(The Danforth Review, January 2018)
When they split the trees and walked through them like corpsified yawns, most of the cities were already abandoned. The concern of encroaching dust was still a dull vibration. I was the last of my kind to listen to the car alarms choke out. My name is Winston and I am an elephant.
I spent my entire life in the metropolitan zoo before the skies within all the individuals cracked open, revealing baffling fractals. Every day was exactly the same. They gave me a tire. It was me, the tire, and the memories I had stacked neatly like obtuse bricks in a building that jarred and shook every time I tried to scan its perimeter.
People came to see me, mostly children, and from what I understood I was viewed as different from the rest of the creatures there. I remember a time before I got there, staring up at the clouds through the half-light just before dusk and I could see the moon. Then down at the horizon there were thick pillars of smoke that solidified in columns near the bottom. There was water all around me. I can’t remember if I was coming or going.
“He’s the only one we have left, and the only one we’ll have for a long time. The sanctuary’s not even taking anymore.”
They came to me with reverence, their eyes tuned differently. I saw it countless times, I saw them walk over from the meerkats and switch out their faces along the way. Three faces in total. One boy in particular came by more than the others, around once a month. He had red hair and a round face, and he always wore fingerless gloves because he was ready for action. He always came with an older man who may have been his grandfather, and I got the feeling he came just for me. I would approach as close as I was able; he always had a blue shirt on, and I heard his name was Richard. I felt an indescribable connection to him. Something foregrounded him against it all like a cloudbreached wingtip. He didn’t care about the meerkats.
Richard had been coming to my exhibit for 10 years until people found out. He wouldn’t come as often and by the end he was coming only once per season, but it was still good to see him grow up. We grew up together. I’m not certain how the discovery was made, but word travelled fast and within a week everybody knew. Researchers at Emaytee University discovered that my kind were reincarnated humans. They told everyone just like that, very plainly. They said “elephants have the consciousness of people who have died” and that was the start of it.
“There’s no way we can communicate directly with them, but we’ve been developing a more nuanced pictorial system to see if we can see what memories they have.”
I knew they were right. I knew the vague architecture of those obtuse bricks but I couldn’t get the full scope of it. More people came to see me for a while. Richard came to see me more often too, and they were all talking to me. They were all asking me questions. I couldn’t respond to them vocally. They left me gifts, ornaments, books. They were crying. There were hundreds of elephants in captivity in this country back then. I would guess it was the same everywhere. They threw letters and I read what I could, getting help from the caretaker who worshipped me. She had blonde hair and freckles all over her face, and of course her green uniform. She didn’t talk to me like she was lesser than me, I remember that the most. She would ask me questions that didn’t need to be answered, and then she would look into my eyes and interpret my reaction somehow. I saw her eyes change too. Three facial epochs, and then she stopped coming around. They all did.
Later I would discover that this was forbidden knowledge. Humans were not supposed to discover this. By the time the first reports swept halfway around the world it was already too late. Everyone was talking about it and their minds began to fragment. A network of interlocked crystals cracked, separated, and adrift amid themselves like a broken ice sheet. The cost of learning forbidden knowledge is the mind breaks. By the end of the week everyone had skitsofrennya.
“While not directly responsible it’s impossible to ignore the appearance of entirely new constellations in the sky and what random coincidence could possibly cause that.
I watched them all change over that first week, I thought it was because of the excitement but it was something else. The letters started to change. Richard was there, I saw him high up looking down on me. His grandfather wasn’t there anymore. The letters were talking about how the forests – or the woods – were the only way to make sense of any of this.
Everyone came to the same conclusion. Some of them included drawings. The caretaker showed them to me. She even interpreted them for me, in her own way. She added layers of meaning I didn’t grant them, before deciding that the letters were hazardous. She collected them and read them to herself and then took them back beyond the door. I never knew her name. I knew everyone else’s name except hers. She’s the one who helped get me out once they decided that being locked up was no way to treat her esteemed ancestor.
Most of the other elephants in the country were being released around this time. Not all of them, but the majority of them by the end of that first week were out and walking around. All the ones that were my age had taken in enough second-hand information to know certain things, like elephant sanctuaries. It always came up at one time or another, so we knew they existed. Some were lucky and knew where they were, so they started to figure out how to get there.
