Cuil (kuːl) n.
1. A measure of abstraction from the reality of a situation.
2. The degree of deviation or dissociation from reality.
3. The perceived extent to which an observed reality is divorced from actuality.
Because you ask (of course, you always ask), I tell you a story.
They were five cuils from the Bastion when they realized they had each lost the sixth fingers on each hand: a small thing; one that, likely, the other three would never have even noticed, had the first not stopped to unstrap a glove, pulled it off between impatient teeth, and held their right hand up into the liminal space between themselves and the storm; turning it over, and over again.
At this, the others had reached for their own, felt empty sheaths press against gloved fingers, a chill of guilt, far too late. This was not unexpected; and, sworn to silence as they were, they took it without word; though each felt the loss as if they had been narrowed. Molded. Shaped to fit.
This was simply a hazard of the storm—this roiling murk of dust, static and lightning that swept the Hinterland. The whole plain between the Bastion and what lay beyond was obscured by it, save a few feet of grey earth around them. The storm sought difference. Things changed under its eye. The Bastion, a glinting, porcelain lighthouse to those who strayed into the Hinterland, was already lost to the winds, the pealing of its bells distorted beyond all recognition. There could be no turning back.
There were four of them; each wrapped in the self-same brown coveralls, goggles, scarves, gloves (glove, in the case of the first. Unable to re-fasten the straps that bound the right one into the rest of the suit, they had left it dangling by one side, hanging by the remaining strap. The storm, for its part, toyed with the spinning thing; batting it playfully, then tugging, pulling; finally, as if bored of the game, turning to the first’s hand, whipping between exposed fingers that curled and twitched in spite of themselves.).
There was no chance that they would make their destination without further change, not one of them. That is the nature of such journeys, after all. Only this could they hold to: that as long as they kept the line—kept walking, four abreast, in silence—they would make it through the storm.
And I finish there. I end my story, and fold my hands, and wait for you to say something.
And you say, that’s not a story.
Not in so many words, of course. You would never say that. But you look at me as if you were expecting more to it than that.
So, I go on.
Four of them left the Bastion, and four remain, crossing the barren plain of the Hinterland, masked against the storm. Still they go on, though their journey is long and arduous; though the storm has taken from them, and will again. Though, as I’m saying this, I realize I have absolutely no idea what happens next, where they’re going, or why on earth they’re even doing it.
You are listening intently now, looking right at me. I shift my gaze, try to focus on the story—but there’s nowhere for my eyes to go. No matter how hard I try, they just won’t settle anywhere.
I clear my throat—and the words right out of my head. The heat in my face begins to rise. Focus. If I focus, just for a moment. If I can just work out where the hell they’re going.
The storm, I say, still surrounds them, enveloping them in a wrap of cloud; and while that cloud, that tumbling cloud of tumultuous dust, while that cannot touch them, the storm’s winds, I say, triumphantly now, they cannot be escaped. They push and pull, harry and hamper; tug loosened clothes, bite, with teeth of dust—bite hands, faces, bite anything not masked and covered and hidden and safe.
Though, sometimes, the winds themselves are not so bad. Sometimes, they are almost gentle, gusts of soft warm air that soothe their weary backs, carrying them along. Sometimes, they are just being playful; capricious, as winds are; but even those breezes stir the darkening clouds, set eddies that spin the storm’s tightening gyre.
Now, as it closes, the storm draws shapes out of itself, outlines of hills and cities, or trees, or even the Bastion itself, a semblance sculpted from its monochrome mass. But, though it would be so easy to stop right there, to succumb, the four know that this is just a ruse to turn them around, to catch them before they reach their destination. A location, I say, known only to themselves. That’ll do.
You don’t seem satisfied with that either. You ask a question, about what will happen when they get to where they’re going.
Well, I say, looking right back at you, I suppose they’ll each remove the scarves from around their heads, the masks from their mouths (you ask and I tell you they have dust masks over their mouths too), and they will each pass on a message. They will speak three messages into the sky, and then they will be done. You seem happier about that.
Three messages. Did I say three messages?
I said three messages.
I run the conversation back in my mind—it was definitely three messages—until I reach the four, walking into the storm. There are only three of them. The first, the fourth, the second. The third has gone. Where has the third gone?
Behind them, footprints pock the grey earth, leading back into the storm. I follow.
I find the third standing beyond the storm’s end—see their long shadow stretching across the plain before I even trace their outline on the horizon—buried knee-high in sand, the goggles and scarf and mask torn from their head by the winds. A look on their face that’s all too familiar. It could have been worse, I say, as I brush the sand from their face, their hair; replace the goggles, the mask, the scarf. And when I am done, I pick the third up on my back, and carry them back to the others. The third is not easy to carry, but this is a weight I’m used to.
