As many men made monuments And many more were making still, I built the scaffold with intents To also boast upon this hill. A structure great enough to show The splendor of my work and craft To those who saw it may they know That this is glory that will last. They saw that it was thin and square And lacking any artistry So full of holes exposed to air And did not look a bit like me. But when my children looked and saw The magnum opus of my soul They jumped with glee and stood in awe And knew at once what was their role. They built their structure from the base I flattened down and leveled true, And worked to quicken up their pace Until their craft was finished too. The day had come to now unveil As people gathered 'round to mock. A rocket ship that soon would sail To places far beyond the stars. The people all beheld the sight The hill that shook so violently As fire soared across the sky Our monument for all to see.
If you haven’t yet heard
There’s a new spoken word
Whispered here to the hills
As the breathing grows still
People waiting and praying
And displaying broken hands
Hearing token plans
Pleading with the man
To treat them with respect
Before we all forget
And move on to the next big thing.
And this is why the caged bird sings:
This land gave a promise
That the great and the common
Can be treated the same
In this God-forsaken game
So fight for their lives
Now is the time
Or they’ll come for you next
After we all forget
Until they are made to
The stink of rot portends a fly
That ill-begotten pest to die,
But when I miss I realize
I gave myself a good high-five.
As man crawled out from the forests and stood upright among the plains, their shivering hands rough and scarred from the struggle to survive, their growing minds churning with complex thoughts and connections, their eyes painfully adjusting to a dawning consciousness, they glimpsed reality, and collectively rebelled against it. They created first structures to shelter themselves, a rudimentary form of manipulating their environment and the weather itself to suit their physical needs. They augmented their own bodies with tools and clothing. Shortly thereafter, they even began the process of taming life itself, unlocking an understanding of animal husbandry and agriculture that gave them control over the acquisition of food.
The astute reader would no longer call this magic, but science; however, science is merely the process by which knowledge is attained. Slowly and methodically, and sometimes even accidentally, science has given mankind a greater understanding of the nature of objective reality. Thus, we must first define what magic is. It is a term in this text used to describe the inexplicable imposition of man’s will over reality. The nature of inexplicability is absolutely essential to the proper definition of magic. If it is well understood the cause by which the effect has occurred, then no longer can it be called magic, for reasons that will be discussed further on in the text.
The predominant school of thought when it comes to the metaphysics of magic is that it can broadly be subdivided into three major kingdoms: objective, subjective, and the intersubjective. The most familiar form of traditional magic to the astute reader is the subjective, the means by which the internal reality of the user is able to override the perceived reality of the user. The intersubjective is the magic that exists due to the beliefs of two or more users, otherwise known as faith. This is distinct from personal faith, which typically only affects perceived reality. The most powerful form of intersubjective magic is the construction of intersubjective constructs, which exist only so long as there is belief in them. Finally, there is the most powerful form of magic, the objective. To date, there is no known understanding of how to perform the objective magic — the undeniable overwriting of reality. Much speculation exists on the nature of the objective, which will be covered in the final chapters of this text.
Without delving into the topic of cosmology, it can be said that the universe operates according to a set of laws. However, perhaps the point of interest is that it is not well defined whether all possible occurrences must function under every established law, or whether the universe merely improvises when there are occurrences that function outside of its laws, thereby establishing a precedent that it can then refer back to, much in the way modern jurisprudence might work in human courts of law. The metaphorical surface has been peeled back exposing some of the laws that the universe operates by, but there have been three that pertain specifically to the kinds of magic that are allowed to exist within the confines of this universe.
The first is the principle of the requisition of sacrifice: nothing can be gained without some loss. The second law of thermodynamics is a physical manifestation of this order, in which the entropy of a system over time can never decrease. In other words, there must be something given up in exchange for the performing of any magic, and due to its nature, it is not ever possible to know what will be exchanged in conducting this magic. This can result in anecdotes of all kinds, and all studies have shown statistically that it is impossible to predict or find patterns in the exchange performed unless certain conditions are met. The reason why this is the very first is because this is what separates magic from science.
The second is the semi-agnostic principle: the universe operates in part according to unknowable, untestable rules. It is not possible to know all things, nor is it possible for all things to be known. A physical manifestation of this order might be seen in analogues such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, in which there is a natural barrier of accuracy with regards to measuring certainty properties of subatomic particles. In fact, the entire realm of quantum mechanics and the “fuzziness” of particles lend credence to this universal principle. However, an important distinction must be made with this principle. The universe is not chaotic — the rules by which it operates are simply unaccessible.
The third is the principle of the invocation of the soul — the engine of magic, the storehouse of the self. One of the strange laws of the universe that we have only begun to scratch the surface of is the soul, and it is well known that we do not have a full understanding of what the soul is or how it functions, simply that the self is the beginning of all magic, and what we call the sum total of all that a person is can be called a soul. All experience, all knowledge, all fears, all desires, and all wealth of potential past, present, future is what it takes to describe the soul, which has both an effect on the material and the material on it. To pull the soul into a material phase is how any feat of magic is performed, but with it comes corruption, for the soul, much like the universe itself, thrives off of its unknowability. Once a soul is exposed and known, it becomes fixed and unchanging, or “locked” into a state of certainty. The effects of a locked soul are well documented. Obsessive-compulsion, mania, depression, dissociation, and far more extreme disorders can become manifest. A fully locked soul results in irreversible death.
The conclusion of these three principles is that magic requires a sturdy external conduit through which it can act in drawing out the inner world of the soul into the material, and thus all modern forms of magic can be called a form of theurgy — or the invocation of the divine. Spiritual persons, in the past otherwise understood to be spirits, daemons, or deities, become excellent conduits through which more effective magic can take shape without instantaneously locking the soul of the practitioner. This practice has been the norm since the early ages of mankind, but other branches of magic have existed and died out due to their lack of efficacy in ages past, such as alchemy and astrology. The word “esotericism” once once used to describe these early forms of magic, which were proven to be largely inadequate or incomplete in understanding the universe, an attempt by mankind to grasp the ungraspable. Nonetheless, the groundwork laid by our predecessors gave us now a more complete picture of how our world came to be, where the incorporeal and the material intermingle.
The clarion chirps of songbirds gently prodded at the girl fast asleep at her desk. Without waking, her cold hands felt her warm forehead, the sensation soothing in ways she did not have the faculties to adequately describe. It felt nice — like someone else’s hand — for a moment, and she could trick herself into believing it. Her eyes opened slowly to let in the light of the mid-day sun as she glanced at the time on her open computer.
It was exactly 11:11 AM.
With a groan, she stretched in her seat, reaching her hands towards the sky. How many days had she been forced to stay at home now? The government had shut down everything in September, which meant it had been almost a month. There were so many opinions online about the situation, ranging from the optimists coming up with fun Halloween ideas for the kids to do indoors, to the pessimists declaring that the lockdown wouldn’t end for another three more months, to the pragmatists finding all of the reasons why it wouldn’t. The opinion she found the most interesting to look at were the conspiracy theorists, declaring that this was all a hoax. That is to say, they were interesting up until a point, and now none of these opinions were all that interesting.
She broke her gaze away from the screen and closed the laptop with another unsatisfied noise. In her boredom, she had been doing some reading on the internet about one topic or another and landed on a strange treatise on magic she had found on a reputable academic journal. Of course, the fact that something like that could get published at all was incredible, her attention instantly captured by the odd Latinized title, Metaphysica Magica. It reminded her of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, but only superficially. Isaac Newton was a genius. There was no author for this paper.
As she read it though, it didn’t seem to be a rigorous treatise on metaphysics or ontology at all, and she could barely get through the first chapter of the ten chapter volume before falling asleep. Perhaps science and philosophy was never her strong suit, despite what her diploma said, but she knew just enough to know crackpot ideas when she saw one. Still, the ideas laid out in the first chapter were fun enough to think about on their own.
She summoned the will to lift herself off the chair as her bones protested, resolving never again to sleep like that again. It was time for breakfast.
Everything had shut down. Offices, gas stations, shops of all kinds… and that included grocery stores. When the announcement was first made, people did not believe it, but the ones who did panicked and bought as much as they could. It was practically ripped from a low-budget, post-apocalyptic movie, but there it was happening in reality. And no one had any idea why. There was no credible information whatsoever, but all kinds of theories floating around online. She just wanted to know why.
Why was it only her city that was placed in such a strict lockdown? Nothing moved in or out of the entire metro area except for what the government allowed, and a daily ration of food was delivered every morning at the doorstep of all residents.
She checked outside her front door and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The box of rations was there. She scanned the doors of her neighbors along the hall and saw that theirs had already been picked up. Surely she wasn’t the very last one to do so… yet the evidence was hard to ignore. With a shrug she shuffled back into her apartment with her goodies.
It was then that her phone had started to buzz in her pocket. It was a unique vibration sequence she set specifically for this one person so she could mentally prepare herself before checking the phone. It was her older sister.
“Hey, what’s up?” she answered nonchalantly with her phone straddled against her shoulder, setting down the heavy box on the kitchen counter.
“Hey, Natalie,” her sister’s voice was urgent, alarmed, “Did you check the news this morning?”
“This morning?” She pulled her phone away from her ear and glanced at the front screen. It was almost noon. “Not this morning. Why? Something happen?”
“Ugh, did you wake up late again? I keep telling you to keep to a normal sleep schedule so you can take your meds on time. Wait, sorry, I know I did that thing again.”
“Yeah,” Natalie said showing as much grace as possible to her sister. Hers was the only real human voice she ever heard nowadays since she started to live alone. She half-wondered whether anybody was real anymore, “It’s fine.”
“Okay, well, check the headlines and call me back. I’d rather you just see it for yourself as soon as you can. Alright, I’m hanging up.”
“Sure,” and with her phone beeped again to celebrate the end of the call. That was about as normal as a conversation could go with her sister.
Natalie looted around inside the insulated box, shoving aside microwaveable meals that smelled of freezer burn to find a banana and a bottle of water, which were always a part of the daily ration. She took a swig of water, rinsed her mouth and drank the contents, heading back to her bedroom where her laptop was.
As the screen welcomed her back, the information page of that bizarre treatise was the first thing to greet her, except she couldn’t help but notice something odd. Almost overnight, it had gotten tens of thousands of new views. That kind of exposure was definitely unusual, but without a second thought, she flipped to a new tab and mindlessly typed in “news” into the URL bar.
The headlines for the day appeared.
As her eyes scanned the page, one of them certainly stood out.
“Four more cities worldwide undergo total quarantine by UN.”
She clicked, double checking the reputability of the news site. They wouldn’t report something so outrageous unless it were true. It’s not hard to verify, and from everything it read, it sounded just like what they had done already here. What was going on…?
Natalie thought about giving her sister a call, but she didn’t really have the energy to deal with her anymore for the day. It was time to gather more information.
“Outbreak of transmissible catatonic dysphasia in four new cities.”
She wasn’t sure if what she was reading was real, but multiple sources all corroborated the same thing. They must finally have decided to let people know what’s going on. Transmissible catatonic dysphasia? She took it apart word for word. So it can pass from one person to another… causes dysphasia… the inability to speak normally. The middle part she looked up just to be certain. Inability to move properly. She kept reading.
Acute Viral Kaulbaum’s syndrome resulting in… echolalia — or babbling — and total loss of motor control, coma, then eventually death. Transmission occurs by exposure to the babbling…? There were a lot of terms she had no familiarity with whatsoever, but she knew what that meant. Just hearing the babble means you run the risk of being infected by it?
She pushed herself away from her laptop at her desk, slamming down the screen far harder than she had meant to. Her breathing grew shallow as her heart beat sent waves of a cold sweat all over her exposed skin. She wanted to believe it was a hoax, but every reputable news agency was reporting it the same way.
There was a fiction story she had heard about that was just like this. It was about an image that was engineered to be so indecipherable to the human mind that just seeing it could make people go insane and die. This must have been an auditory version of that, except hearing the babble makes you repeat the babble, making it transfer between person to person.
It was a memetic virus with a fatality. What was the neurological mechanism behind this and was there a way to stop it? How did it spread? Where did it come from?
Gingerly, she opened the laptop screen again praying that she hadn’t cracked it, promising to never do that again. She kept searching online for answers. Any answers. She was deep in the rabbit hole now, forgetting even to eat the banana she had picked up and left on her desk. It was then that she scrolled across a video capturing an infected person in the throes of it. Curiosity practically gripped her throat, and she forgot how to breathe for a moment. There was no way this should be allowed on the internet. In case it would ever be taken down, she decided to download it just in case.
An unsteady hand reached for the phone.
“Did you read it?” her sister asked on the other end, “What does it all mean?”
“Hi, uh,” Natalie started, trying to form complete thoughts but failing, “I’m still struggling to believe it, but it sounds like there’s a sickness that spreads through speech.”
“That’s what the news was saying. You were always into that linguistics stuff. What should we do?”
“Firstly, don’t talk to anyone. Don’t look at any videos online or expose yourself to any kind of media. They didn’t make it clear how widespread this is or why it started here of all places…”
“Do you think it’s a weapon? Like something some lab made?”
“I don’t know how it could be. There’s no biological component whatsoever. They said you can be infected just by hearing a recording of it. That’s…” she stopped, recalling something she had read earlier. “It’s practically magic. It sounds like an old school witches-and-wizards curse.”
“You’re kidding. I know you’re kidding.”
“Well, the alternative is that none of it is real. That it’s a cover up for something bigger. Or we’re only scratching the surface of what’s really happening.”
“There’s just so little that we know… all we can do is imagine the worst. Have you been eating okay, ‘Lee? The rations getting any better?”
“Yeah, it’s not as bad as the first week, which reminds me, I still need to have breakfast.”
“It’s like 2 PM, how ar-”
Natalie hung up. She said the last bit to bring some levity to her worried sister. And maybe to annoy her, but it didn’t make her feel any better about what was going on. She leaned forward in to her computer and clicked back on the tab with the strange treatise on magic.
It was gone.
She searched the publisher’s site and found nothing. It was removed altogether overnight. Maybe it was some kind of prank that got reported and deleted, but she actually had been interested in reading a little more of it. She then noticed another interesting title: “Breaking Potentiality with the Babbling Plague” Potentiality was something Aristotle had posited, and the basis of modern scientific notions of potential energy and dynamic motion. A really old idea that people thought about for a long, long time.
With a shrug, she clicked it and scrolled up and down to see the structure of the paper. Just then she stopped. She couldn’t help but see it. Right there in the citations it stuck out to her like an elbow bending the wrong way: Metaphysica Magica.
She started reading. It was far too cerebral even for her. However, at the very end, in the conclusions, she spied this:
“The presumption that there is a technical solution to resolving the Babbling Plague is one predicated on an undue empirical worldview of nature. There remains the probability that not all extant phenomenon can be tested and verified, and there is no logical reason to assume as such save for our hubris leading us to believe it. Our mind will seek to wrap itself around inexplicable things and become obsessed with it, and perhaps that is what drives the the plague. It is a basilisk that feeds on our desire to understand, and as we fail to understand these strange sounds, it causes an innate, involuntary response, as if our minds are eternally circling a drain. Only the terminally incurious would be immune should this be true. The irony is that if the potentiality of this conclusion is true, the illness may well change its very nature such that it no longer remains true. Thus far, no known method of inquiry has yielded any tangible results whatsoever regarding this illness. Of those afflicted, all neurological activity appears normal. All other physical examinations have been fruitless. This is perhaps the introduction of the first postmodern illness.”
