Author: Jeff Vandermeer.
Genre: Fiction, adventure, science fiction, mystery, biology.
Publication Date: 2014.
Summary: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months, all had died of cancer. The book joins the twelfth expedition. The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and the narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—but it's the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
♥ "This is impossible," said the surveyor, staring at her maps. The solid shade of late afternoon cast her in cool darkness and lent the words more urgency than they would have had otherwise. The sun was telling us that soon we'd have to use our flashlights to interrogate the impossible, although I'd have been perfectly happy doing it in the dark.
"And yet there it is," I said.
♥ We had also been ordered not to share our journal entries with one another. Too much shared information could skew our observations, our superiors believed. But I knew from experience how hopeless this pursuit, this attempt to weed our bias, was. Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective—even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.
♥ The responsibility for the thrust of our investigations resided with each individual, the psychologist's authority describing a wider circle around these decisions. Part of the current rationale for sending the expeditions lay in giving each member some autonomy to decide, which helped to increase "the possibility of significant variation."
♥ Something about the idea of a tower that headed straight down played with a twinned sensation of vertigo and a fascination with structure. I could not tell which part I craved and which I feared, and I kept seeing the inside of nautilus shells and other naturally occurring patterns balanced against a sudden leap off a cliff into the unknown.
♥ I was searching for entirely rational biological theories. Then, after a time, the boar faded into the backdrop like all else that we had passed on our way from the border, and I was staring into the future again.
♥ I found the psychologist's faith in measurements and her rationalization for the tower's absence from maps oddly... endearing? Perhaps she meant merely to reassure us, but I would like to believe she was trying to reassure herself. Her position, to lead and possibly to know more than us, must have been difficult and lonely.
♥ Even though no threat had revealed itself, it seemed important to eliminate any possible moment of silence. As if somehow the blankness of the walls fed off of silence, and that something might appear in the spaces between our words if we were not careful. Had I expressed this anxiety to the psychologist, she would have been worried, I know. But I was more attuned to solitude than any of us, and I would have characterized that place in that moment of our exploration as watchful.
♥ As I came close, did it surprise me that I could understand the language the words were written in? Yes. Did it fill me with a kind of elation and dread intertwined? Yes. I tried to suppress the thousand new questions riding up inside of me. In as calm as voice as I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: "Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that..."
Then the darkness took it.
"Words? Words?" the anthropologist said.
"What are they made of?" the surveyor asked. Did they need to be made of anything?
The illumination cast on the continuing sentence quavered and shook. Where lies the strangling fruit became bathed in shadow and in light, as if a battle raged for its meaning.
"Give me a moment. I need to get closer." Did I? Yes, I needed to get closer. .."Some sort of fungi," I said finally, taking a deep breath so I could control my voice. "The letters are made from fruiting bodies"
..Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that ..gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen... Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world... God's love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness... Chosen for the service of a higher power. ..in the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth..
..In the dark, as the tower's heartbeat still throbbed against my eardrum, the letters, the words, swayed as the walls trembled with their breathing, and I saw that indeed the words seemed more active, the colors brighter, the strobing more intense than I remembered it from levels above. It was an even more noticeable effect than if the words had been written in ink with a fountain pen. The bright, wet slickness of the new.
..but whether it decays under the earth or above on green fields, or out to sea or in the very air, all shall come to revelation, and to revel, in the knowledge of the strangling fruit and the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive ..There shall be a fire that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you. ..There shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy that shall bloom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age... ..That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing... ..And it came for me. And it cast out all else.
♥ The rest of the time, I spent up a pine tree, binoculars focused on the coast and the lighthouse. I liked climbing. I also liked the ocean, and I found staring at it had a calming effect. The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there, I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.
♥ Then she abruptly stood and said three words: "Consolidation of authority."
Immediately the surveyor and the anthropologist beside me went slack, their eyes unfocused. I was shocked, but I mimicked them, hoping that the psychologist had not noticed the lag. I felt no compulsion whatsoever, but clearly we had been programmed to enter a hypnotic state in response to those words, uttered by the psychologist.