Skitsofrennya is like trying to solve a puzzle of something you’ve never seen before while someone you can’t see holds a gun to your head. I saw it in the letters, I saw it in the streets. I saw it in their missions. Undeniable facts collide with unknown circumstances and create unknowable fictions that have more truth at the end then when they began. There were sounds everywhere but nobody in sight; a thousand busy hands crafting solutions each tectonic in their breadth and umbilical in depth. A distant explosion, an enormous map sketched on the wall in chalk, the rapid gulping of a tire fire made to light improvised meetings.
“I need to go out and find the darkness. True darkness, and the quiet. That’s where the answers are. I didn’t understand at first but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
I knew Richard was out there somewhere. Back then anything was possible. I saw a woman try to pull out a map from an infant’s belly and watched the morbid awareness frost her nerves before, unfortunately, thawing very shortly after. It wasn’t chaos in the streets, it was merely abandoned lives and the ways they kick up in the wind after days in the unreal coolness. Vehicles piloted by supervenomed half-decisions parked respectably in preposterous locations. Manifestos scrawled upon walls with fine attention to typeface. Whatever new death was indoors. The terms of the contract were scratched out but they still waved it above their heads with bolded importance.
They say dormant familiarities fired back up with turgid flickers. Something deep inside the people was leading them away from the cities – away from the zoo I was born in– and into the outskirts. They were walking towards the trees; a slow trickle at first, but by the end of the second week there was mostly nobody. The violent ones remained, unable to decipher what was given to them. I had to tread lightly around them and the broadening horizons of their machinations.
A man with long, greasy brown hair squatted on the curb and biting his finger, staring at a sunflower with a cigarette stuck in it and seeing a kaleidoscope of sensible architectures I’ve tried so hard to even witness. I was looking for Richard. Maybe he hadn’t left the city like the rest of them. Is what I told myself.
“It’s just prisons and prisons, all the way back.”
Out in the forests of the world, when the people were ascending into the pseudozone, there was a dank and total quivering. Prior to the grand exodus, a grand replacement was reaching the last stages of planning.
Out in the forests there was an emergence. From the trees shunted thousands upon thousands of creatures not of this world, lying in wait as they were for hundreds of years up in the verticals. They took the forms of children, clean and clothed and spry as a spiral, and climbed out from the centres of the woodwork fingers first. They stepped foot to Earth and began walking towards the cities at the behest of magnetism what churned like leviathan wake. Their camouflage coughed and refined with every shadow cast upon them. Under the hypnotic shadows of branches in the wind, they passed through beneath as refractions wrestled into form.
We would learn later they were extraterrestrials; colonists from an impossible crucible who were alarmed at the opportunity presented to them, and rightly so. They were cautiously delighted at how easy the colonisation proved to be, evidenced by their plan of attack which wasn’t altogether well coordinated. Who knows how long they’d been lurking beneath the barkwork. As the people of the world were losing their minds the aliens moved in disguised as the fuel the people ought never question. They convinced men and women they were their children, or their siblings, or their cousins.
Their intelligence was a richer soil than ours and their horticulture was much more advanced. If they had tried to convince me I was one of them I wager they could have done it. I saw a girl with blonde hair convince a heavily armed woman that she was her deceased daughter. Within 20 minutes she was on her knees embracing her. Even when they weren’t talking their mouths were moving, mouthing conflicting syllables.
“You’re right, if we don’t look out for each other nobody will. I’ll protect you.”
As the people were leaving the populated areas as maddened scattershot into the wild, the doppelgangers were colliding into the lengthening tendrils. They found perfect stock to ingratiate themselves, and within hours each one of them had found either a host or community. They convinced some they were children, they convinced some they were cousins, they had so long to prepare for every scenario and still some were discovered. Staccato alarms, quickly a soft dissolve. It leads one to believe they had to improvise. I wasn’t there. I was looking for Richard.
Richard was grown when I found him. He never changed his hairstyle over the years, it’s what stood out the most when I caught him networking a room full of computers together for some sourness no doubt. He had a friend, a younger boy who was standing nearby and supervising. Richard knew computers very well and whatever had him staying behind in that bombastic mausoleum must have been important. He had bigger fingerless gloves then, and he was so engrossed in his work he didn’t see me come up behind him.
When he finally drank in the reality of the situation I could tell he was processing it, having at least the wherewithal to know his mind could be paying tricks on him. It was the first time we met as equals. He lifted his hand to touch me but pulled back at the last second.
“Do you know this elephant, Richard?”