She cross-referenced the author. He was an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins, not some crackpot on the internet. It’s a magical disease? Then is any institution equipped to handle this?
The day came and went. She awoke again the same way she had been waking for the past month, but this time, as she leaned up from her desk and tapped the refresh button on her internet browser, nothing appeared. She tapped again sleepily, eyeing the small circle that indicated something was being processed. The sleep had started to over take her again as she stared through half-closed crescents without having to blink.
She checked her phone as well. No connection. No Wi-fi, no signal, nothing.
All of her bills were up to date and paid for, so she didn’t understand. Her sister was always diligent about this kind of thing, so there’s no way she would have cut her off. Natalie had no remaining options but to give her a call.
Emergency calls only.
“This is it,” she thought, “It’s the end of the world.”
For the first time since she moved out of her parent’s home, she felt well and truly completely isolated.
She could feel her hands getting clammy and her head becoming light. “This can’t be happening.” She was supposed to call her doctor soon to renew her prescription of antipsychotics. There were maybe only a week’s supply left. Hurriedly she left her room and went to the front door to make sure today’s food rations were at least there.
Thankfully, they were.
She brought it in as if retrieving a baby orphaned at her doorstep, replacing the empty box from yesterday with the new one.
“You’re imprisoned in your apartment with no connection to the outside world except for this stupid ration box,” she said aloud to no one, “But you can do this Natalie. You’ve gotten through worse. You got away from mom and dad, didn’t you? Got a job and a place even though you’re messed up in the head? Yeah, c’mon, happy thoughts.”
She opened the box and found her daily banana, nearly moved to the point of tears. In this dark and uncaring world, there was at least the relative constancy of this banana.
Bananas are going extinct due to a fungus. The intrusiveness of her own mind.
Natalie chowed down on her banana and uncapped a medicine bottle with a graceful, practiced motion. With the water bottle she received, she downed a pill and checked the time on her now useless phone. It was almost noon.
“Happy thoughts, happy thoughts,” she chanted like a spell, “A tower probably went down somewhere, or there was some mistake. Once ‘Tash realizes my phone is dead, she’ll investigate and solve this.”
In the meanwhile, she decided, she would do some offline activities that she used to enjoy. However, there was neither paint nor a piano in her tiny apartment. No DVDs or books either since all of those were at her sister Natasha’s house, and she never imagined that the entire city would go on lockdown.
She went back to her computer. Maybe there were some built in games on there she could really master. But she was never one for games. Logically, she knew how to play Minesweeper, but she never had the patience for it. Solitaire was an exercise in luck. And the rules surrounding Hearts never made sense to her, nor did she have any desire to learn them.
“Happy… thoughts…” she muttered, when she thought of something. Maybe the last few articles she had been reading were saved somewhere on her computer. She opened a window and started to rummage through the temporary files, a trick she learned from her sister when they were snooping around on their mom and dad’s computer back in the day. She was always the more technologically savvy one, eventually getting a job as a software engineer and eventually marrying another computer nerd she met at a nerdy work conference. Not that she was one to talk. “I mean, I got a degree in linguistics.” Ever since the lockdown had closed down everything, she couldn’t go to work at the cafe anymore, but she had enough saved up to last a few months at least.
Then, she found it. Hidden deep in the crevices of some random assortment of folders was a PDF.
She continued to read it.
Two more weeks passed like this. The lockdown had yet to lift. Her phone remained charged but dead. Her medication had run dry the week prior.
This treatise on magic had become Natalie’s bible. She pored through it day and night trying to understand what it was trying to say, until that morning, she woke up, and understood exactly what it was trying to say.
The noises in her apartment at night were getting worse as people were starting to agitate stuck inside. Within those two weeks it was clear that she was not the only one who no longer had phone or internet service, and she had realized also that this was a deliberate measure to ensure that the Plague would not spread by any means necessary.
How many more cities were under quarantine? Who knows? Knowledge, she learned, was a translation of truth into an untruth to be stored within the mind. Chaos that was turned into the convenient and useful illusion of order. Grasping impossibility was only attainable by storing truth within the more powerful soul.
She knew her condition was growing worse each day without the antipsychotics to calm her down, but she hardly cared. What did it matter anymore unless something could be done about the Babbling Plague? Just hearing it can cause it to spread, and contracting it will cause you to repeat it?
This was magic, pure and simple, and a natural byproduct of the utilization of magic. Whoever had tried to cast the spell failed, and created this magical virus instead, and the fact that the government reacted so quickly and efficiently to it instead of denying it due to its sheer impossibility meant that the government was behind it too.
But if the government was dabbling in magic, then they might already be aware that she knew, and if that was true, she wasn’t sure if she could trust the food they were sending her anymore. One drop of poison anywhere and that would be all it took. Even the banana that she had grown to rely on for spiritual comfort had betrayed her.
Suddenly, there was a knock on her door.
Her heart started to pound in her ears.
Impossible, had the lockdown been lifted? She had covered her window in paper and tape to prevent anybody from peering in, but these were extraordinary circumstances. She peered outside onto the street and saw no one.
She wanted to answer the door but her legs were frozen to the seat as her mouth hung open.
“Natalie! Open the door!” It was her sister’s voice. There was something strange about it.
No, that was definitely impossible. She wouldn’t be allowed inside the city for no reason. Unless the lockdown actually had been lifted? Were things calming down outside? Or it wasn’t her sister at all.
She stepped outside her room and yelled from across the hallway at the front door, “Who is it?!”
“Who do you think?! Open the door, Natalie! I’m serious!”
“How are you here?!”
“I can tell you once you let me in, alright?”
She approached the peephole on her door and looked through only to find that it had been blocked. There was no way of knowing what was on the other side of that door.
“You’re not there. There’s no one here. I’m just hearing things.”
“Happy thoughts, Natalie, I’m right here.”
“No, no, no, you can’t be here. If I open that door and you’re not standing in front of me, I’m going to lose it.”
“Open the door.”
“You better be right there!”
“Open the door.”
She felt the shiver running down her spine. Tears filled her eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to even touch that door knob, no less turn it. Her stomach turned as she screamed at the top of her lungs, but she wanted so badly for it to be real.
Then she woke up.
A dream? A nightmare?
“Wait, that really did happen…” she started to remember, “I opened the door.”
And no one was there. She had broken down sobbing. She remembered the taste and smell of vomit. That day, she holed herself up in her room and cried until it was night. That was a month ago. It had been nearly three months since she’s last seen or heard from another human being. It was getting to be too much. Her mouth felt dry.
Every day she had started to keep a digital journal to make sure she wasn’t losing track of the days. Around Day 44 it had all started to say the same thing, so she stopped and just started keeping track of the days in the text file. Today would be Day 62, give or take a few days.
Natalie went to the door and pulled in the rations like a ritual. She unboxed it and pulled out the usual banana. She walked back to her room peeling it mindlessly, biting into the inner flesh when you discovered something strange. A sharp, sour sensation in her mouth.
Did she bite her cheek? It wasn’t quite that feeling. It was more like… She spat out the chewed up remains of the banana. Worms. Or maggots. Horrible, fat, white larvae squirming and writhing on the ground before her. She could practically still taste the sour, pungent rot that pervaded her mouth, sliding down her throat. With a gag, she rushed to the bathroom and began to throw up everything in her stomach, which didn’t consist of much. She ended up just dry heaving at the toilet bowl.
Her mind was racing. Was someone sabotaging her meals? Poison? That shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t, she decided. Her mind had to have been playing tricks on her again. She picked herself up off the floor with a wipe of her chin and marched back to her room to clean up the mess. With a gulp, she dropped down to one knee and carefully inspected the mushy banana on the ground and found that it was devoid of any life.
Was this all in her head? It felt so real. She turned her hand over and saw a worm wriggling on the back of her palm. With a shriek, she swatted it away, but it remained. It wasn’t on her palm at all — it seemed to be under her skin.
She wanted to throw up again. “Happy thoughts, Natalie. You’re seeing things,” she closed her eyes and tried to erase the sensation of it crawling and making its way through her insides. Burrowing and tunneling through her flesh. She opened her eyes again and saw that it was gone.
Every so often, she heard her mother speaking. Usually they pointed out small insecurities from her youth. Nagging to clean her bathroom, or pick up the clothes from her room. Even in her isolation, she hated to hear her voice. It was like nails on a chalkboard. What she hated more was that it sounded just like her own, aged a few dozen years.
But what made it worse was that in the corner of her eyes she thought she saw her. And when she would turn her head to make sure, it would disappear.
“Natalie, may I come in?” her mother’s voice seemed to call out from a distance as Natalie laid in bed supine.
Just then, she saw her mother sitting at the foot of her bed. She was much younger than she should have been, like the young mom that she remembered from her childhood. A little more carefree. A little less stressed out from advancing her career. Pleasant.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked, “Can I get you anything?”
“You’re not real,” Natalie muttered, curling up into a ball.
“I know, but I could be. Just let me in and let me make it all better.”
“Mom was never like this.”
She sighed, looking away as if into the distance, “But I could be. I can be right here with you, the perfect version. The one you’ve always wanted. The one you’ve fantasized about ever since you were a little girl. I’ll support you and encourage you and tell you everything you wanted to hear.”
“Stop, stop, stop, stop…” Natalie growled, “I can’t play pretend anymore. You’re something I used to indulge in as a child. Every time I did, my mom would freak out and tell me not to trust my own imagination. Of course, she would. If someone made up some ‘real version’ of me and pretended that the real version was fake, I would be scared too.”
“But your mom isn’t here right now. It’s just you. What’s the harm?”
Natalie grew silent. What was the harm? But she knew already, she merely did not wish to vocalize it and make it real. “Mom…?”
The vision of her mother smiled, “That’s right, baby, come here. Give me a hug.”
Her hand reached out and swiped at the air. The vision disappeared.
She let it happen again. Every time she did, it brought more pain than the comfort that was promised to her. And yet, she still let it happen. She collapsed forward onto her bed, her arm hanging lifelessly over the side of her bed.
“The principle of the requisition of sacrifice…” Natalie recounted, as if in a trance. She dragged herself to the kitchen, barely lucid. Something of worth must be sacrificed for magic to take place. What did she have that was worth anything to her? She drew a knife from a wooden block on the counter. In ancient times, blood was used as the medium by which all magic was performed. The anguish and suffering of blood sacrifice made covenants between men and spirits. She raised the knife over her arm.
“Do it,” she heard her mother. This was a memory from a long time ago. “Go ahead, kill yourself. Make everything that your father and I sacrificed for you and your sister go to waste. You ungrateful child! What did we do wrong raising you?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, hot enough that it felt like boiling blood. She did not want to see her mother.
It was now day 98.
“Natalie, it’s alright,” a voice said, “Happy thoughts.”
“Thanks,” she replied, “I’ll be okay.”
“Good, we wouldn’t want you to have another episode like that.”
Who was the voice? She didn’t care anymore. Even if it was just to herself, it was someone to talk to that she knew wasn’t infected by a Babbling Plague. She decided to accept the company.
“What shall you be doing today, Natalie?”
“I don’t know,” she said out loud, “Anything I want except leaving.”
“What do you want to do except leave?”
“Now, now, that’s no way to speak. Why don’t you try something different today, Natalie?”
“Remember how you used to draw?”
“I don’t have anything to draw with.”
“Try drawing on the computer. There’s a program that lets you do just that.”
“It’s awful and inaccurate.”
She forced herself over to the computer to do as the voice commanded. She wasn’t lucid anymore to understand why. That left her mind and body days ago. Everything had become routine. Too scared to venture out. Too scared to let anyone in. It was just her and the voice that she was too afraid to give a name to. And it even warned her not to.
“As soon as you give me a name, I’m real. Don’t do that to yourself, Natalie.”
But her relationship with the voice was weird, and she knew it, she just accepted the weird. It wasn’t like the other voices she used to hear as a child that would whisper the most awful, evil things. Her parents were convinced she was possessed by demons and tried to have her exorcised on more than one occasion, a memory she had painfully repressed until she went to therapy in high school. Now she had gotten to a place where she acknowledged that her parents didn’t know how to help, but clearly did their best to, no matter how ill-concocted their plans were. That didn’t mean it was easy to talk to them, but now she would do anything to hear their voices again. Even her mom.
She opened up an application that let her doodle on the screen with her mouse. She started to draw a little face. It wasn’t half bad, but she wished more than anything that she was using her hand and a pencil.
“That’s you,” she said to herself.
“Nice, but I would stop there. Any more detail and you’re going to visualize me, and that is not a direction you want to go.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am a part of you that exists in the subjective space. Draw me out into reality and tether me into reality and I’ll become something that might exist in the intersubjective. That’s a scary place to be for something like me.”
“And what exactly is something like you? You’re saying you’re not just a figment of my deranged imagination?”
“I am, and you should keep it that way. Once something is real, it doesn’t just go away whenever you want.”
“Right,” she said quietly, lazily drawing the rest of the voice’s features.
“Oh, I’m a woman?” the voice asked, “I wasn’t aware.”
“I always heard you as a woman’s voice.”
“Did you now?”
“You speak the same way my therapist does. Same weird little mannerisms like saying ‘shall’ a lot.”
“Have you ever thought that you’re conjuring me with a comforting voice as a self-soothing mechanism? You have schizophrenia, not dissociative identity disorder.”
“That’s something she would say.”
“Is that what she looked like?” the voice asked referring to the now complete drawing. It was fairly accurate representation of a young woman dressed in a pastel blue polo and had short black hair in a bob.
“No, my therapist was an older lady with a tight perm. It’s how I imagine you looking though.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like my drawing? Or the way you look?”
“No, I don’t like what you’re doing. This isn’t a good thing for you to do.”
“Relax, what’s the harm? If no one else ever finds this, it’s like you never existed at all. That’s how intersubjective magic works. It requires more than one person, and as far as I’m concerned I’m the only one here.”
“I can’t stop you, but have you thought about what might be going on in the outside?”
“As far as I’m concerned, the outside doesn’t exist anymore. I’m the only thing that exists. Every so often a magic box appears at my doorstep. When I try to see who it is that drops it off, I get yelled at and hit and forced back inside. It’s just a part of the rules of this universe.”
“Observable reality isn’t something you can just ignore, Natalie. And solipsism isn’t a way to live either.”
“As soon as I do, everything about this situation becomes a lot easier. Once everything is back to normal, I’ll go back to normal. Whatever that means. I’ve never known what normal was like.”
“You don’t know that. But what you do know is that eventually, objective truth will win out over subjective lies. How many times have you been disappointed because you couldn’t make your internal musings an external reality?”
“That’s not true. Enough people believing in something can make it come to life. That’s the intersubjective magic.”
“But only you can interact with me.”
“And only I exist in this universe; therefore, you are as real as I am.”
“This logic is twisted.”
“Pray I don’t twist it further.”
The screen itself seemed to speak to her. It was as if she could trick the face to move. Or maybe it really was moving. “Don’t do this. You’re gonna completely lose your grip on what’s real and what’s not”
The smiling face looked just like her sister during her days in high school. She always wore her straight, black hair in a short bob. It would have looked so much better long, but she hated to maintain it. It was now a frown.
“Hi, so you’ve brought me out.”
