The Strangeness

Short story set in a shapeshifting underworld

It was half-past seven when I dipped into the Strangeness.

Kate Bush’s unearthly howl in the distance. ‘We-e-e-e-e let the weird-ness in. We-e-e-e-e let the weird-ness in.’ If you want to emphasise that you’ve let the weirdness in, then emphasising the second syllable of the word “weirdness” is a good way to do it, I thought. But the thought happened somewhere outside the control room of my mind, and I only remembered it later.

I descended and descended and descended. It seemed like it took no time at all, but in reality it took a thousand years. I could see my wrinkles developing, feel my step growing heavier. This isn’t fair, I thought. This just isn’t fair.

I touched onto the ice of the Unending Surface and stopped for just a second. I’d always heard the ice was less than a millimetre thick, and I knew that nothing lay beyond it but the Void. ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…’ It isn’t so easy, John! I could feel myself shouting inside. Things are never as easy as that, not when you’re awake.

A voice spoke over my shoulder. I turned around and saw a bearded dog. ‘You have three choices,’ the voice said, while the dog sat silently looking at me. ‘You can go forward, onto the ice. You can go back the way you came. Or you can stay here with me forever. None of the choices is any better or any worse than the others. But only one is correct.’

‘How do I know which one that is?’ I said. ‘It’s too cold to think down here.’

‘What are you talking about thinking for?’ the voice said. ‘I’m telling you there’s only one correct choice. Thought has nothing to do with it. For that matter, neither does choice. Just do something.’

I hesitated. ‘Should I listen to my gut?’

‘No. Just do something.’

I turned around and looked at the ice. I imagined it bursting into a million pieces, saw myself falling screaming into the Void, fell back in horror, rolled over, picked myself up, started running, running away from the ice. I couldn’t be sure what way I came in, so I struck out blindly, twisting here, turning there. Every time I looked behind me the ice was a little further away. I tripped, fell,

And was on the ice. Bob Dylan’s voice somewhere off in the distance, aeons around, mocking me, mocking the latest idiot to come to Hell and pretend he wasn’t icebound: ‘Now, the rainman gave me two cures / Then he said, “Jump right in” / The one was Texas medicine / The other was just railroad gin / And like a fool I mixed them / And it strangled up my mind…’

Everywhere I looked I saw arguments. Vicious, pointless, thankless, maniacal arguments that sucked the life from out of every corner, reverberated hate from each crevice, poured revenge through every ceiling. ‘I’m here!’ shouted one man. ‘You’re there!’ shouted the woman. They couldn’t see that they were both talking about the same thing from different perspectives: if the man was here to himself, he was there to the woman. I hated their voices.

I rowed on through the ice. Every blow of my oar and the crack spread a little further, until I imagined that I wasn’t surrounded by ice at all but an enormous shattered pane of glass. I imagined it spelled differently in my head: a pain of glass, an unending sin mirror, an agony of reflection…

All the while the dog’s head hovered in front of me, barking its silent bursts of ferocity every time I started to nod off. Each time I would see the ice and the viciousness swimming around me, then shake myself together at the sight of the infinite malice in those eyes, the world-piercing sharpness of those teeth. Meanwhile that voice kept up its steady stream, telling cruel jokes, reciting shipping forecasts, intoning garbled versions of Elizabethan monologues.

‘You said I had a choice,’ I said. ‘Long ago, on the shore of the ice.’

‘I said you didn’t have a choice. And I instructed you to act. Not that you can take credit for acting. Because you didn’t choose to.’

‘Do you really think I care about taking credit down here?’

‘As long as you say I, you’re taking credit for something. Right, here we are.’

‘Where? Who’s that dog with you?’

‘I don’t see a dog.’

And here we were. But I was alone. I stood naked under the sun, surveying the endless fields of wheat that sprung from the desert sand, surrounded on all sides and spaces by ice, the cracked world making me sweat into the cold, the cold that seized up my lungs on the baking sand.

‘Here I stand,’ I said. ‘I can do no other.’

‘I’m offended by all this talk of hell,’ replied the wind. ‘If your attitude towards this place changes, the place will change with it. But not necessarily in the way you anticipate.’

I stood my ground. ‘That means I could impose some sort of positive attitude on this desert and do nothing but make it worse.’

‘Worse than what? I don’t understand why you say things like positive and negative. Now get up onto your feet. More than standing. Not because you have anywhere to go, but just because I ask you to. Will you do that?’

‘And who are you?’

‘Who am I?’ said the sponsor, beaming in the midnight sun. He adjusted his straw hat. (I knew I’d seen it somewhere: ‘He’s never early, he’s always late / First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait…’)

‘“My name it means nothin’, my age it means less”,’ he said, adjusting his breeches. ‘Always latch onto people’s names, job titles, regions, like trying to grab hold of something or shore ourselves up — or maybe just comedians talking to the people in the front row, looking for an opening for a gag. Not me. Can be funny without asking you anything about yourself. Don’t even have to look at you.’

He turned around. ‘Knock knock.’

‘Who’s there?’

‘You see, you’re at it again,’ he said, turning back around. ‘Been trying to tell you that this place — this cornfield, right now — isn’t so bad. It isn’t so good either.’

‘Why are you smiling so much then?’

‘Nothing else to do here, right? Not so much to do anywhere. Thought you were in Niflheim before, yes?’

I nodded. ‘All the ice.’

‘Well, now you know you were wrong. Now you think you’re in Purgatory. Or maybe Limbo — remember there?’

