I traced the scar where they had folded the skin of my upper arm into a flap, trimmed it, and stapled it shut as if it were a paper bag.
In the kiosk, where during high school I roasted and sold nuts, I held the top of the paper bags shut with one hand while the other hand slid the jaws of the stapler over the creased edge and sealed it with three evenly spaced staples that aligned perfectly with the top of the bag.
It took ten folds to complete the model of paper airplane that my classmates favoured. Performing the first fold, halving the paper lengthwise and aligning the two long edges perfectly, we called building the foundation. It was the most important fold. Executed with precision and the finished plane would be endowed with the stability and grace granted by symmetry. Executed poorly and the plane would flip over and plunge to the ground.
I was crying, enfolded in my mother’s arms while she dabbed at a cut on my forehead with one end of a crumpled tissue and at my tears with the other. Her face shifted between concern and sympathy. She rocked me as she carried me to the top of the back steps, and she continued to rock me as she turned and we looked out upon the backyard and my field of play; the sandbox and the metal trucks, including the dump truck with its rust-sharpened tray that I had fallen and glanced my head upon.
“No stitches today,” she murmured through her kiss upon my crown.
2. From the same Hill (3:00, 540 words)
Hannah huddled up to him on the ledge to sleep. She had the edge, but David had the cold rock in his back. She had his arm around her, but he had his face in the back of her neck. The scent rising from her skin overpowered the smell of damp stone. With that constant removed his dreams drew from their own depths and instead of relentless visions of his hands reaching out for holds and into crevices he would find himself walking along roads between fields, the air hot and dry, the asphalt hard against the soles of his climbing shoes. Sometimes there were houses, but he could never go into them. Opening a door would wake him back on the ledge, the mist lightening and the climbers stirring.
Their morning preparations were quick and mechanical. Back into their harnesses, Hannah rejoining Joachim, David rejoining Bernard, the tinkle and scrape of other climbers’ equipment shimmering in their ears, and they were onto the wall.
David and Bernard would alternate leading. Hannah and Joachim inch-wormed up the wall, Hannah leading, then waiting for Joachim to reach her before setting off again.
That morning the mist that played against the wall was particularly thick and the rock face wet. The climbing was not particularly hard. There was plenty of time to rest while your partner moved. The length of rope marked the length of the climb and it was a natural length that saw you finish your stretch just as fatigue began to be felt. And either the coarse wall had been made for their hands or their hands for the wall, so well did the outcrops rest in the palm or the fingers fit into the cracks.
Hannah fell without a noise. It was Joachim’s cry that made David’s head snap around and catch that one quick grab at the harness clip and the hand returning to a desperate grip on the wall just as it was ripped away, Joachim following Hannah, who fell silently, face down, arms stretched out above her head, fingers splayed as if to catch the wind. For a moment they formed a tunnel through the mist, revealing the climbers below them, before the current of their passing spun the mist shut behind them.
That night he dreamt he was sitting with Hannah on a ledge.
“I didn’t fall. I chose the air. Like this.”
She slipped off the ledge and David reached helplessly for her and woke up, his arm dangling, the night still holding. His fingers, so used to rock, felt lost in the air.
The dream was true. Small moments of Hannah rose together out of his memory, confirming it. Through the thrumming of some intimate tether he could still feel her falling, the wind catching in her hair and at her climbing jacket. And through that tether he felt a tension, a subtle constant pull out from the rock. He sat up and shuffled back from the edge until the wall was pressed into his back.
Would she keep falling as he kept climbing? Would she and Joachim draw each other in along the rope that joined them? Would they sleep in the air like he and Hannah had slept on the rock?
3. Inland Sea (1:25, 255 words)
Martin was the next to go over the side. In the impenetrable darkness the raft shifted and the water gave a gulp.
“Martin? Lucy? Michael? Katie? Charles?” called Agnes
“Farewell, Martin,” said Charles.
“Pity it wasn’t you,” said Agnes.
There is little space between the water and the darkness here, and no beach or rocks to drag yourself out upon.
“I’m staying just to piss you off,” said Charles.
Do not mistake the wind that coaxes the surface into small peaks for a guiding hand. There are no currents, just local drifts that dwindle into self-effacing eddies.
“Lucy? Michael? Katie? Charles?” called Agnes
“Farewell, Katie,” said Charles
“Every. Fucking. Time. Why?”
“Worried I’ll soon be saying it for you?”
“You won’t get the chance.”
The raft floats in the same primordial night that made light inevitable, but no brightness would spring above it.
“Lucy? Michael?” called Agnes.
“Doesn’t he shit you too, Michael? Michael?”
“You better stay over there.”
“You think I want to be closer to you?”
