Sometimes I search for the unswallowing place.
I think maybe if I can find it everything will go back to how it was. The darkness and I will be back in Midnight Hollow. It will be wearing the shadowskin and I will still be wearing my humanskin, and everything will be all right.
I look down at the skin I am wearing now. It still looks human, on the surface. But underneath the skin the black pulses.
I don’t know what the unswallowing place will be like. I have to find it, though. I have to. I have to go home. I want the darkness back and not mad at me and I want my easel and my rug and the dust motes drifting down and I want my bare cupboards and I want to look at my skin and know myself.
I see an arch ahead. It looks like a lower jaw. I imagine a tongue lolling between the sides.
I think the black has many mouths. Maybe the arch is one of its mouths, and if I walk into it I’ll go home.
I wonder what being unswallowed is like. I imagine it’s a great sucking upward and then a whoosh and your stomach drops, like a roller coaster, but then it’s over, and you are yourself again.
I walk through the arch, slowly. I raise my right arm up in front of my eyes, and I watch as the shadow of the arch passes over it. The black rolls under the skin in waves. When it intersects with the shadow my arm goes white.
I never wanted to be a container for the void.
I take one more step, and I’m through the arch. I wait for the great sucking.
It doesn’t come.
I take one more step and one more and then one more. The black rolls down my arms and across my hands and through my fingers.
Sometimes I search for the unswallowing place.
Sometimes the darkness is inside me.
I sit on a roof by the HVAC units. They whirr and whirr. The silver spinning things over to the side spin. I’m not sure what they do. But I guess they have a purpose to their spinning, and they probably feel like it means something.
The building I’m sitting on has power. Otherwise the HVAC units wouldn’t be whirring. But I don’t think there’s anyone inside. I didn’t see them on my way up here. I don’t hear them.
But maybe they are there, really. Maybe they’re ghosts, and they’re invisible and silent. They go about their days, doing the things they’ve always done, and they don’t know that I can’t see them or hear them. I wonder if they saw and heard me and if they tried to talk to me? I hope I didn’t hurt their feelings by ignoring them.
I find myself thinking about the chain, but then I stop. The darkness would just leave again.
It’s so quiet up here though.
Whirr whirr whirr.
The shadows of the clouds pass over the roof, and I watch as my skin goes white where the shadows meet the rolling black.
I wonder if maybe eventually the black will consume all my skin. Then I won’t be a container for the void. I will be the void.
Maybe that’s how the darkness got the shadowskin. I wonder if it was like me, once. Maybe it was human too, and then the black got inside it.
I could imagine the chain, and then it would come and I could ask it.
And then it would just stare at me with those red red eyes and then it would disappear, and I’d still be here and I’d still be alone and I’d still be going white.
Whirr whirr whirr.
Sometimes the unending whiteness resolves itself into a maze made up of green leafy hedges, floored with soft green grass.
I cannot tell if the human imagined this universe or if it found it or if the human is even here. I look for its thoughts, but all I hear is a night breeze blowing through the hedges.
There are lights placed among the grass, to help show the way. They make me nervous. I retreat into the shadows.
The human would like this maze. We would walk through the green corridors and I would whisper to it of ghosts and of gaping hedgemouths ringed with sharp spiked leaves, waiting to swallow unaware passersby.
It is not here, though. So I whisper to myself.
Maybe this is a task that the void has set before me. If I make it through the maze, I will find the human and it will forgive me and it will let me walk with it and whisper things to it again.
I listen, but still all I hear is the rustling leaves. If there are ghosts here, they are not speaking.
I flatten myself against the hedge and I slide through the sliver of shadow, trying to skirt the light as best I can, but there is no escaping it.
I go through the light, even though it burns, and I set out to walk the maze.
Sometimes I realize that there is no unswallowing place. I still search for it, because I don’t really have anything else to do, but I know that I won’t find it. It’s not there to be found.
Other times I think maybe it is there to be found, if I try hard enough. If I matter enough.
If I am me enough.
But the black is growing, and I do not know how much longer I will be me.
Off in the distance I see a bridge. Its columns are square and solid. It does not glitter with death lights. There is no spray from a waterfall glinting across it. This bridge is sensible and real, and perhaps it is the road to the unswallowing place.
I know that really when I cross the bridge what I will see is more of the same, the same streetlights and the same road and the same trees and clouds. There will still be the same bands of black rolling across my skin.
But maybe not. Maybe the bridge itself will be the unswallowing place. Maybe as I walk across it the black will roll through my skin and out of my fingers and toes, and I will drench the bridge in whiteness. Then the bridge will be something other, something white and eternal and outside, and in return I will be filled with its sensibility and its realness. Maybe we will switch places, the bridge and I.
I keep walking towards it.
Sometimes I arrive at a bridge, and I consider taking its skin.
I don’t know how the darkness does it. I know there’s that sound, the sound like the heart of the universe being ripped apart from deep inside a black hole. I hear that, and then the darkness is wearing a new skin.
I don’t know how to make that sound.
I look down at my arms, at the rolling black.
I remember the first bridge, the one with the blue sparkly death lights. The deathbridge.
I wonder what it would be like to wear the skin of the deathbridge. Would it be sad, to see all the crawling people reaching out for your lights and then they fall off into the blue? And you know that they won’t ever come back, that they’re gone forever and ever.
I wonder what the deathbridge thought when I came back, when the darkness picked me up. I wonder if it knew that really I was gone forever and ever, just like all the others it’d watched fall. I wonder if that made it sad.
