This post contains self-harm, dead bodies and gore.
Zoe wakes up as her snoozed alarm calls on her for the third time this morning. She grabs her phone, rolls over, and fails to get out of bed. Her feet are cold, and she can hear the wind screaming outside her rattling window. There’s no burning desire in her to get out of bed to deal with that. Instead, Zoe spends what’s left of her free time in bed, reading an anonymous poster’s second rate creepypasta. When she hauls herself out of bed, kicking dirty clothes into a corner and pushing aside two empty cereal boxes to grab a pop tart for breakfast, it’s already time to leave for her work at the morgue. Same as yesterday, Zoe forgets or simply doesn’t bother to brush through her short black hair. A foul mood has already taken over when she leaves her old, dirty apartment building to face the icy streets of Toronto.
The streetcar ride is miserable. Despite her layers, the cold seeps in everywhere. Zoe keeps her eyes on her phone, looking for new scans of old books on demonology and witchcraft, strange disappearances, anything dealing with magic and the unseen world. She has a collection of these things, books imported or bought from sketchy ads and a digital library on her Dropbox. Her job is a way to survive – this research is what Zoe actually does. While reading a low quality photograph of someone’s handwriting, supposed to be the words needed to summon the demon Sarinil, the peripheral of Zoe’s vision is occupied by eyes on her. The rest of the streetcar is staring, the passengers’ faces all turned to her. She looks up, wondering if she’s seeing things, but is convinced that though everyone seems occupied by their phones, books, and newspapers, there were several strangers Zoe caught looking away when she lifted her head. She glares daggers at the miserable bastards surrounding her, stewing in annoyance at the very presence of other people.
Zoe is alone, has been alone for a long while. Questions about her adolescence feel unanswerable, it is all gone in a blur and replaced with a vague, traumatic sense of loss. Zoe had a family, a large one, but after one night of terror of which she can recall only the faintest glimpses, they were all gone. She hears them in her mind at times, especially when she cuts, the only family she’s ever had and ever will have. Their voices always echo the harsh reality she lives: she is alone, she has lost the only life worth caring about, and nothing she does will regain it. Without them, solitude is the only option. As such, Zoe has never formed a close bond with anyone else. She has some internet friends, freaks from assorted forums and message boards as damaged as she is, and at least three people at her workplace recognize her face. She’s long lost the desire to feel closer to anyone. Slicing her thighs, Zoe can at least recall the voices of those she actually loved, whoever they were.
|Work is slow. Accompanied only by cold corpses in a basement, Zoe is left with a lot of dead time. She checks her emails and performs the minimum amount of her expected duties, but for most of her morning Zoe reads from her book on demonology, one of many strange things she carries with her. An old manuscript translated from German, it gives attestations of the deeds of various demons, people who received blessings from them and some who were cursed. She again encounters the name Sarinil, a death-loving demon who offers secret knowledge, guidance to hidden things and power to those who appease it. A voice in the back of her mind, familiar, whispers to her. “This one.” Zoe is put on high alert immediately. Her family knows this entity.1 She re-reads the book’s depiction of the demon with this understanding, and goes back to the note about Sarinil she’d read on the bus. From there, Zoe finds herself lost in her sea of loosely sorted PDFs and images, archived forum threads and text conversations from alleged possessions. Not much is written coherently or conclusively, but after a few hours of laborious note-taking, peeking up once in a while to make sure no one needs her to do her job, Zoe forms what she believes to be a clear picture of Sarinil, how to summon it, and what makes it dangerous.||
The summoning rite is by no means simple, but she can at least formulate a step by step list for herself. Dead bodies surrounding a large sigil on the floor, black candles, protective runes drawn on her own body, speaking the medieval German summoning phrase and stating the purpose of calling upon Sarinil. Zoe knows she could do that, but to what end? This demon is important to those she lost, but in what sense, she cannot say. The dangers associated with summoning Sarinil are as plentiful as they are gruesome. Cruel curses, the dead come to life, and traceless disappearances are all noted or alluded to in some manner. Perhaps she can protect herself against these things using the right fetishes, runes, or other symbols of safety, but the texts she finds make clear that Sarinil is immensely powerful, and easily insulted. Whatever relation Zoe’s family has to this entity, she is deeply concerned about what it might mean for her.