You will choose to sink. You cannot fight for nearly as long as you can submit, and you cannot swim for nearly as long you can sink.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going now.”
“Sit down, Charles.”
When you slip below the surface and drift ceaselessly downward you will forget air, forget light and forget yourself. Nothing dissolves in the inland sea, but when all you remember is its black water you will be indistinguishable from it.
4. Two rapid formations (3:24, 612 words)
When the sky had dried and the core had cooled and the last mountains had been worn down to mere undulations, there was no longer any barrier to the wind and it became, even more than sun, the motive force on the barren earth.
In the high tangent planes of the north, the wind excavated the obscure detritus of the last life. Buried but not fossilised, dusty but not tarnished, they had given their materials the immortality they could not give their flesh.
Every million years or so the peaks of their towers would be revealed to the sun and the stars and then reburied. The dry mineral dusts would resettle and reform.
Eventually the wind, accompanied by the slowest creep, a mineral tide, epochs between troughs, sees the full sweep of the final civilisation scoured out to the cold mantle it clung to.
Their minutiae, their appliances and bric-a-brac, everything not fixed, everything not hooked with deep steel fingers into rock, was gathered by the wind and separated from the architecture.
Under the pressure of the wind, constant over centuries but shifting from moment to moment, it all moved away from the towers like a rubbish heap become ambulatory. Debris piles and is blown flat by the wind. The pieces collide and tangle. What is whole is reduced to fragments along boundaries leverage and torque find and their makers did not expect. The fragments mix and tangle, soften in the sun, harden in new alignments during the night. Transient bundles grow and suddenly split apart as materials weaken and give.
It is not all structure. Some portion of all of it, melded, inseparable from shape and material, is control, long dormant control, and senses signalling their impressions to nothing.
The wind urged the heap across the globe. It abandoned it occasionally for hundreds of years to settle, then it returned to galvanise it back into motion.
Eons after it was scooped out of the dead city the wind blown refuse meets a lone butte. The wind drives it against the rock and it splits into two distinct bundles and they continue in parallel. In that act of separation something in each of them, perhaps a hinge in one, a charge collected in an interior well of another, captures a moment, a change in light, and distinguishes it from the next. Around those arrangements that hold that distinction more gradually congregate.
They look out in all directions. On the sand, on their shadows, on the sun and the dust filled sky, on the distant moon at night and the few bright stars, and each other. They feel the wind in each part and against their bulk. Grandly a pressure, through gaps and in pockets a living urge. They hear it whistling through their parts, through their partner, hissing over the sand. They channel it as it pushes them and call out, the first calls since the city of their source went quiet.
For a thousand years they travel in awe. They subside in the nights and rejoice in the days. They wonder, they sing, they stay in front of the sands and the dust, until the wind excavates a narrow canyon in their path and drives them between its rough arms. They call as rock walls appear to rise up around them and shadows fall over them while the sky above remains bright. The wind weakens, its strength dissipated by the confined space, and they stop.
Over centuries the canyon is re-buried. Awareness fades away as sand and dust fills every sense. Memory reduces to a single colour, the particulate sky at its brightest, and then even that at last is forgotten.
5. Slow Water (3:17, 591 words)
Finally there was a sensation. It was a curious sensation — a pressure that increased from all sides, a tension that pulled from every direction; between them she hung interminably and pondered. Yet another ache? She thought she had moved beyond discomfort. Not that this ache could be called pain. It was like being on the cusp of a sneeze or, more so, on the cusp of tears.
The sensation intensified until all her thoughts were compressed into that ache and she felt it tightening further, like clay as it dries on your skin, until something gave and she felt as if she were being extruded from her body, as smoke, as wire, into a hubbub of ancient voices.
What did she look like? No longer like the gaunt figure on the bed. Perhaps she was wire folded into a bird or an eel composed of smoke. Perhaps she was just a mote, just a mote with an eye, seeing but not quite being, with an urge to rise.
She drifted downward and that sensation of descent set her struggling upward against the air. It felt like wriggling, like swimming between the molecules of the air, soft and adhesive, like a mouse in a molasses trap, but though she swam she did not breathe, she did not tire, she merely struggled.
The plaster in the ceiling, the beams and tiles of the roof, were no denser than the air. Above her house the sun streaked by and the moon strobed as she climbed. Above the clouds the curve of the earth grew apparent and her progress became faster as the air grew thinner. The blue of the sky darkened, night and day fused. The stars appeared and grew dense. She left the final tenuous fringe of atmosphere and rushed out to join them.
She moved among them, heard them. They were as immense as she was minuscule, but they were welcoming. Like a kaleidoscope turning, the stars opened not in front of her but around her, and in the expanse revealed she fit like a nut returned to its shell.