Her demeanor more assertive than just a moment before, the psychologist said, "You will retain a memory of having discussed several options with regard to the tunnel. You will find that you ultimately agreed with me about the best course of action, and that you felt quite confident about this course of action. You will experience a sensation of calm whenever you think about this decision, and you will remain calm once back inside the tunnel, although you will react to any stimuli as per your training. You will not take undue risks.
"You will continue to see a structure that is made of coquina and stone. You will trust your colleagues completely and feel a continued sense of fellowship with them. When you emerge from the structure, any time you see a bird in flight it will trigger a strong feeling that you are doing the right thing, that you are in the right place. When I snap my fingers, you will have no memory of this conversation, but will follow my directives. You will feel very tired and you will want to retire to your tents to get a good night's sleep before tomorrow's activities. You will not dream. You will not have nightmares."
♥ I now hid not one but two secrets, and that meant I was steadily, irrevocably, becoming estranged from the expedition and its purpose.
♥ In terms of their affect, I could not tell any of the eight apart. I had the sense that they now saw the world through a kind of veil, that they spoke to their interviewers from across a vast distance in time and space.
As for the papers, they proved to be sketches of landscapes within Area X or brief descriptions. Some were cartoons of animals or caricatures of fellow expedition members. All of them had, at some point, drawn the lighthouse or written about it. Looking for hidden meaning in these papers was the same as looking for hidden meaning in the natural world around us. If it existed, it could be activated only by the eye of the beholder.
At the time, I was seeking oblivion, and I sought in those blank, anonymous faces, even the most painfully familiar, a kind of benign escape. A death that would not mean being dead.
♥ The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall... the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat... and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don't know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.
♥ I liked most of all pretending to be a biologist, and pretending often leads to becoming a reasonable facsimile of what you mimic, even if only from a distance.
♥ ..—an only child, and an expert in the uses of solitude—..
♥ And I never did look back, for better or worse. If funding for a project ran out, or the area we studied was suddenly bought for development, I never returned. There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you.
As we descended into the tower, I felt again, for the first time in a long time, the flush of discovery I had experienced as a child. But I also kept waiting for the snap.
♥ The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible? Always, we were directed to the map, to memorizing the details on the map. Our instructor, who remained nameless to us, drilled us for six long months on the position of the lighthouse relative to the base camp, the number of miles from one ruined patch of houses to another. The number of miles of coastline we would be expected to explore. Almost always in the context of the lighthouse, not the base camp. We became so comfortable with that map, with the dimensions of it, and the thought of what it contained that it stopped us from asking why or even what.
Why this stretch of coast? What might lie inside the lighthouse? Why was the camp set back into the forest, far from the lighthouse but fairly close to the tower (which, of course, did not exist on the map)—and had the base camp always been there? What lay beyond the map? Now that I knew the extent of the hypnotic suggestion that had been used on us, I realized that the focus on the map might have itself been an embedded cue. That if we did not ask questions, it was because we were programmed not to ask questions. That the lighthouse, representative or actual, might have been a subconscious trigger for a hypnotic suggestion—and that it might also have been the epicenter of whatever had spread out to become Area X.
My briefing on the ecology of that place had had a similar blinkered focus. I had spent most of my time becoming familiar with the natural transitional ecosystem, with the flora and fauna and the cross-pollination I could expect to find. But I'd also had an intense refresher on fungi and lichen that, in light of the words on the wall, now stood out in my mind as being the true purpose of all of that study. If the map had been meant solely to distract, then the ecology research had been meant, after all, to truly prepare me. Unless I was being paranoid. But if I wasn't, it meant they knew about the tower, perhaps had always known about the tower.
