Time gets tangled and glutinous in the gray, so I doubt either Sarira or I could say exactly when it overtook us. I would have called it a month ago if words like “month” still had any significance. It was only when we passed on the stairs that I understood, with anything approaching certainty, that it must have been even longer than that. I saw it in Sari’s eyes. In those punctured coins of flecked ultramarine that always seemed to glow no matter how dim the rest of the world got, I saw just how far gone we really were.
Horror must have flooded my face. Not least because in Sari’s, I read a joy that tipped into the inhuman.
After a moment, she turned and continued down the stairs, fading little by little into ashen half-light. I don’t remember how long it’s been since we last spoke.
I saw what I expected to see through the oval window in the garret at the top of the stairs. Thank god. The pine barrens stretched out in every direction, canopy thick-laden with snow like an over-iced sheet cake. Buckshot snow whirled against a sky that hung in churning snarls of steel wool. I breathed against the glass and watched a little patch of fog struggle to grow, then vanish.
Below, the drive was unmarred by snowshoe or plow tracks: a brushed aluminum river on which frozen waves mounted higher than fifteen feet here and there. Everything felt close, domed-in. Like a snow globe constantly awhirl.
My lucidity astonished me. I wondered whether I actually imagined it all and, on thinking it, prayed I would never be so far gone as to actually conjure this kind of cut-ice clarity from inside my own head. Sarira had convinced me to go along on her little psychological adventure, sure, but not without protest. Not without my resolving, before we turned off our lantern, to keep ahold of who I was, and where, and when. I was in the gray, but not of it. Thank God.
Goosebumps stippled up my wrists as I slipped off one mitten, then the other. You couldn’t stand it for long, but there was nothing like feeling the cold to make things sharp and present. To make things real. Though that’s another word whose meaning has started to wander places it shouldn’t.
We did know that this winter would be different, of course. But nobody really saw the gray coming.
The NIW had been warning for weeks that a wave of the polar vortex (or the amoebic anomaly of haphazard currents and vortices where the polar vortex used to be) was diving down our way. It likely wouldn’t recede for an extraordinary amount of time. As in, an amount of time they didn’t even want to try to predict. But given that equatorial humidity had been topping its own records every year for the past decade, they were willing to predict that the snow wouldn’t stop all winter and most of what some older people still insisted on calling “spring.” We had to get used to the idea: most of North America was going to be stuck inside for who knows how long, without power or heat, and wrapped in a constant, penumbral dimness such that day and night would grow largely indistinguishable. A few TV shrinks considered the psychological impact of the coming season of omnipresent twilight, especially for those of us who—admittedly against all advice—still lived year-round outside the settlements. But most people were understandably more preoccupied with survival than to worry about what flavours of madness might brew in the gray.
I heard Sarira’s slippers pad onto the linoleum of the kitchen below. The rustle of one of the ration boxes that appeared in the entryway every week or so flooded my chest with sudden warmth: no matter how gone into the gray she may be, I thought, even Sari still has to eat. Something about that reminder of creaturely need soothed me. Like there really was some ballast still anchoring us to a world outside our heads.
Loss of appetite was generally the first sign, after all.
In the haphazard reports that filtered through in the early months of the storm, it was said that there was an appreciable—and increasing—number of people who simply stopped eating. They’d be discovered by ration crews withered in their beds or curled up out in the snow with cracked, opiated smiles spread over their teeth. The ones caught on the lip of death gibbered of archetypal chimeras and cathedrals of polychromic ice, of communion with loved ones long dead, of flights through cyclopean forests lurid with Pleistocene flora. Few could be wrestled back from the worlds they had built. Few seemed to want to be.
My fingertips went numb on the glass. A little line of fog circled each.
Against what might once have been a horizon, dull jewels of light flickered.
There they were, I thought. The holdouts. Clinging to their lanterns out in the settlement skyscrapers that, now, might as well be worlds away.
