The Hermeneutics of the Lunacy Lyric by David Sandner

Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.

John Keats

The bear fell from the ceiling, climbing through a hole that wasn’t there.

I had awoken to a loud cracking. I watched unblinking as a brown water crack along the white paint of the motel ceiling began to widen, furred paws reaching though and pulling it apart. I didn’t try to get out of the way. The roof wasn’t falling; it wasn’t like that; I was frozen, fascinated. A different kind of light fell out of the hole; it held a different kind of perspective, as if, staring up, as it widened above me, I looked down a cliff-side. The crack opened further and I looked up and out on blue stars pulsing in a crazy red sky.

Before the bear swung through the hole—a hole now nearly six feet across—it looked small, as if it was far away; hanging from the edge of the hole, dropping onto the bed, landing on top of me, suddenly it was huge. At least seven feet tall. The bed broke in the middle, cracking, falling in under its weight. I reached out and grabbed clumps of its matted brown fur, hugging its sheer size to me. It was cold and gritty, its fur not soft at all. If it hadn’t put its paws on either side of me and held itself up, I would have been crushed. Instead of a bear’s face it had on a bone mask, painted in swirls, red and white and black. The thing smelled moldy but with a faint whiff of something, honey?

I had involuntarily turned my face away as it fell. Now I looked up. I wasn’t afraid because I knew why it had come and I needed to know what it would do even if it had to kill me to do it. I wasn’t afraid to die. The red light falling from the hole in the ceiling reflected off the walls of the motel and onto its alien bone-masked face above me. Maybe the face was an exoskeleton, but it looked to me like a mask carved by a knife—a short bird-like beak curved down in front, banded red and black, with large white teeth bared in a frozen grimace. The eye-holes stood out large and round, ringed with white. The things hot breath flushed my cheeks as it stared at me. The alien reached out a padded paw with three long claws and touched my cheek. Its head moved in slight jerks, sniffing me, or perhaps trying to get the right angle to see me out of the mask. The movements were bird-like. I tried not to flinch under its gaze, but, pinned beneath its bulk and shaking with adrenalin, I flinched with each jerk of its head. But I was not afraid. I could see a pair of eyes in the darkness behind the mask, another face behind the exoskeleton, alien eyes large and liquid black broken by flecks of shimmering white.

The bear rolled off me and walked with an awkward, upright gait toward the motel table and the Lunacy Stone itself. The thing I had stolen. The reason I was hiding under an assumed name in a cheap hotel. The reason I was unbathed and had so little sleep in weeks. The thing I knew the alien had come for. The bear’s “feet” or paws made a queer sound as they brushed the carpet—something like legs in a workout suit making a synthetic “schnick-schnick.” Was it all a suit after all? Some kind of shaggy spacesuit or haz-mat thing? The bear had short legs and a long torso, as if it should have walked on all fours like a real bear. I sat up in the broken motel bed, clutching the thin bed-sheets to my chest, watching.

The bear leaned heavily on the wooden table over the alien stone tablet. It hunched over, rocking. I thought the table might break. It spoke or perhaps chanted over the Lunacy Stone. The alien reached out to tap with one claw at the etching on one side, deep grooves that are regular, distinct, and in twelve neat rows. I had studied those lines for years with nothing to show. They are called the lunacy lyric, though no one knew, before now, if they actually were poetry. I have traced the markings, copied them by hand, projected slides of them up on screens, lectured on them, stared at them until I could see them with my eyes closed, red afterimages glowing behind my eyelids; I have dreamed about them, long, empty dreams where I scratch at the stone until my nails split, until the nubs of my fingers are red and sore and blood trickles from my under my fingernails.

Maybe the words in the song the bear chanted are the same as the words on the stone. If not for what had happened only three days before, I would have taken my notebook and tried to write out its spoken words phonetically, or simply have asked for a translation, if that was possible, ending eight years of work. Maybe the bear spoke English. Clearly, stranger things could happen. Did happen. But the bear had come too late for me. Everything had already happened that was ever going to happen. I was done.

Nothing mattered anymore. For eight years I had worked over the stone trying to translate it, and now with this thing actually before me, chanting, I did nothing. Without actually holding the bear in my hands, hugging its bulk to me, feeling its weight, I trusted nothing. I believed nothing. The unpronounceable words of its song only made everything seem more impossible. I felt unsure how to move my own body, as if I wore the suit, my face the frozen bone mask. The song itself droned on hypnotically, the bear singing in a high strained voice, not like a bear at all. It wasn’t a bear. I didn’t even know what it was.

