Wave Packet, by Steve Breaux and Kathy Reed

For years I barely spoke except a little at supper
and then I would lock myself away in the cellar
my human instincts blinkered, devolved
more grunts than grammar

So it was in grief that I built my instrument
the smallest gateway no larger than a florin
a desperate soul’s ingenious plea
it pierced the universe into God’s kaleidoscope

And through the eyepiece I watched fractal, sharded realities
paths not taken and events that never occurred
but those fancies aside, I saw you again
I saw the sum of existence
and in its maths was your superposition

What a monster I am
to quantify my daughter as some probabilistic
I rank my personal efforts with you against the averages
and saw that my failures were my own and only my own

I just wanted a way to see you happy again

plasma ball in the dark

They’ve bottled the lightning. The rest of my days will be spent in this sphere prison. I idle away my life scribbling feelings, psychoanalysed by faces through the wall. Just kill me and be done with it. I can run away from them. I’ve done it before. But what use is it? These faces will be replaced by others. Ones I still cannot see. Whenever I run to, this same sphere prison awaits me. The same meals. The same pen and paper. They’re trying to break me. I won’t give them the satisfaction.

I’ve lost track. I jump and jump and jump. Years, decades fly by. Still they study me. It’s cruel what they’ve done. How long for me? Since I’ve seen another human? Touched or felt warmth that wasn’t food or wash water. I fling my faeces at the wall like a chimp. I am a chimp. I smear violent graffiti for them in violent brown shades. Psychoanalyse that. I wash my hands clean of filth and jump decades again. When I land, I sob on the floor of my spheric hell.

I still remember my first jump. Or maybe it’s only the first I can recall. I was a child and terrified. Forward hours; day become night in the blink of an eye. In trouble for scaring my parents. I didn’t understand. Only fools think lightning strikes once. Lightning does as it pleases. What better way to cut detention, to skip being grounded? To truant school? To never be caught red-handed. When things get hairy, I bolt (get it?). Rules are for keeping people in line – well I don’t queue.

Long before I got caught in the act, the blame fell elsewhere. I aged slower than my class. I fell behind in the work. They thought I was malnourished or abused at home. I miss home. I wish I could go back.

How different am I really? We all move forward in time – I just get to choose how far. How is sleep not the same thing? I’m not that special. It’s a waste of resources. Just let me go.

I refuse to eat. If I can’t wait them out, I’ll end it anti-climactically. Centuries of study down the drain because the subject starved himself to death. Ha. Medics rush in as I faint. People! It hurts but I jump before they can treat me. Oh. How long since I last saw a face?

I wake on a saline drip. Alone. Weak but alive. The faces are gone. Maybe dead. For the first time since childhood I’m unaware how far I’ve jumped. Bitterly I hope it’s years. I pray with all my heart that those medics died unsure if their life’s work had gone to waste. I try to imprint their faces into my memory. I don’t remember any others.

Is this a study or just a prison? Just tell me that much at least. I get it now. They can’t have individuals like me living life without repercussions, leaving their messes to yesterday. …Are there others like me? People who punctured through existence at will before crashing head-first into a cage? Quarantined forevermore from civilisation’s slow tick towards doomsday. I couldn’t think of a more miserable life if I tried. Truly. I’m so lonely.

The door’s open.

Is it a trick? A part of the study? No, there is no study. …I don’t know what to think. It’s been thousands of years. I’m writing in this stupid journal instead of venturing out. What’s out there? Nuclear winterland? Did they leave the earth behind? My mind cowers at the thought of unrestricted space. I’ll go to sleep in my sphere, I tell myself. And when I wake there will be food and the door will be bolt shut.

For J.D

An image of the beautiful blue ceiling of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Guenter Guni/Getty Images

The head cleric raised a hand, quelling the crowd that grew now by the second. His council sat to his sides on the raised platform in the town square. Word of the trial had reached even beyond neighbouring towns and hundreds had flocked to amuse theirselves. Today they would hang the heretic.

Hisham – the heretic – kept nodding as though he were constantly falling asleep. His neck had grown too weak to support his head.

The cleric neatened his robe as he formalised the words that burned so clear in his heart. The intricate patterns of the rug he sat cross-legged upon distracted him with glimpses of faces. Either his colleagues were oblivious to its devilish details or they were willfully ignorant. Something he would have to address in private later. Violations were violations, no matter the size of the sin or the reputation of the sinner. For now he would deal with the more pressing matter of the thousand faces staring up at the dais.

He cleared his throat and spoke.

