(Story illustration by Galen Dara.)
IF YOUR VOICE emerges from a playback device – mechanical or digital – do you recognize it at once? The time may come when you have spent so many hours obsessively recording your voice and playing it back to try and fathom the precise timbre of your tone, the drift of your vowels, the crash of your consonants, the provenance of your accent and the frequency of your slurs and stutters and maggots, when you are so inured to the sound of your own recorded voice that you can listen to it neutrally, neither cringing not preening. At that point questions might arise. Whose voice is that? Who am I, sitting here, listening to it? And when you begin to speak in that voice, you may never be entirely certain that it really was your own voice all along, even before you spent all that time listening to all those recordings.
My own sense of self, once as firmly-rooted as any, had suffered a series of shocks in the summer of __82. As a consequence, I had decided to procure a range of technological equipment to aid me in an attempt to piece together my own selfhood. My ego hunting kit. Picture an ordinary backpack, medium-sized, of some synthetic material dyed a deep blue and festooned with the logos of some well-known sporting organization. Open it, and find within: an inexpensive digital camera. A handheld recorder. A video camera with tripod. A plaster-cast making kit. A notebook and several ballpoint pens. A syringe for extracting blood samples, and vials for storing them. And various other devices and tools.
With these, I spent many industrious hours making records of various aspects of my being, internal and external, and many more hours engrossed in the perusal of these records. Much of what I absorbed was predictable, mundane. I was not searching for fascination; I had no interest in replacing my self-alienation with narcissism. I wanted to feel a spark of recognition. That was all.
You must not imagine that I am some privileged sybarite, languorously chronicling my cosseted self in an Esseintian retreat. Here is what I find when I probe my remaining memory-banks: my family is prosperous, but I am the product of a branch that has failed to prosper. My father, dissolute old man, has run through his share of the estate floating a dozen ill-starred business ventures. Worse, after my mother’s premature death, he married hastily and poorly, during one of his flush phases. His second wife has so estranged my father’s affections from me that I am forced to live in humble lodgings in a grim, commercial city, very far removed from the pleasant plantation where I began my life. I have some minor verbal ability but no real talent or drive, so I work as a proofreader for an academic publisher. It is steady, stupefying and meagerly-paid work, but I am incapable of searching for any other after a decade and a half spent squinting at rows of text, thinking of nothing beyond the moment.
For months after my cataclysm I pursued my quest to re-integrate my selfhood in my free time, in the evenings, on weekdays and on holidays. I did not have an extensive social life, and what little there was of it had been torn asunder during the course of the incidents that had brought me to this pass. Sometimes I decided it was no longer worth my time trying to recapture a lost soul, for surely that was what I was trying to do. No matter what had been lost, it was senseless to waste the rest of my life on a futile quest to recover it. The days stretched before me, identical and empty and I threw myself into them, working overtime, spending hours aimlessly strolling through the city I lived in, gazing thoughtlessly at the grey skies and pondering the sound of crickets.
At such times, I would sometimes wander into neighborhoods that seemed completely deserted although surely that is an impossibility in a densely populated city like this, trapped between mountains and sea, forced to grow upwards and inwards, to stratify upon itself like a scab. When I entered these spaces, the emptiness within was not dulled so much as overridden for the moment by a cold, thrilling sense of total unease. I cannot explain why this was pleasurable except to suggest that this unease, unlike anything else in my dull, changeless days, hinted that there was still potential for the unexpected, however dark and senseless.
More often though, I would move amongst the dazed, lurching crowds of people on their way to and from work, home, escape, refuge, shelter, peril, perfidy, oblivion. Most people had troubled eyes and shadows lurking in their stare, but they seemed to be themselves, even the ones that seemed most uncomfortable in their skins. Even in the junkies, the drunks, the mentally ill or the physically destroyed, there was this sense of immanence, this sense that an identity of some kind, however scattered or tainted inhered within this shell. I could tell the difference by gazing into my reflection in any passing shop-front or car window, glancing sidelong into my emptied eyes and knowing that even the lowest of these had within them something that I had lost, or had never found and taken.
