Vladimir Poleganov

Vladimir Poleganov

 

 

 

I am reluctant to tell you what sort of eyes they have, for fear that you may think me lying on account of the incredibility of the story.

                                                          —“A True Story,” Lucian


I first found out about the other world about two months ago, when I tried to call my wife and got a busy tone. I dialed again, and then once more and then, on the fourth time, just as I was about to give up, someone on the other side picked up and started speaking to me. I wouldn’t have described the voice as belonging to a man, but neither was it explicitly female; the language familiar, a mixture of tongues I’ve heard and even some I spoke myself, but still somehow unintelligible, like a noise machine that counterfeits natural sounds so truly and clearly that it sounds artificial. I was taken aback for a moment but then I thought - maybe my wife had finally gone insane, the way I’d always suspected she wanted to. I imagined her, the edge of the receiver leaving red marks across her pale face, her eyes rolling back in their sockets, staring into the darkness inside her head, mouth agape, her tongue sticking out in throes of sudden schizophasia… It took a long second to shake off the disturbing image, replace it with a more presentable memory and try to say something back. A feeble ‘Hello?’ is all that I could manage, and even that came out so quiet, the other side’s alien sounds immediately tore it to shreds and swallowed it. The torrent of speech showed no signs of abating, so I decided to just keep quiet and listen. If it were demons that had possessed my wife, they would soon tire and leave her alone. If it were madness, maybe I would get used to it and even learn to be happy for her. Yet the more I listened, the more the sounds came to resemble words - I could soon point out their beginnings and ends; tell apart intentional pauses from intakes of breath; sail the peaks and troughs of the voice’s intonation. Perhaps the adrenaline rush turned fear into excitement, I couldn’t say. I couldn’t say how long I spent on the phone either, only that when I finally hung up, it was already dark outside. Instead of trying for the fifth time, I walked to the window and gazed into the night sky. There was something inexplicable painted across it that night, something preventing me from completing the image, from taking the whole picture in; as if a photograph had been magnified as far as the eye would allow, but a part, the smallest part, a pixel or something even more minute, was missing from it. Whatever it was, wherever it was, my senses registered its absence, but failed to fully communicate it to my brain. There are no stars, I thought, but then again, there was nothing unusual about that - it is what the autumn sky looks like above every big city these days. Smog and clouds obscure it, therein lies its inexplicability. There had been a brief period, a couple of years prior, when I believed in the mystical. It ended when my wife, during one particularly pleasant dinner party, convinced me that it is all down to advances in technology, and how it reveals and conceals the world all at the same time. It is perfectly normal to be confused, we’ve all been there, she said and I nodded my agreement, but I remember now I also wanted to ask her something… what, I no longer know. I can’t quite place the memory either - the dinner with friends, her explanation, the sudden, abrupt loss of faith. I guess I believe again now - but in this other world, the awareness of which spilled through the receiver two short months ago. I’ve felt like I occupy a larger universe ever since, and that’s quite significant in itself, considering how little space we are all afforded in ours. I turned my attention to the ineffable, starless sky - it was not a thing for my eyes, I could feel that, and it scared me. I tried to think back to all the things I had done earlier in the day, to stay entangled in the safety net of the familiar and routine, but it felt flimsy and transient. I had certainly gone to work, probably had a meal - breakfast, lunch, maybe even dinner, since it was already nightfall; I would have spoken to colleagues in the office, passed by strangers on my way home. Memories of the everyday, blurred and undefined, flooded my field of vision, zooming in quickly before being sharply pulled away by some invisible centrifugal force. I felt like a rock on the ocean floor, watching the waves play around with the debris from some spectacular shipwreck: pieces of driftwood washed up close enough for me to get a sense of the magnitude of the crash, but not of the shape and character of what remained. My day seemed unreconstructable; in the deep waters of my new state, memory was clearly an inadequate vessel. The only thing I remembered is that I had, at some point, remembered more. This struck me as odd - I had a reasonably clear idea of my past beyond the last couple of days - I knew who I was, could probably explain what I was doing looking through the windows of this particular room… Everybody catches a glimpse of a different world at some point in their lives - dreams, mistakes, the violence or love of others, they are all doors to a different reality, I know that. It makes one realize that boundaries, the solid forms of things, are but chalk lines, relentlessly drawn up and wiped away by invisible hands. But how many of us pass through those doors? How many cross the threshold of these new places? I wouldn’t know, perhaps a lot more than I think. I wonder sometimes if I award my discovery more importance than it’s due.                  

