Whiteness (Surrealist Painting in Words)
Previously published in Bourbon Penn issue 9 in 2014. This story was inspired by a childhood drawing I made. I wanted to use it in the publication, but I couldn't get it to scan correctly. Now cell phones have multi-megapixel cameras, so it looks good enough. Still, I'd like to do a proper scan and clean it up. The drawing dates to around 1993, so the paper has aged, and I'd like to color correct that someday. I present it now for all to enjoy. I have no idea why I drew this, or why I wrote the story.
Whiteness (Surrealist Painting in Words)
by James L. Steele
As far as I can see there is only whiteness. If I could move my head, I would say that the whiteness encircles me. Perspective smudges the vast distance I cannot comprehend into meaningless white space. I’ve always thought that empty space should be black. Pure white is just as empty, but there is a greater illusion of distance because it is lighted. I need the light to see the nothingness. Without seeing it, the immensity of emptiness in front of me would have no meaning.
Slicing through this illuminated emptiness are the blue threads. Thousands and thousands of strands reaching from the faded, white distance. Some curve downward, disappearing into infinity. Others begin on one side, make loops, spiral and zigzag through my line of sight and fade out somewhere on the other side. Some choose a mostly straight path, as though they are pulled taut. Still other threads leap up and down, or bound from side to side before choosing one side or the other. Several of them begin from the distance ahead of me, spiraling and snaking their way around the whiteness until they go out of my vision.
It is like I have been woven into fabric. Sewn into a blue mesh. One of the threads wraps around my ankle. Another coils around my left arm. Though I cannot see it, I can feel that a thread goes through my neck. Another comes up from my thigh, through my pubic bone and out the front of my chest, fading to white in the distance in front of my eyes. Another thread comes from the center of my vision in a straight line, eventually piercing the upper left half of my skull and, I assume, continues its path behind me. They are not cold or disturbing. The threads are soothing. Their heat warms me from the inside.
I can feel more threads piercing my lower body. One pierces my back, squirming through my entrails before exiting from the top of my thigh. A thread puncturing my lower body hits my stomach, and I can feel it coiled up through my intestines and finally exiting my anus.
A few pass through my chest, exiting at various places behind me. Three threads enter my right bicep at exactly the same place, through the vein running on the top of the muscle. It feels like all three threads travel inside this vein before spreading out like plant roots. One exits at my shoulder. The other at my armpit. The last snakes up my neck and comes out under the chin. I cannot be sure of this, but it feels like I’ve also been strung from ear to ear, as though a thread has a loop through my head.
But my favorite thread feels like it enters my back from a low angle. It passes through my heart, then up my throat and finally out my mouth, continuing a lazy, loopy path into whiteness. The rhythm of my heart beating vibrates the thread. I often rub my tongue against this one.
Breathing is difficult. The threads resist my efforts to move, and they are reluctant to allow me even shallow breaths. I have a sense of up and down, but I have no reference points to confirm it. Just a vague feeling that I am upright, at least most of the way. Although I do not feel as though the threads are holding me up to keep me from falling.
The image of what is immediately in front of my eyes is static and fixed: whiteness shredded into slices, curves and loops by the blue threads. When I blink, the image persists on my eyelids in inverted colors. When I open them, it hasn’t changed. It never changes. It is exactly the same as it always has been. I begin to wonder if I haven’t been looking at it for so long that my eyes have stopped seeing it, and they instead create this image from pure memory.
Besides breathing, my eyes and tongue are all I can move. I have peripheral glances at more scratched whiteness and I assume it goes on forever around me. There are no sounds except those of my breath, no smells, no visual stimuli. The only senses I use are touch and taste. I feel the pleasant warmth coming from the threads, and I can taste the thread in my mouth.
When my tongue rubs against it, it is smooth like metal but not cold. Like all the threads, it is warm. I feel my heartbeat throbbing through it. This is the only thread I have had any conscious contact with. It is my friend. I am fascinated by it, for it lets me touch it. I am not sure why I like this, but touching it with my tongue gives a strange reassurance that the threads do not hate me. When I feel this thread, its shiny, smooth texture is soothing, like rubbing a warm soapstone. It seems that the thread likes the contact. It is all I can do. I am woven into the whiteness. The threads keep me company.
