Finding Blue

Suurjärv (Kurtna jv)

 

Another 37, Day 8

Finding Blue

One day while walking by the lake on her daily visit to her pile of interesting stones, Alycia found blue. It was just sitting there, lying next to the withered log, under the shade of the large willow tree. Except it wasn’t shaded. Alycia saw that even before she realized what she was looking at. Everything else around was darkened by the shadow cast by the tree in the early morning, when the sun was low to the ground and the willow stretched its umbrous fingers far along the lakebed. Everything was darkened except a patch of blue. It made her so curious that she walked right past her stones to investigate. They would still be there when she got back.

As she approached she realized what it was. A patch of blue. Not a patch of something that was blue. Just blue. All by itself, next to her lake, near her stones, unaffected by the shade of her willow tree. She bent down to have a closer look. It didn’t help. She laughed at her own silliness. Of course it didn’t help. You can’t get a closer look at a color, for the same reason you can’t shade a color. If you shade a color that just makes it a different color. It would be like shading a horse and turning it into a mongoose. And to be able to look closer at something it has to have dips and bends and squiggles. Texture. Colors don’t have texture. They just have color.

She dipped her finger into it without hesitation. She didn’t know what would happen but she knew it wouldn’t be bad. Colors can’t hurt you. To her surprise a bit of the blue stuck to her finger as she pulled it away. More than she would have thought. More than her tiny finger with its sparkly lavender nail polish could hold. A whole glob of blue came up with her, or it would have done if blue could glob. Which of course it can’t. But the patch of blue that stuck to her finger was the same size as the patch of blue still on the dirt. She tried to think of a word for the size and shape, and this is what she came up with: blue.

Alycia put her finger in her mouth to see what it tasted like. At this point she wasn’t surprised that it didn’t taste like blue raspberry. She had never thought it would taste like raspberry, but she knew that her sister Candice would say that blue raspberry is what blue should taste like. Even though that was ridiculous. Candice didn’t get things like this, and that’s why Alycia didn’t show her the pile of stones. But she was very good at painting nails.

No, the blue tasted like blue. That was no surprise. What surprise Alycia was that she had tasted it before. Many, many times. In and around and through other flavors, other tastes. It was in the flavor of water when she drank it right after eating a spoonful of ice cream and it cleared her mouth out and made it feel clean. It was underneath the taste of a ripe honey mango, below the bit that tasted like peach if peach tasted a little bit like grapefruit.

And it was in other sensations, too, which she hadn’t realized had flavors until this moment. The way her heart hurt in a good when she watch the fog on the lake on a cold morning. Or the mix of joy and desperation she felt when she neared the end of a really good book and knew she could only see her new friends find their resolution if she also let them go. And she tasted blue the day that her mom shooker her gently out of sleep one morning to tell her that she was leaving and she didn’t know if she was going to come back, and that Alycia should tell her sister and her dad when they woke up.

Alycia shivered. It was cold, this morning. It was always cold this early, but it was colder than usual. Alycia knew that the chill couldn’t hurt her because she had nowhere to be. She had the whole day to herself. She could walk by the lake, she could count her stones or follow the lake to the stream that glowed with pearlescent light when the sun was high above and look for more stones to add to the pile. The cold couldn’t hurt her because she chose it. Just like the lake wouldn’t make her wet unless she dived in. She could walk back to the cabin and cuddle under her fuzzy blanket or ask her father to start a fire.

But sometimes she couldn’t avoid the cold. One time the power went out for three days during winter in their house back in the city, and even burying herself in three blankets and holding Panther tight against her body wasn’t enough to keep her warm. And sometimes there was too much blue in her chest because her vicarious adventures in the Valley of Neversong were over, and even if she read the book again it would never be the same. And sometimes she couldn’t get warm because she didn’t know why mommy would say that, and she didn’t know why her eyes were so sad even though she and dad didn’t fight nearly so much anymore and everything seemed to be getting better.

She took the blue out of her mouth, but the taste lingered. She looked at the patch on the ground. She didn’t know why it was there or where it had come from, but she didn’t really wonder. What was the point? She wanted to walk back to her stones. To walk away and stop looking at and thinking about this strange patch of blue. But she didn’t. She would stay just a little bit longer.

Because blue was there. It was always there and it was sad and it was beautiful and even though she didn’t like grapefruit the mango wouldn’t taste the same without it. It would just taste like peaches, and the world would be very bland if there was only peaches to eat for breakfast. And she would never know how sublime was the warmth of the fire, with her fuzzy blanket over her head and her kitty nestled up on her chest, if she didn’t didn’t remember what it felt like to be cold.

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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.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 4

Attack Of The Playing Cards

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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.”

“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.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 3

Carina Nebula

Part 1

Part 2

One of the games Ari liked to play was collecting moments. When she thought back about her life it was a sea of hazy memory-liquid with the occasional glowing moment-fish standing out. The important moments, yes, but also the defining ones. And the ones she remembered for no reason but because they were funny or sad or just really obvious at the time.

Like the moment that she had the best piece of fried chicken in her entire life. Or the moment she realized that the concept of sunlight killing vampires came from the movies and not old historical vampire lore. These moments were bright and shiny when she looked back at them, but the game was to identify them as they actually happened. It was a way to live in the here and now. To pay attention, the way Uncle Jacob always said she should.

