We of Arboria. BV picked up a broken instrument from the ground; a harp or a cithara. Her greasy fingers could barely hold on to anything, but it didn’t matter as most of the strings were broken. Improbable corners of the landscape escaped the eye, as if neither space nor time existed there. “What happened there? Why are those places so completely empty?” Her friend asked, knowing there would be no reply.
Her misshapen mouth. She loved looking at mirrors, exploring the creative destruction wracked on her face by the moving fragments of her own facial bones. She was in flux, she had changed so much. There was something obsessive about the abandoned house they were sleeping in. It was not the broken furniture nor the mouldy ceiling that looked like a print-out of the cosmic microwave background: instead, it was something about how the air moved inside these walls and corridors, how she felt forced to seek the southernmost corner of each room she entered.
A dead twin. The friend had dug a hole inside the crater. Electric cables, fiberglass tufts, some ground glass, a kid’s toy. BV looked at it from a distance. She thought of metal-shelled ghosts and their metaphysical qualities. She remembered prodding a power plug with a fork when she was young. The sky was still dark.
A crown of lilies on his head. Found in one of BV’s notebooks (this notebook was actually a rectangular sheet of metal on which symbols had been engraved with some sort of sharp rudimentary tool): “Hypothesis of what caused the crash: 1) an unsuspected connection between the movements of Arborians and a surprisingly effective ritualistic choreography; 2) a vegetational conspiracy seeking to disrupt mammalian life; 3) a dimensional clash between an obsessive and a non-obsessive world. There is no evidence for #3 besides the fixation of survivors (myself included) with the position they adopt when entering one of the buildings from before the event and cleanliness.”
Petrichor. The rain felt different, thicker, with an umami taste. Though the sun had remained hidden for the past six months, plant life seemed to thrive. BV and her friend sought water of phreatic origins, but had no success. Facial deformities were a common fact of life now, observed in all mammals studied, including human survivors. “Is it that people prefer not to comment on it, or is it that they do not see anything wrong with it? The shape of the skull has historically been associated with social stratification and racism. The crash might have unsettled the standards to which we were supposed to adhere; being unsure of what is the new ideal skull shape and thus who has the upper hand, the information previously convened by cranial structure has become pure white noise in somatotyping.”
The still-functioning power plant whirrs in the background. Rub your palms together, then interlink your fingers and rub them together. Next, place the fingertips of one hand in the palm of the other and rub, and vice versa. Rubbing the hands together creates friction, which creates a lather. Within that lather is that which you want removed, ready to be washed away. Once you have worked up a good lather and rubbed all the surfaces together, rinse your hands and dry thoroughly, not forgetting in between the fingers.
A new metaphysics of the soul. “Certain beings vanish in a cloud of dark smoke when they die whilst others decompose normally. Need to investigate further. What are the implications of this? Survivors believe that certain beings are chosen over others; chosen for what and by whom? Asked friend to disinter a recently diseased person.”
Dirt swallow me now. “Obsessive hand washing can be observed amongst all surviving humans; there seems to be a similar fixation with cleanliness amongst other mammals, but I’m no zoologist,” BV said, laughing. She held her friend’s backpack whilst he defecated. Plant-life was still inexplicably healthy despite the continued lack of sun. She kept fighting the impression that tree branches seemed to grow with a certain purpose or intent, weaving almost recognisable symbols.
Public safety building. The properties of space seemed to have changed in ways subtler than human cognition was able to apprehend. The friend wanted to visit his dog’s grave. When they arrived at the trans-species ecumenic cemetery, all corpses were partially disinterred; humans missed their hands and other mammals had had comparable structures removed. Avians and reptiles did not display any signs of mutilations, however. BV wanted to collect samples from a crow’s skeleton, but could not ignore the feeling such an act would be improper. Her friend washed his dog’s remains with bleach. It was unclear to BV whether he did not see or did not mind the missing fore paws.
Stress-bearing footpads. The drumming of raindrops was delicate and intermittent, like an omnipresent animal, microscopically vast. The altered geography was confusing: curves that should not exist; tropical forests where there had been nothing more than a ravine; copypasted fragments of infrastructure in stark contrast to natural-looking surroundings. A schizoid interweaving of elements that resembled a neural-network-produced cityscape. BV studied the hind legs of a dog. “The skyline…if I only look at it with my peripheral vision, it looks as either fire or a slow-motion waterfall.”
