March 2011

New Phantasma…

And, the Bride Wore Ashes  by Cate Gardner

Maud found the snow globe on the floor of the hotel foyer. Ash cascaded over the bride and groom glued within. It appeared someone had just shaken the globe and yet, as far as Maud could see the foyer was empty.

Little Blue Planet by Shaun Duke

“Bipedal. Stage four intelligence. Feeds show a high probability of self-destruction. Heavy focus on weaponry. I’d estimate a requirement of one million ground troops or a forty-eight hour aerial bombardment. Sixty-percent chance of failure for clean sweep. Bombardment would decimate fifty-percent of available resources.”

Kaleidoscopic Vision by Abha Iyengar

Mithuna saw the god, resplendent and blue, throwing his golden light. It was like sunshine in the frosty cold surrounds. Shiva heated up the place with his presence, more so because he was angry now. Mithuna began to smile, his lips bleeding and dry, the skin like cracked badam shells.

Night Terrors by Samuel Mae

Never have I plumbed depths so vulgar as I did that night on the dark streets of Istanbul, a young man in search of meaning but lacking wit. I found myself in an alley that smelled of dung and spice and ochre, at the behest of a woman with no face but every expression….

How We Left The Desert by R.J. Astruc

It was obvious to me at once that the statues had moved. On our arrival I had observed that most had fallen from their plinths, their extremities shattered; now all were upright and in position, their heads intact, their surfaces unstained, their sightless stone eyes gazing solemnly down the central aisle.

And The Thirteenth Stranger, poetry by Kristine Ong Muslim

a pretty little thing, not even supposed to exist in four dimensions….

And, the Bride Wore Ashes

by Cate Gardner

Maud found the snow globe on the floor of the hotel foyer. Ash cascaded over the bride and groom glued within. It appeared someone had just shaken the globe and yet, as far as Maud could see the foyer was empty. A tag attached to the globe by silver string read, ‘To Claudette, from Frank.’ Maud’s sister would have a hissy fit if she found a gift from her ex.

Tucking her vomit-pink skirt between her legs, Maud sat on the stairs and tipped the globe upside down. The bride and groom’s slack jaws opened as if in scream. Claudette’s mouth would form a similar hollow tunnel if she caught Maud crouching on the stairs. This was her day and she wouldn’t allow Maud to destroy it–because, obviously, destruction topped Maud’s list for the day. Maud sighed. Claudette’s weddings were always eventful. This time, it appeared Claudette would be appearing at the main event.  

Floorboards creaked, and Claudette’s whine echoed. Maud stole across the foyer. She’d hide in the gardens until nuptial-time. A man stood in the doorway, his white suit spattered with inkblots. He reminded her of a bouncer.

“I apologise,” he said. Grabbing Maud’s arms, he twirled her around and pushed her over.

Glass crunched beneath her.

Maud drew in a breath and hoped the broken shards hadn’t cut through her dress. When she released it, Maud opened her eyes and found she was in some place other. She lay at the edge of an empty grave and its headstone wore her sister’s name.

“You’re not Claudette,” a familiar voice said.

Maud looked up the length of the man’s pinstripe suit to the angular chin of Frank (aka Buster) Keaton. He carried a moth-eaten wedding dress.

“Claudette is busy preening and, apparently, I’m busy getting screwed,” Maud said.

Above her, the sky reflected their scene–their images curved against a glass dome. Ash covered her satin shoes. A laugh trembled on her lips. She suspected someone had spiked her drink at the pre-wedding bash and the drugs were working through her system.

Shuffling through a layer of ashes, Maud said, “As my feet aren’t glued in place, I’m guessing I best grab something sturdy before someone shakes the globe. Not you, though.”

“You should be Claudette,” Frank said, giving her the old silent-movie sad eye.

Neither he nor Claudette had ever liked Maud’s nickname for him, thus she said it whenever they met. “Hate to break it to you, Buster, but she’s marrying some other dweeb today. I can’t believe you’re still not over her. So how do we get out? Or, do I just wait for the bruise to go? Bright side, I might miss the speeches. Assuming the wedding gets that far.”

Turning around, Maud almost tumbled into another grave. Ash rained on a girl sleeping six feet down. According to her headstone, the grave girl’s name was Eloise.

Rosebud lips flatlined and her eyes opened, Eloise stood in a swift, fluid movement. Maud crossed herself.

Eloise brushed ash off her fur coat. “You followed me with her, Frank? I despair for you if she said no.”

“She’s nothing to do with me. It’s an unfortunate mistake.” Frank turned to Maud. “I scribbled Claudette’s name on the tag.”

“Ha,” Maud said. “You’re reprimanding me. Are you for real? And Gothzilla,” she said to Eloise. “There’s a worm crawling out your ear.”

Maud stomped across the cemetery to the globe’s glass borders and peered at the distorted view. Floorboards bevelled against the weight of the glass. She figured if she hadn’t cracked her head then she’d cracked her sanity. The world wobbled and an eyeball loomed into view.

Maud stumbled back. A hand tipped the snow globe. She slid, coming to rest on ashes. Below her, Frank and Eloise clung onto gravestones. The eye pulled back from the globe.

Rolling along the glass, Maud noted that the man carrying the globe (and as such, them) wore a blotchy-white suit. He dropped the globe on the wedding present table.

