When Znarf Akfak awakened the first orange morning on Meta-4 everything around him seemed familiar and, for that reason, unsettling. He had no memory of how he had arrived at this particular location, but that was not unusual. Znarf was one of the more experienced agents in a little known department of the confederation bureaucracy called the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. The appropriation which supported it did not even appear openly in the budget of the confederation. A different line with a different bland title concealed it each quadrennium. As part of his work, which had no specified value either to himself or to others, Znarf travelled often by the method of transcendental displacement.
When you went this way, there was no retracing your steps. Even if you were convinced that you had made your journey in a distinct sequence, it could be demonstrated that your account suffered from all sorts of gaps, peculiar shadings and even glaring contradictions. All who travelled by transcendental displacement developed a taste for trying to give an account of how they had reached their destinations. The question had been investigated with customary thoroughness by the Office of Central Anomalies, which had concluded that these testimonials of the travellers themselves were no more reliable than any other data concerning the peculiar method. Although the matter had not been resolved once and for all, it did seem to be the case that it was of the essence of the method that no complete and consistent account of its workings could be given.
One intriguing correlation had emerged from the longitudinal study by the Office of Central Anomalies of a cohort of travellers by the method of transcendental displacement. The vast majority of travellers by the method who had constructed theories concerning their journeying became more attached to their theories with the passage of time, even when they were confronted with the palpable absurdity of many of their claims. Far from disabusing them of their idiosyncratic notions, such confrontations deepened their convictions, wedding them more closely to their illusions. Some went so far as to challenge the whole system of logic and investigation by which the difficulties in their accounts had been exposed. These asserted this system was but one among a multitude of possible systems and, accordingly, could claim no special homage or pride of place. Such objections, as irresponsible as they were radical, raised eyebrows even in the Office of Central Anomalies, renowned for its open-mindedness and capacity to tolerate ambiguities.
Only a tiny minority of travellers by the method of transcendental displacement was able to attain a sense of agnosticism, even a certain disdaining internal aloofness, in regard to their own constructions concerning their journeyings. Of this tiny minority, Znarf formed part. Careful study had shown that this trait was a quality unto itself, one that did not assort with any other identified tendencies. Now the sole danger of the method was that a percentage of travellers was lost in the transition from one place to another. Although the percentage was very small, the mechanism of their loss remained wholly obscure, so there was no clear way to explore effecting refinements in the technology to increase the safety of what was not an ordinary orderly process in the first place.
Accordingly, despite its enormous capacity and speed, the method of transcendental displacement was not widely used. Travellers required special official authorizations, which were not easy to obtain. In certain parts of the confederation, including some of the more unruly and rebellious reaches, it was even held that the method did not exist, so that security operations from the center were unlikely, because of the travel time and energy cost that would be involved. The intriguing correlation, incidentally a rather robust one, that the Office of Central Anomalies had uncovered was that the tiny minority of travellers by the method of transcendental displacement who were skeptical of their own theorizing concerning their journeyings were very unlikely to get lost in transit, even if they made many more voyages than had those who disappeared. Although not total, the immunity was virtually complete.
Remaining in bed, Znarf stretched lazily and looked about him, trying to recall his errand, which had, for the moment, escaped him. Just past fifty elliptoid revolutions old, Znarf, born on the planet Absalom Omega in the the far off Alhamdulilai sector of the Yingyang, one of the fastest growing and culturally most dynamic foci of the confederation, was a thin and wiry creature, with a stiff, hard skin, almost a carapace. Following his advanced training, he had been an abstract biologist for almost a decade before he had gone to work for the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. If he questioned the title of the branch for which he worked on the grounds that it was hard to establish in advance whether an anomaly would turn out to be central or peripheral, he kept his doubts to himself.
Actually, one of Znarf’s peculiarities was that he enjoyed keeping his thoughts to himself. He was interested in the thoughts of others, because he felt these could only enrich him, yet he was at a loss to understand why they should disclose them. For his part, he found that his thoughts never had so intense and specific a flavor as when he first formulated them, before it even occurred to him that it might be possible to paint a picture of them in words or to put them, for that matter, in any symbolic form which would render their transmission to others possible. Most who knew Znarf thought him exceedingly modest, largely because of his reticence, which they misinterpreted. Znarf was aware of this common error, as well as of its basis, yet he rarely took the trouble to correct anyone, for such an intervention would serve no purpose, aimed as it was at but a single result of a seriously flawed system.
