On the morning of my father’s burial, I spent the entire service in a deep, enchanted sleep in the nautilus-shaped nave of Stella Maris, as if—one might say—God Himself had not wanted me to see. As the crane slowly lowered each of his gigantic bones into the upturned soil that afternoon, rainclouds of women’s hair fell from the sky and snared in the branches of the trees, veiling the mourners’ faces like shredded lace. Tracing the perimeter of the church, which resembles a lopsided dragon carved out of white soap, I stopped to kiss the painted image of Stella Maris. With her back to a wall of ocean water, she stands on a horizontal crescent moon, a pair of cattle horns, the runner of a rocking horse, the rib of an extinct whale, a hubcap flying saucer. Behind her, the open sea is filled with spiders.
Sedimentary leaves fall swiftly over strewn grass, eating all of the marbles, a miraculous parting of the waters, unfolding and swallowing oneself up: the Earth’s strata are the bed’s mattresses. All layers record together, simultaneously, so that they can emit someone else’s voice, like a polyphonic birthday cake. Hallucination, orgasm, and tectonic shift are three versions of the same phenomenon, spontaneous production. How else should I describe the peculiar character of the island of Porta Santa Maria del Mare, the place of my birth, where an entire row of bazaars and cafés in the village disappears one day and is replaced by a Miocene kelp forest sheltering ancestral manatees, only to emerge again the following morning? What was I like before I emerged from her foam? I was curled up; a seashell, a grenade shell, an eggshell, coral shells, Unix shells, shellac bones. A trinket box of fossils in the womb.
My mother, a paleontologist who wished deeply for me to inherit her passion, used to tell me that she would be my assistant and clean the bones of the fearsome creatures who I unearthed when she grew old. She spent decades among the cliffs of Wadi El Hitan, polishing the wide, dentated jaws of fossilized vulvas with kitchen towels. In Europe, there was an incredible demand for the excavated bones of the whales to whom they once belonged, which were used in the manufacture of straitjackets for inmates at the Salpêtrière and similar institutions. When my father passed shortly after her one hundred and fifth birthday, she threatened me with confinement in one of those miserable places on account of my worsening delirium, her reassurance that these bones have also become a fixture in fashionable women’s dress lately bringing little comfort to me. Yet, I had not forgotten that my parents abandoned my twin sister, Uccellina—if she had another name, it was never once mentioned—at the convent of Stella Maris after noticing something very grotesque about her upon the instant of her birth. (Whenever I asked for more explicit detail, my mother remarked that she took after my father, unlike myself.) Henceforth, she was raised by the temperamental abbess, Ornella, who taught her that the history of her sex was something with awfully sharp teeth that sank down into an ancient stone marrow. Ornella, I am told, was a preposterous creature, a woman with the maquillage of a horseshoe crab: born sometime during the Late Ordovician, she had lost the ability to differentiate dreaming from waking in her last years. Hardly anything had really interested her anymore, with the exception of the monastery’s physician, an oversized sea louse named Foscharina who inspired great carnal affections in her. When I stared at heaps of dirty rags and fantasized that the stains and hairs placed by chance among the threads could be read as a map of nuclear launch sites, I thought of my sister sleepwalking away time to the beach where Ornella would sit, praying the rosary to Stella Maris in the form of a flatworm. Perhaps, limping along the shore with the aid of her crozier, a little umbrella named Parasolsus, she’d tell her a tale about how God decided He needed to create the sea after staring into His own reflection and realizing that His only gift to the world was endless cruelty.
