Let Me Go
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.
A park bench. 8:45 am.
She faced the sun. Newly risen, its light swirled, and warmed her face and legs like a summer wind, though it was fall.
A thermos of Kenyan mocha sat at her side, and a purple coffee mug lay like a puppy on her lap. She filled it, and raised it to her lips. Gently, she blew heat off the top of the mocha, and warmed her fingers on the mug.
She saw a young girl, probably no older than six, walking along a path with someone who was probably her grandmother. They had ice creams and helium balloons.
Anya took a sip. She shivered at the thought of the cold ice cream sitting on her tongue, sliding down her gullet, beckoning the morning's chill to come closer. She screwed her face up at the two balloon and ice-cream havers, then relaxed, and let it go. She took another sip.
She burned her lip, slightly. Mmm, she thought. Nice, but too hot.
Grandmother and granddaughter stopped to lick their ice creams. They talked a bit, looked at the sky, and Anya turned her face upwards in kind. The sky was blue and clear. It let the sun through to offset the cool fall breeze. Back to the mortals. They were doing something with the balloons. They were untying the knot in the ribbons that held the balloons together. They keep doing that, thought Anya, they're gonna lose those balloons.
And they did.
The balloons floated up with not great speed, and Anya tut-tutted as she followed their ascent into the sky. Again she looked at the two strangers, and she expected to see sadness. But they weren't upset. They were smiling. Anya looked up at the still fading balloons. And, gradually, she smiled too.
She took another sip of her coffee. Mmm. Warm, smooth, perfect. Although the initial burn still lingered. She opened her book.
"The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide."
She stopped for a second. She thought. The flood had made what?
The days pass with little to no variation from one to the next. Such is life. Fortunately, being of the Holy bloodline, I can side-step life. Or at least I usually can. Not always, though. Not lately.
The mortal coil. I hate it, its stench, clouded in the finite, rotten with the capacity to decay. I hate its everything, but... feh. I live there now. Practically, anyway. O, that I could rest and recreate in Hell. But, there is the duty.
The Ancients must have their demons. Vengeance must wander the world, in all its forms. This must that, and X must Y, and so on and on and on until the word loses all meaning. Vengeance. It used to mean something.
In the years since her fall, I have recruited innumerable demons to fill the void left in her wake, but they flit and fall away as they are slain, as they suicide, as they fail to adequately capture the essence of their office. Those that do survive their first months of duty remain uninspired, doling out vengeance as bland and unpalatable as stale loaf.
They are shadows, pale reflections; pathetic imitations with concepts of vengeance built on foundations laid out by Anyanka herself. Anyanka... the Spirit Of Vengeance verily weeps in her absence. Quite frankly, I'm sick of consoling the teary bastard.
Take, for example, one child whom I thought bore all the trappings of truly magnificent vengeance. I noticed her at a school, an all-girls boarding school in Norway, as she tore open the skin on her forearms with the point of a compass. Not making an attempt on her own life, oh no, she cut nowhere near vein nor artery. She ran the instrument along the curve of her brachiadialas, in anger and hatred. She rendered a miniture canyon in her epidermis for a split second of pain. God knows why, as would Satan and the other deities I imagine, but I digress.
I watched her for a spell, a month or more, and it became apparent that the principal and one of the prefects were sexually abusing her. Not as a pair, you understand, there was no collusion as far as I could see. Rather, it was a remarkable coincidence, a striking piece of good fortune. I thought, This is the girl, this is she. 'Twas a thought I'd entertained many times before, but one I so believed this time. I envisaged her inflicting torture upon torture on one-night stands, abusive and unfaithful lovers, and those who rape, and those who molest.
It was quite a party in my mind, terribly disappointing in reality.
She undertook her duty with an excess of disinterest. She was horribly depressed, focusing still on the events of her mortal life, not moving on from that original torment. She punished herself more than her victims, quite missing the point. So, like many of her predecessors, she was disintegrated, and I was left pining desperately for another Anyanka.
Anyanka was never so introspective. Anyanka carried no baggage. She left nothing to the imagination, she laid herself bare. So it is no wonder I am about to do what I am about to do.