Maud tumbled down into her sister’s grave. Ashes filled her mouth. She pressed her hand to her lips and dragged herself to the surface.

“Okay, fun’s over folks. How do I get home?” Her heel caught in her skirt, tearing the fabric. “Ah, crap.”

“When Claudette arrives, you can go,” Frank said.

“I wasn’t asking for permission, I was asking for directions,” Maud said, wiping off a layer of ash.

She threw off her shoes, gathered her skirts in her hands and marched towards the white-board church, set just beyond the graves, hoping to find a minister or someone who would help. She stopped midway–no more than ten steps. What was she thinking? She was in a snow globe for fucksakes.

A man in a white-black suit stood in the church doorway. Although he appeared glued in place, Maud knew different. Here was the beast who’d trapped her. What she had thought inkblots on his suit were in fact birds. They fluttered. Like Frank, he carried a moth-eaten wedding dress.

Before Maud could ask how many girls had jilted him, the man said, “Ah, so we have a bride. You must be Claudette.”

“Nope,” she said, pushing by him.

Within the church, ashes covered ice-lolly stick pews and clung to polystyrene columns. A door to her right proved to be a drawing; its charcoal frame scribbled onto the wall. Behind Maud, Eloise dragged Frank into the church. Maud sighed. Two weddings in one day. Too many.

“You have two choices,” the man in white said. “Either you marry Mr Keaton and live unhappily ever after or we…I mean, you run out of air. The ashes are building.”

“She’s not Claudette,” Frank whined.

The devil winked at her.

“The shattered glass cut a vein and I’m loosing juice, right?” Maud pressed her hands to her body and checked for leaks. “Either way Claudette is going to tie me to the wedding car so the road can flay me.” Sometimes you had to flow with the illusion. “Though you know what would freak her out–my stumbling over the vows before she did. Hey, I’m in. Now point to the stairs, I want to go home.”

“Typical Frank Keaton wedding,” Eloise said, snorting ashes. “The bride heads for the exit.”

“You have to wear the dress,” Frank said.

The lace gown fluttered, the moths still feasting. Frank pressed it into Maud’s hands. Sunlight (or maybe someone had bought a lamp for the happy couple) streamed through the stained glass window, falling across the polystyrene altar. Painted ravens trembled in the shifting light, their wings blue-black. Maud shivered the dress on over her bridesmaid dress trying not to squash any moths. The ground shifted again. Someone had picked up the globe.

Claudette’s laughter filled the church. “Oh, how cute. Someone got me a…What? Frank Keaton. Maud. Where’s Maud? She’s in charge of presents.”

“Label me dogsbody,” Maud said.

Frank pressed his hands together in prayer, his black hair flopping over his too-white face. “Let her shake it. Please, let her shake it.”

“Smashing it is more Claudette’s style, but hey, I’ll take any exit,” Maud said.

Moths fluttered on her shoulders, twin grey bows. Maud sat on a makeshift pew and rested her bare feet on the one in front. “Though Claudette never did like me to have anything she had so you may be in luck.”

“Claudette said you always wanted what she had,” Frank said, brushing his hair out of his eyes.

Maud scrunched up her face and rocked back and forth on her heels as if encouraging her sister to shake the globe. “Perhaps.” Then she added, “Not you though.”

The world settled with a clunk-clatter and the light dimmed to the colour of ashes. Maud coughed and pulled her knees to her chest. The world tilted left.

“She threw you away,” Maud said.

Frank shook his head. Maud pulled the train-wreck of a man out the church. Outside the dome, the surrounding walls were gunmetal grey and the sky a pinhole of light fast diminishing beneath crumpled wrapping paper.

“She’s not supposed to open the presents until after the wedding, but my sister never could wait. She got so excited about marrying you and planning the wedding, she ran out of energy the night before the big day. You shouldn’t take her rejection to heart, and the other one”–Maud nodded at Eloise–“she’s a shrew.”

Behind Eloise and the supposed minister, birds fluttered within stained glass. They pecked their prison.

“Did it never occur to you to break the glass?” Maud asked.

“I wanted this.” Frank looked at his shoes. “I gave up…me.”

Maud bit her lip and stood with her hands on her hips. The dress shivered beneath her palms. “Faustian,” she said. “You know, I never wanted to get married and well…I still don’t, but if I have to…I do save your soul by saying yes, right?”

“Erm…” Frank fussed with his cravat.

“You’re shitting me. You don’t take revenge lightly.”

He blushed.

Maud looked down the aisle and wondered how to trap the Devil in his own glass bottle. It had her stumped. Wading through ashes, Maud pulled her bridegroom into the heart of the church.

“So, El Horny,” Maud asked. “Frank and I get married and poof it’s back to the real world, right? I mean, I know you have a price tag on his soul an’ all, but he gets to live the rest of his natural.”

The Devil nodded. The ravens on his jacket cawed.

“Never a lie to pass your forked tongue.”

“Well that’s going a bit far, m’dear.”

“Can we get this done,” Eloise said, fanning her hand in front of her lips. “Before I’m tempted to marry him.”

Frank resumed prayer position. Maud kicked his shin. Ash rained like confetti.

The Devil-Minister looked at his watch. “Let us begin,” he said. “Do you Frank Joseph Keaton, lately of this parish, take Claudette’s sister to be your eternal loving wife?”

