FICTION: Triptych

A Nightmare:

Pythias was elected Aedile for the city of Hypata, and his first act was to hire, at his own expense and with a great deal of ostentatious fanfare, an army of laborers to harvest the timber needed to fix the burnt-down market in the center of town. He offered half a drachma a day for unskilled work and since in my deprivation I had started having dice dreams again, I signed up with the first rush. We were a shaggy lot, but eager for wages, so they gave us notched axes with smooth handles and pointed us towards the green foam clinging to Oeta’s slopes.

We built our work camp among the first pines on the mountainside. Our only shelter from the incessant winds were lean-tos of rough-cured hides stretched over rickety wooden skeletons. Aside from each other we saw no one else – out neighbors were the squirrels darting through the clearing in the morning, or nuthatches grubbing under shaggy pine bark in the evenings. We baked our bread over smoky fires and at night, with stars dancing between waving pines, we told stories about the Witches of Thessaly – how they spoke the language of birds and wore the shape of beasts and could, with but a muttered spell, steal the very mentula from between your legs.

During the day, we cut trees. The experienced woodsmen among us would select the trees, scoring their trunks with twin gashes from great iron mauls. Others, the largest and strongest, came behind to cut the trees free from mother earth, axes rising and falling like birdwings. The third rank followed them, whittling off stray branches and loading rough, straight poles onto the backs of weary animals. I was in this group, partnered with a long-suffering donkey that watched me with sad, nearly human eyes. It was hot work that lasted all day, loading my donkey, walking him down to the camp, unloading him, walking him back up the slope, loading my donkey…

Night falls fast on the eastern slope of a mountain. A fading evening caught me unawares, and the donkey and I found ourselves hauling the last of the day’s lumber under a rising moon, picking our way back to camp carefully in the dark, far from home. We walked under bright-eyed shadows that called to us with voices like lost children – owls hunched against the deeper black of boughs overhead. My donkey, showing its preternatural intelligence, put its head down and walked purposefully downslope, ignoring the circuitous path we’d followed all day as it made its own way home. I was happy to follow; the forest had grown unfriendly.

The wind rose as we walked, pouring down the peak and making the pines sigh. My donkey had been plowing ahead through the night until he came suddenly to a stop, his long ears twisting around, his nose quivering. I tugged on his lead, but he planted his hooves far apart and ignored my curses, ears still turning, nose still twitching. He sniffed the air and his eyes flashed, white-rimmed in the moonlight. He gave a mournful, rumbling cough and tried to walk backwards up the slope.

“Well, where do you want to go, then?” I said to him, letting the lead fall slack and crossing my arms. He only shook his head and stamped his hooves uncertainly. “C’mon, we’ve only another mile or so, and then we’ll be back safe and sound in camp.” He refused to move, so I went around behind him and pushed. He stood firm, huddling dejectedly under the lumber on his back. Like the branches overhead I shivered in the wind, and the moonlight that danced through them made me feel sad and lonely. “Is it too heavy? Is your load too heavy?” I untied the messy knots I’d used to fix the logs to his back. “We’ll come back and get it tomorrow, won’t we?” The ropes loosened, the logs tumbled after. I hopped back, letting them fall, and the donkey pranced forward, kicking up his hooves and tossing his head. I laughed and the donkey brayed, turned, and darted off into the trees. “Wait for me, damn you!” I called out, running after him.

I reeled through the forest, my panic more a species of drunkenness than of terror, stumbling against trees, tripping over roots, slipping on the smooth shifting pine needles underfoot. My donkey trotted along, first one way and then another, putting more and more distance between us. I fell, scraping my hands and knees as I rolled over the ground and when I rose, I had lost sight of the donkey. I would have called after him, but I didn’t know his name. I leaned against a tree and caught my breath.

The convenience of getting lost on a mountain is that you always know which direction to go to get down. I was sure that if I made my way to the pine break downslope on the mountain’s shoulder I could find my way back to camp. The foreman would be mad about the lost donkey, but I could always lie and say he’d been eaten by wolves.

Which might end up being true, I thought, starting down the mountain. Something in the dark had scared him. I traveled as quickly as I dared, wondering if the moon’s yellow eye could discern me among the looming trees and cold mist.

It must have been well past midnight when I found camp. I had come down the mountain too far to the southeast and had to scramble among the last patchy oaks in the boundary between pinewood and rocky foothills, but I eventually came across the thread of a footpath I could follow home. The clearing was cold and quiet, not even an ember glowing in the fire rings, and the air was sweet with the smell of cut pine. I tip-toed my way carefully through the camp, heading towards my cot.

