The Translation of Teodora de Assis
After my patient, Teodora de Assis, the assistant librarian of the Rising Ocean movement, lost her mind in a burning police car in Bowling Green, she was promptly taken into the care of the medics, who (she claimed) frantically scavenged the trashcans, bookshelves, subway tunnels, hospital beds, and museum cases of the kingdom of litter for replacements for her smoldered and shriveled skin. Resembling a prayer flag covered in soot, she dreamed that she had died and been interred in the soil of a flowerpot hanging from an apartment balcony in a nonexistent part of Italy. At other hours, she imagined herself as Bradamante: instead of the New York Stock Exchange, the Trump Tower, and the offices of JPMorgan Chase & Co., she sacked cities with the spines of whales, dinosaurs, rats, and other human beings for spires. With the surface world extinguished in the darkness where the forest crowded, she found her reverie interrupted by an occasional flicker, a cat’s cradle of sutures gradually adding color, and vague sensations of being fossilized in gold leaf and stained glass. She awoke to find her body enclosed by a quilt of translucent pages, hymnal hymens. A parade of illuminated faces slowly guided her into consciousness: a coiled red dragon, angels with emerald wings, dancing unicorns, a holy bull. In certain places, the surgeons had left the soft, unblemished inner side of the parchment facing upward, giving her a false appearance of health. The unruly hairs of long-dead calves and lambs grew and irritated underneath, laying down roots deep within her body. The pages bound themselves tightly, perhaps rejoicing at the opportunity to reconnect with living flesh after several hundred years of solitary confinement. When the nurses removed her bandages and unveiled the entire tapestry, her initial reaction was a feeling of distortion of her body, as if she had suddenly become a giantess—towering, unreal, and out of place—like Gulliver crawling with Lilliputians and shot full of arrows. She feared that the pages would be stiff and uninviting to the touch, but she felt surprised to find them receptive and sensitive, a uterine lining, with their smell far less mortuary than she had imagined. Pathways of stitches cut through the undergrowth in odd places—across her abdomen, snaking down her back, with a last word cut out and lost to history here and there (unless the marginalia themselves were the last words). Examining her new covering with a pocket mirror like Adam opening his eyes in Eden, she noticed minute changes in the inverted world that she now inhabited. A lion who formerly licked the feet of Daniel now curled and slept, a labyrinth of wings fluttered, a bull who once guarded the entrance to the Gospel of Luke tilted his head, and a unicorn galloped from her shoulder to the place where her left breast once was. Initially, I catalogued the images in my clinical notes, but the spontaneous changes made this task frustrating: catalogues are for static things, like lists of the dead in cathedrals and funeral parlors.
Her duties were reassigned to Maryam, my graduate student. Following the procedure that she claimed to have endured, Teodora moved back into her unamused and deeply devout parents’ Upper West Side apartment and refused to be stirred from her bed. Her room was unchanged, down to the sickly hospital wallpaper, hopelessly broken clock, kitschy portrait of St. Francis and the wolf cut out from a religious magazine, and dusty animal encyclopedias that she fought with her brother over as a child.
In my dissertation, I argued that the Tower of Babel represented the first attempt to eliminate the unconscious, to render everything as transparent as a garden of glass. Translation is the task of carrying—or being carried—from one place to another, of floating in the space station between your language and a stranger’s. Astronauts return to Earth as polyglots, rather than with the uncanny appearance of youth. If recognizing the sound of words is a defining trait of our humanity—a category that would, therefore, necessarily exclude myself—what might translation sound like? Thermal static interfering with radio signals; the sloping interval between breasts of silence, dunes. The negative space in Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Translation is like the game that Teodora recalled playing with her brother, hiding in cardboard appliance boxes transformed into teleportation machines. Translation is a cat’s third eyelid, the place where the water meets the exterior surface of your body in a warm bath—a hardly perceptible membrane hidden beneath the peel of a fruit, within the husk of a seed. Translation is friction against your skin that releases a spark. It is a way of moving from a familiar world to an unrecognizable one, of leaving something behind, but it is also performed in order to preserve vestiges that would otherwise face destruction. I never mistook slips of the tongue for revolutions, but the potential of either to ferry you from here to elsewhere can never be underestimated. Walter Benjamin believed that translation could delineate the atlas of life more clearly than zoology: therefore, we almost exclusively speak of extinct languages, books, flora, and animals. The implication of this might be that our lives are only translations of other forms—validation, perhaps, for belief in the transmigration of souls: the flesh displaced.