“Wouldn’t my name be more appropriate?” Maud asked. Ashes lay thick on her skin. “Whatever, carry on.”

Frank unravelled his cravat. “Erm, I do.”

“Do you Claudette’s sister, lately of this parish, take Frank Joseph…”

“Wait,” Maud said, holding up her finger. “This is too easy.”

“Depends on your perspective.” The Devil drummed his fingers against the altar. “Now do you, Claudette’s sister…Oh, do you have a ring? Because if you don’t have a ring”–he yawned–“I can’t marry you and if you don’t marry…” He ran his finger across his throat.

Maud marched around him, stopping just short of shoving the Devil aside. As she pushed the altar over, an ash cloud enveloped her. She beat against ashes. There had to be an exit somewhere within the church. They’d seen this devil outside the globe, and then he was inside and… A gold key poked out the floor. She pulled at the key, wondering why he didn’t try to stop her. When the lock clicked free, she fell back and found no keyhole and no door. The key weighed heavy in her hands.

Laughter split open the Devil’s throat. “Suffocate then,” he said. Flipping his jacket over his head, he vanished.

A pyroclastic cloud spilled its load over them. Maud launched the key at the stained glass window. Both key and glass shattered. Painted birds fluttered within the ash. Their wings flapped, carrying them up to the glass dome.

“We’re going to die here and it’s your fault,” Eloise screamed.

Maud wasn’t certain if the girl directed her assault at her, Frank or perhaps the vanished Devil. The dome cracked beneath the persistent peck of the stained glass birds.

“What now?” Frank asked, as if they and not he had instigated this.

The stained glass proved thin lollipop shards. Knocking sharp pieces aside, Maud climbed into the graveyard. Glass fell in place of ashes. The birds had broken through the ceiling. Maud wished someone would tip the globe. Several moths fluttered from her dress and followed the birds. They headed towards Claudette’s scream.

The ground trembled. Maud fell back, her shoulder smashing into the church. The bin containing the globe rolled onto its side offering a terrific clatter.

“Come on,” Maud said. “Before someone sets it upright.”

Dropping from the church to the glass, they crawled towards the eggshell-like hole. Maud tumbled out first, one moment falling into the bin, the next she lay beside, far too large to have ever fit.

“Maud,” Claudette screamed.

Maud grinned at her sister. Wearing a torn bridesmaid dress and a wedding dress held together by dead moths, Maud offered Claudette a thumbs-up. Claudette looked as chaotic. Black feathers hung from her hair and bird poop stained her dress and skin.

“Why do you always destroy everything important to me?” Claudette said.

“Pardon me. Have you considered since the world revolves around you, you may be to blame for any mishaps?” Maud reached into the bin and removed the cracked globe.

“Not when said mishaps only occur when you’re present.”

“Where are you?” Maud said, ignoring her sister. Examining the globe, she could only make out the broken remnants of the church. She pushed her finger into the globe. Something tugged at her hand, pulling her back in.

Maud dropped the globe and backed away. It rolled along the floor, gaining no further cracks. “They can’t leave because he didn’t marry.”

“What are you rambling on about?”

“Unless Eloise marries Frank, he’ll be stuck forever or until he suffocates.”

“What? Who? This is my wedding day. Hey, did you say, Frank?”

“Frank Buster Keaton. He’s trapped in that church, and the only way to save him is if you or I marry him.”

Claudette snorted.

“Oh, you don’t know how much I ache to push you in the globe, but”–she grabbed Claudette’s finger and pulled off her engagement ring–“as loathsome as his act is, even Frank shouldn’t have to marry you.”

Wearing Claudette’s ring, Maud pushed her finger into the globe and journeyed back.

The Thirteenth Stranger

by Kristine Ong Muslim

 

The stray angel.

 

He hides his wings under

the darkest of cloaks.

He will not show them

even to his disciples.

 

He conjures storms, creates

gamma rays from plastic spoons,

magnetic blocks from wood,

and a perpetual motion machine–

 

a pretty little thing, not even supposed

to exist in four dimensions. He lets us

peer into the heart of that device,

where its cogs intersect the void.

 

We are building a temple

for the thirteenth stranger.

It will have the tallest church spire

pointing high up in the heavens.

 

 

How We Left The Desert

by R.J. Astruc

As we walked back to the main road, Brendan kept saying, ‘We’ve travelled back in time,’ and the longer we walked, the more we started to believe him. The distant skyscrapers of the city had vanished that morning—there was no explosion, no dust, nothing that would explain, if not the why, then the how. All visible, manmade landmarks—the towers in the east, and the slender radio mast and dam to the south—were also gone. At the beginning of our trip we had seen numerous light aircraft pass overhead; now there were none. Our radio had cut out completely, as had our phones. It seemed as if the entire human race had suddenly vacated the planet, and taken all traces of its civilisation with it.

Before this we had been camping in the desert, tracking a black hole with our university’s new telescope. It was Brendan and Jenna’s project; Keith had tagged along as Jenna’s boyfriend; I had tagged along as Jenna’s roommate. Brendan was the astronomer; Jenna said she just wanted the extra credit. Brendan had theories about time-travel and black holes, theories that wavered dangerously into crazy territory—but he was a nice guy. We had stayed in the desert for six days, taking readings, getting drunk, watching the stars. We’d planned on a full week, but after the skyscrapers vanished, Keith decided we should go back.