Nestled within, she watched space, the tumbling galaxies, the tangling clusters, and watched herself watching space. Somehow she was two, looking at herself and looking at each other, watching space and watching herself. And the watchers looked out to space, and then she was four, eight, sixteen. In the patient, placid column of time she became infinite and, in her pocket, tangled.
And she was a shapeless sea of self, and through all her eyes it was a confusion until as one they paused. Some held fast to each other and more took hold. These processions of self became wisps in their sight, and wisps gathered to form threads and the threads strings, the strings cords, the cords ropes and the ropes plaits, which warped and wefted and what had been a shapeless sea became endlessly unfolding land, intricately choreographed and as beautiful to watch as the stars had once been. And where were those stars? She looked around, but no longer knew where she ended and outside began. She was here, endlessly here, infinitely here, and in every moment at every point, dancing in a joyous tangle.
And in her tangle, from beneath the shimmering music of all her voices, came a new voice, swiftly joined by others, springing up like the lights she once saw dancing across the sand in a beach’s shallows. She followed each one and for each she made a small pocket for it to settle in.
6. Sparrowfall (1) (1:11, 191 words)
While the pilots still had some influence the plane rolled over and then, caught at last by the air, the force of its forward motion bearing against the surface of the wings, it tumbled and flashed like a brilliant silver leaf until the starboard wing snapped and fluttered away. The tumble became an unbalanced cartwheel. The passengers inside, having been callously re-arranged by the tumbling, were pinned to the seats, the floor and the walls, the ceiling, by the centrifugal force of the spin. Like a thrown axe the plane cleaved through the air.
To witnesses on the ground each lopsided somersault appeared hesitant, like the aircraft paused in the air to gather strength before launching into the next roll. So slowly did it turn that it seemed it might not be falling at all, that it had chanced onto a new form of flight, that its motion was so mesmerising that even gravity wanted to see it continue across the sky, that everyone’s wish to keep it and its occupants away from the ground was enough to suspend it in the air, but not to stop its spinning.
7. Sparrowfall (2) (1:44, 312 words)
The folk dance classes proved popular, an unexpected income stream, so to keep the goose laying Lara and Enzo continued to add new classes covering new dance styles and, when those were exhausted, fabricated their own.
During the first session of their “Babylonian Temple Sanctification Rituals Master Class” Enzo led the assembled dancers in a four column formation around the community hall in a slow, syncopated march he had concocted during his drive over. They completed a few circuits and he was about to introduce overhead clapping and accompanying mumbo jumbo when a student at the head of the procession stumbled and recovered into an offbeat step that spread to the rest of the dancers. Enzo, trying to bring everyone back to his original choreography, found his own steps pulled into alignment. As they proceeded awkwardly around the hall a primordial ecstasy swept through all of them.
They might have simply paraded themselves into exhaustion, or been interrupted by that evening’s meeting of the ladies’ auxiliary, except for the open doors of the hall. Drawn by the light as much as a longing for water, the dancers flowed down the steps and into the street.
Freed from regular turns and tight corners, the columns of dancers began to interweave as they marched. Something in the movement of their limbs, in the pattern of their overlapping bodies, captivated the pedestrians and drivers, enthralled them, drew them in. Passers-by followed and joined in as the dancers flowed down the road away from the hall.
As their numbers increased and the dancers were pressed closer together, their gyrations, their waving arms, were constrained and the dance changed again. The interweaving became a simple twining and from above they seemed to shimmer. As more people joined they flowed along the edges of the buildings, around street lights and power poles, between the cars stopped by their advance.
8. Sparrowfall (3) (1:24, 252 words)
“Wouldja look at that.”
Matt looked at it. The television in the break room showed live footage from a news helicopter. A huge mass of people marching, marching with a weird step, weaving and bobbing down The Avenue, straight into the traffic. Cars were stopping and the drivers were climbing out and disappearing into the procession. Pedestrians were joining it. People could be seen leaving buildings and joining it. The television went dark.
“C’mon people, we’ve got work to do.”
Back at his desk Matt shook his head, squinted and blinked, but the shimmering line of dancers seemed imprinted on his eyes. The words on his screen throbbed and shifted with the same rhythm and geometry. When he felt the vibration of the passing procession, transmitted up through the floor and into the soles of his feet, it lit old lights, charged ancient circuits, sent him down the fire stairs in a rhythmic step that kept him always in contact with the signals humming through the concrete.
Pushing through the fire door to the street, ignoring the alarm, his senses shifted and grew acute. New awarenesses, ancient connections, were blossoming. He merged into the procession and he felt like a comet joining the sun, but the sun was everyone and all their bodies were charades, costumes, and the costumes were to be stripped away at last, an unnecessary accumulation, a burden that concealed how they were perfect, perfect beautiful cylinders, all soon to be revealed to each other in the depths of the sea.
