In darkened corners beyond the reach of fading daylight shadows circulate like eddies in a muddy river. Within the structure of that darkness, the varieties of shading and the obscure movements signal darker meanings. The shadows become tattooed with strange markings, spelling out cryptic words. Messages from an alien world. If I listen carefully, I can even hear faint voices, the same ones that inundate my sleep.
By night, a black miasma of chatter suffuses the entire cosmos. It roils across all that is, like some semiotic vapor cloud. My sleep is deep but troubled. Voices call to me, conjuring dark dreams of cold, empty space and the shadows of people who cannot be touched. Esoteric symbols dance in the night spelling out secrets. Secrets perhaps that were not meant to be shared. Sometimes, so deep is my slumber that I seem to be buried, unable to move, entombed somewhere.
At any moment, day or night, families, countries, entire worlds of corpses surround me, speaking revelations in sodden whispers from mouths filled with rot and worms. No one else seems to notice. It is only I who pay them heed. I have become their instrument, a prophet screaming at a deaf world.
It may very well be that all things are a language, that things exist not simply as the individual phenomena in themselves that we simplistically assume them to be, but as complete and complex systems of symbols and codes. I cannot prove such a proposition. But there are three things I know to be languages. Darkness. Sleep. Death. These are the languages of Catatonia.
Catatonia. Realm of inverted thoughts, pervasive symbols, and animate dreams. A place of darkness, yes, but a living darkness. The Down Lands, it is called. Down, far down, beyond vision and sound. Submerged in a place beneath thought. An upside-down land whose stars shine from the void within rather than from the emptiness of space. Where the arrow of time points not in one direction but in every direction, like the spinning dial of a child’s game.
Catatonia. Lover of corpses. Birthplace of worms.
How I found it, I cannot say. Some attribute it to my drinking habits. They claim my brain is run through with wormholes. Dipsomaniac madness, they say. Catatonia, a mere delusion. But no one can deny the reality of the languages of Catatonia. They have heard me speaking them. And when I do, I spy them invoking the protection of their counterfeit gods. Things shift when I speak in these tongues. Stars begin to liquefy. Darkness moves. A rumble can be heard from someplace very deep, deep within the earth, below the crust, below the mantle, at the very core of this world. People avoid me. Children are called home and shades are drawn, no matter what time of day. They may deny it, but it is so. I speak the forbidden languages of Catatonia. This is my greatest proof of its existence.
The languages of Catatonia? They are linguistic isolates. Solitary. Pre-rational. Spontaneous. Composed of secret words and entropic alphabets that take their shapes from the creeping marks of decay – organic, radioactive, existential. The gradual move toward dissolution found in all things. Catatonia itself is a place whose physical structure is built on arcane syntaxes and irrational grammars.
The languages of Catatonia exist in spoken form as inchoate murmurings approximating…what? The soft sound of slime mold advancing. The unintelligible utterings of someone asleep, disturbed, dreaming. The noise of dirt settling over a rotting casket. In Catatonia, no sounds could be more natural, more pleasing to the ear. Everything speaks. Every doorway, every stairway and landing, every cloud, everything that crawls or swims, every inhalation and exhalation has meaning. And the trilingual nature of Catatonia, rather than producing a confusing babel, creates a sort of dark three-part harmony that suggests a requiem for all the other worlds, worlds that are destined to perish. Like ours. But no one aside from me will bother to listen.
I began to recognize and to work in the languages of Catatonia just before she sought to leave me. She will remain nameless. The ordinary languages of this world are not fit to contain her name. No earthly alphabets or vocalizations do that name justice. I have translated her, and from my translation you may think you know her. But only in the languages of Catatonia is her memory truly written.
Long evenings I spent in solitude prior to her attempted departure. She complained my seclusion was pushing her away, had made life with me impossible. The poor creature could not understand how critical solitude was to deeper insight. The most productive hours of my life were spent in the deep silence of my study. Listening. Watching the shadows. Waiting for the signs intuition told me must be coming. Yes, I insisted on quiet. Yes, I insisted that the lights be kept low. These were prerequisites to my recall of the Catatonian language of Darkness. They say once you learn a language, you never forget it. And each winter night my memory grew stronger. Catatonia became more real. And so did the language of Darkness.
I spent the daylight hours in fevered writing. Awakening before sunrise, I began committing abstruse signs and symbols to paper as best I could with ordinary pen and ink. The memory of Darkness I etched upon sheets of the finest bond paper, white as bleached bone. Often would she awake to find me hovering over her, reading messages in her raven hair, discerning literature in the dark holes of her sleep-dimmed eyes. Her eyes would widen then, the black of her pupils expanding, deepening, spelling out yet more sublime tales.
