An alien invasion comes to one man’s doorstep in the form of a story-creature, followed by death and rebirth in a transformed Earth.
I Did Not Recognize What Sought Me
The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.
I grew weary.
I grew weary and I fell asleep on the couch holding the story, wondering what it might be and who had delivered it to me. But there was no time left for wonder. As I slept, the story gnawed its way into my belly and then the story crawled up through my body into my head. When I woke, gasping my resistance, the story made me stumble out the door of my house and lurch through the dark down my street, giddy and disoriented, muttering, “Do not stop me. Do not stop me. Story made me this way. Story made me this way.”
I felt a compulsion to turn to the left, and then to turn to the left again. Until the story made me stop at the end of the block, where the last fence meets a forest. By now I knew that the story wasn’t a story at all. It had just made me think it was a story so it could invade my brain.
And while I stood there in the shadows of the moonless night, beyond the street lamps, beyond the circling moths and with the nighthawks gliding silent overhead…while I stood there and pleaded, the story-creature sprouted out of the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds.
The explosion smashed through me. I screamed out, but the story-creature clamped down on my throat and the scream turned into a dribble of whispered nonsense rhymes in a code that crawled across my skin and inside my mouth. My head itched and there was an uncomfortable weight so my balance was off. But somehow it felt right.
Even the midnight bumblebees circling my head like a halo felt right, or the things like bumblebees that had erupted from my skin, my mouth.
There were so many things I had already begun to forget.
How This Came to Be and What Came Next
I am a writer…I was a writer. It is easy to fool a writer into thinking a creature is a story. The doorbell had rung earlier. When I had opened the door, a bulky little envelope lay on the welcome mat, under the glow of the porch light. When I opened it, a booklet crawled out onto the kitchen table. The booklet smelled like moist banana bread. It was filled with strange words, but somehow I understood that language. I read the booklet from cover to cover like it was a wonderful meal and I was a starving man. I devoured every word.
I had read a story. I was sure of it, even though I couldn’t remember what the story had been about. Nor could I recall who else had been with me in the house, except that there were two of them and they had become mere shadows on the wall.
Now, by the fence, the wildflowers and goldenrod and the weeds twined together and became something else and roots splayed out into me, and atop my head grew a sapling. My balance was terrible—I had to hold the sapling with both hands because I knew that if the sapling snapped it would kill me. But soon the weight would be unsupportable. Soon I would be beyond repair.
The story-creature that had sprouted from my head was restless and had tasks to accomplish. So I plunged deep into the forest in the dark of night, raging across the paths there, smashing into trees, backtracking, unable to know where I was or trying to wrest control from the thing that wanted to control me. But soon I adhered to paths despite myself. Soon I cohered and came to know balance and lifted my hands from the atrocity jutting from my crown. Soon I walked smooth and slow and no root tripped me and no false trail fooled me. I could see in the dark by then, or It could, and what, really, by then was the difference?
By dawn and the calls of birds, I recognized, through the grayness, the side of a hill and a clearing and there I turned once more to the left and pitched face-first into the grass and dirt and crawling beetles. The story-creature’s roots plunged greedily through my brain and through my soft palate and through my lower jaw, seeking the soil. While above me the swaying sapling had become a young tree. Or had taken on the appearance of a tree. It could never have been a tree.
I lay there, face-planted, with some thing growing through me and I let It soak up inspiration from the earth and from the air and from the new sun. I was awash in dreams of chlorophyll and photosynthesis…
We lay like that for a long time until the story-creature had used all of me It needed. Then It withdrew, and cared not how harsh that might be, for even in that short time I had become dependent, and the retreat was like screaming against an addiction. A hole had been left behind and my consciousness ached and jumped through the hole again and again like it led to hell or to nothing, and all my atoms frayed at the edges or spread out wide, or seemed to, and I did not know if I was dead-alive or just dead.
My left leg was a withered thing now, a wet pant leg wrung out to dry, and my left arm I left in the soil—it broke off when I tried to rise, and the stump refused to bleed but after the snap became just like an old rotting tree branch. I think I carried it around with me, waving it around with my other arm, like something demented and foolish and out of date.
I was in the world but I was not in the world, endless and numb yet in agony.
I was shooting through an empty sky with the stars all fallen to the ground, and every star cut whatever it touched, including me, and all the stars that fell touched me.
I could not stop reaching out to make contact even though it made so little difference to my fate.
I Did Not Wake for One Hundred Years
I did not wake for one hundred years. This was truth.
This is the truth.
When I woke, a century had passed and the hillside had folded in itself and become overgrown with vines and the story-creature appeared to have long left and perhaps passed on its message to others and now beyond the hill lay a vast and unyielding desert and facing me on the fertile side, my withered leg pointing at it, was a waterhole from which drank any number of disquieting animals. They held shapes my eyes did not want to recognize although some held no real shape at all, but I knew they were other story-creatures and had spread more than one story.
