Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Daria Hlazatova

Published Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Words by

Sisyphus In The City

Blood stained his hands, it had gotten messy. Surveying his palms with renewed interest, he perceived instead of the familiar flesh a pair of crimson gloves that appeared to have been woven seamlessly from what was once the fabric of his skin.

Blood stained his hands, it had gotten messy. Surveying his palms with renewed interest, he perceived instead of the familiar flesh a pair of crimson gloves that appeared to have been woven seamlessly from what was once the fabric of his skin.


A few hours earlier he had killed a man. Now he sat staring in bored vacuity as sunlight invaded the room, ripping the fleeing shadows into cascading bars of dust. Sweat seeped from his pores, radiating out across his shirt in some hideous cartography; each rivulet of moisture forming intricate and alien avenues and boulevards. He would have turned on the TV to drown out the interminable sound of decomposition that somehow oozed from the body in the corner, yet he loathed its celluloid sneer, its flickering mockery, and the sanitised world it portrayed. His world, he thought, was more than just that seen through a glass darkly, a world where the glass itself was cracked, spattered with dirt, and smeared with obscenities written in cheap lipstick. Beyond the walls of his apartment lay the sprawl of the city. He saw it in all its despair and ugliness. The streets teeming with scum, the junkies huddled in their alleys, and the illusive men in their plastic suits with their plastic expressions. He was the inconspicuous presence crawling alongside the curb through the labyrinth of high-rise offices and downtown squalor, ferrying people through its industrial smog and garish neon glow.


Descending to the darkened basement garages, his eyes caught the smouldering gleam of a cigarette before it was smothered in a flutter of a sparks.  This silent watcher in the dark unnerved him and filled him with a palpable sense of horror. He turned to fumble with the lock on the car door, scraping his key over it and cursing his shaking fingers as the metal screamed in protest. Safe within the grimy security of his yellow taxi, he angrily flicked the headlights on, illuminating only the concrete blankness of the underground garage and a collection of cigarette butts by one of the pillars. Someone had recently stood there, waiting, watching. The static crackle of the radio and the harsh nasal voice calling for “Car 17” broke the silence and with some relief he merged into the mass of vehicles shuffling along in solemn procession.


Imprisoned within the blur of lumbering metal and the constant motion of the cross-town choreography, he sat and suffocated, suffocated and bitterly recognised that he, Sisyphus, was alone in the city of green, red, and amber eyes; he found this strangely, even perversely poetic. The taxi ground to a halt behind one of the lumbering mastodons of the modern age; its frame quivering and snorting out great clouds of foul smoke, the garbage truck steadily gorged itself on the remains of yesterday, mechanical jaws mechanically consuming. Today was no different from any other: the same tedium, the same hopeful faces passing by, and later there would be the same broken faces immortalised in his rear-view mirror. Today was no different, save for the stranger in the seat beside him. Something had drawn him to the figure swathed in black, laconically perched on a battered trunk at the side of the road. The stranger was somehow familiar, perhaps it was the Jack Nicholson rakishness, he thought cynically; Sisyphus felt that he knew him from somewhere, but he couldn’t place those sunken eyes that leered at him out of gaunt cheeks.


“Ever contemplated death Sisyphus, ever wondered what it is to die, ever considered what it is to smother the spirit that issues from someone’s lips?”


The question caught him off guard, naturally. His reply was marred by the return of that earlier undefined sensation of terror. “Course, I’ve thought about it, but it’s been a passing fantasy, just the evil that all men dream about, surely?”


From his companion there arose a choking laugh at this response. It slowly dawned on him that this man had addressed him by name; seeming to perceive this train of thought, the figure turned his hooded head and said simply, “Sisyphus, I have come for you, for I am Death.”


The taxi meandered on, drifting aimlessly through the oblivious city. Sisyphus didn’t think to resist, for a sickening feeling of recognition rose within him; this was the presence that had haunted his every waking moment, it had watched him kill with a sickly grin, and now it had crossed over from the realm of shades to pursue him through dreams and days without end. He saw only the scorched tarmac of the road ahead unwinding into the distance.


