The Three Gems
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Her eyelids felt like lead, each with a heavy gold coin placed on top. Somehow Gemma managed to open her eyes, first one, then the other. She was surrounded by the shallow sea, grey and shapeless, reeking like laundry washed in raccoon’s puke. The skyline was corroded by acid, and toxic fog seeped from the ragged hole, as if from a burst hot water pipe. The air moved down Gemma’s trachea like lumps of cotton wool, like rusted subway cars, like air in the IV tube, and every breath was like the lash of a whip.
Gemma stirred slightly; her body was weak, unresponsive, it was someone else’s body, or maybe there was no body, only the sensation. Gemma, a human female, a giant land snail, a bowl of petunias, wasn’t quite sure what she was and what she could do with it. She shifted her gaze to the skyline, blinked with her eyebrows, her muscles contracted then relaxed. Gemma melted like a piece of lard on a hot pan, spreading over, floating on top of primordial soup.
“Kool, ehs ekow pu,” sounded from the depths of the sea.
“Ehs skool elap. Ebyam ehs sdeen a rotcod,” another voice answered.
Gemma never heard a language like this, she didn’t see anyone and didn’t know who was talking.
“Emoc no, gnirb eht rotcod,” someone’s voice, wet as a tongue, penetrated her ear.
Three ghostly creatures separated from the fog. They had long, slim tentacles and small heads without eyes, nose and mouth, so it was hard to understand how exactly they produced sounds. They drew nearer to Gemma, hung over her like live wires, don’t touch them, run away, crawl into a hole and pretend to be dead.
“Who are you? What do you want from me?” Gemma asked them, slowly moving her lips of a dead, beached whale.
Her muscles contracted. Relaxed. Contracted. Contracted.
“Sehs os elap, os yrev elap,” a creature spoke, gray, blue, a note of pity in their voice.
“Yrev, yrev elap,” came the reply.
Gemma began to understand what was happening to her, or at least that was what she thought, and it filled her with terror.
“Don’t come near! Help me… no!” she shrieked hysterically.
Gemma turned away, crawled a little, then vomited out a stream of ghostly cockroaches that landed like raindrops all around her. The tentacles wrapped around her ankles and her wrists, and forcibly pulled her back. The cockroaches scattered, drowned in the sea and were now floating peacefully in the grey-blue water.
“Tnod ekam ti esrow, eil nwod tnod evom,” Gemma heard.
“Gemma, look at me,” a familiar voice rustled like a breeze.
Gemma turned her head and saw her sister Ninelle. Apple and pear trees were blooming in her fresh young face, her faint smile was like the mist creeping on the river. Ninelle was prettier, smarter, she had a husband and a good job, and their parents were proud of her. Gemma hated Ninelle. The hatred carried her further along the murky waters of memory, a grimy ditch, a rotting rivulet, until she bumped her head against the wall and started bleeding. Gemma flapped her arms, the water got up her nose, filled her mouth and lungs making it smell of rot, her eyes burned as if someone splashed them with brandy.
Ninelle took her hand in hers. She had soft, fragrant baby-like skin, invincible to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. She was like an angel.
“We are dead,” Gemma said in a cold, hard voice. “We are dead and this is hell.”
The rotting rivulet is Styx, she suddenly thought, the watershed between the worlds, a one-way ticket down the plughole, a muddy swamp packed with tormented souls of rapists and unbaptized babies.
“God help me,” Gemma sobbed, trying to remember the God's Prayer. Who art in heaven, she whispered, and her mind went blank.
“There is no God,” Ninelle murmured gently. She stroked Gemma’s hair.
“But don’t be afraid,” she continued. “I’m here to help you feel better.”
“Why should I be afraid? What is all this for?” Gemma asked.
“There are three gems in your head. They are very expensive. They will take them out, will give one back to us. Then they will let you go,” Ninelle explained.
The whole story sounded so absurd that Gemma laughed, her throat gurgled, whistled like a boiling kettle.
“Why can’t I have all the gems to myself? Why should I share?”
“If you keep all the gems, you will lose your mind and die. You don’t want that. They will help you,” Ninelle stressed the word “will”.
The grey creatures made way, and a golden ball of light, like a chandelier that fell out of the ceiling, flew up to Gemma and filled her with warmth.
“It will all be over soon,” Ninelle promised, and for some reason grabbed Gemma by the wrists.
Contracted. Contracted. Contracted. Ninelle holds Gemma firmly with her chicken paws, her dry wrinkled hands twist around Gemma like knotted tree roots and don’t let go. As a child, Ninelle dipped her hands into molten tar, waited for it to cool down, then drowned Gemma in a pot of boiling water. Gemma’s skin came off and hung in shreds from her skull, like Christmas decorations, a holiday that is always with you. Gemma’s mind filled with memories of Ninelle strangling her puppy, cutting her favorite dress with scissors, secretly putting sugar in her tea (Gemma suffers from diabetes). And Gemma suddenly realizes that this is not Ninelle, couldn’t be her, Ninelle would never.
“You are not my sister!” Gemma wails, contracts, relaxes, the blood vessels in her brain burst, and blood starts gushing from her eyes and mouth.
Ninelle’s face becomes hazy and blurred, you can’t really see it anymore. Now she’s as gray and faceless as the creatures, with tentacles instead of arms, the tentacles don’t let go of Gemma, maybe they will never let her go.
“You, you, you…” Gemma gurgles, choking with blood. Her body becomes the Great Wave of Kanagawa, she rages, crashes, tumbles over, fierce and destructive.
“Enoemos pleh reh!” a voice comes from afar.
“Ehs dah a wen stroke,” a new voice, further away.
“Ekat reh ot eht evisnetni erac tinu,” says the golden ball of light. And flies out.
Everything becomes dark, plunges into the grey sea as sickening as the taste of boiled onions. The tentacles pick her up and carry her away, straight into the water, until it covers Gemma completely, like a meat jelly. She quickly sinks to the bottom, dissolves and becomes the grey water that flows out of the waste pipe and into the Neman river. The three gems remain in the sand.
The cover: "I'll close the door behind me" by Fernand Knopf