Some I could only see out of the corner of my eye. Others had the right number of legs but no symmetry and trailed across the ground at odd angles, drawing deep lines in the mud. They snorfled and snuffled and grunted at the waterhole. They fought and died there, too, raising tusks and claws and fangs, and turned the edge of the water to a bloody froth…only to come back to life and forget a moment later their conflict.
The sun above seemed strange, as if it came to me through a filter, but I found that my eyes had a film over them that created a slight orange tint. I did not know how it came to be there, but it seemed protective or at least not unfriendly.
With help from a dead tree branch I could hobble along, and I made my way past the waterhole into the remnants of the forest, back into my neighborhood. Overhead the things that flew should not have been able to fly, for they did not really have wings; they just had the suggestion of wings, like some careless creator had not drawn them in right. My mind made them into insects, because my mind wanted stories it could understand, stories that would not frighten it. But still I knew my mind was tricking me, and for a second I loved my mind for the deception.
My old street, which I felt I had left just hours before, lay in ruins. The pavement had not just cracked but become so overgrown it had no agency, left hardly any impression and my memory had to place it there—along with street lamps that now were just nubs of concrete columns that stood little higher than a foot tall. Among the houses of my neighborhood all roofs had been staved in and few walls remained and even of foundations there were only a handful in evidence.
One of those belonged to my home, and because I had had a basement, that is where I retreated to. I slid with relief into that space, which was flood damaged and filled with debris and overgrown with grass and vines and much worse things but still provided shelter. I slid into that space on the strength in one arm and one leg and I stared up at the sky until the things that must be messages but were also creatures curling through the air, written there and then dispersed, tormented me too much.
I dug into the dirt and grime, bereft. I dug there searching for my past, for something that had once curled around my wrist, for people that I had known but now existed like a reflection in murky water. Why were they no longer there? How could I no longer know them? Their rooms had been there. Their lives had been here. And were no longer.
“It was just a story,” I croaked, and lapped from a dirty pool of water I was so thirsty.
This was a mistake because in that water were still more fragments of story like the one that had been left in an envelope on my doorstep. Phrases and words that were neither phrases nor words absorbed into me and changed me even more, so that my withered leg became a kind of thick, flat tail and of my two eyes nothing remained but in their place were several eyes, but only one of them could see in the regular way and the others looked across the sedimentary layers before me in that basement and saw the past and all the changes that had been wrought, and because I could not accept the mighty judgment and wrath of that, for a time I rebelled and I shut all of my eyes but the regular one.
Thus I squinted at the world that it might look more like the regular world, the one in which I had been a writer and not believed in God and lived alone in a house writing and thinking that being written meant one thing when it meant so many other things as well.
My World Was Irretrievable
The world as it had become held a strangeness too vast for me to understand. I could only comprehend the space mapped by the edges of the basement and so I lay there, hungry and thirsty, for three days and three nights and watched the passage of time as would a rock or a scorpion or a blade of grass. The clouds were curious and not as I remembered and they did not form shapes that I could recognize but shapes I didn’t recognize that were still recognizable as something, even if that something was beyond me.
This troubled me greatly, more than most of my situation, and the way too that the clouds seemed to be something now, that they were looking down at me and that they saw me. I did not like this, and this fact was how I came to know that the past was irretrievable. For some part of me had thought, perhaps, that all I saw might be undone, be unraveled. That I might recover my true sight and my old home and go back to when the story creature lay in an envelope on my porch and that if only I never brought it inside all of the new-terrible would go away, be put back in some kind of box, perhaps even into my brain.
But it could not be put back.
What Happened As I Lay in My Basement
After three days and nights, I sensed the approach of unlikely kin, although the sound of Its passage was unfamiliar. But still, the story-creature that had sprouted from my head, now a century older, leaned in to look down upon me and unfolded Itself before me and in all ways and throughout all times looked down upon me and unfolded Itself before me and kept unfolding and I could not stop It from doing so.
Even though I wanted to so badly.
Even though I would have given anything for the story-creature to go away or to stop doing what It was doing, because I had lost so much already and this new world could not replace that.
But still the story-creature revealed Itself to me, until I understood that now It covered every surface, every space, and even though I thought I had been alone down in the basement among the rat-things and the other things I wanted very much to be rats and weren’t…I had not been alone. The story-creature had always been there, silent beside me, breathing beneath me, waiting for me to wake to its presence, to understand where I really was. But I would never understand. How could I? I had not understood the story to begin with.
When the story-creature knew, when I revealed to It by my demeanor how much I did not understand, the story-creature made a sound like the wind through branches, although the wind through the new branches I had woken to sounded more like a throaty scream being choked off. So this was a sound like the old wind, a lullaby about the ancient times to soothe whatever swarmed and seethed within me, although that was not the problem. Not really. The story-creature bent low and protruded and, there entered into the basement, sack-like, still attached to the story-creature…another me.
I opened my mouth to shriek at the sight, but the sound came out of the mouth of the other me. A me that had been rewritten, so that it resembled me in some ways, down to the wrong eyes and the tail for a leg, but different in others, so that to look at this other me made me feel nausea and claustrophobia until my adjustment.