How had the alien found me? I thought about everyone looking for me, for the stone, really. The police must be after me hard right now, numerous government agencies, the media, who knows? They must have found Professor Linnet’s body by now and realized the stone was missing. I took it. But Professor Yamoto is the one who bludgeoned Professor Linnet with it in Linnet’s office, staining the far side of the stone, away from the lyric, a deep red. Linnet didn’t even raise his arms to ward off the blows. He seemed to be expecting them. He looked a bit stunned, but didn’t even grunt.

Yamoto broke Linnet’s glasses with the first blow, then struck him on the top of his head, the blood flowing off his bald scalp onto his grey tweed coat and the ungraded papers and empty grade sheets piling up on his desk. Linnet finally fell back, tumbling over his chair and collapsing to the floor. Yamoto dropped the stone on the desk, pushed past me where I stood in the doorway stunned, and ran. Yamoto’s eyes were wide and he had his mouth open as if screaming, but he too didn’t make a sound. I wiped the blood from the stone on Linnet’s coat and left the building through an emergency exit whose alarm, I knew, had long since stopped working. I just took it, that’s all. I didn’t kill him. I just watched and did nothing.

As I sat unfocused, each word the bear chanted seemed to become more distinct, certain, yet blank and hard. I slid along the cold surface unable to find a seam or a crack but drawn into the rhythm and the movement of the sound. I imagined each word was a pebble picked up along a seashore, put into my pocket and carried along until I tossed them all back into the sea from which they came. I kept nothing, turning my pockets out, finally diving in after them.

I thought of my own face as the stone, the lines along my cheeks as words that whorled around my eyes and my lips. I had an ordinary face I’d always sort of hated, with one long eyebrow I thought ugly. The eyebrow sat too high, as if I were perpetually surprised. I had thin lips, and rarely smiled. I knew when I smiled I looked hideous, as if grimacing in pain. I had brown eyes flecked with unaccountable gold. My mousey hair receded on my forehead halfway over my scalp, vanishing into nothing. I hardly bared scrutiny, even by myself in the mirror in the morning. But with the words on my face like tattoos, I was, for a moment, luminous with meaning.

But it was only a delusion.

I stayed where I was and watched. Is there anything that can’t become normal, that we can’t get used to? I did not get out of bed and the bear did not speak to me again. While it chanted, it took a small receptacle out of a bag at its side. The alien put a sticky resin in what must have been a sea shell (from what alien shore?) and, snapping something in his claws, lit the resin on fire. (What color sea did the shell come from? From what star, that flame?) The resin smoked, when the smoke reached me it smelled sickly sweet and gave me an instant headache, sharp and cutting. (Do the waves from that sea hide things beneath even stranger than this bear and its song?) I rubbed my head. My eyes watered; my vision blurred.

The bear finished singing, pushed itself off the table and walked to the window. The rundown beach town hotel I was in was perched on a convenient hill. The window looked out over a large open grounds where a Summer County Fair had set up rides, people milling about. Beyond the Fair, the familiar ocean waited unconcerned. It was a Summer evening like any other, impossible and never to be seen again. The stars coming out were not in a red sky. What did the bear think of it?

I stood and came up behind the bear then, the sheets wound around my body. Out the window, down a ways and across a street, behind a high chain-link fence, a Ferris wheel spun, starting and stopping to jangling bells and organ notes; the spokes alternated yellow and green; the little cars were red; the people were too far away to have distinct faces but one could see they had cotton candy and stuffed bears; they wore jeans and t-shirts. It was all utterly impossible. I laughed at the joy of it. The people on the roller coaster screamed every sixty-five seconds. The screaming never stopped until late into the night.

Before it left the alien turned to me and opened its mask. The mask split down the middle and opened out like a book. I didn’t want to believe in what I saw. But I had to. I knew then that the thing, the alien, was not a bear and I was not dreaming. And I knew: nothing was ever what it seemed. The world is never what it seems.

Since the alien’s first visit, the etched letters fade, seemingly absorbed into the rock. The alien’s song must have begun the process, for nothing has happened to the lines in the eight years I have known the stone. Soon they will be gone completely, or perhaps they will become fully embodied in the stone, somehow more than words. I fear whatever is happening to the stone will happen to me, because I was in the room and heard the song and smelled the incense, and felt the lines enter me, overflowing my face. I don’t know. I fear I will be fading away soon, into the air or into the earth or into the mirror where I see myself—still ugly, still boring—in the morning. It is difficult to explain what I feel, when everything has changed and you can count on nothing. And when nothing matters anyway.