Then there was the green bridge by the waterfall. I think that bridge was happy. It could be friends with the waterfall and everyone who walked across it got pleasantly damp and they felt like they were surrounded by beauty and sometimes they ate rainbows. The green bridge probably liked watching the people on it.
I don’t know about this bridge. It is very plain. No death lights, no waterfall spray, no delicious rainbows.
Maybe people just walk across it on their way to where they’re going. And it sees them and it knows where they’re going, and it likes providing them with a safe and dry way to get over the little stream underneath it. It probably wishes them a nice day and good luck on their journey, but they don’t hear it.
Or maybe it feels empty and sad and like its existence is meaningless. I haven’t seen any other people in this universe. Maybe no one ever walks across it, and it just hangs there over the little stream, and the sun and the moon roll over it and sometimes there’s wind or rain or snow, and sometimes it’s warm and sometimes it’s cold but always, always, it’s the same. There’s always the stream and the trees and the grass and the nearby column, and nothing ever changes.
I wish I could ask the darkness how it makes that sound like the heart of the universe being ripped apart from deep inside a black hole.
I take a step on to the plain bridge. I watch the black roll in waves down my arm, across my hand, through my fingers. And then out on to the stones of the plain bridge.
I take a few more steps, leaving a trail of white behind me.
Sometimes I whisper into the maze.
I tell the hedges many things. I tell them about the human, about the walks we took together. I tell them about fishing the human out of the deep blue, and what that took from me. I tell them about the human’s one skin, and all the universes it holds inside itself.
I slip through the shadows of the hedgemouths, but they do not move. The maze does not answer.
I arrive at an end of the hedges. The leaves rustle as a breeze blows through.
I thought the human would be here, at the end. I thought that if I made it through the maze I would see the human again, but there’s only a tree and a rock and high stone walls.
I step out of the shadows and into the light, and the light burns and burns, and I scream for the human. I scream and scream and it burns and I run the burning into the tree, over and over, and finally the tree is burning too and it is screaming and I am screaming and we are at an edge, but this is not the end.
The breeze picks up embers from our burning. It carries them to the hedges. The teethleaves begin to blacken and curl in on themselves.
I scream, “Where is the human? Where is it?!”
The blackened hedgemouths open and close, open and close, but only smoke comes out.
The maze does not answer.
Sometimes the black rolls out of me and on to the bridge. It pools on the stones of the bridge, making them notstone.
The bridge is not turning white, though. It is still itself.
I stop walking. The black seeps out of my fingers and toes. I wait for it to splash up and over the sides and make the bridge a notbridge, but it doesn’t.
I turn around.
The far side of the bridge is solid stone.
I walked there. I know I did. I remember the black rolling out of me and on to the stones. But the stone there is still stone.
I take a step backwards. The white pool moves with me, but still it does not grow. The notstone on the far edge of the pool becomes stone again.
The bridge is swallowing the black.
I lift my right arm and look at it. The bands of black rolling down it are slower now, and smaller.
The black is leaving me and going into the bridge, and the bridge is absorbing it and remaining itself.
I have arrived at the unswallowing place.
Sometimes I am being unswallowed.
It’s not like how I thought it would be. There is no great sucking upward. There is no whoosh. There is only the black, dripping out of my fingers and toes and into the bridge.
I look down at the pool of notstone. Notbridge. It used to be notme.
The pool is smaller now, and all the time there’s more and more stone. More and more bridge. More and more me.
I look at my arms. The black rolls down them in very thin rings.
It’s almost gone.
When it’s gone, will I be me again? Will I be able to go home?
I stand on the bridge for a long time, watching the black drip. It drips slower and slower, until it stops.
When it stops, I look at my skin. There is no black pulsing beneath it. It is clear and real and only human now.
I look at the pool of what used to be notme. It draws into itself, revealing more and more stone. When the last bit of notstone disappears, I think I hear a sucking sound. Maybe the black was what got sucked upward.
The black is gone and the bridge is itself and I think maybe I am me again, maybe, but then the dizziness and the cold and the sweating comes, and it’s like the blue deathbridge, and I think maybe I needed the black but now it’s gone and I can’t breathe and I feel like I’m going to throw up and then I fall down and the bridge is spinning and I’m scared. I think about the darkness, about how it picked me up, and I imagine the chain.
I imagine the chain.
Sometimes I hear the human calling for me.
I am still burning but I do not care. The human is here and it needs me and I am running, I am on fire and sparks are flying off into the hedges and I hear the hedges crackling but I do not care, the human is here and I hear its thoughts and it needs me, and I run and I run.
I follow its thoughts to the center of the maze. I burn through the hedges, ignoring the twists and turns. The hedgemouths gape at me but their teethleaves are turning into ash and they cannot hurt me and I am running, and then it is there.
It is on a bench, bent over with its head held in its hands, and I remember this. I remember these thoughts, the spinning and the bright sharp blurry colors and the deathlights.
There are no deathlights here.
I slow down, so that I don’t startle it, and I slap at this skin, trying to put out the fire. I don’t want to hurt it, but there’s no time to find a skin that isn’t burning.
It hears me. It hears me and it lifts its head and it looks at me.
I see the universes in its eyes disappearing.
There is no time. I run to the bench, this skin still smoldering, and I grab its wrist.
It winces, but it doesn’t pull away, and I see in its thoughts that I am forgiven.
I say, “I am sorry,” and I give it everything I have.