Unlike me all of its eyes were open—and they saw…so much. So much more than me. Except now those of my eyes that were closed saw what its eyes saw and I fell to the basement floor, unable to process so many incoming images and feelings.
For so long after, I came to understand, I would spend my days listening to part of my own story issue forth from the mouth of another, and still not understand all of that story.
I Began to Have a Brother I Did Not Want
I had not been much part of the story of the world before my awakening and before the creature assigned myself to me. The story-creature told me I had lived alone. I had written alone. I had done odd jobs and been out of the house when I needed to be somewhere else. I had a car and I had a big wooded backyard and I listened to music and I complained about things like everyone else. I believe I talked to the neighbors just enough and I would go over to their houses for dinner on holidays, although I did not invite them over to our house. Others had lived in the house with me, though, stains upon the wall now, lost in the foundations, overtaken by the story-creature’s tale.
I knew only that I had killed people and buried them in my backyard. Bad people. People who needed to be ended. This is how I created my fictions.
I killed them by writing stories about them in which they died and taking the stories and crumpling up the pages. Then I would take a shovel and dig a hole and shove the pages in and cover them up with dirt. Then I would say a few words about their souls and refill the bird feeder or rake the leaves. Sometimes the people died in life and not just on the page. Sometimes they didn’t. But always after I buried the pages, my writing would be enriched.
I didn’t mind being eccentric in these ways. I didn’t mind not having a brother or having parents that I could not remember, and now a century, like I did not mind many things. But I minded having been given a brother by the story-creature. It might seem like a small thing in a way, since I had been asleep so long and lived in the basement of the foundations of a house that had rotted away decades ago.
It might seem like a tiny thing given the world had been colonized by the story-creature and its brethren and even the sun and the clouds had become so strange. But it was a large thing to me. My brother who was me stared at me and I became the receptor for so much that was alien to me. I would lurch to my feet and run around the basement because my brother willed it, while in my head I would see from my brother’s eyes some memory in which he had had to run. Or I would sit quiet as he had sat quiet or I would weep and it was because of some time he had wept. Until finally I realized he was downloading another story into my brain, his story, and soon enough I knew that while I had slept I had been copied and that my brother was almost a century old and been awake that whole time and now I was to become as like him as possible—and then I raged. I raged and smashed my skull against hard things because I did not want to know about the last hundred years or to be filled up with what might make me not myself. Or too much myself.
If I had still been able, I would have written a story about my brother dying and buried it in the backyard.
The Death of the Brother I Never Wanted
The world is full of monsters and this brother forced upon me was one of them. Even though my brother could see I did not want any of what he brought me, he would not relent and I could not escape, found no way to cut the link, cut the wires, cut the bond—whatever it was that had formed between us, and anyway it is true the story-creature grew agitated or upset at my attempts and became even larger and more terrible and this made me cower and beg forgiveness.
So I suppose I must have wanted to live, even amid this horror.
And there came toward the end of this transfer, this overlay, another realization: that my brother was dying. He slumped there against the dirt wall and made odd quirky motions and hissing sounds. I do not think I was killing him. I think he was old and an imperfect vessel and he would have died anyway, without anyone knowing his life. I believe the story-creature thought it a mercy to give me his memories, to let me have so much information and not be so bewildered about the world around me.
But the memories remained separate from my own, would not mix. They just floated on the top and made me have to concentrate more to remember the old life, the time before the story-creature. They came in jumbled and not all fully formed at first. Instead, they huddled together and made sense slowly. So I was screaming and writhing and then was catatonic for a time, staring into the space where my brother slowly became deflated and desiccated and his face fell in on itself and one by one his eyes closed and rotted away, while his toes flinched and his one leg kicked, kicked, was still, and the tail writhed even after my brother was fully dead.
I should have been sad seeing myself die, but instead I experienced a kind of joy and my eye clusters had all flickered open again at once. Perhaps when I was killing people in the backyard I had hoped one day someone would do the same for me. Perhaps I rejected this version of myself that did not resemble the me who had received the fateful story-creature on his doorstep. Or maybe I was just thankful that the memory transfer had ceased like a dam had been built to contain a flood. It is so difficult to know exactly why I felt this way, nor why there was such jubilance when the story-creature opened an impossibly wide set of jaws that it had not had moments before and swallowed my brother’s body whole. Even though I sat at the bottom of the basement pit, I experienced a sensation of flight and lift, as if I too had been borne up by that jagged black maw.
Yet I was still catatonic, too, absorbing the memories and I lay there for a week becoming in part someone else, so that filaments and roots and vines grew over me and fed gently on my skin and even much later I would still have the faint scars of their affection as evidence of my time in that state.
When it was done, my brother lay corpse-like and yet not corpse at the bottom of the pit and I stood at the lip, staring down at him while all around the sunrise of purple and amber made the seeing difficult. But I could not repudiate him for most of him now resided inside of me—and because of my brother my leg had recovered and I could walk through the new landscape like I had been born to it.
