31 December 20—
I read your last message with interest and pleasure, and now, first, before everything else, I must beg your forgiveness for my unpunctual reply. But my delay of over a month now has not been without good reason.
I write now my friend, on this New Year’s Eve, to tell you of my acquisition of a strange artifact, which may prove orthogonal to your interests, and yet I believe you may find my sad story worth the telling. You may also, in the end, feel the tale to be a burden too heavy to bear. If that is the case, forgive me, for I sought you out because of those things that link us and perhaps curse us, too. We are both of us collectors, collectors of such things as have little value to some but which we, at least, hold dear. My tale too, explains my indolence, my neglect in not writing, and I beg your patience as you wade through these murky depths.
Yes, we are both collectors. We thrill at the chase, the hunt for the obscure and unknown, those things of which we declare ourselves owners or masters. We amass our collections and grin like greedy dragons, with mouths full of teeth that are sharper by far than an eye for a toothsome treasure, and we curl atop our piles and preen. That which we both of us pursue with the greatest fervor is machines, old and outdated—the remnants of a near past that have outgrown their use. I speak for myself alone when I admit that it is some species of nostalgia, some variety of longing that attracts me to decrepit machines: typewriters, cameras, computers, which may be inoperable but which I cherish despite (or because of) that fact. These things seem to signify for me a more fascinating past, more fascinating in part because, though its artifacts may be familiar to me—such as the machine on which I type this missive to you—I cannot truly access it, for it never included me. I can only enter it sidewise, or junk-wise. And I suppose that my journeys into a fictive past are meant, too, to stave off a darker journey into a lonesome dim passage where I do not want to go.
And so I collect, I accumulate, and that interest extends to adjacent realms. I prefer old video-game consoles and obscure games, the little-known and -played. How I thrill to imagine this past to which I am a stranger, a tourist on a visit, this past in which someone who is not me might have picked up this or that and played it for the very first time; yes, I thrill to imagine this past that isn’t mine that is likewise free of all context, a floating bubble, for who could this imagined player be? A blank face, a blank mind, a blank life, without future or past.
All this is to say: the subject at hand is a curious video game that came into my possession, and how it did so, and my experience playing it, and what it means to me.
In 1995, the Averna Company released its first and only video game to little fanfare. This game, titled Cumaea, did not receive widespread commercial release but was, instead, only available through mail order and advertised only in a few magazines. So far as I can tell, this appears to have been a deliberate tactic: the company’s resources must have been meager, and it is estimated that no more than one thousand copies of Cumaea were ever produced. The sole advertisement for Cumaea was itself enigmatic. That advertisement is how, in fact, I came across the title. It was in the pages of an old magazine, Computing Monthly, which I likewise collect as a useful resource in my many hunting expeditions.
The advertisement displays an illustration that liberally borrows from Michelangelo’s depiction of the Cumaean Sibyl on one of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. An androgynous figure, she is an old woman with strong, muscled limbs and broad shoulders, her small head wrapped in a white turban. Her features signal neither masculinity nor femininity—perhaps nothing more than long years of toil and strife. She holds an open book, and here lies the key difference from the fresco: in the advertisement, unlike in the Sistine Chapel, the Sibyl fixes the reader with her stern gaze and tilts the book toward the reader. The book displays a miniscule graphic from the game, which is essentially indecipherable: merely pixelated shadows. Two lines of text are printed above the illustration:
Visit the haunt of the dread Sibyl
It is time to ask the oracle your fate
The bottom third of the ad is taken up by an image of what I assumed (correctly) to be the case, a brown square with the title in its center, as well as another square, this one white, to be removed with scissors, filled out, and sent with check or money order payable to the Averna Company at a post office box in New York City.
After seeing the ad, I did a bit of research on the game, which is how I found, through a series of inscrutable and dubious online reports, some of them made possible only through web crawlers’ noble efforts—saved screenshots decades old, miraculously preserved for my perusal!—the information I have thus far relayed to you. It seems that the Averna Company never had a website, but I was able to ascertain some information in dribs and drabs. A small company, a limited release, a genuine obscurity: I was overcome.
