They met that Winter in the bowels of the Capitol building in the dead of night. In earlier eras one would have dressed all in white and the other in darkest sable, but things were, for better or worse, different now, and one wore a coat of grey with a cream scarf, and the other pulled off his steak-colored gloves and put them in the pocket of his chocolate jacket. Two men of equal height stared at each other by light of a small desk lamp, and in their eyes burned a famous mutual hatred.
Some time before dawn, one of them must have said something. And what he must have said, cold as empty space, was, “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” It was in the books. The representatives of the other side loved places of power. The Kremlin, Whitehall, even the now-benign cordons of the Louvre and the mirrored hall of Versailles. They all gave the freaks their jollies.
“On the contrary,” breathed the other. “I can tell that you desire some victory here. Some elevation.” The word skipped out of his throat like a fiery arrow off a stone wall and guttered out in the shadows. “But perhaps not.”
The first man reached into his pocket for the coin (it was his turn) but couldn’t help saying, “You know, we will win in the end; it is prophecy.” He never looked away from the other’s eyes, and he saw buried there the flicker of an alarming fire. He hated prophecy, the first of the old bindings, words that coerced. Prophecy bothers me as well, he thought, but if he started down that road nothing would ever be accomplished. But prophecy was an old wound. For centuries it had been mostly the coins that annoyed his brother. That annoyed and compelled both of them.
“Come, we must work.”
“My, aren’t you diligent and responsible this evening.”
“The damn coin. Where is it?”
“I seem to have misplaced it,” he said, looking up at his own forehead in feigned absentmindedness.
The man’s coy smile became a sharp axis. “We must leave this place by dawn. Or have you forgotten that as well?” A point, good and true. His brother winced. There was once a time when they could walk in broad daylight, but no longer, and they now both skulked in the dark that had once been a private domain.
The first one produced the coin from his pocket. A standard United States quarter dollar, glinting in the half-light, ready to prise treasure from a gumball machine or line the bed of a Salvation Army kettle. But that evening other things were coming to boil. He handed the coin to his brother for the customary inspection. There was a time when each of them had been very excited by the prospect of double-headed or trick coins, not to mention the methods of alchemy, chemistry, metallurgy, sleight of hand…They had even, once, as part of a nigh-endless waiting, found the coin to mysteriously come up heads every time, free of their tampering. But they were too tired for all that now, as they were too tired for most things, and there was nothing special about the coin. It may as well have, and had, been a doubloon, a silver talent, a rusty kopek.
Like everything, it had two sides.
The man not holding the coin produced from his breast pocket a small notebook whose pages were jammed with block letters that seemed to run in every direction at once. He reminded his brother, “You’re first.”
His brother brought the coin over the wooden desk on which sat the lit lamp. “Read it,” he managed to say.
The man with the notebook peered inside and said, bored, “Shantelle Irving’s labrador will die, hit by some truck in Cincinnati’s employ. She will have neglected to close the door after bringing groceries inside.” The man holding the coin closed his eyes, said a silent prayer, and flipped it. It came up heads.
Both brothers had a nagging feeling, like they had forgotten something, and the something they had forgotten was how to feel emotion at the outcomes, and the brother who had flipped the coin said, “Oh,” while the other marked something with a ballpoint pen in the notebook, and a moment of uneasiness passed between them. It was usually at this point that someone would flee, if they were going to. But both stayed. Fleeing was another one of the things they were tired of. It didn’t change anything. Fate was kind of just fate, you know? one would tell you. It is futile to resist destiny, the other would say, throwing up his hands.
The man holding the notebook picked up the coin and handed the book to his brother, who read, “Okay. Uh, we have here Mrs. Berman, whose lip will be split by her husband, leading to her moving out and the initiation of a divorce that will destroy the lives of her children.” He enumerated the subclauses of the occurrence, sketching out the largest ripples this husband’s terrible decision would cast upon the face of the world. Relatives, property, emotions were all mapped out. The hidden qualia that made up each individual subjective knowledge of the breakup was balanced out like fine architecture. He built, in his mind’s eye, a little cathedral of infinite, complex sorrow. Only one view of the matter, one opinion was left out, and that opinion was acknowledged with a brief glance up at the drop ceiling, whose pseudo-random distribution of holes he was certain he had spoken of before, though of course, he didn’t remember where.