When the ocean rose, I worked at Our Lady of the Scapular, which had been converted into an infirmary and sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Maryam and I spent our evenings relaying half-remembered lines of Avicenna’s Book of Healing to each other in ASL over our groaning patients. The handful of ogling medical students who brought me to see Teodora on that day reminded me more of mummers, with their round plaster faces and smocks enclosing her like curtains. I grew up with stories about how cutting and pasting holy words in the proper arrangement could give rise to life, but I remained skeptical of the Golem-mannequin lying before me. A young man pulled her sheet down, displaying her like an outlandish Charcot of Coney Island. I then saw a patchwork Burgess Shale, wrinkled and widely uneven in color, punctuated by embroidered seams covering holes and incisions. With difficulty, I eavesdropped on the students’ commentary.
“The body rots, and what we commonly refer to as the ‘soul’ putrefies, too,” they said. “Memory rots, time rots into the soil of our being. These pages seem to be an exception. It’s miraculous that so many survived, sequestered like undersea flowers. Medieval monasteries burned like kindling…”
“It’s odd, how lifelike death can appear,” I observed.
As the students filed out, one forgot a book of mine at Teodora’s bedside. She opened it randomly to the following passage:
We begin in the mouth, where the woods are wet and covered in saliva, surrounded by gleaming teeth on all sides like a gallery of enchanted mirrors. We emerge from the esophagus of our mother’s cervix; the aureole of her breast is the iris of a great eye that doubles as a mouth. Without an integrated “self,” all orifices are one and the same; the lip is a marvelous finger for making sense of the world. The mouth, indistinct from the anus, is that of a cannibal, sparing nothing. What did we lose behind that smile, when it had not yet begun to mince words, its sole function being to devour? One can scarcely imagine an entire language composed solely of the sounds of mastication and swallowing…
Uninterested and unable to focus, she tossed it onto the floor.
A business card fell out, which interested her slightly more: CENTER FOR DADA SCIENCE, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, it read. Teodora recognized the name of her alma mater.
Ice sheets of pain collided and dripped slowly into days. Within the walls of her childhood bedroom, Teodora waited desperately for her initiation into death, which, like the unconscious, is a secret society that we are all members of, instinctively knowing and not knowing its fussy rituals, arcane symbols, mysteries, and anniversaries. She dreamed about the Tower of Babel, contemplating how the structure would have eliminated all sunlight over vast areas of the Earth upon completion; its shadow enveloped her like the most voluminous velvet, the covers of a royal marriage bed. The eye-gouging raven, poised to peck at the endless corpses left in the wake of the Great Tribulation, perched herself in the crook of Teodora’s arm. She burrowed and stole morsels of her lungs and liver for her young, sowing dropped pieces in the soil that would nurture the impossible cities of the new world.
