A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs, by Nicole Cushing

(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Juliana Quartaroli.  Story illustration by Mike Dominic.)

ONLY THE MOST DESPERATE AMONG US feel a tug toward the Time Altar. Fewer still embark on the journey to find it. The outcome is too uncertain. You could end up with exactly what you want, or you could end up with the opposite. Only the Beast, Oblivion decides what you get. All you can do is figure out what It’s hungry for, and try to be that.  To render yourself acceptable for sacrifice, follow these suggested steps.

First, you must either shun or be shunned by your family for a period of no less than five years. Relationships are like clouds that obscure, roil and churn, suggesting picture after picture to our pattern-seeking heads. To be touched by Oblivion, you must trust no one. You must be immune to  seeing things in the clouds that aren’t there.

A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs – illustration by Mike Dominic

Next, follow Interstate 65 to the Rust Belt town of Verderben, Indiana.  Take in the local color. You’ll see one of the region’s many abandoned factories just off of Spring Street. It’s now put to use as a Halloween spook house, open only a few weeks in October. The garishly painted hearse lingers in the parking lot year-round, though.

You’ll smell raw sewage from the treatment plant. You’ll drive on crumbling roads, over rusty railroad tracks. You’ll dodge a handful of bleary-eyed addicts trudging across the four lane highway in no particular hurry. You’ll fear that they might even throw themselves underneath your car. Don’t. This particular gaggle of humanity hungers for nothing but the next fix. They’re merely meandering from their residence on one side of 10th to that of their dealer on the other.

Keep driving straight. Observe the payday loan establishments, churches, and whore-house motels by the roadside.  All three of these temptations cater to your needs in the crassest, most incompetent manner. Signs outside these establishments suffer from misspellings, superfluous quotation marks, and misplaced apostrophes. The relief they offer is ephemeral. Just like pictures in the clouds – commit that to memory: just like pictures in the clouds.

You’ll continue to drive north until you pass another abandoned industrial site on your right. Unlike the haunted house downtown, this one goes on for hundreds of acres. It’s an abandoned power plant. Rows of tall, blighted buildings infect the otherwise-empty landscape. All the paint has peeled off, revealing bare cinder block. Windows have broken. Cement has cracked. A half-dozen smokestacks poke out of the ground like the fingers of a dead, deformed giant rising from a shallow grave.

Continue on the road for seven miles. You’ll pass Fluvia. This hamlet’s largest business is the methadone clinic. Rumor has it the proprietors aren’t as strict those who run a similar venture across the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. During the work week, the parking lot exceeds capacity and junkies pull up onto the side of the road, just past the clinic. There’s a farm there. They grow feed corn. Sometimes in the autumn, the edges of withered stalks graze the junkies’ cars.

To find the Time Altar, you must look for it during the work week. This means that you must neglect your job. Employment is just another social tie that must be broken for Oblivion to find you acceptable. Employment may be even more insidious than family, as a bond that promotes a pro-Something point of view. It’s a bait and switch. You think you’re signing up to provide labor in exchange for money, so you can eat and drink and wear clothes. They don’t tell you that in the process, you’re asked to at least grudgingly go through the motions of agreeing with a mission statement (no matter how ill-conceived – and they’re all ill-conceived). They don’t tell you that when you take a job, you become a part of a vast, inter-connected matrix of meaning that insists first quarter goals are real (just like the child insists there really is a face in the clouds).

To find the Time Altar you must drive further north, to Fluvia State Park. You must go there during the off season. Preferably a day in late November when the sky is gray – when the clouds huddle together in one dark, inescapable mass so solid and unceasing that the imagination can’t conjure pictures out of it. Around this time of year, the grass turns a straw-like shade of brown. The brown ground and the gray sky are like the jaws of a vise and each day is like the whirring of a lever bringing them closer together.

You’ll find the booth at the entrance of the park abandoned in the off-season. Admission is free. So you’ll drive on through. It takes longer than you think to get to Trail 3, and by this time in your trip your anticipation will be great. Many a pilgrim has experienced tachycardia once they realized they were so close.

You’ll find few cars (if any) in the parking lot. You’ll find the trail inordinately steep. First descending, then ascending, in a zig-zag through leafless trees. If you’re over thirty-five (as, let’s face it, almost all pilgrims are) your knees will hurt. No pain, no gain.