9. Alternative 3 (3:15, 585 words)
The alarm would soon wake Lara. The house with its servants and the cat she could not catch would dissolve and be forgotten before she put down her phone and got out of bed.
Standing among the passive servants refusing to join the chase, Gil and Jacqueline smoked extravagantly and cheered at her stumbles.
“This is tedious,” said Jacqueline. She flicked her cigarette in Lara’s direction. “Let’s go get a coffee.”
“That cafe near the park she recently discovered.”
The cafe was a box of dark wood panelling with a view of a fountain surmounted by faceless statues. Behind the counter a pale man with a long red beard and bare arms painted with swirls of faded tattoo ink glowered at them and pulled coffees.
Gil sighed. “We should come back after she’s visited a few more times.”
“I’m tired of these second hand impressions,” said Jacqueline. “I want her unadulterated life. Pure, sharp, and just real and reliable all the time.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Wait for her to go.”
“And then what? Wait for her to come back?”
“Follow her where? And how?”
Jacqueline put a large spool of white cotton on the table.
“I see. I guess we could thread our way through the maze of the minor whore, but why not be a little more modern.”
Gil put a tracking anklet on the table.
“How does that even work?”
“I don’t know, actually. Satellites?”
“Thread it is.”
Back at the house they pushed through the servants and approached Lara, who was standing at the base of a towering bookshelf squeaking a rubber mouse, trying to coax down the cat who watched her with disinterest from the top.
“Finally,” Lara said, “someone to help me.”
“Oh, yes,” said Jacqueline. “Just let me tie this around your ankle.” She squatted in front of Lara.
“It’s a bit tight. How is this going to help?”
“You’ll see. Wakey-wakey.”
Jacqueline slapped Lara across the face.
“Ow! What are you doing?”
“I’ll give you a guess.” She slapped Lara again. “Wake up!”
“Fine! I’ll wake up.”
Then Lara was gone and there was thread everywhere.
“What now?” asked Gil.
“Start following it.”
They followed it through the house and out into the streets. It criss-crossed the city and seemed to be everywhere. At last it led into a cottage and to a bedroom within. In the bed lay Lara and she was not happy to see them.
“Something does seem to have gone wrong,” said Gil.
“We’re no closer to the real,” said Jacqueline.
“You wanted the cat! She was the cat!” Lara shouted at them.
“She’s always the cat!”
“Then who are you?”
“I’m the one dreaming you. You are a figment of mine.”
“Oh. And me?” asked Gil. “Am I one of your figments, too?”
Lara looked him up and down.
“You’re probably her figment. We’re all figments of figments of fricking figments.”
“Except the cat,” said Gil.
“Well then, let’s catch the cat,” said Jacqueline.
“I’ve been trying forever to catch the cat,” said Lara.
“We’ll help you.”
“You never help me. You stand around with the rest of them and mock me or you interfere like now.”
“So we’ve done this before?” asked Gil.
“Yes. Many, many times,” said Lara.
“I need a drink.” He brought up a large tumbler filled with scotch and took a draught.
“Do you think you can keep us around long enough for me to finish this?”
10. Quartz (2:03, 369 words)
The sound of chimes passing through the cabin walls woke her up. She drew the blankets in, but couldn’t get back to sleep. What is making that damn noise? She pulled on boots and put Steve’s plaid coat on over her nightgown and tramped out of the cabin to the water’s edge. Mist was sitting on the lake. She closed her eyes and heard the ringing off to her left. She followed the shore of the lake and the chimes kept ringing. A few bright peals then they paused and chimed again. It was not quite regular.
She spotted a row boat jostling against the edge of the lake. She didn’t recognise it. The oars were in their locks, their blades resting on the transom. In the bottom two champagne flutes lay side by side, bowl to bowl. As the boat moved they rolled and bounced off each other. There’s the chime. A pair of black high heeled shoes stood together next to them and a bottle of champagne, beaded with condensation, was under the seat. Folded on the seat was a simple black dress.
Well, this is interesting, she thought. Holding the side of the boat she grabbed the dress. It felt like silk. Holding it up, it seemed to be a good length for her. She threw it over her shoulder. The shoes looked like they would fit, too. She stepped into the boat and took a seat while she groped around for the champagne. It was freezing cold, like it was just out of the ice bucket. It made her look around again and even scan the shore, but there were no footprints besides her own. She slid it into one of Steve’s capacious pockets and picked up the glasses and the shoes.
Turning to climb out, she harrumphed. The boat had moved away from shore. She put the shoes and glasses down and took up the oars. Looking back over her shoulder the shore had faded into the mist. She gave a long, practised pull and waited for the bump of hull against shore. Crap, she thought. Must have got turned around. She pulled again, the motion setting the glasses colliding and ringing.