I Was Taught Against My Will
I headed west, and the story-creature did not follow. Perhaps I thought it would, but instead the story-creature swayed there, crooning soft to the not-corpse in the pit. The story-creature crooned so softly, and yet I heard that sound for so many miles on my journey. I heard it when I tried to sleep in a night that had blinding light hidden within it and the grunting passage of beasts for which I had no name.
I heard it when I was trudging through what my mind interpreted as jungle but was an entirely different story, and one I could not remain sane within if I had really seen it, even with my brother’s memories.
For I soon outstripped any place my fake plant brother had yet gone and the terrain became more floating than fixed, the ground covered with a thin stubble of vegetation while the clouds had come close above and turned sea-green and from them tumbled down a forest that hung wrong, the bird-things that were not birds stitching their way through that cover upside down. The smell came to me thick, in emerald mist, and often my forehead shoved up against the physical manifestation of the smell, which could be like mint or could be like a rotted, mossy animal body.
The leaves and branches itched the top of my skull and brushed my cheek and I tried not to look up too often for fear of what I might see, but also because I grew to be terrified that if I took in that topsy-turvy land I would lose my grip on gravity and, slow and inexorable, take my place up there, my feet glued to the cloud cover and my head hanging toward the ground stubble.
But also the ground stubble hid dangers, for some was not vegetable but more like animal, and less like irritant than like mouth. I would look for shadow on the stubble to know the difference and I would not take for granted either the boulder that might suddenly unroll itself into a beast like an enormous squat centipede, which did not want to eat me, but sent tiny versions of itself that lived in its skin to attach themselves to my skin while burbling like children.
These children wanted to relive my memories. These children, for their own purposes, wanted to know about the last century, to extract it from my skull. This extraction hurt like machetes so sharp and keen that when they passed through my body I might be bisected and trisected without feeling it until I fell away into two or three symmetrical parts. That is how it manifested as pain. That is what it was every time.
Yet I could not elude them, and they came in such regimented columns and also at such regular intervals did the living boulders open up to release their terrible bounty that over time I realized these were indeed schools of a kind and I had been set loose as a history lesson. The story-creature had not wanted me to understand the last century, but instead the rest of the world, which might not know everything. So I endured it better knowing this, that it was not random and they did not mean me harm, but inflicted it as a side effect of the learning. If I were to suffer, then at least let me suffer for a purpose. Although, of course, I would do best should I not suffer at all.
Soon, though, came the final dislocation, for I had not understood the true nature of the school-creature in the same way that I had not understood the story-creature. For, one day, I came to the edge of the cloud cover forest above and the stubble ground below and the way the horizon ahead zeroed to a large dot revealed the truth.
I had walked into the school-creature during one of the night hikes, when disoriented, and all of this time the sky-cloud above had been one edge of the creature and the ground another, a kind of gullet or intestine I had entered at one end—and I was about to jump out of the other. And by the mystery of how the world now worked, the entire entity had been itself moving along, so that when I climbed down the other end to the edge of a giant lake, I had the sense that I had traveled much farther than the distance demarked by the movement of my legs, the walking forward and forward still.
From the outside the school-creature resembled a giant, horizon-consuming fuzzy worm, for while its belly was flat and padded, all along its flanks and atop its blind head, moss and creepers entangled it and disguised it so that the education within could be clandestine and immersive and conducted by light and dark provided by the school creature and the school-creature alone.
I ran for my life then, for the school-creature picked up speed as if it had known I was disembarking but now had its route to follow. With a plunging relentlessness it dove into the giant lake, the whole amazing length and width of it, while I had sprinted as fast as I could for the side, barely leaping clear of being crushed, and then, after it had passed me, of being drowned, for the splash into the lake had sent a vast wave in my general direction and I sprinted as far inland as I could, and still I was buffeted by the water and washed this way and that, one arm trapped by a single-celled creature that kept calling out my name as if I had already told it my name, but… I had not.
Then I was drowning, pulled under the waves, and I held on to the single-celled creature like a life-preserver, even as I rebuffed its attack and screamed only in my mind for I was holding my breath and thrashing and yet somehow knew I would not drown if I only leaned on new skills, except that it was too unnatural and I would have drowned not for lack of air, but for lack of practice and because I could not understand what I had become or was becoming.
But there came a sigh and a surge and I dashed up on moss-covered rocks, battered, gulping air, still clinging to the single-cell that clung to me. It meant to end me. It meant to do that whether we were drowning or whether we sucked air, together.
There are some beasts that do not care where you are, or if things have changed, still they will attack. Even if that progress came slow, inexorable, for I could feel the cell of it merging with the cells of me, and I knew I could not give it the time.
I Acclimated Despite What I Had Lost
When the water receded, I could only extricate myself by causing harm, and while I did not want to do this, and indeed looked about me to make sure nothing and no person was watching—at least, as far as I could be sure—I battered the single-cell against a rock that was no doubt some other animal lying there dormant, until the single-cell bleated and let loose of me and, bleeding an ichor lighter than the air, floated off into the sky in tendrils and green blood slicks that gripped the sky with a kind of phantom intent.
The blood was beautiful escaping into the heavens; I could barely stand the beauty of it, and what that meant about me.
