WHEN LEOPARD'S BANE CAME TO THE DOOR OF THIRD HEAVEN

Vajra Chandrasekera

Art by AJ Gabriel

We stand at attention all day at the top of the green tower. L and I stand on either side of the door to the third nonsensual heaven. The rifle is heavy and I develop a lean as the day wears on, until L hisses at me from the far side of the door and I straighten up, my back creaking and popping. I'm a sloppy guard because I'm new, ink still fresh on the lottery ticket. When you’re always new at everything, you never get a chance to get good.

L hasn't been a guard much longer than me, but she always says she doesn't want to get good. She says you can't pry the world open if you don't have a kink in you. She says how come the lottery is supposed to be so fair but princes always win a king's ticket when it's time? She says a lot of things like that and if I say we haven't been a monarchy in two hundred years or whatever, she'll say I'm being obtuse. Then we arm-wrestle for it. She usually wins those, but only just.

We don't actually have to stand at attention all day. So we don't. Sometimes we take turns to nap. The guards of the towers of heaven don't have supervisors, except someone from the lottery board who shows up twice a year, and of course some of the stewards are informers in case we're breaking any rules. Here at the top of the green tower we see less foot traffic than every heaven. There are too many stairs for the pious, who just take the first door they see. The doubters tend to climb a bit, but then they get tired and take the second door. Or they change their mind and climb down again. Maybe go home. Maybe go over to the red tower to try the sensual heavens instead of the nonsensual ones, after the dull ache in their feet reminds them that they have bodies. Nearly everybody prefers the sensual heavens. The red tower is always busy, crowded all the way to the top, a queue that moves step by excited step. Our green tower is for the perverse and our door is its highest, the least accessible. We only see the most stubborn, the axe-grinders, the scab-pickers, the most damaged, the ones who most want nothing—the ones who absolutely need to be sure that it's nothing that comes after. Of course, sometimes it's just people who aren't paying attention.

Our first visitor of the day, for example, is a left-path orgiast—we recognize the type as soon as he appears, puffing and sweaty, at the top of the stairs. He kneels there for a little while, blowing out his breath and massaging his thighs. He's red-eyed, clean-shaven, smoking a roll of something mildewy sweet. We try not to laugh, though L is grinning so broadly her face is all teeth, when he says he thought this was the door to the third sensual heaven.

"Nope," I say. "This is the green tower. That's the nonsensual one."

"You spent nine hours climbing the wrong tower," L adds, smiling like this is the best thing that's ever happened to her. He's not even the first person to make this mistake since we started working here, but she loves it every time.

In the end, he goes through the door anyway. It opens for him, so his will-to-negation must have been pure. Before he shuts the door behind him he says there's no such thing as error. Or perhaps he said terror. I might have heard that wrong—he was already fading and god leaks so loudly every time someone opens the door. It's like drums only without a beat. A deep, awful burr, rumbling and prickling till the door swings shut again, rattling the bones in your body, making your teeth shake and the stone under your feet wobble like jelly.

"As the ancient poem of instruction says," L says, after he'd gone in. "If you seek a million years of sense-pleasure, climb the tower of red stone/but if you seek union with the undifferentiated and immanent body of god, climb the tower of green stone/and if the colours have faded to uniform grey over the centuries, just ask the guards, you wanker."

"It doesn't say that at all," I say, falling for it. "It never says to ask the guards—"

She cackles at my gullibility and fiddles with the door. Tugs at it like she does every time somebody goes through, but the door won't open for her. Even I can tell L has no will-to-negation.

L's full name is Leopard's-Bane. She says it's a kind of poisonous flower. I can't tell if she's flirting. L says the other guards probably slouch when nobody's looking, too. Snack and gamble, nap and quarrel and get high. She says the guards of the second heaven downstairs are totally doing it.

"They look so fearsome though," I say. "Caps so straight, teeth so bitey."

"Fuck," L says, "You try this."

The knob wiggles in my hand, like the door has to think about me and make a call. But it stays closed.

L is jealous because the door likes me better. She says heavens are a trap for the mystics and sybarites and slackers and would-be terrorists. Everybody who doesn't buy into the lottery, in other words: the rabble-rousers and the rousable rabble. I offer to arm-wrestle her for it but she says this is serious. This is real, she says.

