Thoughts in Vermillion

Red moon

I think of you
whenever I see vermillion light
Not idle thoughts, fancies, flitting through my mind
Thoughts with texture
Viscosity
Chew
The kind you feel

It happens when I walk on the crystal sand beaches
near Vellorax
The orange light of the waters drowns my vision
and thoughts of you drown my mind
The waves purr against the rocks
and the sand
and it is your purr, and I can hear you,
and I know you can hear me, too, in your way

I think of you in the city
by the gambling dens
with their bright orange signs
like gaudy neon pumpkins
hanging above them, unsupported in the hot evening haze
They cry out effort, bland commercialism, a struggle for desperation
But I don’t see it
I just see you
The color penetrates my eyelids
And I can taste you on my lips, feel your softness on my fingers

I think of you in tangerine,
in persimmon,
in bittersweet shimmer,
Sometimes with intention, sometimes blind,
stealthy
The thought floods through me, and I think of you
The color of your pelt
And so you think of me

Even right now, I stare up at the vermilion moon
And I wonder if somewhere, right now,
you can see it too
Then you speak, telepathically,
your tone sleepy and annoyed,
and you remind me that of course you can’t see it
you are in a different star system
and anyway you don’t process color like I do,
so you couldn’t tell the vermillion moon from the crimson,
and I should stop being silly
then you pull away
and go back to sleep

I knew you were sleeping
and that if I stared at the moon
it would texture my thoughts
and you would hear them
in your beautiful, colorless dreams
I feel guilty, but it makes me smile
a vermillion smile
because we are far away, now
and sometimes
I just need to hear your brain

Red

Angry red LED light

 

Part of Colors.

 


 

 

The red light shines.

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

In the moments between the angry cold of crimson there is only darkness. The red obscures more than the darkness. When the light is gone I know this place. I’ve seen it, so many times, bathed in fluorescence. It has no mysteries, no secrets. But the red light warps everything. It flashes its quiet scream of momentary luminance, and this is not the room I know. The corners hide frightened shadows. The shapes are distorted. The groans and mechanical clanks that buildings make are innocent in the dark, but not in the red. There nothing is innocent.

I sit here in this red and black space. I could turn on the light. Maybe someone will walk in and flip the switch, and it will transform everything. Yank it artificially into the normality in which it bathes nearly all the time. The normality of chatting and lunchtimes and whining about bad customers. I sit in the red and black, and I know that any moment someone might walk in and shatter the world into light. And I will hate them.

I can feel hatred, in this place. An anger that is deep and unquenching and unquestioning. Meaningless. It consumes rational objection or perspective the way a white blood cell consumes a pathogen. Unfeeling, but righteous. Evolutionary. For the good of the bitter organism that is the hateful mind. I bath in the warping red light because I cannot run from the hatred. Not now. Not like this.

It isn’t real. I know that. It’s just hormones, circadian rhythms, seasonal affective disorder. But it doesn’t matter. It isn’t real, but it is the only thing that exists. I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to be able to handle the day. My mind screams these words at me, written in red on the back of my eyes. I know they are phantoms. Later on I will laugh and dance and bask in the light. That is the person I am nearly all the time, and I know that, even now. These thoughts are phantoms. But they are phantoms made of stone.

The light is all.

Later when I think about this I’ll dress it up with fancy words. Brighter colors. Purples and blues and greens. It’s all about neurotransmitters. It’s all about balance, feeling the harsh emotions to put the joyful ones into perspective. Later on, under the sunlight, I’ll believe those things. But they are phantoms. I know that, right now. Phantoms made of spun glass, but phantoms still. Right now, in a place so real and so strong that it shoves everything else away, there is only desperate, vicious fatigue. It doesn’t matter what produces the light. It doesn’t matter that it’s the LED of a snack machine, any more than it matters the origin of the metal that pierces your heart. There is only me, in this room, in the darkness.

And the red. So very, very much red.

The Hungry, Violet Place

Cave Creek Regional Park

 

This story has a soundtrack. Could enhance the experience.
 

No one was around when Jocelyn screamed. She didn’t hold back. She couldn’t. There was nothing special about that moment, but it hurt so much. She didn’t know why it hurt so much and she didn’t care. There was no caring. There was only the pain, as all of the dull edges of crystal growing inside of her these last few months suddenly turned, and sharpened. She felt them cut every part of her being, her mind, her soul, her memories. She’d been barely keeping it together, but now she was alone and there was no distraction and no consolation and they were sharp and there was nothing but pain.

So she screamed. She lay on her bed and she screamed and screamed and screamed even though no one could hear her and her throat went raw and she ran out of breath and she started to go dizzy from lack of oxygen and she just kept screaming. It didn’t lessen the pain. It didn’t dull the edges; it honed them. They were sharper, their amethyst edges clearer, more bright. But at least it was hers. At least she was in control. Her scream went on and on and on and seemed to echo around her.

It filled up every crevice of her being, blurred her vision, resonated throughout her bones and her skull and the fillings in her teeth. A violet scream, blasts of pulsating light that stabbed into her retinas. It was so intense, so all consuming, that she barely noticed that it went on too long. Impossibly long. Her lung capacity should have faded a long time ago. She barely noticed that as the scream stretched on it was no longer her that was screaming. It was everything.