The police have probably caught Yamoto, though I have been afraid to even watch the news. (The news is watching us.) Everything I have been for eight years is fading with the lunacy lyric. What will I be without it, without those words, without its strangeness, its uncertainty, its hard definition?

Doctor Linnet had expertise, but more importantly he had a connection to a high-ranking senior Senator through his sister-in-law. A family thing. That’s how all the trouble started. That was how the Lunacy Stone—discovered frozen in the ice of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, but not from there—had come to him; he had muscled in to become leader of the task force assembled to study the alien lyric, to translate it using a mix of linguists and cryptographers and geologists and anyone else who could get themselves signed on. But eight years passed and, though the money flowed, the research went nowhere. How could it? Without some cosmic Rosetta Stone, what could be learned from twelve lines of unknown, alien poetry? And Linnet baffled everyone. He set his team at odds, playing favorites and causing rifts, withholding crucial data from outside scholars or scientists, or releasing only partial and misleading information, or simply not allowing his people to pass information even between themselves.

I never would have believed such a high-profile research job could have been derailed so effectively, but claims of national security, or promises that another year of funding would clear things up somehow kept the project shrouded in secrecy and yet moving, always moving, but never forward. I think Linnet did it for the funding, certainly, for the money, but even more for the attention the project generated, for the power and prestige. Everyone hated him, but feared him, too.

I think Linnet had destroyed Yamoto’s data, or lost it. That’s why, I think, Yamoto hit him with the stone. That and everything else that infuriating bastard had done. I knew more than anyone else about the project except Linnet. I worked in his outer office more as a glorified secretary than a post-doc and heard him say one thing to one member of his team and another thing to another. I saw him walk out of the office with irreplaceable data, which would never return. Sometimes he would blame the loss on me. I stayed on year after year because I had no choice. The possibility of a lucrative research position with prestige remained just out of reach. Every year, Linnet renewed my research assistant contract and told me how much he needed me. And I needed his recommendation letter or I had no career. I either got everything or nothing. Linnet held the key. He never came out and said it. He never said he would bury me if I turned him down and tried to send out my CV. But he didn’t have to. I had seen what he could do.

He could, of course, after such a prestigious project, have written me a letter that would have had universities fighting for my services. Sometimes he would bring me in and sit me down just to tell me about the glowing letter he would write, when the time came. I guess it wasn’t hard to read my mind. The bastard seemed to be inside all of our heads, doing whatever he needed to do to keep us all off-balance, assuring himself that all the work the group did added up to exactly nothing.

I suppose it’s poetic justice that Linnet was bludgeoned with the stone itself. When Yamoto, furious, came by to see Linnet, Linnet stood coolly before him, resting his hand on the lunacy lyric like it was a glorified paperweight when it should have been safely in a secure case. Yamoto asked me to step into the hall for a moment. I heard him shouting. I think Linnet must have threatened him, I could hear that calm, cruel voice he would use when he was especially dangerous. Yamoto didn’t have tenure yet. Linnet could make sure he never did. The first crack of stone on skull brought me back to the door to witness the end of things. I did nothing but watch.

Since the bear, twice someone knocked on the hotel door. Probably the police. I had instructed the manager not to clean up the room while I stayed there. Eventually, either the police will catch me or I will fade. It is only a matter of time.

I’m not sure now, looking back, why I took the stone. I think I thought, with Linnet dead, I wouldn’t be allowed to work on it anymore. That my dream of a prestigious job and ambition for success had died with Linnet, for all the trouble he had caused. If it didn’t die with Linnet, it died when I left the building with the stone under my coat. But I still wanted to translate the stone more than ever. To know. Stupid as it sounds, I think I just wanted to finish what I had started. I’d put so much in, somehow the stone belonged to me more than to anyone. I’d dreamed over it more than anyone. Wasn’t I fading into it even now? Wasn’t I the stone; wasn’t I the one who had seen the bear because I was the one who could? I think that Linnet’s blood and my desire had activated the stone somehow, and called the alien to it.

