The Empty City is about awakening to inner truths and one’s own self. It is told in short episodes that describe a place, a dream, a question, a memory, a fantasy or an event.
Urban explorer and lucid dreamer Brandon Minamoto discovers that outside his thoughts and emotions exists a world that is silent and open, surrounding him and everyone else.
The silence starts picking him apart and makes him question his sense of self and his past. But behind the noise and the stories, there is something constant and unchanging.
Research Notes about The Empty City in Necessary Fiction – December 2011.
About colors – in Pure Slush – November 2011.
Interview excerpt in writer Marcus Speh’s communal blog Kaffe in Katmandu – October 2011.
About writing and publishing – in writer Chris Galvin Nguyen’s blog – October 2011.
About writing Gothic – at Innsmouth Free Press – October 2011.
About Sovetskoye Shampanskoye – in Smokelong Quarterly – October 2011.
About writing and inspiration – in writer Magen Toole’s blog – July 2011.
About nonduality and writing – in Non-Duality Magazine – March 2011.
“Berit Ellingsen’s voice and narration are tightly controlled and precise so that you never lose your way in her poetic, evocative language. I found myself wanting to quote different passages to friends.”
“The author pays close attention to the physical properties of things and she evokes them carefully with precise and sensuous language. She writes, in fact, with her senses, which are finely tuned.”
“The Empty City […] reads like a dream. An intense, literary dream that you just can’t shake, where faintly remembered images subtly haunt your waking reality.”
“A thought-provoking, vivid read, with short chapters that move through to different level of consciousness – there are dream sequences, past memories, the present – together, the chapters form a larger mosaic. It’s one of the books that I didn’t want to end, but to move on, and on.”
The Empty City – Chapter 1: Early Summer
The apartment building was nineteen stories tall with six identical faces, each presenting three rows of balconies with gleaming glass railing. It was one of five towers constructed on reclaimed marshland outside the city. The area had been considered too wet for development, but modern draining and construction techniques made the towers possible, creating much needed living space for the city. To make the overpriced apartments more attractive, a train line was built to the towers. Every day the trains transported the young and successful and the not so young and less successful that belonged to the five buildings.
Brandon Minamoto left the train station and started on the path to the towers. As he entered the humid evening, the glare from the bright light and the steel surfaces in the station faded. The serpentine footpath was lit by white, swan-necked lamps. Nocturnal insects flew up from the moist grass before him and into the artificial light. The sound from the motorway and the city was a distant song.
He drew in the scent of mowed lawn in the park, exhaust fumes from the motorway and rotten water from the surrounding marsh. What a quiet and beautiful night! His body was soft and pliant, even his shoulders and neck, after a long day at work.
Steps of dark granite led up to glass doors framed in polished steel. The front and sides of the foyer were all glass. The granite in the stairs continued on the floor inside. The building admitted him with a soft sigh.
The foyer was empty. He only saw people there during rush hour in the morning. At those times his neighbors looked faint and distant, as if they weren’t real. The recessed lights in the ceiling illuminated the foyer with a weak golden light. All four elevator doors were open, their call panels shining green. Next to the elevators, a wide staircase led up into the building. He had always disliked the greedy gape of the stairs and turned away from it as he passed. He entered the far left elevator and pressed button number eighteen.
The elevator opened to a long and empty hallway in the northeast corner of the building. The floor had a burgundy carpet patterned in white and gold. The walls held the same red as the carpet. White glass funnels cast a bright light into the ceiling and down onto the floor. He followed the hallway north. Behind the deep red walls, human bodies were sleeping, dreaming. He found that knowledge very uncomfortable. His own bed stood along the outer wall instead of the corridor. But as it was, he had to pass several sleeping neighbors on the way to his apartment.
Last fall he had crossed the mountain massif north of the city on foot. It had felt like the stone and the sky cared about him. The sun warmed his back and the stiff mountain grass whispered when he waded through it, as if it knew he was there and appreciated his presence. He missed that kindness and awareness from the walls at home. But the dead concrete and metal and glass couldn’t afford what he wanted, so he remained deeply disgusted by the thought of the bodies that dreamed too close.
2: The Extremist
He removed the keycard from his wallet and pushed the plastic rectangle into the slot in the door. The lock clicked open. Before pressing the handle down, he peered into the peephole to see what the apartment looked like without him.
Through the small lens he could just make out the illumination from the spotlights over the kitchen counter. The north wall of the apartment was a large window with a sliding door that lead out to the balcony, granting an expansive view of the marsh and the residential areas. But like the black hole at the center of the galaxy, the peephole compressed everything to a small space that even light had trouble escaping. When that thought passed his mind, he smiled.
He entered his black hole apartment and closed and locked the door. Sometimes he dreamed that the door was too small for the frame, preventing him from securing the barrier properly, despite his repeated attempts to lock it. Those dreams made him wake up sweating. He stepped onto the brown hand-woven rug he had bought for the small entrance. Following the habit of his childhood home, he untied his shoes and placed them under the coat rack. Then he hung his suit jacket up.
The warm darkness inside the apartment felt as pleasant as the night outside. It was quiet. The cats must be asleep on the bed. He loosened his tie and went to the bathroom to wash the city off his hands. The brown, blue and gold iridescent tiles in the bath reflected the faint light from the hallway. The multi-colored shimmer made the room seem larger than it was.
The sink was a smooth bowl of brown and green acrylic, layered to resemble natural ceramic. Its blended earth colors and gentle slope reminded him of handmade bowls from his father’s country. It conformed to his idea of worn elegance, his reason for choosing the expensive item. But he’d never admit that to his father or anyone else.
When he was done, he dried his hands on the smallest towel on the heating rack next to the sink. The thick fabric whispered in the silence. In the mirror he was a tall, lean shadow. He pushed his long bangs away from his forehead. He didn’t feel like going through the routines, so cardio it was instead. He pulled the large towel from the heating rack and left.
These last months he had wanted extremism, needed to see how far he could take himself. How long could he work? How long could he go without food? Without sleep? How far could he run? He isolated himself because it took time to work that much, run that long, lose that much sleep. None of his friends wanted to join in on the experiment. But to him, a pattern of increasing physical and mental challenges was familiar, even comforting. And when he had exhausted himself enough, he slept, for what felt like days; like Endymion, the eternal sleeper. Overdoing it was his panacea for restlessness.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” his brother Katsuhiro said, when he told him about the new project.
“Explore with me, then,” his cousin Beanie said. “I know a few unsafe places under ground. Should be a nice exercise to get into and out of.”
“Sure,” he said, laughing.
“What’s the point and what the hell is wrong with you?” Michael asked.
“Everything, baby, everything,” he replied.
He locked himself into the empty space of the gym and pool on the top floor. All inhabitants in the tower had access to the fitness room for a small monthly fee, much more reasonable than membership in the sports clubs in the city. He had made good use of it. Saving was one thing he couldn’t overdo. Most of his income went to pay for the apartment. But he comforted himself with an adage from his father’s country: “A warrior will feign wealth even when starving.” Funny how mom’s country didn’t have sayings like that.
Underneath the glass and steel ceiling the twenty-five meter long pool was a gently moving surface with a panoramic view of the marsh. In the distance the motorway ramps curved in on themselves, and the bog glittered faintly in the light from the city.
He stripped and ran to the pool. With the light off it felt like rushing towards the edge of the roof. He imagined the cascade of metal and shards that would happen if he crashed through the glass wall. Instead, he turned and dove into the cold water.
3: The Primary World
The shallow end was two meters deep. The dive took him along the teal blue tiles at the bottom. He kept his body straight but relaxed to get as much distance from the momentum as possible. When he began slowing down he made one arm stroke and flattened his arms against his side, just like he had learned in special training. Midway in the pool, the floor sloped to four and a half meters, and the water turned ocean dark. He did one breast stroke and kept his arms out, ready for the next arm stroke. That brought him to the end. There, he turned sideways and pushed hard away from the tiles.
Two more cycles of unhurried arm and breast strokes took him back to the shallow side. His eyes and lungs and arms and legs burned, but he hadn’t had enough. He turned and started on the third length. He focused on the calm water, and the depth of the night sky that watched him through the ceiling. His throat caught a few times as he swallowed for air, but without drawing water in. Finally, he reached the pool wall, broke the surface and breathed.
Stars gleamed overhead. He relaxed and floated on his back. The ripples splashed languidly against the edges of the pool, then fell quiet. One person couldn’t disturb the large body of water much. He turned his head from side to side to watch the sky with the light-sensitive edges of his eyes. He could see the fat spine of stars going down the middle of the firmament, the center of the galaxy. The sight reminded him of a story he had read, about a man who was stranded on an alien ocean planet. The planet was sentient but benign. After a while, the man realized that the planet was aware of him and kept him alive. In the end, the protagonist let the planet turn him into one of its own sea creatures, so he could live there forever.
He continued, swam seventy-five laps on the surface till he was sore and panting. Then he floated for a long time beneath the stars. When he was calm after the work-out, he drew a deep breath, dove down to the bottom of the pool and watched the stars through the night-filled water. There, he grew tired and closed his eyes.
He saw the tower and the region as it had been a hundred thousand years ago. The land was an uninterrupted swamp, with generous vegetation and drooping deciduous trees. A shallow river from the mountains brought fresh water into the wide outlet.
In the warm water long-legged fowl, birds of prey, cayman crocodiles and snakes hunted. The green surface hid fish, amphibians, crustaceans and insects. The swamp teemed with life that ate itself and was reborn into a new shape every second. The air was hot and smelled of humidity, rotting plants and decay. A thin mist filled the delta. The sun was a pink disc in the sky that illuminated the still waters and the waiting trees with a gentle, white light.
4: The Third Rail
The phone rang. No, the sound had no ring tone so it must be the door. Who could it be so early?
“Don’t tell me you forgot our date!” His cousin Beanie’s voice on the door phone sounded crackly and thick. He was standing by the door, but smelled of sleep, so he must have come from bed.
“Just a moment,” he muttered and pressed the button on the door phone.
Beanie (real name Beatrice) walked into the entrance. She was petite, twenty-four, Michael’s younger sister and a friend since early childhood. She knew the city better than he did.
“Did I wake you?” Beanie asked, grinning at him. He was standing in his underpants. He covered his eyes with his hand.
“What time is it?” It felt like he had been asleep for days.
“Three thirty-nine pm,” Beanie said. “On Saturday.” Her eyes glittered. He laughed.
“Ow, thanks.” He threw her a vitamin C pill from the bowl by the mirror. Beanie caught it with her mouth.
“Where are we going?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Down below,” Beanie said. “Where the dead men roam!” He laughed and headed for the bedroom and his clothes. He checked the camera. The battery on the camera was flat. He had forgotten to recharge it since the last trip.
They rode the elevator down to the garage, stood under the bright light and the LED stars in the ceiling. He glanced down at Beanie. She looked at him.
“Are you scared?” he said.
“Of course not,” Beanie grinned.
They fell in silence. The elevator doors opened to gasoline-scented air.
He backed out of the parking spot, brought the car up the ramp and out of the garage. A thin mist obscured the marsh, the cemetery and the city, transformed the sun into a pink disc.
“What a weird sky,” Beanie said.
“Do you like it?”