Znarf yawned. What the hell was he doing here and why did everything look so damnedly familiar? He knew perfectly well that he had never been on this planet with the oddly orange light before in his life. So how had his surroundings managed to achieve such a degree of intimacy with him? Znarf knew that the effects of travel by the method of transcendental displacement were not only varied but subtle. There was always an element of disturbance to your sense of your own organization, as if you had been through much that you could not name or sort. Nor was the disturbance ever of quite the same kind or intensity. Your previous journeys by the method of transcendental displacement did not serve to prepare you, except possibly insofar as you became accustomed to finding yourself unprepared. What preparation you had was at such a general level that it served only to make you, by slight degrees, virtually imperceptibly, more and more vague and undefined. If anything, you became more sensitive to impressions, even as you developed an increased insensitivity towards your own augmented sensitivities. You came to possess or to be possessed by, as it were, an instrumental way of being.
Across the room from the capacious bed in which Znarf lay was a table with four chairs set around it. The table and the chairs were made of a material that was not wood or stone, yet had a grain to it that intrigued the eye the way certain kinds of wood or stone can. Znarf let his gaze rest on the chairs and the table for a long moment, trying to fathom their secret, before he scanned the walls. The floor melted into the walls, the walls into the ceiling arching overhead, as if the space in which he found himself had been hollowed out of some preexisting material, or had grown in this way, like the interior of a nut. Windows of various shapes in the walls and a skylight overhead, all without hard edges disclosed enormous prospects to Znarf, so much so that he wondered whether he was actually looking out or whether what appeared to be windows were in fact sophisticated receivers of one type or another. In any case the effect was both lifelike and moving.
Thinking that the windows might not be windows at all but receivers of advanced design triggered the train of thought that provided Znarf with what seemed like a first clue. Whatever he was looking at moved him. He responded to it feelingfully, without the capacity to distance himself which customarily went along with vision. It was as if he were looking out on music that came in through his eyes, music visible, but music nonetheless. An additional peculiarity of what he saw all about him was that it reminded him of himself. He had the impression that it had all been built in accordance with the same design principles that had guided his own composition. What came along with this was not so much the shock of recognition, but the shock of being discovered.
Still lying there in bed, Znarf grimaced and recoiled. So the cat was out of the bag at last! Whatever secrets he had were now so openly on display that they could produce no sense of mystery. He was limited in a new and fundamental way. Nor could he any longer take pride in what had seemed to him the arduous voyage of self-discovery by which he had pieced together his own sense of these secrets. They were out in the open, as if he had no special claim on them any more, as if, despite long association, they felt no special loyalty to him, but were simply facts or facets of his nature, coequal with any other facts of nature open to discovery. Lying there in bed on the planet whose light had a persistent orange glow, Znarf felt for the first time in his life like a specimen transfixed for dissection, a bug utterly at the mercy of some power whose dispassionate malevolence far surpassed his own capacity to conceive it.
Znarf checked his arms and legs. Each was in its place. Each obeyed his commands, just as on any other morning. He was sufficiently unnerved so that he tallied them, a task which was not so arduous, after all, since their numbers were quite limited. There were neither too many nor too few. This was mildly reassuring, because, Znarf said quietly to himself, you never know what may happen to you. Znarf had a vivid imagination, but he liked to keep a certain distance from its productions. Znarf was very much in tune with the perception that form was, when all was said and done, highly arbitrary, the precipitate of a vast and baffling array of contingencies suddenly revealed as at least transiently necessary. He might have turned to jelly. He might have dissolved into a liquid, doomed to strain to map a small portion of the planet’s gravitational field with his flow. But he had done nothing of the sort.
The fact that all his arms and legs were intact and still in touch with him meant that Znarf could have moved. Specifically, he could have gotten up out of bed and explored the chamber in which he found himself. He could have crossed the floor and gone up the walls and onto the ceiling. He wanted to press his belly up against that material, at once ever-so-familiar and also ever-so-strange, in order to feel whether it was hot or cool, hard or yielding, inert or charged with the most delicate of vibrations. Yet this sensual exploratory urge was only momentary, giving way all in an instant to a much more profound and reproving lassitude.
