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.
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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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.