The single-cell, subdued by my attack and with nothing to tether it to the ground, soon followed its own blood up into the sky, leaving me to contemplate a harsh truth: I had become so acclimated to this new environment that until seeing blood drift away into the sky I had not realized the thickness of the atmosphere of this new Earth. It was viscous, it rippled, and it could not, in a sense, be called air, although as I observed the edge of the giant lake, having returned now that the wave had passed, I could tell that water still was heavier than air, even if the composition of both had changed.
From that point on, I became aware of my breathing and how, although I had no visible gills, my lungs must in some way work different than before. That my weight or my walking must anchor me different. This awareness, creating a confusion like unwanted stereo in my head, made it hard to walk and to breathe without recognizing the effort. It was as if I had all of a sudden become a passenger in a machine body that I was expected to pilot without the seamlessness of before. It was like being transformed from a dolphin to a human upon reaching the midpoint of a swim across a dark and endless ocean.
As painful as it had been before—my brother’s memories, the trisection extracted from me for the school-creature—this loss of lack of thought about basic motor functions depressed me. I resolved I would build a boat and float down the lake and when I reached the other side of the lake, I would end myself. For it was clear to me I did not belong in this world.
The memories had become a burden I did not want to suffer, for new memories, like thought bubbles, burst inside my head every night and I would dream and nightmare so vivid that I could barely call what I did sleep, in my thrashing and muttering and shaking. So that even though it seemed my skin absorbed some sort of nutrition from the heavy air or the weird sun, still I felt weary forever and horizons became a kind of torture, whether near or far.
From these memory bubbles, which were like my forced re-education by some ghost of a school creature living inside me, I came to learn the truth of what had happened immediately after my planting one hundred years before.
My Brother Had Been a Traitor
I watched my “brother” being born from a patch of weeds beside my body where I slept, my head dissected and held in place by the story-creature. I watched my brother rise and walk back to my neighborhood and into the house I had lived in and make it his own. He drank the milk and the water. He put out the birdseed. He ate the steaks and the fish and the vegetables. He ranted at the television about the news.
It was my brother, not me, who put my daughter to bed at night and kissed her on the forehead and read her stories until she slept. It was my brother, not me, who slept with my wife and who laughed at her tales from her work and who took her to the movies and paid the babysitter and, again, drank the milk and drank the water. With my wife. Taking care of my daughter.
But I did not remember having a wife or a daughter, and even now saw them at a remove similar to experiencing senses I did not know I had. My gills filled with air. My lungs filled with water. Nothing lived in the right direction; everything died the wrong way up. Memory must be corrupted, gone bad. I made my hands into claws and I ripped at the ground like it was the flesh of the story-creature. How could I have had a family? What did it mean that I saw my brother had a family?
I was cut into pieces by the school-creature. I was flailing close with the single-cell. But in the blur and the smudge, with the rot coming to close, creeping up my leg, there by the edge of the lake, it came to me, bathing in the memories, that, yes, I had had a family. Except that the story-creature had taken away those memories from me and given them to my brother. That he might benefit and that I might not suffer. Yet still I suffered with the weight of this—that as I slept for a hundred years, my brother had taken my place in my family and done all of the family things indistinguishable from me. But it was true this made me feel worse, and that if I had woken to knowing I had left a family one hundred years behind me, I might have gone mad or become comatose.
Were they buried beneath the dirt floor of the foundation? Had I slept atop them like a faithful dog? I would never know, and nothing in my memories told me. I just knew that I, through the person of my brother, had become a true murderer, for I had helped to end the human species in the form in which we had known it.
Every time that my brother visited a neighbor’s house, my brother left a residue that was an anti-story to the one we all knew, and this residue would grow and accumulate in the mind until it was too late to do anything but turn to the left and change and change again.
Everywhere across my neighborhood, my country, and the world, this residue accumulated, extended silvery filaments across the bottom of people’s shoes, across their palms and foreheads and elbows and the backs of their knees while asleep or awake, and over time everyone must turn to their left and in the turning transform in either mind or body or both. For this was the form the change took: a shudder, a turn, a cringe, a shrug. Every time, I saw in memory, my brother took to walking through the streets at dusk so he could peer in windows and see the anti-story take hold as he spread it farther. And with each new filament extended, more people spread the anti-story until eventually it was just the story not the anti-story and there had never been an anti-story at all, or any other story to rule the Earth.
It did not care about your belief system, your grasp on reality, the excellence of your analysis or your senses, for the anti-story of the story-creature became story by retelling effortlessly what lived at the core of you. So my brother went out walking and thrulled to the thrill of it, made the sounds deep in his throat that sounded like an odd nocturnal bird but were instead the end stages of the anti-story, triumphant.
Now when my brother met my neighbors, all knew all and that all was one. My brother’s neighbor was my brother and he was his neighbor. While those they thought might be troublesome head-planted in remote places, as I had, and slept it off—that they might acclimate and hear the song of the one true story in due time. As I was hearing it now, buffeted by it, and yet even though I heard it I was inured to it. But this did not make me hopeful, for it just meant I no longer mattered to the spread of any story or to the plans of the story-creature.
