“Here in the abyss we make romantic science.”
One, the Fourth Option
Here are your options. You are only reading this or hearing this or watching someone, an actor perhaps, mouth these words that someone else wrote. That’s option one.
Or, you are making this up yourself, making it up as you go along, out of nothing but hand-me-down rags of language and scraps of your own memories, arranged in a pattern suggesting a continuous narrative, pure confabulation, which is you. That’s two.
Or, you are dreaming all of this while asleep at this very instant, unable to command yourself to wake up or to exert the least little bit of control over what weird event, compound person, or overwhelming emotion rushes out of these shadows at you next. Of course, that means you would have to be dreaming this directly. You could not be dreaming of reading this. That’s not an option. No one can read in their dreams. You’d have to be composing text as fast as you could read it to do that. You can’t do that. You know that. Anyway, dreaming is three.
Or, you are dead. That’s four.
Let’s go with number four for now. Bet you’ve never been dead before, not really dead. Who has, right? This will be fun.
Here’s what you can learn from accepting this last option as the true one, as the truth. For starters, even the dead get older, and even a ghost must grow up. See? Learning new stuff unavailable to the living makes accepting death much the best option. Not that you had any actual choice.
Two, the Smell
You’re not really, truly dead, of course. But you are actually down here in the land of the dead, you and these words that brought you, these words that want a dance. If you are experiencing these phrases, yes, you are already among the dead. You must be. Where did you think words came from, anyway? Your friends? Your own head? Don’t be stupid.
You are as you are, however, hardly changed from a moment ago. That’s how the dead, the really dead, know you’re not really dead, not one of them, well, us, but alive. You’re you, still yourself, pretty much, as you’ve always been, confabulation, option two, close enough to continuous. You’re not a baby ghost. You’re not fooling anyone. That much we know about you.
Ghosts have to start all over again. The cone of light defining time’s perspective for them has pinched in, and now it opens out again. That ancient relative of yours, the one whose wake you recently, reluctantly attended? Meet the baby ghost. Was this how you imagined it? Doubt it.
Look at this thing, this little blur. Not like a baby life at all, this ghost. Not cute, not a pudgy, wide-eyed little critter, not even an anthromorph. Just a glow, or the idea of a glow, a notion, size of your thumb. Ignis fatuus, your old uncle, foolish Will o’the Wisp.
Those little people whom various cultures were always inventing stories about—under the hill, hid in the hearth, out in the fields, those fairies and elves and huldufolk and yumboes and domovo—maybe they really were penates of sorts, words, names, ancestral spirits, household gods. Maybe that movement you half-caught at the corner of your eye, that trick of the light just now, was Grandma or your stillborn sister, dead the same month, still bashfully hanging around the house, not quite grown into themselves as yet, no bigger than tears. Ghosts are only ghosts, not living beasts of any sort, but if you had to pick an analogous life cycle, just for pretend, think of something marsupial, some pouch-born animal, something that starts squirming in the air while still absurdly neotenous, vague and helpless, hardly a shape at all. That’s a ghost beginning to grow.
They do get bigger. (We do.) And much, much cleverer. That’s how they already know you’re here. That’s how they know what you are, you living creature, probably still with your culturally predictable outfit on, pretending to have accepted option four, pretending to be dead. You stink. You stink at this, you really do, and meaning no offense. You’re flesh. They’re not. They’re only patterns, however real, not pumps and pistons. Not pulse, consumption, and excretion, like you. Real as this sentence, true, very much so, real as you, insofar as being at least, at the very least. But not breathing. Not like you.
So, they’re here. Then again, they belong here. They want to know, why are you? They want to know, and you can’t answer them yet. Don’t you dare—you’ll never escape, you’ll die for good if you try to—but you’re safe here for now, we’ll hide you. We need you for ourselves, we do, and to us you don’t yet smell, not that bad. We’re already sort of used to you.
Three, the Potion
Maybe you don’t even know yourself. Don’t know why. Don’t have a clue. Look. You’re here because you’re sick, sick to death, sick of fearing death, sick of fear, and you need healing, or at least you crave it. Immortality, really, is what you crave, what you think you need, Ah, sure could use! Oh, no. Don’t be greedy. Everyone out there, everyone alive like you, everybody in person you’ve ever met—except maybe for a while that pastor you so admired until he was exposed, and then perhaps also that charming guru—seems sick, too, similarly. So let’s go visit the ghosts, yes?