Why should he move? Why should he bestir himself? Why should he explore? Why should he travel, rendering himself perpetually a displaced person? Everything that he had done in his life, everything that he had thought, everything that he had felt, everything he had hoped and everything he had feared, everything he had cherished and everything he had lost, seemed beside the point. He was not going to get out of bed. He was not going to press his belly against the walls or against the ceiling. What did it matter if the walls were warm or cool, firm or more accomodating, still or not so still? What could what he might have discovered had he pressed his belly against the wall possibly have meant to him? He almost chuckled out loud at the revealed absurdity of his own urge. What did it matter that it was just this bed on the planet with the slightly garish orange hued light? After all, a rolling rock always came to rest somewhere. Once emitted, a photon was only known as such if the exchange were completed and it was once again absorbed.
Znarf used his multitudinous toes to pull the covers back up over his head. There was no reason to rush, no reason to worry, nothing in particular to do or to try. It seemed elementary once you saw it. Once you glimpsed it, it was hard to believe you had managed to remain unaware of it for so long. Now Znarf did chuckle out loud, at first somewhat harshly and derisively, then more softly and delicately, even with the beginnings of a melodic lilt, for his voice was very complex in its tonalities. If he had not seen this up until now, it was only because he had worked so very hard, so consistently, so insistently to keep himself from seeing it. From his new point of view, his old antics struck him funny, doubly so in that he could not help admiring his own dedication.
Znarf tried to remember what his errand was in coming to Meta-4, if indeed this was Meta-4, a hypothesis for which he had no confirmatory data. Yet, even as he searched his mind, not with any conviction, but cursorily, out of a habit that is just on the point of being shed like an old dried brittle skin, he realized that it made no difference at all to him if he could or could not remember his errand. It was just that, an errand, a pretext for wandering. If he simply did nothing, Znarf thought, it would be interesting to see what developed. He chuckled out loud again, having caught himself in the act. Interesting? Interesting to whom? Certainly not to him. There was no good reason for him to be interested. Znarf scratched his nose. There was also no good reason to do this. Yet, also there was no good reason not to do this.
As Znarf lay there in bed, not precisely thinking, not asleep, but simply allowing time to ooze past like a viscuous liquid that resists its own flow even as it goes, his ears pricked up. This was reflex, not the product of an act of will. He thought he heard something, a slight sound as from a great distance. Or was it a set of sounds? A kind of piping or chirping, just at the threshold of what he could detect. Was it a set of voices or a set of instruments? It was so faint and seemed to be coming from so far away that he could not be sure that he was hearing anything at all. Perhaps this music, if that is what it was, was not coming from outside at all, but from somewhere within him. If its source was inside, then it was coming from some region of himself with which he was unfamiliar.
He closed his eyes and listened, for he had nothing better to do. As he listened the sound became more distinct. It had characteristic timbre, pitch, dynamics, flavor. Even though it seemed at first so soft as to give the impression it might not be there at all, it rose and fell, generating a certain forward momentum, a certain energy, above all, a certain suspense. But it was a novel kind of suspense, for there was nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing particularly either challenging or assertive about this music. Rather, it was as it came to Znarf’s ears a music of pathos, of limitation, of tiny tremulous griefs which could not even acquire the consolidation to assert their rights to grieve. It was a music of the lamentations of the infinitesimal, not mice or birds or insects, but even less than that.
Immobile in his bed, Znarf found he was beginning to get caught up in the music, this soft threnody which pitched its tents at the very edge of the vast desert of silence. Znarf told himself there was no harm in listening, especially as it brought him no pleasure. He had done nothing to seek it out. It had simply come to him, from whence he knew not. He was not beholden to anyone. The Office of Peripheral Anomalies was accustomed to giving its field investigators the widest possible latitude, not so much because of anything like faith or trust in them, but rather on the basis of the awareness that theirs could not help but be quirky work and, further and perhaps even more importantly, they could easily be replaced, should the need arise.
The strangest thing about this music, again, was that, although it came from a great distance, although it was inconceivable that he should have heard anything like it ever before in his life, as he listened to it Znarf started to find an element of familiarity, even of intimacy in it. So soft, dull grays running into dull browns, so utterly without accent or excitement and yet, by its very softness, its drabness, the dullness of its coloration, the way it was almost devoid of aspiration, it did begin to compel a kind of attention which was novel, disquieting, even threatening and menacing. Nor could Znarf represent to himself that he was not himself the author of this new kind of attention, even if he need not take upon himself the responsibility of having composed just this addling minor music that now held him in its grip. But how could you be held in the grip of something that had no grasp, no strength, no concern beyond its own vulnerability?