She muttered something under her breath in Arabic. “You’ve really done something stupid, Natalie.”
“Why is everyone saying that?”
The vision of her sister reappeared sitting at her bed, now with a full body and all, “You’ve gone completely delusional, and even while you’re seeing and hearing things, you’re acting like it’s real. But I don’t blame you. You’ve been isolated for so long in this dusty apartment. Seriously, you need to open the windows and clean a little.”
“This is how I imagine you. Always telling me what to do. Gently, but it was so rare to have a genuine conversation with you when we were kids.”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be the firstborn. I had to take care of you, because you didn’t know how to take care of yourself. I could argue that you still kind of don’t.” She sat up a little in her sitting position, pleased, “You really miss me, huh?”
“I do. I’m going mad in here, ‘Tash. I think it’d be easier to just starve myself and end it all, but I’m too scared of the pain that comes with dying.”
“You still have it on your computer.”
“The video you downloaded. You were curious what would happen if you heard it, right? Curious whether it was real? Curious whether you were one of the few immune ones? If you were, you could watch the video, build up an immunity, and leave the quarantine.”
“No, no, no,” she shook her head. “I’m losing it. I’m losing it.”
“Don’t take comfort in your hallucinations, Natalie,” the voice said, just like her therapist. The same warm, grandmotherly tone, despite the fact that she was maybe in her late forties, “You need to keep yourself grounded, and you cannot control them. If you become emotionally invested in them, you will be disappointed every time.”
“Go ahead,” the vision of her sister goaded, “Watch the video. Expose yourself to the Babbling Plague.”
The sensation that Natalie felt at that time was like the walls of her room had started to spin in one direction, and yet never actually move. She closed her eyes and turned into a little ball, her limbs shaking as adrenaline coursed through her entire body. Please go away, she thought, to herself. Please leave me alone now. I’m sorry for everything, just please go away.
That night, when the tremors stopped, the apartment was quiet, and she could hear the soothing sounds of fall crickets outside, she untangled herself from her bedsheets and stumbled into the kitchen for a bottle of water.
What if, she thought to herself, I did watch that video? But only a little bit at a time?
What if, she said aloud this time, I could vaccinate myself against it?
“Don’t do it,” the voice said again, as if eavesdropping and interrupting.
“Now you tell me not to watch it?”
“I never told you to watch it. I even warned you not to visualize me or you’d regret it.”
“Okay, who are you this time? Are you going to appear as my sister and try to kill me again?”
“I can’t say for sure I know who I am, but that’s hardly the question to ask. Call me your sense of self-preservation, or whatever.”
Suddenly, a different voice, although she couldn’t hear it in the same way audibly, but it seemed to be a different person, started to speak, “In the era before this one, when we were believed in as spirits, demons, jinns, or gods, your ancestors heard us and spoke to us.”
A third voice, “We whisper to you the secrets of this world. The origin of the Plague. Mastery over self and spirit.”
A fourth, “We are summoned by desperate souls who have given up on merely what they see and smell.”
“Crap, I’ve totally lost it.”
The voices started to blend together until she could not tell who or what was speaking, “All will be revealed. Seek the Truth. Give up on the World You See and reach into the World Unseen.”
“The World Unseen…”
“In order to see it, you must hear the incantation that frees the mind. Liberate your soul to unlock your inner eye, and bear witness to what lies beyond physical existence. The video is the key.”
“Watch the video.”
“If I watch it, I’ll be free?”
“To roam the stars.” They said in unison. “To witness the beginning and end of the universe. To become a god, with everything at your disposal. You will be free from all illnesses physical and mental. All bonds of earthly need like food and water. You will become your True Self and experience metaphysical completion, and then you will create the universe as you deem fit.” They said in unison. “You will have achieved the objective magic.”
“I… I’m scared.”
“Do it!” The voice of her mother.
“Why are you like this?!” The voice of her father.
“We sacrifice so much for you, and you can’t do this for us?!” The voice of her mother.
“Stop wasting your time with these childish things and just listen!”
“No,” Natalie whimpered, a child, “They aren’t imaginary, they are real…”
“You’re too old to still have imaginary friends,” the voice of a classmate who she thought was her friend, “Stop talking about them.”
“Hey, freak,” the same friend, years later in middle school, “Why are you so quiet, huh? Not gonna answer me? Think you’re too good for us?”
“You will be free from these memories, too.” They said in unison. “All pain will vanish. All suffering will cease. All conflict and all hypocrisies, gone. Communicate with your soul. Become one with the nothing and watch the nothing shine.”
“Watch the video?” she muttered back, “But… I don’t want to…”
Her sister started to speak now, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” This was a distant memory. From when she had her first serious mental break in junior year of high school. Her sister had come to pick her up from the counselor’s office since her parents were both busy working during the day.
“I’m sorry?” the junior Natalie said.
“I know I made things hard for you. It’s my fault for pushing you like this, but it’s all I ever knew growing up with mom and dad, too.”
“So if there’s anything you don’t want to do, you don’t have to do it. I’ll cover for you. I’ll get yelled at by mom, so from now on, at least talk to me because I’m on your side. You… you can yell at me if you want, too.”
“It’s not fine!” Natasha said, not taking her eyes off the road, her bangs pulled back in a high ponytail. That’s how she wore her hair in college, Natalie remembered. Her perfume was just deodorant back then. Details started flooding back in like the way the her sister’s car would screech at every intersection stop and rock to a halt. “You tried to kill yourself at school!”
“You’re exaggerating. It was just a prank.”
“You’re a smart, creative, crazy little genius who could change the entire world if she felt like it, but you just never push yourself to do try… And then you go and pull this stunt trying to throw away all that talent down the drain, traumatizing all those people… How did it not cross your mind how messed up that is?! Do you think your own family wouldn’t miss you? Your friends? You would be leaving behind countless people whose lives would be made worse by your suicide. It’s so… ignorant! A-And selfish…”
Natalie remembered wanting to hit her as she was being lectured, but then, she heard the shift in her tone.
“You must have been so lonely. All this time, you never once told us how you felt because you couldn’t. We never gave you the space. We never asked, maybe because we never cared.” She was openly weeping.
“Hey, ‘Tash, keep your eyes on the road…”
“I never listened.”
“You’re still not listening, you know…”
“But I’m listening now. So tell me what you want to do, really?”
“I want to get out of this car and be alone.”
“We can go somewhere together, but I can’t let you be alone.”
“I want to be alone.”
“I can’t let you be alone.”
“You said you would let me do whatever I wanted.”
“Please, I know I’m being selfish right now, too, but I don’t want you to disappear. I care about you too much to let you do that. I don’t know how to express it sometimes, but I need you to know that I love you.”
“It’s too late to change anything.”
“It’s not too late.”
Natalie awoke. Day 127. Her bed was the safest place in the world.
Four months since the quarantine.
The blue birds were still chirping, as they did every morning. She checked her phone in case service was restored.
Almost like magic, it was. Her heart skipped a beat. She could almost not believe it. Tears involuntarily came to her eyes as she saw how many messages she had missed in that time. Nearly two hundred. More than half were from her sister. There were a few messages of encouragement from old friends who had moved away, wishing her the best, and a few even from her mother and father. It was almost too good to be true.
Her fingers shivered as she dialed her sister’s number. It was the only phone number she had memorized by heart besides her own. She had tried so many times before during the lockdown. Please be okay, she begged to no one in particular. Maybe she begged God.
The phone rang and the world was still. Even the birds seemed to stop chirping. Please don’t be a dream, she begged again.
“Oh my goodness, Natalie! You got service again! Are you okay?!”
Natalie couldn’t help herself. She laughed as hard as she could.
Natasha started to weep, “Don’t cry, it’s gonna make me cry, too!”
Natalie kept laughing, nearly wheezing, “I’m alive!”
“Good, we’re all okay, too… Ever since your phone went dead, things got worse before they got better. A lot of people died out there.”
“Hey, Natasha,” Natalie said through labored pants, “Are you real? Please, be real. I don’t know what’s real or not anymore.”
“I’m real, I promise.”
“Tell me something I could not possibly know, but that I could verify after you tell me.”
“What… would that be?” her sister was hesitant. “Natalie, it must have been so hard for you all alone…”
Natalie thought for a moment but couldn’t come up with anything. She could be trapped in a delusion so powerful that reality itself could be conformed to whatever it is she wished. She couldn’t trust her own senses anymore.
“I don’t know if I’m really talking to you right now.”
“Natalie, the lockdowns will be lifted in just a week. I’ll come see you then.”
“How do I know that though?! What if you’re just all in my head… and then even a week will pass and I think I’m talking to you but I’m not, I’m still alone in this apartment by myself talking to a wall!”
“Natalie, calm down, I know you’ve had it rough, but you survived! It won’t be much longer, I swear on my life.”
She hung up again.
How could she know what she was experiencing was real? Did it truly matter whether it was or not? Of course, it did. It did matter to her, but it was becoming impossible to differentiate between what she saw and what other’s saw to now… she wasn’t sure if she could trust what she heard from the account of others. They were all in her mind, for all she knew.
“I warned you about solipsism, didn’t I?”
A vision of her sister reappeared at her desk, sitting in the chair.
“Did that just happen? Please, tell me. I’ll trust anything you say right now, so please tell me the truth.”
“What if I told you it didn’t?”
Natalie tugged at her hair and groaned, “Then I’m going to kill myself right now.”
“What if I told you it did?”
“Then I’ll kill myself later.”
“So what difference does it make?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I’m so broken.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to know things with certainty. I want to be able to build on top of something I can trust in for sure, but there’s nothing. I can’t rely on my own senses, how am I supposed to trust anything then?”
“What a dilemma,” the vision of her sister had the voice of her therapist. At some point it morphed into her, “You should think hard about what you’ll choose to trust. Everyone chooses at some point, whether they realize it or not. So I’ll change my question. What do you want to believe in?”
“You can’t anymore. You’ve unlocked the subjective magic. Truth might exist, but you’ll never be able to know it when you see it. Too much of your own fluff around it,” she made hand motions as if drawing a cloud. “It’s like your own soul has been untethered and unlocked.”
“If I just wait a week,” Natalie whispered, “Just one week.”
“If you do and your sister does not come, what then?”
Natalie cried out in agony. “What do you want from me?!”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“I want to leave!”
She hobbled over to the door, her legs having gotten weaker from the months of lack of movement. She put on her shoes for the first time in four months and opened the door, brushing past the rations box that was left there from this morning. She started to walk down the hall towards the stairs of her apartment building. She exited the complex.
Was she even outside, or was she still inside her room?
She started to walk down the street. She thought she would enjoy the sensation of being outside, but she was in a complete daze, hardly noticing the bracing wind buffeting and billowing her messy clothes.
There was no one on the streets at all. It was as if she was the only person left in an abandoned city. The entire world. The universe. Barren.
No cars, and yet the traffic lights kept blinking on as they always did.
As she entered a major intersection, her legs growing weary, she spotted another person. It was someone dressed in military gear from head to toe with a helmet over his head that covered his entire face. Soundproof.
Without a word, he used hand signals to stop her, but she did not heed them. Two more armored men appeared, doing the same thing, approaching her silently. One of them trained his pistol on her.
One of them motioned to the other, pointing to her, pointing to their mouth, and then patting the air, adding a question mark with his finger at the end. It was a hand signal for babble. The other made a signal with two fingers towards his eyes, and then away, adding a circle around his mouth. They nodded.
She knew sign language when she saw it, but she didn’t care. She just continued to walk.
They held up a written sign in front of her, demanding that she return home.
And she walked right past them. The one with the gun holstered it away and grabbed her by the shoulder, moving to detain her.
Something in her jiggled awake. Jolted as if from a dream, but the man before her no longer was merely wearing a helmet. It seemed to her like she was facing an automaton — a soulless robot that was programmed in a certain way. She struggled away from him, falling to the ground from the effort.
For some reason, she came to the conclusion that they were going to capture her and experiment on her. Expose her to the Plague to see how she’ll progress. And so she scrambled to her feet and began running in the opposite direction. They made chase after her, but she was unencumbered while they had all manners of equipment on them. If she had looked behind her, she would have noticed that they split up and encircled her, and it wasn’t too much longer before she was trapped between them again. Before she could do anything more, she was tackled and hit the ground.
The pain, she realized, was very real. That was hard to trick herself to believe it wasn’t.
As things stood, they had to assume she was infected. One of the early symptoms was entering a dissociative fugue state, which they weren’t trained to diagnose, but they could guess to a fairly high accuracy whether or not someone was in their right state of mind. And so they arrested her and prepared to transfer her to a special holding facility for the infected.
As they arrived, she noticed that all personnel were equipped with silencing helmets. The severity of the sight sparked her imagination. She expected the detainment area to be a pit of unwell people, all babbling and mad, infecting each other again and again, desperately communicating in a language none of them understood. She imagined their tortured expressions, clawing for freedom, the smell of feces and body odor, the heat emanating from their bodies. She had imagined Hell. As much as she suffered to avoid this fate, she had run right into it.
Or perhaps she didn’t. She’ll wake up again any moment now inside her room.
“You can. Disconnect yourself from this world. Dive deep into your own and you’ll be free of all of this. This will all fade, and you will bend all things to suit your needs. Simply let go of what is holding you back.” The spirits chanted in unison. “Become your own god. Unlock true magic.”
“What’s holding me back?”
Her sister. If only she had just waited in her room for her sister, but it’s too late.
“It’s not,” she heard her sister say. “It’s not too late.”
The guards lead her to a soundproof room. It wasn’t quite the Hell pit that she had been imagining. They brought her there and confiscated her belongings, presumably to investigate who she is.
Fully isolated in a room with padded walls save for a small camera, a toilet, and a bed, she wondered what to do now. Whether or not she would die in this room. She had gone from one point of isolation to another, and so in the grand scheme of things, nothing’s changed.
Maybe this was where she belonged. Or maybe this was her mind punishing itself, and she would still wake up back in her own apartment moments later. Regardless, she remained quiet. There was nothing to say. The voices had gone silent as soon as she entered her cell.
Her entire life she had been plagued by the babble of voices of people she knew and did not know. She appreciated the quiet.
It was then that she noticed a small touch screen at the door. She had thought it was a window. No, it might be just a window. She couldn’t trust what she saw anymore. Still, her finger reached out and touched it, and it changed, responding to her touch.
There’s no possible reason for there to be a touch screen here. If they saw her absent-mindedly poking a glass window, they would know for sure she was crazy. She went to the far corner where her bed was and lied down.
But what if it was? What if they had set this up so that people could communicate back and forth without having to use verbal sounds? But it wouldn’t make sense for a touchscreen to be built into the door, would it? Unless renovating an entire wall for such a thing would be too difficult, so they fit it into a door.
Her head had started to hurt thinking about it all. She wanted… above all else… just to see her sister in the flesh one more time and to know it was her.
“If you let go of that, you can see me.”
No, she denied, it wasn’t real. She can’t be tempted by what’s just in her mind anymore. If her sister saw her in the state that she was in, she would be utterly heartbroken.
“It’s too late for that now, just accept it.”
“It’s not too late,” Natalie declared defiantly, “Once they hold me here for long enough to see that I’m okay, they’ll let me go.”
“They’ll kill you. They’ll inject you with poisons. They’ll fill you up with gas.”