Yes, I felt the immediate rush to the head, the desire to seek it out that I knew would fill subsequent days and nights. Oh, how easy it is, when this god we name Desire takes root in the mind and heart, to forego obligations, to neglect one’s proper duties, to cease to care about whatever is not the now-hallowed object of Desire’s will. Forgive my fancy, but Desire is wont to take us on some strange and even tragic journeys, as it soon took me, and we have no say in the matter, for Desire does not listen, and despite whatever misgivings present themselves we follow with fervor, for Desire is never wrong—or so we believe, at first. Oh, yes, I knew I would need to do what I could to acquire a copy of Cumaea.
You may not know this about me, my friend, but it is true that I have always been fascinated by the Cumaean Sibyl. Picture her then, young and beautiful, when the god Apollo becomes struck by her beauty and is overwhelmed by the urgent wish to bed her. Heed what I have just told you of Desire. He begs for her; he pleads; and at last he grants her a wish in exchange for her love. The young girl, who thinks herself so clever, scoops up a handful of sand and says, “As many grains of sand as I hold in my hand—that is how many years I wish to live.” I can see her in my mind’s eye, smiling, smirking, believing she has duped a god. And the girl, so clever and fickle, gets her wish and swiftly refuses his love. And in his revenge—for you never can dupe a god, not truly—he reveals that for which she wished: as many years as the grains of sand in her hand, without youth and beauty to ease their passage. She receives years upon years—one thousand—and their interminable decline. And so she withers away and becomes an old crone, a crone who can do little more than croak, “All I want is to die.” Picture her now: the Sibyl, who writes her prophecies on oak leaves; the Sibyl, who tells Aeneas where to find the door to hell; the Sibyl, who sits in her cave and wishes for death. Sometimes, the wind carries those oak leaves away and she does nothing to save them. Instead she sits unmoving, eventually turning to the next bunch of leaves, the subsequent prophecy. She is doomed only to pass on at last from this plane when her years reach one thousand, the same as the number of grains. She is stubborn, and she is wise, and she is more than a little despairing. Yes, always she has fascinated me, and for that reason this game captivated my hungry soul.
Then again, I cannot pretend that it truly was for that reason alone. For I wished to know my fate! I wished to ask it of the oracle. Who among us cannot be said to be curious—to feel at times that fickle god’s sharp pricks and pangs (oh yes, Desire rears its head again)—to wish for just a few of the future’s dark clouds to part—in short, to speed past these clichés and get on with the point, to access the prognostications of the Wise One herself? And so I set out to find Cumaea.
Did you know, by the by, that the entrance to hell is said to be found within the crater lake known as Avernus?
My searches online revealed nothing for sale: no listings, no leads. Instead there was nothing but talk, mere chatter, speculation as to where one might find a copy. In fact I cannot even determine the last time one changed hands. It seems to exist now more as legend than anything else. But this is, of course, the sort of thing on which those like you and I will pounce, and I was determined to prove the legend real. I would have better luck, I knew, in the shops I frequent, amid like-minded connoisseurs who might be willing to strike a deal with me.
As I believe you know, there is one little shop in particular not too far from my home whose owner claims a specialty in electronics. The shop seems like nothing much to the undiscerning eye, a way station for the detritus of years, between home and the landfill, between temporary use and eternal waste. But the owner knows so very much, and we’ve developed a friendship, he and I. I went there to see him in his humble shop: my dear friend Mr. V——. There the old man was, stooped shoulders bending over an accounting book, and he waved a pale arm when I entered, and he asked me how I was and why I’d come. And I told him of my desire, my need, for Cumaea. He had never heard of it, and I told him all I knew, providing him with a copy of the advertisement that had struck my eye as well as a detailed précis of my research—fuller than that which I have given you. Promising to look out for it, he took it all gladly and filed it away with a smile and a wink. Old men like Mr. V—— are a rare species and, I fear, on the wane—old men who collect junk as magpies do, lining their nests with not too much discrimination but with vast reserves of perception. They know what they are about. And I knew I could count on his skills and his reach as much as, no, far more than, my own.