Znarf wanted to resign. At first, he was not sure exactly what it was from which he wanted to resign. His first thought was that he wanted to resign from the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. Until this very instant he had been quite happy with his work. It left him so untrammeled, made so few substantive claims on him, never asserted any need for accountability on his part. He was left to his own devices, allowed to roam, best of all, asked only the bare minimum of questions required to fill in a set of bureaucratic forms designed to be so all-purpose that they were virtually no-purpose. Znarf was sure there must be a procedure for resigning, because, at least formally, every bureaucracy had to be equipped both with a way in and with a way out. To imagine otherwise was like imagining an alimentary canal with but a single end, something which was absurd on the widest and most abstract grounds.
Yet Znarf was forced to admit to himself that he did not know what the procedure was. Nor was it clear to him where he might apply to find out. For that matter, he did not even know exactly the nature of his obligation to the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. Sometimes months, or even a whole revolution went by, during which time he was not asked to do anything at all. Znarf enjoyed these periods. He had always had diverse interests and, as one thing led to another, he had no trouble filling up the time. When he had entered the confederation service and gone to work for the Office of Peripheral Anomalies, he had signed a sheaf of forms, some generic, pertaining simply to the fact of joining the bureaucracy, others specifically relating to the conditions governing his involvement with the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. For reasons which wholly escaped him, he had been required to undergo extensive interviewing so as to receive a high security clearance. In the interviews he had been extremely reticent, which seemed to please the examiners, although Znarf was privately convinced that he had learned more about them than they had about him. Now, as he looked back on it, he was not at all sure what those forms, with their references to various annexes and codacils, some classified, may actually have said.
He went one step further, though, in his thinking. He had known a number of agents, perhaps eighty or ninety in all, who like him, did investigations for the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. He tried to think of even one who had resigned. Some had been lost during journeys by the method of transcendental displacement. He could recall four or five specific incidents. Others had gotten sick or been killed accidentally in the line of duty. Some three or four had been at it so long that they had achieved a kind of emeritus status, in which they might be asked a question from time to time, but certainly never given an assignment nor even necessarily expected to respond to the questions posed if the spirit did not move them to do so. But he could not think of even a single one among all the diverse souls he knew who had simply upped and resigned from the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. He had the wry thought that perhaps it was an anomaly of a peripheral kind that he himself should even think of resigning from the service of the Office of Peripheral Anomalies. Or was it central?
The music continued. Znarf kept his eyes tightly shut, as if the work of seeing would represent in itself an unnecessary distraction. Still soft, but now more distinct, the music, without obvious source, surrounded him. The impression of familiarity was increasingly eerie as Znarf immersed himself. He seemed to hear individual voices that spoke directly to him, without fear or hope, as if everything of any importance had already been decided, so that, having nothing much left to lose, they had not only an enviable freedom bordering on spiritual weightlessnes but enviable equanimity.
This music, this stunningly original polyphonic recitative, was, as he got to know it, so very different than what he had first thought it to be that Znarf felt, lying there with his eyes closed in bed on this strange planet of which he knew as yet next to nothing, the warm flush of shame spread across all his cheeks. He prided himself on not being in a hurry to judge, on waiting to see what there might be of pattern that did not rush to reveal itself, but depended instead on subtle and complicated dissolutions and reintegrations of figures and grounds, each one seeming final as it manifested itself, yet somehow failing to eliminate the perceptual tension that hinted it was still possible to go on further without finding a definitive resting place. Yet in this music he had heard only pathos, abnegation and vulnerability, when what was actually there was so different, provided only that you started to allow yourself to listen to the music on terms at least approximating its own. This was, Znarf noted, yet one more lesson in the pervasiveness of his own willfulness.