You’ll arrive at a clearing. You’ll see a bridge. Walk across it.

On the other end, you’ll see a small historical marker telling you you’ve crossed over to a place called Rose Island. Note that there are no roses in the immediate vicinity. Read the marker. Note the photographs printed onto it. Note the black-and-white photos of tourists in a swimming pool – the men in early twentieth century leotard-like bathing suits; note how the ladder used to go in and out of the pool was constructed with what looks like thick plumbing pipes, curved outward at the end. Note the steamboats chugging up to the hotel. Note a map indicating that there once was a carousel, a café, a picnic ground where churches held feasts away from the summer heat of Louisville. Note how few photos remain. Note how even those extant are blurry with the motion of giddy toddlers who are now broken-hipped old ladies (or corpses). Note that there’s a certain out-of-focus quality to the photos that makes all the subjects appear misshapen.

Read how The Great Flood of ’37 wiped it all away; how all the mares of the merry-go-round were submerged under the weight of the Ohio and all the muck and branches that came with it. Consider how all the rugs and walls and food must have become sopping wet and ruined.

Walk onto Rose Island. Take off your clothes. Clothes are like families, like jobs. There is the pretension of Something-ness to them which would be sacrilege at the Time Altar. Feel the sting of the wind on your bare flesh. Walk, wincing as the rocks and sticks all over the brown ground jut themselves upward to torture your feet.

Take the path and you’ll begin to see the ruins of the amusement park. Crumbled foundations, now covered with moss. Fractured fragments of wood, painted yellow, stick out of the ground like rotten teeth. They’re what’s left of booths that sold ice cream and lollipops.

Follow the path to the left. Keep walking and you’ll find what remains of the swimming pool. Note the filthy water, crusted over with scum. When the wind blows over the surface, it looks like a flexing muscle covered in green-black skin. Note how the ladder down into the pool is constructed of thick, rounded pipes – just like the photo at the entrance.

Further down the path, you’ll see a slab of limestone, some one hundred feet high, erupting out of the forest floor. Locals call it the Devil’s Backbone, but its actual name is the Time Altar. The park hasn’t carved a path up to this formation. You must leave the trail to access it. It slopes ground-ward on one side, and that’s where I recommend you make your ascent. The going is still steep. You may tumble and break your neck right there (and never even have the chance to meet Oblivion). Then the joke, as they say, would be on you.

Note the denser-than-expected vegetation at the top. In days of old when the Altar was venerated as such, this wouldn’t have been the case. There would have been ritual space – a stone circle atop the stone Altar, which would have foretold the days and the times Oblivion rose out of Its sinkhole to feast. We, the pilgrims of the present day, have no such advantage.

We must walk atop the Altar until we find a clearing. (The vegetation doesn’t stop until one approaches the edge of the formation.) If you fear heights, I suggest you cast your glance at the limestone at your feet (and not over the cliff, at the resort ruins). In any case, really, you should bow your head in submission to Oblivion. You should prostrate yourself before the Eater of Time.

Everything written so far is more-or-less commonly accepted by the coterie of pilgrims. This is what all of us who feel called to Oblivion agree on. This is the point all of us have direct experience with.

From here on out, though, there is room for debate. Some of us feel that it’s helpful to ruminate on the stretch of time in our lives we want Oblivion to consume. There’s a theory that It feeds only on passages of time that were particularly eventful, upsetting, or uplifting. There’s a theory that thinking about these times, with great focus, tells Oblivion that we are worthy, that our past is peppered with enough trauma to render it tasty enough to feast on.

Most of us who want our time-aspect consumed do it to escape a particularly bruising past. We are those who were molested and didn’t dare tell; those who lost wives to cancer, sisters to prison, brothers to fundamentalism, jobs to China. Allowing such memories free reign amounts to masochism,  but what are we to do? We need to let Oblivion experience what our past was like – at least from our own, limited, human perspective – if It is to deign to feed on us.

