A child’s vocal cords produce utterances of confusion close to my right ear, noises like those of a tourist who has been reduced to rely on primal vocalizations. A small head is resting on my arm, and I smell the shampoo and conditioner that cleaned that hair and scalp.
Am I a prisoner in some dark cave, or a homeless bum living in an alleyway, or a guru who takes orders from the voices in my head? I blink away the fog of drowsiness. I must have fallen asleep like a slug in its tiny burrow.
Behold, the glowing flower of a child’s face, with her chin tucked under a lemonade-pink scarf. Her smooth skin is tinged sand orange by the closest streetlamp, with paprika-red shadows. In her monolid eyes, and surrounded by the sclera, her irises and pupils have merged into dark circles. Nairu is sinking her gaze deep into the tunnel of my eyes, that leads straight to madness.
She sniffles, then wipes her runny nose with the sleeve of her wool sweater. A glint of sentience must have returned to my eyes; Nairu arches her eyebrows and repeats the utterances of confusion while pointing at the sky. She seeks my input, although I’m the kind of woman who wanders naked into a boreal forest.
I gasp, breathing in cold air. Don’t tell me she has spotted a UFO! About time I witnessed one of them. I picture a spacecraft shaped like a watch battery, hovering higher than the tallest mountain around. The stars are reflected in its silvery, mirror-like top half. In the underside, the gravity-bending propulsion engines, likely powered by a black hole, phosphoresce in shades of green, red and yellow as they interact with the atmosphere. Are there lifeforms riding the craft? They may be alien truckers that have pulled over for the night at their equivalent of a rest area, and tomorrow they will resume the trip back to their star system. Once they supply the hydrogen and helium they siphoned from Jupiter, they’ll waste their wages at some alien brothel.
The sky is painted onyx black. From the left, the canopy of an evergreen tree has sneaked into the frame. The coalesced silhouette of its leaves and branches resembles a hoarfrost-covered lung.
Nairu jabs her finger at the sky while she babbles in her long-extinct language.
“A-am I this drowsy,” I ask, “or is Nairu pointing at nothing?”
“I think that’s the point, darling,” Jacqueline says in a low voice from my left.
“I-is she trying to warn us that it’s over, that the end has come?”
“Baby, she’s telling us this isn’t the sky she grew up with.”
“Ah, of course. This is how the heavens ended up after the apocalypse.”
Can a woman who grew up like a rat, scurrying around the streets until she reached her sordid shelter, imagine how the dome of the sky looked like before the mythological age? The heavens would have been ablaze with a billion pinpricks of red, yellow, white and blue light, kaleidoscopic diamonds strewn across a carpet of indigo velvet. Among the glittering embers of the stars, among the amoeba-shaped nebulas, I would have recognized the shapes of Orion, Perseus, Taurus, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia and many other constellations, the gods that watched over our affairs from their far-flung thrones. Every night our gaze would have drifted towards the stars. Hypnotized like moths, our hair would become infused with celestial phenomena, and our eyes would gleam in the cold starlight as we soaked up the silver song of the cosmos.
Even the beasts that agonized in a pool of blood, while their festering wounds flashed with burning pain, knew that their spirit would escape and ascend to milky river overhead, where they would float in the sparkling current forever. But the celestial curtain was torn apart; the nightly sky fell like a collapsed ceiling, crushing our ancestors. Now, when humans look up from their earthly hell at night, they face an ocean of blackness, and during the day, the dying sun hangs out in the sky like an aged streetlight.
Some nights, the glowing trails of meteor streaks cross-section a silent sky: reminders of the cosmic hazards that threaten us far above the corpses of ancient cities. Our Earth, as it races unflinchingly toward her fate like a suicidal teen dashing across a highway, bathes in a major meteor stream twice a year, where millions of pieces of a long-fragmented comet, from glassy gravel to iron balls the size of football fields, plummet through the vacuum faster than a rifle bullet.
I blow a billowing white puff towards the sky, then I knead Nairu’s warm hand with my icy fingers.
“Yes, all that bright light is gone,” I say in a quavering voice while the chill pierces my bones. “You have noticed because you aren’t blind yet. Now, where could they have hidden the stars without them cracking or shattering? I know the truth, even though I don’t understand it.”