As the afternoon approaches, Zoe is required to actually perform her duties as a coroner. Her coworker Mark comes in to remind her of this, and begrudgingly Zoe gets off the chair and puts the dusty old tome she’d been reading away in her duffel bag. Mark and Zoe are close enough in age, and distant in all other respects. He is eager to chit chat with Zoe, despite her clear indication that she wants nothing to do with him or his positive attitude. They have a physical examination to perform of a stabbing victim. The police report needs full detail on the wounds. The cause of death isn’t hard to discern. Seven stab wounds across face, arms and torso will have that effect on people, Zoe thinks to herself as they bring the corpse out. Mark tries to mentally prepare for the task of handling a dead person, but Zoe interrupts him and tells him to get to work. She just wants the task over and done with – the sooner they finish, the sooner Mark will leave. Handling the cold, heavy meat doesn’t bother her. It’s just flesh, like them. Making measurements and taking notes, the two get to work. Mark eventually gives up on his attempts to talk to Zoe, her cold green-eyed stare unnerving him as much as the corpse.
|Something about the number seven irks Zoe. The wounds were doubtlessly caused by some frantic and unplanned attack, deep cuts and stabs at random as the attacker and victim struggled. She confirms the depth and width of a cut to Mark, who notes it on his own clipboard. “Punctured lung, then?” he asks, neither expecting nor receiving a response. They’ll confirm all that later, and they both know it. Zoe pauses in her inspection.The injuries seem familiar to her, orchestrated or a picture perfect replica of another attack.2 Without warning, Zoe’s mind explodes with the sounds of suffering. Someone is screaming behind her, there’s gunfire on the other side of a wall, and things are burning. A family member, someone she once must’ve known, is stumbling towards her. Their clothes are singed and torn, pale bare flesh decorated with deep red cuts identical to the body in front of her. Zoe’s beloved relative reaches their hands out, begging for help. She remains frozen in time and space, watching the horrors unfold, and then the corpse on the table grabs her lab coat. Reality comes crashing back, the sterile room’s cold lights nothing like the flickering flames of her vision.3 Zoe stumbles backwards, nauseated and horrified, and covers her mouth with one hand as her wide eyes examine the brutalized corpse, motionless on the examination table.||
3 Keep It Together
|Mark’s voice is too loud when he speaks. “Zoe? Are you okay?” She continues to stare at the body which moments ago had been grasping for her clothes. “No, I’m not. I need to…” Zoe trails off, and excuses herself. With hurried steps, she leaves and heads for the washrooms. Her heart is beating fast as she feels the tip of the scalpel she swiped before leaving Mark alone. Sitting on the toilet and chasing away the fear, she cuts into her thigh and watches with instant relief as old, crooked scars again burst open under the blade. The searing pain carries with it the voices of the dead, comforting her with the fact that she is alone and unwanted. She surely imagined the body moving. Nothing out there cares about Zoe enough to want her, no one is interested. With family on her side and blood dripping down her right leg, Zoe can finally calm herself down a bit. “Now cut deeper.” The voice is clear in her mind and instantly carries with it an air of respect, though as always Zoe cannot say who it might have belonged to. She tries to resist the temptation, she’s at work and it would take too long to heal, people would notice. The voices are insistent. The scalpel plunges deep into her flesh – flesh is all it is.4 Its tip scrapes against the bone, pain engulfs existence, and Zoe immediately passes out.||
Zoe wakes up in a pool of her own blood with a pounding headache. Disoriented, she hangs on to the toilet bowl and heaves herself up into a sitting position. Leg’s still bleeding, that can’t be good. It’s a struggle to stand up, and even worse to try and clean up the mess. Zoe limps out of the washroom and hurries to a storage room, the empty corridors a saving grace until she wraps her thigh up with tape and gauze. The lab coat is drenched in blood, she has no option but to throw it out. Still in a lot of pain but at least with clear purpose, she returns to where she’d left all her blood stains and starts to clean it up. No one needs to know about this. It doesn’t take long, however, before there’s a knock on the door. “Are you in there, Zoe?” Mark again, of course. “How are you doing?” Zoe feels bile rising in her throat. “I’m bad,” she responds with an angry hiss. She pretends to be sick, which causes Mark and their manager Prakash to worry some. Refusing to give more details, she soon leaves work early. The snow has picked up throughout the day, but sitting down in the rattling, snail-paced streetcar lets Zoe rest her leg for a while.