Thus, my escape plans had long been percolating in my mind, to be actualized the evening after the funeral ended. Under the cover of night, I flagged a taxi, which inexorably broke down on the mountain pass leading to the convent. I continued miserably on foot through the forest until I came upon a cliff that was at once an exposed library. The ribbons of strata in the rock face were formed by the colours of the codices’ vellum, made of everything from black shale exoskeletons to petrified dinosaur skin. Deciphering this optical illusion, I felt overcome with relief upon realizing that I must have reached the perimeter of the monastic complex. By moonlight, I delicately removed a codex and pressed my fingers into the spongy, beige cake of its pages, indulging them first in the crust side, then in the side for spreading peanut butter or marmalade. Discovering it to be a composite of multiple texts bound together, I hovered, mesmerized by the section that I assumed was the oldest: a montage of trilobites and specimens of Pikaia gracilens, the flatworm-like grandmother of all; but also of cat’s eye marbles, dolls, wooden marionettes, pull-along animals, and a stuffed rabbit—transitional forms appearing first like nascent spiral galaxies forming letters, and then words, against the black page. How warm and lovely it must feel to be hidden like that, I thought, concealed beneath the covers of your fossil bed…
The sound of the volumes’ chains rustling betrayed a habited figure dusting the shelves. Covered in a fine down, her congenitally folded arms ended in scaly claws instead of hands. I was taken aback in shock, which subsided far more quickly than you might think. Intuitively recognizing my twin, I peered under her veil and surreptitiously kissed her face, which narrowed to a pointed beak, like that of a flightless bird. I hastily explained my predicament, to which she responded with sympathy. My sister and I thus entered the convent’s four enclosed walls, crawling with cats, penguins, and kiwi trees; reeking of monotonous confinement, but also enticing the senses with the aura of a dream encapsulated permanently in a glass vial.
An ancient abbess, the monastery’s founder, discovered a white smoker on the ocean floor beyond the island’s edge, believing that the breast-shaped volcanic crater was pouring the Virgin’s milk into the sea. This fortuitous event quickly attracted innumerable pilgrims, who came to bathe in the waters surrounding the cloud of milk and bring it home with them in small clay ampullae. (Several centuries later, that archipelago of drops of milk would draw hundreds and thousands of Victorian invalids in a slightly different sort of pilgrimage.) Inevitably, the island’s spell drew first the Muslims, who arrived from Sicily with advanced medicine and mathematics, and then dugout canoes from Tierra del Fuego during the Age of Reason, the latter explaining the penguins… In the village square, the thousand-year-old mosque stands, the interior of her dome covered in silken memories, the original gold and coral tapestries hardly blemished by age. Uccellina led me to the dormitory where I would sleep beneath a sheet sewn from the leaves of an Arabic Dioscorides, past the chapel, the pharmacy, the little herb garden, and the ancient room stained with millennia of pale blue horseshoe crab’s blood according to the rotations of the liturgical calendar. Farther out is the island’s treacherous interior, where the dismembered limbs and hindquarters of behemoths fall spontaneously from the sky for no discernible reason, landing among willow trees and clinging to the jagged edges of cliffs. Above the tree line, where the air is like the final breath of a falling bird, the pelts of dead cave lions grow like a meadow over the last remaining snow. Resting under a grove of kiwis, it crossed my mind that the stars, like our eyes, have rods and cones.
The salt in the Adriatic is mined from the preserved hearts of saints. (Saints being saints, the grains of salt multiply until they fill the entire sea.) The sea’s bite does not heal; the sea is a baptistery for infant monsters; the sea is a place where saints wander, knotted with wires that trace ancient pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem and Rome; the sea is holy. All places of origin are reservoirs of pain that one fears one will never emerge from, and yet they are simultaneously enchanted castles, opportunities to escape the dreariness of one’s days and become: it is possible for somewhere to be at once Eden and Inferno, for their prodigious menageries, uninhibited by the fear of death, share many of the same enclosures…
Of the Way Across the Atlantic
I arrived here by walking along the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, tracing countless feet of Darwinian tightrope stretching from Heart’s Content to Valentia Island in total darkness, dreaming of everlasting prairies of tube worms. It originally functioned for only three weeks before falling into disuse, ostensibly because it would not stop recording the voices of humpback whales and garbling transmissions like letters on a page seen in a dream. The La Brea Tar Pits diorama on display at the Royal Ontario Museum when I was a little girl featured dire wolf skeletons with black bones. Even dreams are drowned in the La Brea Tar Pits, I suppose, like on the abyssal plain. Opposite the diorama was a gallery of more unusual fossils preserved by the bitumen: unfortunate drowned skyscrapers, highways, server farms from Mountain View that couldn’t escape the deluge, libraries (the millions of volumes consumed by their own asphalt ink), and oilfields. I also enjoyed the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The highlight there is the Hall of Human Origins: you enter through a vagina perforating the adjacent wall, and inside is a diorama of an environment and figures modelled upon drawings that you made as a child. No one experiences it quite the same way, apparently. It’s paleontological Pentecost.