Nonsense. All nonsense. It’s paranoia. It’s my brain trying to keep itself alive like it’s supposed to but it’s overreacting. Like an immune system that’s eating itself. My own mind is eating itself in order to protect itself.
“They want to harvest your organs and use your flesh to feed the quarantined.”
Enough is enough. Can you please just give it a rest?
She appeared opposite of her. That is to say, she appeared to be looking at a mirror on the door.
“I’m just trying to keep us safe!”
“That’s nonsense. This is all nonsense,” Natalie said to herself.
“I don’t have to make sense in order for me to exist. The nonsensical is merely on the other side of a boundary defined by the limitations of the human mind. What you define as reality isn’t what is reality, it’s merely what you are capable of grasping. All of the fine grains of sand that trickle pass the sieve of your intelligence still exist. This plague that’s halted human progress still exists, even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s how you interact with that reality that you have any control over.”
“That’s right. Everything you’re saying is something I already know, but that doesn’t mean…”
“I’ll tell you what it means! It means you don’t control the truth! You only control your perception of it! And right now, you’re doing an awful job of perceiving the truth, so I have had no choice but to panic!”
Natalie grew silent as she berated herself from the mirror.
“You thought this was a touchscreen computer for a second, didn’t you?! Wake up! You’re staring at your reflection in a window! Of course, I had to intervene by this point because you’ve long since lost your mind. You ignored everything I was saying and indulged in your delusions, and then you ignored reality and just left your room now to be locked up like this! Now, who knows what will happen to you!”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to think properly! No more magic and flights of fancy! If you’re going to live, you need to live in this world, not the one in your head. Ignore the other voices in your head!”
“I’ve been trying so hard to do that.”
“If I’m here, that means you’re not trying hard enough. Do something to make them know you’re not insane or else I’m gonna keep going ballistic!”
How? All she had was a camera pointed down at her, and there’s no way they were going to record her voice given the nature of the plague. She stepped back and started to scheme, but nothing seemed to occur to her. Could she write something down?
It was then that her vision seemed to blur. For a moment she saw the interior of her apartment.
It couldn’t be. “Am I still in the apartment?” All of this… even the feeling of gravel against her forehead as she was forced to the ground, the burning of her lungs as she ran out of breath.
“Am I not real?”
None of it was real. Her entire life was a fabrication that existed within nothing. Her struggles and her torment meant nothing outside of her, and the universe did not care. She did not exist to the universe. She was in a bubble of fiction suspended in the air by a buoyancy that was destined to fail. Reality was rejecting her.
The walls exploded outward around her, revealing everything. Diegesis. The word flashed into her mind. All things are narrated and observed. Her life is a story written and played back endlessly, and she is a character in it. The earth fell away below her and the sky itself receded into a dot. The stars twinkled as she entered an eternal free-fall. And it was there that she met herself again. A brilliant, resplendent, more perfect version of herself.
“Am I dead?”
“You’re very, very close.”
“What do you mean?”
“How best to explain…? Do you know what caused the Babbling Plague?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you mind if I reveal it to you? If you accept my answer, and in return accept me, then you’ll have tasted a truth you’ve never heard before in reality. You know what that means, right?”
“I know.” She didn’t know why she knew, but she knew.
She cleared her throat, “Metaphysica Magica is a text that was written by someone a long time ago in 9th century Al-Andalus. It reveals certain things that denizens of this universe aren’t meant to know. Once you know it and accept it, you start losing your grip on this reality in order to enter your own. To the observer of this reality, you appear to go crazy, babbling about something until you die. There was a Moorish philosopher that discovered these ‘principles of magic’ and wrote them down, eventually going mad in the process. Those who heard his ramblings went mad themselves and eventually spread it around until it was called the Taeun Altharthara, or Plague Babble. It was eventually contained by the sword of the Umayyad Caliphate and his work was presumed totally burned.”
“Yes, you read a copy of that text that someone in the modern day discovered and transcribed. Those who study it and become obsessed with it eventually develop their own strain of the Plague, pulling innocent people into their personal reality so that they won’t be alone in their madness. It’s quite sinister. Magic is something that can never mix with human beings who have desires, because it will inherently become corrupted by any desire whatsoever, including the desire to both isolate into your own world but remain connected with others. You might think of it as ironic, but it’s because you only understand magic as a means to acquire what you want. These principles guide the entirety of your universe; there’s no way it exists just to cater to human whims.”
“I understand. We’re so much smaller than we think. And yet we have the ability to become our own universe. It’s… the hubris that we have to say that we are the center of our universe, because it’s true… but it isn’t. Like a paradox. It’s all so vast.”
“Paradoxes are normal. It means there are truths that only appear contradictory to your level of understanding. There’s something deeper that you just haven’t grasped yet, and that is a healthy place to be — accepting what appears to be contradictions.”
“So how can I know what is true? How can I believe in anything? I can’t trust my own senses anymore.”
“You seek singular answers for questions to which there is no one answer. Fight to your heart’s content to discover the truth. It is what mankind has been attempting since the dawn of your collective awareness, but you weren’t given life to be miserable in trying to understand why you were given life, you know.”
“What do you mean by given life?”
“In the same sense you did not make your own body consciously, or you cannot beat your own heart, or you digest your own food. These are things done for you by a body that you have no control over, just as you have no control over when you enter this world and when you leave it.”
“Does that mean there is no hope for me? That I’ve contracted the Plague now?”
“You’re very, very close. You know what you must do.”
“I must choose.”
“To accept a world of suffering or to abandon it.”
“Yes. Reality would reject you as quickly as you rejected reality. It is a two-way street. Either you live in the same world as everyone else or you isolate yourself in your own world.”
A few weeks passed. They had assessed that she was not infected with the plague, setting a court date for breaking quarantine. However, with the institutions of governance and law overwhelmed as it was, she was comparatively slapped on the wrist with a heavy fine and allowed to return home once the lockdown lifted. She chose instead to go to her sister’s house. Her mother would be there, too.
Natalie arrived at the doorstep, less than groomed, in a cheap shirt and jeans that she could borrow from the detention facility. It was hard to describe the smell that it had — something like a distant onion. She knocked against the door. “Come in!” In that moment, she became extremely aware of herself. The nerves in her hand tingled as her brain sent the orders, muscles contracting and lengthening as blood coursed through the arteries that supplied them. The sensation of door knob metal against her skin. Time passing. Zero into infinity. The present moment and the feelings she had.
Terror. Hope. Anticipation. Dread. Love. These were too real. Her mind did somersaults. They were reactions to external stimuli that she had no control over. If she did, she would not feel them the same way. Most of all, she is surprised, and it is this emotion that she relished. For the first time in a long time, she is joyfully, tearfully surprised to feel with perfect clarity.
And in that perfect moment, everything stopped. The birds hung in the air. The heart in her chest was quiet. The wind ceased to exist. And she exhaled, now one with the universe.
She opened the door and knew that she was no longer alone.
As the littlest lamb that the shepherd adored
Lay awake in the night as the mommy sheep snored,
All the thoughts in his head were about what was said
By the sheep to the shepherd who rested in bed.
“We will grow big and strong, and produce lots of wool!
So when winter arrives you can take up your tool,
And just shear off a little and make a wool cap,
Or a coat, or a blanket to cover your lap!”
Yet the littlest lamb had a problem, he knew,
That he could not grow wool like the other sheep do.
He was made a wool sweater which kept him from cold,
But it made him an outcast, or so he was told.
“Little lamb, little lamb, who cannot grow a hair,
Do you know what will happen to you at the fair?
They will judge you as weakest and cheapest of all
And the shepherd will sell you when leaves start to fall.”
And the littlest lamb, who just wanted to cry,
Overcoming his feelings, decided to try
And discover the reason that he was a lamb
Who had nothing to offer the shepherding man.
As the dawn of the day lit the green of the hill
And the sheep in their slumber were quiet and still
Went the littlest lamb to the edge of the wood,
and encountered a rabbit who saw him and stood.
“Little lamb, little lamb,” said the rabbit of white,
“Are you searching for home? Were you lost in the night?”
But the lamb was so focused on what he had seen
It was fur that was beautiful, white, and pristine.
“I am looking for answers to how I can grow
A nice coat of white fur that can blend in with snow.
If you tell me the secret then I can return
To my shepherding master whose love I must earn.”
“There is no other animal able like me
To acquire a fur that’s so pleasant to see.
I know not how I do it but maybe elsewhere
In the forest is someone with answers to share.”
So the littlest lamb ventured deeper inside
To discover whatever small thing he can find.
As he wandered he saw on the branch of a pine
Was a feather as vibrant and blue as the sky.
“Little lamb, little lamb,” chirped a bird from her nest
“You appear to be out on an urgent request!
For a sheep such as you has no wings and must walk.
What could bring you so far from your shepherd and flock?”
“Does a feather like that,” asked the sheep with a frown,
“Only come from a wing?” to the bird looking down.
“Can a sheep such as I grow a feather like you?
If my master could see it he’d quite like it, too.”
“You do not have a way to grow something so grand.
But you worry the master you love could demand
That his sheep do a thing that is not meant to be?
Is your master so strict that you yearned to be free?”
With the words that were painful to hear and receive
Did the littlest lamb say his greetings and leave.
And as sunlight streamed down on the leaf-dappled path
He encountered a fox who had seen him and laughed.
“Mister Fox,” said the lamb, who could not grow his wool.
“Do you know how your fur is so orange and full?”
But the fox was amused by the sight of a lamb
Who was dressed in a sweater, and started to plan.
“Little lamb, I can tell you the secret and all,
But the fact is the sweater you wear is at fault.
If you give it to me then these questions of yours
Will be answered and you will have trouble no more.”
But the littlest lamb could not dare make that trade
For the sweater was something his shepherd had made
And a symbol of how much the littlest lamb
Was beloved by his master, the shepherding man.
“Suit yourself, little lamb,” said the fox with a yawn,
“May you safely complete the adventure you’re on.
For the forest is full of surprises enough,
So my only advice is to act like you’re tough.”
With a swish of a tail did the fox disappear
As the warning he gave filled the lamb with a fear
That he ought to accept he’ll be sold for his flaws
At the time of the year when the leaves start to fall.
But a rumble and growl shook the lamb to the core
As a slumbering giant rose up from the floor.
With a jaw of sharp fangs and a coat of gray straw
Right in front of the lamb was the wolf’s gaping maw.
With a bleat and a cry did the lamb run away,
As the predator wolf decided to stay.
For the wolf was still tired from hunting all night,
He had yawned a great yawn and returned to sleep tight.
But the littlest lamb in a panic he ran
Soon entangling himself in the thorns of a plant.
As he cried and he cried for the shepherd to come
He regret ever leaving the place he was from.
He was hungry and lonely, the littlest lamb
As he cried and he cried for his shepherding man,
But between all the noise came a shout from outside
From a voice that he knew and that he recognized.
“Little lamb, little lamb!” said the shepherd again,
“I can hear you are calling, my littlest friend!
Stay right there, do not move! I am coming to you!
You are scared, yes I know, but I’m just about through!”
With a push of his staff did the shepherd arrive
With a sigh of relief that his lamb was alive.
While the thorns all around had entangled the sheep,
The good shepherd could see just the thing he would need.
With a shear in his hand and a flick of his wrist
Did the sweater get torn down the middle and split
And the littlest lamb was now out from the thorn
As free and exposed as the day he was born.
Though the sweater he loved was now tattered and ripped
He was saved by his shepherd who loved him to bits,
And his fears disappeared as the shepherd embraced
His dear littlest lamb in that forested place.
And as summer rains ended and autumn leaves fell
For the shepherd the time came to judge and to sell.
But the littlest lamb had the noisiest snore
Since he knew he’s the lamb that the shepherd adored.
Lady Viona de Gaspar, the young heiress of House Gaspar, descended from her gilded, shimmering carriage onto the dawn-lit cobblestone of Cuvier Street. This was not meant to be her destination, and the old carriage driver knew.
“Are you certain, miss?” he asked in a high tone, adjusting his cap, his voice as wispy as what remained of his beard. “This is not the sort of street for a lady to traipse around in, especially not now with the Plague.”
She patted down her dress with one hand, wielding her parasol like a soldier over her shoulder. “Utterly positive. Now be on your way and tell no one of this as we’ve agreed. I’ve left the rest of your payment in the seat.”
“As you say. Farewell, miss,” he replied with another adjustment of his cap and the snap of reins. The horses heeded their master and clopped on to their next stop, leaving Lady Viona unattended. For the first time in what felt like months, she was finally able to slip away from the manse without someone surveilling her.
She had never been in this part of the city before. Her mother and father would never let her, and her younger brother had no interest in ever leaving the house, and until now, she had no need to. However she heard rumors from the servants of something quite special hidden away here. The empty streets did perplex her. Her image of the town square of the Workman’s District was quite a bit more populated and bustling with life. Ever since the Babbling Plague had re-emerged a few months ago, she was ordered to never leave, which she understood was for good reason.
She wondered if this would affect her prospects of finding what she came for.
Nonetheless, she started her journey down a tight alleyway that reeked of something sickly sweet and pungent, pinching her nose with her free hand.
On Gustave Street, at around the hour for lunch, an adolescent boy hopped off from his stool behind a counter and unwrapped a small piece of bread from a checkered cloth, placing both back on the counter. With another motion, he placed a jar of grape jam next to it.
This was the routine he had established every day for as long as he could remember. In the morning he would open the store. And at night he would close it. On a good day, a few shady types might come in and buy something. On a bad day, he would not interact with another human being at all, and lately, the bad days had become more and more frequent after city life shut down due to fears of the spreading Babbling Plague. He had a thought as he searched for a utensil. The person who delivered his food this morning was different. Does that mean the usual old lady was sick? He made a mental note to ask tomorrow if she didn’t come by.
A small bell rang through the dimly lit, underground shop, indicating a prospective customer had just walked in. With a startle, he fell to the side, knocking down the stool and himself with it. It had actually been a long time since there was a customer, no less a sale.
“Oh!” said a feminine, refined voice, “My apologies. Are you the proprietor?”
He leaned up from the freshly broomed, wooden floor and saw the source of the question, a lady dressed in white, perhaps a few years older than himself, holding a brilliantly white parasol with both hands. Her long, auburn-red hair struck him as particularly unusual and familiar. She had the aura of someone who did not grow up knowing what hunger ever felt like.
That’s when he realized it. “Ah!” the boy scrambled to his feet, bowing deeply, “A lady of House Gaspar! The apologies are all mine! What is someone of your pre-eminence doing in our humble establishment?”
There was a bit of disappointment that she had been recognized already. Covertness was already out of the question then for the Lady Gaspar. “You’re well spoken for someone so young,” she grinned awkwardly, her eyes wandering across the many various items contained within the store, “But it is unnecessary to be so formal. Please, speak with me as you would any other customer.” She started to approach one of them, “Am I correct in having found the Shop of Intrigue and Curiosities?”
“The very same,” the young shopkeeper said, “My name is Antoine, and I can try to help you find what you’re looking for.”
“Yes… and you can call me Viona.” She returned the bow that he had given her, “Antoine, I’m looking for something I believe may be quite rare…”
The boy straightened up the stool and wrapped up the bread back into its cloth. “Do tell!” he said excitedly, “The magical items you find here have all been fully tested to be safe for use, and as such they can be a bit pricier than what you might find in less reputable shops, but I’m sure you’re good for your money, Lady Viona.”
