The Lost Art of Reverie
"You have grown strange to me, Husband."
"The world has grown strange to me, Wife."
"Why must this be so?" she asked.
"What I have seen I cannot unsee. What is done cannot be undone. I have transgressed the boundaries and entered into the wild wastelands. It is a lightless place, spectral and forbidding, but it is the only country where now I can dwell."
The young woman, distraught, looks deep and longingly into his eyes, searching for what was there long ago — her own reflection. But there is only the black emptiness of the pupils and the swirl of brown like dirty water around them. Those eyes contemplate something else. Certainly not her. She weeps while her children huddle about her legs, sniffling and softly keening.
"Will you dwell with us no longer?" she asks.
"It is not a matter of what I will," he replies. "It just is. You may go with me or not as you please."
The young man has been drifting away for some months now. It started with inquiries into the darkest aspects of night. Developing a hermeneutic of darkness. Small morning hours that grew vast in the darkened rooms downstairs. Night after night, reclining on the divan in the gloom-shrouded parlor, eyes wide open. Just . . . staring. Hours and hours without object. Or so it seems to the young wife, waking alone in the night, wondering what keeps him from their bed. And once again, finding him in obscurity.
"Why do you spend nights near to the crack of dawn lying and staring?"
"It is a sort of practice."
"Though I grow tired, I make sure that my eyes do not close. And I am rewarded with visions. By night, phantasms frolic before my open eyes. By day, the world becomes mist-veiled, insubstantial. As my perceptions alter the details, it becomes a work of art. A whisper becomes a scream. Frothy clouds I make into dark auguries. People drift by, their substance diminished, their import lessened. Things swirl and coalesce."
In the morning, he shambles into work, exhausted, having slept only a few hours. He looks at documents. The letters and numbers swirl, accelerate, become a blur. His eyelids, so heavy, he keeps open by force of will so that his unfocused eyes may drift across the pages. Words alter. "Liability" becomes "lability." "Revenue" becomes "revenant." "Incorporated" becomes "incorporeal." And the numbers. Commas and decimal points vanish. Digits join and separate at will, forming at once infinite numbers and infinitesimal fractions.
To keep himself awake, he walks the streets of the sleepy town, brushing past others as if they are not there. They form part of the scenery, drifting by like the tidy trees and freshly-painted green benches. Faces grow indistinct, as does the empty chatter. Strong coffee becomes his best friend, simultaneously a stimulant and intoxicant, to body forth the visions he craves. He hears zapping sounds, and strangely intersecting lines crisscross his vision.
Hours pass by in seconds. Shadows sweep across the walls of his office like hunted specters. He watches them. A thoughtless little smile creeps across his face. Every so often the clerk appears, nervously depositing more paperwork. The clerk does not like the way the young man looks at him. There is chaos in his eyes and malignancy in the line of his mouth. Paperwork accumulates. The young man lets his eyes scan the sheets, but what is written there means nothing to him, at least not in any traditional sense.
As he travels homeward after work, the sky shows a tendency to dissolve. Behind it, letters, numbers, codes. Darker things. Something breathes there. Labored. At home, he repeats his usual cycle. Only a small bite to eat, for hunger itself is a narcotic, a generator of visions. The children ask for their father. To read with them as of old. To help them with their sums. But their time with him unsettles them. He speaks strange tales of falling skies and eternal darkness. Practicing mathematics becomes an instruction in the secret codes underlying existence, the malevolent forces seeking to rip apart everything familiar. They go to their beds frightened, calling out for their mother.
"Husband, this cannot go on," she pleads with him.
"Oh, but it can. It will," he answers. "Everything always goes on. On and on. Things are happening that others refuse to see. No one has ever bothered to look. They are being revealed to me."
"Is it the Lord?" she asks.
He turns to her, a smirk on his face, the dark, swirling pools of his eyes like eddies in a swamp stirring up malevolent things. Once again, she goes to bed alone. Once again, peculiar visions play out before him on the walls of the parlor.
In the morning, he goes to work entranced. His supervisor begins to notice the change. Leaving the safety of his desk, he checks on the young man. He is staring out the window. His lips move. His right hand hangs limply by his side holding a sheaf of paper. Everywhere there is paper. The supervisor calls out his name. No answer. He grabs the young man by the shoulder, turns him around. The supervisor gasps when he sees his eyes, half-shut, blood-shot on the edges. And in the center, dark pits. Black holes sucking in pieces of the world around him.
The supervisor leaves him alone. He hopes the problem will solve itself. He does not want to go back into that office. But production falters. Upper management is raising questions. Finally, the supervisor fires him, as he must. But the supervisor terminates him not so much for the failure of the young man's work but because he can no longer stand to have him near. Because he knows that what he sees in those eyes is intolerable, that they are looking at things that ought not to be seen. The young man is infected, and he must be quarantined. He is no longer the supervisor's responsibility.
"Husband, why do you not go to work?"
"My work is here. My work is there. My work is wherever I happen to be."
"Your reason fails you, Husband. The work you have gone to these many years since before we married. Why do you not go there as you have all those other mornings?"
"They have asked me to leave, Wife, and to not come back. That has stopped being my work. The reveries. These have become my work."
"But, Husband, how will we be fed? How will we pay for the house? What will people say?"
He turns to her. She sees the same sickly look the supervisor saw and turns away quickly lest it infect her. "This is only one world. Dark worlds beyond await us, Wife. Food? Houses? These are the smallest of matters."