Death, an alcohol-soaked barfly clutching at the reassuring handle of the taxi door for support, (instead of the iconic scythe that Western society had bestowed him in so many scenes of ominous majesty), as he staggered against the morning heat: the absurdity of it, thought Sisyphus dryly. More painfully comic than menacing, this harlequin of memento mori swayed a little under the combined weight of his trunk and the contents of an empty gin bottle; a bottle which decided to stage its own dramatic entrance into the midst of the confusion with a resounding smash as it connected with the sidewalk and exploded into crystalline fragments. This farcical vision of Death had directed him to a quay overlooking some muddy flats abandoned by the tide. Looking down from the rusted chains and paint-flecked bollards that adorned the desolate wharf, Sisyphus saw the broken remnants of buoys and mangled lobster pots embedded in the slime, seemingly part of some bizarre canvas. The work of that ever-elusive artist “Johnny loves Gloria”, or so the signature in the silt proclaimed. What a way to spend your last hours, pointlessly searching for sublimity in the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the waves. Death seemed to share this opinion, for his eyes had wandered to a gaudy couple at the water’s edge. Was that the great artist and his muse? She was a poor specimen to base a career on at any rate, Sisyphus thought in hostile disdain.


The quay gave way to the dilapidated shell of an abandoned amusement park, long since bequeathed to the elements, its turnstiles seized with rust and resplendent with mechanical animals eerily rocking in the wind to the agonising shriek of metal on metal. Towering above the park, a Ferris wheel suggested a sorrowful monument of its former grandeur. It mournfully swayed in the wind, gazing across that grey vista of cold ocean and ruin into an eternity of loss. The two figures picked their way down the promenade, its vulgar splendour distorted by innumerable weeds. A mangy dog lolled against the barrier seemingly awaiting them, bound there by some unknown tether though its eyes were tormented and froth blossomed on its jaws. Somewhere within that carnivalesque sepulchre someone was singing; the voice quavered against the sounds of screeching springs, its fragile beauty shattered. The singer’s words were laden with sorrow; Sisyphus heard only a lamentation for the passing of a great and terrible party.


“Come away, come away, death … Fly away, fly away breath.” Her words again echoed through the stillness of desolation with the sublime pain of planets colliding.


Death was now leaning against the burnt-out structure of a ticket booth, a cigarette dangling from his mouth; their journey was apparently at an end. And by his leering car salesman’s-smile, Sisyphus knew that sombre hall surrounded by the decaying remains of rider-less horses forever plunging into the gloom, the faded balustrades, and the motionless carousel. By his dead smile, Sisyphus knew they stood in Hell. It seemed to Sisyphus that he was suddenly transported to some sunken city, traversing its ruined streets as its lifeless occupants floated about him puppet-like in a macabre imitation of their former selves. He was alone amongst the dead. A decrepit form was lashed to one horse a little apart from the others, appearing blackened and charred.


“Another guest who has never left,” remarked his wheezing guide in tones laced with cynicism and cheap tobacco.


Bulbs started to sputter into a dismal semblance of light as an ironic waltz destroyed the terrifying serenity of the carnival of rust. Drawn to Death’s gaze, Sisyphus saw only infinite wrath and infinite despair on that blanched face as he raised a dirty glass in a mocking toast. Sisyphus turned unseeing eyes on the grotesquely revolving carousel, its rotting stallions hopelessly straining for escape as they whirled on their infernal axis. With the spluttering lights serving only to emphasise the greater darkness around them, Sisyphus vainly sought hope or some reprieve, and found none. There was nothing to do except join Death in this final grandstand and watch as his world fell apart. He recalled some other figure cast down and murmured in the true horror of his realisation,


“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell, and in the lowest deep a lower deep still threatening to devour me opens wide.”

Author Image