Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Shell

The crowd moves down the stairs, following the line as it weaves in and out between the brightly pointed coral formations of the sea and the smooth dark rocks of the steep cliffside. Behind and above us, headlights can be seen pulling into the few open parking spots which line the highway, and beyond that, the stony incline becomes steeper, the foot of a mountain enormous enough to block out the rising sun. To the south, a river's mouth separates us from the plateau of a high class coastal town I found only recently, its chaotic streets a labyrinth of luxury. To the north, a bed of fog hides the highway that I know snakes through the cliffside for many miles, and the ever-growing range of mountains that protects the inland valleys from the wild sea.

And straight ahead, the path leads down to a flat walkway carved out of the reef itself, its multitude of branches all centering on the mammoth clamshell amphitheatre, half-submerged in the sea. When watching it, the waves seem to flyby in slow motion, crashing against the coral spires which shield the structure from a seemingly destined flood. The shell's giant lips part, with the bottom half forming the floor of the entryway and the top half a ridged awning. As our line slowly shuffles past the unmanned box office window and into the halls of the structure, we pass ornate organic pearl frames, posters of upcoming acts inside. And of tonight's headliner: Laurie Anderson.

The walls of the main chamber seem to pulse with life, though we of the audience all know this creature died a century ago, its soft innards petrified by the unique properties of the surrounding sea. We find our places among the perfectly chiseled, mirrorlike seats, waiting for the lights to finally dim. I wonder aloud if the night will feature material from Anderson's legendary "Moby Dick" project - a neighbor nods and confirms that the show's aquatic setting is more than coincidence. We are suddenly silenced by the parting of the red curtains, and as we stand to better see the show unfolding ahead of us, we find the scene around us has already started to fade, pushing us back towards waking life in an infuriating anticlimax.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Shores of the Oily Sea


All About The Coins

Drawing my sword, I step into the building - the long hallways which mark this as a former college campus painfully familiar, the ruined walls and flickering lighting no different than the last time. Immediately, almost instinctively, I leap into the air to reach the three coins floating there, the large golden discs disappearing with a chime as my hands cross through them.

Landing, I recognize a block of ceiling tile above me - a brighter, browner gray than those around it, a familiar signal that it is about to fall. I jump out of its way, as I have hundreds of times before, careful to avoid the bottomless pit which has taken me by surprise on at least two occasions.

From a door on my left, a lizardman emerges, flanked by three slimes. Same combination as always, no new challenges, no surprises. With a single movement I leap over the creatures, turning to slice through two of the slimes and knock the barely wounded lizardman down into the pit, out of my way. I spin around to dispatch the third slime, weakly wobbling towards me like an aimless mound of gelatin, and come out with no less notches on the bright red belt buckle which represents my remaining life.

Around a corner comes Gediman, brandishing a sword of his own, his familiar face fixed on his vow to uncover every last corner of every last building. Seeing me, he waves me over, and gestures down his hallway to a large hole in the floor, where a moving platform slides over a bed of flowing lava.

"Pssst! Yo, man you should check out that platform pronto... there's a hidden room next to it with twenty, twenty-five coins..."

I start, but then stop, and turn. "I would... but really, what's the point?"

He stares back, eyebrows cocked. "The point? Point of what?"

"Exactly. I mean, we run around these buildings day in and day out, risking our lives to collect every last coin, and for what?"

Sheathing his sword, he pats me on the back, sitting me down against a crumbling wall. "Man, you must have hit your head or something. You sure you're all right?"

"Fine! I just don't see what good another twenty or so coins is going to do me."

Gediman sighs. "Twenty coins! In case you've forgotten - you get a hundred, you get an extra life. Twenty is like a fifth of the way there..."

I stand up vehemently, kicking a broken and rusted chair down the hall and into the pit. "An extra life! An extra life for WHAT? To collect more coins?"

"Hey, maybe you don't remember Reynolds..." he sighs, his hand on his temples, "...I mean, he had a pretty weak approach to coin collection. He'd just rush on through each building, from the start to the end, and not even bother with coins or free lives. And do you know what happened to him? He made it all the way to the Giant Mantis, which took all five lives away in just a few minutes. And then? Game over, man. Game over!"