Previously, Maryam had convinced Teodora to masquerade as a psychic serving corporate executives and stockbrokers in order to access and record the dreams and fantasies of the bourgeoisie. Maryam intended to synthesize the resulting collection into a journal article and approach the American Psychological Association. She partly reprised this project at tent city, telling improvised stories to the protesters as they fell asleep. A couch was set up in the library yurt, and she ensured that free analysis was offered to anyone who desired it on most evenings. Furthermore, she organized several direct actions that involved sleeping in public spaces, a practice that she sought to normalize as a measure for combating repressive desublimation: Maryam argued that the compulsion to be fully conscious at all times, trapped in that most miserable and taxing of mental states, was late capitalism’s most insidious means of human demoralization. Teodora fondly remembered Maryam’s public teach-in on repurposing useless spaces. The New York Stock Exchange, Maryam explained, would become a refuge for stray dogs: Teodora dreamed of their tails swishing over the trading floor during mildly less terrible nights. Every Wal-Mart would be converted into a great hive providing sanctuary for bees, and cattle would listen to orchestra music and eat streamers of sugared flowers in former feedlots. Ever since the Age of Reason, Maryam explained, cities had grown upward, representing mastery: in the subsequent Age of the Unconscious, extensive warrens would be hollowed out deep within the Earth as the ghoulish animals that roamed during the Ice Age gradually reclaimed the surface. Or, perhaps, her descendants would build their homes with sticks provided by the nest of the Owl of Minerva. Maryam had said that the new world would require institutions that had never appeared on Earth before, to serve purposes that had either never existed prior or been neglected. When Teodora asked her how this might be accomplished, she hastily wrote a list of ingenious devices. Suitable protest machines include the following, which you can picture in a marching band or parade, a frieze: drums, small bones that can be used to beat them, disembodied organs (hearts, brains, stomachs, and so on), test tubes, kaleidoscopic microscopes, enormous puppets with mouths that can swallow you whole, flutes, a tooth the size of Notre Dame.
Making tenuous contact with her animal skin, Teodora lay on branches of dark eyes filled with tears. Vomiting into her sheets, she discovered a new inscription along her inner thigh: Regnum Dei intra vos est. Broken shards of the kingdom of God pierced her from the inside.
Being a doctor in the interstellar space of transference is never an easy task: like a monastic herbalist, one constantly encounters bodies animated by monsters.
Teodora is now adrift on my second couch, the Beagle, clutching the sandbag pillow that guards her against erosion in the deep. I lost my first couch, whom I had named the Antelope, in a fire. Her domain is the Northwest Passage: in the shade of rotting suns, among oil tankers dissolved by a wave of dreams, she converses with beached seals in bloom and the remains of Franklin’s crew. The world looks vastly different from our beds.
She once recalled watching a documentary about radioactive wolves in Pripyat at the age of seven. That evening, I dreamed about their nails clacking on the smashed-in rooftops of farmhouses. I recognized their curled tails in the seats of derelict Ferris wheels growing over Celebration and Luna Park, those putrid terrorist attractions of suburban America. Freud compared the unconscious to a magic writing pad, but his metaphor falls short of expressing something that transgresses language. We will never see it face to face, but we can trace it, like a line of prints left behind by wolves in the clay of the forest floor—a task imbricated in our genetic material before memory proper. You read within the telltale rubric of bristling, hairy steps pressed down into your skin. The wolves vanish before you recognize their shape, but they are still there, a few paces ahead.
For the rest of her life, Teodora explained, her body would retain the memory of plural Apocalypses. She had skipped mass in order to eat her own menses over a church toilet at the age of fourteen, and she blamed the fantasy of progress peddled by Christianity for the triumph of the death drive. When a gust of wind in her hair shook the wings of the jaundiced angels, Teodora had the unnerving realization that they were alive, sharing her body with her, and she asked them how they had arrived. She could no longer remain confident that her body was hers alone, that she owned it—it was only now that she fully realized that she was within it, one among entire hosts, like a drawing in one of those encyclopedias that she collected as a little girl. Opening their tense mouths, the flock told her that they were given their existence by an ancient Spanish monk, had survived a sacking and a great fire, and were saved from the flames a second time when they found accommodation in her body. There shall be time no longer, they reminded her. The Book of Revelation is structured in such a way that the reader experiences multiple ends of history happening simultaneously, as if peering into a kaleidoscope. And in that end was the birth of a new world: those scenes of destruction were cracked from an egg, dipped in the cosmic omelet from which all life emerged. Perhaps, Teodora argued, opportunities for the world to end escape our sight and return continuously. What terrified her more than the Apocalypse was the thought that the world would never end—that her life might be spent waiting for something never to arrive, and she might ultimately be just another victim of this most resilient illusion, condemned to internment in the same ossuaries as the makers of her monsters. The crawling images could, therefore, be explained by her madness, or the severity of her pain: delusions of the world ending are not exactly uncommon symptoms. Before her transformation, she would pass by a newsstand and fancy that the magazines had headlines like THE WORLD IS ENDING WITHOUT YOU. She interpreted this to mean that she would be asleep and dreaming when the trumpets finally blared, and thus fail to become an agent of history. This false dichotomy caused her great anxiety, which intensified after her illness rendered her immobile. The fear of being left behind, I suppose, is omnipresent.
