I SEE MORE CLEARLY IN THE DARK
AS A GENERAL MATTER WE FIND IT HARD TO BE REALLY
AT HOME WITH THINGS THAT SHINE AND GLITTER*
The future was cold and slippery and wet. I slithered out of it like so many wanton bagpipes. It was hard to swallow. I emerged, a crumpled piece of paper, a soggy and hollow wad. I lay there on the bottom of something, flat and ovular. Reaching out, I found moist ground on all sides — damp with a persistent odor of microorganisms feeling their way through the mush, digging into depth, putting sense before sight. I wanted to join them, to enter the dirt in a silent procession — but I was inhibited by my largeness. Clumpy chunks of flesh made up my form, which equated to a totality, an ambidextrous, prehistoric continuity — I was gelatinous enough to slide but too solid to fall apart. My body was perched on the edge of dissolution but refused to come undone. It was a permanent entity, at least for now. I stretched out and heard things click inside of me. I opened my eyes and found that darkness pressed in on them, even exposed to a world outside of myself replete with air and free-falling particles, snow, skin and soot. It was a different kind of darkness, one that had physical weight, imbued with a certainty that was impossible to dilute. It opened up a gap in me and then filled it up, simultaneously. My lack grew with my desire, constantly emptying out so that it could be filled with different darkness, tactile darkness, heavy darkness that could crush me if it wanted to but that instead just weighed me down.
Agreeable, pensive, darkness with a hot, beating heart.
I WONDER IF MY READERS KNOW THE COLOR OF THAT
‘DARKNESS SEEN BY CANDLELIGHT.’ IT WAS
DIFFERENT IN QUALITY FROM DARKNESS ON THE
ROAD AT NIGHT. IT WAS A REPLETION, A PREGNANCY
OF TINY PARTICLES LIKE FINE ASHES, EACH PARTICLE
LUMINOUS AS A RAINBOW. I BLINKED IN SPITE OF MYSELF,
AS THOUGH TO KEEP IT OUT OF MY EYES*
From under my eyelids I can make out waves of daylight — I see them through the iridescent veins wedged together directly before me, lit up like pathways or residue from the trajectories of shooting stars, disappeared as quickly as they are illuminated. A small being creeps across me, ever-so-polite. I reach out a blind hand to pet him and clammy palm meets matted fur. I reach out another arm and swoop him into me despite sharp meows of protest. He wrestles to get out of my bind but I don’t let him off so easily — I squeeze him a little harder than I would squeeze a human, a great ball of darkness folded into my chest, and release him. I hear him leap from the bed and hit the ground running, rub my eyes and then cough from the fur; I sit up abruptly and make my way to the bathroom to wash my face. The cold water feels abrasive and when I look in the mirror my eyes are red — little threads of ink inscribed into their surface to signify… what? Fatigue? Dryness? A chemical imbalance? I blot away the wetness with a hand towel inscribed with the hotel insignia, walk to the provided coffee machine and fill it up with tap water. I hope the city tap water is good for drinking — I’ve never been here before. My cat is pawing at the glass door that leads to the balcony but I don’t let him out — they say not to let cats out in the first two months of being in a new place, they need time to memorize their surroundings enough to want to come back.
