The Four Jesters of the Apocalypse

The forces of elemental destruction are, how do you say … just getting warmed up?

Well, hello. You’re a rough-looking crew. What are your names?

We have no use for individual appellations like the puny humans use. You may refer to us collectively as 4J.

4J—we have no idea what to make of that name, or, for that matter, of you. When we look at you we feel afraid and then we want to laugh. You keep us caught always uncomfortably between the two. How might you describe your disposition towards human-kind? Towards archivist-kind?

Color us largely ambivalent toward your ridiculous species, though we do enjoy donning these outlandish costumes from time to time and walking among you. If anything it distracts us from contemplating the coming Apocalypse. While we do see some meaning behind the work of your so-called archivists, it won’t matter much once everything is vaporized.

The irony of you in your absurd costumes calling us ridiculous is . . . notable. What’s the meaning of these costumes you wear? Do they serve a purpose? Also in terms of the phrase ‘the coming Apocalypse,’ please expand on the word ‘coming.’

We apologize if our garments offend you. In researching your species we came across the celebration known as All Hallows’ Eve and thought we would try to blend in, so to speak. However, that attempt appears to have fallen flat, given the number of highly distressed individuals we have encountered as we walk among you.

Given recent events on your failing planet you may think that you are living in the early stages of the Apocalypse. We assure you, though, that you have not seen anything yet. The forces of elemental destruction are, how do you say…just getting warmed up?

And how should we react to inescapable doom? We’ve often wondered this, what the right attitude is with so much destruction directly ahead. Should we be afraid or laugh? You’re ideal representatives of the coming Apocalypse, we’ll give you that. But perhaps we would know better what attitude to take if we glimpsed your true form. C’mon, give us just a peek under those costumes of yours.

Our advice is to act like it’s not coming. Live your lives as they unfold before you, regardless of the impending doom. There is no point in getting worked up over the inevitable.

Were we to remove our garments the sight of the gaping void beneath them would burn out your retinas. Is that what you want? We think you have enough on your plates as it is without also losing your vision. Therefore we thought we’d spare you this unpleasantness. It is our gift to you—the ability to see the coming horrors as they approach from afar.

Okay, okay, phew. You guys are intense. Not that we’re complaining. We appreciate the visit. So, what brings you down here (up here?) to our earthly plane of existence? I mean, besides distracting yourself from the coming Apocalypse? What diversions have you discovered?

We were just cruising around in the aether and happened to peer down at your planet whereupon we noticed how much havoc your species has wreaked upon it. So we thought we’d pay you a visit and offer our advice. Of course, while here we have taken the time to indulge in a few of your customs. In particular we’ve become fixated on corn mazes and bungee jumping, preferably when combined together. As for the sustenance you require to maintain your flimsy flesh husks, though, we find it largely bland and unappetizing with the exception of pickled ginger, which frankly we can’t get enough of.

Oh, interesting. The bungee jumping seems so obvious we won’t ask you about it, but what specifically do you enjoy about corn mazes? Is there one in particular you would recommend?

The precepts of our anthropological research dictate that we must partake in the most illogical activities known to be regular practices of the species we encounter. We are intrigued by the concept of an intentional effort to disorient oneself by entering a network of pathways on a grid designated for sustenance production. And all for the purpose of entertainment! What strange creatures you humans are. 

As separate activities we have enjoyed the corn mazes more than the bungee jumping. But for reasons we have not been able to determine, when we bungee jump into a corn maze we experience an unprecedented level of euphoria. We like to make a game of plucking the ears of corn once we’ve reached the end of our bungee cords and then consuming them as we ricochet back up into space.

We do not know the names of your corn mazes so cannot recommend any specific examples, but we have noticed the geographic area known on your planet as Iowa is particularly replete with them.

We are intrigued by this image of you hurtling towards and away from the earth while stuffing your faces with uncooked corn on the cob. How is the eating done if beneath your costumes there are no teeth, per se, but only blinding nothingness?

We simply stuff the ears into the mouth-shaped holes in our costume heads and they disappear. We do not ‘taste’ food as you do, but for some reason following our consumption of your sustenance known as corn there is a feeling of well-being generated in our consciousness.

OK well before you go zipping off, please accept this gift from the Ghost Paper Archives.

. . . Now, as you gain altitude, can we ask a favor? Will you describe us as you are flung away into the sky? Can you let us know how we look from way up there?

[removes garments]

After People: Rules & Regulations

You’ve been warned.

Per Park Code 2.01, please be advised that at this moment there is no excessive noise in the park. Some tree boughs are sighing in a halfhearted breeze. A few puzzled birds are warbling to themselves. If you listen closely you can even hear the earth starting to have its opinion about the ongoing peoplelessness. Deep underground a rodent is gnawing a tunnel to escape her boredom. A storm drain swallows dryly for want of conversation. But the question is, have all these sounds reached the point of excess? Has the absence of people yet grown into a silent cacophony? No. Just read the sign. How could we have been clearer?

Per Park Code 3.02, the presence of any canine entities within the boundaries of the depicted region of rolling grassy hills (designated in no uncertain terms as an ‘athletic field’) shall not be tolerated. As can be determined by closely observing the image, which affords a panoramic view of a significant section of the region in question, no canine entities are indeed present, which is as it should be. Were there any canines present, in flagrant violation of the dictate (i.e., Park Code 3.02) stated on the sign, one of our technicians would move in from behind their well-camouflaged surveillance blind to initiate apprehension and subsequent detainment. (Note: in the absence of people, said apprehension and detainment will be postponed until suitable repopulation allows for hiring of replacement enforcement technicians. Thank you for doing your part to keep our ‘athletic fields’ clean and canine-free.)