Another day, another step on the stairs. We assume our fierce postures, caps straight and teeth on display. A priest this time, grey and severe, drifts of ash deep in the ravines of her brow. She doesn't so much as look at us. People like that—people with callings, or people given to a cult early in childhood, either way—have a depth of conviction in themselves that the rest of us, we lottery-players, never get the chance to discover. To her, the guards might as well be carvings on the walls. She rests at the top of the stairs for a few minutes, squatting in silence, then she walks unhurriedly past us, opens the door. Steps in, shuts it behind her. God roars like a waterfall—my bladder is full and the vibration is painful—but is quickly cut off. Sometimes it's like that. L waits a few seconds and tries the door again. No give. I take a quick bathroom break, and then I try too. It rattles, a little more than before.

"You don't really want it to open," I say. What I mean is she lacks will-to-negation and I have more every day. What I mean is I hate this job. When I take my shirt off there’s an inch-wide gouge in the inflamed flesh of my shoulder where the rifle strap sits all day. It aches when I dream and I dread putting the strap back in that furrow in the mornings. I've never fired the rifle; I've never so much as put my finger on the trigger. I don't know if it's loaded, or whether its slippery innards have long since rusted shut. L says our weapons are ceremonial. She got this story from another guard—our oral history, a scuttlebutt mythology—the guards of heaven once wore never-drawn daggers. and over the centuries the blades atrophied in the sheaths. I want to go back to the lottery before I shiver away. I want to be reassigned to something else. I don't care what. I'll be an apothecary, a murderer, a keeper of secrets, a cook, a president. If I don't get a new ticket I'm going to end up one of those guards who opens their own door and vanishes into it. Even the door wants me to open it: I've watched a lot of films and I can tell how this ends. That's part of the scuttlebutt too. Heaven is always the number one cause of death among its guards.

"I don't really want it to open either," I say, and then I rattle the door again. God help me, it's hard to resist when it's right there in front of you.

Another day. No visitors this time. After our lunch break—we take turns in the break room, so that if somebody comes there is at least one guard at the door—we sneak down the stairs. We've taken our shoes off and our bare feet are soft and silent. The stone is cold. We peer carefully around corners to make sure that we don't meet anybody coming up, though their feet are always heavy and we'd hear them coming from a distance. We creep down for hours. We sneak all the way down to the last turn of the stairs before the door to the second heaven. We're careful not to let the other guards see us. We've come to watch them. It's what we have up here instead of TV. They're a little too far away for us to hear what they're saying to each other, but we're here for the smouldering glances they throw each other across the door of their heaven. L says that if we watch them for long enough we'll catch them making out.

"And then what," I whisper. I've taken off my cap so that it doesn't show when I peer around the corner. The stone of the wall still has a faint green tinge to it, if you look closely. I have my face pressed to it, the chill pleasant on my cheek.

"And then nothing," L says. "We'll be very happy for them?"

"We're being creeps," I say.

"We're just fans," L says. "Ooh, look at that."

One of the guards is helping the other with their rifle strap. They seem to linger over it, and I find myself tracing my sore shoulder. We left our rifles upstairs, of course, in case we needed to run back up the stairs in a hurry. Maybe all the guards get sore shoulders. It's not just me, is it? L's never complained about it before. I swallow, remembering that she's helped me with my strap in much the same way as the guards we're watching, only she was brisk and not at all sensual about it. Our relationship is nothing like that. We're only friends because the lottery put us together in this job. But then that's true of all the guards, too. And L is so easy to be friends with. L is the kind of person who says hi and let's be friends in her first breath on seeing you, and then laughs at herself and takes your hand, and then you're friends somehow and she's talking you into doing stupid stuff like this.

"I think I hear steps," L whispers. "Someone might be coming. Let's go back."

And we run back up the stairs as quickly and quietly as we can. The last thing we see is that one of the guards cups the other's head in their hand, and we can't tell if they're adjusting the cap, brushing away a hair, or about to lean in for a kiss.

I suggest to L, while we're putting our shoes, that we should get a TV in the break room.

"Maybe if we could afford a smartphone between the two of us," L allows. "That would be cheaper than a TV and maybe they'd let us keep it if we take the SIM out."

"Maybe," I say. Though it'll be months, maybe years, before we can save up that much money on our guard salary—nearly all our money goes to pay the rent on the break room, and to pay the stewards who keep us supplied so we don't have to go up and down the stairs ourselves. "We should go back to the lottery and get better paying jobs."

"But we might get worse paying jobs," L says. "We probably will because most jobs pay worse than this. And anyway, if we go back to the lottery we'd get jobs far apart and we wouldn't ever see each other any more and you'd pine away and we don't want that, do we?"

