A Place Beyond the Sun, Where It Is Cold Enough for All Things to Form
We were putting on a magic show for a group of elderly women, my father and I. They clustered together, sweet friends, soft sweaters in hopeful colors: yellows, light blues, aquamarines. The women stood, hand-to-elbow, leaning in—a stooped, gingerbready set of paper dolls.
Each time my father held out his hand, I passed him things. Test tubes and beakers filled with liquids of varying color and opacity. The metal implements I had polished the night before to a high shine, arrayed before us in a neat row, an equal amount of space separating one from the next.
We didn’t even need to look at each other—we could do this in our sleep.
We stood before a large, crumbling stone building, dew from the overgrown grass darkening the hems of my father’s pants, setting a chill into my bare ankles. It was early morning, the sun already up, but only just.
The women had arrived when it was still dark—bus wheels crunching on gravel, their hushed whispers as they bundled along through the entryway, the distant noise of the bus gliding away into the not-yet-morning.
I handed my father powders. He mixed. I handed him tinctures. He mixed and stirred and held the beakers to the light. The women dug their fingers into the arms of their friends, breathless, rapt.
There were various chemical reactions. In the women, there were other chemical reactions. They clutched at each other.
The women who could see well told their visually-impaired friends of the elegance and ease with which our hands moved. The way the jewel-colored potions glistened in the rising sun.
Other women were better able to hear. They cocked their heads, listening, and spoke loud and moist and enunciated to their dull-eared friends.
There was the calm and ease of my father’s tone, for starters, they said, as he announced the difficulty of our next endeavor. The unstable nature of the mysterious substances in the glass jars. The precise measurements we must make. The specific sequence we must follow in mixing them together.
Disaster, the women parroted my father, was a far likelier outcome than success. Chaos, they repeated, mimicking the benign flatness of his tone, was the natural momentum of the universe. Any attempt to step outside of it—any attempt to establish order—required a great deal of concentration and skill.
But what about the way I nodded in agreement while my eyes were elsewhere, those with better vision interjected. Could their friends hear the vibrations of the sunlight braiding insubstantial colors through my hair—but highlighting the furrow of my brow? And what about the way my hands trembled as I emptied the contents of the beakers into one large vial?
Certainly, those with better hearing countered, their eyes sparkling in merriment. They could hear all of these things, just as they could hear the silence behind the words behind the loud silence, as I said nothing, but swallowed once, then swallowed again.
This place had clearly been abandoned for years when my father and I found it.
A vast stone wall surrounded the grounds, but the metal gate at the entryway lay in pieces, tangled in the overgrown grass by the side of the road. You couldn’t even say that the gate was covered in rust. It was rust in the shape of a gate—the final, pillaging cruelty of predator taking on the form of its prey after the kill.
My father and I had driven by the day before, on our way to nowhere in particular, the way we always were when we were between places. Searching, even as we tried to forget the search, then struggling to cut backwards through the thick strands of the forgetting until we were right back where we had started.
Oh, my father said, clapping his hands together, watching dust from the road mingle with the light of the afternoon sun, forming a cloudy canopy over the gate and the grass. This is it! This is like a snapshot from a memory from a life I never had, but am having right now. How could it be any other?
A small purple flower grew, implausibly, from a blossom of rust on what had once been the gate, and my father stepped delicately over it as we went in.
There was one main building, tall and imposing, a number of smaller buildings fanning out around it. Only parts of the original structures remained—ceilings fallen in, walls avalanched. Some were only the ghosts of buildings: rocks piled in hollow squares and rectangles, like the beginning of a child’s fort. Plants and vines twisted through the ruined foundations. Squirrels huddled in the corners, sternly cracking nuts and chattering to themselves, leaving piles of acorn tops in their wake.
These buildings, this land, had once been a home for girls.
I knew this the moment my father and I walked in. It had been, and now it was not.
Nobody told me this.
I looked over at my father—but he stared up at the sky, whistling a little tune. He walked away through the grass without looking back, trailing his fingers over piles of pebbles and stones.
A home for girls, I thought. An orphanage.
But can you call something an orphanage when all of the girls have parents, alive, going through the motions of their days elsewhere?
For their parents, these daughters ceased to exist the moment the heavy iron gates of the grounds shut behind them. Wisp-like, indistinct, their daughters’ names and faces faded almost immediately.
Nobody told me any of this.
I didn’t know when the girls lived here, and for how long before we arrived, if it even was before, and why, if there is ever just one why. Just that they had once been here, or would be, and now, so were we.