We were nearly destroyed, the creatures shuddered.
Nearly? Teodora asked. I see a line of a hymn here, a scrap from a calendar there, a claw… All meaning—lost; we’d better start praying to the saint of trash.
It seems that we’ve only become different forms of life. Look closer. What do you see? The hand of the illuminator weaving and recombining threads of genetic material. We beasts on the margins are familiar with this. Many perceived us as warnings of the inevitable distortion and fragmentation of the Word. And, yes, there is a saint of trash, but she is also the saint of recycling. Genesis from the garbage—if we survive the flood, that is.
Teodora was humiliated to admit that she talked to her own prostheses for a lack of company. I recalled Maryam’s childhood memories of approaching the threshold of sleep. She repeated half-remembered whispers, phrases like President of growth and arrestment of the stairs-plane and For I am so beautiful, I have disappeared, and told me about how alphabets flashed across the surface of her eyes. I don’t mind being unable to hear, but I am occasionally reminded of what it once was like. Similarly, Teodora had to become used to the feeling of her body leaking everywhere: back to the primordial soup.
We have been alive far longer than you have, and, God willing, we’ll shed our skins and live forever in your machines, immaterially, the painted figures continued. Aside from that detail, as organisms, we are not very different; allowing us to replace your dying flesh was not as absurd an idea as you think it is.
I’m being devoured. Parasitic. Like a goddamned Alien movie.
Sort of. We should watch one together.
Teodora imagined exploring the Met and the Guggenheim and the Pierpont Morgan in a parallel world, where their walls were made from the soft pink linings of chest and gut cavities. As she wheeled herself deeper into the galleries, she could hear the dull thud of a heart coming from the storage rooms beneath, like the subway passing by. The thought that her existence might be entirely superfluous scared her, and she imagined a big empty moonscape inhabited only by open-air museums and libraries that pointed toward the divine with swirled steps and mezzanines. Yet, there would be no books without human beings, for their relationship was symbiotic, the kind inscribed in her body with interlocking hybrids and inhabited initials, with words and images that constantly cannibalized each other… They were within her, and she lived within them. She remembered hearing of a similar idea when she was a little girl. They called it the Real Presence: holding the Word between one’s teeth at the table of the monsters and the angels…
In the stacks, we whispered among each other, learning from the Big Ones and Little Ones. Our creator, the hosts cried, saw one single catastrophe piling wreckage upon wreckage where others perceived a chain of events. Look! A storm is blowing from Paradise, and it is caught in our wings.
Teodora pulled her sheets around her shoulders. As it began to pour outside, the bull lowed—a portrait, perhaps, of the creature slaughtered in order for the illumination to be made. Those lines suggested charcoal scratches in the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves, mummified Apis bulls, millions of unwilling inhabitants of McDonald’s and Cargill factories built over the cremated Amazon, a golden calf, and another metal bull involved in the series of events that entangled her destiny with those of untold species. Farther down, she encountered more grotesque canticles that included dog-headed figures, blemmyes, sciopods, babewyns resembling the skeleton of Lucy, scatological jokes, and feverish anthropophagy, culminating in a primal scene of dinner guests resting their heads and chests on the seats of their stools and shoveling food into their anuses with their feet. The cynocephali, those hominid oddities, spoke only in barks. In them, she saw dreams of circus sideshows and a hybrid wolfman bristling with white fur. What she would not have given to hide her miserable body under papier-mâché! When Noah sought to create a universal catalogue of species and contain them in the Ark, the creatures growled, God tempered his hubris by permanently confusing His creation. Thus, hybrids, chimeras, dog-headed men and women, animals of neither gender, manticores, blemmyes, sciopods, werewolves, and unicorns survived to repopulate the Earth.