Later that morning, after the children have been sent to school, she pulls together two small bags of clothing and leaves. Neither she nor the children will be home that evening. But his wife's departure is barely noticed. He contemplates the clouds as they hasten across the fracturing firmament. There are rumblings from other worlds, and something beyond the sky falls with a loud thud. Vultures circle and soar on the wind.
He walks into town, people avoid him, even ones he once knew. Every so often, he stops and stares. At things. Through them. He dwells on the places where the roofs of the buildings meet the sky. The buildings hold up the sky, he concludes. Later, he considers Main Street. It seems to go on forever, but he knows this is just an illusion. At some point, he considers, the road, like the buildings, must meet the sky. The sky is everywhere, confining. This realization disturbs him.
There is a tavern on Main Street. Near the grand government buildings. He takes a table near the window and orders strong spirits. The strong spirits become part of his practice, lulling and dulling his senses but never shutting them down. Creating ripples on the surface of everything. Putting shadows where there ought to be light. Dimming the world, setting a mood. He gazes through his glass, noticing the way it turns the world dark and treacly. The buildings outside the window. The trees and grass. The dark paneling and brass fixtures within the tavern. All appear held together by some dark, sticky substance. He feels it on his fingertips. Tastes it on the air. The strong spirits show him that things are not as they seem. As he once assumed they were before taking up his practice. As everyone else assumes they are because they fear reverie. Day after day, the young man returns to the tavern. When closing time comes and the barkeep whispers it is time to leave, he goes home with a bottle or two.
On moonless nights, the way becomes impossibly dark. But his practice allows him to simply drift home. He's not sure his feet touch the ground. There is no need for a lantern to guide him anymore. He has developed an internal homing beacon and the means to avoid any obstacle. Not one foot does he dash against a stone.
Solitary nights of intoxication. In the dark or with a candle burning, it does not matter. He finds himself less and less bounded as he becomes completely absorbed in his reveries. In turn, he completely absorbs the world around him. Like a carnivorous plant feeding on a trapped insect. The world out there disappears. It is all inside him.
More and more, sleep loses its pull on him. Night and day, he wanders the neighborhoods of the town. Less and less are children and women seen on the streets. As he notes with satisfaction the subtle connections within him that create the world, the consubstantiation of trees, lawns, squirrels, birds, walkways, roadways, benches, buildings, he hears words spoken by passersby. Catatonic. Lunatic. Detached. Dangerous. The words just pass through him. There are rumblings amongst the citizenry, demands that something be done. They believe they are the sources of their own reasoning, he thinks, the determinants of their own actions. It makes him smile, which makes them all the more afraid.
When the time for action comes, the actions they think they have chosen, they know where to find him. At his table. The afternoon is bright, yet it is nothing in comparison to the growing black of his eyes. In his eyes, all light is obliterated. When he turns them to the men who have come to confront him, they grow confused about their purpose. They have a vague notion that they were going to apprehend him, to put him somewhere where he could do no harm.
Instead, the young man stands and leads them out into the middle of the street. Traffic stops. There is a hush over the town. The men follow him down Main Street, past the government buildings, past the First Church, the county bank, the postmaster. Beyond where the old residences turn to old farms and even farther out where the old farms turn to pasture and woods. At last, to where Main Street meets the sky. He touches the horizon and it turns black, dark as the shining void that has overtaken his irises. The townsfolk grow perplexed. Someone asks whether a vote has been taken on this matter. A debate breaks out. Is what their eyes tell them the truth or a phenomenological distortion that passes for the truth?
They follow him back into town, over the bridge on the great river. The river that quenches the town's thirst and the thirst of its crops and livestock. Where chamber pots are dumped. Where dead cattle and sheep are cast. And as the young man passes over the water, he absorbs it all, down to the surface of the soil and beneath. Bone dry. The men gather on the bridge and debate the effect of the fading sun, the evaporation rate, the atmospheric conditions. Learned men from the Academy take measurements and note that the sun appears to be fading. The world is moving away from it.
It gets colder. Some of the men will not accept what is happening. They continue their endless discussions. But others begin to feel the cold that is sweeping in from the blackness where the edge of the sky used to be. There are no stars in that blackness. Lamentations arise from the assembled. Many turn and run for home, seeking the comfort of their hearths, their wives bosoms, the sound of children prattling. Others flee every which way. The more enlightened citizens cluck and berate them for their mental weakness. When chunks of the sky start falling from the rooftops, pieces of spongey flesh slapping the ground around them, even the enlightened become disturbed. As they seek shelter, a woman and two children appear on the bridge.
"Husband, what have you done?"
"I have rediscovered the lost art of reverie. I dream a waking dream."
"Am I part of that dream?
"Yes, you are, Wife. But now it is time to return to the darkness from which the dreams come."
"Shall we go, then?"
The young man walks away, followed by the young lady and two children. Their eyes, too, have become filled with the black of the missing sky. They walk slowly up Main Street toward the vacant horizon, where all turns dark. Vultures and vagrants sneak out from behind buildings to snatch up pieces of the fallen sky. As the family becomes engulfed in the black that surrounds the world, a blood rain begins, falling in thick clots.
Arthur Staaz has had stories accepted for publication by Nameless Digest, Pseudopod, Neutrons Protons, Morpheus Tales and The Haunted Traveler. He is also collaborating with three others on a journal dedicated to the writer Thomas Ligotti called Vastarien. In his non-writing time, he is a lawyer in New Hampshire.