11. Events in Dense Fog (3:44, 672 words)
If you weren’t a local, living in one of the eight neighbourhoods that shared a boundary with the park, you would think the Bike Troll was a thief. He is more of a magpie, collecting the shiny things he finds, but today even magpies must pay their way so what he collects does end up in pawnshops or sold via the cardboard signs he hangs on the park lamp posts. Locals know that if they leave behind or lose something in the park it is likely to be in the possession of the Bike Troll, at least for a time. You just have to find him.
The children that frequent the playgrounds will tell you the Bike Troll lives deep in one of the three “wild” sections of the park known as The Brambles, where, they will tell you, he weaves himself in at night behind a fence of blackberry canes and sleeps cradling a rusty shotgun. It is known by the park workers and police that on clear nights he sleeps rough on any convenient bench, favouring those furthest from traffic, joggers and lights.
This night is free of rain, but a fog rises as the sun sets. The lamp posts in the park disappear and their lights become immense blooms of halogen yellow. The light from Brendan’s phone turns the darkness into a cold shroud that hangs right before his eyes and yet stretches infinitely into the distance.
He shuffles sideways to find the curb at the side of the path. Something shakes a tree branch overhead, setting the dead leaves colliding, rattling like paper, sending fat drops of water to fall on him.
The Bike Troll could be on one of the benches along this side path, sleeping off the wine he bought with money from collecting and selling scrap. Hopefully he would have Brendan’s bag and his laptop would still be in it. The curb would lead him to each one.
The shaking branches overhead follow him as he shuffles forward. It may be his imagination, but under the shaking leaves he hears breathing, panting. An asthmatic squirrel? Pfft. Too tame. Not nearly cinematic enough. It’s probably something like a monkey, but hairless, a cluster of black lidless eyes like a spider above a wet snout and a gaping mouth full of teeth like broken glass. And it was tracking him through the fog with the intention to bite through some part of him, like his soft throat or stomach, and lap up his warm blood.
Clever. Now he had scared himself. He unlocked his phone and checked Facebook. Hayley’s cat pushed her coffee into her lap! Who would be best to call? He locked his phone. The screen left him dazzled and all he could see for a moment were blocks of colour. He nearly pitched over the arm of a bench.
The path widened as another crossed it at an oblique angle, like scissors closing. The trees no longer met overhead and the rattling moved off to the left as he crossed the gap in the curb marking the crossing of paths. There was another bench after the gap, but it was empty.
That rattling of leaves changed in timbre, to a scuttling, a scratching on bark. Can’t sleep, he thought, fog monkey will eat me…please let the Bike Troll have my bag, I don’t want to have come out here for nothing.
He checked his phone again, but no-one had posted anything anywhere. He held up his phone and turned until a row of glowing lights were lined up behind him in the fog. He took a photo and added “Spooky night fog. Looking for the Bike Troll. Probably going to be eaten.” before posting it. The process left him night-blind again. He rubbed his eyes and waited.
A scratching on the path made him turn around. It was a squirrel. A big squirrel. It hopped up to him, hairless and quivering, the size of a child and with a spider’s eyes. It opened its mouth and began screaming.
12. ‘There is Nobody’ (1:45, 315 words)
Thomas is playing his drum while sitting on the kerb in nothing but a pair of green nylon shorts. It is dark, just before dawn, and no-one cares. Everyone who could has escaped the heat of the city. Everyone who couldn’t, like Thomas, is awake to savour the lowest ebb the heat will concede.
Naked on beds, in underwear in front of open windows, neighbours and mosquitoes be damned, they wait for the moment of coolness that will let them forget the heat, forget it enough to fall asleep and awake late in the oppressive morning.
Some, like Thomas, unable to forget the heat, take steps to ignore it. He is a little drunk and quite stoned. Stoned enough to feel the weight of the heat upon him, but also focus deeply on the slightest cooling of sweat on his skin. A patch on his lower back is catching some chance breeze, air shifting from somewhere warm to somewhere hot, that is drying the sweat as it trickles down his spine. He quits drumming, he quits all exertion except for breathing and savouring that one cool patch of skin. The drumming continues on its own. It takes some time to realise it continues without him. With a jerk he looks at his hands and the drum. He looks around. The drumming is coming down the street.
He stands and cocks his head like a dog, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. It’s a strange drum being played.
Around the corner trots a horse, an ordinary horse, brown with some white on its chest and ankles, its sides wet with sweat. Thomas had been drumming along to its hoof steps while they were in the distance and imperceptible. It shies away from Thomas when it spies him, giving him a wide berth, and disappears down the street, another animal trying to escape the heat.
