July 19th, 1977. 12:43 AM
The Groaning Man is out there. Somewhere.
I write this with hope that, as I scribble down these unreal words, his moans will turn back to the breezes they once were, and it’ll all have been a wild, wild dream. But even now, as my pencil dulls, I hear him still.
He has followed me for three days; has haunted me for nights the same—tonight being the third. No matter how the trudge, how steep the hikes, how fast I find my way through the spiry woods, he always finds me. I’ve tried being discreet, veering from the walked trails, tramping the untouched soils, leaving not even so much as a snapped twig to catch my scent. Nothing seems to work, and, as crazy as I must sound to whomever has their hands upon this desperate scrawl, I swear that I can feel his eyes upon my head, right there at the very back. I feel them there now. So much so that even as I mark these words, I’m spinning the circles of this tent just to keep him away from me.
I feel delusional.
I haven’t slept; I cannot do that.
When I finally cocoon myself in, I lie quiet as can be, peering over these thin sheets at that arched, flap door. I keep my vision on that zipper. Waiting, just waiting for it move, for that flap to open on up to let that man who groans like the drunk and dying in. But nothing happens. And still I cannot sleep. I won’t sleep.
I refuse to.
July 19th, 1977. 6:58 AM
I did it; I don’t know how I did it, but I did—I didn’t once close my lids.
He left just before daybreak, but up and until he was still out there, stumbling longly through the stones, groaning, taunting. I feel it that each night he gets just a little closer, tracing his steps like the rings of these trees, finding his way to the center of some nightmare labyrinth. I feel that when he finds it is when he’ll find me, and by then I’ll not have it in me to keep these tired eyes of mine opened.
He’s watching me right now. Itchy, matted, swirling hair—his watch is warm and achy and dizzy like clustering progressions of age and time. It’s creeping toward my face. Slow, but blunt. Heavy bones; weirder pressures at my temples, and brittles in my cheeks. Making me second guess. Making me bask in the sun a bit too long. Hard to breath. To think. Only thing that’ll have it leave is if I scratch that itch at the back of my head. And I’ll not do that, not for lack of want, and not for disbelief, but simply for the plain truth that I fear. Better mind tells me that if I put my fingers there, what I’ll find is him—that Groaning Man—I’ll see him with fingers dug into eye sockets, feeling his sweats and sicknesses, hearing his groans.
And he’ll see and feel and hear me.
Because he’s watching.
But I have a plan.
I’ve got to go.
July 19th, 1977. 11:11 PM
I—I think it worked. I truly think it.
He’s not come. All that is, is the slight pattering that puts a rain, a frog’s croak or two, a hum of wind. But not a groan. Paid with tangled knees and arms and elbows for it, but hadn’t that been the plan?
Stay awake a while longer, better mind sits upon my shoulder, chatting, just to see.
Sure. But it’s past his times. I will stay a while longer here, edge of sanity, crooked back, itchy fever, but dare I fantasize that I’ll catch sleep?
I don’t think anything has ever sounded sweeter.
I’ll keep the lantern.
July 20th, 1977. 2:16 AM
I awoke unmoving, unable to curl even my toes. Flap was open, and it was dark—none in the way of remnants were left in the lights of the lantern.
The flap was open. Someone had opened it, sleuthing around my tent while I was in sleep, doing God knows—
What hell is happening to me?
Need I even guess who?
I thought it was safe to fall there, upward into those lands of dream; I thought he was gone.
There’s a pitchfork here now, too, and after my body came again to me, I noticed it propped against one corner, skewer-side-up, cracks and all. It’s not mine. It’s just sitting there, pushing against the walls of my tent, widening its world.
It’s not mine, and it’s—
Not safe, I’m repeating to myself, droning the words till they leak from my lips like babble, not safe—but then again, you’d already known none of this was safe, hadn’t you? When you left?
Unfumbling sleep: now that’s an idea!
One of those ones that had always seemed like a shinier object than its actual gleam. The real thing’s chipped. Its breaks painted over. And the pillow of it never really puffs like you’d want, it just sort of crumples inward, meek, pathetic.
I would keep the pitchfork by the bed—
Now that’s an idea!
