Written by Peter Duchnowski / Image by Robert Hunter ‘Untitled no. 1’ 1987
There seemed to be no sign of anyone or anything else around him except for the infinite expanse of plain white landscape where he stood. There were no hills, no trees, no bumps, no dips, no corners to turn around, no steep track to climb up, no hole to hide in. Only the smooth white ground, material yet to be determined. No sand, no asphalt, no dust, no dirt, no grass, no mud, no water. How long could one survive here?
He moved around his surroundings, first walking, then trotting, then hopping across the terrain, finding he could go across it faster in small leaps and bounds. Gravity was lighter here, perhaps. Nothing but stark white wherever he turned to see. Up above, the night sky. A murky blur. No moon, no stars, no clouds. Not even that sort of cloudless night sky where the stars hide on account of the city lights. Here, there were apparently no cities and no lights.
Vital signs: in check. Atmosphere: breathable. Temperature: stable. As time pressed on, so would he, jumping further onwards through the terrain. He began to notice the ground take on different hues, the further he went. It was not a perfectly pure white ground, after all. Depending on where he would move around, either close or further away from him, the white underneath his feet would take on tones of the palest shades of yellow, or pink, or a dark greyish blue. A trick of the light, surely. Or, of the mind. Perhaps there was so little to see in this blank canvas of an environment that his mind had now started imagining things to fill in the rest.
He went on ahead. Then stopped, wondering what direction he was heading toward. If he had been moving in circles all this time, how would he know? He pushed on further. Time was running out. He had to get back to his people. He had to find a mate at all costs. By now, who knows how much longer he had? But he did know that much at least: he had to extend the life of his species, never mind his own life.
He stopped again. When he turned around, he saw it. Up ahead. Right in front of him. A gigantic cylindrical structure. On closer inspection, it appeared to be made of frosted glass. He circled around the foot of the building. A massive modern skyscraper of some sort. But no doors or windows in sight. No way in. He touched the building’s surface. Cold. Quiet. No way to see inside. The surface was a greyish white, similar to the rest of his surroundings, camouflaged. Perhaps he had already passed this building a hundred times before and only now had noticed it. It was almost as if the building was melting into the landscape, disappearing, as if it wasn’t truly there.
But it was there. Right in front of him. As big as a city block. He could touch it. He could walk around it. Looking up, he could see it piercing into the sky. He kept feeling around the building’s surface, then found he could climb onto it. His body not exactly sticking to it, but he could attach himself onto the building quite effortlessly, just like a bug. He began climbing the building, almost as easily as if he had been crawling on the ground.
He moved up the cold glass surface, crawling up higher and higher. As he went up, he looked around the face of the building for any sign of a way in; a window, a button, a switch, a lever, a latch, anything. Nothing in sight. He continued up, faster and faster. Perhaps this is where his people were being housed, somewhere inside here. He pushed on, further up the immense structure, reaching ever closer to the top. He dared not to look down. An image came to mind, of slipping, falling, landing all the way back down onto those mute white plains, broken, paralysed perhaps, with no one around to call for help.
He stopped. He had finally reached the top of the building. Climbing up onto the edge, he expected to see a rooftop of some kind, maybe a way in, or something, anything. He simply sat there on the rim of the building, slowly shifting around, hesitating. At the top of the building, there indeed was no roof, or anything else for that matter; no garden-top terrace with chairs and clotheslines and fake grass and pot plants, no doors, no signs of life, no further clue was waiting for him up here. In fact, there was nothing up here, except a big gaping abyss dropping straight down into the dark guts of the building. It was as if someone had taken the building and cut out the top with gigantic scissors, leaving a huge hole in its place, like a silent screaming mouth.
He peered down below. Darkness. Indifferent. Waiting. He stared deeper and deeper down into the building’s insides, an immense, monstrous wishing well. How he wished this situation could make more sense; to find his people, to find a mate, to push ahead with the mission, to extend the life of the species before it was too late, to understand at least where he was, to gather his bearings, to figure out the coordinates of his location and determine where to head to next; or to just leave here at once and return to home base. Did he dare make a wish?
Sudden. Silent. Instant. A burst of bright light shot out of the inside of the building, like a blast out of a cannon. A relentless, steady, silent beam of cold white light poured out. Stunned but unharmed, the explorer slipped off the rim of the building, skidded down the glass exterior and landed back down to the ground, once again at the foot of the building. He made a few steps, dazed, but not injured. Of course, gravity functions differently here, doesn’t it? He leaned on the building’s surface to steady himself. The building now acting as an immense flashlight, he looked around as it lit up his surroundings. The ground soaked up the light, taking on brighter, more brilliant shades of white. But where to now, he thought – his very last and final thought, it was decided – as a large mass above swooped down, crushing the life out of him forever.
At least, that’s what you imagine he was thinking as you swat him out of existence. You scrape what’s left of his body with a corner of the magazine and catch it with your other hand as it falls off the bedroom ceiling. You step down off the chair, turn off the light, and head into the kitchen to dump the magazine and the dead bug in the bin. And while you’re at it, you close the kitchen window too. That’s the only thing you hate about this house: no fly screens. But it gets so stuffy in here. You always have to open all the windows, even when you make a few bits of toast. It’s either that or stink up the place and set off all the smoke alarms. But of course, all sorts of bugs fly in then, quietly invading, like so many tiny UFOs. Staring into the bin now, you push the magazine further in, pushing down all the other garbage wanting to spill out.
You wash your hands briefly at the sink, wiping them dry on your t-shirt. Yanking the garbage bag out of the bin and tying it up, you head outside to the backyard to neatly dispose of all this. You wonder what time it is; it must be late.
The bag taken care of, you swing the wheelie bin shut, dust your hands off, fish around in your pockets for a lighter, and light up. You inhale the smoke, deep into your lungs, and slowly breathe back out into the crisp night air. And as you stand there, barefoot on the cold wet lawn, you think again for a moment about the bug on the ceiling you just squashed. The explorer on his expedition. Staring up into the cloudless, starless, murky blur of a night sky, you think: If that was that, then what was this?