13. Patrolling Wire Borders (1:44, 312 words)
Along that stretch of the border that had been drawn by hand across the region’s most fractured range of mountains, where passes were small and numerous like gaps between teeth in a wide, twisted mouth, Alfric guarded the narrowest of spaces. Here the precious, holy border was defended by eight lengths of wire stretched between hooks hammered into the rocks.
There was no-one standing guard on the other side of the wires, though an old cow would occasionally visit to rub itself against the wires and take sugar from Alfric. Alfric thought the absence of a counterpart showed their neighbours, corrupt and covetous as they were, did have at least an ounce of sense.
His reveries were interrupted by the clanking of a bell. It was his cow coming for a treat. He stood and dug the sugar he had wrapped in a tissue out of his pocket.
She came around the corner at a trot, her low udders swinging out to the sides as she clopped towards Alfric. She licked the sugar off his hand which he then wiped on her muzzle before scratching between her ears.
“How are you, old girl?” he asked. He quizzed her about the hillside she pastured on, the other cows. She turned and rubbed herself against the wires.
A man dressed for the mountains and carrying a long stick appeared behind the cow. Alfric looked at his rifle leaning against the rocks opposite him. Would it be rude to grab it? The cowherd never looked at him. He whistled and struck the cow to turn it around and herded it back along the pass.
The weather was turning cold when Alfric found a parcel of coarse paper under the wire. Inside were three thick steaks. He pushed his cap back and scratched his head. The white streaks of fat running through the meat told him nothing.
14. A Measured Room (1:04, 192 words)
We were all brought from different places and we were all waiting for the same thing, though no-one knew for sure what it was. We had been waiting for so long that even those with the most fearful imaginings, body harvesting, population control, revenge, had exhausted their reserves of fear and fretting and were now merely bored.
In our room everyone was exactly one hundred and seventy eight centimetres tall. Once this commonality was identified the body harvesters became agitated. The uniformed men in the corridor would not let us out of our room, but did not stop us conversing with residents of the adjacent room, our heads poking out of our respective doorways, to discover they were all one hundred and seventy seven centimetres tall. That cheered up some.
But the waiting wore on everyone. Some snoozed. There were clusters of conversation. One woman danced while several men drummed on the floor with the wooden heels of their shoes. They passed a hip flask amongst themselves. No-one knew how long we would be here. The woman kept dancing, her eyes closed, her thin white arms waving sinuously, like swan necks.
15. Task Force (1:23, 249 words)
The earth disgorged something alien. What could not be ascertained was whether the alien-ness was interplanetary or evolutionary, introduced or home grown. For it radiated across the electromagnetic spectrum, swamping radios, drones, satellites, film and eyes over hundreds of miles. No sensor could reveal anything more than its existence.
It was not within our borders, but we raced in, following our blindness towards it, hoping to be the first to stumble upon it, to prod it with poles, scrape it with knives and, if still alive, to slide an arm outside of our suits and feel it, run our hands over it, find its form, its texture.
Our truck collided with a rough-barked tree. We had been travelling at speed. We climbed out into the sound of wind in branches. All we could see was bright grey, which glowed subtly brighter in one direction. The truck was abandoned. We sent Jackson back on foot to report the situation, then set out at a jog, poles tapping in front of us.
We fell many times. We always regrouped and continued. The grey of our vision was growing brighter. The air grew cool and we guessed it was night. We paused to eat our rations in the animal silence. Over our chewing we heard the crunching of someone running nearby.
We called out. It was Jackson. He had circled around. We had circled around. In all directions the grey of our vision was constant. We were close but hopelessly, irretrievably lost.
16. M386 (2:51, 513 words)
The shelling was getting closer, but here we were, Hansel and I, running between the old machines with our oil cans and screwdrivers in the middle of the night, greasing and trimming, keeping them running.
I stopped in front of the tall windows facing south towards the city. Searchlights swung in formation as they scanned the sky for the aircraft we could hear screaming overhead. The sides of buildings erupted into fire and dust, the flashes filling the factory with orange light. Some burnt like torches, columns of smoke rising above them.
The detonations from the shelling stopped. Perhaps if we had been closer we could have heard the falling masonry and the shower of debris clatter and fade.
“I need your help,” Hansel said into the silence. “Number Six’s got a jam.”
I had been on my way to Number Six when I had paused. I followed Hansel, who did not seem set to criticise me, despite the work that was now ahead of us.
Number Six was a beast. A heavy beast that relied on a finely-tuned balance to keep working. If a mechanism moved out of alignment, and by a failure of design the motion was inevitable, momentum would jam hardened steel components under and over each other while the drive shaft compounded the problem.