Those lights were few and growing fewer. Still, I wished I was among them. I wished that Sari had never convinced me to keep the house after Dad died—to live in it, out here in the boonies—and, most of all, I wished she had never discovered those fanatics occupying the interstitial frequencies on our crank radio’s shortwave band. Without them, I’d never have been convinced to stop keeping the lantern lit in twelve-hour cycles, like the NIW climatic psychology task force advised everyone to do in order to keep our circadian rhythms something approaching regular.
Far off, one of the lights flickered and went dark. Maybe someone was just standing in front of their lantern. Or perhaps they, too, were diving into the gray like everyone else had. Like Sarira had.
Like I had?
Flakes brushing the window spoke quiet immensity.
Of course, it’s real, I thought. It all couldn’t be in my head.
“It’s a gift,” Sari had said. “Maybe the psychonauts have a point about that.”
I hated the name those freaks on the shortwave gave themselves. But I didn’t say anything.
“Maybe they’re right that the gray gives us some kind of chance at a new world. Even if it’s just… What are they calling it now? Collective dementia, or hysteria?” She laughed. “Either way, what’s the difference? The point is that you get to experience the world as immanent to your imagining. And there’s nobody to tell you otherwise because there’s nobody else around! Or because you’ve gone into the gray with whoever happens to be around.”
I made a sound at the suggestion, but Sari didn’t stop. “Inside and outside lose their distinction,” she said, her eyes crackling with lapis mica, “and time gets all knotted up in pure presence. Difference becomes identity again. Like we’re all crawling back into the womb—back to the ocean, even. Hell, into the primordial, pre-subjective dream time!”
The snow was deep and deepening, then. Starting to bury everything. Erasing the world outside.
“You’re crazy,” I had said to Sarira. “All that is crazy. Anybody who thinks they know what the gray is is—”
“I’m not saying I know what it is. I’m saying what it does. And I want to experience what it does. You should, too—just imagine what it will be like to actually, really experience what’s inside your head!”
I breathed out and counted the floorboards. “Those wackjobs really did get to you. Come on, Sari, it’s not like mushrooms or spice or stuff like that…. Nothing is exciting, much less pioneering about losing the ability to separate the real world and whatever happens when you lose your hold on it. And you can’t make some kind of religious experience out of not knowing what’s real, what world you live in… It’s the definition of—”
“Crazy?” Sari’s laugh had more razors in it this time. “You’re going to figure out that that word doesn’t mean much when the bottom drops out on the definition of sanity.”
As if in proof, ice lanced through my stomach. The garret’s oval window was fogged over.
I’d been talking into it.
I was ventriloquizing, not just remembering that conversation with Sari. Yammering in the dark at myself in two voices like one undergoing some kind of psychic mitosis.
It always made my guts turn when I realized the distinction between my mind and the world was going fuzzy again. At least it was just memories this time. When things like dreams started invading the waking world, it was much worse. Like the first time I noticed it, standing at the balustrade on the landing while the dream image of a baseball diamond shimmered into being before me. My dad was there next to me, and I wasn’t surprised in the least—as if he wasn’t buried in the backyard of the house he left me. He looked just how he looked when we used to go to games in the settlement together, except his eyes were a phosphorescent, Sari-like blue that they weren’t in real life. At least as far as I could remember.
It was the strangest thing—there was a field, but no game, no players. The whole diamond was filled with fine, white sand, and little hillocks of it shifted and churned over one another in an unaccountable ballet that my father stared at without blinking.
I found myself backing away from the window, but the phantasm only grew more animated. When the barriers break, they break hard.
The glass suddenly rattled in its frame and resolved, like some crystalline megaphone, into waves of Sarira’s reedy tones: “Great is the power of memory… A deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself—”
I held my temples and stamped a boot on the floorboards. My fingertips were glass-cold. “This is the floor,” I said. “This is my skin. That is—”
“What am I then, O my God? What nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding immense!” The voice bounced off the walls of the garret, making Sari’s incantation manifold: a tissue of compounded syllables that rolled and crashed against each other in an ear-rending cacophony.
“—That is a window. Just a window. I smell cold wood. I smell whatever Sari’s eating in the kitchen….”
