The Rainy Library

In the rainy library, anyone can find a book about herself.

I’d felt for some time that I was largely invisible to my own eyes. That how other people experienced me was so different from my own ideas as to be unimaginable.

So I needed that book. I had to see myself, even if it broke me.

But reaching the library wasn’t easy. First I saved up for years for the black-market maps—only to find out that the library was halfway across the world. Well. Swallowing my anger, I saved for another year, then took a long-haul flight to a remote plateau, and with map in hand backpacked over an icy mountain range to a hidden valley filled with dense jungle. In the depths of that steaming jungle was a waterfall so chilly it spit icicles, and I had to grope through plummeting ice for a doorknob embedded in rock.

I stepped through into warm drizzle, into a large atrium with clouds rumbling and bumping under its glass ceiling. Above me rose eight stories of sagging shelves and waterlogged stacks of books.  When I called out, nobody responded… and my echo seemed to mock me.

I was starting to worry that I’d been scammed.

But that atrium turned out to be one of hundreds, and the library itself was larger than a city. My map took me through muddy side corridors that forked and star-split constantly, each new hallway decorated like a different culture or era. I rode horizontal elevators and crossed catwalks over book vaults. I gazed out windows at a mirrory lake, then a living city, then a sky filled by the glossy black wing of a planet-sized bird.

Finally I pushed open the heavy stone door to the final room, where an orb-headed mannequin posed by an enormous rose-window.

This part was in the instructions too.

I joined the mannequin at the glass, and we gazed out at darkness as flat as if reality ended just beyond the pane. Soon this darkness softened—not becoming light so much as giving way to a whiteness that wasn’t really white, but a color I’d never seen before. This color grew nested curves and crosshatched shadows, spiraling open into the furled layers of an antimatter rose.

Unwhite petals swirled out, larger than the sky.

And in the rose? At its center?

An eye, tracking from side to side.

Reading me.

The mannequin shifted and gasped.

Now she looked exactly like me.

She turned in my direction.

We spoke at the same time.

We stopped.

We leaned toward each other.

I gazed deep into my own apprehensive eyes.

I began to read.

It Had Been A Long Exorcism

All night he has rowed their bed back across rivers of fire.

The deal is, if he looks away from her, even once,
she’ll disappear forever. She’s eaten the wrong fruit
and it’s melted her thoughts. She contorts over the bed,
babbling, and everything she says makes her more afraid.

Alone he’s a coward, but here, with no other choice,
he catches her wrists, strokes away her trembles,
pleads with her seized soul
for hours, wheedling, reasoning, begging,
until slowly her mind climbs back into her face
and her eyes become human again.

She laughs. She kisses him. She lights a cigarette
and parts the curtain. Light slices in;
the glowing window, frosted with white ferns,
resembles a medieval page. In awe she commands him
to look, then slides open the page and leans out high over
the cobbled street—pigeons erupt!—icicles drool brilliant
light onto her inked head, their rugged sheets. She
lifts hands laughing,
swaying. The city is an open-air church,
with houses as pews, and the crystal air celebrates
their close escape, the sweetness of saving
and being saved.

She asks, “Hey…
what was I freaking out about?
It seems so long ago…”

He says nothing.
He soaps his hands in the sink by their bed,
investigates his thorny cheeks in the spattered mirror,
his jumpy hair, the bunched-up red and stinking
eyes. Twenty-two years old and only at the beginning.
He’s pouring coffee when she steals up and
encircles him. They stoop there, worldless,
two skins breathing into each other. Over the next decade
he will explore her labyrinths, debate the minotaur
and then become him. He will garden her mind
till the bees stop eating from her head.
But through all the misery,
through all manner of much realer hells,
the purity of this opening will remain.

While she’s in the shower
he surveys the iron bedframe—their cage,
surrounded by debris. He still hasn’t slept.
He rehooks the sheets, bags the juice cartons,
the gum packs and stray butts,
scrubs her ashtray, shaves in the stained mirror,
and when she washes in on vanilla waves
all is clean and ready
for their next long journey,
through arctic drifts, to the supermarket,
where the busy shelves are like an atlas
of places they could go.

Eternophobe

“Here. Put these on.”

Tortoiseshell aviators with scratched lenses. Oddly heavy.

“Why?”

“It’s for your own good.”

Up close the lens scratches looked like overlapping letters, as if many sentences had been carved over each other.