Anyanka, although disgraced after a fashion, holds honour and favour with the Ancients. They like her. Her art, the innate simplicity in her work. Her malice and appreciation of vengeance are dying virtues, surviving only in some witches and some Romany, but never in the adequate mix. She is one in a million. A billion. Several. I could search and replace her for a hundred years and come no closer to attaining her perfection.
The world is awash in unchannelled female rancour. We cannot harness it, and we are weaker for it.
The choice, it seems, is obvious. There are laws that we uphold in demonkind, old laws by which we conduct our business, but some can be flouted when necessary. Things can be returned, terminations can be undone, acts of necessity are carried out when needs must.
And Anyanka's resurrection, in this vacuum, is naught if not necessity.
Evening. The sun at her back now; almost set.
It warmed her neck through blonde locks that almost blocked her skin from the evening air.
She poured what was left in the thermos into one more cup of mocha. It didn't exactly constitute an entire cup, and it wasn't exactly the best quality coffee anymore, but she finished it anyway, and she was glad in it.
She turned the page.
"Forgive me. I - I have mourned so long in silence - in silence.... You were with him, to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no-one to hear... "
She did not like this woman. She was far too simple. She'd been mourning her husband's death for months or whatever, but so far as Anya could tell, Kurtz was a bit of dick. At the least he was very strange, and not at all worth this fuss. The woman in Africa was better, much more exotic and sensual, but even she got a bit weird toward the end.
On a whim, Anya looked leftward. She saw, there on the grass next to her left foot, the withered corpse of what could have been one of the balloons that were set loose before, but she wasn't sure helium leaked that quickly. Even if it wasn't one of those balloons, it didn't matter. She noted, with some sad lament, that they'd all end up like this one, sooner or later. She turned the page.
"Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. 'We have lost the first of the ebb,' said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head."
Anya heard a quick crackle that seemed to come from a few feet directly in front of her. She raised her head. A wide circle of tiny flame burned orange in front of her. The flames changed colour and shape, becoming yellow, wider, taller, and dancing as pagans in some Western fantasy. The flamed continued to change. They straightened up and thinned out, growing taller, licking the air four feet from the ground. Anya watched.
Suddenly, the flames died. In their wake they left a wide circle of charred ground, like a giant cigarette had been put out on the park. There was also a figure.
Noting the figure, and not caring for the moment, Anya finished the last paragraph of her book.
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
She turned the final page, extremely satisfied in the finishing, and closed the book.
Without looking up, she addressed the figure. "What do you want, D'Hoffryn?"
"The question, Anya," said D'Hoffryn, sustaining the syllables of her name as if they were sour and alien, "is what do you want? It's time to decide."
"Honey, I'm home!" Xander carried some shopping bags with him which made the necessary sans-hands-door-closing manoeuvre very hard to execute, but his practiced and meaty hips served him well enough, and the door was eventually closed. "We may not have a working television, or a TV repairman, but we do have pizza and a book of puzzles that I picked up at the gas station." He thought for a moment. "Which could be fun, I guess. At least in theory."
He carried his wares to the kitchen. "There's this whole chapter on cryptic crosswords, which I can never do, so I'll leave those for you. Not that you'll fare better, you're just cuter to watch when you're exasperated."
Xander piled his keys, wallet and purchases on the kitchen table. "Their non-cryptic cousins, however, will bow before the might of my thesaurus-like brain. And also my trusty thesaurus."
He jumped a little, and looked her in the eye. "Hey babe," he said. "Hey... what's, uh... what's up with your face?"
"It's red," said Anya, carefully, "and overly corrugated."
"Yeah," said Xander, very slowly. "Those are some mean wrinkles." He began to sweat, and to nervously salivate. "How'd that happen?"
"Alright," said Anya, "don't get mad, okay? You make all sorts of crazy accusations and insinuations when you get mad and it gets hard to talk to you, so make sure you don't get mad."
Xander crossed his arms and took a step back. "This sounds good in so many ways."
"Don't get sarcastic either!"
"Anya!" he said. "Please, just tell me what's wrong. And can you lose the scary rash face?" His voice, big, angry, and full of authority as it was, broke often, every time hitting Anya's tear ducts.
"Well, nothing's wrong as such," said Anya, shaking off the red wrinkles as if they were mud, "but you're probably not going to be pleased."
"I'm never pleased," Xander joked. "Life with you is sweet frustration."
