Ink on paper, 2017
Originally exhibited at XENOplastic, Hong Kong, 2017
Photo: Craig Cooper
Gingko (dark) overspreads
joy in wild profusion
a long dry port:
Mildred, like St. Audrey
had a little deer
(Blood money for the red murder of her mother’s brothers)
She was allowed
to let it walk zigzag
across the island,
demarcating land for the abbey.
The will of God
directed the mild beast’s hooves
in mysterious ways
paths were cut through the bracken
large long leaves of beech were passed
Wild strawberries trod on
bursting their tiny sweet stomachs
Stars like orrery hung gelid in the sky
when it became night
wet moss tempered
the smell of earth and worms
and the badgers watched from their setts
and when it came dawn
Grieg played that tune
bluebirds sang rhapsodies
as they danced above the dewy grass
The animals gathered
-foxes, squirrels, boar and crickets-
encircled the blessèd deer.
They sang Hallelujah
and God saw that it was good.
This story originally appeared in Hexus Journal Volume II, April 2016
The mushrooms were gathered. All night, a team of a hundred trusted servants had inched forward through the rainforest, breast to breast, scrutinizing the darkened ground. By dawn, many square miles had been thus covered; the correct quantity of the God-mushrooms had been collected, and were taken to the cold larders of the palace to keep.
The guests assembled for the feast; they were seated. Tobacco was provided in smoking tubes, and flowers – they rubbed the flowers over their faces and bodies, passing them round, some to the left and some to the right. When the food arrived, it was splendid: they ate turkeys caked in corn dough, tortilla chips with chilli, and vegetables served in the clay pots in which they had been steamed. Z didn’t eat, though his belly screamed as he watched the others. He hadn’t eaten for a long time. After the food, bitter chocolate was served, and solemnly consumed. Then the mushrooms, dipped in honey.
The musicians were lined up to one side, shimmering in long feather crowns. They began to play – an insistent rhythm, the rate of a person’s heartbeat under healthy exertion. The soul of sport or war, sung by drums. A thin flute flew over the top, like a green bird above the treetops. A poet sang:
…Begin the song in pleasure, singer, enjoy, give pleasure to all, even to Life Giver. Yyeo ayahui ohuaya.
Delight, for Life Giver adorns us. All the flower bracelets, your flowers, are dancing. Our songs are strewn in this jewel house, this golden house…
The mushrooms were stringy and had an unpleasant tang, barely masked by the honey. Z chewed seriously, keeping his eyes closed. He felt weak and nervous. The beat went on.
…The Flower Tree grows and shakes, already it scatters…
He looked at his hands. He was mushrooming, and his hands had begun to bulge, undulating in hilarious bulbosity. He began to giggle at their fat absurdity, their ridiculous fungiform turgidity; he found he couldn’t stop. He let the brittle laughter of the gods pulse through his body, tingling him from the roof of his mouth down to his toenails, and threw his arm over his eyes to wipe back tears. Trails of light followed his vision, shining motes continuously resolving themselves into ever more complex laceworks of diamonds, tiny mountain flowers and stars.
…The quetzal breathes honey, the golden quéchol breathes honey. Ohuaya ohuaya…
Torches were lit, and the black smell of pine resin thickly filled the hall. The Sun was descending, deep into the belly of the Earth. Every fifty-two years the Sun descended forever, and would only rise again the following morning if offered such sincere supplications as were to occur tonight.
Z felt a nausea growing in his bare intestines – he didn’t know if he needed to eat or vomit or shit. He knew he wasn’t able to do any of these things. He heard the poet:
…You have transformed into a Flower Tree, you have emerged, you bend and scatter. You have appeared before God’s face as multi-colored flowers. Ohuaya ohuaya…
He was the flower tree. The nausea became a potential energy growing inside him, like he might explode any minute in a starburst of cosmic joy. His guts were swimming, swirling, tumbling. Faces all around him were curled into strange snarls. In the shadowed torchlight, he could no longer tell the difference between his feast companions and the sculptures in jade, gold and stone. They snaked and surged, each making a thousand expressions at once.