I close my eyes. The scene does not go away, but inverts and stays on my eyelids. The whiteness is now black, and the threads now appear red. It’s like the image I see is emanated from my eyes. Did I create this? If I can see it even when my eyes are closed, does it come from me? Are my own eyes projecting this scene in front of me because my eyes have ceased to function? Do I really exist here, or am I creating all of this? I open my eyes again. The scene reverts. The red threads are now blue again. The blackness changes to white. They are the only two images I have ever seen. Persistent and unchanging.
But something is different this time. I blink again, let the image stay on my closed eyes for a moment, and then open them. There is something else in the distance, coming out of the infinity. In this expanse of smooth and empty whiteness, a lump is easy to spot.
Then I feel a sliding sensation inside my body, as though the threads have begun moving inside me. The friction creates even more heat within, and I realize that the scene is changing. When I blink, the image is no longer burned into my eyes.
The thread that coils through my intestines warms my abdomen as it moves through them like a snake. The one that pierces my heart slides through the muscle and over my tongue. The longer I keep my tongue on it, the more heat builds up, and soon it’s too hot to keep there. The mass in the distance is coming up to my eye level and getting larger. I then realize that the other threads are moving as well. If the threads connected to me were moving, why would the others move as well? No, they’re not coming out of me. I’m moving. Sliding forward on the threads as though I were on rails.
The thread that is coiled around my right arm slithers around and around like a screw, moving my arm in sync with the rest of my body. The one wrapped around my foot is not moving, but I can feel it pulling.
My movement is slow and controlled, and I feel the threads gripping me as they move me on their track. I still cannot move my head. My position has not changed, only my orientation. But what I can see is that the threads themselves are changing their positions so they can move me along them. The one that pierces my head is no longer perfectly straight, but now bows with my shifting position. Does it bow back up and resume its otherwise straight line behind me, I wonder? Does anything exist behind me?
The lump in the distance is much closer. So close I think I can make it out. It is the figure of another person. Whether it is like me or not, I do not know. I have never seen my own body. I realize that the other person is moving towards me as well. I can now see this person is a man, and the threads pierce him through the fingertips, running through his chest and exiting out the same digit on the other side. A single thread runs through both of his feet, through the toes, webbing them. Both threads vanish into the distance and continue on beneath me. Nothing pierces his head or chest. He is moving laterally down his threads, spread eagle. I wonder if the thread running through his torso also goes through his heart. Surely it must go through the lungs. A surprisingly neat way to string someone. I wish I only had two threads going through me.
My own threads have finally lowered me to his level. We are not connected; our lines are different. We stop in unison. A thread appears from above and pierces the man through the chest. He moans. A moment later, that thread pulls him vertically so he can look at me. I need no adjusting, and remain stationary.
The man regards me for a long time. What a sight I must be. Threads coming from my mouth, anus, torso, legs, and head. Does he fear me? Does he fear the threads? Whenever I start to feel afraid, I rub the one in my mouth with my tongue for comfort. I wonder if the threads will give him a similar gift to help him handle the discomfort.
It’s nice to have something different to look at, but at the same time it’s frightening. The view in front of my eyes is unfamiliar. I am so used to being able to predict what I will see no matter where I point my eyes that now, to see anything different, I am unsure what to look at. It is confusing and frightening. I stroke the thread in my mouth for comfort.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch glimpse of an emerging thread coming closer. It loops, winds and cuts its way towards the man. My eyes follow it until the thread enters the man’s ear. He does not moan or move at all this time. After a heartbeat, it reemerges out the man’s knee and continues downward. Another thread comes from somewhere over my head and enters his nostril. It exits somewhere out his backside and fades into the distance. Three threads appear from different directions and enter him at once; one to his chest, another to his shoulder, and another at his back. A heartbeat later they exit in unison; one from his stomach, another from his hip, and the last from his thigh; which weaves up and connects his forearm to his leg, finally traveling outside my vision. I rub the thread with my tongue as I watch. I feel so sorry for him. Nothing is near his mouth. He will have nothing to do.