Beanie nodded. “It looks strange, but beautiful. I like it,” she said. He smiled. They sat in silent togetherness for the rest of the drive, while the landscape flew by. It was four in the afternoon, but the sun sat high above the horizon.
Beanie led him to one of the train stations in the city. It was Saturday afternoon and no rush hour, but the platforms were crowded. They rode the escalator down.
“Are you sure this is the right stop?” he said, taking in the people above and below them in the stairs. So many heads in different colors; black, brown, red, purple, sandy, blond, grey.
Beanie grinned. “Of course I’m sure. It’s a secret place.”
She took him down to the westernmost platform on the lowest level. The space was thronged with professionals on their way home from work, young mothers bringing their strollers home after a day in the city, teenagers going out, an old couple with a bouquet of flowers in their hands, young immigrants that spoke loudly in a foreign tongue. The curved walls of the station wore glazed blue and white tiles that made him think of dinner porcelain. His mother’s butcher had the same tiles in his shop.
At the back of the platform sat a low wire fence with a sign that said “Employees only. Keep out!” Beanie vaulted over the thigh-high barrier. He glanced at the crowd on the platform. No one seemed to be paying them attention. He couldn’t see any security guards either. He swung himself over the fence, keeping one hand on the metal to dampen any rattling. Around the corner of the platform was a white metal door with a long latch. Beanie looked down the tracks. If a train arrived at the station the passengers in the rear cars would see them. She quickly pulled the latch on the door down and the metal creaked open.
“Get in,” Beanie said. He ducked into the darkness. Beanie followed and shut the door behind her. She lit a small head flashlight and placed it in her short, brown hair.
“Here.” She handed him a narrow, black cylinder.
“Thanks.” He clicked on the soft end and a bluish-white beam emitted from the torch. “Nice. Got more batteries if we run out?”
“Always,” Beanie said, patting the side of her jacket. They followed the platform to the end. A staircase led down into darkness.
“Have you been here before?” he said.
Beanie chuckled. “Never, but it’s supposed to be safe. As long as we don’t meet any trains.”
He hoped she was joking about the “never” part.
“You’re trying to scare me,” he said.
The stairs had the same white and blue tiles as the platforms above. Each step was edged with a narrow strip of metal for traction. The brass colored metal had once been criss-crossed but was worn smooth. The stairs sagged in the middle and slanted downward. In the warm darkness he could hear booms and bangs, chatter, laughter and screams.
They followed the stairs down. There, another platform was waiting. When they stepped onto the wooden planks, the structure creaked loudly and dust plumed up. At the end were more stairs. Beanie jumped down on the first step.
“Are you coming?” she said. Her eyes gleamed.
They descended together. The gloom was hot and seemed impenetrable. The sounds from above faded. There was nothing but darkness and tunnels and stone. The stairs ended in another wooden platform.
“We have reached the bottom of things!” Beanie announced. So she had been there before, he concluded, and cheered with her.
“This old thing might not be safe,” he said and tapped his boot on the dry wood. He stepped down on the gravel below the platform. The dry pebbles creaked.
“Don’t step on the third rail now,” Beanie grinned. In the beam from the flashlight her teeth shone white. Beads of sweat were visible on her forehead and on the freckled bridge of her nose.
The tubular walls carried thick bundles of cables, covered in black dust. The wires pointed into the darkness. The air was stale and tasted of iron and asbestos. His heart beat slowly and heavily, weighed down by the stone and the warm darkness. But he could still see the sun above them. It had moved a fraction towards the horizon, and the sky was as white as before.
Beanie chewed on her lip, but whether it was from excitement or fear, he couldn’t tell.
“Come on, let’s follow the tracks,” she said. “There are no trains going this deep any more, so we’re safe.” He hoped she was right. They followed the blackened wires into the tunnel.
“You know what they say,” he chuckled, “that there’s people living down here, or at least what used to be people.”
Beanie turned towards him, the light from her flashlight flickered across the walls.
“That’s not true!” she said. He laughed gently and shook his head.
“No, that’s not true at all. It’s just us down here.”
Beanie gave him a long look. They continued in silence.
At the first intersection they decided to remain on the side they were already on, to avoid getting lost. He wondered what would happen if a train did come. Would there be enough space to squeeze up against the dust? Or would they be crushed in the darkness? If that happened, they were already buried. They were currently alive, but buried. That thought made him laugh. His voice filled the black air. Beanie screamed.
“Don’t scare me like that!” she said.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What’s so funny anyway?”
“Nothing.” He couldn’t tell Beanie his strange thoughts. He continued walking. The gravel crunched and clattered under his boots.
“Come on, tell me,” she said.
“No, I can’t tell you. It was just a weird idea.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Ok,” he said. “I thought if we died here we would be buried at the same time, so it would be a cheap funeral. But then I realized we’re already buried, you know, buried alive.” He grinned at her. The thought still made him laugh. But he couldn’t let it out and scare her more than he already had.
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“I know,” he laughed.
They came to another junction. He pierced the darkness of the opposite tunnel with his beam.
“What do you think is down there?”
“Just more rails,” Beanie said. “Let’s stay on this side. We can’t afford to get lost down here.” He thought they could, but maybe they couldn’t.
They walked until they both had to relieve themselves. Embarrassed, they turned away from each other, and did what they had to do.
“I’m tired,” Beanie said. “Let’s head back. I think I need to change batteries soon too.” He was disappointed. Nothing had happened. He had only gotten a little scared.
“All right,” he said into the warm air. “I can come back another time. Now I know the way.”
Beanie stared at him, her flashlight almost blinded him.
“You’re not going back here alone, it’s too dangerous.”
“Shhh…,” he said. Even though they hadn’t gone as far as he could, they had come as far as she wanted. That worked for him. He shut the torch off and closed his eyes. In the darkness Beanie said his name. He didn’t reply.
His fear of being buried in the stone, of being crushed by gravity, sat like lead in his belly. But there was something behind it; a wall of bone and meat, his own. And an awareness that encircled the tension, watched it and everything else that happened to him. The awareness was more tempting than the tunnels that led into the darkness. He could sense it, behind and surrounding his fear. But neither the fear, nor the darkness, could touch the awareness.
Was that him? Was that who he was? How could he have missed that? He suddenly felt very stupid. It was too funny.
He began to laugh. He laughed until his voice rang against the stone. He forgot Beanie until she touched his shoulder gently.
“Please stop laughing,” she said. “You’re scaring me.”
“Me too,” he said, “me too.”
When he returned to the apartment, he was still disappointed that nothing had happened during the trip. Beanie had been there before, and even had a map of the tunnels, a copy of faint blueprints. But it had been fun, regardless.
The day after he felt tired of his job, as he had been for months. Tired of needing the income and tired of not knowing what to do instead of his current work. He spent the afternoon thinking about it, turning it over and over in his mind, hoping to figure out what to do, how to get rid of the tiredness.
In the evening, he was sick of trying to think his way out of the problem and tried to relax. He was watching some mindless TV when it hit him. Did he lack anything in that moment? Was he lost without the job and the money and the things he thought he ought to have?
As in the tunnel, there was something behind his wants and needs. Something large and still that just watched the desires. He connected with that part of him. He had more questions for it. Who was he without his wishes? What was he without his needs? He watched and waited.
6: Endymion Unbound
That night he dreamed he could fly. He flew up inside a tall tower of brass. From the circular balcony at top, the horizon curved wide. Below him slept a blue and green planet. The oceans and lakes glittered in the sun.
He ran towards the edge of the tower. The air rushed through his wings. He knew he could fly, he had done it many times before. He stepped over the balustrade, and soared high. The horizon tilted as he banked, but his will held. He flew!
The wind rushed in his ears and mingled with the sound of his heart and blood. He shouted with joy and rose in the warm sunlight. He flew out to the blue horizon and the black ocean. He flew until it was night.
The ocean breathed below him. Above him, bright stars pierced the sky. The water was primeval and barren, but he could bring it life. He hovered above the black surface while the wind hissed through his hair. He wanted to put a drop of blood into the ocean to seed it, but realized that wouldn’t be enough. However, he had five liters of red inner ocean. That ought to be enough. The sea wanted it too, and rose up into a dark wall. The black water towered above him, then crashed down and pulled him in.
He tumbled and turned and flapped and gasped. The ocean churned him around and around. White bubbles of air rolled around him. Gravity took him down. He plunged into the black and crushing pressure.
But the weight was not stronger than his will, so he remained alive. His long fall ceased at the bottom of the sea. A sandy floor stretched out before him. In the darkness he could sense the presence of long blind worms and round fish with enormous, cauldron-like mouths. Further away, he felt the immense gravity of a deep chasm, an abyss.
He looked up. Through kilometers of dark and heavy water, he saw the stars. They glittered like the corpse lights in the marsh. He let go of the thought of the ocean, pushed away from the cold sand and sped towards the surface.
He woke up and drew his breath once. Then he fell asleep again, but emptied of dreams this time.
7: His Secret Places In The City
The quay reached out into the ocean from the end of the beach that curved along the wide bay. The structure was made of concrete tetrapods piled into the foamy grey water. The long mound of four-limbed shapes was topped with a flat concrete cover. But neither the quay, nor the docks planned east of it, had been finished. The city ran out of money and political will to complete the project. The quay and docks were the remnants of an abandoned dream of urban renewal.
At the end of the unfinished structure the sounds from the city dimmed to a hum. In the white fog the buildings in the city were pale shadows. Below him, the ocean rose and fell, hiding and revealing the lower sections of the concrete. Lumps of yellow foam, a torn plastic bag and pieces of green nylon rope floated on the grey surface. The litter rose and sank with the ocean’s breath. Up and down, up and down. A distant horizon separated the grey ocean from the grey sky.
At that secret place, it was easy to relax his hands and open them slowly. His breath and pulse fell.
He remembered a news story about peace keeping soldiers caught up in a riot in one of the warm cities on the southern continent. When stones and burning bottles fell on the soldiers, they began to fire on the crowd of civilians.
He imagined that the sight of the hot orange sun descending beneath the hazy mountains at the close of the day, and the smell of the warm dust and human stink of the city, would make a white light rise up inside his mind and blot him out.
He would have been swallowed up by peace, fallen to the ground, while his fellow soldiers shot and screamed. But things like that didn’t happen, and the southern continent was far away. It was a stupid story he had to stop telling himself.
The last place was a grove of pines across the lake from the boat club. The club, a white wooden building, rested on top of the gentle slope that surrounded the artificial lake and beach north of the city. In the summer, the club leased small boats and canoes for use on the lake. The building also housed one of the city’s best restaurants, busy throughout the year.
His favorite meal there was an appetizer of tatsoi, red rhubarb, baby spinach, field salad and rocket salad, with a well balanced vinegar and oil dressing, a main course of tender reindeer filets, the meat sautéed long enough for the outer muscle to have turned brown, but not long enough for it to have gone dry, and a dessert of fresh pineapple flesh soaked in a delicate sugar solution. Rounded off with forest berry sorbet, sweet biscotti, handmade chocolate treats and hot, black coffee.
But in the fall the boats were gone, rain fell as oily drops on the veranda and the wind pulled at the bunched up parasols that stood guard on the slick wood. Across the lake, the pines shook in the floodlights from the boat club.