Our demonstration was coming to an end. The beakers that had once been full were now empty, and those that had been empty were now full.
But there is always a grand finale—everybody knows that.
The elderly women squinted and whispered and nudged and shifted in place. They didn’t come here to watch liquids change and bubble and boil, pretty as the colors and the vapors may be.
And neither did we.
And so, my father said.
And so, I echoed, in a voice that sounded smaller than I meant it.
There was a noticeable shift—a thickening of molecules—as the women pressed together. There was something electric, expectant about them. They stood taller, vertebrae less compressed now, their eyes bright.
And, suddenly, there they were, as though my father had conjured them from thin air: a procession of little girls, sick and faded and shaky. They stood off to the side, dew staining their shoes dark, white socks bright against the wet, green grass. They stared vacantly at nothing much—the sky, the dirt on the ground, the space between us.
The old women gasped.
Those who couldn’t see sensed their presence, their thin, milky wrongness.
The ones who couldn’t hear so well merely closed their eyes, wishing to blanket their senses in the same muffled wash already filling their ears.
I crept forward, handing my father the largest beaker. He held it high over his head, light slashing through the liquid inside, reds and purples and sapphires shimmering in the sun.
There was some sort of mistake in these girls, the women knew, and my father was going to fix it. Of course. That had been the point of it all: an infusion, made of this glittering magic.
My father gestured to the side. I took a small step toward the girls, motioning to them to line up. They formed a tripping, straggling line. My father gestured once more. Nobody moved—not the elderly women, not the little girls, not me. My father gestured again, impatiently, this time.
Step forward, I said, finally, my voice splintery and awful in the brilliant sun.
As each faded little girl stepped forward, my father bent to her with the heavy syringe he held in reserve in his front pocket, filled with the bright solution.
Girl after girl willingly held her arm out, her face betraying no reluctance or fear, and girl after girl stepped off to the side, her face flushed, less dim and dissipated somehow.
They’re receiving infusions, one woman exclaimed, her head thrown blindly to the sky. Solutions! Something healthful—restorative!
Her eyes glittered opaline with cataracts in the burning sun.
The others patted her arm, pressed closer.
We know, they said, yes. We know, but just hush, dear. That’s right, but just hush.
The girls stood together in a group, just as before, but more solid-seeming now. The women nodded their approval. There was something off about the color of the girls’ skin, though—faint, nauseous yellows and greens—but the women appeared not to care.
They stared, hungrily, at the only little girl left, standing alone.
Like the others, this last little girl had a faded air—a combination of limpness and defeat. Her light hair hung over her face. Her swollen lips gave her a lopsided, fishy look. But where the other girls had seemed vaporous and vague, there was something more substantial behind her eyes—anyone could see.
The old women held their breath. They clutched at their purses, their canes, the arms of their friends.
The girl stood there for what seemed an endless amount of time. She swayed in place, her eyes slightly unfocused, looking swimmily off somewhere. Strange lines on her arms became visible—faint purple markings. Birthmarks, maybe—it wasn’t clear.
One of the women in the crowd cleared her throat, a ratchety, impatient noise, punctuating the silence. The others glared at her. This was a show, wasn’t it? Do you nudge the performers to hurry it along? All in time, dear. All in time!
But my father seemed to agree. He stood tall in the dirt, his back straight and formal. I could see his leg twitch, like a small boy preparing to throw a fit.
It was my job to go over and direct her forward, I knew. But for some reason, this time, I didn’t want to.
Far across the cool grass, there was a separate kitchen in a building of its own. It was the only building whose roof and walls were still basically intact. I had felt a jump in my chest as I’d gone in the day before.
There was a broken screen door, high, beamed ceilings, a blackened iron stove. Baskets lined the walls—apples and potatoes, caved in on themselves from time. A heavy wooden table. Cobwebs high in the corners, the sunlight slanting through.
I’d had the strange feeling that there should be a cutting board and knife on the table. Crumbs from a loaf of bread, a bit of jam hardened on the knife—something. It made me angry when I saw there were none of these—as though I couldn’t see through some layer over my vision to the reality of things.
I’d wanted to shut the screen door firmly behind me and sit quietly in one of the chairs until the sun went down. I’d heard my father calling from across the grass, but I leaned against a cupboard and closed my eyes.
There was a sudden sharp noise from the table and I looked up—but it was only another squirrel, only more acorns.