We removed the panels and found what we expected. Hansel fetched the tool cart and with both of us leaning on the long arm of the wrench we were able to uncouple the drive shaft. We got Number Six’s gears to snap free and reverse back. Hansel got his screwdriver and adjusted the problem mechanism until it sat true once again. In silence we re-assembled the machine. Hansel switched on the power and Number Six chugged away. He made a small adjustment and the chugging became a purr. It’s smooth panels were lit orange as the shelling resumed and a rather large plane, perhaps a fully-laden bomber, fell on fire into the midst of the city and exploded.
“Sounds like it’s running too fast,” I said.
Hansel pressed an ear against a panel.
“Yah. I’ll wind it back.”
The purr deepened and we nodded with satisfaction at each other and Number Six. The unmistakable shriek of a guided missile passed overhead and seconds later the crump of its detonation reached us.
We separated for our inspection tour, ensuring the rest of the machines were still running smoothly. My tour ended with the 80s series. They stood in front of the windows. If these machines had eyes they would never be bored.
There were fewer searchlights now. Ground-to-air missiles streaked into the sky from within the valleys of the streets. It was time for our break, but I couldn’t move away from the window. Hansel would wonder where I was and come looking for me. When he found me standing here instead of working he will give a sympathetic grunt and open the panel on my back. With the handle of his screwdriver he will tap my worn power coupling back into place and we will return to our work.
17. Strange Light (2:10, 390 words)
Little Henry picked at a bright corner of sunlight where it fell upon his bedroom floor, cut by the window into a glowing trapezoid. He picked and picked until it lifted and then grabbing the corner he pulled it away from the floor. Working from the loose edge he gathered up the light on the floor before pulling it away from the walls. He worked around each wall, pulling the light away like wallpaper, leaving a darkness behind that would slowly brighten as light began again to accumulate. The gathered light started to collapse softly in on itself. Henry rolled it like pastry, and kept rolling, pushing and patting until it reduced to the size of a grapefruit and glowed intensely, its contained heat on the verge of burning his hands. He put it in the box the monocled bear from his aunt had arrived in and slid the lid back on. Arranging it under his arm, he ran to find Moira.
“Chookie, I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“It’s just unsettling. I don’t like it.”
“Well, when I was little like you, you couldn’t do that. Light just shined. You couldn’t roll it up into little balls.”
“You couldn’t? I can make it into big balls.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I have an idea! Let’s use this at night!”
“Instead of your dog light?”
“You can do that.”
At bedtime the ball of light was too bright. Moira arranged the lid so a narrow sliver of light could escape to illuminate the ceiling. Before he fell asleep Henry reached out and held his fingers against the warm side of the box.
When he woke up the box was empty, but its interior walls shined intensely. Henry took it downstairs and pushed it up onto the kitchen table and climbed onto his chair.
“How’s your night light, Hen?”
“It’s all stuck to the box.”
“Do you want porridge or toast this morning?”
He picked at the box’s bright insides. When he pulled out a bright string, like soft glowing cheese, Moira had to look away. She wiped her nose and got the porridge started on the stove. While she stirred she couldn’t help but look out the window. The grass in the backyard was lightening. The shadow of the elm was growing distinct. The deep blue of the sky was fading into baby blue.
“Mum, it’s so little now. Can we eat light?”
18. Final Sunset (4:11, 753 words)
“Why do you cry?”
“My love, our last afternoon grows close.”
“You know. Is your part done?”
“Almost. I have a space the size of your dainty hand to fill.”
“Is it perfect?”
“Oh yes, as is your wrist, your arm and all the rest of you.”
“Don’t play. Is it truly perfect?”
“Some weep as they work it is so beautiful.”
“Will she think it perfect?”
“We have only hope and the faith of our efforts.”
“I hope she doesn’t.”
“Hush. We were chosen to make it perfect. We trained to make it perfect. It is our purpose and it is almost done.”
“Oh love, my mother is right. She is cursed. Her daughters are cursed. We live only to be swept away like dust.”
“Can’t they wait to ring it until we are old?”
“Hush. Be young with me now.”
On his back on the bench and reaching into the shadowed heart of the final golden shell, working by feel, he placed tiny balls of gold within the tail of a peacock. He thought of Siun and Siun’s mother’s words.
How is a new world born? he asked himself. Where does the old world go? Does it disappear into smoke and ashes, scattered by the winds? Does it pop like the bubbles on a bowl of milk? Is the world a bubble on an ocean of milk? Are we smaller bubbles upon it? No, there is just the world and we are part of it. When she wakes from sleep she will brush it away and I and my brothers will be flung to the stars to become her eternal consorts.
He felt a single ball standing upon the wax in his tray. He pressed the pad of his finger upon it and reached into the shell but paused. He drew his hand out and held his finger above that he might examine this final act, the last touch that would conclude a lifetime of work. On his finger the tiny ball of gold glinted like a star. It was identical to the first one he touched as a small boy. He could remember how he marvelled at touching gold, but the marvel was lost to him. Not lost, spread over decades and countless placements, smaller and dimmer than the ball clinging to his skin.