We walked in silence, saving for Brendan’s outbursts. Keith and Jenna, holding hands, had the solemn aspect of mourners at a funeral. Brendan was high and excited by the enormity of the tragedy; he bounced on his toes as if about to break into a run. When the sunlight began to fade, we found ourselves at the main road, or at least its remains. What had once been a four-lane bitumen freeway was now a winding dirt path that vanished into the scrub.

‘I think that’s it,’ said Keith eventually. ‘I think that’s really it.’

‘Christ,’ said Jenna. She pressed her face against Keith’s shoulder. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t know, honey.’

They embraced. Brendan looked to me, not for comfort, but suspiciously, and I remembered—too slowly—to appear downcast. Brendan was starting to dislike me, I knew. The others had wept, even Keith, when they realised the city was gone. Brendan alone had noticed that I did not cry. I suffer from a mental illness which means I find it difficult to express or even know my feelings. I have never had any trouble faking my way through the simpler emotions—a smile of welcome, a frown of disapproval—but this situation, the possible extinction of the human race, called for something larger, something grander. I am not an actor; I could not even begin to fake that, and hoped that my reticence would be mistaken for shock.

‘You’re right. It looks like we’ve gone back in time,’ I said, before Brendan could question me. ‘There’s no sign the freeway was removed, there’s no sign it was ever laid here.’

‘It’s a crazy idea,’ said Brendan coldly. ‘It’s a stupid idea. Time slips! You’d be stupid to think it was possible.’

‘Brendan,’ said Keith, a warning in his tone.

‘There’s still a road,’ I said. ‘We should follow it. A road means there’s some form of civilisation.’

No one challenged me, not even Brendan. So we walked down the road—east, to the place the city had been. Night came, but we had torches. Without speaking, we made a unanimous decision to keep going. Normally the desert is noisy at night—there are animals, the echoes of distant cars, the thrum of city-energy—but we heard nothing at all. Jenna was crying again. After several hours we came to the end of the road. It faded away slowly, first dirt, then gravel, then only sand. I knew then that we were all going to die, but I was not sad. Everyone dies in the end.


A day later, moving aimlessly through the sand, we found a village on an island of greenery. Forty or fifty stone huts, thatched with straw, jutted out from the undergrowth like blotchy grey teeth. Sixteenth century architecture, Jenna said; she’d done a semester of English history. Behind the huts was a rudimentary church, a flat square building with a tall clock tower overgrown with ivy. Inside we heard the voices of people chanting. We walked through the long grass to the church’s door, which hung loosely on a single hinge and creaked when Keith touched it.

We called out, but no one answered. We went in. From the look of it the church had long been abandoned, for wild flowers grew up between cracks in the floor and those statues that remained had fallen from their plinths, headless and limbless. At the front of the church the altar had toppled over and lay like a still body on the earth. Brendan found a thick bible in a niche in the wall, its pages crisp and dry as ash.

‘It’s written in some sort of olden-days calligraphy,’ he said. ‘I can’t make out the words.’

‘Let me see,’ said Jenna, going to him.

‘Shame there isn’t a newspaper or something around, so we can find out the date,’ said Keith.

Neither Jenna nor Brendan reacted to this suggestion. It seemed as if, at some point between leaving the road and arriving at the church, they had all silently come to terms with Brendan’s time-travel hypothesis.

I left them to talk about the date and went to look out one of the church’s windows. When we arrived I had thought that the trees seemed to press too closely to the walls of the stone huts, as if the forest was threatening to swallow the village; but now I saw that I was mistaken—that the forest was not close at all and that we were in fact at the centre of a clearing. In the distance I could see the remains of a second settlement, this one almost burnt to the ground. Ash hung heavily in the air above it, a dark and portentous cloud.

‘Graves,’ I said, looking back at the others.

Brendan glared at me. ‘What?’

‘There should be a cemetery around here somewhere. There’ll be dates on the stones. You can come with me and look, if you like.’

I did not want another fight, so I walked away quickly. When I put my hand on the church door it seemed to move more freely than it had before. Outside the sun was warm and fresh on my skin.

‘Is it brighter out here?’ Jenna asked; she had followed me.

‘Maybe.’

Jenna scrunched up her nose. ‘I might be going mad, but I swear the trees have moved.’

We circled the church twice before we found the cemetery, its boundary a low rock wall obscured by bushes. Most of the graves were marked only by rocks. Together Jenna and I tore up the surrounding undergrowth and finally found some proper headstones, their engravings almost completely eroded. I closed my eyes and ran my finger along them, sensing rather than reading the numbers.

‘1621,’ I said.

‘It looks like it’s been lying here for at least a century,’ said Jenna.

‘1721, then. It’s 1721.’

Jenna took some deep breaths and I thought for a while she might begin to hyperventilate, but she didn’t.

‘Well, here we are,’ she said eventually. ‘We’ve slipped in time, like Brendan said.’

‘Yes.’

She fell silent again for a time; then she said: ‘I’m sorry about Brendan. He’s just upset about this. He thinks it’s his fault. He’s taking it out on you because you seem to be dealing with it better than he is.’ She took my hand. ‘How are you dealing with it?’ she asked. ‘I’m so amazed at how together you are.’