“What are you doing?” she would ask.
Slowly emerging from my reverie, I would answer, “Reading you.”
She was unnerved, no doubt. She was not privy to the great semiotic structure to be found in the dark of a loved one’s tresses or the fathomless depths of the eyes. Catatonia was a strange land to her. Remote as far Tartary or the Antipodes. No doubt, Catatonia’s ways were foreign to her, as they initially were to me. But I had the gift of a growing recognition of the language of Darkness, and this gave me an insight into that remote place that was not available to anyone else. It distanced me from others, her in particular.
Always an amateur scribbler of prose and poetry, my creative production exploded. With a new medium to work in, I built unimaginable worlds from the very lightlessness that inhabited the corners, the closets, the underneath of furniture in our house. If only she knew the dedications to her I wrote in twilight and the gloom of the forests that surrounded us, she would have willingly given me her all, as I would her. For black was no longer merely the color of the ink on the page or the complexion of the woods at night. It was itself a great language, a system, a structure, a relationship of part to part that allowed the deepest expressions I had ever known. But this she could not understand. All she saw was my obsession with the shadows and the night.
She begged me to come back to myself, to return once again to the man I had been. But having recalled Catatonia, it would have been impossible to un-remember. And, even if I could, I did not want to. For I was learning secrets no one else knew in languages strange and phantasmal.
As my studies in Darkness progressed, things changed around us. Morning became merely a paler version of the fulsome nights. The morning star rose into the sky at a peculiar declination and shined dimly through an atmosphere darkened. Even as spring drew near, a permanent gloom settled over our home that no sun could pierce, no day could conquer. With the arrival of warmer weather, the dingy snow melted. Stagnant pools filled with mosquito larvae, wriggling and tumbling like straight-jacketed psychotics.
One morning that spring, as the light struggled unsuccessfully to exert its rule, she packed her things and prepared to leave. Desperate, I addressed her in the dark language of Catatonia. I scrawled unearthly poems across the sooty sky. I sought to demonstrate to her my devotion, not only in this world but in that strange land beyond. She screamed, then collapsed into deep unconsciousness.
Perhaps the gloomy language of Catatonia had reached farther down than I knew. Something had persuaded her not to leave. With Darkness, I had conjured sleep. And in the language of Sleep, we could finally truly communicate. I laid her on black velvet bedding and caressed her as she slept, generating poems, legends, treatises. Written in her slumber were secret histories. Of me and her. Of Catatonia and of all the worlds that it had generated. I whispered the newly rediscovered language of Sleep in her ear, and she scrawled in her movements upon our bed her responses. Negation. The emptying of all things and all people. The experience of the void around which Catatonia revolves endlessly.
After a while, she began to moan and shout incoherently in her sleep. She was trying to speak to the world in the lost language of Sleep. I laid down next to her. For weeks we screamed through the nights and days in the language of Sleep, wasting in our bed without food or hydration. But no one seemed to hear, even though the vibrations shook the very foundations of the houses and rippled the vernal pools.
There were signs for any who cared to look. A dank humidity set in over the region in which we lived, and the mosquito infestation became particularly heavy that year. Many mosquitoes were found to be carrying unusual tropical diseases. Various sleeping sicknesses became very prominent. And while such diseases were usually most dangerous to young children, the elderly, and the infirm, the particular strains prevalent that season seemed most virulent in young couples. The effect was most unusual, for the afflicted writhed continuously in their beds and uttered sounds that were described as wasted, ghastly, almost deathly. Their caretakers were afflicted with the most dreadful dreams and awoke to the smell of swamp gasses and the sound of something burbling as in sediment-thick water.
Nonetheless, no one paid us any heed. When they found us, we were emaciated, drenched in sweat and bodily discharges. Only the most strenuous efforts by the emergency technicians revived me. My eyes opened on theirs with odium, for they had disturbed the deep revelations my love and I were dispatching to the world. But even as I was being called back into wakefulness, I realized that her words had become unrecognizable, no longer in the language of Sleep. Above the foul smell of this world and the soiled sheets beneath us, a different smell emanated from nearby, a sepulchral perfume. My beloved was dead.
Rage filled my heart. My love had been sacrificed for this world, to give it a precious gift, the slumbering language of Catatonia. But this world had refused to hear. Its willful ignorance killed her. As I lapsed into unconsciousness, once again I began calling out falteringly to the world. Not in the language of Sleep, the language it would not recognize. No. I spoke in crude form another language that was beginning to come back to me, like a long-forgotten legend. I spoke words in the language my love had spoken as she departed, the language that must compel attention, no matter who the speaker or where it is spoken. I spoke Death.