I tremble with anger, ready to leave this nearsighted fool. "And so, he started over once again, from the beginning. And he fought his way through again, making the same mistake but losing his lives a little further in. And even now he's going for it once again. But how is that really any different from us? We run through these same buildings we've passed through hundreds of times before, just to collect the same coins? Or hoping to find a few hidden away? It's still the same thing, over and over, no deviation or variation or..."

"But hey, what about the secret zone? If we can get through every building, find every coin, and not get hit once, then they say we can unlock it..."

I shake my head, disappointed. "The secret zone is a rumor, made up to keep us searching. But even if it were real - and since there's not one witness to it, I'd say it's not - even if it were, it would just be one more place to explore. When you're done with it, then what? Back to here?"

He stares off into space, repeating his knowledge of the zone like a mantra. "They say that the secret zone is so beautiful, so perfect, that you'd never want to come back. They say that's why we never meet anyone who's been there - they've passed the challenge of the coins, and gone on to a better place, a perfect place."

"Man, you are warped," I shake my head at him. "You're so sold on this concept that you can't even ask why. Why would... whatever thing made this world want us to collect coins? Why would it reward us for that? We have minds, why shouldn't we use them for something... something productive? Why should we waste our lives hunting down coins - something that even a computer could do?"

Gediman trembles angrily, and stands, turning his back on me. "Look. If you want to spend your time on something 'productive,' well then go ahead, man. But don't judge me for my choices, or my beliefs. Whatever the reasons, we're meant to collect coins. Ask 'why' all you want, but you're not getting an answer - so, might as well accept it. Sorry, man, but I'm just being realistic."

"So am I," I reply after a pause. "I mean, there's no reason for me to keep going on these quests, if my heart's not in it."

As he walks away, Gediman looks back, with a cruel grin. "So do whatever you like, man. You don't have a choice, really - this is the world, these are the rules - but hell, go ahead and try if you want. But, if you pass me in the hall again, do me a favor - don't talk to me."

I nod, hurt but hiding it until he turns the corner. 

After a moment, I spin in a circle, weighing all of the paths ahead of me, and finally settling on the wall. Drawing my sword, I make a high horizontal slash, a gash appearing a few inches below the ceiling. Spinning the sword thrice, I make several more marks across it, a vague shape beginning to appear. I stare for a minute or so, weighing the potential impact of my next marks, then lift my sword up to carefully chisel bits of wallpaper around the edges of the shape, allowing it shades and textures. My lines become more curved and confident, as the undefined marks slowly change size to eventually reveal the shape of a strange quadrapedal animal - while it's not one I've ever seen in this world, it may be quite real in another.

After a half hour, I step back, and admire my work, fulfilled for the first time. "I have just invented art," I whisper to myself, boastfully.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A New Family Pet

The couch I am lying on is ridiculously uncomfortable, and I wonder how my parents could have bought it. Next to me, on the floor, my sister is playing with the latest in a long string of attempts at adopting a pet - she's only just now trying to first coax it out of the dome-like den which sits in the corner of its fishtank-like living quarters. My mother is in the other room, apparently unhappy and uncertain about the creature. 

Eventually, a small face emerges, its long anteater snout and rabbit-like ears sitting playfully at the head of a furry, teddybear-like body.

"Ah, it's cute. What is it?" I ask.

"It's a Chuahuaro. Kind of like a Chinchilla," she answers. As the creature crawls on the floor we note that it only has one eye. "Poor guy," my sister notes, "but in a way that just makes him cuter."

The Chuahuaro leaps up to the ledge of the couch, and climbs next to me. I start stroking its head, and purring, it makes its way onto my chest. Its claws are long and seem to push through my clothes, and as they sting me I can't help but squirm. The creature lets out a burst of rapid-fire "ho" sounds, as strange an animal's call as I have ever heard.

"It sounds like... sounds like it's laughing?"

"Yeah, they're extremely smart," my sister points out, proudly. "Apparently it's even possible to teach them to repeat words and sentences, kind of like parrots."

It grabs one of my fingers and brings it towards its mouth, which opens to reveal a set of long pointed teeth. With its head reared back the face seems flatter, more human, and seems to smile like some kind of demented cartoon creature. I try and pull my finger away, but its tiny arms are stronger than I thought, and both of my hands are barely able to save the finger from multiple puncture wounds.