An inexpressible yearning to live in such places permanently haunted me. (I once dreamed that the sea’s depths spat out my grandparents’ bodies in the forms of Pharaonic mummies.) When I was a child, our house was entirely inedible. I firmly believe that department store catalogues depicting the rooms of a perfect house ought to be replaced by new editions that categorize such interiors according to what happened to you where—according to where, for instance, you discovered a symptom of a disease, learned a dreadful secret, or found yourself alone with worries terrible enough to only be contemplated by children. There were times when I wore a white Communion dress, when I was married, when I was upstanding in the eyes of others, when I knitted clothes for a child who I never gave birth to: they have left less of an impression on me than cobwebs, nocturnal bouts of nausea, and the sight of my mother in a state of undress. Should I tell you about the time when, in the midst of a nervous breakdown at four in the morning, I cut off most of my hair and became taken by an overwhelming urge to scatter my tresses in the soil of my father’s vegetable garden? Moving in an automatic manner, wordlessly, I went out into the blackness and dropped the locks of dark hair over the slithering worms and dead pine needles. Sorting the laundry, I would sometimes mistake a black sock for a black bone, envision the La Brea Tar Pits absorbing the walls, and think about sailing that River Styx.
Some Characteristics of the Sea Surrounding Porta Santa Maria del Mare
“Sometimes, when flowers bloom from salt instead of seeds, the sea sings into my arteries with the Angelus bells…”
Uccellina tells me stories about swimming among lunar lice in the Silurian slurry at the age of twelve, balancing herself on her back and then her stomach, kissing the feathered fingers of the sea, and neglecting the task of hanging the older nuns’ hairshirts to dry on the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. She coughs out a piece of the Oort Cloud momentarily under the airless sky, spitting into the ocean, becoming simultaneously a common ancestor and descendant of endless forms to come. Of course, there is no Atlantic yet of which to speak, but those ex-votos, fossils of things that have yet to manifest, are everywhere. She rolls underneath fragrant soup stock whilst swallowing languid mouthfuls, gurgles, and towels silverfish pearls from her hair. Some of the flavours are more familiar: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, olive oil, wine, verjuice, basil, parsley, lovage, fennel, coriander, rosemary, saffron, cardamom, paprika, lavender, mint, ginger, almond milk, Darjeeling, herbal salt. And, yet, they intermingle with salt from oceans now crystallized, salt from the foam of Europa and Enceladus, salt from Antarctica’s lakes, Agrigentine salt, silt scraped from the caverns of the moon, dissolved ice cores from Saturn’s rings, charcoal from sacred icons burnt during ecclesiastical disputes, balsamum, silphium, drops of meltwater from moulins in the dying glaciers of Greenland four hundred and sixteen million years hence, and a splash of floodwater that soaked countless human skeletons in the lower galleries of the Paris catacombs… Every word of Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia suspended in the waves, and yet, somehow, more…
Without a hint of irony, Uccellina proposes that I become the bride of Stella Maris, which makes me laugh. (On land, she moves with a hopping gait, a little like that of a sparrow or finch, hence her name.) My sister’s hairshirt, like those of the other nuns, is made of a type of fibre knitted from pieces of shed whale baleen that are found washed up on the beach. It has an unspeakable texture—to the touch, it reminds me of steel wool, but not quite—that eclipses my fingers, like the fading taste of something eaten in a dream.
