The follow story originally appeared in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes (Two Dollar Radio, 2014). It is reprinted here with permission of its author. An interview with Rombes is also available today.
The problem with The Insurgent, as Laing told me before handing it over to me, was that it had been deemed too philosophical, too abstract by the studio heads, the money men, at Paramount. It would have been Antonioni’s second American film, after Zabriskie Point (1970). In fact, he wrote the treatment (probably with others, though only his name appears on the document) during the initial months of shooting Zabriskie Point in Los Angeles in 1968, during an era when he spoke frequently and ominously about the fact that we, as human beings, must become reconciled to nature, and that this reconciliation would necessarily involve great violence. Antonioni had found it difficult to adapt to life in California, and, he said in several interviews given during that time, admired the anarchic spirit of the counter-culture while loathing the hippies’ need for gurus and mystics. All this while wearing a heavily starched white shirt and black tie, smoking imported cigarettes and using the phrase “the Southern Strategy” years before it entered the lexicon.
The treatment for The Insurgent is typed on thick cream paper. I reproduce it here, as Laing gave it to me, without alteration:
By A.A., ‘68
Evie has been assigned to repair (to poison, but she doesn’t know this yet) the well, in an obscure area of the State. The notice came, like it always did, in the curiously old-fashioned form of a note in a sealed envelope beneath her apartment door. It was there in the morning, a simple folded slip of paper in the envelope with the coordinates, a time-line, an all-zones passport, a contact number, the familiar list of instructions, and a credit card. If this sounds mysterious and romantic, the stuff of spy novels, then consider that Evie was a mere field engineer, a repairer of structures, a tuner of sounds, part laborer, part designer, part theorist.
The theorist part, that’s what would get her into trouble at the end.
She understands that the job will take her to the furthest edges of the State, where the well hardly seems to matter. She checks the coordinates again and spreads out the map on the floor, tracing in blue pencil a line from where she is now to the place she’s going. Not quite as far as she thought, but still a week’s journey, at least.
She goes back to the envelope, and only then notices that there are two passports, not one. The first one has her name and photo. The second contains an unfamiliar face and photo, someone whose name is Farris. She looks at the instructions again, typed on a white index card. The instructions are the same as always, with the exception of a new directive, typed at the bottom of the card in a font that appeared to be from a different typewriter than the rest. It reads: Join with Farris at mile 9 and continue to destination together.
That night, Evie has a terrible dream. In it, she stands before a vast oil painting in what might have been a museum, a painting that’s so large that she can’t stand far enough away to take it all in. The room is cold and quiet, except for a noise that seems to come from the painting itself, from a small human figure lost in the orange and red oils, and the figure requires that she stand very close to the painting to see it, so close that she can smell the linseed oil, and on the horizon of what appears to be a vast desert is the human figure, on a horse, and the noise it emits from the painting is faint, like the buzzing of a bee, and she becomes dizzy and loses the horizon line and her perspective and in that instant realizes that the voice she heard in the painting is that of her lost sister Kate, crying out to her from the depths of the painting, not even from a photograph, which represented something real at least, but from a painting, so that she was abstract, nothing more than a brushstroke on a canvas, and yet a moving brushstroke, moving slowly across the painting from left to right, as if the artist was not yet finished, waiting for Evie to put her ear to the painting to hear her sister’s scream, her mouth spewing red paint.
The walk to mile 9 is familiar. Through the outskirts of the largely abandoned village, down into the valley, due west, until the remnants of the old city come into view, its cracked cobblestones, the toppled First Presbyterian church spire still dangling from the structure, its upside down cross like some alien warning symbol, the granite-faced library with its smashed-in windows, and then, in the distance to the east, across the river that divided the city, the smoke from the camp settlements.
What had happened here?
The same thing that had happened everywhere.
At 9 mile there’s a man, leaning against a splintering telephone pole, a russet duffel bag at his feet. His shoes are large and black. His hair is crow-black too, greased back like an old-time punk crooner, thinks Evie. An unsteady smile crosses his face as Evie approaches.