When I find the others again, the dust cloud has lifted into a grey ceiling, a churning reflection of the earth. And now the first has gone; bold, impatient first. A track of firm-printed footsteps leads on ahead, a half step broken where land meets seething sky. Swallowed by the storm.
Raindrops splotch in the dust, drumbeating on the harder earth beneath. The air is calm, but the sky boils. There is a crack of lightning, followed by thunder, and the sound of something shattering.
That’s it, I tell you, I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.
But you tell me I should go on. That this is where it starts getting interesting. I should write it down, you say.
I am telling a story to a room full of people. It is the tale of four travelers, heroes of an ancient noble order. They must cross this vast, unending desert, perilous, and full of treachery, for they are the only ones who know the mystical spell that can save their world. The story is from a book, a best-selling novel. An award-winning, best-selling novel. And you approve.
The novel is optioned for a major Hollywood movie. Four acclaimed actors, leading lights of the day, are contracted to star in the adaptation. The two most distinguished screenwriters of the past decade beg for the chance to write the script. One of the greatest directors of all time crawls on his freakin’ knees to court a major studio falling over itself to produce it.
On the opening night, at the red-carpet premiere, there’s you and I sat in the audience—right there, front row: champagne in china teacups. And with a grand fanfare, the curtains open on a sun-drenched scene: four figures wrapped in brown hooded long coats silhouetted on the horizon. The camera moves across the sands at breakneck speed, slowing to a smooth, graceful pause by their armed sides. They march with one purpose. I am relieved.
They stop, reach up to the hoods covering their faces, and lift them, to reveal four beautiful women in portraiture. Beaded with sweat, their tense faces ease as they run their fingers through their hair.
Their coats drop to the ground, and they are each wearing different costumes underneath: one is bound in a leather cuirass, a sword strapped across her toned, athletic upper back, smooth thighs exposed; another boasts black catsuit skin, heels sharpened to lethal stiletto points; a third wears a flowered cap and swimsuit, salmon pink with slimming grey highlights, a bow at the neck-strap, frills at the hips; a fourth, business wear, sharp and clean-lined, a size too small.
The camera pans to frame them against a gaudy azure sky as, one by one, they begin to sway, slowly, at first. Their hips swivel like executive toys. I drop my teacup and it smashes into three pieces, champagne fuzzing into the carpet, but everyone is too enraptured to notice.
Stitching snaps, heels sink into sand. The actors look uncomfortable, sweating like horses, grinning like cats. Their eyes, panic-wide, roll in their heads, as their hips and limbs rotate faster, and faster, gyrating in impossible orbits. Dust scratches creep across the screen. The actors speak, but I can’t make out their words.
I try to tell you this isn’t right—that this isn’t what I wanted to say—but you stare at me like you don’t understand a word.
And before I know it, it’s over. The audience is enthralled. The critics are astounded. The screenwriters clap themselves on the back. The director weeps for the realization of his magnificent vision. The crowd erupts.
And you applaud. You applaud, and you smile—but not with your eyes.
I can’t find you when we leave the theatre.
You decide to tell me a story. You tell me the story of four women, exhausted from their long journey across the Hinterland. They need to rest, you say, reasoning that they will be weary, and their throats will be parched from travelling such a great distance. Not only will they be unable to speak their words, you say, they will never make it across the plains if they carry on like this.
I don’t agree with this at all. This is a needless delay.
On the horizon, they see the shimmer of a new color: green. You describe a place where a rare spring has welled up, surrounded by shrubs and trees, where those who live on the Hinterland bring their cattle to drink.
But there are no others, I think to myself. There are no cattle.
You show me a photo of it on your phone. It is humble, but it is cool and welcoming. The sky is calm, and blue, and beautiful. It is a paradise.
The four women lift their hoods, remove their goggles as they consider the oasis before them. As you describe them, I realize each is quite different—in personality, at least: the First is defiant, surveying the oasis down the length of her chin; bold, despite her weariness; the Second is relieved, if practically-minded about the dangers of stopping there; the Third, the youngest, is wary, fearful, although she wishes to stop so badly; the Fourth, indecisive, uncertain of her instincts, until she looks to the First and gains in confidence (it’s she who persuades the Third that they should go).
Yet each one looks like me—a little like. Near as damn it, in truth, the way you paint them, but like an old photograph, taken at an unfamiliar angle. Uncanny.
They make their move, picking their way down the slope in stilted, toddler steps, in shuffle-slides; then skip, lollop, windmill strides. They let go, let gravity carry them into the valley, faster, and faster and faster, until they’re not just surrendering to momentum anymore. They are running, actually running, and the joy—oh, the joy!—the sheer relief that they don’t have to hold back anymore. That, finally, at last, they can just be. Though I can’t help but worry as the First breaks ahead, shedding gloves, goggles, more, as she forces her way between the trees.
