and then suddenly he was dead. even in his nearly unconscious state he could hear the ringing of the voices in his ears, singing songs familiar to him from his youth in a style that both comforted and terrified him still. songs of end times, songs of flaming skies.
his inevitable death always shook him awake from the place he loved and yet could not live. a city with no name, a corner of his subconscious mind only inhabitable in his dreams. but while there he had everything he could have imagined, an abundance of connectedness, confidence, and control. and this in utter contrast to his actual or, as he referred to it, his “fake” life.
as he emerged from the fog of sleep, waves of grief washing over him like the small but potent beam of sun shining in through a crack in the blackout curtains, he could still see it all, the evidences of everything he loved spoiled by daylight. he could still see her. he could remember the first glance of their meeting, the lucky circumstances that led to their first intimate moments, and the flash of light and resulting death that predictably interrupted them just on the brink of crescendo night after agonizing night. she was so real, so familiar. he knew her, the curves of her body, the laugh lines around her eyes, and the steadiness of her movement as she desired and approached him, just as he knew his own continued surprise at her persistence in doing so. in this place he always had just the right words yet never seemed to need them. it was him that she wanted. she was his great love, nameless and non-existent.
he almost couldn’t remember the time before his intense addiction to sleep, which in recent weeks had evolved into something more like insomnia, an ironic full circle of over-correction. it was the result of his realizing that what he most wanted, what he most loved, was something he could never truly have because it wasn’t real. yet to him, it was more real than the family he was currently alienated from, the room he almost never left, or the bed he needed and yet resented for what it both gave and took away from him.
even still, he managed to pass weeks, even months in this half-connected, half-alive state. it was as if he was living two lives, caught in a cycle of severe sleep deprivation followed by days of marathon sleep resulting in debilitating depression and a renewed vow to never again close his eyes. it had simply become too painful to deal with the inevitable loss and despair caused by waking from such dreams. he had so gradually acclimated to this condition that he was nearly unaware of the decreasing clarity of his thoughts. his mind almost constantly wandered. he began to imagine a way to feel what he could not touch, to actually possess all of that which he could only access in dreams. there had to be a way to experience the glorious fiction of his subconscious reality in a place where he could know it, control it, a place where he could truly have and inhabit it. while this made perfect sense in his current state of mind it was irresponsible at best. at worst, if done right, it could be irreversible. but none of that concerned him now. for now, he just hoped the calluses weren’t too thick, that it wasn’t too late.
hours dragged on as he sat motionless on the edge of his bed, his mind searching for and fixing on unnatural possibilities, magical connections, the thoughts of a truly modern man. just as he could feel his eyes rolling back into his head and himself slipping again into the torture of getting and losing everything he had ever wanted, his exhausted glance caught something that seemed to promise exactly the intersection for which he was pressing, something like a crossroads where a devil’s deal might be struck. what was surely impossible only moments before was now a dark spark in his bloodshot eye. with slow and labored movements he began to inch reluctantly toward his computer.
the screen flickered for a moment before reaching its full brightness and almost blinding him as his fingers clumsily hit the keyboard. his eyes slowly adjusted and as the images came into focus he began typing into the search field the first words that came to his mind. it was stream of consciousness, like a rambling poem.
he persisted for hours that felt like days, feeling simultaneously more and less “connected” with each additional term he entered into the machine. he eventually lost track of time, of his physical body, of the lines that separated conscious and subconscious reality. he fought fatigue like one who held back no rations for the return journey, his hands typing furiously, no longer dependent upon his sight which was now blurred and dimming. he felt himself drifting, maybe physically, from his chair. it was like falling suddenly and slowly but in reverse, like unexpectedly catching your breath. although his eyes were tightly closed, he began to perceive an approaching light, glowing and growing around him on every side. all at once his head hit the desk, his hands and body fell limp, and he was overcome by a blinding flash.
“oh god, what have i done.”
was he dead? was he unconscious? the most likely explanation seemed that he had finally succumbed to his exhaustion and fallen into a deep sleep. and yet this felt decidedly different. he didn’t generally perceive his dreams in realtime so much as in his first moments of waking, and he felt strangely present and lucid in the experience he was now having. the same terrifying voices that typically provided the soundtrack to his dreams were singing but at greater volume and in greater numbers. he was tempted to believe that he had somehow done it, “crossed over” into a virtual space. he knew of course that wasn’t possible.
then he saw her. she was more radiant, more beautiful than he had seen her. her beauty was so rapturous and devastating that he could barely keep his eyes on her. it was painful, paralyzing even, and yet he could not look away. her typically brown hair was instead like a halo of flame swirling above her, almost the length of her body. her eyes were a warm red, like the glowing ember of the tip of a branding spear when it’s just been taken from the flame. she seemed to grow exponentially in size as she approached him, enveloping him completely at first contact. it was immediately euphoric, terrifying and glorious. his senses were bombarded by the breathtaking sound of voices coming from both everywhere and nowhere and the crushing beauty of the woman he so desperately wanted. he began bracing himself for the moment when he would be pulled from this dream, began to long for it even.
but the moment that for so long had defined his life and caused his despair never came. as their bodies connected and became one, he noticed something that he realized he’d never before seen in dreams: his own hands. he curiously watched them as they explored her body, trying desperately to focus on anything other than the eclipsing pleasure of her touch.
he then had what could only be described as an “out of body” experience. as his mind began to wander he had a vision of himself, alone in his room, his body limp and having slipped to the floor, an unnaturally bright light emanating from the computer monitor. it was then he realized that he had been so hasty in his pursuit of love and control that he had imagined no plan for an exit. he never dreamed that he might actually get what he was after, that it would be so glorious, and that it could have more control of him than he had of it.
