'Til Human Voices Wake Us
Whitney Cox

Introduction/Background: There is a power in the world, a power created not of God but of man, a power known to man as the Dark. That power is the embodiment of all of the negative energy known to man: all the fear, the suffering, the uncertainty, that flesh is heir to. It has, in time, achieved a near-sentience, a collective will if you wish, that can be harnessed by the determined to produce results that, were it not for their earthly origin, would perhaps be called miracles. The Dark claims an avatar, known as the Bearer of the Rood Inverse, to focus its will and act as its hands.

Marked by the Dark with the symbol of the Rood Inverse, the Bearer often walks the earth without companion -- but never alone. For, you see, when a Bearer gives up his or her hold on the waking world, the Dark claims the soul for its own, binding that Bearer to the Rood Inverse as, essentially, a ghost. Each new Bearer receives the thoughts, the experiences, the personality, and above all else the soul of the previous Bearers, embodied as a dream-presence virtually indistinguishable from one who still breathes and walks; these voices, always audible, can take on imaginary solidity in the internal dreamscape known as the Grey.

And what, then, of the Grey? It is best described as a dream-world, a place for the mind to rove freely; yet is not without its peril. For the soul is not designed to subsist in the Grey, nor for such a duration, and many previous Bearers have given up their will and faded into the depths of the Grey, never to be seen again. It takes a particularly strong will to survive, and in the two-thousand-year-old history of the Dark, there have been but a bare handful who contain such will.

When Ashley dies, physically, nearly a century after gaining the Rood Inverse in Lea Monde, he enters the Grey, only to give way to his utter exhaustion. Daring oblivion, he sleeps. This slumber, however, leaves one very worried former Rood-Bearer at the edge of Ashley's resting place, playing the piano, sitting, thinking.

(explanation excerpted from www.mancer.net/vs)

"We drag these bodies around with us, these bodies that have nothing at all to do with you, with me, with who we really are, these bodies that give us pleasure and pain....It seems to me we never free ourselves completely until we love, until we lose ourselves inside each other. Then we see a little of what is called Heaven."
     --Sandra Ciseneros, "Eyes of Zapata"

Real hands are different. They feel different. A simplistic statement, but one that carries with it the weight of truth. As 'real' as the Grey can be, as much as it conforms to one's will, shapes and forms around the perceptions of those who reside within it, it is not real. It is not the pounding of flesh and muscle and bone against ivory-white and -black keys. The 'real' world, that space inhabited by the future victims of mortality, exists beyond the boundaries of one's mind. I could reach out and touch a cup, pick it up and look at it, feel its smoothness, its weight in my hand, smash it against a wall, put it down again....I could decide not to believe in that cup and it would still exist despite my best intentions. A smashed cup is still, after all, a cup.

But here that same cup would conform to my will in ways that the objects of the waking world never would. I could wish it a kettle and it would become a kettle; I could wish it painted pink instead of blue and the glaze would shift its hue; I could wish it never to have existed and it would be gone. The cup does not exist but that it exists for me.

Amazing power, isn't it? The trick comes when this power, this universe of Grey, must be shared with others who can conform it to their respective fancies. Though we may create the world we live in, we do not create it alone. We must consider the influences of others on the cup, or the universe, or on ourselves.

My fingers know this pattern. They knew it before I came to this place; that is how I can know that my knowledge is real, even though my knowledge of this knowledge is not necessarily real. Enough to make one's head hurt.

And so we live in that precarious edge between the living in the dead, between those who cannot live forever and those who must; we straddle the gap between God and humanity, next to both and close to neither. Our existence is the Shadow that falls between the essence and the descent, as a poet once said, or is saying, or will say someday. Time when measured like that matters nothing here.

No, the only Time that matters is the Time we make for ourselves with the others who can make Time with us. Right now, the only Time that matters is eleven months, five days, ten hours, three minutes, and seconds of pocket change. And the only reason this span has any meaning to me is because it spawns the hollow, cold fear from the voice in the back of my mind that whispers, Are you certain you're not too late?

