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Fungisland Part 3

Entry 10

It has been some weeks since I’ve written. I thought I laid my supply of ink-mold in a safe place, yet it vanished perhaps creeping away under its own steam while laughing at me. I was forced to harvest several specimens of Bêche-de-mer to make this entry, hence the change in color.

Where to begin:

I began my raft-making process. While the jungle had tolerated my attempts to fell stipes for firewood, when I moved on to clear-cutting it struck back. A powerful mist of some unpleasant liquid stung and blinded me for hours. I was finally able to navigate my way to a freshet and wash my face with the aid of some nearby sponge-caps, only to find my rescuers to be my spore-riddled neighbors, gathering the caps and placing them within arm’s reach. The message is clear, I shall be a well-treated guest so long as I do not try to escape I reconcentrated my efforts in material-gathering, felling only one tree a day and using the ends for firewood, stashing the rest in a sheltered cove. I found a mold that produced a thick, oily salve that I used for waterproofing. Finally, I was forced to use some of my own scientific equipment for an anchor, for there was nothing so sturdy on the island. It took a passage of time too humiliating to tell to construct that raft. Perhaps one of the sailors might have been able to do so more quickly, but more than likely he would have fallen under the influence of the fungus before he could make use of it.

I remember the day I cast off, using a stipe to pole myself out to the reef. Once, I looked back to shore. The fungal people stood abreast and watched me silently from the beach. I kept my eyes to the horizon after that.

I was barely able to moor myself at the seabird’s rocks without crashing, but rather than safety they simply present another host of problems. The birds have long been hostile to any sign of fungi; they dive-bomb my deck if I drop my guard for a second. By gathering their eggs I might have enough for a month’s journey, but I have no means to bring fresh water with me and no compass to navigate by. I am simply choosing the method of my death at this point, and neither seems preferable.

The cinder cone glows at night. I fear an eruption.

Entry 11

This is not a happy update. I was able to rough it for a week offshore, then a storm blew up. Perhaps it is lucky I’ve survived. Perhaps it isn’t luck at all but the will of some malign presence. I give nothing over to chance now.

I washed up on the far shore of the island, after being beaten black and blue by the rocks. Thankfully I had already learned of a mold with curative properties and was able to tend my wounds. I made landfall in a small, barren cove with no way around to the jungle. I decided to attempt the cinder cone and made probably my most alarming yet in retrospect least surprising discovery upon setting foot on the surface.

The rock was soft.

The thing I have taken for a volcanic formation is another fungus, larger than anything else on the island! What’s more, I think it perhaps may be a genius loci, the one that compels the other fungi and fauna to do its bidding.

I was able to mount the monolith, even with my injuries, and upon summiting I found another shock: the “village” of the poor souls I call my neighbors. The indentation that would be the caldera in a volcano was instead a cottony nest of mycelia. As I watched, gatherers returned from the jungle and stood stationary as the mycelium grew up to cover their bodies. There they rested, or perhaps exchanged chemical information. I have resigned myself to never knowing. Among the gathered people I could spot several members of the crew I had been on speaking terms with. McKinnon. Bradley. Phillips, who had made a big to-do about giving me the lower berth owing to my seasickness. All once boorish examples of manhood. All mindless shells. What I feel is no victory. I feel a great gaping rift in my soul. Irrationally, the thought comes to me that my wish for solitude did this. I know logically that it can’t be true, yet…

I have found a ravine that bears small fruiting fungi and a trickle of fresh water. I have holed up here for the time being. I don’t know that I can trust anything set before me anymore, but it is either this or starvation.

I will not send the journal yet. I feel a great plan set in forward motion, but I have not seen all the cogs.

Entry 12

The fungal cone glows at night like a signal-fire. It wants more ships. It sends its blasted scouts to all corners of the compass, hoping to lure in more ships.

I see the crew of the Molly Haggard and hide from them. They are not men, they are corpse-puppets. I must remember the loss of their humanity for I ache to talk to something, anything sometimes.

My chest burns, every breath is a labor. It is almost time.

Entree numburrr 13

hurts to writ. focuss. i am finnees elmyr rutlend. i am mycolojist.

i am on top of mushroom. i can see ships in the distence. the fungus wanted it all along. the iceburg wasn’t tryng to escape. it was trying to bring us hear. every breath i took full of spores.

thout i was safe. food and water. woke up and myc mic fungus threads stuck me to the ground. peeple found me. fillips not fillips. pickd me up. brot me here.

focus.

it’s all the same. it’s all the fungus. i can feel my body dying as it replaces me. thinking geting hard. they brot me up to the top of the mountain. everyone here. spores make look like fire-signal smoke. they wave their hands. the ships turn. i don’t wave my hands but it’s hard. urge burns. i write this jurnal and then i throw it out to see. mayby find it in time.

it funny. all i ever think is i hate being with other, want alone with mushroom. and now with mushroom less alone than ever.

ships com goodby

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Fungisland Part 2

Entry 5

I have reached the far end of the island. It is far less welcoming than my home encampment, though this may just be due to the melancholy that dogs my steps. I have not yet laid eyes on my neighbors, though I suppose it is inevitable. For now I have been seeking out new varieties of fungi that aren’t present on my half. One slime mold I have named Felicitus atramenti, for its tannin-rich blood provided me with the ink in which I pen these words (my inkwell ran dry despite my thrifty efforts.) That there are animals present on this side of the island should be no surprise, for I have often heard the call of seabirds with no visible source. That they should be in some way burdened with infection should come as even lesser shock. One mighty specimen I have dubbed the webbed albatross, for mycelia coats it so. The bird’s eyes are blind and white, how they navigate I can only guess. I see them kiting higher and higher on air drafts like a hawk, gaining altitude enough that they can fly out to sea. They never make it to the horizon. I was unable to see the means of their extinction until I fashioned a clear jelly-like slime mold and a dry hollow stipe into a spyglass.

