The sky turns dark.
Eeo looks up, only to see a grid falling from the sky. He bellows, “Watch out!”
They can see a sliver of the sun peeking from behind the grid. The light shining through forms a patchwork of trapezoids at their feet, which shift gradually to the side as the grid falls. As it comes down around them, Eeo barely has enough time to tell the others to get into their squares of light.
And then, BOOM—with a rush of wind, they are trapped, each in his or her own metal box. The walls of the boxes are high, and the spaces are small and confining. None of them know what to do, why this is happening, or how to get out.
Eeo shouts, “Rish! Thursday! Can you hear me?!”
They yell back in faded echoes, but their responses are muted by the thick walls of their new prison. Their tiny, far-off voices seem nothing more than incoherent mumbles which come from every direction.
Eeo feels suddenly overwhelmed not by the thought that Milk did this to them, but that she could. Such a small creature, with so much power. Each of them calls out for Milk; demands that she return them to their former lives; curses her; and, fruitlessly, tries to bargain. But she remains silent.
Knowing about the power left behind by such transformative moments, Eeo sits down in the dirt and sets to work. He invites patience to come to him, and after waiting in emptiness for a bit, she does. He lets go and allows his mind to fall away into the darkness of magic. As his body finds balance with the earth, he reaches for his backpack and slowly pulls out a stick. He lets his hand be guided as he draws in the dirt. Unfamiliar voices taunt him, telling him he will never escape, never get out, never be free again—but he knows not to listen to them.
Minutes later, he finds himself coming out of a trance, having just completed a new drawing of a square in the dirt at his feet.
The voices around him intensify, excited by the panic of newly trapped life within their walls, and Eeo feels his shadow reverberating off his back and bouncing, at skewed angles, off the walls around him. Unperturbed, he watches the square he drew in the ground. As his attention sinks into it, giving it power, and as his tongue licks at the words he wants to say but doesn’t, the top of the square slowly slides out from the surface of the ground and begins to rise, a pillar in the middle of his room.
He steps atop it and rises with it, working hard to silence the voices who have violated the privacy of his usually quiet head. The pillar lifts him slowly higher as he balances atop it, until he can see over the top of the wall of his room. As he rises still further, he can see how far the grid extends, for miles in every direction, endless to the horizon, and he wonders how many other people are stuck inside of it.
A few rooms away from his own, he can see a box in the grid shining with a small, flickering light. He leans forward, wanting to know what it is, and his pillar leans toward it with him, shifting gently toward the wall.
He reaches for the wall and touches it, pulling gently with his fingertips, finally allowing his worst fears to settle at his feet. The wall, he can feel under his palms, is vibrating with music and noises. He had originally attributed the sounds to ghosts or people locked between worlds, but now, upon touching it for himself, he realizes that the structure itself is the source. With this realization, the grid loses all its significance for him, and he sees it for what it is: just a grid, physical, actual, not intentionally trapping him or wanting to control him or keep him, a very odd kind of contraption indeed—a naturally occurring psychic trap.
Eeo climbs on top of the thick metal partition separating his room from its neighbor. He balances on top of it, using his stick to keep his balance, while watching the room five partitions away, still glowing with light. He quickly scurries atop the partition walls until he reaches it.
When he arrives, he looks down and is surprised to see a young girl, maybe seven years old, holding a set of artificial teeth. He watches as she touches each tooth with her small, delicate fingertips. He can tell she’s counting them, although he can’t hear her voice.
“Rish!” he exclaims, “It’s me! How’re you holding up?”
The girl doesn’t respond, slowly dragging her fingertip to the next tooth and pressing its sharp point into her finger.
“Hey, you!” Eeo yells again. “What—no, who are you?”
A thick plate of glass forms between Eeo and the girl below while he’s trying to talk to her. It covers all of the walls and partitions for as far as he can see, sealing each of the occupants inside. Perhaps, he muses, it’s part of this place’s immune system, as if it recognizes that communication among the grid’s prisoners might endanger it.
Glancing back at his room, Eeo notes that the glass is covering it, too. He realizes, slightly alarmed, that he might be trapped above this grid forever, observing everything from behind the glass, never able to get back down… But then he remembers that magic never chooses sides and everyone has a right to choose to see every shift of earth or sky or sea as a gift, no matter where it’s made everything end up. A few seconds pass, Eeo’s nerves recover, and he walks back across the glass to his old room.
He looks down. For some reason, he’s surprised that he cannot see himself. Instead, he sees his backpack and an apple next to it. And there are some drawings in the sand where he was sitting. He looks closer, putting his face up against the glass, and makes out a pictogram that looks like an equals sign pointing to a circle.