Into late summer, the cadavers filled the morgues throughout my own and the adjoining districts. Young couples were taken away by the score. I was not given the gift of joining them. The doctors took extraordinary measures to “save” me, and I was dragged back into this lifeless life.
Fall came early that year. By mid-September, the leaves were almost all turned, tinted in deep oranges, reds, and purples. A strange malty scent hung heavy in the air, as of something fermenting. Cold winds blew down from the north and the trees were mostly bare by early October. Bitter frosts attacked whatever plant life was left. And after a summer of death gaining easy access through broken-screened windows and the inevitable lure of the sun, people seemed eager to take shelter. Doors tightly sealed. Gathered around stoves. Pretending not to hear the howling outside.
A full recollection of the language of Death did not return to me instantaneously. It required extraordinary attention and the most taxing effort. Grubs buried themselves deeper in the soil, seeking decay, and words came slowly back to me. The grit and sand of a worm’s gullet processed rotted vegetation, and strange phrases started to become familiar to me once again. The feathers of a dead crow rustled in the wind, and I began to find fluency. And though I had spoken Death in such a crude way after the passing of my beloved, now my use of that most delicate language became more subtle, more refined. In summer death had moved over the land. By fall Death spoke to its inhabitants. And I was its voice. Now was the trinity of Catatonia’s languages revealed to this world. Now did the fullness of Catatonia, which my love had given her life to reveal, manifest itself to my countrymen. They still would not hear, of course, but they could no longer ignore the signs.
In Catatonia, Death is the essence of beauty. Soft and expressive, like the feel and smell of autumn leaf litter. And yet, it is a language particularly suited to that strange world. Its lilting nature does not translate well to this place. It takes a finely attuned ear to pick it up, and the people of this world are essentially tone deaf when it comes to the music of the language of Death. Of course, in this world it speaks in a way unlike it does in Catatonia. In a way that imprints new meaning on the face of this senselessly spinning sphere. In a way that tinges all the sounds of our busy-ness, our machinery, our buzzing electrical instruments, our endless chatter bouncing back and forth, up into space and down again, with the reminder that no one, no thing is immortal. Except Catatonia.
With my love now departed, I had to find new ways to express myself in the sacred, the once lost languages of Catatonia. New mediums had to be explored. Sleepless nights I spent in the disease-ridden whore houses of the city. Not for bodily pleasure, but to generate verse in the language of Death. In syphilitic embraces, I called out to the world. And in its own way the world answered. Strange influenzas swept across the land. A plague of gravely malformed newborns filled the maternity wards. A mysterious phenomenon caused fish to die en masse and float to the surfaces of lakes and rivers. This was followed by a sudden freeze that left the remains trapped in the ice.
The language of Death, esoteric though it may be, speaks with power. But the people of this world are a slow crowd. They have trouble hearing it in the gusting winds that rattle their houses at night or seeing its inscription in the carcass of a dog by the side of the road. Do they ever wonder why the lifeless bitch smiles? She hears the beautiful, melodic tones of the language of Death. The grave itself is the diva of Death, forever singing the sweetest aria. If only one would put ear to earth, one could hear it in the cemeteries and church-yards. Or in the charnel houses and crematoria, if one would press his head to the wall.
I have dared to speak the languages of Catatonia here in this place. I have dared to write them across the skies and in the fresh earth of graves. I have dared to spell them out in the dark corners of bordellos. I have sensed them in the secret dreams of restless nymphomaniacs who cry out for the lover who will never come, who claw at themselves in the unconscious hope of a vision of Catatonia, the unknown land, the home they have never seen but only felt between their legs and in the heaving breast of an almost passionate moment. I have spoken in the secret modulations of voice, the mysterious inflections that makes of mere darkness, mere sleep, mere death, whole languages. I have written Catatonia’s esoteric signs in poetry of strange rhythms and impossible meters to signal to this world that faraway land’s existence. But all people do is turn away in fear and denial. And keep dying.
Winter is near now. The snow has begun to fall. I think it will not stop. This winter will be our last. This world will be made still, as it should be. Perhaps then, it will recognize the writing on the walls of the world, the calligraphic graffiti that calls all to come home to fair Catatonia. Perhaps then, it will hear the voices that speak Darkness, Sleep, and Death, like prayers to a god who is more than god. Who is lover. Perhaps then I shall see her again and again our hearts, our thoughts, our writings, and our words will be one.
But not now. Now, birds fall from the trees and litter the yards and alleyways. Now, children beg at street corners, reaching out with disfigured hands, crying through warped mouths. Now, people leave their dead outside to freeze and be covered by snow, unable to make for them a proper grave. Now, the days grow darker, the streets grow emptier, the nights ever colder.