Time is the river in which you sleep, and when I say 'you' I don't mean you in particular. I mean all of us, the living and the more-than-living. We are all asleep in our own ways. Human beings spend one-third, roughly, of their lives asleep, away from the waking world, each in their own Grey. Few can control this Grey; mostly, the Grey controls them. This mental manipulation of sorts is what humans perceive as dreams. The best can sort out these chaotic images and form a semi-coherent collage from the things that their unconscious regurgitates from sources beyond their comprehension. These are the prophets, the seers, the men who would profess to know the Mind of God simply because there is no other explanation for the miracles they see behind their closed eyes. And He does speak in dreams; of this make no mistake. But the vast majority of humanity would be too jaded to understand even if God Himself walked down from His place On High and delivered each man, woman, and child a signed, sealed, personalised envelope with contents inside detailing His exact plans for their lives. I suspect most would be too frightened to know what to do with the letters. I suspect we'd see a rash of bonfires.

I don't mean to go on like this, but one cannot be responsible for what the rest of his mind occupies itself with while the forefront is concerned primarily with remembering the fingering for this difficult Andantino passage. Parallel chords, planing, I think, are the musical terms for this kind of atonal pianist abuse. You'll forgive me if I think aloud at you a little longer.

As I was saying, Time is the river in which you sleep. He sleeps there, too, now. His anchor gone, he has nothing left but sleep. Or, perhaps, whatever afterlife has been prepared for a good and faithful servant such as he. To listen to the religious men, a servant's spirit is an admirable gift; they never say, in all their dogma, however, whom you must serve to be praised so highly.

If a cup were broken, the one I mentioned earlier, if I took it and smashed it against a stone wall, could it be mended? Not with an alchemist's pastes and adhesive powders, not by any sorcer's fusing magic, no, think beyond that. Could I take that river in which you sleep, in which you might now at this very moment be drowning and I unknowing ignoring your unheard cries, and make it flow back to its sorce? If I wanted it enough, could I thrust my hands into the stream and push the shards of glass back onto the wall and the completed cup back into my hand?

But would my wanting this justify my intrusion? Young children cannot wait to grow up, knowing only in their immortality of innocence that 'older' is somehow preferable to the state in which they exist. These young ones, untainted, follow the ghosts of their elders into death. The babe at his mother's breast will one day be the same old man decaying in the ground, his soul presumably sojourned on to better things. And yet, what would the children say if I told them I would suspend them in their immaturity for the sake of repairing my own careless error? I suppose most of them would laugh and throw rocks at me, and then return to their garden universes.

One piece ends, another begins. The two have naught to do with one another save my unfortunately arbitrary memory palace. The stack of sheet music on the harpsichord upon which I taught myself to play was in an order I dared not disturb, lest it be by some token sacred. And this is why, more than a century later, my fingers flow effortlessly from the former into the latter. My fingers are a river.

And could the cup mend, were I somehow to convince both the river and the children to flow backward? Or would I simply, once releasing the flood waters again, have to watch from behind my own eyes as I take my hand and repeat the smashing motion? I suppose that no one can know. The number of things we would change if we knew the outcome of our choices would be a number higher than I, with all my days, could count. It would be a number higher than the times my fingers strike the keys. Would knowing the end convince us to change the beginning? Destiny is a fixed thing, agree or disagree? Do you believe in Destiny? Fate? Have I asked you these questions before?

Time is the river in which we all sleep. You are distanced from me now, as if you are underwater, breathing the amniotic fluid which holds you safe. If I slept, I assume I would feel the same womb-like entombment that you must be experiencing now. But I sleep not. Were my waking presence not so vital for your eventual resurrection, or birth, if your sleep is truly so embryonic, I would gladly step into the river and join you, wrapping my arms around your body and shutting my eyes, letting my head rest on your chest so I can feel your heart beat as I breathe water and consent to drown with you.

Is it warm where you sleep? Can you feel your mother's heartbeat, hear the slight, publically impolite noises of her digestive organs as they process the food that will eventually become your body and your blood? Are you even aware of this?

