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the fabric of the universe and other fragile things

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the rip:

There is a disturbance in the universe. Not large, mind you. It's more a puncture, only about four or five threads wide, but it's enough, at least, for a soul to get through.

If you ask the bear, he'll tell you that the hole was already there. It was formed the moment a girl caught her sister sitting with her ex-lover and her heart tore apart, ripping the universe along with it. He simply stuck his claw in and widened it, just enough so that one could untangle themselves from it and travel along it. Because time wasn't a single thread, but a blanket of interwoven ones, and surely in one of them, he was surrounded by pots of honey.

If you ask the girl's sister, she'll tell you about it, though she won't know about the cloth. She'll tell you that day something changed in her sister, twisted her face immediately into something harsh and inhuman. If she chased after her sister then, tried to explain what happened, perhaps she would've softened. As it was, however, she could feel the universe bursting at the seams.

The astronomer wouldn't notice, even if he stared with his telescope straight at it.


As for the sister? Rose knows, because she was the one to go through it.


thread one:

How to travel through time? Simple. Squeeze yourself through the hole(you can only find it if you know where it is beforehand) and pull yourself through. Be gentle, but even if you pull with everything you have the cloth won't rip further. There are only a few things that can tear the universe apart, a bear's claw being one of them.

Once in the middle of the cloth, you'll notice that one of the threads has snagged, perhaps on a button on your clothing. This is the thread that you belong to. Pull it off and detach yourself. Another thread will then catch you, though you may not notice. Once you find it, wriggle back out the cloth the way you came in, and you'll find yourself in a different thread.

Rose, upon doing this, found herself outside of a bar with dust coating the windowsills and grime on the floor. She wrinkled her nose at it and scowled. Night was coming though, creeping up the streets and chilling the ground, so she chose the warmth and went in.

What could she find in this thread? She didn't even know what stardust was, or a photo. Baptism required babies, which she wouldn't find in the bar. There was only the honey.
She went to the bartender, flirted with him a bit, but he had no honey. He said the people that came didn't need to sweeten their drinks.

From table to table she went, flashing a smile, touching shoulders, but none of them had anything. By the time she reached the solider in the corner, she was ready to leave and try another thread.

The solider didn't look up when Rose sat down with her. Her hair hung in her face and she stared into the bottom of one of many empty cups.

"Hey," Rose said, only to see if she was alive.
The solider looked at her and began crying. She sobbed about her as a soldier and her loss of faith, all things Rose cared nothing about. She was focused on the scent of the solider's breath: alcohol laced with sweetness. Her eyes travelled the solider's coat: there, in a torn pocket with a button missing, the label to a pot of honey.

Boredom was replaced with engrossment. Any clue she could glean from the solider's words might enable her to get the honey.


After multiple slow dances, intentional hand brushes, and side eyed grins, the solider put her hand to her pocket. "You can stop pretending now."

"Hm?" Rose tried to play innocent, but she knew she had been found out. Besides, there was no betrayal in the solider's face, only a melancholy, barely visible, smile.

"The honey." She drew two items out of her pocket; the honey and a small handgun. "You can have it. On one condition."

The next time, when Rose reached for the tear in the universe, its threads stuck to the honey coating her hand.


thread two:

There is no baby in the second thread, though the Shah might as well have been one. Instead, Rose– not Rose, now Dunyazad, for some reason– sat with her sister Scheherazade night after night as she told stories to keep from execution.

Scheherazade had the best bedtime stories, the kinds one would read to children. Dunyazad waited for a clue, perhaps relating to stars or this elusive photo, but none appeared, even after what seemed to be a thousand nights.

On the thousandth and one night, Scheherazade planned the story for the night. She had stopped in the midst of a character's philosophical musing, and Dunyazad watched her pace as she tried to figure out how to end it.

"Where do you get the ideas from?" Dunyazad asked. She would have run out of ideas long ago, if she had been in her sister's shoes.

"That's what the story'll be about tonight," Scheherazade said. "The man right now, the author and philosopher, is about to go into the desert, right? And there he'll meet a creature, a beetle maybe, carrying stardust. Stardust are stories, you know."

For a split second, Rose forgot she was supposed to be Dunyazad. "Stardust?"

"And the beetle will say that the man is to take the stardust straight to the palace and to tell the shah– actually, I won't tell you now. You'll have to wait for tonight."

"Please?"

Scheherazade, eternally kind Scheherazade, relented. "To tell the shah that..."

The story was riveting. It handled all the tight turns and twists with dexterity. It was one of Scheherazade's best. At the end, the man took the stardust to the king, but not before he had gone to his village and shared it with them first. Afterwards the stardust had been tarnished, never to shine again no matter how the man tried to polish it.

But that wasn't the story Scheherazade told that night. Not for lack of trying, but just as the man met the beetle, her voice gave out. She could barely croak.

