The Black Chalice Blues (Part 1 of 3)

By Steve Spaulding

“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”—Genesis 3:7

The Alphabet Agent carefully steepled his fingers under his chin, the white cotton of his gloves barely brushing the white porcelain of his mask.

“Now that we understand each other Professor Astray, I was hoping you could tell me everything you know about the Anti-Grail, including, of course, where I might find it.”

Professor Milan Astray, late of the University of Barcelona, presently of the Days Inn just off Rt. 40 near Albuquerque, New Mexico, clutched his freshly fractured forearm in a bid to keep it immobile, licked his sun-chapped lips and desperately played for time.

“It’s a tautology. A figment of the Medieval mind-set. If God is perfect His plan is perfect, His universe is perfect. That perfection, to doctors of the early Christian church, meant the universe and everyone and thing in it were symmetrical—balanced. As above, so below. No heaven without a hell, no God without a Devil, no Christ without an Antichrist. So, once the Grail legend had been in place long enough, its acceptance implied an Anti-Grail.”

“But the legend itself, Professor?” The Alphabet Agent has a Voice he uses for interviews that makes him sound exactly like newscaster Peter Jennings, right down to the slightly Canadian diphthongs. Some survivors of those interviews have remarked how this is both soothing and at the same time really, really creepy.

“There are endless variations on the legend. The most common elements have it that at the same moment Christ was dying on Cavalry, Judas Iscariot was hanging himself.”

Professor Astray, sweating profusely, was trying to do several things at once: to inch closer to his nylon gym bag lying on the bed, to outline enough of the legend to sound cooperative without giving away too many useful facts, and to gauge the distance between himself and the Alphabet Agent, which, given the surprising level of violence the Agent seemed casually capable of rising to, did not seem to be nearly distance enough.

“Even as the blood of Christ was being collected in the cup he used at the last supper,” the Professor continued, “so was someone waiting at the dangling legs of Judas to catch the…the effluvia that dribbled from beneath his tunic in the very cup he had used.”

“By effluvia you mean the shit, the piss, and the jizz—the evacuates common to a death by hanging?”

“Just so.”

Professor Astray, who was not a native English-speaker or a regular watcher of the evening news and consequently several stages removed from the average listeners’ Jennings-awareness threshold, suddenly tweaked to how very strange those particular words sounded in that Voice, and began—quite inadvertently—to dedicate a portion of his already overworked cerebrum towards identifying it.

Which, added to his current total, proved to be one too many things to try and do at the same time and some subtle signal of his eyes or posture—a signal that only someone like the Alphabet Agent, long-trained to look at people in much the same way a mantis looks at june bugs, would pick up—gave him completely away.

With a sigh of mild disappointment, the Agent rose from his chair and crossed to the bed. “Any speculation on who might have been holding the cup? That would seem the logical place to start.” He began calmly to pull clothing and toiletries out of the bag.

Professor Astray’s body tensed as he contemplated a sudden lunge at the bag, then relaxed as he checked himself. “In most of the extant stories—the earliest of which date to the 14th century—it’s some unnamed agent of Satan. There are apocryphal tales of St. Simon Peter or in some cases St. Barnabas rebuking the holder of the Anti-Grail…”

The Professor’s voice trailed off as the Agent pulled out a Ruger Redhawk .357 Magnum revolver; chrome finish, cherry wood grip, wide channel feed.

“Golly,” said the Agent, weighing the gun in the palm of his hand. “Hefty.”

“Please,” the Professor gave the word a certain mournful, goat-like quality, “I was scared. Ever since you nearly caught up to me in Rome I’ve been very scared.”

“This weighs a little more than scared,” said the Agent, shifting the gun so he held it by the grip. “Anything up to and including thirty-eight caliber I could go with scared. This here feels more like howling batshit terrified.” And with that twirled the gun cowboy-style in a tiny moment of pure nostalgia. The Alphabet Agent has not carried a firearm—or has needed to—in many, many years.