Elderflower. “Strains of christianity judge the holiness of a recently diseased person by the odours it produces. In this case, is vanishing a positive or negative sign? Are these people saints or demons?” The friend did not reply, staring at a booklet with hand washing instructions titled “People are mortal, but intellectual property is forever.”
Experience. BV walked alone, though a few seconds ago her friend stood right by her side. Aspects of the world around her felt as if in suspension and only partially existing. Upon closer inspection of surfaces and objects, BV realised they were dull, textureless and with rough and blurry edges. She dared not look at the mirror. After entering the nearby ruins of a house from before the crash, she positioned herself on the intersection between two walls. From the window she saw only an absence of anything at all. On the windowsill, a bezoar.
A circle around two howling men. The friend’s hand was closed in a fist. He stood in line for his five minutes under the waterfall of bleach. BV sat on a bench a few metres away, unwilling to take part in the post-crash custom of daily chlorine showers. Facial bones of the mammal population continued to move, now adopting an almost elliptical, funnel-like shape. Frail human lips could not bear the constant stress and led to most men and women to have almost permanent mouth bleeding. In some cases, folds of skin became breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. BV’s teeth hurt. Gazing at the mirror, she noted similarities between herself and a lamprey.
Impulse control disorder. A cloud of insects flew over the settlement. The intense sound caused severe ear-bleeding in some of the mammalian population, but humans were affected the most. The cloud hovered for about one hour, performing what looked like a mating or courting dance, but the intended audience of the display was unclear. Thousands of invertebrates of different species moved in synchronised fashion, generating rudimentary fractals. The remaining rodent and lagomorph population in the area seemed particularly enthralled by the performance, congregating in the centre of the settlement. Afterwards, they dispersed in conspicuous patterns, sometimes favouring climbing and swimming to avoid crossing arbitrary empty spaces. A later analysis with different measuring instruments (geiger counter, microscope, infrared goggles, etc) revealed no significant differences between these spaces and their surrounding areas.
Insect cloud patterns. Notes etched on a plastic surface. “1) Koch snowflake; 2) variations on the twisted apollonian gasket, with curvatures of [-1, -2, 2, 4], [-25, 15, 15, 78] and [1, 56, 22, 34]; 3) one hard-to-define design, possibly a complex L-system. The choice of the shapes seems to be meaningful, but its exact significance remains unclear to us. Those whose ears bled during the insects’ performance claim to have read the message being written to us in these movements, but the bleeding reoccurs every time they try to put it into human words.”
Escape time. “Though we have seen increased sexual activity amongst rodents, since the insect event, it seems they have become infertile. Rats are almost non-existent now. The few remaining follow humans and other mammals at all times, as if our existence is the only thing protecting them from disappearing. All have had their front paws excised with perfectly straight cuts. The wounds are open and raw, but do not bleed nor do they become infected.” BV spoke to her friend as she loudly chewed on her own hair. The man, whose skin had become fragile, dry and many shades lighter due to continued exposure to bleach, shook his head and shrugged.
Bezoar stone gatherers. “Facial bone structure seems to have settled, one year after the crash event. Around 90% of humans studied have now features similar to those of the Argentinean pouched lamprey. The jaw bone fragmented to create the fake teeth which fill the outer rims of the mouth. Eyes are now covered in patches of loose skin on most of the survivors and have drifted to the sides of the head. Male-identifying subjects have the biggest amount of loose skin, which have taken a pouch-like shape. The tongue has retracted and its tip has become hard and covered in spines. Verbal communication has become impossible. None of the affected individuals display altered behaviour or signs of distress at their transformation.”
An orchestra of glitches. Atop a small hill, BV observed the reconfiguring skyline of a city that by all accounts did not exist anymore, or moved away from her at a bigger speed that she could walk. She looked at the branch she had lain on the ground with one extremity touching her foot and the other her friend’s, in hopes of verifying that distances were indeed expanding and stretching. She could feel that the fundamental geometry of the universe writhed, that space itself had been infected by a virus of sorts that caused its mutation, the fluctuation of its constants, the warping of its rules. The topology of reality was bloating; the question was: did it bloat like a corpse or like an animal after a particularly successful hunt?