"Good," said Anya, "it's good that you brought up life with me. That's kinda what this is about."
"Anya, please, could you stop talking about what this is about and just talk about what this is about?"
"Alright!" she said, "God, sorry for catering to your irrationality."
"Anyway, you notice how I make jokes all the time about how cool things were when I was immortal, and that if I could be vengeance demon again, I would?"
He thought, "No," but said, "Yeah."
"And you know how they say 'behind every joke is a little truth'?"
"Who says that?"
"You know, one of Jerry's girlfriends off Seinfeld said it."
"Oh right," said Xander, "the Soup Nazi episode. But didn't he prove that there wasn't truth behind every joke?"
"Xander." said Anya, heavily. "You're missing the point."
She watched his face, his beautiful face, with its five o'clock shadow and blinky eyes, contort in confusion, smooth out into blank thought and, finally, awaken with dread.
"Hey," he said. "What do you mean there's a little truth?"
"Well, it's not a 'little truth' as much as it is just plain old 'truth'."
He eyed Anya sceptically for a nervous second while she did the same to him. She was waiting for him to say something, offer a reaction, do anything other than what he was immediately doing.
"So are you going to elaborate," said Xander, "or is the plan to just let me loudly exclaim 'what the hell' and 'oh my God' while the story gradually trickles out?"
She should've called him then on being... well, on basically being Xander, but in truth she felt that maybe he was entitled. Only this once. She'd get him next time. She knew, sadly, that there would be a next time. Or maybe there wouldn't be, and she wasn't sure which saddened her more. She closed her eyes, she breathed in deeply, very deeply, and breathed out. She opened her eyes again.
"D'Hoffryn came to me and offered to make me a demon again and I said yes so I am Anyanka. Again. That was her face, before, when you walked in the door. Red and wrinkly."
Xander went from confused to upset surprisingly fast.
"Oh my God."
"What the hell?"
"Don't get mad!"
"Anya, I... I really don't know where to start."
"Don't you want to know why I did it?"
"Pretty much what I want is for you not to be the patron saint of scorned women!"
"Well, yeah, fine, let's be a big sarcastabitch and disregard my feelings and belittle the situation while our relationship takes a weird turn and dies on the side of a highway. Don't you love me, you asshole?!"
Xander's jaw dropped.
"Anya, honey, I care - "
She interrupted and waved her comments away. "I know, I know. I'm just holding up my end of the argument."
"Plus I'm a little panicked, and y'know, the adrenaline's running and stuff."
They fell silent. They'd reached an impasse. They had ridden the wave of hostility as far as it went, and the impetus to go on had withered and died. They both looked down at their shoes, Anya held her elbows in a tight hug and Xander's hands buried themselves in his pockets.
"So," he said, "do you think that's the end of the hostile and indignant part of the talk?"
"I guess so. Wouldn't hold out on it not making another appearance, though."
"Well, if it means anything, I now actually promise to not get mad. Does it mean anything?"
"Not really. Except that you're making promises with a complete inability to keep them."
Xander smiled. Anya smiled. She looked around, at the calendar on the wall, the clock just above it. At the breadbox, the dinner table, the broken TV. Xander simply looked at her belly.
"So are you really a vengeance demon? Again?"
"Yep," she answered.
"Do I have to call you Anyanka now?"
"Well, I haven't really started working yet, so I guess 'Anya's' okay 'till then. As for [I]after[/I] I start working, it'd probably be for the best if you didn't see me. If you, y'know, value your genitalia. So you probably won't ever have to call me Anyanka. Which, really, is something I'd prefer."
"So you're saying we're never going to see each other again?"
Anya pursed her lips and creased her forehead. "Probably not."
"Well," he said, "what's to stop me and the gang from searching you out and making you human again?"
"That'd be their general dislike of me and the mortal dread you'd feel of confronting your ex-ex-demon ex-girlfriend. But, seriously, it's not the kind of thing you cure. Not twice anyway."
Xander nodded solemnly. He guessed as much.
"Can you tell me why?" he said.
"Why I said yes to being a demon?"
"Yeah, I don't get it. Not totally anyway. I mean, if it was the mortality issue, your fear of it, I thought you were over that?"
