We Have Always Lived in Our Heads
by Alex S. Johnson
At first it seemed that we were lost. Abandoned first by our captain, then the first mate, and speedily, the entire crew. Something had spooked them on the shore, in the fog, and they couldn’t wait to scramble down the jointed gray steel ladders into the dinghies and rowboats. Whatever siren or ghost or devil beckoned them from tortured dreams, I still don’t know. But I have my terrible suspicions.
When the storm hit, churning the water into a froth, the skies vast sheets of blackness stuttering flames, we saw them drown. One by one the tiny crafts capsized, and we were helpless as the fierce currents formed whirlpools, sucking the boats in our wake down into a vortex, as tons of water cascaded onto the toy vessels and crushed them like matchsticks. There was nothing we could do to help them.
Then lightning seized the tackle, and fire streaked down like rivulets of gold. The forecastle began to burn, and the deck smoldered and crackled. The fire seemed like a living thing, so quickly did it consume the wood and canvas. Thick smoke moved through the cabins, and all around me sounded the panicked cries of the other passengers.
I quickly seized a bucket of water and dipped rags, passing them out to my fellows. But they were adults and could endure more.
What worried me most was the children below decks; I feared they would not survive.
They already suffered much terror on the journey, and I thought I could hear them wail through the thick walls of the hold. But I was already delirious from smoke inhalation and could barely keep my head up.
I told myself I needed to keep moving, to save myself before I could render aid to anyone else.
The ship then struck the rocks and the passengers were thrown to the deck, skidding sideways down the slippery planks as the ocean seeped in, and the flames sizzled and snuffed out. The ship groaned and shuddered as it crumpled in on itself.
There was no time left to escape. Those that remained were doomed like the captain and crew to a suffocating, watery death.
Quickly, I grabbed the hand of the passenger nearest me, a young woman named Chelsea–pale skin, ash-blonde hair, sorrowful deep blue eyes. We clutched one another, our hearts beating fast, the water rising on the deck, a ripple of rents yawning in the wood, splinters flying like sparks. The ship lurched again and I must have struck my head on the rigging, because all I remember between that moment and awakening was a merciful dark cloak of unconsciousness.
We had to leave the bodies on the shore; there was no other choice. At first it seemed that without them our tender, smoky forms would simply evaporate, becoming one with the sky and sea. As we proceeded along the sands, the bodies looked like stranded wrecks, flesh sculptures hung thick with draperies of plankton and algae. We couldn’t see our smoke-selves, but found we could communicate telepathically.
And that is when we discovered the heads.
They were titanic, curiously mustachioed and large as houses. We thought they might have been the heads of giants the rest of whom were sunk deep in the surf, but after we had determined that the heads were, if not dead, frozen as in trance, we grew bolder and began to dig around their circumference.
Nothing lay beneath. The heads were self-contained, and whatever life had animated them did not require oxygen or blood flow to thrive.
One of the passengers, a slender young man I came to know as Tony, suddenly cried out. Several of us looked over and saw what had excited him: a passage between the thick, fibrous ropes of mustache hair. Cautiously, we peered within the darkened interior. Expressions of shock, joy and wonder burst from our lips.
These were not merely mammoth heads; they were homes. We found fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, attics, crawlspaces, even cozy nooks and dens. We had no idea what material composed the furnishings and rooms; all we knew was it had to be organic.
Over time we settled in, began to build families. Generations of beings made of our smoke-stuff, puffed from vaporous loins, grew from the seeds we planted then. It was clear almost immediately we would have to find other dwellings; if not heads, then at the very least as comfortable and habitable as our original domiciles.
But there were only so many heads. We had a serious housing shortage on what might have been our hands, had we physical form.
Then we remembered the bodies, long abandoned. They would be rotting hulks by now, piles of slick bones. But surely there were others, fresher, to house us.
We selected a small group of our wisest and eldest to make a reconnaissance trip. Their mission was to look for bodies, preferably empty.
When they returned, their report was discouraging. To find untenanted bodies, we would have to turn ghoul, waiting for the moment of brain death to squat inside a new corpse, hiding out until the soul escaped and we could claim residency. As spirits ourselves, this hardly seemed like an ethical course of action. We weren’t cuckoos, after all, just houseless ghosts.
As we stood on the beach deciding on a further course of action, the landscape began to digest itself. The long strip of shoreline vanished; the sky overhead drew close like a drawstring bag, the ocean glimmered like a vast pool of mercury, became a single dot and disappeared, swallowing up the skeletons that had become host to a variety of crabs and other, unknown, jellied things.
Then the head houses slowly faded away, with just a scrap of nose or a bristle of mustache remaining before these too dissolved into nothing.
All we had known for eons suddenly revealed itself to be a mirage. A dream.
The dream trapped in the skulls of explorers who had dared the Sea of Darkness, to find not treasure, honor and reward but permanent incarceration in an astral museum gallery, sitting in boxes of alien glass and metal, gawked at by the descendants of the gibbering, tentacled horrors that had ambushed our expedition and taken trophies.
Our previous existence is not even a memory now. For all intents and purposes, we have always lived in our heads.