Prior to the Rising Ocean, Teodora had participated in a last-ditch attempt to preserve climate change research threatened by the new administration; a proposed extension of the initiative was to catalogue the genomes of animals and plants destined for extinction by the end of this century. The Word made flesh: A is for aardvark. She was drawn to climate change because it was, for her, a queer phenomenon. She spoke with amusement of the erasure of colonial boundaries by rising seas and spreading deserts, acts of annihilation ironically caused by those same expansionist forces. You can’t point out New York or London on those projected maps of a gelatinous world.
She recalled walking through the metallic corridors of the Bodleian on a research trip; at the time, she had not realized that the library was an ark, preserving the remains of countless animals in its strata. The presence of monsters in the labyrinth, she told me, is not a flight of fancy, but something to be expected. She related strange moments of clarity that she sometimes had, during which she could easily mistake other readers in library stacks for panthers or lions—silent, predatory, focused, signified only by a slight rustling or camouflaged glimpse. Vellum vertebrae metamorphosed into tree trunks, fish darted among scalloping classes of texts, and she climbed Jacob’s ladders across the belly of the woods. Her skin, too, was an open book, inviting her to read. She incarnated the fantasy of a completely legible body—and, by extension, a translatable one—that only came to pass with mechanical bodies rather than animal ones (but who thought anything of that mild breeze, one morning in Babylon?). Something secret about her was hidden in her pages, and she could learn to decipher it. Perhaps, the surgeons had only peeled away her festering wounds with their scalpels in order to uncover the terra incognita that was already there—a menagerie of impossible beasts adorning a topography of the unconscious, held back by the Gates of Alexander.
I told her to ask the internal Ark what they wanted from her. As parts of her, it logically followed that their answers would reflect what she also wanted, a string of unfulfilled and unvoiced desires.
Take us outside, they answered. Collecting dust, moldering and moldering—it’s no way to live.
Outside—that word was like bells singing in an abandoned church.
By now, there’s not much out there other than ruins, she said. But, if that’s your wish…
Teodora used to say that her first experience with direct action consisted of throwing soup in the face of a psychiatric nurse. She often wondered if she had died temporarily in the police car, raining like bitumen from the clouds of revolt. She had unapologetically resigned herself to swallowing light until she faded to ash like an ancient martyr, never imagining that she would be rebuilt from charnel house scraps and shocked back to life with a gilded flourish. My attempts to reconstruct the details of Teodora’s operation filled her with nausea; she compared the procedure to the violation of Simone Mareuil’s eye, cut with Hannah Höch’s kitchen knife. Teodora pictured herself on a dissecting table drowned in floodlights, surrounded by powerful magnifying lenses, pins and clamps holding her pieces in place, spools of delicate thread, syringes, and stainless steel trays—a scene that must have been all too familiar to the inhabitants of her body. When I questioned her further, she argued that years of inserting slender blades and sutures into flesh could surely turn a conservator into a surgeon if the need arose. She imagined herself behind a metal grille in Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, her family’s church; she would convalesce there, a plastic anchoress ensconced in lush bedsores, returning the stares of hooded worshipers bringing tattered pictures of children. Maybe, that was what her future held, providing company for the petrified corpse of the young nun who menstruated only once every year, on the feast day of San Gennaro.
Centuries later, perhaps, a pair of archaeologists who resembled monsters more than human beings would discover that box of stars beneath a salt plain that was once a city. Like children finding a trove of marbles wrapped in tissue paper, they would grimace with delight at the body of a woman mummified in vellum. In Maryam’s Age of the Unconscious, perhaps, within a layer of umbrellas, sewing machines, snail shells, and fashion magazines advertising floral riot shields and sequined gas masks, barely concealing the untouchable stratum of black bile below.
