Through the Veil

I don’t know when the beige began. It was just there one day: a lingering malaise that hovered over everything. It was on my food, my clothes, on my breath, a nothingness, a sheen of banality, a taste of bland. What’s more I didn’t understand why it bothered me. My life’s work pretty much demanded sameness. The day-and-night observation of the meters and lights of my portable particle accelerator required a constant, kind of meditative, never-ending concentration. Yet the beige and the sameness also filled me with a profound sense of unease. Like things were happening elsewhere that I could neither see nor experience. But still, in my mind it was better to maintain the beige than to venture beyond its borders.

After years and years of patience, the high-energy subatomic particles I had theorized manifested themselves within the confines of my particle accelerator. For the first time a heretofore unseen dimensional “wall” became visible. I wrote a paper on this that was well received by some. The next step, of course, was to find a way to pass through this “wall.” I believed then as I do now that I could find a way to breach through into that other dimension.

In the meeting where I should have been paying attention, I had instead drifted off to focus on the tree outside the window. The leaves became more interesting to me than the speaker and I counted them one by one by one…someone asked what I thought. I had no idea. So I shrugged okay to the last thing said which I hadn’t heard because I hadn’t been listening, and the meeting ended with me not feeling at all threatened by its outcome. Then the memo arrived. My project would be shut down as of the end of the week. All my equipment was to be dismantled and readied for shipment into indefinite storage. I had to read the message several times before I truly comprehended its meaning. My life’s work had been ended by the single command of some executive somewhere.

I should have never agreed to sign away the rights to my own work. At the time it seemed like a reasonable tradeoff to have access to the institute’s facilities. Everyone could have benefited from the commercial uses that resulted from my work. All I needed was some time and support. Instead I had to debase myself into a common thief. Of course, I felt guilt over my actions. I knew it wasn’t right to steal the institute’s property, even if it wouldn’t’ve existed if it wasn’t for me and my designs! But it was my intellectual property that they were about to lock away! (If indeed that was truly what they were going to do. My gut told me they actually intended only to lock me out and use my ideas for their own benefit.)

I actually have no idea why they chose to shut down my project. I simply could not believe that the institution did not understand the importance of this work. I simply could not believe that they did not understand the importance of me! Obviously, they didn’t. And it occurred to me that I didn’t need to wait for “their” understanding, and I decided to conduct my work on my own. All I needed was the portable particle accelerator that I had designed and built, somewhere to work, and time alone.

I stayed behind late one night—no one would think this strange since I often did this—and waited for the last people to leave the building, which would be the cleaning crew. With my office well dusted and my trash cans emptied, I began the meticulous work of packing the experimental equipment into my duffel bag. My white papers and notes had already been backed up onto the storage chip surgically inserted into my left frontal lobe. I deleted everything else.

 

I managed to hide my travels behind a series of fake identities and to land in this deserted place in the dead of night, unnoticed. I doubt there was anyone here to notice my arrival anyway. This area has remained little occupied because of its dry, chilly desert-like landscape, which made it perfect for my little private facility. I devoted my first nights in this inhospitable place to installing the prefabricated housing unit that I had spent the last of my savings purchasing. As I worked to connect the frame of my unit and lay down the floors and the structure of it formed, thoughts of the possibilities of crossing into a new dimension filled me with an excitement that I hadn’t felt in a long time. It must’ve been the illicit nature of my endeavors—there I was, a fugitive all alone on the edge of nowhere about to cross a border into the unknown. It made me feel kind of powerful and alive.

The dwelling I put together was nothing fancy, but adequate for me with its soundless, sun-powered generator providing all my energy needs. I decorated its dreary walls with pictures of pretty beach scenes. I didn’t care about my surroundings that much before. It suddenly felt important. This would be my home for the next long while, and beige walls somehow just wouldn’t do anymore.

