I used to believe that there was a palace of indescribable size and grandeur—with free-flying buttresses and geometric minarets and monumental statuary and hundreds of thousands of fluttering flags—suspended in the air above my head, and that every day for the rest of my life this palace would grow bigger and closer, its topiaries and grotesques ever more intensely detailed, its gods and anti-gods breeding and evolving, its millions of visages and façades only growing clearer and more colorful until the moment I last closed my eyes.
When I was eleven, I found out I had to die. That is, I laid my faith on the biology table, scalpeled open its starry thorax, and pulled the black tendons that made its doctrinal joints move and its little blue papal pincers pinch. I was not happy, for I did not at all appreciate having to choose ruth or truth, heaven or chasm, miracle or mechanism. My insides and my outsides were never the same again. Verily, my season as a believer is a Garden of Eden to the rest of my life, and my dead faith’s Raphaelic ichor and Michelangelic ink have mingled with my childhood to produce memories like many paintings of one infinite palace of the mundane. These paintings could only have been created by God possessing me, for every stoneface and every windowface, every cloud-swept look in my mother’s eyes, every morning and night and mote and tomb was infused with cosmic meaning, the world a work of art barking in tongues. Since then I have become a connoisseur of sunsets and a collector of galaxy maps, but never again have I seen skies like those that God painted at the rate of a trillion strokes per second, creating the world far too quickly for my human eyes to ever penetrate its weave, the needles of light sewing my sight shut. Since then I have visited libraries where the books were blank but everyone stood reading intently; I have hiked to the boundary-lines of eternity and struck with my stick at what lay beyond; I have seen the sky under the sky and the earth over the earth and the stars inside the stars; I have zipped myself into a song and then faded into its folds, my entire body baptized in tears; I have seen bacteria trample in bellowing herds across the prairie of my wallpaper; and I have understood what it means, and how it feels, to be half an apple—to be an eye that needed another to see; and I have taken the Me-train out to the furthest edges of my own mind and dipped my geometric minarets into the impossible water and gazed at the upside-down fishes of the unconscious haunting my dreams; but never again have I seen such a glory of harmonized meaning, such a basilica of airy theory, such a harvest, such a sacrifice, such a wonderful lie.
It turned out that the boundaries of the observable universe—the edges of everything that existed for fifty-one billion light years in every direction—were only two townships away; but by the time I arrived, the sky had blushed a violent purple, and polytheistic faces were rising up over the horizon, vast flat animal faces like a hundred furred moons leaping out of the earth. Between two craggy-browed mountains stood a mouthful of rotting houses, and from a gap in the house-teeth swarmed a thousand motley demon-faces with horns, many weeping inside-out sons of no father, a cavalry of translucent cats, and a sorority of troubled women with various urns, all led by a six-headed glittery man-whore of Babylon riding a twelve-sided horse, which pulled an isosceles cart containing the ninety-nine commandments of Hell. Dear writer, what would you have done? Me—I moseyed the heck out of there, with all the houses falling after me, and I took refuge in a poster-plastered fortress built against the light, where, on a dusty subterranean dancefloor, I watched the damned writhe in ecstasy, the techno whomping like a washing machine attempting to hump itself to pieces. With every whomp, the dust startled through one skeleton ray of sunlight. We were rhythmically convulsing in an abandoned factory, its walls pocked with keyholes; in the center, beneath a vast annular sculpture of plastic bones, was the DJ’s pulpit, balanced on tiers of overturned buckets, surrounded by a moat of spilled beer, and flanked by speakers that overloaded the air with densely packed information transmitted in computer-tight time; and all around me the undead were deep-ocean-eyed from a long night of snorkeling drugs. A particularly zonked dude insisted that he knew me from somewhere, perhaps from a past afterlife, but since he had six heads that were passing between them a single unreadable expression, I did not recognize my old devil. Beyond him a sunburnt boy, scorched into a ruby, danced far too slowly, babbling to himself and smiling hypnotizedly, giggling, blinking like a baptized baby and mumbling, “Black waters… Black waters…” Everyone else looked like me, and I heard myself having the same conversation with myself a million times. Very soon I’d heard enough—enough! I walked home though I had to traverse the entire industrial revolution, and the childlike sun skipped along behind me, then the prematurely aging sun supported itself on antique buildings, then the sun, now senile and trembling, peeked through my dirty windows, where it found me curled on my bed staring out sideways at the palace ruins, probing tenderly at the hole Heaven left.