They took her away soon afterwards. Rose, now aware of what stardust was, figured it was time to move into another timeline, before they made her the Shah's next victim.
When Rose went through the fabric a third time, she grabbed the first thread she saw and tied herself up in it. She found herself in a curious little shop surrounded by old books. At the counter was Scheherazade herself, older, more slumped, dark bags under eyes, but not dead.

Abandoning all pretenses of Dunyazad, she went and introduced herself to her former sister. It seemed Scheherazade had over the years lost her eternal smile, but its lines still marked her face.

"Stardust? Just one piece?" asked Rose.
And Scheherazade told her a story. Perhaps it was about Scheherazade herself, but perhaps not. Rose wasn't listening. She was wondering if she just had to tell the bear the story, or if the stardust would appear out of nowhere.

Scheherazade finished her story with a drop into the chair behind her desk. She bent and rummaged in a drawer, pulling out a tiny, well worn book with gold on the edge of the pages.

"Here's your stardust," she said.

Rose thumbed the corner and rifled through the pages. She opened to a page of neat script. Scheherazade's handwriting.

"The stardust. It's on the edge of the pages. If you flip through the book too much, you'll ruin it." Scheherazade watched her with hawk eyes.

"Thank you," said Rose. She almost tripped over her feet as she went out the door.


thread three:

The threads on the universe weren't distinguishable. They all had the same appearance, which made travelling difficult. 

The first one she grabbed landed her back outside the bear's cave. He crawled out and growled at her when he heard her land.

"Do you have the things I asked for?"

"Just two. I don't know what a photo is."

The bear grumbled and padded back into his cave. He came out on two legs and held a metal box in his hand. It had a circle of what seemed like a telescope lens at the front and some buttons on top.

"This is a camera. It immediately makes pictures of real things. Moments, people, trees, ghosts. They call it a photo."

Rose reached for the camera, but the bear pulled away and laughed.

"You have to get one yourself, little girl. Go!"
She glared at the bear, but reached up and grabbed the tear nonetheless.

In this world, she was still Rose. She played with a little girl named Roxie. Luckily, Roxie's parents couldn't see her, and often reprimanded their daugher for her childish fantasies. Roxie was unfortunately too old to baptize, but adored Rose and defended her against all of her parents' criticisms, which made her endearing and worth waiting with.
She stayed with Roxie longer than she had any past timeline. As far as she could tell, time worked differently thanks to the universe's tear.

As she grew, Roxie's parents grew much less tolerant of what was to than reckless fantasizing. Rose always comforted Roxie afterwards. Roxie told her everything that she didn't tell her parents.

"There's this boy, Rose. A college student. He says he can help me get away from my parents," said Roxie. She stood in front of a mirror and fixed her hair. He would be taking her out to dinner that night.

"Do you like him?" asked Rose, leaning her face in her hand. Roxie, though radiant with young infatuation, looked silly. Almost like Rose had, once upon a time.

"He's so tall and smart. He's studying astronomy, and he always talks about the stars. It's so cute when..." and Roxie rambled for a few minutes while Rose wore a facade of interest. "So what do you think?"

"I think," said Rose, standing up and behind Roxie in the mirror (she didn't appear for whatever reason, but Roxie's hair moved when she touched it), "He's your best bet for getting out of here. If you do whatever he says, he'll help you out."

"Everything?"

"Whatever it takes. You always said you wanted to leave, right?" And once Roxie left, she might go to a big city where there would be a bunch of babies. Or even a camera.

"That's true. Thanks, Rose. Wish me luck." Roxie, perfumed head held high, her mother's pearls around her neck, went to a date with the astronomer. She came back late that night, glowing and secretive. She didn't tell Rose about what had happened, but Rose could guess.

Once Roxie's pregnancy was discovered, the Usher family invited the astronomer over for dinner and peppered him with questions. They were gracious and kind, but the astronomer frowned and fidgeted in his seat the whole time.

The day the baby was born, the astronomer packed up his car and got ready to leave without Roxie. Rose watched him pack up and take one last look at the house of Usher before leaving.

The child grew up quickly; it seemed to be only a few days before she was walking. Roxie too grew from a playful girl to a constantly fatigued mother. She tried to contact the astronomer, but his letters were always returned unopened.

They were in a park one day, and Rose sat with Roxie and her baby on a picnic blanket. The baby refused to eat the food she had spent hours making, and Roxie was on the verge of tears.

Just a few feet away, in view of the blanket, was a man selling food from a cart. Roxie looked from cart to baby. She ran towards it backwards and tried to keep an eye on the baby.

The baby didn't know Rose existed, but always seemed comfortable around her. Rose cooed at the baby now, and the baby crawled straight into her arms. Roxie turned away, just for a second, to negotiate a price with the man, and Rose took the baby, reached up into the tear, and pulled herself through. Behind her, there was an anguished scream of a young girl.

This time, she was back again by the bear's cave. She made her way down to the shore. The baby had fallen asleep.

She stood waist deep in the water, wondering. She was no priest or monk, but she had to baptize the child. She prayed then: the songs from the mosque that she had learned at the Shah's palace, the prayers that the Ushers had said for grace before each meal, even the soldier marches she had overhead in the bar that night. Rose dipped the baby in, and walked back into the shore.
The baby was quiet, still breathing, but still.

