By Brian George
The future world had once sent heralds to a dream beyond the sunset. Springs had promised wonders to the metal fish. Out of brontosaurus bones the ancient birds built stadiums. “This is the scary part,” said the Eight, “crowds across many lands are to rearrange your toys.” On the tenth day of October, the clock struck three. It was almost time to go. The year was perfect. The human crop had been cut and stored in the silos of the Institute. The seed of chaos had been planted.
In those days there were giants on the Earth. Some served as lighthouses. Others were disguised as flying snakes. If they spoke, their words would harden into objects, sometimes living, which would then take on an almost separate existence. Their heads were as bright as suns. Their energies were vaster than supernovas. Although young at heart, they were older than the current version of the solar system. There were dwarves, also, who were ironworkers, whose most important job was to insure that the Earth could, during fetes or in times of emergency, be folded up, stored in a pouch, and then effectively reassembled. The monk recorded the experiment on his great prehensile tail. Telescopes wheeled, prompting vertigo, on mountain peaks that were themselves little more than portable stage-sets. Just born babies danced and shouted out instructions. Their learning curve was a logarithmic spiral, and, in short order, they were able to access the powers of almost every other species. They could read the histories that were written on a leaf, and were able to plot the smallest movements of the stars.
The preexistent race was haunted by nostalgia. A bird spoke, “Follow the thread backward through the labyrinth. Be happy, but do not expect to return alive.” In the city of tall buildings, not one leaf moved. In the distance, you could hear the boom of the big guns, as, overhead, you could see the arc of a comet that was propelled by a sperm-like tail. “This arc seems perfect,” thought the navigator whose eyes had been freshly wrapped with bandages, “although altogether too occult!” Webs of intraocular mist, just ankle-high, inched inland from the depths. The long shadow of a bird led the travelers to a gate. They would be sad to leave everything and everyone they knew. They turned to board the paper sailboat bobbing in the harbor.
The planet was a young girl who had struggled to give birth. Tides, month by month, almost imperceptibly, rose higher up the breakwater. In the spaces in between contractions, spaces that could sometimes last for several thousand years, the hand of silence removed all evidence of her trauma. Against the wharf, the waves lapped like foreign tongues. Already, the keys to every childhood had been lost. Memory was a layer of ashes on the skin. The warmth of home faded, like a world that never was, like the love song of an architect. The music of the spheres became no louder than the surf. With so much sight and hearing being lost, there was no way to envision the beginning of the war, or to speculate, with any accuracy, about the logistics of descent.
On the coast, crematoria glowed. Fate moved the heroes like the clockwork of a mechanism. Each had been charged with the expression of one sign, and with the transformation of its corresponding power. For our purposes, the Twelve do not need faces. There was a figure eight on the brow of every manikin. At sunset, an autumnal sail departed from the gyroscope at Carthage, or, more accurately, from the gyroscope that had been constructed on a prototype, the transplanted version of which their descendants would name “Carthage.” They curved west around the promontory, then known as Mastia, which the Greeks, much later on, would associate with Hermes. There, almost immediately, disaster struck. From beneath those voyagers, the deck flew. The heart froze in each hollow chest. Their instruments were scarred with salt. Coral, at length, covered them, and they took their place among the other baroque wonders of the deep. An abyss had opened; it would not soon close.
Did time pass? Did space move? As the Sons of Ivaldi, they again set sail out of the blackened port of Tyre. They traveled many moons in iron under the ocean. They found the ancient red man floating in a glacier, but, with their now more primitive tools, they were unable to get him out. In a hunt for fuel, they scoured the ancient pipelines of Antarctica. They mapped the ruins of the vast technology that a race of magicians had once hidden in plain view. Fish swam through the long arcades. They did possess an instrument that could diagram the Shadow, the collective presence that, very strangely, had come to be perceived by those who cast it as a threat. Scarred with salt and pitted with rust, the significance of this instrument was far less practical than symbolic; that is to say, it did not actually work. They were seldom able to differentiate the Shadow’s left hand from its right, or to disentangle their first language from the net cast by the Deluge.
The water had indeed provided a good medium for gestation. They were growing, yes, but in numbers only, and they were terrified that, each year, they were actually growing smaller. Letters from competing alphabets were the leaves on branching DNA. They were growing but only in the most horizontal sense, which drove them to violate the subtle etiquette to which they and all of the other Ancients had agreed. With the loss of four of their eight limbs, they had, as the Sibyl at Cumae had predicted, started to act like a bunch of badly behaved boys. They pried a stone from the closed hand of the goddess. “Stone,” they said, “do you talk? Do you know all of history? Are you larger than space?” Sadly, neither spoke the other’s language, and would not for an age, and yet its energy was the source of abundant illumination. They had many more adventures on the wide back of the sea. They saw great cities both on Earth and on the other planets. The records from that period have been eaten by the birds.
