THE EDGE OF THE PHANTOM EMPIRE: New Short Story by Ricky Monahan Brown

– for Christopher Orr

The young man has been combing the desert for days, looking for her. But the horizon remains stubbornly distant, and the sun is perpetually setting – or rising – so that he’s always in a cooling twilight. Or a warming morning, with a full day of searching lying ahead of him.

person standing on the edge of a rock formation
Photo by Ceejay Talam on

He looks for her in the faces of the birds that occasionally emerge from the murmuration in the middle distance, but their beady eyes and pinched, inflexible beaks reveal nothing. When he’s sure that he has examined every one, he is astonished to find that he has finally, at last, reached the edge of the desert. He’s forgotten what it was, exactly, that he was looking for. Or that he was once looking for something else altogether.

He pulls back from the precipice and scrambles to take a seat atop a massive dune, from where he contemplates the inky chasm over the lip of the edge. In time, his reverie is broken by a sparrow that alights on his finger. He lifts her to eye level, and she fills the landscape behind, suddenly giant. Taking a closer look, he recognises her as an individual, more friendly-looking than her siblings.

She fixes her gaze on him.

‘Follow me,’ she says, and the beating of her massive wings reverberates until she becomes tiny once again. Yet, as he follows, he is sure never to lose sight of her. He travels for days, through oscillations of grey and ultramarine, under the mysterious low sun and streaking comets. On his journey, he watches a vast nebula exploding in infinite space in slow motion. It silhouettes a darkly permanent building on that far horizon, its dome promising the anchor of a clock beneath.

Finally, still off in the distance, the sparrow flies through an arch under the dome and across a quad and on through a window in a vast white cube. Now, she twitters a warning not to enter. In the window there are two figures, hands clasped behind their backs, peering at the interiors. They are far away and miniscule; they fill his vision, but he can’t tell — are they the figures he’s looking for? Surely, they can’t be. He’s been travelling for a year, the man’s liver has undergone cellular replacement since his journey began. She’s been travelling for a decade, the woman’s entire skeleton has been regenerated, she is not the same woman.

Nevertheless, the young man sets his intention upon the sticking place, and aims for the cube. Each time he approaches it, he finds himself at the edge of the desert again, peering into the abyss. He retraces his steps, recalibrating by degree, thinking that he must have taken a wrong turn. As if each route he had previously truly taken had been conscious, planned.

The old couple in the window are unaware of the young man behind them. They are gazing through a doorway within the white cube that looks down over a Georgian gallery, all order and regularly-spaced and domed skylights. Below them, a younger couple are being corralled through the gallery by square pillars. Music trickles down the books arrayed on the shelves behind the younger pair, gathers in pools, then glides towards them.

‘What do you think?’ the younger man asks.

‘I’m not sure I like it.’

His companion quietly ponders her unease for a few moments, listening to the installation and attempting to explain it to herself.

‘I keep thinking I hear fragments of things we’ve listened to before. Then it all becomes cloudy and opaque, and I don’t know if I’ve heard the music before, at all. It’s like aural déjà vu. Déjà entendu. Or, maybe it’s presque vu.’

The notes gather and swell.

‘Whatever it is,’ she continues, ‘it’s unsettling. Don’t you think it’s unsettling?’

He reaches for her hand as they continue through the gallery.

‘It sounds scary,’ he assures her, ‘but I’m not scared.’

The music crests, and crashes over their heads.

As the young couple shift out of focus, the older couple return to their contemplation of the paintings lining the inside of the cube.

‘What do you think?’ the man asks.

‘I like them,’ the woman responds. ‘I like that you can see shadows of images from earlier versions. It’s like, as he works through the images, nothing is really pinned down. Do you know what I mean?’

‘I think I do.’ The man contemplates a primordial soup of paint, and imagines he sees figures emerging. ‘Tell me more,’ he says.

‘Well, when he makes a misstep – if you can call it that – it looks like he leaves a shadow of it, like his working. That speaks to me. We can’t learn from our mistakes if we brush them under the carpet. We can’t accept these lives of ours if we won’t accept the choices and accidents and circumstances that led us here.’

The young man in the desert sets off to find the old couple once again. They may not be who he is looking for, but maybe they can help. At least he’ll be doing something. He feels he needs to see whatever it is they are looking at. And he realises, stepping over the chasm separating the wilderness from the enlightenment of the city, that the journey was his destination all along. His image happily dissolves in a heat haze, and only the old couple remains.

About the author

Ricky Monahan Brown suffered a haemorrhagic stroke in 2012. His memoir Stroke: A 5% chance of survival was one of The Scotsman’s Scottish Nonfiction Books of 2019. Ricky’s novella Little Apples was released by Leamington Books in 2022. His short fiction has been widely published.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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