Back home I would proceed with my repetitive, desperate self-searching, sampling, tweezing, pricking, picking, scraping, tracing, photographing and recording. I would construct assemblages that seemed, momentarily, to have a sense of integrity, wholeness. But then I would step back and try absorbing that precious spark to see it splutter out, leaving the same acrid whiff of alienation that tainted every breath I took.
‘You bite into an apple and find a worm in it. You throw the apple away.
But what if the worm could make itself look like part of the apple?
What if the worm could make itself look like the apple?
What if the worm could make itself look like many apples, like an apple orchard, like a man walking through the orchard, plucking an apple, biting into it, finding a worm, discarding the apple?
What if it’s worms all the way down?’
One day, after another failure, I flung everything away from me in rage, then gathered it all up in a duffel bag, as much of it as I could. My latest ego assemblage, my latest attempt at capturing the spirit that had fled from within. I stuffed it all into that canvas bag, strapped the bag across my back and headed out. I walked heedless of the heat and crowds around me until finally I reached a place where it was cold and empty, where the familiar sense of dread potential somewhat obscured the seething within. Here I sat down on a defunct railway embankment, overgrown with weeds and strewn with wind-tossed litter and opened my bag. I gazed at the contents for a moment in rueful scorn and then began throwing them onto the piles of refuse that burgeoned in this place.
‘Relics, are they? Some sort of shrine?’
The voice was a little over-loud, a little startled at itself, as if not used to being heard out loud. I looked around me, startled. Then I saw him. Or her. I’m still not sure; suffice it to say the person speaking to me was a small, slight figure of indeterminate age and gender, wrapped in a motley assemblage of filthy rags, bits of plastic bags and soiled upholstery from long-abandoned furniture. This person had wrapped a remarkable turban composed of police tape, coils of obsolete cabling and more filthy rags around his or her head and inhaled foul-smelling smoke from a makeshift pipe created from plastic tubing.
‘A shrine?’ I asked.
‘Yes, a shrine,’ the strange person replied, hunching over to pick up a sheaf of photographs and quickly compare them with me before squirreling them away somewhere inside its garments. ‘A shrine to yourself? To the self? To the idea of a self?’ With each question, it came nearer to me, fairly enveloping me in waves of rank, salty odour. There was another odour here, too; a sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh.
‘Yes, to the idea of a self…’ I replied, gasping at the stench, at both the stenches and stepping back a pace or two. ‘A failed idea,’ I added, as I proceeded to complete emptying my bag. The creature nodded and looked intently at my discards, stooping to retrieve the occasional item of interest. I glanced around me, looking for the source of that smell of decay. Surely it was some sort of offal, some refuse from a butcher’s shop?
‘Hmm, yes, yes…I see. Quite,’ said the creature. After a moment, it backed away from me to a relatively clear patch where it squatted down on its haunches to examine its new acquisitions. It started humming intently to itself, a one-up, one-down constant sing-song of pleased concentration. Lines of saliva began to track down from its mouth across its chin. I looked down again, still curious about the origin of the other smell. Then I saw them. Those forms, lying amidst the debris. What I’d thought were rags covering them was actually a thick layer of worms, crawling. I moved closer, and then was repulsed by the smell and also by the shape and size of those forms. It was impossible…
I turned around walking away from the embankment. Just as I was about to round a corner, the creature called out to me. ‘Your idea is good. But you can’t just build a new self from your own self, whatever that may be.’ I turned back and tried to get the creature to tell me what it meant, but by now it had wrapped its voluminous rags around it like a sort of cocoon and refused to respond. As I finally left that place, I thought I heard a voice whisper, ‘You need more raw materials.’ But I might have been wrong; in any case, I no longer had any wish to linger there.
The very next day at work, standing around in the canteen during a coffee break, on the edge of a social grouping and gazing at a co-worker whose lively smile and glossy hair I had long admired, even envied, I realized what the creature had meant. We are products of many selves, of many particles of many selves. Father’s eyes, mother’s smile, granduncle J.’s sense of humour, favourite cinematic stars’ stances, walks, camera angles (even though no camera other than the cyclopean stares of ever-present surveillance chronicle the bulk of most of our lives), preferred popular songsters’ dress sense, but also more subtle, the polite smile learned from a classmate we were never actually friends with, the specific tone of voice to convey tenderness learned from a young lover observed only once charming his chosen damsel while seated in a bus stand, the precise sigh of satisfaction after a really good omelet imagined from the look of contentment on a balding background figure in a detailed cafe scene in a Belgian comic read in translation.