Uccellina in the Forest of Memory
Sometimes, freed from the gravity of the surface, I’ve flown, but my dreams blanketed me like an unruly wind and made me sink. My sister is a bird (of a sort) and yet she cannot fly; she nests in a Sicilian prickly pear. Yesterdays are like sentences that stop at the beginning and yet move forward—a startle, a delayed climax during sex, a penumbral sigh. You berate yourself for waking from a dream, for hyphenating alternative evolutionary trajectories, and soon enough you’re old and the rest of your body stretches out before you like an Arctic meadow, all bubbling peat moss and joints that have forgotten their function. Why have children? They die after two springs. Eden and Babel retain their promise of eternal summer precisely because their walls are stalked and penetrated on all sides by monsters. (The Heavenly Jerusalem, by contrast, is a glorified late capitalist shopping mall, open 24/7, with its fibreglass tree and fluorescent lights that never dim.) Today, I wake with several bivalves mouthing at my tired limbs. The gates of the Rose Garden beckon a second time, now in the form of lepidodendrons with their instantly recognizable fishnet stockings: silva, the memory forest of the Age of Coal, the sleepless time when the substance of the Earth’s unconscious was laid in place, reduced today to formidable trunks entombed in cliffs and coastlines sparkling with black opals… The bruised sky of moistened ether chokes us, since we can hardly remember how to breathe it after inheriting hundreds of millennia of genetic grief. The sheep in the foothills, light as air due to never having been weighed down by the possession of human souls, inhale it more easily. Released from their stables to graze on cordaites and horsetail ferns and threading in and out of the trees like particles through a blind, they hardly acknowledge that anything has changed. Morning, like any other. Despite the preternatural youth of the Earth, I discover wrinkles in places where I previously had none. Somewhere far from here, the bells of the church are ringing Prime.
“I would find a crow’s nest in the crucified forest, wandering down there, in the time before the great old groves and fetid waters were cleared away so that the monastery could be built,” my sister yawns, rolling over in the humid, half-flooded cell. “I could tell from seeing their pellets in the mud. They contained trilobites. I’d look inside the nest, and among the blue cornflower eggs were all of the usual things that crows collect, buttons and bits of fur and so on, but it also contained a tuft of hair shaved from the head of Santa Chiara d’Assisi, a splinter of wood from the True Cross, a tooth from the jawbone of Maria Magdalena, a finger from San Girolamo’s writing hand (and, inseparable, the thorn from the lion’s paw), and a magic thread from a rag worn by Sant’Antonio. I saw the crows sitting on the roof of the church after mass, shitting all over the eroded tympanum with Christ in Majesty barely visible, and I knew without understanding their language that they were loudly plotting their next theft, but said nothing. That was because I loved how small and mundane the objects looked without the gilt and precious stones. You could mistake them for things vomited from the stomach of deep time—perhaps they were. Later, in my dreams, Ornella went to battle with the crows over the stolen relics. The crows, of course, emerged victorious, aided by dragonflies the size of hawks and millipedes like living continents. There are still habits of past abbesses and vellum folios preserved in that swamp that haven’t been recovered, pearling ever so slowly into coal. Most of the relics the ancient Romans housed in their temples were fossils. How many martyrs’ bones are just mouldy gazelle feet gnawed by giant hyenas? San Francesco preached to scavenging birds, after all. That’s how, from an early age, I came to understand that hagiographies are written by several hands.”