From there, my suspicions grew. They had put us through grueling survival and weapons training, so grueling that most evenings we went right to sleep in our separate quarters. Even on those few occasions when we trained together, we were training apart. They took away our names in the second month, stripped them from us. The only names applied to things in Area X, and only in terms of their most general label. This, too, a kind of distraction from asking certain questions that could only be reached through knowing specific details. But the right specific details, not, for example, that there were six species of poisonous snakes in Area X. A reach, yes, but I was not in the mood to set aside even the most unlikely scenarios.
By the time we were ready to cross the border, we knew everything... and we knew nothing.
♥ Even the darkness seemed more alive to me, surrounding me like something physical. I can't even say it was a sinister presence.
♥ So we fit back then, in our odd way. We clicked, by being opposites, and took pride in the idea that this made us strong. We reveled in this construct so much, for so long, that it was a wave that did not break until after we were married... and then it destroyed us over time, in depressingly familiar ways.
♥ I remember mostly the repetitious sadness in his words. "I am walking forever on the path from the border to base camp. It is taking a long time, and I know it will take even longer to get back. There is no one with me. I am all by myself. The trees are not trees the birds are not birds and I am not me but just something that has been walking for a very long time..."
This was really the only thing I discovered in him after his return: a deep and unending solitude, as if he had been granted a gift that he didn't know what to do with. A gift that was poison to him and eventually killed him. But would it have killed me? That was the question that crept into my mind even as I stared into his eyes those last few times, willing myself to know his thoughts and failing.
♥ "You know, I finally figured it out while I was developing those useless photographs. What bothered me the most. It's not the thing in the tunnel or the way you conduct yourself or anything the psychologist did. It's this rifle I'm holding. This damn rifle. I stripped it down to clean it and found it was made of thirty-year-old parts, cobbled together. Nothing we brought with us is from the present. Not our clothes, not our shoes. It's all old junk. Restored crap. We've been living in the past this whole time. In some sort of reenactment. And why?" She made a derisive sound. "You don't even know why."
♥ I had long ago stopped believing in promises. Biological imperatives, yes. Environmental factors, yes. Promises, no.
♥ An... organism... was writing living words along the interior walls of the tower, and may have been doing so for a very long time. Whole ecosystems had been born and now flourished among the words, dependent on them, before dying off as the words faded. But this was a side effect of creating the right conditions, a viable habitat. It was important only in that the adaptations of the creatures living in the words could tell me something about the tower. For example, the spores I had inhaled, which pointed to a truthful seeing.
..Then, too, that other effect of the spores, the brightness in my chest, continued to sculpt me as I walked, and by the time I reached the deserted village that told me I was halfway to the lighthouse, I believed I could have run a marathon. I did not trust that feeling. I felt, in so many ways, that I was being lied to.
♥ But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you, and you become lost in your thoughts in part from the panic of realizing the size of that imagined leviathan.
♥ Confessions, too, which I won't document here but that had the sincerity and weight of having been written immediately before, or during, moments when the individuals must have thought death was upon them. So many needing so much to communicate what amounted to so little.
♥ No, what had me gasping for breath, what felt like a punch in the stomach as I dropped to my knees, was the huge mound that dominated the space, a kind of insane midden. I was looking at a pile of papers with hundreds of journals on top of it—just like the ones we had been issued to record our observations of Area X. Each with a job title written on the front. Each, as it turned out, filled with writing. Many, many more than could possibly have been filed by only twelve expeditions.
Can you really imagine what it was like in those first moments, peering down into that dark space, and seeing that? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you're staring at it now.
♥ That's how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.
♥ But fun for me was sneaking off to peer into a tidal pool, to grasp the intricacies of the creatures that lived there. Sustenance for me was tied to ecosystem and habitat, orgasm the sudden realization of the interconnectivity of living things. Observation had always meant more to me than interaction. He knew all of this, I think. But I never could express myself that well to him, although I did try, and he did listen. And yet, I was nothing but expression in other ways. My sole gift or talent, I believe now, was that places could impress themselves upon me, and I could become a part of them with ease. Even a bar was a type of ecosystem, if a crude one, and to someone entering someone without my husband's agenda, that person could have seen me sitting there and had no trouble imagining that I was happy in my little bubble of silence. Would have had no trouble believing I fit in.
