Writing by Michael Wu. Artwork by Yury Aleksanyan.
The undergrad has tried telling the black crows, the tall crows in suits, “When I woke up, I was still wearing scarlet. There’s also the beer. I was dizzy, but I could tell from the dusty books, the crumbs of garlic bread, and the smell of weeks of unwashed laundry that I was back in my room. So no, I didn’t steal any manuscript!”
Dark devil’s eyes, the shapes of evil, these ravens couldn’t possibly fly. Mafia hat and suit, they meant business. They scowl: “Where are the words?” For a creature that appeared from the Wickershire fog, they have no ears for reason. They must now feed on expendable minds. Hands still somehow drunk, the undergrad fixes his glasses. His stomach growls, yet he is not sure what he is hungry for. Somewhere, the sun is rising like an egg. His eyes are now a mirror to this witness, but he will not remember what was before:
Silence had befallen the city of Wickershire at twilight. Beeping of the traffic and the resting of small crows among the branches of high wires. A chattering few late shoppers. Three homeless packing, hauling what tears against old industrial bricks. Old groans and baby cries from the resident's block. Windows shut; windows shut from everywhere. And then from the pub house emerge five figures of youth, university students, drenched in weary backs and corpse faces. Why, one was asleep, carried on another's back. His red hoodie drenched most viciously. Slow did this curious crowd haunt, till they reached where they must have lived. This they all forgot in the break of morning.
The year, when asked, was confounded with rain and, of course, the annual fall of hail which fuelled the departure of many graduates to depart the lonely streets and find new beginnings elsewhere. Papermen, the university’s student newspapers, placed a keen eye upon the phenomenon as if the undergraduate members were almost giddy about the indication of a power struggle up in the foaming clouds. And in early spring, a dragon’s breath quietly descended upon the commoners of this metropolis, consuming the original urban darkness. Even if you check social media, I am afraid you won’t be able to come to a conclusive date as all the pictures found their fondness for the mysterious fog.
Three crows are now calling something. “Dream,” one said, and another, “destiny,” and another, “fall.” He didn’t understand. What do birds want with the desires of a worm?
The undergrad did have a dream. In it, skyways to the southern coasts were clear. And by the Wickershire’s Lake Fer, he sat at its ruin of a tea house. The great geese would migrate against the fury of the winds and he would write novels he dreamed of as a child. What ponderous abode, is this the place the samurai of his heart would raise his katana and touch the ends of this world? Nein, for there are truths that bite like pure white teeth. One peculiar day, the aspiring writer gathered his courage and showed his work to the author whom he had long admired, only to be dissuaded to other professions worthwhile. A shattering of a dream is how novels ought to breathe. Thinking about it, all epilogues end in disarray and thus there are no such things as dreams.
He is watching the white mist again.
“Where are your words?”
The next second, the boy runs off. He can hear the chase of time always only a few feet away. Peck, peck, peck. Gravels and stones.
Fog is made from cotton, fluffy candy, and gathers to be loved, for it is consummate of all things. The scavengers, the lovers, the travellers, the believers. The train it carries is nowhere. Its gears-headed stickmen are for the laughs. Why, was he one of them? Huff, huff, huff, and the panting of an undergrad. It is unspoken that other things too move through these clouds.
“Death!” It is a scream right in his ear. He falls. Ears ripped. A sting of a scorpion on the drums.
“Death! Out of the way! Eternity! Eternity and Death!” Still wounded, the young man reaches out. It is a soft arm he grabs. Then a young face, a reptilian skin on the face of a child.
“Who are you?” But it was clear to him. This was a kappa, a child of the lake.
“Get away! Didn’t you hear?”
“The ambulance. The wails of the sick and dying. Death!”
The kappa wasn’t making sense either. “Can you stop shouting?”
“Then how can you hear the ambulance?”
It is a lie to say it was not easy to see the vehicle through the mist. Some idiot had coloured it all red. Thinking about it, why weren’t ambulances red all over?
“Death! Eternal death!” screams the kappa, who in the confusion escaped from the boy’s grasp. “Death!” Running off in the direction of the red van, his echoes drum the silhouette of trees, till it was no more.
The undergrad continued to chase the kappa, but it was no use. It was the chasing of the shadow of a ghost in a mortal hell. This must be it. The Wickershire fog is a manifestation of hell, yet something felt off. Why didn’t he remain in his room? What made him climb into the mist? Before the student can give it any thought further, he realizes he chased the kappa into a garden. Strangely, he sees no flowers. He finds no grass. And no roots for either of the two willow trees. Then, the plants seem to spiral. It is like a dance. And a quiet quiver of undisturbed pipes runs through him, in this deafening trance of trees. He shudders. A frog leaps. And one ring of a pond oscillates to a toddler’s pebble. He, in the most frightful feeling, falls. Oh, how one pea splits into two.
