“Cleopatra’s Needle, Part Two” by David Alexander Craig

1. Enveloping darkness.

Somehow, you’ve been drawn into Cleopatra’s needle, but the interior is not at all how you would have imagined it. Where common spatial sense dictates that the cavity of a hollow container cannot exceed the container’s exterior dimensions, you find, to the contrary, a wall-less chasm inside the obelisk—a space lacking any sensible bound or fixed points. The vertiginous horror that preceded and accompanied your absorption into the obelisk has quickly become a nauseating disorientation fused with mind-reeling disbelief. For you are suspended in a void that seems impossible. And you are moving, rapidly.

You cannot tell whether you are plummeting headlong or rocketing upward, but you extend your arms above your head in a sort of frantic, instinctual swan dive. The air is warm and stale; it ripples the flesh of your eyelids. You sense your shoulder bag slipping from your body and decide in a moment’s calculation to let it go. As its leather strap brushes your arm, the contents of the bag flash through your mind: notes from a business meeting held earlier in the day, your digital planner, pens, a printed digital photograph of your cat curled in your lap. All these artifacts seem at that moment distant and alien to you—so many jagged shards of your familiar glass bulb of a life, now shattered. Now, holding a swallow to avoid vomiting, your racing, hell-shocked mind can think only: soon I shall hit some bottom, and the impact will kill me.

When you do finally hit bottom, you are surprised to be plunged into a pool of water, as black and seemingly boundless as the void you’ve just left. You sink deep into the pool, then your body’s natural buoyancy carries you up until you’ve breached the water’s surface. You are shocked, but relieved, to have broken your fall in liquid rather than on a solid surface. The water is cooler than the air and you detect a gentle tide dragging you to the left. Your eyes still yield no impression, but you smell the distinct algae-like sourness of a marine ecosystem. Swelling waves bob you up and down. You wonder if you are floating somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. A fear of sharks and jellyfish. Childish Nightmares.

The water makes driftwood of your body with its barely perceptible current. You kick your legs and struggle against the weight of your soaked-through clothing. After several minutes of this, you contemplate allowing your increasingly burdensome patent leather shoes to sink below—removing each with the toe of the other foot—but pause. Suddenly, these shoes have renewed utility. You’ve touched sand with your toe.

A beach.

2. Out of the water, fists and knees on the pebbly strand. All remains totally dark save for a pinprick of flickering orange light you’ve just noticed far down the beach. You’ve no sense of scale, so the flicker seems frustratingly deceptive. A solitary, orange-burning star in some nebulous galactic beyond or the glowing ember at the end of someone’s cigarette half a mile away—both occur as possibilities.

On your feet now. You amble towards the light, entranced and moth-like. Your sand-muffled footfalls are the only sound other than the ambient flush of water lapping land. Above the sour scent of the surf you begin to smell smoke. Burning lumber: the light is the light of a fire.

As you near the source of the orange light you recognize the pattern of pyramidally stacked logs. Still nearer, you make out the slouched shapes of several individuals huddled around the flame.

You pat your chest with your left hand, running your fingers over an object beneath the fabric of your blazer. Relieved to find the object still there, you reach inside your lapel with your free hand and produce a small, red pocket knife. Swiss army: the very one you’ve had since childhood and which you keep nearby whenever you travel—electing to fly with the knife tucked secure in your checked bag.

A hundred paces from the fire. The individuals—you count three of them now, each swaddled in dark robes—encircling the flame seem deathly silent and motionless. As you approach, sardine-sized blade drawn, one of the figures casually turns a head to you then just as casually returns their gaze to the smoldering logs.

You venture to speak. “Hello? I don’t know if you speak English, and I wouldn’t normally interrupt, but you seem to be the only others here. Can you tell me where we are?”

All three figures turn their heads to you now in acknowledgment but maintain their deadly silence. You step nearer and notice that, although each appears to have a human body, none of the three have the head or face of a human being. Instead, the head of the figure nearest you and to the left resembles the head of a cheetah, golden-furred with dark brown or black paisley spots. The hunched body to the right is crowned with the enlarged head of an ibis or crane atop a slender neck, its fine milky-white facial down tapering into a long, somewhat hooked, straw-colored bill. Directly opposite yourself, set atop a broad cross-legged body draped in the coarse brown robe worn by all three figures, glares the downscaled and tusked head of an African elephant male—ears folded like silver-gray prayer mats, trunk curled and nestled into the pleats of the robe below.

There is a space for you at the fire between the cheetah and the ibis. In unison, all three figures tilt their heads in the direction of the space, signaling you to sit down. Your disbelief by this point totally suspended, and cognizant of no superior alternative, you seat yourself on the pebbly sand. Immediately, your sopping clothes begin to dry by the fire’s warmth. Despite the obvious strangeness, you are beset by the odd feeling that you are in the exact spot where you ought to be at that moment.

“Splendid of you to finally, actually, arrive,” speaks the elephant. “For what seemed like an eternity, we have been waiting for you, circling this fire as we are now, meditating, endlessly discussing our thoughts. However, with your arrival, as is the case with all eternal periods which simply seemed that way at the time, we can now say that our time of waiting was in fact nothing, and was in fact no time. For now that you have arrived, our deepest speculations stand confirmed, and time itself, our time, can now, and only now, be said to have begun. Would you like me to explain?”

You nod your assent.

“Very well, then,” responds the Elephant. “I shall explain.”

[Next: The Elephant’s Explanation]

Posted May 7th, 2010

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