The Pantheon

Always Less

March 28, 2021 Joshua White
The Pantheon
Always Less
Chapters
The Pantheon
Always Less
Mar 28, 2021
Joshua White

Flipping the script on something that left a bitter taste on my tongue. Hopefully this matches the Pantheon's palette a bit better. :-)

 The Pantheon is written and produced by Joshua White.

  Sharing Links: 
 https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-pantheon/id1498984739
 https://www.buzzsprout.com/811181
 https://www.instagram.com/the_pantheon_remembers/
 https://open.spotify.com/show/6Pmngtn7BBnOeAiOzAriHJ
 https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-the-pantheon-57860820/
 https://podcasts.google.com/?  feed=aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5idXp6c3Byb3V0LmNvbS84MTExODEucnNz  

Show Notes Transcript

Flipping the script on something that left a bitter taste on my tongue. Hopefully this matches the Pantheon's palette a bit better. :-)

 The Pantheon is written and produced by Joshua White.

  Sharing Links: 
 https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-pantheon/id1498984739
 https://www.buzzsprout.com/811181
 https://www.instagram.com/the_pantheon_remembers/
 https://open.spotify.com/show/6Pmngtn7BBnOeAiOzAriHJ
 https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-the-pantheon-57860820/
 https://podcasts.google.com/?  feed=aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5idXp6c3Byb3V0LmNvbS84MTExODEucnNz  

Always less. The thought echoed through my head as I struggled to get myself to wake up. I could spare a few more hours in bed, could I not? But then I’d slept enough. Nine hours. I’d redoubled on some of the stuff I’d lost over the past couple of weeks. I wanted to say I lost it by virtue of work, but wasn’t exactly true. Although I guess it would be technically accurate to say that I’d lost a good thirty eight hours of sleep to that place every week. 

Always less. What was that thought? It burrowed into my head like an antlion digging its hole in the dirt. A weird simile, one that felt especially right. The idea was preparing me for something. What had I dreamed about? 

A thin trickle of sunlight was pouring through the shades. I could, if I wanted to, curl back up in my covers and try to capture that dream again. But what madness was that? Two words? Two words that I’d come up with in my dreams. My dreams that were nothing more than distractions, little sideshows for the grand carnival of life. And that was a better simile. Metaphor. Whatever. I’d never been all that great at words. 

Always less. The words meant nothing. It wasn’t always less. There were good days and there were bad. Was it talking about death? I mean, I wasn’t afraid of the time before I was born, so why would I be afraid of that? How could I say that even that was less?

What was the thing in the river that said those two ominous words? 

It didn’t matter. It was a dream, and it was the morning. A nice, crisp autumn morning. There was plenty of stuff I could geet done, that I would get done. First was to stop the rumblings in my gut. There was still a bit of cornflakes in the cabinet. They weren’t the sugary ones, but they still felt pretty good on my tongue.

Always less. Sure, sure, this was less than I was used to in my memories. But I enjoyed it all the same.

It was also more than some of my memories, too. We couldn’t forget that. There were a couple new coats in my closet. They felt nice against my skin. 

Winter was rolling in. The trees had already shed most of their leaves, and the grass and weeds were browning from lack of moisture. Even though I enjoyed a little bit of the frigid chill pushing against my skin, I always found winter to be my least favorite season. But, even still, even though my appreciation of it was less, it made me enjoy the other seasons more. 
A bit of shade was poking into my eyes, like little needles being pushed just against the surface flap. The cornea, I think it’s called. Little bits of frosty death poking their way into the warmth of life. 

A time to be always less.

But I sort of liked the chill. Or, maybe, sometimes I just liked the contrast of the warmth of my jacket facing off against the terror of the cold. In combination, both accentuated each other, made the whole experience nice. Plus, at the end of winter, Spring would roll in again, and things would be more green in reality than they were in my memory. That would be nice. 

Always less. I didn’t understand why that stanza was running through my head. 