For example, Ari found it very easy to identify the moment that her eleventh birthday party officially became the worst part of her entire life. It happened with the utterance of these words:

“Do you want to go play spin the bottle?”

Mazie Larken said them. Mazie Larken, who had more friends than anyone else in Mrs. Mithers’s class, had a different nice handbag every month, and got at least 100% on every spelling test depending on whether or not there was extra credit. Spin the bottle. Spin the bottle. It was so junior, a word which to Ari had the specific meaning of “things kids do when they’re trying to act like adults.”

It also struck Ari as entirely too heteronormative. Heteronormative meant something like “assuming that no one is gay,” and was one of madre’s words. The kind of word that Ari had mostly learned not to use when she was standing more than four feet away from madre. It made other kids think she was a freak, and it made adults look at her like she was a phytoplankten under a microscope that had suddenly learned to juggle.

She watched the kids who had said yes gathering together and whispering their plans to sneak upstairs and play. Ari didn’t want to play spin the bottle, of course. She didn’t want to sit in a circle and be forced to kiss random boys. She didn’t know if she wanted to kiss boys at all. Or girls. Or anyone. It was a stupid game for stupid people. But it was her birthday, and she sure wished that Mazie had actually asked her. Not that she would ever admit it.

But Mazie hadn’t asked her. Mazie didn’t even look at Ari as she and Ella McGuire walked around to the other kids at the party and spread the conspiracy to hushed giggles and nods. Ari just overheard. Maybe Mazie didn’t know it was her party. Or maybe she did and just didn’t care.

Ari watched the group as it gathered and trickled upstairs. She realized they would probably end up in her room. It was the most obviously kid friendly and had the biggest open stretch of floor. A sick feeling blossomed in her stomach. Maybe it could be cured by the application of more cake. As she turned to walk away, she saw Stefan’s face among the small crowd of would-be-bottlers. Her stomach did something entirely different but no less uncomfortable. He looked in her direction as she saw him. He was grinning. She quickly turned away so he wouldn’t think she was looking and rushed through the door.

Ari floated around the party after that, trying not to think, not paying attention to much of anything. There was man in the backyard who looked kind of like a stage magician and kind of like a mime doing magic tricks. He seemed to have lost his deck of cards, and none of it was very impressive. There were a lot of snacks on trays all over the house, including the little crispy duck things that were Ari’s particular favorites. She kept eating them just to have some kind of sensation, but right now they just tasted salty and oily and the sharp crackers cut the sides of her mouth. Through it all she could hear the bottle. Spinning and spinning, glass scraping against the finished wood of her bedroom floor. She couldn’t really hear it. Not with the fleshy vibration detectors attached to the sides of her head. But she heard it nonethless.

There wasn’t anyone there to talk to or hang out with. Various kids came over to her and said hi, sometimes at the urging of their parents and sometimes actually with their parents in tow. Her father checked in on her periodically, sometimes with parents and/or their children along for formal introductions. At one point he and another father spent twenty minutes negotiating the exact time their two daughters could meet and study together, all the while completely ignoring those same daughters standing three feet away.

“So this is your party?” said the other girl, who had rich, dark hair and was very pretty.

“Yes,” said Ari.

“It’s pretty cool.”

Ari shrugged. “I guess so.”

“The snacks are good,” said the girl.

“I like the duck,” said Ari. The girl nodded, and they lapsed back into silence.

But Ari was tired of silence. She was tired of not talking to anyone at her own party.

“It’s not really my party,” she said. “It’s my birthday. But it’s really my dad’s party. It always is.” She glanced up to see if daddy had heard that, but he was engrossed in his conversation.

“Oh god, I so know what you mean,” said the other girl, visibly relaxing. “It’s like, really? You have to use your daughter’s birthday to, I don’t know, spread your business or something?”

Ari laughed. “I’m used to it, I guess. But it’d be nice if I knew the people at my own birthday.”

The girl nodded with enthusiasm. “Yeah, that sucks. I haven’t seen you before. Sixth grade?”

“Yes,” said Ari. “I’m new.”

“Yeah, but I thought I’d met all the new kids,” said the girl. Ari shrugged, while the girl said, “I’m Sandara.”

“I’m Ariana. Ari, though.”

“Pretty name.”

“Thanks,” said Ari. “I love your hair. I wish mine was that thick and shiny.”

“It’s cause I’m Indian,” said Sandara. Then, in an affected aren’t-I-a-princess tone, she added, “We’re just born like this.” Both girls giggled.

“Well I think it’s very pretty,” said Ari.

“Thanks,” said Sandara. “I like your bow. It’s cute.”

Ari blushed. “Madre…my mom, tied it in. She likes to do that. For parties.”

“Well it’s cute. So how are you liking St. Vincent’s?”

“Hmm?”

“St. Vincent’s?” Sandara asked again. “How are you liking it? I think it kind of sucks, but I guess there are worse ones.”

“St. Vincent’s?” Ari asked.

“Yeah. You know, the school? Our school, that we go to?”

“I don’t go to St. Vincent’s. I go to Cherrywood.”

“Oh jeez,” said Sandara. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” said Ari.

“So, like, our dad’s are making us a study session…”

“And we don’t even going to the same school,” Ari finished.

Sandra rolled her eyes, and Ari shook her head in disbelief. Then both girls laughed.

“It’s not even surprising,” said Ari. “That’s the kind of thing daddy does.”

“Mine too,” said Sandara.