All the waking ideas are not from sleep. Unlike the sword drawn from stone, a kingly inception must inspire uncaught. Like the illuminating pond of fish that woke him. The fog was fuming from the green tea. The fog of everything.
He remembers he had heard of this little parable from long ago:
The adventurer, who seeks forgotten holes, calls on the long-legged three crows.
And by river banks, he fondles their hearts to engraved stones.
So, the tanuki, the shapeshifter, can feed on screaming tomes
When chime, the following bells return, torn from home
The river banks are still when he is conscious again. And an old fellow with a director’s hat is sipping tea. He has the head of a camera and a short, now broken katana on his palm. “How did it break?” The samurai seems alarmed for a moment, but the surprise slowly drains from him. “I tried to slice the water.” The Lake Fer waters are blood red in the mist.
“Did you try to kill someone?”
“No,” you can see his tapes turning, clicking with each answer, “I had wished to end one's self. See where the waters form ripples, and ripples form waves, and the waves form the mirror of the lake?”
The student does not and leans closer to the edge. The Samurai laughs. “It has nothing to do with distance. Are you still only half asleep, Red King?”
“Why are you calling me Red King? I am not who you think I am.”
A pause and he couldn’t tell what face the camera was making. Just the lights blinking, a mechanical function tuning to the whispers of crickets. Then, “Is that so? My apologies. Then perhaps there is no need for the sword. Maybe just a pen will do.” The sword morphs into an old ebony fountain pen. “Write on the ripples, please.”
At the edge of land, the undergrad tilts forward to his first words. Were these what the crows were asking for? He can’t be sure, but his mind rests in the right place now. “Do you remember what you came for now?” Lines foaming to endless pictures, the tapeworms of wildfire. Each inch crawls over their feet, over each carp of the lake. “Is this your film now?” And the Samurai bursts into a ravenous laugh so mad and bizarre. It was so unlike his previous character that the student, who had been focused on the lake, turned to confront him. But the Samurai was nowhere to be seen.
Which makes me ask: What else do we have besides the cabins in the woods hidden in our hearts?
Walking in the forest garden, he is no longer looking for egress. The questions haunt him. Was he after all Carroll’s Red King? Was the mist but a figment of his drunken imagination? So, the cat in the box plays with him the endless polar dimensions of the woven thought. He did however recall pieces of what was before, a memory. It was a poem he read some lectures ago, by that poet he much admired.
From two shadows her blade,
Is her jest by cackle across the glade.
And dose evening in waters sail us part I wait.
Longer in that darkness a little late,
Faith in travel a school of fins in chase of straits.
The first stanza goes. He remembers coffee in the morning and the analysis assignment due. And the date of submission, in a jump, he realizes it was today. The essay was due today at noon.
Why lady do you weave the night within your hair,
Oh, mad hare, mad ears listening to waves’ heart below
Ought to be abyss the shell of the sea turtle abides.
And lifeless what choices bare such world in ice.
And the next lines come and go. But it does not matter. The night was long and scarcely could the feet of ravens chase him along the mountain path. “Where are the words?” The crows have said. For that, he has none. Why break the peace in such an elegant, frozen pond? Why be the critic to some creative?
Another, another, another, before vanished in dark.
I palm my hook, a child’s throw and a viceroy worm,
Worship is the fishermen’s ark in the shadow’s shark,
But I do not pray, safe nay for the lune catches my form.
“Is this your film now?” The student stops in his tracks amongst the grove. Did he chain himself at night too peaceful to wake? The bed was too still for him to rise. The lady of the smile he once saw was too much for him to find fault with. Did the undergrad lose sight of his path?
What was his road anyway? He did know now, but perhaps like the nuclear cat, he will never guess right. Like the night, he may not grasp the first sights of dawn. On the other hand, the last line made it back and he reads them against ethereal air.
I find no solace laced in pain, like no wheat born in ice,
So tomorrow stows away in his lady’s eyes.
Doors are portals of hell. And the chambers they hide places to dwell over in life. There are no ravens when the red-hooded one returns. God knows where they have gone to feast. But he rests not against any foe this time, even as the fog began to clear at daybreak. Like Jacob, he riots in another. He has decided to catch that deadline after all. For the revolt of the sleepless, there are no such things as dreams.