BUT IN THE OLD PALACE AND THE OLD HOUSE OF PLEASURE THE
CEILINGS WERE HIGH, THE SKIRTING CORRIDORS WERE WIDE,
THE ROOMS THEMSELVES WERE USUALLY TENS OF FEET LONG
AND WIDE, AND THE DARKNESS MUST ALWAYS HAVE PRESSED
IN LIKE A FOG*
My body, dextrous and nimble, but achy as an aging athlete. My mind a chilly, hexagonal room with concrete walls. Without light to describe its limits, the darkness seeped in sidelong and from all directions at once — a soft core distinguishing itself from the field of opacity — bulbous and shifting. Or was it some trick of light? There was none — I latched onto the fullness of its absence. To write a character out of the dirt. To write a character into darkness, remove her from the scrutiny of the light and allow her to put her feelers out in the damp belly of the forest without witnesses. To give her time. Without light, sensation takes precedence. Something so sweet and green it could only crawl, using its body as a beacon. Her body a caterpillar, a flailing peninsula that moved without seeing — arms like sacks of potatoes that crunched into the ground. Should she be partitioned? Should she fly out in a gush of water without form? Doughy spheres of sensation that you could roll around in your mouth. How should each one go? Each sphere a theater, an entangled war. A setting of soft sounds. A field of green un-becomings. An impeding disaster. A prehistoric world that lingers and cannot break. When she danced, she would dart across the room like an ultrasonic ping bong ball. When she coughed, the tension she released was the equivalent of a global catastrophe, an earthquake that triggers a tsunami that triggers a hurricane that triggers a leap of faith. But here she was now, transposed in this prepubescent futurity. She was as ancient as tomorrow looked from the Jōmon period of 1000BC. The earth was a wet lump of pottery and she was a thin cord pressed upon it, leaving imprints like incantations. She smelled slightly sweet. I called her a “she” in celebration of the blank slate of her premonitory existence, stepping outside of her in these moments only to distance myself from the effects of geological time that had collapsed me into her. Whenever I would wriggle my way back in I’d find her sexless and dreaming, simply an I, a wide and restless ocean. Nestled within her sticky ontology, I breathed in something deep like ashes or soot. I wrestled myself out of the ground and began to walk, using the weight of my body in my bare feet to press myself forward from heel to toe in a repetitive motion that propelled me into a movement that looked and felt like something in between walking and swimming. As a rule, I could only be defined as a liminality — a not-this-not-that-ness, a curious and jubilant oscillation. As I moved, I sang, a song so cold and hot at once that sometimes it would catch in my throat before bellowing out. The song was a melody without language, and as it left my chest I sensed something physical leaving with it, I squinted and I could perceive its motion buzzing in the darkness. That’s when I realized I was in a forest, it wasn’t darting around in some empty, abysmal void but in a 3D environment composed of wood, leaves, moss, sap and all the invisible critters that crawled between the living structures. My song split, colliding with the pines and breaking up in different directions, fragmenting and multiplying but still somehow hovering. I began to sense the darkness as a thick cream. Or maybe a soupe à l’oignon — filled to repletion with onions, cheese and bread lumps.
WE NEVER TIRE OF THE SIGHT, FOR TO US THIS PALE GLOW
AND THESE DIM SHADOWS SURPASS ANY ORNAMENT*
The coffee is ready. I lift up the hotel mug and pour in the steaming, muddy liquid. I can feel it nourishing me almost instantaneously — as if it is wandering around my inner chambers, turning the cells on one by one. I turn to the black screen on my bedside table and pick it up — this gesture is enough to wake it from standby, its pixelized promise coming to life. The headlines pop out like little screams: Nationwide Forests Destroyed, Replaced by Glowing Resorts Where Darkness Once Held Silent Reign; Politics of The Blinding Light: Tax-Payers’ Pockets Drained in New Resort Plan With Goal Of Total Illumination; You Can Run But You Can’t Hide: Citizens Flee Homes In Hopes of Averting All Encompassing Mandatory Resort-Tax; Where The Wild Things Were: Finding Hope In A World Without Shadows. My favorite is Light At The End of The Tunnel: Or It Is Just Another Resort? I navigate my device to the Location Services option and make sure it is still switched to off — I am indeed off the electronic map, no longer reduced to a point, instead mercifully returned to a state of embodied unsurveillability. At times my embodiment feels like a superficial casing, a layer that could easily be peeled off to shine light into the depths of my organs. But for now I remain intact, my innards a dark, expansive field protected from the greedy rays of an ever brightening world. I like to imagine the different parts of me, my lungs and heart in particular, swimming in this dark, impenetrable soup. They feel comfortable there in these blankets of unseeability, their wholeness irreducible to sight, safe in their cozy invisibility. Only X-rays can make their forms traceable, can transform respiration and