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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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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