He extends his hand, his palm up. For a moment, Evie doesn’t know what to do. Instinctively, she reaches her hand out, too, and they shake, firmly. How long had it been since Evie had done such a simple, fundamental thing as shake another’s hand?
The sky above them has changed slowly from blue to purple, casting everything in a weirdly menacing violet light. The clouds appear distended, stretching low to the ground as if they carried something heavier than moisture. Without another word, they begin their journey, heading east along the city perimeter, skirting the motorway with its now-meaningless signs. As always when Evie’s mind begins to wander her thoughts find their way back to her sister Kate, who had gone missing over a decade ago, just out of university, and the letters she had received from her that she had begun to suspect weren’t really from her at all. Kate. Her shocking red hair. Her barrettes. Her missing left pinky from the accident. Her fierce, troublesome skepticism about the State.
Soon, Evie and Farris develop a rhythm to their walk, and over the course of that first day a set of unspoken rules takes shape: no small talk; walk not side-by-side but one in front of the other, switching positions when it seems right; eyes and ears open for whatever lay ahead. The most remarkable feature of the landscape is its relentless sameness, and if they hadn’t been paying close attention it might seem to Evie and Farris that they had passed the same locations several times, as if walking in a circle.
“I’ve never worked with anyone before,” says Farris, near the end of the first day.
“That’s okay. Who gave you the assignment? Who told you to wait for me at 9 mile?”
“Likely the same ones who told you to find me there,” says Farris.
“What did they say about me?”
“That your name was Evie, and that you would be coming. And that I was to trust you.”
Trust? Who could trust anyone anymore? Did Evie consider herself trustworthy? Or, put another way, did Evie trust Farris? At this point it didn’t matter; trust didn’t enter into the equation of what they were doing. Neither of them depended on each other yet. Each could complete the journey without the help of the other, although at the end everything could change.
They sleep that night beside the locks of an old canal, its stones carved with revolutionary slogans and the names of lovers. As she sometimes does before falling asleep, Evie makes a list in her mind of the things she can be certain of as a way, she supposes, to confirm that her sense of reality is not suspect. Her sister Kate; she is certain of her. And the man beside her, Farris; of him Evie is certain. The fact of the grass beneath her blanket, and the sound of the water in the canal, and the night insects she hears in the nearby trees, and the blank black sky without even a star, and the beating of her heart.
Of these things Evie is certain. This gives her comfort enough to fall asleep. In the morning, she will wake up, inexplicably, on the other side of the canal.
This is not a post-apocalyptic film, a film of what happens after the end of the world. The theorist in Evie understands this, about the story she’s in, understands that the end of the world is really a reactionary fantasy, the dream of thin-blooded tyrants, spun into popular narrative by writers and artists and movie makers. The landscape around her—the broken roads and disfigured buildings and polluted rivers—is not some dystopian fantasy of the slate-wiped-clean, but something far more dangerous: things as they are. The present is always the present, even when it seems like the future. There is no “post-“ to what was happening to Evie.
As she lies there beside the canal, the light just beginning to come up on the horizon, she tries to work through yet again just why they had paired her up with Farris. And why, of all things, send them on a voyage to the outer remnants of the State to repair a well that was unnecessary, and had been for as long as anyone could remember? In school Evie had been taught by radical theorists that the well was, in the words of the philosopher D., an event, not a structure, an event that took the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling. But she understood that the meaning of the well from a theorist’s point of view was just that: theory. She was a practical woman, and during those years of reading and puzzling over the most obscure, esoteric of texts, she made sure to keep grounded in the reality of this world—even as she read books and essays that dismantled that very reality—by chopping wood. She had lived for a time in a small rented house at the edge of a forest that bounded a field, and had taken to dragging fallen limbs out of the forest and hand-cutting and chopping them until her body trembled from exhaustion. As a way, she supposed, of connecting her back to the things her readings in theory were destroying.