|Once Zoe gets home, she returns to the tedium of existence by wasting away at her computer. The tiny apartment is a mess, unclean and filled with small objects both strange and mundane. The wooden box of animal skulls beside her computer has a crumpled wad of toilet paper balanced on top of it from when Zoe spilled some water last week, and the only thing covering the smell of dirty laundry is the thick incense gushing out from her burner. The lights are kept dimmed or off, and Zoe feels her tired mind turn off just the same. The loneliness is all she knows, but it eats at her.5 With nothing catching her interest, still in pain, everything a bore, Zoe instead grabs a razor blade. Her right thigh is way too fucked up to cut into at all, but there’s plenty of almost healed flesh to disfigure on the left. Her meat splits open under the sharp edge, juicy and bloody, and Zoe once more feels the presence of family. Their voices bubble out from the cuts, each line splitting the soft skin open giving voice to another beloved’s words. Zoe hears them all, distinct yet implacable, and begs them for insight. Who is Sarinil? Did the demon kill her family? Do they know it? What is she supposed to do? “Summon it.” They answer in unison and without pause, their demand hitting Zoe all at once as though someone had upended a bucket of icy water over her. She doesn’t hesitate. After waiting for herself to stop bleeding, Zoe cleans herself off and calls into work. She’ll stay late tomorrow night, to make up for lost time today. She wouldn’t normally extend such courtesies to her workplace, but she needs to be there. Where else would she find bodies for the ritual? Zoe goes to bed late, the rest of her evening spent researching and preparing for tomorrow with a rarely experienced sense of purpose.||
Nightmares disturb Zoe’s sleep. She may be looking forward to summoning Sarinil, but in her mind linger worries from the last time she attempted to call on an entity like it. Eyes in the darkness reflected in her washroom mirror, muttering and murmuring from behind her black shower curtain. The lights wouldn’t turn on for weeks, and Zoe had stopped using her own washroom entirely until whatever lived there left. In her dreams, the being of black crust and rows of red eyes never left. As she sleeps, it cracks open the washroom door, finally finding its way out, and skitters across the ceiling to above Zoe’s bed. It whispers to her, that nagging hiss she struggled so hard to get out of her head. She knows what the being wants her to do, and she doesn’t want to do it. The mere thought frightens her. As mists fill her dark room and the whisper echoes from every corner, Zoe lets out a quiet sob and finally gives in. She’ll do it, anything to end this. The many-eyed monster goes quiet and the mists evaporate. Then, a crack in the wall. Snow rushes in and fills the room, and the icy blast wakes Zoe up. Still night, but her cold sweat and colder apartment keeps her awake. It was just a dream. She never agreed to do it. Zoe tells herself over and over just that, tries to remember that the entity left on its own. She’ll do better this time. She was careless with her first summoning and it bit her in the ass, but none of that tonight. Unable to fall back asleep, Zoe wraps herself in her heavy blanket and spends until morning on her computer. The sun never breaks through the thick clouds, the world taking on melancholy shades of gray outside Zoe’s window.