Per Regulations Pertaining to the Right-of-Way in the Nobody Zone, cameras are in place to witness the law not being broken. They are doing this all the time, without a break, forever. They are really quite amazing, these cameras. Which law is not being broken has not been specified. We can think of many. The law of gravity has not been broken. The fact that this photograph—which is far too casual to be staged—was taken at an upward angle i.e. from the ground, is pretty convincing. The law of entropy has not been broken. That window in the background cracked months ago. Half of it just fell out onto the pavement and shattered, moving from order to disorder in a most lawful fashion. It’s still broken. So we’re all good in terms of entropy. Newton’s Third Law about interacting bodies has definitely not been broken because, uh, there’s nobody to interact! Which begs the question, if there’s nobody to interact then why do we need a law? How many other laws are currently on the books where those with the capacity to break them simply don’t exist? There is so much more that doesn’t exist than does! (Especially now, after people.) The cameras are starting to have no idea what to even watch for and it’s stressing them out. Their camera eyes are twitching, watering. They are trying not to blink, which would violate the Regulations Pertaining to the Right-of-Way in the Nobody Zone. Uh oh.

Per recently updated Parking Regulations in the Nobody Zone, it is deemed illegal to park in front of this fence. Yes, we concede that an overzealous sign-hanging technician has perhaps belabored the point, but in the case of parking regulations we have found it is always better to err on the side of over-signage than to risk leaving an opening of ambiguity arguable by a ticketed petitioner in a court of law. A more apt point to consider, though, is who in this now person-free zone would even find reason to park here? Does the answer lie beyond the fence? We are not at liberty to disclose. However, should you dare to find out please note that—per City Code 5.59—a hard hat, safety glasses, and flame-resistant clothing are required. Remember: even though nobody appears to be around, the cameras are always running and they would like nothing more than to catch you in flagrante delicto.

Please be advised, per Motor Vehicle Statutes in the Nobody Zone, there is currently no heaven. Whether there was at one time a heaven or will be a heaven in the future we cannot say. Perhaps people took heaven with them when they vanished—assuming there was one to begin with. We’re not qualified to weigh in on that. In any case, all drivers currently driving in the Nobody Zone, though they be zero in number, must exercise the utmost care in handling their vehicles. You will not get the chance to make that lefthand turn again, not in some other life, not anywhere. This would appear to fall under the heading of CRUELTY. Though, honestly, it’s a lot to expect, that you’d get a do-over accompanied by harp music. Should this notice be concerning to you, may we suggest a refresher course, offered by the Department of Motor Vehicles in the Nobody Zone on how to go nowhere at all in the safest possible manner.

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After People, An Infestation of Spectral Rabbits

G. Hogg is not happy about it.

OUT THERE—G. Hogg peers out from below the stairs—surprisingly alert for having just woken moments ago from her usual six-month nap. Her sharp eyes scan the people-less landscape before her. Directly across from her under-stair lair sits a dwelling, presumably occupied by humans, for it is drab and square like humans typically are. This building irks her. Its ostentatious black shutters feature rabbit-shaped decorative cut-outs. Hogg considers this stylistic choice. Her feelings on rabbits are largely ambivalent. Encounters with them are limited to the occasional turf war over neighborhood gardens, that sort of thing. Nervous critters, they are. Probably could stand to cool their hoppity heels a bit. But on the whole, no, she doesn’t think much of rabbits. And so—having now extracted herself from beneath the stairs—she turns with a rankled shrug from the sight of those leporine silhouettes and undulates off into the shrubbery.

Rabbits, ready to multiply.

Dashing through the undergrowth, G. Hogg picks up speed. She whips recklessly through vegetation that has thickened and sprawled. Her eyes are still ticklish to light after her long nap and she blinks and shakes her head.

What is it she sees when she blinks? It’s those blasted rabbits. Blotchy black rabbits on a white field.

Thus distracted, G. Hogg careens head-on towards a tree. At the last instant a large foot materializes and provides an impediment—WHUMP!—though striking the large, heavy foot was no more pleasant than striking the tree would’ve been.

Attached to the foot is a tall personage of regal bearing, who makes a shallow, creaking bow. It’s the tree’s guardian spirit, Mother Wood.

Mother Wood (tree guardian incarnation)

MOTHER WOOD: Hello, G. Hogg!

G. HOGG (shaking it off): Hello, Mother Wood. Thanks!

MOTHER WOOD (bows again): Any time.

G. HOGG: Hey, where did everybody go?

MOTHER WOOD: You mean the people.

G. HOGG: I woke up and they’re all gone!

MOTHER WOOD: Yes, it’s a fairly recent development. You’ve just come from the Nobody Zone, I take it. Tell me, what did you see there?

G. HOGG: You haven’t been?

MOTHER WOOD: Not since it first came into existence, no.

G. HOGG: Well, there’s not much to see. Lots of boring boxes.

MOTHER WOOD: Buildings, I believe they were called.

G. HOGG: Right. All empty. No people anywhere. Zippo.

MOTHER WOOD: I see. And what about other entities?

G. HOGG: Other whatities?

MOTHER WOOD: Have you seen any beings who . . . aren’t people?

G. HOGG (exploring the bump on her forehead with her paws): I’m not sure. What would the non-people persons be doing?

MOTHER WOOD: That is the question.

As the smarting pain on her forehead recedes into a tender ache, G. Hogg is again irritated by the blotches in her vision, which even a kick to the head have failed to dislodge.

G. Hogg blinks her eyes. . . Rabbits . . . Mother Wood . . . Rabbits . . . Mother Wood . . . 

MOTHER WOOD: Are you okay? You seem twitchier than normal.

G. HOGG: There’s something wrong with my eyes!

MOTHER WOOD: Here, let me have a look. Lean back. . . . Hm. . . . Yes, I see! You have ghost rabbits in your eyes. What an interesting development!

G. HOGG (drops her head): I should’ve guessed it’d be something like that. Is it fatal?

MOTHER WOOD: Not usually.

This fails to cheer up G. Hogg.