But the well. No matter how it was theorized, it remained. And now she’s been summoned to repair it, the very structure identified by her teachers as the most visible outcropping of the ideological state apparatus. An event, not a structure. Something to be destroyed. And here she is, on her way to make it even stronger.
“This way, or that?” asks Farris.
They’ve reached yet another rusted, burnt-out patch of flattened meadow where the foot-path forked in two directions, one easterly, one west.
“You pick.” She can’t be the one to decide. She doesn’t think it matters much which path they take.
“This way, then,” says Farris, and they head east, Evie walking behind, observing Farris’s slight limp. She also notices the scar on the back of Farris’s neck, a patch of almost shiny skin in the shape, as far as Evie can tell, of a five-pointed star.
An hour later, they arrive back at the same spot.
“Well, now what?” asks Farris, taking a swig from his canteen and passing it over to Evie. Something like a grasshopper but larger jumps across the space between them. For a moment Evie thinks it’s a bird but then just as quickly dismisses the thought. Birds don’t jump like that.
“West, then,” Farris says, wiping his mouth.
But west is no better. They pass several, then more, then more, people on the path, heading in the opposite direction, sacks of grain or something on their backs, babies strapped to their fronts like shrunken prisoners of war.
That night, lying in the dark, Evie cradles the small transistor radio to her ear, slowly rotating the tiny plastic dial through the Gaussian noise. The entire spectrum of the dial: nothing. Until at last, this, as if some terrible new philosophy was being communicated in a secret broadcast that Evie was not meant to hear.
Then, as if in response to the noise, she feels something on the back of her left hand, like the gentle movement of a moth turning in circles. When she’s sure Farris is asleep she holds the back of her hand up to the firelight and sees it there, the oil painting from her dream, in miniature, her sister Kate lost now but coming up for air in this painting, alive in oranges and reds on the back of her hand, tingling, and tilted just the right way against the jumping, shadowed light from the flames she could spot her, linseeded and moving in the painting and if she dared (which she did) to put the back of her hand to her ear she could hear her, the small bee-like voice, and in that moment Evie felt that she was in a loop, and that she had returned again not to a place but to a memory, the same memory, of her sister the night before she disappeared, purple barrettes in place, secret eye shadow, shorter-haired than before, focused, intensely focused, the car pulled over, the promise she made her make about keeping that drawer in her dresser locked, and the way she could tell in the car dome-light that something was wrong, and how it all changed with the sudden rain that forced them to roll up the car windows fast, the old hand-crank kind, and the pelting of the rain on the roof, and the steam rising off the hood, and then how it stopped suddenly and Evie had to kick open the door (she laughed) because the moisture made it stick, them coming around to the trunk area of the car, in the night, Kate calling her “brother” and Evie calling her “sister” as if they were the first to decipher the stupid codes of their time, the trunks of trees in the headlights of the car coming up from the earth, no record of them except in tree rings fossilized in museums or textbooks.
And no record of Kate after that night.
The well. What about the well? It was a question posed by Evie to Farris, as a sort of test.
“Farris,” she says, as they make their way the next day across a plain, “what’s your plan concerning the well?”
“To help you repair it.” He’s walking in front of Evie, leading the way. The sky has brightened, and the sun’s making the earth beneath their feet, it seems to Evie, somehow softer.
“What makes you think I’m going to repair it?”
With this, Farris stops and turns to her. A look—an almost threatening look, or worse, demonic—crosses his face and then just as quickly vanishes. He smiles, fingers a cigarette from his pocket, lights it (in a procedural sort of way) takes a drag, and offers it to Evie. To be friendly Evie obliges and passes it back.
“You know,” says Farris, “they warned me you might say that.”
