The Beard, The Psychopomp
It’s pretty simple—my brother’s beard is the Grim Reaper.
Some people get confused when I explain this, but his beard is Death. It’s not too hard to figure out.
His beard = Death.
When someone dies, his beard has to go there, escort the person across the river Styx. Although it’s not like the old days when he’d be on the boat, stroking along, rowing that thing like it was a phallic gondola. There are so many people dying nowadays that he just goes down to the shoreline and kicks the boat in the general direction of Hell. Although I should say, more correctly, his beard kicks the boat.
His beard has feet.
But in the way that God has feet. Anthropomorphic. Metaphor. His beard is a trope.
Except it’s real too.
His beard disconnects. It can go off on its own and return. Sometimes it hauls him along. Sometimes it goes solo.
His beard knows every EMT in the world.
He arrives to bloody pulps on sidewalks, picks them up, and off they go to Purgatory or Hell or Heaven or Limbo or a fifth place they call Detroit. It’s not Detroit Detroit. It’s a metaphorical Detroit. It’s where they put the dentists until they can figure out what to do with them. It used to be called Baltimore until “The Wire” made that place cool.
It was in Detroit that his beard fell in love with a dentist. A dead dentist. It slowed him down from getting his actual work done. Dead people were piled up on the shoreline waiting impatiently to go to Hell.
The beard started hanging around Detroit too much. It would drop off an orthodontist and then start chitchatting with Connie. That was her name. At least when she was alive. Sometimes a dead person changes their name. Sometimes they keep the same one. Connie stayed Connie. She had big fake dead boobs. I saw a photo of her on the Death version of Twitter. She looked like a dirty laundromat. But his beard likes those types.
My brother didn’t say anything about it, just let the beard do its thing.
The problem got worse when my brother decided to go to church. His beard wasn’t around as much, so he had free time to do stuff like that. He was getting older. Death was on his mind. His beard was on his mind. He wondered what would happen when he died, if he would be escorted by his own beard. He was also worried that Death is linked to Hell, even though his beard told him that he didn’t judge any of them. All he did was take them where they needed to go.
He told the whole beard thing to a preacher and the guy freaked out. The preacher told him to never allow the beard on his face ever again. But that’s like telling someone that they should quit having their heart in their chest. My brother told the preacher that you can’t escape who you are. The preacher called the congregation together. Folklore says that a vampire can’t enter a church. They said they’d give my brother asylum. He could sleep in the pastor’s office. They’d bring him food. He’d never have to leave. He’d be Snowden. He’d be a criminal hiding out on a reservation. He’d avoid Death.
The beard came back from seeing Connie. The beard smelled like sex. Like dead big boob dentist sex. He wanted my brother. I didn’t say a word. But he could just sense where my brother was.
The church doors were closed, locked. Some of the congregation stayed behind, heaped on pews. The stained glass was wide-awake. Everyone waiting.
The door kicked open.
The beard has feet, big feet, feet like dynamite.
The doors turned to dust.
A woman’s Easter bonnet went up in flames.
The congregation started yelling exorcism quotes.
The beard waited for silence and then tried to explain that Jesus had a beard. The beard explained that Jesus was his beard, that God was his beard, that Abraham had a beard, that God isn’t God, that God is the beard.
The church knew rambling heresy when they heard it. They stood unmoved, metal fence poles, thick and brave.
The beard stepped inside. The beard wasn’t a vampire. It could go into churches. It had been in thousands of churches. Thousands of thousands.
My brother was sure he’d died, that the beard was going to kick him to Styx.
The beard hovered over him, the church ceiling above looking like a dirty urban snow bank.
My brother tried to explain that the beard didn’t need him.
A stained-glass apostle yelled down for the beard to leave my brother alone.
The preacher turned, dumbstruck at the sight of Jesus’ beard descending from the altar. Faint notes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” could be heard crying.
Jesus’ beard stood in front of the Grim Beard.
Jesus’ beard’s eyes were two humble sextons. The direct eye contact was blindingly intense.
The beard walked away. Jesus’ beard didn’t have to say a word. It climbed back to Jesus.
The church was boringly quiet.
Time went by as it does.
Eventually, weeks later, my brother returned to his beard.
People are loyal. Any time someone gets divorced, I always say, “You’ll kiss them again.” People forget about infinity.
There is a Lot of Debate on Whether or Not China was the First or the United States
But the fact remains that in the mid-2060s, both countries eventually had more prisoners than free civilians. A few decades later, it seemed necessary: both countries were turned into prisons. The Americans left for Canada. The Chinese left for Canada. Canada became the center of the world, an exceptionally northern center.
The problem with the entire United States now being a prison was that they had to start opening up prisons within the prisons. At first, they used the existing prison buildings, but those quickly over-filled. They decided to build a prison around that prison, so that, in effect, there was a prison within a prison within a prison.
The problem then became administrative. You could only have prisoners as the administration. They couldn’t afford to pay for civilians to live inside of a prison year-round. And the prisoner administration did horrible paperwork. There were kidnappers in cells meant for burglars, people in solitary confinement who should have been released years ago.
They decided capital punishment was the cure. They’d hang every kidnapper, lethally inject every tax evader, and have a firing squad for every wildlife smuggler. They had fun coming up with new and different forms of prisoner-icide, of androcide: keelhauling for possession of cannabis, electric couches for gamblers, crucifixion for blasphemers, tickling-to-death for vandals.
They found it too confusing, all of these different deaths for crimes. They realized some people wouldn’t die from tickling, that they’d only suffer bouts of cataplexy at best. They decided to go with keelhauling for everybody, the felons and misdemeanors, the guilty and innocent. They just needed boats. Lots of boats. They tied them all together and tossed the prisoners from aircraft carriers and radio ships. Seaplanes and banana boats and icebreakers. They tried to throw prisoners from sailboats and steamboats. Canoes and kayaks. There were millions of drownings. They said you could taste prisoner in the water, that the stew you ate was equal parts tomatoes and equal parts drug offenders (the greatest percentage of those imprisoned). They did a chemical test of the Pacific Ocean and found it tested positive for marijuana, heroin, and caffeine. It tested positive for herpes, tuberculosis, and prison uniforms.
There was no clean water.
They filed a lawsuit, suing the ocean.
They found the ocean guilty of every offense known to man.
They decided to turn the ocean into a prison. Anyone found guilty of anything would be forced to the shoreline, where they’d be required to swim at least one mile offshore. From there, they could do anything they wanted.
I remember when I was found guilty of being innocent.
I swam like I was in training for summer camp, further and further into the abyss.
The sun that day was a school bus. It would take me back home.
Ron Riekki‘s books include U.P.: a novel, The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (chosen by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book), and Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (May 2015, Michigan State University Press). He has only seen “The Knick” in French and once sat next to Muhammad Ali in an airport, but not in that order.