The second time the bear came, it turned the stone over in its paws, again and again, as it stood by the window. It stood watching the lights turning and the rides spinning and the people milling about the amusement park, listening to the screams from the roller coaster. That was all it did before it left, this time through a doorway burned into the bathroom wall. I was surprised the fire alarms didn’t go off, but they didn’t.

The third time, it ignored the stone and stood with its arms behind its back, shifting its weight from foot to foot, looking at the people and the Fair. I didn’t think the alien would agree to take me when it left, after the fourth visit. But when I asked, it shrugged its great bear shoulders and, already passing back through the hole, this time fading through the tv screen, it reached out for my hand, dragging me through the shrinking opening into some other place altogether.
The journey was only a fading and return, an absence and a presence. I had walked in no-place and no-time, along a funnel shaped surface of white veined with gold. The stars had all rushed together into one point around which the funnel of white and gold slowly spun. Then it bent, and I was here. I stood on the surface of a planet that looked desolate and cratered like earth’s moon, but bathed in red light. That light wasn’t right at all, somehow. I could still breathe. I think I breathed. I shaded my eyes from the red glow and looked up. A planet hung there, blue and smeared with clouds, something like earth. The moon, its bare grey landscape of stone and craters and dust tinged with red light, spread out around me in a stillness that made me cold. The stars shone hard and large and very bright. This was a moon to a planet like ours—or the moon to our planet? How could I breathe? But then, how could I anything after what I knew?

That first visit, when the bear had opened its mask, I saw two alien eyes, liquid black, flecked with shimmering light, nerves stringing out behind them, held up by a pale pink jelly which made up the forehead and cheeks. What looked like small white brine shrimp vibrated or swam inside the jelly, making the alien’s face seem to swarm and crawl. The long black lower jaw bone, dry and crusty, thrust out, opening and closing. I saw no tongue; perhaps the alien did not really speak as we know it? Maybe the vocalizations I heard were produced with some other appendage? The face repulsed me, though I know the living things inside it were no more repulsive than the mites that live and die upon my skin, on my face, swarming and crawling. I knew I was no stranger than it, but some reactions are involuntary. I think the alien only wanted to get a better look at me. I hoped my expression was unreadable. It closed its mask on the abyss of meaninglessness and horror its face meant to me. I never wanted to look inside its face again.

On the surface of some moon, the bear walked away from me, up a rise and down the far side, descending out of sight, its upright and foreshortened bear body moving in slow strides. I followed, somewhat awkwardly, something different here in the gravity, maybe, in the physics of it all. We were in a large crater. On the far side of the rise, the ground sloped down to a round structure made of what looked like wood and packed mud and a kind of straw. But I saw nothing growing—no forest—anywhere nearby to provide wood. I saw no water to make mud. No ocean to explain the shell the bear had on the first visit. Only moondust in every direction as far as I could see.

Two more bear things in masks waited beside the structure. It had a ceiling too low for the tall aliens, and a short, rounded passageway for an entrance that was down on the ground and not really big enough to allow them access. The first alien greeted the other two with a paw gesture and then dropped to the earth and somehow crawled inside, pushing aside a cloth hanging over the entranceway. The two aliens greeted me, touching my face and rubbing something sticky on my forehead before motioning me inside.

I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled in under the cloth and into the passage. Inside, all was dark but for a fire. The fire, the aliens like great bears, the structure, these forms and shapes of things, might be—I thought then—like allegories, perhaps, of what I actually experienced, like symbols in a dream, convenient forms, not reality, but portentous. I wanted to believe that, even as the heat of the fire closed in on me, oppressed me. I wanted to read everything as a sign. It all reminded me, vaguely, of Native American rituals I had read about. Maybe I had used that knowledge to make sense of whatever it was I really saw?

The heat inside the building was intense and I immediately lowered myself closer to the cool moondust floor. Smoke burned my eyes and throat, but in the dim red light I could see other forms, other aliens crowded in, lying on their backs and sides, filling up the room. The room seemed larger than I had thought from the outside. Other aliens sat cross-legged around the edge of the building, facing in to the fire. These sang and played instruments. One blew on a wind instrument which produced a low tone, deep, vibrating in my head like blood rushing in my ears after a long, hard run. A percussion instrument played slightly slower than a heartbeat. The song was growled out but in strangely strained and high voices, just one repetitive phrase, over and over.