|Zoe spends the better part of her day at work reading, researching, and preparing for the ritual. Her worn, black duffel bag is stuffed full with trinkets and materials from home: bones, crayons and body paints, protective charms made from wood and colored string, incense, candles, and anything else she might come to need. Can’t be too safe. Early in the day, a man rolls a covered body on a gurney into the morgue, probably expecting Zoe to take care of it or at least have a look. She gives him a wave, music playing loudly in her earbuds, and returns to her own thoughts. She’ll deal with it eventually, her unfriendly stare tells him, and he knows better than to approach. Neither of them want to talk to the other.6 Zoe double and triple checks her notes, practices drawing the protective signs both on paper and on herself until her legs are covered in smudged paint. Her flowing black skirt hides that, as well as her scars. As the plan solidifies, Zoe decides that the early 19th century note about a blood or flesh sacrifice has to be worth it. She can’t afford to get on the demon’s wrong side, and appeasing it with a piece of her own body, already mutilated, is an easy act. The alternative is to risk being beset by the violent undead, according to multiple sources. The ritual requires dead bodies, and the hope is that they remain dead. The proper offering will, with any luck, ensure her safety.||
Observe A Situation
|Zoe supposes that, eventually, she should have a look at that body. Jane Doe, estimated age 28, same as Zoe, bloodwork normal, cause of death unknown. Curious about the mysterious stranger on the gurney, Zoe pulls the white sheet off the corpse and comes face to face with… herself. Same face. Same body. Same hairstyle, even, short and unruly. Same color nipples, same green eyes, all the same birthmarks, same age, same everything. Zoe freezes in place and stares in disbelief at the body. Seconds go by, and she comes no closer to finding an appropriate reaction to what’s in front of her. The difference, she finally determines, between herself and this otherwise identical stranger, is that she has no scars on her legs, or anywhere else. She also lacks Zoe’s facial piercings, just clean, still lips. Zoe traces her fingers across the cold flesh, taking in every detail with growing unease. She picks up the chart again and looks for any more information7 but other than sharing her blood type, Zoe finds nothing that would explain who this doppelganger is or where she came from. The only people who might know about this person and why she looks like Zoe would be Zoe’s family. Dead though they are, she could still reach out to them. She covers up the doppelganger once more, slips into the washrooms, and lifts her skirt to trace several long cuts along her left thigh. The sting of her skin splitting apart opens Zoe’s mind, allows her to hear that noisy chorus of voices, far in the distance.||
Zoe is at a loss for what to think. The corpse is definitely a bad omen. How can someone look just like her? Even if they did, how could they possibly maintain exactly the same figure, the same hair? There has to be a reason for this, this has to be important. She reaches out for the spirits, hoping for some light, but all she receives is darkness. Someone who was once important to her, a voice of concern, responds to Zoe with a plea for her to end this senseless search for understanding. Her double is dead, and even if she were not it would do nothing to cure Zoe’s eternal loneliness. The family once again speaks united, a thousand words saying only one thing: Zoe can not, will not, find anyone else. Her family is all the connection she has, all she can have, and she has no choice but to bow before their will. They do not want her to investigate this disturbing omen, don’t want her to even ponder it. Put the corpse away, out of sight and out of mind. Zoe yields to her family’s collective wisdom, but the ache in her heart remains. Something is deeply wrong about this, and she can not, apparently should not, find clarity.