 

*

I felt suddenly sleepy, an unexpected tiredness washed over me. I hadn’t done any work that day, and even if I had, my job is hardly strenuous, yet it was all I could do to head to bed and not curl up on the floor. The bathroom lights caught my scent through the open door and sprang to life, but turned back off as soon as I’d passed down the hallway. I turned to look at the window at the bottom of the room I had just left - whatever lay beyond it, whatever form the darkness outside took, it seemed to me, at that moment, too small, too negligible to lead to the night sky, to imply the vast space it struggled to contain. I sometimes feel like the world on my side of that window is the only one deserving of being called ‘real’. It’s like I’m at the very beginning of… everything and the universe outside is still unfinished; sitting and waiting are all I can reasonably do. My wife explained that away with technology too, when I told her. There is not an inch of our home that hasn’t been sown with electronics, she said. Scientists and designers are making them smaller and smaller, more and more invisible. For instance, what you think is just dust is actually a clever device that monitors your vital signs, pre-empts your needs and puts the oven on a moment before you feel the first pangs of hunger. I did not quite understand how that explains why everything not within the four walls of our home feels like a dream, a mistake or simply lacking meaning like meaning has not yet been assigned to it. I still, to this day, do not understand how I have persuaded myself that this room offers security, the kind of stability of the senses that’s the only thing left tethering me to this world. Perhaps it’s because the technology here is so sophisticated, so convincing. Take insomnia, for example - I barely ever twist and turn in bed, sweaty and exhausted, going through the same thought a thousand times: the robotic particles woven into the fabric of our sheets are there to facilitate the body and mind’s passage across the river of days. Perhaps, perhaps. But then why, I thought to ask my wife once, do we still clean? If dust is electronic and there for a reason, why do we wipe it off? Only part of it is synthetic, she explained, the rest is detritus and waste, from our furnishings and our bodies. I insisted. Keep in mind that cleaners are machines too; you wouldn’t mistake a doll for a human, would you?

Remembering the conversation lulled me into an uneasy sleep. I vaguely recalled my wife saying something else about a doll, but her words never fully crossed over and left no mark. Of all the dreams I had that night - from an abandoned house, to a former workplace of mine, to my daily commute - one element remained constant - calling her, the silence of the receiver, the ringing tone, and finally, the unfamiliar language. The call concluded every nocturnal scenario, settled over itself like residue; every repetition made it clearer, sharper, easier to understand. The last time around I was almost certain I understood the words - an illusion shattered shortly after by my morning alarm, beckoning my consciousness back to the world I was destined, or maybe sentenced, to live my ordinary life in. Fate or a prison, but never both, of that I was sure.  

 