Ari’s father, who seemed very tall in situations like this, turned away during a pause in his conversation and looked down at the two girls.

“Are you two getting along?” he said to Ari. “That’s great. I’m glad to see that.” He turned back to the man he was talking to. Ari saw that he had his tablet out, and his personal calendar/organizer app running. “Sam, I really think this could work. Maybe…”

“And…they’re off,” said Sandra. Ari burst into giggles.

At the same time, she felt a tightness in her chest. Do it! a voice yelled in her head. It had the refined accent and self-confident tone of Lulu, her earthworm-royalty friend from back in Summerfax. Just do it, you dumb girl!

“Sandara,” she said, and to her ears she sounded far too serious.

Sandara perked up. “Yeah?”

“Do you want to, maybe…”

“Sandra!” a voice came from behind them, and they both turned to look. A black girl with blonde braids that danced around as she moved walked quickly towards them.

“Tanisha,” said Sandara. “What’s up?

“You’ve got to see what this boy is doing upstairs. He’s doing these magic tricks, and it’s amazing. You have to come see.” She grabbed Sandra by the hand and pulled her towards the door.

A few steps away Sandara looked back at Ari. “Do you want to come?”

“No,” Ari said before she could stop herself. “You go ahead.”

Sandra gave Ari a slightly confused look, then shrugged and turned back around to follow Tanisha through the oak-molded doorway and towards the stairs.

Why did you do that? Lulu’s voice chided at her.

“I couldn’t,” Ari said out loud to no one. No one was listening. “She probably didn’t want me butting in, anyway.” She could almost see Lulu shaking her tiny, pronged face in disappointment. But Lulu wasn’t here. Not really. Lulu wasn’t here and Ari couldn’t just follow off after someone she just met and try to force her companionship on the girl. As much as she wanted to, the thought of running after Sandara made her stomach queasy and the blood in her arteries turn cold.

She stood there in that same spot for a few very long minutes afterwards. She forgot that daddy was still there, still trying to build her a manufactured social life out of business associations and table scraps, until he spoke to her again.

“Where’s your friend, dear?” he asked. His voice made her jump.

“I don’t know,” she said. And she really didn’t.

She thought about getting another piece of cake, but she couldn’t face it. She didn’t want to run into Sandara again. Or Stefan. Or Mazie. Or anyone. She just wanted to be alone. She hadn’t been in this house long in to discover all of its nooks and secrets the way she had in the Summerfax house. There she would have retreated to the crawlspace behind the kitchen stairs, or hidden enclave underneath the large cedar tree out back that blocked out all the light. Here in Blarn the only place for hidden solitude was the attic. And it was dark and full of dusty webs and perfectly mundane spiders that never wanted to join her in conversation.

But she did know the pattern of her father’s parties. There would be one room in the house where no one would go. Ari marched up the stairs—sneaking to avoid any of the kids who might still be up there—and headed straight for the second floor guest bedroom. The bed was full of coats. Everyone’s coats, jackets, purses, and anything else they didn’t want to lug around the house were piled on top of the bed. There were enough guests that the pile rose several feet above the mattress. Ari walked around to the other side of the bed and flopped onto the floor. From here, even if someone walked into the room for some reason they wouldn’t still her. It was a high bed, and she was a small girl. She could sit here for as long as she wanted. Away from everyone. All alone.

In Uncle Jacob’s room. That’s what they would have called it. That’s what they called the equivalent room in the old house. Other people stayed there, of course. It was the guest room. Sometimes her grandparents used it, or daddy’s brother, Uncle Frank, or one of madre’s artist friends when they came to visit. But it was always Uncle Jacob’s room.

Sometimes, when he was visiting, madre sent Ari up to fetch Uncle Jacob to tell him that dinner was ready, or that it was time to put on Proper Clothes so they could go out to some function or other. On several of those occasions Ari walked into his room to find him sitting cross legged on the bed, his eyes closed, a wisp of a smile and a peaceful look on his face. The more she thought about those times the stranger it seemed to her. One day she finally asked him what he was doing.

“Paying attention,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like this, munchkin,” he said, patting the bed so she could hop up and sit next to him. “Most of the time we don’t pay attention. We’re always running around and jabbering inside our own heads. So sometimes I like to just take some time out and listen.”

“To what?”

He smiled. “To everything.” Something about the way he said that word made it seem magical. Everything. Plump with whispers and secrets and possibilities. So she tried to join him. To sit there, unmoving, breathing, and just pay attention.

She did it right there in the bedroom, even though they were supposed to be getting ready for a fancy Luminary’s Club gathering. And she did it later, too. Before she went to bed, some nights. Or during particularly mind-numbing social studies classes when the teachers droned on about battles of this and signings of that which, according to madre, were mostly lies anyway. In those quiet moments she made the effort to hush her movements and her monologue, and just pay attention. There was only one problem.

She was terrible. She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t stop the lively and perpetual Marrakech night market that took place in her head. There was just too much world to explore. Both out there in the grassy fields and in the cavernous reaches of her own brain. She wanted to pay attention. She wanted to see all of those things she might be missing. But how could she ever stop thinking? To stop weaving stories out of the half-remembered threads of her dreams? She had never really desired this.