|She cannot help herself. Somewhat begrudgingly, Zoe pages Mark and asks him to come down to the morgue to help her with an examination. He gets down the elevator quickly and steps into the well-lit room, curious and confused. When was the last time Zoe messaged him for anything? “So, you needed help looking at this?” He barely looks down at the body, eyes fixed on Zoe’s silent and tense expression, until he’s right by the gurney. His eyes fall to the corpse, wondering what the issue is, and then he sees it and goes quiet, jaw slack. “Does that look like me?” Zoe points to the corpse and asks without betraying the fear of whatever answer Mark might give. It does look like her, he confirms, and the two agree that it is weird as hell. Mark asks a lot of questions, none of which Zoe can answer. With his task of confirming Zoe’s grasp of reality done, he is ushered away so that she can think for herself.8 Frustrated, Zoe hurries to put the body into a freezer, where it can damn well stay. She knows this makes sense. In the back of her mind, connections are being made that she’d never considered before, but the conscious mind is slow and either way unwilling to hear it. Zoe’s family told her it was not important, so it cannot be.||
|The rest of the evening passes in a blur, Zoe visiting the setting sun briefly for her dinner break. She puts her mind to the ritual, to the possibility of meeting a demon her family knows, a being they cared about, somehow. A daring flicker of hope, the faintest of a positive emotion in her otherwise bleak husk of a soul, focuses Zoe’s thoughts and buries her worries about the doppelganger in freezer 7B. Once the sun has set and the halls have emptied in the hospital basement, the time comes to call upon Sarinil9. One by one, she brings the bodies out onto gurneys and tables, which she drags into particular positions around the chalked out symbol on the floor. Men and women, adolescents and the elderly, Zoe manages the flesh as a summoning instrument and nothing more. She looks into a man’s face, pale and wrinkled, and opens his mouth to place a black candle inside it. Zoe leaves the morgue lit only by her black candles. Two incense burners fill the room with the scents of opium and sandalwood, chasing away the normally so oppressive sterile atmosphere. Body paints inscribe not just the chests and face of the dead around Zoe, but her own legs and arms as well. The room’s air is heavy each time Zoe breathes, and the dark corners beyond the flickering candle light feel full, ready to burst.||
Dabbler In The Occult
With everything done, every word of power whispered to the meat Zoe has surrounded herself with and every sigil completed with steady hand, there is nothing more to than speak the words. Zoe doesn’t know a word of Old High German, but she has listened again and again to an audio recording of the phrase being spoken and practiced it, syllable by syllable. She stands in front of Sarinil’s symbol on the floor, speaks the summoning phrase in a loud, clear voice with her eyes right across to the darkness between two corpses, one with part of its head missing. Zoe lifts her skirt and the scalpel goes across her left thigh, by now as sorely abused as her right. With no regard for herself she cuts off a slab of skin, an inch and a half across. It’s placed in a small measuring bowl in front of Sarinil’s symbol, surrounded by skulls of rats and birds. When Zoe lifts her head, the room exhales. The candles dim out to glowing red points as all air disappears. Everything becomes distant from Zoe, disappearing across an endless expanse in the darkness until she doesn’t know where she is. When the room takes another breath and the sad, lonely meat bags are once more lit up by the candles flaring up in spectacular yellows and whites, a new presence overtakes Zoe’s senses. The emptiness between the open skull and the young girl with a gunshot in her stomach is occupied by Sarinil.
Zoe stands face to face with the demon, separated only by the circle of complete blackness on the floor where the summoning symbol once was. Light is cast onto its edges, yet the floor defiantly refuses to be lit. The creaking of old machinery follows the demon’s hissing breath. Sarinil appears only as a skeleton, draped in tattered robes so faded from the world that the bones underneath are cleanly visible. Screwed together with bolts and wire of rusted iron, Sarinil’s movements are slow and laborious. The demon carries in its chest a complex machine, lungs and heart wrought from ancient copper and connected to the black-socketed skull via several pipes. The machinery toils away despite the grating and screeching, somehow it must serve to keep Sarinil alive. With a voice like the icy wind howling outside the hospital, the demon asks Zoe what the purpose of this ritual is. It moves little, merely hovering a few inches off the ground and turning its head to observe the many bodies around them. From the darkness where the candles won’t reach, the corners of the room, marches forth a legion of naked men and women. Their feet and hands are worn to the bone, their intestines wrap around genitals and legs, they stumble and crawl in silence to encircle the room and the site of the summoning. Zoe’s eyes dart all around her before returning to the skeletal apparition. She could see no familiar faces in the throng of undead witnesses. She straightens her back and announces that Sarinil must tell her how she can see her family again.