I first caught a glimpse of the new world when I looked up. I was not in my room, because I saw a sky. It was not the sky from behind my window - the sky that I alternated between revering and doubting - it was a different sky, multi-colored and alive like the thin membrane of a soap bubble on a summer’s day. This happened a few days after the unsuccessful call. I had almost forgotten about it, never even mentioned it to my wife, despite having seen her the very next day. She had just come back from a work trip in the late afternoon and we were going over the details of a dinner we were hosting. Her friend Dora was to attend, along with some men I didn’t know. We have a lot of catching up to do, my wife said, all sorts of curious happenings Dora is going to tell us about. The others want us to try something. I don’t know what it is myself yet, she hastened to add, recognizing the look I gave her. I didn’t say anything, and I could have. I could have thought about the voice on the telephone and the dream that succeeded it - it would’ve been the kind of contribution she’d find intriguing. Alas, less than 24 hours later, it just didn’t cross my mind - as if nothing strange had happened, as if I were suddenly numb to the extraordinary. My wife was working on her screen, re-arranging photographs - a constellation of images dancing about the digital plane under the near-mechanical precision of her fingers. She had been doing that for a long time, one could see. The photos burst forth from the corners of the screen, palpitating, arranged themselves into layers, then disengaged and darted off in opposite directions. Their colors, vivid and loud, reminded me of that other sky. Accompanied by a fetid gust of warm air, it had appeared above me in the blink of an eye. Or maybe it hadn’t. Because that first blink, the almost instantaneous closing and opening of my eyes is the beginning, the only thing I remember from the day I saw the other world for the first time. I hesitate to call it an awakening, because I don’t remember if it was indeed a morning. Neither was it a coming to, or at least it didn’t feel like one. My memory had no record of a prelude - no action, like with a telephone - of picking up a receiver, dialing and waiting for an answer, to ease me into this new place, just that imposing, colorful sky. I didn’t feel much. I looked down at my feet and saw myself standing on dry, greyish land. My shoes were still clean and shiny, I hadn’t taken a single step. As I lifted my foot, determined to go somewhere, anywhere, my naked heel touched the bedroom’s thin carpet. The colors around me were the familiar pastel we had inherited from the previous occupants and had never bothered to freshen up or paint over. The eggy wallpaper and the spider-web like frippery along the corners were as far as my eyes could see. As they should be, I thought.

 

After that first step which took me back to the place I don’t remember ever leaving, my life dragged on as it always had. For a few days, it must have seemed like nothing had changed, in this world or the other. Or maybe time was just holding its breath, waiting for me to look up to a sky that was not as uniformly blue and therefore not as limitless as the one I was used to. My wife left for work again, for some big, developing southern city with important people in glass buildings who needed her. We telephoned every few hours with no connection issues - it was unmistakably her voice that answered every single one of my calls, there was no static or that peculiar slurring of words that suggests an organic rather than electronic problem. The other world never entered our conversations - mostly because it would have re-ignited her favorite discussion about losing one's mind in the age of technology (or something equally as shrouded in immaterial philosophical nonsense), but also because I was still unsure of how private what was happening to me really was. And, frankly, there wasn't all that much to tell: its vividness and strangeness notwithstanding, the objective, communicable information I could share would struggle to fill up a brief afternoon nap. So instead, each in our own city, we just droned on about the dinner and the weather. It's been raining a lot, especially in the evening, she said. I expected it in the afternoon, but it only grows stronger at night and no amount of soundproofing is able to keep it out. It is raining now, as a matter of fact. Yet, hard as I tried, I couldn't hear anything on her side, the connection seemed to have slowed down and expanded like plasticine. It is sunny here, I offered as I stepped up to the window, and still daytime. A beat. I know, my wife's voice sounded singular, as if enveloped in studio silence. A little while after, the rain came through. It sounded like a crackling on the line, hollow, almost artificial. I can only imagine what people here dream about, she laughed. First, they go to sleep in an instant, as soon as their head hits the pillow. Then they march, in neat rows headed God knows where to the beat of military drums. Yes, I smiled at the thought, rhythmic dreams. They are so messy and unorganized when awake, it's no wonder their nights are so structured.