‘Are you going to tell me that’s wrong too?’

‘Needn’t bother, need I? You know all about right and wrong.’ He smirked, savouring his victory.

I said nothing. I hated him, hated his smile, his laughter, his straw hat, his forced attempts at levity, his refusal to engage with me on any basis of solidity or equality, his unbearable smugness. I told myself he was as unhappy as I was inside. But I knew he wasn’t. I knew nothing since I’d come down here — I didn’t even know if the man in front of me existed or not. But I knew he was happy.

‘So does this place have a name or not?’ I shouted. ‘And how am I supposed to feel about it?’

‘Its name i’ means nothin’, ‘s age i’ means less…sorry, I’m a little drunk…look, you’re not “supposed” to feel one way or another about anything, any more than you’re supposed to think something or — ’

‘ — choose something,’ the voice-with-the-dog finished, as I skated over the river of lava. My feet burned and howled, my mind screamed. ‘The only thing I’ve ever wanted was for you to DO SOMETHING.’

With that the dog rushed at me, opened its jaw wide and bit my head off.

My body slipped, kicked and shuddered its way down through layer after layer of the cascading lava before coming to rest in a cold laboratory. Two melting ice creams to my right. On the pulsating screen to my left I saw a woman hammering and clawing away endlessly at a cliff face, trying to make the tiniest dent in the unforgiving rock. Another woman sat beside her, laughing as the stones surrounding her split into ever smaller pieces. She conducted the pieces like an orchestra, they arranged themselves into macabre shapes. She howled with delight.

As the first woman beat and scratched her fingers bloody, the vultures circling around her intermittently pecked at her neck and shoulders, forcing her to fight them off before resuming her hopeless task. A single tear would roll down the second woman’s face every time one of the birds descended, but she never stopped laughing, clapping her hands or conducting the pebbles around her.

‘What am I looking at here?’ I said, surprised at the weariness and fear in my voice. The voice of an old man.

‘Both these women are doing without doing,’ replied the robot monkey, as the strings jerked him wildly around. ‘But each in a different sense of the phrase.’ He looked pleased with himself, and emitted a series of bellows and snorts. ‘A different sense of the phrase! A different sense of the phrase!

‘Why doesn’t the second woman help the first one?’ I said. ‘If she can shatter rocks with her mind she can break up the cliff face — or at least scare the birds away.’

‘Oh, you’re a mind-reader now?’ howled the monkey, jabbing at my face with its golden claw. ‘And how would helping the other woman help? Please enlighten me.’

‘Well, she could finally do her job.’

‘And how would that help?’ said the monkey. ‘Is there any point to her job?’

‘Well, is there any point to the second woman’s job?’

‘Who knows? It certainly seems to make her happy.’

Something snapped in me. I leapt to my aging feet. ‘I’ve had it with these evasions. All this smugness, intimidation, the violence, all of you dodging my questions. Hear that? I’m NOT going to STOP UNTIL ONE OF YOU ANSWERS MY QUESTION WHICH IS — ’

I stopped as I realised that I wasn’t speaking any more — I was screaming without making a sound. I watched in horror as my non-mouth soundlessly moved and barked. Then I realised that I’d forgotten what my question was. What did I want to know? What was so important?

(‘But you can go ahead if you want to / ‘Cause nobody’s got no papers on you / No, babe, it’s just a falsehood…’)

‘Well?’ said the monkey, seconds away from breaking my non-nose. It glared into my non-eyes with infinite pugnacity. ‘Don’t keep me waiting. WHAT IS IT, O SMART ONE?’

I gave up.

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘I don’t know. I need to know something about where I am but I don’t know what it is. For all I know I’m in the Void, maybe I’ve always been in the Void. You were right. I don’t see how knowing the name of this place, or places, will help. It doesn’t change anything.’

‘You want to get your bearings,’ the llama replied, with a sympathetic gaze.

‘Yes, that’s it — my bearings,’ I said. Tears filled my eyes. I was so tired. ‘I don’t want to know where this is or why I’m here or what’s going on. I just want to get my bearings.’

Sounds of the forest around us. The waves lapped at the golden shore as I lay there. The llama let me rest my head on its shoulder. I was so tired.

The llama spoke. ‘You have it, I think. The place you’re in now is where you are, by definition. You’re here because this is where you are, by definition. And what’s going on is just what’s happening to you at the moment, by definition. So you’ve stopped caring. But you still want to get your bearings.’

I wiped my eyes and nodded, my voice trembling. ‘I just want to get my bearings.’

The llama whirled me round, fixed its face into a horrifying mask, thrust it an inch from my non-face and screamed: ‘Well, STOP IT.’

It threw me into the maze as the hornets swarmed all around me, I ran, emerging onto the other side of the galaxy in time to catch the last rays of dawn that incinerated every innocent soul they touched. I cried endlessly, for myself, for the people who fell around me screaming and clutching their eyes, for the people who woke up all around the Endless Ice and cursed the day they were born, for the millions condemned to endure the sponsor, who tortured people night and day by being happier than they were, by being as unable as he was unwilling to help them, by laughing in the face of their ignorance, by Getting It in a way that none of us could ever

It was half-past seven when I emerged from the Strangeness. It would be wrong to call it a dream, because I was more awake then than I am now. But this is all real too. It’s all where I am now, all what’s happening to me at any given moment. And if most of it doesn’t feel strange, then that’s the strangest part of the whole thing.