Our observatory received word about a meteorological anomaly in Himachal Pradesh, India. While our satellites didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary, the frequency and diversity of the reports suggested something was, indeed, amiss. Further, the crowdsourced pictures and video of the area, all taken and sent by cellular phones, were all corrupted beyond recognition. Whatever it was these people were seeing, you had to be there to get a glimpse.
As I was stationed on a military base in Afghanistan and about three hours away by jet, I was chosen to investigate. One quick flight to a local airport and a short helicopter ride later, I was on the ground at the site of the anomaly.
The meteorological disturbance was gone. The sky was clear and the late afternoon sun cast a warm orange glow on the orchards and farms at the foot of the mountains. That glow was the only warmth to be found.
The locals who’d seen the anomaly were uncharacteristically quiet. I’d heard from folks familiar with the area that the people here were normally gregarious and outgoing. These people were the opposite. They were taciturn and skittish. Moreover, they were unwilling to discuss what they’d seen that morning. They spoke about the incident as if it’d been a trauma; more often than not, their eyes teared up when my translator mentioned it.
I did my best to glean any bits of information that I could, but my success rate was low. The most I was able to learn came from a little girl, who, in the course of recalling the incident, burst into tears as she mentioned a face in the clouds. She would give us no more information after that.
The translator and I decided to call it a night and checked into our hotel. It was small but pleasant enough; the meal that was included was sumptuous, albeit a bit spicier than I’d been expecting. As we ate, it was hard not to notice the quietness of the dining room. Despite all eight tables being filled with diners, few words were spoken. Many tears, however, were shed. It felt like a great tragedy had occurred, yet no one was willing to admit what, exactly, had happened.
At my suggestion, the translator was able to eavesdrop on a few commonalities in the brief, quiet conversations going on around us. They all talked about having intense discomfort with having to wait for so long. There were nods of resignation and more tears. Still unable to put anything into a coherent, let alone meteorological, context, we decided it would be best to retire to our room and try again the next day.
Our sleep was taken from us in the early hours of this morning. It was still dark, but there was a buzz of activity in the streets. We left our room and went outside. We recognized people from dinner and from the businesses we’d stopped in the previous day. In the glow of the streetlights, I could see their faces were all wet with tears. They wept and moaned and the translator, with some alarm in his voice, told me they were conducting a slow, disorganized countdown. They had just reached ten seconds.
I stared at the translator for a moment, trying to put it all together, but there just wasn’t enough. Nothing made sense. Then, as the first sliver of sunlight crested the mountains, the screaming started. Women, children, and men, in unison, shrieked with sorrow and pain and desperation and clasped their hands to their eyes. My panic, already growing in my chest, began to bloom as blood trickled down their screaming faces.
As more sunlight filled the street, the intensity of the hideous wailing grew. When it reached a point when voices were beginning to give out and people were falling to their knees, a cloud passed in front of the sun. Every scream was silenced. Faces drenched with tears and blood began to smile. Hands were lowered to sides. Now it was I who shouted. Their eyes were destroyed. It looked as if they had burst. From what, I had no idea.
The translator, who’d been looking at the sky, gasped. I started to turn my gaze in the direction he was looking, but he grabbed my head with great force and pushed it down toward the ground and the faces of the terribly-disfigured people who still smiled with their faces turned skyward.
“Don’t!,” he shouted. He inhaled a lungful of air and exclaimed, “Now I know what they saw!”
The panic and concern in his voice was combined with something else. Something far more disturbing. It was ecstasy.
“Oh my God,” he cried, over and over and over, still holding my head in a vicegrip to prevent me from looking up. I’d lost my desire to do so. In fact, something else had claimed my attention. The gaping holes in the faces of the townsfolk had started projecting strings. Fleshy, red filaments slinked down their faces, but then perked upward and became erect. More and more length poured out and stretched outward and up. I couldn’t see where, but I had a feeling.
“They’re getting to touch him,” whispered the translator. “He is letting them inside.” His voice cracked and his next words were punctuated by sobs. “They’re tasting him with their eyes.”
I scanned the faces of the people in front of me. Their smiles were rapturous and the thin tendrils pulsed and quivered and gently pulled their heads forward.
The sky brightened. All at once, the ropes fell from the sky. They draped over me and the translator and the townsfolk fell on their faces into the street. The sun broke through the clouds. None of the fallen people moved.
The translator released my head and I spun around and looked into the cloudless sky. I directed my gaze down and saw what had to be miles of red, meaty tendrils stretched across the roads and rooftops all the way to the mountain. Finally, I looked at the translator. He was weeping. I asked him to tell me what he saw.
“The face in the clouds,” he told me. “The face that lets eyes taste him.”
He wept for a minute without interruption before speaking up. “There is so much more I wanted to see with my old eyes. So many more sights. But my new eyes will allow to taste so much more than I’ve ever been able to see. All I have to do is wait.”
Flies began to investigate the bodies in the dirt, landing on the gaping eye sockets and extruded filaments. My thoughts wandered to what I should do next. The translator sobbed next to me and began counting down from 85,000. The number of seconds until the next sunrise, I realized. More and more flies descended on the corpses and tasted the townsfolk with their feet. As the translator counted down with breathless anticipation, my fear grew into something monstrous and unexpected: curiosity.
Curiosity and desire.