After People, a Sleek One Passes On

A sleek, mysterious silence has overtaken the landscape.

THE NOTHINGWOOD INTERFACE—And now, in the dishwater gray of early morning, a shape is found. A curvaceous gap has opened in the sprawling ground cover. The Sleek Ones approach and discover one of their own has fallen dead in the night.

The Sleek Ones take no special notice. They go about their silent, sinuous business until a new Sleek One arrives, one we haven’t seen before. It’s of a different coloration than the others: a highly blemished green, its head a burnished royal blue. Perhaps it has developed this special coloration as part of a life phase we haven’t yet seen, as some birds will change their plumage before mating.

As the sun rises and the others slip away into the forest, the green Sleek One remains behind with the body. Soon it has erected a ladder (to where?) and, on a nearby altar (to Whom?) it has assembled what appears to be the beginnings of another timepiece, though this one is made of stone instead of wood. The green Sleek One appears to serve a role unique to this moment, the performance of last offices.

Alone it nudges the body a few inches from where it was discovered and turns it in the opposite direction, so that the body lies obverse from its original position. A crude yinyang shape is composed between the body and the depression the body has left in the vegetation, between the body and the absence of a body.

A sleek, mysterious silence has overtaken the landscape. The silence is familiar—the Sleek Ones seem to have invented it, or to have been invented by it. But as the sun bends its path overhead and shines without sentimentality on the shape the green Sleek One has created, silence gives way to a kind of knowing. The landscape quivers to life. The trees and the ground cover begin to whisper like an audience shuffling in their seats.

This ‘knowing’ travels. Through sunken ravines and over the slopes of dry, defoliated thickets, it swirls and chatters in the duff, taps patterns in the naked branches. This knowing has gathered around a premonition that is primarily a direction. It picks up speed and focus. It has the determination of certain fish who, at life’s end, become overwhelmed with a sense of returning.

A sense of returning.

Unlike the fish that battles its way upstream against all odds as river divides into ever-narrower channels and rivulets, or the stream itself which gathers force and is joined by sibling flows as it tumbles back down to the sea—unlike these familiar systems, the flood of knowing, even as it accelerates, defies such logic. What raced down one shady bowl lined in swamp sumac does not pool in the bottom, but leaps a ridgeline and spirals precipitously upwards, arcing along cliff faces and rocky shelves. The flow divides, but one branch winds ever upwards to surge over a stony summit lost in fog, while the other presses into a cleft in the rock, seeking cracks and crevices, prising into the heart of mountain itself. A third line of knowing, turning from the cliff face entirely, projects itself into open air and beyond, lancing out to points unknown. And each of these paths bifurcates again, then once more, now by unseen ways above, below, and beyond the pitted skin of the Earth. The spread of knowing forms an inextricably intricate rhizome, its tiny fingers penetrate everywhere, unstoppable.

Though it has been said that the forked path of knowing is itself unknowable, we can imagine a representative strand based on the observation of a few examples, reconstruct the general from the partial and specific. Somewhere beneath the ground, a string of knowing winds between rocks, continuing to fission into smaller and smaller paths, until it is but a mesh, a fabric, a network of capillaries, linking individual grains of sand, then splitting even those into constitutive elements, salt and silica, threading the eye of the atom, negotiating the vast but minuscule non-spaces of the quantum world.

Here, we can follow no further. Observation eludes us at the edges of science. What is clear, though, is that the knowing energy of the Sleek Ones, in its racing course, permeates down to the base levels of reality.

There, perhaps, something happens. Because equal to this inward travel is another, quickening outward, leaping the hurdles of incommunicable scale and back to the macro of the visible world, where it alights, at last, on another rocky slope, not so far from our origin, overlooking the sea.

The knowing opposite the unknown.

At the rough edge of terra and sea, an opaque pool slow-quivers in the gloaming. It is here where—having completed its transformative journey through the very elemental structure of the earth—the purified knowing energy of the Sleek Ones has resurfaced. It is a humble location: the half-moon of silty fluid sits atop a simple platform wreathed by bare soil. Directly behind the platform lies a square concrete aperture, resembling a chimney or a narrow mine shaft. It is likely that this opening is where the knowing energy exited in its gathered form, thus to spill itself upon the waiting soil.

Facing out into the unknown of the open sea, the Sleek Ones’ energy hovers in its earthen substrate, cognizant of the dichotomy its current position embodies: the knowing opposite the unknown—each force confident in its own nature yet inextricably joined in symbiosis, each unable to exist without the presence of the other.

Below the pulsing energy a craggy peninsula juts out into the sea. Mounted upon this rock is an altar about to host a rare event. It is here where the Sleek Ones’ knowing will charge itself through contact with the void of the unknown. The frame of the altar encloses an interface in which knowing and unknown will mingle—bonding and separating at millions of individual contact points within mere nanoseconds before each force retreats once again.

The interface.

Meteorological conditions have now aligned and the event is imminent. With only a brief shimmer of light the nexus is made manifest—ending almost as soon as it begins. And as the altar resumes its benign stature, somewhere in a clearing not far away a stone timepiece creaks into motion.

NG, ND, SS

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After People, a Sleek One Tends the Garden

Setting darker thoughts aside, let us take this rare opportunity to observe the wondrous, secretive being as it hovers in the treetops.