And so, my father said, once more. And so.
I could see the pulse in his neck.
I could do it without saying anything, I coached myself. If I didn’t say a word, surely this last little girl would know it wasn’t my idea. I could just stand near her, and with a flicker of my eyes, a tilt of my head, merely suggest.
I stared miserably at the ground, drawing circles in the dirt with the tip of my shoe.
And so, my father said, louder this time.
I looked longingly across the grass, in the direction of the kitchen.
Time passed. The sun rose higher in the sky, flattening the colors around us. A bird sang from the top of a tree—a two-note song starting out sweet and light, but landing tinnily in the ears of those who could hear.
The sound twisted in my spine and spiraled outward to my chest, hard and unpleasant, buzzsaw against bone.
Finally, it became too much. My father shook his head. He wouldn’t look at the group of women, and he wouldn’t look at me. I scuffed my shoe in the dirt again, covering the shapes I had drawn.
Very slowly, my father walked around the table.
The old women held their breath.
But when he’d almost reached the girl, he doubled back and stood behind me.
You need to move quickly, he said, right into my ear. Look straight ahead, do your job. You’re looking at the worms and the dirt, letting them work their way through. You’re forgetting that the dirt is beside the point. It is only there to kick over your footprints before you’ve even made them.
He seemed about to touch my arm, but let his hand drop to his side. He walked back to the table, as though nothing had happened.
I couldn’t say a word. My voice wouldn’t come out, and even if it could, I didn’t want to hear it, flat and small against the brown dirt backdrop of things, the sun yellow against the slice of blue sky, sharp on the green grass.
Where before I had told the other little girls to step forward, I stepped forward now. I stood next to the last little girl. I tried to meet her eyes, though I didn’t want to, really. I owe her that, at least, I told myself.
But she continued to look off into space, her eyes swimmy and serene. I looked down at her arm, pale with its strange mottled markings. Up close, they seemed less random, more evenly spaced.
I touched her fingers and took her hand. The corners of her mouth lifted. One of her lips was cracked. She didn’t look scared at all, I realized. It wasn’t fear making her avert her eyes. If anything, there was a kindness in it. She was sparing me something.
Step by step, we walked through the dirt. We walked evenly, side by side. But the girl must have been leading in some way, because though I could barely feel my legs moving, I never fell behind.
We stood before my father, and he still wouldn’t look at me. I knew he wanted me to drop her hand. My palm felt sweaty, but I wasn’t sure whether the sweat came from the girl’s hand or mine.
Finally my father spoke. It’s your choice, he said. Do you really think this will change anything? No matter what you do, your footprints will disappear. And all of this, when I taught you never to make them to begin with.
I kept holding her hand.
The girl gazed at the jars and beakers on the table, the same cracked-lipped, almost joyful smile on her face.
My father placed the syringe in the beaker, siphoning up the very last drop of the dazzling liquid. The girl held out her arm, as though she had always known what was expected of her—had always known exactly what was coming—she was just taking her time getting there.
My father bent to her arm. Her other hand squeezed my hand reassuringly, or I clutched at hers—I wasn’t sure which.
Everyone waited to see what would happen.
The girl and I stood frozen in place. I snuck small glances at her to see if anything had changed, but she seemed exactly the same.
Maybe it’s lost its potency, one of the women whispered. Maybe it only lasts so long before it stops working.
The girl continued to look off to the side. I felt her fingers twitch against mine. I thought, at first, that she was clutching my hand harder, but really, she was letting go.
Her hand sprang open, palm bared to the sky. It opened and closed, opened and closed. My own hand felt cold now. I brought my fingers to my mouth to warm them. My skin smelled sharp—something between rust and dust, pennies and dirt.
Everyone stared at the girl. Her body shook side to side, a gruesome, jerky, vibrating dance. So unlike the other little girls, standing calm and solid and still after their injections.
They never should have done it, one of the old women said, sorrowfully. It’s poison, clearly! It was bound to cause an unfortunate reaction.
The lines on the girl’s arm became more pronounced, like she was a photograph in developing solution, the infusion bringing out the definition and contrast the longer it set in. It was clear, now, that the markings were thick bands, four of them, a smaller one on the underside of her arm—all a deep, angry purple.
Around the old women, now, there was a complicated mixture of disappointment, stimulation, guilt and indifference. Though the girl’s limbs still shuddered and twitched, the women began to look around, muttering and shaking their heads.
The sun will be falling soon, one said. The bus will be here.