On an island at the edge of the known world, the birds chirped in the trees. They had the faces of dead relatives, of unborn children, and of beloved wives who did not as of yet exist. Mist billowed from the ocean, obscuring the, sharp outlines of each object, and they did not, at first, realize that the shore that they had landed on was so far outside the solar system. The manikins did not allow themselves to sleep; neither could they die. Such things were fine for the indigenous populations. For them, it was not acceptable behavior. “If so,” they thought, as they strained against their bandages, “just when had they been transformed into mummies?” In due time—after nine months of ritualized torture, let’s say—certain things became clear. The Earth was a fulcrum. Space acted like a lever. Death had broadened their ability to project the powers of creation. They found, to their amazement, that they could once again move monuments on distant planets with their thoughts.
And then, still further out, they rode the towering wave, as, through a rip in the fabric of the projected world, the sea shot like lightning. The atoms of the boat were rearranged, somehow, and by a method that seemed long ago determined. Their lips and tongues, grown stiff from disuse, were prompted to sound out the almost indecipherable glyphs of all of the epics that they had written, in a multitude of lost languages, through the years. Impelled by childhood training, they knew that, next, they must attempt to chant all of the epics simultaneously, in order that these might interlock and so complete the Ur-text. When they disembarked, they watched their hands move by themselves; act by act, and with a minimum of effort, they disassembled the wheel of history, or rather, some thought that they had just disassembled it, while others thought that they had done this long ago. No longer wrapped, the heads of the manikins turned inside out. They found themselves on a shore beyond the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Biology had petrified. Warriors had frozen in gymnastic positions. They were stone wet-dreams, the playthings of Medusa. Their death-throws were beautiful. Atrocities had been transformed into art.
From offstage, a huge zinc-colored glove floated in, and, with its index finger, touched the lips of one particularly fearsome statue. A sphere, reeking with alchemical force, then erupted from the statue’s mouth, and then another one after that, and so on and so forth, until there was one sphere for each of the 12 members of the crew. Hand extended, out of each sphere stepped a doppelganger. Out of one came two, and out of four came twelve, which now existed not only on a single side of the mirror. The full assembly then collaborated to draft a new plan for the Zodiac. From that luminous height, the path ahead seemed clear: One, out of each pair, would collect and encode intelligence for the coming revolution, while the other would play the role of the agent provocateur.
For the briefest of brief moments, perhaps 52,000 years, the weight of the whole of creation seemed to be suspended. The spheres chose music for the triumphal march of species. Robots made their bodies into instruments. They tuned their heads with hammers. Monkeys hit gongs. Fish played tubas. Dinosaurs blew on hollow tree trunks. Birds played living continent-wide pianos. Snakes waved themselves through the crackling air like banners. Whales performed their modern and almost incomprehensible songs. Skeletons plinked on their xylophone-like ribs. Vast armies juggled the most dangerous of weapons.
Would the Twelve return to work on the assembly line of the projected world? They would, but not necessarily in a way that others would perceive as being animate. A clock tower stands in the square formed by the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. Every now and then, a loud “BONG!” can be heard. Few now alive can distinguish between the voyagers and their statues, and the great stadium, where once the giants fought, would appear to be almost altogether empty. If so it is written, then so it must appear, for a time, and then the clock’s hands move.
This, the convalescent genius knew, yet it seemed possible that some key part of the mechanism had gone missing. At Volos, in 1894, in preparation for the next earthquake in a series that had been scheduled to take place every evening after sunset, the whole population of the district would bring mattresses, cases of ouzo, small glasses, tables, hookahs, chairs, and cabinets, to be spread out or set up in the square. What a fete! It was wondrous. They desired to experience the cool air and the stars, and, of course, it was good to avoid being crushed by collapsing stonework. Hand in hand, a young boy stood with his mother, as a comet with a long tail arced slowly overhead. For a last time they embraced, and, already, she had begun to disappear, her warmth fading, the memory of her features drifting out of focus. When he turned, he saw only a few doorframes where the houses used to be, and roof-beams lying on the ground in no particular order. Quite strangely, though, there were two chairs, a table, and a cabinet that had not been brought inside, and that were still set up where the men had left them in the square. Silence covered the quaint costal city like a fog.
Two scenes may look very similar, and yet in one there may be something, almost imperceptibly, off. For example: in one scene the participants are living, and, in the other, they are dead.
“Should the signs be regarded as open secrets?” he thought, years later, as he wandered through the Egyptian junkyards. As though pregnant, the Earth stretched out before him. Every breath that she took was inhabited by the millions upon millions that had passed out of existence. The shadow of a leaf, enormous, floated. Prehistoric observatories echoed under strata. Giants fossilized in pots. The trees crooked, with foreign roots. Birds that never came.
(Illustration: Giorgio de Chirico)