She found the nearest village and dropped it off in front of one of the doors. For a bit, she considered returning the baby to its mother, but decided against it. It was too much work. She still had to find a camera.


thread four:

In the fourth thread, her name was still Rose, but she was not the same person. This Rose was well acquainted with cameras, and worked with a small startup that she barely tolerated only because they paid for all of her equipment. Photography was in her blood.

She didn't know how to find a ghost, didn't know if she even believed in them, but she knew her coworkers whispered about her obsession with old and abandoned photoshoot sites behind her back. When they gave her those too wide eyed, "say cheese" smiles, those half-grip handshakes, she returned even faker ones.

The worst part of her job was the daily commute. In the morning the subway was packed and brimming with people in suits, overpriced coffee, and body odor, and Rose tried to make herself disappear. She worked late, however, and even though the subway was a bit emptier at night, it was when all of the city's shadier characters emerged and mingled. Yet she endured, travel after travel.

On one of those hellish nights, the lady on her phone fell onto the track. Was pushed by a homeless man that reeked of alcohol. Rose could've reached out and grabbed her, if she wanted to. The lady screamed and wailed. There was a train coming, and no one was helping. There were no heroes to be found.

In that moment, Rose(not photographer Rose, but Rose Red) took over and snapped a picture.

The flash coated the usually grimy subway with ethereal white. The lady was reflected onto the silver front of the subway car just before impact. It was as close as one can get to a photo of a ghost.

Before photographer Rose could process what she did, Rose Red collected the film inside the camera, found the tear and pulled herself out. For a split second, she wondered how photographer Rose would deal with what she did. But once she landed outside the bear's cave, every thought was erased from her mind. She had her honey, stardust, baptism, and photo. All would be righted.


unravel:

Once the river carried Pearl away, Rose collapsed to its bank and screamed. She had her revenge, true, but everything was the same as before. The universe was still torn. Nothing was as it should have been.

She plunged back into the tear, blindly grabbing threads and knotting herself into them. With each twist, she aimed to forget. At first she was a random mother who hated her daughter for her own uselessness (her daughter's eyes were familiar, though Rose couldn't place them). Next she was a baby who grew up remembering a stranger's face and the gentle lap of waves on her face, yearning for a life beyond the village she had been found in. After that, she was Roxie Usher. Following the loss of her child, her little girl, Roxie deteriorated. Some people called it insanity, possession, a variety of synonyms for "not good", but she lay in bed and shook with the memories that cycled through her vision. And finally, after growing paler and thinner and altogether less alive, she was granted reprieve. Roxie's thread was the first in which Rose died.

She didn't realize it at first and had gotten up after being in the tomb. Her limbs made an unusual creak with each step, and her vision was still clouded with fatigue. Roxie's body obeyed her thoughts and limped its way up to her father and mother. Her mother (her daughter her sister) gasped once, then fell. Her heart, it seemed, had burst within her chest. Rose felt the pain as if it were her own heart that had burst(as if she had been tossed in a river, as if a subway train had ripped through her).

One last time, Rose shoved herself through the tear in the universe and stabbed at the cloth. The fabric seemed to grow a mind of its own, resisting and tightening around her to deter her efforts.

Rose stopped. She tore her eyes away from the blanket she was tangled in and looked up at the terrible, infinite sky.

In the next timeline, Rose was able to forget. Forgot her sisterdaughtermotherlover, the bear's lies, the astronomer and his stars, the tear in the universe. Forgot herself. She was photographer Rose, who had, it seemed, lost a part of herself when her camera broke.

Sometimes she walked through the big box stores looking for a new one, but none of the cameras were right. The stores were too sterilized and alienating, and the cameras too shiny. To the eye, there was nothing wrong, but everything was off. It was a reflection of the world she saw outside.

One gray morning, on her way to the subway, Rose noticed a small, mom and pop camera shop tucked into an alley that she hadn't noticed before. She must have passed it before but never stopped to notice it. There were no color printed flyers with expensive cameras listed in the window, no wall of TVs to show off a range of products. Just a wooden sign hanging over the door, and wind chimes hanging in the window.

If she took this detour, she could be late for work. Still, she made her way towards the shop.

At the counter was a girl, using a magnifying glass to study a book in front of her. The wind chimes rang to announce Rose's arrival, and the camera shop girl looked at her and smiled.


stitches:

How does one repair the patch in the universe? How does one fix what is broken? How does one take a needle to the world?


With a broken camera, a kind smile, a "take care of yourself." With a slow dance and a phone number smeared on one's arm. With a compliment on one's cello playing prowess.

Rose remembered the tear. Her fingers itched for it sometimes, but she refused. There was no time for that, not when she could dance with the astronomer or read with Pearl or have a drink with them all. For those little things, those delicate, ephemeral moments of love and beauty and soul, she had all the time in the universe.