G. HOGG: I’m not a big fan of rabbits. What should I do?

Mother Wood is silent for a moment. Then she grins and bends down with a great squawk of her wooden spine and creak of her limbs and whispers into G. Hogg’s ear.

As Mother Wood’s whisper rustles on, G. Hogg’s ears slowly flatten until they lie like strips of velvet upon her head. When Mother Wood ceases to speak, the ears prick back up.

G. HOGG: Flags, you say? Hmm. And they’re attracted to the colors? How strange. What do I do once the little buggers have amassed in the clearing?

Again Mother Wood leans down—bark snapping and peeling off her sides—and murmurs into the little animal’s ear.

G. HOGG: Ah, I see. Right, then! I better get started if I’m going to finish setting this up before nightfall.

She lopes off, Mother Wood smiling after her with the closest her wretched countenance comes to resembling benevolence.

The warren—with trap set.

G. Hogg arrives breathless in the rabbits’ favorite clearing. She suspects their warren lies below it, though the long-legged fiends are so clandestine in their movements that she has never once caught them in the act of ducking below ground. Mind you, not that she’s been particularly interested enough to spend much time studying their cryptic behavior. She has far more crucial demands requiring her attention than the observation of a band of meddlesome cabbageheads.

In the day’s fading light she rushes around stabbing into the ground the flag markers she procured from the shed above her burrow, following Mother Wood’s precise instructions. Her preparations now complete, she surveys the scene with a contented shiver before creeping behind a large rock to await the arrival of her nemeses.

As night deepens, G. Hogg becomes sleepy. This is odd after having so recently taken a long nap.

In the evening blue half-light, the clearing grows bleary. Red flags become radishes that weigh down their vines in thick ruby clusters. Orange flags become carrots that grow in bunches among dried carrot-flower bracts and petals. Yellow flags become summer squash that have plumped up from the earth amid a tangle of rhizomal filaments. Is G. Hogg dreaming? This is not how food works.

But the rabbits in G. Hogg’s eyes have become restless. They flicker and stir in her field of vision, superimposed over this spontaneous night garden of culinary delights. Dozens of them leap like sparks among the vegetation, munching and devouring. At the moment there are more rabbits in G. Hogg’s eyes than there have ever been. But as the vegetation is eaten down, closer and closer to the ground, the rabbit shapes follow. They follow the vegetation down into the earth and keep devouring until they have disappeared, seeped down into their secret warren. G. Hogg hears the faint rumble of them gnawing deep underground.

Well, that was a lot for one day. G. Hogg decides another nap is in order.

In the morning she wakes, feeling fresh and bright eyed. The clearing is empty. No flags, no strangely configured food, and no rabbits. Thank you, Mother Wood!

Not far from the clearing is an ancient site—G. Hogg scampers through it without noticing and is happily on to other excavations—which has aged as only things in an After-People world can age. Here lie the remains of a rabbit, bones changed by time into petrified wood. Long rabbit legs extended. From the hardened stump of a skull its rabbit ears are still erect and alert.

Study of the site suggests it was a domesticated rabbit. A pet. Its name was Bun-Bun and it lived its life in a hutch, fed by the hand of its owner. It didn’t know where its food came from or how it grew. It had never seen food growing. Then its owner disappeared.

And so Bun-Bun began to disappear, too, withering away to bones, growing very still, and ever dreaming of what lay beyond its drab, gray box.

Here lies Bun-Bun.

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After People, the Sleek Ones Quietly Arrive

Their minds, like their bodies, are impossibly sleek and do not catch upon whatever questions are left in this After-People world.

THE NOTHINGWOOD INTERFACE—The purposes for which they had been created were unclear. Smooth, sinuous, silent, they moved along the fringes of what had been and gathered amidst tumbled breezeblocks. It was thought that their advent had been a late flowering of some expiring sect, but if so, they were the only of its works to survive it. And if so, what did they seek when they slid out from the forest edge at dusk to wait amidst the broken things? It was impossible to judge how much they might remember. Or to guess at their thoughts if the sparks that yet animated them could be considered thoughts in any accepted sense. Did they seek their own origins? Stoic, soundless, they would wait on smashed patios tangled with branches until the last light left the sky, then melt away into the screen of brush and to whatever hidden dens they passed the rest of their hours. 

The mystery of what the creatures think, if they think anything at all, haunts the liminal forest. Amid the clenched vegetation and grappling limbs, the sleek ones slip by without complication. Their smooth form allows them to move through the rough as easily and habitually as a rivulet along its least resistant track. Evidence is beginning to mount that no, they do not think, that their minds, like their bodies, are impossibly sleek and do not catch upon whatever questions are left in this After-People world.

But in the heart of the woods where even the most smashed-up patio would be impossible, we find, beyond all expectation, a small outpost of the Nobody Zone. Here the creatures have lingered, doted. With their mute muzzles they have nudged together a small domestic scene: an infant’s bedroom. Furniture like wooden play blocks. Little pink baby. It has all the tactile reverence of a shrine.

The larval nursery

Where would the creatures have witnessed such a scene? Do they even have young of their own? What could the creatures possibly share with the parents who watched over this scene with such mixed reassurance and anxiety? Perhaps they have picked up a residual signal, the eerie emanation of closed-circuit baby monitors that once broadcast all through the night.

But not far from here stands another structure that denotes a larger preoccupation. The first thought is . . . a castle? Yes, perhaps the baby monitor signal has driven the sleek ones, as it drove the parents before them, to build for Baby. A place for Baby to play. A place Baby to rule. A fortress to safeguard the primacy of Baby. This is the industry of a species that believes in its own future.

A timepiece

A closer inspection, however, suggests other (related?) possibilities. The cross sections of tree rings that have been stacked one on another are a document of years, which ascend in enigmatic increments. It is possible to interpret the structure as a time keeping device: a calendar, or perhaps a clock. Though, if this is so, it’s clear the sleek ones understand time in a very alien way, and so good luck trying to read it.