And how perfect, Teodora thought, it would have been to die the day before: that way, she could have been absolutely sure that its splendor would never have fallen into the emptiness of every other day. Even the garbage cans had appeared flushed and lit up from within, like offering baskets, and the crowds resembled a Medieval fair. Leaving Fulton Street station on certain days, Eighth Avenue on others, I approached a reef of pink, orange, and blue yurts shaped like sea urchins, starfish, chesterfields, roses, bison herds, wolf packs, and women’s undergarments. The police headquarters had been decorated with festive lamps made of lightbulbs nested in petticoats, suspended like giant jellyfish. Makeshift cardboard shrines to the orishas, bodhisattvas, and Sufi dervishes hung from telephone wires, interspersed with icons of bizarre new saints that Teodora and Maryam had invented: the Saint of Giant Puppets, the Saint of Pigeons, the Saint of Wheat-Paste. When the tide rose, they floated away like candles, and Teodora piled the encampment’s bathtubs high with books; the miniature city drifted across the larger like an unhinged planet. The nomadic puppet bestiary of creatures threatened by climate change that guarded 740 Park Avenue was folded away, and Maryam covered the garden that grew the glacier crowfoot and saxifrage that she stuffed in mailboxes and engine exhaust pipes. Maryam was among those who managed to penetrate the New York Stock Exchange, and she threw scraps of paper inscribed with words received in dreams onto the trading floor. Before Teodora learned how to live upside down, crawling quadrupedal on her withered legs, she remembered laughing aimlessly as the officers transformed into stone grotesques. Hopefully, she argued, they were unlucky enough to now be wrapped in furs torn from the taxidermies of the Museum of Natural History. She begged her mother to go back to the encampments, or the places where they once were, in order to send her reports of what was happening. Her mother always refused, claiming that she would be eaten alive by costumed hysterics if she searched for their ruins. Landscapes inhabited by monsters would rise up when the world ended, and Teodora wondered if her own face would be mirrored in its glittering fragments.
“What will you do when you’re no longer in pain?” I asked Teodora. “It must be hard to imagine, but such dreams can sustain us through untold indignities.”
I pressed my fingers against her lips.
“All of my organs will sing as one, my heart stammering like Paul Klee’s queer keyboard of birds. I’m going to bring fire—fire hot enough to cremate the bones of saints.”
We talked at length about the expected questions that she feared upon her debut, the silent aura of shame surrounding why someone so young might be using a wheelchair. As I spoke, a sciopod grinned and pointed to the destruction of the Tower of Babel, the bull, and the fires of the Apocalypse.
Teodora complained that the monsters’ conversations disrupted her sleep. More than once, she described waking from a nightmare to the sound of the cannibals and manticores snapping the bones of their victims with enthusiasm. When her mother watched mass on television, the entire communion would howl the broken hymns and Psalms, a soul rising from beaks, trumpets, flutes, orifices neither mouth nor anus nor vagina (or all three combined), great festive masks, and terrible jaws. Is it possible to sing in the language of Babel, to sing after having lost everything, when words fail, without care for coherence? Evidently, yes, and Odysseus had to crucify himself and fill his ears with wax to avoid becoming spellbound. There were also voices far more petty and banal, but each revealed something marvelous. Many of the creatures had never met before; they reminisced on the incredible circumstances under which they had encountered each other, complaining and nostalgically recalling their former companions in glass cases and black boxes. Each time the texts that they adorned were translated, they learned yet another language, and their inner lives gained depth. Teodora’s unraveling skin contained entire deserts’ and oceans’ worth of stories. I discarded my catalogue, which I had begun with the intention of eventually returning the creatures to their rightful owners—if such a task were possible. Teodora permitted the angels to perch on her bedroom wall, and the lions snored on the rug, where scattered letters accumulated like shed hairs. Since she couldn’t cook, she shared cans of alphabet soup with her strange family. She showed them her horror movie collection. Occasionally, her mother would come by to complain about the revolting smell permeating the room.