In the near distance, an animal of some sort, black and low, crosses the plain. It makes a noise, a muted howl. It stops, and then moves again, and then stops. Evie feels the paint moving again on the back of her left hand, and she glances down to see it swirling slowly, counterclockwise, in purples and browns, like a bruise. The animal is closer now and they can see the black, shiny hair standing up on its back, thick like wire. It makes another sound, and Evie pictures the noise as red horizontal sound bars reaching low across the ground towards her and she understands or thinks she understands that if she can get close enough to the animal or whatever it is to hear the sound up close it would be significant and have meaning.
They push, step by step, deeper into the State and the animal shadows them for a while and then disappears. The plain gives way to patchy untended fields that slope gently down into a valley. They pass people dressed in yellow tending an apple orchard and a building with a spire looming behind them topped off with something carved out of metal, a slashing symbol unknown to either Evie or Farris. They continue on, warming in the afternoon sun, sometimes Evie leading sometimes Farris. They walk in silence mostly, their strides in synch for minutes at a time.
Until the drones come, appearing in the form of something resembling hawks, complete with feathers, soaring high and screechless. Evie has a memory—as faint as the undercoating of paint—of throwing pebbles at large birds like that. Not quite: her handing Kate small stones and she hauling off and whipping them at the sky not to hit them but to make them dive as if at insects. They had gotten the idea from watching bats at dusk above the open field drop and rise in sharp, impossible rhythms. Just trying to pick one out and follow it was enough to set your eyes in a sort of waking REM.
There are two of them, then three, against the gray afternoon sky. Those slow, looping, circles in the air that were so familiar.
“Are they ours?” Farris asks, still watching the sky.
Evie, standing behind him, considers, yet again, the star-shaped symbol scarred onto the back of Farris’s neck. To their east is an enormous grasslands, stretching to the far horizon. To their west is much the same, with pale mountains rising in the distance. They stand upon something like a farm-to-market road, dipping and rising ahead of them and then curving off into the unseeable distance.
“The one on the left is, maybe,” Evie says. It’s meant as a joke; the drones are in continual motion, continually exchanging places in the sky. There is no left or right drone. It’s a test, of sorts, to see if Farris would smile.
After two hours of walking at a good clip without stopping, everything looks the same. Which is to say, everything looks just slightly different, somehow. Repetition and difference. Wasn’t that how one of the theorists Evie studied under characterized our present age? Was it repetition with difference or and difference? Also: Empty time. In the dry air of that classroom in the cool basement library Evie had fallen in love with the translated words of philosopher D., even though later that semester, drunk at the Brickhouse on a cold winter night, she would learn from the philosophy students that no one in philosophy considered D. a real philosopher. What is he then? Evie asked. An aphorist, they said, made into a philosopher by English departments.
That night, as Farris and Evie sleep near the side of the road beneath one of the shapeless thorn apple trees that had begun to appear, Evie listens as Farris talks in his sleep. Some of the words are familiar:
State . . .
Instructions . . .
Firestorm . . .
Jinxed . . .
While others seem to be two words put together into something familiar:
Out-push . . .
Day-gold-by . . .
Open-waste . . .
And yet others are alien to Evie:
Cuitlaxcolli . . .
In the morning they keep walking. The State stretches on and on, encompassing its own useless, undulating fields. Day after day, toward the chaos and catastrophe of the well. Evie’s repair kit with its small metal objects wrapped individually in oiled cloths weighs heavily on her back in a small leather knapsack. On the third day the grass fields change to barren, dusty land, and then back to grass.
The lack of objects on the horizon intrigues and then spooks Evie, who recalls the plane of immanence from her useless theory-training, the horizontal moment of thought and all that. She understands that in order to repair the well she will have to destroy it. That was prerequisite for the emergence of any new System. She will need to get to the root of the infection. In this phase of the State’s long collapse, to be an engineer, as she is, means to be a destroyer, not a designer, of objects. But in order to destroy them properly one has to know how they were built in the first place.