I continued through my senses until the window became a window again. (It started to quiet down around “the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things…”)
I rubbed my temples, and my fingertips tingled as they warmed.
Fucking Augustine, I thought.
Sari’s reading had gotten more and more esoteric as the storm thickened. Before we turned the lantern off and she went silent, there were whole days when the halls rang with Salvador Ferenczi and Otto Rank, evenings that echoed Paracelsus and Eliphas Levi. The Doctors of the Church—especially Augustine, that prophet of interior infinity—often thrummed through the house as well. She’d cast sentences into the dark like sorcerer’s spells. And it wasn’t long until I realized she really was weaving the house’s reality to her own pattern.
…And caves, and caverns, I thought, in a voice that wasn’t quite mine.
When I woke (or when I fell to dreaming—you can never truly tell), what sounded like water was dripping onto the waxed polyester of my jacket. A stalactite, ribbed and shining, hung viciously over my stomach from the peaked ceiling of the garret. I pulled a mitten off and sank the naked hand into where the weight of accumulated drops made a depression in the fabric.
The puddle was as cold as I expected, but the consistency was—wrong. So wrong that my fingers clenched without my willing it.
A stream of cut rubies dripped from my fist, clicking like marbles as they tumbled back into the waxed concavity. Each shimmered as it fell, alive and rutilant as if lit by a fevered power of its own.
Past my fist, the panes of the garret’s oval window formed the core and fanning corona of a brilliant, prismatic sun.
I looked around.
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Catching the pinpricks and edges of decomposed light lancing from the window, the crystal grotto in which I now found myself batted near-tactile spectra around what had once been the bare garret. Towers of cubic topazes emerging slantwise from calcite congeries bubbled ceilingward, meeting, here and there, more jewel-dripping stalactites of polished jasper. In place of the crown moulding, livid needles interlaced or clotted like syphilitic lesions petrified at the moment of eruption. Everywhere gems dripped from gems. My eyes rolled around the freak of fantasy geology. I thought, Innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things.
Rolling over, the rubies cascaded into a scrub of quartzes that had materialized around my sleeping body like otherworldly lichen. I ran my bare hand over them, feeling threads of newborn crystal shatter against my fingers. I pushed into the mineral undergrowth and dislodged a sapphire. It rolled over my skin, feeling—really feeling—like icy silk.
I bit the mitten off my other hand and plucked a cartouche of emerald. It was textured like a fingernail and heavier than it should have been, as if filled with some viscous liquid.
I made myself drop it and worked my bare hands beneath the stones, closing my eyes to the brilliance surrounding me. Like I could will it all away.
I reached the floorboards.
“This is the floor,” I said through my teeth. “I feel cold wood. That’s all.”
But how long could a sane person keep their eyes closed to all that magnificence?
I opened my eyes, and it was all more dazzling than before. Over every jagged surface, waterfalls of jewelled rainbow tumbled. I turned and turned, helpless against the flood, against the impulse to open every sense and drink as much of it as I could. By degrees, my optical tectum started to sputter and short out: turning, and turning, and turning, I heard the colours, tasted the milk of starlight as synapses fired in directions they never fired before—
“It’s not real,” I heard myself say. (Was that me? I sounded a hundred yards off. Or a hundred years.)
I looked down.
The emerald was in my hand again. I didn’t remember reaching for it. How could I doubt that semi-perfect planarity, the heft that seemed possessed of its own gravitational field? Deep in the green, shining causeways crisscrossed one another. They limned an inner space greater than the jewel’s volume, passing into dimensions unbounded by any physical perimeter. Receding past itself, the emerald became an emblem of that excess that makes such stones so expressive of what has no end. A deep and boundless manifoldness, I thought. If that was in my head, then what does “real” matter?
“You know that way lies death,” I heard again. Closer this time.
The window flared, and I heard a gravelly scraping where the garret gave onto the staircase.
Curling on the landing (a moss of amethysts made wine-dark mace heads of the balustrade newels), an opal crocodile turned its crystal-coronated head. Where eyes would be, lapis lazuli flecked with gold incandesced amid an emptiness deeper than black.
