Sunday Pages: "The Mercy of Thin Air"

Excerpt from a novel by Ronlyn Domingue.

Dear Reader,

Since Wednesday, I’ve been consumed by the besieging of the Capitol—the worst insurrectionist attack on American soil since John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln. I wrote about it on Friday’s PREVAIL, spoke about it Friday night on Narativ Live, and wrote about it yesterday for a piece that drops tomorrow at Dame.

The play-by-play in today’s Washington Post is an absolute must-read—and also made me feel physically ill. Trump really did command his followers to sack the Capitol, just as Pope Innocent III urged his Crusaders to take Jerusalem in 1199. The objective—if we go by all the chatter on hate-app Parler—was to find and execute Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Grassley, so that Trump could resign, and bloated colostomy bag Mike Pompeo, the next in line, would take the White House and give his boss a pardon. I am all rage this morning.

So: The less said about the Orange Pharaoh and his botched insurrection today, the better. Sunday is for “Sunday Pages.”

Ronlyn Domingue, whose trilogy I featured last year, is a terrific novelist and one of the kindest, gentlest souls I have the pleasure to know. This is a haunting excerpt from her best-selling debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, a gorgeous New Orleans Gothic romance that has been translated into ten languages and is the perfect respite for this singularly bleak week.

Once I learned to maneuver through the world without a body, I felt that it was my duty to help others adjust to our translucent world. During my first months between, I’d had no initiation, little guidance, and even less instruction. Eugenia was the only one who had any interest in teaching me how to make the most of our unusual powers. Her skill was with smell, so anything else I had to learn on my own. I didn’t want that to happen to anyone else.

I found them all over the city, and those I eventually trained brought new ones to me. Some of them were lost, unaware of what had happened. For most, proof came through glances at their obituaries or visits to places where they were missed. If they chose to go beyond, they were taken to deathbeds and told to lean forward into people’s last breaths. That never failed to work. Like vapor, they were gone.

The ones who stayed for instruction expected me to be dramatic and profound. Their remaining human nature was still bound to roles, perception, expectations. They wanted me to deliver the facts in the voice of a tortured poet, but our state was nothing like the fantasies they’d been told. I refused to pretend that it was.

 “May I have your attention, please?” I would tell the group. “The senses that once connected you to your physical lives have transformed. Has anyone noticed a change in his hearing? Yes? Before, when you had ears, well, made of flesh, you could hear only within a certain range of frequencies. You were limited by that physical form. But now, the rules are different. You can discern individual sounds or conversations in noisy places with little effort. You will also notice sounds in what you once thought was pure silence, or from distances you didn’t think possible. You will recognize subtleties in people’s voices. In this state, it is far easier to understand the meaning or intent of what they say.”

“On to sight. Darkness is no longer an obstacle for us. We don’t ‘see’ the way we used to. We had eyes that depended on the chemical reactions between light and our cells to see. Now, there are no such limitations. You will not experience complete darkness in this state. It simply isn’t possible because of your sensitivities. Bright light won’t affect you either. Glare coming from surfaces or glances into the sun will not make you squint as it once did.

“Smell and taste are linked, as it was before. You can’t actually ‘taste’ in this form, but you can make a scent linger by warming or cooling the air. Smell is much more intense now because, again, you don’t have the limitations of your physical form. Scents will be much richer, sweeter, odoriferous, and pungent. The air is full of molecules, and combining them in certain configurations can reproduce particular smells. Ladies, that’s how much of your perfume was made. Now, you know, sometimes not consciously, that people have their own scents. You will be more aware of this in your new form. You will also notice that people will give you clues about what they are thinking. You can smell it. Somehow, if a person remembers a nice summer day, you may smell the hint of a sweet breeze and lemonade. That is his memory of that afternoon.”

“What about touch?” Someone would always ask before I could admit the worst.

“We’ll get to that,” I’d say. “I want you to pay close attention now. There are three rules. First, leave your loved ones alone. There is still something left to you that is familiar, and they can sense that. It confuses them. A rare brief visit may be acceptable, but never, never stay.

“Second, do not linger at your grave, marked or unmarked. You will be close to your remains, the matter that you recognized as you. The physical absence will be disconcerting, at the very least.

“Finally, do not touch. Any and all attempts will result in a desire for the tangible you cannot fulfill, and it will make you very vulnerable to your memories. Contact with the breathing—the living—can be disruptive, even dangerous. Some of you will be able to shape your energy into a shell of what you were, inside and out, but don’t let that fool you. You simply no longer have the inherent structures needed to experience touch in a way that is either familiar or satisfying.” 

“But—” one of them would protest.

“See me later for more explanation. Questions?”

“Are we ghosts?”

“Call yourself whatever you want. There are plenty of other words to use.” Then I would give them the speech about the common elements between our former bodies and the air. I explained the postulate that subatomic particles remained after our bodies failed and had not dissipated into the atmosphere. The energy shared among the particles allowed us to have our heightened senses and the power to manipulate matter. To me, that reduction made sense.

“Are we made of ectoplasm?” another would ask. “That white goo. You’ve seen it in movies, right?”

“Foolishness.” My tone did not invite further discussion.

“So how come I remember everything?” One would return us to serious issues.

“The physical structure that held your mind is gone, but what was your mind still endures,” I’d reply.

Silence. Then, “That’s intense,” or “That’s deep,” or “That makes no sense.”

“Other questions?”

“What happens if we break the rules?”

“You suffer the consequences.”

“Like what?”

“You’ve never felt—or inflicted—such pain.” My voice was so dark and cold that they shook into spark clusters. When I said that, I was no longer their prosaic instructor, their trusted guide through the difficult first days. I spoke a warning from experience. I knew. I remembered Donna, three years old, unclothed and alone, who wanted nothing but to be held again. I remembered Andrew¾naked, stunned, bleeding, damaged.

For those who didn’t immediately go beyond, there were more lessons. To start, matter manipulation.

“All it takes is concentration,” I’d say. “When you first start, you’ll make a mess, so be careful where you practice. Look—no hands.”

I would make a flowerpot loop-the-loop over their pointilistic heads or scoot a china cabinet across the floor right through one of them.

“Oooh,” they said, like mesmerized children.

Ronlyn Domingue (pronounced ron-lin doh-mang, equal emphasis on all syllables) is the internationally published author of four novels and several essays and short stories.

Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages, was a fiction finalist for the 2005 Borders Original Voices Award and 2006 SIBA Book Award, and was a long list nominee for the 2005 James Tiptree, Jr. Award.

The Keeper of Tales Trilogy, which can be read in any order, includes The Mapmaker's WarThe Chronicle of Secret Riven, and The Plague Diaries.