Imagine then—if you can—two radically different outcomes…

In the first, the tiny pink offspring of these crepuscular beings sits exposed on this rustic playground, as the ghosts of their caretakers, weakened by the now full daylight, nose around nervously on the periphery. The pink plasticity stands out as an affront to the rudimentary wooden construction that appears literally carved out from its forested backdrop. The child’s rigid limbs jut out with audacity from its tiny plasticine torso. What an abomination against nature. How could such elegant beings have birthed such an ugly, helpless infant? Surely it will not survive in this world of constant predation.

Unless, of course, we are looking at this all wrong. And so, let us consider a second scenario that twines the various possibilities together…

The hard pink lump is merely a larva, made to be inserted into the machinery of the sleek ones’ wooden timepiece. After penetrating the cambium of the structure with the sharpened ends of its proto-limbs, the larva worms its way into the heartwood, where it will feed for months upon the pulpy goodness of the central pith. Once encysted, the larva activates its homing beacon to alert the sleek ones, who materialize once again in the gloaming. With their conical proboscides they push the entire timepiece to the ‘nursery’, where they dig a pit and insert the structure upside down in the protective soil, alongside those already in place. Having now established a symbiotic link with the larva, the womb structure will simultaneously provide nourishment and maintain precise timekeeping to ensure metamorphosis is successful.

Will the resulting juvenile undulate forth to the surface boasting yet another shade of purple? Of what size and shape will this being take in its initial form? Will it immediately discern its purpose, of which we are still yet to perceive?

Though much remains uncertain, one occurrence is likely: as on each day twilight approaches, house dwellers everywhere will continue to stand silent behind their curtains, peering out anxiously at their cracked patios, wondering if this will be an evening when the sleek ones choose to visit.

The nest

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I Attempt to Dematerialize

Against our better judgement, one of our archivists attempts Fustus’ dematerialization procedure.

A report from NG

Think of the smallest possible particle you can imagine. Concentrate all of your energy and attention on this image of infinitesimal proportions. Do this five times each day in five-minute sessions for five days in a row. On the sixth day at the sixth hour, do it for six minutes. After the six minutes are up, don’t open your eyes. Stand up and spin around rapidly until you can’t stand up straight any longer. When you eventually fall over you will wake to find yourself a speck in the vast expanse of space.
~Fustus

Whew! Here at Ghost Paper Archives we’re still celebrating the appearance of Fustus. Direct contact with an inter-dimensional being is more than we would’ve ever hoped for after only a few months’ work. It’s tremendously validating.

There’s been some debate among the Archive as to how seriously to apply ourselves to the dematerialization technique revealed by Fustus. We know he’s a meddlesome entity and belongs to a clique of transcendental bad apples. The opinion of the Archive has largely been: “You go ahead and try it; I’ll watch from a safe distance over here.”

Well one of us had to try it, and I’ve got nothing else going on. So here’s my report.

Imagine a particle. A provocative directive! Lately all I think about are particles. My imagination is full of monsters measured in parts per million.

The real challenge has been to imagine this particle for only five minutes five times a day, as directed, instead of thinking about it constantly and factoring it into everything I do.

I imagine a virus, a single tiny virion carried on a breath like a beachball on the sea. It’s waiting to drift onto the shore of a new island where it can establish itself and choke out all other life.

A whole island of beachballs. The particle likes this idea. It’s really the only idea it has.

Or, I can imagine an even smaller particle. A chemical component of some polymeric resin that until recently had glued together a house. The house was a home, full of family memory, but now it’s floating in the atmosphere along with the rest of California’s forests. This tiny particle, which the house spat out as it collapsed in flames—I can only imagine it as a point of absolute blackness. Toxic, cancerous, vengeful.

I imagine them all, all the tiny monsters. They’ve already gotten into my little apartment. They’re hanging here, poised in the air. To bring them into full resolution I have to become their size. I’m the tiniest flake of scurf. A flake of a flake: that’s me.

For five days in succession I imagine monsters, as directed. In this apartment there’s little else to do. I imagine monsters until I’m surrounded by them, under siege. I don’t so much envision or meditate or ponder. I fret. I brood. Anxiety hijacks the imagination, fills it with conspiracy and ill portent. Times are hard for daydreamers.

There are so many things I can’t control. The trajectory of politics and discourse in my country, the convulsions of a planet in extremis, and just . . . entropy. I am small, so small and afloat, pushed helplessly by whatever current comes along. It’s only by chance I haven’t yet run into a narcissistic beach ball or a point of toxic darkness. Perhaps I’ll never dematerialize, but my existence has certainly begun to feel immaterial.

My only defense is to imagine myself smaller and smaller, to increase the distance between myself and everything else.

On the sixth day at 6:00 AM I think: I’m really getting the hang of this! I am an atom. I am blind and spinning, doing my atom dance. I’m enveloped in the distant electron cloud of myself. I can shrink away from all that, too.

As I become evermore subatomic—neutrino, quark, preon—I’m not sure how much longer I can stay in place. There’s not much of me to stay in place with

And here it comes. The sixth and final minute. The sixtieth and final second. An eternity in a blink of an eye. Do you see me?

Fustus

Think of this as a mere public relations call….. I am here to inform you of our…er, my existence.

Wow! What a dramatic entrance! What should we call you?

I am Fustus. That is all you need to know regarding my nomenclature at this juncture.

Greetings, Fustus. And thank you for appearing on Ghost Paper Archives. Our archivists have already begun to argue about what they’re calling—for lack of a better term—your “state.” Some think you’re an elaborate but basically persistent form, like a lily. Others think you are just a moment in time, like a splash or a flourish. They’re split fifty-fifty and honestly it’s getting a little tense. Would you care to clear the matter up for us?