The man is spread out in front of me like a marionette, arms wide, feet webbed. He now has as many running through him as I do. I wonder what he’s thinking right now. As I look at him, I stroke the thread. The warmth on my tongue calms me down as I become comfortable with this new image in front of my eyes. I move my eyes in all directions to take it in. Still empty whiteness threaded with blue fibers, but now there’s something to look at. This man in front of me. I study him closely. His skin is brown. Whenever I glimpse my own skin it’s much paler, so this man is different from me. Am I a man, too? I am not sure. He appears to be studying me as well. Maybe he can tell me what I’m like compared to him.
The man’s lips move. I can see his tongue moving inside his mouth as well. He emits a few moaning noises and then, “Who are you?”
I am not sure what to do. It has been so long since I have heard anything.
After panting a few times, he moves his lips again. “What is your name?”
Something about it I understand. Name. Yes, I remember what that means. I am not sure how I remember. I am not sure how I can remember any of these comparisons. Perhaps they are more imaginings of my mind. Name. Do I have one?
I struggle to move my jaw, but there are two threads holding it slack. All I can move is my tongue. I try to form a reply, but I’m not even sure how to answer. “I du kna.”
The man across from me stares at me with eyes wide. At least he can move his face. “What... happened to you?”
I close my eyes. Did something happen to me? Is there a reason I’m here? I sigh, trying to come up with a simple response. “lah... oo eoo ean?” It’s all I can manage. The thread does not want me to speak, but I must.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Blink once for yes, twice for no, three times for I don’t know.”
I blink three times.
The man turns his head and looks around him. “Do you know where we are?”
I blink once.
“E are ere,” I say.
“But... but where? How long have you been here?”
I have an answer to that one, and I don’t want to blink. “Ih all-ase in ere.”
“You’ve always been here,” he says. “Is that what you said?”
I blink once.
He looks around. He can move his head slightly before the thread running through his ear tugs him back again. Nothing else will move. When he takes in his surroundings, he looks straight at me again. “My name is... uh... " he struggles for a few breaths. “Um... I don’t remember. I... I know I had a name. What was it? Oh, God, what is my name?”
I regard him in pity. He seems to be trying to struggle against the threads, but it will be no use. Eventually he will figure that out.
“Why can’t I remember my name? Where the hell am I? What’s happening to us!? Help! Can anyone hear me?! Anyone?!”
His voice does not echo. The white space absorbs it.
“Oh, God! What is this place! Help us! Please, answer me! We can’t be the only two here! Help! Heeelllp!” He struggles. He is actually moving, bobbing up and down, occasionally stretching the thread taut around his head, but in the end, the threads pull him back to the exact same position.
I blink twice, trying to tell him to stop. But suddenly, I can’t remember why I want him to stop. He isn’t disturbing me — I almost enjoy the activity. It’s so much more interesting than static whiteness.
“Lady?” he says. “Lady, can we get out of here? Is there anyplace else besides this?”
I think on that. Lady? What is a lady? I blink three times.
“Oh, no... God help us!”
He thrashes on his threads, pulling them this way and that, and each time the threads retract him back into position. With great difficulty, he raises his arm towards his face, struggling against the thread’s attempt to pull it back down. Keeping his palm up and stretching his head as far over as he can, he draws the thread to his mouth and gnaws on it. As he does, the thread pulls tighter.
He manages to keep the thread in his mouth for a long time before he apparently can’t resist anymore. His entire arm whips straight out. His head whips back in place and he’s facing me again. He breathes faster and tries to move his feet. He manages to move his webbed toes over the thread for a while, but eventually they slide back into place, and for all his struggles he can’t do anything. The threads are tight now. He dangles.
I click my tongue on the thread in my mouth. He looks up, taking it as a signal that I want his attention. I blink twice, trying to tell him not to do that. “Ih ong co gisgurg hem.” It’s wrong to disturb them. I hope he understands.
We stare at each other for a while longer, the man huffing and puffing from his struggle. Strange. His threads were loose. Are mine still loose? I don’t recall ever struggling, so perhaps I can move after all.
I try to move my head, but each time the thread is solid and tight as steel. I then attempt to move my foot, the one coiled up by threads. My foot doesn’t move at all. I can feel the muscles squeezing, but nothing happens. I am rigidly in place, as he is now.
“We can’t move at all,” he says.
I blink once.
“What’s happening here? Is there anyone else here besides us?”
I don’t know how to answer him. Anyone else? Until I met him, I thought there was nothing else besides me and the threads that touch me. What an amazing concept: others. What made him think there could be more than just the two of us? What had he asked earlier? Something about something else besides this?