 

 

It’s a planet, it couldn’t be anything else. There are probes and ships in Space, astronauts and computers tasked with stretching the limits of what we call Earth a little further each day (day? Is this the correct word to use?). Because, as my wife said, our world is no longer confined to the hard surface of the planet, we carry it with us wherever we go, like dust or a disease, up and down, in our bodies and our machines. Earth has come to represent most of the Solar system, its meaning spilling out and losing shape like egg-yolk. Whereas the other world is still just a planet to me. A masterpiece in its own right, lonely and clear and complete and self-sufficient as every new land appears to its discoverer or its castaway. Oceans, planes, even the sky - everything behind one’s back blends into the twilight of their old world, staining the maps, curdling into history, in sharp contrast to the unexplored ahead. Maybe at some point my secret place will become Earth too, maybe in a matter of days or maybe it has already happened, the moment I looked up to the soap-bubble sky above. But I don’t want to think about that now, it feels irrelevant somehow. What I’d rather explore is the planet’s position in relation to Earth: is it behind the Sun, where, like children drawing a flat, smiling solar disk in the corner of each landscape, we naively imagine there to be only darkness? Or is it bashful, dancing around between the planets we already know about, forever out of sight? It can’t be very far from a source of light and warmth, I felt both the moment I got there: the dry air, the slight breeze, the freshness in the throat, the freshness in my lungs. Who knows how the other world guards its secrets? There are entities, powers, a Presence all around us. That’s what my wife says. And in this space, this vast space we share, nothing could exist that fools the eye - of people as well as of machines - so completely, that it immediately forgets all about what it has just seen. I am not entirely sure if I believe her myself - in the unimaginable bowels of the Cosmos, there have to be blind spots, small or big, big as worlds even, that do not obey a woman’s memory, that refuse to be remembered. That resist remembering, to be precise. The scientist verifies the data from her telescope, enters them and the screen across fills up with coordinates for those celestial bodies content with being discovered. That sort of thing. But I don’t know if my planet’s like that. And if it isn’t - how does my mind still hold on to it? I am not alone, I’ve known for several days. Every time the new planet intrudes on my life, I can feel him there with me. I can’t see him yet, but something tells me that soon enough the outline of his body will solidify and stand complete, next to or opposite from me. 

 

*

My wife returned from her work trip in the middle of the night and woke me up. It had been a whole day since my last visit to the other world, a day I had spent at home after work called to let me know I wouldn’t be needed in for the rest of the week. We are testing a few new applications, chirped my team leader, and we want to be sure it’s safe before we let people in. As if computers were wild predators in a cage. I hung up and looked around the quiet bedroom. It crossed my mind how nice it would be if the other world appeared today, but it didn’t, not even as a faint feeling or a flickering at the periphery of my vision, so I filled the hours with things too insignificant to commit to memory, watched TV, probably ate too. Then I must’ve fallen asleep. My wife came home as I was dreaming of the new planet replacing Earth underneath my bed and tempting me awake with the exquisite taste of its winds. I didn’t hear her walk in, but felt her lie down next to me and caress my face. When she saw I was awake, she kissed me and said: I’m sorry, I know you’re sleeping, I couldn’t help myself. It’s only been a few days, I murmured. Only a few days, she echoed, but such long, long days. You have no idea how long; you don’t know how far it is to walk to the end of such a day, only to be faced with the enormity of the night that follows it. Those nights - not quite as endless as Space, but long enough for you to realize you won’t live to see them end. So you have to just keep walking. That last sentence I might have only dreamt, I can’t be sure.

 