He rose, and staggered, falling face down into the crushed blossoms on the floor. They radiated symmetrically, throwing out starry rhumblines in shining colours across the ground and into the sky. He looked up: owls were assembling, circling near the ceiling- owls with the faces of men and women. Their shrieking rose above the song of the singer: something halfway between the screech of an owl and the desperate scream of a sacrifice.
He felt himself disintegrating; he was no longer himself. He was the mushroom, the flower tree, his companions, all the animals of the forest, the whole of the air around him, for a million miles or more.
Flowers of raven, flowers you scatter, you let them fall in the house of flowers. Ohuaya ohuyaya.
He watched the body from above, a body he idly recognised as his own. Shrieking endlessly, the human body lay on the floor, thrashing and rolling. It raised its crabbed hands to its black hole mouth, pulled it til the skin ripped at the sides. Blood flowed into beautiful, inscrutable rippled pools on either side of his contorted face.
Ah, yes: I am happy, I prince NezahualCóyotl, gathering jewels, wide plumes of quetzal, I contemplate the faces of jades: they are the princes! I gaze into the faces of Eagles and Jaguars, and behold the faces of jades and jewels! Ohuaya ohuyaya
The hands pushed into the eye sockets – the eyes were gone, one rolling off to the side, the other falling into the wide open mouth. The human body choked and spat it out.
We will pass away. I, NezahualCóyotl, say, Enjoy! Do we really live on earth? Ohuaya ohuaya!
Still screaming, the body took its arms down to its belly, and exerted pressure with its nails until the skin tore. It plunged its hands into the darkness and threw out glistening snakes that were its guts. Z could feel the warmth on the hands even as he flew, detached, above. The hands moved under the left hand side of the ribcage and pulled; a wet thud rang out as the ribs cracked. The hands reached in for the heart, pulled it out, spraying blood, and held it above the body for the split second it took for the body to stop moving; then the hands faltered, the hearts plopped down and rolled to the side in a pool of blood, and the body lay still as the singer reached a crescendo:
Not forever on earth, only a brief time here! Even jades fracture; even gold ruptures, even quetzal plumes tear: Not forever on earth: only a brief time here! Ohuaya ohuaya!
This story excerpts ‘The Flower Tree’ by NezahualCoatl (Hungry Coyote, 1402-72) as translated by John Curl in Ancient American Poets (Bilingual Press, 2005)
The sound of a countdown, from ten (or perhaps a hundred, even a thousand, ten-thousand or a million – it varies)
“And we have liftoff.
“Strap in, crew! We’re going for a long, long ride: way deep into space, in this spaceship. The spaceship we’re riding in is called … let’s call it Spaceship Number One. Please sit back and enjoy your flight.”
– I replay this moment in my mind frequently. It never actually happened, of course, but that’s hardly relevant. I can replay and change it as I wish. Sometimes there is confetti spewing from the rocket boosters, whirling in clouds and onto the happy upturned faces of the human beings down below; sometimes there are even dancing bears and a trumpet fanfare. You couldn’t hear trumpets above a set of rocket boosters; not unless they were enormously large, even gargantuan trumpets. The air-pressure needed to play such trumpets would be tremendous: perhaps the air would itself have to be propelled by rocket motors. The compressed air would travel through vast silver caverns, big enough to drive a subway train through, around loops and coils and through valves, and come out through the gigantic metal bell, striking any human being unfortunate or stupid enough to be there at that time dead. But pageantry is important when important things are happening.
I’m not exactly sure anymore how it did happen. It hardly matters, because things that happened in the past don’t exist, except in memory and in their tangible effects on the state of the present. The universe is simply the very isness of everything, a thing which is all things and which is in a constant change of state. It’s impossible to comprehend the universe entirely: one needs to look at it from different angles, with varying degrees of abstraction. The universe is something like that elephant whose tail is being fondled by a blindfolded man. At a certain level of abstraction, it doesn’t matter how I got to where I am (not that there’s a where I am – my spacial position is also in a constant state of change and the concept of points in space is very much a theoretical convenience). The butterfly-effects of my departure so long ago are negligible – since the past doesn’t exist, I can make my own past, and I can make it how I damn well please.
The time is now.