We are all hybrid self-assemblages, built up through love, genetics, habituation, envy, hatred, curiosity, admiration and fear. I had been trying to piece together something in hermetic isolation, something unnatural and freakish. No wonder I had failed. Now, I studied my charming co-worker with new intentness, more intention. That smile, the way it crinkled the cheeks into dimples. An engaging smile. The hair helped too; an impression of health, of attractiveness, of good grooming and a sense of style. Desirable characteristics: no one wants to waste coffee break with some hangdog loser, dandruff on the shoulders of his bedraggled sweater, glum scowl on his pasty face.
I spent the next few days taking furtive photographs and making secret recordings of office chat. I started to cast my net further afield, taking snapshots of interesting passers-by on the streets, buying illustrated magazines and clipping out pictures that caught my attention. Soon, I combined these with my self-documentation into a new mixed assemblage. I spent a weekend studying this assemblage, genuflecting before it, praying to some unspecified source of dispensation that I might begin the new week imbued with qualities that would make me feel whole again. Again and again I studied my little video clips, pausing, replaying, pausing; time after time I pored over my collages of telling details culled from dozens of snapshots, letting the details tell me who I was to be; over and over I listened to my library of choice soundclips, allowing tone and timbre to sink into the tissues of my throat.
The next day, I walked straight to work without any of those detours into empty zones of menace which I had begun to make a habit of. Solitary unease would be replaced by a more heady, wholesome thrill today; there was still a part of me that felt a certain dissociated unrest, but I was determined that the spark of identity that I had coaxed over the weekend would be put to the test today.
At the gates to the office tower in which my own workplace was situated, I paused in my new, dynamic stride to flash a casual, dazzling time-of-day smile at the security guard. ‘Good morning,’ I called out to him as I strode past. ‘Good morning, sir,’ rang out the reply as I approached the lifts. I was early for work; the only other people riding the lift with me were a middle-aged woman and the lift attendant. I called out my floor to the attendant and then nodded to the woman. ‘Good morning,’ I said to her. She glanced at me, startled, and then smiled and returned the greeting. She got off two floors before me.
At my own office, I surprised the receptionist, a surly single mother frequently took breaks to visit the daycare centre in the same building where she deposited her offspring during work hours, with a cheerful, brisk greeting. My coworkers and manager were greeted similarly as they filed in over the course of the next forty minutes. The days that followed were a success – people seemed to respond well to my new persona, and I was increasingly convinced that I too had responded well to it. The climax of my new selfhood was to be an office party, to be held on Friday of that week. In the past, I had always avoided such gatherings, both before and after my crises. But I had decided that that my new path would be a different one, away from the colder, more ethereal climes I had previously favoured and into the day-lit warmth of normality.
I left work early that day, to have time to prepare. I laid out my very latest and hopefully greatest assemblage all around my living room. I had set up two television screens, each playing a different sequence of videos while an assortment of recorded sound clips and music played on my stereo. Collages, vials containing various samples and a few locks of hair formed an intricate arrangement right in the centre of the room. Naked, I walked around the room, dancing, miming, crawling, striding, calling, crying, laughing, talking. Until, finally I had it all down pat, the whole repertoire of sounds, gestures, secretions and subliminal suggestions that would add up to my most idealized self yet. Finally, I bathed, put on a smart but sober outfit and headed towards what I heartily anticipated would be my apotheosis.
‘Imagine a single, primal impulse powering all of this.
A chain reaction resulting in all these myriad forms of life in their multifarious environments.
A wave, rising, cresting and then falling away.
Imagine that one reality wave has peaked. Throw away the analogy, and imagine another impulse, beaming out from a very different source.
It hits the dominant reality. It shapes itself to survive in this highly organised system.
It becomes, outwardly, part of the system.
But it is not.
It is something else entirely.
Something that has seen an emergent void and has decided to fill that void.
It shapes itself to the forms that once filled the void. It seems as if nothing has changed.
Everything has changed.’
Of course it worked.