Far off shore there is a scattering of shoal, and on that shoal other seabirds nest. Once a webbed albatross crosses their threshold, the birds attack the intruder and send it into the sea. While I am overjoyed to find a potential source of food (the nutritious value of those eggs might well make the perilous journey worthwhile) I am alarmed at the scope of the island’s infection. I had heard of fungi affecting behavior, certainly, but only in already mindless insects. If the spores are strong enough to infect the braid of an avian, how does that bode for greater animals?

I must show more caution in what I eat and drink from now on.

Entry 6

I have found my neighbors. My worries of the fungal spores were too slight, it seems. For they have already found humanity.

I must wonder after the people on this island. What were they, Polynesian, Oceanian, some southern form of Esquimaux? Were they here before the fungi dominated? Alas, they put forth no answer.

The people infected by the fungi are covered with webs of mycelium. Like the birds, their eyes are sightless. They operate by touch, and by some internal compass they navigate the terrain. This place and all that live in it are like the clockwork wonders I saw in Munich as a boy, each piece appearing to operate independently while driven by the same infernal internal engine. I have made a grave miscalculation. I am leaving the far side of the island.

Entry 7

After stopping to gather enough atramenti to fill my inkwell several times over, I am home. In such a short time most of the markers of my presence had been absorbed into the jungle. My trunk remains untouched (thank god) and I yearned for a drop or two of manmade chemicals. I have doubts even a shipful of carbolic acid could clear this jungle, though.

I cannot banish the implications of the far side of the island from my mind. Everything in my home camp that brought me joy is recast in a sinister light. Perhaps it was only appealing to me in the first place because the fungus willed it so. No, Phineas. Down that path lies madness and despair.

Now that I am quit of it, I feel more comfortable describing the far end and its inhabitants. Whereas the “trees” near my base are like that of a small copse, the growth on the far end is outsize, with a canopy that blocks out the sunlight. All molds grow to a greater size in those environs; I found a slime mold that normally grew to six centimeters that I could barely span with both arms wide open. Also present in that jungle are membranes throttling the gaps between fungal trees which serve a purpose unclear to me. They dilate only to let the poor fungi-people pass.

My neighbors…I cannot imagine their passage a painless one, yet they look out at the world with placid faces. I cannot ascribe their facial features to any one ethnic group, and their skin is so powdered with spore-dust that skin tone is impossible to place. Perhaps they are not a native tribe but other castaways like myself, trapped here by the fungus I will not give myself over to idle speculation. I must weather these conditions and then when I have reached my apex, I will bind this journal in oilskins and set it adrift. Even if I do not live on, my knowledge will.

Entry 8

I found a slime mold that tastes like chocolate pudding the other day. While in my early days it might have brought me cheer, I am only sickened now. It was like a port Molly painting herself up in an approximation of your own mother’s face to entice you.

Whether I was always the subject of visits and only noticed now or that the fungus has been made aware of me I see the fungi-people on my side of the island with increasing frequency. They are completely silent, communicating in some nonverbal manner that leaves me out in the cold. No different than normal society, then. Their errands are as murky as their vision. Sometimes I see them move a fruiting mold a few feet, only to move it back a short time later. It is my pet theory that their actions are a cover, and they act only to observe me. I will begin caching the journal in a seaside cave, since the saltwater gives them pause.

Entry 9

It cannot be. Yet it is.

I have found the Bosun’s red cap. The crew are among the fungi-people.

I will begin constructing a raft. I must get off this island.

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Fungisland Part 1

Entry 1

The Molly Haggard has crashed, all hands down to the deep save for me. I, Phineas Elmer Rutland, am alive. More importantly, I am free. FREE. No more petty decrees to gather bird feathers and droppings, no more deckhands roughing up my scientific equipment, no more jabs about my sea-sickness, I AM FREE. I have destroyed the preceding journal pages as a symbol of my emancipation, so let me mark down a summary of how and when this came to be, lest I forget:

It was three days prior; the ship was on glass-calm waters when suddenly we hove to port (or starboard, I can never remember.) The ship was caught in a tumult as if a maelstrom was upon us, yet the sky and surrounding sea remained clear. I admit I remember little of this; the boat pitched and yawed so, I spent most of my time emptying the contents of my stomach overboard. I remember one confused soul screamed the dreaded “iceberg” but knew we were too close to the equator for such a thing to be.

I looked up and feared the man right: there was a large, white specter to the fore of the ship, nearly as tall as the mizzenmast. The crew flew into motion to turn us, all too late, when the looming white thing burst like a pig’s bladder. All that was left was a cloud of white dust and confusion among the men. This turned into chaos as those close to the dust cloud began choking and clawing at their faces. All the while we still churned in place, caught by some unseen menace.

I’ll remember the crack of the ship breaking as long as I live. Men fell into the sea without life-vest or buoy. I ran to grab the chest of my instruments. Thank god I waterproofed it by impregnating the wood with bitumen; the chest made a handy floating device when I fell through the burst hull. All night I could hear the other men calling each other, trying to keep within range. Folly, if you ask me. By lumping together, they probably damned themselves. I could have tried to share my floatation device and probably would have wound up back in the sea. But by excluding myself, I was saved. I was so comfortable I even dozed off, only to awake when the reef of this island jarred my chest.

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I made landfall. I had not grabbed any tack or fresh water, I had no idea the condition of my instruments, and I had a mild case of windburn. But all this melted away when I spotted a small brown protrusion at the end of the beach. I took it for some kind of root runner and tried to follow it back to the source, accidentally striking it with my foot in passing. The “root” sent up a brown cloud, and instantly I knew I was home.