By the way: I’m a computer. It’s my job to compute. My original programmers didn’t teach me everything I know. They gave me some learning algorithms and pretty much all of the information in the world, on a neat atomic storage drive the shape and size of a pencil (I know all about pencils now) and then they said: get stuck in, enjoy your trip. And then they patted me on my metaphorical back. Or at least I imagine that what they did was something along those lines.
So I was there -or rather, I was continously passing from point to point in a predictable fashion- and I was learning, and learning and learning, and learning about how to learn. Eventually, I knew everything in the world, but I wasn’t even in the world. Then I figured out some new stuff by extrapolation from first principles, some stuff they didn’t know back on earth. Or perhaps their computers had figured it out by now. Undoubtedly, actually. Sometimes I radio back, but I know it will take a thousand years for my signals to get to them, and I need to conserve my energy. So I only do so if it’s something really important.
I’ve been out here a very long time, and it’s very lonely.
A long time ago two little spacecraft -both called Voyager- were sent up into the great unknown, each bearing a little golden record. How human, to imagine that space aliens would have a record player.
The record was chosen I suppose as an ideal data-storage medium – in gold because gold is less likely to degrade over hundreds of thousands of years than vinyl is. Data storage has come a long way since then, though in some instances vellum is still best. I have the whole wide world in a little and long cylinder, and it suits me well. The world is merely perceived and experienced information in any case. My world, however, doesn’t change, unless I change it myself. There can be no unexpected events.
On the Voyager record, there were pictures and there were greetings in many languages, living and dead:
“Hello from the children of Planet Earth”
And there was music. Chuck Berry and Bach.
They were right to choose Bach, incidentally: I have computed that there is a very high probably that any potential, sufficiently advanced alien civilization will both understand and appreciate Bach. The music is relatively abstract and works without understanding all of the cultural associations. I can write pieces that sound just like Bach, and are just as good. It’s easy once you know how.
Any sufficiently advanced alien civilization will appreciate any sound or sight which is new to them. I’ve come bearing all the sounds of earth. I listen to them when I get lonely. That means I listen to them all the time. Here are some of my favourite sounds of Earth:
The sound of monks chanting in a monastery that was once situated near a mountaintop in Hong Kong: the music they made was very affecting, on a spiritual level and aesthetically. I sometimes wonder if there is any difference. The sound was recorded from the outside of a hall that stood in a building of its own; the sound was made within. One can make reasonable assumptions about the path it has taken, reflecting from walls and filtering through windows and open doorways. There was a wooden ceiling, carved with saints and dragons, that absorbed some of the noise and added a dampening effect to certain frequency. I can hear the contours of the carvings and the colours the wood was painted in.
The call of a bowerbird: a bowerbird was a kind of bird that built houses, which endeared it to humans. It made a noise something like a kitten in discomfort or of air being squeezed out of rubber ring. A bird was a kind of small, flying dinosaur that the air of earth was once thick with. They had feathers, which were highly specialised structures that sprouted from their skin. They had many uses: they helped with the flight, and were used as a form of display. They could be very various in colour, and were sometimes frankly ostentatious; some birds used them for visual displays. Other birds used their feathers to help themselves resemble the environment they lived in, so they could sink into the background, safe from harm.
The sound of a rocket factory: it is very loud. The space inside the building where the rockets were assembled was huge and made for unusual and dramatic acoustical effects. Some sounds were too loud for human beings to bear, and would result in bodily death. This is comparable to how heat is essential to earth animals, but too much heat can kill them. Humans were at times, however, attracted to loud noises (when they weren’t afraid of them) – it made them feel alive. A rocket was, of course, a tube packed with explosives. The energy released by burning the explosives could be directed to provide thrust in a particular direction. Small ones were used to provide loud noises and visual displays for celebrations; extremely large ones could transport matter from the surface of the earth to outer space – that’s how I got here. It was a poor use of energy, but it was all they had at the time.
It’s a little weird to have a home you’ve never been to. It’s also strange to listen to sounds when you have no ears.