He wasn’t sure how he got there, but his car was idling behind him, so he must have been driving. The icy wind carried needles of sleet that burned his face and hands. He watched the trees undulate in the gale. He was entranced by the way they moved and their willingness to be shifted by the wind, silently and without fear. The trees grew forth from his mind.
8: The Coast Of Bones
Purple, pink and white flowers, their petals nearly translucent, covered the ground, nodded in the warm breeze. The previously dry riverbed he had followed, now carried a wide, shallow stream with a gentle current wafting down the middle. From the banks of the reborn river to the foothills in the distance, the desert was blooming. The sun was hot, but the rain left in his clothes and hair made it bearable.
On the other bank stood a small copse of skeletal trees, budding after the torrent. He splashed across the stream, knelt on the sand and drank from the cool, clear water. He reeled into the spindly shadows of the trees and fell asleep on the new grass.
He expected the bloom to fade, but it didn’t recede. He felt no hunger, and when his sunburn healed, there was no discomfort. He stayed in the shade of the trees, breathed and slept. Days turned into nights in a smooth flow of forgetting.
A beach. White sand and white sky. The foam-topped surf rolled ashore unhindered, born by storms far out in the ocean. A seagull hung in the air, pinions white against the sun. The sand was littered with desiccated palm fronds, seaweed and black pebbles; offerings from the sea.
He walked under the jealous sun, but pain was far away. He was reminded of boyhood trips to the coast, of running fast across the sand like he was flying. But this wasn’t a trip to the beach. If he didn’t find water or reach a village soon, he’d die in the heat. He accepted the thought without regret. He put one foot before the other and kept his pace slow, but constant.
Out there, beyond the hovering seagulls, something dark jutted from the surf like a rotten tooth. It was the stern of a ship, wrecked when it got caught in the currents and hit the rocks that lined the coast like a shark’s maw.
The Coast of Bones. If the currents and rocks didn’t kill the sailors, and they were lucky enough to pull themselves onto the beach after the crash, the landing would only bring new despair. Inland there was nothing but dunes with tufts of stubbly grass, and then the searing, golden desert going on for an untold distance until the moist vegetation of the rest of the southern continent resumed.
The coast was desolate, a dead man’s stretch. There was only the sound of the surf and the wind, the white sand, and the ocean that stretched its agitated waves to the horizon. If he didn’t find fresh water soon, he’d die.
He did reach water. The memory of children’s laughter, of fishing nets flapping in the breeze, and palm trees shading a group of sheds, remained in his mind. The village had been one of the many he passed in the south and he remembered little from his stay there. But whenever it rained in the city, he missed the Coast of Bones.
9: A Man Of Peace
In his next life he wanted to become a shark; free, fearless, knowing all he needed to know from the start. A white tipped or a black tailed shark. Or a hammerhead with that weird head shape. Most of all he would like to be reborn as a whale shark; a giant with rough, sun-dappled skin, but gentler and more peaceful than his hungry relatives. In his new and liberated form he would roam the seas, from the sunlit upper reaches to the unknown black depths. Even the mightiest predators on the planet, the intelligent apes, would fear the sight of his cutting dorsal fin and vertical tail, iconography of terror, and breathe a sigh of relief as they realized he only ate plankton.
Once, he had tried to communicate with a shark. He went with Katsuhiro to the aquarium in the city. After exhibits with poisonous frogs, yellow sea horses and drab commercial fish, a shallow tank with flatfish and eels, and a moist tropical garden with stick and leaf insects, butterflies and tropical birds, they descended the carpeted ramp of a cold two-story room. The walls were thick glass surrounded by water, a fish tank turned inside out. On the other side of the glass, white and grey sharks rested on the sandy bottom. Only their eyes and gills moved. He wondered how well sharks saw through glass. Maybe they could only distinguish light and shadow?
Some of the sharks’ eyes were covered by a white inner eyelid. It made them look old and blind. He hunched down by a large specimen and looked into its eye. The fish moved its eyeball to meet him. For a moment there was a clear awareness of him, but it faded as he was deemed neither threat nor food. He had hoped to see another being looking back at him, but it was like peering into the lens of camera, nothing but an eye.
Disappointed, he moved away. He had thought it would be like the time when he encountered a chimpanzee that sat by the window of its enclosure in the zoological garden. The animal had met his eyes and he had seen a personality glancing back at him. But it might have been the chimp’s humanlike eyes and the frown on its forehead that made it look so much like a person.
The lack of recognition in the shark may have been caused by his ignorance of the signaling postures of cartilaginous fish. He might have been wrong. The shark may have tried to communicate with him after all.
Roaming the seas freely without vessel or sails. To see what was far out into the ocean, weeks from land. To know the large sea currents and follow them at will. And to know what was at the bottom of the abyss, see what man had never seen, and be at home there; that was his dream. But when the subject of what people wanted to reborn as in their next life came up at social gatherings, he always said “manta ray, because it looks like they’re flying through the water”.
10: The Cemetery
For the last seventy years the dead had gone to the new graveyard east of the city. The ground was drier there, which allowed for deeper graves, easier stacking of coffins and faster reuse of the burial plots. The old cemetery by the honeycomb towers had graves and mausolea going back four centuries. It had been up for development several times, but no decision-maker wanted to tempt public outrage by demolishing graves, so the cemetery was left to rot in its own slow pace. The oaks and beeches, the tall grass and the thick undergrowth made the graveyard seem more like a park than a necropolis.
He hadn’t been at the cemetery in a long time, but now he felt drawn to the place. The previous visit had yielded a treasure; a life-sized angel. The angel’s kneeling pose, outstretched hands and rain-streaked face had both fascinated and embarrassed him. Now he longed to see the statue again and capture it on film.
He entered the cemetery along the broadest of the two gravel paths that crossed the grounds. He wasn’t sure which path he had taken last time, but he had explored all over the cemetery, so it didn’t matter which way he took. Rain from the previous night still clung to the grass and trees. The motorway rushed by less than fifty meters away, but the sound was barely audible. It felt like he was on an excursion in the countryside, not two hundred meters from his home.
He followed the path deeper into the cemetery, photographed a squirrel that ran along the branch of an oak, caught the morning light in the curve of a large drop that hung from a blade of grass. The marble and granite headstones had been polished blank by the elements and time. More headstones had toppled than were standing, and the grass grew green and rich around them. He wanted to be buried in a place like that, where people rarely came and the trees grew freely.
Further inside, the footpath merged with its twin. He must be close to the entrance. The path ended in a crescent-shaped clearing. From there he could see the rusted spearhead finials of the gate. The clearing presented a row of small one-story buildings with slanted roofs, columns and friezes – mausolea. Whatever sheen had graced the old marble and granite was gone, the grainy surfaces were spotted with lichen. The glass in the doors and windows was black from pollution and dust. A few worn obelisks stretched to the sky. The grass and ferns reached his knees.
The small structures originated from different eras, most of them had plaques dated two hundred years in the past. The decay gave the buildings an air of gentle melancholy. He tried to capture it with his camera.
His eyes caught the open door before his mind did. He crossed the clearing and stepped over the low iron boundary that encircled the mausoleum. A stock pigeon flew up from the underbrush a few meters away. He was too busy to startle. The door of the tomb was dotted with wormholes. It creaked when he pushed it, but the hinges held. Inside, the air smelled of dust and leaves. With the exception of a few cracked flagstones, the floor was whole.
In the middle of the room sat a large stone sarcophagus with ivy reliefs that curled along the side panels. The lid had heart-shaped leaves on its convex surface, but was otherwise blank, no name or date. He put his palm on the stone and closed his eyes. There was only silence. It was the calm of his own mind. Maybe death wasn’t a punishment after all? He admired the silence for another half hour, then walked home through a soft drizzle.
11: The Empty City
The city and the world revealed itself as empty, with a silence that stretched from eternity to eternity, rendering time and sequence of events meaningless. There was only a never-ending now.
He understood why he liked the unfinished quay and the moving trees so much. That’s where he had seen the empty city for the first time.
It was the same world he had lived in since he was born. He had always been inside it, but he hadn’t seen it clearly, because his mind was rarely quiet.
It was like stepping out of his thoughts and emotions, to feel pure sunlight on his face and breathe fresh air, with no barrier between the city and himself. He drank deeply from the silence.
During an afternoon run, he passed a burned out house near the cemetery. The building had been low-income housing, a separate realm of hopelessness and neglect. When the neighborhood was gentrified, a construction company bought the house to reshape it into an apartment building and the tenants were evicted. One night the house burned in arson. The fire also consumed the construction materials on the lot. The arsonist was never apprehended.
The entrance and the lower floors of the house had blown out from the heat and were covered in soot. The fire had melted and twisted the wood and brick, and left cindered beams and grey ashes. Two cable drums, each taller than a man, had also been transformed by the heat. The top halves of the drums were black, the bottom parts still red; the original color of the wire.
The sight of the melted dual-colored wire, the gutted building and the endless sky behind it, sent him into a sudden fit of ecstasy. He threw his head back and fell to the ground. The blue sky watched him and seared him with its beatific space and calm.
He lay on the asphalt, convulsing uncontrollably, but warmly, comfortably. He felt no fear, only a great joy and fascination. He banged his head a few times, but there was no pain. It wasn’t strange that he was fully conscious and calm while his body moved in seizures.
An elderly couple spotted him. They rushed to him, asked if he was all right, pulled at his clothes. Unwilling to repress the joy he felt, he didn’t reply. The couple thought he had an epileptic fit and called an ambulance. By the time the paramedics lifted him onto a gurney, the rapture had faded and he had regained control over his body. But he was tired and fell asleep on the way to the hospital.
At the emergency room, the doctor asked him to see a specialist to be checked for epilepsy. He promised “yes”, but had no plans to see anyone. What he glimpsed and what his body celebrated, was reality itself, the world that was always present. Once seen, that world could not be hidden or forgotten again.
At night he watched TV, his favorite series on reruns. Suddenly, there was no one in the room, not even him. He wasn’t there. Just the furniture and the sounds from the TV and the grey cat asleep in his lap.
It looked as if his head had fallen off and there was just a body with arms and legs and a torso that ended in a pair of shoulders. He had no head or face or eyes that separated him from the world. What a strange sensation!
He smiled. He could feel muscles stretch in his face, but the sensation didn’t bring his head back. He drew his breath. The air felt fresh and clear, as if he were standing on a peak in the Antarctic.
A ray of light pierced him. He closed his eyes and gaped. He had another shock-like flash, before it calmed down.
His head was back, he felt no pain and everything seemed all right. He continued to watch TV while he made plans for the following evening.
14: The Ghost
The underground garage in the honeycomb tower had a rarified light which he liked a lot. The illumination was yellow, but clear, and emitted from fluorescent lamps in the ceiling. The black asphalt on the ground and the grey concrete of the walls, created a backdrop to the light he found both beautiful and harsh.
The smell of exhaust fumes and gasoline added to the skinless atmosphere. The yellow light vanished in the void of the room, between the cars and the ceiling, but reappeared in the surfaces of the vehicles. He stared at it for hours.
