Image by Carmin Vance
When he was young, my grandfather lived inside a human skull. The skull was stark and white in the night, and lit like a terrestrial moon. Summer brought in sun and storms, but in the mild autumn, my grandfather watched the stars from his rooftop. The skull was at level with the high point of the pines, and the needles whipped and swayed in the wind below him. Up there, where the rural sky was exposed and undiffused, the galaxy was an open aquarium, a hypnotizing tank of lanterns. And on still October nights, entranced by the fragrance of abscission, it was easy for him to forget gravity, and to fall in.
During winter, frost glazed the remaining stalks of yellow grass. Triangular shards of ice bobbed in the flow of the oxbow stream, slowing the partial moat. Snow stacked and sloped against the skull, blending with the bone and burying it up to the zygoma. My grandfather lit fires inside the skull for heat, and the fires illuminated the long lightning fissures split across the walls, and the fires filled the windows with a warm glow, windows that once held eyes.
On a frozen day, when the soil was hard and variegated like marble, and spirals of wind blew into the bark of the hawthorn trees, my grandmother’s Arabian shrieked through the silence. Encircled in parhelion, and mounted on the bucking horse, my grandmother waved her long blue shawl from the summit of the mountain, a flag rippling for my grandfather’s attention. And he wouldn’t have noticed her had there been green on all the trees. She was far away, beyond the silver river rapids. She was past the malachite caves and over the cottonwood forest, where the deer liked to sleep. But he did see her, and as she rode into the valley, he called her over and she came.
Before asking for her name, he asked her, “How long have you been riding?” And, exhausted, she exhaled, saying, “I’ve been riding now for days.”
Grandfather took the reins and tied her horse to a post inside the shelter. He helped her down, and by the hand, he led her through the toadstools, stopping at the woodpile in the woods. “I haven’t seen another person for a week or more,” she said, and as he gathered several logs, he showed no surprise.
“Neither have I.”
Inside the house, he fed the flames and fetched a chair for her to sit in. He brought her a blanket and she wrapped herself up to the neckline, looping a hood over her hair. At rest, she watched the gentle embers breathe. Grandfather offered her soup, and she accepted. He promptly filled a bowl for her, and once it was in her possession, she counted all the carrots floating in the lukewarm broth. Wonder made her face look younger than her age, and her eyes appeared curious to him, as if unfamiliar with fire.
“Did you build all of this furniture yourself?”
He nodded, yes.
“I wasn’t sure how else you would have gotten this table here. Unless there’s a town nearby that I don’t know.”
“There are no towns,” said my grandfather, and that was all.
My grandmother took a look around the furnished skull. A Swiss clock ticked on the wall, its metronome the only sound above the wind. Miniature figurines, carved to look like trolls, hid under shadows on the shelves. Rugs arranged in quadrants divided the floor into rooms. Underneath the rugs, and everywhere else between, the empty forest floor was exposed, without a trace of green, trodden-flat and level. The house was dead with unknown history, but life was active here with quiet work, suppressing something larger, a nothing which she couldn’t quite grasp.
“When I saw the skull from the mountain, I’ll admit, I was afraid. I wouldn’t have come here on my own.
“Then I saw you by the water.”
With hands that required constant occupation, my grandfather whittled at a block of balsam fir. Dipping the knife’s point into a hollow, he said, “I’ve seen many odd places in this forest. Each place fascinates me in its own way, but that doesn’t mean I visit them. You did good to think to avoid this house.”
He tossed a spiraled chip into the flames.
“And you did better to come when you saw me.”
She ran her fingers over the decorative arm of her chair. Every notch was precise and every wedge was warm, as if freshly cut. The chair’s pattern imitated ivy, and was complex and difficult to think long on, but the pattern sent dreams spiraling around her in too many directions to comprehend in one impression. A simple effect rose from the whole, a fresh embrace of the earliest days of life. And, my grandmother became relaxed and free. A translucent locust shell fell from an oak tree.