The boy with him wouldn’t tell me his name and his pupils concaved into metaphysically horrid gorges. Over the course of the day he would speak almost exclusively about dreams. He never once said that they were dreams he had before, he just wanted to know what Richard dreamed about and would talk about some dreams in the abstract. Richard didn’t talk anymore. He would look at you and amplified emotion flashed across his face, but I couldn’t talk to him either. It was perfect. I’d always looked up to him, and he smiled down on me. He smiled to communicate – a robbed utility – but that was enough. I would watch him work and I would remember standing as still as stairs in an underground room, chains tied all around my neck and body. The door opened and on the other side was a wall of fire.
It was another week before the lights went out. Long days of tinkering and reading books in silence, punctuated by Richard staring intently into nowhere. The boy never ate and he didn’t seem to notice. He listened, mostly. He listened to the boy talk about dreams as anecdotes, then as myth. He pretended I wasn’t there.
We sat in a gutted electronics storefront and scanned the silence in unison during breaks in the unilateral conversation. The last newspapers before the exodus were unhinged at best, blowing down the street like sarcastic tumbleweeds. We made a fire every night even though we didn’t need to, right on the sidewalk. Without the artificial light everything was blue in the evening. How many had died since it started?
Our boy took a special interest with the scene, standing just beyond the puddle of waste below the hovering sneakers. Another child – a young girl with olive skin in a horizontal striped dress – was standing there staring up at him. She never strayed far from the area and would return periodically to survey the latest ellipses in this run-on tragedy. Our boy approached her while Richard was busy with his work in the storefront. They stood so close their faces were nearly touching; their mouths were moving ever so slightly but they were blinking in frantic bursts. I couldn’t get close enough to see what they were saying, if anything. After they talked she stopped coming around.
“There was a dream once, this one time, there was a cup of blood being poured into a cup of gold and the man wasn’t able to look away. He could tell there was a dog at his feet being put down with a needle. He tried to kneel down while looking at the cups but he couldn’t move. Isn’t that something?”
The day Richard jettisoned his project was the day I convinced him to leave with me. The boy seemed pleased with this development. A rogue singularity blew a hole through his mind and his posture betrayed a reinterpretation of his size. He had it all figured out until he didn’t, and those moments of clarity where he would attempt to ocularly impregnate the ether happened with increasing frequency. The only thing I knew we could do was meet up with the others at one of the elephant sanctuaries in the South. I’d never been there before but I knew where to go, it all seemed so familiar. I remembered sitting on a long beach, untouched by humanity, a dead dog sitting before me in the tide. A fountain of water exploded somewhere to the right.
Before the fall and recolonization I knew some were even being shuttled there with the assumption that if there were enough of us in one place something wonderful might happen. I was betting the same. The last of our kind milling around a charismatic necropolis; that had to make us special, somehow.
To get to the sanctuary, we had to go through the Caliphant. In short, it was a destabilized warzone wherein warring elephant poachers fought each other for an unattainable supremacy. Guns and trucks, bombs and chains, I don’t think they wanted to kill each other so much as they wanted to win. Grand conspiracies governed some of the skirmishes, vendettas governed others. At one point the elephants were no longer targeted. The sanctuary was haloed by a pockmarked crust dotted with burned out vehicle husks and hacked up campsites. A murder of dirt bikes rev up behind a low hill, burning danked-up effigies to scare off wanderers; wicked tongues lashing against the retreating light along the horizon.
“What do you think he wants with us, Richard? It reminds me of a dream I heard about, this village was built on the mouth of a dormant volcano that went right to the center of the Earth and all these bats started coming out of the pipes and bathtubs and wells. And guess what, they all had human faces!”
It took us two weeks of walking to get there, my presence enthralling more often than enraging. Nobody had pieced together that the global mental breakdown was at all related to the knowledge of our shared history. All along the way, the boy held secret congress with other children whom nothing adhered to; after who knows how long out in the wilderness and the crash, they remained pristine. Camping out by a gas station converted into an artist’s colony comma armory, a group of eight of them had congregated around back, out there just beyond the lantern, out there in the half-light. Various colours but uniform height, the similarities came into sharp relief when standing side by side. Under the light of the full moon they stood face-to-face and communicated with whispers and coded blinks. They knew I was watching them and we knew they were watching us, the time soon came that we didn’t try to hide it.
The closer we got, the more their numbers grew. By the time we arrived at the edge of the Caliphant, there was 30 of them skulking around in the refuse what spiderwebbed from each milestone. When we got to the narrow reach of the Caliphant, all we had to do was listen for engines and weave in-betweens the remnants of the effigies. We came across discarded rifles but Richard paid them no mind. I trusted his judgment. I remembered standing in a closet and looking through the crack as huge men draped in black leather stormed through the house, taking all the people from the village and gathering them outside. They pulled a woman out of the bathroom by the hair and she was screaming something I couldn’t understand.