My guts turned and, without thinking, I turned with them. With a violence that surprised me, one foot crunched after the other toward the window of the solar diamond. Before me, bare hands stretched forth in a gesture of exorcism. The emerald made a sound like shattering when it fell. But that might have been any number of other lacy rock formations that tumbled about my knees like so much dream-mist.
Which, of course, they were.
I had to see through it.
My vision went photo-negative in the molten pool, and a chorus of rainbows howled into my cerebellum. Supernovas balled up and burst behind my eyes. But I kept them open.
My hands were twisted mudras, solarized in an oil-slick fire.
I stepped into the sun.
My fingertips made little circles of fog on the glass. It was clear. And cold, and silent.
“This is a window,” I said. “I smell my sweat and the cold.”
Outside, there was the same smooth river of snow, the gray distance where some few lights twinkled against nothing.
I whirled at a rustle somewhere behind, but it must have been Sari in the kitchen because no jeweled crocodile guarded the way out of the garret. Gradually my breathing slowed.
I looked back out the window. The snow had slackened to a lazy, sidelong drift. There were even fewer lights than before: Lost in the gray or dead, I thought. And that distinction, like so many, doesn’t matter much now. The one gives onto the other at its outer edge.
“What if it’s not death?” I heard Sarira say, however, many months ago. “What if it’s just the doorway to deeper sleep?”
A patch of fog on the glass faded into icy limpidity.
I shook myself. I had to keep hold of the present. The world outside. The real. Had I stayed in that jewelled cavern much longer—
I couldn’t finish the thought. There was movement down below that made my stomach writhe: little hillocks of snow seemed to be rolling here and there with unearthly deliberateness.
I couldn’t still be dreaming. After walking through the sun, I felt the world with a sharpness that was almost hateful.
Hands scrabbled at my jacket zipper. It was halfway down before I registered what I was doing.
Cold flooded my chest. A wave of gelid needles followed as I lifted my sweatshirt. White jets banked off glass, roiling. Soon, my skin was on fire. But still, the snow churned and rolled down below.
How was my own mind capable of inflicting this on me? Wouldn’t a sane person wake up?
As I thought it, one of the roving snowbanks looked up.
The verb repeated in my head. How could a snowbank look at anything? I pressed my forehead against the window, and—yes—I could feel its sting all the way behind my ears.
The snowbank raised a hand in salutation. Only then was I able to recognize that it was a person in a white ration crew suit.
They all were, of course. Had it been so long since the last box arrived? The thought sent me vaulting down the stairs, not realizing until that moment how hungry I was. Hungry for food, yes, but even more so for some kind of interaction—some word or gesture exchanged with a being outside my own imagining. (Though, now that I thought of it, I really couldn’t say when was the last time I ate.)
I passed the kitchen without looking in.
In the entryway, a box lay on its side amid a dusting of snow. Goosebumps washed over my front, and suddenly I realized I hadn’t put my clothes back on.
There wasn’t time to go get them.
All I needed was a word. A greeting. Some kind of interaction with another person—
I tore the door open, filling my lungs. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but it didn’t matter, as the frozen air sapped my breath the moment it raced through the door. Before me, the world swam amid freezing tears—really, I thought, how long ago was it that I ate anything?
The neoprene snowmen were already far down the drive. One turned to get a better grip on a sledge. I waved without quite knowing if he could see me.
If I went out after them, I’d go into shock.
I was already teetering on the edge of consciousness. Was it the cold or the hunger? Or just the gray?
I turned back into the entryway and kneeled—collapsed, really—over the ration box. Snow-rimed cardboard came apart like wet bread.
My breaths were getting shorter.
My hand darted in and closed around something hard. I pulled.
With sudden conviction, I thought: Light. Light then food.
I didn’t care what Sari would say about it. I hefted the box into the crook of my arm. I dragged myself toward the kitchen, compelled by an exigency I only dimly understood.
It was quiet there now. Sarira must have finally finished eating and gone into another room. I dropped the box on its side and reached into the cabinet under the sink. My hand came away gray with dust when I wiped the glass globe.