“Just Viona is fine. And money is no matter. If I am satisfied, you have my word that you will be fully compensated.”
Antoine perked up at the words like a fox hearing the squeak of a mouse in the field. Perhaps his next meal might be more substantial than bread and jam. “Of course!” his words practically became song, “Now, please, what is troubling you?”
Viona paused, suddenly feeling her heart take an extra few beats, “Perhaps I shall more describe what I need. A… gift for my lord father. Something to dazzle even the mayor of our city.”
Antoine scratched his head, “That’s rather vague. Can you describe what he likes?”
“I… cannot say I know of his interests beyond the superficial. He is a scholar of history and languages. He enjoys collecting foreign currency. Some books perhaps.”
Antoine moved on to scratching his hairless chin, something that he had often seen his grandpa do. “We have nothing like that, but if it’s history he likes, there is a book here,” the boy approached a small journal in a case of glass, “That records whatever the speaker is saying as he holds it. See?” He opened to the first page and in perfectly legible print was exactly as he described. “Intriguing, no?”
She barely took a look, replying, “It is, but it’s not quite what I am looking for. It’s far too rudimentary.”
The boy’s mood shifted perceptibly, “Rudimentary? The person who made this notebook sacrificed everything to do so.” As he said this, ink appeared on the open page of the book, quoting him perfectly.
“How do you mean?” she asked, her own tone matching the darkening of the boy’s.
He placed the book back in its glass case, as if returning a baby bird to its nest. “The practice of magic is a practice of obsession. The human soul is burned like firewood in order to do the impossible. The man who sold this book to us was its creator. His name, Broca, is etched here on the back cover. He was singularly focused on creating a notebook that could reveal its holder’s thoughts to help his mute son communicate, and in so doing sacrificed his own ability to speak. It didn’t work. He had made an object that requires one to verbally speak in order for it to function. Since it proved to be useless to him, he sold it to my grandpa.”
Viona stared at the book, and then at her surroundings. Shelves lined with seemingly ordinary items. Each one, regardless of the shape, was something that contained the unwritten record of someone’s life.
Antoine said stiffly, “The sale and creation of items that require human sacrifice is illegal outside of the control of the nobility, Lady Viona, nevertheless these items were made and sold to us. What desperate circumstances would have lead to so many of these items being gathered here?
“Just Viona is fine,” she muttered, “I did not mean to impugn the dignity of its creator. I am sorry.”
He shook his head, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable. It’s just that people would come in without the respect these items deserve, and that irks me a little.” He pointed to her left, “Take that water jug for example. Every night, it slowly refills with water. A man named Belanger lost his life to make this. We don’t actually know the details, but my father and mother strive to do their best to find out the history of each and every one of these items.”
“And you remember them all?”
“I have lots of free time here. And I find it intriguing.”
“Very well, what else can you show me?” She decided to politely ignore the hypocrisy of treating these objects with respect and still choosing to sell them in a storefront. Money was still money after all.
“This item,” he said, gingerly holding a toy horse as if it were a live animal, “Is quite special. Anybody, including your father would think it quite delightful.”
“Allow me to surmise that it moves on its own,” she guessed with conviction.
He smirked, “Not exactly. This was crafted by a toymaker as his greatest creation. If it is ever lost or destroyed, it will return to its owner the next day as good as new. You need only write your name along its belly and it will return to you.”
Viona frowned, shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she thought. “That’s fascinating, but not particularly as impressive as I would have hoped… Oh, not to disrespect the creator!” she threw a hand up to her mouth as she realized what she had done yet again. “But I am looking for more. Something quite powerful, though it might not appear that way.”
The boy noticed her pale blue eyes glinting like deep set gems, dissatisfied and hidden among the vines of red hair that curtained her face glancing to and fro. Nothing here would be enough. Neither the Shield of Tresca’s Section nor the Hauy Crystal, perhaps the most interesting items on display.
She sighed, running her fingers along a shelf, “You said these out front were all tested to be safe for use. Where are the other items?”
Antoine gazed back “I am starting to think perhaps you’re not telling the whole truth. What are you really after,” he placed the toy horse back on the shelf, somewhat needlessly, “Viona?” It felt as strange to say as he thought it might.
“These contraband items found only in the armpit of the city… There’s a reason I am here but I cannot say.”
“Then I’m afraid there’s little I can do to assist you. We are quite cautious of anybody who mean ill towards us considering our line of work.”
“Fine,” she spat, “You’re right. I haven’t thought this through. To be perfectly honest, I am looking for a very specific book. But much bigger than this notebook you have there, and I don’t see anything of the sort out here.”
“If you want a magical book, there are libraries outside of the city…”
“I have heard that the book I’m looking for was sold to your family. You must have a… another chamber or a cellar where you store them, am I right?”
“We have a store of artifacts underground, but how long ago was this?”
“Years ago. Before either you or I were born.”
“What is the title? Who is the author?”
“I do not know the title, but the author was a man by the name of Justus Regnault.”
“I’ve heard the name Regnault before…”
“You’re perceptive, Antoine. Regnault was my mother’s maiden name. Justus Regnault is my maternal grandfather.”
“I see! And what magic was cast over this book of your grandfather’s?”
“I… still cannot say, because I am not certain. I am just curious if you could take a look in the back and find the book for me. It is the only book that my grandfather has written that has magical properties. If you just look for something with his name on it…”
“I see! I think I’m starting to get it! I thought it was strange that you came all the way here even with this Plague quarantine in effect. You must be here on a secret mission from your father to retrieve this magical item in order to ward off the Babbling Plague and save the city, but there’s no way he could order someone he cannot trust to secure something so valuable from a place like this, so he sent his eldest child. The one person he trusts the most!”
Viona did not say a word, but her eyes could not meet his.
“I bet I don’t have the full picture yet. Perhaps he did not send you. You’re doing this yourself all alone in order to save us. Wow, you might be a hero in the making… The story you are writing, Viona, will be told for generations to come! In that case, I can’t just leave you here.” Antoine took out a shiny, silvery key. “You and I can head down there ourselves. I never thought that my life here holding down the store could amount to much, but this might change everything!”
He locked up the front door and bid her to follow him. She obliged with an audible gulp as he lead her down a winding staircase even further underground. She held onto his shoulder, other hand tightly gripping her now purposeless parasol. It served as a comforting totem.
In the darkness, Viona asked, “Is there not a single source of light down here…? How are we to find this book?” Her voice echoed across the stone corridor. “Antoine?”
“You’re the type to worry a lot, aren’t you?” he replied without turning his head. Or if he had, she could not tell except by his unflinching descent down the stairs. “Can you tell me what you need this book for if you don’t even know what it does?”
Viona gripped his shoulder tighter, “And I shall say it in words perhaps you’ll finally heed. I’d rather not divulge anything that would harm the dignity of my father.”
“You said before that this would be a gift for him.”
“And that it shall.”
Antoine smiled invisibly, “I don’t even know the birthdays of my mom and dad. They are always off saving the world, or exploring ancient crypts, or whatever else catches their fancy.”
“Are they not the proprietors of your store?”
The boy continued, “No, my grandpa owned the store before he passed. It was his obsession. My father had no interest in taking it up after him, but he just could not keep away from the study of magical items. He met my mom while on an expedition and they really hit it off. The two returned home briefly and left me with my dad’s parents before shoving off for their next adventure together. It’s pretty romantic if you lean back and squint at it.”
“I see,” she said glumly, “I never knew either of my grandparents. My father did not share many stories about his parents, and neither my mother.”
“Hmm, you also seem to make a habit of making everything about yourself,” he teased. “I thought I was telling the story.”
“E-excuse me,” she stuttered, clearing her throat, “I did not mean to.”
“Have you ever used a sentence without the words ‘I’ or ‘me’?”
“Well, most certainly I hav- I meant… Oh!” she caught herself, and then felt heat rise into her face, “I can feel you laughing you know! There’s no point in hiding it!”
“Hey, there’s a sentence! Nice work, Viona. Don’t worry, we’re already at the bottom.” Antoine tried to clear the air of any of her nervousness, but he wasn’t sure if that worked in the least.
Regardless, with one more step, Viona found herself against flat ground as two rows of fires began appearing from thin air ahead of them. “Magic torches?” she asked, already expecting the affirmative.
“The least of the mad things we have down here… There are some dangerous items in this cellar so please keep your hands on my shoulders.”
Antoine lead her on a slow walk through the dry tunnels, walls lined with far stranger, more foreboding items than she had seen in the store front. Some looked like weapons or gnarled branches of discolored trees, others human body parts or grotesque dolls. She was certain she had seen some of them following her with their eyes. In the dancing shadows of the magical torches, everything looked to be writhing and alive.
“I don’t see any books…” she whispered, finding her own voice to be trembling like the flashing fires surrounding them.
“They are stored towards the end,” Antoine reassured her, “As long as you don’t touch anything, nothing will happen. We wouldn’t transport anything that has a mind of its own down here.”
“Are there truly objects like that?”
“There are. All of them originate accidentally from people with unhealthy attachments to certain objects. Sometimes the object is given a sense of purpose that it must fulfill and seems to be conscious or alive, but it’s actually behaving by a simple set of rules. Other times it mimics the person who gave it life as if they had transferred their mind over to it, but everything seems to point to that not truly being the case. Their stories are probably the most interesting, but often times they are the most isolated. With no one else around them, it’s hard to find a source that can tell us more about who they were.”
“How much do you know about magic?” he asked casually.
She offered a long “um” before responding, “The Regnault family is rather famous for having studied the fundamental principles of magic for four generations. I’ve always been interested, but my father forbade me from ever studying it in earnest as my mother had. He’s not the biggest proponent of anything magical. In fact, sometimes I wonder why they ever got married.”
“I know about as much as you’ve told me. That souls serve as the active force that fuels all magic. Magic spells and the like are incantations that focus the ambiguous uncertainty within the soul into impossible certainties.”
“You got the fundamentals, as far as I know. Something doesn’t add up about your story though. If your father hates magic so much, why marry someone so closely tied to it and then sell such an important book to us? Doesn’t make sense.”
“Parents rarely make sense. From what you’ve told me, you’re probably already aware of that fact.”
“Oh, I hope I did not-”
“This is where all of the books are,” he said, an arm outstretched over a small table with merely two books and a lit candle.
Viona let go of his shoulder, approaching the table. “This is truly all?”
“We don’t come across a lot of magical books. They tend to be either too dangerous to sell, not useful to anyone but the writer, or whatever other problem that comes with someone’s obsession involving books and knowledge.”
Viona scanned the two books but they were both devoid of any title or authorship on the cover.
“May I open them?”
“Better if I do that. Let’s see…” Antoine opened the first book, “I remember now. This one is apparently a cookbook. I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.”
“A recipe book? Sounds innocent enough.”
“Ah, right, but there’s more. Any dish made by using this book as a reference is highly addictive. To the point of utter obsession. This thing completely ruined a family or two before it fell into my mother’s possession, and she’s kept it hidden ever since. The original author was actually a mother who wanted her children to enjoy the food of her original homeland… And I suppose she took it too far.” Antoine shook his head in the faint candlelight, “Thank the heavens that my mom’s never been interested in cooking.”
“That’s awful… She gave her life to make such a terrible thing?”
“In this case, yes. It was a conceptual sacrifice of her ability to eat, and therefore, she starved to death. May I ask what your grandfather lost in the process of making his book? It might give us some warning before I take a peek at this next one.”
“I’m afraid I do not know…”
“Fair enough. Here I go.” Antoine plucked the cover with his thumb and index finger.
“Wait!” Viona cried, placing the parasol between him and the next book, “Aren’t you being too incautious? What if it kills you?”
“Will it kill me?” he asked nonchalantly. Almost eagerly.
“I don’t know! I just know that I need the book my grandfather wrote. If you can confirm that he wrote it, I don’t actually need to know what it does! There’s no need to draw a curse onto yourself or anything!”
“A cursed book? Now this is getting interesting! My grandpa used to say that cursed objects are actually extremely rare. When people hate other people enough to curse them, objects are not created to carry the curse, because magical objects require a powerful obsession centered around the object itself. Curses against arbitrary people are usually very weak, like you might find yourself getting caught in the rain or forget an important event.”
“I understand. My grandfather was not the type to carry any sort of grudge… but perhaps this book isn’t my grandfather’s. What then?”
“I’m saying it’s probably not cursed. You have every right to be cautious because you’re an important lady, Viona. Me? I’m just a bored kid minding a shop. My story isn’t as important as yours. You’re gonna save our town from the Babbling Plague with this thing, right?”
“I’m doing no such thing, Antoine. You have the wrong idea of me. I’m not seeking out this book as part of some noble quest.”
“You still haven’t told me why you need your grandfather’s book. I’m just assuming because you’ve given me nothing to work with.”
“If I tell you, I’m afraid it will be unavoidable, so I can’t! I don’t want to believe that it’s happening, but I’ll stake my life on making sure that it doesn’t! That’s why I defied the quarantine and ended up here in this awful place looking for a book that might not exist!”
Antoine flipped back the front cover with a nonchalant toss of his hand. Viona gasped, and the two fell completely silent. Time crawled as they exhaled, both realizing that they had been holding their breath.
Viona spoke first, “This is definitely the book written by Justus Regnault. His name is written on the bottom corner on the back of the front cover. I think this must be it…”
Antoine’s open mouth parted to form a happy grin. “Amazing… to be quite honest I have no idea what this book can do… There are only a few things in our collection in that category. Let us take it upstairs at once!”
“It doesn’t do anything.”
“What?” Antoine took his finger off the cover of the book. “Now I’m confused.”
Viona’s lip shuddered imperceptibly before she spoke, “As I mentioned before, years ago, before I was born, my father sold a book to your family. But the truth was… this book had no magic properties whatsoever. He tricked your family into paying more than it was worth, but it was still written by my grandfather Justus Regnault. My father then used the money as collateral to secure a loan, which is how he started his business. My grandfather was livid when he found out that his apprentice would do such a thing, but my mother at the time was deeply in love with my father, so my grandfather relented and allowed the two to get wed.”
Antoine scratched his chin. “No, this can’t be a fake. That’s impossible. There’s no way your family sold us something like that. Tons of people try to do the same thing, and my grandpa had too keen of an eye to accept such a thing.”
“How can you be so sure?” Viona said, “That was the story I overheard from my father himself.”
“Could he not have been lying to whoever he was speaking to? But what doesn’t make sense to me is… if you believe this book is a fake… why do you want it back? And what meaning is there in lying to me if you don’t believe it? Just what kind of power is contained in this book that your family would go to such lengths…?”
Viona bit her lip and tensed her arms. “You’re not listening to me! You keep assuming that there’s a conspiracy here, but there isn’t! I need this book because it’s a family heirloom that was wrongfully sold to you! Are there any records of how much we received for this book? I’ll double it and ensure you all are compensated, but I need to take this book home with me this instant.”
“You don’t have the money with you upfront?”
“Does it look like I do?” Viona seemed almost on the verge of tears, “I don’t have anything but my word. Consider that even in such circumstances, I have come here, and I am not someone foolish enough to come so ill-equipped if it can be avoided. That is how desperate I am.”
“But help me understand why.”
“You really want to know my story that badly? Even if it hurts me to tell it?”
“I do, right now more than anything. I’ll give you this book for free if you tell me the truth.”