In the music, Znarf now heard a peace at once deep and soaring. And yet, for all the elements of equanimity and calm, the effect that this music had on Znarf lying there in bed was anything but soothing. With some alarm, Znarf realized that this music, piping, chirping or whatever it was, had found a way to bypass his mind and address his body directly. It was as if each one of his arms and legs had been transformed into an antenna and each one received a separate signal to which it alone responded. The impression this made in his mind was as of an empire, long mismanaged, which awakens one day to discover that the barbarians are at the gates and that there is no longer any way to bribe them, divert them or otherwise delay them. It was not only to his diverse extremities that the music spoke directly, but also to his skin and viscera, which now started to produce odd burbling sounds of their own.
He noticed first one arm twitching, then another, not in any coordinated way, not within the boundaries of the accustomed large motor forms, but as if they were in the process of discovering a new language, which they spoke as yet only haltingly, if enthusiastically. Besides the sounds from his guts and the sensations of distension, Znarf noticed patches of brilliant color travelling across his skin in unfamiliar wave forms. There was no escaping the conclusion. Despite his resolve only a few minutes ago that all doing, seeking and striving was not only useless, but quite beneath such an enlightened one as he himself had now come to be, Znarf wanted to get out of bed and dance. This was especially troubling to him as an urge because he had never been a dancer. He had always had the feeling that he might enjoy it if he tried, but it was part of his more general pattern of reticence that he had never allowed himself to try, resisting the blandishments of a whole series of members of the opposite sex culminating in his wife, now his ex-wife. She had initiated the change in relationship, whether for better or for worse, Znarf, as part of the same general pattern of reticence, could not have said.
But there really was no mistaking it. He wanted to dance. Now. His body wanted to dance. Now. Each one of the separate unruly dependencies that composed his actual physical self wanted to dance. Now. It occurred to Znarf that he might be being watched. This worried him for only an instant as he wondered what sort of bizarre and ludicrous spectacle he might make if he threw caution to the winds and allowed himself to get out of bed and dance. In point of fact, the prospect of making a bizarre and ludicrous spectacle of himself for the appreciation of other eyes, alien and unknown to him, rather charmed Znarf. Of course, he told himself, with a last effort at being judicious, there was no reason at all to believe that it was worth anyone’s while to go to the trouble of placing him under surveillance. He would do better to resist the temptation to exaggerate his own importance. If he were to get mixed up in anything of real moment, the Office of Peripheral Anomalies would simply disavow him, primly to be sure, but with a frisson of bureaucratic enjoyment.
The music played on, nearer and nearer and nearer, now in fully established communion with each of his limbs and members. There was no way to resist, even if the majority of his will (or possibly Znarf should have said at this point, the majority of his wills) had been on the side of resisting, which was not the case. His hands were already flipping the covers back – and with gusto – before Znarf was fully aware that he was going to get out of bed and dance, whether observed or unobserved.
There was nothing graceful about Znarf’s dance. It was herky-jerky. His different limbs operated at cross purposes without regard to the effects on his trunk, which was pulled this way and that to the point that his balance was always in question. Some were restrained and undulant, others forcefully declarative, still others in-between or alternating rapidly from one mode to another, as if baffled. Above his dance, if something quite so amorphous in appearance can truly go by that name, Znarf’s head swayed back and forth, swinging on the long stalk of his neck, like a microphone on a boom. Only a tiny kernel, like the piece of dust about which a raindrop coalesces to take its spherical shape, remained outside the dance, unmoving in the riot of unrehearsed and unpremeditated motility. Znarf felt like a marionette who has fallen into the hands of a drunken, yet inspired puppeteer or of one whose fingers labored under the spell of a hideously creative neurological disease which invented new tics and tremors to suit each occasion.
Was he actually dancing or was he suffering from an intensely emotional kind of seizure, a set of automatisms that represented at one and the same time a process of compulsion and a process of revelation? As he danced, if that was what he was doing, Znarf felt lighter and lighter, less and less a creature with mass, inertia and purpose and more and more only a semblance of a creature. For all his carefully cultivated doubting, his instinctive reserve in the face of his own existence, Znarf had always taken himself, after his own fashion, literally and concretely. Now he was something other than what he had ever imagined it possible that he might come to be, no more than a conjurer’s trick, something so slight that, if his very existence were to be disavowed, that disavowal might represent a more accurate portrayal of him than anything else.
