The machine rose like the metal skeleton of some gigantic mutant, its denuded bones an impractical hodgepodge of nature’s blunders, creating the perfect vehicle for the execution of a singular, if only accidental, function—time travel, of a sort. Imagine the wonders that might haunt the world if only nature indulged some of the more radical—and perhaps unreasonable—creative processes. A thousand mistakes and happenstances could be collected into the same space like so many imprecise pencil scratches, melting into exquisite amalgams of unbidden oddity. But such is not the way of the Deadworld, where routines of trial and error are carefully balanced against the production of a dismal and mindless functionality. Regardless, beyond everything the machine could have been, it was merely a door—leading back to the Great Darkness.
The chair proved to be far less comfortable than I had supposed, but after a few moments I forgot all about the loose springs corkscrewing into my back. I focused my attention on the massive computer screen filling up with all manner of systematic absurdity—laughing caterpillars, dancing skyscrapers, singing tornadoes, that sort of thing. The visual ridiculousness intimated volatility, as if the imagery concealed a great power which could, given sufficient levels of nonsense, disrupt if not destroy the surrounding ordinariness, leaving a candy-coated crater where once only concrete and steel predominated. Yet despite the instability of it all, I could feel my thoughts being gently untied from the inimitable arrow of time, logic, and causation. This dissolution of bondage allowed my mind to recover its proper dimensions and function, unfurling like a massive sail within a hurricane—flying full, fat, and foolish.
I could hear Dr. Coldglow attempting to guide my mind to certain prescribed psychological signposts along the way to my destination, so as to assure my safe arrival. “This journey you’ve made before, back when rabbit holes and tornado tails were one-way tickets, when wandering and whimsy were solid organs within the body of living mystery. When darkness ruled over the light and the wretched world cast off its many names and incalculable numbers.” I appreciated the good doctor’s well-intentioned guidance—but I knew the way.
My memory became a palpable force, clawing past the years which had gathered between itself and the Darkness—years which hoped, no doubt, to smother illimitable mystery within their potentially infinite ranks. But time proved incapable of overcoming the momentum of my inspired remembrance, and soon I was centered once again upon a world forsworn of light and sensibility—a world that could bound itself in a nutshell and count itself a king of infinite space.
September 9th, 1999
The soft dim of old memories caressed my unwaking mind, gently opening my inner eye to the forgotten past. I could feel portions of my subconscious withdraw from the moment, expecting a violent rejection to the opening of preternaturally sealed memories. Yet my mind was still and calm. I had been delivered into the fleeting few moments preceding the Darkness. Suddenly, with a dangerous and precious curiosity, I remembered.
I was traveling the September woods when the sky turned the deepest grey, darkening to a near blackness that resembled a congregation of storm clouds or the approach of night. Yet not a single cloud loitered the air and the sun hung high and visible, now but a muted smudge of struggling light caught behind the strange overcast. One thing was clear—something incredible was taking place.
It was the sun that first quit its station, dismissing its courtiers of cycle and structure beyond the vast courtyards of sky and space, which spilled and tumbled infinite and untended through newborn gardens of lush unnamed nebulae and the glint of foreign stars. From beneath the limitless vaulted grey sky came the smolder of twilight—blushing upon every horizon—equally infinite but understated like a child’s first words, dragging its own shadows behind it, each one licked red and stretched lean and lank. Yet as I marveled at the rearrangement of the heavens and their ancient habits, my view of the alien sky became obstructed by tree branches heavy with fall leaves and ripe fruit. The forest began closing its massive canopy of tree limbs and vines high above me, forming an endless ceiling of interlocking foliage. The darkness thickened beneath the roof of the woods, but did not deny my ability to see. And while they weren’t needed for any practical purpose, a drowsy orange light seeped from ancient copper lamps that appeared from thin air, swinging and glowing from the high places within the newly built houses of the woods. Perhaps most wonderful of all were the stars and the moon. No longer beholden to the orders of space and time, they frolicked the heights of the great wooded ceiling, still tucked into their infinite distances but no less visible for their transgressions against the rules of the last world.
Plumes of rust-red leaves lifted from the ground at the behest of a soft wind. They pinwheeled across my body, drawing a smile upon my scarred face wider than any I could remember. It was then, when autumn light mixed with summer shadow, that I first heard my reborn sisters speak to me, their voices made from sweets and screams dancing upon the lilting unrest of hungry children. The wind had brought them out of their sleep, and from their place on my hips I could feel the heat of their thirst as they spoke to me.
“What a shrewd dream this is, dear brother. The sun has been taken unawares, and now the good shadows of the world rush to take its place. Whenever has such sweetness been set before us? You must take us up now, into your artist’s hands, and treat us to all the reddest candies you can find. Look at all this lovely darkness. Why, it goes on and on! Who can tell what syrupy goodies it might shelter. Now brother, don’t you dare wake father lest he eat everything on his own and leave us to gnaw upon the ashes. Please, take us quietly into these lantern woods, walk with us upon the darkest paths. Take us down into the oldest cellars, let the moon stain our teeth with its cold light until they are dimmed with all the sweetest blood you can find us. Oh please, brother! You must let us play here for as long as we can! We just can’t go back to sleep, not after seeing all this! Please, please don’t make us go back to sleep!”
They were the most wonderful girls, but they knew my rules—their thirst could only be slaked as a consequence of my art or in defense of its pursuit, not merely for the sake of gluttony and laughter. I loathed to disappoint them, yet just as I was about to slide them back into their resting places, I heard music—a traveling circus! The girls would love that.
As the wind began to deliver more of the festival music, it became clear the melodies were sickly rather than saccharine, like cotton candy that had fallen to the ground, infested with ants. Nearby trees began to wilt and stumble at the sound of the approaching jubilee, their copper lamps twinkling to the ground like disgraced Christmas ornaments. The autumn leaves turned dead and brown, curling in on themselves like burning paper. This darkened world was unapologetic, even brazen, showcasing strangeness with the speed and crudeness of a traveling snake oil salesman.
The circus music grew louder. Again, I felt the scorch of my sisters’ thirst. They stared up at me, vibrating with giddy impatience, barely containing their eagerness for my permission. I sighed and brought them giggling and grinning into this new world, two happy children clutching tickets to the big top. How could I deny them? Children love the circus.
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