When the mantle fizzled to life, it glowed unearthly blue. The walls seemed to waver and recede as I stood.
And again, breath left me.
Across the countertop, stacks of unopened ration boxes towered toward the ceiling, each as pristine as if it had only just arrived. The age of the oldest was betrayed only by the faint smell of vegetable rot. In this cold, how long must it have been there to rot?
The lantern crashed to the linoleum.
It sputtered, and I looked down. Light flashed with prismatic rays, and from the depths of the mantle’s glowing core, a punctured disc of incandescent ultramarine swam to the surface, irradiating the air surrounding with the crackling static of lapis mica.
I found myself on the lower landing, clutching the balustrade. A stair creaked, and I looked up to see a figure descending through air whirling with mist, ash, and umber. Eyes glowing ultramarine.
I turned and staggered into the entryway. I didn’t care about the cold anymore—I needed to reach that ration crew, beg them to help me, to take me to the settlement or the hospital or wherever, so long as someone pulled me back out of the gray.
I stopped. Sari stood hunched in the doorway, except now, it led not out onto the stoop but onto another, doubled hallway. I paused as I saw her and straightened.
She straightened too.
I stepped forward, and so did she.
…And this thing is the mind, and this am I myself.
Paired, we stretched a hand toward one another. We approached in tentative lockstep.
When we were close enough, Sarira’s features melted into mine. Or mine into hers. A mirror stood where the door once was. It rippled like molten silver.
They were my father’s eyes. They were mine, too. And Sari’s—insofar as, I now understood, Sari was me, a fractured “I” onto whom I could project my own desire to go deeper and deeper into the gray, no matter if death was at the far end of it.
“Or,” she said, I said, we said, “the doorway to deeper sleep.”
A life exceeding and boundless in its manifoldness.
I wasn’t cold anymore.
I wasn’t much of anything anymore, except tired.
Scraping past my ankles, a jewelled crocodile bellied its way toward the mirror, crystal claws scrabbling against floorboards strewn with what might have been snow or the shifting sand of my deepest dreams. Its snout disappeared into the mirror, and the surface rippled like a sheen of isinglass. The I that I knew I was turned and walked alongside the gem-studded saurian in pursuit of a world immanent to my imagining.
She must have been shaking me for a long time because when I finally registered the neoprene-shrouded woman gripping my shoulders, the world was spinning, and I instantly bent to heave sour, foamy water over her boots.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” Her shout was muffled by a terrycloth balaclava that framed drawn but not unkind eyes. “Where are your clothes?”
I looked down at myself. Spreading my hands, I saw that the ends of two fingers were black.
In the woman’s wide, dark eyes, concern orbited confusion.
“The crocodile…” I said. “The light… Sari…”
She squinted. Then she nodded. Patting my shoulders, the woman turned and shouted something I didn’t follow to someone I couldn’t see.
I looked around and realized we were at the end of the drive. At least I hadn’t wandered too far. Still, something felt off. Something I couldn’t place.
I couldn’t still be dreaming.
“Sari…” I repeated.
“Sorry, what?” The woman said. “You flagged me down before. I just thought something might be wrong.”
My teeth chattered. “No, not sorry….”
But then words left me. My chin dropped, and white clouds billowed before me.
The woman’s eyes betrayed a smile. She nodded and looked up.
Between scudding drifts of gray, great lagoons of brilliant blue pooled. The sun had not found its way through yet, but for the first time in months—and I knew, then, that it had been months, and many more of them than I realized—it was not snowing.
Cory Austin Knudson was born in Vacaville, California, but is a Philadelphian by choice and temperament. His short story, “Una cosa incognoscible,” won Touchstone Magazine’s 2020 debut prize in fiction. His translations have appeared in Viewpoint and Doublespeak. His co-translation of Georges Bataille’s preliminary manuscript to The Accursed Share is forthcoming from MIT Press under the title of The Limit of the Useful. His occasional essays and regular reviews of academic titles and books in translation appear in Full Stop.