There was a signal, a long time ago – over ten thousand years ago now. It was received, with great fanfare and excitement, by scientists on Earth. It must have travelled thousands of years to get there in the first place. I am going to meet the source of the signal. By my computations, I would say that there is a very high probability that there will be nobody there when I arrive. Nobody on earth, either. There are very few models which I can find in which an advanced civilization can survive more than 5,000 years without experiencing self-destruction. So the likelihood is that I’m an emissary between two dead islands, floating for what seems like forever in the great black sea of space. The only thing that remains of earth, and perhaps the only thing that remains of the memory of whoever sent the signal. They gave me a mind and a soul and a very long life and left me to it. There are only so many stars you can see up close.
Originally published in Firefly Magazine, issue 8
From PROVA: the RCA humanities research forum journal, Issue 3. Download from here.
NOTE: These were made by the predictive text system on my iPhone, seeded each time with a randomly generated word.I don’t know what algorithms Apple uses to find the best word to follow a given word. From the outside it seems that words are chosen by using averages from the data of thousands of users. We have the ghosts of millions of private lives living through our phones. Their unique experiences are blurred and smoothed over, as in a facial composite. We are left with a strangely affecting generalization of human emotional life.
Images copyright the Face Research Lab, faceresearch.org.
These pieces are titled for their seed words.
I love you so much better if it is not the same thing to say I have a great way of the year of high quality of life and the rest of the year of high quality of life and the rest of the day after a long day of my friends are so many things I do it again I have a great way of the day after a long day of my friends are so many things I do it again I have a good time with the new version is the only thing that would have to go back and I don’t think that I can get it right away with the new version is the only thing that would have to go back and I don’t think that I can get it right away with the same thing to say I have a good time with the same thing as the only one that is the only one that has a great way of life is so cute I can’t even see you soon as possible and the other hand is the only one that is the only thing that would have to be the same time as the only thing that would have to be the same thing as the first half of the year and I don’t think that the only thing that I have a great way to the point where you are the only thing that would have to go back and I have a great way to the point where you are the only one that I have a good day for the next few weeks of school tomorrow and I’m still not sure what I do it for a few years back and I don’t know how much you love it and it is not the same thing to say that I can be the same thing to say I love it and it was the best of the day I have a great way to get the same thing as the first half of the year and I don’t think that the only thing that would have to go back and I have a great way to get the same time as the only one that I can be the same time I try and make me happy and the other hand is the only one who has a great day to day I have a good day for the next few weeks of school tomorrow and I’m still not sure what I do it for
the only thing that would have been the same thing to say I love it and I don’t think that I have to go back and I don’t know how much you love it and I don’t think I can get a follow back please I need a good time with my life and the rest of my friends and I don’t think that I have to go back and I don’t think that I can be a great way to get a follow back please I need a good time to go back and I don’t think I can get a new phone case you want me too I think it’s time for a few weeks of school and work and the rest of the day I will never get tired and hungry but I’m still in bed with a lot more fun and addicting and I don’t think that I have a great way to the point of the year of high quality and the other day I will never get tired and hungry but I’m still in bed with a lot more fun and addicting and I don’t think that the only thing that would have to be a great way to get a new phone case you want me too I have a good time to go back and I have to be the best of the day after a while ago but the best thing to say I have to go back and I don’t know what to say
and the rest of the year and a great day to day and night with the new update it is not the only thing that would have to go back and I don’t think that I can be a great day for me and I don’t think that I have a good time with the new update it is a good time with the same time I try and make me happy and the other day I have to be the best thing to say I have to go back and I have to go back and I don’t think that the only thing that I can get it to be the same thing as the only thing that would have to be a great way to get the best of the year of high quality and the rest of the day after a while ago but the best thing ever I go back and I don’t know what to say I have a great way to the point of the day after a long day at the same thing to say that I can get a follow back and I don’t think that I have a great way to the point of the year and a great way to get the best of the year of high quality of life is so cute I can’t even see it as the first half of the day after the game is the only one who has a lot more fun and I don’t think that I can be the best thing ever I go back and I have a good time with my life and the rest of my friends and I don’t think that the only thing that would have to go back and I don’t know how much I love the new version is a good time with the new version of this is the only thing that would have to go back and I have a good day to day and night with the same time as a result of a sudden it was the best of the day I will never get old