Professor Astray was about to reply when, with the suddenness of a thunderclap out of a clear blue sky, the subroutine still running in some corner of his pain-wracked and, yes, batshit terrified brain at last spat out the answer: Peter Jennings. Not just any old Canuck, not just kind-of-sort-of-sounds-like, but hey, this guy’s Voice sounds exactly like Peter Jennings’. It creeped him out so thoroughly that the little hairs stood up on the nape of his neck, and instead of saying anything he just stood there with his mouth hanging open while the Alphabet Agent rolled on.

“When you say you’re afraid of me, though…I don’t buy it. I mean, I go and break your arm for you and it still doesn’t scare you enough to keep you from inching towards this fist-sized-chunk-of-flesh-extractor here.” With a deft move the Alphabet Agent unchambered the gun, letting the rounds spill onto the floor. Noting the blue tips to the bullets he added, “Mercy, make that cinder-block-sized-chunks. So. I just really, really have to know. Who are you afraid of? Or is it what are you afraid of?”

And, since the fear was the paramount thing in Professor Astray’s life and had been for the past three months, one week, and four days since a rather innocuous phone call from an old colleague had turned his little academic world inside-out, having it—the fear—mentioned blasted the Jennings-inspired unease right out of him. In a very cold, centered voice he hoped would have the metallic ring of truth to it, he said, “Listen to me, whoever you are, the Anti-Grail is wholly and completely imaginary.”

“Which is not the same thing as saying it isn’t real,” said the Agent. Because of the Voice and the porcelain mask it was impossible to tell if he was smirking or not. “That picture of a Super-Bird on the Denny’s menu—you know Denny’s? The restaurant?”

The Professor gave a flummoxed nod. He’d had lunch at a Denny’s not half an hour earlier. He had ordered the Super-Bird. And then, on returning to his hotel room, to his locked hotel room, he had just closed the door behind him and thrown his coat over a chair when this man in the gray trench coat, with the white gloves, with the bizarre white mask, this man, THE man who had dogged him across two continents had calmly stepped out of the bathroom and asked him the time.

And when the Professor had made a move for the door had just as calmly broken his forearm with a small metal rod about the size of magic marker.

“Anyways,” the Agent rolled on, “that picture of the Super-Bird isn’t the actual sandwich. It stands for the sandwich in this one highly contextualized situation. Just like the word: Super-Bird. Only the word is another step removed. Just a collection of sounds in the mouth, of letters on a page. Arbitrary.”

“Wait, wait, this is…” the Professor’s specialty was in Medieval Literature, and his last linguistics class had been more than 18 years ago. Plus, he was pretty sure he was going into shock from his arm. “This is madness. How can something be a symbol of itself?”

“Levels and orders,” said the Agent. “From the thing—the ding an sich—to the picture to the word to the idea existing only in the mind.” The Agent’s words seemed to echo across the room. A room that seemed to be tilting a bit to the right, from the Professor’s perspective, just now. “But there are ideas, and then there are ideas. Thought-forms completely alien to our human experience. Powerful enough to channel themselves down the semantic chain, to scrape a toe-hold in this reality.”

“I…I don’t…” the room was growing dim in the corners and the edges. The Agent’s Voice seemed to come from far, far away as the Professor reached out with his good hand for support.

The Agent quickly stepped to his side, guiding the Professor to the bed. “Down into our world. First as concept, then as legend, and now it has taken physical form. It has been in chrysalis since the 14th century, and now it is getting ready to remake this reality, to rewrite the source code for our universe.”

The Agent elevated the Professor’s feet. “First, Professor, I’m going to get you some medical attention. Then, you’re going to help me find the Anti-Grail, and then together…together we’re going to do our best to save the world.”

“Can’t,” the Professor croaked, his skin pale and waxy.

“I’m afraid you’ve little choice.”

“No!” the Professor started up with surprising strength, his head spinning. “Can’t find it without first seeking it.”

“Well, uh, yeah, that was kind of what—“

“Can’t seek a Grail—any Grail—without yourself becoming changed…it’s what…questing for a Grail does…” and he would have added more, but he needed at that exact moment to pass out.

“Hurm,” said the Alphabet Agent, to no one in particular. “I hadn’t really thought about that.”


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Copyright© 2003 by Steve Spaulding.

Photo: Correll Glass Studios.

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