When he passed a black almost-SUV, he heard a wail from the trunk. Was there anyone there? More screams, followed by sobs. He turned his head, listened intently. When the scraping started, he realized it was a ghost. He tried to peer through the metal. What did a ghost look like? He had always wondered about that.
He pushed the cold lock, and the lid swung open. The small space was empty, except for a stained mat at the bottom of the darkness. Nothing. He closed the lid. Shrieking and scratching. The ghost wanted to be let out. It was free to go anywhere, but couldn’t, because it believed it was still trapped. There was nothing he could do.
He looked at the car. The black metal reflected the yellow light, darkened the shine to a deep golden. It was amazing.
15: The Best Part Of The Movie
One of his favorite movies was scheduled to be shown on TV. Whenever friends and acquaintances mentioned the film, he recommended one scene in particular and eagerly described its symbolism and beauty.
He sat down with a cup of tea, looking forward to watching the movie again. When the scene didn’t appear where he remembered it, he became confused, but watched the movie to the end to see if it appeared later in the plot.
When the film finished without the scene, he was surprised. He remembered every detail; the characters, the dialogue, the camera panning, the time lapse photography.
Then he laughed. The best part of the movie and he had made it all up after he watched it for the first time. He wondered how many other of his favorite memories only existed in his imagination.
16: One Of His Friends From University
Last year, one of his friends from university had been hit by a car and spent a long time in hospital. His physical injuries healed, but the emotional damage lingered. To recuperate, the friend went on a holiday to the northern countries, and vanished.
A few days later he received a bubble envelope from his friend, sent on the first day in the foreign, mountainous realm. The envelope contained a small package of dry-cured ham, a delicacy from the north. He opened the package and smelled the thin slices of pork. The fragrance was more mature than in the dry-cured ham he was used to, with an undertone of decomposing flesh. He fried the meat before he ate it.
Now the morning paper told him that his friend had been found. Or rather, the man’s rented car and backpack. The car had been parked outside a small bed and breakfast owned by an old couple in a village along a fjord. The young man had last been seen on his way to the mountain behind the village, sporting raingear and looking distant.
It had taken the police months to find the vehicle, because in the spring fifty million cubic meters of mountain fell into one of the fjords in the area, burying the nearest village and several cars on the road. The shockwave created by the tumbling mass of stone and soil overturned two cruise ships and flooded several communities along the narrow body of water. The disaster left a bewildering amount of dead and injured, locals and tourists, and many others missing.
According to the newspaper, the old man who owned the bed and breakfast thought the guest had killed himself and was unhappy that he had been unable to lighten the visitor’s burden. But the man’s wife claimed their guest hadn’t committed suicide, despite his backpack having been found in the mountain near an old landslide.
“The mountain took him in,” the woman said and referred to a local myth; that sometimes, unhappy people found a deep peace in the mountain and became a part of it. The day press derided the old lady for believing such foolish superstition.
The following afternoon he went to his friend’s memorial in the new cemetery and thanked the mountain that had taken him in. It had been the perfect fate for his quiet and perceptive friend.
17: A Force Of Nature
The Earth’s crust moved. The magma beneath it streamed and rotated around the searing metal core. He heard the song of the planet, like the ringing of a large bell. It was the sound of the rotation and the currents in the liquid rock.
Then he heard the sun. It sang from the liquid layers that moved in its depths. The vibrations rushed to the surface and exploded into the corona, flaring out in titanic bows that crested high above the burning atmosphere. The song shook the magnetic fields and followed them through space to Earth and beyond.
He thought about nature. All creatures, even man, were part of nature, an embodiment of it. They were forces of nature.
The silence that lived inside him felt like a force of nature ready to rush and run and tear into the world. Was it the primordial force, the original spark from the creation of the cosmos? Could he carry the weight of that spark?
He paddled a small canoe. The coastline was rugged and stony, the white surf broke sharply against the shore. At some places the ocean was still and clear, other stretches were agitated and hard to cross. He knew, because he had been there many times before. He had forgotten the coast when he woke up, but now he remembered. It wasn’t a recurring dream, it was a recurring dream place.
The green rim of the canoe rode just above the surface of the water. On earlier trips he swam or paddled, or traveled onboard ferries or cruise liners.
The ocean turned opaque and silent. It was night. In the darkness the sea was obsidian. Despite the gloom, he was surrounded by a faint illumination, like the beam of a flashlight. The brightness followed him as he progressed across the still surface.
Large, orange-red jellyfish appeared in the water. He disliked them. If he tangled the paddle in their veils of tentacles, it would be hard to continue. He tried to avoid the glistening beings, but the jellyfish were large and many. The sea continued to sleep.
The contrast between the beam of light and the dark water made him think of the lighting in classical paintings. The steep illumination scheme was one of his favorite styles of art.
When he woke he marveled at the dream. Even the memory of it was beautiful. He felt blessed to have had a dream in clear-obscure.
It rained, but the warm precipitation didn’t clear the air. It was just as hot and humid as before. The fog grew denser. He slung a thin jacket over his shoulder and left the apartment. He had to see what the trees at the boat club looked like in the fog.
The motorway was empty. The fog reduced driving to a hazard. He could see less than ten meters into the white. Not even the high-rise buildings in the city were visible. It was nearly dark.
He passed the exit to the city and continued east. From the road the boat club windows shone white. He could almost hear the clink of glass and silverware, the hum of quiet conversation, the patrons’ steps on the soft carpet, the scent of carefully prepared meals. He ought to take Michael, Katsuhiro, Beanie and Theresa there, get everyone together for a good dinner and some laughs. That would be great.
Past the wooden building and the heavy parasols on the sundeck, he could see the trees. They were waiting for him. He thought about his vanished friend, he would have seen the trees the same way. He had been very perceptive, particularly about nature.
There was no traffic, so he parked on the shoulder and got out. The pines looked as they had in winter, but now the air was hot and humid, instead of stinging cold. He had hoped for a sunny summer, but there had been only fog.
The trees swayed in the wind. Their long needle-covered branches nodded in the moving air. He fell into silence. The shadows spilled over the dark canopies. The floodlights from the boat club lit the pines in gold.
Wind? What wind? The world was covered in fog and the air was still and heavy. He looked at the trees again. They were moving in a wind he could neither feel nor hear. How was that possible? He looked around, but there was only him and the car and the trees.
He phoned Michael.
“Let’s take Katsuhiro, Theresa and Beanie to the boat club for dinner,” he said. They agreed on a date two weeks into the future.
“I’ll make the reservation,” he told Michael. He was, after all, standing less than a hundred meters from the restaurant.
He glanced at the moving pines one more time, then returned to the car and continued to the boat club. The night was quiet and dark.
20: The Warming Sky
The building went transparent on him again. From his place inside sleep he saw the stacks of bodies in the floors below.
The sight was still disgusting. He wanted to buy a house in the wilderness, away from anyone else, so he could sleep alone instead of in a rack.
But that night he saw the sky through the floor above him. The ceiling evaporated and gave way to darkness and starlight. The sky looked soft and warm. Billions of stars glistened down at him.
He gazed into space. Each shining point was a star, a star cluster, a galaxy, a group of galaxies; above, around and below him, millions of light years away.
Why hadn’t he seen the sky when he first discovered the bodies? If he could see the stacks of sleeping people, he should have seen the stars too. But no matter. He saw them now.
21: Nuclear Blast
He ate after a long, static climb on the horizontal training wall on the top floor. A white light flooded him. The apartment bleached and vanished in the brightness.
It looked like he was inside a soundless, painless nuclear detonation. He felt whole and complete. He sat, amazed at the light. It only lasted a few seconds, then the living room returned.
During the next days he had similar episodes of brightness. The whiteouts didn’t last long, only a second or two. He had no warning before they happened and no time to be surprised.
They were his own personal nuclear blasts only he could see.
22: The Cosmic Man I
After the nuclear explosions, it felt like a black hole had opened up inside him and swallowed the cosmos, the entire universe. He felt his surroundings as parts of himself. He didn’t dare stretch out to see how far it reached. He already clutched the stars through the ceiling.
Nearby objects were the loudest. He sensed his weight in the sofa, the cold air against the living room window, the electricity that coursed in the lamp next to him. It began to rain. The drops spattered the glass and trickled down the surface, smelling of ozone and exhaust.
The drops were cold. He moved his attention elsewhere and no longer felt the rain. Instead, he focused on the heat in his tea cup and the hot air from the TV, and warmed himself. The apartment breathed softly.
He was frightened and overjoyed at the same time. He could sense the world! The empty city had greeted him as itself, embraced him. But it was overwhelming to feel everything. He needed to adjust to it. He watched and waited.
23: The Cosmic Man II
He had to pull his attention away from the world and the objects around him. To distract himself, he thought about the story of the man who stranded on an uncharted ocean planet. The planet was sentient and benign and wanted the shipwrecked to stay. The story ended with the protagonist diving deep into the ocean and merging with the world.
But he thought there should have been more, and imagined another ending:
The castaway witnessed everything on the planet, its cold and fathomless oceans and the strange and ancient creatures that lived there, and almost forgot he had been human. But after a hundred years, the planet became curious about the other worlds in the universe, and if any of them had gained sentience like itself. The shipwrecked returned to his original form, the planet’s consciousness still inside his mind.
The planet wrapped his body in a solid, fluid-filled shell and hurled him into space. Inside the cocoon, the castaway held the distress signal transmitter from the ship gently in his hands. After a few weeks in space the pod was found by a cargo vessel.
The crew thought they had found an alien life form and alerted scientists on their home planet. Scans showed that a humanoid figure floated inside the shell. The pod consisted of not previously encountered minerals in different layers, with specific functions. The outer strata were vacuum resistant, the middle folds were shock absorbent, and the inner minerals produced oxygen when submerged in water of the same salinity as the human body.
The scientists sampled fluid from the shell and blood from the organism. Its DNA was 99.75 percent similar to that of human beings. Finally, the scientists cut the pod open with remote controlled scalpels. The ocean water that had protected the shipwrecked flowed out on the antiseptic floor. Cameras hummed and turned to catch every detail of the opening. A man fell out on the tiles, born a second time, coughing warm womb water out of his lungs.
The scientists reeled. After a long decontamination procedure, they woke their guest from his sedated sleep. Although his body had been unconscious, the castaway and the planet’s mind had been aware the whole time. When he sat up on the white floor, he knew his surroundings and the people that were watching him. They had only taken the chance of dissecting the pod in a ship in orbit above one of their many worlds.
The shipwrecked opened his eyes and took in the faces that observed him behind transparent, damage-resistant polymer. His eyes were smooth and black, and stars and galaxies burned in them. He was so deeply a part of the cosmos that looking at him was like gazing into space. When the scientists saw that, they screamed.
24: On The Roof At Night
In the evening he had the urge to see and feel the city. He grabbed his raincoat and went up on the roof of the tower.
Rows of ventilation fans spun silently, their noise subsumed into the wind and the rain. He moved across the gravel to the south ledge. There, the view of the city was best. On warm days, Michael and he could sit there for hours, enjoying the pink haze in the sky, trying to catch the sunlight that peered through the fog.
Michael was probably at work or watching his favorite stocks on his laptop tonight. He had been a trader and still followed certain companies. Michael would have loved the view from the roof.