I appreciate your interest in my form. Your archivists are not far off in their positing. My existence (as you are able to perceive it) actually lies somewhere in between those two theories. I am a florescence. At least that is what I am in your dimension of time. I appear in various places at various times of the year—when and where it suits me. When I appear it is instantaneous and in full form, and my departure—when it occurs—is equally sudden and complete.

Well, that brings up all kinds of interesting questions. Can you give us an example of a time and place you have appeared? (Perhaps the right word is “occurred”?)

On June 6, 2006, I materialized in the midst of a gathering of doomsday cult followers in the American state of Idaho. I intoned the word ‘Oops’ and quickly disappeared.

We never would’ve expected you to be funny, too. We assume you were mistaken for the Antichrist? Any word on what became of these devout Idahoans afterward? Are cases of mistaken identity something you commonly struggle with? (That was kind of a barrage of questions. Sorry. We’re very eager.)

Honestly, I don’t know what happened after I left. I possess a form of limited omniscience that grants me awareness of most earthbound activity, but after I interfere with the humans I am disallowed from observing the results of my endeavours.

My intention with the cultists was merely to sow doubt and discord among them. I can be quite meddlesome, even borderline malevolent, in that respect. I figured uttering the word ‘Oops’ would lead them to argue over the intent behind my exclamation. Maybe their interpretation was that I felt I was there by mistake: wrong date, wrong cult…who knows. I feel kind of high just thinking about it now, though.

To answer your last question: I rarely linger anywhere among the humans long enough to be mistaken for anything other than a white blur. At least that’s my guess—an educated one informed by experiences shared with me by the others.

Others! What others?

Oops. I’m not sure I’m at liberty to speak of them. Let’s just say for now it was agreed that I would be the one to speak to your group, or whatever you call yourselves, because I’m considered the most innocuous among us.

Fustus, given your history with the word, we’ll ask you to refrain from saying “Oops.” Well . . . now you have us worried, worried you’ve come, or worse, been sent by creatures more malevolent than yourself, to somehow meddle with the Archive. Do you deny this? If not, what do you hope to accomplish by occurring to us now?

Think of this as a mere public relations call—nothing more, nothing less. I am here to inform you of our…er, my existence, should you need something to distract you from the other seemingly terrible goings-on in your plane of existence at the moment. I can say that your Archive need not fear the possibility of meddling in its affairs—at least not from me. Generally speaking, I don’t like to make myself known to those whom I plan to meddle with prior to my initiation of the meddlesome act. It takes most of the fun out of it. Of course it’s possible your archivists might interpret this entire charade of an interview as a meddlesome act, but that is of no concern to me.

On whether you are in fact meddling by pretending not to meddle, we’re again split fifty-fifty. (We really need to settle on an odd number of archivists so as to have a tie-breaker in these situations.) Assuming what you say is true, that you’re here on a public relations call, please, by all means, deliver your press release, give us the news. We’ll publish it without editorializing, we swear.

Perhaps I have been unclear. I have no actual news to impart. My appearance alone is the news. Now that you know of my existence you’ll likely forget about it. And then once all trace of your awareness of me has dissipated I may appear again. Won’t that be fun?

You’ve turned the basic act of trying to know you into a Sisyphean act, which, no, doesn’t sound fun at all. It is an intriguing project, we’ll give you that, but isn’t it sort of sad for you to have no real . . . what do they call it? Object permanence. What meaning do you take from such an existence, Fustus? Can you share a moment that you’ve come to treasure?

For you to comprehend the full nature of my existence you would need to dematerialize. If you are ever able to accomplish that feat I will be only too pleased to get further acquainted. When I appear among the humans it is only as a brief physical apparition that enables them to acknowledge my presence. But my usual existence is formless and it is the most meaningful existence I can imagine. Every moment is a treasure, but I do particularly enjoy when the sun crests the edge of the Earth and I feel the force of its energy pass through me.

That does sound pleasant. Can you give us some insight on how to dematerialize? Just a few tips to get us started?

Certainly. Think of the smallest possible particle you can imagine. Concentrate all of your energy and attention on this image of infinitesimal proportions. Do this five times each day in five-minute sessions for five days in a row. On the sixth day at the sixth hour, do it for six minutes. After the six minutes are up, don’t open your eyes. Stand up and spin around rapidly until you can’t stand up straight any longer. When you eventually fall over you will wake to find yourself a speck in the vast expanse of space. If this doesn’t work then I know some people in Idaho who might be willing to take you in.

After People, the Nobody Zone Thirsts for Conversation

DEADPAN PLAZA—The only conversation to be heard anymore is the babble of water. Bubbly, free-flowing, and digressive—the discourse is anything but dry, but speech no longer does the work it used to. Water talks to itself of itself for itself. The water wheel of meaning and connotation has become a ferris wheel without passengers, going round and round for nothing.

In an otherwise silent world, the conversation of water achieves new fluency. It rushes into new places beyond the mainstream, permeates pockets and fissures and small, dry zones previously considered unworthy of mention. But here, at the parched threshold of the unknown, the conversation stops. It has blundered into a forbidden, cordoned-off subject. Water is for the moment reticent. Bottled up. (Cupped up, actually—only open-ended containers are of any use here in the Nobody Zone.) It may look like your typically quiet, post-people scene, but hydraulic pressure is mounting.

Caution! Evidence of humanity—quenched or still thirsting—left behind, leaving in its wake the perpetual question of whether half-full or half-empty. Here sits a vessel with no one around to consume its life-giving contents. To where has the drinker disappeared? Upon what quest has this individual embarked?

Perhaps the drinker went this way, along this sight line…but, no—the way here is barred. Escape from this state of mind (or thirst?) is blocked again by an ominous set of black teeth—a gaping black maw of wrought iron chompers. In the distance we see merely a glimmer of light, an uncertain glimpse illuminating a possible path to liberation from the seemingly unending aridity of this current existence.

