I grew up on a movable street.
This requires explanation.
In simplest terms it means that from my birth until my eventual escape, although I spent every day of my life on the same street, the street itself travelled.
To where and how often, I cannot say. When I escaped, it was in Pittsburgh.
When I first saw the rolling, it was in Rome.
I imagine the street travelled frequently, secretly and globally, and I know it travelled as a rolled-up Armenian rug in the back of a white, unmarked delivery truck, but much beyond that remains a mystery to me.
Because I am afraid I may have lost you by now, please allow me to explain from the beginning—
Many years earlier.
I want to start with my family.
It was a large family, two parents and five siblings (three sisters and two brothers), of which I was the youngest, and we lived happily together in a large white house somewhere on the street. If I close my eyes, I still remember how the stucco felt against my hands as I ran them across the exterior walls, or on my bare back as I reclined against its textured warmth on a summer day while reading one of my books. I mention these sensations because I want to convince myself—and convince you—that the street, the house, and the people were real, and not just figments of my imagination.
I remember everything about my family.
That’s why it breaks my heart to know I will never see them again.
I am an orphan.
But I am an orphan by choice, and at least I still have my books—those transcendent books…
Both my parents and all my siblings worked in the same employment, a factory a short walk down the street from our home. From the day I turned ten, I also worked there. It was a wonderful place and we had lots of fun. Although we had set working hours, there was no oversight and we did largely as we pleased. Our job was simple: to make toys, of all kinds and colours and shapes and materials. My favourites were musical dolls. You pulled a string and the doll played a beautiful and enchanting melody.
Although it strikes me as strange today, at the time I never gave it a second thought that we were the only workers in the factory. Such a large building, with its high ceilings and resounding volume of emptiness, yet I couldn’t imagine sharing it with anyone, and I believed every family had its own factory which produced its own fine objects. I was certain that was how we obtained our furniture, our food, our dinnerware, our chemicals and every other domestic necessity. Everything was delivered. My father mailed a request and within days there it was, boxed up in the street and ready to be brought inside.
There were other people who appeared on the street (the banker, the bookshop owner, the washers) but we didn’t interact with them often, and my memories of them are hazy. There weren’t any children my age, but my siblings were my friends and I was content in this sparse world of mystery and adults.
Other sensations I remember about the street are its yellow pavement, its majestic street lights, the winds that rushed without warning up and down and across its expanse, and the monster.
The monster was the reason my parents laid down the rules:
- Never stay outside past sundown.
- Never venture off the street.
- Never read any of the unapproved books.
It was ultimately a book, albeit an approved one, that began my process of realization. As far back as I remember, I loved to draw. I was the only one in the family with talent for art, which put my parents in the unusual position of having to provide new supplies for me, for we had no used pastels, paints or art books.
One day, they called me to the living room and presented me with a gift-wrapped package of art supplies, sketchbooks, and two leather-bound volumes that I would so learn to cherish: A Brief Illustrated History of Western Art by R.W. Watson and Drawing: Materials & Techniques, Second Edition by Vladimir Kunin. It was from the latter I learned about negative space, lighting and perspective, and it was while sitting with my sketchbook on my knees while reclining against our white stucco walls, drawing what I saw rather than what I believed to be, that I first noticed something off about the street and therefore about the world. Because, try as I might, when I drew the view of the street before me, the perspective lines of the various objects and buildings did not make sense!
At first, I erased my lines and tried again. Over and over until the paper was as thin as skin. I was sure I was the one making the mistake. Each time, however, I achieved the same incorrect result. I drew what was but not what should have been.
Frustrated, I put down the sketchbook and picked up Watson instead, eager to flip its endless pages of artworks and prove to myself that it was in fact Kunin, and his rules about perspective, who was wrong. I am not sure for how long I looked at landscape after landscape after landscape, but it must have been over an hour. When I lifted my head and gazed upon the street once more, it was immediately apparent that it was indeed the street which was distorted. Kunin was right; reality was wrong.
I said nothing to my parents or siblings but continued with my observations, and over the following weeks discovered that not only perspective but also light transgressed the rules. The effect this had on me is difficult to describe, but it was profound. I can only ask that you imagine yourself in a room with two objects, a table and a chair, and one light source, yet the shadow of the table contradicts the shadow of the chair, and as you cross the room you realize you cast no shadow at all!