♥ "Ghost bird, do you love me?" he whispered once in the dark, before he left for his expedition training, even though he was the ghost. "Ghost bird, do you need me?" I loved him, but I didn't need him, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. A ghost bird might be a hawk in one place, a crow in another, depending on the context. The sparrow that shot up into the blue sky one morning might transform mid-flight into an osprey the next. This was the way of things here. There were no reasons so mighty that they could override the desire to be in accord with the tides and the passage of seasons and the rhythms underlying everything around me.
♥ But I had begun to realize that you had to wage a guerrilla war against whatever force had come to inhabit Area X if you wanted to fight at all. You had to fade into the landscape, or like the writer of the thistle chronicles, you had to pretend it wasn't true for as long as possible. To acknowledge it, to try to name it, might be a way of letting it in. (For the same reason, I suppose, I have continued to refer to the changes in me as a "brightness," because to examine this condition too closely—to quantify it or deal with it empirically when I have little control over it—would make it too real.)
♥ Stuck to the back of another journal by dead blood or some other substance, I found it more easily than I'd imagined: my husband's journal, written in the confident, bold handwriting I knew from birthday cards, notes on the refrigerator, and shopping lists. The ghost bird had found his ghost, on an inexplicable pile of other ghosts. But rather than looking forward to reading that account, I felt as if I were stealing a private diary that had been locked by his death. A stupid feeling, I know. All he'd ever wanted was for me to open up to him, and as a result he had always been there for the taking. Now, though, I would have to take him as I found him, and it would probably be forever, and I found the truth of that intolerable.
♥ The sea was ablaze with light, but nothing beautiful here fooled me anymore. Human lives had poured into this place over time, volunteered to become party to exile and worse. Under everything lay the ghastly presence of countless desperate struggles. Why did they keep sending us? Why did we keep going? So many lies, so little ability to face the truth. Area X broke minds, I felt, even though it hadn't yet broken mine. A line from a song kept coming back to me: All this useless knowledge.
♥ I had not seen a name or heard a name spoken aloud for months, and seeing one now bothered me deeply. It seemed wrong, as if it did not belong in Area X. A name was a dangerous luxury here. Sacrifices didn't need names. People who served a function didn't need to be named.
♥ About me she had only this cryptic phrase: "Silence creates its own violence." How insightful.
The word "Annihilation" was followed by "help induce immediate suicide."
We had all been given self-destruct buttons, but the only one who could push them was dead.
♥ But in this case, anyway, all of that effort on his part would have been pointless. You can either waste time worrying about a death that might not come or concentrate on what's left to you.
♥ But I was not a domesticated animal. The dirt and grit of a city, the unending wakefulness of it, the crowdedness, the constant light obscuring the stars, the omnipresent gasoline fumes, the thousand ways it presaged our destruction... none of these things appealed to me.
♥ I liked to visit late at night because I might see a wary fox passing through or catch a sugar glider resting on a telephone pole. Nighthawks gathered nearby to feast off the insects bombarding the streetlamps. Mice and owls played out ancient rituals of predator and prey. They all had a watchfulness about them that was different from animals in true wilderness; this was a jaded watchfulness, the result of a long and weary history. Tales of bad-faith encounters in human-occupied territory, tragic past events.
♥ The psychologist had said, "The border is advancing... a little bit more every year."
But I found that statement too limiting, too ignorant. There were thousands of "dead" spaces like the lot I had observed, thousands of transitional environments that no one saw, that had been rendered invisible because they were not "of use." Anything could inhabit them for a time without anyone noticing. We had come to think of the border as this monolithic invisible wall, but if members of the eleventh expedition had been able to return without our noticing, couldn't other things have already gotten through?