Until now. Right there, sitting on the carpeted floor of what should have been Uncle Jacob’s room, inhaling the aroma of new paint and dozens of designer leather coats, she didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to fade into the walls and become nothing more than an irregularity in the pastel wallpaper. After a little while, even the wanting dulled, and she couldn’t feel anything at all. Nothing ran through her mind. There was just her body, and her breathing, and the feel of the carpet where her skirt bunched and her exposed legs made contact with the floor. For the first time in her life, Ari paid attention. That is when she noticed the most interesting thing she had ever seen.

Once she noticed it, she was confused that she hadn’t seen it before. She didn’t understand it, of course. How could she have? It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t even make the kind of sense that Hobdob her grass goblin friend made. The kind that seemed obvious to Ari but confused everyone else when she gave them a perfectly clear and simple explanation. No, this was something altogether more bizarre. But there it was. She could see it, clear as day. She could see it even though it was day, and that was even stranger.

Well, she couldn’t exactly see it. Not with her eyes, the eyes that were covered in a thin membrane of flesh while she slept, and sometimes got crusted over so that she had to wash them out with water when she first woke up before she could open them properly. But she could see it all the same. Just like Hobdob.

The door to the coat room burst open and smacked against the far wall. In her heightened state of attention, she was fully aware of every feature of the boy who walked in. She saw his 63 inches of height, tall for his age. She saw the charge of energy that informed the way he traipsed across the ground. She saw the bright white teeth that glowed against the 65% dark chocolate complexion of his skin. She saw all of this, but she barely noticed.

“Ari,” said Stefan as he bounded into the room. “I was looking for you. It’s your birthday, right? I wanted to give you your present.”

Ari barely registered the fact that Stefan not only appeared to know she existed, but had actively sought her out. A few minutes ago it would have seemed very important.

“Do you see that?” Ari asked him.

“I wanted to show you something,” he said. “I nicked these cards, and…wait. See what?”

“The stars!” she said, her voice bright in her ears. “Can you see the stars? They’re everywhere.”

And they were. Right through the ceiling of Uncle Jacob’s room, and through the attic beyond it, and through the blanket of blue daysky that covered the earth, she could see straight to the stars. When she looked left, and right, and down, all around her, it was like the ground and the people and the earth weren’t even there. There was just a giant nest of stars, so dense and bright and beautiful that it brought tears to her eyes.

It didn’t look like the night sky above Blarn or Summerfax. It didn’t even look like the rich tapestry of light Ari saw when madre and Uncle Jacob took her to the mountains. It was more like the images in astronomy books; lustrous clouds of luminescence, rich reds and greens and blues all intermingled like a sand painting. Only those were only pictures. Memories. These were alive.

Stefan’s face broke into a grin. “I see them,” he said. He stretched out his arms and twirled around. “I can feel them running through my fingers.”

He thinks I’m playing a game, she thought. Then the truth flooded into her like a breath of oxygen after having her head under water for a long time. I am playing a game! It didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

Stefan made a cup with his hands, jumped as high as he could, and scooped up a cupful of star stuff. He didn’t know where they were. She could tell he couldn’t see them. Not like she could, so impossibly bright she could barely stand it. But it didn’t matter; they were everywhere. He reached his hands out to pour his cupfull of stars into hers. She giggled and caught them. She looked back to the hole his scooping had left to watch the stream of stars flood in and replace them.

But they didn’t. The place where Stefan gathered in stars let a hole. She could see right through it. A nest of stars. That had been her first thought when she saw it, and now she knew why. It really was a nest. A great, huge, impossible nest, wrapped around the entirety of the visible universe. And there was something inside of it.

“What’s up?” Stefan asked. “Why did you stop?”

“Can you see that?” she asked.

“What is it? What are you seeing?”

“I’m not quite sure.” She climbed up onto the bed, on top of the coats. She strained her neck to get a better look.

“Oh my god,” she gasped.

It was both inside of the nest and outside of it. Something bright and hot and enormous. Brighter and more massive than all of the stars put together. How in the world had she not seen it before? But she saw it now. Everywhere she looked, even when she closed her eyes, she saw it.

And in that moment it saw her too.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 2

Cassiopeia A: First Light (NASA, Chandra, 08/26/99)

Part 1

There are things nestled within the crevices and among the bones of the cosmos that are so old and so alien that, if a mortal mind glimpsed them for the smallest imaginable fraction of a moment, it would burst into a billion shards of gibbering insanity. Graemoreax, The Inferno that Burned at the Heart of Mount Nothing, Devourer of the Eversong, remembered when these beings came into existence. Its brethren. It was ancient even then. And it remember when they, themselves, were shattered. Splintered into the crumbs of creation and stirred back into the pot to make the mortals and the heavens and the stars. It was there, and it remembered.

For its part, Graemoreax did not know that it the day it chose to consume the four universes was also the eleventh birthday of a little girl named Ari. It was before all of this, and so much more. Before the time of little girls, and before the function of birth itself entered the vocabulary of creation. On the day the number eleven became manifest in the universe, Graemoreax was locked in endless battle with the First Unmade Scion of Kettherax, the Living Scar Beneath All Things. The eternal conflict, which had gone on forever and would have gone on forevermore, ended that very day with Graemoreax’s uncountable teeth at its opponent’s throats. The battle, it turned out once these things could be reckoned, was only eleven minutes long.