I’d fallen asleep beside the machine before at the institute. Yet here, alone when I fell asleep with the machine, my dream felt deeper. In it, I was somewhere surrounded by smoke, and ash descended like snow, covering my hair and skin, and stung as it flew into my eyes and choked my breath. I coughed and struggled for air.

Far away in the distance, but not far enough, a volcano erupted. I found myself running to a mountain while behind me rivers of molten rock flowed, golden and glowing with heat. A red door appeared at the base of the mountain. It was wide and heavy and ornately decorated with swirls and letters I couldn’t read. I pulled on it with all my might until my lower back ached from the strain. Fear of the approaching lava gave me strength. When the door finally gave way, I slipped through, grateful to have found some protection. The heavy door slammed shut behind me and then there was a hush. Steam from volcanic vents permeating the stench of sulfur filled my nose and throat making me retch. I covered my face with my sleeve, but it didn’t help. I waited for some of the pain in my back to subside before I stood to search for footholds along the walls so that I could climb up and away from the ground. I woke up from my dream extremely tired, with my heart pounding.

While jotting down my notes on the status of my machine, it occurred to me that what I had experienced maybe wasn’t a dream but instead might very well be my first—the first—brush with passing through the dimensional divide. Maybe to “cross over” required one to be in a deeply relaxed state. I was asleep during this experience, after all. So maybe while asleep the work of crossing the dimensional wall manifested itself as a dream of an obstacle I needed to overcome. I thought on this long and hard as a burning itch appeared on the top of my head. I scratched and a dred let loose and fell out.

I made sure to purposefully sleep next to the machine the next night, and moved my bedding before it so that the particles of the machine would be directed towards me as I lay down. Every bit of me tingled with the prospect of crossing the veil. I was too anxious to rest for a long time. Hour upon hour passed and I couldn’t sleep. I pleasured myself to relax. Afterwards my mind and body calmed—I wasn’t exactly asleep but very calm—so that I found myself on the other side of the dimensional veil, exactly at the spot where I had left.

Rocks of various sizes, shapes, and shades of crimson were scattered about. I picked one up the size of my fist and examined it. Its surface flaked and crumbled in my hand, leaving a vermillion dust on my fingers and palm. With the red door beneath me, and the illumination from an opening at the top of the mountain, I thought, if I could reach the light above maybe there was more to see, maybe the entire landscape, maybe the whole roundness of this world!

I stretched until the knot in the muscle in my lower back released with a pop and a creak, then I began my ascent by unsteadily climbing over the red rocks that formed a ledge. A few of them gave way under my weight, making it a tricky business to figure out where to position my steps without slipping. A cool wind moved across my face, carrying with it the scent of something sweet.

I groped for a long time through an opening in the rock face. After a while I found myself in the dim light of a cavern filled with fragrant orange blossoms. A spring of fresh water gently trickled down nearby from a the hole in a wall of stone. Fruits grew wild in a strange tangle of trees and bushes—mangos and oranges and persimmons and nectarines and peaches. I washed my hands and face in the clear water, cupping my palms to take a long refreshing drink. I plucked a piece of fruit from a tree and bit through its bitter skin and into its succulent flesh. Juice oozed over my lips and hands as tangy flavors filled my mouth and rinsed over my tongue. Thin fruit fibers wedged between my teeth and I used my fingernail to pull them loose then swallowed them. A hunger I hadn’t realized felt sated.

There they were on the ground. Three of them. I’d lost a single dred before. Every few years one could be found on my pillow or in the bathroom after I styled my hair, but never three at one time. My scalp had been itching a lot lately. I’d be thinking about something, a tingling sensation would appear at the center of my scalp, unthinkingly I’d scratch, and a loc would land limp in my palm. I moisturized my scalp more, and added aloe vera to my nightly hair routine. I also tried to remember to massage and not scratch at my itches. I even set my food preparer to increase my vitamin B12 intake. The loss of a few dreds wasn’t important. It was the project that was important. Still, the burning itch continued to linger on my scalp. No-never-mind, I thought, and returned to a sitting position near my machine.

