The First Day
When I awoke, the world was perfect.
Not my perfect, not made-for-me perfect, but perfect like a picture book, a child’s drawing of Heaven, the guided meditation, think-of-a-perfect-peaceful-place sort of perfect. The sky was blue, dotted with small, perfectly-white clouds without any breeze to move them. I was lying on the grass, which was long and untouched but nevertheless smelled fresh-mown, and there were no bugs or insects in it, not even a harmless ant or ladybug. The wind felt like summer, but spring flowers were in bloom all around me.
Having nothing else to do, I began to walk.
The Third Day
The nights were as perfect as the daytime. I was expecting, as the night fell, to be beseiged by insects – grass is usually full of them – but I have found that there is no animal life of any kind. The ground feels like soft moss, and no matter how far I walk, my feet never become dirty.
I would have expected an ideal night to contain the mournful noises of far-off owls and other nighttime birds. But this is not an ideal place, only perfect. The night here is silent.
The meadow was enormous.
The Sixth Day
The days passed.
There was only grass, spotted with the same flowers over and over.
Yesterday, I passed a single tree, far too tall and straight. This is an open plain. Any tree growing alone, without companions to buffer it, should have been bent and twisted by the winds. It should have been a short and stubby thing. But it was tall enough that I would have been nervous to climb it, branches wide and thick and leaves lush.
Perhaps it made sense. After all, there was no wind here. Not even a breeze.
I wasn’t tired or hungry, though I had been walking for days without rest. The shade didn’t feel cool, and the sun didn’t feel warming. The air was a pleasant temperature for the clothes I was wearing – not ones I remembered buying or owning, just trousers and shirt and no shoes, a timeless outfit that was never quite in nor quite out of fashion – and it made no difference whether I was out in the open or under the foliage.
I sat a while under the tree anyway.
Then I continued walking.
The Eighth Day
I missed speech. I missed words, and their sounds, and the way that they build on each other to make new meanings. I start to speak to myself, but quickly found I had nothing to say that I did not already know. So instead, I made sounds, feeling how the movements in my lips and tongue changed the noises that came from my mouth, exploring new sounds and new expressions.
I am alone.
I am lone.
Lone wolf, lone ranger, lone calling owl, lone star lone stair lone stare lone pair.
Alone in company alone with myself alone, alone, alone.
After I had finally stopped, I wondered why I did it.
Answer: I had grown bored.
The tree seemed to be the only one of its kind. I hadn’t seen another one since I left it behind, nor anything else to break up the monotony. The grass is green, the flowers are plentiful. The world is empty.
Nonsense words buzzed through my head, because I had nothing else to think.
The Ninth Day
Finally, I found something new. I found the edge of the world, where green grass met blue sky.
It was hard to be afraid of the edge. Nothing seemed real in this world, after all. I left no footprints, I never got dirty or hungry or tired. Night fell the same way every day, at the same time, turning the horizon the same colours in the same patterns. I had tried to dig into the dirt, but though I could push my fingers into the grass, I couldn’t pry any of it up or get at the dirt beneath it. If the world weren’t so solid, I would compare it to a mirage.
The edge was the same blue as the sky, perfect summer blue. I hadn’t given that colour a second thought while I was walking, but now that I had seen it at the edge, I couldn’t help but think of the whole sky as some kind of bluescreen crash. The universe’s 404 error.
I put my hand out into the blue, and the result made my eyes water. It joined to the green grass seamlessly, no dirt, no cliff edge, nothing to indicate drop or distance. But no matter how far I stretched my hand out, it never disappeared. Even downwards, past where I could see the grass, my hand was always in front of the blue, never behind it, never disappearing into it.
I moved away from the edge, but couldn’t bring myself to leave it behind entirely. It both drew me and repulsed me. After all, it was the end of this world. I had reached the limit of where I could go.
But at the same time, there seemed to be nothing stopping me from going over that edge. This world was monotone, uniform. I hadn’t been to every part of it, but I had certainly explored all it had to offer.
I sat, and I thought, and I looked into the pale, sky-egg blue.
As the sunset began to encroach, I made my decision. It was hard to be afraid of the edge, after all. Nothing in this world seemed real. I extended my foot over the edge, and took a breath.
The Ninth Day, Part Two
As I stepped into water, I sank like a pin.
The change was like exiting the screen on an old video game. One one image, grassy fields. The character walks off the screen and then in the other, blue oceans.
I let myself descend for a while as the world shifted around me, my internal map and compass spinning as they try to keep up. I fell for quite a distance before I realised, first, that I could breathe, and second, that I had already hit the ocean floor.
