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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Collaboration

To mingle with a perhaps ineffable portion of another’s inner life.

Why collaborate?

SS: To attempt to create something beyond my own limitations.

NG: I’m all out of good ideas.

SS: To partially separate the self from the creative process.

NG: All this thinking has made me lonely.

SS: To mingle with a perhaps ineffable portion of another’s inner life.

NG: Creating with only oneself is like walking over coals before they’ve been lit. Where there’s no danger there’s no adventure.

ND: Any singular viewpoint can only see so far, even if it tries to move around a lot. Getting another perspective into the mix amplifies possibilities beyond what one may be able to devise on one’s own, gets past individual blocks, allows unexpected solutions. There’s a risk, in collaboration, of ending up in a middle ground where neither participant’s idiosyncrasies come through. This could even be desired, perhaps, depending on the project. But careful collaboration that allows each side space to experiment, instead, can have an exponential effect on creative options and lead to the most fruitful results.

Name a few anagrams of the word collaboration.

ND, NG, SS:

  • O, anti-local orb!
  • coloration lab
  • Noir cabal tool
  • Brain loot cola
  • aortic balloon
  • An orca bit Lolo
  • Not a labor coil
  • oral icon bloat
  • Boo, I call on art
  • tonal cobra oil

Would the work of a ‘hive mind’ such as in Star Trek’s Borg be considered a collaboration, even though the individual drones were assimilated against their wills?

SS: This is an interesting situation to consider. The definition of ‘collaborate’ does not mention free will as a prerequisite of working together, so technically creations of a ‘hive mind’ such as that shared by the Borg could be considered collaborations. However, when one considers the ‘collaborative’ assimilation of an entire species it kind of feels like that act violates the spirit of collaboration. Another consideration, though: since the second definition of collaborate is ‘to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupying one’s country’ (Am. Her. Dict., 2nd College Ed.), one could also rightly say a Borg drone that has been assimilated from one species is ‘collaborating’ with other Borg drones when it then participates in further assimilation of its fellow species. So, perhaps we are witnessing dual collaboration in this case.

ND: Colonialism is not a collaboration. Slavery is not a collaboration. Mandated assimilation is not collaboration.

NG: Sure! The importance of free will has been greatly overestimated. However, the Borg’s real problem is that they’re drones. If the Borg are all identical to each other then there’s no hope for collaboration, since it’s the differences between collaborators that are key, even more so than the commonalities. As I vaguely recall, Picard had some smidge of humanity that made him different from the Borg and allowed him to break free from their gray collaboration. In that case, it was a big tragedy the day the Borg lost him.

What contexts does collaboration work best in? And when would it not work so well?

NG: The best collaboration would occur in a thick, luminescent medium yet to be invented—let’s call it tonal cobra oil—a vibrant liquid wherein every sight and sound and movement is seen and heard and felt. The worst collaboration would happen in the dark vacuum of space where no one can hear you scream or would care if you did.

SS: I think it works best in contexts that are: (1) freely entered into; (2) characterized by flexible expectations; (3) permitted to fail but are still generally committed to producing a tangible outcome.

I don’t think collaboration works well when: (1) conditions are too restrictive; (2) individual collaborators have unrealistic and/or uncommunicated expectations; (3) collaborators do not share a common vision, no matter how unformed it may be in the beginning.

ND: In general, experience suggests it is smoothest when there’s a well-delineated separation of spheres. Working closely on all aspects inevitably leads to more conflict, but in well-attuned collaborators who can fight a point, then concede it graciously if needed, this can also be very effective at pushing a work that much further. But this may require a special kind of collaborator.

What is the personal cost of being misunderstood?

ND: Optimistically, being forced to refine one’s ideas. Pessimistically, having one’s ideas garbled by proximity. To be misunderstood is only to lose voice, however, if it is generalized to all potential listeners. Complex messages may necessitate some misunderstanding.

SS: I think the personal cost of being misunderstood can be quite high. If this is a chronic condition then it can seriously undermine one’s self-perception. If you perpetually feel misunderstood you may come to doubt everything you believe about yourself, even down to the most basic tenets of self-identity. I also think being misunderstood can have a negative impact on one’s creativity, either by altering or stultifying it. It can be difficult to subsist solely on internal validation. So if a person constantly feels like no one ‘gets’ the art they make on any level whatsoever or interprets the art in a way that is consistently contrary to the intent, then the person may alter their approach in an effort to be better understood, or perhaps worse yet, the person may abandon art altogether.

NG: There’s a shame to it, like you passed the ball but didn’t throw hard enough. Or you lost it in the bushes somewhere. Internalized shame is always a blow to one’s psychological autonomy.

Describe the world’s best marching band.

NG: First off, the uniforms shouldn’t be identical but should complement each other in some way. Probably all their epaulets and braids and gold buttons are varied according to instrument. Uniform color choices: Melon, puce, orange, brick. Anything but cop blue. And the marching is not exactly in unison. The drumline marches slightly ahead of or behind the beat, depending on the mood. And the higher register instruments march at cut time so that the flutes march four steps for every one step taken by the sousaphone, which allows the flutes to circle the sousaphone as they cross the parade ground like songbirds swirling around an elephant.

ND: A deep rainforest dawn chorus. All marchers independently pursue parallel and often conflicting courses, but the result is richer and more endlessly unexpected than any coordinated force.

SS: It consists of only drummers playing drums of all shapes and sizes in various parallel syncopated rhythms. The drummers march in concentric circles.

Now Available: A Set of Lines

A Set of Lines

A Set of Lines: a novel by S. D. Stewart

Last night I drew all night. I copied the images from the textbook and then I drew them again freehand—I made them move on the page, lengthened the lines and darkened the centers.

The tree, the river, the old textbook—a triptych with shifting borders hangs in a place where dreams and memories intertwine. Omission and loss haunt those who live here, suspended as they are in an endless struggle to connect. Contracting and expanding as it progresses, the narrative of their existence ever-circles around a shrouded core.


With cover design and interior illustrations by Nate Dorr, who since 2017 has been quietly depicting the beauty of decaying, mutated biospheres in his Disaster Landforms series.

Interior design and layout wizardry by Nathan Grover.

Published May 2020

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