THE SLEEPING FLOWER BEDS—Look there, up in that tree…a Sleek One furtively (as much as it can) feeds on the vegetative matter that we now know forms the core of its diet. It is so rare to see one of these crepuscular creatures in the daylight hours that the mind immediately dwells on the portentous nature of its shocking diurnal appearance. Never mind that it is also feeding at least 15 feet off the ground, seemingly with no support, a fact that also deeply unsettles us. Setting darker thoughts aside with much effort, though, let us take this rare opportunity to observe without judgment the wondrous, secretive being as it hovers in the treetops. Watch how it undulates to and fro among the leafy branches, so graceful in its purposive motion.

Meanwhile, down below on the surface not far from where the Sleek One calmly grazes we can observe a small garden of sorts. And in that garden stands a pair of humanoid sentinels, perhaps meant to serve as pest repellents. What is their connection to the Sleek One? They appear to be praying. Perhaps they have summoned the Sleek One from its daytime slumber for some esoteric purpose. Or maybe we have this all wrong. This Sleek One could be a youngling, just recently fledged—left by its parents to fend for itself and now feeding within close proximity of potential predators (or, indeed, acolytes). The mind reels at the prospect of such a relationship, however tenuous, between these genuflecting garden-guardians and the rare one they may seek, floating—known or unknown—above their bowed heads.

Echo One & Echo Two, in their small garden of sorts.

Time passes and nothing happens. For a puzzling amount of time, just nothing at all. The mind is numbed by the excruciating lack of progress. But this hasn’t hindered the fledgling Sleek One who hovers buoyant, even ebullient, amid the crowns of the trees, nibbling imperceptibly here and there. The rate at which it consumes the foliage is the exact rate at which the foliage grows back—this has been measured. How to explain this? Is the Sleek One somehow in league with the stasis that has overtaken the garden? The mind reaches but fails to grasp.

But one thing is clear: the two cut-out sentinels—we’ve begun calling them Echo One and Echo Two—are failing at their pest control duties. The Sleek One, our illustrious leaf-chewer, is not the least bit scared. Echo One and Echo Two are little more than interestingly shaped sundials. Hey, wait. We know from a past report that Sleek Ones have a complicated relationship with time. Perhaps it’s not impossible that the fledgling would mistake Echo One and Echo Two for timepieces. Perhaps it has suffered a misfiring of natural instinct, the way a baby bird might mistake a water faucet for its mother. The possible connections between this mistake and the crepuscular creature’s appearance in full daylight boggle the mind.

And the mind, which has become evermore a character in this unresolved scene, can only tolerate so much. So much waiting and weightlessness, so much peopleless indifference and lack of gravity, i.e., so much sleekness. The mind convulses, thinking as hard as it can in the opposite direction. The mind conceives a creature, not sleek, but highly articulated; not folivore, but a flesh-eater—a lion. And because this creature must not be light and ethereal in any way, but heavy, earthbound, the mind has glued it to a brick and thrown it through the window of the story. And so, to the music of shattered glass, something new has entered the garden: a predator.

A predator appears.

After such an extended period of waiting, during which it seemed that nothing might ever disturb the placid patterns of activity and inactivity in this eternal garden, the appearance of the lion has released, all at once, the latent energies held in the interstices of this scene and the mind’s apprehension thereof. As the stone lion clatters onto the brick pathway, the Sleek One wheels to regard it, arched in midair now at a slightly higher hover, now tracing a broad figure eight, leaf-brushed. Below, our sundials swivel. Echoes One and Two, it seems, are not static but possess a pivot. With a single motion they creak into alignment with the interloper, as if in accusation, each with one arm raised, a gesture revealed to be not prayer but preparation to strike. A defense system, perhaps, but designed for other interlopers than the sleek one.

Unfixed by surprise, time evolves by leaps.

The glue that had held the predator’s feet in place is already dissolving beneath its fervor to strike. It is a creature shaped by and for the urge to devour. No mere sundial, whatever the arrangement of its limbs, even in multiplicity (or duplicity, should these twinned Echoes possess the capacity for deception) could hope to stave it off. The Sleek One having ceased to consume the foliage, though, in this scene freshly unfixed from the rigid logic of time, the trees surge with a growth that overwhelms the mind’s frame. In the blink of a (mental) eye, the garden becomes a forest. The predator, mid-leap, driven to consume, is swallowed by new leaves. Arcing outside of chronology amidst the failure of its now clearly appointed task to prune such a voraciously verdant arbor, the Sleek One whips down upon the confused predator with a device specifically designed to constrain small carnivores, weaving between new branches even as they shoot out around it. Tangled in saplings, leaves twining its stony mane, the predator is no match for such sleek alacrity. The metal door snaps shut like the jaws it has failed to deploy and a slender shape shoots away. Time has found a new equilibrium, the wood is calm but for the low growl that emerges from a kennel cab.

A mind guilty of a great disruption but in denial of its own responsibility, bored now by the outcome of its unconsidered meddling, wanders away in search of other scenes. But the Sleek One has not in fact departed entirely. Does it still watch? Will it allow such an observer to blithely traipse into the next scene unfettered? If it can trap one predator with such ease, perhaps the consuming consciousness will pose just as little trouble. Oh mind that reads and reviles sleekness, we offer only this warning.

A warning.

SS, NG, ND

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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.

NG, SS

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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.

SS, NG

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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

ND, NG, SS

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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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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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