Graemoreax knew nothing of little girls, and birthday parties, and the disappointment of leaving glittering Summerfax for boring old Blarn. Its ignorance came not from apathy, or from a lack of attention. No, the impossibly ancient thing paid far too much attention to the four spindly, interwoven fabrics that together made up the whole of both fathomed and unfathomable existence. The play of all things ran along beneath the gaze of the infinite featureless holes that passed for its eyes, and it saw everything. And it hurt.

The archkthonios could not feel pain. Not as the creatures of flesh and nerves and tsetse fly-brief existences felt it. A single sharp spike that flares and then fades. Graemoreax’s expansive form did something much worse than feel pain. It remembered. It remembered the way only a being of inert fathomless power from before time and death and mind could remember. Every discrete moment of its existence was etched into its form. Like a scar. Like a tattoo, stenciled into its vision, clear and bright and endlessly hot in its perception, each instant forever like the first.

It remembered the first cry of joy ever uttered, as Cosmos above made boundless, innocent love to Matter beneath, and birthed the first molecules that would become the stars. It remembered the First Rebellion, when the Mewling Spawnlings of the Endless Primordia, itself and its pack-mates, had risen up against their non-existent mother and torn her to shreds, thus ushering in the age of creation where time could commence and the universes themselves could begin. It remembered when the Devouring Allmind willingly sundered its own existence, moved by the strivings of the lesser beings to become more than what they were, and thus granted the gift of sentience to reality.

It remembered because it could not forget. It was not made to forget. Forgetting was for beings that formed after time began. Beings birthed in the four universes, once entropy became the way of things and brought with it the greatest curse that could ever have been conceived: change.

Graemoreax remembered the moment everything changed. The first moment things could change. It filled the archbeast with a wonder so intense the brightness of a billion supernovae could not blind it out. And a fear so profound that had it been able to manifest it would have blacked out every sun that ever was or ever could be.
Graemoreax was not made for change. Everything it had ever done had been timeless. Simultaneous. Eternal. Fated to be and non-existent, an effortless paradox in an age where everything and nothing was a paradox. They had never begun and would never end. Until that moment. It was not made for change. But it was here, now. Now and forever. And Graemoreax, the last of the archkthonios, could not resist it. Nothing could.

All of its fellow spawn were gone, now. Not destroyed, of course. Nothing is ever destroyed. Not anymore. The few vestiges of the primordial destructive force that once composed the universe were housed within Graemoreax’s own intestinal walls, and long gone were the days when it would turn upon its own kind. But they were still gone. Changed so completely that they were no longer themselves. Only it remained. The strongest of them, though none could have predicted that it would be so. It had not the all-encompassing fury of Geburaknith, of the Claws that Cleanse the Impurity From the Fire. Nor had it the dynamic resiliency of Chlithering, the Allsnake, whose venomed fangs had pierced creation and opened up the wound of change, whose festering continued to this day. Of all of them, only Graemoreax endured. It did not understand why. It had tried to understand. For so long it had tried. But it could not. It was before understanding.

The Bearer of the Uncounted Toothless Maws that Snapped at the Black Dawn had embraced change. Perhaps that was some part of why it remained undsundered. It threw itself into the fury and chaos of existence with all that it was. It spent an eon and a half in a dance with the Mistress of Time, their toes stepping lightly on every universe that could have been but never was. For a billion years it swam through the sundered corpse of the Devouring Allmind and dreamed the dreams of the living stars as they flared into bright and glorious life and then dimmed into sleeping cinders. When the Unconquered Spark rose up to declare itself Emperor of The Myriad Skies and all that was beneath them, Graemoreax lead the legions of chthonios and their worshippers against the false god, who used the last of his dying breath to chain the archbeast within Mount Nothing, there to burn for what would have been eternity, if eternity had been left to an entropic and ever-changing universe.

It took the beast from before time and death a very, very long time to realize it was searching for something. It took longer still for it to recognize just what it was it was searching for. And yet another incomprehensibly long age passed before Graemoreax, Devourer of the Eversong, realized that it would never, ever, no matter how long it existed, find what it sought.

So, like an aging executive who has finally realized that all of the sports cars and corporate achievement awards in the world are not enough to appease the ravenous singularity in his chest, Graemoreax gave up. It flew up and wove itself a nest of stars, closed every one of the infinite featureless holes that passed for its eyes, and slipped into dreamless, meaningless slumber.

Or at least, that was the plan. Barely a million brief years passed before the archkthonios could was forced to face the futility. It could not sleep. It could never sleep. It was too violent. Too intense. Too passionate. It was a thing of snapping jaws and brightly searing fires. It was never made to change, or to care. But once these things were upon it, it could not resist them. The burning search would never stop scorching its impossibly enormous mind. Not while it lived. And it would continue to live. Forever. For the entire lifespan of the four universes. There was only one solution. All of it, everything that had ever existed or would ever exist, would have to go.

Would it have swayed the archkthonios if it had known of Ari, and that this was supposed to be her magical day? Would it have chosen a different slice of time to rise up from its nest of stellar bodies and begin the last meal that anything in the vastness of creation would ever take if it was aware that there was a young, unhappy girl down there, and that its actions could only make a difficult day even worse?

It is the same kind of question as asking yourself if you would stop wearing a raincoat if you found out that all rain really desires out of life is to kiss your exposed skin. Maybe you would, and maybe you wouldn’t, but why would you have ever bothered to stop and ask such question?

