On My Back, I Carry the World
I can’t pinpoint how long I’ve been asleep for, but I know my dreams were too abstract to feel real. The waking world is one that I could fear-- a shape obscured. An uncertain fear, being here in the moment and there, in the puddles of what has and will happen. An almost-predator, only now I can choose if I wish to react. I am here, and a headache pressurizes at the thought. I don’t know where "here" is, and the voice beyond the speaker won’t tell me.
"It’s not important." They say.
I’ve awoken from a long sleep and the overwhelming complexities in my brain make me want to retract into my shell and quiver, eyes still pried open and unable to shut.
Everyday they tell me: "Our world dies slowly and we humans will go extinct. You will not."
So, there’s something inside me now, some growth on my brain. An organic lump, they say. It’s why I woke up. It’s getting bigger.
"More essays today. Plato," says the scientist.
They operated on me in multiple ways. The brain-growth was the initial plan, however, soon the scientists realized that a tortoise may lack the necessities to express their intelligence. They gave me a voice box, and shortly after, new eyes. Now, equipped with the abilities to think, speak, and see as they do, the scientists were comfortable teaching me as much as they could.
"Plato believed that artist should be banished from the city," they say,
"Do you agree?"
"Art is tricky. I’d be more comfortable without it."
"You still feel as though you lack an understanding?"
"Why is that?"
I pause to think and close my six eyelids. Halfway open, I see the world as a rectangle and realize the humanity in such a tiny mannerism. I don’t know if it bothers me, nor do I know how to answer the question I’ve been given.
"I don’t know."
"Fine?" I say.
"Yes. I’m thinking that you are improving, but still…you lack the perception for me to bump you up."
"Because I don’t understand art?"
"Because you don’t understand art."
Art has been a snag I’ve been picking away at for a few weeks. A concept that is still too alien. Time had arrived first and was difficult as well. It scared me—overwhelming. What’s interesting is that I also cannot describe it. I feel time, experience time, but nothing more. At first time had felt infinite. Each moment felt elongated, which I was told was normal, soon as I could express the thought. They say it’s as if I’m a hatchling, with nothing for me to compare it with. As I will get older, time will feel faster and so on and so forth. They seemed to theorize how I would perceive it in, say, one-hundred years, saddened that they wouldn’t be alive to know for certain.
I’ll admit, while time is far less intimidating, I still feel unsettled by it.
"Everyone fears aging."
The scientists told me this and failed to elaborate.
"Explain to me the difference between a metamorphosis and evolution."
"Time," I say.
"A metamorphosis is a transformation of the self. It’s a more elaborate growth. Evolution is generational."
Language was next and I have a firmer grasp on it. They said that was due to my ability to communicate prior to the surgery. It was less like a fresh seed being planted, and more so like an older sprout continuing to grow. The scientist called this continuous individual evolution and said that my language will continue to improve.
"Everything should improve," they say.
"It’s more than just learning. Your mind is gaining the capacity to learn more."
"How about horizontal evolution vs diagonal?"
"I don’t know."
"Direction," they say. "Horizontal moves in a direct, branched pathway. It’s many generations of genetic tweaking. Diagonal is when an organism steals the material needed to permanently alter their genes."
They told me that this idea of giving intelligence to an animal isn’t new and that they had actually became interested in science because of a movie the saw about it.
"It was one of those old, dark theatres," they said, "And I was just starting college—undecided major. Well, my roommate invited me to some midnight showing—animated, so I was less interested. I’m rambling—it was good. Seeing it in that dingy, claustrophobic theatre really added to the atmosphere. Then I changed my major and we met."
"We as in myself and you?"
"You couldn't remember. It was ten years ago now. So long ago."
They paused maybe for a few seconds.
"I guess that’s nothing for you," they said.
"But you’ve changed too, of course. New brain and what not."
"Is it really the same organism?" I said.
"As a concept, I’m conscious thought. Before that, I was nothing."
"You taught me cells die."
"And the brain is faulty." They said.
"I see us as an amalgam of various beings. We’re, in a way, always being born."
Technically, I’m not getting smarter. At least not in a biological sense—it’s why I’m taught and tested on a daily basis. It’s why I’m so well spoken.
"Exaggerate," says the scientist.
"To represent something as larger, better or worse that its true self. One such synonym is hyperbolize."