“The night I left home,” she said, “the sky was black and orange. My town was throwing the harvest festival, and everyone was in high spirits. But it seemed like everyone was also withdrawn, with fear tightened in the corners of their mouths. I wandered through a crowd of faces that I’d known for my entire life, until I came to the table where my friends were sitting. I told Saskia that I felt an invisible pressure, and the year had taken me farther and farther away, to where, I wasn’t sure. She, no one, listened well enough for me to feel my message leave. Lucas played his guitar under the archway and we spoke about death and wine. I took my words as far as I could take them. Then, the hours sent my friends to sleep, and the streets were emptied of noise and the heat of bodies. The alleyways and cobblestones became lifeless and old, different than how I knew them. I rode away into the forest.
“When the weather twisted colder, it soon began to snow, and I felt ashamed for leaving, and I’d left because of shame. I spent those days outrunning wolves who had my scent, under the shadow of the conifer trees. We are creatures of light posing as creatures of mud, but it’s senseless to expose ourselves for what we really are. Who am I to believe that I can act brashly without punishment? Who am I to cross the boundaries without burning?”
Fire rose around the cauldron in the kitchen. My grandfather ladled out a mug of brick-brown cider. “So, you were sentenced by fate to isolation,” he said, “for being who you are. It’s no wonder that you found yourself in this region of the world.”
She didn’t respond to him, and she stared ahead at the embers in the hearth.
“You’re not the only one who’s felt the agony of distance,” he said, passing her the drink. “You left for a purpose, and now you’ve come to where you are. I see no reason why you should regret your choices.”
“I’ve lost them all now.”
My grandfather shook his head.
“No, I don’t believe that’s so.”
She sipped her cider, and with the bite, her face transformed. Her cheeks reddened, and her trampled spirit rose, floating upward like the swirling anise stars.
When the evening fell, my grandfather lit candles around the room. Black smoke wavered from the smoldered matchstick point. “I come from a place called Ormond,” he said, watching the silk stream blend into the rippling air, “although, the name’s changed since the time I lived there.”
He told her of his travels and the cost of living on his own terms. He told her stories of people who had wronged him, and of people he had wronged. He told her about his favorite cities, and of the most transcendent countryside he knew. Listening to his stories, she stayed up later than she had since childhood, as children stay awake to prove that day truly follows night.
When it came time, my grandmother took the bed beneath the palatine, and blew out the candelabra flames. Once she closed her eyes, her sleep was immediate and without sensation. She woke in the morning, and grandfather was making breakfast. As she spoke with him, his voice sounded like a choir, and she remembered that she’d seen him in the night, sitting in the middle of the room. Blue and purple clouds had passed over his form like mercury in a dish, and his body had blended with the background slowly, a firefly in the sun.
My grandmother did not leave the next day, nor did she leave the day after. In the spring-time, she planted a garden of tulips and radishes and went about in the forest without shoes. She learned how to better forage for berries. Some nights, grandfather recorded his thoughts in a large yellow book while my grandmother sang the songs that came to her on a daily walk through the meadow. He picked wild roses for her while she washed her clothes in the stream. In April, they decided that they were married. No one was around to witness, but no one was around to say it couldn’t be so.
Grandmother wore a gown she’d sewn in secret, with lace and flowing sleeves. She wore a tiara, of laurel leaves dipped in gold. Grandfather wore a tailored suit, kept from a journey long ago. He cut his hair with slick precision and he wore a cologne she didn’t know. They held hands by the waterfall, and let the babble be the preacher’s words.
Summer came, and with it, a certain tinge of aggravation in the heat. But inside the skull, it was always cold.
My grandmother stirred her stew with a long wooden spoon and the house said to her, “Chimney smoke rolls over the dome, where I once had hair that I loved to comb.”
Thin red rays shot in through the pane, touching her shoulder and her face.
“I understood this upon arriving,” she replied.
“But I forgot this over time.”