I felt deeply uneasy.

“What will you give me?”

“Raymond, these glasses will let you see infinity. It’s the quickest way to settle our argument. It’ll completely smash your ideas about free will.”

“Mmm, yeah, sounds fun…” I laid them carefully on the nightstand and maneuvered toward him. “Let’s just…”

“What’s wrong with you? You want to stay ignorant? Are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Then put them on. Just for a second, and afterward we can…”

“Fine.”

The glasses felt like two stone tablets crushing my face.

“Dude, come on. You have to open your eyes.”

First I saw N. He was smiling, and suddenly it seemed worth it that I had put on the glasses.

Then his face wavered: his eyes seemed to be open and shut, and his mouth was a flickering scramble of lips and teeth.

He swung off the bed, leaving behind a trail of selves, and branched backwards into the bathroom.

Then dozens of Ns, many totally nude, burst back in, crowding through each other.

Copies of myself multiplied everywhere, flipping through expressions.

Other men appeared, strangers to me. Many duplicates of each one climbed into bed with us, and the air filled with their thrusting bare asses.

Over them the walls and ceiling became flimsy and ghostlike. Glaring skies shone through, kaleidoscopic with scrawly birds. Trees mutated through each other.

The sun was a screaming oscillation.

In the distance giant sloths wandered through rolling tanks.

Metal strings spread everywhere, as if over some cosmic guitar, but they were only bullets existing along their entire paths simultaneously.

How can I say this? Everything branched and intertwined, everything wove back into itself without ever ending. Every moment that had ever existed hung there overlapping, and then it all abruptly sort of turned at an angle, the trillion trillion instances spreading out like a deck of cards, and I saw my life cross-sectioned two hundred times a second from birth to death; I saw every face I would ever have, frozen in mundane scenes of supernatural beauty, and it was immediately obvious just how much love and patience had gone into rendering every hair and wrinkle, how meticulously each expression had been carved.

My life was a majestic baroque sculpture perfect in every detail, unbelievably grand, and yet it was only a microscopic subpart of the universal masterpiece, just a tiny, glowing vein deep within the huge frozen block of infinity.

Free will? Forget it. What we call time is just the tour through the four-dimensional sculpture.

N might have won the argument, but I ghosted him.

Skyworms, or The Man Who Disproved Sleep (Old Version)

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

It’d been a long day, I mean literally a day that had lasted months. I had disproven sleep in an internationally published and peer-reviewed paper and since then none of us had been able to get any rest. It turns out that sleep is a sort of trick programmed by evolution into our brains to keep from us getting too close to reality, a filter that drops down right when we’re only starting to really wake up. Once you understood my research, you saw through the trick, and suddenly you couldn’t sleep anymore, even when you wanted to, even when all you craved was just a minute’s peace away from your thoughts, which were building on top of themselves like playing-card castles, rickety and swaying, blown over by anything, only to leap up again in entirely different configurations.

I was about two months ahead of everyone into the great sleeplessness, and all things considered I felt pretty decent, had more ideas than ever, was just jittery, chaotic, off-balance. My mind was steaming on a little faster than I could handle. I’d started avoiding the lab. Keeping to myself. I guess I’d become isolated. I was in a constant conversation with parts of my head that I’d never met before, and I found I had to defend all my most basic ideas against chattering cruel voices that questioned everything I believed in, not just who I am or ideas like kindness or courtesy but all the way down to questions like whether being able to touch something is sufficient proof to believe in its existence. It was as if I had to define every last element of reality in order to keep experiencing that reality. Everything I thought I knew was dissolving, and I had to run around inside trying to put everything back into place, patch it up but stronger, and then dash off to the next leak that my personality had developed. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. I felt as if all the fat were being stripped from my mind. As though my mind was now all muscle and eyeball.

I spent a lot of daylight in parks. The nature soothed me. The voices never questioned the birds or the brook, and I could still summon up that old feeling of harmony from the days when I still slept, a harmony I hadn’t even known was there, a deeply seated and unconscious sense of the rightness of reality, an unquestioned faith in the hardness of the table and the familiarity of the face in the mirror, a face that had long since stopped hanging together and was just eyes, nose, mouth, wetly coexisting without acknowledging each other. In parks there were no mirrors and few other people, and it calmed me whenever my consciousness could spread out uninhibited, as if it no longer centered around my body. I liked to lie in the grass and watch the clouds.