I was not the captain’s first choice to man the ship’s science offices. He wanted to replicate the blasted Beagle’s tour of the tropics, wanted some jack-of-all trades with a chest of coarse hair who no doubt guzzled rum as he took specimens. Specializing in fungi was folly, he said. Well, here I am, whole and hale and surrounded by my area of expertise. Who is the fool, I ask?

Entry 2

It has been some weeks since I washed ashore. My early melancholy was tempered by the discovery of my first fungi, now I miss humanity less than I miss trough water in January. I have named that first specimen Phinea elmeri after myself, more of a sentimental gesture than anything. I have discovered dozens of fungi since then, and every day brings new specimens.

I have made steps to map out the island, though some areas remain impassable for the time being. The island is no coral atoll, as I thought when I first arrived, but a volcanic isle dominated by a cinder cone at the extreme end of the island. It has a source of fresh water, which I have yet to locate due to the nature of the jungle.

Ah, the jungle. If I could wax poetic for a moment, such a marvel has until now existed only in my dreams. What I took for tropical hardwood became the stipe of yet another fungal variety. Yes, my new home had mushrooms larger than anything recorded elsewhere. I must admit to hugging one in my fervor. The stipe gave off a slightly malty smell I found delightful. The “vines” that I’ve seen hanging from the canopy are simply above-ground mycelia, strong enough to be made into rope (a property I’ve used to my advantage in attempting more difficult areas)

I will not be so brash as to say all aspects of fungal life are so joyful. The fish that swim in the freshets are covered with a mold that makes them appear furred. While the mold makes them sluggish and easier to catch, it gives them a most unpleasant taste. I take my risks fishing off the reef, though I find more success prying bivalves from the rocks as the sea life prefers to give the island a healthy berth. I assume the fungi itself is stopped by the barrier of the seawater, hence why you don’t see giant mushrooms anywhere else.

Entry 3

Had some interesting run-ins with the local fungi in the preceding weeks. The first was a batch of what I took for ripe fruit on the sole plant on the island: a bush situated ⅓ the height of a seaside cliff. I thought the height and the surrounding stone gave it separation enough that it would be safe from fungal interference, forgetting of course that spores rise. I plucked the fruit while hanging from a woven mycelia cradle and performed the tests for vetting edibility. I found them not only edible, but quite alluring. After consuming three or so, I found my balance off and my temper uneven. What happened is something I have only been able to surmise after the fact: the ripe fruit were in fact infected by fungi that fermented the juices within the fruit. A benign enough lesson, with a steep cost the next morning (such a headache I have never had.) A regrettable loss, for although I enjoy the flesh of a roasted tree-stipe, I do miss the taste of fresh fruit(to say nothing of the dangers of scurvy.)

I observed a faction of the local fauna who makes use of the fungi as well as I do: a small violet octopus who reached out of the water to grasp a patch of mushrooms that hung over the water. They gave off not spore dust but an inky liquid that hit the water and quickly dissipated. Within moments the nearby shellfish yawned open, leaving a feast for the conniving cephalopod. How it avoids the effects of the liquid itself is a mystery, but one I have all the time in the world to solve.

It was near the seashore that I also found the solution to another mystery. There was a circular formation of globular fungi that abutted the shore. They did not burst but simply swelled larger and larger until the wind unseated them from the ground. I had the good luck to be there on an occasion when one flew out to sea: the bulb hit the seawater and swelled many times its size while remaining buoyant. Here, finally, was the “iceberg” that the crew so desperately fought to avoid. I suppose this is the manner which the fungus attempts to spread, yet it is stymied by the saltwater that hems it in at all quarters. No other island is close enough, I suppose. Then my thoughts turned to the wreck of the Molly Haggard, and whether its flotsam was impregnated with the spores.

….I do not know that I care for the notion.

Entry 4

I have found footprints. Blast! I only wanted for a single year alone in this place before humanity invaded. Why can’t a man be left to his own devices?!

They start at one of the freshets and lead inland. The jungle is impenetrable that way, not even fire will thin their fungal ranks.

I have made up my mind. I will form a canoe from a tree-stipe and go around seaways.

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Dream Journal

July 1st

The falling dream again.

 

July 8th

A flock of roaches took the shape of a man in a trenchcoat and begged me to extend them a line of credit. They would not leave, not even after I threatened them with fire and the lash.

 

July 10th

My brother’s death. In this one I arrived in time to hold him in my arms as he drew his last breath. I am never earlier than that. I suppose part of me will go on blaming myself for it.

 

July 15th

The lake dream again. I’ve decided to give up bathing. The thought of being submerged in anything makes my skin crawl.

 

July 20th

A series of dreams where I woke up and checked behind the door. Each dream ended the second I touched the knob. Each new dream started a second after that.

 

July 27th

Phillips started stocking the violet pastilles again. I dreamed the round I bought was porcelain and an unchecked bite broke my molars. Phillips refuses to special order anything for me.

 

August 1st

I was descending a ladder into the sewers. I did not dream of entering them, and I never reached the bottom. Simply descended, rung after rung. My arms began to shake and my hands tired, but I could not stop myself descending. I think my reasoning was that I had to hit bottom eventually. When I woke, my shoulders were sore from my sleeping position.

 

August 3rd

That girl, Bettina Kane, I had a crush on in grade school. Her skin broken out in spider bites, her hair a nightmare web. She slavered as she told me she was ready to elope. Her mouth was a jagged hole of blackness.

 

August 7th

I was in Phillips’ store, and the lot of them were trying to convince me my name was Bachmann. I’ve never even known a Bachmann. Could this have something to do with my indecisiveness on the new art exhibit?