—if not for the fact that I can’t.
I don’t trust it. I don’t want to touch the stains of what it’s been used for. I’ll keep my fingerprints for now.
Not for long.
July 20th, 1977. 12:59 PM
I’ve done nothing—nothing but sit in my tent, watching the fork.
It’s bothering me. It sort of makes this whole thing more of an unreality—I can believe it when bad things happen to not-so-bad people, for we’re full of it, and we keep it going. But this is alike to nothing. Better mind tells me this. He tells, too, that this shouldn’t be happening. Not as if it was a tragic family’s tree, or a spot of unluck, or just a mere circumstance. But as if it wasn’t right at all.
Can’t be happening, better mind tells me, not this. Not here.
But it is. He’s waltzing about these woods, kicking stones, groaning groans, leaving behind his tools and droppings and messages and threats, leaving me mindless—but better mind doesn’t leave. He takes it back. He wonders. He looks at it a way that I cannot. I trust him. I didn’t lose my life just to actually lose my life, slit by blades, by forks, by insane hands, in the middled nowhere of the fucking forest.
It’ll fight, that better mind.
He’ll fight if I can’t.
July 20th, 1977. 1:17 PM
Outside is deathly—
—and unwelcome. Cold. Not along. How’d it snap so chillingly? That drastic? Sun was high. I felt it slump through the ceiling as an oven, a smokestack. I felt its fever, ‘twas why I got out to begin with. Get fresh. Find a splotch of shade. Watch my back. Maybe gouge my eyes and shove some sticks down my throat and bury my head in the mud and—
Now that’s an idea!
—scream and lose my mind and scream.
But all that’s gone to the cold.
Sun’s high still. But it’s just pretending, teasing, fooling. It’s up there, better things to do, worthier worlds to warm. Cold.
Cold and I aren’t along.
There are footprints.
Does that matter? asks better mind, along the ride, curious. Because if you’ve not been delusional, then you’ve known that they’ve been there. Not just now. Not just last night. But every night.
Yes. It does matter.
It matters, predominantly, because of how he walks whilst groaning as he does.
The prints are in a line. Heel to toe to heel to toe. Left, right. Together. Neat. And they’re small like a lucky child’s. There’s another. What I’ve been hearing is something almost not a man—maybe a bit evolved, a tad devolved, a thing. And to find its feet, and to find that they’re bizarrely bitty and perfect and ridiculous? Well, that’s what better mind would call—
—a good time to hit that road.
Off I go.
July 20th, 1977. 6:34 PM
Packed. Split. Hiked. Didn’t even try hurrying—what’s the point?
He rides the maps of demon constellations; he uses chalky stars, argent, baffling, to light his way like harbingers in dust. They’d find him home. Always, they’d find him home. Now his home is me and mine.
Drank icy mud from a creek. Ate nothing. Held a tree, its webby bark creasing furrows upon my brow, its must talking broken language to my unfluent nostrils. Prayed—I prayed to what made sense; I prayed to the trees. I prayed for these days to become chasm, for that eater to open on up and swallow that man who moans and groans, for that man to be another’s problem—least till I’m free from him.
Free from this life of running.
But then what? Better mind bothers. Doesn’t play our rules so how could you ever be free?
But how do I know?
I don’t even know if I’m dreaming or dying or in delirium.
Got to a glade, a bitty clearing, and set my camp. I planned no fire. The day’s cold; the night’s frigid splinters. But I planned no fire. Still can’t eat, although my stomach whimpers like a misused pup, huffs like it, too. It eventually slumbers. It can’t understand neglect, but it can’t do much in the way of avoiding it, either.
Sit. Roll. Something about a good boy.
I’ll handle the cold.
I spent the last of daylight gathering sticks and leaves, as many as findable, as suitable, and bringing them round the tent. I put them there, in wonky piles, below the flap of the door where my feet go in and out. Easily breakable ones. Ones that’d make those loud crunches when stepped. Alarms. Hands of the Grandfather clock. Because sleep’s the night nurse—and if I go down under that dewdrop at the end of her needle, then I’ll be longly gone, slipped into the catharsis of deep dark where even dreams leave well enough alone.