It was almost a moment of calm, that revelation. But there could be no calm in such a place, where the walls of her room had been replaced with crystals, throbbing with hungry purple light. No calm, but clarity. She was someplace different, now. The entire world around her had changed. It wasn’t just in her head. It was everywhere.

Inside the scream. Inside all screams. It wasn’t a single sound, she realized. Everything around her, the glassine structures that jutted out of every surface, they all cried out. Their screams mingled and blended in a massive harmony of dissonance. It should have blown out her ear drums, drown out her thoughts. But this was normal, here. This was how it always was.

She stood up. The ground was not flat, and the jagged crystalline floor cut into her exposed feet. The sound of the cry beneath her changed as it soaked up her blood. It sounded satisfied. Its hunger sated on her fluids and her pain, just for an instant.

“Where am I?” she said out loud. Her voice rang out clear amidst the cacophony. Like it was on a different wavelength.

“You are in Amethyn,” said another voice behind her. She turned.

There was a man. A large shard of purple stone impaled him through his chest, but as she watched he pushed himself up and off of the spike and onto his feet. The stone sang its disharmonious longing at his absence. It left no wound.

“Amethyn,” said Jocelyn, tasting the word on her lips.

“Amethyn,” the man said again. “The Echo Chamber of Insanity. The Land of the Hungry Screams. It calls to us, when we are too much for the rocky, quiet world.”

“It calls to us,” Jocelyn said.

“Will you feed me?” the man said. He stretched his hand out and stepped slowly towards her.

“What?”

“Will you feed me?”

Jocelyn looked the man in the eyes. In much the way his voice reached her ears through all of the howls, she could seem him clearly even over the violent purple light that pulsed out from every surface. He looked like a person, only something was wrong. On his face, on his exposed chest where the crystal had torn open his shirt, on the flesh of his outstretched hand, there were…things. Tiny black things. Like the mandibles of bugs that were nestled inside of him, and had gotten trapped in his skin while trying to escape.

“I’m so hungry,” he said. “So hungry.”

He was only one step away from her. How had he gotten so close. He didn’t rush. He didn’t attack. His mouth merely opened. Then it kept opening, and opening, until it was larger than his head. His teeth were sharp and black. Like onyx, glinting in the amethyst light.

Jocelyn responded without thinking. Her own jaw detached, and stretched open. It hurt. Everything here hurt. But it wasn’t a bad hurt. It was right.

The man’s eyes widened for the tiniest moment as Jocelyn’s mouth spread to engulf his body. Surprise, for a moment, and then resignation. No, not resignation. Defeat, utter and complete, without resistance. A moment later and her teeth pressed up against his bones, her tongue wrapped around his neck to snap his spine. A moment later and she swallowed him. He dissolved in an instant, and a shock of agony spiked through her nerves. Perfect agony. It was beautiful.

“John,” she said out loud. “His name was John.” And it was. All that he had been was within her, now. The torment of his conflicted life. The tall man whose scorn had broken his will and sent him to this place. His months of wandering the crystal chambers, scraping discarded screams off the stone to ease the hunger. To quiet the screams.

But he didn’t understand. The hunger never eased. The screams never quieted. He had been weak. He fought the hunger and cowered from the screams. But it didn’t matter. He was in a better place, now. Or at least, a truer placer. Part of something greater, and Jocelyn would not waste his torment. She would not cower. This place called to her. It needed her pain, her strength, her screams, just as she needed them.

She stood and walked off into the violet. There was much to do, and much to discover. She was in Amethyn, now. She was home.

Spoken In Blue

Blue Acrylic Painting

 

I want to point out right off the bat that the following is a work of fiction, so no one gets the wrong idea.

 

Spoken In Blue

 

I first met my brother when he was five years old. I’d seen him before. I saw him every day since the day our father brought back the strange little bundle wrapped in cloth. He brought the baby back alone. He told me his name was Jeremy. That was the last time, I think, I ever heard him speak his youngest son’s name. He wasn’t a person to me. I was only six, and here this wailing little lump of flesh came into my life, without the one who was supposed to bring him back. I wasn’t mad at him. I didn’t hate him. I wasn’t old or mature enough to blame him; that was for dad. I figured maybe he would turn into a person some day. Once he started to talk.

But he never did. And so I never met him, until he was five. Five years old and he’d never spoken a single word. He made noises, but you couldn’t call them communication, let alone language. But it was deeper than that. He didn’t make eye contact. He didn’t make hand gestures or point to things or do anything that made any of us thing he had anything to say. Severely autistic, they would probably say now. He was never diagnosed. We didn’t even have that word back then. Not really. But we had a lot of other words.

“The lighthouse is on, but the lighthouse keeper fell asleep in the shithouse,” dad said with his characteristic poetry.

We all looked at Jeremy like he wasn’t really a human being. Just a body, doing all of the things a body could do, but without anyone steering. Even I looked at him like that. Until that day.