You’ve heard the dead have secrets. Ancient, whispering wisdom and secrets. Oh, quite. The dead indeed have all the secrets, all the wisdom, buried down here in the depths. Maybe you can find a few secrets out, secretively, just between us. Maybe you’ll get away with them. Maybe they’ll know. Maybe they’ll spot you. Maybe you’ll run. Maybe they won’t hunt you down.
The one you want is the potion. That’s the one. You’re not the first. You won’t be the last. But as you are at all, you are the only one. What? Only one wants the potion. Only in this version, this story, this option. The potion that can save one but only one, that can keep the ghosts from keeping you. (You don’t want the ghosts to keep you.) Go back and come back as a ghost, as you’ll have to, but don’t get caught down here alive. That’s what we mean by “don’t be greedy.” Nobody hangs around, alone with the ghosts, and survives or simply dies. It’s not immortality. It’s merely unreality, on and on, and it’s not nice.
The ghosts like to keep the potion to themselves, but it’s not for them. Weirdly, although only a miracle that has never yet happened nor been narrated could make the potion work for you, it’s made for you. Here’s what you do—
Four, the Keeper of the Ghosts
The ghosts will offer you many things. The older ghosts will offer you rivers to slake your thirst. They will tell you the potion you want is in those rivers. Wait. Those rivers will only make you sleep and forget.
They come. Look at them. Look at them all. Death makes a forest out of people lost, these glowing pillars, far theatricals. Don’t be fooled. They are tall and young and beautiful and have begun to look as gods generally tend to look to living humans—that is, angelic, superhuman. Blue and wavering, but still. So madly beautiful, sniffing for something new, a new mind to inhabit, new pond to swim in naked, you. Young as they look, don’t forget, try not to forget, these ghosts are the ones most spectacularly old, as old as ghosts of humans go, yet. Whatever is left of whatever your ancestors ever did know, they know. You want to know? You think you do.
Now you have to ask yourself, why in this blue hell was it you chose option four? You did not choose option four. Remember. You never actually had a choice. Don’t forget. Death and a trip to this Forest of Ghosts was always meant for you, always the way this was going to go. But you’re not quite gone yet. There’s still pretend. Oh, yes, you’re here, down here with us, alright, in this ghastly, bluish light. But you’re still breathing, aren’t you? We are still hiding you. We are hiding you well, that’s what’s keeping you. Time to take off your culturally specific and locally acceptable clothes. No! Not those. We mean what you think you know, you goose—we mean only what you think you know. Let the ghosts follow those by the nose. Now you can slip through.
There’s only one ghost you really need to meet, one ghost you must meet if you want even to approach the miraculous brew, never mind hope to become the only one in several thousand runs around the sun to get away with this nonsense and get safely out of the words and their netherworld. We need to bring you to the oldest ghost, the keeper of all the rest, that is.
This part’s tricky. You need to keep quiet. We need to be smart. Imaginative, even, not easy for us. Prepare yourself for judgement and an accidental death. Not just here, not just for now, but generally. It’s always best.
Five, the First One
There are no true instructions, but here are a few, crucial clues. By a simple, invented name, universally pronounceable, however fictional, the keeper, the oldest ghost, should best be addressed. Her actual name was the first name, which even she forgets. Ah, or Ee. Oh, or maybe Eh. Don’t snicker. This is not a playful game, although, yes, everything ghostly is a game of sorts, a game of names and rules, correct. But you know games can, and do often, end in death. Or begin. Or consist of, almost entirely. If there’s even one rule and a cost for flouting it, well, that’s a game, then, yes. So. Behave your best. We’re still making our descent.
Oh. See her? Down there? Or it, if you prefer? See it? The keeper of the ghosts? Ah. Yes, you see it. We can sense you, and we sense you do see. Dread. Your ancestor, that. Monstrous fungus, monstrous tree. Thousands of years growing under the earth, never once taking a breath. Young, compared to caverns, but older than any sign you’ve ever seen, any meaning you’ve ever heard personally. Now, ask. Not us. Not it. Yourself. What is it, actually, that you’re looking at? Where, precisely, is the wisdom, the secret, the magic in that?
Lichen. It’s like lichen. It’s the first, but it’s not one. The first word, first meaning, first name, first sign, mother of cultures, was not singular, could never have been one and been one. Ee. Bridge. Symbiote. Multiple symbiote—breath, gesture, referent, schema, connection, mutual function, synaptic leap between the fingertips, between the tips of the tongues. Lichen. That’s the idea. That’s the one, not one. Look at it! It’s huge, branching, fractal, glowing in acid self-defenses, linked single thing of many, many selves. Thing of naming. Tree-like, not a tree at all. Mother of God, precisely, Imperatrix Inferni, Queen of the Forests of Ghosts in the House of Hell. Now, you. Go ahead. Address it. Try.