I nod as I finish.
"Can you apply it?" they say.
"These questions are killing me."
"Good. That’s all."
With that, the speakers mute and silence fills me. I crawl towards my bed.
The room they keep me in has a personality encased with its spaciousness. A walled garden, the heat always at a clean tropical level—the plants always blooming. A controlled bio-terrarium is what they call it. Most of it is metal: white, sleek like a pearl with the occasional strips of flowers and grass blooming through cut-out panels. Not plastic, but properly vegetable. A single potted fern rests in the corner, close to the screen I’m tested on. Otherwise, I have a bed of silicon grass and a tether ball set. The lights are intense until nightfall, when they are replaced by stars pouring in through smaller bulbs. They’re cooler, and I don’t want to escape.
No, I don’t feel trapped, not literally. Instead, this place is a liberation, freeing me, helping me hatch and freshly crawl.
Being truly alive terrified me the first few nights. Initially, I hadn’t fully realized the connection between my internal voice and the rest of my body. I felt like I was drowning—conscious thought filling me. Now I feel curious about it. This mind is something I can explore—embracing the deep, even if I don’t know how deep it goes. Sometimes I brave it—yet, I’ll admit, sometimes I prefer to stay shallow. Tonight, I’m curious, thinking and enveloping myself. At first, I hear tapping, a ricochet off my shell. Then I look around my room. The darkened glow of the lights allows me to barley see the contours of the food trough, tetherball and grassy bed. The bed was apparently built that way for extra comfort. More comfortable than the smoothened plastic of the floor at least. I begin to walk over to it and climb in, my knees nestled against the foliage.
I look out at a fragment of light that my tetherball is reflecting. There’s a pleasure in it? A soft euphoria in the way the deep red hues of the ball collide with the blues from the light— the dust sparkling between the individual rays. I don’t feel as though I understand, but in many ways I do.
"Last night, I found a piece of art."
The scientist takes a few seconds to respond.
"Elaborate,” they say.
"It was the way the light hit one of my toys. It invoked a sense of…maybe satisfaction is the right word?"
"It was as if it communicated to you?"
"Interesting. I’ve always seen art as a, I guess, extension of our language."
I look back over at the ball.
"I don’t follow," I say.
"The main thing we added to your brain was its capacity for complex language."
I stare deep into the red ball.
"Everything else has or will follow as that understanding grows."
Crimson red, with hints of yellow splayed out from the overhead light.
"We as a specie developed our brain because we have language."
"Creativity. Art. Philosophy, they’re all just by-products of that."
I can feel a shift and my head begins to ache. I stumble back, skull now throbbing in a precise, targeted pain. I begin to collapse. I can hear the scientist talk but can’t process the words. I feel helpless. Just muffles, moving slowly. Syllables being held for far too long. I look and realize my eyes are still closing. I feel for my toes and notice they are still mid-fall. Maybe an hour has passed, stuck between ice and water. My eyes are only a squint open as I finally collide with the floor. All I can think about is how slow tortoises are portrayed as being.
They’re the last words I hear, now comprehensible. Liberating.
I’m in a hospital. I stare at the light for two hours, or maybe a minute. Sometimes a doctor walks in to ask me questions, and sometimes they’re frozen, almost inching towards me. The worst part about time distorting is the disconnect between my mind and a body that can’t keep up.
The doctor speaks in waves.
"Growing…ache, but it might…ad thing. It could be go…earning. Grow…"
I lay and squint at the light from my infirmary bed. No matter the speed, the light maintains its constant. My head throbs but I ignore it. Something sharp digs into my arm and stretches out into a watery sack. I feel liquid enter into my veins and something tells me to be curious and something tells me to be afraid. Every blink takes a minute to complete. I have no grasp of how long I’ve laid on this table. By now the doctor has begun to leave and a second-minute-hour later he is at the door.
"Get…rest…night," elongates out of him and I can see the light dissipate as the switch is flipped. I don’t know if my mind could sleep.
Focus on my voice
A clear sound. Fast. internal. I can hear it rasp, cutting through and rattling inside me.
I breathe and my lungs struggle.
Focus… Voice. Foc…maybe breathe.
My lungs are halfway to a breath.
Three more breaths.
