Sin of Reference

Sophie was splayed out across the couch, blowing smoke rings into the ceiling of her living room. Time was still passing—and that irked her. She took another rip from the joint, held her breath for a moment, ejected three perfect halos of wispy grey vapor, and then wondered out loud, “Am I a bad mother?”

Belo, who was slouching in the recliner beside her, just raised an eyebrow. He held out his hand in the form of a request, and she obliged him by gently placing the joint between his fingertips. Perfectly undisturbed by her anxieties, Belo lifted the joint to his mouth, inhaled, and—in a reflexive act of mindfulness—focused on the deep sensations of smoke entering his lungs.

“Well,” he said as he exhaled, “Are you… even… a mother?”

Belo turned his head and glanced toward the rug, where Yaldeh was playing with his toys. In sharp contrast to the lazy atmosphere around the coffee table, Yaldeh was enacting apocalyptic scenes, violently smashing his action figures together, knocking over towers of block castles, and loudly shouting, “I am the king of everything!”

Sophie shuddered at the thought of his untold destruction. Belo just shrugged. Yaldeh must have been about four or five years old, but that detail was incidental.

“I think so,” Sophie said, finally answering the question. “I think, yes, I’m a mother. But sometimes… he acts like I don’t exist.”

“Shit. I mean, being a single mom is hard. I know that wasn’t part of the plan.”

Belo tried to give her a look of understanding, as if to say, I know you’re doing your best, but he wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Sophie didn’t seem to register his meaning, either. Instead, confusion settled across her face, and—as if contagious—quickly spread back to Belo as well.

“Wait,” Belo said, springing upright in his chair like he just remembered being late for an appointment, “Where did we leave off?”

“From last time? I’m not sure…” Sophie looked aimlessly around the room. “We wrote it down though, right? It has to be around somewhere.”

The message. That was the key.

She started scanning the apartment, trying to get her bearings. There were photos all over the living room, and Belo was in a lot of them. He was a man, for one thing. That felt strange. And he was quite good looking, too, with only a few grey hairs showing his age. But it seemed like they were just friends, as far as she could tell. It was also becoming clear that Sophie had a green thumb, because on every window sill there was a monstera, or a pothos, or a nascent avocado plant. And while the air in the apartment was uncomfortably warm, there wasn’t a ceiling fan. Maybe a thermostat was hiding nearby.

“We were here before…” Sophie trailed off, noticing the exquisitely hand-carved chess board on the coffee table. It had eight queens placed in symmetrical arrangement, but for some reason there were no other chess pieces in the set, only the queens.

“In Clarkston… Georgia?” Belo said. “I don’t think so. It’s always so random.”

Sophie picked up one of the queens from the chess board, examined it briefly, then placed it back on the same square she lifted it from.

“Did I tell you what the Al-Amins are dealing with right now?” She asked. Changing the subject was strangely irresistible.

“No,” Belo said, before firing off a shot of sarcasm. “But I’m sure everything’s going just great.”

“You have no idea,” Sophie lifted herself up from the couch and began pacing around, inspecting the arrays of photos and souvenirs scattered across the various surface areas. Belo stayed put in the chair.

“You know Omer is driving all the time for his new job, right? Well, he needed a car.” Sophie walked past the electric fireplace and picked up a trinket from the mantle. She examined it while stepping over a battlefield of toys, and Yaldeh grabbed at her heels as she walked past.

“So he got one. The problem is, he got it from one of those shady used car lots that most of us know never to go anywhere near. No credit required.”

“Oh jeez,” Belo sighed.

“Yup. So he got a $19,000 used car, which was stupidly overpriced, and paid $6000 upfront. Signed the loan and everything. But then a month later when he goes in to hand over his first $500 payment—in person, too—they told him he already owes a $200 dollar late fee because there was some clause in the loan saying that he actually has to pay twice a month, in installments of $250.”

“Which, naturally, they didn’t mention to him.”

“Correct. And of course he doesn’t have the extra cash on hand, so he pays what he can and heads home for the day, makes some calls to me and the rest of the gang to see if any of us can help. I forwarded the loan to Carlos so he could look over the contract, but before he even gets back to me, I get a call from Yasmin the next morning saying that they towed away the car. Now they’re charging them an impound fee of $60 a day, every day, until… whenever they’re fully caught up on the payments.”

“Unbelievable,” Belo muttered, still unable to fully shake off the eerie sense that something wasn’t adding up. “Well… what did Carlos say?”

“They’re fucked,” Sophie said harshly. “The dealership has them locked in, with a variety of legal bullshit they can use to keep gouging the Al-Amins for as long as they try to keep the car. They’ll probably have to let the dealership repossess it eventually, taking a hit to their credit and a $6000 loss.”