We were sitting in the living room watching Hanna Barbara cartoons. Huckleberry Hound was my favorite, and that’s why I had a bowl of blue sherbet sitting in front of me even though it tasted like blueberry bubble gum that had already been chewed and spit out. But it was Huckleberry Hound flavored, and I was at that age when the chance that my frozen dessert would spontaneously get up and start singing “My Darling Clementine” was more important to me than the fact that I could barely choke it down. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention to the bowl on my lap, and that’s why I didn’t notice when my brother stole it away right from under my eyes.

“Oh Jesus Christ!” my father bellowed as he walked into the room. “What’s that little idiot doing? Why did you give him your damn ice cream?”

I looked over and saw Jeremy smearing the dark blue non-dairy treat all over the piece of paper he was supposed to be drawing on. And all over himself. And the carpet underneath it.

“Aw jeez, dad,” I said. “I didn’t notice.”

“I know you didn’t notice,” said dad, and he smacked me on the back of the head. “I’ve got two idiots for sons. What the hell did I do to deserve this?”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, feebly.

“Well, clean the damn thing up then,” said dad, and he stormed out of the room.

I went into the kitchen to get a sponge, a bucket, and some towels and then back to clean up Jeremy’s mess. Again. For about the thousandth time.

As I approached, Jeremy jerked his head to look at me. Well, not at me, exactly. Past me, which was the closest he ever got. For a second I ignored him, but then he lifted up his hand and held it in front of my eyes. It had the piece of paper in it.

“Yes, that’s nice,” I said, and tried to move past him to get to the carpet. But he persisted. He thrust the paper in my face. I paused.

“Is that for me?” I asked. He didn’t say anything, or do anything. He just held out the paper. I grasped it with my fingers, even though every inch of the paper was covered in a thick layer of sticky sherbet. As soon as I was holding onto the paper he let it go. I stared. It seems like such a small thing, but it wasn’t. There was no doubt in my mind that Jeremy had just handed me something. He had never done that before in his entire life.

“Let me see,” I said. I took a look at it. It was a finger painting. But more than that, it was a painting. At that time in my life I couldn’t have told you anything about composition or contrast or line quality, but I was the second best drawer in my class after Lindsay Banes, and that was only because her parents paid the art teacher to give her drawing lessons on weekends. I had seen Jeremy’s crayon scribbles before and they had no direction. They were just a kid scraping a colored stick at a white surface. No more an attempt at artwork than throwing acorns at a junkyard fence.

This was different. The page was covered in swirls of different shapes and sizes. Jeremy had dipped his fingers into the sherbet and applied his paint to the paper with care and deliberation. It wasn’t some great work of art or anything, but it was…directed. I spent a lot of time caring for my baby brother, and he needed a lot of care. I’d never seen him do anything like this. For a moment I considered showing dad. A brief moment.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” I said. He didn’t respond. But then again, I didn’t expect him to.

I would love to say that the moment changed me instantly, and that I immediately started trying to help Jeremy express himself. But I didn’t. The fact is that by the time I fell asleep that night I’d pretty much forgotten about it. I mean, it was just sherbet splatters on a piece of construction paper. It wasn’t that big a deal. Except it was. Some part of me remembered that, but it was a good four months before I did anything about it.


 

 

“The winner is…Adam Derwin!”

The whole class clapped. Lindsay Banes shot me a dirty look as I walked up to the front of the room. I couldn’t help but look terribly smug as Mrs. Limon shook my hand and gave me my 1st place certificate. I wanted to say “take that, Lindsay!” but obviously I didn’t. That would be being a poor winner, which wasn’t okay even when it would feel really good .

But I was highly proud that my diorama about dinosaurs beat her diorama, which was about different and much lamer dinosaurs. Everyone in class knew that Lindsay’s mom helped her, just like they all knew that my dad definitely did not help me. I’d had to go to the library and get a book on paper mâché and learn how to do it all myself. It was a lot of work, but I knew that it was a skill that would help me in my future, so I muscled through it.

“As the first place winner, Adam,” Mrs. Limon continued, “you get your first pick of the prizes.”

I marched confidently towards the table under the blackboard. There it was. The Hot Wheels set. It was all the boys in the class had been talking about the last week. How amazing was it that a school diorama contest had a prize as cool as a Hot Wheels set? It was the entire reason that I’d actually bothered to put serious work into a school project for once. I looked back and caught my friend Bobby’s eye. He gave me a thumbs up and a huge grin. He knew he’d get to come over and race with me. He had an eye on a Plymouth Barracuda.

I reached over to get them, but then I hesitated. Something caught my eye. It was two prizes over from the Hot Wheels, right next to the pack of dinosaur stencils. It was a paint set, with some brushes, an easel, and several tubes of paint. What grabbed my attention was the color on the front of the box. It had dots to show all of the different colors of paint, and one of them was blue. The same exact shade of blue as those finger-swirls of Huckleberry Hound-flavored sherbet. Before I knew what I was doing I felt my fingers close around the paint set.

“I’ll take this one,” I said. Everyone in the class gasped in shock and horror. Okay, probably they didn’t really do that. But that’s how I remember it.