On the fifth day, they arrive at a quarry, the first sign that they are nearing the well. Evie knows that some sections have been quarried hundreds of kilometers from where it was built, so the well might still be days ahead. The bitter smell of limestone fills the air and Evie can’t help thinking of the smell of blood from a large, cut-throated animal. Large ruts in the earth indicating the direction the limestone had been transported ran due north, towards the well. Looking down into the quarry she sees that at the bottom, perched on a large rock in the middle of a pool of turquoise water, there are several of the drones they had seen in the sky earlier. Again, Evie thinks of Kate and her pebble throwing, and of how, on the night before she disappeared, home from university for the summer, her hair shorter than Evie had ever seen it before, they had gone to the zoo, and how in the enormous walk-in aviary, so full of sound, she first suggested that some of the birds weren’t real at all.
The quarry a few hours behind them, Evie and Farris rest at the side of the road.
“We should have taken a trophy,” says Farris, “from the animal.”
“As a reminder. Maybe a tusk.”
“There were no tusks.”
“I should have said ‘the.’ There was only one tusk. Someone or something else must have taken the other.”
This was the most Farris has said since the beginning of the journey.
“Or the tail,” Farris continues. “Tusk or tail.”
“What tail? There wasn’t any tail.”
Farris gives Evie a look that tells her to stop or to be careful, but Evie keeps talking.
“We looked at the same animal, Farris, dead on the road. There were no tusks. There was no tail.”
“Perhaps you failed to see them because of the blood.”
“I saw what you saw. The same thing.”
“Well. We should have taken a trophy,” says Farris, and they are back where they began.
Before nightfall they pass another, larger quarry. The landscape is more rugged now, with outcroppings of mossy rocks and scattered pine trees. By the light of the campfire, Evie studies the back of her left hand, looking for movement in the design. Her thoughts drift ahead to the well, not as a structure but as an event, an event that the State wants her to contain, as if meaning could ever be anything other than deferred, and in this deferral not nothingness but the revelation of absolute absence. A structurally unreadable sign, that’s what the well had become, and yet she was to engineer its repair, as if a breach that great could be repaired. The question was: why has the State sent her on a mission to repair a well that, they must know, is beyond repair?
During the night, beneath the stars, the sky full of silent drones, more than she could possibly imagine, Evie dreams of letters, and then those letters in the shape of a word: Cuitlaxcolli.
The next day, under the bright hot sun, they arrive at a false well, prior to the well itself. Quarried and built around the same time as the original well, this one’s purposes remained obscure. Its stone rim rises impressively from the landscape: its clean limestone lines that someone made an enormous circle, its sheer whiteness in the sun, the way it seemed somehow to divide nature from itself.
As they approach, the well wall towers higher than it appears possible, as if it has grown as they have come nearer. At least ten meters high and stretching enormous distances as it curves around to meet itself again. On the other side of the curving wall, presumably, the well itself, as deep as the imagination would allow. As they enter its cool shadow it appears that it has emerged out of the earth rather than been built upon it. A flock of drones passes silently overhead, their shadows racing across the plain toward Evie and Farris and then disappearing into the well wall’s shadow.
After half a day’s westerly walk parallel to the false well, they reach the end and head north again, the well receding in the distance. Soon, the plain gives way to outcroppings of trees and they stop at a good-sized lake where they gather water, catch fish, and rest. And then north again into a vast pine forest that holds the cool air and seems untouched by the will of the State. For most of the time Evie walks in front and on the straight parts Farris follows in sync, step for step, so that it sounds to Evie as if she is walking alone. In these long stretches she wonders what the differences are, really, between the false well and the real well they are headed toward. At certain points the forest is so thick with trees that she feels it difficult to generate any thought at all, and so she walks without thinking, her legs mechanically carrying her forward. Without knowing how it happened her hands have become sticky with pine sap.
