After Sodom Burned (Or, From the Prehistory of X-Ray Astronomy)
CW: Death, cannibalism, body horror
Paranoia is the sensation of being in two places at once, a particle and a wave. Reduced to a sliver of myself, I ran downstairs on an April morning with snow still on the ground outside. I entered a world transformed, one that belonged to me and me only, someone made of broken leaves and shattered trees.
The Beast of Gévaudan dragged something horrible in through the window and began to eat it on my bed, smearing afterbirth all over my Easter dress. Go away! I yelled at her, surprised by the loudness of my voice, for I was a tiny girl of only four years. You belong to the forest filled with hunger and holiness; run far from here, with your sprouting heart and pelt woven from young women’s beards. The royal huntsmen are coming for you to avenge their daughters; next time we meet face to face, I fear your glass eyes will be reflected in all the mirrors of Versailles.
(Better to be consumed somewhere underground, I figured, by the milk teeth of young wolves in the museum of liverworts and rabbits’ claws, than by my own mother and father, who never saw me as anything more than food. Could you swallow the baby in the blanket? they would ask each other. In my dreams, I am freeing all of the animals from the Jardin des Plantes into the catacombs by the light of a submarine lantern. I picture the hyenas and thylacines feeling especially thrilled upon seeing the bars of their cages transformed into endless boughs of bones, crosshatched femurs and fibulae: the unwound forest, intangible to the eye.)
One evening, the house rose from her knees and leapt away, carrying the astrolabe that I used for navigating the backyard woods in her jaws. With a low growl, her nostrils ejected all of the upholstery in my bedroom into orbit. (My first lover was asleep in the sheets when it happened, and for this she never forgave me.) Wading in memories, I looked back upon the city with the metamorphic perimeter, tracing the route through the maze marked by a handful of salt for one last time, crossing the airborne streets that continuously narrowed. From that time onward, only in dreams would I run down the staircases that led into her stomach, minding her teeth like polished piano keys with my stocking feet
and warbling the voice of the siren who held a mirror to remind us that all is gossamer. I tormented Odysseus inestimable sleeps ago, before he drowned, before the continents were forged and drowned, the Earth’s mantle stretching and contracting like the parchment of the mappa mundi.
I close the curtains and glimpse the last of the sunlight breaking against the glass of the taxidermies’ eyes. My speculative littermates and I are at play in our grandparents’ house, but the floorboards and tiny ceramic furniture are flooded, and everything’s soaked. My breath obscures the mirror, and I have a memory of slipping my hands through the water
the silvered ink on my arms
and there are silver dolphins bathing in the metal, their fins passing in silence over the kitchen tiles, never leaving the hallways of the toy house, poking for clams and fish in the rainstorm sand of windows without glass. Ostensibly, this arrangement will teach us their language. I take the armillary sphere and brass microscopes from their mahogany cabinets and read to them. A meteoric cloud hisses forth from the pots on the stove and collides with the ceiling, which simultaneously happens to be the roof of my mouth. The sullen volumes on the shelves of the library wake up, startled, and gently preen themselves before drifting off once more. I turn around to face the velvet wall, and our Nonna is there, finding none of this strange at all, retouching a dusty canvas of a pride of lions with fur the colour of red and yellow giants that she painted many years ago, the smoke-faded rosettes of the cubs like a border of acanthus leaves, the dark rings from her cigarettes like breaths of the hallucinatory ink that alters the rotation of spiral galaxies.
How she loved visiting the zoo; I think of her joining the other animaliers, looking perplexedly inside the empty pavilions and putting their ears to the ground. Naturally, there are dozens of families with young children out today, albeit hardly noticing the vanished fauves, preferring instead to watch all of the illusionists most famous in those parts: Henri Robin; the Magnetic Lady, with her homing pigeons; and Blanche Wittmann, the Queen of Hysterics, who threw fits and received the stigmata on command…
who replaced her arms and legs with the praying mantis limbs of interplanetary modules after radiative phosphor silenced her unquiet skin. By that time, her hair had long since melted away like autumn, even her lashes, and she thought, I’m all worn out—
Yet, remembering by physical sensation the grammar of insect flight, her convulsions sang as she fell to Earth, frozen perfectly in each of her glass eyes.