Then, suddenly, amidst the animal sounds of sleeping men and drowsing donkeys, a shape stirred in the darkness ahead of me. It was huge, each swinging step heavy with the ready power promised by thick limbs and a broad back. My throat caught. It lumbered towards the center of camp, a clearing where we received our work assignments, empty now except for moonlight pouring down from the sky. In that light the dark shape resolved itself into a shuffling bear. It made a quick circle around the clearing with its easy, rolling gait before walking to the center of the space. It stood tall on its hind legs and put its nose in the air. From behind a tree, I watched.

At first, I thought a breeze stirred the bear’s fur. It rippled and shuddered and convulsed, but I felt nothing and the trees on the edge of camp remained, like me, unnaturally still and silent. The movement was like the twitching of a horse’s flanks, but grew in violence until the bear, standing like a pillar in the clearing, seemed to surge and roil like the sea. Then it swelled like a wineskin, grew taut as a drum. It wobbled, briefly, then split into great ragged sheets, hide and fur peeling away like the skin off a chestnut fresh from the pan.

In the ruins of the bear stood a woman, naked, her legs and back and arms ridged with exertion, long black hair lank and damp against her skin. She was breathing hard, hands clenching and unclenching with each breath. Her head was stuck straight out on her long neck, and she swung it around the clearing, eyes shining with their own light.

A cloud passed between us and the moon, and I turned and ran as fast as I could, out of the camp and down the path and on and on, and never stopped, the wind rising and howling at my back.

 

A Daydream:

The bus slid to the curb, wet brakes shrieking as it rattled to a stop. The suspension hissed and the bus loomed like Jonah’s Whale at the sidewalk’s shoreline to disgorge its passengers. Rain tapped against the roof, a distant sound that came suddenly nearer as I stepped out under my umbrella and onto the cement. The bus dove back into the current while I stepped carefully around puddles on the cement. I hadn’t thought to bring my boots (leather and gortex and utterly waterproof) to change into after work. Dainty professorial shoes were what I had, dressy, practically slippers, open nearly down to the toes, and my feet were soaked.

It was a rainy start to spring’s le petit monsoon, humid and clingy under dark skies and heavy clouds. The rain sluicing off the twisted ribs and lank plastic of my wounded umbrella mingled with the sweat running down my back as I hurried along San Cipriano street towards the museum. I had originally budgeted two solid hours for my visit, but end-of-semester student woes and a storm-delayed bus had whittled that down to an hour and twenty minutes.

San Cipriano links the university uptown with the neon and plastic of the bar scene downtown, and so I was dodging the post-finals bleed-off flowing from campus. Commencement was tomorrow and the student body had been augmented by parents and siblings, great slow-walking herds of nomadically aimless families under umbrellas or swaddled in great billowing ponchos. With some dismay, I noticed I had been swept into a flood of them, all heading towards the museum. It was, I recalled, third Thursday: free museum day.

Goddammit.

Clusters of families took on a faintly line-like quality as they crowded around the entrance to the museum to close umbrellas and take head counts. I plowed forward, straight on to the coat check room, navigating a morass of families trying to decipher the quarter-fed lockers lining the walls. Dripping, I stuffed my umbrella into one of the cubbies, grabbed the key, shook the water from my shoes, dodged a besieged docent explaining the museum’s geography and made my way into the crowded main atrium. Most people were heading either west or east, classical portraiture or American folk art respectively, while the northern door remained (mercifully) only thinly peopled, and I darted through it. SPECIAL EXHIBITS read the banner overhead.

There was a room of Mesoamerican codices, pages packed with pictographs snaking around feathered men engaged in ritual mutilations. A statue of two-headed Coatlicue, her twin faces eternally grinning at one into the other, guarded the door to the next exhibit, a long hallway lined with esoteric examples of the Virgin Mary from the 16th Century. One of the Madonnas was attended by a seraph bent double under the crate on its back, from which Mary extracted fistfuls of flaming hearts to distribute to the assembled crowd of sinners. Another Mary emerged from a tree, surrounded by a swarm of bees and clutching a contortionist Christ with heavy-lidded, dreaming eyes. I hurried passed their beatifying gaze and into the third and final room, my goal in sight.