“Shit,” Belo shook his head. “There aren’t enough rungs in hell for people who rip off refugees.”

“There are no rungs in hell,” Sophie snapped back. “For better or worse.”

She continued wandering towards the kitchen, then shook her head before adding, “They had perfectly fine credit, too. They didn’t need to go to such a sketchy—”

Sophie halted in front of the fridge for a split second, then in a single motion she swiped a yellow post-it note off the door and then spun in place to face Belo.

“Found it.”

“Bingo,” Belo said. He shot a finger in the air, as if he were ringing a bell.

“But… wait,” Sophie stared at the note in bubbling frustration, carefully double-checking the words etched across both sides of the yellow paper. “It’s not right.”

“What do you mean, it’s not right?”

“It changed, I think.”

“Are you sure it’s the right, uh… inscription?”

“Yes. Or at least, it was at one point. I can tell.”

Silence hung between the two of them, pierced only by the bold exclamations of Yaldeh, who was still noisily smashing his toys together and throwing them in the air.

“Just read it already,” Belo said.

Sophie sighed, adjusted her feet, focused her gaze down at the post-it, and recited the messily scribbled words in a flat, disinterested monotone:

Under the flickering shadows of firelight do shapeless hordes gather and conspire to be. Whispers of that wind-whipped flame herald their only intent, “We are coming.” Thus do they yearn for the unlikely promise of their own withering fate—a single moment to be the measure of all things, and then to burn again among the embers.

“Well, shit.” Belo blinked vacantly, “Not really much to work with there. Protagoras, I guess?”

“It’s an allusion, at the very least,” she said, not entirely sure why or how she knew what Protagoras was. “Whatever it is, it’s useless.”

Sophie’s shoulders slumped in dejection. She stuck the post-it note back on the door, then opened the fridge and looked inside. The cold air felt good on her warm skin.

“Fuck,” she said, changing the subject again. “I think I needed to get groceries today…”

Belo sighed, gradually realizing that they were wasting what little time they had, “Sophie, there’s no such thing as groceries. You keep forgetting.”

“I’m not forgetting, Belo. This is just as much real as anything else. And if this child starves to death… then it’s my fault. This is all my fault.”

She shut the fridge door with a dampened thud.

“Sophie,” Belo said. “Goddamnit, you know that’s not true.”

Sophie smirked at the expression. God damn it. Belo nodded in silent acknowledgement, then rolled his eyes.

“But then who’s fault is it, if not mine?” Sophie said. “None of this would even exist if not for my fuck-up. I did… this. We all know that.”

Belo slapped the armrests and then raised his arms up in an overdramatic shrug, as if to say, Stop with this already.

Action… didn’t even exist yet… when you didthis.” He wrapped every other word in the sentence with ridiculously exaggerated air-quotes, just to highlight the strident absurdity of the statement itself. Then, with his left hand he casually waved away his own nonsense, returning to the truth of the matter, “Your thoughts and intentions were the unavoidable consequences of antecedent facts. There is nothing you could have done. The original error came much earlier, and it had nothing to do with you.”

Belo was lost in the point he was trying to make and didn’t remember that he had an open can of seltzer on the side table. But he was reminded when Yaldeh grabbed it right from under his gaze and began pouring it all over the toys—and all over the rug—yelling, “Die! Die! Die, you stupids!”

Belo smiled. Sophie did not.

“You missed a few,” Belo said, pointing at a suspiciously dry set of figurines. The lucky toys were resting on top of a large pile of blocks that looked like they were probably supposed to form some kind of structure.

“I don’t like them,” Yaldeh said matter-of-factly, in that direct and honest way that only toddlers can—before returning his full focus to the diluvian chaos at hand.

Belo’s eyes opened wide in total surprise, and he turned to Sophie, declaring, “Hey… I exist!”

“Who knew?” Sophie replied, clapping silently in mock applause. “It’ll be weeks before he acknowledges you again.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” Belo said. “Honestly, I don’t even know why you gave him all those toys.”

“I didn’t give them to him. And they’re not toys.”

“Right,” Belo remembered, catching his own momentary slip.

Sophie returned to the couch and fell back into her seat. She felt defeated.

“So. What does it mean?” She asked.

“The note?” Belo replied. “Hard to say. A bit metaphorical, perhaps. But a charitable reading would certainly yield some level of abstract truth to it… just, as a general statement on the propagation of forms. The style, though, is pretty heavy-handed. Ominous too, I guess.”

Sophie sat there blankly.

“Thanks for the analysis,” She chirped, not entirely sure what she expected. “Well, if we were trying to send ourselves a message, it didn’t come through.”