It’s just one impasse after another now that the drinker has passed on. Will anything come to pass again? The maw with wrought iron chompers is the first of many to fall silent. The ducts and corridors, the pipelines and passageways all dry out, joining together to form a barren but elaborately reticulated throat, a prison for all that goes unsaid.

Water remains motionless, keeps its thoughts to itself. Back on the verge of a forbidden subject the hydraulic pressure has been mounting this whole time. The plastic cup is sweating on the inside. Who will break this terrible, thirsting silence?

Not far from the sweating plastic cup, a storm drain has begun to look itchy among tufts of dry patchy grass. It feels sand hot on the back of its tongue and thirsts for the deluge.

The drain and its surrounding basin are indeed dry. It hasn’t rained in these parts for months. And yet we know water is still around here somewhere, for someone (or rather, something) appears to have drunk half a cup’s worth of it before absconding. Perhaps the water is now trickling deep underground through ancient aquifers inaccessible to these thirsty plants rooted in the upper surface soil. Yes, yes…and if we could just take a peek down into that storm drain we might find the answer we seek. So here goes…

Traveling through the labyrinthine network of aging drainage tunnels—that reticulated throat of the city— we suddenly emerge out into daylight again and encounter an unexpected sight. Here scattered on the ground ahead has the water finally revealed itself. And yet…no longer in liquid form. Instead it is frozen into cubes. How bizarre. What could this mean…this transmogrification from liquid to solid…does it portend a radical change beyond even our admittedly formidable capacity to fathom? One hopes so, for the beauty of the varying shades of blue-green tinting these cubes is a wonder to behold.

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The Immaculate

Take for example the precise slant of the hat upon my head. Could such a ravishing angle have invented itself?

What is your name?

I am called The Immaculate. You may call me Mac, if that’s easier.

If you’ll pardon the observation, Mac, your appearance is certainly less than immaculate. How have you come by such an incongruous moniker?

I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. There is no inch of myself that has not been planned to the last detail, that I have not adorned, festooned, and emblazoned to the utmost. Take for example the precise slant of the hat upon my head. Could such a ravishing angle have invented itself? Now that you’ve noticed the angle, could you imagine any other in its place? Furthermore there is nothing about the man beneath the finery either, not my deportment, nor my character, nor my sensibility, that has not received the same attention, all of it quite thoroughly tweaked and tricked out. And should I seem somewhat . . . like a human birthday cake—for I once overheard a young, observant girl say this of me in the street—if you find yourself cloyed by so much personal fuss and filigree, perhaps allow your eyes a smaller nibble. The Immaculate was not meant to be gobbled down all at once.

I see. And what line of work are you in, Mac? Are these your normal workaday clothes? One could surmise they present some semblance of a uniform.

I do not work, though I’m hardly unemployed. It’s the duty of The Immaculate to be present at all times or places of importance. To be spotted in front of a theatrical opening as lords and ladies swish by en route to their seats. To make myself available by hovering at the edge of a press conference of grave significance. To station myself somewhat in front of the door of a department store upon the advent of the holiday sale. Yes, this is a uniform I wear. Very good. You are more perceptive than you at first seemed. It is a uniform for one, a livery of very high office, and must therefore be perfect in every point. On occasion I do have to trade out my bow if it begins to sag, but that’s very rare—it’s a bleak day indeed when my ebullient bow thinks of sagging.

I’m not sure ‘ebullient’ is the term I’d use to describe it, but I do concede that this bow of yours is not easy to ignore. Is there a story behind that particular component of your uniform that you’d care to share with our (certainly by now) captivated audience?

Certainly. There is no part of me that does not come with a story, to add significance and color.

There is a married couple who lives in a large house above Slew Street. They are prolific and have added to their account fourteen children and a songbird. If the missus has a favorite I can only think it is the songbird, for every morning she sways in front of the window and sings to it. Behind her, her husband and children, all plump and red-cheeked, talk and move with maximum haste making ready for the day. From the street below, beside a popular news stand, I oft enjoy this simple domestic scene framed so charmingly by the window.

One day as I approached my post, I witnessed a moving crew emerging from the rear of the Slew Street home. The mover-men were hefting a giant bed—the couple’s marriage bed, it could only be. There in the alley they abandoned it, with what future plan I do not know, and drove away in their loud stinking truck.

Well! What a desecration, to leave such an intimate fixture of family life propped against an alley wall! Feeling aggrieved and drawn off my track, I strode into the alley to make an inspection.

Why the love nest had been discarded was only too clear. Many of the springs had collapsed. The mattress was misshapen and its striped ticking was blotched all over with an irregular pattern of brown, ring-like stains. The mottled motif was quite involved. I took it in from many angles, at first bemused but then with a growing sense of excitement. It was, in truth, mesmerizingly beautiful. I could not appraise the mattress highly enough. It was a masterpiece.

An elation filled me, which I can only call “Art.” My heart raced. It was as though I’d been pulled here, into this alley and towards the mattress, by magnetic attraction. A great concentration of creative power was centered here. Yes! After all, was this not the site upon which fourteen lives had been conceived? Fourteen living souls—what artist’s atelier or writer’s garret could be said to have produced so much?

With my extremities all a-tingle, I could no longer resist. I rushed at the mattress, gripped the frayed seam of its ticking, and ripped it free. A flash of white feathers stole my breath away. White feathers heaping over my spatz. White feathers floating up and around me. White feathers swaying in the alley like dandelion seeds. I was immersed. And in the white feather swirl I swear I heard, distinctly, our missus’ morning song. I had penetrated to the core of that melody; I knew it now, from inside.

Behold The Immaculate in living rapture. This is the meaning of the bow, a gift I’ve unlaced for you.

