07 Jun Musecage
“Musecage”Written by Micah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
Daniel’s life was going nowhere. Not dramatically nowhere; he wasn’t failing, crashing or burning. Even a negative direction would have at least been going somewhere. He was just plodding along on a perfectly flat trajectory. No gains. No losses. No change.
His siblings, meanwhile, were soaring. His older brother managed a hedge fund and, judging by his new boat, was doing extremely well for himself. His younger brother had just sold his second start-up and was off on a two-month-long tour of the world to celebrate. His baby sister, who had just turned twenty-one, was already halfway through her doctoral program and was on track to have a Ph.D. before her twenty-second birthday.
Daniel, meanwhile, was thirty-three and had just bought a house. He wasn’t even sure he wanted a house, but it was a thing people did and it was a visible measure of success. It was a nice house, and in surprisingly good condition considering he’d bought it in foreclosure. He’d been worried about that, sure that there would turn out to be some massive hidden problem he hadn’t seen before buying, but so far it had been tip-top. The previous owner had just walked away, apparently. He’d stopped making payments one day, and no one had been able to contact him since.
Someone had cleaned up the house before Daniel had bought it. There was quite a lot of furniture still there, which was convenient for him, but all of the cabinets and drawers were empty. The bank denied having sent anyone to clean out the personal effects, but if it had been done by looters, they’d been remarkably polite. Everything was in excellent shape—just empty.
For a month or so, Daniel was able to pretend that things were on an upward trend as he unpacked boxes, moved furniture, and settled into his new home. Once the last box was opened and the last room arranged, though, it became clear to him that he’d achieved nothing but a scene change. The new act of his life was the same as the last one, just with a different background.
Daniel was listlessly browsing sports videos on YouTube one night when an odd thumbnail caught his eye. It was a picture of Kobe Bryant standing next to what appeared to be a lavender snake Muppet, and it was called “Musecage.” Curious, he clicked to see what it was about.
He watched, bemused, as the basketball star explained to the puppet how it could focus its desires by filling a physical space with images of them. Daniel kept waiting for the punchline, but there didn’t seem to be one. Kobe had just made a children’s video encouraging them to build three-dimensional vision boards.
Then, suddenly, the video got weird.
“Dark musings,” said Kobe, as a dead, blackened planet appeared on the screen.
“You’re worthless,” whispered the planet. Daniel felt as shocked as the puppet looked. “You’re a failure.”
This hardly seemed like something to show to kids. Was it a joke, after all, some sort of a parody of a kids’ show?
Kobe still seemed to be taking it seriously. “Dark musings may just be our greatest source of energy and power. If you’re looking for your inner beast, it’s most likely living inside of a dark muse.”
Daniel paused the video, letting that last sentiment roll around in his head. He’d always scoffed at this sort of visualization technique, considering it the sort of activity people engaged in when they wanted to pretend that someday they’d get motivated, instead of just going out and doing whatever it was they wanted. All of the ones he’d seen previously, however, had focused on having only positive thoughts, ignoring all of the obstacles and imperfections of life. That had never sat well with Daniel. Life was often unpleasant, and building idealized versions was just ignoring reality.
The idea of leaning into the painful thoughts, the dark musings, appealed to him. It made sense that there was power and motivation to be found hidden inside those. Those sorts of thoughts were protective barriers, the “NO TRESPASSING” signs of the brain. If he was looking to tap his hidden potential, maybe he should learn how to press past those warnings and find out what lay beyond.
He even knew where he could set up his musecage, too. In the finished basement there was a tiny room, probably intended as some sort of a walk-in closet. It was less than five feet on a side. It was carpeted, secluded and well-lit. He could bring a chair in there, close himself in and be able to focus on nothing but the images and ideas lining the room.
For the next several days, Daniel thought hard about what he wanted in there. His goal, he decided, was simple: he wanted success. Financial, social, emotional success. He wanted to buy expensive items on a whim. He wanted friends who laughed at his jokes, who respected his opinions. He wanted the freedom to do what he wanted, when he wanted, and the security to shrug off the opinions of those who would nay-say him.
Thus focused, Daniel began to build his musecage. He started by pinning dollars to the wall. Anyone who said success wasn’t about wealth was lying, either to themselves or to others. He spread fifty dollars around the room, attaching them wherever seemed appropriate. When he was done, he felt like there was a pattern straining to be seen. He nodded his approval. It was a good start, and it already felt like there was something there.