I could not tell her the truth: that I had been made for situations like this, that the inevitability of death and time were things I had already dealt with, that I felt no pain or fear when it came to something that was, in fact, a foregone conclusion. Instead I stood up and brushed my hands off on my jeans and feigned shyness.

‘I hope you’re not holding it all in,’ said Jenna. ‘It’s not healthy to—’

She didn’t finish. Brendan had started to scream.

We ran back to the church. Jenna was a step ahead of me. Inside we found Brendan hysterical; and Keith was dead. His tall, heavy body was crushed between one of the stone statues and the wall, his chest caved, his pelvis almost completely flattened. His head was turned away from us, but one of the statue’s elbows had clearly indented his skull. Blood pooled at his feet and the legs of his trousers were black with it.

Things became quite hurried and complex. Jenna started to scream; she ran to Keith’s side; Brendan ran after her, crying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’; Jenna tugged at Keith’s arm; Brendan pulled her away; Jenna began to fight with Brendan, slapping his face, his hands; they were both crying; they were both screaming; and I stood there uncertainly, caught between the emotions I should have been displaying and the very real curiosity I did feel.

It was obvious to me at once that the statues had moved. On our arrival I had observed that most had fallen from their plinths, their extremities shattered; now all were upright and in position, their heads intact, their surfaces unstained, their sightless stone eyes gazing solemnly down the central aisle. The altar, too, had righted itself and the missing glass from the broken windows had been repaired. Keith’s death, I realised, had been an unfortunate side-effect of the church’s restoration. He had been standing on a plinth, looking out a window, when the statue had returned to its original pose.

‘We’re still going backwards,’ I said aloud—but more to myself than Brendan and Jenna, who appeared quite beyond hearing. ‘Quite fast, I think.’

I left them to mourn Keith and returned to the sunshine outside. Alone I pitched two tents in the church’s courtyard, one for Jenna and I, the other for Brendan. As I secured the guy-ropes to nearby trees, I heard the chanting again—a church choir singing in a foreign language.


All evening we could hear people whispering in the darkness, but when we looked we saw no one. At times the shadows moved in a way that contradicted the moonlight, growing large or small or taking human form, only to vanish again.

‘Black holes,’ said Jenna, holding my hands against her chest. ‘Brendan talked about black holes. He said we could look through them in his telescope. Do you remember all his theories about parallel universes and time-travel? Well, maybe it’s not time travel. Maybe this is some kind of purgatory. Maybe this is hell.’

She could not look me in the eyes when she spoke. I knew she felt guilty. They had not buried Keith. She and Brendan had been unable to extricate his body from behind the statue.

‘Maybe we did something wrong, all four of us,’ she said, ‘and we’re being punished for it.’

‘Maybe something bad has happened to everyone else,’ I said, ‘and we were the only ones who survived.’ I put my hand on her forehead, which was wet and sweaty, although the air in the tent was cool. ‘You should sleep, Jenna.’

‘I know. I know.’

We rose early the next morning—at least, it was morning by our watches. The sky above us had turned a strange mixture of red-gold and black, the sun a bright smear that ran the length of the heavens from east to west. In the eight or so hours we had slept the clearing had retreated further and the church and huts appeared as new. The burnt-out settlement I had seen in the distance was no longer a ruin but stood proud on the hillside: a hundred-odd houses, two churches and what appeared to be a fortress.

We ate tinned food and discussed our situation. It was my opinion that we should continue on to the next settlement. Jenna agreed; but I felt this was not because she liked my suggestion but because she could not stand to be near the place Keith had died. Brendan, however, did not want to go. He was no longer excited by his time-travel theories and ideas; his face was paler than I had ever seen it before.

‘I’m not leaving, especially not with you,’ he said to me. ‘You cold stone bitch, you’re enjoying this.’

Jenna said: ‘Brendan.’

‘Look at her. She doesn’t care. She didn’t shed a tear over Keith.’

I said: ‘We should stay together.’

I packed up the tents and our things while Jenna and Brendan talked. I understood they needed their privacy; they needed each other’s comfort. At any rate I like to be practical; I prefer action to words and I enjoy the satisfaction of completing a physical task. I was rolling up our sleeping bags when Jenna came to tell me that Brendan had agreed to come with us.

‘He hates me,’ I said.

‘We should stay together,’ she reminded me, bending to scoop up her bag.

When the three of us were ready we began our hike to the second settlement. There was no proper path, but the forest was receding even as we moved forward, the trees parting in a way that made me think of old myths. Hours later we were walking through fields of wheat and yellow canola. The air smelt earthy and damp and strangely foreign.

At times I heard the rustle of something moving through the fields near us, not human but certainly not wind, the crackle of broken wheat-stalks and birdlike twitters and calls. I wanted to mention this to Jenna and Brendan, but neither of them seemed inclined to talk—their eyes were fixed straight ahead, their chins pushed forward as if to deflect even the suggestion of a conversation. They missed Keith. I would have liked to comfort them, but my comfort—an acknowledgement that the world was unjust, that time was unforgiving—would only have enraged Brendan and upset Jenna further.

I bit my tongue and concentrated instead on my feet and the fleeting imprints they made on the muddy earth.

It was late in the afternoon when Jenna stopped and said: ‘I think we’re here.’

‘Here-where?’ Brendan said, looking around. We were standing in a grassy clearing on the lip of a hill. ‘There’s nothing here.’