Graemoreax did not ask these questions, for none of them mattered. Nothing mattered, and any that existed who believed it did were fooling themselves. It did not understand the concept of mercy, not in a sophisticated way, but if it had it would have felt that what it did was in the service of mercy. The archkhtonios had infinite mouths, with infinite tongues, and it had tasted everything reality had to offer.

Or so it believed. Until the day of Ari’s eleventh birthday. Until the day it rose up to devour the four universes. Until the day that it noticed something that it, with its limitless mind, could never have imagined. Or rather, something noticed it. For on that day, for the first time, the true first time, something happened that Graemoreax could never have predicted.

It changed.

 

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 1

Garden Goblin Statue

It was on the day of Ari’s eleventh birthday that Graemoreax, precambrian archkthonios, Bearer of The Uncounted Toothless Maws That Snap At the Black Dawn, decided to devour the four universes. Even before she had any hint of this, Ari didn’t expect much from her birthday. She hadn’t had a birthday with any magic to it since Uncle Jacob Went To the Stars.

The term was his. Ari first heard it right after Grandma Cecily passed away. No one would tell her what happened. Grandpa just got silent and grumpy. Daddy said Grandma Cecily went on a long trip. Madre gave Ari one of those mysterious artist smiles and said, “She’s sleeping, darling. She’s gone for a long rest and she won’t wake up. Not in this place.”

Frustrated, Ari marched over to Uncle Jacob’s room in the hotel where they were all staying and pounded on the door. He answered and smiled down at her and said, “Hi, munchkin. What’s up?”

“Uncle Jacob, what happened to Grandma Cecily? No one will tell me.”

He bent down and took her by the hand, then walked her over to the wall made of windows. He looked out into the pinpricked blackness and said, “She Went To the Stars.”

“Yes,” Ari said, scrunching up her face, “But what does that mean?”

“It means she died,” said Jacob. “Do you know what that means? Died?”

“Yes,” said Ari. She was five years old. Of course she knew about died. Nevertheless, she got an uncomfortable feeling in her chest, like a damp washcloth was pressed over her nose and mouth and she couldn’t breath quite right. “So, why don’t people just say she…died?”

“Folks don’t like to say that,” said Uncle Jacob. “Especially to little kids. So we find other ways.”

“But why?”

“Well, munchkin, no one really knows what happens to a body after she dies. But none of us can accept that. Some people can’t expect that so much that they tell themselves they know, for absolutely sure. But no one does. So we tell stories. I like to look up in the night and tell myself she’s up there,” he waved his hand at the softly shimmering sky.

“Because it makes it less sad?” asked Ari.

Uncle Jacob shook his head. “My mother is gone. It’s always going to be sad. This way it can, just maybe, also be a little bit beautiful.”

It was “Went to the Stars” after that, for the two of them. Uncle Jacob was never around much, but every time was special. One day she walked out of school to find him waiting for her outside, ready to take her to a private exhibition of African masks displayed in the personal basement gallery of an exiled Swaziland prince. Another time he woke her up in her bed at 11 PM to drive her down to the beach to a secret ice cream shop that was only open at midnight, and that made flavors of ice cream Ari had never heard of before.

Ari used to wish that Uncle Jacob could be around all the time, so that they could constantly share these adventures. Then one day it occurred to her that, like diamonds, they sparkled all the brighter for their rarity. She didn’t really understand the word “maturity.” Not in a sophisticated way. But she knew without being able to describe how that this appreciation for the sporadic nature of Uncle Jacob’s visit was a sign of growing up. She never knew when he was going to show up. It could be any day at all.

Except one. One day a year he was always there, and nothing would ever stop him. She didn’t realize quite why her birthday was her favorite day of the year until Uncle Jacob Went to the Stars himself, a few years after Grandma Cecily. There was no more magic to that day. Not anymore.

There were parties, of course. Fully of chatty people and grilled foods and a painted man doing terrible things to perfectly innocent balloons. Daddy made sure of that. Every year he made calls to the parents of all of the local children to make sure that they would RSVP to the invitations they received in the mail, designed by his firm’s graphic designer.

The result was a shindig full of strange kids with strange interests who didn’t always know Ari by name. It was like those teenager parties in movies where the heroine’s house is full of people dancing and drinking beer and knocking over her mom’s Tiffany vase, and at some point someone says, “Dude, great party. Whose house is this?” Of course it wasn’t really like that. Not in specific. There were a lot fewer teenagers. But Ari thought that in that magical realm where there are only 8 or so different types of parties and all earthly parties are pale manifestations of those, it was pretty much the same.

This year’s party was sure to be particularly odious. It might be the first year where no one at all knew her name. Ari’s whole family had just moved to a new town a few months ago. They used to live in Summerfax. Now they lived in Blarn. It was actually called Blarn, a fact whose significance Ari couldn’t seem to fully impress upon her parents no matter how many times she brought it up. Blarn. It was like someone took blandness and a barn and smooshed them together, only they left out the good bits.

Ari realized intellectually that Blarn probably did have good bits. Everything had good bits. Even barns had good bits. But she hadn’t found them. Besides, she was hadn’t wanted to move and was eleven years old, so if she wanted to ignore Blarn’s tiny hidden good bits, well, she would just go ahead and do that. Besides, even if it did have good bits, it wasn’t Summerfax.

