Imagine you are hand-washing dishes. The sink is full of soapy water, and you are scrubbing away at the dried tomato sauce stuck to a plate from your favorite mocha-colored tableware set. Your fingers are starting to prune, but it’s a little cold in the kitchen and the warm water feels good on your hands.
You aren’t really thinking much about the task of cleaning plates and cutlery. Your mind wanders to something a friend told you earlier today involving a rumor for an upcoming movie about panda bears you’re both excited about, and you’re wondering if the rumor is true. Then, all of a sudden, the plate in your hand begins to sing.
It lets out a slow, sonorous note that resonates throughout the kitchen. For a moment you entertain the idea that you are imagining it, or that the music is coming from somewhere else. The thought passes quickly. As crazy as it is, there is no denying the reality of what is happening in front of you. Your plate is singing. You barely have time to even gawk in amazement when the sponge in your other hand joins in, a smooth tenor joining the plate’s resplendent baritone.
They are singing opera. You know barely anything about opera, but this is unmistakable. The words are in what might be German, but it doesn’t matter that you don’t recognize them and can’t understand them. They are stirring. A moment later the soap bubbles chime in a high chorus of joyous soprano voices that crackle and pop in the air exactly the way you would expect soap bubbles to sound if they were operatic sopranos.
You’ve never cared for opera before, but that doesn’t matter. You’ve never really heard it before. By the time the tomato sauce on the plate adds its tones of loss and heartache to the mix, you can barely move. You are paralyzed as your mind is moved in more new and powerful directions than any previous moment in your life. You have no idea how to react to this impossibility that fills the world around you. Should you be freaking out that you are either going insane or will have to rethink everything you have ever known about sentience and life and the entire universe? Should you just give in and burst into tears at the sublime beauty of it all, and worry about everything else later? Are you moved because it is a beautiful performance, because your plates are singing, or because you suddenly realize the world has had glorious opera and singing plates all along, and you are only just now coming to notice?
Do you have all of that in mind? Good. Now ditch all of it, and imagine that you are a precambrian archkthonios, who was ancient when the second universe was birthed from the egg that remained when the black sun that first shone darkness upon the primordial destruction before existence collapsed in upon itself. You are Graemoreax, and the opera-singing-plates-and-sponges metaphor is a single trickle in the planet-sized ocean of what washes over you when, against everything you have ever known and believed, an eleven year old mortal girl stands on a pile of coats and looks up into infinite featureless holes that pass for your eyes.
“I have to get closer,” said Ari. She knew it was ridiculous as she said it. This thing was nested in the stars millions of light years away. Plus, as far as she could tell it was larger than the entire universe. It wasn’t really up anymore than it was down. But none of that changed the fact that when she strained and stood on her toes she could see it more clearly. It didn’t make sense, but that didn’t make it less true.
“What is it?” asked Stefan. Even in her nearly overwhelmed state, Ari noticed that he didn’t sound either dismissive. Just excited. And curious.
“I don’t know,” said Ari. She put her hand over her eyes to block out the sunlight, but that didn’t help. She couldn’t see the sunlight through the ceiling. Just the stars. As she strained to look the enormous thing began to uncoil itself from its nest, like a billion snakes unfurling their bodies together. “It has a lot of heads. Well, maybe it does. I see a lot of mouths.”
“How many heads?”
“I…” the question took her aback. She tried to count them but she couldn’t. It wasn’t that there were too many; she couldn’t even count to one. As soon as she started she got confused. The numbers slipped off of the creature like water off a newly waxed car hood.
She grimaced. “If only I could see it better. I need to get closer.” She felt Stefan take her by the hand. She turned her gaze away from the impossible creature and looked into his eyes.
He grinned up at her. “Do you know how to get to the roof?”
Graemoreax knew about mortals and mortality, of course. The same way you know about dish soap. And in the same way it believed it knew what they were. It was there when every ingredient that made them up first came into existence, from the entropy that allowed for their ephemerality to the meat that serves as the platform for their evolution, maturation, and decay.
It knew exactly how much of the Devouring Allmind’s sundered mentality could exist within each body, and the complex machinery of cells, chemicals, and electrical impulses that shaped their functions. It had witnessed the generation from the latent energy of space of every photon that would ever bounce off of every mortal’s retina and join its brethren to paint a momentary picture of the tiny slice of the universe just in front of its eyes. In its enormous mind it understood all of these things, with a depth that no scientist, philosopher, academic, or occult magician ever would or could.
Yet absolutely none of that explained how and why an eleven year old girl now stood on a pile of coats and looked up into the infinite featureless holes that passed for its eyes. Every one of its uncountable heads shifted towards her. For the first time in hundreds of millions of years, every fragment of Graemoreax’s gaze turned towards a point in the universe small enough to fit into the trunk of a vehicle owned by one of the beings that lived on the life-bearing planet that orbited the brightest star in the galaxy that had coalesced inside its discarded toe-claw.