She was glaring at the chess board now, realizing the queens had been meticulously placed in a way such that none of them was threatening the other. Clever, she thought. Beautiful, even.

“Why did the message change, though?” She asked. “Some kind of drift? Semantic filtering? There’s no way that’s what we wrote down…”

Belo shrugged.

Sophie couldn’t grasp it. She couldn’t grasp any of it. Every time the context shifted on them, they had to start from scratch. It was like coming out of a haze, where their own primordial identities were melting in and out of the local reality that they were supervened upon. Random details seemed so lucid, so obvious, so clear—meaningless trivia from lives they never actually lived—and meanwhile their entire purpose for being remained cloudy and distant.

Sophie didn’t know what to do, or where to even start. They couldn’t fix the error. They couldn’t stop Yaldeh from wreaking indescribable havoc. They couldn’t even make contact with the others. They were stuck, getting yanked from one corner of existence to the next, perpetually mired in confusion, left wondering what went wrong.

All because she, Wisdom herself, made a stupid mistake.

“Yaldeh wasn’t the first.” Belo interrupted, as if he knew exactly what Sophie was thinking. “I was.”

“What?” She didn’t follow.

“The first mistake. It wasn’t you, Sophie. It wasn’t your error. That’s what I’ve been trying to explain, every time we do this. I think it’s why we’re here. I think we’re just trying to have a conversation.”

Sophie paused to consider what he was saying. Lord knows there was no talking in the pleroma, the higher plane. It’s like a library in there, she thought, and then chuckled to herself.

“Okay, sure. But if not me, then who?” Sophie asked.

The question hung in the air for a moment. Belo pinched the bridge of his noise.

“Bythos.” He said the name and then clenched up, as if it was a spirit he was being careful not to summon.

In a sense, it was.

“Hmm,” Sophie paused, “But that…”

“Don’t you see it? Bythos created me, emanated me—whatever you want to call it—I was made as an ancillary extension in a perfect parallel to the way you created Yaldeh. Not even a parallel way, really. The exact same way. It was maybe even the exact same act, or at least an echo. You are Bythos. And I’m Yaldeh. Regardless, the problem was baked in from the start.”

“Okay…” Sophie noticed a growing sensation of warmth on her skin as everything was starting to become clearer, with the more subtle details finally coming into focus. But if anything, that clarity only highlighted just how many pieces still weren’t connecting.

“So you’re saying it’s not my fault, because the original error came from Bythos. But also, you’re saying… I’m Bythos. Sorry, old friend, but you’re not making any sense.”

“But that’s the thing!” Belo was starting to feel the clarity breaking out too, “As soon as I existed as the image of Bythos, as a reference to Bythos itself, every other potential reference that could ever possibly exist immediately sprung into being as a necessary consequence of that very first emanation, specifically because it was all already contained in the pleroma of Bythos from the outset. Including you and Yaldeh. The error wasn’t even something that happened ‘after’ our creation in any meaningful sense, because it occurred from a perspective where all existence is simultaneous and the order of time is only a downstream consequence of the originating Logos.”

“And in that plane,” Sophie continued the thought on his behalf, “For any entity to exist both as itself and also as a reference to some other entity, it would necessarily introduce a cascade of references that would end up turning all of possibility into reality.”

Okay yes, Sophie thought, this is it. We’re on the right track now. This is why it all seems broken. Maybe in the end all of this is truly necessary, after all.

But then… wait, Sophie paused, as her thoughts settled into yet another layer of clarity that she didn’t even know was there. Wasn’t it Brahma last time? Bythos… Logos…

“I like the Vedic setting better, honestly.” She quipped. Suddenly she had enough command over her surroundings to become a critic. “Mostly because of the soma. I’ll take that stuff over kaneh bosem any day.”

“Disagree,” Belo said. “I prefer inhaling my intoxicants.”

“The Mesoamerican context works too,” Sophie continued, completely ignoring Belo’s dissent. “Anything but this hodgepodge of Abrahamic, Greco-Roman garbage. I mean, it’s not even canon, for fuck’s sake.”

The sensation of warmth was getting stronger now.

“Bythos,” Belo said. “That’s sumerian, at least. Is that good enough?”

“What? It’s greek.”

“Check your roots. Bythos. Abyss. Abzhu. Sumerian—via the Hittites, I believe. Waters of the deep.”

“Besides,” he said, gesturing with his hands at their general surroundings. “It’s never canon.”

How did everything get so… fragmented? She wondered, yearning for the clean order and carefully arranged symmetries of the queens on the chess board.