The exhibit was announced by a sign with ethereal letters rising like foam out of a rich black broth: Pornograms, by Cezary Stryzbisz. My shiver was equal parts air conditioning and expectation. I breezed by the informational plaque (just the usual quotes from Erbel) and into the dark room where my eyes slowly adjusted.

Stryzbisz’s works were arrayed along the circumference of the room with mathematical precision, each piece a long shroud of x-ray film, as tall as a person and pearly-black with silver halide and a cosmic blue base pigment. The only source of light in the room came from the exhibit itself, backing bulbs glowing through the x-rayed photographs, their brightness occluded by the images.

I stepped forward, but was stopped by a soft giggle behind me, from the center of the room. I had thought I was alone. There was a circular couch in the hub of the round gallery, and I caught the faint movement of huddled shapes whispering to one another. A light from a phone illuminated three faces staring down into the screen, two boys and a girl, teenagers engrossed in their technology.

The trio wasn’t alone; the couch was packed with furtive figures, intermittently lit up by the glow of phones. A school trip? Seems like a bad idea, I thought, letting kids congregate here without any supervision. If any group could aggressively misinterpret Stryzbisz’s work, a gaggle of teens pumped full of hormones sitting in the dark would be it.

Ignoring the kids and their phones as best I could, I turned to the exhibit: twenty-three x-ray portraits of people having sex. Stryzbisz’s technique used slow x-rays to capture the scenes, source emissions at a low enough energy that soft tissue was visible alongside the bones in each image, their different densities resulting in relative luminosities. Muscle is a cloudy halo, while fat becomes smoky billows, voluptuous and ghostly. Even hair is hinted at by the occasional firefly streak flickering in orbit around a subject’s anatomy. The bones meanwhile are hard, bright lines, their stark architecture encased in the warm glow of soft tissue, with strange overlapping effects caused by the vigorous tangle of limbs and bodies and angles unique to each shot.

Deciphering the curatorial choices that go into making a Stryzbisz exhibit is part of the fun. In Prague, where I’d first encountered Stryzbisz’s Pornograms, they’d restricted the exhibit to only images of couples, pairing one straight scene with one gay scene in demure alcoves on the sixth floor of the museum. In Berlin they’d marched the whole run of 139 prints right down the central hall, arranged in ever increasing numbers of participants and ending on a jumble of skeletal selves lost together in the white and blue-black explosion titled “Taphonomy,” a moment from an orgy that looked like a photograph of a mass grave. The Hirshhorn put them on triangular pillars, each triumvirate unified by contrasting athleticism, while the Guggenheim juxtaposed Greco-Roman erotic ceramics with Stryzbisz’s x-rays.

The first three Pornograms here were the most famous examples of the oeuvre, and I took them as a triptych, standing back from the wall and walking slowly, first left to right, then back again. They were “The Triple Leaf” (reproduced endlessly to the point of kitsch, something Stryzbisz could only have hoped for), “Briareos” (the most comedic of Stryzbisz’s works), and “mouton de Panurge” (Foucault’s favorite).

Evidently, this curator thought themselves something of a wit.

I had stopped halfway around the room to appreciate the Rorschach effect of layered bodies in “The Joust” (famous for the particularly vehement Papal denouncement it had once received), when I noticed a pair of teens strolling towards me from the opposite end of the exhibit. Two girls, stylishly dressed and holding hands, peering hard at the images before them. They paused a moment at “Adumbration,” leaning forward, whispering seriously to one another for a moment, then moving on.

I was immediately charmed. Two young women, breaking from the studied malaise of their peer-herd to seriously examine the power and subversion of Stryzbisz’s work – I’ll admit to a bit of self-recognition there, mingled with nostalgia perhaps, and maybe even a little hope for the future. These works, the orchestrated banality of the images, each shocking act rendered bare through clinical documentation, presented something new to each viewer, the way the body, sex, and the image of the act presenting Stryzbisz’s rejection of both modern morality and stylish anti-morality, white light and darkness and x-rays coming together to build something that could make you truly open your eyes for the first time.

I lingered at “Mephistopheles in Furs” for longer than I normally would’ve, cocking an ear and straining to hear what the girls were saying. The two were at the sheet next to me, “Röntgen more ferarum,” made famous by Jello Biafra’s obscenity trial. It was a personal favorite of mine, an example of Stryzbisz’s political satire at its sharpest, and I wanted to hear what they had to say about it. The girl farthest from me was whispering:

“ – guess it’s some kind of statement or something.”