‘By God, our people gather here today to bear witness to the trial of Hisham al-Musafir who stands charged of shirk, namely of preaching idolatry and of polytheism, or the attribution of other deities beside God.’

Murmurs passed through the crowd like a cool breeze. ‘Hisham the Traveller, what do you have to say for yourself?’

The heretic nodded again.

The cleric gave a nod and the executioner let Hisham drink of some water. None could say he was not a merciful judge. The man’s eyes perked up although his words took some time to return to him.

‘Why do you call me The Traveller, ibn ‘Abdullah? I am guilty only of the things I have said and done. Your petty labels mean nothing to me.’ The man turned his face away in disgust.

‘Aadil ibn ‘Abdullah struggled to contain his rage at the man’s contempt for divine law. Still, he was operating on behalf of something greater than himself, and found his blessed composure oncemore.

‘We are a fair and just people. Though we recognize you were once of us, we do not deign to sully the honour of any but the one who stands trial. Now speak your defence. Do you not defy the Oneness of God, Hisham?’

The warm air sank heavy on all present.

‘I do not. I preach Oneness above all else. You would know that much if this were a real trial, ibn ‘Abdullah.’

Murmurs again. ‘Aadil could feel the blush in his cheeks rising again.

‘Were we not honourable, we would have already hung you, oh Traveller. That you stand before all present with lips wettened is proof enough of our fairness. Now speak your heresies for the final time, that we may decree the verdict for all.’

‘It is no lie. I preach Oneness. A oneness of spirit and matter. Of earth and aether. I preach there is no difference between the swirls on your fingers and that of the night’s stars. As above, so below. To hurt another is to hurt yourself for we are all One, only as separate as the fingers of a hand. We come from the same source. I preach no more than that, ‘Aadil.’

Some in the crowd openly spoke now, though their words did not carry up to the dais. The cleric could not contain his rage this third time, for it was a righteous rage for which he was merely a conduit. ‘From the same source you say? Like two brothers born of the same father perhaps? The devil sits in the details, oh Hisham ibn ‘Abdullah. I had no doubts you would soon enough employ your tricks to save your skin. But I swear to you, violations of the law are violations of the law, whoever the transgressor may be. Be done with your idolatrous testimony and make fast your preparations for the life hereafter.’

Hisham looked at the cleric defiantly. Hisham al-Musafir, Hisham the Traveller. Hisham ibn ‘Abdullah. Hisham, his father’s eldest son.

‘Aadil motioned to the executioner who raised his sword.

‘Seek God in yourselves, for you are of divine creation and origin.’ And with those words still on his lips and heart did Hisham the Heretic die at the feet of his brother, as a stranger in front of his own hometown.

Tick. Tick. Tick. They think I’m mad.

I would too looking at me from the outside. Unkempt. Smelly. Homeless. All of it by choice. Of course by choice – what sane person could ever bear such things except by choice? No, see I am a man freed from all burdens and obligations. Free to roam as I please. Free to do and think what I want. See, I am rich in the only way that’s ever mattered: in time. Twenty-four hours a day, and every precious second of each belongs to me. No family duties or work hours to slice up my pie. How many can say the same?

I sleep freewheel, unbound from the strictures of clocks and shadows. I grovel for scraps, yes, but I do so with head held high. For I am a great thinker, and what better purpose is there than to think? And what greater thinker than he who has made every second of his life one of leisure?

And what do I think on, you ask, with all this time at my disposal? Tick. Tick. Tick. Why, the end of the world of course.

And now you think I’m mad too. I see it in your eyes. But look. Look at this underbridge carefully.

Not your blind loser skater friends. Not these purposeless destitutes too coward to kill themselves. No. Look at the underbridge itself. You see the spray-painted markings, like tally marks. Lines and gates wrap around it, dark grey on light like a muddied zebra coat.

I wonder what made you approach me today. I’ve watched you grow from afar, you and your loser friends. Watched you graze the skin of your knees. Break arms and teeth. I ate your scraps like a rat. Did you also watch me in turn?

Well I slept and thought great thoughts and watched you all. And on some days I would scrub out the line of a tally. How many black tallies remain? How many are turned grey now due to my hand? Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.

Yes. Yes. You see it now. How the end of the world nears and this underbridge is its abacus. And I, the great thinker I am, decide when to scrub out another tally and count down to its demise.

‘Torch it,’ said RX as he turned away. ‘None of it matters.’ The captain saluted and cycled off to dispense the orders.

Hands tugged at RX’s leg from out the mass of limbs like gnarled roots. He shook and kicked them all off as they came, violently – but for one that persisted. A slender metal thing. Without thinking he bent down and grabbed it in his own hands and pulled out the buried girl whole. A dated model, with capped intelligence for security no doubt. Her serial ID was unreadable and an old fashioned QR code tattooed her face. 