He crouched down and rested his elbows on the ledge. Cold drops congealed on his coat and ran down the fabric. He sat inside it and listened to the water hit the smooth material. The rain calmed him.
He could feel the still water in the marsh and the thick grass in the cemetery, but it was distant. The city glowed golden in the downpour. The orange from the high-rise buildings and the white and red on the motorway was so beautiful his body forgot to feel cold.
He remembered the gloom in the tunnels below the train station. The darkness on the roof was different. It was dynamic, noisy and cold, alive and filled with an energy it shared with him. It was much more reassuring than the dead, warm darkness under ground. He wished Beanie were there with him. She would have enjoyed the rain too.
In the morning he strode through the tower foyer in a good suit, no coat, the laptop in his hand. He passed through the glass doors in a throng and surged with it outside. He’d be in a crowd until he arrived at work.
Inside the school of people he studied his neighbors. Their faces resembled the visages of children, the children they had been and still were, open and receptive, with clear eyes and round mouths. Their core temperaments and personalities were the same as they had been in childhood, the basic and original reactions unaltered and unalterable.
His neighbors’ eyes fluttered back and forth across the world. Did they sense that behind the thoughts and images that flitted by, something remained unchanged, no matter how much motion there was inside the mind or the heart?
At the footpath he walked abreast with two other men. None of them looked at or acknowledged the others. Their steps resounded in the encompassing silence.
26: Musical Day
He hated musicals. He nevertheless had a day full of song and dance.
The alarm clock rang. His grey cat woke and began licking his face with her rasping tongue. He turned away from her. The cat purred, butted her forehead against his chin and tried to lie down on his throat. It was time to get up.
On the train to work people slep, read, text messaged, phoned, talked or listened to music. A girl with brown dreadlocks and large earphones reminded him of Beanie. Music pulsed from her silver earphones. When she noticed he was looking at her, she started to bob her head up and down, swing her hips and tap her foot to the music.
In the lunch queue at work, the guy in front of him started singing, something from a musical, he couldn’t remember which. At the counter, the cook performed part of an operatic aria before he took his order.
His desk was in the corridor around the atrium in the middle of the building. Because of the sounds and smells from the restaurant and the foyer on the ground floor, the atrium was considered one of the least comfortable places to work. There was also a constant traffic of people on their way to and from the elevators, stairs and hallways. The footsteps made the floor vibrate like a tuning fork. Only trainees and new employees were assigned to the desks along the noisy vertical space.
He, however, preferred the atrium over hot-desking in the stale cubicle halls. Since no one else used “his” desk in the corridor, he had taped notes to the pc monitor, and kept a white miniature orchid, a tray of pens and a cube of note paper on the desk, just like a proper office.
Carla, his boss, said he was presumptuous, but he assured her it was just temporary.
Michael clicked his heels against the floor, spun around while he waved his palms, tie flying, kicked to the right, then to the left, and finished with a finger drum solo on the pc monitor.
He smirked sardonically at Michael.
“You look like you needed a little song and dance,” Michael said, grinning.
“Join the line,” he said.
“So how’s it going?” Michael said.
“Great,” he said. “Never have so many done so much that meant so little.”
“Come on,” Michael said. “Be a good little sociopath. It’s work, we get paid. Don’t be hysterical.”
“If it gets any more meaningless, I might jump.”
“Is that why you sit in the atrium?” Michael said.
“I’m pre-empting them,” he said.
Previous experiments had shown him that trying to slither out of work-tasks by delegating them to slower colleagues, or delaying the job by staring at the monitor for hours while tapping the keyboard in mock productivity, didn’t make it more meaningful. So he performed his duties with the calculated sloppiness of the passive-aggressive, doing just enough, but nothing more.
He had been trying to think up something else to do for months, an alternative to his job that had turned more and more odious. For an equally long time he had failed at coming up with something likely.
Later that afternoon someone did try to jump down the atrium, from a floor higher up. Security pulled the man from the glass railing after they distracted him by performing a piece from a famous musical theater.
On the birthday before he started school, he received a pencil case from his paternal grandparents. The violet, oblong pouch contained a pencil and a pencil sharpener in the same color. He didn’t remember what had happened with the pencil or the sharpener, but he had kept the case for years. He clearly recalled its rough fabric and the school-smell of pencil inside it.
A small, bipedal black cat with a large head and eyes was printed on the case. The black cat’s world was a solemn sky of violet. The cat stood gazing up and held a lamp with a flexible neck in one paw.
In the sky flew a tiny black submarine, with its periscope peeking out. Beneath the cat, the word “Hysteria” was written in thin, curving letters; the name of the line of children’s stationary the pencil case belonged to.
For a long time he thought that was the cat’s name, or the word for the surprise a small black cat feels when it sees a flying submarine. Only years later did he learn that hysteria was considered neither cute nor funny.
28: The House Of Sleep
He worked, trained and slept. In his dreams he was the essence of all things and the origin of every object.
Steep and snow-covered mountains separated memory from forgetfulness. Lines with devotional flags flashed color in the wind. White temples perched behind rows of rotating copper cylinders on narrow mountain shelves. The temple walls hid burning lotus incense and statues of gold and heavy bells that rang in the booming wind. In the deep cellars monsters roamed unseen.
Below the mountains sat a sunlit plain. There, flowers grew in unceasing bloom and elephants, lions and gnu lived and ate. A broad, indolent river carried melt water from the mountains, split the plain in two. On the far side of the current, gleamed the roof of a small house.
The house was bounded by white gravel raked into simple, geometric patterns. Once per thirtieth heartbeat water streamed up through a crack in a boulder from a pure source. The water filled a bamboo spout until it tipped over with a clap, emptied the liquid into the stream and returned to receive more.
Inside the house, his dreaming self, covered in twelve layers of white silk, sat on the floor and saw with his eyes closed.
He realized why monks sat in meditation. Sitting still and being, instead of doing, allowed the mind to see the world as it was. He had read that there was nothing special with meditation, it was just sitting. And that when he did it, he was real.
The reed mats were warm and smooth and edged with gleaming black silk, embroidered with dragons in silver. Only his slow breath and the breeze lived inside the quiet.
The silence enveloped and embraced him like a lover. He sat. His hair grew down his back and out on the floor.
29: A History Of Violence
He ran. His boots beat hard against the concrete, splayed its skin of water into fans. Rain kissed his face and neck. He was breathing fast. The world moved up and down with each step. He focused and increased his speed. His running pierced the silence.
When he returned from service three years ago, it felt as if his body had died beneath him and become a corpse he dragged around with his mind.
He sensed his body only faintly. He banged his head, stubbed his toes and scraped his knees, because he didn’t know where his arms and legs were without looking. His core temperature decreased. His pain threshold grew a lot higher. His sense of smell, taste and touch faded.
During the first months, he was frightened. Did he have a nervous breakdown? A delayed reaction to the service? He tried to find a place outside the discomfort and remain there until his body healed, as he had done in training. That only increased the distance between himself and his flesh.
His body never returned to normal. But as the proverb claims, time did heal all wounds, or at least made it more bearable. He became used to his cold and unfeeling corpse. His hearing and eyesight grew sharper. He saw the bedroom with his eyes closed for the first time.
The city offered to protect him. He concealed himself in it, like he was used to. The derelict, the abandoned and the forgotten structures welcomed and sheltered him. Lactic acid burn from static or anaerobic exercise allowed him to feel his body when he needed to.
He ran in a long space without ceiling, the top floor of an unfinished building. He followed a wall with square openings at chest height. Outside, palm trees moved in the warm summer gale. Water rushed off the fronds in long, sudden spurts. Behind the palms shone the flat roofs and the square buildings of the warehouse district. The clouds were low and fast.
The wall turned into a broad ledge. He jumped onto the concrete and followed it through the room. Three floors below, a parallel patch of grass burned green in the overcast light.
He ran on the ledge to the stairs and jumped from side to side across the stairwell to descend faster. The opening at the bottom of the stairs was empty. He rolled out of the entrance onto the wet grass, crossed the street to the next building, ran-climbed a ladder and crossed the district on the roofs.
30: Elven Knowledge
His mother loved fantasy literature. He grew up with stories of enchanted forests, beautiful castles and just kings. Later, he found that he enjoyed the covers of those books more than the stories themselves.
But as a boy he had been fascinated by elves. He admired the elves’ fictional love of the land, of beauty and truth, their modesty, self-sufficiency and knowledge of hidden and ancient things.
Now he thought the elves loved nature, because they knew the silence that glowed behind everything. In the still and timeless world, every lake, tree, stone, cloud and blade of grass shone, eternal and new. No wonder elves lived forever!
Last year he had tried an online fantasy game that Katsuhiro worked on and invited him to test. He had enjoyed the long life and the limber body of an elf. Even there the silence existed.
One such place was a large plain of grass. The sky was white and the meadow pale. He travelled across the white field and encountered a great quiet. He knew that around the next group of trees there would be a view of a white plain and a white stream that rested beneath a white sky.
He ran past some blue firs to a hillock and a panoramic view of the area. It was as he had anticipated; calm, white, silent and beautiful. The landscape didn’t look real, it was a computer generated simile in three dimensions. Everything inside it had been designed by someone. But he could almost feel the mild breeze and the soft glow of the white sun that was about to set over the grass.
In rapture, he walked on the plain for hours. The sun, artificial and exempt from time, never fell below the horizon, but remained in a poetic spot just above it.
That was, without a doubt, his favorite memory from his time as an elf.
He was obsessed with a building below the honeycomb towers. The structure looked best in white and rosy dusks in the summer. When the conditions were right, he went to look at it.
The building was a six-story oblong with a slanted metal roof. The ribbed steel walls were stained with rust. Each floor held a row of windows, cloudy glass in thin frames that mirrored the sky. The front door had beveled panels, retrofitted from a home in the suburbs. The structure housed a company that repaired, cleaned and repainted plastic yachts and boats. In the overgrown courtyard, stood the stripped shells of several small craft.
Three of the windows on the fifth floor were open. They slanted outwards at a narrow angle, the glass darker than in the closed panes.
He loved the sight of the building. His heart beat slowly, as if he were asleep. The structure shone inside him. He had taken a lot of pictures of it, but none of them described what he saw.
He imagined standing up there, behind the glass in the lunch room, inside the smell of cold coffee and homemade sandwiches, the kitchen sink matte with grease, breadcrumbs on the formica table in the corner. Orange coveralls smeared with white paint and plastic sealant hung in the nook behind the door. Across the street, a small figure gazed up at the building.
He breathed and watched.
The warm air grabbed the curtains in one of the open windows, pulled the translucent fabric out of the gap and ballooned it out to a round belly. Then it slipped inside to billow through the curtains there, like a wave over smooth stones.
The sight was so beautiful he almost fainted. He watched the curtains move for a long time.
One of the copy writers at work, Per, was a published poet. He lived in the residential area northeast of the towers, but knew the city well. Maybe he would understand?
At lunch, he sat down next to Per.
“I’m obsessed with this building,” he said and held out his phone. “The picture doesn’t do it justice, though…”
Per leaned forward and nodded. “Last year, I wrote an article for the newspaper to suggest structures for preservation, the plastic workshop wasn’t old enough to go on the list, but I know the place. It’s pretty cool.”
He was so happy someone else had noticed the object of his obsession, that he couldn’t speak.