They reverse positions: now Evie follows Farris. The forest stretches on and on as if only to create the very conditions of its own existence. Evie imagines for a while that the forest is the well. As a child she had heard that the well had been stuffed with bodies of the State’s enemies, so that it was really a graveyard. A mass grave. And other stories that it wasn’t built by the State at all, but by the kingdom or whatever it was that the State had conquered hundreds of years ago. And others yet that it wasn’t a well even but something natural, something of nature itself. The well appeared and disappeared from history books. Often it was spoken of, and then suddenly it was not. It appeared on stamps and then those stamps were confiscated, along with the envelopes they were affixed to. A story made the rounds that those without limbs had had them forcibly removed to eradicate the symbols of the well that had been tattooed upon them. Then just as suddenly the well was heralded on all the State’s banners. The well became a natural resource and then, the next week, a toxic waste site. A documentary about the well’s early existence was shown on television and the following night the same documentary was re-advertised as a feature film masquerading as a documentary.
It’s safe to say that people of Evie’s generation were raised to have a schizophrenic relationship with the well, at once desiring and detesting it, acknowledging its existence and then disavowing it, and on and on. As darkness seeped into the pine forest Evie thinks about this, and then suddenly realizes that Farris is gone. Evie stops, calls out his name. It’s the first time she has spoken all day and the sound of her own voice startles her.
“Farris,” she calls out, and the name just hangs there in the air for a moment and then disappears, along with Farris himself.
Suddenly Evie feels stupid standing alone in the forest. So she keeps walking, alone, until it’s too dark to continue.
And then she makes her camp for the night.
As she sleeps in the dark, Evie cannot have known that the black sky has filled with silent drones so completely autonomous that even to their ground controllers their purpose is obscure, or that the forest ferns produce haploid spores that travel impossible distances, or that her lost sister Kate is sleeping also on some other patch of the earth, or that she has not yet even arrived at the deepest part of the forest, or that the animals that have followed her and Farris earlier are still nearby and that they aren’t animals at all but, like the drones, machines in the guise of animals, created by the State for the simple reason that they could be created and once created set loose to explore, as if the State, having already discovered and mapped itself, created these things to experience itself anew, not through the eyes of humans but machines, and not to collect information but to forget information so that it could be discovered againas if for the first time, or that one theory of the well — being debated at this very moment by functionaries of the State — was that the well existed only insofar as it receded from view, a perpetually vanishing vanishing point, and that Evie’s useless, carefully tended tools are already antiques aged beyond use and that she has been on this journey for a very, very long time, not days but months. Or years.
In the morning she continues, without Farris, passing through the thickest part of the forest and then out into an expanse of grasslands that give way to a village whose flags bear woven symbols that Evie has not seen before. Three men with wooden rifles spot her on the outskirts and follow her casually as she takes the road that skirts the town. They don’t threaten her. She imagines that, if she had wanted to, they would allow her to enter the village.
It’s not that she misses Farris — what is there to miss? — but rather that she misses the idea of Farris’s presence, as quiet and unobtrusive and even menacing as it was. As Evie leaves the village, the road straightens out and after a few miles takes her by another lime quarry, larger than the previous one, an impossibly sharp-angled cube subtracted from the earth, a pool of bright, glass-flat turquoise water at the bottom. She stands at the edge, peering in, and knows that the well is not far off, and that the stone from this quarry had been used to build it. Three very large birds circle silently in the sky above her, and she senses she was being watched in a way she hasn’t felt before.
If it’s true that the drones have evolved somehow as self-sustaining machines detached from the State itself, then why did the State allow them to exist? What data could they possibly be gathering and transmitting, and to whom or what? Evie suddenly feels the urge to shoot one down, to watch it with the eyes of an insurgent spiral into the turquoise water far below. Better yet to have it fall at her feet so that she could, with her bare hands, determine once and for all what it was made of, where evolution had taken it. What would it feel like to grab hold of the neck of one of those things and squeeze until the lights or cameras or whatever its eyes were made of went out? Did it store the data it collected or just transmit it raw and unfiltered to the nearest antenna tower? Could it fly alone or did it need the others (they always appeared in flocks) to navigate?
