Mechanoid Moloch! Moloch the mighty maw! Gnawing Moloch! Sawing Moloch! Moloch the grinding end!
The words rang around in Mary-Ann’s head, even now, some three hours after she had heard them first. She brushed them away, but they oozed back through the cracks in her mental concrete.
Maladaptive Moloch, eater of babies!
It had just been an insane man on the side of the street. You had those in New York.
She looked up at the sun.
“This weather’s just crazy. We were snowed in the day before yesterday, and now it’s practically warm enough for shorts.”
“Well you see, God hates homosexuals,” Salah said. “And so He is clearly manipulating the weather to rain judgment down upon us.”
Mary-Ann elbowed him, laughing.
“You. You are a funny person.”
“So I’ve been told. Personally, that’s a load of garbage. I am a thoroughly unfunny individual. Did I ever tell you about the time I was sold a dead parrot? I went right into that pet shop and continued to be unfunny the entire time I complained.” There was the tiniest smile at the corner of his mouth. The rest was in his eyes.
“How do you keep a straight face when you say stuff like that?”
“Years of practice.” There was the smile.
They turned right, heading down an alley to cut across to the next street. Dumpster, fire escapes, trash, a puddle, graffiti. The bustle beyond seemed deafened by the plain brick and concrete: a little slice of quiet, broken by two pairs of shoes.
The graffiti on the wall, a big bubblegum-pink “G”, began to squirm and they passed it. It flowed down the bricks, and about ten feet in front of the pair it bulged out from the wall and launched itself into the alleyway like a wet spitwad. It sat there for a moment before snapping into the form of a young man wearing an overcoat the same color as the paint. His hair was likewise the same shade. A cigarette dangled from his lip, unlit.
“Hey hey hey, what’s all this? You’re walkin’ into BackdoorSoHo without payin’ customs? Low blow there, low blow. Man’s gotta make a living and art ain’t fillin’ the belly, y’know what I mean?”
Salah dug in his pocket and removed a small silver coin and tossed it to the man. He turned it over in his fingers, squinted, bit it, and threw it back.
“We cool yet?”
“No.” Salah put the coin back in his pocket.
“Good. Management’s been up our asses, makin’ us check everyone who comes in. Pack a’ those bastards snuck in last month and fucked around. Doesn’t help that we’re up to our ears with the Snakes and Mac-Daddies boppin’ around, much less you Choir Boys.” He shrugged. “Why the fuck am I still talkin’? Get in there.”
He dropped into a pink puddle on the concrete and slid back onto the wall. In the distance, there was a slight shimmering in the air, a little momentary mirage. Mary-Ann and Salah passed through the rest of the alley and stepped out into the Backdoor.
The cobblestone street was an explosion of color and light and sound. Narrow brick federal houses and cast-iron faced lofts lined the way, railed balconies jutting out into the air. Every flat surface (and most non-flat surfaces) looked to have something painted on it. The world was a mural, some parts animated, some parts layered on top of other works. Statues of metal and plastic and wood and stone stood and walked and danced: people, animals, objects, shapes and forms without any prior meaning than their own existence. The air was heavy with music: brass jazz and basswood blues and murmuring vinyl dub.
Mary-Ann tried to absorb as much of the sensory assault. She had only been to the Backdoor once before, and from what she saw now, no two visits were the same. The art and atmosphere would be completely changed by next week, let alone several months later.
The street was too narrow for cars, and so was filled with pedestrians, and one man riding a panda: Squads of muralists in paint-stained jeans and t-shirts, contortionist actors in peacock feather tights, dreadlocked musicians smelling of ganja and listening to the songs flow through the holes in their heads, clothing and hair and decoration in a blindingly bizarre array of flamboyant colors and patterns. A barrel-chested firebreather, his beard licked with flame, spat green deer and purple tigers from his mouth, and the fiery cats went about hunting down their prey before wisping out of existence.
They continued in this way down the street before reaching a narrow brick building, unpainted, with a little green door. The wooden sign above the door proclaimed “De Luca Brothers, Artisans”.
The bell tinkled as they stepped through the door. It felt like walking between worlds: there was none of the noise or color of outside. Just a quiet little shop, with clean wooden shelves and golden light falling through the windows. Behind the counter sat a wrinkled old man, painting an icon with the still-steady hands of a master.
He looked up at them.
“Ah! Here for, the next batch, yes? I have them ready, four of them!” He ducked down behind the desk for a moment, coming back up with a small cardboard box.
Salah reached in and removed a palm-sized wooden pendant, three nodes smoothed and shaped to fit comfortably in the hand, with intricate engravings: bands of miniscule text wrapping around it in one continuous sentence.
“I’m going to look around for a bit.”
Mary-Ann wandered through the small aisles, looking over the hand-carved crucifixes and beaded rosaries and icons of the saints. To the untrained eye glancing at the shelves, they would have noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Closer inspection though, revealed a few oddities: Jesus was very clearly not white and significantly more torn up, the Virgin was not particularly beautiful, and Anthony and Francis were accompanied by Kerrin of the Cog and Opun the Steel-Speaker. Mary-Ann knew a whole lot of people who would be very happy to burn that out of the records. The Breaking and the Brass Gospel was a touchy subject with the canonists.
