The n-Body Problem

Tony Burgess

A completed Craft Project Assignment for the Holiday Arts Mail Order School


For Rachel Jones, my true love.

Thanks to Charlie Baker for constructing and implementing the n-Body Code.

Derek McCormack for his fine eyes and ears on these pages. Thanks also to his hardships—they are exploited here.

Great thanks to the family ChiZine—Savory, Kasturi, Beiko, Morris.

Erik Mohr for the boss cover and Jason Brown for the interior illustrations.


i am not my own food.

Insomnia, for instance, is a death sentence. Used to be the occasional genetic syndrome, Fatal Familial Insomnia, things like that. One in a million. Not now. Now you stop sleeping because you thought a bit too long. It frightened you. And you felt it, maybe while you were doing something else, you slipped… you thought about it… pictures on the wall… suspended with what? Hooks? Hangers? Staples? Nails? What? You push them into the wall with your own strength… like a pea into gravy. Swallow by the wall. A bird entered a cloud. And none of it. Not one stick of light or dark had a thing to do with sleep. That’s how you do it. You don’t change the picture. You destroy picturing.

It is probably because of the sky that we now walk looking down. We focus our eyes on the hard imperfect dirt, the anamorphic islands in hardwood slats, the infant memory picked into marks on linoleum. In fact, so obsessed have we become in reading the flat earth that we now bump into each other more often, and we are warned about this danger, we are told to look up, not high not above us, but in front, so we can see obstacles, see the things we want, the place we are going; so we may read the world as nature had intended us to, as something before us. For many people the problem then becomes one of scale. The cracks become canyons, the piece of glass a crystal mountain. There is great wrong in this, and we know it—a grain of sand wasn’t given to us to carry on our backs like beasts, we were not put here to drag cherries by the stem. But now, it is the dream we dream. It is our wish to be as far away from the sky as possible, to soak our perspective in the fizz under rotting leaves. And so we stare downward as we walk, judging the things around us like bats do, and we fail, slapping into poles and posts and each other. It’s a price we grimly accept, to look upward as little as we can. To be concentrating on a place we are not, but could be, were we only so much smaller, so much farther from the sky.

The sky is there, though, perhaps even more there than ever, since it is the pressure that has stuck our eyes with push pins into the lawn. The sky is the power over us, it is what makes us want to live so far away from what we are. People have stabbed themselves, forks in the eyes, skewers through the ears, some have shoved ropes down their throats and poured hot glue across their eyelids. I try to do my best, looking outward, I’m still approved for SSRIs and mild anti-psychotics, so I’m still finding solutions day to day, moment by moment. I’ve kept the docs in the dark about the serotonin syndrome I can feel growing. It’s another obsessive scale to avoid. Nerve endings, neurotransmitters deformed by clouds of serotonin. It’s hard to resist sometimes, being a fighter pilot on a synthetic molecule with shape dive-bombing receptors, living life like this, in a skyless, groundless wobble of shapes warring with each other, desperate to recognize a recess somewhere, anywhere that resembles my ship, so I can plug myself in once and for all and be made warm and light and essential.

You can desire life here, imagine it. The challenges are great but you have leather boots on and a cap with swinging straps and you don’t need to know if the world thinks you’re a hero or not. You are. You are because you don’t care if you live or die. And that is better than walking down a street, clenching and unclenching your fists in the hope that you can bring wellness back into them. That is hopeless. If you feel cancer and childishness is where you are walking to, then all is lost. Nothing is possible. It is always and forever better to have never been born.

prisoners of love.

It’s been a year and a half since Orbit.

On Wednesday next, the number will reach and pass one billion. Somewhere above us—you can find out where online—a cold graphite chamber pot the size of an aircraft carrier is turning on the soft directing puffs of tiny jets. Getting into position to release its cargo along a mathematically perfect slipstream. A hundred and twenty thousand or so bodies will drift out like soda from an airborne can and find themselves lying in a row beside others. Among them is the billionth. One billion bodies crisscrossing the stratosphere in a perfect careful lattice, its depth controlled, its rigid vectors held apart by mere feet. One billion is the big number.

I set up this thing tonight, at the Jubilee Church. Father and son potluck. No ladies. Split the families up. For what? I don’t get it and I don’t care. I’ve seen religious types that are worse. Far worse. All I need now is a son.

I found a bed and breakfast joint. Fancy frilly old house run by a couple real frail birds. Paula and Petra or something like that. One of them paints a lot of birds. There’s framed watercolours all over the house. Robins mostly. Stuff my son could do if I had one. I can hear the girls moving around in the kitchen. They’re quiet. Bird-like. Things are placed silently in drawers. Petra? Is that her name? The mirror in my room is the size of a wall. It’s got this wood frame and feet and it leans. I look derailed today. Hair all jackknifed up and a bright red pattern on my cheek. What is that? Rosacea, I’d say. As if that’s even something I’d worry about. No. I lean in. That’s the impression of a doily. I glance back at the fussy pillow sleeves. The light in this room is like horse piss. Everything is splashing up off the floor, down the walls. Lice on the pillows. No. SARS. Influenza. Maybe. Not today, but chances are at one time. I hate this light. Big enough to cast a buffalo shadow off a cluster fly. Not full spectrum of course, that sort of light is rare. This is stick-on light. Couple years back everything got a feel-better facelift. As if we could trap sunlight in cheerful plastics. Yellow everywhere. And commercials promising a “mood lift” like we could be driving around in Prozac cars. In fact, the colours have a pharmaceutical look, pale orange bars, powder blue bevels. Lots of cream with small red letters. I think the colours in this room predate that, though. This is old-folk cheer. It acts like happy is not going to fly out the window. But it did, didn’t it? Turns out happy was a thing just like everything else and it can leave an entire planet. Thinning and dispersing. All the earth happy, now just cold balls of paper caught in solar winds and comet tails.

“Mr. Cauldwell?”

That’s either Petra or Paula. Am I even remembering those names? I flip open the pill box. Takes me three mouthfuls to get all my meds down. I could tell you what they are, what they are for, but that could all change by later today. You have to keep mind/body/pharma pretty dynamic these days. I can hear the girls’ voices. Little bird noises. This flophouse is a damn birdhouse.

“I’ll be down in sec.”

My belt is twisted at my back. I’m too lazy to fix it. It will pinch the skin all day. I’ve gained some weight. That’s fine. Needing to lose weight is far better than needing to find it again. I’m bigger than the disease. At least for today.

I can smell toast. Going downstairs I straighten a pencil sketch of a hummingbird. The blurry wings are a cheap effect done with an eraser. Looks stupid. At the bottom of the stairs I get a shock. Paula and Petra are Asian. I had to have known that. My chest starts to tighten. It is dangerous to go off-road right this second. It’s a lapse. Just thinking it was one thing and it turns out to be another. I push my back muscles into the leather kink there. I am larger than memory problems. Liver disease can do this. Infections. Autoimmune flare ups. Spinal compression. Are their names even Petra and Paula? I can’t give a fuck.

The ladies step back from me and pause. I sit observed. Toast, no butter, and hardboiled eggs.

“Are you working here today or out?”

It’s a nervy question and I don’t think I’ll say. The other Paula and Petra steps forward to correct.

“We are going out today, so if you need lunch we’ll put it in the fridge.”

There’s a piece of eggshell stabbing below my gum line. Shell and tooth. There are infections of the gums that are fatal. The shell of a bird’s egg is separating the gum from tooth. I smell copper. There’s enough blood in my mouth that I can smell it. I have to excuse myself. I have to find a boy to be my son tonight.


I cut through some backyards. Not many sidewalks in these small towns. Birdhouses ...

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