Inside the circle, drawn in the sand below, he can see a vague sketch of a four-legged animal, with its head bent in the wrong direction, as if it’s trying to look back at its own body. The drawing, although he’s never seen it before, seems familiar. He doesn’t remember drawing it, but he knows that he created it, can even remember creating it, only minutes or maybe moments ago.
He understands, as he’s looking at it, that the drawing represents something about how he understands things—it’s part of the process by which he conceptualizes the world, with circles, equals signs, and animals. And the fact that he can see this picture has something to do with how he got out of the room in the first place.
When he looks at the pictograms, he can feel the inside of his skull trying to draw in its own natural motion, trying to search out a symbol and vaguely stitch it into something real out of the darkness of his mind, seeking something alive—an idea—that will serve to represent this fleeting moment of experience.
And then his imagination, as usual, will come along and lasso the newly forming creature by pinning it down against the ground, slicing away what doesn’t belong to it, and teaching it, albeit slowly, to act and speak like what it is, gradually bringing it forward into his awareness, turning the whisper of a thought into the lived experience of having a thought.
Eeo can see, even now, symbols are being drawn in the sand as he’s thinking about what they represent, trying to find a picture of a picture that will capture this entire process and teach himself, his eyes, his mouth, his hands, how to put it into words.
As he’s thinking about this canvas and the act of drawing that he enjoys so much—and about how it’s maybe not the only way that someone could participate in the act of thinking, for how varied could it really be!—he touches momentarily on the idea of Milk. In a flash, he understands that she is not small—not a small fire girl after all—but actually something larger than any of them could see: a giant, purple whale who surrounded them and swallowed them whole.
The scene comes into focus, and it makes him smile. It makes sense. Of course she’s bigger than them, with all her words falling into their minds but not latching on, because they were drawn on a larger canvas. It makes sense to him that she’s a sea creature and doesn’t quite fit—can’t quite understand his world, where he walks on the land—but that she can come up to breathe the air every once in a while, long enough to speak a word or two or grab some passers-by and drag them back down into the ocean, even all the way down to the ocean floor.
This world, the one they’re existing in now, is her world, truly. She’s swallowed them and brought them here, into her existence, so they can see the compartments they’ve created for themselves, tied and twisted, from her perspective. He can almost picture her mouth opening wide as their fires are extinguished like small matches overwhelmed by ocean tides.
As he’s thinking about Milk’s gaping mouth, he sees that down below, inside his cage, the equals sign is tracing itself into the sand over and over again, drawing a new one and then continuously tracing a new one on top of it. It’s as if his brain is stuck trying to understand something that just won’t fit inside of it.
He forces himself to draw the circle that usually comes after drawing the equals sign, but it has nothing inside of it this time, and his mind goes dark, flashing briefly through all the possibilities in existence for something to put in there, a million different animal-symbol conglomerates prancing through the circle, flying out of it, exploding, imploding, panicking, surrendering—until he can’t take it.
He retreats from thoughts of Milk and starts to think of Rish, almost by accident. He stops himself, though, and starts to retrace his steps. What was he doing before the symbols started flashing through his mind? What was he trying to understand?
He’s no longer a being thinking about thinking. He, on some primordial level, realizes he is these patterns, these symbols, this network of habits. He is the stick being dragged through the sand, he is the equals sign, as he is the circle. And every animal who walks through his mind, trying to see if it’ll be the one to be captured and manufactured into an idea, is itself walking through itself.
So now, thinking of Rish, but trying not to, he stops himself as he’s about to draw an animal symbol that represents her, which he knows intimately before it touches his imagination—a cross between a cozy house cat, a fierce lioness, and some half-human mountain goddess—and he goes back to drawing the circle again from scratch.
He chooses, for the first time in his life, to draw the symbol himself, consciously, and chooses, almost at random, the letter “R” instead of an animal symbol. He knows, with some degree of certainty, that this is how Rish will be represented to him now, in his mind, and that the way the “R” curves underneath itself will perhaps bring to mind her lips or the lilting cadence of her voice. He can almost see himself drawing the next letter after “R,” wanting to complete her name, as his mind shifts to adapt and keep up with him, but then, suddenly, the process of looking for the right concept starts over again, and he’s drawing the equals sign and then the circle, again.
And just before he finishes the under curve of the circle, he stops drawing. He stops after writing the letter, but before lassoing it, before demarcating the limit of this thought… and that’s when it all goes wrong.
Suddenly, it all comes undone, the whole structure of his thinking mind, and she herself rushes inside of his mind, in all her splendor: Rish. The Rish. Not some half-assed rendition of a concept of what she might represent to him in her various parts, what she might mean to him on some rainy Sunday when he’s stuck in a phone booth, calling her halfway around the world—but here, right now, the full thing of it. And he feels all of it, all of her, every detail, every shred of light and substance. He feels all of it at the same time.