“That’s pretty messed up,” said the other brother, though not in horror or admiration but with the detachment of one whose empathy was long ago stripped raw by the solid iron of his responsibilities. The first brother grunted, but not in assent or disagreement. The coin was thrown. It came up heads. The notebook was marked.
The process continued. The night grew longer, and dawn showed no sign of growing closer. They read and marked and read, but never turned a page in the notebook. The coin determined that, heads, a Mr. Benson of Bern would be winning a lottery, but, tails, his wife would not live to enjoy the wealth.
They judged, one by one, the incidents and people of this world, for good and for bad, the global and the personal. The brothers were infinitely efficient at their unending task but it still took forever. Children’s playground injuries alone took months, not counting attendant fear of doctors that would often result from them. Families were made and unmade; people committed atrocities and wonders, were caught before, during, and after the act. Crimes of passion, and whether by free will those passions would be resisted, were all decided by the coin. The misery of Africa went on and on until they were lost in it, subjugated to it, trapped in its jungles splayed out to all horizons. Revolutions were quashed and successful. Several groups dissolved into selves, and many individuals gave themselves to a cause to die for. The cost of tea in China was discussed; plane crashes and market crashes. The aristotelian epicycles of the angels were all maintained, heads, heads, heads, heads. The bees, their names long and secret, were apportioned their honey. Every ant mound on earth was assigned a destiny, and their collectivist members were named like subdomains, subsets of subsets. Every skipped rock was viewed as a sculpture and its aerodynamics sketched out. The words in dictionaries were counted and their true definitions locked away. One brother followed the course of every electric charge, while the other charted their logic. Together, they left behind man and his all-important story, and, with the flip of their coin, delved into dimensions indescribable and the surging tragedies of the subatomic particles. They chose which mysteries were to be swept behind the event horizon and supped with true love and the final digit of pi. They tallied every notion, every obscurity, every undiscovered and undiscoverable world. Every bullet…
“Forty-nine.” He yawned.
“I bet you would have loved that, once upon a time.”
“Bet? As in, gamble?” He glared.
“How did bullets end up so close to the end?”
“Who cares? Come, choose the names. We’re almost done.”
They traced the ligaments of a sad story, flipping their coin. The notebook went back-and-forth and its cover remained, despite the millennia of work, cold as the hour. They read, from the same page, all of the names in question. Many were rescued. Forty-nine were not.
“You wish you were sad.”
“Aha, maybe I do!”
“But you don’t, really, do you?”
“Come. End it.”
Then they turned to all that was left, that is, to themselves.
“Shall we return in six months?” one asked. As always, the coin came up heads. They both sighed.
The other picked up the coin from the desk, made to throw it, hesitated. “Is it even worth asking?” He felt something, deep in his chest. Not a feeling perhaps, but the memory of what one was like whose name was long forgotten.
The other merely raised his eyebrows.
He said, “Am I the one I am thinking of right now?” and gave it an expert flick with his thumb.
The coin did not come back down.
“Again,” said the other resignedly. “Oh well.” He pocketed his notebook and stepped into the shadows.
“Only God knows,” said the other. He turned off the small desk lamp and walked toward a small window at the end of the hallway, losing corporeality in the first rays of dawn, mesmerised by vague memories of the time before the coin. He remembered the victory of massacres and the pain of childbirth, the joy of vengeance and the sorrow of betrayal. He remembered a smattering of decisions. He had fought to choose the stones for gulags and the apples the righteous would eat and the times of death of endless, endless faces. He remembered, and knew that he was powerful, and that the other must be stopped.
But the time for that had passed. The time when he and his brother remembered which of them was Good, and which Evil.