The creature speaks. "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!"

"What the hell?" I scream, trying to back away from it, only to find my clothes are pinned to the couch by the claws on its toes.

"Santa Claus! Santa Claus! Hohohohoho!" the creature laughs as it jams its claws into the fabric of my shirt. I can't tell if they've punctured my skin, I'm too numb with fright to feel any pain. My mother and sister grab the creature by its back and try and pull it off, but the claws hold tightly and the creature squirms violently. Finally, one claw slips and the monster loses balance, and is torn away from my now shredded shirt.

They try to hold the thing at a safe distance, as it is now thrashing wildly, shouting "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!" with a wild smile still fixed to the face. My sister drops it back into its habitat while my mother ties the cage shut with rope, the creature's wild spasms gradually dying down.

"What the hell was that?" I ask, rushing over to the computer to investigate the site my sister adopted the creature from. A few clicks in we find the website of the previous owner - it's a low-budget film company, which specializes in campy horror flicks. We scroll through their countless movie posters, past such ridiculous horror concepts as a mad Ronald Reagan, a lawnmower that comes to life, a retelling of "West Side Story" with zombies... Finally we find an image of the creature - decked out in Father Christmas garb, with its long claws fully extended, film name: "Santa Claws."

We groan at the pun, and sigh with understanding, and look back at the little one-eyed critter, who peeks out at us sadly, once again shy with a sense of confused regret. "Poor thing," my mother says, "it was only doing what they trained it for."

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Ribbon Islands

Below the plane I can see little, outside of the endless expanse of deep dark blue, the horizon a gigantic, distant circle around our craft. The seat is practically dripping with comfort - just what I would expect from first class, at least from the legends I've always heard muttered back in coach.

The vessel appears empty, but common sense reminds me that, aside from the man who accompanied me onboard, there should be at least one person in the cockpit. And hopefully a stewardess. My drink needs refreshing.

Strange, I think, that commercial flight such as this one has been diverted from its normal path and its normal occupancy for the sole sake of this voyage. Stranger still is the thought that I, of all people, have been chosen for this clearly prestigious position, and strangest of all the enigma of the unknown job itself.

My escort, a suave salaryman with a checkered tie, enters through a door from behind me, and takes the seat one space across. "We'll be passing over the first of the islands any second. I recommend you enjoy the view - one of the great tragedies is how few people get a chance to see it."

I take his advice and focus through the window, arcing my head until the twisted ribbons are finally visible. Thin loops of land, stretching in warbled circles across the surface of the water. Some of the corners curve up into smooth and forested mountains, but in most places the land is no more than a slim string between two beaches, the enormous lake in the center of each ring as dark and presumably deep as the ocean surrounding it.

"Like most islands this far out, they're volcanic," the other man says. "But all other islands in ring formations like this are atolls - coral rings that formed around the upper part of an eroded mountain. These ones are different, and totally unique - each one of these *is* a mountain. Hollow volcanoes, and the best part is that their core shafts are so deep, they're believed to go far past the sea floor. Since diving down there is quite dangerous and expensive, no one is absolutely sure, of course - but the sheer range of unique marine life just at the surface gives us a clue that whatever's down there is something special."

I peer at another island approaching, this one with what looks like a small urban area constructed on wooden planks, floating above the island's central lake. While the city itself is clearly a shantytown, an elaborate network of freeway bridges circle the island, eventually connecting the northern village to a pier on the southern end.

"That's the boss' hometown. Not exactly a tourist destination, but he financed those bridges himself in the hopes that it might someday become one. Of course it hasn't happened yet, and cost him a third of his fortune. But, you know, when you have as much as he does, two thirds of your net worth is still more than the rest of us will see in a lifetime."

My eyes are still fixed on the elevated freeways, trying to look from every angle in order to to trace the support columns, if there are any. "But... how do they... I mean, what are the supports connected to? How does he balance that much concrete on such a deep lake? That would be impossible, right?"

The other man laughs. "Well, like I said: when you're as rich as he is..." He nods, with a knowing look.