“Ih ere ayhin el?”
“Is there anything else?” he says.
I blink once.
“Of course there is! There’s... there is... " he turns his eyes down (he had tried to look down with his head, but it wouldn’t move, so he only moved his eyes instead). “I was sure that I came from somewhere else, but where? Where was I? What’s my name? I’m losing my memory! Now I can’t remember where I came from!”
Where he came from? He came from the threads just now. Was there supposed to be more?
He starts to cry. “No! I’m forgetting everything! Lady, do you know anything about yourself? Where did you live before you came here?”
“Ut ihh a aady?”
“What is a lady?” he repeats.
I blink once.
He stares at me for a moment, panting, apparently at a loss. “You’re a woman,” he says.
I blink once and click my tongue. “Ut go I ook ike?”
“You don’t know?” he says. “Well... you’re a woman. You’re white. Uh... no hair. No chest. Just... skin and bone. God... what happened to you? Do you remember anything about yourself?”
I’m a woman? I had no idea.
“Es,” I respond. “Ih all-ase in ere. Oo all-ase in ere.”
He shakes his eyes instead of his head and says, “No! No, I haven’t always been here and I know you haven’t either! But... but — damn it, why can’t I remember?”
Amazing, all the things I’m learning about myself. Perhaps he can answer another question. Since he’s facing me, he can see behind me. I click my tongue.
“Ut iss ehin ee?”
“What’s behind you?” he says after he catches his breath. “Well... it’s just more strings. Endless white. Really, there’s nothing behind you. What about me? Is there anything behind me?”
I blink once.
“How far does it go?” he says.
“In-hin-ih-key,” I say.
His breathing suddenly becomes erratic. He struggles again, thrashing, actually moving the threads again, although barely. I close my eyes and ponder what a wonderful thing he gave me. He told me what was behind me. So the whiteness really does encircle me. It isn’t my eyes projecting it, I really am here. All this really is around me. It’s so wonderful to know this at last. Before I could only guess, but now I know. Finally, I know.
My thoughts are broken when he shouts again. “Can anyone hear me?! If you can talk please answer!”
Behind him I notice a speck moving.
“We’re trapped here! Is there anyone else?”
I recognize it. It’s another thread snaking its way from the infinity in front of me. Amazing. Until now I didn’t even know the threads could move. I click my tongue, but he’s yelling so loud he won’t be able to hear it.
“Oh my God wake me up! No—"
The thread is easily visible now. I give up trying to warn him. Somehow I knew this was going to happen. It’s a good thing I asked him my questions while I still had the chance.
"—No! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me like this! Anything but thi—" The thread hits the back of his head, instantly popping out his mouth. It snakes around his head and vanishes into the whiteness behind him. It pulls taught, and the curving scratches it makes in the whiteness stiffen into angular points.
Another thread comes from below, penetrates his stomach and pokes through the top of his head. One comes from the side, enters his cheek, exits under his chin, and reenters his chest. I do not see it exit, so it must go out behind him.
He stares at me with screaming eyes. All is silent again. Even his rapid breathing seems to be more regular.
A few dozen heartbeats go by. His eyes stop screaming and he stares behind me. He looks more peaceful and relaxed. At least the threads gave him something to touch so he won’t be so alone anymore.
We stare at each other for a while. Many breaths pass in silence. Then he begins moving away. His eyes do not scream as he slides on his threads. I sense that I’m moving, too; I can tell by the warmth of the threads winding through me. I’m moving upwards again. The man slowly moves away, the threads moving through his fingers and torso, his toes, his head, and now the loop going out of his mouth. Pulling him into the distance. Gradually, he fades into whiteness until I can no longer see the bulge of his form.
Silence again. I find that I miss his talking. Will the threads let me see him again? Probably not, now that he can’t talk. This is for the best. He’ll be happier with a thread to massage with his tongue and soothe his anxiety. Maybe I answered his questions just as he answered mine.
I am completely satisfied with my answers. Finally, I understand. I am a woman, and the whiteness does surround me. I did not create any of this. I really do exist. How wonderful to know at last.
Now I am back in my place, with the threads and the white space all exactly where they should be. It was nice to see something different for a while, but it is good to be home.