♥ The individual details chronicled by the journals might tell stories of heroism or cowardice, of good decisions and bad decisions, but ultimately they spoke to a kind of inevitability. No one had as yet plumbed the depths of intent or purpose in a way that had obstructed that intent or purpose. Everyone had died or been killed, returned changed or returned unchanged, but Area X had continued on as it always had... while our superiors seemed to fear any radical re-imagining of this situation so much that they had continued to send in knowledge-strapped expeditions as if this was the only option. Feed Area X but do not antagonize it, and perhaps someone will, through luck or mere repetition, hit upon some explanation, some solution, before the world becomes Area X.
♥ Then I examined the samples from the village: moss from the "forehead" of one of the eruptions, splinters of wood, a dead fox, a rat. The wood was indeed wood. The rat was indeed a rat. The moss and the fox... were composed of modified human cells. Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead...
I suppose I should have reared back from the microscope in shock, but I was beyond such reactions to anything that instrument might show me. Instead, I contended myself with quiet cursing. The boar on the way to base camp, the strange dolphins, the tormented beast in the reeds. Even the idea that replicas of members of the eleventh expedition had crossed back over. All supported the evidence of my microscope. Transformations were taking place here, and as much as I had felt part of a "natural" landscape on my trek to the lighthouse, I could not deny that these habitat were transitional in a deeply unnatural way.
♥ Slowly, painfully, I realized what I had been reading from the very first words of his journal. My husband had had an inner life that went beyond his gregarious exterior, and if I had known enough to let him inside my guard, I might have understood this fact. Except I hadn't, of course. I had let tidal pools and fungi that could devour plastic inside my guard, but not him. Of all the aspects of the journal, this ate at me the most. He had created his share of our problems—by pushing me too hard, by wanting too much, by trying to see something in me that didn't exist. But I could have met him partway and retained my sovereignty. And now it was too late.
♥ After reading the journal, I was left with the comfort of that essential recurring image of my husband putting out to sea in a boat he had rebuilt, out through the crashing surf to the calm just beyond. Of him following the coastline north, alone, seeking in that experience the joy of small moments remembered from happier days. It made me fiercely proud of him. It showed resolve. It showed bravery. It bound him to me in a more intimate way than we had ever seemed to have while together.
In glimmers, in shreds of thought, in the aftermath of my reading, I wondered if he kept a journal still, or if the dolphin's eye had been familiar for a reason other than that it was so human. But soon enough I banished this nonsense; some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.
♥ You understand, I could no more have turned back than have gone back in time. My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown. To have quit that place, to have returned to the surface, without rounding that corner... my imagination would have tormented me forever. In that moment, I had convinced myself I would rather die knowing... something, anything.
I passed the threshold. I descended into the light.
♥ If anyone had been observing—and who is to say now they they were not?—they would have seen a cursing, half-drunk, reckless biologist who had lost all perspective, who was out in the middle of nowhere for the second straight year and feeling vulnerable and lonely, even though she'd promised herself she would never get lonely. The things she had done and said that society labeled antisocial or selfish. Seeking something in the tidal pools that night even though what she found during the day was miraculous enough. She might even have been shouting, screaming, whiling about on those slippery rocks as if the best boots in the world couldn't fail you, send you falling to crack your skull, give you a forehead full of limpets and barnacles and blodo.
But the fact is, even though I didn't deserve it—did I deserve it? and had I really just been looking for something familiar?—I found something miraculous, something that uncovered itself with its own light. I spied a glinting, wavery promise of illumination coming from one of the larger tidal pools, and it gave me pause. Did I really want a sign? Did I really want to discover something or did I just think I did? Well, I decided I did want to discover something, because I walked toward it, suddenly sobered up enough to watch my steps, to shuffle along so I wouldn't crack my skull before I saw whatever it was in that pool.
What I found when I finally stood there, hands on bent knees, peering down into that tidal pool, was a rare species of colossal starfish, six-armed, larger than a saucepan, that bled a dark gold color into the still water as if it were on fire. Most of us professionals eschewed its scientific name for the more apt "destroyer of worlds."
