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Out of It
(This is a flash fiction rather than a poem. I said I might occasionally do this, and nobody minded last time...)

For S. Evelyn

It was the glorious halcyon summer of 2001. The world had come through the calendar millennium unscathed, and the weather was beautiful, even in Rome, where August can often be unbearably warm. A gentle breeze was blowing as he arrived, the vintages of wine all seemed to be exquisite, even the traffic seemed to have calmed since his last visit.

He caught up with them first on the Palatine Hill, an older American couple, gawking at the ruins like all the others. She drew the eye first. Despite her silver hair she was still beautiful, in well tailored clothes and with the cheekbones and profile of a queen. Her husband looked much more ordinary, bald, liver-spotted, sweating, wearing shorts no European his age would have ventured. Behind them, as they came to Augustus's house, walked a creature neither clearly male nor female but poised delicately between -- hair a shade too long, jaw a shade too strong, jeans and jacket carefully ambiguous. Not a hair out of place, and as for age, anyone might have guessed late twenties. Yet it was neither the woman nor the younger companion who was the focus of his attention, only the old man.

He found them again in Florence, a few days later, in the crowds around Michelangelo's Holy Family in the Uffizi. "All those naked men," the young person was saying, the voice too was ambiguously pitched. "Whatever are they doing there?" The old couple laughed, and he, beside them, smiled.

"Michelangelo was fond of adding naked men to the scenery," he interjected. "Think of the Sistine ceiling. Sixteen naked men for every biblical scene."

They smiled politely at him, then the younger one started, and he realised he had been recognised, and it would not be easy after all.

"Are you American?" the woman asked, and her accent was neither English nor American, Greek perhaps lurked under those vowels.

He started to speak, but their companion was already drawing them away from him warily. He let them go. There was still time.

In Venice, he could never get near them for a moment. He passed them in a gondola, but that was the closest he came.

He caught up on Lake Como. They were eating dinner in their hotel, and their companion was leaning against the bar. He took a step towards them, and the young companion raised a hand to stop him.

"They value their privacy." Again the voice was an ambiguous tenor.

"I'm sure," he said. "Such a famous man."

"Yes, the only person to win three Nobel prizes."

"The Peace prize of course, and Physics and..." he let his voice trail off.

"It hasn't been announced yet, but he has also won this year in Literature," the smooth voice answered.

"Lovely." 

"And sixty years of power and influence, why, he's one of the most celebrated men in the world."

"Yes." He paused, then went on firmly. "I need to speak to him. I have the authority. You can't stop me."

"He's eighty three years old, and he's finishing up a perfect dinner with his wife." Out of the hotel window the sun was setting, making the lake a sheet of silken gold, and the mountains black silhouettes. "Do you really want to interrupt him now?"

"Yes," he said, confident. He saw that the couple were looking away from the sunset now, sipping their wine, speaking to each other. The woman glanced over to the bar. "And you can't stop me."

"I could, but I won't."

He let the brag pass unchallenged and walked over to the table. The waitress made a motion to stop him, but the creature at the bar must have signalled, for she retreated. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.

"Excuse me for interrupting," he said.

"We've just finished our dessert," the woman said.

"Have a glass of wine," the man said, pouring him one. He took it and sipped. It was complex and delicious, and he savoured it.

"We were wondering if you were a relation," the woman said, gesturing to their companion at the bar.

"We are akin in a way," he said, reluctantly.

"Your height, your hair, your --"

"Your androgynous charm," the man interrupted, putting his hand on his wife's. "Leave it, Helen. I know who this is."

He met his eyes, then, for the first time. The eyes of a man who had freely chosen damnation in return for power and knowledge. "It's not too late," he said.

"What, is this my very last chance?" the man asked, lightly.

"Yes. You can still repent, turn your back on the devil's bargain. God's forgiveness truly is infinite. Even you --" He leaned forward as he spoke, intent.

"Take it, John" Helen interrupted softly.

John laughed. "But that wouldn't be fair. Mephistopheles has fulfilled his part of the bargain. Everything I asked for. My education, the defeat of the Axis powers, defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, the end of the Cold War, all the successes of my career, and best of all, my Helen. Ever since I was a young man, he has given me unstintingly. The world is better for it. Not even you can deny it."

"I can. Everything he has given you is hollow."

John raised his eyebrows disbelievingly. "How so?"

"He manipulated history at your direction, yes, but each change made things worse and had to be dealt with by something else terrible. There would have been no atomic bomb without him, no Final Solution."

"Mankind is still here, and my life has been good, so I will count that a victory worth winning," John said, sipping his wine. "I can't turn my back on him now, on my bargain.

"Do it," Helen urged again, and as he turned his angelic eyes on her he saw the skull beneath the skin. Even her bones were beautiful, but she had truly been dead for centuries. It was the love in her voice that surprised him. "You don't know what Hell is like, what eternity is like. Go with this nice young angel now, repent of me and all you have done with Mephistopheles and suffer in Purgatory but at last see you could the face of God."

He found himself nodding hopefully. But John shook his head. "Oh Helen, Helen. Even if I could betray my own oath, even if I could be sorry -- what are the proper words truly and fully contrite? I couldn't be sorry for you and the love we have shared, for waking you from the grave."

"This has been the best time in my life," Helen said, looking into her husband's eyes. "But --"

"I have no regrets," John said. He turned to the angel and repeated his words. "No regrets."

"This is your last chance," he said. He drained his wine glass and set it down empty on the table. The sun had set, and the brilliant afterglow was fading to peach and lavender. He stood. "Please?"

"Good night," John said, as decisive a dismissal as any could be.

He paused at the bar, where Mephistopheles smiled at him maliciously. "I don't suppose you're interested in God's infinite mercy?" he asked, politely.

"You never give up, do you?"

He glanced over to the window, where the couple were finishing the last of the wine. "Never," he said.


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