Entry to the other dimension must be akin to the excitation of an atom because again I found myself in the exact position where I had left. As I climbed the levels of the “dream” I must have increased the excitation level of my body and then carried that excitation level within me as I came and went, so that each time I returned I would be no further than I was before. Behind me, orange blossoms and before me, I stared mesmerized at a dense field of daffodils. I fell in awe of all the loveliness. So much yellow. Deep within a mountain, as chaos reigned outside, lay this paradise. And above from a great opening, a light shone down. In spite of myself, I laughed at my sheer luck. I, and no one else, had stumbled into the midst of such beauty. I laughed long and loud and the sound of my laughter reverberated across the emptiness. After I caught my breath and wiped my eyes, I continued my journey upwards. I also continued to search for signs of other intelligent life, and wondered if I truly was the first person to behold this world.

 

An itch crawled from the back of my head then spread to the center of my scalp to become a burning sensation. I tried to remember to gently rub instead of scratch even as the itching felt like it would drive me mad. The back of my head seemed extra warm to the touch, and where there used to be a thick undergrowth of hair, I touched skin. I stopped rubbing and took away my hand to see a multitude of tight curls clinging to my fingers. I ran to the bathroom.

 

Tiny curls on porcelain white
black cotton ball puffs
land in the palm
collect in the drain

 

Black cotton ball puffs
taunting c’s and o’s
collect in the drain
announcing hairs departure

 

Taunting c’s and o’s
fall into the sink
announcing hairs departure
cutting off

 

Fall into the sink
so much hair
cutting off
tiny curls on porcelain white

 

I rinsed my hair with black tea, and still my hair continued to shed. Only aloe seemed to soothe it. I conditioned my hair and scalp with a mixture black caster oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, tea tree oil, and aloe, yet the itchiness on my scalp remained.

What had been a distraction became an emergency. I found locs on my chair after I stood up. I found them on the ground. I sent the mini-cam drone reserved for surveilling the surrounding grounds for intruders to picture the back of my head. Unmistakably three (or four?) bald patches had grown there and about half of my dreds had fallen out. In my closet I hid bags of my hair in hopes that when it grew back and I had starter dreds, I could reattach those “lost” locs to them. If it grew back. My hair must grow back…I couldn’t fathom…I wouldn’t accept…maybe losing my hair was some kind of punishment…

 

On the other side of the veil, I found myself on a crumbling trail covered with moss. Ferns and lush trees with leaves hanging low interrupted my way. A mist sprayed on my skin, cool and wet. As I journeyed through this strange land, I noticed that my feelings here were so strikingly different than feelings there. Here, I felt at ease, my mind was clear and at peace. There—in reality, or home—I was a bundle of nerves. Or, at least I remember myself feeling that way, almost like a distant echo. And I hadn’t experienced the beige in a long time. It seemed to be dissolving as if being on this other side was changing me both here and there.

I can see clearly that others have been to this dimension, otherwise this path wouldn’t exist. But whoever they were hadn’t been here in a long time. I wonder who they were, where they came from, and how they came to this place. I continued to follow their path until I found the remnants of a temple made of aging stone and green with mildew. Railings entwined with ivy surrounded a platform. Inside sat a broken statue. The head and most of the shoulders of the being were missing, yet the legs and feet remained. I touched the delicately carved flowing cloth and the swell and curve of its rounded belly. The rough texture of its surface, pitted over time by exposure, felt hard and cold against my fingertips. I rested for a while there. When I decided that it was time to continue my journey I suddenly felt deep pity for the ones who built this peaceful site, only to have it forgotten and fall to ruin.