I bided my time. I waited for several long months with no hope of relief. The days lost their heft; they grew shorter, less bright. It was coming to the close of the year. You know, here we do not get overmuch snow, none whatsoever in fall or early winter. It is not really until old January shows his wizened visage that the snow tends to fall and then not very much. I do not put a lot of stock in holidays, least of all Christmas. I live alone and have done for many years, as you well know. The exchange of gifts at Christmas means little to me, and religious observation means less. What I do observe is the year’s end. It is an arbitrary thing, when we declare that one year has completed its course and a new one has begun, but most of the things we hold most dear, in the end, are dear for the most capricious of reasons. Still, I like marking the end of the year and looking to the future to come. This is the time when, of course, we mark our aspirations, our ambitions, however foolish and doubtful, and I do look forward to marking mine. It is silly, yet I love the sincerity, and I recognize it even as a form of devotion. Or I did, once, and no longer—but this is a digression, F——, and I must again beg your indulgence.
When, near the end of December, I received a call from Mr. V——, it was another drab day of no clouds and bitter cold. I was in fact buying groceries for my private end-of-year celebration. His call stopped me in my tracks—rather, compelled me to seek a quiet corner away from the crowd. On the phone he hemmed and hawed for a minute or two and then came out with the purpose of the call. He said he wouldn’t look for Cumaea anymore; I must consider the case closed; he could be of no assistance to me. I sputtered. I asked him what he meant. He insisted on the same and would say nothing further: the search, as far as he and his role in it were concerned, was over. He hung up.
Well! I was dismayed, even affronted at his rudeness on the phone. My task seemed immediately clear: I would have to drive there to my friend and press him further on the matter. I finished my tour of the store and completed my purchase—and then I was off.
On the drive my thoughts remained on Mr. V——. I had heard in his voice something strange: he sounded concerned; he seemed trepidatious. His voice cracked once or twice, caught on some sharp edge of anxiety, and I wondered what had befallen my friend and whether it was I who was at fault.
In the shop—overheated, the air thick and smelling of must and dust—he stood as he always did behind the counter, but he did not wave, and he flashed no smile. He fixed me with a stern stare, and I very nearly wanted to turn tail and run. When I reached the counter, he did not even utter a gruff hello. He said—he did not ask, it was no question—“Why did you come here.” I admitted I was taken aback by his earlier tone when we had always had such a cordial relationship. It seemed to me he was perhaps nervous, fearful of something—? He denied it, said he was merely doing me the courtesy of knowing he would search no more for the thing I’d been seeking. And he would brook no further queries. “No hard feelings,” he said, though everything else about the encounter seemed to betray him. With his arms crossed, he even glared at me.
What else could I do then but leave? And so I left, but I vowed to return, to pry and wheedle and perhaps learn something more from the man who seemed so clearly to be hiding something in that magpie’s nest of his.
And I did, you know, I returned to the shop twice within the next week, and both times he spoke very little. Both times I even found something to purchase, some small trinket, of little value to me or to anyone, in the hope, however futile, that my money would soften him some. And both times I found it was futile, after all, and I found that he seemed sallow, weakened, withdrawn. Something was affecting him, that much was clear, but I will tell you: it was on the third visit that I found out.
When I came in he sat before his computer, eyes full of sorrow as well as—was it hunger? A faint pulse of desire? When I got close to the counter I saw the monitor was dark, yet still he stared into that void as if he might crawl in, as if indeed he’d like nothing more than to do so. He said not a word and I wandered the shop, eventually deciding upon some bauble, which I took to the counter. Illegibly he muttered and took to wrapping the object in tissue. And it was then that I espied something small on the surface of the counter, barely hidden beneath his ledger. It was a brown square I recognized from the advertisement—a squat case in brown leather. Immediately the picture fell into full view in my mind: there it was! That was the case for Cumaea. He had found it and kept it for himself. Foolish man, to leave it in full view; I wonder what strain of perversity induced him to leave it there and believe I wouldn’t see it. Well, a separate strain then struck me—remember what I’ve told you about how Desire, having taken root, can compel one to the strangest of actions—as I reached out my hand and grabbed the case firmly. Startled, he cried out. I cracked it open and saw the disc inside and then I fled, toward the door and out and away.
