“And what do you think this is?”, the creaky curator drones, her voice the same soporific, steady tone as the boiler in my flat. The blissful sensation of listening to its purr while enveloped in my duvet comes back to haunt me, and I wish I was still wrapped in its warm embrace.
The ancient women is holding in her hand yet another tiny fragment of some equally ancient item, probably a cooking pot judging by it’s ashy blackness. Her eyes are just a slightly deeper set of valleys amongst countless others in the creased map that is her face, and now they’re pinched into inquiring slits. Her face could do with an iron I think, and I’m still exploring this concept when I realise that the lady is speaking again.
“Yes…but of what”, she croaks, her eyes narrowing further still, eyebrows raised. I must have unconsciously given an answer to her question, my guess is it was something like ‘it’s another fucking fragment’.
“A cooking pot, maybe?”, I reply and take the mandatory polite glance at the thing in her hand, before immediately returning to staring at nothing in particular. Oh god, I want to go home. I need my bed, and a spliff. I only came out to get some rizla. I’ve walked past this crumbling museum almost everyday for months, but this time my doubts were weakened by post-debauchery whimsy, and my intrigue got the better of me. I couldn’t resist. As soon as I poked my head through the door into the dusty, dark space, the curator pounced. She has me trapped tight in an invisible prison built from pure etiquette, and she knows I’m too polite to break out. My interest shriveled and died after the fifteenth pot fragment, and that was almost an hour ago now. I know because I’ve been checking my phone every two minutes.
Strangely, I find my eyes wandering back to the object. The woman’s hand is shaking. I first assume it’s because of her age, then I notice she is using her other hand to support it as though the tiny dark chunk has a weight far beyond its size.
“May I see that?”, I ask, realising that I’m actually vaguely intrigued.
Her eyes widen at the sudden interest in my voice, and it takes a me a moment to realise that this might actually be a smile, though it barely scrapes her mouth.
“Yes, but be careful.”
She starts walking over but as I reach out my hand ready she pauses.
“Both hands. Trust me.”
I hold out both hands and she tentatively tips the dark nugget into them. I am immediately grateful of the advice. The object is the size and apparent shape of a five pence piece but weighs that of a watermelon, and my hands drop under the unexpected force. I’ve never held anything so dense, it’s actually quite painful. No wonder the poor woman’s hand was shaking – it feels like it’s trying to escape my hand by burrowing straight through it. With some effort, I hold it up to take a closer look. From a distance the object looked merely dark, but up-close it’s revealed to be a bottomless, irrefutable black. But no…it’s somehow darker than black. It’s just a nothingness, one so complete that an accurate description is impossible because by even referring to it you have already failed. The utter lack of shading makes it seem like flat circle, yet stroking it with my finger reveals it in fact to be spherical, and the surface immutably solid, cool and completely smooth – so smooth that it’s difficult to tell I’m touching anything at all because my finger just slips by.
“What is it?”, I say mostly to myself, my eyes transfixed to the little ball of shadow, then remembering the curator is here I manage to pull my gaze away from it and look at her questioningly.
“What is it a part of, you mean?”
“Well, to be perfectly honest with you…I don’t know.”
“So how do you know it isn’t complete?”
“Do you not feel it too?”, she tilts her head to the side slightly, and after a moment her eyes flick from mine to the object. I follow them.
The void has grown. No, is still growing. It expands slowly at first, and initially I think it’s just a trick of the light, a shadow perhaps. But it’s not. The fucking thing is definitely growing.
“Just watch” she interrupts, and takes a disconcerting step back.
The sphere is about the size of a football now and I’m struggling to keep hold of it, not because it has grown heavier—the weight remains unchanged—but because it’s increased size and frictionless surface make it difficult to grip. The curator just watches expressionlessly, her face a blank canvas. Mine is too, which I find odd considering what is happening. I’m not scared, though I feel like I should be. It’s almost as if the black orb in my hands has absorbed any fear, like a sponge soaking up ink. I start to worry, but that too is almost immediately nulled. So I watch with complete neutrality as it’s bulk slips from my hands and falls gently with a grace in contrast with its weight and size. The moment it touches the ground, it explodes. Darkness engulfs everything. The worn wooden floor, the beige walls, the whole labyrinth of exhibits, and the curator herself are all gone, replaced with an emptiness so thick and deep it is as though a chunk of reality itself has been ripped away. There is nothing but me. A tidal wave of fear comes rushing back and I drown in it. I can’t breathe. I feel a whisper of pain in my fingertips which quickly grows into a roar, and I don’t need to see to know that my skin is peeling away from my body like the skin from a banana. A raw, bloody scream is sucked from my mouth, amplified a thousand times and blasted back at me in a voice like a crumbling mountain.
In a voice like a collapsing planet.
In a voice like a glass galaxy shattering.
In a voice like a universe of rusting, dying metal machines.
Abruptly the machines stop, and I am left alone, skinned, sobbing and adrift in a deepening sea of my own blood, in a raft made from my own skin, in a malevolent and merciless and complete darkness.
…”Are you listening?”
I lurch back into reality. Wow. What the fuck was in that pill last night? The curator is looking at me intently. I blink. She expects me to say something but my voice isn’t working. The pressure builds, the dam bursts and words spill out.
“Yeah, oh yeah, sorry. I am listening, I’m just a bit zoned out. I had a heavy night last night. Sorry. Um…here you go.”
I hand her back the nondescript shard. She takes it and gives it a wipe with a grubby cloth that seems to have materialized out of thin air.
“Are you you okay? You look terrible.” She looks up, her face is softened with concern.
“I’m fine. Really.”
“Okay. So where were we. Yes. As you correctly guessed, this is indeed a piece of a cooking pot, probably from the Byzant—”
“Actually no, I’m really sorry, I have to go. Sorry. Thanks for the tour.”
“But you haven’t seen the—”
“Sorry. I just wanted some rizla. Bye.”
I can feel her eyes on my back as I wade through her disappointment back to the door, then exit into the blinding light and head in the direction of bed.