But tonight, when he comes home, the sticks ‘ll wake me.
I’ll be ready.
My pencil sets the sun, giving rest to that lovely liar, trading shifts with the moon—but at least the moon isn’t false. It watches how its coldness humbles and breaks and makes howl the beasts of the brush. It watches fair.
But I have a feeling that it’ll turn its blind eye.
When the Groaning Man comes.
July 21st, 1977. 12:02 AM
Awoke to starlight. Phosphorus. White-hot. Awoke to the strobe flash of some defunct machinery taking the tent with its lights and brightnesses. I couldn’t see—but I could hear.
I could hear the sticks. And the flap. The flush of what was barely a breeze wiggling through the opened airs. A crunch. Something, something—that Groaning Man out on the scree of sticks, bumbling as a catawampus does, coming in. I could hear him planning. By the shade of the visor of my hands, beyond the white lights, I could faintly see the flap—where it’s zipper stayed. It was open. Only a foot, give or take, but enough to show that it wasn’t merely a trick of the mind, but a reality. My reality. The zipper juddered. It looked caught, its teeth stuck to the fabrics.
It’ll be undone, better mind said, soon.
I was being urged there, to pluck at the zipper and rip it shut, to stab at that Groaning Man with that pitchfork from that place I’d not known. Oh, now that’s an idea! But it wasn’t. Couldn’t be. Because that would’ve taken me to the edge of light, where all the world falls into the away—further than even now; because, although the light was lonely, the night was lonelier—and the groans and moans of that man lonelier still.
But you’re not alone, are you? Better mind tacked on to the list of incongruent worries. Pretending that you didn’t see what you saw, you know, when you were unfreezing the dream? Corners of the eyes do . . . Not . . . Lie.
More sticks sounded.
What had I seen, if anything? Did I look to the flap knowing all too well that the shadow in the corner was another unfit object? Something unbelonging? And did I attempt to convince myself that the light was lonely? That it couldn’t possibly have held what the sides had said it did? Did I up-and-down swear to better mind that that’s what it was, just illusion, just dust, just wickeder dreams—just a loose mind dropping its screws out on trail.
What had I seen?
Sticks outside; sticks inside.
Corners of the eyes . . .
A man inside the light, inside my tent, inside my—
Do not lie.
July 21st, 1977. 3:34 AM
He’s gone, now. Light, too.
Thin recollection. More is in absentia than in vividity. Remembering his materials is hard, it’s wrong, but remembering his voice isn’t—and his name—and remembering what he first said, that Groaning Man, that man inside the light.
“The fork you’ll want,” he’d said, unseen, the scratch of his voice waxing, waning, “the fork you’ll need.”
Then what happened?
I became a sinking feeling.
Biggest worry come to life, shot into focus, burned.
He beckoned me come near, and although he’d grown the light into a nova both disheveling and building, a conundrum that felt right and wrong, I did come near. What were my thoughts as I walked the light? Well, I remember rushing waters—streams of consciousness and phobia and bafflement. Salty waters. I remember dipping them, being whelmed by the waves of an earlier death than I’d planned for myself, drowning—but then the seas came crystals. My mind shut; better mind whistled a whispering gale just to illustrate the emptiness I’d found. I was without my worry. It’d never been a clearer pond to stare my reflections, and not a skipped stone’s ripple could’ve breached that clarity. Yes, I remember a word or two about acceptance as I walked toward the Groaning Man.
I asked him what this was.
“Not now,” he told to me, the light brightening at that now, “but a time to pass.”
And why was it, the light, such a power? I couldn’t see through and beyond, but still my eyes went wider, thirsting, hungering, wanting for its more. It wasn’t blindness—no, I’d thought that it was the perception of unplumbed depths, something usually out of my reach. Our reach. A seeing not of normalcy, and that was when I realized the light was him.
And why was he, the light, such a power?
I asked him what he was.
“Nothing new, but not nothing,” he chanted cryptic, and he smoldered, “I am adaption. A way to masque from view—we all are—and even now, you, and I, are not to be seen as anything but.”
“As anything but the Lume.”