Like the crows, I was spellbound by miniature worlds, by chance encounters with small objects, porcelain animals from Red Rose Tea boxes or beads of sea glass, spinning them in my fingers and staring at them intently until they took on lives of their own. Unwittingly, I was embarking on the Cubist adventure of attempting to perceive everyday things from all possible perspectives, all surfaces, all planes—an excavation of all possible yesterdays and tomorrows. If only someone had bothered to ask me to write an encyclopedia of the world based on the knowledge uncovered by such a technique. Or a museum exhibition catalogue…
When I wake again, the all-providing trees of the Land of Cockaigne are gone, covered by beaches lightly dusting ancient driftwood. As if traversing a nave, I walk wordlessly among sky-bleached bones the size of towers, ostensibly from a whale, but their human shape suggests that they are mine, and I am filled with a strange peace. The snail trails of feathers and stringy innards from less fortunate birds that the crows drop on the shoreline appear to be a kind of writing, a form of asemic writing, perhaps, but, nevertheless, they look like words––tracings, scribbles in the sand, like when I drew loops and waves across a page without thinking as a child and showed it to our mother, claiming proudly that I knew how to write. Or when I would lie on the couch for hours, fixated upon my Magna Doodle, drawing furrows of particles and dispersing them at random, subconsciously relying upon those champs magnétiques that birds, ocean currents, and Surrealists follow on their migration routes. We have only lived our lives on the surface of a labyrinthodont’s tooth…
Uccellina Has a Vision of the Madonna
Time passes, but we always manage to find each other again in the interstitials between slices of toast and marmalade. Having woken abruptly from our sleep in the form of ten-year-old children, Uccellina and I decide to play a game as we bathe on a stromatolite bed under a moon that appears close enough to touch. She opens her beak and pulls forth an inch of impossibly fine purple thread. I am astonished and irritated, and I ask her to divulge the illusion before impulsively snagging the end of the thread and pulling hard on it. However, it continues to come forth unfailingly, and Uccellina gleefully tosses the resulting ball of string into the infernal sea, where it unravels to eventually become the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Inhaling sulfurous rain, she begins another story.
“When I was small, around this age, I would run endlessly, automatically, to the extent that I could on my spindly legs, darting from one end of the room to the other, beating my shrunken arms like wings, crashing into a handful of nuns while they were cooking and sending soup flying, scaring cats and hens who wandered into the kitchen to steal some spaghetti, smacking into walls, knocking over Padre Emmanuello in the middle of the elevatio, causing piles of books in Ornella’s room to fall on top of me. I somehow had gotten it into my head that, if I were to run vigorously enough, the cloister walls would no longer limit me, and I would float out through the uppermost window of the library and be able to survey all the remote places of the world, all the monsters on the church tympanum, but reduced to the size of dollhouse figurines. Naturally, I wondered what lay along the farther rim of the island. I set out one afternoon, following the trail of abandoned objects and creatures in the sand that I had delighted in on so many previous occasions: keys, a wallet, horses, penguin droppings, a clump of moss, coins, a jacket, plastic toy animals, little cockleshells and ammonites worn as pilgrim badges, flowering garbage. I had prepared myself for the journey’s length by stealing an old copy of the Physiologus from the library; its leaves unfolded at night like a giant fruit bat’s wing, and the vellum transformed into a brilliant canopy that covered me as I slept on the beach.
“Early in the morning, with the constellations still visible overhead, I came upon the beautiful mansion, Étoile-Escargot, an inn and medical spa commissioned by the nineteenth-century French hot-air balloonist, Dr. Beaugendre. I entered surreptitiously and walked in a bath of nectar among its multiple floors and staircases, admiring the rich colours of its walls, its lavish tapestries and carpets, the flattened and crumbling seaweed specimens treasured by long-dead ladies. I took an armchair in the library, of Brobdingnagian proportions in comparison to my body, and began to read a book on the subject of how to turn myself into a living, breathing alchemical experiment. I then realized that I had lost my favourite toy, a tiny Hallucigenia fossil, whom I had been carrying in my pocket; retracing my steps, I learned that the inn was hosting a meeting of the Royal Society. I spied on the proceedings from an adjacent room, but soon realized that the participants were saying nothing of interest to me, so I ate as many of their leftover appetizers as I could, since I was very hungry, and stuffed some in my underclothes to take back for the pigs.