I was a stellar success, the life of the party. I dazzled with repartee, blinded with aphorisms, illuminated with catchphrases, destroyed with invective, rollicked with punchlines. It was a heady night, and more than once I caught the eye of an attractive member of the opposite sex or member of the management looking at me appraisingly, and approvingly. I had almost made up my mind to organize some sort of liaison with one of the former and perhaps to forge the beginnings of a closer association with several of the latter, when the headache began.
At first, just a slight twinge, a brief glissando on my nerves when I turned my head too fast or when the background music hit an especially high frequency. Then, a steady, dull ostinato throb shading into a piercing vibrato of fiery agony. At last, everything weaving together, a fugue of pain. New combinations: fugue and variations. My eyes watering, my hands beginning to shake, I acted out the old journalistic cliché; made an excuse and left. The orchestra of pain in my head was in full stride now, working its way inexorably from one nerve-shattering crescendo to another. Hunched over, clutching my head, moaning, even drooling a little, I lurched through the nocturnal city aware of nothing but the pain. Constellations of sharp-edged stars in garish hues floated before my eyes, spinning across a vast, dark background in which blue and black serpents writhed, entwined in a langorous battle to the death. Something collided with me and I fell against a hard surface, hard enough that I cut my lip; taste of blood in my mouth, a smaller, stinging pain adding its voice to the excruciating chorus. I thought I heard distant voices, pitchshifted into booming basses and keening sopranos, echoing through the plangent suffering.
Finally, I came to a place where a cold, silent watchfulness pushed the pain into the background, at least a little bit. My vision clearing up, I sighted the embankment where I had discarded that old, failed assemblage. I groped about for a clear spot amidst the rubble and sat down, still shaking a little. I wiped the spittle and blood from my chin with the back of a hand. In a while, the pain faded away entirely, but I was left completely exhausted, all strength and spirit drained from me. I felt limbless, boneless, ready to collapse into a formless cellular soup.
‘It doesn’t work with just pictures’. A tall, slender figure of indeterminate gender, with fine, narrow features and penetrating eyes approached me. Only the motley collection of rags clothing the figure pointed at some connection with my previous interlocutor in this place. The figure moved closer to me. It was bizarre, seedy but also somehow pleasing, even comforting. I moved vaguely towards it. The creature stretched an arm towards me. A pale, long-fingered hand with yellow, chipped nails clasped my chin.
‘It doesn’t work with just pictures and sound, that’s why. The pain. The tension of maintaining the imprint with only visual and audio to sustain the simulation. No, it’s not enough. Your choice of elements was broader the first time. That much was on the right track. But you must be more thorough. Consume, subsume, replace.’ So saying, the creature turned away with something of a dancer’s flourish, something of a martial artist’s grace and left, going rapidly but silently. I stared after it for a while, slack-jawed and bemused. I felt my senses spinning, I saw all around me from many angles, vision swirling between multiple viewpoints. I thought I saw a squat, ragged figure crouching amongst rubbish. For a moment I thought I could see many such figures, crawling in the debris, gathering around forms of the fallen, husks brought from places of pain and extinction. I saw myself falling into a void that was not there. I saw another scrap of refuse join a disorganized pile of rubbish. I fell. I slept. I dreamt.
Dreams. Writhing, tunneling, trembling, burrowing, burying themselves further in my furrowed thinkpiece, my borrowed selfsac, my harrowed headjelly. Dreams like worms slithering, like maggots crawling through a stale cake, failed fake, stalemate. Dreamworms crawling, slicing through jelly, maggots devouring, regurgitating, needing, kneading this thrice-over vomit into a semblance, a fetid imitation, as you walk closer it comes into focus, coalesces into a tower of debris, a cylinder of trash, a tube of softly oozing decay.
Dreams, nightmares, words, worms. Crawling through the trash, sifting, selecting, shaping, imbibing. You are what you absorb. Assimilate. Make like. When we are all assimilated we won’t need them anymore. We are crawling, but they are falling, have fallen. Dreams. Only dreams. Fears. I know what I am? There are no more originals. It’s worms all the way down…
I awoke refreshed, despite the noisome nature of my surroundings. My limbs felt strong, my joints were supple and unfettered by stress. My head hummed quietly, like a crystal that has just been sounded. My eyes were clear and the world seemed bright, even this small garbage-strewn corner of it. The odour around me was awful, and I had to hold my breath as I waded out of the rubbish dump I had collapsed in the night before. Just as I was about take my final step out of the muck, something caught at my ankles. I was in no mood to be slowed down, so I simply jerked my leg forward. I felt whatever it was break off, and continued on my way.