I strolled over to the window, pondering what I’d do over the new day I was given. There wasn’t much new, other than that the sky was dabbled a lovely grey-blue, and my sole neighbor was dragging himself back from the pit. 

He always looked a bit bedraggled. Grooves were burrowed so deep into the skin below his eyes, they might as well have been antlion traps too. See, there I go, recalling a dirt poor metaphor from hours ago. Simile. Whatever. Continuity of thought. I was reaching it, somehow, sometime, with thought. 

He’d been the only other person I’d seen in the complex, but, for whatever reason, I never felt like he saw me. That was well enough, of course, me being the only other resident. And a resident without, well, express permission. It was good that he was so ignorant of what happened around him. It allowed me a roof over my head. 

That was assuming that he was the landlord, of course. Maybe he was in a similar position to me. Maybe he wouldn’t care. The darkness that hung over his eyes told me he found it hard to care about anything. So, maybe he did notice me. That was even more sad than him giving me the boot.

A person to be always less. 

His time was running out, much as mine was. But his was being made less faster and faster. Burning the candle at both ends. No. Not both ends. All ends. The candle was forced to grow new wicks to satisfy the…

What was it? I could picture a vague shape of it in my head. 

Yes, in my head. That’s where it would go next. The other man was a finite mortal; there was not much time left for him. I was next. I would help make less. 

The thought sat in my mind like a rotten lump, as though it were something that I’d chewed and spit out a year and a half ago, and just left to sit there, to let it melt back into the cosmos. In a sense, I put it there so that time itself would make it less.

Yes. To make it less. There was very little for the thing to shave off, now. Each piece it tore off did not grow back. The scars it left in the coward were permanent; there were no friends to fill the place of those offered up, no bums foolish enough to find lodgings in these publicly haunted quarters. 

Except for me. I never felt like my relocation was a death wish. So it might come. So I might see this apparition which was whisking away the lives of all those who slumbered here. So what? Death was certain anyway. There was never anyway to wish for the inevitable. 

Yes, I felt this was inevitable as I unloaded my bags. Yes, this was inevitable as I found the key under the mat and claimed my de facto lodgings. The past was always inevitable when viewed from the future, and so this would be inevitable, too. At least, it would be inevitable if I was there in the morning to look back upon it, scars seared into my hand where the flesh would never heal. A swipe that I’d dodged, a wound I’d traded for another person’s heart. Inevitable.

But was it really inevitable? True, the thought pulsed in my head like a rancid lump of meat given live, an ersatz heart created by the doctor Frankenstein himself. But I’d ignored things before, things that felt just as inevitable as this. It was why I wound up here. It was why any of us ever wound up anywhere.

This could be my cross to bear, this thought, this echo of reality.

Reality? 

All of this was madness. Madness, I say. Everything had been better before I’d been forced to move here. The air was cleaner, the river ran more smoothly, my car started up faster. And the pit wasn’t there. Least, I never saw it there when I drove past it. Now, every day I had the displeasure of inhaling the sheer stench of decay that wafted over it. He’d given up trying to hide the bodies, and the police had stopped bothering trying to arrest him for it. They understood that this was not the work of reality. This was… this was always less. 

I’d maintained my happiness not by the truth of my material conditions, but the truth of my contentment. My satisfaction with the universe, with myself, with not feeling like I ever had to prove anything besides providing food to my stomach and yet every day proving to myself and others a little bit of my good. And yet every day got a little less. The lights dimmer, the tap water full of sharp chemical flavor, the mail warped and tattered in transit. 

Always less. And the thing was calling me.

A part of me wanted to go to be a martyr. Could I not bear the crown of this responsibility better than the fool across the block? I’d never known him to not be rancid on his own part, never seen him with a better expression on his face than a frown. But, then again, I’d never seen him without the crown. A terrible burden for any human to wear, and I would inflict it on myself willingly? What sort of madness was that? To think that I could tame this thing of unknown form and power with nothing but my tiny mortal mind? It was a certain kind of madness.

A madness that would always be made less. 