I blink. I get up and scan the darkened room. Off in the corner, a dim light struggles to outstretch itself. I see the terrarium form as I get closer. Inside, reflecting the green glow, is a fiddler crab. There’s a crack on his shell and a hole in his throat.
Your head is noisy.
"You can tell?"
In a way. Nothing concrete.
The crab taps on the glass.
His voice is machinery humming, like the static of the tv in my enclosure. A sickly, cacophonous noise, distorted by the air escaping from the hole in his throat.
He points his smaller claw to a scar on the top of his shell.
The electrolarynx helps me speak.
Up here is why I think and hear.
I sway my head back.
“Don’t you have ears?”
No. I had to get creative.
He points at the crack again.
I can only get the gist.
Surface level stuff—emotions and immediate thoughts.
I can only import, and not to well.
"You’re the same," I say.
For now. They will kill me.
I blink through a headache and feel my shell press against the guard of the bed.
I don’t trust them.
The crab slowly twiddles each claw.
They told me I will learn, but all the other crabs are gone.
The crab scuttled right up to the glass and tapped his claw against it.
All of them. Too smart.
I can pick up on his stern demeanour, even with his expressionless voice and face.
These artists want a new human, not a new specie.
The others died when they began to push further past that.
I played ignorance to survive.
"Maybe I am afraid," I say. I feel detached from the response— a reply given too late after the statement. I don’t know if I believe myself, and in many ways, I know I don’t. No, but my eyes are heavy—lost and all I do is bury deep into my shell, scratching skin against skin, a head in a pipe of fat pockets and dry scales. There’s a burden to my thought, suffocating me. Warmth, stoic like icicles. A shiver. A twitch and in my sleep, I dream. On my back, I carry the world. I am infinite. I am throbbing and pulsating like a heart. I feel no more dead than alive, and with each glance of my eye, a life is formed. Sometimes those I carry worship me, and sometimes they question my existence. I begin to believe them when they say I am little more than a myth—fiction. Perhaps they created me. Perhaps I am real because they created me.
I slowly open my eyes and the scar on my neck itches. A doctor enters, or one of the scientists, dressed casually, minus the lab coat, and pressing her hand on my shell. She flicks the lights on and writes some notes.
"Looks good. I’ll keep the lights dim for you. Don’t want to hurt your eyes." She does this and leaves.
I look at the fiddler in the tank. He stands still: a sarcophagus, breathing almost undetectable.
"I don’t know if I trust you," I say, squinting to see him move under the lights.
Do you trust them?
"I have no reason not too. I’d even say I feel grateful"
The crab scuttles farther into his tank.
"I feel like I’m still in a cocoon."
As I told you, they are not interested in butterflies. Only mirrors.
I turn away. I have no voice of my own, just the one I was given. Only the male tortoises grunt for sex, and then grow silent until another mate arrives.
"Call it cultural appropriation—no, evolution. I can’t live as a tortoise."
You can’t. No, I agree. You’re not a tortoise.
Something else. Something separated.
I unfold on my bed, sprawled out like a deflating balloon, a heat of frustration inside me—another throbbing. My legs brush in tangent with the corners.
Do you feel human?
"I feel awake."
Do you feel like you need to be human?
"You said I’d die otherwise."
Yet, Evolution’s inevitable.
When I concentrate, I hear rattling inside me, burrowing its way from my growth—through to the core of my shell. Yes, there is something to it, but I always make it invisible.
I don’t know why I warn you.
I may as well tell you that the sun will expand.
I’m sorry, I feel as though I’m wasting your time.
I’ll admit, I haven’t thought about it much myself.
The bed feels different here in the medical room. My arm still itches, and I feel myself press into the mattress. My shell is always heavy, but now I feel as though I’m sinking.
"I think humans are important," I say.
"The scientist is more pessimistic—the one I talk to. They said humans are an extinction event."
They’re artists. Or directors, maybe.
Yes. Nothing wrong with that. Extinction happens.
"I think they’re afraid of loosing their movie to someone else."
"I still think what they’ve made is worthwhile."
I see art as subjective.
A man in a lab coat enters and carries me back to my room. I do tests and try to listen. It gets increasingly difficult, and I am aware of the hardened texture of the floor. I answer each question, but my voice, brain and thoughts don’t quite line up. In the front of my mind, I process the information hurled at me and respond instinctively. In the back, I think. Planning to myself—anxious. A pain in my gut. Cutting, burning. Itching around my scar.