He gave chase, of course he did, but I am faster and fitter by far and I eluded him. For nearly two blocks he chased me until at last I heard him huff and puff and curse my name. It was only by the most circuitous route that I found my way back to my car with my prize.
Of course I didn’t know then what I’d done. It would have been better if I had done the impossible thing—if I had let him keep it. But the moment I spied Cumaea in his shop I was lost.
This letter, my dear, is getting long, but I trust that by now I’ve got you, that you will not leave me now, not yet. On we go, to the heart of the story. Have patience.
I wonder about those who saw the advertisement when it first appeared. Was it curiosity alone that coerced them, caught them in its grip? What of their fates did they wish to know? Did they have a question in mind for that Oracle, or did they merely want the thrill of a grasp in the dark, a whispered secret? Or were they nothing more than bored?
Those who saw the ad and felt intrigued enough to order Cumaea by mail must have felt, upon the receipt of their packages, that they’d been given an impressive treat. I imagine them, upon opening the cardboard box in which it was sent, confronted with the little leatherbound case, the title handstitched on its cover, with lavish scrolls and curls spidering around it. At home I carefully cradled it in my hands, gently easing it open to its velvet interior, closing it, then opening it once more. Inside the case there is nothing besides a soft pouch containing the game disc. No instructions—indeed, no text at all besides the title. As far as I can tell, there never were.
How soon did I wait to place the game in one of my computers? I did not wait long, I tell you. It was the very day I stole it.
The game was slow to load. I placed the disc in in my PC and waited approximately fifteen minutes for the game to boot up. The wait was unbearable, for the search had been so long, and there it was, and here I was, ready to meet the Oracle! At last I was greeted with the title screen and the game’s music: the tinny MIDI rendering of an original composition, which I found off-putting. It sounded like so many bells, clanging.
In the game, the title matches the hand-stitching on the game case, a tawny-colored cursive font that floats at the mouth of a dark cave. Below the title, a command soon comes into view: “enter.”
Dutifully, I click the command and see the title vanish as I am pulled into the cave. The passage has a somewhat hexagonal shape, its top half much taller and the ceiling much narrower than their opposites. After a slow journey in the dark, accompanied by the clanging bells, at the end of the tunnel, a shrouded, figure greets me: the Sibyl of Cumae. No longer the hulking figure of Michelangelo, she is a dusky, wrinkled thing, coming to the end of her sentence, the end of her life. Her face is not visible; she does not show it. Her hands strain out of her robe. She raises them up to the cave’s high ceiling and lets loose a flurry of greenish, mud-colored pixels. There are her leaves, on which her meticulous hands record the history of the future. The point of view pans down to the floor, and it is easy to see those oak leaves, or, rather, their shreds. Did the Sibyl herself wreak such harm on the tender luscious lobes of the oak leaf? It seems that she did.
But the leaves do not stop there. No, they flutter on the wind and blow toward the mouth of the cave. Eventually, the leaves stop. The perspective tilts toward the floor of the cave. Here are tattered remnants of leaves, green pixels in diverse shapes. A croaking, low voice now ruptures the music—the bells cease their tolling—and says, “You may assemble my leaves and witness my prophecy.”
Now begins the game proper. Cumaea thus reveals itself to be quite simple, a puzzle game, in which the player must click and drag bits of leaves, whose writing is nearly indecipherable, in accordance with the Sibyl’s commands. Of course, this is what the Sibyl has been known to do: to write prophecies on oak leaves and allow the wind to steal them away. No mythographer has ever spoken of the Sibyl’s destruction of her very own leaves, yet who can say what that old woman did in her cave, as she aged and shrunk, aged and shrunk, until she was no more than a squawk of an oracular voice?
Believe me, it is an utterly tedious and strenuous exercise, to assemble so many tiny bits of leaves on the screen. Yes, I myself faced the temptation that first time to give up, to leave the cave, to reenter my life. I imagine many did, of those few who saw a glint of mystery and even fear in the pages of a magazine, who sought out the tidings of the Sibyl of Cumae.