I could roam this world as rebel or spy my entire life but the colonization was complete. All I could do is choose when I ended my experience of the world.
What I Stumbled Upon That I Was Meant to Find
I began my journey across the lake, that I might find the end of my story, which was now the anti-story much as I was the anti-brother. I felt like the captain of my own fate, that I might at least control my own body and how long it drew breath—and I wish I could tell you what I discovered I created by my own roving, my own actions, but chance does not reside on the new Earth as it did in the old.
This is both a terrible and miraculous thing.
I found the dead leathery shell of a creature that might have been like a turtle except a hundred scrawny necks attached to tiny bulbous heads with gaping mouths hung from the inside of the shell, as if these inner heads had eaten the larger creature from the inside out as part of some plan, and I had to cut them all off. They welcomed this art with an eagerness that suggested some maker’s plan remained for the rest of their life-cycle, and indeed I watched those I had severed burrow into the ground with squeals of delight and soon they were gone and I never saw them again and I am glad of that. Then I had to sand down the neck stumps to make the shell float and not be disgusting. Although by then not much was disgusting because the word familiar had changed so much since I had woken.
I floated on the black-and-green surface of the lake, with pools of clearest blue embedded in that thickness, and I reflected on my situation. I reflected and refracted my situation, my memories continuing to be absorbed through the epidermis and then into my brain, as if the entire world but me already knew my past. There was nothing else to do, nothing to occupy me, for the lake was slow to travel across, the current glacial.
But then the dead shell that was my boat grew a mouth and began to talk to me, for it too still had a role to fulfill in my life in this world.
The Wonder That Was the Dead-Shell
I was made to understand by the talking dead-shell mouth that whoever should cut the hundred bulbous heads from its undercarriage shall be the feeder that the remaining dead-shell shall converse with, and that by this ritual shall both the feeder and the fed know that learning has taken place. I did not understand the importance of this at first, and considered that it might be a trick by the story-creature, except the story-creature had no part in this.
Dead-Shell grew a mouth at the bow, and it was salty and chalky with unshaven teeth that sprouted up crooked, so that the mouth must speak through a thicket of its own slashing surgery. Although it took time, of which we had plenty in that becalmed fish bowl, I came to understand Dead-Shell very well, even if I never discovered if we spoke in Dead-Shell’s language or my own. I suppose after my encounter with the school-creature, I had absorbed a capacity to understand beyond my actual ability to understand.
The weather was deep and porous and full of needles and it pressed around us in a way that invigorated even as it pricked, and even if the lake looked like no body of water I had ever seen, I found it melancholy, reassuring, and calm, and thus although Dead-Shell disturbed me, I had been disturbed worse since I had woken.
How should a Dead-Shell talk? “Maw maw maw,” it said, and then “Maw maw maw chaw chaw chaw.” And then, “Dam dam dam dam maw maw maw chaw chaw haw.”
But this was Dead-Shell throat-clearing and I could feel many eyes upon me from it, except that Dead-Shell’s eyes were not on its dead shell but instead flitting through the underbrush and overbrush on the rotting shores, through thickets of trees roving in their hundreds if not thousands. For Dead-Shell’s evolution made its sight independent of its self, and those eyes too had their own lifecycle, and were so numerous because of the predation upon them. Over Dead-Shell’s span, Dead-Shell would shed upwards of five hundred eyes, and only during the molting could it produce more that would ascend wing-ward to stare down from on-high.
Yet still this effect was unsettling to me, and this is why I took so long to adjust to Dead-Shell’s speech. When I turned my gaze to those eyes, I worried for them, for I knew them to be as like to his children, and every hour of every day one or more were eaten, and often I would see this on the far shore to the east or west—I would sense the shriek of the punctured eye from some felon of a predator and you would see the spurt of liquid and Dead-Shell was one eye closer to darkness.
All of these punctured and consumed eyes—even when they lay within the belly of the predator—could still see, for Dead-Shell told me that if swallowed whole his eyes would report back to him, from that enemy stronghold, sometimes for months, until expelled, which was usually enough to snuff out the remaining life. Dead-Shell’s brain, not fixed in the meat of him but in his shell, contained such a coiled complexity that I could not quite bring myself to imagine it.
“Maw maw maw maw maw may may my breather my bruther my brother,” Dead-Shell said, and I knew by this that at least one of his eyes had seen my story and knew of me.
This did not matter to me in the least now. It did not matter for Dead-Shell was of the new world not the old and my embarrassment and sorrow and guilt was all of the old world and made no difference in the new world, which had none of the culture I had known. I understood this at least. And so I forgave Dead-Shell not knowing that this opening might hurt me. Even as I sailed down the length of the lake on the inside of his shell and he spoke to me from the bow.
The words continued to sound like nonsense to my ears, but to my eyes, my nose, my tongue, my skin, Dead-Shell’s words resonated like the most powerful symphony undercut by the gentlest lullaby.
I was being put to sleep and roused to heroic acts, even as all I did was kneel on the dead shell of Dead-Shell. While out of my ears, as if the words must expel matter, poured my understanding, coating the sides of my body and falling away into the water like thick honeycomb in golden multitudes.