One of the other aliens from outside was coming in behind me, pushing lightly on me to go further in. I couldn’t see any room at first, but soon crawled forward between two great masses of alien bodies. The heat and the music throbbed together as one now; the smoke gathered as ashes in my throat. I looked about for the exit, but I couldn’t see it now in the smoke and shadows. The heat increased. The song filled my head like smoke. The smoke whirled above me in the dim redness, endlessly circling, smearing my vision. I grabbed handfuls of the cool moon dust on the floor and rubbed it against my cheeks. I put my head to the earth. I closed my eyes.

When I opened them, Doctor Linnet stood beside me, wavering in the heat. I was surprised to see him and didn’t know what to say. His head seemed fine. He knelt beside me, then hunched to the earth like the rest of us, whispering in my ear. He had been speaking for some time now, I realized, beneath the chanting of the bears; but even straining I could barely hear him.

“What,” I said, a little too loudly, “what are you saying?”

In the red light I could see he wore his grey tweed jacket, too hot for in here. He wore his gold rimmed glasses on his round moon face, pale and loose-jowled; his sharp black eyes fixed on me over the top of his glasses.

“Yes, sir,” I said, “yes,” still unable to hear him over the loud sounds of the aliens, the low bass of the wind instruments, the high singing. I just wanted him to stop talking and let me get back to…to things, to whatever had been so important to me that I had to do it. I couldn’t seem to recall where I was or what I should be doing.

I picked up the thread of his talking, he said, “…the heterogeneous discursivity of the palimpsest, the discontinuous text understood only through increasing levels of self-reflexivity, is still a hierarchically determined mode of signification. Do you see? So you cannot try to think like the aliens, for that will only confuse the issue. What you think you understand is determined by your own limitations, limitations you must embrace. Do you follow?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, exhausted. But I thought, aren’t you dead?

Linnet motioned with one of his short arms at the fire. His face was red with the heat and he was blinking rapidly. He was beginning to shift and change into one of them—one of the aliens. An alien reached into the fire, then, and pulled out a stone. The alien took the white hot stone and turned it over and over, finally beginning to scratch on it with one long claw. It was writing a lyric. Linnet motioned out with his hands open, imploring. Me or the bear, I don’t know. He was trying to tell me something about the stone and the lunacy lyric. The aliens sang and wrote into the stone. Perhaps Linnet could return from the dead here, in this place where dreams are experience. What did he want?

Linnet poked my shoulder with his pudgy fingers, demanding attention. He was nearly all alien now. His face was a swarming mass. But he still had on his tweed jacket, absurdly undersized now.

“But I want to know,” I said to him, sitting up. The heat seared me. Linnet put his hand on my forearm, preventing me from rising.

“Sit down,” he said, conversationally, his voice suddenly quite clear to me. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“I don’t know.” My head throbbed. I knew he could drop me from the program, keep me from finding work. I had to be careful. His question, the way he worded it, was a trap. What were we talking about? What was the subject? I couldn’t let him see my confusion. I no longer knew where I was, why the darkness and the smoke enveloped me. Linnet had me with his black eyes.

“–my hideous progeny,” he said, “castrating amphibious products of knowledge. A palimpsest.”
Linnet said it calmly, his voice self-assured, but the wound had opened on his head, blood trickling down his forehead into his eyes and on his lips, dripping onto his tweed coat. He swayed unsteadily.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

I realized I had been the one to hit him with the stone and finish him off.

“When I first travelled here, to the moon,” Linnet said to me, “I thought the stone had revealed something secret, so terrible it could only be effaced. But the secret is more than that, the secret had already been effaced, erased before spoken, could not be known, never could be known.” His wound began to bleed profusely, then the blood began to well up all over his body, soaking his skin bright red, pouring out of him, drenching his fur and coat and slacks, pooling at his feet.

I had killed him. It had been me. Yamoto had knocked him unconscious, but I had finished the job—because I wanted it to be finished. As Yamoto left I had walked in and picked up the stone and finished things. Because, I knew then, otherwise things never would be done forever and ever. Yamoto had hit him, but not killed him and he needed to be dead. Stone cold dead.

I looked at the other alien, more embarrassed than afraid for Linnet. They did not seem to notice as Linnet, emptying blood everywhere, beginning to visibly deflate, leaned in to me. “Nothing was on the stone, only our dreams spoke about it, like Oracles or Sibyls, divining, where to recite was to conceal, to reveal the truth of a prophecy was to forget it. Can you even understand or know this in your heart? If I could open my heart straight to yours, straight though the blood, if our open veins mingled at wrists clasped tight could impart the secret in my blood into yours, even then, would you ever believe, or can this only be invoked as a fiction, a species of lie, a taxonomy which reduces as it explicates, frames what is too obscene to be known? Through the betrayal of my very words, though the faulty medium before you, the mockery of narrative, my thoughts erase themselves in the telling and nothing guarantees belief. I am without even the trace of faith.”

