THE OUTLANDS - we watch them going in a bubble of breath held -

909
JONAH

Jonah’s cheeks have grown hollow. He was a wealthy man before this episode. He has been delivered from his trials, yet they weigh heavily on him. Ever since he left the oceans he has suffered an unbearable thirst. Walking barefoot across the city, he has developed scleroderma on the soles of his feet. And on the palms of his hands (he must have crawled, he has no memory), on his chest (lower still to the ground), his chin (beard gathers dust). The rest is burnt by exposure to the light. His hair has grown thin. He can barely see, spends his days squinting at the sun. Its fire is an eternal and overbearing enemy.

Yet those who approach might not notice. He hides his afflictions well. He will not meet another’s gaze, offering his profile – a façade fallen into ruins. But the trouble not voiced is written in Jonah’s expression all the same, the mote, the plank not in his eye but there about his face somehow. Sunk into his forehead? Or left exposed as roof-joists after walls have caved. If he was to lift himself so that the devastation could be measured, there would be nothing to see. Except in the blink, turning our eyes. And looking back – shocked that the plain arrangement of features should unload the force of its dissymmetry in the diminishing instant of our distraction – we might scrutinise the face’s cross again to no avail.

Remnants of a concrete structure scattered on the ground, a fence post, too, sunk into a rough foundation has survived the catastrophe. This is Jonah’s place. He can take from it at least some support for his back. The child comes to visit every day and is here again, stands at a short distance. Jonah will tolerate this chattering visitor. What the child says. Because it is talk not directed at him. It is conceived in his vicinity, sometimes too quiet to hear, a talk that returns, reflected off the surface of things, arriving back as if validated by stones and dried timbers, reorganised by the things from which it is reflected. And this is a gentle relief, to see the ease with which the spoilt conditions might be used, as the faces of an abandoned quarry make an echo chamber. The landscape is doubled by the dull interior of Jonah’s skull. This cavity with complexity reduced is worn hollow by the abrasion of pebbles tumbling there. The yellow dust of a peculiar fading, a desert in the desert.

His posture having sunk too, Jonah is lead to inspect the patch of earth between his feet. And pushing further in the direction of his sinking body – stretching the ligaments of his back as the curvature allows it – to look at the post’s place, where it emerges from the earth, under his arse, where it disappears into its foundation. Bony protrusion, sternum still touches the post at one point – tangent to the curve. But on the ground where his finger has been drawing lines in the dust, there are insect tracks. One tiny hole in the post. Then some more. And surely multitudes of passages for every just-perceptible sign on the surface. Jonah rocks his body. An experiment. To put a little more pressure on the post, sense its flexing, toy with the possibility that it might snap – if not today – somewhere around this segment of the base, at the place were it has become a home for worms.

In the splintered shards in the tracks of elaborate tunnels bored (following the lines of the grain) are there nests already? Clusters of worm-eggs, ovaloid, moist in this interior, protected from the day’s dry heat? Protected in a mist of fine threads?
To push at the post Jonah must lift his head. Sunk between his knees in this way he cannot find the force of what’s left of the muscles of his thighs. And if he is to lift his head to find traction between the soles of his sandals and the red gravel, he can no longer keep his eye on the wormholes. He must choose one or the other. Lucky that his shoes have been repaired with the rubber of old radials. But how could it occur to him anyway that it might be possible to witness the becoming oval shaped of the wormholes in the base of the post as he flexes it by the pressure of his leaning? Or on the other side for that matter, diminished, the punctures taking on a horizontal orientation as the fibres compress.

Something is glistening in the orifice – a pinprick only. But a burst of light. He looks away. The spot is impressed on his retina. He blinks, looks elsewhere but the spot moves to follow the line of his vision, blotting the centre. Allowing his posture to slump, he looks again. Only the hole stares back, in silence, dark now. Then a pinprick of light. And another spot burned on his retina. Contagion, unholy worm-damage infects his vision each time he looks. Then again, now from several holes. He leans closer, picks up more spots of light that colonise the centre of his focus, grouping themselves like shot-holes. Something is moving between. Microscopic reflections of sunlight. Which divide will they jump next? The holes are connected – wired – a membrane of filaments. This is the fibrous residues of the paths of larvae, or that same filament in consort with fungal growth. No longer even simply the paths of insects, evolving now on lower magnitudes of scale, these are filaments so fine they might capture suns, throw them back to make him suffer again – cast them across the divide by way of a brain-eye mechanism co-opted, annexed, for the malign operations of another.

A tired song in Jonah’s hollow of a head, echoing the rattle of the pebbles, wearing him out. A hundred miles. Long as his voyage. His left eye is caught by the wormhole; his right by the sun. Both blinded. The wormhole is the sun is his eye, his damaged retina, is his hardened skin,

is the oceans and the pearl in the belly is that voice he knows so well and the flight he has made his own is water in water is crystalline matter and the crystal cylinder is a perfectly blank surface is the current of an arid river bed is the soles of his feet too

is the incessant chattering of the child is this crystalliferous aspect is stones and rocks and burrows and tunnels and concrete

its pores, is flickering lights is blindness too and death

is a voice split, the blood cloth and the pollen-star and an insect eye, fleece against canvas against skin is the moon submerged in velvet black

is his pain is his anger and its cessation

is the winds always

is

Several days of walking bring Jonah onto the steeper ground of foothills. At the mouth of the gorge, the ground descends towards a narrow opening between two imposing rock faces. The quality of the sand underfoot; the way that the cliffs are undercut with sweeping curves; the fields of rounded and polished stones collected along the turns: each of these testifies to the quantities of water that have passed. Now the river bed is dry, a passage towards an ocean that has drained the land, left it thirsty.
It is mid afternoon and this first stretch of the gorge is already in deep shadow. Jonah proceeds to a point where the path turns and the sunlight still penetrates to the canyon floor. Few travellers make it this far. His child finds a smooth rock warmed by the sun on which to sleep. Jonah walks a little further across a bed of large stones, studying them as he goes, judging which one is stable enough to take his weight, allowing his direction to be dictated by the unbroken succession while the falling momentum of his weight demands no hesitation – either one stone or the other. Steady, balanced, technics of movement in his feet, in his ankles: in sinus, muscles and bones.

Amongst these rocks, a result of the floods that come after rain, the broken branches of trees lie trapped. Matted grasses burnt by the winter sun have been caught and collected in the midst of a rapid wash downstream. The dried forms point to involutions in a current deep enough to submerge a man to his waist. But not the brown and muddy torrent of a river in spate: Jonah sees glass, crystal water filling this volume with as many spiralling eddies as there are subtle breaths of air on a still afternoon.

A force, present but almost indiscernible, is the travellers’ impetus. Beneath Jonah’s hardened soles, and around him as he walks, the water returns, present in the marks cut into the earth. And over the rocks, as this force continues to pull him along the parched riverbed, his thoughts find a new measure with his pace.
Left eye embedded in the earth, right eye caught by the sun (the crystal star, the pollen grain), Jonah continues, each of his steps a paradoxical progress defining, one after the other as they fall, the point from which he never departs at the gyroscopic centre of this horizon’s vast hoop.

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