 

 

It took me a couple of weeks to set it up. I only got through it because I never thought about what I was doing. I never considered that there were cartoons to watch and street hockey to play and that this was taking time away from them. If my dad had wandered into the garage and told me I was being a jackass and wasting my time, I probably would have stopped. If any of my friends had found out and made fun of me, I probably would have made up some excuse and never gone back to it. I didn’t understand why I was doing it. If I had I would have realized it was a stupid idea that almost certainly would amount to nothing. All I knew was that I wanted to do this. That there was something tight in my chest that hadn’t been there before. This was the only thing I could think of that might make it go away.

“Come on, Jeremy,” I said as I guided my brother by the hand. He could get around okay but he often bumped into things. That was okay in the house, where we’d spend years gradually removing anything breakable or dangerous. But this was the garage, and it was full of nails and power tools and broken lamps that dad swore he was going to get around to fixing one of these days. I’d done my best to clear a path—that’s most of what took so long—but some of the stuff was heavy. I was on the football team, but muscular eleven year old arms are still only eleven years old.

I walked him over to the desk I set up. There was a chair there, but I didn’t have much illusion that he was going to sit in it and stay still. Instead I’d cut the legs off the desk so that it was low enough for him to get to standing up.

On the desk was a sheet of paper, an easel full of paint splotches, and a couple of brushes with cups of water set into notches in the desk so that it would be difficult for him to knock them over. He could pick them up and throw them, just like he could throw the paint or the brushes or the easel. But I was prepared. A tarp covered the whole area around the desk, and another one covered the junk between the desk and the wall. I didn’t think Jeremy was strong enough to hurl anything past the protective perimeter I’d set up, but if he did I would just clean it up. Dad would never have let him paint in the house. He wouldn’t be too happy that he was painting out here, either, but he wouldn’t fight too hard about it after everything I had done. At least, I hoped not.

“Here you go,” I said. I placed the brush in his hand.

He closed his fist around it. Like it was a knife he was going to stab something with.

“There you are. That goes in the paint. Like this.” I gently guided his arm so that the tip of the brush dipped into the nearest gob of paint, which was yellow. Then I moved his hand towards the paper to make a mark. Jeremy’s expression was calm. Almost serene. For one beautiful moment as the brush moved towards the canvas I thought this was going to work.

Then he screamed, and hurled the brush away. It landed with a splat on the tarp. Jeremy just kept screaming. A high pitched wail that pierced right through my ears and into my brain. It kept going and going.

“Shut that retard up!” my father’s voice echoed from in the house. “I’m watching Carol!”

“Shh, shh,” I said to Jeremy, and I was surprised at the calm in my voice. Apparently I wasn’t going to give up so easily. Where did that come from?

“Look,” I said. I picked up one of the other brushes and dipped it in the red splotch of paint on the easel. Then I stroked the paper with the brush and watched the streak of crimson as it formed. “Look, it’s painting. It’s fun.”

Jeremy continued to scream. I made a swirl with the red paint, just like the one he had made with my sherbet. The wail went on.

“It’s painting,” I said, gritting my teeth. “You like painting. I know you do. Come on, Jeremy. I know you’re in there.”

I dipped the brush in the water to clear it off, then back into the paint. This time I chose the blue. I brought it over to the paper and made another swirl. Jeremy’s mouth closed in an instant. Silence filled the room, and if silence had a color it was that same dark, beautiful shade of blue. I made another swirl. Jeremy’s eyes darted to the paper, transfixed.

“Here,” I said, and I tried to push the brush into his hand. He didn’t take it. Instead he dipped his fingers into the paint. He gushed them around for a second, gathering up a good amount of pigment, and then pressed them to the paper. He swirled it around, and his eyes widened as the white transformed into blue. He put his fingers back in for more.

For the next fifteen minutes all he did was paint. He swirled his fingers around and around, in loops and swirls and curly cues. He stabbed his fingers into the red, and the yellow, and the green, but they never touched the paper until they were mixed with the blue. He blended hues until the easel was a big splotch of different shades of azure, and rubbed each one against the paper. I stood back and watched. I wanted to give him his distance. I only approached once his blue ran out, which didn’t take long. I squeezed more of it out of the tube and stepped back again.

Finally it was done. Every inch of the paper, and much of the desk, was covered with blue curvey shapes. Jeremy pressed his face so close to the paper that I thought he was going to get paint on his nose, and stared. For a long moment he just stared. Minutes went by, and Jeremy stared. This was the longest I had ever seen him do anything. The painting, and then the staring. It was the first time he ever seemed interested. Engaged. Then he turned to look at me, to the extent that he could. His hand darted out to the side and grabbed the paper, delicately, by a corner that was almost dry. Here, he seemed to be saying. This is for you.

I walked up to him and threw my arms around him. I felt wetness against my chest but I didn’t care. He let me hug him for almost five seconds. An eternity. And when he pushed me away it wasn’t aggressive. Just insistent.

He held the picture up between us and grunted. I took it.

“Thank you, Jeremy. It’s beautiful.”

And it kind of was. It wasn’t a work of staggering mastery, or anything. I’m not going to tell you that this is how I discovered my brother was a painting prodigy or anything. In movies, mentally challenged people always turn out to be secret geniuses, but I’ve never seen that in real life. The picture looked like exactly what it was: a chaotic fingerpainting by a five year with a struggling brain.

