Literary Orphans

World Without End
by Bryce A. Taylor

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I lay at the bottom of the Atlantic, on the mud-floor of its deepest basin, for a million years. The first hundred were darkness and contemplation. I lay on my back trying to think my way to the origin of things. Over and over, tirelessly, I grabbed the mud beneath my hands, squeezed it, let it squish between my fingers, let it go. My thoughts were often interrupted, or stimulated, by nibbles, gentle nibbles on my belly, on my nose. Floating seaweed brushed my face, and I said, “Hello.” I forgot what the sun had looked like, forgot the word “sun.” I forgot colors, red and green, even blue. In the quietest hours of darkness I began to doubt my own being: a stream of thoughts meandered, but what tied them together? Then my eyes adjusted. Over time my vision sharpened, and I saw the most wonderful creatures: blowfish with shark jaws, seaweed with gills, whale-finned tyrannosauruses, giant swimming eyeballs, seahorses in jellyfish dresses, ridiculous creatures brighter than stars. All of them I named. I developed a keen sense of the rhythms of their motion—could predict when they would pass overhead, with what ups and downs, swerves and squirms, dives and wild gyrations. My knowledge did not take the form of calculation, but of attunement. Human history seemed to me then only the vaguest of memories. I thought the thoughts of the first philosophers as if no one had ever thought them: How is it I can apply the word “fish” first to this thing, then to that? Are they different things, or the same? Long periods of speculation were followed by long periods of thoughtlessness: pure uncritical perception. One day I got bored and swam to the surface.

I jumped from galaxy to galaxy, tiptoed along stars. Almost timelessly I played in the great jungle gym of the universe. I slid down nebulae like waterfalls. Wormholes sucked me in and spat me out. Moons, like Ferris wheels, took me round and round. Swimming through blackness, speckled with stardust, I hunted down the outer edge of space. Nothing was too vast for my mastery. Neither was the tiniest planet too small for my rapt attention. What invigorating years I spent on the greenest and freshest of planets, watching its four moons, marching through marshes, swinging from tree to tree. How flexible those trees were, how soft and thick their leaves. At sunrise I bathed in the coldest of springs, and at sunset I soaked in the warmest. When refreshment began devolving into lethargy, I left that planet and sought another more severe, more elemental. I found a red planet inhabited entirely by thistles and bulls. Before the unsparing sunsets there, I awoke and ran through red desert sands. I drank from the lake, the only source of water, which tasted warm and pure. I rode the bulls and held the tips of their horns and bled. Missing home, I departed, and I tried to trace my steps back to Earth. Somehow or other, after countless centuries, I happened upon Polaris, and from there I knew my way.

I curled up on a couch in the largest library in the world and read every book there, however many million. I had to learn all the languages, of course, and then I read the books roughly in the order of their composition. Creation stories, mythologies, tales of the divine and the semi-divine. I suspended disbelief in everything and eventually believed in everything. For a time, my very thoughts took the form of hexameters. I thought and felt poetically, and the library looked to me then like a labyrinth made up of walls made up of worlds. I read Confucius alongside Aeschylus, not as Chinese and Greek, but as men. The library’s labyrinthine form took on a new mode of drama as I moved into the realm of truth: Plato and Christianity. Who knew what dangers, what falsehoods or devils, lurked behind every shelf? I read Apuleius alongside Tertullian and preferred Tertullian. Metaphysical theology seemed an ocean of meaning I longed perpetually to drink from. The Cappadocians and Augustine posed questions I had never known to ask, and they answered them. I ventured beyond late antiquity and into the medieval. I chanted Avicenna’s medical verses and parsed scholastic arguments. I breezed through modernity, bored to tears.

Having ditched the library, I did some traveling. I hit the big sites first, Athens, Rome, Paris, spent a thousand years in the Louvre, but my travels in lesser-known locales brought greater pleasure. I felt most at home in a small town in Guatemala, the name of which I never bothered to learn. One of the town’s former inhabitants, a baker, had seemingly spent the bulk of his earnings on a vast collection of The Twilight Zone videotapes. I plopped myself down on his green couch and relaxed for a century or two, memorizing every detail of every episode, translating every line into the languages I could still recall. The people on the screen came to be like words repeated until they carry no meaning at all. Who are these strange, desperate, terrified creatures? What are their motives? I raided the baker’s giant pantry and baked a cake three acres in diameter, which I left three-quarters intact, sick to death of cake. I started a travelogue, which, as I made my way through Africa and Asia, grew into a multi-volume monster far too hefty to lug around, so I stored it in Tokyo. Eventually, its pages filled every room of every hotel and office building in the city, billions of pages cataloguing, for instance, the flora and fauna of Cornish, New Hampshire, comparing the morning breeze of Dover Beach to another breeze I had felt twelve galaxies away, analyzing the relationship between geography and culture, philosophizing on the meaning of travel, of location, of space, of “home.”

When I burned the city down and waved goodbye, for a time, to Earth, I felt a kind of thrill in the assurance that I would return, would indeed repeat everything I had done, would repeat those repetitions. And I wondered, with stomach-butterflies so vigorous they flew up to my head and into my eyeballs, whether this, after all, was heaven, or whether the smoke still deep within my nostrils was, truth be told, infernal.

 

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Bryce A. Taylor teaches English and Theology at a high school in Plano, Texas. His poetry and fiction have appeared in First ThingsNational ReviewYale Daily News Magazine, and Notre Dame’s The Juggler.

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–Art by Dia Takácsová