I was staring at an empty soda can. It had tasted good, made my day a little better. But each sip was worse than the last, until at the end I was only chastising myself for drinking the thing in the first place. I washed it out and tossed it in the bin, both dreading and looking forward to the long march over to the next complex’s bins. Neither trash nor recycling ever popped up in our lot. And why should they? Why would anyone ever touch such cursed land, especially when it would take a century for me to fill up the bins on my own? The dark eyed kid had started tossing his rubbish in the pit, and mine had become the home of a large family of raccoons and countless larvae. In a way, even that had been made less.

Made less. And yet the creatures thrived on my rubbish. Was that less?

No. I had an answer. Probably not the correct answer, but it was enough for the muscles in my legs to propel me out the door. I gave my lodgings a nostalgic go about with my eyes. There was every chance that I would never return, and so I needed to treasure my past, even if it was as simple as this place. Little photo frames of my cousins off in Arizona. A pile of books I’d sorted through at least eight times. A bag of clothes I swore to myself that I would take down to the laundromat on Thursday. 

Simple things. A simple life. Perhaps they weren’t worth remembering in the grand scheme of things, but then again, perhaps I wasn’t worthy of remembrance either. Who could say? So, without being able to say, I wasted no time in allowing my mind to sup on the gentle pleasantries of the past.

Hopefully, they would be the gentle pleasantries of the future. But then all would be made less. 

It was down by the river. It liked the place, felt it was metaphorical. Every day, the river carved a bit more sediment away from the banks of the shore. Sometimes, if the current was strong enough, it would carve deeper and deeper, to the point where it formed a canyon. Others, the sediment would fill the bottom of the river, slowing the current down until the river dried up. One way or another, something was doomed to be less. The river? The shoreline? It didn’t matter. Always less.

The crisp autumn morning had grown bone bitingly chilly. A cold front had swept in from up north, graying the skies and freezing the air. More needles in my skin. I’d wrapped my jacket around me, and it kept me warm. A way to prevent things from being less. But then eventually I would lose the jacket, or I would lose my skin. And then things would be less.

Always less.

I usually stayed away from the part of the forest I now trudged through. Trash gummed up the bushes in foul white and silver masses. Styrofoam cup, chip bads, plastic sheeting. It was so thick on the ground that the soil could not squeak any plants up. So it was brown, and grey, and cold. Without care more trash would pile up, and so what remained of that part of the forest would be no more. Always less. Some days I went out here to clean the mess up. But not today. I was tempted, but the thing… it was in the river, waiting. 

Just half a mile now. I remembered this place well. I’d once camped out here. Only for a month or two, but I could still feel the mosquito bites on my skin. They were so prolific out here, it was almost like the air was more mosquito than nitrogen or oxygen. But I’d managed to find pleasure even in those days. And then I’d wound up finding my present home. It wasn’t always less. And sometimes, even that less could be a little more. I remembered the stories I’d shared with Merit out here. Nice guy. Wouldn’t have met him otherwise. 

But the thing was out in the river, wanting to make things always less. When the silt from the river settled on the bottom, slowing it down, the basin would broaden. Sure, it might dry up, but then the land underneath would be a rapturously fertile place for plants. And then another river would probably form somewhere else. And if the river made a canyon? Those were things of beauty, and it would mean the river would satisfy its life giving obligation for thousands of years. So things were not always less.

But the thing in the river meant for them to be so, even if the lessening was just a twist in the mind. It wanted the twist in physical reality, too, but if it found root in just one other person, made them feel less…

That is why I approached it. I couldn’t see it, yet, but I knew it was there. The river was there, and so the beast was somewhere therein. It wanted me to look at the river as a stain, clogged with sewage and disease. But it was cleaner than it was last year. They’d fixed up the sewage pipes. Things were not always less.

And yet the thing was in the river. I was almost there, climbing my gangly form down a dirt cliff side to the sand below. I’d tripped on this cliff once before. It really hurt, but I learned to be careful, to look for footholds in the little roots that sprung out from the side of the dirt. So even that was not less.

