All images courtesy the author

When you came to this place among the leaves and soft shadows.
This place among the branches through which blue sky shone.
That smelled rich and green and the wind

That made the trees sough strange and rough.
The wind that slowed to bleed into
and through you.

They told you you you you
Would find a home here
That you you you you you
Would forget your origin and your name
Find a home here

At 7:21 am on November 2, a rainless day, the earthling stared at you in a way unfamiliar and you could not must not will never hold its gaze. There was in the stance and the eye a knowledge of you that was unbearable.

The encounter at 4:34 p.m. on November 2…or was it November 3…was unexpected and not what it first seemed. The surveillance that burned upon your face, that rested there with a sharpness born of long regret, welled up from the forest floor. From an earthling who stood immobile but alert and made you feel like a traitor, no, an intruder, no a traitor. A threat, like a thief or hurricane or a sound too loud. You could not understand for the longest time why you stood there staring down at her staring up and wept. Why you should have to weep for being held to account. But when you were distracted for a moment, startled by a sound, she disappeared as if she had never been there. So utter, so total. So loved by camouflage or speed, or both. It felt as if you had disappeared with her.

November. Later in November. In November. November. It was November. Maybe it was November. A new earthling to solve as your bones soaked in the cold. You did not mean to make it run or chase it behind a tree. But those things happened anyway. The stress of regard was not the moment or the point. The stress of regard was the aftershock. For you felt you had seen this earthling before and that it had seen you before and this, now, was mere retort or renewal or further rehearsal of a point or mode or relationship that had already begun, been forged, dissolved, resolved. But the eyes of the earthling held you and you shuddered for you could not quell their fear of you, not this one nor all the ones before. And this made you fearful and want to be small and quiet. Something dissolving. Some sense of the sky melting into the ground.

Came screaming forth from the canopy. Came screaming forth in a month that was a month that was a month or moment after or before or during the other months and moments. Came screaming forth as the sound that had startled you before, revealed as something earthly with fierce demons, no, demeanor that admitted to no fault or weakness. It destroyed the branch the talons clung to even as immovable, inviolate, as if forever perched and forever destroying. Only slowly, as you recovered from the sound, as you stood so very still, did you admit to the beauty of the earthling…in the way its feathers became a disguise both sharp and diffuse, both ghost and the thing the ghost had once been, and in this way showed its prey the truth of past, present, and future. For this being traveled through time continually, calculated the next velocity pierced to a point on a map. But of your velocity, you had no idea, nor where you had been pierced. Distance was distress not purchase. And the glare of gaze impervious fixed upon you and showed you the past, present, and future…yet spared your life.

From a vantage above, on some day in some year of a decade disguised by mist you came unawares upon an earthling that had no knowledge or awareness of you. An earthling that might not know of you at all, or your deeds or reputation. You watched with such a strange sad delight that it was like a song. It felt wrong to observe such openness, such unguardedness. It felt wrong and yet compulsion: you could not halt the observation. You could not let the earthling remain unmapped. You tunneled into reason: that many earthlings you had observed had enjoyed ecstatic many moments already where they had relaxed into the comfort of being invisible. Yet the longer you stood there as scrutiny, and the longer the earthling lingered, the more agitated you became. Lifted one foot, then the other, tried to turn away, could not. Dropped to your knees, felt a shooting pain, found your mouth become open and issuing forth a scream that racked you raw, sound muffled by the sky pouring into you through the branches. Pouring into your lungs, your bones, and destroying you entire. Until consciousness was kept from you, muffled and indistinct and far away… And when you came to, you looked around nervous like a new thing and you understood now your weeping the first day. Even if you would never write it down or tell anyone but only keep it tethered to the center of you. In an unobserved place.

The year is the moon through the trees eclipsing your thoughts with a feral smile. The year is something cold that smells of food and must be chased. The year is long yet compressed into a single moment. You have long since become a being of the night: the soothe of night, the lull and hum, the bottomless dark lake that steals your vision. You could not take all that light for so long; it revealed all of you until there was nothing left but light. So in the dark you made a new home. In the dark, perhaps, the other earthlings would not see you so hard or so difficult or so long or so fast or so aching. Perhaps, you had believed, the terror that followed you would be contained within and you could forget. But in time, trundling across time, there came the disallowance, disavowal: an earthling across the bridge that spanned the creek. There came all disguised and in the grace of soft-padding beauty an earthling that glimpsed you. All of you. Even as she was wary of what might be received in return for being so open to receiving you. The earthling looked at you and wondered what you were and what you were to her. To yourself. And you held her gaze because you were desperate and you felt small and you were alone. Then, the earthling turned and made to leave you. But you could not let it leave. And so you followed the earthling into the dark. Because she was a form of love. Because she let you. And, soon enough, across the bridge, there came a blessed nothing composed of an infinity of moments of which you know nothing…and everything.

after in the swell of the ground between the roots impactful toward the sky
through the tree branches soaking up the sky
after when you knew what they meant
the wind bereft of reason
but steeped in something deeper
                                                                               there is no weight now
“Earthlings,” which first appeared in the Danish anthology Connectedness, began as VanderMeer’s attempt to see the world from the point of view of the eco-activist in his novel Hummingbird Salamander. However, it soon became simply a prose-poem/flash fiction response to the overwhelming beauty and sense of both estrangement from and connection to the animals in his yard, during a process of rewilding the landscape for better biodiversity. The photos by VanderMeer are of individual animals he’s grown to know very well.

Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer’s novels include Annihilation, Borne, and Dead Astronauts. His short fiction has appeared in over three hundred magazines and anthologies including Black Clock, Vulture, Slate, and Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales. VanderMeer’s latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, focuses on the mystery of an eco-activist’s life and death and the peculiar gift of a taxidermied hummingbird she gives to a stranger.

One Comment on “Earthlings

  1. How marvelous you are a writer and photographer in beautiful Tallahassee, in red godawful Floriduh.

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