"You don't ever get over that," said Anya. "Or at least I don't. Even though I have thought about it less these past years. There are things which make it easier to forget about death."
"Like me?" Xander smiled crookedly, hopefully.
"As for example," said Anya. "Anyway, it gets better, but it doesn't go away. It was scary, but I could handle it if I had to. But, as it turns out, I don't have to, so I'm not going to."
"Well yeah, you don't have to," replied Xander, his voice wavering and breaking on every other word, "but... don't you want to?"
Anya moved to Xander and put his hand in hers. She squeezed a little, and softly traced her fingers up his arm to his shoulder, then to his neck and then to his cheek, where she rested her palm. She wiped a tear that had trickled down the curve of his nose with her thumb, and bit her lip.
"Xander," she soothed, "being with you is nice. So nice. More than nice. But I'm scared. Scared to death. I'm sick of it, this mortality. I've always been sick of it. It's all around me, it hands over me. I see a child prance along the sidewalk, and I think how that was once me, millennia ago, and how I'll never get that back again.
"I see a disgusting old person, like Giles, and I think how that'll be me someday, and how it all comes and goes so fast when you're mortal. A thousand years, just like that. Every time I see a story on the news about a car accident, or a drive-by, or a mugging, or an earthquake that splits a town in two, I think about how horrifying just walking across the street is.
"When you're lying awake in bed at night, and the only thing you hear is the sound of your own heart beating, doesn't it terrify you that one day it won't?"
She closed her eyes, and rested her head on his chest. "Being with you essentially means dying. And once I die, that's it. I die, and everything I ever had with you fades away. This is the only way I can keep what I have. Unless..."
"Well, you could come with me." It wasn't really a question or an answer. It was a thing. A possibility.
"What, like, as your demon boy wonder?"
"I guess," smiled Anya.
"Would the old... old man approve?"
"D'Hoffryn? Please. Right now, I could ask him to create an army of little navels for me and he'd do it. It's pathetic."
Xander's mouth curved into a tiny smile. "Navels?"
"Yeah," said Anya, smiling too, "little belly buttons with hats and muskets and uniforms like those English royal guards."
Xander let out a short heh. "And they can sing 'In The Navel' while they march."
Their laughter echoed around the apartment, Xander's girlish giggle contrasting Anya's breathy 'hahs'. But it stopped quickly. The echoes lolled around for a moment, lonely.
"No," said Xander.
Anya took her head up from Xander's chest and faced him.
"I can't do it," he said. "Even when you love something as much as I love you, having it forever loses... something. It's like a book or a song, you need it to finish so you sit back and savour it all. If it just goes on and on, it's nothing, it's normal. It's scenery. An end is punctuation, it gives everything meaning."
"And an eternity with me would be meaningless?"
Xander thought carefully. "It'd be hollow, yeah. I'm sorry."
"Me too," said Anya.
Anya held Xander to her tightly, gripping his muscular back as if letting go would mean the end of everything. Strangely enough, it did. Xander rested his chin on the top of her head and breathed in the gentle perfume of her hair. He closed his eyes and remembered. We could just get in the car and drive... Sometimes in my dreams you're all naked... We'll die together, it's romantic... We value your patronage...
They let go of each other simultaneously, and stepped back, unsure of what to say, or whether they should say anything at all. What was there to say?
"I love you," said Anya.
"I love you," said Xander.
Without a puff of smoke, without a loud bang and without the orchestra striking up a sombre tune, Anya was gone. Xander stood for a second, staring vaguely ahead. After a minute he blinked and started breathing again. He wiped away something in his ey and sniffed. He turned back to the table. His pizza was still there.
Slowly, mournfully, he opened the box. The pizza itself looked sort of clammy, but in an appetising way. I can't possibly eat all this myself, he thought. He let the box fall closed again and picked up the phone from the kitchen counter. He dialled, and someone answered. "Hey Will, what's up? Uh huh. Hey, how about coming over to my place for reheated pizza. Come on, I got some news to tell ya. Please? Hey, I've got crossword puzzles... yes, a whole chapter of cryptic. Okay, I'll see you soon. Bye."
He hung up the phone, letting his fingers linger on the receiver for a moment. He went back to the table and picked out a slice of pizza. He took a bite.
"Cold," he said.