My hair floated around my face, and when I went to brush it away, I only created eddies, separating the strands and making it harder to see. But through the curtain of my hair, I saw animals for the first time.
There were fish all around me! Not just fish – colourful tropical fish, bodies in all different shapes. Gigantic, fan-like tails drifted past me, beaked mouths, circular and triangular bodies, or snout-like faces like cartoon characters expecting to be kissed.
A shadow fell over me, and I look up. Like a cloud made entirely of silver linings, a peaceful school of fish was drifting past. It undulated as it went, each individual fish weaving through the school like thread through a loom.
I reached up, and my body moved automatically, my desire to touch them translating into upward movement. Then …
Then I noticed. I was so overjoyed to finally see another living creature for the first time that at first it had escaped me, but as my body lifts towards the school above me, the fish around me get caught up in my eddies, dragged up along with me. When I touched a silvery flank in the great school, the fish flutters like a piece of paper trying to right itself. The school rippled, but didn’t change its movement, didn’t respond to my presence, and the fish was too smooth. I could see scales but not feel them.
These fish didn’t move like fish. Their bodies didn’t ripple as their muscles tensed, their fins didn’t flex to propel them through the water.
I slowly floated back to the bottom of the ocean, the sand flexing a little under my feet.
I decided not to touch the fish again. I don’t want to break the illusion again. I just wanted to believe, for a little while, that there were living things around me again.
The Tenth Day
Once I had seen it, though, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t. I can’t help but see the fish as a paper mobile above a child’s bed now.
But at least in this ocean, there was change, new things to see. This wasn’t the same grassy field and the same flowers over and over. I walked through coral towers several times taller than me, and found the hidden wriggling things inside their holes. I waded through beds of seaweed so thick I nearly feared I’d lose my way – if I could bring myself to fear anything here. When I felt overwhelmed, I just thought my way upwards, and marveled at how long it took me to rise above the great, fleshy pillars. When I wanted to rest, I sat on a cliff and watched the currents slowly shift a great expanse of silty dunes underneath me.
I learned, soon, how to move so that my hair floated either behind or above me, not in my way. I probably looked strange as I watched those dunes, sitting on an undersea cliff with my hair floating directly upwards from my scalp. But who cared? Who was there to care?
I loved this place, but the lifeless fish only made me feel lonely.
The Eighteenth Day
I found the border of this world, too.
Again, I stepped back from that expanse of plain blue to decide what I would do. But not, this time, because I was afraid of danger. It was because I was afraid I would miss something. The ocean seemed much smaller than the field, but there were so many sights to see. I was sure I hadn’t yet explored anything. If I left now, what might I miss?
But at the same time, I was so curious about what kind of world would be there next.
In the end, it was the fish that made my decision for me. The landscapes were beautiful, but I wanted to find a world where the animals weren’t paper cutouts.
I stepped through the border again.
The Twenty-Fifth Day
It was about day twenty-five that I started to suspect that these worlds were created by someone.
I had walked through a jungle, deep and lush and thick. In the centre, I found a mighty crystal, translucent green or translucent blue depending on the angle of the light, larger than a house, and gleaming in the sunlight.
I climbed the crystal – there were ample footholds, provided I was careful to use the larger and flatter outcroppings – and sat on top of it. My view didn’t change. The trees were far taller than the crystal, still, so I could only see the sky directly above me, not the horizon or the treetops. But as I sat there, I felt like I had achieved something, and learned something.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen something improbable in one of those worlds, but it was the first one that made me feel like I was in a fantasy story, where I might have come across the magical crystal that will start my great quest.
But there is nowhere else to go. I can even see the pale blue of the border glinting through the trees in some directions. This world feels like it has a purpose, and that purpose is to house the crystal. There is just enough jungle to hold it, and no more.
Perhaps the realisation that all these worlds had a single creator should have changed the way I thought about them. But I don’t think, at the time, that the full implications had really hit me.
I watched the sky above me go dark, and then the moon passing overhead. I know I have time. Somewhere in the last five days or so, I lost all sense that I must hurry. I don’t need to eat, or sleep, or find shelter. There is nothing to do but wander.
Sitting on this giant crystal, I decided that this realisation gave me a purpose. I would search these worlds for evidence of their creator. If I cannot find the creator, then I will at least learn a little about who they are.
The Fortieth Day
I walked through every inch of the worlds I entered.
I walked through forests and dunes and plains and tundra and through night and day, through caves full of crystals and full of sleeping bats that would not wake and full of little caverns tucked away and full of secrets.