For, you see, it was from the mottled mattress ticking that I later formed the decoration I wear round my neck. The material is rather stiff, so stiff I must minimize my yes-ing and no-ing to save my chin from being constantly chafed. The rest of my uniform I starch furiously—when it rains there is a faint smell of potato about me, which is delicious—but my bow has never wanted a drop of starch. My bow is ever a thing of substance, standing to meet all occasions. Except when it doesn’t, which, as I’ve said, is very rare.

Well, that is quite a tale, Mac. I’m not familiar with the area around Slew Street, nor can I find it on a local map. Are those your usual stomping grounds? And do you perhaps live in a dumpster nearby?

Slew Street is easy to find. Go to Crag Top and head south towards Shatter Alley. You can’t get there without meeting a prolix swerve of pavement lined with news and flower stands. That’s Slew Street. It may go by another name on your map. I’ve taken it upon myself to rename many of the drably named streets and landmarks of my city.

Yes, I’m often on Slew Street, but Slew Street is merely one of my many habitual locales. I make it a point to distribute myself as universally as possible. This requires me to tear from district to district at demon speed. I am quite a vision with my ornate coattails flapping behind me like a dragon’s wings. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with a Napoleonic proclivity for marching or I should be constantly run off my feet.

As for where I “live,” I can only be said to live in the street, for that is the place I am most seen and appreciated by those who are equipped to see and appreciate me. As for where I sleep or base my operations, I’ve had many places over the years, and I daresay a few of them have indeed been dumpsters. But err not! A dumpster is never a dumpster by the time I lay myself inside it.

My habitation must be as exquisite as The Immaculate himself. Much can be accomplished with bottle caps and tinfoil. Ribbons can be fashioned from a good many materials, as I have already demonstrated. I never think of embarking on such a project until I’m already weary and it’s often wretched work. By the time I’ve finished transforming the dumpster it’s nothing short of a palace, and I collapse into it with a resounding, metal shudder—all energy has been expended for beauty, none for comfort. It’s a shame that my habitations have not been preserved. I would think they’d make a fine exhibition, shown all together.

Indeed, your bedazzled dumpsters do sound like wonderful art pieces, Mac. If I had any gallery connections I’d surely put you in touch with them. You must be a true artist to sacrifice your own personal comfort like that in favor of a higher level of impractical decor. 

As much as I’d like to continue probing your psyche for more shiny nuggets of enlightenment, though, I think we’re going to have to bring this conversation to a close. It has been quite an experience meeting with you and learning about your curious ways. Are there any parting words of wisdom you’d like to share with our audience before you melt away into the gloaming?

Yes. To your admirable audience, a select and sophisticated coterie, I’m sure, I would counsel: If, by chance, you see me emerge before you from the sea of people on the street, do not let novelty be the beginning and end of your experience. Take me in. Little by little. Be patient.

You may start anywhere. With the inclination of my top hat or the poise of my neck-bow, with the unfailing dignity of my facial expression or any other exacting element of my personality. Do this and you will be amply rewarded. As I pass by, much will occur to you that has never occurred before, and yet you will sense that you’ve perceived only the merest fraction. As I vanish again into the human tide, you will feel a loss. You’ll wish we had longer together. But as now I slip from view, be rapturous. The Immaculate exists! There can be no doubt! For a moment your field of vision was filled to overflowing with him, with everything given its proper proportion, everything as it should be.

In this world where all colors are grayed together, where every force is blunted by its opposite to the point of aimlessness, there appears, from time to time, something pure. The Immaculate is unattainable, yes, but take comfort. Now that you’ve seen The Immaculate, he will always be with you.

After People, a Toadstool Grows at the Gate of Paradise

Mycology in the Nobody Zone

VANISHED HILL PARK—Don’t be fooled by the diminutive nature of the guardian sitting atop this slab of dualist symbolism. Flanked by two stones left as offerings by invisible visitors, this simple Taoist gnome-monk is the ambassador for a magical place of peace and tranquility—a necessary retreat from the surrounding urban chaos. Yet it is a lonely existence for the monk on the monument. No one lingers long at the gateway to paradise. And so as he sits gripping his precious toadstool he pines for companions left behind in what feels like another lifetime. He wonders what adventures he’s missed since setting off on this solo journey of self-reflection so many years ago.

How disappointed he’d be if he saw them now. In the absence of people, the gnome’s former companions have reverted to the old feuds and factions. In the dark portion of the Nobody Zone, the small folk have again begun their “game,” whose rules constantly change, and is therefore not really a game. It’s only a game in the sense that no consequence will ever come of it. But where do the ever-evolving rules come from? They seem to well up, daemonic, from some atavistic source deep in the earth. The small folk are the playthings of the dark. The dark lusts for color, so they have become brazenly colorful.

Now the small folk lie scattered among the crevices and voids of the dark place. An air of nausea and dissipation sets in, but they continue to play, maniacally. The game has grown gravely serious, because in the dark the game is all there is.

But things are no better over in the lighted portion of the Nobody Zone. Here the wooden soldiers have phalanxed themselves like the pipes of an organ. From shortest to tallest and back to shortest again, they are a troop well assembled; every one of them knows his place. But there’s no straying from this configuration. The light has caused a hard, plain clarity; a space devoid of ambiguity and, hence, possibility. So unlike the dark, whose daemon was one of constant changeability, the light produces a daemon of grueling persistence. Fixity.

And this is also atavistic, for in each wooden soldier lives the remnant of a deeply rooted tree. There’s a yearning there, to extend in a single sunward direction. But the soldiers’ mouths have never tasted nut or kernel. They’ve had no opportunity to discover themselves. They will never move or grow another inch, because in the light the existing order is all there is.

It is true that in the light there is order—the order of natural law. Certain lines within that body of law dictate that all life ends, breaks down, and thus—out of death and deterioration—provides sustenance for new life. The wooden soldiers stand unaware of this, though that remnant of tree inside each one still ripples as a ghost of its arboreal ancestor. And so perhaps the taste of an ancient “kernel” does yet linger at the back of their gaping wooden maws. What if this taste were to suddenly sharpen, then to stimulate the hardened phloem buried in those soldiers’ sclerotic limbs and activate that long-suppressed spark of life?

