A series of five connected flash fiction pieces that have been sitting around since before I began my MFA. I’ve decided to publish them here.
The Art of Physics
Matter – Atoms – Molecules
Kenso stands on the bank of a sea where the water has no color, the sand beneath his feet the same. Clear as glass. Weightless as light.
He has stood on the bank of every sea on earth, and here is the only spot where all colors are absent. On the Southern tip of Africa the seas were a summer green. Off the coasts of the Mediterranean isles, a teal mirror. In the biting lands of the Arctic the waters were grey.
He has travelled many years to find this exact spot. He crouches down, cups his hands in the water, lifts. As always, the water comes out clear. Wherever the water is green, where it is blue, where it is red—it never matters, for whenever he touches it, the color disappears.
Here the water does not lie, does not pretend to be something it is not. Here not only is the water colorless, but the drape of the sky and the distant bodies pinned against it do not appear, do not hint at something he can see, but never reach. The expanse above where the sky might hang is not even black, it is not any other non-color—it is simply not there.
Kenso wonders if there is oxygen on the bank of this shore. The absence of sky must mean the absence of atmosphere. He does not feel the ebb and flow of his own breath, but he does not suffocate.
In this moment, he tries to remember the faces of ones once important to him. He sees the faces, can pull out distinct features—a plump lip, thick eyebrow, all painted in colors like the sea and sky. He lets the images float through his mind as though watching a passing sailboat.
The water in the sea changes shape. A sphere, a star, now a bird—a phoenix, symbol of fire and rebirth. The water phoenix spins in a circular motion, then dissolves back into the sea.
The sea is clear, his hands before his eyes are clear. Hands as formless as the water. His body is bright light. Light with no color.
The sea dances into a river, takes him along with it. Past many wavering shorelines, through thick forests, above the highest mountains. Color, color everywhere. Bright bright light and blackest dark. His lungs expand as he drinks it all in waves.
Before his eyes now, a colorless fire. He breathes.
And the fire catches the water.
Motion – Force – Gravity
He walks along the ceiling to sit in a chair that has been freshly stuffed. Faux leather upholstery, black and sticky. Sips a drink—amber liquid with two large ice cubes.
His gaze drifts upward to the woman on the floor, pacing back and forth within the confines of the room. Her light footsteps echo loud against the white tile. She frowns. He thinks she is crying. It’s hard to tell at this distance. If she cries, she cries silently.
On the wall to the left, children play. Catch skittering crabs in the sand, release them back into the water. They sit on the grass sipping Kool-aid, pinkish-red sweetwater as though they are hummingbirds. Sick with sugar they spin and laugh, jump and fall upon one another. It makes him dizzy to watch them.
The right wall shows his reflection, young and jittery, all hard angles and chasing girls. He grimaces at the sight. The thought that he was ever that young is incomprehensible. The swagger of his young self hides the reflection inside the reflection.
A small wooden door sits in the center of the front wall. It doesn’t open, but he knows if it did, it would squeak upon its hinges. The weather outside would be cold, possibly raining. The door would open to a path. Where the path leads, he doesn’t know. Maybe to a school, maybe a bar. Maybe it is the path to a home with four rooms, a large kitchen, swimming pool, a backyard grill where the hot dogs are ready, but the steaks will take a while longer.
The back wall is blank. Pure white. It seems to move like static on a television set. They don’t make those types of televisions anymore. Pixels on modern TVs don’t chase one another in a frantic linear dance, they just flicker and die. He thinks of the digital age as lightweight, intangible, forgettable. Preservation as millions of little dots pressed together that exist only in another dimension, not in the one he inhabits. A real photograph fades, gets torn at the edges, is held between fingertips.
His hand shakes as it closes around a remote resting on the wooden table beside his chair. He presses the large button in the center.
The room flips.
Now he is on the ground, the weeping woman on the ceiling. The children’s kool-aid spills down the side of their wall, the grass above them and the sun below. His reflection lies in a crumpled heap in the corner, snoring off a night of forgetting himself.
The door swings open.
He was wrong. There is no path.
The white wall moves away from itself, swells up and backwards like a great monster taking an enormous breath. The static at once appears to move faster and stop moving altogether. Ctzz ctzz, the sound is like a photograph. It begins to dissolve at the edges. It begins to fade.
The room flips again. The white wall is the floor now.