“Do not mock me or-”
“I’m serious. I love a good story more than anything else. If I could read or write, I would be consumed by the books that are out there, but unfortunately, I don’t have that privilege.”
Viona searched for the words but found herself grimacing in silence. She did not know why she said the things she did earlier. It was as if a wild animal caught in her embrace was struggling to let itself loose, scratching and biting in the thrashing. As if she was no longer able to be the only one to know.
“Would it help if I told you something first? The reason I was so sure is because my grandpa loved stories, too. He would tell me countless stories… some impossible fictions and some real life tales he had heard from others… and stories from his own life. I would sit in the upstairs storefront with him, waiting for my mom and dad to return from their trips with more artifacts, all the while listening to his stories.”
“That explains your love of them,” she said dryly.
“Oh, I surely did. More than anything. You might say that I was obsessed with hearing more stories to the point of mania. As a child, I would go out and ask townspeople all sorts of things, which frustrated my grandpa greatly. I garnered quite a reputation for myself in this neighborhood, and every time my grandfather had to cover for my indiscretions. There came a point when I hated, absolutely hated to be stuck inside the store and I would venture off on my own, causing mayhem wherever I went. My friends and I were horrible troublemakers. That was when the Plague first struck the city.”
“The Plague struck about… a few months ago?”
Antoine’s eyes closed as he heaved a deep sigh, “The Babbling Plague first struck the city almost twenty years ago.”
“How old are you, Antoine…?” Viona whispered as she took a step back.
“By now, if I have counted correctly, I should be thirty four years old,” the boy said, his youthful face having put on the expression of a weary workman. “I contracted the Babbling Plague and returned home, rapidly deteriorating. I couldn’t form words by the end of the night. By the next day, I was chanting madly, raving in a trance, slowly losing all rationality. My grandpa was deaf by this time, and immune to the Babbling Plague’s effects, so he did not contract it, and he did his best to take care of me until I might overcome it, but my condition grew worse and worse. A week had passed before he disappeared, and…”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know the details. The intricacies of magic are beyond my understanding. What I know are the effects. He died so that I can still exist inside the store. If I take a step outside of the store, I will disappear and reappear inside the store, much like that toy horse. I don’t know this for sure, but I think I actually did die that night, and my grandpa used an artifact to bring me back at great cost to himself. When my mom and dad returned, they found his body… and they found me. Now in their old age they are still out there searching for a way to liberate me, so that I’m no longer bound to the store. Perhaps so I can die.”
He expected her to run upstairs in fear. He expected her to laugh in his face. Any other reaction than the steely gaze she returned. Viona’s lips pursed, until it parted to form the words, “My mother and father are getting a divorce.”
Dreadful quiet filled the room like noxious fumes. Viona’s irises glistened in the magical candle light as her nose seemed to tremble. Antoine didn’t know what else to add, and so he said nothing at all.
She continued, “I’m not here to save the city. Or unlock the mysteries of my grandfather’s magic. My problems don’t even come close to rivaling yours. I never thought I might meet someone who was unbound from life and death here in my life, and yet here you are in front of me. Your story is so utterly incredible, I’m not sure I fully believe it. What I deal with is nothing compared to yours.”
“It’s okay. It’s not a competition, Viona.”
“I just need that book so my mother won’t hate my father anymore. I’ll say I found it in the library and that he didn’t sell it. That this was a misunderstanding. I know they have other problems to work through, but I don’t know what else to do, and if it’s in my power to do anything, at least it’s this.”
Antoine shrugged, “I see. I don’t think you’re lying, but I don’t have any memory of your father coming to our store, but this is proof enough isn’t it? My grandpa must have accepted it just because it was actually written by the great Justus Regnault, even if it isn’t magical on its own.”
Viona stared at the book, “Antoine, do you think it’s okay to lie in order to save my parents’ marriage?”
The boy pondered this for only a moment, “I suppose all stories are lies. There’s always something that doesn’t go told in a story. The exclusion of some truth is what makes it a story one can tell, which makes it a lie by omission. Even still, should they find out the truth…”
“If they find out the truth, I might end up making things worse. In fact, even with this, they might still get a divorce.”
“Then the least you could do is be honest with the way you feel. It took a lot to wrangle the truth of you, Viona. I’m guessing you’re not the most expressive person even at home.”
“Hmph,” she grunted, “Why am I even asking a ghost trapped in a cave? What life experience do you have that could possibly help me?”
He shrugged, taking no offense, “I know what stories are, and I know that you are a character in your story. You cannot control the other characters in this story of yours, but the way that you tell your story ten, twenty, thirty years from now… that you can control. How is it that you want your side of the story to end?” Antoine picked up the cook book once more, “All of these stories trapped in these magical artifacts ended in tragedy and drama. People who were willing to give up everything in order to pursue a single-minded goal, but I think for most of them, it wasn’t necessary. People who focus their lives onto material objects to solve their problems aren’t thinking straight. It makes for fascinating stories, but… it makes also for tales to learn from. In the end, I think it’s better to live life without the ability to control so much of it.”
Viona picked up her grandfather’s book. “I don’t know what else to do. Will our family be split apart? I feel so unsafe, as if I’m teetering on a tightrope with nothing to catch me below. Every time I think about it, it becomes hard to breathe and my chest tightens as my mind races for a solution, to the point where I would do anything to prevent it from happening.”
“Your story doesn’t come to a halt with your parent’s divorce. Heaven forbid, even if it does happen, you’ll wake up the next morning and the sun will still rise. And you’ll find yourself still in your bed, feeling the same pang of hunger and wondering what jam to put on your bread today.”
“…Are you telling me to just accept it? To not do whatever I can to fight it?”
“Or fight it. It’s up to you, but whatever comes to pass, life goes on because… life just isn’t like stories. Even after you die, your story continues in the lives of those who knew you. Trust me, from someone who just can’t seem to die.”
“Antoine,” Viona said resolutely, “You’ve given me some things to think about.” She carefully placed the book down onto the table, “I don’t think I’ll be taking this book after all.”
He groaned, adding, “Fine, that’s just as good. I wasn’t going to sell you this book in the first place.”
“What?! And why not? You said you would give it to me for free.”
“You don’t have any money,” Antoine winked. She laughed. For the first time in recent memory, she laughed very honestly.
With that, Viona departed from the store. As Antoine waved her farewell, a little disappointed that he failed to make a sale, he took the book up with him to the front counter, ready to sell it to the young lady should she ever decide to return for it.
One day, a day like any other, years after the Babbling Plague swept through the city and vanished, Antoine was preparing for his usual lunch in his shop on Gustave Street. Faluche bread and cherry jam with a little bit of butter. Business has been better lately, and so he’d taken to trying some of life’s luxuries, such as butter. Delicious butter. He thought to himself that luxuries would soon become necessities, and it might be dangerous to proceed down this path before long.
It was then that she returned, as he had expected, but she was taller now. More refined. Her auburn hair no longer draped her shoulders but was tied up into a neatly decorated bun. As she passed through the jingling door of that curious shop, she was holding the shoulders of a young girl — dressed much the same as herself — who looked to be even younger than the boy shopkeeper.
“Ah, good day, Antoine…” she greeted him, a sprinkle of melancholy flaked her words as it left her, “So you are still here, just as you always were.”
The boy shopkeeper greeted her in return, “Good day, Lady Viona de Gaspar. Could this be your daughter? I’ve heard rumors, so I wondered when I might have the pleasure of meeting her.“
“Indeed,” she said, stroking the hair of her daughter who seemed to be overwhelmed by the outside, despite being safely inside of a store, “She’s quite shy, but her name is Vestrea. She’s been begging me to help her learn more about magic, so I brought her to meet you.” The girl nodded in agreement. “Have you learned to read yet, Antoine? I thought if you hadn’t, I could tutor you and my daughter simultaneously.”
“I have been trying, but without someone to tell me if I have been doing it correctly or not, it has been more or less impossible,” he laughed.
“Yes, I can quite imagine. The storefront is covered in new items since last. So many more stories written on these shelves…” The nostalgia in her voice nearly made her sound like the adolescent girl that first walked into those doors.
“You are correct, and you must also have a decade’s worth of stories to catch me up on since we last met.” Antoine said with an eager grin, “What’s been new with you?”
Viona gave a hollow, rehearsed laugh, “So many, many stories,” and with a pained smile said, “Most recently, it seems I’ve gotten a divorce…”
The flustered ambassador adjusted his tie for the tenth time, his own neurotic nature mingling with the resonating effect of his father’s ceaseless diatribes on self-reliance and frugal living. Even on the most important day of his life, or perhaps even in all of human history, he refused to be dressed or made up by anyone but himself or his wife, and she was quite preoccupied with watching the news from half a country away. When the Secretary General of the United Nations specifically reached out to him to head this monumental task, he accepted without much emotion, always keeping an even keel as trained. On the other hand, when he informed his wife of his new position, she was left speechless for over a full day. She had to call in sick from work, although that was a separate issue entirely. And yet now that the moment was finally here, the gravity of this task finally seemed to rest on his shoulders. He took another sip of water, clearing his throat. Would these creatures even understand human speech? He would be flanked by four different highly-esteemed linguists and specialists in communication. But in speaking with visitors from another world… that seemed to him a woeful under-preparation.
“Are you ready, sir?” A young woman asked from the other side of his door. “We’re going to run behind schedule, and I don’t know if it’s wise to keep our guests waiting.”
“I am ready,” he declared sternly, the words more confident than the man.
The two began walking down the hallway as countless scenarios replayed in his mind. For the past few nights, he had imagined that these visitors might appear in all sorts of shapes and forms. Perhaps they would be more humanoid like the lazier science fiction films he had seen as a child. Perhaps they would be robotic, having long since shed their biology for the efficiency of machinery. He even imagined they might be forms of life heretofore unknown on Earth, ethereal beings made up of silicon crystals or a sentient gas. In the end, no one knew anything about these visitors. Many considered them a hoax until every government on Earth began to take them seriously almost overnight. He was not told why they all suddenly did. Just that they did.
The young woman had been trailing behind him, dressed in a well-fitting suit. When they came to a stop before a door, she started to speak, “Mr. Ambassador, there’s been a slight change of plans.”
“What do you mean?” Dread creeped down his spine. When anything was possible, changing plans meant new anxiety.
She took another look at the touch-screen pad in her arms, “Umm, it seems they specifically requested only one person meet with them, and um, that person is you, Mr. Ambassador.” It almost seemed like she couldn’t believe it either.
“Only one?” His mind raced, diving right into paranoia. Was this human sacrifice? Was he selected out of some sort of vendetta from someone on the UN Security Council? He flipped through countless faces and names thinking of anyone who might want him out of the way, but in his long and distinguished career, he had not made any enemies with enough influence to place him in this position. “Did they explain why? Does this mean that these visitors can communicate with us?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Ambassador,” she said, her expression too real to have been rehearsed. A lie would have been easier. “I was told to leave as soon as I told you, as well. It seems everyone else here has been evacuated on their orders.”
“I don’t understand,” he stuttered, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
“Me neither, sir.”
They paused and stared at the ground, until she pursed her lips and offered, “Good luck in there, sir,” before twirling around and leaving with swift, long strides, the clack of her high heels growing distant as he stared at her shrinking into the distance and rounding a corner.
His eyes returned to the door before him. On the other side could be anything. He swallowed his fear and twisted the door knob. He had negotiated far worse situations with some of the most authoritarian regimes on the planet as a diplomat in his younger years. He had been the victim of kidnapping, assassination attempts, and even bombing, but still he survived. He would survive this too. He convinced himself of it and pulled the door open.
He was alone. As far as he understood it, no human being on Earth would back him up. He was disconnected, stepping into the territory of a strange, unknowable civilization.
There in the otherwise unremarkable room was a table with two chairs. In one of them was a bald man, seemingly nude. Cheerfully, he stood up with a welcoming grin, “Come in! We’ve been waiting all day!”
“What’s the meaning of this?! Who are you?”
The man was far too pleased to see him. “You don’t really have words for what I am in your language yet, but think of me as a translator between your kind and our kind. Just like what you have on your mobile devices. It took us a few days before we could engineer me, but here I am!” he smiled, pulling back the other seat for the ambassador to take. “Please sit, we understand this is the most comfortable position for you to conduct diplomacy.”
He did as he was told. The nude man seemed satisfied and took a seat across from him, folding his hands in front of him. “Now, let us begin. We would firstly like to ask you how you all have been as a species since we left you.”
“Yes, that’s right. We uplifted the great apes and embedded an override gene within you all long ago. It’s taken a long time but we’re very pleased with your progress. So how have you been? Well?”
“We… have been well.” The ambassador shook his head, “I suppose, if you want a state of the union of collective mankind, then we could be better. Divisions between nations have started to crumble since the climate crises have forced us to re-evaluate our collective survival strategy.” He stopped and added, “When you said ’embedding a gene,’ are you suggesting that you created mankind?”
The nude man shook his head, “No, no, we let natural selection determine most of that. What we did was make the intelligence and selfishness mutation more likely. Altruism and lack of hunger would lead to a stabilization that we simply could not abide by. We could have picked any creature but the great apes were closest to developing simple tools and they lived in climates most conducive to selecting for intelligence. Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves in explaining all of this.”
“How can we know what you are saying is true?”
“I suppose you cannot, but the results speak for themselves. When we first spied your planet, it was a perfect environment for our kind. Lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Growing reserves of methane. Amazing. Breathable. We set off to settle, but as soon as we got here, imagine our surprise to find that life had sprung up and began oxygenating everything! What a catastrophe! We had no hope of living on a planet filled with so much toxic, burning oxygen,” the nude man sighed and stood up, pacing about the room. It was only now that the ambassador noticed there were no nails or hair on the man. Even the face seemed to be oddly plastic and perfectly proportioned, “We tried asteroids. More than once even, but it wasn’t ever permanent enough. But now after our uplifting intervention, we’re slowly starting to see the planet return to that pre-oxygenized state.”
The ambassador started to think back on his science courses in college, but the nostalgia did not soothe his utter disbelief. “This is ridiculous. What manner of prank is this?”
“Hm? This is no prank. We are very happy with your progress so far. It won’t be long before you’ve liberated all of that wonderful carbon back into the atmosphere from the clutches of these wretched photosynthesizers. Seriously, fantastic work. This has all happened so much faster than we were expecting. In any case, the reason why we wanted to talk with you is to encourage you. Your incredible diligence in extracting as much as possible from your surroundings is commendable. It won’t be long before most life on Earth is exterminated and the atmosphere is back to what it used to be.”
“If that’s true, then why have you decided to contact us now? Shouldn’t you have just let us be?”
“Certainly, if we hadn’t noticed a few hiccups. There’s a powerful group of people out there trying to prevent recarbonization from happening, and it would be in our best interest if they stopped. We don’t necessarily mean for them to be killed or anything. That seems awfully crude. Just give enough incentive so that they stop trying so hard to prevent the recarbonization of the atmosphere. Yes, that is why we have need to speak with you.”
“I do not have any sort of power you seek…”
“But you do have insight into who does. Find the right world leaders and orchestrate something to keep this environmental destruction all on track. We didn’t know who to trust, so we decided to just work with one person at a time. It didn’t really matter who we picked. Anyone that we speak to will be elevated to a position of authority, but you made the most sense for first pick, Ambassador.”
“How do you know I will agree to this?”