Is this, he wondered, what she sees when she looks upon us? If I release a bow is it the arrow or I who kills the hare? Is it her, the bell, or this ball like dust that sweeps the world away? That brings an end to Siun’s crying?
His breath caught and a tremble passed through him. Ah, Siun. She should be allowed to live forever without tears and him beside her. The tiny ball of gold dropped from his finger into his mouth. He felt it between his tongue and the roof of his mouth as he inadvertently swallowed.
He had swallowed that perfect sphere. The goldsmiths had spent years making and matching myriad upon myriad of them. Not one had been lost, not one misplaced or flattened or stained. Except the one that now travelled through his belly. There were no more. Perfection knew no surplus. The goldsmiths had been released before he started.
He reached his hand into the shell and pressed his bare fingertip against the one empty eye in the peacock’s open fan. Siun’s peacock, small enough to fit within her palm. Any other finger but his would pass right over that eye.
After the ceremony, after the stars continued to wheel and the dusk beetles still chirruped and the priests remained men, they would bring their oil lamps close. They would study the bell, carry it to the chamber of bells and continue to study it for a year or more. An explanation would be found. In the last bell they found a design perfectly executed but of insufficient exultation. Resolved, they would collect boys and begin the training anew, begin again divining the perfect ornament, start the call for gold.
By the time the new bell was complete he and Siun would be reaching their final years. May they have only sons. May the builders of the next bell find no Siun. May the priests guide the boys into manhood free from his weakness. May every golden ball be fixed in its appointed place, that he might yet be a god and not perish with the women.
Background for Music for Films
The initial release of Brian Eno’s album Music for Films was in 1976. It was a small run of only 500 copies and was distributed to film and television production houses. The hope was to find a home for some of the orphan tracks from Brian Eno’s earlier recording projects, as well as find new uses for tracks from Another Green World (released in 1975) and Evening Star (1975), and the music he had written for the play Sparrowfall and the Derek Jarman film Sebastiane. The album was also intended to increase his exposure to screen producers and advance him as a composer for soundtracks.
The album was successful in its purpose. Eno has reported that one track has been used over 25 times and others continue to appear in film and television productions.
It had a second life as a general release in 1978, but with fewer tracks. This site is based on the subsequent Editions EG reissue in 1978, in which the tracks were re-ordered by Brian Eno into his preferred sequence. This version has since been re-released on CD (1987) and a re-mastered edition was released in 2005 by Virgin/Astralwerks. Today you can still buy it in vinyl, CD and digital formats. Thanks Wikipedia and David Sheppard.
Rationale for Words for Music for Films
I have listened to Music for Films by Brian Eno a lot. Not just through iTunes while writing these pieces, but on the CD I ripped into iTunes three or four computers ago, on a 45 minute home-taped cassette clicking over endlessly within an auto-reversing Walkman, and on vinyl picked up from a secondhand record store in Sydney. I didn’t know who Brian Eno was when I bought it, I was just hungry for anything that looked different, anything that was new and unfathomable to me.
How many times have I listened to it? It would be in the thousands. iTunes reports that I have listened to one track 561 times in the two and half years I have owned this computer. Almost all of those listens would have come while writing the piece accompanying the track as it played on repeat in the background.
When the title Words for Music for Films popped into my head I knew I had found a great little project. I loved the album. The tracks were all short, half of them under two minutes. Using the standard speaking rate for voice overs of three words per second of audio, the longest piece would be just 762 words. I would stick to those word counts. It would be a tasty, easily achieved challenge. As a copywriter, hitting exact word counts and fitting story and structure into very tight places was what I did every day.
So I set to work in 2012. Yeah. I took three years to write 7,367 words. That’s like 7 words a day. I’ve got some good excuses. Work. Kids. The roller coaster we’re all strapped into sent me down a couple of drops and a loop. I lost months here and there to procrastination and other writing projects. What time was left I burned through dredging up ideas and stories that were attuned to each track.
Turns out there is a lot of rubbish in my head. The bedrock is no doubt all the pulp sci-fi I read as an adolescent (thanks grandma). On top of that is a dense yet porous strata of thick books that a twenty-something stoner wannabe-intellectual fascinated by literature and enlightenment might read. Closest to the surface, submerging everything, is a sticky layer of quicksand, a soup of orphaned fragments that has accumulated since the internet blessed our lives.
I worked through it all like a picky seagull at the dump and now I’m done. I hope it brings a few people a couple moments of enjoyment before the inevitable conversation with UMG about “fair use” shuts it down.