She chopped her longest leek and listened to the knitting needles clack. Trolls on the shelves walked forward into the light. She climbed up onto her chair and peered out past the vomer. My grandfather was away, seeking snakewood, and she couldn’t see him outside.
She began to shake, sick, as if with hunger. She wrapped herself in her alpaca quilt, but the fear would not leave her. Every object in the house woke and was alive with the house, and was a part of the house. Her body, inside the house, was no different. The fear seeped deeply in and warped her ribcage into a smear of gelatinous sap. Rye-brown granules pinned on her cheeks like holes, twisting her skin around to the bone, and with a quake, the world lamented the very existence of existence.
“Outside, I was wrapped in flesh, and I moved as you now move. I once made thoughts where you now think. I drank the water you now drink. You won’t escape it when your own time comes. You won’t be able to. And your time will come. At some point, it will come.”
My grandfather arrived and found her curled up, unnatural in the corner. He shook her awake, but she hadn’t been sleeping and she said, “Death is all around us here. It’s shown itself to me.
“We’ll be like this house we’re living in.
“Motionless. Inanimate. Without future.”
A tremor rattled China, displayed upon the wall.
“Don’t pretend,” grandfather said, “that this is something you didn’t already know.”
The skull received no visitors. Birds didn’t perch on the windowsills. My grandparents never had a problem with bats or mice. Sounds no longer leaked in through the doors, when once, they’d heard distant music every night, real or imagined, unknown.
On her knees, my grandmother extracted an orb of obsidian from the garden grounds.
“Every square foot of Earth teems with the writhing, uncountable bodies of insects. But, I’ve never once seen a ladybug crawling on the curtains.”
She placed the orb in a bucket where she kept other strange stones. Then, she took a handful of seeds and deposited them into the empty hole. “At least there are earthworms outside, where the air is fresh and I still feel alive.”
“We’re young and healthy,” said my grandfather, his back against the twisted quince, a hat over his eyes. “And there’s more time to live out ahead of us than behind. We have no immediate danger set-up against us. There are no threats. We should be humbled by the fact that we possess a life at all.”
“When I do feel it, there’s no logic to my fear,” she said, reaching her arm into the ground, “but, the fear will not let up in me. I begin to doubt simple materiality. And, I can’t control the waves. In my worst moments, the quilts become incomprehensible. They exist in a world, when existing in a world seems entirely implausible.”
“They’re only quilts,” said my grandfather, his eyes closed. “Organized string, meant for comfort.”
“I don’t know why life feels implausible in those moments,” she said. “Its obvious that I live in a world, myself.”
My grandfather held my grandmother close, the pumpkin sun behind them.
“You’re strong,” he said, tightening his grasp.
“No, I’m not. Not as strong as I thought I was.
“We will all be broken one day. Now, I can’t think about anything in any other way. Why should we trust the world when we’re born to be harmed?”
“Look at yourself,” said my grandfather, running his hand through her hair. “You’re a child who’s discovered the meaning of the headstones outside of church.”
“Before I left my home for here,” she said, wandering away to the willow, “I would feel like this, but not with such constancy. I can’t explain the sensation, but it’s like I’ve swallowed poison. All the worst parts of me have been growing stronger since the summer, bubbling inside me like a brew.
“Someone speaks to me when you’re gone, in my mind or out, it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. I wouldn’t need to hear another word. I already have the message, and the truth has become a part of me.”
“Do I leave you alone too long?” he asked. “I never left you in the winter. Is it only isolation?
“Tell me all your fears. Difficult feelings are easier on the outside, exposed for what they are.”
He walked behind her slowly, and she turned around once he touched her shoulder. She dug her head into his chest. Harp strings sounded, gold across the hanging branches in the breeze.
“Stay with me until it goes away.”
“It will go away,” said my grandfather. “This isn’t you, but something else inside controlling. I know the feeling, and it will leave. Don’t believe you’re the only one to think these thoughts. Strangeness and sadness are conquerable, like old rivals. And, once their challenge is gone, you may find yourself missing them, wishing to feel them again.