“My heart sank, for I had lost track of time and suddenly realized that it was much later than I thought. Due to an anomaly in the Earth’s latitudinal and longitudinal fields, as you know, the island experiences darkness for an entire day and night once every year. The sea is known for becoming very vicious at such times, and the waves were rising up and knocking against the doors of the mansion and pouring in through the windows, raining rudimentary fish that looked like eels. Of course, I was used to hiding in the convent’s ossuary, but none of those explorers and doctors had such knowledge. They only had their plastic wineglasses to save as much drinking water as they possibly could with, and they brought them all up to the attic. Despite its height, they could still hear the seawater crashing against the walls.
“To my absolute bewilderment, at this moment, the Madonna—with a flash of recognition on my skin, I knew it was her—burst through the mansion’s front doors. She lay there like a sphinx, bearing the hindquarters and tail of an enormous saltwater crocodile and the arms and head of a mannequin, painted brightly and adorned with a golden wig. Her slender fingers ended in ghastly claws. I hurriedly placed a small chest at the top of the grand staircase leading to the second floor and ran upward for my life. However, the staircases leading to the attic seemingly evaporated into thin air, and I felt as if I were floating through space, perhaps running through my mental map of the house, through intestinal canyons. My last memory is of trying to hide by crouching on a mantel holding thin flowers next to a very high ceiling, against a green wall. Oh, the feeling was so strange—as if I had suddenly lost my balance and slipped while crossing a stream barefoot—and I awoke the next day at around a quarter past nine in the morning to the horrid scene of Foscharina holding me still as Ornella smacked my bottom with Parasolsus.
“Ornella vanished into the sea for several hours, as she was not one to care about rotting her body with indulgences like long baths. After tensions subsided a little, I approached her on the beach and related all that I had seen, asking if that monster was indeed the Madonna. From beneath the surface of the shimmering water, she amusedly growled through her exoskeleton, ‘You see that gifts always come baring teeth, no? Traces of horror earn their haloes after a hundred centuries go by…’”
The Two Sisters Who Underwent a Marvellous Transformation
Uccellina delights in showing me the convent’s reliquaries—aquariums of the unconscious, aquatic planetaria, precursors to modern anatomy museums in their affection for corporeal scraps. I have been enchanted for so long by the thought of being immersed in a wet world filled with wet specimens, monsters suspended in saltwater, the murky landscapes and fauna of dreams, and the fluid carried by my arteries. I mention to Uccellina that this must be a form of nostalgia for gliding and scuttling along the Silurian bed. In contrast, the outside world is uncomfortably and impossibly flat and arid, and only becoming more so.
This evening, Uccellina tells me a story first recorded during the Late Middle Ages, involving two sisters and a stupendous animal. Suffering from unfading melancholy, a young nun sought the advice of the monastery’s physician, who counselled her with the words of Augustine on the therapeutic effects of bathing for grief and advised her to try a recipe now recognizable as a flavourful soup in certain cookbooks. That evening, she immersed herself in one of the wooden tubs of the convent’s bathhouse and drew the curtain, only to invite the curiosity of the woman she loved. (Their fondness for each other, nonetheless, was hardly a secret among the other sisters.) When the interloping sister climbed the stool and lifted the canopy after being furtively beckoned in, the hush of unspeakable lichens met her ears. Feeling her way in the darkness, her mind wandered to various mysteries that cannot be expressed in this world and its words: death, transubstantiation, sorrow somehow more beautiful than the dawn. Oil gathered around their thighs, and in that moment they imagined themselves unlocking a garden with a magic key, revealing a full orchard bedecked with tables laid out for a summer feast day. Each other’s skin became the vellum of a wondrous map depicting Jerusalem, Constantinople, the fountain of Adam’s Paradise, all the monsters of the world, and a faint trace of saliva leading back once more to the cloister at the journey’s end—everything that they longed for so greatly but would never see within the monastery walls. Silk dripped from their mouths, carrying the inviting, fernlike taste of the saline imprints of octopi, monk seals, and the lice that feed on the skin of whales. Past and future slipped into forever like wine, like the clockwork leakage of blood that, once upon a time, brought shining Books of Hours out of indistinct night. In the midst of such strange anatomies thrown into the abyss, their crumpled bones writing scrimshaw lyrics together, their faces each assumed the likeness of Stella Maris reflected in the world’s oceans, lost in the timeless time of the eternal city of God.