Pictorial mode of expression. A woman, a recluse who avoided joining the survivors in their main settlement, arrived with a small wagon loaded with cages. A sign on her neck explained she believed to have found a family of cats with functioning fore paws and that eating their trichobezoars could help healing the trauma that reality had suffered after the crash event. The friend approached, salivating, touching the scrawny cats who could barely summon the strength to open their rheumy eyes. He quickly lost interest once he realised the paws were nothing more than rotting hind paws crudely grafted on to the stubs.
Obsessive trauma. BV played her instrument to calm the survivors whose ears had bled. She saw them, the survivors themselves, as wounds in the space-time continuum or tears in the fabric of cognition. She was convinced that the rules of nature were now dictated by the sum of all perceptions of all living beings. Had this reality been invaded by another through these people, or had this reality invaded another using these people?
Devilry drinker. Microscopic notes engraved on a human tooth: “bleach reserves from before the crash are completely depleted. A majority of the survivors started exhibiting antisocial behaviour and giving clear signs of aggression. As an experiment to safeguard the community’s peace, we have suggested to one of the subjects that they should cut off their own hands at the wrist. Though initially resistant, the subject eventually agreed due to the extreme discomfort caused by the lack of exposure to chlorine. To our surprise, the surgery was extremely quick and painless, with no signs of blood: the subject’s hands came off almost as if of their own accord. Almost immediately afterwards, the subject seemed to have returned to a state of domestic bliss. Levels of aggression dropped to almost zero and the subject reported feeling calmer and happier than at any previous point in their life.”
Living fossil record. “Perhaps they are less wounds than teeth germs. An agglomerate of stem cells gathering in a small patch of reality, changing, manipulating surrounding tissue so it can multiply and erupt. Our reality would be like a milk tooth, forced out of existence,” the friend wrote with a marker on the whiteboard. BV nodded. She clutched the bezoar she had been recently given and her heart beat faster.
Transcendental trauma. After facial bone structure patterns had settled, the micro-society of the settlement of survivors of the crash became stratified once again. The rules were strict and indefinable, as close to synthetic a priori propositions regarding social status as possible. One knew one’s intrinsic value without needing to relate it to others in the community. At the centre of this absolute hierarchy was the unnameable and ongoing trauma. Vegetation grew exponentially, aggressively reclaiming nutrients, space and time. Rodents had become officially extinct; lagomorphs seemed to dissolve, shedding parts of themselves as they moved about the landscape. Avians and reptiles avoided the settlement.
Observations on growing distances. “1) the burning skyline has receded into nothingness. Pilgrims who had left shortly after the crash seeking the city suddenly reappeared among the survivors. They passed away a few weeks later, violently vomiting trichobezoars. These eventually became prized possessions. 2) The power plant was the last landmark to disappear from the horizon. Most of our household appliances continued working as before. 3) Though the sky has remained dark since the crash, stars rose and set as before. The daytime sky is a flat black surface filled with an intentionality the survivors chose to actively ignore. Nighttime is noticeably less tense.”
BV lay on a cot at a topologically dubious position inside one of the old houses which no mammal dared to enter anymore. She kept her severed hands close to her breasts. Her cot was on the only possible configuration of traumatic space in which it could exist. In this choreography of obsessively reconfigured geometry, she found a remaining scrap of the previous, non-metastasised laws and constants of the reality in which she had been originally born. She produced bezoars to keep this scrap of normalcy alive long enough so she could study it.
Dental dreamscape. “Lagoons of transcendental dentine overflow. Mankind is a repressed dream of hyperdontia. Ruminated bezoars are the only things that keep us alive. Personal trauma heals the trauma of reality, allows for the easy excision of decaying milk teeth and simplifies existence. We are eternally seeking the numbing feeling of bleach-induced wounds, the nerve damage that can release us from a life well-unlived. I embrace the changing topology, finally – it is a moment of ambiguity, and ambiguity is all that lies between myself and the death and dearth of my own consciousness.”
- Ballard, J. G. 2014. The Atrocity Exhibition. Sydney: Fourth Estate.
- Enix, Square. 2017. “Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age.” Square Enix.
- Gallagher, Rose. 2019. “How to Wash Your Hands Properly.” The Guardian, June.
- Guyer, Paul. 2006. Kant. London; New York: Routledge.