Had I been a few years younger, I would have likely brought my findings to my parents’ attention, and they would have soothed my fears with adult words and children’s stories, taken away my art books, and hugged me until the fog of desirable forgetfulness rolled in. Perhaps I even would have done so at the time, if not for another—far more sinister—experience.
For the first time, I transgressed the rules.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and after finishing my workday at the factory I took my usual route home, but instead of going inside to eat dinner and read one of my books by the fireplace, I walked past. Various buildings lined the street, some similar to ours, others resembling the factory, and others wholly different, and one-by-one I knocked on their doors.
No one answered.
When I was beyond sight of our home, the wind picked up. It was a chill and howling wind that seemed to originate in some impossibly distant and unknown place and which penetrated me to the marrow of my bones.
In my old state of mind, I would have turned back.
Now I persisted.
Despite walking for not more than half an hour, the sun began to set, and an unexpected, heavy darkness fell upon the street.
The street lights turned on.
But I saw how their illuminated cones sinned subtly against the natural laws of light.
It was night.
I was more scared than ever I had been on the street, and I knew that I was breaking a rule, but I thought, If reality itself can break the rules, why not I?
That’s when I saw her:
A little girl strolling ahead, so innocent and tiny in the void between the buildings looming on either side of her. She wore a big backpack but was alone, and for reasons I cannot truthfully explain I knew immediately that she was not of the street but herself a stranger to it.
For a span of time, I walked behind her.
We walked in silence broken only intermittently by the wind.
Then I heard the first notes of a familiar melody, perhaps a passage from Strauss or Dvořák, and the girl heard it too, for she stopped and turned her body, first one way and then the other, to find where the melody was coming from, and it was in the very moment when she finally seemed to locate its source, a narrow alley between two buildings both so much resembling my family home, that I placed my own knowledge of the music: You pulled a string and the doll played a beautiful and enchanting melody.
The girl stepped toward the alley.
And on a wall opposite—
The monster’s shadow spill ominously across the darkened rocks and mortar:
a shadow without a light:
night obscured by something darker than itself
flowing across the cobblestones, following the girl into the alley.
The wind shrieked and fumed and—
And in the sudden stillness the street flickered.
Then a child’s solitary scream pierced the stagnant air, echoing ever and ever fainter…
It was only when silence had returned that I found the courage to peer inside the alley. The girl was gone and there were no shadows, but resting peacefully on the ground I saw a backpack and a doll. I entered, knowing now what it was the washers searched for in the street, and sat down reverently beside the backpack as if it were a grave. It was filled with exotic clothing, strange books and many unfamiliar objects. Like the girl, they were not of the street. Although each subsequent second spent in the alley filled me with dread, I inspected the objects carefully in turn before returning to the backpack all but one, a book titled David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
When I rejoined the street, evening had replaced the night.
The sun hung sullen above the horizon.
Making my way back home, I thought about what I had seen and felt, and realized for the first time that the street was false and hideous and his. It existed for him; we existed for him, working every day to aid him in his evil. I wanted to believe that my parents and siblings knew nothing of the monster’s crimes, but I could not. At best, I could attribute to them an ignorance stemming from a wilful lack of curiosity, a perpetual turning of the blind eye, but is that truly so different from knowing? At worst, they knew it all, in detail and forever, as in the factory they joyfully churned out lures with which the monster caught his prey as he and we travelled on the street round and round the world.
I had almost made it home when from behind I heard a sudden whining, as of ancient mechanical gears.
I turned in time to see the half-set sun spin.
Then two men spoke, but their voices came from without the heavens above the street, and they spoke a language I did not understand.
What happened next I still shudder to recall yet find myself unable properly to convey in words.
It was this: reality—by which I mean all I saw before me: the street, its buildings, the land and the sky—compressed, losing all depth, and became as if painted upon the face of a great cosmic wave, arising from non- into existence, and I, standing on an impossible shore, saw it curve and roll up reality, growing and roaring and approaching until it was a great tsunami!
Then down it crashing came, and I too was made flat and rolled.
I awoke in my own bed.
It was morning, and as I bounded down the stairs to the living room I noted that nothing was out of place or even slightly changed. I returned upstairs in a cold sweat, and perhaps would have considered it all a nightmare if not for Charles Dickens, whose David Copperfield lay closed atop my bed sheets. I slid shivering into bed, opened the covers and read my first unapproved book. I didn’t read it in one sitting, but I devoured it within a week, sometimes going over chapters again and again and imagining the world they described, which was not my world but which I was nevertheless convinced was the truth.