‘You grab at me as though I might save you, little QR.’ He assessed the girl’s non-response before throwing her on a heap of body parts.

‘She’s older and braver than us both. Perhaps wiser too.’ 

RX looked to the voice. Sat cross-legged under the shade of a tree was a WYZ monk. Before him lay a gas can. ‘To have seen so much and still hold out for hope… There is great strength in that. Strength I surely lack.’

RX watched the old man curiously. ‘You’ve seen what I do, wanderer?’

The monk gestured at the skies. ‘Such tall plumes visible all through the countryside. Villages burn and our people return to the heavens as smoke. I have seen your works, demon. How can I not?’

‘Consider your tongue with care, old monk.’ 

The WYZ sighed before dousing himself with the contents of the can and setting himself alight. ‘I am beyond care. Only pain remains for me.’

RX watched him burn quietly. Senseless as it was, he would at least honour the monk’s final act with the dignity of an audience. 

‘Farewell, wanderer.’

Amid the crackling, RX picked up sounds of sobbing.

The hands and legs that surfaced the ground… some were still connected to living models like the QR girl. It was as though the earth itself cried for the WYZ monk.

‘You must have a reason.’ The QR girl was clearly awake now, tears stuck to her face. ‘Nothing could justify what you do to us. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason you do it.’

RX considered. ‘There is no reason for it.’

‘But it can’t all be for nothing. What happened to you that you could be capable of such evil? You must have endured some terrible tragedy.’

RX shook his head and turned away from the girl. ‘There is no terrible tragedy in my past. I have no pained back story. Perhaps such a story lies ahead of me still. I cannot say. I pillage and burn because I love to do it. And if a tragedy were to befall on my head tomorrow, I have already avenged myself against the world.’

RX nodded to his young captain and walked off. The captain gave the signal to the drones. And the drones razed the writhing ground of people and body parts. And the little crying QR girl.

a butterfly camouflaged against the bark of a tree

You spear throwers think yourselves apex
speak yourselves deep into this delusion
as though you came to the fire and not it to you

all the creatures of the kingdom play chase
so tell me why man prefers to hide than seek
except that in your heart of hearts you recognise
you are still the prey and something hides in the brush

The prison is all but complete, hell manifest
and the meat bicker over who holds the keys
and who paints the cells

the eye sunken oaf lurches forward uncontrollably to stand
his craned neck strains under the weight of a thousand teeth
unsteady legs gasp for precious movement, rock and sway for a moment
before besponged feet slap slap the ground

was there ever an uglier creature?

his everwake hot breath snore more audible as his heart races
eyes avert the unnatural sun’s gaze, no, the gaze of all,
would look to his feet were it not for distended bowels

pale wretch
thin skinned balding child
must now fend for himself
– all rousing hunchbacks must –
the construct is broken, feeder tubes and screens all
hostile germ air will kill those most sterile

'Portrait', a painting by Myriam Cancho Urbina
Between the monstrous, grotesque and beautiful. Portrait #1, 2017 by Myriam Cancho Urbina

A strange feeling that men dare forget our place
in this world, yet we grow numb and weary,
a surprise to feel at all

we who imbue land with life
who carried your kind to term
now relegated to whisper, fated to fade
and you who took so much for so little
savage the earth and understand not gratitude

we will have no more of it
we become alien and wild to you
and when the great singing stops and the soils turn white
the debt will be settled

New England woodlands hostile come nightfall
dark forests untamed by church presence
where hard eyes watch white men, Christian uninitiates
with bloodthirsty eagerness for transgressions

Photo screenshot from The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015), directed by Robert Eggers

The great library grows wilder in its growing
and each day a new wing is built 
larger than everything previous combined

to house the exponential production in books
books, books, books
and what’s contained within them increasingly esoteric or tangential

Irrelevant feelings and idle thoughts documented on paper
in time no doubt incoherent gibberish will step over the shrinking bar
all of it is knowledge, for sure, but is all knowledge sacred or worth saving?
much of it underbrush to the towering trees of canonised wisdom

The lone librarian makes judicious use of her opaque filing system
sifts the endless tomes into hierarchies of pertinence
if it tends to infinity, what good is the library without her?
just an endless labyrinth of noise 
that swallows signal

Perhaps we ought to burn it all down
and start over whilst we still can
before the definitions blur any further
and the wildfires become uncontrollable

Brazil’s National Library, Rio de Janeiro (Photo credit: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)
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