“I am speaking literally. Amongst the dark, the receipt has arrived. The fleck of dust disappears against the black and the black never moves. Unwavering presence.”
A web of ropes dangling from both sides of a gorge roughly convened at the centre of the emptiness between the cliffs. They formed a precarious islet; something not unlike a three-storied house of uncertain footing and no walls. The first two levels were each occupied by a man, littered with small personal items tangled in the ropes: an image of a forest as seen from above, a map without a legend, a dusty ceramic mug, a pink writing implement, shiny glass beads, an iridescent feather, a poetry book, a gold candelabrum, a silicon board, a sack full of dried flowers and dead leaves. The third and topmost level served as an entrance hall or transport hub. It had two rope bridges, one that lead upwards to a hanging rock shelter large enough for an adult human and another that lead downwards to a small burrow that had been painstakingly excavated in the rock. Above, as below, the inscrutable dark.
Inside the burrow was the man who lived in the upper floor of the rope house. Clad in all-black tatters, he scratched at his left cheek, the only part of his face that was not covered by an insectoid headdress. The helmet sprouted from his head like a chitinous flower in full bloom, myriad plates of different shades of grey and black arranged concentrically; from its centre erupted five beetle legs that converged just above the man’s head into a perfectly round red gemstone. The bottom of this ornamental covering was made out of hardened insect wings, some dangling loosely to the sides of his head, others arranged in elliptical patterns around his eyes, covering them with other two red gemstones.
“Here I lie, where owls do cry. Give me a piece of your mind so I may sculpt it into a whisper,” he said aloud to no one in particular. “The glass ball, the dry heave. React to danger. Completely sanitised. Where are…my fluids?”
The gems covering his eyes went dark for a minute.
“The best of the play, the state of a gaze, the stem in place. Nothing moves, down below, and though my eyes see the molecular flows, everything is still. One day I shall speak of this to the other. A balancing act, a fine mesh that I never understood. Does it filter or purify frailty?”
He stood up and began the long climb to the rope islet.
“I am unsure. The direction is always the same, the territory eats itself and still it wastes away.” The man shook his head and looked at an ant moving along the ropes with him. He fought the urge to crush it under his thumb. “She is a fool, the one who willingly pierces the hull her own spaceship.”
He took his place in a hammock, covered his whole body (headpiece included) with a light blue blanket and listened. All was silent, as usual.
“The perfect environment for sleep, and yet my eyes refuse to close under the weight of magnifying gemstone lenses. Have my eyelids been cut?”
He uncovered his head, stared at the darkness above, sighed.
“How long has it been? What should I count? Days, weeks, months, years? How much is a minute?” He shifted his body weight so the hammock would gently rock.
“The soft song of entangled ropes. Like a janitor of infancy. Like the forest whose branches once wrote a novel upon my cheek. The nature of time — I often wandered and found myself lost. To look upon, to dissect the old worm with wooden scalpels. And then see it was all a ruse. How I cried!”
He chuckled and grabbed the image of the forest.
“I flew like a bird, back then. A strange bird, but a bird nevertheless. I sang in silence, landed upon a branch, marvelled at the delicate flows of xylem, the perennial struggle of nutrition against gravity. How molecule upon molecule and mole upon mole. And then further ahead, beyond, deeper. Time, oh, time, could I ever have learned more about you had I stayed there longer? Like a mountain of aromatic wood, burning; like the mouth of a river, vomiting; what a great desire had I nurtured.
“And then the cars arrived, the drill bore away.” The red gems went black again. “My eyes are not like sapphire anymore. The burden of love has been placed over me.”
“What happened? How to identify the tautological point of doubt? The one that drifts away once it is gazed upon, the one that laughs at those who try to observe it from afar. A chamber of radiance.”
The man looked up until his neck ached and his eyes became numb. He rocked on the hammock, turned around, threw himself at the ropes that made out the floor of his open room. His breath was quick and heavy, as if he had strenuously exercised moments ago.
“I drink the air before me, but it is always the same amount. The same sip of refreshment, the same illogical referencing, disconnected from everything that came before or after it. Never enough, never enough.”
He twisted and turned, shook his head violently. The beetle legs on his helmet swayed and the insect wings fluttered delicately.
“One day I had been a mother, a father — a progenitor outside of filiation. My spawn was a literal metaphor, out to conquer the world as a swarm, as a pack. The swarm was becoming me and I was becoming the swarm; we were gently crushing each other, one pliable, the other rigid, both segmented.”
He touched his torso, felt his supple belly beneath layers of chitin fused with cotton cloth.
“Bent entrails of spangled coyness, when did you last work for your money?”
He stood up, wobbled, shook his head in sudden confusion.
“Am I waiting for a distant angel to knock me up? I am a swarm no more! Where is the other?”
He yelled his companion’s name, but only silence replied. The ant crawled over his uncovered cheek.
“The desire is firm…I wait and wait. I am a near-seer, a rickety watcher of an empty abyss.”
He yelled his companion’s name yet again.
“When did I last see the far-seer?”
He whispered to himself. Still, there was silence.
A rush of uncertainty came over the man, a feeling of free fall, both cathartic and menacing. All that was solid spun into air as burnt synapses tried to make the jump between past and present; there was the past, here was the present. The man held tightly to a memory, following the chain of causation to whatever event he recalled happening after it. Suddenly, he found himself at this house of rope nested between cliffs and nothingness.
“Infinity is an endless event. My hands are paws…are skittering?”
The red gemstones shone brightly.
“I see the molecule and I see the mole; I see hibernating cells and hypochondriac wishes. I drink the stillness before me.”
He spun in place, first quickly, then slowly, then once again quickly.
“I see the walls that make this gorge down to their elementary particles; there is no death, nor there is any life. I dread the day the abyss won’t be empty again and for this I scour the nothingness for signs of…something. Encroaching…slithering? Cawing? Climbing?”
He stumbled and fell onto the level below.
“Think of the forest.”
He reached for the feather tangled in the ropes.
“The remnants of a blessed boyhood, glimmering in a murmuration of oversized starlings. I was one of you, until that day. Dare I ask? What day is today?”
His whole body shivered.
“Is the abyss below or above me? I wish I had brought a mirror.”
He looked at his hand with the shiny gem eyes and laughed. His whole body arched as his maniacal cackle echoed all around the gorge. Convulsions rocked his body; in the few moments he had between one spasm and the other, the man tried to remove the headpiece, but couldn’t.
“Like lunacy, these hellish accoutrements seem to have become one with me.”
He clawed at his exposed cheek, drawing blood. The ant moved quickly and dove into the trickle of gore. His wild frenzy continued in a crescendo.
“The man who laughs is the ontological imbecile!” He pointed at himself.
“You are a genius! You are precious in your becoming swarm!” He replied, serious.
“A world of horror is a stone left unturned. There, I said it,” he nodded sagely.
“Mess of flesh, cadaverous domestic bliss. The treetops of kapok trees, the sequential sun that alights my mind: bright sapphire feathers blot out the memory — or, perhaps, create the preceding memories in a horror vacui, like an existential rorshach test. Let us drink to that, my lonely eusocial insect. I hope you have wings!”
He jumped into the abyss.
A man does not die; he survives as a sorcerer of strange becomings. The black hole of cancerous bodies pepper the paper-thin faces of the gorges. To go beyond, what an idea! Beautiful and ludicrous. I still watch from above, as from below.
The man blinked and the red gemstones in his headpiece went dark for a moment. He crawled out of the burrow and muttered. “Here I lie, where owls do cry. Give me a piece of your mind so I may sculpt it into a whisper.”