To my family, I was unaltered. But in my heart I knew I must escape the street.
I continued drawing and painting, but I no longer paid attention to the irregularities around me. Instead, I used my art as time alone to think. Indeed, it was while rolling one of my many painted canvases that I hit upon the idea of the street itself as a painted canvas, and that what I had experienced as the rolling of reality was akin to the rolling of a canvas. I thought about why I rolled my canvases (to keep them safe and to transport them) and with every new idea I felt not only the electricity of excitement but the birth of an escape plan. A canvas, I knew, had edges; the street might also have edges. A canvas was often shaped and aligned in a way to complement its content; the street might also be so aligned. Based on what I had experienced, I theorized that the street must have an end (else how could it be rolled?) but that it might be nearly infinitely long, so attempting to escape down its length would be impossible. What, however, of its width? For my entire life, I had lived on and along the street. I decided it was time I tried walking away from it.
I made my attempt three days later.
My mind was an amalgamation of fear and expectation as I cut into an alley much like the one in which the girl had disappeared, then pressed perpendicularly onward. I forbid myself from looking back, yet my imagination fabricated mental images of shadows in pursuit. I trudged past them, and some time later noticed that the details of the world around me were degrading into greyness, haze and an overall lack of sharpness and precision.
I felt like I had entered the background of a giant painting.
And then, over an ashen hill, I saw the dynamic, focussed colours and heard the absolute chaos of a mass of people and the living, breathing world—
The real world!
I stopped short of crossing over, but I stared, mesmerized by its alienness.
Its brilliance and complexity took my breath away.
Much later, I identified one of the buildings I had seen as the Arch of Constantine, which proved to me that I had been in Rome.
But having seen its edge, I returned to the street. That had always been the plan. I had to know the edge existed before I could escape it, and as I stepped through the doors to my home, my parents and siblings flocking around me (I had been gone almost a week!) I made the decision to leave them behind forever. In those initial moments of love and excitement, as we embraced each other, I even tried to introduce them to a fraction of truth, a mere insinuation of doubt, but they would not have it. They scolded me and warned me and laughed at the suggestion that the street was not the world, and in the morning they went dutifully to work in the factory.
I packed my things and walked the street for the last time, wiping tears and feeling the weight of the task ahead: not only leaving the only home I had ever known, but learning to create a new one in a foreign world. I did experience a few moments of weakness during which I felt compelled to turn back, but I had only to remember the girl’s scream, and its still reverberating echoes. A sound like that never truly dissipates; it haunts the world eternal.
By the time I entered the background, the wind was picking up.
I knew that meant a rolling was imminent.
I sped up and spotted the edge just as the first corner of faux-reality bent upward.
This time there was no drama. I was already standing at the edge, between the blurred greyness of the extreme background and vivid energy of the real world, when the cosmic wave loomed threateningly above me. I closed my eyes and stepped—
onto a concrete sidewalk, like I have done countless times since. I was on a side road in downtown Pittsburgh, which may not sound as exciting as Rome, but you couldn’t have told that to my beating heart. Cars drove past, pedestrians avoided me while giving me the dirtiest looks, and I must have been wide-eyed and dumbstruck, with my hand on my chest, feeling the pounding of an unshackled vitality that you simply call life. Everything was new to me. I was terrified and exhilarated, and when I looked to see where I had come from, there was nothing. Pittsburgh continued in all directions.
I barely noticed, perhaps a hundred feet away, an unmarked, white delivery truck into which two men were shoving a rolled-up Armenian rug. When they spoke, I may not have understood their words but I recognized their voices. The only difference was that now the voices originated in the world I was in.
After maneuvering the rug into the truck, they got in and took off.
What a bizarre feeling it is to see your entire world thrown into a truck and driven off, like it actually was a rug to be delivered to someone’s living room. It makes you feel both otherworldly and small. Then you remember the monster, and the monster’s helpers who are your family, and you wish you had done something to stop that truck, because you feel that what to the rolled-up world was not of the street is right in front of you. The monster’s victims are as real as Pittsburgh, and he’s still out there, in a delivery truck somewhere, waiting for his street to be unrolled.