How Dead-Shell Changed Me
Soon I came to realize that Dead-Shell was a sort of scientist-creature on the order of the story-creature and school-creature before him. He communicated to me that the world had been remade against my image and that my form, even much reduced, was the rebellion of the old world against the new, and that this made no sense because the new world embraced the old; that my very presence made the old world manifest, no matter the form, so why was the form important? Why did I hold onto the form?
And why did I, holding my form, insist then on negating myself once we had reached the end of the lake? It would serve no purpose and was impossible because I would fail because I could not destroy my constituent molecules; they would still exist, and thus I would exist as well. As still the golden manna sang as it left my ears and streamed down my body, made of my body a clay that must be reformed and redistributed to make sense.
A sweet and bitter relief.
Better that I succumb to my purpose, Dead-Shell still maw-mawed into me. Better that I become what I must become for a new life and a new journey, for this was the only way to preserve any semblance of the old world…and here Dead-Shell brought to bear all of his thousand eyes all across the land—on the shore, in the trees, in the water, in the belly of myriad beasts and buried, buried deep in the ground, staring up through moss and lichen and rich, thick soil.
That I might see through his eyes, might see how underneath the new world lay my old world still. Like the foundation of my house, there it lay, and I saw it all in such a confusion and profusion that I could not hold it in my head and the golden honeycomb that was not honeycomb at all but the movement of my transformation spun out and pushed out from inside of me until there was more of it outside of me than inside of me, and that is how I knew that it had been growing inside of me for much, much longer than Dead-Shell had been talking to me.
For Dead-Shell’s words had encased me in honeycomb from the inside out and the fortress of my body lay behind a glistening wall, and that wall was attached forever and always to Dead-Shell, and his task was done, as even the space that had been my brain softened and spread out to coat the inside of that entire space I must call separate from the world.
How I Left My Self Behind
I toppled into Dead-Shell’s embrace and the dead shell closed around me and bound me, while Dead-Shell’s mouth detached on tiny legs and jumped into the lake. For this was all that was left of Dead-Shell, who must now rejoin his own eyes, or some portion of them and continue on his anointed purpose, his path, which might mean repeating his conversation with yet another person who had slept a century and would reach the lake through the school-creature, but had lagged behind me in his timing.
But, meanwhile, Dead-Shell had brought his teachings up and through me and the golden honeycomb that was so much more bound me and I came out from the lake to a river that roared and gushed its way down to the premonition of a vast sea, and along with this roaring and gushing and thrushing came the bobbing and weaving and floating and gliding and all of the other motions of the Dead-Shell eyes, now watching me, turned on me, so that I still saw through them but they saw me. And the weight of that was a powerful thing such as I cannot describe. To be seen in that way.
While I could not move for I no longer had what might be called arms and legs but only the motion provided by cilia and by the thick stickiness of the honeycomb, which was both me and not me, was how I could move and how I could stay. Yet my eyes did not partake of the honeycomb. My cluster of half a dozen eyes was too busy transforming into one eye, one giant eye that was also a kind of helmet, as if an eye had been drawn on the glass of an astronaut’s helmet, except that drawn eye could see and the entire globe of glass was the eye. That while I had my hands I put my hands to my face to know that this one eye was enormous, like a world, and that already things swam there like motes but wriggling and alive. I saw so far and I saw so well, and as the many eyes of the Dead-Shell retreated and receded until I saw only through my own face.
Beneath, there came an itching and tickling. I had grown fins so I could steer myself fast down the river, now underwater because I had the gills and I had the encasing of golden sap, which I knew was stronger and yet lighter than any substance humankind had ever known, so that I was my own fish but also my own submarine, and I rushed and darted and frolicked through that water in such a sublime way I almost forgot the sense of me, forgot that I had but one eye now. I sought open water. I sought the ocean. And I blessed the thousand eyes of the Dead-Shell, and I blessed Dead-Shell himself for allowing me to be this way, to experience this, to be other than human.
I was so fluid in my shell that I could not at times distinguish the water from my self. I could not distinguish a wave from my thoughts. Extinguish me, become me. That is all the river meant to me: a long, thick muscle that would deliver me, and I was that muscle and I wanted the sea. I desired it so badly, more than anything I had ever wanted, and it pushed out all other concerns and I could taste nothing but the sea-to-come and hear nothing and feel nothing but that.
And still I was changing, well beyond the changes that had created my brother. Those innocent days, those hours of being planted by a story-creature on a hillside, a sapling springing from my head, were long distant. I could not return to them even if I had wished to.
The Ocean That Lay Beyond the River
At the ocean, however, my urgency faded. Having reached that place, I no longer worried about ending my life, for my life had spread and swelled and become something other than it had been. Nor did I worry about much else, and I floated in the glistening green water staring up at the sky, which sagged so close and was not yet full of stars but only the ghosts of stars or a haunting of everything that was not-star, so that by the lack I might think of the word “star.”
I received this vision through the taut thickness of the air, which had not yet dulled to dark.