With a mind made of clouds I would’ve wanted more, asking, and asking, prodding, fretting, but I was then of the unshackled skies. And better mind a flitting hawk across them. And at every unanswered question the light seemed to trickle, spreading its tendrils back into the soil of the earth—or wherever it’d homed and nested. It, and he, were leaving.
But before he dimmed complete he spoke a passive wile.
“I am not to convince, but that your attention is found, I feel it to tell a tale—a short one. If your curiosity is to be entertained, if that fork aside your pillow haunts your sleep and dream.” He lowered, but even the lowliest of his suits was loftier than the highnesses of any and all the glimmers that I knew to exist. In, he winked, and out. I thought that I could almost place his figure; but again, thought wasn’t much of a thing I knew, then. He told the tale. “Up upon the Velvet, what’s known to you as the observable, seeable universe, there is a skulking thing. It’s distant. That we know. But it’s there, and it’s moving, and isn’t the sole idea of distance is that it is something to be crossed? No matter its lengths and times and agonies? Tell me—” he sunk slightly into the fabrics of my tent. He was quickening. “—do you watch it at night? The Velvet?”
I told him that, time to time, I do.
“Haven’t you noticed?”
What was there to notice? Was it missing from me? Noticed what?
“That the blinks that once were, familiar ones, important ones, are now not such things?”—and—”would you have even noticed?”
I wondered what he was getting at. Better mind hummed a broken, little tune of such melodies as not safe and now that’s an idea and corners of the eyes do not lie. What did the sides see then? That ever opening flap and zip? That crunch of sticks? That buggering of another man or woman or thing outside? Coldness? We were in the tent still, sure, but were we different than from before?
I asked him where we were.
“Never mind that,” he said, just a flicker of his once was, “I’ve taken much time and space, but if you’re still curious as to how to solve these questions—then all you need to do is simple.”
“Each night, as before, I’ll be round. You’ll hear me, like you have, and all you’ll have to do is grab that fork with your barest hands, open that door, and come to meet me. You’ll have safety, I can keep that promise, but only if you come outside. Beyond that I keep no promise.”
I’d think about it; better mind would think about it.
He would linger, always groaning, always showing up—always waiting for a night decided on moving. That Groaning Man; that man inside the light; that man unnamed to me. Grab that fork. He’d assumed. The fork you’ll want. Fork you’ll need. He spoke his name, and, albeit hesitantly, I spoke mine. That was last light. He was gone, the only bit of him a pair of heel-to-toe, toe-to-heel foot prints, bitty ones, burned into the bottom of my tent like bleach on blood—and collapsed in front with its daggers pointed at my toes, almost willingly, was the pitchfork. It thrummed.
I’d think about it.
July 24th, 1977. 4:42 PM
Haven’t yet left.
Why would I pack it up and get on with it when there’s really nowhere that I’m going?
Watched, waited on, wondered.
Every day I stay with the fork, unblinking, skirting around what needs to be done, sort of huffing and puffing but never really blowing down house. Piggies under good graces—my good graces. These days I thumb it over, all throughout the longest hours of my weirdest years, just what it would be like to touch that fork. I mean, I do—I grab it by the gloves of my sheets, kick it around with steel toes, bring the bridge of my nose to hover right where the wood meets the metal, and stare it, relentlessly—but I never grab it bare. That’s what he wants done.
And although, when he was light, I felt the tinge of safety that a nice and neat neighbor knocks upon your door; when he isn’t light I feel sick.
And every night he comes. And every night he groans. And every night he asks of me those questions whose answers better mind has filed, rabidly, away between the folder clap of words such as rather and I’d and not. And every night I listen and I hear and I do not call back, and as long as I can keep from touching that fork, I’m safe.
As long as I can keep from touching the Velvet.
Better to watch where it’s just as nice, better mind tells to me, better to stay inside.
And so why would I ever leave?
Home’s just as nice.
July 25th, 1977. 1:07 AM
Woke from nightmare.
In it, these woods and this tent were crumpled—the top had blown away, light had gone, everything felt like slow, spongy sand. Tree and rock and critter sank into the sponge; and so did I.