“Just wait and see.”
That night, he propped his ladder against the parietal, and they climbed up to the crown. She sat in the center, her mind fluctuating busily between oblivion and lucidity, until she couldn’t continue crocheting anymore. Grandfather, however, closed his eyes and held his palms out in the westward breeze.
“October is my favorite month,” he said. “The air is fresh with the new winter. The skies are clear. I swear, I can see the summer in the sun as it falls below the Earth.”
And, Grandmother thought she saw his spirit, an ectoplasmic double of his shape, lift out of his skin and drop back in. She had no time to move, and she had no time to sew. She watched the moon catapult over the land. Her mind left all worldly concern and she saw the rocks for what they were. Gravity bestowed an unfamiliar motion-sickness upon her. Everything on the horizon hugged the Earth, but the Earth hugged nothing. She saw it forever tumbling, locked in orbit.
Once it was dark, grandfather traced the outline of Ursa Minor with his hands, a magician casting spells, moving portions of sky. “Boötes and Draco, darkness and light. Shine up, shine down. You can find Polaris by bisecting the inner angle of Cassiopeia and running it straight into the next brightest point, there.
“And beside it, right above us tonight, is the galaxy Andromeda. It seems like a single star, no different than the rest, but in that empyreal blur there are twice as many stars as in our Milky Way. Eventually, our galaxies will collide, and the merger will be gradual, not abrupt. The positions of the stars will warp. I’ve seen it in my memories, fast and slow, as the man that I am, and as the God who watches all events through cosmic time, the stars, like cinnamon and turmeric, tossed together in a bowl.”
Grandfather woke her when he climbed into the bed that night, but she didn’t speak to him. He curled up beside her for an hour, and in that time, she concentrated on her breathing, which she kept deep and heavy, to meditate her way out of the usual fear she felt upon waking. Whatever her breath brought in, it was not as sweet as what grandfather seemed to take. He smiled in his sleep, and didn’t notice that her eyes were open when he rose.
And, she thought he was going outside to get a drink of water. Instead, he sat down on the floor. My grandmother turned over in the bed to face him, and she watched him silently. He was only an outline in the dark, a shadow among shadows. His body looked loose from form.
Clouds of smoke wafted in around him. They appeared from nowhere, smelling volcanic, tasting of metal in her mouth, and she felt that she was at the bottom of a cave, flooding with the inland tide. The clouds swept around his body, passing through him, surrounding him. When the fog flared across his face, it illuminated his features, and she could see that his eyes were closed. He leaned forward and put his palms flat on the dirt, mumbling incomprehensible words, speaking them with familiarity and rhythm, another language that she hadn’t heard before. He moved his body in circles, rotating clockwise with the echo. He shook his hands and spread the dirt. In crescendo, in desperation, he clawed at his wrists, as if to claw himself out of himself. He tried to strip his arms out of his arms. He shook like no man should shake, in untraceable patterns. The clouds spiraled around, a cyclone of reds, greens, blues and yellows, condensing into a funnel, conical above his body. In a rise, the lights flashed, and the clouds dipped away. He sat still, head tilted, and the outlines of geometric shapes rained and dissolved around him.
In the morning, my grandmother didn’t speak of the clouds, and my grandfather acted as he normally did at dawn. They ate breakfast together and he commented on the beautiful sunrise and the robust rust of the leaves. He pointed out how the dripping dew caught the light like crystals on the cobwebs. And, agreeing on the hours’ bucolic perfection, she pondered through him, reaching for orbs inside his skull. ‘Dear Obsidian night– I’ve seen inside, without biting, the chamber where the apple hides its seed.’
During a walk to the overlook, my grandmother climbed into a fossilized tree. Resting her face against the trunk, she left her brood in the petrified wood, and lived that day enthusiastically.