But it was real. It had meaning. There was no denying that. And it was different than the sherbet painting, even though the shapes used were similar. That one had been tranquil, like blue clouds in twilight. This one was violent. Tumultuous. Pounding ocean waves at the height of a storm. If Jeremy’s wail from a few minutes ago could be captured in blue, this is what it would look like.

I walked over to the cork board set against the south wall. It had been full of fast food flyers, but we hadn’t used them in years. So I had torn everything off the board except the push pins and dumped it in the trash. I took one of the pins, now, and pushed it through the top-center of Jeremy’s painting. I took a step back and looked at it again. I glanced over at Jeremy. He wasn’t looking at the painting. He was looking at me. Not my eyes, of course, but my chest. I looked down, and burst out laughing. I was covered in blue paint from where I’d hugged my brother. My brother.

I had a brother. How had I not seen that before? I looked over at him. There was paint all over his clothes, on his hands, of course, and even a little in his hair. He had the same not-quite-present expression he usually had on his face, but it was different. He always looked like he wasn’t seeing the world around him, but now he seemed to be looking at something. Something distant, perhaps. Something alien, that none of the rest of us could see. But he was looking. There was a mind in there.

That’s what the tight thing in my chest had been. It struck me all at once, in that moment. For five years I thought of my brother as some kind of animal. Like a chimp, that could walk and eat and smear his bodily wastes all over the walls of the bathroom, but who couldn’t think. Who couldn’t feel. But I had been wrong. I walked up again to hug him. He went limp, like a ragdoll, and let me.

“Come on,” I said once I let him go. “Let’s go get you cleaned up.”

And that was the day I met my little brother. The first conversation we ever had. The first of many, since that day so very long ago. But he’s never said a word. He never had to. Everything Jeremy has ever said, ever really said, has been spoken in blue.

Colors

Colours from Above

I have a thing about monochrome. The kind of beauty that fills me with awe, that staggers me to the point that can’t function for a time, almost always comes in a single shade. It doesn’t matter which. I have long felt that a snow-covered world is the world at its most beautiful, but I think that’s only a sliver of the truth. White is the only color that the dirty, vibrant, complicated modern world I grew up in chooses to paint itself from time to time. I would be just as awed if the skies opened up and bathed the landscape in violet-petals. Or if it was overgrown in a single night in moss, or the bright, distinct blue of a billion empty boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

The same is true of scenes on alien planets where the world is a single stark color. They make me feel both calm and energized. Emotionally fascinated and lulled into a state of unfeeling serenity. My mind and body are very sensitive to stimuli, and single-color scenes are exactly the right kind of overwhelming. And yet, reactions like this are difficult because they are very hard to put into words.

I haven’t explored this much in my writing. I did it at least once, and it’s one of my favorite of my own stories.

An Artist In The Snow

I want to go back there. To that place where there is no line between emotion and color. It’s not the kind of writing I crave, as a rule. I prefer ideas to sensations. But right now I’m out of ideas. Or rather, my ideas all bore me. So here we are. Since this is NaNo month, and I have once again realized that I’m not up for that kind of intensity, I’m going to start a new writing project: Colors.

I don’t know how many stories I am going to write, or how long they will be. But I’m going to do at least one a week for at least five weeks. Each of them will be focused on a single color. Some of them will probably be high concept and others not so much. Some of them will be as somber and self-serious as this post, and others will have more levity, like that picture of ties I put at the top of the post so I didn’t feel so ridiculous. The first time a tie has ever made me feel less ridiculous.

We’ll see what happens.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 5

A Planetary Nebula Gallery (NASA, Chandra, 10/10/12)

 

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

You saw it. On the day that Graemoreax rose up to surround everything and an eleven year old girl soared towards its massive form, you saw it. We all did. We just didn’t know what we were looking at. We so rarely do. And so we didn’t notice. And we didn’t remember.

A strange sensation coursed through Ari’s body as she burst through the earth’s atmosphere and out towards the sparkling firmament. It felt tingly, like the air right before a summer storm. Times a thousand. It was so intense she could barely stand it, but it wasn’t a bad feeling. On the contrary. She felt excited. So excited she thought her bones were going to leap out of her skin and dive into the luminescence.

That’s what it is, she thought. I’m diving into starlight.

It pressed against her body, rubbed against her hair and made it stand on end. She had spent so much time looking up into the starry night, drinking in the tiny trickle of magic that made it down to the ground. Now it was everywhere. She was swimming in a Van Gogh painting. Her tiny ship of cards had punched through the barrier that separated all of the dense, gravity bound creatures that scurried across the earth from the liquid light of the heavens.

She laughed, and the sound was as loud as a gunshot in her ears. It was so…terrestrial. So real. It didn’t belong here, somehow. The things that swam in the interstellar ocean did not laugh. But at the same time it was not unwelcome. She didn’t get a sense of fear from the enormous creature she now hurtled towards. Most likely, these things didn’t fear, either. What could something like this possibly be afraid of?

But no, that wasn’t quite right. This thing wasn’t afraid of her. At least, she didn’t think it did. It was hard to read its facial expressions when it had a billion billion faces, and none of them really worthy of being called that. The way it looked at Ari felt more like curiosity or fascination than fear. But just because it was big and powerful didn’t mean it couldn’t be afraid. Elephants were afraid of mice. Uncle Jacob had a friend who was a mixed martial arts champion, but she was so afraid of pathogenic microorganisms that she brought pockets full of sanitizing wipes with her wherever she went. Even though she had never actually seen a single amoeba.