‘I know. But this is where we’re meant to be. This is the hill we saw from the church, I’m sure of it. Do you see the settlement anywhere?’

I squinted against the light. The land ahead of us was a mix of forest and dirt, with no sign of human life. Confused, I looked back the way we had come and saw nothing there either, not even the stone tower of the old church. All was silent now save the echoes of our voices and Brendan’s heavy breathing. ‘Did we get lost along the way?’ I asked. ‘I know I saw the settlement here. I mean I thought I did… I mean I thought this was the hill.’

‘You said before that we’re moving backwards in time,’ said Jenna, shrugging. ‘I think we’ve gone back so far that the settlement stopped existing.’

‘That’s bullshit,’ said Brendan, kicking at the dirt.

‘It was your theory originally,’ said Jenna.

‘Well now I have a new theory,’ said Brendan, glaring at me.

‘I’m going to check out the area,’ said Jenna. She dropped her bag onto the dust and rolled her shoulders. ‘You two wait here for me, okay?’

She jogged away, heading toward the next ridge. Brendan put his bags down and I followed his lead, making a show of rubbing my wrists and flexing my arms. I was overplaying it but I felt trapped with Brendan’s eyes on me. I knew he doubted me; that he could sense my mental illness like a shark smells blood in the water. Without Jenna as a buffer I was left exposed to him, an easy target of his fear and despair.

‘You want to know my theory?’ Brendan asked.

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘All this time I thought it was me,’ he said. ‘I thought it was my telescope, my astronomy, the black-holes and my theories of subjective temporality. That in some way I was asking for this to happen, that I had wished this reality into being. But it’s not me, it never was me. I know now that it’s you, it came from you. Because you’re a very special kind of fucked up, aren’t you?’

‘I have trouble with emotions,’ I said, stepping back. ‘I have trouble with time.’

‘Trouble with time. Is that what you call it?’ Brendan sneered and poked his finger hard into the side of my head. ‘I know my Nietzsche. He’s right: when you look into the abyss, the abyss does look back into you. I get what happened now, it’s so clear to me. You stared down that telescope and what was out there, the darkness, the evil, it saw you, it saw into you, into your cold dead heart. You made this happen. You told it what to do. This backwards world is a product of your mind.’

I said: ‘I think you’re upset.’

‘Of course I’m upset. Because the world is gone and Keith is dead and we’re lost and because it’s normal to be upset in this situation, you’d have to be a bloody alien to not to feel the slightest twinge of emotion. An alien.’ He slapped my face with an open hand. ‘Did you feel that?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

Brendan put his hands around my throat. I knew that this was a test of some kind but I was not sure what he wanted from me. Should I struggle? Should I cry? Should I fight back? I was torn and confused and I wished that Jenna would come back and explain things to him, that I was not alien or terrible but simply found it difficult to parse my own emotions. I held still and closed my eyes and waited.

‘I think this is a dream,’ said Brendan, and squeezed. ‘I think you’re the key to wake us out of it.’

I could not breathe. My body twitched. My whole self was in vice of Brendan’s big hands; my pulse bounced against his thumb. Involuntarily I vomited a little bile into my mouth and felt it spill over my chin. I had long been curious about the nature of death and this experience suggested that it was less dignified than I had been led to believe.

Then Brendan’s hands fell away; he made a small soft noise of surprise; he fell down and I was still standing, Jenna at my side.

Jenna said, ‘Shit. Shit.’

She was holding a rock in her hands, one side of it red and bloody. She put it down on the ground gently, carefully, as if it was a precious thing. She said: ‘What happened?’

Brendan lay very still. He was a big man and looked very awkward crumpled up on the hard earth. I put my foot against his shoulder and shook him, but he did not respond and his tongue came out between his teeth a little.

‘Brendan had a new theory,’ I explained. ‘He thought I was responsible for bringing us here.’

‘Are you?’

I touched my neck. I still felt the burn of his fingers on my skin. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I am.’

Jenna said, ‘I killed him. Keith died and now I killed Brendan.’

I looked at the sky and the red line of the sun, as thin now as the equator on a globe. I said: ‘We should keep walking.’


We walked, Jenna and I, for a long time. There was no way for us to differentiate nights from days, but when we grew tired we pitched our tents and slept. We ate the food we had brought with us on the trip, rationing out little parcels of noodles and dry biscuits. At first we often heard voices, soft human speech and sometimes singing and laughter; but as time wore on the voices came less and less, and eventually ceased. All that remained was the howls of invisible beasts and the occasional whip of wings overhead.

As we walked we saw the land unmake and remake itself; we saw mountains rear up on the horizon and valleys suddenly fill with water. Once a fire ripped through the stretch of forest we were passing through; we felt only a brief flush of heat and then all around us was crisp and dead and black. At that moment I experienced a strange sense of power, of immutability and understood then what gods must feel like.

‘What will happen to us when the world ends?’ Jenna asked me.

‘The world’s four and a half billion years old. I doubt we’d be around for that.’

‘I want to see how it starts,’ said Jenna. ‘I’ve always wanted to see how we began.’

After what felt like many weeks we came to a sparkling lake fringed by rock. I took off my clothes and dove in. Jenna sat on the banks and took a notepad out of her backpack. I swam back and rested my arms on the stones at her feet.