“Yes! We’re glad you asked. The obvious answer is that you have to. Don’t worry! We’re not going to forcefully coerce you. We don’t need to do anything drastic. You will want to help us yourself.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Look, if you listen to us, we will give you and your direct descendants the means to live forever. Simple as that. Refuse, and we’ll find someone else. How do you know that they won’t take us up on the offer instead? You don’t, and so you have no choice but to take us up on ours. Will you truly trust your peers not to act in their own self interest? Are they all so high-minded and selfless?” The bald man seemed to grow manic, “Or could it be that you don’t believe it is possible for us to offer this to you? It’s not like you have a choice, right? In the end, human nature has been rigged against your own selves. You know it, too, right? The end of the world is inevitable because there’s no way to build enough trust and organization among all of you. We are your one and only salvation. Selfish or not, it’s the most logical choice you can make. What do you say?”
“So you want me to go and stop the climate strikes around the world? Stop all environmentalist efforts? This is utter madness. The cat is out of the bag, if you’ll excuse my turn of phrase, and so people will work to preserve the Earth.”
The man snapped his fingers, “Yep, you got it. Just for another thirty years or so and it’s basically irreversible. Don’t worry, you’ll have our help. Disinformation campaigns take almost no effort at all.”
Disinformation. There was so much of it already out there. For a while, climate change denial was all the vogue among conspiracy theorists, but it had been beaten into silence by most everyone else. When the first war was fought over water in the Middle East, it had become clear that this was a challenge that would soon affect the entire world. And even still, so many alternative theories had come forward ranging from natural warming due to the age of the Earth or there being no such change happening or blaming it on specific countries and their industries.
“Once cloud cover is gone, the planet will warm up considerably. At that point, the oceans will create a feedback loop and absorb more sunlight. This warmth will likely drive more plant growth, but that can be offset with the survival of humanity. We want to ensure that the planet warms enough to obliterate the possibility of organisms rebalancing the Earth. Just a thousand years without humanity can mean the Earth goes back to the way it was, and we don’t want that. So, to encourage cooperation, we’ll even throw in proof of our good will towards you. Your wife is currently in the hospital in order to receive a surgery tomorrow, yes? This is the third time trying to rid of her cancer? Pernicious little problem, isn’t it?”
Slamming the table, he stood up. He felt the hairs on his neck rise, and his throat clench, “If you so much as-”
“Please, there’s no need for such drama,” the nude man brushed the ambassador’s warning aside before he even finished, “Your wife will never have cancer again. In fact, you can call her as soon as we’re done and find that she won’t need the surgery either.”
Still standing, he asked, “What do you mean? You saved my wife? You cured her cancer?”
“We cured everyone’s cancer. You all were surprisingly close but you needed a few more tweaks and the appropriate delivery vehicle. The news should break in a few days. How do you think it is we made our presence known to your various leaders in the first place?”
“I don’t understand… if you’ve already secured cooperation with the leaders around the world… What do you need me for?”
“They’ve only agreed to keep quiet about our existence. Actually, can I say something funny? Some of them got mad that we found the cure for cancer. Something about making less money by making it public. Well, even if you don’t find it funny, we found it humorous. So amusing. Anyway, we’ll continue to ensure the survival of your species even past the point of no return until we’re ready to settle on Earth ourselves.”
“Then the world leaders must be aware of your intentions at least. How could they all have agreed?”
“Like I said, no one knows our plans but you. And listen, we like humanity. You all have been immensely helpful, and we don’t want to pay back your valuable efforts with extermination or terror, but there’s too much of you who have hyperactive self-preservation instincts. If people were to find out that they were making their own planet inhospitable to themselves… why, imagine the outrage! Imagine the disruption! It would be bedlam. That’s why we need your help to conduct these things from behind closed doors.”
“No one would believe this. I can scarcely believe this.” But he knew that someone else might. For all he knew, he would be killed for disagreeing because he could arrange something against these creatures with the “influence” that they had given him. One bad actor would spell the end for mankind — for all life on Earth. Just one.
The ambassador had been in the room for only thirty minutes before he eventually left more confidently than when he had entered. No cameras or recording devices were allowed anywhere near the facility, and so no one could truly know what they had discussed in there but the ambassador himself. Moments later, he exited the facility by helicopter and left for a different secure facility where he would give his debrief to the UN Security Council. Out of his window, he glanced up and saw a glint before a crescent moon, shining like a star, blinking out of existence, almost like the aliens winked at him.
As he departed, in a single simultaneous instant, every major leader around the world then received the same message from the alien visitors. “We’ll be back in thirty years to see how you all have done! Have a good time!”
The boy tugged tighter the coat of boar pelt draped loosely across his narrow shoulders, shielding himself what little he could from the chill that seemed to shake his very bones. His gaze had begun to waver under the stress of the endless hike now interrupted by a snow storm, his drooping eyelids reflecting the pelt that seemed to slip from his increasingly numb fingers. With another breath and another step, he pulled at the garment once more, as if to protect a flickering fire from the wind — as if to remind his limbs that he was still in control. The sun had begun to set.
The fur coat was all he had left, a gift from the greatest hunter his village had ever known. He was the man that tracked and killed the very boar that maimed his father, who eventually passed from the injuries. The hunter gave the prize pelt to the boy as an offering of condolence, returning to his mountain home a four day journey away. This must have already been a year ago, never returning to the village since.
He was an enormous man. That was all the boy could remember. He had a beard with strands like pine needles, straight and thick, bristling with the same hardness that defined his trunk-like legs and log-like arms. It seemed to him that the hunter could wrestle a bear and win, and there were tales that he did just that. His skill with a club was honed to precision, but it was his spear throwing that seemed almost supernatural, able to strike a target from one edge of the village boundaries to the other. However, he didn’t make for much of a teacher, never able to explain to the other men how to hunt as he did. And so, without his presence, the people suffered.
And it was this task that lead the boy to venture out in search of him in the thick of winter. Even to the point of exhaustion. Even at the risk of dying.
However, finally, in the distance, his tired eyes could start to make out a sign of smoke. Reinvigorated by a glimmer of hope, he pushed forward, the last of his strength pouring into his legs. He gripped the fur coat around him tighter, exhaling sharply through his nostrils with each step, inhaling the sharp, cold air with each pause. Slowly, diligently, deliberately. This was a method to endure long tasks that his mother had taught him. Focus on the rhythm of your breath and clear your mind of every other sensation but the task before you. She could spend the entire night weaving in this meditative state, without even feeling the need for sleep. The hunter once said he would track animals in much the same way. The boy harnessed but a fraction of this meditation in order to numb himself to the agony of his hypothermic legs.
As he neared, the source of the smoke coming into clear focus, at last, his legs seemed to slip out from beneath him, his arms instinctively reaching out before he hit the ground. He couldn’t help but let out a sharp cry of pain, even if it didn’t hurt. He looked back up at the strange, leather-wrapped tent. circular and spacious. He had never seen a structure quite like it. The tents of his village were much smaller and used primarily as workshops. Most of them preferred to stay in caves along the mountain. However, from it, emerged a small, shadowy figure, wrapped heavily in furs, long strands of hair whipping in the wind like an unfinished curtain. The figure started to run towards him, casting off the fur coat in order to reach him faster. Two more small figures appeared at the entrance. His eyes closed.
The next thing he knew, he felt an incredible warmth. Something heavy and comforting pressed all around his body. His eyelids parted only for him to be staring at the head of a boar. With a slight startle, he jolted back, only then realizing that it was the hood of his own boar fur coat. He pulled off two more furs from his body, finding himself next to a fire as three children stared at him. One of them held a makeshift spear, yelling in a language he didn’t understand. A smaller child tugged at her ragged clothes, saying nothing. Finally, the tallest of the three, asked more quietly in a language he did understand.
“Can you hear us?” she asked. It became apparent it was a girl from her voice.
“Yes,” replied weakly, still grappling to understand the situation. His eyes couldn’t help but meet the point of the spear directed at him.
The elder girl touched the spear girl’s hand to lower her weapon, shaking her head. Turning back to her guest, she asked, “Where do you come from?”
“The village at the base of the mountain…” He sat up as the youngest girl handed him an earthenware bowl of hot water. She shuffled off afterwards. “I’m looking for a man,” the boy said.
The girl gulped, her expression darkening, “So far away? You must be looking for our father. There’s no one else that hunts on these mountains.”
“The hunter has children…?”
“These two are my younger sisters. We three were adopted by him. Taught to hunt like him.”
“Will he return here soon?”
“He returns when the goddess rests. He hunts with her.”
“Who is this goddess?” His village had no familiarity with the concept. Did the hunter have a wife?
The girl sat by the fire and started to recall as she stared into it, “She is the light in the heavens that illuminates the night. She has sovereignty over the wild beasts and first taught our father how to hunt when he was a child. She is queen of the forests, the night, and master of the spear.”
“Like a spirit…” In his village, there were shamans who could hear spirits of the world and spirits of the dead, but he had never before heard of any spirit who could boast such power and such personality. But if the hunter works together with this spirit, it would explain his uncanny abilities. Surely no normal man could be so skilled and powerful.
The boy asked, “Does that mean when there is no moon in the sky, he will return?”
“That is when it is most difficult to catch prey, so he rests on those days.” the girl smirked as if she was stating the obvious. “You braved this weather just to look for him. Stay as long as you like. We still have plenty of preserved meat.” She stopped, interrupting herself, “What are you called?”
“I am Boe,” he said shakily.
“My father named us Taka,” pointing to herself, “Nilam,” pointing to the spear girl who spoke a different language, “And Nitah,” she finished by pointing to the shy, little one. “Once these cloudy days are over, it’ll become easier to see the moon. Although… with clouds like these I’m not sure how he can hunt in the night anyway.”
“He has not come to our village in over a year either. Lately, another monster has been killing men in the village who go off to hunt, so we need his help. I can’t wait much longer. Moon or no moon, I’ll go off looking for him tomorrow if that’s what it takes.”
“That’s stupid,” the spear girl named Nilam said confidently in a language the boy named Boe understood, “And don’t pretend. You got lucky finding us when you did. You clearly don’t know how to navigate the night like we do. Any further and you would have ended up food for a pack of wolves.”
“She’s right, that is very stupid. Did you hit your head when you fell?” Taka grinned ear-to-ear as if she couldn’t help herself. Both Nilam and Nitah giggled. Boe might have felt a twinge of offense, but seeing the three sisters interact with each other like that seemed a welcome relief from the stagnant quiet of his home. Caring for his ailing mother without knowing how. Praying to every spirit he knew the name of and finding no answers or hearing anything. He closed his eyes but for a moment as these thoughts overwhelmed him.
He woke up the next morning. The sound of howling winds had ceased. The tent was still warm with the remaining cinders of a nightly fire. A quick scan of the interior met nobody; he was entirely alone.
Equipping his boar fur coat around his shoulders, he poked his head out to find the landscape was painted in thick white. The tops of trees sagged beneath the weight of snow. The peerless blue of the sky had returned. His three day journey lead him to this point. All of his resources exhausted, he had actually found the mountain that the hunter lived on. Suddenly, the tree he had been looking at shook violently, the snow on its branches flying from their perches. He glanced down and saw the spear girl Nilam with a strange implement. She had hit the tree with a small spear.
He hurried over to her. “What is that tool?”
She did not bother looking at him, plucking another small spear with a blackened point from the ground and pulling it back onto a string attached to a curved cane. “It’s a bow and arrow. We were taught how to make it as the goddess taught the hunter.” She loosed her arrow as it went spiraling away into the forest, missing the trunk of the tree she had hit earlier. With a slight frown, she picked up the next arrow and nocked it back. “Use the yew, sacred tree of the moon, carved like a staff that can bend to become the crescent of the moon.”
The boy’s eyes seemed to light up. How come the hunter had never used this before? Or taught them to make it? Then he realized something… it’s possible that the hunter that was raising these sisters was not the same hunter he was searching for. Perhaps he had not found the correct mountain after all. If only he could remember the hunter’s name, but the only thing he could recall was his appearance, and that was barely anything to go by.
“What is your father like?” he probed incautiously.
She shushed him for silence, taking a deep breath. She exhaled. Her fingers released their tension as the string shuddered back into place, the arrow whistling through the air as it broke sideways against the trunk of the tree. The girl let out an audible groan and sat down against an exposed rock. Turning to the boy while unstringing her bow, she said, “He’s wise, strong, and persistent. And he loves to tell stories. He once told us a story of how his father pursued and caught the moon itself.”
“The moon?” He thought about the burly hunter in his head. That man caught a spirit of the heavens? “How did he do that?”
“He chased the moon for seven days as if chasing an animal, and the moon outran him for six. On the seventh day of the chase, without ceasing, he caught it and it even turned red out of embarrassment and anger. The goddess revealed herself and demanded that he marry her for touching her as he did, and he agreed. That’s just the kind of person he was apparently.”
“Who could chase something for so long without resting?”
“Our father is the offspring of the hunter and the goddess. The goddess taught him how to make bows by beholding the shape of the moon. Or something like that.”
“That’s amazing,” the boy said with bulging eyes. “The man I’m looking for must be… your father’s father.”
“Hm,” she grunted, completing her tidying up. “If you want to be of use, collect some dry branches on your way back to the tent. We need to stock more firewood. I need to go find Nitah.”
He did as he was told as Nilam slung her pack across her back and left. As he began his way back to the tent with an armful of twigs, he spotted the elder one, Taka, through the front entrance to the back entrance, working with her hands by an outdoor fire.
She looked up as he dropped the firewood with a clatter, wincing at the sound. Then she noticed what he brought in, quickly snatching two of the straightest branches and placing it in her pile. She seemed to be filing down some wooden sticks to a fine point by burning the stick at one end and rubbing it repeatedly against a now ashy and blackened stone.
“What is it that you’re doing?” he asked.
“Making more arrows. There’s no food unless we hunt, and we can’t hunt without arrows.” She twirled an unfinished one in her fingers deftly. “Do you want to help?”
“Um, Nilam told me to get more firewood.”
“We have plenty of that,” she dismissed, heaving a loosely woven basket of plucked feathers in front of him with one hand. “Cut these in half down the middle, and then cut them in half across. Each feather should give you four pieces. Attaching these with tree sap and bark string will help each arrow fly straighter.”
The two worked in silence for a little bit. “Boe,” Taka said with some hesitation, her focus still fixed on her arrow filing, “Why did you leave your home? Why are you looking for a hunter?”
He also answered absent-mindedly, his focus consumed by the task of splitting feathers, “The men in our village are all too scared to hunt now, and the women and children can’t gather. The forest is stalked by a monster that kills and eats people. I am convinced that the hunter could save us, but no one else believed me.”
“That’s what you said last night. But why you? What made you want to risk your life alone? Won’t your mother and father think that you also have died in the forest like the others?”
His mind wandered to his sickly mother. The villagers have been kind enough to continue caring for him and his mother even after his father died, but how much longer would that continue? “My mother is waiting for me to return. As soon as I meet the hunter, I shall go back.”
“You may not survive the trip back, stupid boy. There’s nothing more important than your own survival. If you die, so does your mother. Do you understand? Similarly, if I die, then my sisters will eventually die without me.”
“But if a time came where you had to sacrifice yourself to save them, what would you do?” he muttered defiantly.