♥ But then what?
What occurs after revelation and paralysis?
Either death or a slow and certain thawing. A returning to the physical world. It is not that I became used to the Crawler's presence but that I reached a point—a single infinitesimal moment—when I once again recognized that the Crawler was an organism. A complex, unique, intricate, awe-inspiring, dangerous organism. It might be inexplicable. It might be beyond the limits of my senses to capture—or my science or my intellect—but I still believed I was in the presence of some kind of living creature, one that practiced mimicry using my own thoughts. For even then, I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.
♥ In some watertight compartment, the brightness told me I had to accept that I would not survive that moment. I wanted to live—I really did. But I couldn't any longer. I couldn't even breathe any longer. So I opened my mouth and welcomed the water, welcomed the torrent. Except it wasn't really water. And the eyes upon me were not eyes, and I was pinned there now by the Crawler, had let it in, I realized, so that its full regard was upon me and I could not move, could not think, was helpless and alone.
A raging waterfall crashed down on my mind, but the water was comprised of fingers, a hundred fingers, probing and pressing down into the skin of my neck, and then punching up through the bone of the back of my skull and into my brain... and then the pressure eased even though the impression of unlimited force did not let up and for a time, still drowning, an icy calm came over me, and though the calm bled a kind of monumental blue-green light. I smelled a burning inside my own head and there came a moment when I screamed, my skull crushed to dust and reassembled, mote by mote.
There shall be a fire that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you.
♥ Perhaps my only real expertise, my only talent, is to endure beyond the endurable.
♥ Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?
♥ Staring back at me amid that profusion of selves generated by the Crawler, I saw, barely visible, the face of a man, hooded in shadow and orbited by indescribable things I could think of only as his jailers.
The man's expression displayed such a complex and naked extremity of emotion that it transfixed me. I saw on those features the endurance of an unending pain and sorrow, yes, but shining through as well a kind of grim satisfaction and ecstasy. I had never seen such an expression before, but I recognized that face. I had seen it in a photograph. A sharp, eagle's eye gleamed out from a heavy face, the left eye lost to his squint. A thick beard hid all but a hint of a firm chin under it.
Trapped within the Crawler, the last lighthouse keeper stared out at me, so it seemed, not just across a vast, unbridgeable gulf but also out across the years. For, though thinner—his eyes receded in their orbits, his jawline more pronounced—the lighthouse keeper had not aged a day since that photograph was taken more than thirty years ago. This man who now existed in a place none of us could comprehend.
Did he know what he had become or had he gone mad long ago? Could he even really see me?
I do not know how long he had been looking at me, observing me, before I had turned to see him. Or if he had even existed before I saw him. But he was real to me, even though I held his gaze for such a short time, too short a time, and I cannot say anything passed between us. How long would have been enough? There was nothing I could do for him, and I had no room left in me for anything but my own survival.
There might be far worse things than drowning. I could not tell what he had lost, or what he might have gained, over the last thirty years, but I envied him that journey not at all.
♥ I never dreamed before Area X, or at least I never remembered my dreams. My husband found this strange and told me once that maybe this meant I lived in a continuous dream from which I had never woken up. Perhaps he meant it as a joke, perhaps not. He had, after all, been haunted by a nightmare for years, had been shaped by it, until it had all fallen away from him, revealed as a facade. A house and a basement and the awful crimes that had occurred there.
But I'd had an exhausting day at work and took it seriously. Especially because it was the last week before he left on the expedition.
"We all live in a kind of continuous dream," I told him. "When we wake, it is because something, some event, some pinprick even, disturbs the edges of what we've taken as reality."
"Am I a pinprick then, disturbing the edges of your reality, ghost bird?" he asked, and this time I caught the desperation of his mood.
"Oh, is it bait-the-ghost-bird-time again?" I said, arching an eyebrow. I didn't feel that relaxed. I felt sick to my stomach, but it seemed important to be normal for him. When he later came back and I saw what normal could be, I wished I'd been abnormal, that I'd shouted, that I'd done anything but be banal.