A few days later, Per addressed him:
“Hey, that building you like so much,”
“My father-in-law is an architect, and according to him, your building is the most beautiful and interesting in the city,” Per grinned.
He laughed, feeling completely vindicated.
32: The Enemy
The nuclear blasts continued. They only lasted for a second, but during that time, he was whole.
At first, the lightning flashes only happened a few times a day; right after he woke up, during relaxed swims or climbs, when he ate dinner, or when he was about to fall asleep.
A health check couldn’t hurt. He went to the doctor. Heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol; everything was fine. He persuaded the general practitioner to let him pay a neurologist for an EEG test.
The neurologist, a tall man with ruddy hair and large glasses, placed a gleaming net of electrodes on his head.
“You’re too healthy,” the neurologist joked when the test was done.
He nodded. Never ask a person who sees brain tumors every day if he thinks you are ill or not. They did have a pleasant discussion about the origins and the location of the personality in the brain. According to science, that was nowhere and everywhere in the organ at the same time. He could have guessed that.
But the blasts became more frequent. He had them ten times a day, twenty and thirty; when he prepared meals at home, talked on the phone at work, or ascended the stairs at the train station in the evening. The white-outs appeared every time he thought about or worried about them. Then he stopped breathing in his sleep.
What should he do? Should he be concerned? Hadn’t he invited the flashes in by keeping their possibility, any possibility, open? Hadn’t a small part of him waited for the impossible?
In the hottest and most humid weeks of the summer, the radios and stereos in the city played the same song, over and over. The melody buzzed from digital music players, phones and laptops on the train and at work, in shops, gyms, bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants. It seemed that everyone played or listened to the song. The lyrics were the usual hit music rubbish about lost love and heartache. But the melody was bright and extremely catchy.
When he heard the song for the first time, it stuck in his mind for hours. At first he didn’t like the hit, but when he had heard it a few times, he found himself singing along with it. He saw no point in resisting and let the song play in his mind as it wanted to.
He had the song in his head for days. When he woke up in the morning it was there. When he went to bed at night, he was humming it. He even heard it inside his dreams.
Years ago, when Beanie did her undergraduate degree in a small university town up north, he caught the night train to visit her. He bought a bunk, but it was difficult to sleep, because the train braked at curves and tunnels on its way to the highlands. The wheels screeched and clattered, electrical discharges went off from the overhead lines and illuminated the windows in sudden blue.
In half sleep he worried that the train would derail from a stone on the tracks, or tip over in a too sharp bend. When he finally fell away, his heart and breath stopped. It was as if he lost the need to breathe and his body was put on hold at the brink of eternity. He watched and waited. After a while his heart started up again, painlessly and by itself. He was training hard on breath and heart rate control. Perhaps he had overdone it?
Now he let the silly pop song play in his mind and watched and waited, just like he had on the train.
34: A Blue Eye In Green Sea
He had to live out the rest of his days. How could he do that as close to the silence as possible?
He considered leaving everything behind and going to the mountains, like he had done the previous summer.
The image of an inland sea appeared in his mind. The lake glittered blue in an ocean of green. The fluid lens was surrounded by forests of dark spruce.
In the summer the air at the lake would be warm and humid. The winters would be dry and icy, with snow thicker than a man’s height.
The vision of the inland sea shone in his mind like a jewel. He wanted to search for it and buy a cabin there.
He almost ordered a train ticket inland to look for the lake, but having no idea where to go and where to start, deterred him quickly.
Michael and Theresa decided he needed a new car.
“I don’t even drive to work,” he said
“That’s no excuse,” Theresa claimed.
“Come on, live a little,” Michael said.
They took him to a car dealership. Theresa pulled him over to a silver-colored vehicle that gleamed under the store lights.
“That’s your car,” she said. The vehicle was sleek with smooth curves, almond-shaped headlights and a narrow, triangular grille. It was expensive, but soulless, and said more negative things about its owner than positive.
“I don’t like it,” he said, although he knew the outcome.
“You’ll learn to love it,” Theresa said.
“Uff,” he groaned.
Theresa laughed at him. Her teeth were so bleached they were tinged with blue.
The car salesman looked too pleased when he signed the contract. He wanted to punch the guy, but it wasn’t his fault he bought the damned car. The keys felt cold and heavy in his hand.
He took Michael and Theresa to the boat club as planned. On the way they picked up Katsuhiro and Beanie. They had to wait for Beanie outside aunt Margrethe and uncle Mads’ house. Margrethe came out on the stairs and waved at them.
“Come see our new car!” Theresa yelled in their mother’s and Margrethe’s language. Margrethe smiled and approached the vehicle.
“Congratulations!” she said. “It’s a very handsome vehicle”
“Thanks, aunt Margrethe,” he said.
“It looks fast. Please drive carefully with it.”
Margrethe turned towards the house. “Beatrice!” she yelled. “Your cousins have waited for five minutes already! Where are you?”
“Here! Stop nagging mom!” In the open door, Beanie was tugging her pink sneakers on. She pulled at the laces as she jump-limped to the driveway.
“Take your time, Beanie,” he said. “We’re not in a hurry.”
“Did you reserve a table?” Theresa said. “I hear the boat club is busy these days, with the weather we’re having.”
“Yeah, at seven.”
“Nice car,” Beanie said and climbed in. “Do you like it? Theresa and I picked it out for you last week.” She grinned at him in the rear view mirror.
“Et tu, Brute,” he sighed.
At the boat club, he glanced at the pines across the lake and was relieved he couldn’t see if they were moving or not. The company of his siblings and cousins was bright and warm. When the dinner was over he took the tab.
He had a long, slow morning in bed with Michael. Then Michael wanted to go to the quay.
“Are we getting your fishing gear first?“ he asked.
“No, let’s just go,” Michael said.
It looked as if the sky wanted to rain but couldn’t get it to happen. The road along the ocean was empty, save for a few other cars.
On the beach they passed joggers, strollers and dog walkers. The ocean rolled heavy, foam-topped waves ashore.
They walked barefoot and let the cold water sear their skin. Michael pushed his heels into the sand. The footprints were visible after the first and second wave, but the third erased them completely.
At the end of the quay they sat down. The ocean rose and fell in a slow rhythm. A small wind came in from the sea.
He thought he saw the horizon through the grey wall of mist, but that couldn’t be right. The fog was thicker than that.
That night, inside sleep, he saw a spiraling cosmic cloud. The hazy disc circled itself like a hurricane and grew thicker and denser. From the center of the cloud came the same dizzying tug as from the deep ocean when he was pulled from the sky.
He thought he was going to be dragged under again. Instead he felt a tremor, like distant thunder. The cosmic cloud contracted and a white spark flared up inside it. He had time for a second of concern before a brilliant ray shot out of the disc in both directions. The white light spiraled fast, dust and gas swirled around it.
He got the ray straight in his face. It exploded up his spine and made his back arch violently. He cried out. The white fire rushed into his head and dissipated. His thoughts and emotions bled out with the ray. Then he fell into a quiet, dreamless sleep.
In the oldest section of the city, a small park hid between the buildings and the motorway ramps. The garden included an old house brought piece by piece from his father’s country, and a circular pond. The park had started life as a simile of carefully tended, traditional gardens. But now it was neglected and overgrown and only received the brutal shearing the city visited upon all parks twice a year, once in summer and once in winter.
The garden was a small jungle of maple, gingko, hazel, oak and bamboo trees. The grass in the middle of the plot had been mowed down to dry and yellow tufts. Outside the perimeter of cut lawn, the vegetation stood tall and flowering.
The house was small, the size of a modest apartment. There was a large hole in the once carefully thatched roof. Gray clouds rushed by in the overcast sky. The wind brought the scent of cut grass and decaying plants.
He entered the worn structure. The floor was littered with glass shards, beer cans, rotting grass and pebbles. A pair of dirty jeans had been discarded in a corner. The room stank of urine and beer. The far wall held a broken window. Through it, he could see a disheveled grove of bamboo move in the wind.
There was nothing there for him. The house felt no closer to the silence than his own living room did. He wasn’t sure what he had hoped to find.
He turned towards the entrance. Through the empty opening he saw the brown heads of the cattails by the pond and a short wooden pier that led out into the gray water. Above the trees and bushes shone a pewter sky.
The sight quieted him. The silence existed everywhere. He didn’t need to chase it.
He walked to the pier. The old wood creaked and the wind pulled at his hair and tie. He sat there for a long time, dangling his feet over the choppy water under the gray sky.
38: Into The Heartland
During lunch in the first floor cafeteria at work, his boss, Carla, told him she was afraid of lucid dreams.
“What’s that?” he asked, curious about what scared her.
“Dreams where you know you’re dreaming and then changing the dream,” Carla said. “Sounds too much like self-hypnosis and playing around with sanity to me. I don’t understand why people try to have them.”
“Doesn’t everyone have that kind of dreams?” he said.
Carla looked at him over her trendy, dark-rimmed glasses. “I don’t know,” she said. “There’s a lot of books and manuals about it.”
He wanted to know if she had seen anything about recurring dream places while she read about lucid dreams, but thought it best not to ask.
Carla’s information surprised him. He had been able to remember his dreams well, to know that he was dreaming, and to change his dreams, for as long as he could recall.
As a child he had a recurring nightmare where he was chased by an unknown enemy. When he tried to run away from the shadow, it slowed and caught him. He woke from the bad dreams with fluttering heart, feeling sick from fear and frustration.
But even as a five year old boy, he knew he was the proprietor of his own dreams. The next time he was chased, he was ready. He stopped and turned towards the dream enemy and wished him away. Or he created a large pit that opened up behind him and swallowed the chasing shadow. Or willed the dream to let him run faster, or slipped away through a hidden door. He couldn’t change everything in the dreams, but he could alter how he reacted to uncomfortable events.
Then he wanted to fly. Once he understood that remembering the wish was necessary to translate it into reality in dreams, he began to fly. First haltingly and without much control. At times he fell from the sky like Icarus, or couldn’t find the lightness of mind to ascend more than a few meters. But after a while, he threw himself from towers and mountains, and soared over rooftops and oceans.
He didn’t reflect much on his control of dreams. He assumed everyone else did the same, that it was one of those things you just didn’t talk about.
39: A Dream In The Forest
In his dreams he followed a path of exposed bone through a snow-dusted forest surrounded by winter mountains. The forest’s heart hid a white city that reflected the sun. The light reminded him of the few winters when they had snow in December, and of the rarified, high-altitude illumination he had seen in pictures from the mountain ranges in the east.
He decided to enter the city with impunity. Its pale outer wall was clasped shut with a gate of solid brass. The defenses were high and smooth, with no handholds for intruders. Standing before them, he felt like a little boy who tried to get a glimpse through a high window.
But why not try the direct approach and use the door instead? He took hold of the bottom edge of the gate and pulled hard. A deep boom rang through the structure. The metal moved, just far enough for him to slip inside.
A long boulevard pointed towards the city center. The wide thoroughfare was lined with tall statues that wore stern stone faces and white marble robes. An icy wind blew from the snow-covered mountains.