The creature grew larger and more clear as Ari approached, but she still couldn’t make out its features very well. It was like it didn’t really have features. It was shadow and flame, like a Balrog. Like, Morgoth, who had made the Balrogs. No, like the thing that had made Morgoth.

She approached incredibly quickly. She looked behind her and she could barely see the earth. No, she couldn’t see the earth at all.

Because my eyes are closed.

The realization surprised her. She hadn’t noticed that her eyes were still closed. It felt natural, and she had no inclination to open them now. She wouldn’t be able to see anything if she did. The glowing nebulae around her lit up the universe around her more brightly than full moonlight, but if she opened her eyes there would be nothing but darkness.

The one thing on the being that she could see more palpably as she neared were its mouths. It seemed to be almost entirely made of mouths. The burning darkness that only suggested a shape was there merely to bind the mouths together. So they wouldn’t fly off. But still, she couldn’t make out any more actual detail on the mouths. They didn’t become clearer, as such. It was more like they became more real. More solid. They still looked like the rough approximation of mouths. No, that wasn’t it. Like proto-mouths. What mouths looked like before the universe had the physics and matter to make lips and teeth and gums.

But mouths they were. As she neared she noticed that they moved. The entire creature was moving, uncoiling around like a great, many-bodied snake. But the mouths moved in unison with each other, and it was a different kind of movement than the rest of it. Its body slithered as if pacing, or like a person shifting weight from foot to foot. The mouth movement was more directed. More conscious. They were opening. Every single one of its uncountable number of mouths was opening. Every. Last. One.

Horror welled up inside of her at the realization.

It’s going to eat me! The thought screamed through her head. Instinctively, she yanked on the throttle-stick in her hand. Her Ship of Cards screeched to a halt. With a sickening wrench her body flew forward, and she crashed into the hull just a few inches from the front of her face. The thin plastic walls collapsed the instant she collided with them. Cards sprayed out everywhere as the ship burst into pieces. Ari’s body hurtled forward, unsupported, into the brightly colored vacuum of space. Towards the creature. Towards its infinite open mouths.

Panic seized Ari’s entire being. She was in space. She couldn’t breath. She clamped her mouth shut and pressed her hands over her nose. How much oxygen did she have left? Was she going to freeze, her blood turn into beautiful red crystals floating in the endless darkness?

Light flashed in her vision and her head swam as her brain struggled for air. Images spiked into her mind, sharp and clear and strong. She saw madre, splashing paint onto her face with a wide-bristled brush. She felt daddy’s arms underneath her armpits as he picked her up and twirled her around underneath the dappled forest sunlight of their backyard. And she saw Uncle Jacob. He smiled up at her, sadly, from some place very far beneath her. He was somewhere very strange. His eyes shown up at her like twin moons. His teeth were bright, and the twinkled like stars.

BREATH.

The voice that uttered the word was so surprising, and so enormous, that she dropped her hands from her mouth and gasped without realizing it.

“What?” she said.

BREATH, the voice said again, shaking the universe around her like a volcano had erupted next to each one of her ears. BREATH. YOU ARE SAFE.

“I…I am?” As she said it, she realized it was true. She could breathe quite normally, although it didn’t exactly feel like breathing. And she wasn’t hurtling through space anymore, either. Had she ever been? She couldn’t quite remember. It was like waking up from a dream. But the ground beneath her feet was perfectly solid. She looked down, and gasped again.

Beneath the soles of her shiny black shoes, she stood on…something. It was kind of like scaly skin, and kind of like lava, and kind of like what darkness would look like if you could make it into paving material . She didn’t know what it was made of, but there was no mistaking what it was. She stood on the skin of the creature with the infinite mouths. She had arrived.

YOU ARE SAFE. Ari threw her hands up to cover her ears, but it didn’t help. She felt like the voice was going to shake her apart.

“Do you have to talk like that?”

IT… the creature hesitated. It was caught off guard. Ari was surprised that such a thing could be caught off guard by a simple question. THIS IS AS IT SPEAKS. Ari’s brain rattled inside of her skull.

“Well it isn’t very pleasant,” said Ari. “Can’t do you something about it?”

There was a long pause. Ari tried to read what it was thinking on its many faces. They filled her entire vision, and in shape and form were utterly inhuman. Not even like an animal, or anything spun from the matter of the universe. But all the same she thought she saw contemplation, there. Like someone trying to work out a challenging but not impossible math problem. She could also see that its mouths were still opening. Very slowly, but they were opening. Was it still going to eat her? Clearly it didn’t need its mouths to speak. Not like a person did.

“It is done,” said the creature in a much softer voice. Now that it wasn’t shaking her apart, she could hear its tone and timbre. It sounded to Ari like a whole bunch of voices speaking together in chorus. Some were deep, and some were high, and even though they were simultaneous she could pick out the thread of each individual voice. It was strange, but not altogether unpleasant. She decided she had probably been wrong to think it wanted to eat her. At the very least, there was no use fixating on that right now.