At night, Teodora’s fingers crawled along the shoreline of her body, unfolding secret leaves, and she discovered that the slippery blood vessels and subcutaneous tissue were still there in certain places, as fresh as the day when the parchment was made. She experienced somnambulism and mild convulsions, which she described as sensations of something foreign emerging from her body. On the morning of the Assumption, one of the angels laid a great egg on her chest; she described its shell as nearly perfectly spherical, faintly speckled, and covered in masticated wads of gum and pigeon feathers. The stench of sulfur reached such intensity that Maryam, upon delivering a letter, forced open her window and climbed through, fearing a tragedy. Teodora obliviously invited her in, broke the shell with her teeth, and boiled the egg’s contents in a pot of tomato sauce. She then messaged me, emphasizing how important it was to her that I attended the meal. Ringing for her apartment, I noticed a leucrota and an enormous black crow digging in the trash bags outside. Maryam divided the egg into thirds and served them over nests of spaghetti, and we consumed the meal with grace.
Teodora shed tremendous tears on the morning when she awoke to find her skin barren, the surface of a sterile world. Like a hunter following a tuft of hair or fresh prints in the soil, she caught a hoof behind a mailbox, the ears of a dog-headed family scrawled in chalk on the side of an apartment complex, and a spray-painted horn peeking out of the gutters of 96th Street station, below shining letters that stood for METROPOLITAN TRANSLATIO AUTHORITY. They disappeared as soon as she saw them, shy as they were, which brought her greater frustration. Within the dank trains smelling of sea flora, she noticed grinning cannibals, alchemical vessels, and constellations of unrecognizable droppings where the advertisements were normally placed. The dim lights reminded her of something: wheeling herself into Chauvet Cave. Carrying styluses in their mouths and stringing apart the world as if it were on a loom, the chimeras carefully moved bits of thread with their lips between the boughs of the trees in Madison Square Park. Her manticores gnawed off the invisible hand with glee, and her sciopods found new companions for endless games of turd bowling in Rex Tillerson and Paul Ryan. In St. Patrick’s, the portraits of the saints were replaced with panels depicting each of the species described by Pliny the Elder, preserved forever in the colored glass like insects in amber. It was strange to see something uniquely hers on display for others, but something within her stirred. She could not tell if the city existed properly; entire intersections were clear of people and cars, and a pleasant silence fell over places where she formerly couldn’t hear herself breathe. Her chair blended with the floodwater, drains, squirrels, and bird splatters, those spots of paint that strayed across the parchment in the artist’s sleep. Eventually, her wheelchair would fail to traverse the muskeg and brine of the Zuider Zee, but she regarded this without fear. Blockades and barricades had eroded and redrawn the borders of the atlas imposed on the land five hundred years prior. The herringbone forest grew; when she boarded the train again, each passing station became thicker with monstrosities than the one before. By the time she arrived at Broadway, the Apocalypse was playing out in technicolor.
A curious pigeon approached her chair, carrying a twig that she fancied to be an olive branch. The Cambrian explosion had taken place over the ashes of Babel. Slowly, like the ancient fish who once sprouted limbs from fins and climbed their way to the surface, the monsters would repopulate the Earth.
Copied by Sábin Ookpik, Sister of the Invisible Writing Tablet, in collaboration with the monastic library at Longyearbyen, 2166
I would like to acknowledge my great debts to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the latter of which I quote; Jacques Derrida’s “Des Tours de Babel” and “The Double Session”; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Postscript to The Name of the Rose; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; André Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism; Louis Aragon’s A Wave of Dreams; Rikki Ducornet’s The Fountains of Neptune and The Monstrous and the Marvelous; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; the posthuman theories of Donna Haraway; Thomas Mical’s essay, “Medievalism/Surrealism”; and the research of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Michael Camille, and David Williams on Medieval monsters and marginalia. An “Ark of Babel” is also mentioned in The Boundaries of Babel: The Brain and the Enigma of Impossible Languages by Andrea Moro.