He sagged as he deflated, leaving him limp and loose. Leaning, he began to fall forward. I pushed up through him, choking on smoke and the stifling heat. He whirled into smoke and shimmering heat. I was half standing, the ceiling close. I put my hand on the alien I thought was the one I had met in my hotel room.

“Tell me. I want to know.” I couldn’t speak more clearly. The heat made me stagger again to the floor. There was no blood, no limp flesh, nothing of Linnet left at all.

The alien half-turned, motioned at something. It wasn’t the exit. But it was a small hole in the wall, at the bottom, not big enough for a mouse. (Do they have mice here?) But I could see a clear light coming from it.

“What? That?”

The alien motioned again with one of its short, furred arms, jabbing at the hole with one claw. I crawled toward the hole. I could not fit through but before I knew what had happened I was crawling through easily and out into the cool and stillness of the moon’s surface.

I stood and began to walk across the moonscape, everything bathed in red. I arrived at a veil of darkness, the dark side of the moon. I stopped. I could see a clear light a far way off in the darkness, another fire, but brighter than the one in the alien’s building. I walked into the darkness, shuffling my feet in the moondust so as not to fall over any hidden rocks in the gloom. I put my hands out before me into nothing. I walked for a long time before arriving at the fire.

An old man, not an alien, sat at the fire, tending it with a stick. He glanced up at me as I arrived. I held my hands out to the warmth.

“They sent me,” I said, motioning over my shoulder. I wasn’t sure how to begin.

The man nodded.

“What can you tell me?”

He motioned at the fire and up into the smoke rising. I looked, unsure. The smoke of the fire seemed to take the shape of winding steps.

“There?” I said.

The old man nodded. I hopped up above the fire, scrambling up the steps away from the heat. I grabbed handfuls of smoke and pulled. The rising smoke led me up fast, like running up an escalator. I rose in the darkness, slowly spinning into the stars. I arrived at a hole in the sky where the smoke escaped and, crawling though, found another old man lying on his side by a smoldering fire built atop the dome of night. His breathing was labored. He coughed and shivered. He motioned me to him. I leaned in.

“I am dead yet,” he said.

I shook my head. That didn’t make sense.

He motioned with his head the way I was to go. I walked along the dome of the sky itself until I saw another fire, bigger than the others. I found a baby playing in the fire. Inside the fire. He smiled at me. The flames seemed to come out of him, his skin blackening and renewing as I watched. I knelt beside the fire, coming as close as I dared.

“You have met my brothers,” he said, laughing. “I am eldest of all.”

I nodded. “I want to know.”

“I have nothing to tell you,” he said.

Then abruptly I fell out of the sky.

I awoke in the motel room. Moonlight fell through the window and across the floor. The stone sat on the table. My body was drenched in cold sweat. I swung my legs out and sat, my arms holding me up. I felt like I had come up for air after too long underwater. A sweet smell lingered. I jumped up and lurched across the room to the stone. It didn’t have a mark on it. I rolled it over in my hands, feeling its smoothness.

If you want the stone, I have taken it beyond the Fair to the edge of the ocean and tossed it in.

There’s nothing there for you anymore anyway. I leave you these words instead as a substitute—this story, written in ashes and moondust.

Walking through the crowds, garishly lit by the amusement rides, I was struck by the strangeness of them all. Every one of them a mystery, they raise their faces to the light and smile. Their eyes flicker as they run their gaze over everything like fingers, clutching everything; they race from ride to ride; the rides leap out or drop suddenly into the wide air.

They seemed wrong, like people in an old movie set in a future that never came to pass. Everything seems the same, but indefinably different, the kinds of differences that over thirty or fifty years will become apparent to the future but now are felt more than known. Like but unlike. Perhaps I have traveled in time, sideways in time.

If the alien had never come again, I would have joined the crowds at the fair, walking amongst them until, bumping into them, turning about them, laughing with them, seeing less clearly again, and then nothing at all, I would have vanished into them, into their ignorance, into thin air and smoke and flashing light

Or, perhaps I should have jumped in the ocean after the stone and swum straight down until I touched the bottom of the sea. Nothing less would do.