|Again the room rushes into darkness and back, another heaving sigh in the fabric of reality. The demon responds, revealing to Zoe that her family has only one path in mind for her. “What path?” she asks, pressing on without hesitation. She has come too far for that now. There is one more ritual to perform, and it seems like Sarinil’s skull smiles as the words rise into existence. The apparition’s voice comes from the emptiness on the floor, not from itself. A chorus of voices erupts around Zoe as the witnesses brought in speak up in unison. “Perform the ritual.” It will guide you into forgetfulness, Sarinil continues. Zoe feels in her gut an immediate resistance, but without daring to consider it she shoves her instincts deep down and ignores them. When she is asked to step inside the circle of nothing, which no light can reach, she does so before her worries can catch up. As she crosses the threshold, a sense of disconnect overwhelms Zoe. This one step serves as the first in cutting her off from the rest of the world. “Forget us. You have achieved solitude.” the undead choir chants again, and Zoe’s head begins to spin10. This emptiness beneath her feet, the endless dark through which no voice can carry, no understanding be had, she once knew it. She once fought it.||
See Through The Illusion
Knowing so well that expanse of loneliness, so well as an instinct might tell you to pull your hand away from the fire, Zoe’s brain overloads entirely. She is beset by memories, impossibly clear yet without context. For the first time, she remembers her family, a vast community bound by blood and purpose. They lived and died as a whole, joyful in the task they had been appointed since long before Zoe’s time. Always, at all times, they must reject and fight that foul place below her feet. They stood against it in thought and action, a shining example of what family could accomplish should it not be divided by smaller wills, crueller dispositions or tactless rejection. Zoe and her sister walk along an aisle, carrying between them an infant child. They kiss the child on its cheeks, and pass it on to the arms of another, who carries it away. They all share Zoe’s face, which in her memory is nothing more than a comforting reminder of their connection. Of course they look the same, they always have and always will. Family is one. Almost toppled over as she gazes into the abyss, Zoe snaps back into reality with a bewildered look on her face. Neither Sarinil nor the friends it brought along acknowledge her when she speaks up. “I don’t want to forget!” It is the only path to reach her family, the demon drones on. The circle beneath her has grown now, nothing within the circle of gurneys and dead bodies lit. Inside this darkness, all Zoe can make out is Sarinil.
“Forget us, as we forgot you.” Their voices weigh heavy on her. Zoe’s stomach churns as she comes to recognize the voices praising Sarinil and edging Zoe closer to an empty mind. She has heard them all her life, so long as she can remember either way. They do not look like her, they’re not like her sister whose freezer she can still make out in the borderlands of the candles’ light. It seems so far away now, with the domains of solitude and forgetfulness stretching out across the room. One of the gurneys fall down into it, the young girl beside Sarinil diving helplessly into the bottomless pit Zoe stands atop. She hears a faint scream as the corpse disappears, though perhaps it’s only herself screaming. Sarinil’s screeching voice pierces her mind with more poisoned insight. Zoe’s family is gone, long gone. They do not carry her in their mind, for they have no mind with which to carry the memory. To join them is to forget, to take the path which leads her to the same place which they occupy, where no memory can rouse longing and no hope can disturb the stillness. Zoe could hope the demon is wrong, but her tired soul cannot muster to argue. Hiding away and excluding herself from connection is how Zoe has lived her life. She need only fulfill it now.
All of reality fades away. There is no floor, no walls, no ceiling. When light does not exist, it seems redundant to acknowledge the dark. Zoe can sit, though she does not know on what. Sarinil has vanished, as has its morbid choir. The voices are quiet. In this place, with nothing but the clothes on her body and a scalpel in hand, Zoe is allowed room to remember, and to forget. She can’t tell if any blood flows as she does the only action left allowed to her. Her family’s faces, all alike, come out from the deep recesses of her mind one by one and are cut down the same. They don’t look like Zoe, but perhaps Zoe never looked like Zoe. Their beautiful home, with its high-roofed cathedral halls where children were born and elders were cherished, is a bitter memory to her now. With how deep she’s cut, Zoe knows she should bleed to death now, but neither blood nor death seems to come. Nothing to do but continue. Once time itself is pointless to Zoe, the memories she knows she once had fade once and for all. The joy of protecting her community and guiding others, the sacred sense of pride she always felt when looking upon the altars and draperies dedicated to a power higher than herself, the limitless love for her family…
Zoe shears the last bit of flesh from her body with the ruined scalpel, and reflects one last time on her past before it leaves her for good. A beautiful past it was, but forever lost. Zoe stands up from the pile of refuse that was once her body. Flesh and feathers, duty and pride, all is left behind her as she joins with the void, as empty as she is.