Near the back, she came to a stop in front of one on the larger paintings. A deep green of forest was interspersed with rays of gold that pierced the leaves. An old tree by a stream, twisted from age, a mossy boulder by its gnarled roots, upon which sat a girl on the cusp of womanhood, leaning back against the trunk of the tree. She was in armor, dirty and dulled with dried blood and ash. One hand rested on the pommel of a rusting greatsword, its point buried in the soil. The other hand was curled up in her lap, useless, the skin blackened and cracked. Her face was scarred and burned, ashen grey and fleshy red, one cheek just a few strips of shriveled flesh exposing half a skull grin. What remained unharmed showed the traces of a young face, one that had had all delicacy rubbed out from it. One eye was gone: the other was green, reflecting the forest. Her hair, what hair there was left, was a dirty brown-blond, rough-shorn and short. She did not seem out of place in the forest: her expression was peaceful, at rest.
The notecard next to the painting proclaimed, in small, delicate cursive, “Il Trionfo della Vergine Joan”
“She looks a bit like you,” Salah said from behind her.
“I guess. If you squint a bit. You’re just trying to shoehorn some symbolism in here, aren’t you?”
“Please, what is there to shoehorn? It fits your foot quite nicely.”
The bell tinkled. Mary-Ann paid it no mind, and continued to inspect the painting. She did have a rainy day fund, and she had to admit that she liked it. A certain wall in her apartment was obnoxiously blank, and this would definitely fill it…
“Massive Moloch, swimmer in the concrete ocean!”
Mary-Ann spun around, her eyes confirming what the voice had said. It was the same man. A dirty, disheveled man, with dirt in his stringy grey beard, grime in the creases of his face, tobacco-stained teeth, plastic bags taped to his patched coat. Underneath the coat, a stained t-shirt bearing a red panda with x-ed out eyes, hung by an umbilical cord.
A tail, and with the content of the ramblings taken into consideration…
“This guy’s ahwecky.” Mary said. “Might be ex.”
Salah nodded. The beggar wobbled forward towards them, clearly intoxicated.
“Munching Moloch! Crunching Moloch! Moloch in the bones and Jones!”
Mary-Ann weighed the possibilities. He might be insane, or he might only be temporarily insane, or he might just be acting. All three were just as likely.
“Are you going to try talking to him?” Salah said.
“Yeah. I’ll drop him if he tries anything. Keep an eye out for friends.”
Mary-Ann looked the man in the eye. One of his was lazy.
“Hey man. No need to turn this into trouble, right?”
“Moloch the Mean! Moloch the Monkey!”
“How about we find you some place to stay for the night, get a good meal. Food sound good to you?”
“Mother Moloch! Master Moloch!”
“Come on, man, let’s go outside.”
“Master Moloch, Master Moloch, am I cool yet?”
An arm lashed out. Glint. Knife. Thrust. Crazy-eyes.
Mary-Ann knocked his knife hand to the side. Three punches: stomach, chest, nose. The man stumbled back, blood pouring from his nose. Once again to the face. He dropped to the floor.
She picked him up by the collar.
“Can you understand what I’m saying at all? Who are you, and what are you doing here?
The man coughed. Blood poured from his nose, thin and black. Inklike.
“Moloch the magnanimous. Moloch the hungry.”
His body went black and splashed to the floor. His clothes collapsed around the puddle that sank through the tiles.
Mary-Ann stood up, holding a ratty, filthy t-shirt in one hand.
Mary-Ann sat on her bench, holding two slices of pizza on a paper plate. Plain cheese. The sun had gone down, but with the city lights, that didn’t matter much at all.
Next to her on the bench were two cardboard boxes, one flatter than the other. She had decided to buy the painting. People walked past the little pizzeria, cars drove past, and she watched.
Footsteps, and then Salah was next to her. She offered him the plate, and he took a slice.
They watched people for a time, quiet. It was a moment where there was more to be said between friends with simple silence than with words. The noise was out there, the world was out there. The bench was peace.
A thought bubbled up in her mind, strong yet gentle. She didn’t chase it away. It had been returning ever more often of late. The hollowness was still inside her, but she had endured, like she had promised, slowly creeping from the bunker she had constructed around herself. This thought didn’t want her to be slow: it wanted her to run out the door, arms wide open to the world. Letting it hurt her. Letting it hurt her because the pain was worth the end.
She knew the world. She’d seen what people could do. She knew it was ugly and dirty and polluted and foul and dark, and the lights were few and far between.
It wasn’t good to face it alone. Alone, the light was too weak to face the darkness.
"Hey, Salah, how long have we been working together?"
"I think…let's see…ten months, I believe."
"Feels like a lot longer."
A bicyclist rode past.
"You know, I've been doing a lot of thinking. Since the party. And there's something I've been meaning to ask you."
Mary-Ann’s hand reached out a bit, coming to rest on top of Salah’s. What was it on his face? Surprise? Confusion?
She threw open the door. The world waited, teeth bared, and she didn’t care.
“Salah, will you marry me?”