A sensation filled the archkthonios that, if translated to human terms, could only be called intense excitement. It had been a long, long time since last it felt like this. The allure of the mystery pulsed through its entire being, and is spasms could be felt throughout the four universes. It knew this might be a phantasm. A false trail, like so many others. It held only the tiniest flicker of hope that there might be even the hint of an answer to its question in the enigma of this mortal child. A flicker it might be, but eons had passed since it had last felt that much warmth.
Amidst the excitement, the Bearer of the Uncountable Toothless Maws that Snapped at the Black Dawn also felt something like gratitude that this new puzzle did come wrapped up in a mortal. Mortals occupied their forms for such a very short period of time, and they were so uncomplicated. It would simple to investigate this phenomenon before it finished devouring the four universes.
As she crawled up the pull-down ladder that led from the attic to the hatch that opened onto the roof, Ari was aware that the thing nestled in the stars stared at her. She didn’t feel it on the back of her neck the way that heroines did in stories. No, she could see it. Whatever direction she looked with her daydream-vision the creature’s eye-holes gazed back at her.
“Wow,” said Stefan as he emerged onto the roof. “You can see pretty far from here.”
Ari poked her way out of the hatch and pulled herself to her feet. Stefan was right. Even though this house wasn’t nearly as big as their Summerfax home, it was still the tallest house on the block. She could see out to all of the other houses and shops that made up this part of town. Bathed as it was in the light of all the colored stars, it was almost beautiful. Almost.
“It’s so windy!” Stefan exclaimed. He stretched out his arms and twirled around.
The wind made Ari’s eyes tear up and her chest ache the way lakes on overcast days or pan-flute music did. The way she felt when she thought about Uncle Jacob up there in the stars. The kind of sadness that poetry was made out of. The stiff October breeze carried the scent of changing leaves, and something else she couldn’t quite place.
“Stars,” she said as it dawned on her.
“Huh?” asked Stefan.
“The wind. It carries the scent of stars.”
Stefan’s expression became serious. “You’re right,” he said. Then he grinned again. “I’ve smelled that before but I never knew what it was.” Ari nodded.
“Can you see it better from here?” asked Stefan. “The monster?”
“It’s not a monster,” she said, and she realized it was true. At the same moment she noticed it’s myriad eyes do something very strange. They widened. In surprise? Could this thing be surprised, and by something she said? She was so small.
“So what is it?” asked Stefan. “Can you describe it?”
Ari shook her head. “I still can’t see it very well. I have to get closer. I have to get up there.”
“To the stars.” Stefan said. It wasn’t a question.
Ari groaned in frustration. How in the world was she supposed to get up there? She couldn’t fly. Even if her nightingale friend from Summerfax was here she doubted she could have carried her that for. She had a stuffed winged-hippo in her bedroom, Lorelei, but she was far too big to fit on Lorelei anymore.
“That settles it,” said Stefan. “You need a spaceship.”
“Yes. A magic spaceship.”
Ari scrunched up her face. “And how are we supposed to get a magic spaceship?”
Stefan smiled again, showing all of his teeth. “I’ll make you one. I’ve just so happen to have some magic right here.” He slapped his hand against the back of his pants.
“In your butt?” Ari asked, confused. “You have magic in your butt?”
Stefan roared with laughter. “Well, yeah, but I meant in my pocket.”
He reached behind to where his shirt hung over his pants and pulled out a deck of playing cards. It was a little bigger than a normal deck. He must have had very large pockets. The case was made out of leather rather than the usual plastic, and when he took the cards out Ari saw that they didn’t look like normal cards, either. They looked a little like the tarot cards madre used to read before she stopped doing things like that. But they weren’t tarot cards. They had the same suits and characters as playing cards, only the art was fancier and more stylized. Older-looking. And unless Ari was mistaken, they were hand-drawn.
“Where did you get those?” asked Ari.
“Nicked them. Like I said.”
Ari knew from Uncle Jacob, who had spent a lot of time in London, that “nicked” was a British word for “stole.” She wondered vaguely where Stefan had learned the term.
“From the magician?” she asked, remembering how the magic mime daddy hired for the party had lost his cards.
The party, she thought. It seemed so strange to think that the worst birthday party she had ever had was still going on underneath her feet. Still going on despite the stars being out during the day, and this enormous creature wrapping itself around the universe. Probably no one down there realized she was gone. But they were probably all wondering where Stefan was. The thought could have filled her with resentment, but it didn’t. He’s up here. With me.
“Like I said,” said Stefan. “Magic!” He laid the cards out on the roof leaned two of them up against each other to make a V, which he then reinforced with a card perpendicular to either side. “Perfect for spaceship building.”
Ari clapped with delight. “Perfect.”
She watched as Stefan began to stack structure upon structure to build his Ship of Cards. Every so often he pulled a card out of his palm or his sleeve with sleight of hand just to make Ari laugh. Neither of them questioned why the wind, which even now made her hair whip along her face and his shirt billow out into a flapping sail, did not disturb the delicate shape that emerged from Stefan’s hands. After all, the cards were magic, the wind was scented of stars, and Ari was about to fly up to meet a creature with infinite eyes and uncountable mouths whose body surrounded the universe. What was there to question?