That night, Evie sleeps near the edge of the quarry not hoping to sleepwalk over the edge into the pit but not hoping not to either as the night sky fills again with drones flocking and scattering in silence and shitting whatever it is that machines shit, the exhaust not of animals but of engines, engines of thought and malice now detached from their makers and flying amok in the sky above the land of the State upon which Evie sleeps, swooping down close to her in the night, dragging their bird-like feet across the top of the tall prairie grass, their machine thoughts unformed and digitally rigid but beginning to expand beyond the binary into something sentient in an animal sort of way.
Evie sleeps. The earth spins. The State expands and contracts in the night like a breathing creature. And the well arranges itself in anticipation of her arrival.
In the pale morning light, Evie has a beautiful thought, not a memory exactly, but a thought built on a memory, of Kate, showing her the chipped and scarred teak box where she kept her cigarettes lined up neatly like the dead wrapped tightly in white muslin, her fingertips nicotine stained or else just faintly yellow in the sunlight, the thought beautiful not because it was beautiful but simply because it refused to turn itself into a narrative as so many of her thoughts did, and that was the power of Kate before she disappeared and, to her great surprise and happiness, even now after she was gone: her absolute refusal to become a part of anyone’s story. Kate had managed to detour almost any conversation into what Evie, in the months before Kate disappeared, would think of as a sort of metaphysical swampland, where first you agreed to this, and then to that, and then also conceded x, y, and z, and before you knew it you were laughing with her about the absurdity of, say, believing that the sun exists.
If this were one of those horror movies where the demon or spirit was always off screen then Kate would remain — a she is now — out of sight and off the page. Not that she’s demonic and not that Evie’s thoughts tend, of late, to be spectral, or that gathering herself to sleep less than one statute mile away from the well doesn’t make her miss Kate even more, because what would she say about this whole mess Evie was in other than to divert it to some other level, deeper or higher, what did it matter as long as it was diverted in the endless way that flocks of tree swallows move in assembling and disassembling pixels across the sky. Kate’s cigarettes, the closest she ever came to real rebellion, the way she shut her eyes when Evie lit one for her, leaning in close to her, some secret sisterly information shared between them of the sort that would take years to decode. The way she lit her cigarette off hers, Evie before she became Evie, and before the missed call that would result in Kate’s disappearance from the known places of this world.
A dead world. Of course they had both fantasized about it, though not in a post-apocalyptic way. Their thoughts, when they ran together as in the moment with the shared cigarettes on the roof of Kate’s flat, conjured a world devoid of the objects that gave rise to artifacts and then to meaning. How to think without thinking, and would a dead planet make such a thing possible? Back then the State had just deployed the first generation of drones-as-birds, and they hadn’t figured out how to land them in trees yet, and the whole thing was comical, really, to watch them try to perch on a branch only to end up tangled and dying there, depowered, until one of the freelance retrieval units came to bag them and return them at the depot. It was Kate who first spoke about how the drones might very well be the first step in the direction of lifelessness. The denaturing of nature, its living creatures replaced one by one by dead things, like Evie’s crablike ribcage and its preposterous sternum self-coding in symmetrical offshoots.
In the meantime of Evie’s memory Kate flicked her smoked-down cig off the roof and leaned back and sighed and Evie reached over (and this was years ago and miles of unstrung human thought away from where Evie was now, near the real well) and picked up her fallen blue barrette which she held in the palm of her hand for her like a live, trembling cricket, the smallness of its heart beating against her skin. She closed the cigarette box then opened it again and they commenced with the same cig-lighting ritual and she banished the thought that between the moments of the closing and opening of the box the cigarettes they had just smoked replaced themselves (as if through magic) and if Kate noticed this too she didn’t let on in the least but simply let Evie light hers off of her own precisely as she had minutes earlier and that’s when Kate asked her again, this time in a way she could understand, about a dead world, something along the lines of are we on a dead world with living things or a living world with dead things? and then laughed as if to withdraw her question before Evie could take it seriously, which was her way, Kate’s.