Until the day when I noticed that the entire sky was infested with massive translucent worms swaying like things underwater.

I howled and sat up straight—and the worms swung with me.

They were in my eyes.

I had tests done. Lights were shined, samples took. The doctors didn’t find anything and I knew they wouldn’t. Our tests were obsolete: they couldn’t detect a reality that we had only just begun to discover. The worms had probably always been there, hidden from us by our brains, which after all evolved to generate offspring. You hunt and breed more successfully when you’re turned off to certain cosmic realities, the kind that make sex and paying rent look like pathetic distractions from the truth. Sleep had been protecting us, and now, without sleep there as a buffer, we would one and all slowly have our collective face pushed closer and closer toward the spinning grindstone of absolute reality, where worms lived in our eyes, objects held grudges, the sky talked endlessly, the atoms laughed until they almost split themselves, and everything that had been hidden was slowly sharpening into a clarity that was not supposed to fit inside our brains.

And I would be first. Or actually—the second. First was the woman who’d clued me into the true nature of sleep. I’d been putting off visiting her, but when the worms appeared I finally conceded that I needed her advice. The worms were waving sickeningly over everything all the time: over the sky, in the trees, on bus seats, in my cereal, on the backs of my hands, on the inside of my eyelids, over the face of my girlfriend—whose name, by the way, suddenly seemed oddly inappropriate. I felt that she had another and truer name and that when we could discover it everything about her would resolve suddenly, and she would be on the same plane as me again, and her face would come out of the fog, and I would remember what exactly she had meant to me before all of the hammering whistling needling voices constantly prying and picking had undone everything and made it so hard to concentrate on what had once made sense so easily. But through the fog I still had a sense of loyalty to her, and this loyalty had prevented me from consulting the woman who knew about the true nature of sleep, because the last time we’d seen each other she’d made a pass at me, I thought.

Now I was unlatching her gate. Now I was ringing her doorbell. She answered the door without a word and we looked into each other’s eyes. The translucent worms were crawling over her face and hair and the walls behind her, and I knew she could see them on me too.

“I just want to know…”

“Yes?”

“What happens next?”

She laughed and shut the door.

Then she cracked it again.

“You mean after the snakes?”

“The snakes??”

She made us tea while she filled me in. She hadn’t made it through to the end herself. But she had stopped hearing the voices. They had intensified and heated up and gotten faster until they all fused. Now her mind was in a tunnel, she said, and the tunnel was made out of voices woven so densely they looked like black earth. I found it impossible to look at her. Her eyes were ten times brighter than the rest of her face. She had heavy eyes like sandbags on fire. I nervously picked up a book and flipped through it. The pages were blank. She said that she could feel her mind sliding and bumping down a tunnel, and at the end of a tunnel was a hole, and any day her mind would slide into the hole and fit into place and everything would twist like a key in a lock, and maybe then she’d have something more comforting to tell me, or maybe not, or maybe she wouldn’t even understand how to talk to me anymore, she said, and reached out like she was going to take my hand, but only stroked the back. I took away my hand and picked up another book. Blank. Same with the third and fourth and fifth book. And they were all so light. I felt if I blew on the page the whole book would crumble. She said my name—not my usual name, but my real name, one I hadn’t even known existed—and rubbed her knee on mine. Why was she still concerned with animal delights I’d long ago left behind? I blew on a blank page, and a wedge of words appeared. Then she said my real name again, and I shivered and understood that this would not end well. Talking to her had accelerated the process in my own skull. I could sense a tunnel’s mouth somewhere just behind my forehead. It made me aware of the furrows of my own brain. By now she had scooted her chair over and was leaning on my chest. I didn’t get why she liked me. Maybe I was just the only one she thought could understand. But I didn’t understand anything. It had all frayed and fallen apart. I could feel my skin unravelling, and underneath it I would be a giant white question mark made of cloud and quickly dispersing. Her breath warmed my ear. Her fingers climbed my neck. Her three cats were watching us and an omelette still in the pan was watching us, and suddenly I didn’t know if I had the neck or the hand, if I was flesh or wood; I was terribly light-headed and insubstantial, and so was she, and then my arms fell through her arms and our skulls merged and all her memories and thoughts moved through mine like two galaxies passing through each other, our language intertwined, and we flowered into higher consciousness.