Next he put up the work he’d done that he was most proud of, everything from stories to blog posts to well-considered process improvements at work. He printed out the pages and spread them around the room, papering the walls in between the money. They formed trails, branching pathways between the solemn green faces.
A large mirror was the next addition, fixed to the back of the door. When the door was closed, it reflected most of the room and showed Daniel sitting squarely in the center, everything revolving around him. Daniel stared himself in the eyes and nodded again. This was the right way to regard himself in the context of the musecage.
Above the dangling light, Daniel wrote a single word in large black letters: SUCCESS. When he sat under the bulb, he felt as if it was beaming down on him, spreading out over the room. It felt fulfilling.
The easy part, the dreaming part, was done. It was time to apply the obstacles. The dark musings.
The first to go up on the walls were pictures of his family at their most successful. His brothers with their boats and cars. His sister at her graduation. He trawled their social media accounts and downloaded dozens of pictures of them looking happy, healthy, successful. His parents featured prominently in many of them, looking thrilled at the accomplishments of their offspring. These were added unevenly about the room, breaking up the flow from his papers, spiraling around to intercept the money. They formed a mocking frame to the mirror, staring back at Daniel and judging what they saw.
Beneath the carpet, a symbol etched into the cement floor began to softly glow. It was complex, carefully crafted, a network of lines stretching between a constellation of nodes. Although Daniel had never seen this symbol and did not know it was there, the distributed system he was building was a crude representation of the image hidden beneath his feet. Unknowing and unaware, he worked on.
The next additions to the walls were pictures of himself, pictures he hated. Ones where he was making a stupid face or turned at an unflattering angle. Ones that reminded him of situations, jobs or people he’d been too polite or cautious to walk away from. Ones that were tied to unpleasant memories. He strewed them about wherever seemed right, driving the pins directly through the printed images of his own face.
With the same black marker Daniel had used to write SUCCESS on the ceiling, he began to write other, less positive words on the walls. He wrote stories of embarrassing situations that he never wanted to be in again. He wrote of times he had felt unimportant, or mocked, or useless. He wrote the word “STUPID” over and over again, a hundred times in letters both small and large. The words overlapped the pages, the pictures, the money. They stood out as if they were on a separate layer from the wall on which they were written. Daniel felt as though from the right angle, he would be able to see them floating in the air. He kept writing, the act a sort of catharsis as he revealed everything he had always kept bottled up.
A faint scent of scorched carpet wafted gently past Daniel’s nose. It did not catch his attention.
Daniel was sweating by the time he was done. The room was covered in his thick angular scrawl, the words dancing and warring with each other. Everywhere he looked, he saw his thoughts spilling across the walls. Every secret insult with which he had branded himself, every negative memory that caused him to flinch was spelled out in the cage, through picture and symbol and word.
It needed something else. Daniel pondered for a minute, then left and returned with a handful of change. Although he had simply grabbed a handful of coins from his jar of mixed change, he had managed to retrieve fifty dimes and nothing else. He tossed the dimes violently into the room, watching them bounce off of walls and roll briefly across the carpeted floor before settling into place.
Daniel did not see the resemblance between the positioning of the coins on the floor and the positioning of the dollar bills on the wall. He did not notice that every dime had landed heads-up, or that all of them were oriented facing the same direction. He only saw that the pattern was complete. Even though he had no idea what that truly meant, he knew that it felt right. His musecage was done.
All that remained was to ensconce himself in it. Daniel rotated a sizeable leather chair through the small doorway, turning it this way and that to maneuver it around the corners. It fit perfectly in the center of the room. It did not cover up a single one of the scattered coins. Daniel did not think this strange.
He closed the door and seated himself in the chair, staring at himself in the mirror. The black writing drifted around him like ashes drifting up from a fire. Daniel considered his reflection critically, allowing the discomfort he felt from this examination grow within him.
He looked weak, he felt. It was no wonder that people disregarded him, passed him by. He was a doormat.
He glanced over the smiling faces of his family. They walked on him, too. Not with malice, but with indifference, which was possibly worse. At least with malice, he was being addressed with intent. Indifference meant that they had not even noticed that he was being crushed beneath their feet. They meant well. They would be hurt to hear that he was being hurt by them, which is why he never told them. But it damaged him all the same.