Better mind tumbled the sphere, bouncing off and around the higher branches of lower trees as some darkled figure, like an acrobat in hay day; better mind jumped and swung. And there was a sound, one unbelievable, of the push of rackety, interrupted water. As if a river swelled and slumped. As if it didn’t matter, here and now, to disregard the ways of the natural world. I felt like lonely stones in the hush of the bottom of that river.
Not safe, better mind’s age old adage sounded as coherent as whistles do to hound-dogs, but I knew it, nonetheless, not upon the Velvet’s groans and moans—and just how long do you think you’ll be able to stay this course?
The sponge engulfed me. No more moon; not a star dimpled the night’s sky. Least from my view. But, of course, I was swallowed then. I tried to reach for the edges, fumbling my hands for the lantern, for misplaced sanities, for lights of days that’d not yet come to pass.
Or was it for the fork?
Thing is, as vivid as dream can sometimes be, once that moment’s gone it’s still just billowed haze.
That, I can’t recall, if I at all reached for the fork. Why would I? Would it have ended the visions? Would it have made these sweats and sheets just a little bit less drenched? Does it matter? Either way, what I do recall is that my hands touched nothing—nothing except the sponge.
The tent heightened above me, stretching to the starless Velvet like some unreachable tower, and then the groaning men came. Not just the cries of one, but innumerable terrors. And not just men, no, women and children, too. And others. The night was starless, yes, but as they ambled over the walls of the tent, entering, and roofing, it, they blacked it out darker than even the deepest of wells. The volume was devastating; the emotions and pains behind their groans even more so. It was real. Griefs beyond my experience. Souls in never-ending horror they seemed. How else could you wail those wails? There’s no faking anguish like that.
Before they fully blacked the night, I saw the idea of better mind sitting on a long, spindly branch, kicking his feet, gazing on me in the depths of the sponge. He had a flower of sorts, with many buds and blossoms and thorns, that he plucked at. Petals floated down. Scaly things. He didn’t speak. But, as always, I could hear him in the movements and motions. Much was said; more went unspoken. He finished off one of the flowers stripping it of its last petal.
As high as he was I shouldn’t have been able, but I could see it in wild detail. It was alive, porous where its petals had been plucked, breathing its last.
Better mind let it fall.
As it floated to me, passing by and below the castellations of the tent, the groaning peoples flooded over the edge, toppling like frozen birds, consuming me.
They were deep and dark and velvet.
And as I drowned in them, all I could hear were the words of the flower of better mind.
Death awakened me.
I jumped, expecting the world to be the away and the Velvet to be the near. I thought that I’d find the prints of those thousands burned into the land. I felt that I knew that they were here, and that at any moment they’d be upon me, and that the dream wasn’t a dream but a warning.
None of those came.
But what did come were the agonies and groans of that man, that man inside the light.
He hasn’t let up since; he’s never gone on this long. I sit in shadow, the silhouettes of my few belongings blending together, the fork being the exception. What did come is the broken flower that I pass from hand to hand. It has no breath. It shouldn’t be here, I know, but I can’t let it leave. It’s perhaps the last left thing that is safe.
I know what comes next.
It doesn’t have to be spoken.
July 25th, 1977. 5:41 AM
Man didn’t leave till first light, earliest morn, lowest sun stride. Longest he’s been. What does it mean?
It means it’s time to grab the fork, a tired better mind yawned, isn’t that what you want?
Yes. But not like how it seems.
Got a day and a night ahead of me.
Keeping this short.
July 25th, 1977. 2:36 PM
I don’t know how far I am, but I know that I’m away—that’s good enough for now. I have the fork. Safe. Covered. Untouched. Left the tent behind; where I’m going I think it’ll do someone else more of a use than it can for me. I’m losing it. None of this is actually happening. Oh, of course, better mind tut-tuts, how could it be? Might as well do, and have, the favor that’s to show itself eventually. And I’ve found the perfect place.
It’s at a breaking jut in the riverbed where the land steps as a sudden cliffside. Water falls on sideways gardens, mossy patches splotch the eroded rock, life permeates. There’s a hum here. It’s nice. And off and up the side of the waterfall there’s a hint of indentation. Hard to tell, but better mind keeps replaying that single word: cave. Wouldn’t that be nice, too? I think, if that’s the case, that that’d be star writ. It won’t be a hard climb, the sides are steep, but the holds are many and . . . and right. I think I’ll do it there; I’ll be written in those stars before that Groaning Man comes to make it deep and dark and starless.