I've asked L about the jobs she's had before and she always lists so many different jobs. She says the lottery's had her being a teacher in a school in the former war zone, a cart-driver in a distant village who got caught running illegal races, an intelligence analyst in peacetime, a cowherd in the mountains dealing with landslides in the monsoon, a municipal file clerk in a sleepy suburban district. I'm not surprised that she doesn't want to go to the lottery ever again. She says she's where she needs to be.

I haven't had any jobs before. This was my first lottery ticket. I was hoping for something a little more exciting. L says excitement is overrated.

"Besides," L says, "This is the only job in the world where you can be this close to god."

I say what about all the people who go through the doors in our tower, because they're getting a whole lot closer to god.

"They don't count as being in the world," L says. "They're running away from it. The world belongs to the people who choose to stay behind."

I don't think that's fair, but I don't know how to say it.

Another day, another visitor. This one is atypical. She's about my age. She has a scar across her lip, pulling the skin of her face into a grim expression. When she sees L she smiles and some of her front teeth are missing. She limps slowly, as if in pain. She's breathing hard but doesn't pause for rest at the top of the stairs. She walks toward L, who rushes to meet her. They hug.

"It's good to see you, Leppy," she says. She's in such a rush to speak that she stumbles over her words. "We've got trouble. We've lost our in with the stewards and we have to assume I was followed here—"

L shakes her head, then glances quickly in my direction. "I don't understand, why are you here?" she asks the other woman.

"Are you friends?" I ask. "Hi. I'm—"

"I'm here to go through the door," the other woman says, then when L seems about to say something she interrupts and keeps going. "Obviously. Listen, we need to talk first. Can we—?"

L nods. She seems shaken. They ignore me and head off to the break room. When they come back a few minutes later, neither says anything else. L's friend walks to the door and hesitates a moment before she tries it, as if unsure that would open for her. But it swings open in welcome, and she shuffles through without looking back. L tries to grab the door before it swings shut, tries to jam the butt of her rifle in the jamb. But it swings shut anyway, smooth as the snap of god's jaws clamping shut. The door is simple, weathered wood, but it's sheared her rifle in two. The cut is clean, as if the door had an edge like a sword.

God's roar orders my messy thoughts, rearranges what I was going to say. I was going to ask who was that and how do you know her and who's following her and instead I don't ask any of those things.

"I'm so sorry," I say.

L slumps to the floor, leaning on the wall. "I knew that wouldn't work," L says. "I've tried jamming it before."

"I meant I'm sorry you lost your friend," I say.

"She was my sister," L says. She's crying, all snot and tears. "Not in blood, but still."

I sit down next to her. I'm leaning on the door itself. "Do you want to tell me about her?" I say, and she says she does, only then she doesn't talk for a little while. I figure she's rearranging her thoughts, too. Leaning on the door I can feel god vibrating through it.

"I cheated the lottery," L says, finally. "No, even that's not it. The lottery is a cheat. They say it's supposed to be perfectly fair, but it always turns out that the rich are lucky and the poor are unlucky. We get to die in hovels under mud when the rains come, or we get to die on battlefields. We get to do all the work. They get to be managers and brand ambassadors and talking heads on TV. And the heavens are what keep it going. If you think the system is rigged, if you think the world is unacceptably fucked, there's the green tower offering an easy, painless way off the wheel of samsara. If you just want to have a good time and not think about any of this shit, there's the red tower offering an even better deal."

"It's not easy," I say.

"What?"

"The green tower is painless, but it's not easy," I say. "You need to cultivate will-to-negation and that isn't the same as suicidal ideation—"

"Oh, I forgot you studied theology," L says. She laughs a little at that, looks a little better. She wipes her face. "Okay, it's not easy. That's kind of the problem. See, we cheated the lottery to get me here, because we wanted to do something about heaven."

"You want to smash the towers," I guess. "Nail shut the doors to heaven so everybody has to stay here and deal with the world."

"We would if we could," L says. "But that doesn't work. The towers are blessed by the bleed-through from heaven. The doors can't even be scratched, their aura is so strong." She runs her finger along the sheared-off edge of her rifle. It's useless now. I don't even know how she's going to get a new one. I want to ask her if the guards' oral history explains how to requisition new equipment, but it doesn't seem like the right moment.

"So what," I say. "You're trying to figure out another way to break heaven?"