But I could not. I sat before my screen and played, my hands aching, my eyes growing dry, my back pleading for a stretch or a walk or for mercy. I sat, and sit, for hours now, piecing the leaves together with care in order to glimpse her prophecies.
And has my play been rewarded?
Oh, F——, now I must tell you that we’ve reached the bottom of the mystery. Now there is nothing but to tell you what has come to consume me. Here we are, at the end of my tale. Has it come so soon, so swiftly? And here I am, at the close of the year, a time I have always found so satisfying—because full of mystery and hope. Who knows what the year will bring? I will tell you: I know. And I know why Mr. V—— did not intend to give up the copy of the game. I almost think it a kind of grace; he may have saved me had I not given into Desire. Yet I did and now I am lost.
Then again, I wonder if he did not leave it out and visible in a kind of game—a temptation he knew I could not resist.
My first time, at last, after six hours of play, late in the night, I finished assembling the leaves, and I could read my first prophecy. The message seemed cryptic; it perplexed me. It read: The one who granted you access will find his exit. With some few minutes’ thought, I could not help but wonder whether it concerned my friend, Mr. V——.
It was far too late, I thought, to go searching for news, and I took myself to bed. But the next day I went out, went to his shop even, now worried for his health and not a little frightened by what the oracle told me. But his shop was dark, its door locked to visitors. Outside I stood in the cold and jangled the door in vain, until, after a few minutes, from next door a woman came, the neighboring florist, who asked what I meant by making such a racket. She said, “Haven’t you heard? He’s dead!” Indeed she relayed the news bluntly, to my shock and shame. I quickly went home. Soon I would discover news reports, which served as confirmation of his sudden death by heart attack—and you may find them for yourself if you wish: there is, for instance, the man’s thin obituary, a paltry memorial to an eccentric life, the likes of which could perhaps not be captured in such a form. The tale of Mr. V——’s life is one for another time; I have not the will now to venture to write it. A sudden death, which may not be too surprising given his advanced age, and yet it did surprise me, and my dismay only grew and has continued to grow: the Oracle had spoken, had foretold his fate.
Can I tell you of the depths of my sadness? Yes, surely I grieved for my friend, I did. But this is a common feeling. We all of us grieve at one time or another. But can I tell you how I felt, too, a sort of shudder in my soul? The shudder brought an awareness: that I was alone in the world, with nothing to tether me, and, what’s more, that we are all of us alone, and the one thing that keeps us moving is our grasping into a future all unknown. Yes, it is only in our fumbling into the endless dark and in hoping to pull out some glimmering jewel that we goad ourselves, or fool ourselves, into moving ever onward. I had reached beyond my capability, and what I had been given was perhaps my just reward. If suddenly the dark is extinguished and a light, too bright by far, is cast over everything, and we see just how paltry those things are for which we have always been grasping, well, then, we must ask ourselves: what is the point? What is it that we are doing, and why?
You see, the Sibyl and her Prophecies never falter. Surely Cumaea sees much farther than the Sibyl ever did. I do not know for certain. And yet: I cannot help but play. Does she ask questions of those who beseech her? No. But what does she know of them? Everything. Each leaf reveals some new facet of a future I thought far-off and hazy. What will happen to me next year, or the year after that? I know it, because she has told me. She has told me so much. She has told me the date of my death. She has even told me of humanity’s fate—which is not only sorry but imminent. And I believe it all, for I must, and I recognize it with my very soul, as you would too, for the truth; it is unmistakable. No, she never falters.
Oh, F——, I must tell you: now all I want is to die. The Sibyl says what she will—and what is there to do but listen? I have listened already. I cannot help it; it is too late for me. And I find myself unable to stop, desperate as I am to hang onto her sacred disclosures, determined to continue to play and try to find something more, something different, on the screen, in my endless labor, in the assembly of the leaves, in the whisper of her voice.
Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Indiana. His short fiction is forthcoming in Lightspeed.