The sanctuary was a plain sheet of desolation, crumpled and flattened like cash. In the falling of dusk it looked like a desert in a costume. We searched every body of water for other elephants and found none. We found them collected together, betrayed by a lone infant elephant standing motionless by a cliff. It wouldn’t look at me when I approached, indeed as I tried to get its attention it stood inert. I wasn’t able to communicate with him the way I could with Lucy, my partner at the zoo who was taken away to a similar place. I could communicate in all the ways I couldn’t with Richard, through the memories. We could share and implant memories within each other, stamping out marks on them if we please. It’s a tremendous responsibility and can be truly uncomfortable, but is incredible for comedy. We found the rest of the group by following where it was staring. It was there I met Hugo, the de-facto leader working on how to solve the problem. The problem was that ever since the fall of the mind of the world, all the newborn elephants were coming out blank; no minds to speak of.
Cornered as they were, they remained industrious. The corkscrew trails of goofed rockets defined the boundaries of their sandbox. The elephants – many of them recent arrivals – were aware of the madness plaguing the world and the bizarre behavior of the former emperors, our people. We were aware the knowledge was forbidden, although we could do nothing to control it. While the people of the world were still staked by the direness the elephants would die out within 2 generations at most. Total mind death, then total genetic death. And certainly everyone else would die, eventually replaced by the false child interlopers. There, gathered together around crescent of still water encircled by aerobic trees, they reasoned that the only way to fix it all was with additional forbidden knowledge. They came to this conclusion after looking at the facts. Like the omnipresent symphonic membrane of creation gathering in a single peak, it all came together, but I had to see it first. Richard tended to the empty elephant, staring intently into its eyes.
They had created their own towering effigy, and it was unclear who was influenced by whom but I am clear on where my biases lie. It was a massive structure made from carved wood, an insurmountable task for those without thumbs. Standing 15 feet tall and constructed with the assistance of the cliff, it was a crudely cobbled rune which, reinforced by the carvings, could only be pieced together with the correctly tuned faculties. A giant symbol crafted to communicate one specific message to the witness with the punch of time collapsing into a palmed shell.
The message was gleaned from secret observations of the extraterrestrials communicating with each other; they were so brazen about the colonization they openly spoke in a language they assumed nobody could hear or understand. Victory polluted their sensibility, apparently. They managed to interpret key phrases and concepts from the eye movements in conjunction with the lips. Some were captured and over time revealed unreal pressure points. Their speech was their greatest asset. Their language could wreak havoc on the uninitiated. They could convince anyone of anything.
When Richard looked upon it I saw the dawn of a new epoch. Consigned to madness and thrust back again, he brought back a strange new energy. His condition allowed him to see patterns he could not see before, his damnation granting him the very key to his escape. I saw it in his eyes, a galaxy unfolding and fluttering in a cosmic wind of enlightenment. He came back stronger, just like they knew he would. Just like I had hoped. When he looked at me, we were back in the zoo. I looked down on Richard for the first time since we first met all those years ago. He placed his hand upon my face with tears rolling down his dirty cheeks.
It’s how we would get them all back. Their ascendance back into the flawed and managed world would come from their own distant spirits pulling them through the fire. The burns would remain. The burns were necessary. When dawn crept across the deep and the Caliphant trickled in, the awestriking wave travelled fast and blossomed within them in minutes. Electricity exploding from alarming dimensions. Armed and wounded, the symmetries of reality became apparent. Emerging from the dream of the forest – a dream of the past, of the beginning – they might find a use for us relics what dream with more vivid palettes.
Upon a nearby hill, the sky was backgrounded in a way I hadn’t seen for years. 30 of the children were gathered and looking on; hands clutched in unnatural configurations, their heads hanging forward as if too heavy for their necks. They were different, with gnashing teeth for eyes and jaws hanging open, loose. Thin red strings emerged from their throats and inched forward slowly like accusatory fingers. Dead faces. They were dry and cracked and the ground was wet around their feet. Their teeth moved independently, possessed by an abyssal rhythm. A library with the ground slaughtering itself beneath it. Everyone was quiet.
The Caliphant readied their weapons. If it would come to war it would be an unfamiliar war, under an evolved lamplight with beams woven through with billowing insectoid curtains.
Did you get all that?
Now what shape would you draw all that as?