Oh. Too late. You’ve been caught. Here you are, little body, swinging from the branching tips of this, this very pattern, first idea. You didn’t even get close to the potion, much less snuck a bellyful out within you. Now we have some rescuing to do. Oh, good god, just look at you.
Six, the Cause
Because you believe in causes, you do, you do not understand the ancient mind, you cannot read the early signs, you get strangled and hung up in the parallel compound likenesses of this spreading lichen’s branches. Now what to do?
Nothing happens in the earliest accounts of nonexistent events because of what happened first. At first, there is no cause. There is only then and after. Next.
My sister visited me once. Us, we should say. My sister visited us. She came down here to be the boss. She wasn’t the first, anymore than you’ll be the last. But when she was, she was the one. She was the only one. She wanted the throne. She wanted the potion. Actually, it wasn’t clear what she wanted. She didn’t really have a reason, anymore than we had a reason for testing her, for stripping away her magic in stages and hanging her raw corpse from the first word. Eh. But she wanted something. That was for sure.
So this is what happened with her. Maybe you’ll find it instructive. Maybe you will not. One way or the other, we’ve got to get you down from there. Can’t have you eaten by ghosts. Perish the thought.
Seven, the Last, Lost
She prepared well, my sister. We thought her armor was all in her magic accoutrements, her culture, Ah, me, the predictable outfits of her day and station, specific and locally acceptable, the lapis and mascara, the fine skirts and breastplates, that sort of thing. But no. She had taken thought beforehand, before she came to the gates of the forest, before she squeezed past the oldest, greatest ghosts, looking for me, looking for us, wanting something. Before she ended up a helpless corpse, judged and hanging from the tree of likenesses, Ah, she was wise and left instructions.
She told her most loyal person to suffer for her. She instructed her most loyal person to ask for help if and when there was clearly no triumphant return for her. We ask you—have you told anyone, anyone loyal to you, anyone willing to suffer for you, any duplicate willing to supplicate on your behalf, that you’re down here, that in the midst of your usual confabulations, option two, you have found yourself caught on option four, so similar to three but more permanently impermanent, wanting something, down here among the growing ghosts, with no magic potion to swallow, no one to free you, hanging helplessly from these likenesses, ghost words glowing all around? No. Not you.
My sister’s loyal person suffered and asked for help, again and again. She suffered well and asked politely, but was rejected. Why was she rejected? Reasons were given but they were rote reasons and always the same. Because, before there were causes, there were rituals. Before anyone needed a good reason, there were phrases, easy to repeat and memorize. Ask any fairytale. Ask any catechism. Ask any enduring religion.
Three times my sister’s loyal, suffering friend asked for help. Only on the third try was help given. No reason for the difference, no reason for the help was given. Just enough repetition. Remember that. If you want to free yourself from this tree of likenesses, the oldest of the ghosts, the tree that is not a tree, know that it’s too late for any magic potion for you, was always too late. Don’t be greedy. Count on repetition, not on reasons, and with luck you may reascend, transcend some of this, come away with something, with luck and a loyal, long-suffering friend.
My sister had help. Her most loyal person got her help in the end. Help was sent as magic creatures, twins, mysterious names, made of a god’s fingernail dirt, casual, supernatural fingernail scrapings, no reason. This story is ancient. Because is just because in it. They played some tricks on us, those twin magic fingernail beings, and never fell for what we offered them when we were playing our own tricks of forgetfulness and thirst on them. No, they rejected tricks. They refused a drink from our underground river. They struck a bargain, instead. You will have to trick us, too. You will have to reject our tricks (too late, too late). You will have to strike your own bargain. Not the same bargain. Not the same as for them. No reason.
My sister escaped us, got out of the ghosts, out from being a helpless, hanging corpse among the ghosts, at least for then. Got out until her time came to become one. Different stories, different repetitions then.
Your friend is not coming. You don’t have a loyal friend. You never thought to ask a promise of a friend before you started in on this, started considering your options, as suggested, before you began.
You are lost, my friend. You’re staying here with us, among the ghosts, among the most ancient compound names, all aglow without a reason. No reason. You won’t go. You won’t go on to be a ghost, either, not even when it’s your turn. Tangled up in likenesses, your story can never finish. Merely unreality, but at least you’ll never end.
Welcome to the exhaustion of options, my friend. Be glad and give in. That’s the last, lost suggestion. Be glad when giving in.