She painted his portrait when he wasn’t looking later, as he was hunched over his big yellow book. When he noticed her brush, he caught a glimpse of the page, and although she pulled the paper away to hide, she made sure he saw how he was rendered, cloaked in clouds and colors, and sitting on the floor. But, he said nothing of it, and when the evening came, he climbed up onto the rooftop without a word.
After what seemed like a decade of silence, staring at an empty room, the weight of the mattress changed, and he came into bed with her. In several moments, he was snoring, and she rolled over and stretched out on the bed, watching his chest rise and fall.
In the peace of sleep, she forgot her fears and troubles. She forgot her pleasures. She was shown visions, shapes and colors, unseen by the eyes. Expansive mental worlds, real only to her, involving castles and caravans, and diamonds and dust, were pearls in vinegar, dissolving the moment that she opened her eyes. And when she happened to open her eyes, he was there, sitting on the ground again, and the mist hovered around him like a ghost around the grave, a neon spectre, miasmic in the living room.
Afraid of disturbing the ritual, of clearing away the clouds with the winds of words, the gusts of breath and movement, she remained still. My grandmother watched until the colors intensified, filling the room with the light of electric lamps, dangling from trees along the trail. Desperate not to miss her chance this night, to test another impatient day, she rose from bed and stepped off the goose-down pillow, nearly tripping over the sheets. The sounds she made didn’t disrupt the process. My grandfather didn’t slip from his trance. And as she came closer, she saw that he was still a dark figure, absent of light, even with the carnival swirling around his form. He contained no presence now. His body was not a body now, but was the absence of a body. She did not see my grandfather, but the cut-out piece of the universe that had once been my grandfather. He was an outline without context, a silhouette. She thought that he had been unpeeled from physical space.
When he opened his eyes, the whites were ovals floating alone, uncontained by a face. They remained, watching her, fixed and knowing, like two candles shining from a café window, denying with innocence, the extreme dark of a starless cosmos, as if eyes and stars alike were formed to defy the unobservable nothingness.
My grandmother reached for him and the screen of clouds consumed her and enshrouded her like a wedding gown. Once inside, she saw everything that he saw. Volcanic oceans spewed below the liquid Earth. Stars ignited dot by dot, a genesis of galaxies, like sorcery in the sky. The collapse of mighty lights were only eyelids closing one by one, and by caving-in beyond the form of the eye, each orb blinked into a black hole, from which nothing could escape. Cells performed mitosis, splitting into the cry of crickets. Under the shadow of the switchgrass, dandelions grappled for light, living a season of competition, releasing paratroopers into the wind. A breath, a blowing williwaw wind, washed waves. An energetic ebb and flow sang unspoken passions, ideas beyond ideas. Language was not formed to describe such feelings beyond feeling, such worlds beyond words, it is not quick enough, it has not come far enough along in its evolution. And as the universe condensed before her into one red string, very much resembling a serpent made of fire, an unknown creation altogether, an outside string of blue, curled its tail around her world’s tail, and this image impressed itself palpably, like a stamp, onto her ego, like a chemical stain, a branding burnt onto her arm, and when she came to, it was dawn, and orange-red rays were streaking in through the windows. She was holding my grandfather’s hand, and she said, “those are not our own thoughts. Our minds have been invaded by another.”
My grandfather took a moment to process the sound. Further out in the meadow, grasshoppers bolted from blade to blade. He held his fingers to his temples in pairs. Stale air hazed visibly over the furniture, like a white poison around the room. He stood, palming the armrests of his chair, whittled into the heads of oaken owls.
“It’s almost morning now,” he said, attempting to regain balance. Blood rushed to his brain, and a heartbeat pulse deafened his ears, and his steps became clumsy and weak, heavy-footed. Wrinkles rippled over his cheeks like water in the wind, but his lips aged and cracked, desert dry. His hair faded into the color of pale starlight. And, as his posture slackened, the amygdala seeped into her too, crippling them both.
