The lore of the fragment was what brought us together, like wasps licking a wooden frame to build their nests. Each time we heard the story we took some of it back, in our mouths, like damp chemicals or pulp + saliva. Then spat it out to fill a hole or make the wall stronger.
I am new to writing. Is the notebook a time crystal?
Mother: ‘Behind the curtain of blood I saw a shape.’ That shape was an equation. Equation, constellation. What happens when we experience the Mother’s love?
Father: ‘I saw a terrible thing. It was after the war. A mother on the ground . . . her baby rooting for milk, suckling her . . . even though . . .’
Is the Mother a gap on the physical level that links human beings together in a sense of united loss?
Tried to get these questions out. Can’t focus.
Mother: ‘What would you like to feel?’
Father: ‘Get me tea, and the paper.’
These are examples of communal lore. How we were when we were together and what it was like when we were apart. Also: orange grasses, foxglove, conifer, mango, dolphin, bitch.
I heard a story of a Mother and Father who loved each other so much they had an operation to remove the hearts from their bodies then sew them into each other’s parts.
It must have been so chilly, like an eclipse made visible only when photographed, when the time came to lift the organs out with a powerful, single movement and give them to a nurse.
‘I tell her that rocks like meteorites retain light, a sensible energy thought into substance by experiencing it,’ writes the poet of another era, putting forward an idea of writing that resembles transcription, connection with a reader, but also loss.
A scrawl, a scribble.
I’m no saint.
I want to live a simple, beautiful life with memories and friends. I do not want to die of carotid ill-health or by the hand of another.
In stating what I want and what I do not want, I practice a form of positive desire, the spirituality of a bygone era.
Imagine a February morning in 1997 or 2019, the bright green grass and the ten black ravens hopping across the lawn on the outskirts of a city filled with knaves, dolls, bears and gymnasts, but also clerics who abandoned their calling to become what we all were in the end: a ruined self.
If an ancestor is someone you can still tell a story of, then perhaps I am not a descendant.
On the planet Avaaz, where a city once was, is now a hole. Imagine a house bursting into flames in the rear-view mirror of a yellow-and-black taxi.
At the rim of this hole are low hills or mounds, forest-green and gleaming with bouncy eyes. Rat, lion, piglet, boar, cat, dog, snake, cow, sheep, rabbit, horse. Ex-zoo, this is less a wilderness than the end of cages. Here, the lion eats the horse, the snake bites the dog, and the rat nips at the heel of the cow.
Can animals save us, or will it be the plants who become conscious, adept, empathetic: the functional adults of our universe?
To answer these questions, I left my home for the rim.
I was a child and perhaps I am still a child.
Lick a rose for its dew.
Wash your face when it rains.
Don’t drink from the tap.
I know what to do.
Imagine reincarnating as a sea creature.
Imagine reincarnating in 1993, if you were born in 2023. Or 2121, if you were born in 2021.
Can we reincarnate in a society or an ocean that precedes us in the timeline of a) antiquity or b) apocalypse? Imagine the shattered turquoise or aquamarine shard of the fresco, underfoot. Imagine family time.
Turns out the apocalypse is boring and sensible, a combination of sugars, fats, and trying to come up with a cunning plan.
My suicide is more beautiful than your life, murmurs Father on the floor of the stable, where he has curled up in the place where horses once lay to take his pills.
If you are reading these words in the last century, I understand that you loved a film called Melancholia starring Kiefer Sutherland. If you are reading these words in the coming century, Kiefer Sutherland was a loser poet. He was not a friend to his daughter or wife. Another planet appeared in the sky, a charged form of nudity that illuminated the siblings in the film, as well as the parent–child bond.
Who is reading these words?
Who is your partner in life?
Was the person who saved our planet a devoted scientist who made room for new feelings in the space between their body and yours?
What saved us in the end? Was it food?
Meanwhile, the sun evolves every single day into something else, something further from ‘sun’.
Because I was not part of a group, I knew that sexual trauma was a likelihood.
This is why I had to leave.
Like a vector, I parsed the countryside, nibbling stream mint, cowslip, lily and dill.
The city is behind me now, releasing energy that is immediately channelled to anyone who needs it.
Self-induced stress and fear are the most toxic things to the system, said Mother one day, on the couch. I remember what she said because the next day her loving support was gone.
Do you know why? Ancestor, why didn’t you change your ways in advance of the destruction that rendered memories into oil? Descendant, contextually, you’re a miracle.
Below the flag of Avaaz and above the harbour, a body emerges from an outline of golden light: the citizen host. No, I don’t know who this is.
I ran from the glowing body that was unrecognisable to me.
It was stressful. I was scared. It was toxic!
The body I saw was like an invisible painting that becomes apparent when water is dropped upon it.
I ran from this new art.
Towards the trees where something, I could hear, was making a sound.
A sound, a prefix, a tone.
‘Attune yourself to inner magnetism,’ said the predator.
But I fled – something the predator did not expect.