The static swell engulfs him by increments, slowly.
The children and the woman look at him with pity, or maybe love; he could never really tell the difference. His young image stands upright, stumbles to the toilet and wretches. He gets up, smiles at himself in the mirror, fixes his hair.
Up above, the door swings shut. Swings open, swings shut again. As expected, it creaks upon its hinges, the sound so loud he wonders if it will fall off, fall and crush him, strained and weary and unfamiliar with gravity as it is. It lies open above him, swaying as a cold wind enters the room.
Six walls move away with a sound like a dying engine. He panics at first, terrified that he can no longer see the walls and the images they once held. He scrambles for something to hold on to. Nothing but static.
A length of time that is timeless passes. When this time ends, he calms all at once.
With the walls gone, he can see the stars.
Waves – Sound – Electromagnetism
It starts as wind. Through a hollow reed, soft bark hardened over time. A note sharp and discordant, a shrieking noise, desperate and joyful.
It drifts into the second movement, which is tepid, does not offend, at least not to the untrained ear. Great leaps in pitch do not occur, just notes climbing up and down next to one another as if taking a walk, as if doing the dishes, routine arpeggios required by the piece, those which must be played in order to get to the section that follows. Perhaps the audience drifts, the excitement they felt during the great swell of the beginning now hard to recall.
The second movement continues for a long time. Occasionally a brief refrain is heard that sounds like part of the first movement, or at least an almost convincing imitation. Sometimes there is a part that sounds like the movement yet-to-come. It is only by listening to the notes between the notes that one is able to hear this—the parts of the movement yet-to-come—during the second movement. These notes do not manifest as sound. Some of them are glimpses of light, some infinitesimal particles. Some are minor fluctuations in temperature. One must listen very carefully.
It is a long time and no time at all before the third movement. As with all effective compositions, it rises to a crescendo, echoing refrains of the first movement but beautifully mangled, familiar yet unfamiliar. The wind comes again, cold, rattling like shards of glass through broken pipes. The drum beats a dour, resounding noise most would try to ignore—it is a noise which threatens to shatter bones. The wind blows again—a high hum, a low growl. Menacing, menacing, what is this movement? What is this change? Why these notes, why now? A song once forgotten, now remembered. Remembered in full, only to be forgotten again.
The energy of the final movement wanes, twists, changes into something unimaginable, something never heard before.
My ears are on fire, my heart like a corpse’s hung out to dry. There is no song, no sound. I must have dreamt it, must have experienced it somewhere out there in the ether, out in the far reaches of no atmosphere, no night and day, where there is only sound, only music. The memory of it chills my spine. I cannot comprehend how I ever heard such a song, in what I am calling a dream, but is not a dream.
As the day continues, I forget the melody. It remains dormant in me like the cells of a dead tree that might sprout anew after hundreds of years, when some biological catalyst awakens it from its semblance of death. The memory of the song pulls at me from time to time, drags me across the world to oceans and rivers, to cities and temples, into the arms of men and women, away into solitude, searching for a glimpse of it. When the time comes, I will find it again.
When I will remember it is a song I have written, I do not know.
I find notes of it sometimes, in others. Someone has the high string refrain, another the ominous drumbeat. My daughter has more of it than I would like to admit, she loops verses straight at me as feedback. This discordant tone, this black on black creates a squealing noise that sounds like disintegration and arguments repeating. After a time, we agree to not discuss the feedback, to not play the parts of the song that are so similar they grate against our ears.
Sometimes she asks me about the melody, about its origin. I tell her I do not know where it came from. I am not a musician.
I lie in my hospital bed. Machines squeaking like rusted right angles inside a circular mechanism, the man to my left snoring uneven against the rhythm. The nurse comes in with her tray of pills, her syringes. My eyes are open. I can’t see her, but I know she is there.
Am I alive or am I dead?
The first shot hits deep. Pierces my skin, my lungs, my heart. Like fire on flesh. I can’t breathe. I miss my wife. The second shot does not even register, feels like returning to childhood, the look on my mother’s face when my third-grade teacher suggests holding me back a grade. It is just like that, I think. Like me. Woefully inadequate. A placebo, perhaps. A shot of water, a shot of air. The next shot, the next shot, the next shot, the next. I have lost count. Each one makes me feel a little bit better, I tell myself.
Am I alive or am I dead?