“Statement about what?” the other girl asked.

“Like, death?” she paused and waved her hands. “And life. Maybe?”

“Whatever,” snorted the other girl, “it’s just pictures of dumb skeletons fucking, who gives a shit?” She turned and walked towards the couch in the center of the room, her friend following after in her wake.

Christ.

I fucking hate teenagers.

 

A Vision:

They felt the sticky tangle of gravity fluctuations way out on the edge of the array, a growing lump deviating uncomfortably from their pleasantly symmetrical reference ellipsoid. Safeguards automatically engaged, and the offending mass half a light-second away was mirrored by a compensatory adjustment of the barycenter between the unfinished core and the outer hoop, immediately restoring balance to the precarious construction. They updated their telemetry and swung around, pointing outwards towards the rim of the array and the invading material. They opened the annulus of their sensory node wide and breathed data deep into analytical lungs.

DATA: 120 milligals at 0.01 s/72 milligals at 5.1 s/33 milligals at 12.3 s/9 milligals at 23.5 s (Interpretation: discrete point source mass moving along rim edge away from first isolate, estimated mass 500,000,000 metric tons, estimated velocity 10(-5) c).

DATA: absorption spikes of 256 Gy detected along nodes 115a-116c, localized subluminal interior propagation of narrowband x-rays registered within superstructure (Interpretation: unshielded engine exhaust from a Type III Abelard drive interacting with exposed loci cells in the array).

DATA: focused pulses (λ = 405 nm) registered in tandem along length of nodes, tracking gravity anomaly and conforming to predictive velocity model (Interpretation: localized scanner sweep from moving object).

A ship (unannounced), coming in fast out of the dull quiet of space to scud along the edge of their beautiful array. A big ship with big engines hot from a long trip between stars.

Another ark, they sighed, noting it in their log.

They sent a directive to the various AIs manning the walls on the array’s rim: track and monitor, and broadcast the standard warning. On a hundred channels in a thousand languages, a message written long ago screamed into space:

“Nameless vessel, drifting and homeless, you have come from trackless night to circle our warmth, and so we send you a greeting and a warning. The world you seek is no more. This array, wrought in silver and spun with starborn tantalum, does not drift aimless and alone. The will that birthed it still has a voice to speak for itself, if needs be. Its purpose is its own; involve yourself with it at your own peril.”

They watched the vessel come into visual range of one of the cameras. It crested the horizon, a bright yellow whale paralleling the arc of the array as it continued its scan. The AI sending the visual data piped up in their feed.

“Shit all for markings, eh boss?” it spat. Rim AIs tended towards extreme specialization and were rarely given the opportunity to practice their conversational skills. “Big fucker, though. Bigger than the others, at least. New type maybe?” it added.

“Is it scanning?” they asked.

“Er, well, ain’t got much to go on there, chief,” the AI replied with a verbal shrug. “That sections still under work, nuthin’ in the way of control installed yet. Surface comp, certainly, ‘n prolly basic tomography ‘d be my bet.”

“No response? No communication?”

“Nah,” laughed the AI. “Strong silent type, you know? Want me to burn him down for ya?” They paused, watching the bright blue glow of the cruising ship’s dual coils crackling with heat as it passed over the camera, an enormous lozenge a few kilometers off the surface of the array.

“What’s in range?”

“Battery of Leyden guns trained on him now.” The AI transmitted an image of bristling black needles erupting from the rim, pointing out towards space and the yellow ship. “If you wanna wait a couple a minutes though, they’ll be in range of the Mol borers. Snuff em quick, plus it’d make for a nice show.”

They considered. The arks were such a nuisance, gnats buzzing in their thousand eyes, distracting them from their work. Before they’d disassembled it, there had been a planet here, nicely situated in the goldilocks zone, watery and bubbling and tectonically active, prime real estate for the people who, three hundred thousand years distant, had spotted it and sent out colonizing ships, one after the other. But they’d gotten there first though, them and a handful of Universal Assemblers, long before the arks had even left their dirtball behind. They’d delaminated the mantle and stripped the planet for parts, metals and fissionables and hydrocarbons and long-chain polypeptides, all the things they’d needed to build the array around the collapsed ember of the system’s former star, now a gravity-sculpted lozenge of condensed plasma.

But it would be another hundred thousand years before the light bearing that story reached the world of the arks. And still the ships came, one every hundred years or so, launched in the distant past towards a world that no longer existed. Very annoying.