It somehow seems familiar, the full, mind-bending, blast of life. He looks at the perfect image of her—living, breathing, changing, looking back at him—now unobstructed by the shifting sandcastle worlds of categories and words he had used to understand her. He finds the sand is now just sand before his feet, and the symbols are all gone, as if they had never existed. There’s no such thing as a concept, he realizes suddenly. That was a dream, a mirage, a guess. There’s nothing between the world, its energy, and my experience of it.
Now Eeo only sees Rish in front of him, her pure perfection, her perfect face, her perfect voice, every curve and crevice, inside and out. He can see it all. And it’s more than a little scary. Crouching there, seeing her in all her beauty and poise and innocence, witnessing this perfect creature, he knows that he’s making the choice to open. And in these moments, he knows he’s writing himself into a love story, quite accidently.
He stops himself.
He stops thinking about her altogether, lets the image go, and wipes the memory of her from his mind, using the same internal motion he would use to discard a nightmare. He’s relieved to see her go, not reasserting herself on the edges of his vision, not overwhelming him with her power. In this letting go, there’s suddenly nothing that captivates him anymore, as if he’s let go of something important but also saved himself from being dragged down into a place where things go to drown.
He wonders if it’s worth it… drowning. So, he lets her leak back inside his vision, just a little at a time.
The edge of her face, her skin. So… this is skin, he thinks.
The corner of her mouth: pink, creased, moist.
Her wry grin that appears when he tells a joke not quite worth a smile. He thinks to himself: I like you just like that, just there, as this corner of your perfect, human mouth, these lips, but just this corner, this mundane half-smile.
It’s better to him than thinking about her as some vague animalistic symbol interacting in the darkness of his mind with other vague, half-dead, animalistic symbols. Or the mind-wiping image of her living and breathing before him. This, just this smile… it cheapens her a little, for him to hold on to such a small part of her, but somehow it seems nice. Nice and simple.
He breathes a little, letting her smile fade into a memory, and then he sits up again, turns, and faces the sky.
He walks back across the glass and looks back inside the little girl’s room, where she’s counting her teeth, and he lies back down.
The girl looks up but doesn’t see him. There’s something in her eyes that makes him think maybe she can see him a little, perhaps a piece of him.
As he’s looking at her, he can feel the pain in her stomach, the raw ache of being trapped in a cage without knowing it, sitting inside a grid she has no concept of, brought into a world not explained to her and designed, probably mostly by accident, by other beings. And to top it off, the whole thing is propped up in the middle of a desert she had barely gotten a chance to orient herself in before everything went to shit.
He can tell she’s angry at herself for not doing very much at all, but she doesn’t know any other way. She’s been doing the same things for such a very long time, counting her fake teeth over and over again, even before Milk came along and made her do it for real. Eeo believes that even though Rish isn’t consciously aware of what’s going on, she does know it, somewhere, deep down, and she’s just working toward understanding it, slowly, as best she can.
Rish, meanwhile, is having the odd experience of having her brain reset every few seconds, not able to hold a thought long enough to care about it, and not able to see anything because time seems to loop over and over again. She suspects there’s someone out there, out beyond the top of her cell, but somehow doubts it’s real.
She wants to get out, to explore, but the way her back arches in a protective way tells Eeo she’s resigned to living like this—waiting for the world to click back into place— for as long as it takes. She’s half desperate for someone to come along with the answers.
Rish rubs her eyes, and Eeo thinks to himself that he wouldn’t free her right now even if he could. Not right now…
He wonders where she really is, what she’s really doing and thinking. To her, does it feel as if she’s counting teeth? Or is that only my own view of her from up here?
He wants to see her again: her face, her smile, her lips. Part of him wonders if the world has been changed forever and now this little girl will be all the world knows of what Rish was…
As he’s looking at her, watching her focus on the fake teeth, one by one, he understands, again quite by accident, that she’s not counting her own teeth—she’s counting her father’s teeth. For her, each tooth represents someone whose tongue he cut out. One of his servants. A random villager, perhaps. His wife… an old lover… a family dog… an acquaintance come to visit during the wintertime…
Eeo looks at Rish, not understanding how he knows this, while she examines the set of teeth she’s holding. There’s a place between two of the back molars on the left side, where the gum is raw and worn and a tooth is missing. Rish starts fingering the gum at that one missing spot. He realizes that spot is her—not some representation of her, but who she is, the way she sees herself: the one her father missed, the one he forgot. The one he left blank, but somehow still unable to speak.
She can’t stop fingering that spot until she slits his throat, stopping him from ever speaking again.
Rish is immensely sad about having to kill him, but she can’t get out of this, her little prison room, until her father’s dead.