Daniel turned his gaze upward, squinting into the bare bulb hanging down above him. With his eyes mostly closed against the light, he could just read the word “SUCCESS” in the halo. He pushed back against his feelings of inconsequentiality, letting his anger rise to counteract them. This was what the dark musings were for. They were to harness this energy in a positive fashion, allow it to drive him without controlling him.
He was as good as his siblings. They might be wealthier, luckier or smarter, but he was no less than them. He would show them. He would make a new man out of himself.
SUCCESS, beamed the light. The dollar bills throbbed. The pages of accomplishments struggled to throw off the weight of the inked insults. Daniel stared at it all in the mirror. He felt a tightness in his chest that he did not understand, and reached out for a feeling to associate with it.
What he grasped was rage, fury burning so white-hot and pure that he gasped aloud. Daniel had no idea where this was coming from, no concept that such a feeling existed inside of him. He probed at the edges, searching for a source or meaning to connect it to, but its intensity scared him and he did not delve too deeply into it looking for the answer.
STUPID, blared the walls, shouting it from every angle. Daniel turned the blowtorch of his anger against the caustic words. What did they know? What could they possibly know of him? Such surface-level, undirected insults. They were lazy, easily swatted aside. He was lucky to face such an uninspired effort.
Seeing his defenses, the words marshaled a stronger attack. Cutting words jumped out at him off of the walls, deep, incisive commentary on his self. Impostor. Cheater. Coward. They sliced into him, insisting that he had already been promoted above where he deserved, that his friends tolerated him only as long as he was of use to them, that no amount of success would ever make him happy because he would know that he never truly deserved any of it.
These words burrowed under his skin. To remove them, Daniel turned the anger against himself, directing the fury against the part of himself that believed them, that allowed them inside. He cut in until he found the pieces that said, “Well, maybe….” and he immolated them where they stood.
The words ran from him, dark ink sliding fluidly across the walls of the musecage as they fled to safer positions. Daniel did not recognize the impossibility of this. It felt right.
He no longer recognized himself in the pictures on the walls. The man he saw smiling awkwardly from the photos did not look like the man he saw in the mirror. The man in the mirror was confident, self-assured, strong. The weak, lost version in the pictures was someone else. They were no more him than a shed snakeskin was still the snake.
Daniel turned his attention to each photo of himself in turn, looking for things he might take from them. A genuine smile here, a secure stance there. Nothing was unredeemable, and from them all he could build the best self he could ever have been.
His gaze passed over each picture of himself, stripping it for its vital elements. The pictures crumbled and flaked away in his wake, leaving empty holes in the pattern to show where they had been.
“Hey, Dan. How’s it been?” A picture of his older brother posed the question that Daniel dreaded the most. The picture waited patiently, genuinely interested in the answer as he was every time he asked, but the only answer Daniel ever had to give was that everything was the same as it had always been. Each day was the same as the one before, each year a reiteration of the previous. While his family reached new heights, he simply treaded water.
“Dan, come with me on this trip! I’ll pay your way, man. What’s family for?” His younger brother, casually rich in a way Daniel would never be. In the picture he leaned lightly against a small airplane, motioning for Daniel to join him. His generosity was natural and easy. Daniel would never take him up on it. He would make it himself or he would not make it at all.
“Danny!” cried his sister in delight, smiling up from beneath her graduation mortarboard. She was always excited to see her older brothers. He had had so much of a head start on her, yet she was already eclipsing him. It was not a thing he would, could or should say to her. He would never dream of holding her back. But it still hurt to see her leave him so far behind.
He loved his family, deeply and truly, and it was from this that his resentment stemmed. It was irrational. It was unuseful. It had to be removed.
Daniel gritted his teeth as he deliberately, carefully severed the family ties. He could not succeed on his own terms while tied to them. He would return once he had achieved his goals, and reestablish relations on his own terms.
The pictures and papers on the walls curled and browned as if exposed to extreme heat. The faces of his family withered away. The dollar bills remained untouched.
As the pictures framing the mirror fell away, Daniel noticed something dark moving at the edges of the glass. He cast a glance over his shoulder, but nothing was there. Looking back at the mirror, though, it was obvious that something was moving. Whatever it was was not in the room with him—at least, not yet. It seemed to be climbing up through the bevel of the glass.