The darkness has blotted out the moon, or else that celestial eye and its ghostly glow hang out of frame. Its sclera has been corroded into dark cerulean patches, and bears star-shaped scars of ejecta from asteroidal impacts. I wish that Jacqueline, Nairu and I could chase after the shimmering reflection of the moon like lunatic bats. Instead, I peer into the black shroud up above us, that looks like the darkness floating inside a trash can full of rainwater. As I slide my gaze around, I spot pinpricks of light, the last vestiges of a candle’s flame, glimmering at the fringes of my sight. If I blink or distract myself, those twinkling dots will be snuffed out. Maybe I’m only imagining them, maybe I’m losing my mind, but what difference does it make to me? And if I focus long enough in the boundless darkness, allowing the stream of photons that traveled for millions of years to penetrate my pupils, I may get a glimpse of Her: Arachne, Lady of the Abyss, Weaver of the Cosmic Web, She who spins the tapestry of time and space, She who trapped the galaxies in Her sticky filaments. She pulls out memories of a billion of our pasts and weaves them into strands around Her fingers. In the end, the cocoon formed out of our selves will serve as a nursery for Her hatching eggs.
I’m hearing a low rumble in the distance, like the noise of an electric guitar being played with a grunge distortion pedal. The wind slaps its frozen fingers against my face. Although my brain is burning up, the cold is numbing my skin and creeping into my body, where it turns the blood into slush. Soon enough my teeth will chatter, the chatter will become a moan, the moan will rise to a howl of despair, and the howl will echo over the frozen earth to the fathomless ocean of empty space, where the fringes of the expanding universe push against the invisible wall that separates us from the unknown. I will hallucinate that I’m a deer running in circles on a desolate tundra, running and running until my hooves crumble into ice shards and the wind smears the last mist of my breath.
What’s that over the black hills? Are those hands crawling up the outer edges of the world? Do they hunt with pincers, claws or talons? Do you grow stronger as you pluck the meat from its sockets? The air tastes of fresh blood, which trickles down the gullets of your dying sisters. Suck the warm lifeblood flowing like sap from the wounds of your enemies. You can’t hold onto the lives of others, or even your own.
A sudden sensation jolts through my body: I’m falling and spinning. The centrifugal force of the Earth in its rotation has flung me out and I’m hurtling towards the black ocean above, in which the worlds are sinking like stones in water.
The hollow noises of footsteps and doors closing echoed in the velvety darkness as I sat on cold, anonymous stairs to escape from a prison of screams and insults. The blood of my ancestors coated my hands, dripped down my elbows and onto the step under my feet, where the blood puddled around my shoes. Its stifling odor, mingled with the sweat pouring out of me, turned into a nauseating wave of bitterness. My mind was like a house whose every door had been slammed shut. I closed my eyes and built shelters in islands and in the canopies of sequoias, I built towers that bristled with anti-tank weapons; anywhere I could rest as a hermit in sealed silence. I imagined the mountains crumbling, the oceans flooding, the sky erupting in a fireball to vaporize everyone except the beasts. In the end, the parting clouds would reveal the stars as they were before the sky cracked and bled.
“How long?” I whispered while tears formed in the corners of my eyes. “How long until She arrives?”
My life back then was a grain of sand compared to the sediment on the seafloor. Even kings and conquerors were icebergs compared to the glaciers beyond. This world will freeze us, burn us, flood us, bury us, wipe us out. Our cells will be devoured by rust. Like soldiers in wartime, humans burrow in trenches to wait out the battle; we pretend that we’re safe while the cannons roar and the shells explode. Yet, in this frozen darkness, two pockets of womb-like warmth remain where I can survive: one to my left and the other to my right. In an echo of the time when history began, in an age about to end, for now Jacqueline, Nairu and I lie nestled together at the center of our web, our own private constellation.
“How long?” I whisper again.
I’ve faced the barbaric, senseless absurdity step by step. The lights will shut off soon enough, so let’s bathe in the cosmic ocean, let’s float in the currents of atoms and energy that flow through this universe. I will take its waters in and quench my thirst.
I keep a playlist with all the songs mentioned throughout this novel. Eighty-four songs so far. Check it out.
Three neural networks competed with each other to render images inspired by this chapter. Two of the AIs lost horribly. Check out the results.
Thus concludes the sequence titled “Who Stole the Stars?” as well as the saga of Nairu the Paleolithic, that started with the sequence “A Gift From the Ice Age” back in chapter 62 (which I posted in the 13th of July). More or less, this chapter also concludes the traditional second act of the story.
It took me about forty-one thousand words to render the setup and ramifications of a single sentence in my original treatment for this novel (long gone; back then I believed it would be a novella), that said, more or less: “Leire travels to the Ice Age and returns with a child.”
The next chapter will kick off a whole new sequence, titled “Cumlord of the Abyss.” I’ve accumulated 4,563 words of notes for it, but the sum of rendered scenes will end up at least twice and a half that length.