‘What are you writing?’ I asked. ‘Is it a diary?’

‘Sort of. I don’t know what’s going on, not really, but I think we should keep a record of our observations. It’s awful that we’re trapped here, wherever we are, but I’ve got to start thinking about this as an opportunity. I’ve got to treat it like a new scientific discovery that I have to research.’ She smiled ruefully, the rubber nub of her pencil stroking her cheek. ‘It’ll give me purpose. Otherwise I might go mad.’

‘If it helps,’ I said, shrugging.

‘You want to know what’s funny? I’ve always wanted something like this to happen, ever since I was a kid. I guess that’s the secret dream of every astronomer. I always wanted to travel to a new world. Or get picked up by aliens. Or step through a wormhole and go back in time, although obviously not quite like this. I just wanted to be the first person to experience something truly fantastic. And now I’m here and I’m experiencing it, I feel like I should be happy for the chance, even if Keith’s gone. Even if no one will ever know what we’ve been through.’

She shook her head as if to ward off a bad thought and went back to her notebook. But I lingered at her side a while longer, my feet scissoring in the cool water. It occurred to me that the darkness Brendan had spoken of, the abyss on the other end of the telescope, might not have looked into me but into Jenna. And perhaps—perhaps she had wanted that, too. I remembered with a suddenness that Jenna had been the one to gather us together originally; and tracking the black hole was her project as much as it was Brendan’s…

My head spun. It was all Jenna, everything was Jenna; she had brought us here to her private abyss and was slowly killing us off. We were as lab rats in an experiment; doomed to be victims of the world she’d created or to die by her hand. Even if she had no understanding of what she was doing, Jenna remained the key Brendan had sought (and failed to find) in me.

I moved in the water like a snake. I have always lived by a strong moral code and yet I found that the thing I planned to do did not war with my ethics.

I said, ‘Jenna, do you want to swim with me?’


When Jenna was dead, I came out of the lake and sat on the shore. My wrists were sore and my fingers felt heavy and strained. I rubbed them as I waited for something to happen. For a time I imagined I saw shapes on a hill in the distance, but when I looked closer there was nothing. The sky remained red-and gold, striped by the sun, freckled with stars; below the land continued its inexorable slide into the past.

Time slipped.

I reorganised my backpack and started for the next hill.

Kaleidoscopic Vision

by Abha Iyengar

Mithuna wanted to see the world with a thousand eyes. He wanted to see what others saw, the way they saw the world. He wanted to have different views of the same thing and of different things. He wanted this so much that he walked and walked and walked till he reached the highest mountain peak of the Himalayas. Then he sat there, cross-legged, and meditated. He sat like this for five years, lost in ‘tapasya’, without eating or drinking. He was like a block of stone covered with ice and frost, yet he breathed. And he invoked all the gods to grant him his wish.

Eventually, Shiva, the God of a thousand dances, the God of the third all-seeing eye, decided to grant his wish. He appeared before Mithuna in the form of a snake, ready to bite him. Mithuna could not see the snake for his eyes were closed, he could not sense the snake for he was lost in meditation, concentrating only on his wish and that it be granted. The snake went up to him and bit him.

Mithuna did not feel anything. He was numb to all outside sensation or stimuli. The ice and frost fell away from Mithuna. He was exposed, a beautifully preserved piece of flesh. The snake coiled itself around him. Mithuna continued with his meditation. The snake licked Mithuna’s eyes. Mithuna did not open them. The snake slithered off and changed into Shiva.

“Open your eyes,” Shiva commanded, but Mithuna ignored the command.

“I am Shiva, commanding that you do so,” said the god, but Mithuna ignored him.

Shiva knew what Mithuna wanted, but he wanted him to spell it out.

“What is it you wish for?” he asked, yet he received no answer. Shiva was losing patience in the face of this lack of response.

“I will grant you your wish,” said Shiva, “Open your eyes.”

 Mithuna slowly opened his eyes and though the process was painful, his eyes having been sealed shut for years, he finally managed to do so. Shiva did not help him in this. He was angry that he had to say that he would grant the wish before Mithuna began to open his eyes.

Mithuna saw the god, resplendent and blue, throwing his golden light. It was like sunshine in the frosty cold surrounds. Shiva heated up the place with his presence, more so because he was angry now. Mithuna began to smile, his lips bleeding and dry, the skin like cracked badam shells.

“So,” thundered Shiva, stopping himself from breaking into a ‘tandava’ dance of anger. His dance would shake the world and he did not want the other gods protesting. They had been complaining that he was upsetting the world order too much with his impromptu dances, creating earthquakes and typhoons out of time.

“So,” he repeated. “What is it that you want?”

“You know it,” said Mithuna, hands folded now in supplication. Caked with mud and grime of the many years, they looked more like thick black knarled branches.

“Why do you want this?”

“I want to look at the world with a thousand eyes. I will see so much more than what I see with these eyes of mine. I will see the same thing in myriad ways.”

“But why this wish?”

Mithuna did not tell him. If the god knew, well and good. If he did not, so much the better. This is what Mithuna thought.

Now, Shiva had to grant him the wish since he had done so much ‘tapasya’. Yet, he would not give it to him so easily.

“A thousand eyes you will get. Which ones do you want? I can give you a thousand new ones.”

