, the torturer became irate and beat him to a literal pulp, eventually dealing a coup de grace with a mallet. Matusal had managed to produce a theory out of his observations during the period of starvation. He deducted, some days afterward, having had brief spells of calm thanks to a kind of mental detachment of his own, that perhaps his body drew sustenance from the atmosphere itself, or perhaps through some atomic or subatomic process where it converted matter into energy seamlessly. Without some manner of focused experimentation, however, he simply couldn’t draw any tangible conclusions.
Matusal had no illusions that he would be looked for, sought out by authorities of any sort. It had been a few decades since he’d decided to sever all filial and business ties and, being independently wealthy and requiring little personal upkeep, had become a non-entity in the world. Now and then he would give to charity, often in cases where it might facilitate a favor in his ongoing search for meaning, for the answers to the riddle of his immortality. But he was, for all practical purposes, an ineffectual being, hardly a presence in the world but for gases and matter he processed biologically, his legacy the biological footprint of simply existing.
There was a change in the sound pattern, his captor had decided upon some instrument and method, perhaps. He braced himself for whatever might come, his mental fortitude perhaps growing in strength, no need for fugues into other realities of his own devising. Just focus on the pain like a mantra.
Suddenly he felt his mouth forcibly pried open, his jaw tugged so hard that he felt it come of the hinges. The pain shot through the sides of his head, burning intensely and causing bursts of light to flash behind his closed eyelids. He couldn’t help but scream in pain. This had been unexpected, this was new.
He felt something rubbery and cold, slimy, being jammed into his unhinged mouth. It squirmed and appeared to have what he could only think of as tiny mouths that sucked at the walls of his mouth. An octopus. It had to be.
His jaw was forced up and his mouth shut, the squirming octopod trapped therein. An adhesive strip, likely duct tape, was placed over his lips and then wrapped under his chin to fasten the loose jawbone. The pain was there but was now playing second fiddle to the dawning realization that the octopus, having no other way to go but down his throat, would eventually suffocate him.
The blindfold came off and his wide eyes were met with the painful light and sight of his tormentor standing before him, a pleased expression on his face.
The pain of suffocation by octopod, that was certainly something new.
Bitumen wandered the outside perimeter of the hangar carefully, silently, blending through concrete, melding into metal, weaving into the very foundations of the structure. He sensed the energy stored there, like a memory device, from all the terrible things this man who inhabited the place had perpetrated. Bitumen was not often given to extreme emotions, but in this case he was filled with disgust and terrible anger.
His bone-children shared his eagerness for retribution, to mete out due punishment, righteous as only nature can deal. He stalked the terrible man with caution because, despite his great power, Bitumen was still mortal and very much susceptible to the weapons of man. While he might be able to withstand a great deal more than most, he could still feel pain and be debilitated by it, impaired. Thus surprise was a key factor in his methodology.
He first sent the bone-roaches, the most industrious of his children, to gradually swarm on the terrible man. As he was busy cleaning his tools at a table, he was wholly unaware of the first few bugs that crawled up his legs. It wasn’t until he was covered with the bone-pale roaches that he realized that something was amiss; such was his profound concentration.
As the man screamed and futilely tried to stamp and crush the formidable bone-roaches, a formidable army of hyalopterous arthropods resembling wasps with scorpion-like apendages – pincers and stinger tails – exited from two orifices on Bitumen’s omoplatas and flew in a terrifying chitinous cloud toward the terrible man.
Elliot at first only felt a slight sensation of rustling on his thick, denim work-clothes. After a second’s delay in checking the source of the odd sensation which escalated from its origin around his ankles to the covering his body up to his midriff, he saw himself covered in scuttling roach-like insects that advanced and shortly enswathed him up to his head.
He screamed like a child, unable to help himself from succumbing to primal fears long ignored. Insect s. He detested them.
His horror was soon replaced by sharp stings as a cloud of winged scorpions engulfed him. In seconds he was on the floor, paralyzed, feeling his lungs loosen their hold on air itself, ceasing their functions.
He struggled in disbelief at what was taking place and had little time to fathom what it all meant, as death soon closed his eyes. His last moments were spent drowning in abject terror as he gazed at a strange beggar he’d never seen before. Nobody noticed beggars.
When Matusal came to, he was longer restrained. He became conscious of the lack of pressure from the armature, the comfort of being simply on the concrete floor, just seconds after the rude wakefulness of revival.
With a startling realization he became aware that he wasn’t alone. A haggard little beggar with a beard half as long as he was tall was looking intently upon him, smiling.
“It is ok,” said the slight-looking ragman. “We have come for you. You will suffer the evils of this man no longer.” He gestured with his hand at the supine shape of his late tormentor, swollen and misshapen beyond recognition but for the clothes now stretched to their capacity by the bloating flesh underneath.
“We must walk, now,” the ragman continued. “I will take you through the folds of the city-flesh, for there is one who wishes to converse with you.”
And just like that the ragman took his hand and all before his eyes became a blur. He knew he was sitting still, yet somehow felt the notion of movement, of passing through something, some kind of texture, something dense. A few moments later he was in some vast chamber made of concrete and steel beams, with no windows visible yet highly illuminated by fluorescent lights.
In the center of the chamber sat a naked man, glabrescent. Through his grey skin glowed what looked like roots rather than veins. The sitting man spoke, voice like rocks falling, like the depths of a cave boring into the core of the earth, booming yet somehow pleasant, coldly reassuring like the distant rumble of thunder.
“Welcome, child. It is good to see you free and in my presence. You have a rather unique gift, I a given to understand.”
After a pause where Matusal understood an answer was expected of him, he said, “I am immortal… or rather, I would appear to be… I am unable to die, or expire conclusively might be a better way of putting it.”
He felt uncharacteristically self-conscious in the man’s presence.
“I see,” said the man, as if considering the information carefully. “That is indeed quite a gift… or a curse given the nature of man.” After another pause where the man stood up from his indian-style sitting position, he went on, “I am called The Anchorite, though only Bitumen calls me that and now, perhaps, you as well. My name is long forgotten and bears no importance in utterance to us now, but I am as you suspect in light of the evidence before your eyes.” After another pause, he finally added, “I suspect you seek answers. You will do well to seek the chamber of the sleepless, therein you may know the first word.”
“Excuse me but, what exactly do you mean?”
The Anchorite did not reply, rather, he – it – sat back down and shut its eyes, falling into what appeared to be a trance.
Matusal looked to the ragman, Bitumen, searching for answers, and he only got a smile.
“What does he mean, the chamber of the sleepless?”
Stifling a chuckle, Bitumen answered, “The Anchorite speaks true, but its words may sound murky to us as we do not possess its clarity of vision. Think on it, dream on it, and in time you will see as well.”
In the hangar, still swollen though no longer quite as tumescent, Elliot Cummins awoke.
He sat up and stared dumbfounded at the floor before him.
He was sure he had died. He had felt life leaving him, his lungs and heart ceasing their toil. He had died.
Realizing this he darted a look toward the armature and found it dismayingly empty. He had thought to ask Matusal Xul about this, about reviving, about being immortal now that he was apparently one such being.
He stood up, still stiff and sore from the myriad stings, and lit up a cigarette that had been lying on the tool desk.
Savoring the pleasure of being alive once more symbolized by the ironically deadly smoke filling his lungs in lieu of air, he decided he would find Matusal. He would, in time, but now, perhaps, he could find something new to do in life. It had started to become such a bore, after all. He would find Matusal, indeed, all in due time. After all, time, now, was in limitless supply.
Taking another drag of the cigarette, Elliot smiled, smug with satisfaction.