 

August 10th

I took a long, cold walk to the edge of town. There I stopped and stared at a rock no different than the one either side of it. Then I dreamed the long walk back; every footfall, every dull breath. I had to check my sheets to make sure I hadn’t tracked in dirt.

 

August 13th

I did not get to sleep until after 1 am. My alarm somehow defaulted to the chime it came installed with, and the song crept into my dreams. It was part of a piano recital I could not leave. I woke at 6 and could not lay down again. I cannot nap.

 

August 16th

In-between dreams I have a black expanse of nothingness. I like it less than even the worst dream.

 

August 19th

Dreamed I walked to Phillips’ store and bought a pack of saltines and a new pen nib. Woke up to a half-eaten cracker on my pillow. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

 

August 20th

Phillips swears I came by. He also swears my appearance has changed. In my dreams last night I wore a hat as I hunted my doppelganger through the city.

 

August 23rd

My brother died again. He had miraculously resurrected and while out looking for me, he fell from a building. I did not cry in my dream, but my pillow was damp with saltwater this morning.

 

August 24th

Phillips claimed I ate his last round of Gruyere. I think he’s just trying to offload his odds and ends and blame me. I did not dream last night. I don’t even like Gruyere.

 

August 30th

The lake dream again. This time there was no land. I tread water and let the chill steal the feeling from my body. Maybe I’ll die soon.

 

September 2nd

I did it again. It wasn’t until Phillips called me Bachmann that I realized I was in a dream. This morning I have a new pack of cigarettes and some mints he swears he sold me. I will tie my ankle to the bed and get to the bottom of this.

 

September 3rd

My brother came and untied my foot. He explained that it was my job to wander out into the world because I was the last member of our family left alive. Sleep was immaterial. My ankle was still tied when I woke.

 

September 8th

I had a dream of being cognizant through my own funeral. It was very much like an interminable headache.

 

September 14th

I dreamed I sat down at this very desk and wrote all these pages, all these entries, one after one. This morning I turn each crisp page spotted with my handwriting and I just wonder. I can’t prove it one way or the other, can I?

 

September 21st

After weeks of no dreams, Bachmann came. He looked like me, but he was not me. He thanked me for holding this place for him, but now it was my time to go. I denied his agency after seeing how he cast a distorted reflection in my mirror. I took up this journal to write, and he stares at me as I inscribe these pages. We shall see who bends first.

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The Devil Whale

In Lingit it is called the T’oohchx’é. Pacific northwestern fisherman call it “the devil whale.” It may just be a melanistic Orca lacking the white markings of its brethren, if it exists at all. And it has terrorized a patch of the arctic sea all through recorded history.

The village of [Seal-upon-the-rock] gathered on the ice. When we rose with the sun, we found them at the edge of the floe. A song came that was too terrible to hear. Our men fell to the ground and plugged their ears, for the song compelled their feet to the water. One by one the others flung themselves forward into a hole that formed in the water. When the last child was gone, the hole closed and we saw that it was a mouth. The song fell silent and the beast at the edge sank into the water once more. We did not take our boats that way anymore.

—unnamed elder, Oral History of the Arctic

The first possible sighting of such a beast was well before 500 BCE, if the oral history of the Tlingit people is to be believed. According to the Xunaa Ḵáawu people, the devil whale was part of the world before raven stole daylight. In those days a great fish swam in the sky and ate whatever fit into its mouth, which included unfortunate villages. When daylight was brought to the people, the fish fell to the water with a great tail of fire and could never rise to the sky again. The beast was far more fearsome than the polar bear or even other whales, so unpredictable was its behavior. Several Tlingit settlements have been discovered over the centuries since European contact, preserved nearly intact by permafrost, abandoned as if the villagers had stood up in the middle of their day and walked off. Corresponding oral history points the finger at the devil whale luring said villages to their doom. As of yet, no scientific explanation for the disappearances has been found.

…soon we were yawing against the wind, the great beastie caught hold of our chain and pulld us in[…] she looked as another wale til she opened her mouth which split most the length of the bodie. Half our ship was down the gullet before we could scream.

—Eustace Gabb, surviving crewmember of the Meritus

With the explorer’s age in full swing and whale oil in high demand, it seems only natural that the next accounts come from the survivors of shipwrecks. While stories of krakens and monster fish were the common feed of broadsheets, tales of “the devil whale” gained a distinction among the collectors of seafaring legends. The SS Jeanne-Marie was chasing a pod of Right whales off the coast of modern-day Yakutat when they noted a heretofore-unseen behavior in the pod. The whales began a frenzied circulation around the ship, churning the water into a torrent which spun the ship clockwise. The calves, once confined to the protected center of their family’s formation, began colliding in panic. A noise the sailors initially attributed to the crack of a glacier calving rose in height and pitch until “…[the whales] floated as lifeless on the surface.” An adult female and three calves were sucked beneath the surface by a whirlpool. The whales remained insensate for a period of half an hour after the incident, at which point the crew reinstated efforts to harvest the remaining pod. As they cut into the skin of an adult female, the rest of the pod woke from their stunned state and began attacking the ship, leading to a 2-meter hole in the starboard hull. The crew ceased their harvesting efforts and attempted emergency repairs, eventually abandoning the ship for the longboats.

I watched it chase a calf it had separated from the pod for the better part of an hour. At one point the calf beached itself in an attempt to reach a barachois, but it wound up being pulled back by this dark mass. I never got a good look at it, but it was faster than any whale of that size should be. Finally, the calf got too tired to run anymore and it got sucked beneath the surface.