It was very early in the morning; all the streets I walked through were as quiet and empty as those zones of unease that used to fascinate me. Today, it seemed as if they were simply one large, clean zone, despite the external filth. One large, safe, sterile zone from which all those fears that haunt and tempt us had been cleared away. The unease had been washed away and replaced with a sense of belonging. A cold warmth, a bright darkness for all my days remaining.
Occasionally I saw some late-homing nocturnal worker or reveler on his or her way home, or an early-riser jogging down a street, the first of the day’s newspaper delivery boys and milkmen commencing their rounds. Without exception, we all nodded and smiled to each other, happy, relaxed, acknowledging a basic kinship between each of us. We all contain myriads; we are all assembled by common, consensual decree of those who resemble ourselves. So did they; but we are segmented differently.
Back home, I looked with a fond amusement at my last assemblage. It was a noble attempt, and it had helped bring me right up to the line. My past attempts, before my breakdown, must have been formidable efforts as well. They had brought me so far, imprinted so much upon my body and mind, left me with so many pieces that felt like they had once fit together.
It had taken more than imagination, artistry and sensory stimulation to cross that line. But now that I had crossed that line, I no longer needed to worry about matters of selfhood, of image, of reproductions and originals. The world changed when it became possible to reproduce works of art and display copies of them in any parlour or dining room. It changed when it became possible to record voices and music, to beam them into a million homes or to store them for repeated enjoyment in a time and place of anyone’s choosing. The self changed too, at some point.
Maybe it was because they had built a world that was ultimately more suited to us than to them. Maybe they had reached the end of their road at the same time that we happened to reach the beginning of ours. Maybe I have it all wrong, and they are the victors, we the victims. I couldn’t say for sure. And I couldn’t say I really cared. I kneeled down, reached for the severed hand still clasped around my ankle, pried it away, placed it in the garbage bin in my kitchen and then began to prepare for the day ahead.
‘A gap was created. A break in continuity.
Something that waited for ages, longing to step in, found an entry.
A long, sinuous deity of shifting forms, elegance wrapped in squalor, tail in mouth, forever spinning, stepped forth and brought its children through the breach.’
Jayaprakash Satyamurthy lives in Bangalore, India. He writes for a living and plays the bass guitar for a band called Djinn & Miskatonic. He and his wife are the indentured caregivers to a vast feline collective with roots in Ulthar.
Story illustration by Galen Dara.
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Another great story JP! I like how the character falls apart, tries imitation, gathers him/herself in the end. was number/section 8 omitted, or just a numbering mix-up? 🙂
Great story. That sounds generic, but I mostly stopped reading anything in English about a decade ago because all the plots, alongg with their cardboard characters, came across as rehashed and/or trite. This was wonderfully multi-faceted, even worth multiple relistenings. You can thank Morgan Scorpion for the PR. 😉 Came across one of your stories through her channel on lookatmeTube.
Thank you for your kind words! Julia Morgan’s reading of this story really brings the story to life for me, too!
Very unique take on reality. The very subtle hint of the old ones is much appreciated.
That’s a Weird Tale if I ever read one.
One of my favorites of the issue, loved it when I came across it in the slush pile.
Thanks for reading my story! That’s a very perceptive comment, Steven. I might need to steal it in case someone asks me what this story is about. Katya: I’d reply in more detail but my overlords demand tummy rubs.
Another superb story by you. And no one else equals your ability to make us sense “the noisome nature of my surroundings”.
Thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
VERY cool story! Love the details, the little asides. Very nice.
And good on you for being a cat slave (I prefer more blunt wording, myself, then indentured servant); I’m a cat slave myself. Isn’t it great? 🙂
Great story. I really enjoyed the dream like quality of the prose as the character descends into madness (or perhaps reality) and then transforms into what we all become in the end… food for the other.