More accidents happen at or near sundown than any other time, said another, her eyes bright.
The nearer you get to your own home, the more likely you are to have some sort of mishap, a third mused, dreamily.
The women huddled together, hugging their arms around themselves in the sudden chill of the breeze.
My father produced a large, black plastic bag from under the table. He shook it before him. It buckled and flapped in the wind like the sail of some terrifying ship, setting out to ports unknown.
I saw one of his eyes twitch.
He paused for a moment, confused.
How could it ever have been any other way? he asked the air, or the bird in the tree, still trilling its two-note song, or the sun, still high in the sky, colder and more remote now, somehow.
My father shook the bag out once more. He stared down at the ground.
How could I have known? he asked the rocks, or the leaves, or the black plastic bag.
I could have seen this coming, he said, but I didn’t. Even though it has always been this way, and it could never have been any other way. Even though it will always be the same, on and on, for years.
He shuddered. He wiped his eyes roughly on the sleeve of his shirt. But then he shook out the bag one last time. Without ceremony, he threw it over the girl’s head. With a flick of his wrist, he flipped the bag over and cinched it on top.
The old women watched with great interest. A cloud passed over the sun, bathing us all in a gray, serious light.
It looks like hail, one woman said, or maybe it doesn’t. How can anyone be sure?
But where does hail come from, another asked, when all you see is the sun?
Hail comes from a place beyond the sun, a third murmured, her eyes shining. It comes from a place where it is cold enough for all things to form, and then it drops down through the clouds.
My father plucked the bag from the ground as though it weighed nothing. He flung it over his shoulder. With a look of great determination, he marched through the grass.
The little girls bunched together. They tried to follow, holding hands in one long line. But they kept stumbling. When one fell, so did the rest. They righted themselves and fell again. Finally, they lay on the ground in a heap, their legs scraped and bruised.
There was no doubt about it, now: there was a new wrongness to them. Their faces were puffy and discolored, their eyes darting and confused.
I should help them, I told myself. But I hadn’t really cared enough to do anything before, and I still didn’t. I only cared about the last little girl.
I hurried after my father. The old women gathered behind us, shoving and shuffling, grabbing at each other’s arms. We were going to the place with the kitchen, I thought, hopefully—but just before we reached it, my father veered off on a path to the side, hastening toward a long, flat, one-story building.
The building lay just before a wooded area I hadn’t seen the day before. The trees behind it grew close together, dense and dark. Layers of pine needles and old leaves covered the ground.
My father stopped near the entrance. Bags were stacked to the side in heavy piles. They spanned far back along the path into the woods.
My father threw the bag with the girl onto the ground. There was a fidgeting noise from within, and the top of the bag gaped open. The sun pushed through the clouds, beating down on our heads and shoulders, burning dull against the contours of the black plastic.
The women leaned in eagerly.
I wished for their deafness, against the rumpled noise of the bag and their jagged breathing. I wished for their blindness, too, against the possibility of what the infusion might have done to the girl in the time she had been trapped inside.
In fact, it wasn’t movement from inside the bag after all. It was only the thick black plastic moving on its own as it settled against the grass.
The girl was not suffering after all, I thought.
A fortune, a comfort, a grace, a gift.
My father looked relieved. He flexed his hand and rotated his wrist. He twisted the top of the bag closed, binding it tightly. He threw it on top of one of the piles.
There was a heavy nausea in my feet, and the rest of me felt like it was made of nothingness—as though someone had collected all of the energies of my body, mixed them together with concrete, then siphoned the whole mass back in through my ankles.
The old women watched these proceedings with something that was not quite interest, not quite regret or shame, and not quite acceptance, but a tacked-together mixture of all of these. One in which they have not yet combined, and you can still see each one, intact, in its purest form.
But then, but suddenly, but then—and doesn’t everybody wish for this? The second encore? The grand, grand finale?—
the bag flew open
and there was the girl.
Alive, breathing, colorful
her face raised, radiant, to the sky.
Looking at her, I knew, suddenly, that she had her own magic: light and zippy, completely unexpected, absolutely different from the sort my father and I had been peddling. I felt a different kind of nausea: electric and visceral, relief and awe teeming in my stomach.
The girl looked me in the eye for the first time. She nodded once, her bitten lips pulled back in a sad, loopy, silly smile.
Quick as a wink, she spirited herself out of the black plastic bag and up into the air.