Ancestor, what did you do in such moments, when all those sweet things were in smithereens? How did you skirt the new dominance? What were your strategies and formulas? How did you remember your Mother’s face in ordinary moments? Did you have access to what we know now, the idea of the body as remembering everything that ever happened? Tell me about the dandelion and the pear tree. Tell me where you are from.
Descendant, if you are child, when the world splits into three parts, flee.
To the rim.
I saw an amazing thing as I lay in the straw.
Last night, I dreamed that behind the waterfall was a form of writing I could not read, something like a scrawled prescription or scroll with only the letters H, I, N and E still legible.
The night decants the moonlight over the nettles along the brook. ‘Solidarity not charity,’ chants the leader of a temporary camp, in the paternalistic tone I’ve come to recognise as a weak disguise. So, I push on, slipping away from the fire, walking as far as I can beneath the full moon the colour of a ripe plum.
August + December – February = June?
The footpath throws me into time and I walk until there it is, like the skirt of a dress filled with snakes or doves, or the roar of a cafeteria.
Behind the waterfall is a cave.
I step out onto the wet, broad stone without shame or anger.
Am I a moon bird?
Look how lightly I step from the bank to the ledge, my right hand clinging to the stone of the cliff and the fingertips of my left hand extending towards, then through, the water.
Then all of me is inside, not outside.
This is what I see: a small fire, recently lit and fragrant, packed tightly into a circle of heavy stones. Each stone has a red oval painted on its roundest part, ringed with gold paint, then a thinner line of turquoise pigment or dye.
There’s a kerosene stove with a kettle on it, singing at the boil.
A low wooden desk with a cushion to sit on. Someone has painted the cream fabric of the cushion with lemon, emerald-green and red paisley swirls. On the desk, wrapped in gold silk, is a book. Nobody is here. In this context, I hear two words.
Kneel down in the boggling mud.
Yes, I am speaking now. As Pinky scrambles up the scree.
Imagine a flame balanced in a bowl of water or in the bubbling spring at the origin of rivers, hovering there.
Here, a third stream comes from underneath with the energy of a fountain. Is this the history of rivers? Is an origin a confluence?
Dear Pinky, in the fourteenth minute of this new galaxy and in the last few moments of your own childhood, I am communicating with you.
Pinky, can you hear me?
This is the place.
Put your hand in the water. Yes, that’s it . . . as far as it can go.
Blood angels calve in the moonlight, but you’ll never see such a thing.
There. That’s it. Pull it out now.
Right out of the water and the mud and the flame and the ice and the muck and the bright.
That’s it, my lovely.
Can you hear me?
‘Yes, I can hear you.’ – Pinky to Hildegard, who has begun to speak.
There are forests here and snowdrops in abundance. I never imagined being here. Did you?
From agar, from flock, from lovers, from bodies that flush with warmth, from the cultural memory of lighthouses, polar bears, the revolutionary nature of young people all over the earth, something was preserved. I can feel it here, for the first time, with you.
Imagine a bunch of carrots with soil still caked on them, green tops like ferns. Or imagine the sound of a wooden flute beyond the Mughal labyrinth. Imagine the national flowers of contested regions. Every person who travelled here is unsteady, I can feel that.
If home is found on both sides of the globe, home is of course here, and always a missed land, said the poet, with whom we can still feel an emotional affinity, though he is long gone. The delicate works of that earlier time will never be kept on record now. It is up to us to memorise them; poems by people who have been incarcerated, poems by people who left their homes, poems constructed with paper and string.
Things that happened, things that might happen, on the planet Avaaz.
Here is the fragment.
[Pinky Agarwalia gestures to a chunk of ice on the tall wooden table, addressing the group. The ice is luminous, almost neon, rotating to the left then back again (twitching) without any effort or contact from Pinky herself, or the members of her audience, who are seated on the floor or leaning against the sides of the cave.]
‘As you can see,’ continues Pinky in a formal tone, ‘the fragment is a six-dimensional object that we have to integrate. It’s evolving. We don’t have much time.’
The ice has a lower luminosity than what it contains and so the light from the fragment crosses two frequencies, like an unknown language. Some photons can’t escape the staggered mesh.
How will we melt this ice that does not melt when we heat it or crack when we smash it on the ground?
Pinky taps the book.
An unknown language is a rose meteor, because what doesn’t ebb off leaves lines.
An unknown language is held in a quasi-steady state until someone reads it for the first time. Then it becomes toroidal, streaming lines.
An unknown language is non-dimensional and so it can’t be written down. So, what are you looking at?
You need a code to look at the unknown language.
Encased in ice, a word vibrates.
Discontinuous spikes pulse in the body of the viewer.
It helps to wear damp silk. The coolness calms the vagus nerve, a nerve that wraps around the heart as it travels from gut to brain.
The fragment of an unknown language is unstable, convective, buoyant, and can’t be extracted, just as the real universe can’t be plotted.
Is the one you love a proxy for radiance? (Hildegard, the chameleon)
Is the fragment a cosmological simulation? (Hildegard, who ingested galantine, converting the energy of her life into an identity as bright as six billion suns.)