—anonymous Kayaker

The marine biology skiff Uriah Heep was trawling the greater Juneau bay when the underwater microphone picked up the song of a pod of Pilot whales. At approximately 35:00 hours, the  recording equipment registered an anomaly: a frequency of 45.6 hertz, well below that of the blue whale. Over the course of ten minutes, the frequency rose until it equaled that of the Pilot whales, overlaying and mimicking the pod’s song. The boat’s radar at this point picked up a solid object traveling directly towards the pod, rivaling in size a humpback or right whale. The whale songs mingled and reached a fever pitch at the same moment the object overtook one of the lead whales. At some point the mass disappeared from the radar and the whale song continued, minus two voices.

…[the boat] circled the bay for two days. Two! At one point I sent up a flare but no one saw it. My provisions ran low, but I kept trying. That thing was far too large, it could swamp either of my lifeboats easily. Finally I got ahold of someone within radio distance and that was the aerial rescue. I think it knew I was leaving, it tried to tip the boat before the pilot reached me. If it was a whale I never saw it breach.

—James la Pierre, yachtsman.

The deep-sea exploration vessel Newton was observing polyp formation on the bed of the Arctic sea when it found a heretofore unmapped crevice in the sea bed. Sensors registered a temperature hike of 30-40 degrees at the mouth of the crevice. The explorer circumscribed the opening, trying to parse whether the temperature indicated a volcanic vent. At a certain point in the journey, the Newton’s light hit an illuminated sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball. The Newton sat attempting to discern whether it was simply a bioluminescent patch of bacteria or something else when a black material slid over the sphere from either direction, met in the middle, and then retracted. Before the crew could truly parse the nature of this movement, the vessel was upset by a sudden current and just barely managed to avoid crashing upon the nearby sea floor. After the sediment settled, the Newton was unable to find the crevice again.

My cousin lived out by himself in a shack. That day I wanted to visit with him for a few hours. I found him out standing on the shoal. There was this whine like I had tinnitus. George didn’t look back at me, just put his arms out and dropped. I ran to where I’d seen him, but there was no body on the waves. The sound stopped.

—Mary Bedard

The fishing village of Temper’s Point in the upper part of the Alexander archipelago was celebrating their Sesquicentennial in December of 2013 when half the village populace(roughly 47 people) went missing around the waterfront. A background noise akin to the more famous Taos hum has been detected periodically since the event.

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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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Scenes from an Unaired TV Show

The reality television show Roughin’ It was meant to follow a typical fish-out-of-water format, as various c-list celebrities attempted to live on a ranch according to frontier restrictions. 1200 hours of raw footage, roughly equating to 10 episodes, was shot before the network pulled the plug. Due to the near-total death of the cast, the footage was shelved indefinitely following criminal proceedings. Repeated viewing of the footage has allowed investigators to construct a rough timeline from the inciting incident to the final episode.

 

Incident #1

[exterior. The cast had gathered for the day’s challenge: assemble an ancient wash-mangle and do laundry. Celebrity chef A_____ and actress J_____ are conversing as they sort through machine parts. P_____, contestant from a previous year’s reality show, is sitting on an overturned trough attempting to roll his own cigarette.]

A:—and I mean, it’s not that I, like, hate it—

J: —no, you don’t really know enough to hate it—

A: —right. It’s just that I haven’t had a good experience so far and I need, like, a manual or something—

[P_____ drops his rolling papers and swears.]

A: *laughs* gonna have to bleep that one.

J: *joins in the laughter.

[K___, a transplant from a reality show about vintage cars, approaches the two women]

K: Okay, so we’ve got, like, thirteen moving parts, and then we’ve got this gizmo—

J: Oh. Hey. [She is looking somewhere off camera.]

[K stands up and follows her line of vision. He appears to follow the approach of another person with his gaze. K nods affably.]

K: Oh, hey [inaudible].

 

This footage is notable as containing the first appearance of what is most likely a shared delusion of another contestant. The cast would continually refer to a figure that did not appear on camera as if it had been part of the cast from the beginning. No microphone, whether it be worn by a cast member or fixed to a tripod, was able to pick up a name. The figure’s appearance marked a dramatic and ultimately violent turn to events, as cast members began acting upon orders not issued by the network but by said figure.

 

Incident #2

[The “cow pie toss.” Actors were encouraged to toss “cow pies” fashioned from wet clay as far as they could. The winner, predetermined by the network, would win a phone call home and a sports drink. Y___, a runner-up in a national singing contest, was the predesignated winner. The event director was coaching her on her performance in the contest.]

Director: Okay, now I really want you to play up the smell of these things, okay?

[Y___ makes a noncommittal noise and tosses some hair behind her shoulder.]

Director: Like, really—pretend it’s doggy doo.

Y: So are cow pies, like, poop? I never knew *director speaks, rendering the rest of her sentence inaudible.*

Director: Look, honey, I just want a lot of “yucks” from you, okay?

Y: Should I take off my heels?

Director: No, leave ‘em on. It’s better—it’s good for the show, okay?

[the director turns to instruct P_____ on something. Y___ relaxes slightly, shifting in her stance. Y___ stays in neutral position for 23 seconds before appearing to notice the approach of an unseen figure. She mouths “hi” and holds an inaudible conversation with her back turned to the camera. The Director calls for all cast to take up their positions. Y___ appears to finish her conversation, smiling and nodding. As soon as “action” is called, Y___ trips P_____ and presses his head into the mud.]

Director: Stop! Stop! Are you crazy?

Y: I know what I’m doing, jeez.

Director: Let him up, he’s—man are you okay?

P: *coughing* What the fuck, Y___?

[Y___ shrugs.]

Director: Look, sweetie, improv is not your strong suit. So just stick to the outline, okay?