The music sounded more and more familiar to him. With horrified awe, he realized he was entering into its state, becoming, if that were possible, a part of it, not a listener with the capacity to reflect and to judge. As it continued to sweep over him, now literally and physically moving him, as if it had at first infiltrated him and then annexed him, new strains in it touched him, notes of protest, not calm, but whining petulantly. There was gall in the whining, a bitterness that ran so deep it called into question all ideas of goodness or faith or trust. What, he asked himself in the throes of the music, had happened to him? If it had been happening to him all along, why had he never remarked it? How had he managed to ward off the knowledge?
Where, early in the dance, he had felt a certain lightheartedness, a certain lightheadedness, even as he knew himself to be out of control – at least out of his own control, now an anxious shift was taking place. The whining brought with it a pain that welled up from deep within him. It had no cause located in external circumstance or contingenecy. It had to do only with the hopeless uniqueness of himself. It was as if the music, far from being pleasant and aspiring, far from bringing any absolution or transcendence, were a corrosive liquid applied quite mercilessly to him, eating away at him, removing from him all comfort, all calm, all hope of exit and showing him what he least wanted to see, the hideous image of himself, isolate against an unforgiving ground. He might as well have had a pin driven through him.
He could not say for how long he had been dancing, nor what the choreography of his movements was. It was all too chaotic for that. It simply went on and on and on. For all its variety – and he knew the dance had a variety far richer than he would previously have been able to guess at, the underlying message of the music, which translated him into movement, was monotony, a changing that was changeless and useless. All the others that he had known in his life passed before him. No, they actually passed through him, possessing him each one in his or her turn, his mother and his father, both dead for more than two decades, his brothers and sisters, his wife, now his ex-wife, his three children. He was like a clay that took the shape of whatever mold pressed against it. Worse than the agony of taking the shape was the agony of letting go, two moments logically inseparable, like the tree in the seed, the fading in the flowering. What was left behind was featureless, a jellid mass quivering with pain and hurt, yet unable to do anything but quiver.
At long last the music started to die down. It became faint and Znarf, much to his surprise, for he had given up all hope of any such stillness, any letting go, any release, found himself in a heap all alone in the middle of the room. Only he was sobbing so hard that he could not catch his breath without pain in his chest. He had never cried like this. His nasal passages were full and distended. Tears cascaded from his numerous eyes and ran down his cheeks like rivers in flood. Now, instead of the music, which had passed, as if it had never been, he heard only the sounds of his own abject moaning and whimpering. He cried and cried and cried, without understanding why or whether it was more sorrow than horror or horror than sorrow. Finally, exhausted, right there on the floor of this chamber to which he had come with a purpose he did not recall, Znarf fell into a stupor, which passed over into a deep sleep.
When Znarf awoke, he ached all over. Even the smallest movements caused him instant, intense pains. Yet, as the memory of the music came back to him, this pain, so immediate, so palpable, so physical was a comfort to him, like a series of small guy ropes in a high wind. He tried to raise up his head, but his neck hurt so much he gave up the effort. Still, he wanted to look around him. He had no idea how to go about it, until it occurred to him that, with a supreme effort allied to a stoic refusal to heed the painful cries of his muscles, he could just manage to roll over on his back, thus providing himself with a somewhat wider vantage point. He despaired of ever being able to get up into the soft bed again.
As he looked up from his position prostrate on the floor, he noticed that the room had changed. Or at least, he told himself, it seemed to him that it had changed, for he was unsettled and quite unsure to what extent or whether to trust his memory of his previous perceptions of it. So far as he could tell the light had modulated in color. It no longer had that orange cast, but had taken on a pinker hue, almost roseate in shade. Also the apertures in the walls and the ceiling seemed to have changed shape, so that now they had more complicated curves, pleasing to the eye, even voluptuous.
The room seemed to have grown smaller, why he could not say. The table and the chairs were still in their places, but they too seemed to have undergone transformation. Whereas before all the chairs had been similar, each one a facsimile of the others, now they had distinctly individual aspects, as if each one had pursued a separate course, with woes, joys, catastrophes and calms unique to that particular passage. The table now was different as well, mildly concave in one place and mildly convex in another, as if it had undergone a slow melting. They seemed in a curious way like old friends and associates, yet he could not place them. Znarf lingered for a moment over the absurd idea that they were, in fact, sentient beings like himself who had heard the music just as he had, each one responding to it according to the dictates of his own disparate nature. But the most striking and peculiar changes had taken place in the materials of which the room was composed.
