Singing the Sky Down

(February 18, 2006)
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It's like a dance performed in reverse, or an incantation spoken against magic.

*****

Aiy'i sat, hunched and cross-legged, and quietly drew pictographs of his life in the rapidly-eroding sand. He was drenched in the shade of a low-slung hut that was enthusiastically deconstructing itself, and before his eyes spread a horizon that narrowed disconcertingly like a vanishing game trail, not at all the way he remembered it. Leaves parted from the trees and flew past him, racing up toward the sun and evaporating one-by-one; each released a soft hiss as it shrugged itself out of existence, and the combined sound was rather like a bubbling stream. This was an unexpectedly reassuring illusion, since all of the water sources Aiy'i had ever visited were by that moment little more than drying silt and fatally perplexed fish.

He dug into the dirt, focusing on the task of drawing out the varied forms lurking in his mind: family members, friends, loves, idols - the standard standbys of a gently-lived life. Every finger-stroke added a tiny bit of detail, and each detail pleased him, summoning half-lost memories. A certain set of curves briefly recreated the smell of a romantic dinner from half a dozen years before, and he found himself smiling, even as the thatching melted off of his roof in chunks and crawled away across the exposed desert like a herd of something small and starved. He could hear the straw vapourizing, individual shards slinking through his peripheral vision before melting into nothingness, and kept his eyes rigidly set on his tableaux. But it was a pointless endeavour and, despite his best efforts at creative fixation, Aiy'i knew it. Even as he added more and more cues and hints, carefully formatting this guide to his history for some unknown future to appreciate, the stretching and quivering of the earth swallowed the finer lines, dragging the images in every direction at once. It was only a matter of time before all was erased.

A Sylph fell from the sky and landed with a soft displacement of air a few feet away, spreading a cloud of dust and doomed roofing. Aiy'i turned to face it, his stomach sinking; this was far too harsh a sign, much harder to accept than the wobbling of surfaces and flight of unrestrained objects. He reached out and picked it up, cradling it between his palms and whispering apologies. The little air elemental had no face to speak of - Aiy'i had always been taught that they were beings of gleefully pure sensation, the better to gauge the thermals that no longer flowed overhead - but its body projected a resigned fear. Its frame, composed of a thousand translucent feathers woven from pastel shades, curled in on itself like a wilting rose, rolling into a ball from which gossmer threads steadily unravelled and fell. Aiy'i found himself apologizing more and more frequently, trying to keep up with the pace of the disintegration, but it was impossible to match the speed of this ephemeral molting. Within a few minutes the creature had fallen completely apart, its individual pinks and blues nearly invisible as they sank into the sand, each breath of life fading out as it permanently lost the sky. Aiy'i looked up from his empty hands to find that the wind was gone, which only made sense.

I'm so sorry, I didn't want this, I didn't mean to forget how it all worked...

He plucked a sickly desert plant from the dirt; its roots twisted and groped for the lost darkness in protest as its barbed stems shivered and grew pale. As it writhed and mumbled with the voice of raining soil, Aiy'i waved his free hand in a narrow spiral around it, circling from top to bottom and back up again with his fingers splayed wide. The gesture was a mnemonic, calling forth from his frame a stream of notes that swam through scales generally left unsung; the motion and the sound were both half-hidden from him, a lifetime of experience having changed conscious purpose into base instinct. His trills and vocal leaps wound around and through the dying plant, and from its core a new range of colours began to flow: blues and reds and golds, barely liminal at first but growing progressively and rapidly brighter. Within seconds the remaining leaves were engulfed, throwing spectrum-crossing sparks into the air like a firecracker as radiant new flowers began to bloom from nothingness.

However, the incantation did not follow through to its natural end; Aiy'i supposed that it was because he no longer believed it could. Instead of growing revitalized and spreading its externally-applied health to the other plants as the crop-saving spell's early symptoms promised, the shrub trembled and shuddered in upon itself, collapsing with a final burst of multitonal light. Aiy'i clenched his fists, a few trails of ash pouring from the hand that had held the last living thing he could see.

I can't hold anything together, I can't make anything better, and I can't even see how we used to. What is this world, and who was I to think that I could bend it at my whim? What is a Manipulator, anyway, but a fool who thinks that every sunset is caused by him?

The earth shrugged in response, and his careful sketches were pulled apart without a pause for reflection, their faces drawn taut to the point of breaking and each embrace scattered to the dead air. Raindrops began to land all around him, and Aiy'i turned his face thankfully upward before realizing that it was not a tiny sign of mercy at all. No, it was the sky itself that was falling, curdled gobs of azure and cumulous-grey and the occasional brown streak of a hawk's tailfeather dripping down in meaningless patterns. (This is a hard thing to watch, given that there are no points of reference: it is a gradual shrinking of one's upper borders, as what is generally considered limitless begins to decay downward, spreading over the horizon and drenching the yawning soil in completely inappropriate colours.) It was, to Aiy'i, a sick sort of homogenization, as the same shades began to face him from all directions, slithering over his skin and leaving the cyanotic traces common to a corpse. His world was melting in on him, and he felt trapped, like he sat inside a robin's egg that had given up all hope of letting him hatch.

He wasn't sure if he was crying or if he just had an unusually big piece of what used to be a lofty mountain peak in his eye, but Aiy'i found himself crumpling forward, digging his nails into the sky-saturated ground and wailing as best he could against the progressive muffling. Everything was gone except the swirls of blue; it felt rather like the explosions of colour and sensation that accompany a bit of magic being worked, but rather than all but glowing with the energy he wielded, Aiy'i was powerless and beaten. This was a spell gone supernova, swallowing everything it touched and sparing no thought for its despairing caster. And even given this thought, he couldn't quite believe in all of the incantations he'd woven before, couldn't quite hold the elements of the universe he had once known steady in his mind.

I just don't buy it. The Dreamer can Dream on, but I just don't care. I'm sorry.

He shrank in on himself, then, as the uniformly dead-pastel world gave him a constrictor-hug and blanked out all further contemplation.

*****

"I miss Aiy'i."

The girl and her mother sat in front of their hut, enjoying the last traces of sunset being sung, and the little one had broken the silence with the words her whole family had feared to say. In the days following the incident, the Manipulator's absence had been a gaping but unmentioned hole, as the fear of spreading his bad luck was greater than any need to eulogize. Everyone knew what happened when one of the tribe's magic-workers began to doubt, and no one would risk further losses by giving voice to the idea, but that didn't mean there were no raw feelings of grief. The woman patted her daughter's head and sighed, watching the darkening sky but quite willing to believe that the sun would be on its way back up before long.

"I know, mrry oyly'irte oylowhie. But sometimes we Wake, and there's just nothing to be done about it."