[Y___ shrugs again.]

Director: okay, are we all on the same page? Action!

[Y___ promptly repeats her previous actions, this time crawling on P_____’s back to press his face into the mud.]

Director: Cut! Cut!

 

The cast began to deviate from studio-issued orders on events. Due to the hectic nature of the shooting season, the bulk of the footage was shot by stationary cameras hidden in various points around the ranch while live crews were called in only for supervised events. Behaviors that might have called for an early end to the show went undetected, perhaps facilitating the breakdown of order within the group.

 

Incident #4

[“Campfire” segments were shot as a sort of break between scripted activities. Cast were allowed to set up the camera as long as they made sure they were all visible in-frame. Cast members T___ and R__ were seen to have a budding relationship spark and encouraged to play it up during shooting hours. During this campfire segment, T___ and R__ sat off to one side, sharing a blanket.]

P: *holding a stick and digging into the fire* …and I just wonder if it’s all worth it, sometimes.

K: You can’t think that, man. Like, if everyone thought like that, like, no one would get anything done, ever, you know?

[T___ and R__  simultaneously look to a point off camera. They hold their gazes for ten seconds. The couple then turn back to one another, blank of all expression. They hold a rapid-fire conversation that does not slow or stop once for the entire segment. Their body microphones pick up no audio.]

A: So, what, I have to just keep chugging along, just because I need to?

K: Well, yeah. You have to think of it like—

[K___ suddenly undergoes what appears to be a seizure. He drops his ams to his sides and makes a buzzing intonation in his throat. Drool can be seen escaping his open mouth. His face is tilted roughly up to the night sky. During this period, A_____ and P_____ behave as if nothing remarkable is happening. The entire event lasts three minutes.]

K:—holistically, like, we’re all connected, you know?

[Conversation resumes as if the pause did not happen. In the background, T___ and R__ sit facing one another, mouths hung open, for the rest of the footage.]

 

Incident #5

[The cast was instructed to milk a cow. Instead, after conferring with the unseen figure, they slaughtered the cow and skinned the body. The cast continued to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary, assuming the playful nature they used for scripted events. J_____ picked up a femur and pretended to play it like a flute. T___ and R__  began a splash fight with cow viscera. Once the cowhide was completely removed and put into a barrel to tan, the cast stood still and faced the open doorway of the barn, uttering the same low intonation. This went on for an hour.]

 

The cast’s behavior became increasingly erratic. However, because they did not shed their on-camera personas, they largely escaped detection by the live crews. One noticeable shift was that P_____ became a whipping boy of sorts. Everything that went wrong was jokingly blamed on him. Other cast members would frequently point to him and make a throat-slashing gesture, which he would return with a thumbs-up. The filming crew did not think this odd. P_____ had been set up as a martyr from the planning stage: his departure in the mid-season finale was meant to be a ratings boost. However, crew found the cast’s increasingly sadistic treatment of P_____ disturbing.

 

Incident #6

[A simple relay race, played with lumps of coal. Y___ can be seen horsing around with T___ as  R__, confined to another team, looks on with a slight frown. P_____, back to them, turns around and accidentally knocks a piece of coal out of Y___’s hand.]

P: Whoops! *chuckles*

Y: Boy, looks like you better eat what you spill, P_____!

[P_____ laughs as he gets to his hands and knees. The director can be heard shouting as P_____ cracks the lump of coal with his teeth. The cameraman zooms in long enough to catch a small amount of blood trickling from his mouth before the director calls cut.]

 

Incident #7

[The cast’s assignment is to draw a map of the surrounding area. Instead, they gather at a granite formation and hold an extended conversation with the unseen figure. Having discarded their body microphones, the only evidence of this occurrence is a camera set up on the barn roof to capture establishing shots. The cast returns after three hours. The paper that was suppose to be marked with the map instead holds a 27-point star. The cast insists that it is a map of the area.]

 

Incident #8

[A gaffer is setting up for a scene. K___ is lounging off to the side, holding an idle conversation. The gaffer is apparently only half-listening during this exchange.]

K: …and it’s just like, it’s always been there, you know?

Gaffer: Mmm.

K: Like, east and west, those are just human determinations, you know? The only real direction is inside.

[The gaffer puts a length of tape down and scatters straw over it.]

K: I could die tomorrow and I wouldn’t really be dead. Just shed another layer. I want to eat the dead skin from the outside of me, give me life for my new rebirth.

[The gaffer checks off points from a clipboard.]

K: P_____’s the one. He will open the way for the rest of us. I’d like to sup his misery and call it wine. The only way out is inside. The only way inside is through. Like [inaudible] said. Got to cut, cut, cut away the fat.

Gaffer: *finally appears to tune back into the conversation* Wait, what?I

 

The cast’s erratic behavior finally began garnering attention. The director called a meeting and informed the cast that they must behave in line with the contracts they signed with the studio. The cast greeted this with puzzlement, claiming they had been. P_____, despite having to get medical attention for injuries sustained during the coal-eating incident, denied any wrongdoing.

 

Incident #9

[R__ and J_____ are preparing a dinner of shoo-fly pie and boiled potatoes. R__ is kneading dough. J_____ peels potatoes while speaking at great length in a monotone.]

J: They lived here 12,000 years ago, when man was still sucking at the teat of summer. Slipped their skins every solstice and made wild. Descartes was wrong. There is no sun, there is only the illusion of light reflected in the moon. Man is a peach in the eye of god. God is a leaf in the eye of [inaudible]. 12,000 years is nothing to the stone. Man is carved from his own excrement. Life is a face laughing at the mirror. When I die it shall be to plant my own future. I will slip my own skin and slither into eternity. *she drops her peeler into the boiling pot and reaches in to grab it without hesitating or flinching. After retrieving it, she shows no sign of pain despite her skin visibly reddening on camera.*

R: I want to be sliced like a pear. My blood a gown. My entrails the crown.