"We were," she says. "That was my assignment. My sister came to warn me that our cell's getting rolled up and they might come for me soon, especially if they followed her here. She went through the door rather than get taken by the police again."

"She must have really wanted to go through the door," I insist. "It's not enough to just prefer it to the alternative. It wouldn't have opened for her if she didn't—"

"Will-to-negation," L says. "I heard you the first time. I just don't understand what that is, you know? What I will is to break the wheel. No more heaven, no more lottery."

I don't say anything to that, because I don't even know what that would look like. I can't imagine a world where your lot in life isn't determined by chance—I know L insists that's not even how it works now, but even if that's true, isn't samsara just another lottery? We're born by chance, into wealth or poverty, and we take another turn at the wheel when we die, hoping for a better go next time. I don't think destroying heaven, or toppling the towers, even if it could be done, would change that.

Other days, other faces. We get a pamphleteer who stops to proselytize at us. He hands us broadsheets with tall columns of densely-printed text. L seems to have fun debating him—their politics are almost the same, but they disagree violently on details that I don't follow. The pamphleteer leaves a stack of his literature behind and L reads all of it. She makes paper planes out of them and takes to throwing them out of the break room window. It's very cold when she opens the window, very windy. The paper planes accelerate, propelled by the jetstream, and we imagine them flying for great distances and coming to land in some hamlet.

"Anarchist propaganda from heaven in some farmer's field, soaking up mud among the rice shoots," L says.

We get a woman who says she used to teach at the university in the city near here. She asks us a lot of questions about the door. She wants to know if anybody ever comes back. She seems annoyed when we laugh.

"It may be obvious to you because you've seen the door open," she says. "But to the rest of us the towers of heaven are a mystery. Retired guards don't like to talk about it. Stewards don't see anything during off hours. We don't know if there even is god behind the door. I teach political science and when my students ask me, I don't know what to say. When I open the door, are there cops back there? Are you cops? Guards are like cops, right?"

"You wouldn't even be asking us that if you really thought so," L says, and the woman smiles at her.

"We're sorry for laughing," I say.

"What does it look like in there?" she asks. "When the door's open, I mean. Is it a glowing white light? Is it pure darkness? I just want to know it doesn't look like a shitty room with a bloody chair."

"It looks like god," I say. "They have a hundred thousand thousand shapes enfolded into their body which has countless eyes and countless mouths, crowned with star-clusters, countless weapons in their hands—"

"It doesn't look like that at all," L says. "It looks like the sky with a thousand suns at once—light, but also like heat, like a burning—"

"Okay, okay," she says. "That all sounds fine. As long as, please god in heaven, you're not lying to me."

When she puts her hand on the door, it opens more gently than usual. She sobs once, like a laugh that gets cut off, when she looks through, and steps forward.

What's through the door isn't exactly what either of us said. What's through the door is the sound. It looks just like it sounds—it's huge, bone-rattling, like a flood that runs through your very bloodstream and overflows. The guards of heaven learn not to talk about it because it's the only thing in the world that's impossible to describe.

Heaven wouldn't work so well as a trap if it weren't real.

I try to explain will-to-negation to L. I try to explain it as something that's happening to me, not as theory. I'm not sure what's happening to me is adequately explained by the theory, in any case. The models I learned in university were dryer, easier to follow in the abstract. In me it feels like a sad song. It sounds a little like god, though that only confuses L.

"Do you mean that it's loud and overwhelming?" she asks. I say no, but I struggle to explain it. What I mean is that it's like a river. It just keeps on flowing.

We'd just watched another one walk into heaven—a man who'd won the lottery and become the manager of a successful umbrella factory. One day, he said, he'd just realized that it was all meaningless. He'd walked out in the middle of a meeting, taken off his shoes, and walked barefoot up the tower. He walked through the door with his eyes closed. Before the door swung shut, L threw the remaining half of her rifle in behind him. Heaven accepted it as heaven accepts all our trash. The towers have bathrooms and plumbing, thankfully—generations of guards made that happen—but the municipality to which they belong, the administration of the district that grew up around the towers, doesn't do garbage collection for the towers. This is the result of a dispute several centuries old. The guards of the green tower use our heavens as disposal. I don't know what the guards of the red tower do—at least ours is a kind of dissolution into nothingness (or everythingness, depending on how you look at it), but theirs is a more traditional heaven. Perhaps it has pleasure palaces and magical lakes, swamped with mountains of earthly garbage.

L tries the door again after it shuts, and it's like stone under her hands. When I try, the knob turns now. The door still won't open, but it seems to yearn toward me. L takes my other arm, and I rest my head on her shoulder.