The goal, you see, for many of us (including, as you may have guessed, yours truly) is to achieve a degree of amnesia so severe that one can never snap out of it. Many of the addicts on 10th Street employ drugs to reach a similar effect. That approach works for some, but runs into the inevitable limitation of expense. There are the risks of violence attendant to the advanced junkie’s pursuit of forgetting. There’s the fact that over time, you’ll always need more to get the same effect. The methadone clinic is for those who seek to ween themselves off heroin or Oxycodone. A.A. is for those nabbed too many times for DUI. The Time Altar is for those of us who have been there, done that, and can’t bear it any longer.

It’s a symbiotic relationship – we need to lose our pasts and Oblivion needs to eat time.

There are stories from the 1950s – long after the flood waters receded – of passing boaters spotting feral, naked men roaming Rose Island. Successful pilgrims, these old wives tales say – traumatized vets of Normandy and Bataan who had so much of their past consumed that they lost their capacity for language. Ultimate ignorance, ultimate bliss.

It’s rumored that Oblivion sometimes decides to eat aspects of time besides the past. “What if you go there wanting to forget the past,” a gadfly might say, “and the Old Beast decides It wants your future instead, leaving you with nothing but the past and the present, condemning you to relive past problems over and over? Then what?” It’s rumored that Oblivion can create demigods by removing a sacrifice’s time-aspect, altogether. Some say time’s just a cocoon we’re wrapped up in while our species is still young and Oblivion is only there to free us from its confines, so that we might actually experience dimensions previously undreamed of.

Much conjecture, no proof. There are scoffers who’ve heard of our little sect through the internet who say that we of the Cult of Amnesia are victims of a mass delusion; swept along the wave of a communal bad acid trip. “How do you even know Oblivion exists?” they say. “Have you seen It? Has anyone seen It?”

When I prostrate myself on the Altar, I dare not look over my shoulder at the sinkhole Oblivion is said to call home. None of us are worthy of such a sight. Once, though, after several hours of resting with my cheek against the limestone, I felt something expansive and undulating place Itself between me and the weak November sun. I dared not lift my head. Of course, I dared  not lift my head. There’s no reason to believe the specks of crude, mammalian jelly in my orbs would be up to the task of glimpsing the Time-Eater, Itself. But I couldn’t help but dart my vision over the limestone, spying what fragments I could of Its writhing, tesseract-like silhouettes. Shapes bubbled through the air behind me like boiling water, substantial – broken – reconstituted – twisted; casting shadows engulfed in themselves. Some might say these were multiple phenomena, but my pattern-seeking head knows they were merely parts of a greater, extra-dimensional whole (of which there was vastly more than I could see).

That’s how I would sum it up: there is more, vastly more of It than there ever will be of us; greater Somethingness in Oblivion than in sunlight and sin, than in mission statements, heroin, factories, and farms – than in all the sublime trash of our world, piled together.

As is obvious from the fact that I’m writing this catechism, the Time-Eater didn’t feed on me that day. It instead lingered uncomfortably long, then let out a noise like a whinnying toad. I know it’s blasphemous to anthropomorphize Oblivion, but I’ll confess to you this: I think It was laughing.

If it really did feast on the pasts of World War II vets in the ’50s, then my own past will never measure up. While the troubles of my life are enough to plague my sleep with nightmares, they may be too mundane to prove appetizing. If that’s the case, the passage of time’s my only hope. Maybe It will grow hungry enough in future years to lower Its standards. Or perhaps more interesting traumas await me; and these will render me more palatable.

In any case, I will never stop trying. I will go to the Time Altar Monday through Friday, in autumn and winter. If you come to offer yourself, be forewarned I’ll have gotten there first. I’ll have already prostrated on the choicest spot of limestone. I am, I believe, the most desperate of all desperate men. Too broken to be made whole, too timid for suicide. I will wait for It to show. I will tolerate Its contempt. I will pray for the passing of my past.

END

“Amnesia may well be the highest sacrament in the great gray ritual of existence.”
Thomas Ligotti, “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land”

Nicole Cushing’s fiction has previously appeared alongside stories by Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin in the anthology Werewolves and Shape Shifters:  Encounters with the Beast Within.  Cemetery Dance published one of her stories in its Richard Laymon tribute anthology, In Laymon’s Terms.  Later this year, audio adaptations of her work will be featured on episodes of Pseudopod and Cast Macabre.

Nicole runs a speculative fiction blog, Laughing at the Abyss (www.nicolecushing.com).  She invites correspondence via Facebook, Twitter, or (if one must be old-fashioned about it) email at nicolecushingwriter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Story illustration by Mike Dominic.