I cut off all contact with the world for six months. This drastic separation was the necessary next move in a series of escalating attempts to erase myself. At first I had assumed that a resolute silence on my part might suffice for self-extinction, but I soon found out that just by unlocking my door and stepping out into the sunny chaos, I doomed my own quest for thoughtless nothingness, for when I saw people I created them and they created me, and every fidget of mine, every left- or right-swipe of my eyes, was no more than the precisely calibrated consequence of a remorseless clockwork-reaction that extended all the way back past my childhood and into the immense landscapes before memory. Not to mention that at dozens of faces per minute my brain was translating the world to data it compressed and retained, averaging out all the faces into the great and everchanging face of the day, of the city, of all the people I’d ever seen. To look is to project. How could I ever erase myself when just strolling through a crowd I projected created and recreated me a thousand times? No, what I needed was holy solitude, so I locked my door and climbed down the clanking staircase deep into my own word, away from the madness of other people, away from the ghosts of my loved ones, away from my reflection skittering across each ogre’s visage. I went counterclockwise down, down below autobiography, approaching the nearer flame of what I am, this thin rind spiraling down into the white light of an empty page. At the rock bottom of my brain—having patiently scraped off my face to reveal the one-way mirror beneath—I pried open the silence made of language, converted my subconscious into an archeological dig, and there, in the mother of all pits, patiently erased the traces of the original mistake and began to erect a strange new Rome, a crystalline architecture of metaphors to elevate me into a sky I was forced to invent. I searched for metaphors one could build civilizations upon, metaphors that could be filigreed on the inside of a fingernail, and metaphors that would take a lifetime and many assistants to map and explore. If I didn’t build Heaven in my workshop, it would never exist at all.
There’s only one, absurdly specific way out, so listen closely. In the ninety-ninth courtyard, bend down and peek at the marble god-faces subsiding into rubble: their thousand-year sneers tilted to one side, they snarl and whimper into the dust they are becoming. Now straighten up, take a deep breath, stroll around their squidged visages and stare into the eyes of the statue of a woman with urn—you can see her horror at her undying existence as a statue. From her stone forehead blooms a parasitic flower with pinkish-red petals whose veiny convolutions make them look like succulent sheaves of ripe brain crawling with iron spiders; but you must wrench your eyes from this mesmerizing spectacle, you must stagger sideways and tear yourself free from the cobwebs made of light. Now listen: every time you circle the statue counterclockwise, she gets one year younger; with every revolution the sun blurs through the sky while the moon spins like a thrown weapon. Just don’t worry, keep walking widdershins and the vines everywhere will retract their fingers and retreat up into themselves like thoughts being pulled back into neurons. Stop: you are now deep enough into the past. Get out here and exit the aging cathedral. From outside you will notice that it is swathed in a silky beige wrap, as if the church has been caught in a butterfly net and is pinned to the ground, a geometric song unable to take flight. Keep going straight, down into the next marble landscape, down between the pillars of the knuckles of the sun pressing down upon this crumbling kingdom, the sunlight forcing the archaic landscape into itself, ever further into itself, grinding down the glorious ruins millimeter by millimeter. You too must die, my friend—but forget that for now and peer up through the airy arches of this hypethral amphitheater cross-stitched by the flight-paths of key-beaked finches; gaze up through the baroque-painted dome crumbling into the hypoxic sky; then look down to the cross and the throne in the shadow of the cross. Underneath the throne is a seething profusion of gods, an empyreal slop made of a color that is the opposite of both black and white. You can ask the gods any question you want, but you won’t like the answer, so inch onward instead and peer beyond the throne, where ornamental flies spiral like sober jewels in an analytic shaft of sunlight, and where a wandering cat, struck by that light, will briefly turn translucent. Note how its skeleton, only a variation on yours, cages its glowing organs. Note the cancer concealed in its sacrum. If you take a few more steps, you will hear what sounds like the dawn breaking open, for just outside the ruins the birds have built another, better civilization on top of ours—but while their chatter has its own elegant rules of rhetoric, their theology will, however, remain inscrutable and unhistoried, its victor always the present; and so we must hurry forward, into the open, into the white silence, into the uncreation.
The boulder rolls back every morning, and every night we host one last supper, just in case. This evening we dine on galactic soup—the broccoli is a cluster of nebulas, the peas green suns—under our own custom sky, which is the most delicious shade of apple-pink. In the melodically convolved near-distance, bells nod their patient heads, and mourning doves interlock their songs into a harmony knot. And double-dog damn it all—the trees still reach out to touch me.