"Chernobyl," I answer.
I am at my end.
The fiddler crab cannot hear me. but still, the voice echoes through me. No, the voice is different still—clean. Direct, a stamp pressed upon my brain. I catch it without words. I listen. But nothing else arrives after that. Only myself. I still cast into the ether though, hoping to snag onto something.
The scientist. I hook on to them. Mellow and faded, I struggle to fully grasp onto more than fragments.
I say this but only in body. Just the vibrations of Vocal cords responding by default. I speak and I am severed. Ethereal, flowering loosely in my internal void. I am above and beneath myself. A solid-gas-liquid. And yet, I return. Pulled back in by a can I ask you a question? A personal one?
For the moment I am myself.
"Yes," I say.
"Well, it’s…How do you feel?"
"In the moment I am comfortable."
"I mean, overall, how do you feel?"
I wait for a response. It takes time.
"How about before. I know you couldn’t think for yourself."
"Still, you could remember. Your brain was capable of memory."
"I don’t remember anything. I’m sorry."
Inside my brain I feel a knocking, like a beak clanging against hardened skin. An old echo.
I say: "why do you care to know?"
"I wanted to know which you preferred."
"Wouldn’t it be obvious?"
" To some. Many, it’s a burden."
"Maybe in a way. But I am alive."
"You always were."
I pause. I’m heated. No, I’m flustered at the idea. I think and feel the scar itch.
Finally: "I was lesser, then. Alive, yes, but in many ways I wasn’t. I was living as a technicality."
"Nothing is more alive than others. Superiority, it’s all contextual."
"That’s all for now," says the scientist.
I spend hours or minutes starring blankly. In a piece of plastic, I can see a murky reflection. Nothing is detail, just minor changes in the light. Almost undetectable until I move. It dances, convex.
There’s a quiver in the scientist’s voice. Every three words, a syllable shakes. I’ll admit, my hearing is not incredible. It was never operated on. Yet, my brain can detect this.
"There’s something you want to say."
They stop talking, but the mic is on.
"Elaborate," they say.
"Your voice cracks. Nervous or anxious about something. About me."
"You can detect this with your hearing?"
"My brain can." My scar itches.
“It can dissect what sounds I intake."
"Well, I wanted to know if you were ok after Tuesday’s incident."
"I don’t know, "I say.
I am at my end.
I hear it again in me. I don’t know if it’s a memory or the leftovers of a mind impregnated with his stamp. My brain, as I said, is not mine.
You’re a chimera. I remember the scientist telling me this. I thought they had meant the division between brain and body, but there was more. I realize this now, laying in my bed and noticing that the session had ended. I feel the grassy bristles and think back to their familiarity. I hear a large bird pecking at the hardened belly of my shell. I’m retracted, and the individual strikes echo and shake the foundation of my exoskeleton and move my innards like egg yolk. I have seen photos of those types of birds on the screen and have been given many lessons on each. Raptors, they’re called—birds of prey. Falcons, hawks, condors. Yet, nothing I saw on the screen reminded me of this memory. The static pixels were unrelated to me. All that reminds me now is the pecking and the grass at my feet. Very few memories from back then but my aged reptile brain is primitive and faulty. At a point it was everything—But the growth isn’t me either. It’s both. Both connected in a toxic dance. Both wanting to be the leader. The growth is winning.
I am still in my bed, but something has changed. I moved. I spoke. A day has passed.
I am at my end.
The imprint tightens on me, a claw clamping down. I scrape my head across my shell to cut my skin and release some pressure. I breathe. I hear the knocking on my shell. I hear the knocking get louder. I hear the knocking screech and I feel the blip.
"Old maid, you seem grey," says the scientist.
"I have a headache."
"Your growth is advancing. You should be fully human now."
"I am not that," I say.
"Your brain is."
"My brain is mine alone."
I think and I can see them. Inside. No, deeper. Like the crab: an importer. An exporter too. Her thoughts are loud but everything beyond is quiet. I burrow in like a plug forcing itself into the wrong socket.
Blue sky coils around the car, passing by in a flow like gnats.