“Thank you,” said Ari. “My name is Ariana. Ari, though. What is your name?”

“It is called GRAEMOREAX.” The last word was enormous, again. Like it was the only way to say it. Most of the voices uttered that word. Graemoreax. They stretched it out, each syllable resounding across the brightness around her. But others of the creature’s myriad voices said other things. “Archkthonios,” whatever that was, and something about “uncountable toothless maws” and “burning at the heart” of something or other. One tiny, beautiful voice said, “devourer of the eversong,” and it made Ari’s heart ache.

So that’s what happened to the eversong, she thought, though she had no idea why.

“Nice to meet you, Graemoreax,” the name felt flat on her tongue. It wasn’t the same name as the creature had uttered. Anymore than saying the word “tsunami” is the same standing underneath the wave as it crashed down.

There was another long pause. Then Graemoreax said, “It is pleased as well.”

“What do you mean, it?” Ari asked. “Aren’t you it?”

The creature paused again, and once again its “faces” looked contemplative and puzzled. Perhaps this thing was slow to react because it was so large. Or perhaps Ari was merely asking difficult questions.

“We are it,” said Graemoreax’s many voices. “We are pleased.”

“Good enough,” said Ari. She opened up her mouth to ask “what are you,” but then she realized that it had already answered. GRAEMOREAX. That was the answer. The creature had told her what it was, in a deeper and more comprehensive way than she herself could have answered the same question. This thing knew exactly what it was, and it had told her. She didn’t entirely understand its answer. But then, she hadn’t really expected to.

Ari didn’t know what else to say. It was almost funny; she travelled god-knows how many light years to get here, on a magic ship made of cards, and now she stared at this impossible, gargantuan beast and an impossible, gargantuan awkward silence hung between them. It was always this way when she met new people. Why should this be any different? She knew what she wanted to ask, but she couldn’t. Not yet. It might ruin everything. But she had to say something. So she asked the first important question the jumped to her mind.

“Why are you?”

It was out of her mouth before she realized it. She had long since learned not to ask questions like that anymore, because adults didn’t like to answer them and tended to brush her off when she asked. She asked Uncle Jacob why that was, once. His answer didn’t make very much sense.

“People are uncomfortable with too much curiosity.”

So Ari was surprised when Graemoreax’s gargantuan heads perked up all at once. So much movement in her field of vision made Ari’s head swim. It turned its many gazes upon her with increased intensity.

“That question has no answer,” it said.

Ari grimaced. “Is that just a fancy way of saying you don’t know?”

Graemoreax paused again, and then said, “We are before ‘why.’ We are of a time without reason, before reason. There is no why. We are.”

Ari considered this for a long moment. It occurred to her that her face must have the eleven-year-old girl equivalent of the ponderous look that had just possessed Graemoreax’s features. She wondered if the creature was trying to read her thoughts the way she had tried to read its. She shook this thought away and turned back to considering the strange thing it had just said.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said finally.

The infinite featureless holes that passed for Graemoreax’s eyes glared down at her. “We are before time. We are before matter. We are before mind and causality and reason. In the primordial destruction that spawned us—before spawning, before destruction, before the primordial—we were…”

“Okay, so you’re old,” Ari cut it off. “That doesn’t mean you have no why. It doesn’t mean you don’t matter.”

NOTHING CREATED US, its earthquake voice boomed out of it once more, and its coils shook beneath Ari’s feet. She had to grasp tightly to the coils of blackness that grew from its skin like hairs to keep from being hurled into space.

Then it steadied itself, and continued. “We are undetermined. We no not matter, as you say, because we cannot. We have scoured every syllable of the Pits of Transcendent Articulation. We have raked our molecular claws across every crystalline grain of the Desert Behind.”

The space around Graemoreax bent into shapes and colors as it spoke. Half-formed images of the impossible vistas it described. Ari could almost feel those sharp grains between her fingertips.

“We have fought battles that raged on for three forevers. We have burned stars upon bonfires built from the charcoal of dried galaxies, and read the divinations in the castoff ashes. We have resonated along every note of the Neversong. There is nothing. We are nothing, and we grow weary.”

With each word she felt its weariness. It lay over her like cold, soaking woolen blanket. It pressed her down, made her flesh clammy. She wanted to lay down, go to sleep, never wake up. She felt its longing, its quiet, lonely desperation, its endless fatigue that could wear down planet-sized mountains. Its spark had dimmed long enough, and it had gone to the stars, only to find no rest their, either.

Gone to the stars.

Anger spiked through her as she realized what she was hearing. “You’re giving up!” she shouted, and she knew it was true. “You’re giving up! Why does everyone give up? It’s so stupid, you people! You all give up! Just like madre. Just like, just like Uncle Jacob…” her voice trailed off.

“We did not give up,” said Graemoreax. “We cannot. We searched, and found nothing. There is nothing.”

She gasped in horror as it hit her. She looked up at it, at its gigantic, uncountable mouths. They were opening. Every single one of them was opening.

“You weren’t going to eat me,” she said softly. “You were going to eat everything. The entire universe.”