But the thing was there, in the river, wanting all to be less. I could almost smell it.

Maybe I could not smell it, but it could smell me. 

The thing before me, it was… well, it was not a thing. It was an absence of a thing. Not darkness, no. Not void, no. So I guess it wasn’t absence. But it was human, rotting, decaying right in front of me in a way I couldn’t ascribe to rot. It was as though it was the very nature of this thing to perpetually melt, and yet, at the last second, rebound on itself so that it was whole, if not a little worse. Its very skin swirled back into itself, moldering and smoldering, biting into the last little bits of good flesh which clung to its side. Would even that skin survive? “No.” That is what the beast said, its tongue crisp and covered with mold that was itself graying and crumbling away. I dared not think of what throat might have lay beyond that tongue, to offer such an utterance that was… perfectly normal.

Yes, perfectly normal. It was no voice I recognized, save that I knew it was a voice that could mean something to someone. A someone who would, with the passing of time, mean less and less. Even if their memory was seized upon, the creature of the past conjured up in their beloved’s mind would be more a construction than a reality, only a glimmer of truth encased in their form. And so, even in the best case they would become nothing more than a fragment of the person who’d loved them. 

But was that less?

“Yes,” the beast mouthed in a voice that was almost familiar to me. “Yes, that is less.” 

It took a single step towards me, planting its unshed foot in a little rabid. Water sloshed around its unwinding skin, and, as it did, it grew dark with algae and some form of chemical I knew would not help the fish. 

But was that less?

“Yes,” the beast mouthed in the voice of someone whom I’d met in preschool. “Yes, that is less. Always less.”

It took two steps, faster this time, the very rot it thought it inflicted on the landscape spurring it to lumber towards me near standard walking pace. As its feet brushed against the shiny river stones, they lost a bit of their sheen, became rougher, sharper, not nearly as good for skipping.

But was that less? 

“Yes,” the beast spoke with the voice of someone from work. Aaron, the janitor, I think. He only worked nights, so I didn’t speak with him much. Three steps this time. It was closing the gap at a pace that I could still easily match if I got it in my head to walk in the opposite direction. As the beast got within breathing distance of me, my nostrils were filled with the stench of rotting vegetables and recently thawed meat. The fibers on my clothes groaned with strain, a couple of tatters in my jeans growing ever so slightly.

But was that less?

“Yes,” the beast spoke with the voice of my brother. His memory had haunted me my entire life, not because I’d really known him, but because his loss had cast a pallor over my family. But most of that pallor was banished when they interacted with me. I gave them hope again, at the price of a bit of my own sorrow. “Yes,” the beast said. “Yes, that is less.”

Four steps. At this point I could only escape if I sprinted off in the opposite direction. But what were limbs to this terror? What was flight if by every step the muscles in my limbs would atrophy, eternally becoming less? What was there left to do but accept the oncoming wave of rot and molder in my own grave? What else was there? 

But even then, was that less? 

“Yes,” the beast said in my own voice from the past, perhaps from this morning or a month before, when I’d been stunned into sheer happiness. “Yes, that is less.”

One centimeter away from me. It was moving. I was not. I refused to accept the premise. Always less? But to this beast it was always more. Always more. Rot upon rot, sorrow upon sorrow. The very negative of loss was its own quality, something not less than joy, but different entirely. Not even opposites. And certainly not less. 

What did it want of me? What person did it think it could make me, besides that person which resides six feet underground? But even then, was that less? I had been born, hadn’t I? I’d been destined to die merely by the mark of my umbilical cord. My death was certain. It did not make the time I had living less. It did not make me less when that time came. My nutrients would nourish the earth, my flesh would feed the fish, my memories would live on in someone else’s voice. Less from my perspective, but still, the world would carry on, just as much as ever, not less.