But I did neither.

I threw the stone out into the sea, shuffled home and collapsed into bed in a fever of the unreal and the absurd that is everything just as it is.

When I awoke, my fever broken, the alien stood by the window, back to me, watching the lights and the people again. I slipped out of my broken-down bed and walked up beside it. My clothes were stiff with dried sweat and I smelled terrible, even to myself. I don’t think the alien minded, though.

“What are they doing?” the alien asked.

He spoke perfect unaccented West Coast American English. I pretended to not be surprised. The people on the roller coaster screamed. I did not.

So he hadn’t spoken until now. What of it?

“Well,” I said. “Having fun.”

The alien half-turned to me. It nodded. I could see its liquid black eyes shining in the glare of the neon lights, behind its bird-nosed mask.

“I want to know the lines on the stone. The old men didn’t say what they meant.”

The alien began to sing, its voice high and strained as before. It looked up at the ceiling and rocked to an unheard beat. When it finished it translated for me:

Walk with light emerging.
Walk with your shadow inside you.
Walk in the numinous dark.
Walk with the stars in your hands.

Blessings are the dawn,
The noon, the twilight.
Memory of other worlds
Shines in the sky.

Scatter the stars to the wind
To light your way before you.
Walk with your shadow inside you.
Walk in the numinous dark.

I smiled, nodded at the alien. A poem then, I guess. Or something else, a ritual, who can tell?
“That was something,” I said, pleased though not enlightened. I didn’t know what else to say.

I stood by it at the window. It had resumed looking at the Ferris wheel, its paws behind its back, rocking gently. Its poem whirled in my head, like the smoke, like the Ferris wheel turning, like words always do, something in them already taking up a place inside me, nesting. It was a gift I had been given. I wanted to do something in return, a fair exchange.

Maybe all there is in the end anyway is exchange, for whatever it’s worth, though it may be worth nothing. Maybe especially if it is worth nothing. We can never know anything, finally, but we can give and we can take, a ceaseless exchange, an interchange of things.

I know the police might be waiting for me somewhere outside if we went out and caused a scene. But it didn’t matter if they caught me anymore. I had a feeling they would never catch me.

Some things you have to do or to see for yourself to believe, to understand. I wonder if the bear exists outside of my own mind? I decided I would test the theory. When I took it out there, maybe the crowds wouldn’t see it, or would see something else, something they could handle, a metaphor of some kind, a place holder. Maybe just another person walking along, seeming normal, another mask. I don’t know. Maybe the aliens have long walked among us, and we have always been unable to see them. But for me to see the bear in the red car of the Ferris wheel, circling as cheap organ music played, short bear legs dangling, its paws clutching the guard rail, its face mask wide open as it looked in wonder on the yellow and green neon lights and the people screaming as the roller coaster fell, wouldn’t that be something, too? Wouldn’t that be a fair trade for the poem, for everything? A coda? An epitaph? An end?

“You want a closer look?” I said, motioning toward the Fair. The people on the coaster screamed. “You want to go for a ride?”

The alien nodded. We exited by the door this time.

David is a writer and scholar of fantastika and the weird. David is a member of SFWA and the HWA. David’s recent novelette, Mingus Fingers (Fairwood), co-written with Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications, is a fantasy about Jazz and magic that got strong reviews from F&SF (“one of those rare stories that got everything right”) and Locus Online (“a wonderful accomplishment”).  David has had stories and poems in Asimov’s, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, and many other magazines, and anthologies including The HWA Poetry Showcase, Mike Ashley’s Mammoth Book of Sorcerers’, Ellen Datlow’s Tails of Wonder and Imagination, W.P. Kinsella’s Baseball Fantastic, and many others.  

Recent scholarship includes “Rambles in the Fantastic: Digital Mapping Mary Shelley’s Last Man” from Space(s) of the Fantastic: A 21st Century Manifesto (Routledge, 2020), the creation of an academic database of works influenced by Frankenstein, The Frankenstein Meme, see, curating an Exhibit called Zines to the Future!, exploring the history of sf zines back to 1930s, developed with a grant from California Humanities, and an edited collection, Philip K. Dick: Essays of the Here and Now (2020), which Fortean Times called “an important book about an important writer.” David chaired a recent Philip K. Dick Conference, and has written other scholarly books and numerous essays on genre.

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