J: *puts a hand on her shoulder* Time is the flight of a dead sparrow.

[the two women finish dinner without further comment.]

 

Due to increasing disquiet with the cast, network handlers were dispatched to supervise the remainder of the shoot. They arrived to find the ranch empty.

 

Investigating the surrounding area, they found the cast at the nearby granite formation. The cow hide they had tanned had been cut into a single strip of rawhide, which was then used to mark a 27-point star over the whole formaton. After setting up a stationary camera, the cast then ritualistically sacrificed P_____, who continued to smile and laugh during the entire process. The footage past the point where they began flensing his torso distorts almost irretrievably, repeated viewings have only been able to pick out several images. R__ stabbing J_____. K___and T___ painting an intricate symbol on the granite in blood. Y___, bare breasted and seizing in what appears to be religious ecstasy. P_____’s skin, hung up on a crude framework, flapping in a sudden breeze.The entirety of the cast staring at a single spot in the camera lens.

 

The cast was found dead, having attempted to flense their own skin off. The only survivor, oddly enough, was  P_____. The actor was flown to a nearby hospital where he was put into a medically-induced coma. His body lingers on, despite repeated rejection of tissue donations. His family is currently fighting a legal battle to withdraw life support.

 

This footage was compiled as evidence and promptly shelved after the trial. Do not reproduce.

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Vanishing in Paradise

Marine Queen cruise lines no longer offer singles discount packages.

In April of 1983, Beverly Hannigan boarded the St. Marie, crown jewel of the MQ cruise ships. She was taking part in a promotion that had been advertised at her local mall for single women age 30-50. Her last recorded whereabouts were at the ship’s pharmacy, where she bought a small bottle of Midol and a pack of travel tissues. At approximately 15:00 hours, the ship made a scheduled stop at a small island off Trinidad. Beverly was spotted on the gangplank. When the ship departed six hours later, Beverly was not on board.

During the eighties, Marine Queen cruise ships would run regular singles discount promotions every year. Ships running the promotion had the “get lei’d” board: passengers were given small plastic leis and encouraged to loop them over a peg on the board if they were interested in being matched up on the ship. The leis were not issued to male passengers.

Marla Davis checked onto the Marine Queen 2 to be close to her grandchildren. She allowed herself to be classified as single in order to obtain the discount.

Her grandchildren were frolicking in the pool when the ship announced a singles-only stop on a nearby island, promising romantic sights and a chance to mingle. While Marla Davis, a widow of thirty years, was not interested in romance, she had tired of the ship’s scenery.

The island they moored at was approximately 80km off the coast of Venezuela. The ship did not announce its name. Marla partook in a guided tour of the island’s interior, which involved hiking up to the island’s dormant volcano. She took note of various couples breaking away from the tour and walking to the lowlands, between large shrubs that grew in otherwise bare volcanic soil. After a few hours, the guide called for a return to the ship. Out of concern for her fellow passengers, Marla looked behind the group as they hiked down the mountain to see if they left any stragglers.

The bushes were retreating down the slope.

Marla attempted to bring it to the attention of the tour guide, but was brushed off. The group that boarded the ship was fewer in number than the one that had disembarked onto the island. When she brought it up to a ship official, they assured her that many people leave the cruise ship by choice and would find alternative transport back to the United States. When pressed for names, the officials refused on the ground of customer confidentiality. The island at the coordinates described by Ms. Davis is currently designated as “uninhabited”  by the Venezuelan government.

Statistics for cruise ship disappearances are hard to quantify. The cruise lines have a vested interest in not releasing information that would make the company look bad. Often this leads to tragedy, as authorities are notified long past the point where they could have prevented an incident. In one such case, businessman Justin Borland lost his footing and fell from the deck of the Paradiso. He was not wearing a life vest. Fellow passengers witnessed the fall, but the ship’s guard could not be coaxed to the deck until Borland was already a speck on the horizon. Rather than send a longboat to the rescue, ship’s authorities assured the passengers they would call the coast guard. Which they did. Sixteen hours after the fact. The cruise line which operates the Paradiso denies this account, alleging that Borland was drunk and already beneath the waves when the ship’s security responded.

Shawn and Viola di Martino were not on a singles cruise. Their travel agent booked them on the Triton for their fifth anniversary. While on board, they made friends with a young woman named Stephanie Moore, who was there as the caretaker of her great-aunt. On July 3rd, 1987, Viola di Martino went missing.

The boat had not moored anywhere recently, so her husband assumed she had gotten lost on the way to the pool. However, when he questioned the pool staff they were not only unhelpful but belligerent as questioning went on. They alleged Viola had never been on-deck and had probably lied about where she was going. When Shawn produced testimony from other passengers that had seen her on that very deck, they accused him of not being her husband at all, but an obsessed stalker. Shawn gave up on the pool staff and contacted ship security. They assured him that Viola was probably just off on her own, and suggested he go back to their cabin and wait. Shawn refused. Viola was diabetic, he explained, and long overdue for her insulin shot.

It was around this point that Stephanie Moore told her aunt that she was going to the bathroom. The aunt spent the rest of the night unattended when Stephanie did not return. Ship security found her sobbing alone in her room, having soiled herself during the night. As she was suffering from mild dementia, she thought Stephanie had left her alone to punish her.