His facial features fluctuated, riding un-lived ages, returning to his youngest old-age forms. “Is it a trick of the light?” she asked. “Tricks of light and shadow?”
He didn’t know what she meant, and he searched for the meaning in her eyes. His face was not the face she knew now, even though it was familiar, a face she saw each day. Just as clearly as she remembered the recent past, she remembered recent times that they had yet to live. And, less clearly, she remembered how my grandfather had spent the months and years, dragging himself around with a cane of warped birch, waiting for the night to fall. In those future days, he longed for the strength to climb the ladder to his rooftop, but he was forced in frailty to look out at the stars from a window in a house that she couldn’t quite place, with that face that she didn’t yet know. She remembered the liver spots, dark on his skeletal hands, and how he turned to face her. Grandmother touched the old man’s concave cheek, a sheet over a toothless jaw, and he searched within her eyes, confused and overwhelmed by how the moment felt pre-lived, repeated, and he said, “When I was young, I could watch melancholia soar-in like a rainstorm from over the mountains.
“It felt to me like desolation was the basic state of the rational mind, and once it rained, I was washed of all lies, all the fairy tale armor structuring my world.”
She stood, the long sleeves of her nightgown hanging royally off her frame. Taking his crooked arm, she helped him find his stance, and then she walked him slowly toward the door. Stopping her in the half-light, shrouded in residual mist, he stood firm. She heard a rumble, a growl from deep below the Earth, and streams of red smoke spiraled in from behind the sphenoid, leaving a trace like twisted horns.
“I don’t believe we have our own thoughts,” he said, “in here or away. Everything we understand is taken from the outside. Everything we are. We didn’t invent the language that we think in. Our most unique actions are still reactions. All of it is an invasion from another.
“Look at all this work. Where did I get my ideas? I wasn’t responsible for any of the outcomes here. The chairs formed themselves into the shapes that they were meant to be. They seemed to build themselves. And I was just a set of hands, molding.”
“And, if we stay here,” she said, but she didn’t finish her words. She backed away into the darkness, steadily towards the door. “Don’t pretend that this is something you didn’t already know.”
Grandfather watched her body fade with shadow, like Ophelia drowning in the deep, and then he turned and walked further into the house. He took the woodcuts off the walls, all intricate mirrors depicting the cities that he’d seen, portals into the past. He put them in a bag that he kept inside the cabinet. He gathered up other items from the shelves, smaller bits of carved kingwood, treasured times contained.
Longing and desire flooded in, like the sea through a torn hull, just by touching those days of endless work. He stripped a panel from a shelf. He grabbed a foot-stool and de-assembled it quickly, with a memory that only its creator could contain. An inscription: With the ultimate mastery of fear, anything is possible in life.
“Death. In ultimate death, there is no purpose for moving or speaking. There is no purpose for living. All will be lost in the end. All collected sensory data will be lost. Without a future, there is no purpose for the present. What won’t exist later has no reason to exist now. You cannot refute this logic. The truth, what you want, is easy enough to find. It is a release into the silence that you can’t avoid, a silence that will be your entire future. It’s as easy as waking up in the night. And you wake up in the night because you are not immortal. You fear the inevitable needlessly. You cannot escape it. You will not escape it when your own time comes. You won’t be able to. And your time will come. At some point, it will come.”
But, the house had no time to try again. They calmly took the necessary things they needed, not much else, just clothing, food, and my grandfather’s book. Slinging the heavy bag over his shoulder, he allowed a moment to double-check for carvings forgotten in the rush, and then they stepped outside into the yard. They mounted my grandmother’s horse, and my grandmother waved farewell to the turnip patch, the only place she’d planted solace. Then, they rode away into the winter. My grandfather, having forgotten how big the world was, held onto her tightly, and the longer he held on, the longer he felt their future lengthen out before them, galloping through the dawn.
And the skull, I suppose, remained in place, undisturbed by the forest animals, isolated and alone, calling occasionally for curious people to come by, people like myself.
Written by Adam Pettit 2016-2017