A mild wave unstrung the surface. Like a tongue, a layer of foam curdled and slipped over the rim of the tub, submerging the occupants, like the birth of Venus in reverse. Grendel’s mother came knocking: somehow, through the combination of their rhythmic motion with that of the Earth rubbing together her various infoldings, the crucible forged the two women into a full-grown sleeper shark. (Her gigantic descendants, twenty-one feet from snout to tail, have been observed at depths of over seven thousand feet, living as long as four centuries beneath the pinwheel ice in their cold beds and waterlogged nightcaps, foraging on Baked Alaska cakes, semifreddo loaves, carousel horses dragged from the shores of Sable Island, reindeer, and polar bears, nearly blind from the copepods that slowly devour the tissues of their eyes, all the better to keep out the increasingly bad news of daylight shining over me.) She opened her great jaws and swallowed whole St. Brendan the Navigator and his crew; breaching, their arrows washed away like loose hairs, and she swiftly made her way to the library, having detected the scent of calfskin, effortlessly ripping loose codices from the anchors affixed to the library’s hull. A tiny corkscrew-shaped castle of excrement containing gold leaf was discovered in the morning.
Two Dreams Discussed Before a Feast
We wake in a kettle bog—somewhere to the north, perhaps, or sometime before the glaciers receded—a sunken eye enclosed by lashes of myrtle, our skin the leadened colour of fallen antler velvet, our hair brilliant red. We are dead. A solar black hole: we wake, but only to a different shade of dreaming, amidst a litter of crows, a spectrogram of textures ranging from mole fur to the spaces between blankets and the pages of a closed book. Our afterlives will be spent asleep, in fragments of the half-remembered dreams of our loved ones, a few letters here and there in a partially decayed twelfth-century volume tucked away under the covers in Argentina’s National Library, loose pieces of yarn, and countless generations of couchgrass and rats. One wonders if this is what the angels envy. I cannot say with any certainty how long we have lain here for: one thousand years, one hundred thousand years. Our glassy bones slide from their sockets. Porous like a bird’s, my sister’s produce a resonant ring, and I finish where I left off the previous evening. Somewhere far from here, the rider on the white horse releases a herd of skeletal sheep with wool the colour of pubic hair into the sky, and the bells of the church are ringing Prime.
“It was Christmas morning. I was miserably bedbound with a fever of forty degrees, and the day before I had discovered that I was menstruating for the first time in two decades. Being half-asleep, I imagined that I was Madame Martaine, wearing a glorious dress and set of jewels and telling a terribly enthralling tale that inevitably revolved around the anus. When I put on her clothes, I felt authentic, for once in my life, Uccellina, like the Velveteen Rabbit when he transforms from a toy into a vigorous creature—”
“You’ve oddly enough reminded me of a horrid nightmare from when I was young, the evening following the first Sunday of Advent. It terrified me to such an extent that I jumped out of bed and ran through the early snow to the physician’s house, where I knew Foscharina would soon be waking for Matins. The cattle were lowing loudly, and their breath was like gossamer. I thought that perhaps a wolf had gotten in with them, but there were none in sight. When I arrived, Foscharina could not hear me at all, for she was bent over a sleeping patient laid out upon her table, like a dissected animal ready for sex. I pressed my eye to the barred window and stared, transfixed, as she slit open her stomach and folded away the lining like one folds a sheet, revealing the remnants of the previous day’s dinner. However, to my great surprise, she uncovered a steaming fig cake, almost entirely intact. She stuck her pincers into the cake and ate second-hand. The delightful smell of the beautiful golden bog butter, churned straight in the womb, filled me with the utmost envy…”
“You looked away, didn’t you? I thought you were a vegetarian finch!”