I continued my upwards climb to find pillars built of veined marble and stairs that led up and up and up. Shades of blue radiance glimmered in streaks and streams guiding my way—a blue so deep, so pure, it wrapped and flowed over my body. Sounds muffled in waves of slow ebbing tides and in far-away reverberations of pops and squeaks. The movement of my feet, every rustle of cloth and intake of breath, resounded. These rhythms gave me the urge to sing…Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue…and my voice repeated back, repeated back, repeated back blue, blue, blue…

 

My return to the “real” world filled me with memories in saturated color washes that ran, forming inky puddles at the bottom of my mind. An image of a copy of a copy of a copy faded with each recollection. If I could I would tell you correctly, I could tell you the exact…moments were forgotten like wisps of smoke. Not forgotten, held in the ethereal then into the corporeal then returned to the ether without volume or shape.

An electrical impulse carried thoughts through my brain that flowed to find a soft place to remain dormant and glowing. My time on the other side kept alive in masses of cells. But I remembered…I remembered all I’d been trying to forget. I remembered all the shame that made me drown myself in my work and turn off my feelings. All my sense of inadequacy. All my sense of not belonging, or not being good enough, or not being understood, or being treated like I was either crazy or strange or both. My experiences trapped in neurons. Memories, decisions that formed logic patterns of yeses and noes, wishes and regrets that drip saline across my cheeks.

The “real” world is slipping away from me. It feels like I should let it go. Yet, there is still so much that I must do, so much more still for me to understand. Besides, they will be here soon—the authorities from the institution, I can feel them coming. Though, when they arrive they will find that the one they had been searching for has gone.

 

I climb a spiraling staircase embedded within the rock, guided by an indigo incandescence. I reach a platform that overlooks a chasm. The hair on my arms rise. My skin turns to gooseflesh. This place is new, and yet familiar. Without conscious reasoning I know that I have been here before. This air. These walls. This stone. I know them. Ahead, I see the light. It calls to me in whispers. I move towards it with a sense of apprehension, and also the feeling that I must go there. But first, I must return to my world one last time…

 

I shaved off what remained of my hair. This would have distressed me before. Then it seemed quite appropriate. What was hair to me now that I have begun this part of my journey? The beige, my nothingness, my absence of color was all about me not wanting to feel, wanting to be numb. I had created a life that demanded sameness. The day-and-night observation of the meters and lights of my machine pretty much required a constant, kind of meditative, never-ending concentration. Yet that sameness also filled me with a profound sense of unease. I don’t know when the light began to make sense. One day it just did, like a shimmer that hovered over everything. It was on my food, my clothes, on my breath, a fullness, a sheen of luster, a taste of delight. What’s more, I don’t understand why the lack of light never bothered me before.

It was wrong of me to take the institution’s equipment without permission. Even though I had designed it, I shouldn’t have taken the property, and for that I am truly sorry. As for your wrongs towards me, I haven’t forgiven you, but I do leave you and your corruption behind. Only if you follow the path that I have followed will you understand what I mean. There are no steps around this. No method to go where I have gone without the journey I have taken. I hope someday you will want to learn. Additionally, I leave behind the machine and my memory chip. Everything is here for you—I am also leaving behind this story. If you’re reading this, then you have found them.

By the time you read these words I will be across the veil and at the top of the mountain. There I will perceive not with eyes, and yet will see clearer than I’ve ever seen. There, what had seemed so important here will drift away to triviality. I will be beyond understanding, beyond vision, beyond thought. My flesh and bones and blood are nothing. My existence is greater than these things because none of it is real. The barrier between here and there is an illusion. And I know that this is not the end of my journey. So I will climb and climb and climb into the blinding white light, and ascend higher…

Jennifer Marie Brissett

Jennifer Marie Brissett once owned an indie bookstore in Brooklyn called Indigo Café & Books. Now she is an author and has written the novel Elysium (Aqueduct Press) which won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award and was a finalist for the Tiptree and Locus Awards. She has a new novel coming out from Tor Books in the summer of 2020! This is her second story with Uncanny Magazine. Her other short stories can be found in FIYAH Magazine, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Lightspeed Magazine, Motherboard Vice (Terraform), The Future Fire, the anthology APB: Artists against Police Brutality, and other publications. She currently is a professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in NYC. Her personal website can be found at www.jennbrissett.com

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