In a sense the question answered itself when a lone drone drifted across the sky, apparently having broken away from the flock and she lifted her hand to wave at the bird, which back then they built with enormous twenty meter wing spans that modeled her own wobbling thought and unfastened gravity so as to rise and fall on the updrafted heat from the earth. The drone’s slow shadow dragged across the city streets below as real as the shadow of a bird not stuffed with wires, but actual bird-blood and wire-thin bones that, dried out, seem as fragile as straw of the sort that no cigarette box or bone box could preserve any more than anarchist thoughts disguised as blood-red oil-dripped paintings in some Soho art gallery could stay on walls in frames gazed upon by doomed children lost deep and deeper in their longings and volcanic breaking of tens and twenties as the family that shouldn’t have turned off I-90 but stayed on the interstate built and abandoned and rebuilt by the State’s most prolific technicians. Evie feels the massively parallel signature sequencing that sparks between them, the 10 feet of DNA coiled into a microscopic nucleus, sister and sister not uterine or agnate but full, the ragged sentimentality of nostalgia for the future (because in the future all bonds are severed) tugging at her in an unforgiving, psychopathic way, as if the State and its fucking black drones could ever see into Kate’s heart or the synapse flashes that inspired her fragile hand to touch her heart or hold a cigarette to her lips or close her eyes to black out the stupid life-affirming symbols of her era that came now faster and faster in clichéd binaries of ones and zeroes strung out like the video-game junkies from her middle-school years, blinking their way awkwardly into the reality of the real world, this world, not some other double-screened once removed from the finger touch of riverbank mud or the suicide splatter of a skyscraper diver, his thoughts splattered across sidewalks and plate glass storefront windows, and if Evie shuddered to think that Kate might take this sort of leap first, without her, understanding that the drones accumulated into the textures and fabrics of reality, the DNA coils that linked enemy States so that every war was really brother versus brother and sister versus sister well, then at least one of them had gone first into the void.
And in the pale morning light Evie (now back in the present) abandoned by Farris and walled-in by thoughts of wells and the family she would never raise or those gardens out back in the 7 o’clock sun she would never tend, guiding her son’s or daughter’s uncalloused hands into the to-be-seeded furrows and yet deeper-welled furrows of the mind to protect them from the soft-thought walkabouts of the State itself, schooled now in a sort of Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam self-understanding, Evie’s thoughts still fleeing back back back to Kate on the roof despite her best efforts to press forward, her cigarettes and the way the wooden matches that lit them kept striking and unstriking in her mind, her guillotine eyelids and the minimalist precision of her thoughts like notes or silence, the timed silence of 4’33’’ as if the Commonwealth of Nations number signs could legislate the counting-down-till-death beats of her heart, or how, when the immense drones glided too close overhead you could hear something whirring in them, you wondered whether they could hear the whirring inside you.
How Evie’s thoughts tend to collapse in on each other as she nears the well so that it amounts to an act of violent psychological excavation to bring them to the surface pure and clean and uninfected. And that very same Evie up on two legs making her way across a grasslands spotted with oak trees, the false well fading behind her and the landscape now dotted with lime quarries large and small and some unfinished as if the levied stone was not pure enough. Shaking out grains of sand from her hair from where she slept and them scattering and the sound of thunder as they fall to the ground. Thought, and the thought of thought, pulling itself apart at the seams. And reaching the well at last. A long line of limestone cubes set one after the other, hardly a well at all, cubes about as large as small automobiles. A mockery of a well, devoid of any sort of clear intention. Long dry grasses growing between and around the stones that encircle the supposed deepness of the well itself, the stones demarcating nothing from nothing, the natural world as banal on this side as on that. Hardly worth dividing. Evie collapsing and then recovering beneath the unevenness of her thoughts splitting into splinters and then rearranging into wholes, swirling into Kate, the complete and utter breakdown of object relations, the stones themselves separated and unattached, the well there on the other side deep and black and as endless as
Welling in or out a dead world.
And she, Evie, going to destroy it all.