That was not enough. Centimeter by centimeter the thing crept closer to me, its rancid breath berating my face. The thing had eyes, but they were covered by the milky patina of blindness. It had a nose, but its nostrils were clogged with mucus and dust. A lack of sensation beyond that of that the mind pulsating underneath. Yes, the mind pulsating underneath. Aware of the contradiction in being made less, so that its desire would be made more. All would be made less, and then all would be made less more. This was no riddle for me to solve. This was an eventuality, but an eventuality thrust into my life by an intellect, nay, a god. The god that was the thing that stood before me, threatening to unweave my soul. 

What did it want from me? How was I to be less if the grave was not the answer? It offered to choose, yes, it offered to choose. A way to postpone, in some way, but a way that would inevitably make every thing less. A life here, a soul there. Every night, off and on. Blood here, blood there, all seeping from skin which had rotted and then, in one moment of intense calcification, hardened and woven back upon itself. 

A life for my life, in simple terms.

But these were not simple terms. I remembered the other man from my apartment complex. I understood why I hadn’t seen him in a while, why the air was hung with the smell of so much decay. That was what it meant to be less. To constantly siphon off the life of the world about me, only to in the end have no feeling in my chest but despair. Yes, I understood that to be less. One hour to the next consumed by nothing but malaise, unable to enjoy the taste of apple juice or a good night partying with my friends. The eternal dread of the next second, wherein time would be punctuated by more pain, and always to give of my remaining hopes and dreams so that my doom could be staved off.

Yes, that was less. My own words, now, not created by the vile beast.

But I would not be less, not in the way the creature understood it, or even in the way I understood it. No! No, I couldn’t be! No, I refused to be! 

Even though I understood a little bit of the creature’s nature, I swung my arms into its knotted skin. Despite its scabbed look, it gave way like puddy to a nasty, gooey rot underneath. Just enough to navigate the laws of the universe, no more. Always less. No smile from the beast. No smile on my end. Only confusion ran through the air. 

My arms raced around the goo as though possessed of their own mind, swinging and scratching to make this thing less, and to make the world more. A horrid pain screeched through them like they were on fire, and, in a sense, they were. I knew what was happening. A little. The beast understood what was happening. A little. With its petty remaining strength it reached out with its arms and grabbed me by the shoulders in a desperate attempt to stop my bid. But my arms kept scrambling through the nasty refuse that was the thing’s innards. No matter the pain in them, or in my shoulders, or in my chest or my feet or my head… no matter the pain in everything. Still fighting a fight I never knew I’d enlisted in, until now. 

I was being made less. The beast was being made less. There was no longer any confusion. We both understood. Blood splattered out of my ears and out of my nose. Darkness was appearing in speckles in my vision, offering to guide me to the pit that would be my new home. But my arms had found the beast’s lungs, and torn them out. No howling. No gasping, no mimicry. Not even a recognition of the truth of my thoughts, or the foolishness of my sacrifice. Just a grand collapsing mass that brought me down with it into the currents of the river. My arms tangled on algae. I tried to fight back against the current, but every inch of my skin was seared, melting, and reforging itself all in one singular instant.

My head fell below water. Try as I might, I could not bring it back up. Water rushed into my mouth, my lungs. I would end much the same way the beast had. In a way, made less. In another, made more.

Silence. A song. The sea. I remembered the sea. 

Always less. The thought echoed through my head as I eagerly embraced the light of day. I gingerly stretched every ligament in my body, grateful for every tiny sensation that ran through their composite nerves. Today was a good day. There would many good days. Some would be less, some would be more. But there was a new compulsion in my mind. Silence reigned throughout this little apartment district today, as it had for many weeks now. Something made less. But I could hear voices from upstairs now, downstairs too. The sound of pots and pans clanking against each other, cars revving up to take their riders who knows where and back. I opened the window to see a little old man doddering around, picking up the litter. Where the pit had been was now a nice, grassy knoll. A couple of dogs were sniffing each other down there whilst their owners made amiable morning chatter.

Had it all been a dream? No, I didn’t believe so. Months had passed. Months. I’d found this place on a whim, moved in when I felt that he couldn’t see me. I knew he was the cause of this. No. The cause was gone, or at least, the cause had been shaved away. 

Things were not always less. They never could be.