Where were you that day the painted sky fell. At school we linked arms and watched waterfalls of rubble over and over until they became a future monument. Was that an exploded pixel or just the ripple of a mirage, glinting derrick where a palm tree should be. This ambiguity is intentional. It helps us see that there will be entire eras dedicated to glassy applause, limbless salutes, but now is a time of action. Ask not. Become a slave then a martyr then an icon in zealous minds. They imagine you as cloaked man pointing his crozier at the fresco overhead. Demand to see its painter, well knowing the man died before completing this, his masterpiece. Get close enough and you’ll notice he forgot to blush the twin virgins’ cheeks, that the angels’ feathers are actually brushstrokes, marble crushed and wetted. A coverup is never as perfect as the conspiracy it inspires. The web of red yarn and its push pin nodes. The pointillism of newspaper. Towers of old Chinese takeout boxes, an entire skyline of them on the floor of the storage unit. Their fortune cookies were empty inside, and this is proof of nothing. Or everything. Either way some people will still believe in lucky numbers, words in a language long dead, that clouds are pillowy, that we are indeed ruled by reptilian overlords. Their slitty faces are everywhere—greenscreened into suits, foretold of in hieroglyphs, graffitied on a crumbling stone wall in a city where religions were once founded, and still are, because They are never not the enemy, and who doesn’t want to be reborn in his own image. Fall asleep on the right plane and you just might wake as a sacred bird in another, all your cells reprogrammed to ash. Two invisible computer hands being so careful with all those souls. And you call this god.
Behind every word is another word. Even a caveman grunts the songs of his mother. She coos to keep the fire alive, prays to the two-tusk-of-the-sky and maybe the men return with a calf, names her own children so that they might be spared by whatever hunts them. All because the same braided acids in her body tell her to. I have failed my genes too many times to count though some guys do that. Mankind will evolve supernumerary digits for this very purpose but also new shadow puppets and piano concertos previously thought to be impossible. Limbs too, and whatever replaces newspapers will call this the arms race, proving no matter how well intentioned a technology it will be abused. The word of the day is zeitgeist, though if you tell this to another soul that soul will not let you fuck it. The word for yesterday is thanksgiving or indigo, depending on your chemicals. Why is it that idiots always get the best chemicals and so too their many idiot offspring? I heard alkaloids taste bitter because they will kill us or feel so good we do it ourselves. Sex feels the way it does because duh. But these are the data we learn over sweet nothings whispered, over not enough glasses of red, over manicured music we both pretend to like until the breakup when we flex our newfound freedom by playing dusty prog LPs or the voice in our head or god or whatever we think weighs as much as the joyous wobble of her first word never said. Nothing does. If you’re still reading this, stop. Give freely of your gold, your frankincense, your myrrh, and any other gift you might not know how to give. Otherwise your mausoleum will be haunted by the little saviors you unmade. Sheets eaten through by unpaired acid. Tissues stiff as homeroom ghosts. Snakeskin molted and promptly flushed.
Step through the big-handed ferns, over branches long dried that will betray your footfall, note the glyphs of lichen on every third tree. Keep low to listen and taste the air. What you seek only seeds in his footprints. Some grow three inches down and require rooting, a trained pig’s sensitive snout. Their caps will be crabshell pink and spotted white like a certain small bird’s egg, the kind served coddled in boulevards far from here. Once found, ingest. Behold that which you are intended to behold. Wake twelve years later, completely the same, except for the feeling of dissatisfaction. This is not at all what was promised at the consciousness conference. One should not deceive amongst the majesty of the taiga and so many natural hot springs, but the supreme leader had done just that. His reedy voice drunk on knowing. Pupils like silver dollars. His subjects sat lotus at his feet, quaffed deeply from the toppled flagon, palmed their sacred prisms and wept as he began to vibrate for them, until he proved all motion to be an illusion. They split his eucharist like light and in doing so realized we are indeed descended from the same stooped creature, though nobody has ever seen him. I like to think that he is always over the next ridge, that the stories are really a desire we haven’t gotten around to naming yet. I have watched the stitched home videos and pried open the minds of hunters and hill people, those widowers of yesterday’s country. They see him for the same reason they don’t; because he is us, slipped into a glacier, kept perfectly intact for epochs until the great thaw. Of course we would be scared, more comfortable among the thickest pines, pillows of snowdrift, a cave with flat limestone walls upon which he might paint the world he doesn’t yet understand. More and more he repeats the cowardly sounds the hairless one made as it stomped through the underbrush. He has no way of knowing this is the prayer that invents him, but he learns it all the same, and with time he is the one giving instructions.