"Perhaps I'm frightened of your reality," he said. "Perhaps I don't exist except to do your bidding."
"Then you're failing spectacularly," I said as I made my way into the kitchen for a glass of water. He was already on a second glass of wine.
"Or succeeding spectacularly because you want me to fail," he said, but he was smiling.
He came up behind me then to hug me. He had thick forearms and a wide chest. His hands were hopeless man-hands, like something that should live in a cave, ridiculously strong, and an asset when he went sailing. The antiseptic rubber smell of Band-Aid suffused him like a particularly unctuous cologne. He was one big Band-Aid, placed directly on the wound.
"Ghost bird, where would you be if we weren't together?" he asked.
I had no answer for that. Not here. Not there, either. Maybe nowhere.
♥ Think of it as a thorn, perhaps a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic. Assimilator and assimilated interact through the catalyst of a script of words, which powers the engine of transformation. Perhaps it is a creature living in perfect symbiosis with a host of other creatures. Perhaps it is "merely" a machine. But in either instance, if it has intelligence, that intelligence is far different from our won. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters.
I do not know how this thorn got here or from how far away it came, but by luck or fate or design at some point it found the lighthouse keeper and did not let him go. How long he had as it remade him, repurposed him, is a mystery. There was no one to observe, to bear witness—until thirty years later a biologist catches a glimpse of him and speculates on what he might have become. Catalyst. Spark. Engine. The grit that made the pearl? Or merely an unwilling passenger?
And after his fate was determined... imagine the expeditions—twelve or fifty or a hundred, it doesn't matter—that keep coming into contact with that entity or entities, that keep becoming fodder and becoming remade. These expeditions that come here at a hidden entry point along a mysterious border, an entry point that (perhaps) is mirrored within the deepest depths of the Tower. Imagine these expeditions, and then recognize that they all still exist in Area X in some form, even the ones that came back, especially the ones that came back: layered over one another, communicating in whatever way is left to them. Imagine that this communication sometimes lends a sense of the uncanny to the landscape because of the narcissism of our human gaze, but that it is just part of the natural world here. I may never know what triggered the creation of the doppelgängers, but it may not matter.
Imagine, too, that while the Tower makes and remakes the world inside the border, it also slowly sends its emissaries across that border in ever greater numbers, so that in tangled gardens and fallow fields its envoys begin their work. How does it travel and how far? What strange matter mixes and mingles? In some future moment, perhaps the infiltration will reach even a certain remote sheet of coastal rock, quietly germinate in those tidal pools I know so well. Unless, of course, I am wrong that Area X is rousing itself from slumber, changing, becoming different than it was before.
The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much. Before she died, the psychologist said I had changed, and I think she meant I had changed sides. It isn't true—I don't even know if there are sides, or what they might mean—but it could be true. I see now that I could be persuaded. A religious or superstitious person, someone who believed in angels or in demons, might see it differently. Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people. I am just the biologist; I don't require any of this to have a deeper meaning.
I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don't have real answers, it is because we still don't know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our technology broken, our motivations selfish.
♥ I plan to continue on into Area X, to go as far as I can before it is too late. I will follow my husband up the coast, up past the island, even. I don't believe I'll find him—I don't need to find him—but I want to see what he saw. I want to feel him close, as if he is in the room. And, if I'm honest, I can't shake the sense that he is still here, somewhere, even if utterly transformed—in the eye of a dolphin, in the touch of an uprising of moss, anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps I'll even find a boat abandoned on a deserted beach, if I'm lucky, and some sign of what happened next. I could be content with just that, even knowing what I know.
This part I will do alone, leaving you behind. Don't follow. I'm well beyond you now, and traveling very fast.
Has there always been someone like me to bury the bodies, to have regrets, to carry on after everyone else was dead?
I am the last casualty of both the eleventh and the twelfth expeditions.
I am not returning home.