The walls were no longer smooth but instead had developed the most complex patterns of filigreed recesses, each with a different and perpetually changing luminosity, so that the effect was of a harmonious glowing that varied not just in time but from spot to spot. Whereas before his eyes had gone immediately to the prospects disclosed by the windows and the skylight, now it was the interior of the chamber itself, the floor, walls and ceiling all in radiant continuity with each other, that held his attention, as if they meant to speak with him, or at least contained a coded set of messages well worth the toil of deciphering. Still his surroundings had that feeling of familiarity, as if they partook with him of a common source, but were closer to it and, therefore, more capable of representing it, paradoxically rendering it even more enigmatic..
In the midst of all these thoughts and impressions, exhaustion took hold of Znarf once more. Yet there was something new and compelling present in this current flood of fatigue. Znarf was famished. It felt as if drills were boring holes in the pit of his stomach, generating intense heat as they whirled and dug. He could not remember what, where or when he had last eaten. And yet, as with the pain in his muscles, this burning in his stomach was reassuring. He thought to himself that it would not be the worst thing in the world to starve to death. In fact, there would be nothing to it, especially after the havoc the music had wreaked in him. It might be a relief, hunger offering a thread of constancy to which he could cling like a mountain climber following a rope up a majestic snow-capped peak whose summit was always shrouded in clouds, so just out of the range of sight. With this thought, a smile played about Znarf’s lips, the first sign of mirth in a long time.
But it was not to be long lived. A crick in his neck, sudden and constricting, made him lurch to one side, so that his glance fell on two dishes, carved out of something smooth and milky white like polished ivory, set thoughtfully to his left there on the floor. The thought of nourishment rendered him almost delirious, despite himself. Again suppressing the cries of pain that resounded through his aching body, he managed to drag himself over to the two vessels, where he ate and drank greedily, lowering his head first into one bowl and then into the other, so that each one became for the time that he was occupied with it the sum total of his world.
As he was finishing gulping down a smooth and cooling liquid that seemed to bring balm wherever it touched inside, it occurred to him that the fact that there was food placed on the floor meant someone was aware of his presence.
When he lifted his head out of the second bowl, Znarf noticed the illumination in the room seemed to have changed again. It was brighter and the shade had gone from near roseate to a pale yellow, light and graceful like some of the first flowers of spring on certain planets. He let his head collapse back onto the floor, thinking that he would never again, despite the replenishing food and drink, be able to rise to the level of the bed and marvelling that he had ever seen the world from such an exalted perspective. As he did so, he saw standing all about him what looked like reeds from a marsh. They had certainly not been there before. Could these, he wondered, be the natives of this planet or at least one of their phases?
Each had a gold stalk which was topped not by a flower, but rather by an intense point of white light, like incandescent tungsten. These points were miniscule, but pure and piercing in the light they gave off. Seeming to respond to the fact that he had taken notice of them, the reeds inclined towards him, as if to express solicitude and concern for him, really the last thing in the world he was either expecting or hoping for.
Znarf sighed. It was all quite beyond him. He had no idea how to go about communicating with these creatures, whose like he had never before encountered, despite the diversity and breadth not only of his experience but of his reading. So he simply lay there on the floor like the exhausted, drained, used up creature he was.
They seemed not to share either his difficulty with communicating or his exhaustion for, projecting themselves into his language by a mechanism of which their unchanged posture and bearing gave no clue, they welcomed him, saying, “We have never seen anyone adapt more gracefully to the atmosphere of our planet. It is with pleasure and admiration that we receive you among us. Please stay as long with us as you like.”
The sound of their voices was beautiful, sincere and caressing. Znarf did not know how to reply, except with full frankness.
“I’ve no idea why I’ve come.”
The points of light atop the reeds seemed to grow brighter, achieving an instant of incomparable purity and clarity.
“Ah,” Znarf said, aloud, but more to himself than to the reeds around him, “so this is the method of resignation. It’s a matter of turning yourself inside out, like a sock.”
With that, to his astonishment and dismay, the reeds ignited, catching fire and burning swiftly, like so many stalks of straw. It was all over in just a few seconds. Where before the reeds had been, there were only ashes.
Each time he exhaled, there was a small stirring among the ashes, which were evidently very light, nearly insubstantial. Znarf was left alone, for all he now knew, on the planet Meta-4.
Sanibel Island, Florida, 1988