Daniel rose from the chair and approached the mirror, peering at it in confusion. He expected to see some rational explanation, perhaps a bug moving along the edge and being oddly reflected, or a trick of the light somehow. It was neither of these.
From inches away, it was clear that the thing in the edge of the mirror was a body part, a tiny crawling hand. All around the mirror were other pieces: legs, intestines, a jawbone, an eyeball. Every one of them was moving under its own power, walking or rolling or slithering, and every one was growing gradually larger as it approached the glass.
The acrid stench of burning synthetic fibers stung Daniel’s nose as the symbol on the floor burned its way up through the carpet. The fifty silver coins shone as the nodules of the diagram appeared beneath them. The lines spidering between them felt like a language that Daniel should have known, a warning he could not parse.
The pieces in the mirror clawed their way closer. The ink that had fled the walls huddled in the corner, a dark lumpen spider leering down from the ceiling. The word SUCCESS ran down the cord and wrapped itself around the lightbulb, casting odd patterns of shadow around the room. Spots of light illuminated the photos of Daniel’s faceless family.
Daniel grabbed for the doorknob, but it seared the flesh of his palm with such ferocity that it was the smell, not the feel that made him yank his hand back. Thick strips of ruined skin ripped free as he did so, sizzling as they dangled loosely from the red-hot doorknob. As Daniel cradled his wounded right hand, he saw that the pattern was branded into his palm.
The lines on the floor began to burn into his shoe. Desperate to escape them, Daniel leapt back into the chair, the only point of relative safety in this madhouse. The coins turned to watch him as he moved, rising up to hover at various heights above the floor.
SUCCESS, jeered the light, and then the bulb shattered. Daniel flung his left arm up to protect his face, but the shards never landed. When he took his hand away, he saw them hanging in space, orbiting in a complicated pattern. The light still shone from each individual shard. He did not count them. He knew that there were fifty.
In the mirror, the body parts had escaped the bevel and were moving about the reflected room. The hands began to gather the other pieces up and assemble them into a coherent whole. Hips snapped into spine, jawbone hinged to skull. Organs were stuffed inside the ribcage as eyes were popped back into their sockets. In no time at all, an entire person had been assembled. It was the only person Daniel expected to see in a mirror. It was himself.
The mirror-self stepped forward casually, moving through the glass as if it did not exist. It walked on the burning lines of the carpet without concern, despite the wisps of smoke curling up from the fused acrylic. It reached out to where Daniel sat frozen in the chair and with one ungentle shove, it tipped him over backward to fall screaming to the floor.
He never landed. The tangled words pounced as he fell, sinking sharp fangs into the nape of his neck and dragging him effortlessly up the wall. His body lolled uselessly, paralyzed, as fat letters wrapped themselves rapidly around him, cutting and constricting. The dimes stared coldly on as the thick black ink wrapped Daniel up in a deadly cocoon. His mirror-self picked up the fallen chair, turned it around and sat down to watch.
The letters covered his eyes, sealed his mouth and nose, encircled his neck. Daniel felt nothing, not even panic. The fire of the rage had burned it all away. Too late, he realized that it had never been his fury at all.
In the chair, the thing that looked like Daniel watched dispassionately as the black mass up by the ceiling compressed down to the size of a watermelon, then a softball, then nothing. No sign of the ink remained, nor of the body it had consumed.
The thing that looked like Daniel reached up and touched the orbiting shards of glass.
“Success,” it said, and crushed the shards between its palms.
The light came once again from an undamaged bulb hanging from the pristine white ceiling. The carpet and walls were clean and unmarked as well. A stack of dollar bills wrapped in a paper band reading “$50” sat on the chair along with a roll of dimes.
The thing that looked like Daniel slipped the money into its pocket. It surveyed the empty room and smiled.
With very little effort, it maneuvered the chair out of the small closet. It was designed to succeed, after all.
It did not take long to pack up Daniel’s possessions. When it was done, the thing that looked like Daniel walked out of the front door and never looked back. It abandoned his belongings at the first convenient dumpster. It did not need them to succeed. It just had to take them from the house.
Eventually the bank came to find out why the new mortgage was not being paid. They found the house as it had been before the last sale. Clean. Furnished. Empty.
Ready for the next guest.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableMicah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A