“No,” Mithuna mocked Shiva’s attempts to change his boon. Mithuna had not done such rigourous ‘tapasya’ for new eyes.

“A thousand eyes of the dead? They would have seen a lot.”

“No,” said Mithuna. “They deal with the past.” Mithuna had not done such rigourous ‘tapasya’ for dead eyes.

Shiva gave up his attempts to save the eyes of the living.

“The ones that belong to your people in this land of Yunida?”

“No. They are common enough.”

“Then?”

“I want to see the world from the eyes of those who travel, who have been to different places. I want to gouge their eyes out and make them mine. No human should prevent me from fulfilling this wish.”

Mithuna stopped himself from asking for more. Shiva was looking at him, fire in his eyes.

Shiva said, “I will grant you your wish. But you will have to gouge the eyes out of each traveller that arrives in the port city of Momandapa in your land. Do not spare any one. If you fail to gouge out the eyes of even one traveller, all the eyes that you would have procured till then will return to the owners.  You will lose your own eyes as well. The owners, no longer blind, may find you and do whatever they want to you, a blind man. You have to be ready for this.”

But Shiva knew that any man who could do ‘tapasya’ for five years on the highest peak of the Himalayas and not feel the sting of Shiva’s snake bite would not find this prospect daunting.

Mithuna bowed his big head. His face was black, long and narrow, made longer by the black beard that covered it now.

“When you have the thousandth eye, you must stop. Do not forget the count. For if you gouge out the thousand and one eye, then too, you will lose all the eyes, including yours. Be prepared.”

But Shiva knew that any man who could do penance for five years on the highest peak of the Himalayas and not feel the sting of Shiva’s snake bite would not find this prospect daunting.

Mithuna, a man who had waited so long, was prepared.

“So be it,” said Shiva.


Mithuna made his way back down the mountains, feeling the blood course through his veins, feeling the sun of his land heat his body, feeling the cool waters clean his skin, feeling the rough texture of his cheek after the beard was removed. He now felt more alive than ever before.

He did not get his fingernails completely trimmed. He had them cut to a suitable length, their tips sharp like razors. He made his way straight to Momandapa. He had waited long enough, and unbound desire coursed through his being.

He looked like a god himself, tall, black and glowing. He prepared to wait for the arrivals of travellers at Momandapa.

The first few travellers were easy prey. As he scourged their eyes out, they screamed and fell, clutching the spaces where once their eyes had been, now only blood and pain and darkness filled them. They wandered like lost souls in a new, unknown land.

Mithuna took intense pleasure in gouging out the eyes and making them his. If the hapless travellers fought him, he enjoyed it even more, for he knew that he would win in the end. Mithuna continued in his pursuit of attaching all these eyes over himself, and gloried in the views he got from each of the different pairs. He had no guilt about what he was doing, that he was destroying so many lives to get what he wanted. He thought that he deserved this. Shiva had granted him a boon.

He began to take even greater pleasure in the scrounging. It became an obsession, something which his whole mind and body concentrated upon. When once he had turned into a block of ice, he now turned into a man on fire, devouring and revelling in the blood that felt warm in his hands, flowed over his palms and wrists like a thick river, reminding him that blood meant life. The eyes were getting plastered all over him, and it was as if a kaleidoscope of colours and events flickered all the time in his brain.

Slowly, the distractions began. The tales and stories that he saw through his new eyes began to turn him away from his need to pluck eyes. Meanwhile, travellers had begun to stay away from Yunida, and the country’s trade was suffering. No one wanted to come to the place which had once promised so much, spices and pearls and tropical forests and beaches and blue surf and bluer skies. Now it had the shadow over it of the Wild Eyed Man- for that is what Mithuna had begun to be called. No one dared to stop him for his powers were immense. One look from his eyes could make a man come up with red rashes that spread and burned the skin till the skin flaked away. This was just a step away from a kind of death which no man wanted.

But this was before Mithuna lost count. Every night, he tried to count the eyes he had collected, and knew that he had to get some more before he reached the thousandth one. He no longer knew the exact number of eyes he had because he was on a constant visual high and he could not shut his visions. Sometimes these views coalesced and separated to form a huge kaleidoscope of changing colour before him. His brain swam with the sights. They transported him into a world from where he found it difficult to return. He could not shut all his eyes to sleep and keeping them open was continuous visual stimulation.

His meditative ascetism had given way to a frenzied state of being. He could only think of how to get his thousandth eye and put an end to his now ever increasing fear of losing all that he saw and entering a world of total blackness.

And so it came to be that one day, all the eyes shut. That was the day an unsuspecting traveller arrived on Momandapa port and stood staring at the deserted beach, except for a man who stood in front of him, covered with eyes that opened and blinked all over his body, of different shapes and sizes and colours. This was the traveller with a pair of eyes that Mithuna needed but Mithuna had grown oblivious.  

As this traveller walked away back to his vessel and set sail, thankful that he was leaving this deserted land where a strange creature stood and nothing else seemed to breathe, Mithuna lost all his eyes. They left his body where he had implanted them and went back to where they belonged. His own eyes died on him, and blackness entered his life.

Mithuna did not cry out in agony. He gave a sigh, lay down and rolled onto his side, and slept, something he had not done for a long, long time.

It would not be long before the marauding hordes came to take their revenge, to give him what they considered his due. Till then he was alone and finally with himself.