Two Demons

Some years earlier, I was riding in an open carriage through a pale, skeletal forest. The sky was slowly falling apart and drifting as snow flakes in many straight lines down to the earth. When the snow in the carriage had risen to my ankles, I saw crouched on the road ahead a smudged figure. I asked the carriage to stop and stepped off into the snow. One boot. The other. It was not cold. From the east, beneath clouds on one horizon where the sky was open, the sun burned and lit up the air.

The wiry figure wore a red and white kimono, and a sword was tied to his side with a gray sash. He was on his hands and knees, with his head buried in the ground up to his neck. I stumped through the snow. When I approached, he lifted himself up, and I saw that he had no head at all; he had been holding the white bony stub of his neck to the snow.

“Good morning, sir,” pronounced the figure in a cool, smooth voice as he stood up in his sandals.

“Thank you,” I said. “How did you lose your head?”

“I lost my head in the Headless War,” explained the figure.

“What did they do to you?”

“I was a slave for so long I no longer needed it, and so they took it from me.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “None of us are whole.”

The pale figure bowed slightly, clasping his gaunt hands together at his waist.

“Perhaps I could help you, if you could retrieve my head,” he told me.

“Where is your head?” I asked.

“If you had lost a head, where would you have lost it, if I may ask?”

“In a lady’s bed,” I said wryly.

The figure spread his arms graciously. “Somewhere, my head is smiling.”

“Can you see from this ‘somewhere’?” I asked.

“Unlike you, my eyes are sewn shut, my ears are stuffed with ash, and my nose and mouth are filled with stones.”

“Then I will bring you your head,” I declared.

“Thank you,” said the figure. “Be careful, there is one demon near here. I have sparred with this demon since before the War, and have followed it here. It is like a young man with long gray hair, a blank face, and stormy eyes.” He then stepped to the side of the road and returned to his hands and knees in the snow.

I had always thought my cousin would be the person to ask if I lost my head, and so I hoped he would be able to help with someone else’s. It was still snowing when I arrived that night in town with two thin tracks drawn by the carriage wheels snaking off behind me. The town rose up a hill, with the scattered yellow lights of wooden homes burning through the snowfall. I left the carriage at the gate, and strode towards a road that led up the hill. I passed two soldiers with machine guns in gray and white camo who nodded at me. Triangular piles of snow topped every big, carved street sign. In twenty minutes I made my way through the sheen of cold to where my cousin lived, near the top of the hill.

Inside. In round spectacles and plaid flannel, my cousin mulled cider in the kitchen, while his wife showed me around their house: fireplaces, rugs and throws. She had her brown hair in a ponytail and wore a loose, patterned red sweater. With hot mugs the three of us sank into a couch. By then the snow’s cascade had ceased, and through the floor to ceiling window we watched the starry blue night swallow the town.

We talked about Wars and Headlessness.

“Are not, in fact, all wars headless ones?” I ventured.

“The problem,” said my cousin, taking a light slurp of cider, “in modern times, is that wars are many-headed.”

“The problem,” insisted his wife, sipping her cider, “is more often that they are wrong-headed.”

“If there are many heads then some are bound to be wrong,” I offered. “This cider is really great.”

“I think it’s the nutmeg, not everyone uses nutmeg,” my cousin explained

“You have to grate whole nutmeg, not the bottled, ready-ground stuff,” said his wife.

“Yes, whole nutmeg.”

“And there’s really no competing with hard cider,” she said, reminding him.

“Of course,” he agreed.

“How many heads do you think this war has, then?” I asked.

“Two,” answered my cousin’s wife. “Like Janus. One to look backward to see how we fucked up, and one to look forward to make sure we do the exact same thing again.”

“Amen,” said her husband.

I laughed. So before long, we were talking about Parenthood instead. It had gotten very late, and in that room in that house on the top of the hill we each were illuminated like the moon is in space: shining and surrounded by darkness. Red embers murmured in the hearth as we continued to drink cider, fortified by then with rum for extra warmth.

“One thing I always knew about you,” I said to my cousin, “Some day you’ll make a great dad.”

He and his wife grinned at each other.

“Well thank you. I really appreciate that, I do. What about me makes you say that?”

“You’re stable. At least externally,” I remarked.

He chuckled. “So you mean I can put on a brave face, well great. Does that also mean I’d make a great mom? Isn’t stability important for mothers, too?”

“It’s impossible for mothers,” announced his wife.

There were nods all around.

“About your friend,” my cousin said, leveling his mug at me.

“The man in the kimono?”

“Him. He’s lost his head? Maybe he’s like the Scarecrow on his way to Oz and he’s forgotten that he’s had it all along. No war, Headless or otherwise, is going to take your head from you. Just scare you into misplacing it. Right? He must have it somewhere.”

“But he said his eyes were sewn shut,” I protested. “And his ears were stuffed with ash, and his nose and mouth were filled with stones.”

“So what do you want me to do, get you a knife and a pickaxe? These are problems we all have. He’ll figure that out on his own time.”

I thought my cousin was a wise man. At the very least, he was brilliant with crossword puzzles.

When I returned to that spot in the road the next day it was morning again, and my tracks from earlier had been swept away. The sky was brisk and clear but shining flecks of snow from tree limbs drifted gold, drifted like tiny suns through the air.

Again the ragged headless man was on his hands and knees in the middle of the path. When I approached, preceded by the crudge of my footsteps, he stood up.

“Good morning, sir,” he pronounced. “Have you returned with my head?”

“I haven’t,” I admitted. “But I come with certain good news. Your head is not lost after all. It was never taken from you, could not have been. It was misplaced. You have gotten so used to headlessness that you have forgotten to look inside of yourself again.”

He made no motion for ten seconds. Then he merely said: “Of course. All this time, I have been fighting not one demon, but two.”

He clasped his hands at his waist and bowed.

“Thank you, traveler. How, then, may I help you as promised? You said that you, too, are not whole.”

I looked at the backs of my hands; they were red with cold. A duck, plodding carefully by in the snow some distance away, caught my eye.

“No, I’m whole enough.”

He bowed once more.

“Then I thank you again. I will find my head. And even though my eyes are sewn shut I will cut them open. And even though my ears are stuffed with ash I will hear again. Even though my nose and mouth are filled with stones.”