As we now know, the rules to the “game” never shed their dynamic nature. The Nobody Zone is a seemingly random network of interlaced liminal spaces. While we have established there is order (e.g., natural law) in the light, this order does not necessarily extend beyond the reach of that light. And while the contrast of disorder governs the dark areas of the Zone, what of the other fractal spaces in this place? Is there perhaps an overlap of order and disorder to be found in the gloaming?

Awakened from their slumber by such ineffable energies the source of which we are forever wont to question, the soldiers leave their pedestals in unison and march off away from the light toward the edges of their own reality. Traversing a line unnoticed by their forward-staring eyes, they are suddenly assimilated into the crepuscular sector of the Nobody Zone, where the laws of physics kneel to the “laws” of absurdity. A realm where states of matter are fluid and dematerialization is routine—where dark and light mingle their individual aims and objectives into oft-monstrous hybrid purposes. Here, having followed their atavistic instincts, the soldiers have (literally) returned to their roots, though for how long remains uncertain.

Root and rhizome return to spongy, alluvial soils. They interlace and flex, turning up a witch’s roil of growth and decay. The soldiers clack their last salutes as their formation turns to mulch. The small folk scream and are forcefully demarcated. In the crepuscular sector, both and neither a battlefield or playground, the old companions have collapsed into discrete, orderly piles of chaos. The stench is incredible. They lie there, inert, ready to feed whatever opportunistic, detritus-loving species comes next.

Back at the empyrean gateway, the gnome-monk can feel the Taoist symbolism hugging itself more tightly than before. In emulation, he presses his precious toadstool to his belly and decides there’s no reason to be lonely anymore. He is the toadstool and the toadstool is him.

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After People, A Bird Reflects

Migrations of a Reversible Bird

ZEROTH AVE.—On the empty sidewalk of an unused street, a bird leans against the foot of a red fence and reflects upon the new, people-less situation. In other times the bird might’ve perched above a minibar or over a wicker reading chair. There was so much to reflect upon then. All the comings and goings. Now, settled at the foot of the red fence, it reflects endlessly upon a car that has lost its hubcap. The bird has been here for days. No one is coming for the car.

Reflecting upon the car, the bird’s thoughts alight here and there but never arrive anywhere. The bird realizes it’s lost its tail feathers—its thoughts can travel, but there’s no navigation anymore, no geography, no point. The bird, which was originally red, has begun to feel blue.

What would be most welcome is a change of some kind, progress from one state to another, even a waning or deterioration would be fine, but the bird has that uneasy, gloaming feeling of neither this or that. Before the red bird can feel all the way blue the emotion pauses. The bird waits, purple, on the brink of opening its beak; not to cry out at some bright new arrival, but rather, to swallow a birdcry out of the graying air.

The bird, now standing tall and ridiculous, considers: perhaps what is needed is a simpler, more elemental transmogrification. A regression or devolving, if you will, back to the basics. As an enormous blue rooster I feel too obvious, it thinks. People, when they were around, were always gawking, angling for photo ops. The rooster feels self-conscious. It craves a more anonymous existence. While not opposed to remaining in the public eye (what’s left of it), it would feel more comfortable if its appearance was less compelling. Aesthetically it would still like to retain a pleasing form, but one that the random roving eye might simply encounter and pass over—the eye’s owner inwardly satisfied to observe—before moving on to more glamorous sights. The rooster rocks back on its back claws, dreaming of some elegant geometric shape.

The bird forgets itself. It has taken the shape of forgetting and so nothing happens for a very long time. The universe goes about its quiet business. Spheres putter in circles. Experience is rounded down to a smooth, lunar zero. Hummdrummm, says the universe. Where has that bird flown off to?

Eventually, from some instinctive tendency, the bored universe begins to dream. It dreams of a verdant wood. Broad leaves open. Stands of trees arise. Sunlight dapples the understory. The forgotten bird begins to feel a warmth. The dappled wood is warming it; with its warmth the wood makes it more and more a bird. At its center, the half-remembered bird, experiences a rumble. It’s feeling peckish. It can’t stay in this shape much longer.

The bird emerges completely from the simple forgetful shape, and opens its beak. A plea for sustenance. Mother, fill me. But when the bird opens its eyes it finds Mother Wood spitting mad. Propped on her crutches, Mother Wood hisses furiously at the little open beak. She has become enraged by the act of creation. The only product of need is more need. Little street bird, Mother Wood doesn’t want you.

Skeletonized and rejected by its woody mother the bird wobbles off in search of solace. When abandoned at birth—before sensations even enter consciousness—an internal untethering occurs. So, following the only instinct it yet knows the bird wanders back into the oneiric woods of its origins—a place of mystery and the unexpected.

For long days and nights it travels the forest floor, pecking aimlessly at the leaf litter and poking its beak into every crevice it encounters. What is it searching for? Not even the bird itself knows. Call it a compulsion if you want, but be wary of so-called ‘diagnoses,’ for labels always belie the complexity of what lies beneath them.

Finally one bright morning following a particularly treacherous night of travel, the bird weaves on unsteady pipestem legs into a vast clearing at the center of which towers a massive double-trunked tree. Upon seeing this tree a sudden clarity blooms in the bird’s feeble still-forming brain. It skitters toward the tree with newfound energy and pauses, hovering before a stone tablet embedded in the surrounding earth. Straight ahead, in a hollow at the tree’s base, stands a small door. The bird quivers, electric charges running beneath its feathers, stretches its neck forward and taps upon the door with its sturdy bill. After a few long minutes the door pops open and the bird springs forward.

(Though no one is in the forest to hear it, a faint tinkling of shattered glass rings out as darkness falls.)

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