Then God; or, the daily torments of the devil

The devil skips along cobblestoned streets. 

The devil's heels click against the pavings of streets without streetlights, passing drunken men taking the short route home from the pub. This old man, keeping his eyes low, puffs a cigarette. As the devil brushes by, the old man has a sour taste on his tongue and so stops to step on his cigarette and spit. At home, in the bathroom, the nautical blue walls around him pulled in close, he fails to recognise the man in the mirror wearing the filthy undershirt, soon beginning to doubt that he ever did. 

The devil thinks you resemble your mother, who he knew well when she was young. Very well.

The devil dances in the moonlight – this is his city. The devil slips into open windows, down disused chimneys. The devil sits in your favourite armchair, whistles to your canary. The devil only communicates in taps and the non-language of small children.

The devil is not lonely. 

The devil shakes the leaves from trees. The devil spills rubbish in the streets. The devil steals your best friend's new best friend. Drowns rats. Dances in town squares to gypsy music, to accordions and lyres and hands clapping. The devil tries to make eye contact. The devil is your lover in certain moods, and you, even, maybe, when there is a burning in your chest and you get away from yourself. The devil watches babies cry, sometimes letting one take a finger in its tiny hand. The devil thinks about shitting on you.

The devil hates your laugh. 

A thick-necked old lady walks an equally old dog; the dog snorts around a bare tree then lifts a leg to piss, this old habit not a habit but the reason for life. While she waits, the devil wraps his arms around her, as if to dance. Though dead, the devil eases her down onto the cold footpath, and unleashes the barking, frantic dog, the scraps of dog food in the dog bowl in the old woman's empty kitchen left to harden and rot, bringing flies which bring spiders that knit webs in the corners, playing cards left in a stack next to biscuits on the coffee table, the house now quiet but for the scratching of mice until the mice leave for better things and the spiders curl dead in their dusty webs and the flies lie sunbaked on the windowsill. 

The things that others tell you that you should do. You should go a different way. You should take a break. You should smarten up. And you do smarten up and you do things differently. You take a break, carving out time in your busy schedule to holiday in an aged hotel with tobacco-scented hallways and a view of a snow-tipped mountain, but then in the middle of the night you receive a call on the room's telephone and when you answer there is only silence on the other end and from that point onwards leaving the room for anything but your return home seems like an impossibility. They say these things to you with hands folded. With hands piled like blue-vein cheese. With perfumed hands of ligament and bone and with wide smiles. The devil is a fine conversationalist, sits in a peculiar way, dresses impeccably. 

The devil offers you a hand to shake. 

The devil sends crows to your mother's funeral; they flap and tussle over something, just beyond the headstones, as the priest murmurs the final blessing, and you try to ignore them but they keep flapping and bickering and more appear and soon you take a step to see just what exactly it is they're fighting over and, but, wait, is that... please no, is that...? 

The devil plays a harp in a vacant room with a parquet floor and paintings on the ceiling, the yellows containing flakes of gold-leaf. 

And what of the devil's eyes, you ask? Of course, the devil has no eyes. The devil sees in the way that diamonds catch light. Smells of roasting chestnut on hot days. Hot days filled with the dumb who have left their homes for the scrape of the sun. Dumb fucks that sweat and crackle like pigs on spits. And the cats, defying the heat, are brought out of their resting places by the smell. The cats that breed under staircases and disturb your sleep with their calls. Physiques not of house cats but of small leopards, muscular and poised, ever ready, but betrayed by their scruffy fur and scabbed noses. They slink through legs, tails trailing, tightening around an ankle, as if in threat, before letting go. Soon, the sun sets and the masses, each with a mouth wide, as if to suck in the night, become drunk or tired or both, and instead of going home, as would be wise, stay out, knocking into each other and fighting like deaf dogs, ending up in the gutters of whatever filthy city this is, of every filthy city, as maudlin warbling (or is it the sound of a harp?) and the smoke of chestnuts roasting on barrel tops mingles and fills the missing sky. 

The devil wears a red turban. 

The devil's left eye is clouded by a cataract. 

The devil makes your teeth chatter; please fetch your things, there can be no discourse with teeth chattering. 

The devil was born in a small town famous for its roquefort. And the narrow steeple of its church, visible from all around. The devil likes the grand: the regal, the baroque, the opera. Likes tall windows, chimney pots, Paris. Was seen at dusk by the lake in Hanoi. Was sold a melon in a market in Tangier. The devil travels often, and lightly. 

"Then God..." Never did the devil rearrange the words of holy books. Instead, the devil the devil the devil the devil sketched in the margins. The devil prefers to watch on as the roofs of burning libraries collapse. Watches with the crowd as suicides threaten to jump. The devil, who spits in your morning coffee. The devil, who makes you pathetic and afraid in front of your own children, so in that moment they are shoved from innocence and forced to put away childish things. Who makes you swear in old cathedrals. Who wants to be a friend.

Section XVI quotes directly from Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann.

Tristan Foster writes criticism and experimental short prose. He has had work published in SAND, Music & Literature, The Scofield, Black Sun Lit, Words Without Borders and elsewhere. Tristan is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.