My innertube zips around the corner of the castle, carried by the artificial current of the artificial river which forms a thin, playful moat around the enormous mansion of the man who hired me. Upon arrival I was told that the boss himself was not yet ready to meet me, and was invited to kill time in the mansion's recreational canals. I've explored every curve in this river - not only does it manage to encircle the entire house, but parts branch off to flow inside of the building itself, connecting all rooms on the ground floor by water as well as by floorboard. In addition, some of the upper rooms feature waterslides and diving boards above the thicker, deeper portions of the moat below, and while this brings to mind immediately lavish and surreal drunken dinner parties, I know enough of the owner's reclusive reputation to know that such extravagances are most likely creature comforts for an eccentric and unbound imagination.

As I turn yet another bend, the house's butler calls me out of the water, declaring that his master is nearly prepared. I climb out and follow him, turning down the towel he offers, comfortable in my bathing suit. The remarkably cool water which still clings to my skin somehow makes the tropical climate more bearable.

I am led to a natural lake not far from the house, the master barely visible on a small island near the center, apparently slaving behind an easel. I am surprised to see that this half of the lake is covered by a layer of fractured ice, which the butler walks onto with an effortless ease. I stall at the shore, unnerved by the way each segment of ice seems to teeter when touched by footsteps.

The butler, a few steps in, turns back. "Don't mind the blocks. It's one of the master's favorite games - a bit of a challenge he likes to go through to reach the "Island of Solitude," as he calls it. The house is full of little games like this - the master says it keeps him productive, to add some little challenges to the drolleries of his everyday life."

The ice stings my bare feet as I step forward. I'm surprised to find it much less slippery than expected - in fact, my feet seem to cling to it as they would to frozen sheet of metal. The greater challenge is centering my balance on each chunk, as an off-center step can tilt the entire block and throw my balance off completely. The butler is naturally accustomed to it, and barely hides his irritation at my insufficient progress.


Ten minutes later, we have reached our temporary destination, my feet stinging but warmed by the naturally hot air. The butler has made his way back across the ice, his pace quickened with no rookies to lead, leaving me alone with my mysterious host. Still focused on his painting, the back of his head gives only the vaguest hints to the shape of his face - but his canvas, an abstractly stylized replica of the sunset before him, brings out colors most eyes would never notice, and seems to show him more openly than any mugshot.

"I'm no good at small talk," he apologizes, quick and kind. "So I'll get right to it. Do you know why you're here?"

"No... not a clue, actually."

He dips his brush again, and patches of red begin to appear, in all of the right places. "Well, as you probably know, I grew up on these islands. When I was very young, I built my own ship, and sailed around to all of them. Not just the thin stringlike ones like this, but the bigger ones closer to land, and the coast of the nearby continent. But although these places are familiar to me, and close to my heart, they don't exist on any map. Do you know why that is?"

I shake my head, no.

"Because the land out here twists and changes every night, and even if there were a map made it would be impossible to find any of these places a second time. The average person doesn't really care for a reality so inconsistent, and so they generally don't set foot out here, nor do they have any interest in hearing about it. But that's not the case with you is it?"

I nod, suddenly understanding my qualifications. "No. I've done quite a bit of exploring around here. I have scrapbooks full of notes and drawings from my journeys - just for my own curiosity, really, since as you said most don't take much of an interest in this place."

He laughs, his thinned hair shaking as he stares away to the sunset. "And so, I'd like to hire you. To make a map, of these islands, the continent, all of the surrounding areas. The cities, the people, and so on."

"A map?" I scratch my head, figuratively at least. "But I don't know how to make maps... I mean, I don't have half of the drawing skill that you have."

"But a place like this is one you could never hope to map in pictures. I think you should map it in words. A picture stays the same, but words change meaning as they are read and re-read, and are certainly the best way to document a place like this. What do you say?"

I stop to consider, only to realize thinking about it is pointless. This is a dream job, and only a fool could turn it away. "I accept."

He nods his unmoving head, and shifts his focus back to the painting. "Well then, I'll make all the necessary arrangements from here. And, I'm sure you won't need it, but good luck."

As I walk back across the frozen lake, I feel a sense of newfound power. The ice no longer stings, shifts, or sticks, and my feet seem to glide across it without misstep. As I turn around to glance back at the central island, I find the host to have somehow vanished, as the landscape beyond seems to shift its colors to a new, and entirely different, palette.