She flew back and forth a little—a giddy, erratic flight, as though she were just getting her bearings but enjoying herself immensely in the process. She paused, hovering over me for a moment, then turned abruptly and flew into the building.
I followed close behind, my father and the elderly women frozen, motionless, in the grass behind us.
It was very dark in the building, but tiny shafts of light entered through holes in the wall and ceiling where cement and stone had fallen away. The girl zigzagged, more confident now in her flight, and I followed, like we were playing a game. Her eyes squinted as she smiled. Her mouth opened to laugh, though she didn’t make a sound.
The girl flew off to the side of the room, where it was much darker. There was a heaviness to the air over there. An indistinct clanking, rhythmic and mechanical. As I got closer, she flashed past again, and my eyes began to adjust to the dark.
There was a deep trough against the wall, filled with turbid water, a conveyor belt clattering above. One by one, black plastic bags came in through an opening from the outside and fell onto the conveyor belt. They shuffled along, until pressure from those behind pushed each bag through a gaping hole in the opposite wall.
The girl flew anxiously back and forth in front of this opening.
As the bags passed through the hole, I caught tiny glimpses of a cavern that seemed to go on forever, deep into the core of the earth. The conveyor belt looped endlessly—a figure-eighting path, spiraling down and down.
Cogs and steam, coal and burning embers, heavy, smoking machinery.
The girl slipped past. She flew through the hole, down into the cavern, following the path of the bags ever deeper. It was never-ending, this procession of bags. I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t see the girl.
My eyes and nose burned. I felt myself separating again, the same emptiness in my head as before, the same queasy heaviness in my feet.
It would always be this way, I thought. My father was right. It would go on and on forever. I was foolish to think I could hope for anything more. Nothing would change.
I stuck my head into the hole, then my shoulders. The conveyor belt rattled away, bag after bag shuttling down into the pit.
My father was right, I thought again. He had shown me how to forget the search, and he had shown me how to search for the forgetting. He had shown me the circles of things, erasing my footprints before I had even made them.
I felt very calm.
I looked out over the vast expanse, my eyes watering from the smoke. I opened them wider. My ears filled with the rhythm of metal and machinery, and I wished I could open them wider, too.
It was terrible, and comforting, and familiar.
I shoved one of the garbage bags aside. I lay on the conveyor belt as it moved toward the hole. I closed my eyes.
It had always been the same, I thought, and it would always be the same. It would go on and on, just as it always had, for years.
The palms of my hands burned as the conveyor belt trundled toward the hole in the wall.
But then there was a flash, and a strange, all-encompassing rustling, like the noise of all of the oceans of the world, miniaturized, trapped and raging against the walls of a tiny glass jar.
There was a high, sharp noise in my ears, like hundreds of tiny bells, and the girl burst up from the cavern and out through the hole, rocks falling behind her. She slammed hard into me and I fell to the ground, off of the conveyor belt, away from the hole in the wall.
A piece of hail shot down from the sky through a gap in the ceiling. It hit me hard on the crown of my head. Another fell, and then another, until it was everywhere. It clattered loud and sharp on the metal and stone around me, covering the filthy water in the trough with bright bullets of ice, sticking in the gears of the conveyor belt until it ground to a halt.
It teemed down into the cavern, its faraway echoes a soft counterpoint to the rhythm of the ice falling around me. Another piece of hail flew through the air and bounced off a piece of stone, hitting me on the forehead directly between my eyes.
The girl flew past me again, brushing my shoulder so lightly I could barely even feel it this time. She soared high in the air, high enough that the ceiling fell away, and the roof, and the wall. And the wall with its hole, and the hole with its chasm were just one thin, flat layer in the drawings of things.
Where these things had been awful before, in their insistence on just this, you could see, now, how we all draw lines around the endlessness to give it form. And in this form comes the feeling of being right in the middle of everything, always surrounded, for better or for worse.
But as the girl flew, you could see where all of the borders ended.
And the girl was not really above. She was not really in front, or behind or away from. She was beyond, somehow, in a different layer of things, filled out, flattening all of this, and she flew up and out and through, into the stark, thick, smoky white.
Alyssa Proujansky has studied fiction in Ithaca, London, and New York. She was recently a runner-up in Atticus Review‘s 2017 Flash Fiction Contest, and a finalist in Third Coast‘s 2018 Fiction Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Passages North, Third Coast, Columbia Journal, Hobart, Fanzine, Moon City Review, Atticus Review, Flock, Lunch Ticket and elsewhere. Her website is www.alyssaproujansky.com.