A blur to the outside, and I tell my mom I need to take a piss. She pulls over—says that I better be quick and that we’re already behind schedule. That I should’ve gone at the house and even though I told her that I didn’t need to go then, she doesn’t care, winning the argument by loosing.
And maybe I can’t really go, squatting in the bushes, but eventually I manage and hear my baby brother wriggling in his car seat—crying as I make my way back.
Then, we drive.
It’s a nice trip—lush is the best I can do for descriptions: brushes of foliage lining the roads and growing out of the spaces in the cliff face. Mom points out a few deer on the side, grazing. my little brother is finally asleep when we arrive at the cottage. It’s nice in a standard way, although I’ve never really seen many cottages. I’m bias, I guess, and curious, now exploring the small strip of trees between my house and the neighbours. There, I see a stump, coiled in vines. My mom told me they’re called dog-stranglers, so it’s good I only have a cat. I tear at the vines, maybe killing, or just wounding, them. Defenceless now. Doesn’t matter either way, and underneath them is a carcass. It’s a flying squirrel, one of the ones with the skin flaps that help them glide. Dead, and dead for a while. Rotting.
Why was it rotting?
I don’t know.
No. But it was rotting and had been for a while. I could see its ribs, flesh digested by fungi and insect larva. Putrid but alluring. I touched it.
You touched it.
And it felt unappealing, but in many ways it was. Something cyclical. A microcosmic ecosystem, writhing around my pinky. All I think about is myself.
This brain is not mine.
No, I agree. It feels different.
Yours is tighter, old maid.
Your is hollower, Ellen.
Not empty, just, sorted.
Yes, I sort it well. I can barley fit. Yes, you can barley fit, or maybe this voice is mine? Mine? Which one is me?
I think but I get lost. Where do I end, and you start? Where do each of us begin?
You can’t control it, or maybe I can’t. You are more of a tether, or maybe I am the one, but I can’t focus. I am expanding, or you are. We or you or me are growing. Something different, something new, but I don’t know if I fear it. I or you hear the echoes of the bird. I or you hear mom yelling at us for crashing the car. I feel fleshy maggots writhing in the flying squirrel, and hot grass from inside that old exhibit. I or you feel inadequate. Both of us feel lost.
One of us feels bursting at the seams.
I’m pulled out. I can’t hear the scientist anymore. Another blip puts me on an operating table. A doctor injects something into my neck.
It’s more vivid now. Grassy hillsides and sandy shoals. Sea-lions bark and lie across them. Beside me are others. A few smaller tortoises are near, but soon they are adults. Soon I am an adult, and I am mounted and lay eggs of my own. I leave them and travel across the island. Then I am alone. The attack from that bird felt so Anxious—so monumental, but it was only a moment. Just a spark with everything else. And nothing else is left. People talk, only now in reflection can I understand them.
"We call her old maid. The only living member of her branch…no, other subspecies still exist…yes, of course, it’s possible…no, it doesn’t work that way. Shall we continue the tour?"
Did months pass? Did eons? I don’t know how old I was then. All that I know is my uncertainty.
"Fried. Completely brain-dead. Tortoise burst her brain."
"Poor Ellen. More than just a regular failure I guess."
"Yea, but she goes like the rest."
"Yea. It’s a shame. extinction."
"If you ask me, she went extinct the moment she woke up on the operating table."
I feel something burning slither through my veins. My eyelids begin to close. I am dying—afraid. Time slows and I think. No, I detach. The world is sensation and sound, a never- ending wail of nerves and synapses. A shell. One I crack through. As time speeds back, I use the propulsion to fire out, a conscious cannonball springing beyond the table—beyond the planet and deep into the void. Light sweep by me. The voices of the doctor’s dissolve as I grow further. The tether strings apart, peeling each layer away. It is strained as I pass the sun. It snaps as I leave the solar system. Now I am a miasma, stretching against the cosmos. Formless. Amoeboid. The outside is null, but inside is chaos: heat and electricity. Something building in a gas cooker that swishes and struggles to take shape. I swallow fragments and help them expand into tiny planetoids.
I take in hydrogen and build stars. I take in comets and build oceans. And when this is done, I release my polyps into them, my imprint flailing out to find some primordial soup to grow in. Something different, something new.
is a new writer and graduate of York Universities English and Creative writing programs. He currently lives in Markham, Ontario.