This southwest sky has been written about too much yet is still undiscovered. The air force bases out of eyeshot of the freeway are proof of this. Jets brighten the sky hoping for something unidentified just as humans formerly in love. Her sign was Ophiuchus and she pointed it out to whoever knew less. Astrophysicists sing the same hurt gospel: the moon is a dead world. Because we like to see ourselves in architecture that wasn’t built for us—a pathetic trellis, a personed vault, cornice like an overbite. These road trips have become a given, the gemstones for sale too burnished. Even the parking lots have misting fans. Elderly sitting around a lazy susan like unkneaded dough. They will die in keeping with the celestial movement of their bank accounts and glycemic indices, but for now they greet us to paradise with endentured smiles. To break promises among so much laid asphalt felt wrong, so we decided to skip the hotel and push off into the place beyond the chain link fence, past the king creosote even. The colony can be seen from space. There we celebrated our lack of knowing by drinking what we had, smoking what we hadn’t until that evening when she said she recognized this plant from a book. A deep descent into our shared loneliness. She told me god fits in a saucer, a saucer! I said I was ready for another. Simple myths as we stared off into the rumor of morning, its golden dawn not yet crowning. By the time it does, the pharaohs will have been worshipped, the psalms forgotten, the wine drunk or made vinegar. And we will stumble out of the desert and onto the freeway wearing nothing but old keloids and hospital gowns, claiming we went up there. That we touched their apartness.
An asteroid hurtling towards earth. Heat death, or its opposite. The inevitable rise of the sea level, or the machines, or our blood pressure. No matter how, the simulation wants us dead, wants us to know it’s coming. Otherwise why hide in a monitor and hiss the blueprints to all that is tragically powerful. Aqueducts, airfoils, punctuation, reverse osmosis, tantric sex, but now it’s all glass gadgets and the peons who clutch them like rosaries, entire subgenres of Z-movies dedicated to our predicament. In one of the really terrible ones a grieving scientist invents virtual reality so that he might touch her hair again. Even though his world was a silver hologram all along, and so too ours. Shooting stars are actually glitches on the inside of the dome. Earthquakes, that one asshole who stayed on the outside to shove our slack shoulders, drunk to make the continents shake. He laughs at the voodoo we use to explain his caprice, but grows solemn when he learns the new titles we bestow upon him. Processing speeds will increase to the point we might live forever in smaller and smaller intervals, but they’ll never get textures quite right. The talc of unripe fruit. Stainless steel. Our hotel linens, peppery with sand. A long weekend in a beach town is a parallel universe in which we still whisper pet names. It was the off-season, so fogged over the ocean carried the burden of proof. We ignored the endless march of newborn turtles, and suddenly the beach was an hourglass, ours to turn on its side and forget. Ships in a bottle—only the old man and his glass eye know how they get in there. Surely he will die without revealing his secret. He might tell you he shrinks the ship like a head, but the trick is realizing how small you’ve always been. Only then does the apocalypse come, plagal and mild, open fourths echoing throughout this cathedral we never needed because, if only for a moment, we knew the feeling of other skin. Promise me you won’t forget this when we are vampires trapped in a mandolined pear.
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NICK GREER is a writer living in Tucson where he is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. His writing has appeared in Anamesa, Cleaver Magazine, and the Tin House Open Bar. He is an editor for Territory, a literary project about maps and other strange objects.