The bones have lost their skin. Their muscles and tendons and ligaments, their cosmic kinetic force, the adjacent electrical energy that sets them into motion. The bones are white. They have been bleached or they have never been touched—enamel worn, painted on, a thin coat of paint brushed on carelessly, a cheap job where you can see the streaks, where the layer underneath—cracked and ugly—shows through, even at a distance. The bones are separated. One is in Paris, but most are in the garage of my old house, gathering dust. One has been stolen. It is on a ship, perhaps. It is somewhere moving. The others will not move again.
Am I alive or am I dead?
The sky opens above me. Splits into a thousand particles with a sound like the echo of the wind as you are falling. I lift my hand. I grow a tree made of stars and crawl inside it. Inside the tree is another tree. The inner tree is larger than the outer tree. Inside this tree is another, larger still, and on and on to infinity. I am lost. I am calm. I am afraid. I am boundless, my eyes see colors never before imagined. All is fractal energy, it splits and splits and splits, I fall and fall and fall. I fall fading, I fall fast. Though I feel I will never hit the bottom, I know it is coming.
Am I alive or am I dead?
I lie in my hospital bed. I am the syringe, I am nurse, I am the broken chair, the respirator. I am the bones, the tree. I am calm, I am afraid. I am alive, I am dead. I am trapped inside a box, inside a sphere, inside the head of a pin, beneath a mountain, at the bottom of the ocean, inside an abandoned department store. I am as free as air, all-powerful and all-knowing. But there is nothing to know now, and no place I haven’t gone.
I pack my bags anyway. I still want to travel.
Light – Optics – Combustion
The fire burns your eyes, as bright as the speed at which the flames flicker. The children of women cry out—“Help us. If you do not put out the flames, we will die.”
In the beginning, the flame was a promise, a promise of delivery from worse flames yet to come, a promise of a place where the heat is just right—not too hot, not too cold. The flame of promise came in many colors, many patterns overlapping one another.
Now the night has come, and the flame has grown cold. Wilted into the earth like a dry weed, leaves fallen one by one.
For many years, the flame was forgotten.
In the year 3018 it is discovered again, this time inside a capsule designed to make you lose weight—and extend your life. The capsule shimmers in glorious 3D holographic form. It passes right through you, into your throat. You cannot speak for a time, but you believe this is a fair price to pay.
You are on your back in the medic’s ward, eyes peeled back so far they are stretched red, lines of capillaries splashed far and wide. A doctor with knife in hand looms over you: “Say you see it,” he says. “Say you see what you cannot. Or else we will cut out your eyes.”
You have never been able to tell a lie.
As you swim through the dark, you try to grasp the heat with your other senses. Feel its warmth, smell the sulfur, the carbon dioxide—you can now smell things that are scentless. You follow children’s voices. They are singing a nursery rhyme, something about ashes to ashes. When at last you reach them, they throw rocks at you and scatter. They call you the devil. They say you belong in a place much hotter than this, a place where the fire melts the flesh from your bones. They say the flesh will grow back after it has all burnt away, and once it has grown over your bones again, the fire comes once more, and on and on this way until you can no longer feel fear and pain, though you can still feel dread. You cannot imagine how these children could say such horrible things. When you tell them this, they just laugh, say it is what their parents told them, so it must be true.
Years pass, during which you tell yourself, “There is no flame. It is a myth I was told as a child. I know only what I can touch, and I cannot touch the flame.” You teach this to your children. They teach it to theirs.
By the time of the moon crash, the flame is gone from the earth. In the wake of the disaster, the children of women find themselves looking everywhere for it. Someone in Japan claims they saw a glimpse of it at the top of Mount Fuji before it collapsed. A deep sea diver claims it is at the bottom of the Calypso. The reports are so vast and varied that no truth can be discerned, and so you decide that yes, you were right all along. There was never any flame. You join a small company of men and women. You work to rebuild, and are proud of your accomplishments.
Children gather by your deathbed. Not yours by scientific definition, but you have cared for them all the same. Some of the children know songs from the time before the crash. You don’t know where they learned these songs from, certainly not you. The songs are saturated in silly imagery, but at their core, they are about forgiveness.
The long night now. Something eternal that won’t last. You curl up into a sphere of light—bright as a diamond, and weightless. You remember and forget all you have learned.
You forget you are the flame, and enter the world again.