Into that calm I was either allowed further knowledge of my wife and my daughter, or these slipped through like silvery minnows of memory darting out of me—still at a remove, but they were true, as if only by turning away so utterly now I could see them, glimpse them back on shore, staring out at me across a century. Who knew where they might be now, if they lived in the world at all?
My daughter had liked to stage plays in her room back in the house that was only a dirt foundation now, and she would make us pay to watch them and then she would do what she had planned to do anyway while we sat there with foolish grins, unsure if she was a genius or just sillier than us. My wife made jewelry in the shapes of all the natural things; spoons that were leaves and knives that were stalks of weeds and metal bowls like ponds full of fish. She made me a coiled snake as a band for my wrist, but I wasn’t wearing it when I went to the hillside and though my digging in the foundation may have been to find it, nothing was there. Nothing would ever be there.
Fierce as river rush came to me love, came to me many trips to the beach with them, and the laughing and the sunburn and the cold drinks and the sand between the toes, and how when that happened time was no longer there, that everything became one moment, the only moment, and it was as if we had not traveled to the beach or would be leaving soon but only that we had ever been there and ever would be there.
I had worked as a writer of obituaries; I had not buried the stories of the dead in the backyard. I had worked for a newspaper researching people’s lives. I had a father and a mother who were still alive when I began my long sleep, but they were more distant still, and I could not recapture them, not in any way that had meaning, and with that loss was snapped off the whole branch of relatives and perhaps I had never had close ties to them, but in the succor of the sea, surrounded by such seething life, I felt the lack of those connections and the new connections roared into my head in such a joyous profusion.
Touched by the want and need of all of that, I, turning to look back, tried to conquer the new shoreline with the old one. For that would bring more substantial something of old life, old growth. I could almost do it. I could almost revert, for the moment. But not quite.
What would this world have been if I had slept and had returned to find it human?
Would it have been terrible or beautiful?
Would I have recognized it any better, or would humankind have been as banished as if the story-creature had come along after all?
The Sky Beyond the Ocean
All of this I thought in long and short flashes and daggers and circles as I floated, waiting for the next thing. The sky was the sun and the sea was the sky both and only the thin line between told me of any difference, and the difference meant nothing. I could tell by how the skin of the water lifted below me that the ocean was not the ocean, but instead a great beast, a story-sea that was salt water and not salt water, and that the swells were rising that I might be lifted up into the heavens when finally the sky darkened and the stars came out, and then I might know my destination.
I sensed that while I had been shedding my last ancient skin to become pure, there had swum in quiet those who now bobbed and floated around me, others not unlike me—those who had slept on their separate hillsides and then taken a journey to arrive here, and would soon disperse again. All of us with our huge single opaque eye like a helmet and the compact bodies, from which the fins had fallen off, to drift to the bottom and be broken down and become nourishment for the beast that enclosed us in such a wide embrace.
There was no music, and yet there was such music as I had never heard before. Distant, so distant, and yet so close. Did we make that music or did the world make that music in celebration of our departure?
I did not think I would ever be human again, but I would see things no one of my species had ever seen, and with that thought I began to cry from some excess of emotion that could not go elsewhere.
I began to cry as if I meant to swell the sea and drown the earth…and yet even my tears were purposeful, and repurposed by the story-creature. For my tears encapsulated a chronicle of my story, of this story, and every tear that met the ocean’s surface contained all of this tale and every tear shed by every cocooned single-eye to all sides told their tales too, that they might not be forgotten, and might be sheltered and expressed indeed by the sea and the earth itself.
Nothing ever could be lost and all would be used, and that was the way of it and part of what Dead-Shell had tried to tell me to comfort me. And so I wept my story into the ocean and the ocean received it and if you know these words you have heard tell of them from the drops of water that fall from the sky and inhabit the lakes and the rivers and all creatures across the face of this world have heard tell of it, including the thousand eyes of Dead-Shell, for they too are self-aware and some of them must have watched us far out at sea, waiting for the next part of the story.
The clear substance over my head, the eye of me, had thinned and hardened and taken what it needed from the saltwater, and I was ready. The ocean that was itself a beast began to faster and faster curve upward like the eyes, like the helmets, and in slow-motion began to slingshot us up into the cosmos. But it was not slow motion for long, for the ocean bellowed and sped up and pushed up and its wishes were that we be gone—and at speed.
We like children heard and received and as if upon a mighty trampoline were flung up into the stratosphere and then achieved escape velocity in a holy roar and expulsion, through light and dark into dark and weightlessness…until we were all of us tumbling end over end through vacuum, and with each tumble my fellow travelers dispersed farther and farther from me, headed to other worlds than me, to become story-creatures.
For we were joyous. We were ecstatic as the stars came at us, no longer veiled, and we saw them in all of the glory that was both ours and theirs.
What was breath to us behind our helmets? What was time? What was speed?
We could tumble forever and never die, and every sighting of a star filled us like a tiny bliss, a flower opening up and opening up and never fading.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeff VanderMeer
Art copyright © 2017 by Armando Veve