I’ll be Velvet.
And wouldn’t that be such a surprise, laughs better mind, for him to find you as you’ll be, for him to see that the fork went untouched, that you’d given up before ever really starting—now that’s an idea!
Mockery; another sign of the times.
It only drives me.
Time to climb.
July 25th, 1977. 2:50 PM
Was as a dream, that climb. That way in which the rock fit palm, every facet and edge; that way in which I became moment. It’s childlike, actually, for as lush as that waterfall crashed, I . . . I didn’t hear it. Not a drop. It was as if I’d earned the knowing that nature is deaf—truly deaf. And that that wasn’t a thing for worrying. No. Not at all. Whatever it is, it does speak, and it does listen, existing as fluidity itself. A language hard to hear. Even now, squatly hunched into myself and watching the backside of water, I cannot explain how it happened.
But, then again, I cannot explain much of anything anymore.
I’m having memories, flashes of a place I’d worked so hard to dull with time and forget and excuse. Terrible, awful, evil place. Back before life was real. Back when the bares of my feet walked unscarred. Back at Carrykettle. Back in the Turnabout.
If you can make through the Turnabout, better mind proposes, couldn’t you make through whatever whirls these are?
I feel at oddity, juxtaposed, for it was as a dream, that climb. Serenity. Deepest digs. And wasn’t that just what I’d set out for? A realer world, and a sharing of its breaths? Have I not achieved that, this bit of day? And I feel like I’d probably ask myself what better mind thoughts were about throwing the towel after such a nearness with actual life. I feel like I’d probably ask a whole lot more of myself. But these memories catch my words. And then I choke.
From above, the trees look as an ocean, the rustles amongst the canopies like low tides, the leafs like verdant drops of water—and through the shimmer of the falling river I can convince myself that that’s what it is: for everybody and all else it’s all smooth sailing. It’ll be sunset when I do it, when the blurs of colours beyond the water’s veil shine and smudge, before that Groaning Man comes from those distant, ashen peaks that are watching me even now, when the memories are at their most potent and the feelings and spurs are higher than the good of life.
Yes, it’ll be at sunset when I do it.
I’ll wash clean.
July 25th, 1977. 6:47 PM
Sun’s to set.
Time to go.
Send my loveliest regards.
October 11th, 1977. 6:48 PM
Sun didn’t set that night.
Time didn’t go as planned.
I replay it at this hour, every night, for I can feel it again as if it were but just a minute ago. I replay it always; and I’ll replay it now.
I stood upon the edge of the mouth of the cave with my toes upon the air, and the fork in my hands, wrapped up, hidden. I’d been thinking that it would’ve been better placed at the bottom of the shallows, drowning for the rest of it where I could ensure that it’d never haunt none but me. I’d have that sacrifice. In that moment I had felt secure, content with where this life had led me, and that, while it was indeed tragedy, it was just the flip of my coin. That’s all. It’d sounded convincing. Better mind, of course, got his words in edgewise. So did other ghosts. Images of distance. Of loved ones. Of the could be. But it was time to go.
“It’ll be at sunset.” I told to nobody, quiet as can be.
I’d clutched the fork to my chest, to the beats of my heart. It had had a heart, too. And a beat. In that language that’s hard to hear. But I had heard it. I’d heard it loudest when the arch of my left foot wavered over that open space of sky, trembling. Not from fear, mind you, but from allure. In that position it was I who’d had the choice. I was choosing to go. I knew it then. And I was at peace. Couldn’t you have chosen another of many paths? A weary better mind asked me. Of course I could’ve. I could’ve chosen to lay sleepily in the cave, never to come down, to melt into stone, to starve. I could’ve chosen to live. I could’ve chosen the fork, to see its underneath, to touch it and to follow that Groaning Man—that man inside the light. That was what was most curious. The fork. The Velvet. The constant fear that I’d had tented under in the days and nights of his pursuit.
His methods were a depth unvisited to me, then, although I’d like to believe I’ve grown to understand.