A child raised on his own will learn on his own to take care of himself, first and foremost. A child raised in darkness will not gravitate toward the light. He can make all the forays into normalcy that he wishes; he can try to love his father, his mother, the earth, humanity, himself. But after a while he will try other things. Such things generally include smashing cups. Such things generally generate more of a response than attempts to love.

The piano is an instrument made of eighty-eight keys of alternating black and white ivory in a repetitive fifteen-key pattern. Noise is made by striking the keys which are not keys but inefficient levers, simple machines carefully crafted to take the force exerted upon one end and dissipate it into the universe, which send felt-covered hammers shooting toward strings pulled to vibrate at various frequencies. When the keys are struck in certain combinations, sympathetic vibrations are produced that the human ear finds pleasant. When the keys are struck in certain repetitive sequences, recognisable patterns emerge. If the patterns are numerous and repetitive enough, they become a coherent single work. This is how we make music, whether waking or asleep. Because though all music can be reduced to a mathematical assemblage of tones, ten thousand tones put together properly will conversely become a piece of music. My ten fingers have been burdened with the task of putting these ten thousand tones together properly. My ten 'real' fingers, because nothing here is real.

There were times when my claws were in his skin that I wondered what my touch would be like for him if my arms were not the monstrous scars that marked my sacrifice. Perhaps then I could have stroked his cheek with tenderness more than the antiseptic metallic brush of claws. Perhaps the gesture of reaching to record the presence of his heart beneath his strong chest would not have been tainted with the temptation to scar and wound, to draw blood. He was dark indeed, but his blood was always too dark against his skin.

My thoughts return to you, asleep. Does the water you sleep in cleanse you? Is this your penance for every crime you committed while you walked the earth with a grudge and a blade? I would like to think that for every breath you take while immersed in this fluid of sleep, another life brought to its conclusion by your sword is lifted from your conscience. Perhaps that is why I choose not to sleep; I fear the absolution of my soul for something for which it should never be forgiven.

Can I blame a cup for breaking? Was its sheer nature, its very crime of simply being fragile, asking for it to shatter? His words haunt me, correct again; yes, yes, I ask too many questions. I ask far too many questions and there are so few answers in the world.

The great uncertainty here is whether you will wake at all. Even now, turned as I am away from the place where you rest, I have no way of knowing whether you still remain or have turned into one of the many ghosts that haunt the Grey. They are numerous, these phantoms of souls who were lost to time, who simply could not hold on any longer. Once they were as solid as I am now; once they could bend the will of the Grey to suit what they deemed necessary as real. And now they exist only as shadows. Not an unkind fate, until you consider the process. Shades such a they would not form overnight, but would fall prey to a long and eventual fading process. Would they become translated, transfigured, transformed, transported, or simply transparent? But the real question lies in whether or not one can see the fading coming. I try not to superimpose thoughts of your slumber with images of former Bearers sleeping more, waking with less steadiness, until one day they do not wake at all. I try not to do this, but the comparison is inevitable. If I reach into the Grey and pull out a ghost....

My memory palace is not infallible; there are cracks in the infrastructure, rooms buried by collapses in the architecture, never to be recalled by my conscious. And yet, somehow, each time I met his eyes, the image of his gaze burned an image into my mind until I collected a gallery of expressions untouched by the eventual wear and tear to which all memories are eventually prey. Brown eyes, eyes that could see things I never hoped to view without him, stare back at me every time, highlighted by the glow of a distant fire, tinted grey with the edge of sorrow and dirtiness, edged with red pain as they plead to me for understanding and salvation. I could give neither.

Ever since you pressed your lips to my brow and slipped silently into your unnatural sleep, your voluntary suffocating rest, I have been here, seated at this bench, playing every song I know, every song I have ever heard. If you don't return soon, I may have to resort to playing my own compositions. For the sake of everyone who can hear me, I hope you return before that. Ah. A little deathwatch humour.