The boulevards, statues and buildings were smooth and whole, but covered in fine dust. His shoes left faint prints. The city’s walls, doors, pilasters, colonnades, domes, benches, fountains and agorae were decorated with graceful, intricate curves and curls. At first, the design looked beautiful and his eyes followed the patterns willingly. But there was no variation, and even beauty repeated was monotonous to watch, like a person dressed in all designer plaid.
He yawned. Had the city been abandoned? He saw neither living nor dead, not even remnants of dead. He searched several apartments and houses, even a few palaces. The rooms were sparsely furnished and decorated in the same single-minded style as the exteriors.
But he saw no corpses, no blood, no weapons, or traces of struggle. Instead, he found tables with bread, meat, vegetables, cheese, fruit, wine and beer. The food looked almost fresh, as if it had been abandoned yesterday.
In the basement of a house he spotted three sturdy paper tubes with long fuses of twine, handmade firework rockets, propped in a corner. When he touched the grainy surface, he heard the sound of thunder and his vision blurred, as if he were under water. He carefully tilted the rockets back into their nook and hurried out of the house.
Tired of the cold city and the smooth marble, he returned to the gate. He squeezed out of the opening and pushed the brass shut. The gate closed with a resonance that trembled through his body.
He turned towards the bone path and the white forest. The sunlight afforded a small warmth and the breeze carried the scent of fresh snow. It was good to be out of the dead city.
Someone tugged at him, like a child. A small green creature squinted up at him and smiled, revealing two rows of pointed teeth.
“Hello…, goblin,” he said, needing a second to remember what type of being this was. The wily-looking creature nodded up at him and lengthened its grin. Was it going to bite him?
“An elf! An elf!” the goblin squeaked.
He looked around in alarm. Was the goblin calling his friends? But there was only dust and forest and white wind.
“Hush!” he said. “I’m not an elf, just a visitor. What are you doing here? Invading, maybe?” He laughed at his own joke.
“You not make fun of me! Not make fun!” yelled the goblin. “The orcs took the stronghold a long time ago, but there was no one there. Without elves, the place was no fun, so we left.”
He thought of the large, empty construction and laughed in the frozen silence. The winter air was so invigorating, everything seemed funny and without consequence.
The goblin looked at him with large eyes. “You are funny and happy. Do you want to be an elf and live here?”
“An elf?” he said, chuckling.
“Yes! Have many strong sons and build an army and then fight! Fight fight fight!” The thought seemed very appealing for the green creature.
“Fight the orcs?”
“Yes,” the goblin said. “Claim the city and become god! King! High priest! Whatever you want to be.”
“I know,” he said. “But you, my friend, are not an orc.”
The goblin sniffled. A green tear ran down its rubbery cheek.
“I could be,” the goblin said.
For a moment he considered it, playing a game of honor and loyalty that would last ten thousand years or more. But he had no desire to be bored for that long, not even in his sleep.
“You are aware that you are in my dream now?” he asked the creature.
“I am not inside your dream!” the goblin said. “Not at all! It is you who are here! A kingdom independent from all others and rightly ruled by …”
The goblin’s long and intricate explanation faded into sleep. When he woke up he was still laughing.
40: Shadow War
There was another place he had to visit. He had thought about it for some time, but not dared to go there. Now he considered it unavoidable, a fait accompli. That knowledge was frightening in its absolute decision. But it was also easy to accept, because it had already taken place. Maybe that was why some words, some places and some people were frightening? They brought to light what was going to happen, what was already underway and what was unavoidable.
He drove out of the city with only the camera and a bottle of still water in his backpack. The site was well known among explorers and photographers. He had even heard stories about it at work, but few seemed to have been there.
The day was sunny and clear. The white fog had lifted and the weather turned colder and less humid. Fall was in the air, even though it was early July.
He parked behind some pines so the car would be less visible from the road. He regretted having gone along with Theresa and Michael’s choice of car. Now he had to worry about both the vehicle and the insurance, and make sure he didn’t lose any of them.
He shouldered his backpack and faced leviathan. It was five stories tall, with a massive midsection and two identical wings. It had been built as a tuberculosis hospital, but when the white plague no longer haunted the population, the construction had served as a psychiatric facility instead.
Both sides of its past frightened him. The thought of being confined to a hospital, with thousands of others who suffered from the same incurable disease, with no prospect of getting out, scared him. Being incarcerated and not in control of one’s mental faculties, frightened him even more. But now he had to go to that place voluntarily, to test himself against it.
The gate was flanked by a low stone fence that he easily crossed. Grass, clover and golden birdsfoot trefoil flowers peeked through the white gravel in the driveway. In front of the main stairs sat a circular concrete fountain, its pump rusted black. The basin had cracked and grass widened the scar. When he saw that the smiled. He took a few shots of the front and the fountain.
The building loomed above him. All the windows he could see were barred and broken. A broad flight of stairs led up to two beautiful, massive doors in curving art noveau-style. The doors were pinched together with a chain and padlock, but stood ajar, dead leaves and sand amassed between them. He ducked beneath the chain and entered.
The foyer was brightly lit by three lancet windows in the grand staircase at the back of the room. Dust danced in the sunlight. The floor had checkered tiles and an art noveau counter with curling, rounded corners. He photographed the desk, the arched windows and the golden shafts of light. How many people had died in the building during the decades it had been used? Five thousand? Ten thousand?
He continued up the stairs. On the third floor landing were two doors with panes of wire glass and thick black letters: “Personnel only. No admittance.” The sky blue paint was blistered and chapped, and shed in flakes on the grimy floor. The left pane had a spider web break.
The first and second floor had housed offices and common rooms, and the patients that were the least ill and still able to take strolls outside. The third, fourth and fifth floors were the real hospital. Like a boy dreading the cold sea on a summer’s day, he decided to immerse himself slowly. He started with the third floor.
The blistered doors were unlocked. Glass from the broken pane crunched underfoot. He peered into the corridor. Sunlight streamed in from the open doors along the hallway and obscured the end of it. Sand, leaves and paint flakes littered the floor. The air smelled of dust and old age.
He continued into the corridor while he documented the wonder of decay around him. The sunlight warmed his face. Each door was a wooden slab with a barred opening high up and a small hatch near the bottom, like in a prison. He smiled. The city, with its bright, hurrying life, was just a few kilometers away, and here this silent behemoth sat, just waiting for people to come and lose themselves in it.
He entered the rooms. He didn’t dare think of them as cells. They were tall and narrow and had a metal bed with a rotting mattress, a wooden desk by the window and a small porcelain sink behind the door. Some rooms had lidded metal buckets in place beneath the sink. The institution-green walls were blistered and cracked. Other rooms had old lamps, milky white oblongs with gilt edging that resembled lace, still sitting in the high ceiling. They made the rooms look beautiful and antique. He photographed them obediently. It looked as if the building was showing itself from its best side.
Further down the hall he found a shower room with cracked tiles, the summer breeze drafting in through broken and barred windows. The stalls hid split pipes, crooked faucets and old shower heads. Rust and mildew crept along the walls. He doubted there was any water left in the veins of the old house.
Still further in, he found spacious rooms with file cabinets, lamps and desks. One room had a beautiful, high-backed wheelchair that squeaked loudly when he lowered himself into it for some self-portraits. The sun glinted in an old metal lamp lying on an overturned desk.
From the shattered window he could see a large meadow bounded by the stone fence and pine forest. The roof of his car gleamed in the afternoon sun. Good. It was still there.
He left the large rooms and returned to the third floor landing. Instead of the tall windows on the first floor, the sun squinted through tiny openings of frosted glass in the stairwell. He passed the fourth floor landing and continued up to fifth floor. There, a metal ladder with a rusty railing led to a trapdoor in the ceiling. An arrow-shaped mound of glass shards and pebbles aimed at the ladder, a point of interest indicated by earlier explorers. It had to wait. He had to see the fifth floor first.
He got what he had come for. The patient rooms on the top floor resembled those below. But the larger rooms had gurneys stained with rust, and tables with broad leather straps and metal headbands. Colored wires connected the headbands to electrodes, consoles and monitors gray with dust. One table had a tray of old surgical tools, including two long needles with a crescent-shaped head. He photographed everything. He regretted that he hadn’t invited Beanie along, she would kill him when she saw the pictures.
When he had witnessed the signs of old psychiatric methods, and the rooms and the cells for himself, his fear faded. Much suffering had taken place there, but like the fountain, nature had reclaimed the building. The past was gone, there was only the present. Now people just came there for excitement and curiosity, like he had.
Something blocked the light from the doorway and disappeared. He turned and ran to the door. The sunlight from the rooms across the hall blinded him. He thought he heard running steps.
“Wait!” he shouted, dropped his camera into the backpack and started running. He saw traces of flight, a door vibrating on the frame like it had just been glanced, leaves and dust kicked up in the air, scuffmarks in the paint flakes on the floor. The door to the landing rattled. He knew where the other was going. He jumped from the doorway, grabbed hold of the railing and ran up the shaking ladder. He reached the ceiling just in time to catch the thin trapdoor as it fell. He pushed against the metal, flung it aside and vaulted up into the sunlight.
The roof had a coarse sandpaper-like surface for traction. A few skylights were visible here and there, but otherwise the roof was empty. He continued slowly towards the edge. There was no railing or balustrade, only a ledge and a fall and the yellow meadow below.
There was someone behind him! He twisted around, but received a good push before he was safe. He fell sideways over the edge. For a moment he saw only sky and grass and was certain he’d fall. But his body reacted faster than his mind. His flailing hands found a hold and grabbed hard, straining his arms and shoulders painfully. He slammed into a wall and heard glass shatter. The tip of his boot had found an unbroken pane in a window below.
He hung from the bars of a window on the fifth floor. He inhaled to get the fear out and the climbing going, tensed his muscles against his own weight. It was a measure that was deeply familiar to him from hours on the gym wall. The sunlight dimmed as a head blotted it out.
“Come and get me!” he shouted, blood up. Not only did the attacker push him off the roof, but checked to make sure he was gone! He heaved himself onto the window ledge and took hold of the roof to climb back on it. Lightning pain shot up from his hand as his attacker stomped on it.
He yelled and automatically let go with that hand. It felt like some of the fingers were broken. But he knew how many fingers he needed to hang on with and how many he needed to advance.
He grabbed his opponent’s pant leg with his good hand and held on through the pain. The assailant stumbled backwards and wrenched free from his grip, but he had already gotten the momentum he wanted. He kicked hard from the window and vaulted up on the rough surface.
Nothing. Nothing but sky and sun and air and a faint rustle of wind in the trees below. He scrambled to the trapdoor. It was shut tight. He swore and stomped the iron. He ran along the edge of the roof and scanned the wall for a service ladder. There, a rusty old thing. He kicked it. The metal shook loudly, but seemed to hold. He had to take the chance.
He flung himself on the ladder, kept the crook of his wounded limb around the oxidized metal, and slid down. It didn’t make his hand any happier, but he got down feet first.
He vaulted over the stone fence and ran to the car. The vehicle looked like it had when he left. There was no one in sight. Not a flutter of leaves or a shadow passing. He bent forward and tried to open his hand. Damn. He might need surgery.