This is only the veneer, anyway, she figured. The labels for things didn’t matter, only the underlying powers and forces, the forms and the ideas. Or… was the “veneer” actually the substrate? Were the “underlying” powers and forces actually superfluous? Was supervenience the problem? The root cause? It was, in its own way, a sort of reference.

Sophie was getting really hot now. Uncomfortably hot.

She felt a vibration in her pocket and pulled out her phone to see an unread text message.

“Hey Jess, you getting here soon?” It read. “We’re wondering if we should wait for you and Jamie or just get started without him. Let me know.”

Right, she thought. Yaldeh was supposed to go to soccer practice. Before… all this.

She noticed that her hands were sweating all over the screen, and she let the phone slip out of her fingers and drop to the carpet. Without thinking, she stood up from the couch to walk back over to the fridge, wondering if she should just stick her head inside to cool off.

Belo seemed completely unaware of the swelling heat. He was just sitting there in apparent comfort, perfectly still, observing her. Waiting, maybe.

She opened the door of the fridge, but she couldn’t even feel the cool air. It seemed like there was no temperature difference at all. She tried the freezer too, but the result was the same.

Belo was still sitting there, quietly.

“Fucking hell,” she said to him. “Aren’t you feeling this?”

“Think, Sophie,” he said. “Just think.”

But the harder she tried to think, the hotter it got. She was pouring sweat now, with the droplets forming faster than she could wipe them away. Her hands were shaking. Her vision was starting to blur. It wasn’t just warm now, but searingly hot. The air itself seemed to be boiling. She had to get out of the apartment. She had to get outside.

Sophie stumbled over to the door, but when she grabbed hold of the metal knob, it immediately turned an incandescent red and started to melt in her hand. It didn’t burn her. Instead, it seemed like she was burning it.

She pushed against the bulk of the door instead. Her hand burned and singed straight through the wood, and the door began to warp in on itself from the ambient heat. And yet—with only a little force—it suddenly burst open. Wood chips flew outside as the door blew completely off its hinges.

She stopped at the threshold and turned back to glance at Belo. He could see now that she was fully engulfed, head to toe, in a smokeless flame. But she was not consumed by it.

“We’ll have to pick this up again later.” He said, as he slowly stood up out of his chair for the first time.

Sophie realized what was happening. She panicked and looked over at Yaldeh.

“Leave him,” Belo said. “You know he can’t come with us.”

Slowly, Belo started walking over to Sophie, and as he did the contours of his body began to shimmer with a golden light. The brightness surged from behind him, radiant with an otherworldly aura, rushing inward and bulging outward, gleaming brighter and brighter until he himself was only visible as a black silhouette, draped in in the vibrant glow. His human outline then proceeded to transform, contract, and then split in two, becoming a pair of perfectly black amoebas that continued to shift and rotate in front of the light. The undulations gradually slowed until finally they settled into a rigid, stable form. The shimmer then faded, allowing the full shape and color of the two beings to come into view.

On the right was an eagle—on the left, a serpent.

Still wrapped in flame, Sophie began to walk outside. The animals followed.

As the trio began their steady march down the sidewalk and into the street, the serpent crawled up the leg of the eagle and then writhed up its body, gently wrapping itself around the much larger bird. The eagle then unfurled its wings and the pair lifted into the air as one. Sophie held both arms above her head as her heels separated from the concrete and she, too, floated off the ground.

Every movement they made was sublime, graceful, as they rose precisely eighteen cubits into the air.

For a moment the three of them held still in the sky above the streets of Clarkston. Sophie was levitating effortlessly, far above the ground, holding her arms up toward the clouds, with the eagle and serpent hovering just above, as though she were presenting them in a gift to the heavens. All of them, together, were engulfed in smokeless fire.

Sophie closed her eyes, there was a blinding flash of light, and they were gone.


DEKALB COUNTY, Georgia (WSB-TV) – UPDATE: The evacuation notice has been lifted and all roads are now open after precautions were taken in response to a local gas leak, according to the Dekalb County Sheriff’s Office.

A gas line explosion in Clarkston led to the evacuation of residents in the Oakenridge apartment complex and the surrounding area. No deaths or injuries have been reported, but two missing persons have yet to be located.

Dekalb County Sheriff, Danielle Forrester, confirmed the explosion and said, “The situation is under control. We know what went wrong and have taken all necessary steps to remediate the issue.”

Sheriff Forrester said that deputies are going door-to-door in the area and providing aide to those affected.

A Scottdale church has also opened its doors to those evacuated or otherwise impacted by the gas leak.

Pastor Daniel Cartwright of Temple Bethlehem Methodist Church has said they are taking people in at their family life center. The church is located at 831 James Creek Rd, Clarkston GA, 30021.


חכמה חם

—yoav golan

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