That's when we figure it out, together. We come to the idea as if it were a place—someplace uphill and inaccessible, that we converge upon after a long time climbing. We're glad to meet each other there, sweaty and glowing, blessed by bleed-through from heaven. We work it out, step by step. It takes a while longer before I'm ready to actually do it. Weeks, not days. I lose track of time the more I allow myself to fall into the will-to-negation. It's not difficult to allow it to rise up in me.

It's not difficult to allow it to swallow me up. I warn L that it's probably going to be different for me, that I might not be like the others we've seen.

"I think it's going to be a little different for everyone," I say. "For some of them it's like despair or giving up. For others it's a culmination. For me it'll be a kind of emptying out. Do you know what I mean?"

"You said that before," L says. She looks worried. "You say that every day now. Do you remember?"

I don't remember. I'm pouring my self out of me like water from a cup.

The will-to-negation isn't about self-destruction. L insists that it is, but that's why she can't do it. She can only understand it as a mechanism of social control. What I'm trying to explain is that it can be both true salvation and a mechanism of social control. To be a self is to suffer. You can fight the world, and the world does need fighting. But you can also stop being a you. We suffer because we allow our selves to participate in the world, to suffer when it hurts us.

L says that's checking out. L says it's a trap to make us accept the way things are. I say yes, but also it brings peace and union with the godhead. L says fuck that shit. L says sorry. I say it's okay. L says thank you for what you're doing. You remember what you're doing, right? You remember the plan?

I say yes. I say no.

 

 

 

"Wait," someone says. It's her. Her name comes back to me slowly. Leopard's-Bane. Her hand is in mine, pulling me backwards. I try to turn my head to look at her, and it feels like cumulonimbus in a crosswind—vast and ponderous, soft and fungible, dark and full of unfired lightning. It takes me a long, long moment to remember my face. I don't even remember opening the door. I don't remember the moment when I emptied myself enough to reach for it. I stumble. She catches me. She caught me like she promised she would. I remember that, and I grab her hand like I'm drowning.

Everything feels too small at first. The tower is a tight coffin; there's a bag of skin slipped over my face to suffocate me; the light drips like hot wax in my wounds. No, those are my eyes: I remember to narrow them to slits. The door to heaven is still wide open. The burr of god leaking through is unbearable relief, an endless intake of breath. The door isn't trying to swing shut. It's staying open for me.

"It will stay open forever, if you open the door and don't go through," L says. She's shouting in my ear because god is so loud. "That's what we thought. We were right. That's what we planned. Do you remember? You said you might have trouble remembering."

"I want to go through," I say. I do. My will-to-negation is still strong, but I remember the promises I made. L said it would be selfish of me to go through the door, and I don't agree with that at all. I don't think she understands why that's so wrong. But I did promise not to do it anyway, because she's also right about the world.

"But you won't," L says, testing. I'm leaning on her. She helps me stand again, and I slump against the wall.

We've weaponized heaven. We're putting the roar of god in the world. It won't be an oubliette for the dissident any more—it'll be a tide that fills the world. Salvation in everyday life, merging with the muddy water among the rice shoots, floating the paper planes, rising up into the ivory towers where they teach theology so that the teachers can simply say listen, filling up the valleys, covering the mountains. It'll waken the sleepy suburbs, vibrate the locks of the secret prisons. All locked doors will open, in honour of the open door to heaven. The lottery will come up blank, numbers washed clean.

Or maybe none of that will happen. We don't know what will happen, except that it'll be something new.

I can stand on my own now, though I'm slouching. I'm still a sloppy guard. My shoulder hurts. I miss the weight of the rifle—I find my hand tracing the furrow underneath my uniform shirt—so I pick it up and put it back where it ought to be. The strap settles into its groove.

"You don't have to do that any more," L says. She's not standing in her spot on the other side of the door—she's standing next to me, holding my arm, her back to the stairs. She's staring through the open door.

"I know," I say. "Just for a little while so I remember where I'm from."

We listen to god rumble like the tide at the end of all things, rush like a river out of heaven and down the stairs, filling the tower and pouring out into the world below. We stand in its delta and we straighten our caps and bare our teeth.

©2018 by Vajra Chandrasekera


VAJRA CHANDRASEKERA lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and The Apex Book of World SF, among others. For more, see his website or follow @_vajra on Twitter.

Back to issue 5 - spring / summer 2018