“There is nothing,” it said again, this time with a hint of desperation. Of defensiveness. “We searched. For so very long. We clung to our fire. It burned, and it dimmed, and still we searched. For so long. We found nothing. That is all that is to be found. It is all you will find, if your fire burns long enough.”

“Just because you found nothing doesn’t mean it wasn’t there!” Ari snapped.

“We have experienced everything in the four universes. Tasted every star, mingled with every mind, spanned every…”

“Have you met Hobdob?”

Graemoreax stared down at her, saying nothing.

“He’s a grass goblin. He has tufts of grass coming out of his ears like hair, and he writes terrible poetry about ferns and lilacs getting together and falling in love, and he’s delightful.” She put defiance in this last word.

“We…”

“How about Sinifi?” Ari continued. “She’s a nightingale. She sang herself out of…out of a fragment of the eversong. What, you thought you’d eaten it all up?”

Graemoreax’s eye-holes widened.

“What about Wonder Woman? Have you ever dressed up as Wonder Woman? Well?”

NO.

“Ha!” Ari laughed. “How can you say you’ve experienced everything in the, what was it, four universes? How can you say you’ve experienced everything if you’ve never even dressed up as Wonder Woman? All you need is a sparkly protractor. You people are all the same. There’s a billion-grillion things that you don’t know anything about, because you haven’t ever even stopped to give them a chance. Daddy says Hobdob isn’t real because you can’t pick him up and put him on the hood of your car.” Tears burned her eyes, but she didn’t care. “Well so what? Lots of things aren’t real. You can’t touch them. Like love and dreams about billions of fireflies and…and Darth Vader. But they’re there. And they’re amazing.”

Ari paused to catch her breath. She was ranting, now, but she didn’t care. But before she could continue, Graemoreax spoke again.

“You can do these things?”

“I can…what?”

“You can show us these things?” Graemoreax asked again. “These…sparky protractors?”

“Yes!” Ari cried out. “I can show you all of it! Everything! We can dress you up as Wonder Woman and we can sail the seas of grass and…we can go to the Desert Behind, and I can show everything you missed last time. Because I’m sure there is a lot of stuff. In the sand.”

It stared at her for another long moment.

“Very well,” it said.

It look Ari a moment to register what she had just heard. “Very well?”

“It is so.”

“So you’re not going to eat the universe? Universes?”

“We will let you show us what it is we have not seen,” said Graemoreax. “If there truly are such things.”

“So you won’t devour the universes if I can prove to you there is stuff worth not-devouring?”

“That is so. We will give you twelve breaths.”

Twelve breaths?” Ari said. “Only twelve breaths? That’s not very…wait, how long is one of your breaths?”

Once again the space around the creature shifted, colored, and shaped. She saw a great blue sphere. It took her a second to realize it was a planet, seen from high above. It took her another second to recognize the outline of the single, enormous landmass surrounded by oceans. It was the continents of the earth. All of them, joined together as one. Before they broke apart. Ari burst out laughing.

“It’s a deal,” she said.

“Very well,” said Graemoreax. Did it sound excited, or was it just her imagination. “Lead on.”

Ari took a deep breath, and nodded. “I will. But I should probably get back to my birthday party first. People are probably…well, okay, they’re probably not worried. But I should still get back. Is that alright with you?”

The heads all nodded. Every single one of them. It was a startlingly human gesture.

“Just one more question before I go,” said Ari. Now was the time to ask. It couldn’t wait any longer, and she had to ask. “Are you real? Is any of this real? Is this really happening?”

Graemoreax gave another one of its long pauses. She was going to have to get used to that.“We are not real, Ariana,” it said at last. “None of this is real. Yes, all of this is happening.”

She nodded again. “That makes sense. Sort of. So how do I get back?”

“It is simple,” said the creature. “You already know.”

“Yes,” said Ari. “I suppose I do.”

Then, for the first time since she had sailed off in her magic ship, she opened her eyes.

 


 

 

“There you are, sweetie.”

Ari heard madre’s voice from behind her as she walked through the hall. There were still a few people left, standing in the corners of the house, chatting quietly with empty cups in their hands.

“Yes,” said Ari. “Here I am. Is there still any cake left?”

“No,” said Madre. Then she smiled. “But I save a piece for you.”

Ari walked over and wrapped her arms around her mother. “Thanks, madre. You’re the best.”

“Happy birthday, Ariana.”

Ari smiled turned to walked into the kitchen to get her cake.

“You’re friend was asking where you were,” said Madre.

“My friend?”

“A black boy,” said madre. “With pretty eyes. Someone from school?”Ari blushed a little and nodded. “He said to tell you he’d see you.”

“Oh,” said Ari. She didn’t know how to feel about that, just now. She decided not to think about it.

“So where were you?” Madre asked. “I barely saw you the entire party.”

Ari grinned. “I went to the stars,” she said. Her mother’s eyes widened, just a little. “I went to the stars, and then I came back.”

She thought for a moment that madre was going to ask what that meant. But then she didn’t. “That’s nice. You enjoy your cake, dear.”

“I will, madre.”

Ari turned once again and walked towards the kitchen. She was grateful her mother had saved her a slice. It was very good cake. Of course, she’d had plenty of cake at the party, and if she had any more she would feel terrible the next day. But that didn’t matter.

It wasn’t for her.