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sound & silence

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Hers are not the kind of stories that get written down.

Even in Dream's library, in that vast collection of made up things, there is no book with Delirium's name on it.

She tried to make friends with a fairy tale once. It was about a princess who was a cat with emerald eyes; but under the force of Delirium's two coloured gaze, it started to fracture and warp, and soon it wasn't about anything at all. The emerald-eyed cat chases Delirium's fish throughout her realm, and no one remembers her name. Only Delirium remembers it; Delirium remembers everything. Destiny has read much, but Delirium was once Delight, and she forgets nothing.

There is too much memory. Without a present to hold it in, it gets lost; it splinters, until there is nothing left but the colours and the light and the sound. They blur together, and she herself is everywhere and nowhere.

*

Paul's family has what his mother calls a tendency. His great-great grandfather had religious visions. In later generations, it came out as a predisposition towards the languages of medical textbooks: schizophrenia, delusions, and mania. They are no longer visionaries.

Paul himself is resolutely fine. He is effortlessly unremarkable. He waits tables and has messy handwriting. The closest he comes to that familial madness is the struggle he plays out over his notebooks, grasping futilely at words that hover just out of reach. Poetry sits coiled in him, in his wrists and throat, sometimes thick enough to choke his voice and still his hands. He is a poet, but his poetry eludes him.

Sometimes, he envies that distant grandfather for the searing clarity of his vision. He saw that horizon instant where earth and heaven met and it changed him. Paul struggles. Words escape him. His apartment is littered with half-empty notebooks, in the hopes that the clarity of what he is trying to say will descend on him and the empty spaces will be filled.

He can sense it there, hovering.

*

There is a girl at the edge of the desert.

It's a dream, one he has often, where he must search through the numberless grains of sand for the ones with words etched on them. In the dream, he remembers that sometimes he has found these grains, but they slip through his fingers and the hot wind takes them as he wakes, and whatever was written on them is lost.

The girl though, the girl is new. She's a strange figment, a motley collection of colours and clothes that shifts between his glances at her.

"Hello," he says eventually. "I'm looking for a word. Have you seen it?"

No. Yes. I could make you a fish. Her voice singsongs in his head, somewhere between a lullaby and a hyena's bark. It's irritating and intriguing and a little familiar all at once. He shifts uncomfortably under her gaze, dragging his bare feet through the sand. Her eyes are two different colours. His grandmother had a cat with eyes like that, and she was deaf because of it. This girl isn't though; something tells him she hears perhaps too clearly.

"I'm a writer. A poet," he says, by way of explanation or excuse. It is both not strictly true and incontrovertibly so.

I could help you look. For the word. I have a lot of them. The part of him that knows he is dreaming wonders at this new development, at who or what she is supposed to represent. The rest of him leaps not only at the possibility of help, but at the hope that perhaps the task will not be so lonely: that she, whoever—or whatever—she is, might stay and talk to him, even for a little while.

"I would like that very much."

You'll have to come here though. With me and Barnabas and lots of other people. You might not come back the same way. That's what Barnabas says. It is only a dream, he reminds himself, but he can't help but shiver at the suggestion of a threat in her lilting voice.

"Well it wouldn't be very much of an adventure if you came back the same way." He says it with more surety than he feels. She sees right through him with her twocolour eyes, because she says in a voice of dire warning, You might come back as little fishes.

He hesitates; the threat is nebulous, the promise only slightly less so. "I'm looking for a word that means you don't remember remembering something that may or may not have existed. Something likes that. It's for my poem." He sheepishly scratches meaningless shapes in the sand with his toes.

She smiles a lopsided kind of smile. I have a lot of words like that. A lot. I guess you could say I collect them like cats or little lace doilies or cloud shapes. I have a lot. She frowns; it's a surprisingly old and frightening expression on a face that doesn't look older than fourteen. But you'll have to come with me and Barnabas says I have to warn people about that so I'm warning you. There. I warned you.

"Well then--" he starts, but mercifully, before he has to decide, before the assent comes tumbling out of him, the world shakes. It shudders and starts to splinter at the edges, shredded by the insistent beeping that is his alarm clock. He is waking up. "I have to leave now, but I'll come back. Will you still be here?"