the slow pumping of blood cells to document, image, file — hard and irrevocable knowledge. I want my organs to retain their intractability, their enigmatic fidgeting and shifting, their dissidence from the fixity of sight, if nothing more. I feel my darkness holding them inside me like a tight hug. I walk back to the bathroom with an air of relative aimlessness, phone and coffee mug still in hand. My cat is sitting before the toilet in what I interpret as a stance of stoic defiance. If he can’t have the great outdoors, well, he’ll have the grandeur of the bathroom, the site of a different kind of freedom. His black fur looks unkempt despite his regal pretensions. I place the objects I'm holding onto a ledge and rub my fingers into the space between his ears. I think about calling someone but I’m afraid if I use my phone I’ll become instantly surveillable and renounce my newfound unknowability. Since leaving my apartment I’ve felt pangs of loneliness but nothing that can compete with the serenity of my regained embodiment. The hotel room is a voiceless vacuum apart from my cat’s insistent meows, which I am grateful for. They break up the days, have a transformative effect on time, which chugs forward in hearty, indivisible chunks without the chimes of feline desire. Although I can do nothing to appease them, at least they have an enunciative function — they perform the two of us into existence, cut sonic beams through the swamp of hours. I wonder sometimes if I miss you, where you could possibly be. You don’t call me but my mom does, the vibrations send a chill through my spine and I pray they won’t give my location away. Sometimes I think it would be better if I just turned my phone off for good, but the headlines give me a sense of irrefutable certainty I cannot pass up.
AS I HAVE SAID THERE ARE CERTAIN PREREQUISITES: A DEGREE
OF DIMNESS, ABSOLUTE CLEANLINESS, AND QUIET SO
COMPLETE ONE CAN HEAR THE HUM OF A MOSQUITO. I LOVE
TO LISTEN FROM SUCH A TOILET TO THE SOUND OF THE
SLOWLY FALLING RAIN, ESPECIALLY IF IT IS A TOILET OF THE
In the dense, moist forest that had become my home, I was overcome by a sudden and violent sneeze — restored to my senses on the other side of the sneeze, I was struck by a novelty in the environment: trickles of light made their way between the foliage, graced the forest floor. So dim the rays were hard to qualify as light — they were closer to premonitions — but they did contrast with the otherwise pervasive darkness in which I had until now lingered willingly. I was unfazed: I walked, swam, danced, sung and felt otherwise vivacious and bustling. I knew that I wasn’t alone — the forest churned with a vigorous life lived out in secrecy, the beauty of the cool wet hushed and blistering as I trampled on, the thumps of my feet creating a rhythm that echoed off the other resonant lifeforms. I slipped effortlessly between the trees and branches, sticks sometimes catching in unexpected crevices in my body and creating a dull stinging sensation. The light now brushed up against the solid surface of everything without penetrating it. I began to fixate on the dappled patterns it was making on the leaves as they called me into a hallucinatory delirium that reeked of bitter joy with no edges, holes, or contours. I saw, sensed, intuited, imagined, dreamt, meditated on, choked on, incanted, excreted a soft forest of planes, bodies, thoughts — coinciding in a singular moment both dewy and charged with conflicting temporality, a gentle feast that cannot sit still and yet is motionless and wet, as if dripping, but not drowning, just dripping. Big feet push and pull and light foregrounds everything. Bodies like butter that slides out of itself, maybe slips or sinks into, your shoulder or his, blowing bubbles of sleep or smoke. Ghostly grey now I hide in retreat from the big glistening forest, invisible face solemn spine. I take pleasure in the abyss in which all colors densify. Darkness that cannot be peered into. Darkness without an embrace that waits. Can it pulse or does it wait in senselessness with no movement, can’t I enter it I don’t want to believe in dead ends. Can it be porous say yes it is so distant yet somehow the only point, the only place in the chaos of the red green yellow forest in which I want to settle. What is at stake in being a single self whose edges are fixed but are also on the constant threshold of an inevitable dissolution. Darkness so hard and heavy I crawl into it and seek refuge or silence. My flesh undoes itself here in this un-resounding flatness; if I were to seek a surface with my hands I would be met with a fog as thick as my fingers. Just then I caught a whiff of hot air, I recalled my tactical existence, but too late. Too late for what? My disappearance felt immanent — it was one of those things that play out in your gut, the site of the quiet horror of irreparable knowing. The light was becoming stronger now and creating an unbearable physical sensation of heat. I forced my eyes shut but even behind my eyelids I was bathed in a deep red that blotted out all respite. I longed to slip back into my hallucination, I rubbed my eyes but the darkness would not return, everything about me was becoming visible, knowable, mappable, definable, locked into plain sight, fixed like the chemical salts of a developing bath, exposed to the light.