Still, waste not, want not, as they always said.

“Burn out its sensors and kill its engines,” they said, “but bring it down in one piece.”

The AI yawped with barbaric pleasure, and they felt the fizzy, delirious warmth of the Leyden guns reaching out to lick the sides of the ark with power. The ship screamed and dove into the shell of the array below it, but they were prepared for just such a maneuver. Instead of a collision and antimatter annihilation from its spilled engines, the defensive AI wrapped them in a Bohm cloud that siphoned their momentum away, causing the big yellow ship to settle gently into the curve of a miles-wide reflector on the surface of the array.

“Fuckin’ cake, right boss?” laughed the AI. They gave it an electronic scratch behind the ears, and then turned their attention towards the disabled ship.

The Leyden guns had burned long, ragged molecular disjunctions in the ship’s outer skin. In response, it had released armies of inelegant little machines to crawl over its hull, trying to effect repairs without understanding the nature of the wounds inflicted. They brushed them aside with an electromagnetic hand and sent their own swarm to begin digestion. They reached deep into the ship’s cortex, splicing into the cables, circuits, and prismatic relays of the ship’s computer, its datastream suddenly filling their ears:

“ – furnished with a bottle containing the magnetic fluid which issues from a valve on pressure./ (defrule vehicle-pwr-on-rule

Orbiter electrical power failed.

(recipient-list (recipient-list-name vehicle-pwr-on-rule)) /If the object to be assailed is sitting in a coffee-house, the pneumatic practitioner hovers about him, perhaps enters into conversation/ ?cycle.cycle.cycle.ResponseTimeOut? Telemetrics (inValid)

?notPowered <-(vehicle-not-powered) (DigitalPatternFd (fdName “NORBTAILNO”) ) (AnalogFd (fdName “V76V0100A1”) (valid TRUE) (value ?val1)) (AnalogFd (fdName “V76V0200A1”) (valid TRUE) (value ?val2)) (AnalogFd (fdName “V76V0300A1”) (valid TRUE) (value ?val3)) /

and during such discourse, by opening the valve, sets at liberty the volatile magnetic fluid which is respired by the person intended to be assailed/ (notifyActionHandler nil nil nil).

It was babbling, merrily mad after a hundred thousand years of lonely travel through silent space. Nothing much to do for it – it had spiraled too deep into itself and wouldn’t be coaxed back out, so they spiked its core and felt the computer die. Small mercies, they reflected, could mean so much sometimes.

They perused the ship’s manifest. There was the usual collection of cold-storage colonists and their gear – tractors, mobile refineries, power cells, soil factories, seeds and protein vats and organic synthesizers, everything needed to populate a new Eden. The machines had value only as raw materials; they’d melt them down and feed them to the reactors.

But the colonists were something else entirely.

They cradled them delicately, lifting them out of the belly of the ship and setting them carefully in the cool depths of the array, sheltered from the murderous radiation of open space. They carefully monitoring the temperatures and salinities and vapor content within the thousand glass and steel chrysalises salvaged from the dead ship, pleased to find each one full of life that was merely paused by cryogenic suspension.

They placed each capsule in an isolated blister, a clear plastic bubble two meters tall and three meters across, floored with agar and provided with twice-daily mistings, perfect little terrariums. They flipped the switch, decanted the chambers, felt life quicken within each individual as they roused from their eon-long slumbers through space.

When they returned six-months later, they were gratified to find each bubble brimming with bacteria, the gut flora of the colonists happily thriving in their new homes. They cracked one bubble, breathed in the fumes of digestion and decay and life, and scraped a sample from the inside of the ribcage splayed luxuriously among the florescence of a bacterial jungle. They marveled at the diversity of life that dwelled within even a single colonist, whole microbial worlds hidden within each body, ecosystems of staggering diversity.

Some populations they froze, glimpses of the past for comparison to their descendants a hundred thousand, a million, a billion generations hence. They replenished the nutrients in some, changed the mixture in others; they swabbed and combined bubbles, the scraper becoming an aluminum land bridge across which life marched to the beat of evolution’s drum. The warmed some, they chilled some, they plunged some into darkness and exposed others to fixed and eternal lamp-suns.

One day, the array would be finished.

One day, life would take hold there.

Eric Williams, a writer and geologist living on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous seaway in Austin, Texas.

Image: Illustration from manuscript by Apuleius, Bartolomeo di Bartoli for Bruzio Visconti, 1345

Submit a comment