Of course I will, don't be silly.

*

He wakes from a dream of sand and fish and his grandmother's cat's eyes, and reaches for the notebook and the pen he keeps on the bedside table. But the pen is almost out of ink, and he only gets a few words into the dream before the vision evaporates and the ink dries up.

The notebook hits the floor with a gentle thud that reverberates in him. It skitters under his dresser and hides in the dark with the dust. He curls up in his bed and lies there, frozen, immobilized by this wordless frustration.

He spends the next three nights unable—or unwilling—to sleep, spending the dark hours lit by the television, alternately grappling with the words that hang at the edge of his consciousness and numbing his oozing wounds with infomercials and soft-core porn. His poem remains unwritten; he paces the confines of his apartment like they are the confines of his own stubbornly wakeful consciousness—like a lion he once saw at the zoo as a child, seething with a half-remembered image of a space greater than this.

*

The exhaustion is becoming crippling. Paul moves like a person sleeping, which seems to him to be a deeply cruel kind of irony. He walks to work with his best imitation of flustered lateness; it is not a very good impression, but it is all he can manage. Work started fifteen minutes ago, and he should care, he really should, but this morning marked his third without sleep or a successful draft.

In the shadow of an old semidetached, an odd collection of clothes in the shape of a street kid stirs.

You said you would come back and you didn't. The voice singsongs in his head like thunder, touching some part of him that has lain curled up and shivering for three days. He stops dead in the street; a woman in an ill-fitting suit brushes roughly past him, shooting him a look somewhere between perplexity and fear.

I found it. The word you were looking for. Barnabas helped. The crowd moves on; he resists the temptation to search around wildly, looking for the source of the voice no one else can hear. A well trained instinct, the one with his mother's manner, kicks in, calmly evaluating the voice only he hears and the likelihood of a sudden bout of psychosis. It seems he has not escaped the family tendency, but that feeling of failure is eclipsed by the larger one, shaped like an empty notebook.

The pile of clothing stirs again and coalesces into a girl. The shock of recognition sweeps through him, leaving him floundering and helpless.

"I thought you were a dream," he says stupidly. The semidetached seems to loom very largely over them. He stands with her in its shadow.

No. That's my brother. Something silvery glitters in her lap, and he knows without having to ask that it's what he's been looking for. I brought this to you, she says, holding it up. He reaches for it automatically, but hesitates before his hand can brush hers. He knows that to touch her, his figment, would mean something. What, he is not quite sure, but it is something more than this street and this shadow of a building and something less than that too.

His great-great-grandfather had religious visions.

Are you going to come with me or not? It's been a while since I made a friend. She looks sad; terribly, agelessly sad.

He crouches down to look her in the eyes, and it's like staring at the sun. The silvery word glittering in her hand is only one of many. He knows with equal certainty that she has much to offer him and much to demand from him.

The people on the street walk by, but she burns the space around her. It is as if nothing else exists, could even hope to lay claim to existence.

I'll be your friend, he says, and for the first time in his life words are effortless.

Something silvery flashes through the air from her hand to land in his. It is a gift and a blessing, a last opportunity. He pockets it and runs home as quickly as he can, his poem already tumbling through his brain with the fierce ardour of a river long dammed. As he runs, the world starts to shiver and shift; he doesn't have long before he is drowned in that verbal tide, and the knowledge sears him with an uncommon joy.

*

A young poet in a dark basement apartment has not slept in three days. He dreams. He writes. Slowly, by degrees, he goes mad. But before he shatters completely under the weight of the stars and the colours and the words, he writes fifty two lines of excruciatingly beautiful poetry. It is an effort of will, the effort of drawing himself together from being little fish. It is excruciating; the poem is excruciating. It is beautiful. And when the last word has stuttered out of the pen, he turns back to her, the girl with the multicoloured eyes.

Okay, he says, I'm ready.

Delirium holds out her hand, and when he reaches out to touch it everything dissolves; then it is just the words.