In the afternoon on Christmas Day, I dream about an enormous asteroid, a planet, or some analogous celestial entity forcefully slamming into the Earth, reducing most of the surface to rubble and sending a great shockwave through the underground room that I am taking shelter in. Although I am immediately experiencing and registering everything, I simultaneously imagine that I am watching a film, so I am detached, both there and not there. The impact does not completely extinguish life, however, and a handful of survivors slowly emerge from their hiding places, although I find myself wondering how long it would be possible for them to breathe an atmosphere rendered toxic by the object’s ensuing exhalation, which heavily resembles a pyroclastic flow. I assume that significantly extended survival is probably futile. Yet, they begin to build a new environment among the ruins of the city, interspersing the walls of decimated highrises with bright bubblegum-plastic shapes resembling pill capsules, oblong balloons, and translucent breasts with veins and protoplasmic forms reminiscent of egg yolks visible inside. In hollows and refuse pits, these shapes appear to gradually overtake the wreckage, accumulating densely in certain places, flattening and forming colourful strata. The absence of natural flora and fauna slightly disconcerts me. Upon waking, I immediately recall the descriptor of “bubblegum-plastic,” which I heard from a woman who I met in the psychiatric hospital (Womb 303, to be exact, deep in the abdomen of Tiamat, the many aisles of beds lining her viscera like beribboned fish roe). She used it with reference to a painting that she was working on at the time. I think of her every so often. I sleep in the shadow of the gaudy toy-like engine floating above the burning city in Alberto Savinio’s Sodom, for I had dreamed about Pasolini’s Salò last year’s Christmas.
Looking out over the bridge through the window, you can see the partially-submerged city of Sodom, filled with cars, derelict subway cabins, train tracks, and highways covered in clay silt beneath a clear layer of water, like crayfish in a shallow pond. My station approaches:
I fly against the unfolding sky, screaming myself into being. Volcanic ash emerges from a violet bloodstain. I will stay in my body for the rest of this lovely afternoon. The young rider and hunter trailed by a pack of greyhounds leap through the kitchen doorway, following the scent of the Beast of Gévaudan into the Florentine thicket of eternal dream. Passe avant! the hunter shouts.
The hunting party stops to have their luncheon on the grass in the countryside, near a glen of insomniac ferns. After packing again and continuing through the woods that never give way for one hundred thousand years, the horseman comes upon a place where it appears that the curtain of the forest has been opened, exposing a brilliantly-lit sky. He sobs, remembering the isolated and sunless eons without seasons, and the greyhounds pace the edge of the clearing and bark furiously. A large soapstone skull lies before him, a pink dianthus growing from its left eye socket. Just beyond it, a row of satellite dishes stands, like those used by astrophysicists to listen for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations; the young rider wonders if they belonged to a structure that stood there before the iridescent rains came. The skull and satellite dishes guard a seemingly endless plain of long, flat megaliths laid out horizontally across the earth, covered in lichens. The rider and the dog handler intuitively realize that their ancestors intended to warn them that this is the place where Jack the Ripper hunts and devours his victims, and they leave immediately, knowing that the forest has been patiently stalking them.
When I am older, I will insist that the architects endlessly add new rooms to my library, until the physical space resembles the shape of my body as accurately as possible. Tomorrow, I swim in the polar sea, making love to permafrost. Today, there are raindrops in the windowsill, looking out onto a vast land of pigeons, loving plains of fire, and Antarctic snails stuck onto the hulls of ships and carapaces of whales. There are no mornings any longer now; only a word formed of water that contains my entire memory. Un mot, une goutte. Only the rose-coloured iron filings that dust the tundra when the gulls, puffins, and gannets that nest in the northern and southern lights sail their way back.
Five million years hence, the rider returns on a path that only grows more treacherous as he advances, the horse’s hooves clattering on unused sidewalks erupting from the rim of an extinct crater cradling a stone sea in her arms. Drawing the mappa mundi in the black sand, he tells me of Gargantuas and women with the heads of boars, gravitational fields that cause the sky to shred its skin, entire cities of which no trace remains except for a single hieroglyph surrounded by unforgiving foliage. Prester John’s wives, he says, are women who never tire of eating, and they are the most splendid creatures. The horse breaks loose, leading me in the direction of the last glacial slope; your expiatory breath pulls me near, reverberating from beneath the atlas apparatus overhanging unfinished buildings. You—the lunar-caustic, surgical-steel empress of arthropods. Magic daguerreotype. For there is nothing more beautiful than the diamond light reflected in your glass eyes as we make love in the forest of gelatin prints and X-rays constituted from the bones in the Paris catacombs.
About The Author
VITTORIA LION is a Surrealist writer, painter, lesbian, unrepentant psychiatric survivor, and academic working toward composing her PhD thesis on Surrealist animal representations, speculative evolution, and psychoanalysis. She holds an MA in Art History from the University of Toronto. Her other interests, besides Surrealism and various (un)natural history topics, include medieval art and representations of disability. Her fiction, poetry, visual art, and academic work have been featured in Peculiar Mormyrid, Feral Feminisms, and Knots: An Undergraduate Journal of Disability Studies, and she has authored chapters in two forthcoming scholarly anthologies.