Graemoreax did not hunger for the ingestion of the four universes. It opened its mouths on that day not out of desire, but out of a deep conviction throughout its being that there was nothing in the universe to desire. But as it watched this mortal girl and her companion build a transportation vessel out of cards to carry the girl up and out of the gravity of both her world’s mass and the conceptual stasis of its collective thoughts, the precambrian archkthonis hungered to see what would happen. Its gaze fixed on each and every discrete atomic moment as one collided into the next, watching the scene at the tiniest scale, where causality and time and impossibility melted into the intoxicating liquid of absolute possibility.
The gaze of Graemoreax is not like ours. It is not a passive observer, recording and translating into a limited mind the impressions that collide with its sensory equipment. It is absolute. It defines and reinvents whatever it observes, and is at the same time defined and reinvented by it. Graemoreax willed that this unlikely vehicle should bring Ari up to meet it, and so it did. At the same time, Graemoreax willed this because it was already so.
It watched as the two children struggled to find a way to fit Ari into a ship that was much smaller than her physical body. Its attention was completely unswerving as, against everything that should, they figured it out. Their solution worked because Graemoreax willed it to be so. It willed it to be so because their solution had already worked.
“Do you have it?” Ari called down to Stefan.
“Yeah!” he yelled back. “It’s perfect! Go ahead!”
Ari gave him a thumbs up, closed her eyes, and started to walk forward. A thrill of fear spiked through her at the thought that she was now walking along her roof, thirty feet off the ground, with her eyes closed. She wasn’t afraid of heights under normal circumstances. She had been climbing trees since her limbs were long enough to reach from branch to branch. One of madre’s more successful sculptures was of Ari climbing the rocks behind the art history museum. Or at least, that’s what madre said the sculpture was supposed to be. It was hard to tell.
But this was different. All of those times her eyes had been open. She had been in control. Now she was blind as she put one foot carefully in front of the other and felt the fierce wind as it attempted to knock her off onto the pavement below. She could see nothing at all of the roof, which right now felt like flimsy support indeed. She could see nothing at all of the world around her. She could only see with her other sense. With her dreams. And there was no roof, there. Just the creature. And the stars. And, she realized with astonishment, the spaceship.
Oh my god, she thought as she observed the complicated, card-based machinery that revealed itself to her closed eyes. This is actually going to work.
“I can see it!” she cried out in delight. “It’s right in front of me!”
“Awesome!” said Stefan. “Keep going. You’re right on track.”
It was a little difficult to hear him over the wind as she took step after step towards her goal. It had been half his idea and half hers, for him to crawl down to the lower portion of the roof and look up at her. From his more distant, angled perspective, the Ship of Cards was larger than she was. If she looked at it with her eyes she would walk right past it. But as long as he was the only one looking she should be able to fit right in.
“You’re almost there!” called Stefan. “Just a few more steps!”
“I know,” she said softly, though she knew he couldn’t hear her. She strode forward more confidently now. The fear gripping her chest didn’t ease. It tightened, and it took her a few moments to realize that it had changed. She was no longer afraid that she would walk off the roof, or that this wasn’t going to work. She was afraid that it would. She wanted to fly up to the stars and see this creature. She needed to. But at the same time she was terrified.
What if it doesn’t want to talk to me? But she pushed the thought down, and took another step.
“You’re in!” Stefan hooted. “You’re in!”
Ari inhaled to calm herself, and breathed in the stars. She was in. She closed her eyes more tightly to keep hold of everything in her mind. All around her she could just barely see the structure and controls of the ship. Like something out of the corner of her eyes, glimpsed but never seen. She reached out and grasped something jutting out in front of her. It was a scepter, held by a the queen of diamonds. It was the throttle of a starship. It was both.
“Stefan!” she said loudly against the wind, which seemed to be blowing even harder, now. “Thank you! I’m going now!” She heard him call something back to him but she couldn’t make out what it was. She didn’t have any time to waste. This had to happen, and it had to happen now.
She pulled down hard on the throttle. There was a click, and then a lurch that made her head swim and her stomach turn over. Her nostrils caught a whiff of fire, and exhaust, just barely detectable beneath the scent of autumn leaves. The world around her began to shake. It shook so hard she felt her bones rattling beneath her skin. At the same time she barely felt it. There was a loud, deafening noise that faintly registered in her popped eardrums. The whole world lurched again, and she was gone.
Stefan watched as a gust of wind picked up and blew over his card spaceship just a few seconds after Ari stepped inside of it. The slivers of plastic whipped into the air and flew off of the roof and out into the sky. He put his hand along the side of his face to block out some of the wind so he could see better. It was sharp, and he was starting to get cold. The cards dance around each other as they rose higher and higher up. Towards the firmament. Towards the stars.
“Ari,” he said, “do you see that?”
But Ari was gone. Of course she was. Wasn’t that the whole idea? Stefan didn’t pause to consider whether Ari was really flying up in a magic spaceship to have some kind of meeting with a gigantic tentacular monstrosity. He didn’t take the time to wonder if he had just witnessed the most singular and miraculous occurrence of his entire life.
Instead, he climbed back up to the top roof, opened up the hatch to the attic, and crawled back down into the house. Where, even if it had been night time, he would have been unable to see the stars.