If you enjoyed this story, let Nicole know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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28 responses to “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs, by Nicole Cushing

  1. I absolutely LOVE this story. What a fascinating take on the human condition. I would beg Oblivion to take parts of my past for itself. I would be friendly to it, bowing, mollifying, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, again and again, whatever it took. Amnesia, yes. If only.

  2. I love the imagery in this tale , the vivid sense of desolation. Really well-paced as well , making you want to reach oblivion . Really good writing.

  3. There’s an excellent, desolate sense of place to this, and I’m left to wonder whether the narrator would take any steps to increase his trauma just to maximize the odds of losing it all.

  4. Wow, quite a distinguished scribe to have on the eZine! I also found it neat to have an accompanying illlustation. I enjoyed the “2nd-person” narration used for much of the story.

  5. Lovely piece. Not my usual more aspirational fare but for the few minutes I read this piece I was totally immersed, a combination of creating a wonderful sense of place and of subtly letting me into the mind of the pilgrim. And it also confirmed my experience that in the midst of a massively growing population and sprawl that there are many many places mysterious and unknown just up the road a piece.

  6. There is an unexpected touch of humanity to the cultist in this, providing an answer to that over-asked question of why anyone would willingly worship such destructive entities, ouside of insane quests for power. The lack of supernatural effects, coupled with the bleak details of the mundane, wonderfully illustrate this world of desperation.

    I do wonder, though, that the cloud imagery should be given such suggested importance in the early parts of the tale. While this conjured thoughts of Yog-Sothoth in my own head, I couldn’t help feeling this idea was misplaced in the world of the cult of amnesia, and I am left to ponder why the narrator felt this imagery was so crucial.

    Thanks for writing this. It made me smile that cold yet sincere smile of knowing something not meant to be known.

  7. I started off enjoying this piece for it’s sort of ‘travel guide’ to oblivion style, and was amused while saddened by the desperate details of how some people just NEED to forget.

    Couldn’t help but think of Yog-Sothoth throughout this tale. The reference to the time eater, and the small description, “…Shapes bubbled through the air behind me like boiling water, substantial – broken – reconstituted – twisted;…”

    I really liked this one. Thanks Nicole!

  8. In some ways Nicole reminded me a little bit of N. G’s American Gods. That is a compliment. I have been near the location of the story (25 years ago) but the rust belt description rang true. The ambiguity of the story works very well.

  9. This is an outstanding story, Nicole. Some of the imagery (that bridge!) is simply stunning, and the style, the narrative voice, is unique. It captured my imagination from the first and held me, entranced, throughout. Superb!

  10. Wow. Very evocative. I love the fact that the Narrator compares himself to the war veterans and talks about what drives people to the altar, but never divulges the parts of his past he’s trying to get Oblivion to consume. Really nicely done.

  11. I had the same thought as Jenne Kaivo–that, quixotically, one might find oneself trying to live a life more worthy of Oblivion in hopes of drawing its attention; that would be the point at which Oblivion ceased to be a means to an end and became an end in itself. Has our narrator reached that point? I’m not sure. Spending your whole weeek huddling before the altar is a lousy life, but not really Oblivion-worthy. That may be the true horror; that the narrator is going about it all wrong.

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  13. I only have one word for this story: Powerful. She describes everything on Rose Island, than the flood, and it was like getting hit in the face with a brick. Such profound sadness and desperation. I’m about to cry! Well done!

  14. It’s hard to convey the allure of the dark. Horror is a much easier effect to achieve. This story succeeds brilliantly: there can’t be many people who reach their middle years without something they would prefer to forget. It’s also beautifully written with vivid imagery and a strong sense of place.

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  16. This is an outstanding work. Who among us wouldn’t, given the opportunity, gladly pledge some aspect of our past to Oblivion? It’s such a seductive idea, isn’t it?

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  21. Dear Nicole. Being of sounder mind, today, I’d like to elucidate on my previous far-too-laconic comment.
    What I meant is that is a long, long time since I came across a story of such high calibre. Not only the writing is superb but also the theme and the treatment of it. The atmosphere gets well under one’s skin.
    I will definitely be looking for some more of your stuff. I need it!

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