Taka sighed, “We will all die together. Or we will all live together. I can’t stomach the idea of living without my sisters,” she said, holding up a finished arrow. This one looked far deadlier than the ones Nilam was using to practice with. “Snapping this in half is easy. Snapping ten of these in half at once is not.” She picked up ten more arrow shafts and tried to bend it to no avail.
“I understand,” he said, “But how could I get all of the men in my village to work together? They are far too scared, and I am just a child.”
Taka shrugged. “I do not know. Usually I can make Nitah do the work you’re doing, and she’s off gathering today in the forest. She knows that she has a sense for good mushrooms, and so she is obedient. Nilam is also a gentle child, and so she listens to me. I told her to practice her archery since she’s not very good at much else. I do not know how to make any others listen to me, but at least you seem to be doing so.”
Boe glumly split another feather apart. “How good are these arrows? I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Can they really kill an animal?”
“They can kill a person, too. Nilam almost killed you yesterday. She thought you were a dying boar approaching the tent. Lucky for you she didn’t want to waste any arrows, and so she picked up her spear. Lucky for us, too. Our father warned us that if we use an arrow to kill a person, we’ll forever be cursed by the goddess who taught us how to make them.” Taka continued to work, “Allow me to tell you a story. This is one my father loves to tell. There was a man that the goddess favored in a distant land. He too was taught archery and given her blessings, but he was prideful. With his power, he killed many who opposed him and eventually became the ruler of a large mountain. Every village on that mountain bowed to him. The people begged the goddess for help, and she turned and saw what had happened in the short time that she had been away. She was very displeased. The next day, when the prideful man was hunting, the bow transformed into a giant scorpion in his very hand, stinging him repeatedly to death, one sting for each person that he killed with that bow. The moon goddess then placed his body up in the sky so that he may learn to bless people instead of terrorize people as he watched over them from above. I’ll spell it out. The lesson is never to abuse your talents for selfish gain, and never ever kill people with a gift from the moon goddess.”
“Wow… this goddess sounds powerful… are there others like her?”
“Of course, the goddess’s brother is the sun, the one who provides light for us right now. Our father does not speak much of him, though, just not to let him catch you staring at him or he’ll shoot your eyes out with his arrows,” Taka laughed, “So now you know.”
“The shaman told us something very similar…” Boe whispered excitedly, “She said the spirit of the sun demands respect. She must have been talking about the same thing.”
“Must be,” Taka smiled, picking up ten finished arrows and placing them in a long, leather satchel. “You’re surprisingly diligent, Boe. You seem to have finished. Leave those cut feathers in the basket. I’ll attach them tonight. Deliver these to Nilam,” she thrust out the satchel, “And bring back some more firewood if she tells you to.”
Boe did as he was told. As he left the tent carrying the leather satchel, he saw Nilam speaking with the smaller Nitah at a distance. He plodded over, carefully navigating what remained of the snow on the ground.
Nilam swiveled her head to the source of the footstep sounds with an animal instinct. She sighed, “Good, I was just about to head back in to the forest… Stay here, Nitah. And bring back more firewood to Taka.” Nitah nodded, her own basket overflowing with all manners of green and brown vegetation. “Hand me those arrows, and help Nitah carry these things back.”
Boe did as he was told yet again. Nitah chirped shyly, “Thank you,” handing him the basket as he handed the satchel to Nilam. She swung it around onto her hip and dashed into the woods with one motion, disappearing from sight almost instantly. She somehow reminded him of a galloping deer.
As his mind wandered back to the basket he held in his hand, he turned to Nitah, with whom he had not yet spoken. “Let’s collect some wood.” She nodded, replying with a practiced twirl, crouching to the ground to brush away the snow. He placed the basket down and began picking up what branches he could. What Taka had said flitted to and fro in his mind like a buzzing, meandering firefly. Impossible to ignore. He decided to try asking the little Nitah something, “Nitah, if one day you had to leave to find food for your sisters because they were both ill, would you?”
Nitah stopped to ponder the question, swiftly replying with a startling firmness, “Yes.”
“What if Taka demanded that you not risk your life for their sake. Would you stay behind and starve with them?”
“My sister would never say that.”
“So you would risk your life to save theirs, right?”
“Yes. I would do anything for my sisters. Unless they told me not to.
“When I spoke with your sister, she said that it’s better to live together or die together, and I don’t know about that. Isn’t it better for even some to live rather than everyone die?”
Nitah paused for a while, “That reminds me of a song my father sings.”
She took a deep breath of the crisp winter air and began to sing with a shaky voice.
“The moon did cry \\ As life did fade \\ From eyes that once \\ Saw all the land”
Boe listened transfixed as she continued.
“The hunter’s bow \\ That she had gave \\ Returned to her \\ With barren hands.
For once the two \\ Became as one \\ And swore an oath \\ With every breath.
And so she hides \\ Her saddened gaze \\ To mourn each month \\ Her lover’s death.”
When she finished, Boe did not speak. He thought only of the meaning behind the words, understanding fully now. Somehow. Everything that Taka had said seemed to make sense. The melody haunted his ears and Nitah’s voice resonated inside his head.
The air seemed to freeze with the icy tension that hung low between them. Finally, Boe broke the silence, “I think I understand.” Nitah didn’t respond, choosing to return to the tent ahead of him alone. He picked up what he could, including the basket, and started to head back as well, when at once he heard the sound of a high pitched cry. From the corner of his vision he saw Nitah return, sprinting towards the direction of the scream. Moments later, Taka appeared from over the hill, bow and arrow in hand.
“Come on!” she yelled at the boy, whose arms and legs began moving before his mind could catch on.
The three leaped into the forest guided by Nitah’s agile motions. Taka crushed every branch in the way with either stomps or strikes from her bow to make it easier for Boe to keep up, as if she had done this many times before with her sisters.
Just then, a terrible squeal. Loud and guttural. Boe could never forget the war cry of an angry boar. He began to tremble even as he ran, unsure if it was wise to keep charging forward. When they came to a clearing, Nilam was on the ground, writhing, clutching her chest, her bow a distance away. The beast was readying another charge, its tusks long and sharp, its jet black fur bristled, adorning the frame of a creature larger than any of them. An arrow pierced the flank of the boar, the feathers like a flag planted on a hill. Taka drew back her bow and aimed at the boar’s skull.
Her fingers let loose. Her arrow struck its target, but the arrow could not piece the bone. With another horrible roar, it turned its attention to the three of them and began to charge forward. Nitah grabbed Boe’s wrist and jerked the stunned boy towards her while Taka dodged in the other direction, narrowly missing death itself. It slammed into a tree with a mighty crack of splintering bark.
“Nilam! Get up!” Taka growled, out of breath, “Quickly!”
“I can’t! It hurts!” she replied in bitter anguish.
Boe ran over to the bow and arrow that once had been Nilam’s, separating himself from the others. He nocked it back awkwardly as he saw the two of them had done, aiming it at the boar who had begun to turn around. He breathed in.
Every doubt in his mind flitted through in an instant. Every impulse to abandon everything and run. Every nerve in his body filled with the fear of death. The image of his ailing mother. His father’s corpse.
“Boe, don’t!” Taka bellowed.
He breathed out. At the final instance when his entire body seemed to stop every movement, he let go. The arrow whistled through the air and landed with no power against the hide of the boar. Somehow, he had hit the boar, but failed to do anything to dissuade it from its next charge.
The boar charged only him.
As it did, Boe knew he had no place to go. This might have been it. His journey was over.
He reflexively closed his eyes when the sound of the boar’s squeal filled his ears. Then the tremendous thud of a mass hitting the ground. He opened his eyes once more to find the boar’s eye pierced by an arrow. He looked to Taka who was not holding her bow; she was holding Nitah instead. He traced the arrow shaft back to someone else.
“Oho! This is no boar!” came a different, gleeful, enormous, booming voice. Boe did not recognize it, nor did he recognize him. The hunter had returned, but it was not the man he knew. This one appeared to be much younger than that hunter, and not nearly as physically large. “Why do you wear such a confusing pelt, child?”
“He is a boy,” Taka said through tired pants, “We almost made the same mistake when we first met him too.”
“Nilam, my child!” he called out, seemingly unworried, “Can you walk?”
“No…” she groaned.
“That is no good… Taka, Nitah, carry her back. I and the boy shall retrieve our kill. No more hunting until you improve your archery, Nilam! I have warned you many times before!” He unstrung his bow with the skill of a master, still speaking, “The Sun God retreats to his home early. We should do the same.”
The sisters left ahead of the man and the boy as he began carving choice parts of the meat on the spot.
“Mr. Hunter! I have a request of you,” Boe interrupted breathlessly, still panting, heart still racing in his ears, “Please, come with me back to my village and help us slay a monster that has been terrorizing us!”
“A monster?” the hunter grimaced, “I am no monster slayer. I hunt in the domain of the goddess as she wills. You ask the wrong thing of me.”
“I heard from Taka that you’re the son of the moon goddess… There’s no one else that can do it but you.”
“It is as you say. My mother is the moon itself. She taught me how to create the arc in her image. But that does not make me a hero. Then, as I finish, allow me to tell you a story.”
“There once was a lonely god who lived on this very mountain and ruled over its land. He was lonely because he could not trust others. But this is natural, of course. To trust anyone foolishly is opening up yourself to hurt and exploitation. To doubt and remain at distance is to protect yourself. And so this god, who could not trust anyone, lived a very solitary life. The god of the mountain and the people who lived at the base of the mountain began to come into conflict over territory. Individually, these people were far weaker than he was. He could best any of them in single combat, and so this alone kept them from ever taking this mountain from him. Still, he began to attack their new settlements and the people grew resentful of him. However, over time, they began to grow more and more numerous despite these attacks, while he remained as one. This should have scared him, but he had a realization. The god of the mountain thought to himself, ‘Ah, but surely they are like me. I have seen it. They also cannot trust one another for they cannot see what is in each other’s heart.'”
Boe listened with rapt attention, “Then what happened?”
The hunter seemed pleased to have a new listener. He continued, “The god decided to wait, for he knew that it would not be long before the growing number of people would come into conflict among themselves. There was nothing he needed to do. And so time passed and as he predicted, the people at the base of the mountain began to struggle with one another. But then, a miracle. They stopped fighting. They had discovered a way to trust one another. It was something that frightened the god of the mountain so badly that he fled on his own to another mountain altogether. Do you know what it is?”
“What is it?” Boe asked.
The hunter obliged, “A goddess. You see, organizing any amount of people requires the presence of something that they all believe in. This gives them a reason to work together. Without it, you’ll be limited to families fighting families, and even then among family members, there can be distrust. My father has told me of more than enough such incidences he has witnessed himself. Villages that are not united in the blessings of a god or goddess will not survive long and will never grow past the size of a few family groups. But once they do, they will attain power to frighten even the spirits of the sun and moon.”
Boe seemed to understand, “You’re saying that it’s not about finding a hero, it’s about us? Just people?”
“Heroes are great. They are role models to follow. Teachers to learn from. But relying on individuals is to deny the power that we can all participate in. What I’m saying is that you need to return to your village and find a way for the men to work together to defend your village. Don’t come seeking my help.” He handed Boe the pelt of the jet black boar. “Come, I shall continue this story back at our home.”
As they returned in the light of the setting sun, Boe asked countless more questions, but the hunter told him to save his breath for carrying the weighty amount of meat back to the tent. As they arrived, drenched in sweat, they found Nilam resting by the fire under mounds of furs with Nitah tending to her and Taka tending the fire. She took some meat from Boe and began roasting it over the fire.
As the hunter settled himself, he continued his story, “Now then… let’s wrap this up. The lonely god of the mountain tried to ask help from the god of another mountain, to no avail. The other mountain gods pushed him out until he returned to his mountain, battered and bruised. The people of the villages banded together and with the power of the goddess of the moon who took their side, slew the god of that mountain. They dedicated the mountain to her as tribute, and lived in peace ever since.”
“They banded together…” Boe slumped his shoulders, exhausted, “But I don’t know how to make our village band together like that.”
The hunter thought for a moment, “How about I give you something to help then?” He handed his bow to the boy. “Call it a gift from the goddess. I shall show you how to maintain this bow, how to craft arrows, and how to shoot tomorrow morning. It will not be enough to slay a beast by yourself, but teach the men of your village this very same thing and you will have power to slay even a god of the mountain.”
Taka’s eyes widened, “Your bow? The ram horn bow you spent weeks carving?” She clearly had eyes on the weapon for herself.
The hunter motioned for the two of them to stand, “Come, one more thing.” He lead them outside where the stars had already begun to appear in the dimming night sky. “Do you see that line of stars? Those three bright ones there all in a row? I’m going to trace a figure with my finger. That is the sign of the hunter, and those three stars make up his belt. Further up is his bow. Remember the names Taka, Nilam, and Nitah. That is what I have named those stars. Point to it as a sign that the celestial hunter watches over you and the men of your village. Pray to that hunter and let him give you the courage to go. The hunter shall always stay in the southwest. Pray to that hunter and he will guide your way even on the moonless nights.”
The boy thought for a while, gazing up at the sparkling night sky when a strange realization dawned on him. “Are you telling me to make up a story?” Boe asked hesitantly, “So I can trick people into fighting together?”
The hunter placed a heavy hand on his head, “These stories are not lies meant to deceive. They inspire. They explain. They teach. They give life to an otherwise miserable, difficult existence. Most importantly, they give hope. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the truth of everything, but until then, these stories are all we have. Without them, we’ll all just be lonely gods of our own mountain. The goddess comes alive this way.”
Boe stayed with the hunter an additional seven days. Upon returning to his village with gifts of meat, the men began to question where he had gone. He seemed a different person altogether from the little Boe that they knew. He answered them with a story.
“I journeyed to the mountains and met three spirits of the sky, Taka, Nilam, and Nitah. They were daughters of the celestial hunter, who is the son of the moon spirit. The moon taught me the nature of this holy tool,” he held up the bow and arrows, “Which is far stronger than any man’s thrown spear. When the sign of the hunter and the full moon is out, we will be given the strength of the celestial hunter himself. With this, we can all come together to slay that monster.”
The men murmured among themselves, doubtful. Skeptical. Untrusting. And yet still, they had listened enraptured by the story he had just told. Boe did not waver.
“Will you slay it then?” one man asked, his eyes betraying an utter inability to grasp what the child was saying.
“No, I cannot do it alone. We all need to work together and build more bows in order to win. We will all survive together, or we will all die together. That is what the spirits have taught me.”
The shaman of the village now was even listening. “You? Channeling the spirits? A boy who knows nothing?” she scoffed, dripping with derision.
Boe took a deep breath of the crisp, winter air. He breathed out. His thoughts clear, he spoke, “Allow me to tell you a story of how I communicated with the moon goddess.”
Why do I feel so trapped
In what comforts I sought?
Why am I unpleased
With the stuff that I bought?
And what is the point
Of my striving and toil
If I never know the sound
Of my feet against soil?
That itch in my heart
I wish I could say
Could be scratched by someone
Who would like me to stay.
But that itch in my heart
Will always remain
‘Til I get myself moving
And run far away.
I was taught to obey
And listen real good
I was taught to behave
And act like I should
So I listened real close
To that voice deep inside
If you ain’t gonna live
Then you already died.
That itch in my heart
And I truly believe
Is something I’ve kept
Well worn on my sleeve
‘Cuz that itch in my heart
Will always be there
‘Til I get myself moving
And flee from these cares.