An unknown language comes from a foreign place, like a sample of the life once lived there.
An unknown language is a very rich source, a repository of shared information, like an amethyst cave at the place where the river meets the sea.
Herbs and bodywork relieve the build-up of tension. (Hildegard, off-message)
Hildegard, you were so close to me at the origin of rivers and then in the cave. Was it you who were so recently there, stoking the fire with the toe of your pointed boot?
Hildegard, your metamorphosis, like an animal or fish, keeps slipping through my hands.
I follow your command.
Like a text that is destined to be read as a sign might, the book was a series of commands. As Pinky read each sentence in turn, the words lit up with a weak flame, one by one, so that when Pinky finished reading, there was no book.
Red flowers, a moorhen. Pinky waited until the spring came before she left the cave and returned to the camp below, where other orphans had gathered, sitting with their backs to nature out of a sadness they couldn’t stop.
To whisper, follow me.
Up and up to the origin of rivers went the children, on Pinky’s heel.
For her eyes were shining.
Whoever followed her stopped asking, What is happening to me?
Hot water sipped upon waking. A branch to chew on that cleaned the teeth and nourished the breath. Vegetables, seeds, black tea. ‘Mandala for the undefended heart,’ said Pinky, when one of the orphans asked her what she was drawing.
The cave was like a violet door in the side of the mountain.
There was a way to enter and another way to leave, to relieve the bowels in a wood, a shovel in hand to dig a hole and refill it.
I can compete with you in the body I have. This was a new thought, one of many the orphans had, individually.
Soon it was time to gather.
‘It’s time,’ said Pinky.
Once they were ready, the children or near-children or ex-children gathered in a circle within view of the cascade, which was Prussian blue and sparkling in the early morning light.
In the middle was the block of ice.
With the fingertip of your fourth finger touch the bone of your heart and with your other hand touch the ground.
In the years to come, we would learn from our failures and write about what we left behind. Our writing took the form of stories and poems, which we shared in the woodland clearing where we met to learn from each other. There wasn’t a university in our future, and there never would be again. Instead, we apprenticed to our elders, then shared in their care.
That morning, the morning of our first ritual, we looked at each other like shy swans, bending our necks to look down, and then up again.
Pinky, now our leader, repeated the instructions in a clear voice, and we remembered the book which had set itself on fire as she read, each word in turn. Was this our mythology?
The paper’s hiss. Ash on the fingertips. ABC flame.
The final instruction was this: Bring to mind an experience of hatred.
The gold light descended then from the crown to the heart, dissolving the head of the enemy, the regret, the pain.
Pinky set the chunk of ice at the centre of our circle, on the ground.
We visualised the gold light extending from our hearts.
To pierce the chemistry of the fragment.
Imagine twenty spokes of the brightest light you have ever seen.
As the ice shatters, a sound is released.
A new sound which reaches us as pale green light, vibrating lightly, lightly, like bees but also flowers.
Is a stamen a tuning fork? The Pleiades, above us, tilt.
Was this the moment that our species took a turn?
author’s notes: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars (2020) and Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal, ‘Land’ (2001), are the two works of poetry I reference. The line ‘I saw an amazing thing as I lay in the straw’ is from a monologue I memorised as a teenager, but I have perhaps misremembered as I cannot find the source text. The phrase ‘shy swans’ derives from a description of ponies in James Wright’s ‘A Blessing’: ‘They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs.’ The spacetime vocabulary comes out of talks and lectures at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology in 2019 and early 2020. The way of speaking to ancestors and descendants, across time, comes from Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects, a practice I was first introduced to by Regina Smith at Naropa University. The imagery of ‘national flowers of contested regions’ comes from Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi’s Efflorescence series (2013–19), and their installation at Kettle’s Yard, part of the exhibition Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan (2019). The cave behind the waterfall is a cave I myself visited as a child. There, I was served tea by the person who lived inside it, perched on a hand-woven stool. The curtain of blood appearing in the mind, and through it the equation’s proof, comes from a story of the mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose vision of Mahalakshmi this was. The phrase ‘unknown language’ comes from Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century mystic, as channelled by Pinky Agarwalia, an orphan of what was once Earth and is now Avaaz. Pinky divines then perpetuates Hildegard’s instructions in 2121, the year of devastating ecological norms, species mutation, and new ideas of education, healing and love. Imagine quantum laser beams shining from the shabby little hearts of twenty orphans in a variant of the spiritual practice, Chöd. Imagine an alphabetic fragment encased in ice that does not melt in fire nor shatter when you throw it on the ground. The ice signifies, perhaps, forms of trauma that are intractable, yet which also preserve something, or protect it from destruction. Are all biographies a study of surviving something we were only passing through?
This is an excerpt from Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey, published by Ignota Books. Don’t miss the launch party on Zoom on Thursday 17 September, 7 p.m. BST; 2 p.m. EDT; 11 p.m. PDT.