The car alarm went off. The sound sent a shock through his body. A flock of sparrows rose from the trees behind him. For a moment he was scared, but the fear quickly transformed into humor. There was no one there but him. The car sensors had reacted to his motion and presence. He leaned against the car and laughed the tension out. Maybe he had anticipated everything and made it happen? Maybe he had just created the situation himself?
He shut the alarm off and drove slowly back to the city. Even on the roof the silence had enveloped him, embraced his fall and climbing. When he thought of that moment, of hanging over the ledge with one hand, looking up into the blue sky, a brilliant light flooded his mind.
When he told Beanie about his visit the sanatorium, she just smiled.
“It’s an awesome place,” she said. “Did you like it?”
“I did.” He looked at her. “Are you angry that I didn’t ask you to come along?”
Beanie shook her head. “I went there last year with some friends.”
Beanie laughed. “You were working so hard and we kind of went on a whim. I’m sorry.”
He smiled at her.
“We’re planning a trip to the old airfield next weekend,” Beanie said. “Rumors say there’s a large bunker with tunnels. Come with us.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I have a date with your brother next weekend. Besides, I’m no good exploring right now.” He held up his right hand, which he had tried to bandage with his left.
Beanie grinned. “Poor baby. What did the doctor say?”
“I set it myself,” he said.
Beanie frowned. “If it heals badly, you have to break it up again.”
“I know.” His hand was throbbing and he didn’t have any painkillers.
Beanie rose. “I need to run,” she said. “Meeting Eric in half an hour. Thanks for the coffee and the fun story. You have to post the pictures soon.”
“I will,” he said. “When I can use a mouse again.”
“Feel better soon.” Beanie kissed him on the cheek and pulled on her jacket and boots.
“Please don’t go to the airfield,” he said when she exited the door. “There’s a lot of old drums there, leaking chemicals…”
“Yuck,” Beanie said. “I didn’t know that. Maybe I’ll skip it. Eric wanted to see a movie too.”
“Good girl,” he said.
“Take care,” Beanie said and closed the door.
He did need surgery for his hand. In the evening, it swelled to twice its normal size. The pain was a constant throbbing in his mind and he could barely move the arm. Swearing, he put his shoes and jacket on and drove to the emergency room.
He had to stay over night at the hospital for observation, in a room with three empty beds and an old telephone. In the morning they x-rayed his hand and sent him to an orthopedic surgeon.
The surgeon paralyzed his arm by anesthetizing a nerve center between his shoulder and spine. He asked if he could watch the procedure. The nurse looked at the physician.
“Why not?” the surgeon said. “It might make you see a doctor next time, and if you faint, you’re already lying down.”
Under a battery of regional anesthetics and painkillers, his three middle fingers were opened. The moist bone and cartilage gleamed in the bright light. The surgeon pulled out small fragments from the breaks, then realigned them like shattered pottery and drilled a fine wire through it to hold everything in place. Finally, the pieces were fastened with narrow plates and tiny screws on the surface of the bone.
At two fractures, the surgeon teased the fragments out from behind the break with an angled wire and filled the area with growth factors, before he realigned the bone and plated it together.
When the procedure was over, his hand looked partly mechanical, with a spread of metal plates and screws holding his fingers and joints together. But despite the alterations to his hand, he felt the same as before. He was clearly not his body.
“Now you only need three weeks in a splint and a lot of physical therapy,” the surgeon said as he stitched the last finger.
“Three weeks?” he groaned.
The surgeon looked at him. “Compression fractures can’t be reset like that, even if you think so.”
“Will I be able to play again?”
The surgeon laughed. “If you give your hand the rest it needs and do the physical therapy exercises, your hand will be fine. No thanks to yourself. Next time, see a doctor first.”
“How did it happen?” the physician said.
“Loose rocks on a climbing trip,” he said. “Was lucky they didn’t hit my head.”
The surgeon’s eyes narrowed in a smile.
The doctor put his hand in a metal splint to keep the fingers bent at the right angle, and wrapped it in a thick support bandage that reached up to his elbow. Katsuhiro drove him home, then returned to work.
He took the painkillers he had been prescribed and went to bed feeling puffy and strange. The splint and the bandage added to the claustrophobic sensation of disability. He fell asleep in his bathrobe. When he woke, it was four in the morning and he was lying on the cold gravel of the tower roof. He was never going to take painkillers again.
“Do you think we can come to create what we expect?” he asked Katsuhiro the following night. His brother had come to check on him. They were watching TV together.
“Like attracting things?” Katsuhiro moved his sharp focus of attention onto him.
“I mean in general, not wishing for specific items or events.”
Katsuhiro thought. “Yes, I think so,” he said. “The way we view the world influences how we relate to it and even what happens to us. I really think so.”
He nodded. “Me too.”
He wanted to tell Katsuhiro what had happened at the abandoned hospital, but letting his brother know that he had almost fallen off the roof because of someone who might or might not have been there, would only upset him.
Katsuhiro disliked his hobbies enough as it was. When he had told him about the trip under ground with Beanie, Katsuhiro had admonished him not to go there again. At such times his younger brother looked very much like their father.
43: Cats And Places
He hadn’t always seen the empty city, but he suspected that a part of him had been aware of the silence since childhood and tried to find it.
Was that why buildings and landscapes had always seemed as important as people?
His mother said that cats were attached to places, not people. His memories were tied to places and their architecture and space. Did cats feel the same?
When he was ten years old, he did something terrible. But common sense said that he couldn’t have done what he thought he had. Thus, he couldn’t tell anyone, and it became his secret.
His mother took him with her on a visit to a friend and her daughter. The daughter had epilepsy and was taking medicines for it. The medicines were strong, but the girl hadn’t had a fit for years. That made him curious about epilepsy. He’d heard about it, but never seen it.
When the adults sat enjoying their coffee and cake on the sofa at the friend’s house, he drank red lemonade with a green plastic straw and gently pushed at the girl’s mind. He thought she was weaker than him and receptive. He pulled at something in her, like a small trapdoor, and waited.
The girl fell off her chair, shaking and shivering. Her mother sprang up and put her in a stable position. He watched them silently from his seat while he slurped lemonade through the straw. His mother wanted to call for an ambulance, but her friend stopped her. The girl had been symptom-free for years, but she hadn’t taken her medicines for a while.
“It’s probably time we see a doctor and get back on them,” his mother’s friend said.
They left after that. He put on his down jacket and the hat and gloves his mother had knitted for him, and walked next to her in the snug autumn darkness.
He decided to limit experiments to himself. The next summer, he taught himself to dive and swim under water. He went with his brother to a nearby pool every day and stayed there for hours.
When he returned to school in the fall, he frightened his gym teacher by swimming for so long under water that she forbade him to do it again. She yelled at him from the edge of the pool, but under water her voice was slow and thick and without consequence. He pretended he couldn’t hear her and continued to swim.
45: An Empty Cipher
He was an empty cipher, a colorless color. His family and friends were talking to a mind with no fixed content, just scattered memories and a collection of habits and tendencies.
It was a heap with an empty core. Past the horizon of acknowledgeable events he was a black hole of not-knowingness.
He went for a walk. The towers and footpath and park waited quietly inside the silence. They had their faces turned towards the sun. His thoughts danced on the wind like a kite on a long string.
46: The Rain On Titan
He wanted to harden his skin and the surfaces of his eyes, throat and lungs, rip free from Earth’s gravity, and hurl himself into space.
Escape velocity. He liked that term. Escape, fly into space and be gone. Then witness the sun set on Mars, volcanoes erupt on Venus, ice crack on Europa, and the dawn rise on Pluto, where the star at the center of the solar system would be an almost forgotten memory.
According to science, Titan, Saturns largest moon, had a solid surface with mountains and hills and plains, just like Earth. Its atmosphere contained nitrogen, methane and helium. The moon was so cold the methane stayed liquid. The seas and lakes and rivers on Titan ran with methane instead of water.
The methane evaporated and condensed into clouds. Because of the low gravity, the rain collected in large drops that fell to the ground as slowly and softly as snow on Earth. He would have given everything to see the rain on Titan.
He decided to dream about traveling the solar system. The night was filled with dreams, but when he woke up he could only remember trying to lift a corpse on a door over a chain link fence.
47: The End Of The World x 2
The apartment was quiet and his hand throbbed. He needed extra sleep to heal, so he indulged in it to new heights. But his dreams were not good. He dreamed about the end of the world.
In the first dream, he was part of a theater troupe that rehearsed a darkly comic play about the end of days. They met in a basement in the city. The other actors were strangers. Despite the somber theme, the atmosphere at the rehearsal was friendly and upbeat.
His role was the angel that heralded in the end of the world with a golden trumpet. He followed the other characters; the ordinary young couple caught in the doomsday mess, the judge who tried to make a difference, evil himself and his demonic friends, and the choir of supporting angels, and commented on the events.
The plot described the follies of creator, man, good, evil and religions. He played his part with a smile, cavorted around with white feather wings and a golden papier-mâché trumpet, and made sly lines as the gates to the end were opened, one by one. His sister had been right when she said angels would be the next big thing after vampires.
But then the dream turned serious and he realized he wasn’t rehearsing doomsday for a play, but for the world. He was surprised, but kept making happy trumpet sounds into his horn. He had to play his part well.
He woke with the fanfare going in his head, as well as the path he had planned across stage past the unlucky couple and a group of minor demons.
When he went to bed that night, he had forgotten about the doomsday play and was only looking forward to sleeping. But then it was time for the end of the world again.
The city was deserted. He roamed the streets and wondered where everyone had gone. The stars were faint and distant, and the moon a sickly yellow. Only a few squatters were around, in doorways and on street corners, they looked just as lost as him.
He didn’t know where to go or what to do. The maker’s voice vibrated to him on the wind, told him not to be afraid, but to relax and let things unfold as they had to. It was the end of the world and there was nothing he could do.
When he heard that, he became frustrated. Why did he have to live through the end times? What wrongs had he done to experience it? He tried to keep his courage up by repeating the prayer about the valley of death in his mind, but it didn’t help.
He took refuge under one of the city’s rail bridges, deeply disappointed that he had ended up there, despite his efforts at being successful in life. He was frightened, even though he suspected that he was asleep.
At the end of the dream, he tried to evacuate people in an old tourist ferry, because part of the judgment was a greatly elevated sea level. When he woke up, he felt sad and drained and it took hours for the dream to fade.
48: Burn White
The white fog closed over the city again. It was humid and hot. He took a nap during the day, the cats curling up next to him in bed. He slept for too long. When he woke up, he was drowsy and dull, and his hand ached.
He staggered into the kitchen and filled a glass of water in the sink. There was only the glass, the sink, the running water and the muted sunlight, no him.
Every time he fell asleep, his feeling of self vanished. But maybe that was a wrong description, a wrong view? Maybe his self didn’t vanish, but had never really been there in the first place, like a dream? How could he find out?
Berit Ellingsen is a Norwegian fiction writer whose stories have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, including Unstuck, Bluestem, SmokeLong Quarterly, Metazen and decomP magazinE.
Her collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin, will be available from firthFORTH Books in November 2012.
Berit admits to pining for the fjords when abroad.
To contact, write to beritellingsen (at) gmail (dot) com or leave a comment in the blog:
Berit Ellingsen’s collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin, will be available from firthFORTH Books (an imprint of Queen’s Ferry Press) in November 2012.