Summerfax, where she could smell two different bakeries from her house early in the morning. If she walked down the tiny street behind Carraway’s Pastries on the way to school Mr. Carraway would come out and give her a freshly baked hazelnut chocolate brioche for “his little princess.” Every time Ari wanted to tell him he was confused, and that she had neither the right to nor the desire for a title of hereditary monarchy. But she didn’t. Let the sweet old man have his dreams.

In Blarn, instead of bakeries they had three different fast spicy chicken sandwiches within two blocks of her front door. None of which tasted much like chicken, and all of which were served by a different teenager every time they went there, none of whom had any interest in giving anything to little girls, princess or otherwise.

Summerfax was a place where the old grass field next to the cemetery might secretly be a beach, lapped by the waves of an hidden ocean Ari could almost hear, if she closed her eyes tightly enough. Blarn had no such places. It had a lot of parking lots.

Plus, all of her friends were in Summerfax. Daddy and madre, in classic parent fashion, didn’t seem to care at all that in moving they took Ari away from the people she loved. There was Hobdob, the grass gremlin who lived in the tall weedy lot behind their backyard. And Lulu, the reluctant heir to the throne of the earthworms who had run a way from her royal destiny to open up her own hotel chain. And Sinifi, the first of the nightingales, who had sung herself into being out of her own beautiful song. She tried to tell daddy about how much she would miss these friends of hers, and how she was sure she would find no one like them in Blarn.

“Dear,” he finally said to her after the one millionth time she talked about her friends, “you realize that these friends of yours, Hobnob and the others…”

“Hobdob,” Ari corrected.

“Yeah,” daddy said, “you realize they’re not real, right? You know that, don’t you Ari? That they’re not real.”

“Yes, daddy,” she said. “I know that.”

He seemed satisfied, but Ari wast confused. What kind of question was that? Of course Hobdob and Lulu and Sinifi weren’t real. Not if real meant the kind of things you see with your eyes made of jelly, and taste with your tongue that gets burned if you eat your pizza too fast and you have to wait for it to get better before you can taste anything again. But just because they weren’t real didn’t mean they didn’t exist. It didn’t mean they weren’t her friends, or that she would miss them even one drop less for it.

Ari had been in her new school for almost two months by the time the day of her birthday arrived. Two whole months without anyone to talk to. Daddy always told her that he was always there if she wanted to talk about something, but he didn’t listen. Madre used to be wonderful to talk to about her friends and the stars and everything. But that was a long time ago. She was different, now.

Ari hadn’t made any new friends. As she feared, Blarn’s chicken joints and copious parking lots were frustratingly free of Hobdobs. School wasn’t much better. There was a girl who she ate lunch with most of the time, Wendy. Wendy liked comic books and field hockey, and hated the fact that she had such a dull name as Wendy. They spent their lunchtimes discussing theories about Steven Universe, and what kind of superpowers they hoped to get if they every were ever exposed to magic rays or radioactive molecules. But they never saw each other outside of school. And she wasn’t coming to the party. Ari had checked the guest list. She didn’t know if Wendy wasn’t invited or if she just hadn’t RSVP’d, but it didn’t matter.

In addition to Wendy, there was a boy at school that Ari found…interesting. His name was Stefan. He was always getting in trouble for doodling on his textbooks and talking in class. He seemed to say absolutely everything that came into his head, whether it was a good idea or not, and it almost always made Ari laugh. He was coming to the party. But that didn’t matter either. They had never really even talked, except for the day that Ari was asked by Mrs. Mithers to pass out the protractors.

“Is there a sparkly one?” Stefan asked as Ari approached his desk with her box.

“Excuse me?”

“A sparkly one,” said Stefan. “A sparkly protractor. If there’s a sparkly one I want it.”

“A sparkly one?” asked Ari. “Why do you want a sparkly one?”

“So I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.”

“Wonder Woman has a sparkly protractor?”

“Duh!” said Stefan. “Would you think Wonder Woman would have a boring one? Like brown or something?”

Ari giggled. Stefan grinned, and she saw that his teeth were very white. They shone against his dark skin. His parents must care a lot about dental hygiene.

She searched for the box. Nothing in it sparkled. She pulled out a periwinkle-blue protracter and placed it on his desk.

“This isn’t sparkly!” he protested.

“Look closer,” she said. “It sparkles on the inside.” He grinned again, and she walked away, trying to tuck her smile back inside of her so no one else could see.

But that was it. They hadn’t talked since then. He didn’t catch her eye when arrived in the playground before school in the morning and scanned the yard looking for his friends. Every day she tried to catch his eye. She never did. They shared a single moment over a protractor, and that was all it was, for him. He didn’t know she was there, otherwise. He didn’t know she was real.

“I’m not real,” she said to herself as she she stood in the foyer in her new dress, waiting to greet the first guests to her 11th birthday party and offer to take their coats. “I’m not real. Just like poor old Hobdob.”

“What was that, dear?” said her father as he walked by with a tray of canapes.

“Nothing, daddy.”

What Ari didn’t know was that she had a lot more with old Hobdob than she realized. She also did not know that at that moment, Graemoreax, precambrian archkthonios, Bearer of The Uncounted Toothless Maws That Snap At the Black Dawn, was rising up to devour the four universes. Those two facts were about to collide into each other, and when they did…this was going to be a rather different sort of birthday.

The Impossible Au Lait Incident

Café con leche - Milchkaffee (CC)
This is a story that has been rolling around in my head for a long time. Or rather, the longer story that this is the beginning of has been in there. I might continue this if it strikes me. I wrote it by hand in a green notebook during a period where I had nothing to do but wait, which is probably why it happened at all.