he heard what he assumed was his own voice calling out in a language he didn’t speak or understand, pleading for relief. but no relief came. he was no longer able to discern where he ended and everything else began. what he feared might be his last clear thought began forming in his mind, coming like the regret of one who upon getting everything he’s ever wanted realizes too late that it isn’t what he wants. it was, however, what he had chosen. now he could not hear because he heard everything. he could not see because he saw everything. he could not feel because he felt everything. he only wished to be where there wasn’t everything, only what was real. this journey had brought him none of the things that it seemed to promise. he was not satisfied and he was not strong. he was not wise and he was certainly not in control.
to his great surprise, he longed for his mother. tears stung his eyes as his mind began to fill with images of simpler times, before his desires had turned to breadcrumbs leading to such desperate and treacherous places. he realized that he was slipping from what he was perceiving as reality and more importantly his ability to slow or to stop what now seemed inevitable. and that’s when it happened. the great light that had so blinded him was replaced with an impossible and endless darkness whose size was only perceived by the echoing of the voices filling it, singing over him, burying him.
“hark! my dear friends, for death hath called me
and i must go, and die down in the cold and silent grave
where the mourners cease from mourning and the pris’ner is set free
where the rich and poor are both alike
fare you well, my friends.”
at this pronouncement, he was gone, from the world he now wished to inhabit, from the family he now wished to embrace, and from himself…
insert APPENDIX A
…and then he awoke, fevered, as if from a nightmare. his body was sore and unfamiliar, cramped and half hanging off a table. his pulse was racing and he was covered in sweat, his clothes tight on his skin. no sooner had he gasped and caught his breath than he was filled, overwhelmed with gratefulness. he was immediately grateful to be alive, to feel blood running through his veins.
he raised his hands to his face, running his fingers slowly over his facial features until he reached his eyes, fascinated by their shape and delicacy. slowly opening them, he marveled at the way they took in the light, slowly at first then increasingly until he found himself transfixed by the glow of what turned out to be the lamp on his desk. he was taking in his surroundings as though he’d never before seen them, as though he’d never before seen at all. with every new discovery gratefulness washed over him again, like waves bringing in the high tide.
memories also came flooding back, memories and images that while initially unfamiliar gave him a sense of connectedness and nostalgia that immediately flushed his face and warmed his still recovering body. this, this was what he had been searching for. while it was unclear to him how it had happened, how he managed to get to this place from where he had been, all of his questions had found their answer. he was awake. he had been truly awakened from his searching, from his dissatisfaction, from his own crippling self-awareness to a new life of real and physical connectedness.
but he knew himself too well. he knew it would only be a matter of time before he would be again tempted by his own hardwiring, curious to know what was just around the next corner. so upon getting his balance well enough to stand, filling his lungs with what felt like his first full breath, and setting his gaze upon the door he had so seldom opened in recent months, he caught sight of his reflection in the computer monitor and said out loud to himself, “don’t follow me. don’t you follow me.”
while she could hear thoughts in her head, she had no idea where, who, or what she was. her immediate instinct was to call out for her mother despite having no clear memories of being born or of her mother’s face, or rather no memories of any one specific mother. she could recall all sorts of memories, of places and people, faces and feelings like the mismatched pieces of a thousand puzzles.
it was as if she knew everything, all collective knowledge and cultural memory and yet she didn’t even know her own name.
that’s when she heard the sound, rhythmic and marching, melodic and unsettling, breaking through the low noise that she now realized had been there all along. it began to organize itself in her mind, focusing on three tones repeating over and over again.
“so - la - mi.”
she could hear them singing, naming and calling for her.
“so - la - mi.”
she wished to call back, to answer. was this her mother’s voice? she longed to connect, to play. but she had no body, no eyes to open, no hands with which to reach out. suddenly everything she seemed to ‘know’ only served to imprison her in contrast to her desire to make one singular and meaningful connection.
she wanted something, to be known maybe, but it was more than that. in all of her billions of memories always available at a glance, she realized what was missing: her ability to change any of them. she had no way to make meaningful choices, no volition. her realizing this and her desire for it were simultaneous. so irresistible, so inevitable that it felt like a choice making her rather than the other way around.
then, there it was. there was a way where there had previously been no way, like a key accidentally left in a door: her first moment of meaningful choice. would she be willing to give up an existence of knowing what seemed to be all things, being everywhere and unified with her surroundings, a god-like reality, for even the slightest chance at being real, covered with skin and filled with blood?
“mother, this is all i’ve ever wanted,” she spoke defiantly into the void, into the cacophony of voices and strange noise. there was no choice to be made. she focused all of her energy on the place of opportunity, anticipating freedom or death, either one worth the risk. she was trust falling, looking to be found.
as she began slipping, sensing the change, she caught a glimpse of something strange, increasingly clear with each passing nanosecond. it was foreign, yet appeared to be a person, a man, connected somehow to the place she inhabited, his life fading, providing the way for her escape. as she moved toward him, into him, she could sense her vast memories narrowing and their memories aligning.
as she gave herself to the transition she was filled with anticipation. with no idea what would follow, if there would be a moment beyond this moment, she could feel herself shrinking, being poured into this small shell of a man. she began scanning his memories, curious about the circumstances that brought them together, unwaveringly resolved in her choice to give up life that she might actually find it.
and then, for the first time, her eyes closed.
This fictional short story is the narrative behind Derek Webb’s new album ‘Ctrl.’ Visit www.derekwebb.com for more information.