The storm’s assault on her unprotected hand has left imperceptible cracks in her skin. Fault lines race across the First’s body, as she pounds her fragmenting feet against the grass. She dives into the pool, and shatters; pieces of her body peel into the swell. Her essence pours like sand through water, and onto the grey pool floor.
The Second heads for a cluster of woven tents at one side of the lake, in search of those behind their folds. But the doors are shut, tied in capricious knots of cord spun from the ornate golden patterns on their walls. They resist her careful attempts to undo them. No-one answers her calls; not then, and not when the cord begins to wind around her fingers, snake across her palms, twist about her wrists.
Seeing this, the Third turns to leave the oasis, but the moment her toe touches the dust of the Hinterland, she is a pillar of salt; glinting like an intricately carved beacon against the darkening cloud; a gleaming echo of someone else’s story.
The Fourth is torn between the tents, the Hinterland, the water. She turns about in the shade of date palms, undecided; and in her turns, she becomes twisted in tree roots, surrounded by shrubs, toes tangled in grass. Creeper begins to wind about her, and each turn only tightens the knot. She is frantic, trapped and wild, as they begin to pull her apart.
I gather up the fragments of the First. I distil her essence from the spring lake. I pour her into a bottle.
I cover the eyes of the Second, and whisper into her ear until she is dried leaves. I gather her hushed spirit, and place her into a box.
The third takes strength. With my bare hands, I crush her into porcelain, a miniaturized likeness. I wrap her in tissue, and place her in my pocket.
I cover the mouth of the fourth; pull back her hair, as I untangle her from the plants. I remove the creeper from her body, the grass from her toes. I smooth her flat, fold her neatly, and place her between the pages of a book.
You don’t agree. You get up from your seat, and you leave. Later that night, you won’t take my call. You never speak to me again.
This is how I wish it went:
You ask me, and I speak four people into the air—in the Hinterland, into the storm. They remove the scarves and masks from around their mouths. They each, in turn, speak to the sky—seeming dissonant notes of throat-song coalesce into a sound as clear as bells; a soul-song, ringing through the firmament.
The storm contracts. There is a crack of lightning; a peal of thunder. The wind drops. The clouds curl in on themselves, as if stung by lightning forks; resolving into a roiling roof above a vista of flat desert, stretching forever across the plain. It begins to rain. The burning scent of petrichor rises from the parched earth.
They laugh, the four, lifting their lips to the sky, drinking in the heady drops falling, dry lips still crackling with dissipating storm potential. The air is sweet and clear.
And I would be happy and you would be happy.
But that wouldn’t be quite the truth of things, would it?
The air is sweet and clear. And on the far horizon, they see . . .
I can’t. I can’t.
On the far horizon, you see a black slit open between land and sky, and widen.
The ground shudders, and a ripple echoes through the cloud above. The bastion shatters in a drawn-out scream of bells, the sound warping as it hurtles past the four, dissolving into white noise as it heads towards the horizon.
You all run.
At first. Gloved fingers slip easily, and you reach again for the hand of the nearest, the first. But it won’t move.
You turn to find them, all four of them, just standing there. You yell at them to move, about the big black nothing that’s coming, but they just stand there, looking at their hands. The first says something, but it’s all fuzz, the shapes of words spoken down a bad line. The more you look at the four, the more they seem as flat and indistinct as the landscape around you.
Heartache and loss are not tethers. Anguish is not an anchor.
You run, until you realize you’re not the one moving. You watch the hinterland as it passes, disintegrating into the advancing horizon. The last strands of grey dissolve into black. You pass on the breath of an absence.
You feel it in your hands first. The cold. A tingling, like pins and needles. A loss of sensation around the edges. A shiver runs across your shoulders—but by then it’s already inside, seeping between your muscle fibers, spreading through bone like cracks through ice. It’s only when you move you feel that cold snap in your marrow, the feel of it taking hold. Reaching, at last, for your heart.
0 – ∞ cuils
You walk into the coffee shop. You see me sitting in my favorite spot—at the long table by the column, facing the door, with its red velvet curtain. You wave hello, give your order to the waitress in the brown dress, and come over to my table. You nudge the edge slightly as you sit down, and the cow-shaped porcelain jug clinks against my teacup (I gently separate the two).
You ask me how I am, and wait for an answer.
My answer is honest: acknowledging my uncertainty; acknowledging that things are, in truth, not that great.
Yet not so honest to tell you how even this pathetic half-answer tugs a tightening cord around my chest, and strips the veil from a fog of distorted emotions, fractured intentions, misread memory that now flows between thought and word, word and thought. Between me and you, its breadth immeasurable: a fear that clouds not only every word I say, but everything I perceive.
The fear that keeps you from what’s inside.
You accept that I’m reluctant to say any more than I’m comfortable with. Maybe you’re not satisfied with what I’ve said, but you smile, gently, and you say, it’s enough.
And I wish I could believe you.