In dunes, I found caves and explored them thoroughly – ancient tombs modelled after who-knows-what people. I spent hours examining every inch of the walls for interesting treasures, and any clues that might lead me closer to understanding the creator.
I have seen stands of trees that hid secret moss between their roots. I have seen rivers that I could walk into as if the water were air.
I was still no closer to really finding answers. But I felt like I was learning.
The Fifty-Third Day
Then I arrived at a world that seemed … half done.
It was no larger than a ballroom, and everything in it seemed sketched. None of the edges were quite smooth. There were a few trees, most of them ending halfway up the trunk. Some had grass tufts against the roots, but there was no grass covering the ground. I would look at the ground to see if it was green, or perhaps brown, or some other colour, but though I was sure there was a colour, I could never remember what it was when I looked away again.
My bare feet tingled against the solid-colour ground, as though my body isn’t quite sure where the ground is and where it isn’t.
I placed a hand on one of the half-trees. It felt wrong, and my hand blurred as I pressed my palm against it, as though the world couldn’t decide where my hand ended and the tree began.
I looked down at my feet, and immediately averted my eyes. The sight of my toes sinking into grass that wasn’t there sickened me, just like that first border had made my eyes water.
I left the world quickly, feeling like I had seen something I shouldn’t.
The Sixty-First Day
I sat on a sand dune all in beautiful colours, rust reds in the sun and indigos in the shadows. As the wind blew across the dunes, it created a haunting, howling, empty tune. I sat atop one of the highest points and watched the wind blowing the sand, trying to put my finger on what felt wrong. Was it something about the way the wind lifted the sand that was wrong? Was the sound subtly offkey? I didn’t know what it was, but I felt like there was something unfinished, something left undone.
I had now visited two worlds that I felt, were offcuts. The creator had, for some reason, chosen not to finish them. Something about how the trees looked in their stand, something about the half-hearted grass around the tree roots, something about the tune that the wind created or the colours in the sand hadn’t sat quite right. They were too boring, or too simple, or simply didn’t match the original intention. In the end, the creator had decided to abandon them, rather than fixing them.
In a life that seemed far away now, I once read something about dunes that sang in the wind. Was this … a recreation? An experiment with sound? Did the creator get lonely, and try to recreate birdsong without birds?
If I wasn’t certain before, then I would have been now: I was not alone here.
I decided to listen for a while to the music of the dunes, sure now that it was made to be listened to, but that it had gone unheard for a very, very long time.
The Eighty-Ninth Day
If one could call it that. Days lost meaning some time ago.
I have begun to suspect that houses and buildings gave the creator the most trouble.
Sometimes, the creator got them right. I found a world that consisted only of a lovely village, pies cooling in kitchens next to windowboxes of thyme and mint, smoke wafting from chimneys and the smell of bread. I was disappointed to find that, despite the delicious smell, the pies could not be cut and there was no bread an any of the ovens.
There was a whole city, too, a few worlds later. The cars were all parked on the roadsides, and the streets were, of course, empty, but the neon signs outside corner stores blinked on and off, reading “OPEN” as if there were people in the streets to see them, or anyone inside them to make a sale.
There was a district of florists and tailors; a district of food-vendors and restaurants; a district full of department stores reaching to the sky as though competing with each other.
If this had been the first world I saw, it would have been beyond eerie. But by now, I was used to being alone, and I had started to approach these worlds like an art critic approaches an exhibition. I felt that I was starting to put together a timeline of these worlds. The pie on the windowsill in the village smelled divine, but was not edible. However, the food on sticks or in bags sitting steaming on vendors’ carts in this city could be taken and consumed as I walked. They tasted of nothing, but also delicious and familiar, eternally fresh off the coals. I felt like I was seeing the creator learn as I walked through these worlds, seeing all their experiments, failed and successful, laid out before me.
I had started to get an impression of this creator. Buildings and cities gave them more trouble than nature scenes. They liked to create sounds, but they rarely got them exactly right. They had probably given up on animals not long after creating the paper-mobile fish.
I am sure that they loved to explore, to try new things, and to learn. No two worlds were ever the same, not even two forests, or two cities, or two rivers. I felt like every world had an idea behind it, something new or interesting that the creator wanted to try.
Even though so many of these worlds were clearly abandoned, I couldn’t think of the creator as capricious, either. I couldn’t believe that the creator had given up on any of the worlds lightly. It seemed like every world had so much painstaking detail put into it, I just couldn’t believe that the creator would give up on project on a whim. Perhaps the creator had intended, one day, to come back and finish those unfinished worlds.
