On the Other Side of the Universe

Once he got to the other side of the universe, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. He had tunneled for so long, chipping and scraping at the rock until mountains of fine soft powder were piled in the path behind him. The other side of the universe had broken on him, all of a sudden, like the unveiling of a face before him. He had stood, awed by it, and a little scared. A small wish surfaced in his mind that the veil would draw across the face again, and the features be misty and far once more. There was a citadel on the other side of the universe, a great staggering thing built of feathered balustrades and climbing towers. It reached the sky and pierced the heavens, and he imagined that past the boundless blue there must be twining iron and stone still reaching farther.

He had come to be a hero. He had followed the dragon through the universe, through the rock and out to the other side. He was meant to be a hero and fight the dragon until it died on his sword and order was restored. There was probably a maiden to save, or a kingdom to vanquish. His mind was clouded and his memories elusive. When he reached for them, they scampered away. There must have been something, some thread of reason that he had made this journey. There was a reason that he was standing before this vast citadel that rose glorious and deadly before him. He just didn’t know what it was.

When he took a faltering step forward, the ground melted and swayed under his foot. He stumbled, and caught himself. The world on the other side of the universe was treacherous. It might have been trying to toss him back out again. So then, he thought, it doesn’t want me. I must be here for a reason, see? But the reason was not there. No dragon spiraled the towers of the citadel. No gust of wind fell from its wings. Whatever he had followed was not there. He took another step, and trembled. The ground was roiling now, tossing like the sea. He fell to his knees and clutched at the earth beneath him – or was it earth? – gritting his teeth and clenching shut his eyes. The citadel did not move. It stayed motionless and immense while the ground surged before it.

Would he go back, shaking and retreating from this place, or would he claw and pull himself closer? He clutched at the ground, his muscles straining, and he fixed his eyes on the tower that thrust through the sky.

He was supposed to be a hero. He did not know what that meant, but it did not mean turning back and whimpering away through the tunnel he had dug for so long, with such determination that it had shredded his fingernails and made his fingers bleed. He dug his fingers into the ground and hauled himself forward. The citadel wavered in his vision as he rose and fell with the waves of the earth, but he did not stop. It was closer now, and closer. He would reach it.

When he had dragged himself across the heaving earth for hours, the citadel was in his reach. The iron of the wall was cold under his palm. He curled his hands around its ridges and ignored the quiver in his muscles, weak with fatigue as they were. When he reached the first flat platform of the tower, he curled up on the smooth stone floor. In front of him, as he faced out, the wall of rock rose gray and infinite. His tunnel was a pathetic hole halfway down, a little black spot like a drop of ink on the endless page. The ground where he had crawled was still rolling and falling. He watched it until he fell asleep.

He awoke when the light of dawn drenched the citadel. He turned, in awe, to look at the black shadows that cut across the towers and turrets, and the pale light that blanched the building in stripes. The warmth of morning crept close to his skin as he shivered in the shadow of his walls. He gathered his strength, looked up, and began to climb once more. There was no reason to it now, no dragon and no maiden. He did not know what he was following, or if there was anything above him. He reached and gripped and pulled himself upward.

He climbed all day, and slept again at night. The ground below, still tumbling, looked very far away now, but when he tipped his face to the sky there was still a ceaseless stretch of stone and iron above him. He climbed, and slept, and climbed again for a long time. His skin hardened. The hold he had made in the rock of the universe disappeared, a forgotten blot long past. The towers thinned and twisted. No dragon could nest this high. No human had ever reached this height.

He had to be a hero, by now. The crag of tower where he was clinging was nearly at the sky. He could barely breathe, but he could see the blue above him, and the place where the tower broke through it. In another day he heaved himself over an edge of stone and his head scraped against the sky. He curved himself around and put his fingers through the edge of the wound in the sky, between its curling edge and the iron that shot through it. He shoved, and bent the sky back. The edge of the sky was sharp, and it tore and sliced at his hands. He ignored the pain, for he was a hero. When there was a space enough to shimmy through, he clutched at the crumpled edge of sky and drew himself over.

For a long and shuddering moment, the hero lay gasping on the top of the sky. Above him the towers of the citadel pushed endlessly into the black. He sat and caught his breath, and then he began to climb again.

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Because of Emily Dickinson

A man is sitting at a barstool, leaning forward and staring dully at the glass clasped between his hands. He is thinking, vaguely and hopelessly, that there is very little in his life. This is a good reason to straighten and gulp down a swig of scotch.

After a while, and another glass filled and emptied, the door to the bar swings and slams. Somebody settles into place on the stool beside him, but he barely notices. His glance hardly flickers to the side. He concentrates only on the shards of light piercing the glass before him.

Another long while passes, and eventually it occurs to him to look at his companion, drinking quietly next to him. He turns and scans and sees nothing remarkable, and returns to his comfortable slump. In a minute, though, as he raises the glass to his lips, it occurs he can’t remember what the person next to him looks like. The thought tickles at his mind, drawing his attention to – something. Something that did not hold his attention at all, and it bothers him. He saw only a face, and it left no imprint on his mind. He doesn’t think he’s quite that drunk yet.

After a sip he turns again, sliding a glance from half-lidded eyes, and nods. A normal face, nothing outstanding. But when he turns forward again, the face slips from his mind. He has no recollection of the person two feet from him, no sense of what he – or she? – looks like. He shrugs, and his hands settle before him once more. He sits and chats with the bartender, empty small words, and after a few minutes he has mostly forgotten that anyone is there at all. The barstool is a familiar sort of uncomfortable under him, and his head swims pleasantly.

Time passes until a flicker of movement at his side catches his attention, and he realizes that the barstool next to him is still occupied. He peeks over, another sidelong glance at someone wholly unremarkable. The plain stranger is watching him steadily. So he sits up straight, and turns completely, and looks back. The man and the stranger stare at each other, the stranger unperturbed and the man bewildered. He waits for a long moment of peering at the stranger’s vacant eyes, blank but for something – searching. Something that prods him with a question, but he cannot hear it and does not know the answer.

He shifts, fidgets, and a shiver brushes his spine. His hand finds the glass on the bar and he looks at it, keeping his gaze there. He speaks, his voice rasping and thin, and says to the stranger, “Who are you?”

The stranger’s voice is flat. “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

The man is confounded. Surprised, too, that he is less confused than he should be. He nods at the question as if it makes sense, and then wonders at his own quick acceptance. And a voice comes from his lips as he realizes too late what he is saying, “I don’t know. Nobody. I guess I could be.”

The stranger smiles and nods, but he cannot see. He sinks back into himself, crumpling onto the barstool and forward toward the glass and the drop of scotch left traced around its edge. In a bit he notices that he is the only one sitting there, that the bar is empty. And when he shakes his heavy head he feels the wisp of something drifting from his mind, like a dream hidden in the shroud of sleep. He leaves the bar very late that night, alone, and watches his own shoes step forward on the pavement until he can rest.

***

That man wanders now. He goes to many places and talks to people who don’t understand what’s happening, but he stops that quickly because he cannot bear their confusion. They hold so much of substance in their minds that he cannot fit. So he goes from place to place and watches people, hoping someday to find a person with nothing on his mind and little to live for. In the meantime he sits on trains, stands in line for coffee, steps through sidewalks with a crowd of people who cannot remember his face.