*

We were standing in something like a desert. I had never been to such a place before, it being a different world and everything, so I can’t be sure I’m not doing it a disservice by describing it as a desert. It’s just that the way the haze in the distance blended sky and earth into a brilliant line reminded me of one. I couldn’t feel any heat where we were, but the horizon, however far, was surely scorching. He stood silent next to me. I’ll call him a boy, mostly because coming up with new words seems pointless, but also because, judging by his gait and whichever of his features I could make out, I am pretty sure he was one. I caught the briefest glimpse of his face when I finally dared to turn my head and look at him, but it’s only his eyes that stayed with me. Dora, my wife’s friend, used to tell a story I’ve largely forgotten, except that one detail: after meeting someone, she could only remember their eyes. Or was it that they’re the only thing she looked for? I can’t recall. I have a tail too, the boy said. I saw something under his eyes move, a smile perhaps? I hadn’t noticed. He turned and wagged it at me: a real tail of rather formidable length. I won’t be with you for very long, he said or at least I think he did, as I couldn’t tear myself away from following it all the way up, from tip to tailbone. Strangely enough, his appearance did not surprise me nearly as much as the fact that he was there in the first place. Whatever this new place was that had pulled me in and invaded my life, it was clearly not meant for me alone. It was a shared world, not unlike the virtual realities companies offer to bodies that are too tired of living, but whose consciousness is not ready to move on quite yet. There’s a place like that back in our city. ‘Place’ is not the right word - it’s operated by people living elsewhere - in India, Indonesia, even Africa; the routers are scattered across a handful of buildings rented by a foreign firm, the bodies of its users are all still at home. I am aware it probably sounds like one of those early cartoons depicting the nascent virtual reality technology - people as obese as to be practically immobile, faces hidden behind bulky visors, veins and arteries hooked to dialysis machines so that the blood keeps pumping in and out of weak hearts. The truth is, of course, very different, even the caricaturists knew that. I myself have never been to a shared world or interacted with any of their clients. None of my friends have used the service, I’d hear if they had. Even my wife doesn’t talk about it much, and she knows more than most. I’m not sure why I’m thinking about this now, shared worlds are stupid. I don’t even normally like saying things like ‘virtual reality’. I think it’s the other world’s influence that creates a sense of instability in me - I feel like a vessel full of water, unsettled by an invisible hand, gripped with anxiety about my future wholeness. This state of uncertainty chases my thoughts in directions they’ve never gone before. Why am I, for instance, thinking about that cliché, that outdated misconception of what shared virtual worlds are like? Is it because I’m secretly afraid I’ve somehow ended up in one? That someone has played a cruel prank and hooked me up to a machine while I was sleeping? Or have I clumsily stumbled in myself, too consumed by keeping my balance to notice that I’ve fallen into a trap? I need to ask my wife if there are technologies that use one’s momentary disequilibrium to transport them somewhere against their will. Has someone, by chance, discovered how to teleport unsuspecting mass? If I were to ask her such a thing, my urgency washing over her like a tidal wave, she would first tell me to calm down. Then she’d ask why questions like that unsettle me. It’s not like my answer would make a difference either way, it’s just how she’d react. Are you here? It’s the boy. I have a tail. Are you here? So I could speak the languages of the other world after all - it’s only when I’m in my own that they’re unintelligible, the sounds made alien by a fine technological encryption in the receiver. It’s like all the governments and phone manufacturers on Earth have conspired to filter the words of the other world, of any other world, straight out of their citizens’ ears. I will have to try it out: dial my wife’s number again and hope the other side picks up. Only if I understand them will I think about or discuss the implications of all this - if the government really is in on it as I suspect, the moment the new language leaves my lips I’ll turn into another pulsating red dot on someone’s screen, not human but contaminant, at least until I am found. They use that term in my wife’s job - ‘contaminant’. It denotes a thing that migrates, which dares to go from one place to another (that’s what I think, at least, we haven’t spoken about it at length). It’s an unnatural migration, not like with birds or fish. Once I’m sure that this is what’s happening to me, I’ll ask my wife what to do next. I thought about the boy and his tail - what if his entire body is but a result of a migration of genes, from one function to another? What is it that has driven his cells to the zoomorphic? Perhaps it is the other world’s most advantageous transformation? The only one that leads to beauty, like wings do