I wondered if they might have jumped back and forth as they created, fixing and finishing old creations as they learned new techniques. How many additions and changes were made to that first field? The cities? The underwater world? Those singing dunes?
How much longer, I wondered, until those fish might have been perfect?
It suddenly strikes me as sad. One person can’t have worked for infinite time, and can only have so many ideas. When will I have seen everything?
When there is nothing left to see, will I still be no closer to meeting the creator than I am now?
Hundreds of days later
No matter how far I wandered, there was still more to see. I never stopped looking through every crevice and crack for clues about the creator, but everything I found only confirmed what I already knew.
And then I found the final border, and through it, one more world.
This one was not big. It was not an open field, not a whole village or city. It was only a single house, and by walking through the border, I stepped through the front door.
It was the most detailed world I had seen so far. There were shadows under every decoration on the walls, and I could see each grain in the wooden walls. The kitchen looked like a little cottage kitchen, with herbs hanging up in it, but there were modern appliances on the table. Clothes were hung up on a little rack in the loungeroom to dry.
In the bedroom, I finally saw the creator.
She was dead.
She was younger than I thought. It looked like she had only been dead for minutes. Her skin still had its healthy colour, and she still looked limp. Nevertheless, I felt certain that she had already died by the time I arrived in that field.
Her hand rested on the bed next to her, a book under her fingers. A sketchbook. I lifted her hand gently – it was still warm, but only just – and eased the book out from under her fingers.
In it, I could see everything.
Here was the field where I first awoke. It took pages and pages in the front of the book. Here was the forest with the crystal where I sat for nearly a full day. I can almost see it glowing on the page. Here was the unfinished forest, the page full of eraser marks. In one or two places, she had rubbed so hard that the paper was crumpled, the fibers a little torn by the force. Here was the underwater world and the sketches of those lifeless fish. Curiously, they had barely any eraser marks on them.
As I read the book, the images zoomed in and out, like they were drawn on a computer, not a paper sketchbook. I could enter doors in buildings through that page, or look either at the detail of the bark on a tree, or the whole sweep of the forest.
I tore my eyes away from the page to look at the corpse next to me. How long had she been here, to create so much?
I turned back several pages and ran my fingers over the drawing of the city, ready to examine the streets again in detail, and then I realise with horror that under my fingers, the marks disappear and the page turns plain and white.
I closed the book quickly, hoping that I could leave the rest of the drawings just the way they were, but it is too late. Though I wasn’t touching any more of the pages, I saw the sketchbook thin, the crumpled pages straightening themselves. I had started something and it couldn’t be stopped. Under my hands, the sketchbook erased itself.
A drop of water fell onto the cover, and I realised that I was crying for these creations. I spent so many days in these worlds! Each one that disappears takes memories with it. I had thought, when I picked up the sketchbook, that even if the creator was dead, I could connect with her, finish those half-finished scenes, add and build on her worlds, as well as creating my own. I could make a memorial for her on the page. I could do something to feel like we were working together, not apart.
Outside the room, I heard a soft whisper, and through the bedroom door, I saw the whiteness encroaching. I realised that I couldn’t smell the herbs anymore. The sketchbook rustled as the last pages straightened, turned flat and blank.
I grabbed the creator as the bed disappeared, too, leaving us suspended in nothing, still sitting as though the bed is there. I hope, for just a moment, that she might stay, but then she disappeared too, losing her colour, becoming a sketch, and then becoming nothing at all.
A pen fell from her hand.
I was, once again, alone.
I have finally stopped crying.
I mourn for the places that I lost, and that I never got to talk to the creator like I wanted. I wanted to share ideas. I wanted to talk about the things I saw. I wanted to ask if I was right about all those assumptions I had made while I walked. Even when I found her dead, I thought perhaps I could have carried on her work, expanded on her scenes. I wanted to create houses within her villages, trees in her forests, fish in her ocean. I felt like, even separate, we could have created something together.
I mourn for her passing, though I hadn’t so much as had a conversation with her. She showed me so many things. I felt like I both knew her and didn’t know her at all.
Everything is so white and empty that it hurts my eyes.
I cannot do nothing forever. But I also cannot bring myself to do anything. If I move, it feels like I will begin the process of forgetting, and I am not ready to do that yet.
I have cried myself out. I have mourned so long that I am now both full and empty.
I am still holding the sketchbook.
Finally, I pick up the pen. I open the book, and I begin to draw.