Concentric Fizzles – Jonah Howell
March 12, 2021
I live in a flat valley in the center of a ring of mountains called the Harts. Standing at or near the center of the valley and looking up and out in any direction, the settlement’s history declares itself with the self-evident force of a spiritual truth:
It began with an explosion. Someone dropped a masonic bomb dead in the middle, and stone walls flung out and lodged themselves in the ground with a compactness and chronology directly proportional to distance from the blast. Ancient pubs and grotesque Gothic chapels pack the city center, leaving only space between for teensy alleys. A mounded wall surrounds this compound, and outside, the houses spread incrementally further apart, eventually allowing for streets which allow for cars, and they grow younger, until, at the edges of town, gaudy gables give way to gleaming glass and steel beams and clean smooth ninety-degree angles.
I have never walked all the way to the mountains, and of course I would not want to. But I find it obvious that, if I were to do so, I would begin to encounter levels of architectural abstraction that no one has yet invented, and that, once I had passed these, I would see the end of architecture in advance, its representative buildings spread so far apart that it would require several days to walk from one to the other.
And then I would reach the slope and its trees, having become a prophet. I cannot imagine how many of my fellow valleydwellers have already done this and have returned, all-knowing and all the more impotent for that.
Valley law requires that every inhabitant thereof should mirror the concentric structures of the Harts and the city wall. And so the law equates my skin, and surely the skins of all the others, to those same mountains and that same wall, so that none of us talks to any other except by accident, when, speaking down into our own throats, some wayward sound by some misfortune misfires out the mouth. This accident then demands a second—namely that the ears into which this sound stumbles hear it. Comprehension would constitute a third accident. The rarity of such an aberrant chain does not bear emphasizing.
I have not lived here for long. I imagine that, had I grown up in the valley, none of the foregoing would strike me as remarkable enough to notice. But and so then I remember certain fragmentary turns of phrase from the time before my arrival—on business, I believe—, but with a type of memory not episodic but musculoskeletal; by which I mean that my mouth and lungs remember, and my hands remember, but the film reel of my mind has largely smudged into an incomprehensible mélange, a process which the valley’s residency paperwork called “assimilation,” presumably to the radial-spatial layout of time which the valley embodies and which its citizens must by law mimic. Shocking how chimeric language comes to feel but how little it changes, in its material, when it does not speak but to itself.
I live somewhat near the center, and I once walked some way out toward the mountains. I cannot say that I accomplished this without disorientation, or that I did not give up. In the end I turned around and walked back. I try to remember this trek every day. I walked along Narcissus Way, a long skinny street which runs diagonally transverse down from the Harts on one side and up the Harts opposite through the plaza in the center of the valley where, in the beginning, the masonic bomb had dropped.
I began in good spirits, with a sort of all-encompassing numbness, an emptiness that rendered even the rolling motion of my feet abstract, as though seen through a dirty fog. It had snowed, but only a couple centimeters, and the flat veil of white which widened between the buildings as I walked further from the center rendered the valley more welcoming, as though it had suddenly grown amenable to the echoic hallucinations which its law cultivated and would permit the projection of those hallucinations onto itself, so that it began to take on some of the compacted burden of my own mental mélange.
It seemed that my skin had burst. It had not, but thus did I find comfort in the cold.
For the first hour, I would guess, of my walk, the city looked like any other outside the valley, or so I imagine, and so any description thereof would inevitably prove futile, or worse.
After that hour my stomach tightened. By law I could enter no building but that in which I lived, for obvious reasons, and so this new tightening, a piece of me or the refuse of my pieces which wanted to get out, elongated all the distance in front of me.
I do not mean, of course, that I intended to make it all the way to the Harts. I assumed, from the beginning, before that ominous tightening, that such a mission lay beyond my powers, and I proved myself right. But still some vague wave pressed me on along the widening Narcissus. I moved by the valley’s own peristalsis, as though this tightening in my stomach were but another uncontrollable compliance with law.
And so I faced real fear as I walked. I had created, I saw, a legal paradox, in which I could not relieve the tightening of my stomach until the valley had relieved itself of me, and the valley could not relieve itself of me until I had relieved myself of the tightening of my stomach. The prospect of liberation, so potently and unreachably evoked, tantalized me. Perhaps, I thought, if I were to relieve myself upon the street, the valley would have no choice but to change, to rupture, to rewrite its broken law, for better or for worse. Perhaps it would explode again.
But I could not decide, and so I set into a pitiful cycle, in which I would walk for a few steps, then stop and think about my insoluble conundrum, after which I would walk again, then stop again, and each time I became more certain that I had not walked at all, or at least that, if I had walked, I had not gotten anywhere, for the valley must have moved with me, or else it and everything in it would have blown apart into lawless pandemonium upon the event of my very first step.
The knot in my stomach tightened, and Narcissus had opened so that I could see the Harts, inestimably far out, behind a thick cover of dirty mist, and between me and the mountains languished a widening plane of the same mundane white, except for the houses, by now a scattershot smatter of boxes far too clean to contain anything, an abstract memory of something not yet built, and I saw that I would not reach anything, for no matter how fast I walked, the valley followed me, and the mist ahead proclaimed a clear impassibility, and since I had not intended to pass it anyway, of course, and since I had gone nowhere, I turned around and walked back the same way I had come.