“Why, I glued my eye to the grating still more eagerly! Ottavia, it’s a lovely spring; I believe our birthday will be arriving soon. There’s no decent reason why we shouldn’t have either of those things. I’ll start sewing your dress, and I believe there’s a lump of that butter downstairs for the cake.”
Gasping, she liquefies completely, her shadow melting into the buried yolk. With my rotten spine, I stir the wooden barrel alembic containing the waxen elixir of excess life, something relegated to the edges of hysterical sleep. (It is far from synonymous with life eternal, which nobody truly desires.) I lament that I have had to grow so old before realizing that, if there is such a place as heaven, it is composed of a never-ending series of banquets strange as the horizons of the lunar plateaus, in castles made of dough that you look forward to eating after the meals themselves! I doubt that there is anything of greater value than finding a place in the world that is both livable and filled with the food you like. What is that eternally-falling marine snow covering the woollen coats of the sheep like the pearls of a tattered wedding dress, perfumed holy salt that leaks from the breasts of the sea, curing your father for Sunday dinner? A tangential connection between the two fever dreams manifests itself like a rainbow without light. The windows of the garden-crushed ballroom fly open, exposing us to the frigid ocean.
We enter a room in the infirmary assaulted by howling animals from the ceiling tiles. This morning, Uccellina fitted me with a wedding gown made of powdered milk that her sisters gathered from the edge of the crater. I hesitate, hardly able to walk for fear of the delicate garment dissolving into oblivion.
“These beagles, for instance, are trained to detect disturbances in one’s unconscious from the mere scent of one’s unwashed bedsheets,” she sighs, helping a giant isopod mop up the floor around a large table. Her voice carries a hint of melancholy.
The little Saint Guineforts furiously push their snouts against the glass of their reliquaries; a vial of dogwood sap spills over the dissection implements spread haphazardly across the unfinished autopsy of Santa Chiara da Montefalco, over the parchments recording the weight and appearance of her brain, lungs, and heart, and hallucinations derived from the veins and convolutions therein, the instruments of crucifixion—the family functions. A palimpsest notes the curious phenomenon of Hubble Space Telescope images tattooed on the inner walls of her skull, like snowflakes inside a glass Christmas bauble. The key to the Voynich Manuscript, I think, can be found in the detritus of my last meal lying in my intestines, like crumbs spiralling around the drain of a kitchen sink.
“As I said before, this masterpiece was staged by multiple hands,” my sister continues, observing the scene, twirling until she appears to lift an inch or so off the ground—but only an inch, unnoticeable to anyone distracted momentarily by something elsewhere. “And, I think, the little flowers of my dreams are far more incandescent than miracles.”
All around us, the dried, brittle feathers of hundreds of preserved finches stir to life like a monstrous wind, rising up like helium, and the barely visible fishing lines supporting every species of bird in the ornithology rooms of a thousand museums blow away with them, the strings of kites or balloons stretching like the meridians and parallels of uninhabitable places. As Simorgh, Superior of Birds, flies over hedgerows, houses, and stores, suburban birdbaths are mysteriously transformed into the sacred wells and baptismal fonts of forgotten saints. The laboratory animals—the babewyns, the beagles, the disappearing white rats and rabbits—shrink to miniscule size, their spinal cords fleeing like beams of light, replaced by innumerable legs and plates. The moon’s horns bend down to wash in a mirror of mercury, which paper animals drink from without dying. In the mists of the half-submerged lighthouses guarding the Adriatic, like a satellite landing, the glowing face of the pre-originary flatworm arrives, like the punchline to one of those infinite games of hide-and-seek known only to living fossils, which I have just begun to learn the language of. I sense that we have met before. The painted image of Stella Maris sheds her veil, the protective layer of mucus appearing like a drop of lead in a molybdomancer’s beaker, and glides into the sea with a jubilant laugh, having lost her limbs.