I’d had choices; I had chosen the sunset.
Its last sliver was a hill on the horizon, coloured like the blood of magenta, a blinding swirl, set to disappear. But as I’d moved to step my other foot over edge, I’d realized that the hill remained, and so I’d waited.
And I known then that the Groaning Man had come early.
He’d stood atop that hill at the end of my world, beckoning, gleaming the starlight that he was. The fork spoke his language into me, all at a sudden clear and perfect, telling me to step on out.
The water’s warm.
And so I did.
I remember the wraps slipping from the fork. I remember the sponge—the mush from dreams—beneath my feet. I remember exactly how it felt to part that fall of water like translucent curtains. I stepped on out and, by God, the water was warm. We walked above that sea, meeting at the middle of the sky, and embraced one another. Yes, he was the light of the sunset, and I . . . I was its rise. I looked at the fork, at my hands. It was flesh; I was wood and steel. And we crackled white and hot, brimming, teeming with life.
He took me to the Velvet.
Above the Earth we began, spanning the solar system I’d lived and breathed, traipsing the Milky Way. He’d showed me the stars of the galaxy, introduced me to the ones still with voices, brought me to the mutes and the graves and the memories of the ones that’d lost. Then he’d took me beyond that. That night he showed me infinity, inexplicable reaches and probabilities, unnamed societies; he showed me the many worlds, the aboves of those lands, the stars and planetary entities and beings that flew upon the Velvet. And in, and above, all of them, I’d noticed a pattern.
“You see now, don’t you?” he’d asked me.
I had told him I did; I had told him that the lights were leaving.
“I have one more to show,” he said, solemn, “and then it is up to you.”
He took us to what I’d assumed were the hinterlands of existence, for it’d had the chills of no winter I’d ever shivered in. It was oppressively dark, and the sponge of the Velvet was more muck than sponge. We sank. Slow. Like dream. There were few lights left. He was dim, too. I opened to ask him what it was he’d wanted to see, but he’d told me: “Hush;” and “watch.” We’d stayed in the sponge, silent lights, and waited. At first, I hadn’t seen what’d needed seeing. I was confused. But it was better mind that kicked it in.
It was the Velvet. It was moving. And as we sat, and time marched, it’d moved closer, swallowing up the fallow lights that’d been left in exile. It wasn’t the Velvet. It was something else entirely, sludging its way across the universe, leaving absence as its wake.
It was why the lights were leaving.
“Been eating since start,” he’d told, “inside out.”
I’d spoken not anything. Groans made more sense. I remember letting loose a cry as if that knowledge was like no burns I’d ever felt twisted onto me. I remember sinking the mire, watching, squishing, as that eater rolled on by, the nothingness colour of greed. I remember a fade and a light and a warmth—
And then we were back, standing at the opened curtains of the waterfall, unspeaking. But before I’d walked on through, I’d looked at him, the Groaning Man, that man inside the light, and spoke the words: “The fork I’ll need.” He’d glowed as if to nod.
And then he was gone.
It’s tonight and every night that I walk these woods. But it’s tonight that I leave the fork. It took me a good, long while. To understand. To hear that language that’s hard to hear. But now I speak it. It comes as groans. Better mind says it’s the talk of the drunk and dying. But he knows better. I know better. They’re the prayers at the end of the world. It’s tonight that I leave the fork. It’s a woman, and she’s troubled . . . Troubled by me. But soon she’ll know. I’ll find her somewhere behind the fall of water just waiting to peek beyond its curtains. I, the sun’s set; she, the sun’s rise. I’ll show her the Velvet, and how the lights are leaving.
But before I do, I stare up at the twinkles that lessen night after night, and I think some things.
The Groaning Man is out there. Somewhere. His name is Cygnus, that man inside the light, and he is my greatest friend. We walk these woods with hopes and dreams, not just him, and I, but many. We talk with groans and moans, and we maneuver with nightmares and with dreams, and we show what needs to be shown—and if we’re lucky then we guess that the lights will return.
And out upon the Velvet we’ll fly.
But . . . now the sun’s to set.
And it’s time to go.
Send my loveliest regards.