back on Earth? Everything else - beaks, extending tongues, paws, fur, hooves, horns, humps, shells, thorns - is retrograde, a step backwards and down. Or maybe pollution exists here too - rusty ramshackle factories spilling their gases and putrid waters into the world, effecting change where none is needed? I need to keep track of all the questions I’d like to ask my wife when I finally tell her about the Other World, even those I already know the answer to. My ruminations about the boy’s tail, for instance - she’d tell me that I am... well, ruminating and that going over the same explanations time and time again will take me no closer to the truth. I wonder how she will explain away his body when I describe it to her? More importantly, how will I find the words to describe it in the first place? When I finally tore my gaze away from his tail, I noticed that everything else about him flickered, like a distant figure coming out of an oasis. Yet I was standing right next to him - within reach but still mirage-like. I’m not sure why, but I don’t want to call him a hallucination. I’ve never hallucinated and not for the lack of trying - I’ve lost count of the substances friends have brought over for me to share - brilliant pieces of hard narcotics floating languidly in technicolor liquids, pills like tropical fish, PKD, records of beautiful music sped up or slowed down to the point of grotesque. As with most grounded and rational people, the closest I’ve ever come to hallucinating is the semi-lucid state before a dream sets in. But that hardly counts as an experience, everyone sees or hears things before they fall asleep, don’t they? Voices, low or high, resonating within the expanding void inside the skull; a theatre of shadows along the underside of the eyelids, where in reality there’s only darkness; a loss of sensation in a phantom limb to fool the consciousness to within an inch of the paralysis of death. The ears collect the ambient sounds from the rooms above or below and transform them into the murmurs of a loved one recently departed, the rattle of machines haunted by unwelcome ghosts, while the tongue lies comatose in the mouth’s drying cavity only to occasionally convulse against gritted teeth with a word from the imminent delirium - a word removed from its meaning yet stuck to it like an image to a hallucination. Mirages, on the other hand, always take place far away from the familiar, jumping at your mind and body when your guard is down. This is what being in the desert is like for me. My short meeting with the boy happened the third or fourth time I crossed over. I still struggle to mark my visits on a calendar, because I am unable to pinpoint when they occur or where I am while they’re happening. Is it my consciousness that splits, or does my body replicate itself to be in two places at the same time? Or do events follow a simple chronology until I am expected to tell or make sense of them, which is when beginnings, middles and endings all twist and intertwine like serpents in their nest? I don’t know. It seems that I would have to get used to the confusion the same way I got used to the boy’s chimerical body. Observing him, I realized that the flickers were an external expression of the unstable processes inside - the body was in a constant state of change, or would have been if something - willpower or an unconscious talent - in the boy wasn’t holding it all together in a relatively stable shape. It occurred to me that the tail might not be a tail at all, but a piece of the body aching to separate from the whole. I saw it twist around his right leg. I was right. The spots you might see on my back, little growths here and there that disappear as soon as you acknowledge them, don’t worry about them, he said, it’s just me trying to fashion myself into something you can comprehend. It is not exactly easy for me, but you will start helping me soon. Do you mean I will get used to it? Yes, you will. You’re still only half-here, insubstantial. He laughed and I finally saw his face, not just eyes for my memory to erect something around, but a full set of features amongst the movements of the tiny particles, dust or flaking skin or a technology I was not familiar with, that comprised his skin. He looked humanoid, if not entirely human, or was at least suggestive enough for me to project on to feel more at ease. Some time later, in bed back in my own world, I tried to remember him and my brain arranged the details into an ordinary boy’s face, olive-skinned, possibly unwashed, a ready-made face from a newscast. I could only recall the other world in vivid details at certain times and in certain places. The information channels I had tapped into were still precarious, and the information flowing through was scarce and incomplete. Deserts are the sort of place you either pass through or you stop forever. No matter how many companions you have, the landscape, in this world or the other, remains the same: empty, populated only by imagination, alive only at night. Even if the channels were to stabilize completely, I’d still return near empty-handed - memory is a poor conduit for silence. Or nothingness.

 

translated into English by Peter Bachev

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This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.