…TO SNATCH AWAY FROM US EVEN THE DARKNESS
BENEATH TREES THAT STAND DEEP IN THE FOREST IS
THE MOST HEARTLESS OF CRIMES*
I lie back down in the vast hotel bed, the memory foam quickly shaping itself into a customized person-sized container that holds me together, tight. I touch my chin to my chest and watch the hills of my hips rise up behind the cloud-like protuberance of my belly, twin peaks jutting out above the atmosphere, then falling down to become hills again. There is nothing to do. I decide to write you a letter, the better to make nothing out of something. I pick up the hotel stationary and pen and begin:
I write to you from the inner organs of a dark swallow. When I last saw you, we were sitting on a cold beach fully clothed eating edamame, popping the gooey peas out and throwing the pods into the sea. We talked about taking a trip to the forest, building a cabin out of dead logs and hoping it didn’t rain. I guess somewhere in the back of our heads we knew it might be our last chance — for what? To inhabit a shadow world, a world below the world, or above — in any case, outside. A world filled to repletion with sleep, silence, memory, emptiness, desire. Desire that never revealed itself fully, that never saw “the light of day,” as the idiom goes. Desire that only became an object in brief, fugitive flashes when its darkness was made visible, slippery, like Junichiro Tanizaki’s lacquerware soup bowls — “With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment before removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl… What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation…” I’ve been reading Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and finding solace in the abiding specificity of its love. He was right to think of darkness in this way, not only as a luxury that comforts as it overcomes, but as a prerequisite to existence. Now the light has gotten in everywhere; there are no cracks or crevices that have not been illuminated and dusted. Seeing myself illuminated is painful but I can handle it, it is my own burden to bear. I cannot even imagine you in your illumination — I would hope that you are sublime, but I fear that you are not, that in the totality of your hygiene you have been swept up and away, and that the shadowless body that remains is full of bright caverns and inhospitable symmetry. Hugging you now would be like trying to hug a filing-cabinet or a chandelier. I worry I would get stuck and have to walk away, maybe bleeding, maybe intact. At that moment I just know my stomach would betray me as it always does — an indisputable gurgle rolling out from my depths and crashing against your hard, vibrant surface. A gurgle, a crash, and a pivot marked by the squeak of a freshly-washed linoleum floor — that would be my goodbye. So now you see why I have to do it here instead — my thought is that maybe language can still hold shadows inside of it. I hope you’ll see the cool rationale that has brought me to this inexorable gesture, and that the hollow bodies of these words will swell out and out of their skins for you, and that they’ll taste as good as my touch.
*Excerpt from Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, translation by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker
is a writer of strange, genre-fluid fiction as well as a visual artist, raised in Los Angeles by a Canadian father and a mother from Hong Kong. As a biracial, bisexual, multicultural artist, a toggling between shifting identities has been a formative feature of Vanessa's education and an implicit influence on her work. The concerns of her work pertain to a discourse of cultural and ecological displacement, in which liminality, memory, and the phenomenology of embodied experience play central roles in the forging of a self beyond categories, paradigms, and borders. She seeks to question the compulsions of late-capitalist society — in which bodies, objects, and landscapes are fit for commodification up until their short-lived expiration dates — by embodying a feminist reconsideration of time and reframing the value of darkness, invisibility, and uncertainty beyond the scope of Western binaries and homogenizing logics. She holds a dual MFA from Calarts.