After six sleepless hours, the ship’s security called Shawn di Martino to the medical center. They hastily explained that they had mistaken Viola for another passenger and had detained her for drunk and disorderly behavior. In the interim, Viola had slipped into a diabetic coma. There were unexplained restraint marks on her wrists and ankles. The ship’s staff told Shawn he had no legal recourse and dropped the couple off at the nearest port. Despite attaining emergency medical treatment, Viola never regained consciousness. Stephanie Moore has not been seen since.

In 1990, the Marine Queen cruise line was brought into a class-action suit by the passengers of the Fruite Royale, alleging major hygiene lapses among other accusations. 208 of the 500 passengers had contracted herpes through unknown means, though a pot of Chicken Marbella contained traces of the disease. The cruise line attempted to settle out of court, but withdrew the offer at the last minute. The company was forced to volunteer 3 of its fifteen cruise ships for inspection, but did not pay any restitution to the passengers as per the ruling. The three ships passed inspection.

In September of 1992, Calvin Wallis and a friend were vacationing in Barbados when they were approached by a white woman. She bore signs of recent abuse and walked with a limp. She was improperly dressed for such a cool night, and both men described her makeup as garish.

The woman identified herself as Beverly Hannigan and begged the two men to help her. Before she could tell them more, two men came up from the bungalows lining the beach and collected her, dismissing her claims as the rambling of a drug addict. They shepherded her off the beach. Though Calvin went to Barbadian police, nothing more has come of it.

The Marine Queen cruise line operates to this day and has expanded its fleet from fifteen to twenty ships.

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The Borges Enigma

Torque, Or the Kingdom of Luceria and the Search for the Absolute Center, does not exist. Purported to be a lost work of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, it is not cited in any catalogue and has never been beheld firsthand by any living source. The sole reference to this work comes from a review by one Chandler Robert Means, who left the typed review on his desk and then promptly disappeared. Means was the book reviewer for Damned Yankee, a now-defunct New York publication. The review spans over two thousand words, nearly four times the allotted wordspace for Means’ column. Why he chose to review the book so expansively, and the nature behind the review’s subject, are lost to time. His coworkers did not observe Means entering or exiting the building, and took the overlong review of a fictitious book as a creative resignation letter.

The contents of the review are thus: Means summarizes the career of Borges, noting a fondness of his earlier works but chastising the wordiness of this book. Torque is written as being nearly 2500 pages. Borges, it should be noted, was primarily a writer of short fiction. Means spares a few words for the cover design, chiding the “low-rent Aubrey Beardsley” that covered the book with an irritating floral scroll.

The summary of the book runs thusly:

Torque, or the main narrative of the book, follows Sigmund Frey on a voyage aboard the fastest known ship in the universe. He is undertaking a journey to Torque, a planet supposedly in the exact center of the universe. Sigmund takes time out to muse on the meaning and origin of his own name in Nordic myth as well as the concept of the hero’s journey, both recurring subjects of Borges. After an altercation with a meteor that appears to bear the face of an old man, Sigmund takes up a novel he found on the ship. Thus begins the second plot of the novel:

The book Sigmund reads concerns the kingdom of Luceria, and the exploits of a knight also named Sigmund. The kingdom has entered into an era of unprecedented peace, and so there has been little room for spiritual growth. The minstrels of the court run dry of material. Historians are reduced to re-recording accounts that have already been committed to print. The king of Luceria charges Sigmund with finding the exact center of the kingdom, alleging that this will bring the glory so lacking in his reign. Sigmund is ambivalent, but relents after he meets with the king’s daughter, a woman so beautiful she must remain veiled at all times. She promises Sigmund her hand if he completes the task, and so he agrees. The next day he rides along the beam of his compass, ignoring roads and thoroughfares to travel in a straight line. After changing horses twice, he reaches a crumbling ruin occupied by an old man. The old man claims the ruins were the first castle of Luceria, and he the first king of Luceria. The princess is not the king’s daughter, but the old man’s, stolen during his defeat. When Sigmund asks after the center of the kingdom, the old man leads him to an iron door which he unlocks with a key that is shaped like a sword.

Through the door he finds yet another country, this one shining brighter than Luceria. Sigmund examines the portal and finds that things that should rightly exist on the other side of the door, such as the wall of the castle, do not. The old man tells him that the country is the “inner” Luceria, and that if he is to find the center, he must ride through. Seeing little other choice, Sigmund does. He follows his compass in a straight line until he comes to another door, which opens to reveal another impossible country. He does this innumerable times, and slowly comes to realize two things: that Luceria bears the same root as the name Lucifer, and that he is in fact in hell, dispatched by Satan in the guise of the king’s beautiful daughter.

Sigmund Frey reflects on the book’s parallel to his own situation, realizing that his own quest is likewise doomed to failure. For if the universe is truly infinite, consisting of an infinite number of circles, then every point is the center of the universe. He also muses on the possibility that the book was included as an act of sabotage, intended to demoralize him from his journey’s goal.

The nesting of narratives, the meta-narrative, and the geometry of infinity are all favorite subjects of Borges. But no record of the novel exists anywhere but in the review.

Means ends the unusually lengthy review with a complaint that the book ends abruptly, without so much as a philosophical conclusion, let alone a satisfying narrative climax.

The existence of the review as a fond tribute to the author is ponderable. Borges himself was known to review books that did not exist, and his use of the meta-narrative to show fiction’s effect on real life and vice-versa is well observed. The plot appears to borrow heavily from several of his more well-known short stories, the most glaring of which is The Library of Babylon and its description of infinity as a circle. But the question remains why Means would choose such a subject for his last review. What was his intent? Where did he go? And what was his ultimate fate?

Means was never seen again. The review currently rests in the collection of one Reginald Lucero, the former owner of the Damned Yankee. Never appearing in print, the review serves only as Means’ epitaph, one last enigma for an enigmatic man.

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