The worst feeling is the feeling of helplessness. It is the sensation of holding a dying bird in your hands, listning to it cry with agony, and knowing that you cannot help it. Locked in that library, I vowed to myself I would never be helpless again. I made the vow with my mother and then I killed her. It was my first act made in defiance of my helplessness.

Strange that now, so longer after his death, both deaths, he still haunts me as the ghosts of former Bearers haunt the Grey. There is nothing concrete about my memories of him, but here in the world where only the intangible is tangible, I suppose he is as real as the hands that tremble out this sonatina. And it is only your silence and absence that has brought him to the front of mind again. I fear to open my eyes to see anything but my fingers against the keys, terrified in some fashion that he might be standing there on the other side of the piano, watching me with those terribly warm brown eyes. Terrible becuase they never looked upon me with the one emotion which I deserve; terrible because they were the eyes of a man incapable of hating me as I should have been hated, despising me not only for what I was but for the volume of abuse heaped upon his tired and vulnerable body. Vulnerability in a man nearly a foot taller than I and three times my mass is not a thing that anyone is comfortable with. Nature has created these giants of humanity so they should not feel the need to deal with the pressures of the more delicate weaknesses of humankind. No one expects a man of his size, or yours, for that matter, to carry within him all the fears and flaws of his fellow men. But he was weak beneath me, immersed in water. If God is kind to servants, he sleeps in liquid now, much as you do, for all eternity; if God is kind to His misled children, he has found his death by water.

Time is the river in which you sleep. This single truth echoes through my brain over and over again. You have fallen into the greatest of all unchangeable streams, the one whose current in which we can immerse ourselves, praying that our presence will somehow direct the flow. But all our waters run toward one end.

There is a difference between being broken and being shattered. A cup that has been broken still has hope for resurrection at the hands of a careful craftsman with his resins and glazes. But the only hope for a shattered glass is the immutable river.

No one was supposed to love me. I am a flawed and filthy thing created from the refuse of the universe, conceived in a union most unholy and unnatural, formed in the malformed body that caged the mind of a dark genius, born from twice my own blood onto a rank and filthy stone floor littered with straw and feces. Her mind could not control her mouth enough to profess her affection for me, even if such an admission would not have been a lie. She, like I, had given her love to the Dark already and therefore had none left to shower upon her only misbegotten son. Reciprocally, I had none to give her. This was my model for all relationships to follow.

He always got grumpy if he couldn't bathe. There's another memory for you, the image of his large, dark body soaking up the bathwaters as if washing off years' worth of grime. Perhaps for him it washed away some of the weight pressed upon his aching conscience. What made him human, so human, was that he felt guilt. His sins brought over him a sense of remorse that I am now only barely beginning to acknowledge. Does this mean that I am human, after all? Can what was sacrified ever be regained? Or is my newfound sorrow as real as my arms?

This is what I sacrified, the bleeding, the angelic release that comes with sitting down and pounding out the pain of the soul in music. I grieve now through the force of my fingers on the keys. I have never cried.

He was not supposed to love me. Neither were you. Not like a servant loves his master, not like a youth loves his consort, not like a brother loves his brother, not like a man loves his gods, not at all. And yet it was all I ever needed. The sorrow of its departure is unspeakable, which is why I choose not to speak but play. It is only in the absence of a thing whereby we are truly reminded of its imprtance. My arms meant little to me until they were wrenched from my body and replaced with grotesque facsimilies, beautiful in their own right but not the fleshly works of art. My heart was too hard at the time, too callused and too devoted to the Dark to notice their true value before they were gone. Even now I can see my palm in front of the eyes of my memory, watching its delicate transluscence as the wind came and stripped away first the flesh, then the muscle, then the bone, leaving only the blood in its absence. It was the last catharsis those arms would ever afford me. Before I knew enough to feel differently, they were gone, as were you and he. What is broken might be saved, but what is shattered cannot be mended. You may yet return to me; he never will.

We are the Hollow Men, the poet will say one day after his birth and before his death. And we are hollow because of nothing more than our own selfish, blind, breakable selves.

Ashley, wake up. Please.