The Impossible Au Lait Incident

The most impossible thing about what I labelled in my daily journal as The Impossible Au Lait Incident was that I didn’t notice her. No one did. Oh, they noticed her in the absent way you notice other people on the bus. Enough not to walk into her. But she didn’t stand out. No one gawped at the giant metallic gold dreadlocks, the cascades of colored pearls that hung down to her knees. Or those impossible eyes.

I wouldn’t have noticed her at all if not for a specific combination of words, delivered for exactly the wrong reason. It was Monday morning, and I was as awake as that implies. I sat at the counter, flipping through the news stories on my phone’s RSS app without really reading them. I was impatient to get my coffee, and so I couldn’t pay attention to what I was reading. I was only reading so I could ignore the fact that I was impatient to get my coffee.

If I had been functionally awake the paradox might have bugged me. I might have noticed the world around me as something other than zombie drones whose only function in life was to crowd my coffee shop and prevent my caffeination. I might have had the perceptual faculties to read, or to focus on something other than my impending latte. I might even have noticed her. But somehow I don’t think so.

“Peruvian roast raspberry au lait, 190 degrees, no sleeve.” There is was. The beautiful voice of the barista, uttering the only words I currently had the capacity to care about. I bolted up from my chair and marched towards the counter to get my drink.

I reached out to grab the cup, but another hand beat me to it. I watched dark fingers close around the vessel that held my liquid salvation.

“Sorry,” said a female voice. “But this one’s mine.” It sounded like dark chocolate dancing the Riverdance.

I turned and stared at the owner of that voice. The panic I felt about my coffee fled at the sight of the strangest person I had ever seen. If a bookie had popped out from behind the raw sugar at that moment, I would have bet a lot of money that this was the strangest person anyone had ever seen.

“Excuse me?” I said. Because I didn’t have anything useful or interesting to say.

“This is my drink,” she said. She smiled, and her eyes flashed. That’s not a metaphor. She had bright purple irises, and for a moment they glowed like violet cat’s eyes in the dark.

I stared at her for a long moment.

“It’s okay to stare,” she said. “I know how this looks.” She indicated her strange attire. “I mean, no one listens to Soundgarden anymore.”

I wrenched my eyes from their paralytic position and looked away from her face at the rest of her. Sure enough, just visible under what must have been a dozen 6 foot long strings of pearls was a Soundgarden t-shirt, from the Ultramega Okay tour.

All of this overwhelmed me so much that it seemed to knock my brain into a different gear.

“That’s my drink!” I blurted out.

She smiled still wider and shook her head.

“It’s really not. We ordered the same thing. Only I was first.”

I shook my head. “That’s impossible. No one else orders that.”

She laughed. I suppose it was a musical laugh, but I’ve never heard that kind of music.

“It’s not impossible,” she said. “It’s just new.”

I blinked. It was a surprisingly intelligent response given my mental state.

“You look like you have good taste in coffee,” she said. “ The way you glanced at the baristas but not the menu when you walked in. The contented sigh you let out when you scented the specific roasts in the air. So I thought I’d borrow it.”

“My coffee?”

“Your taste.” She picked up her cup and pulled off the lid, just like I would have done. “Am I going to be disappointed?”

“It’s very hot,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can take it.”

It was true. I think you can really taste the nuances of the roast at high temperatures, but most people’s mouths are too sensitive. I had no such problem. My grandmother believed tea should be drank just off the boil and her children were damn sure going to learn to appreciate that. But what did that have to do with this strange woman?

I watched as she took a sip. She closed her eyes and her face melted into contentment. Was that what I looked like when I took my first sip?

“I chose well,” said the woman. “This is wonderful.” She raised her cup to me as if in salute. “Much obliged.” Then she turned and began to walk away.

“Wait!” I called after her.

She swivelled to face me and raised a golden eyebrow. Set against her dark skin that eyebrow seemed to raise a mile into the air. It just kept going.

I froze. I had no idea what to say. I had no idea why I called after her. A moment earlier it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Like we weren’t done. There was something I was supposed to ask her. Something I was supposed to say. But I didn’t begin to understand what it was.

She grinned.

“Next time,” she said.

What did that mean? I opened my mouth to ask her, but then I heard a voice. It came from behind me, and it spoke a very specific combination of words.

“Peruvian roast raspberry au lait, 190 degrees, no sleeve.”

I turned and saw the barista place my coffee on the counter. All of a sudden I could remember the strange woman ordering my coffee drink, three places ahead of me in line. Why hadn’t it struck me as strange? I heard the words. I saw the whole incident, and I understood it. But I hadn’t. Not really.

I picked my cup up from the counter and felt the comfortingly excessive heat burn my fingers. It was like Excalibur. Too hot even for the baristas to handle without a bar towel or a coffee sleeve. The heat made it delicious, but it also made it special. No one could drink it but me. Me and her, now.

I lifted it to my lips and took a long, slow sip. The scalding liquid trickled down my throat. I closed my eyes and sighed.

It wasn’t until I walked over to my table and had a few more sips that I put the coffee down and noticed the name written on the cup.

Flyndra.

Most definitely not my name. She had ordered first. I was sure of that. But still, somehow, she really had taken my cup of coffee. Or, just maybe, I had taken hers.