The House is empty. The marble inlay of the floor is obscured by dust and streaks of black soot, and there are blanks spots on the walls, less dirty than the rest, where tapestries and pictures once hung. A desiccated husk, like a knotted jack 'o lantern that has collapsed in on itself, sits on the counter of the coat-check, and the open closet beyond is a dark hole, home to spiders and bats.
The door behind me is not a door. There is no handle on this side, and I can no longer hear the baying of the Broken-Jawed Ones. The wall is smooth, and what was a door as I passed through it (that hollow gate, that final threshold) is nothing more than a hint of shadow on the stone. There is no way back. I have crossed over.
In the silence following the death of the echoes, I hear something. Something other than the labored sound of my breathing. A very slight arrhythmic sound, like the slap of cards against a table. Or against stone.
On the far side of the coat-check, his back against the counter, is a pale-haired man. His eyes are nearly white and his fingers are long and limber. He is wearing tuxedo pants and a fancy shirt, the cuffs undone and pushed up to his elbows. On the inside of his forearms are the shadows of tattoos. He is playing solitaire with a deck of Tarot cards.
"Oh, hello," he says. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you come in." The top card on his discard pile is the eight of cups.
He stands, awkwardly dancing around the game, but still manages to kick the lines of paired cards askew. Shoving the remaining cards into his pocket, he offers me his hand. "My name is Harry," he says. "Can I take your skin?"
"You don't have a coat," he points out. "Nor anything else."
"No. Your name."
"Harry? It's a common English name."
"It's my name."
"Is it?" He looks at me intently for a moment. "Are you sure?"
I realize I am not, and I also realize that he is right about the other thing too. I am naked. "I must have—"
"Left some things behind?" He nods. "It happens."
"This isn't quite what I expected."
"It rarely is." He seems more sad than amused by my confusion.
"I am tired," I say. "I've come a long way—" All the way to the ruins of . . . "—and I don't . . ." Where had that come from?
He pulls open a narrow drawer on the backside of the counter and takes out an unmarked wooden box. Removing the lid, he places the box on the counter. It is empty, and I am about to say something to that effect, but he stops me with a raised finger as he reaches into his pocket with his other hand for the yet-unplayed cards.
He throws them into the box. They hit with a sound like a pistol shot and splinter. The lid goes on, and he shakes the box vigorously before he hands it to me. "There," he says. "That should do it."
I open the box. Inside are the scattered leaves of broken cards, shards of images jumbled together in an incoherent mess. I pick up a piece, and it isn't a playing card any more—it is a picture of red birds against a background of striped ribbons. "These are—" I look at another one. A white queen, staring at me as a clockwork arm snakes around her shoulder. "What are these?"
He shrugs. "Idle fantasy, maybe. Or something . . . more concrete. It depends—"
He smiles. "On who you are."
"I'm glad you find this amusing."
"I'm sorry. It is ungracious of me to find humor in your situation."
"And what is my situation?"
He picks up the box and shakes it, rattling the image chips. "You have crossed the last threshold, and in doing so, you have left everything behind. Which can pose a problem if you came here with intent. It's in here, somewhere." He rattles it once more before setting it back on the counter. "I hope."
"And if I don't find it?" . . . it is the only treasure we hoard . . .
It isn't a voice in my head so much as a suggestion of a whisper, and my reaction to it is conflicted, split between two interpretations: listen to my voice for the key says the drowned charlatan sailor.
"Then I won't have to play solitaire any longer. We can try something like Go Fish."
"Fish." Teach him how . . . "You could teach me that game, couldn't you?"
He shakes his head. "Everyone knows how to play that game." He puts his hands together, fingers up, and raises his eyes toward the ceiling.
On one of the chips, there is a blue globe filled with goldfish. It looks like it is on a man's head—a fishbowl for a helmet—and, in the background, a yellowed skeleton appears to be climbing the figure's shoulders. I can almost remember this one. Almost. "I need some help with this puzzle. Someone who can give me some perspective on it all." I must understand who I am in that instant of emptiness.
"Ah, an external agent." He finds this amusing as well, though in deference to my situation, he covers his mouth this time. "Yes, a permutator."
That wasn't quite what he said. His lips moved around a different word than the one I heard. "A what?" I asked.
"An enumerator," he says.
No, still not the same. Something else. A pattern reader. A . . . fortune teller.
"Yes," I say. "I see now. Yes, that would be helpful."
He puts the lid back on the box, and I flinch slightly as the top clicks into place. Will the cards still be broken when he opens it again? "You'll need something to wear," he adds. "You can't go un-dressed like that."
I look down. "What would you suggest?"
He nods toward the closet behind us. "Anything that fits. I wouldn't worry about the owner turning up. Some of that stuff has been there since before . . ."
He shakes his head. "It's not important."
"To you, maybe."
He shrugs. "Perhaps." He pushes the box closer to me.
I take it and wander into the closet. It is deeper than it looks, going back quite far. The coat racks are empty, flecked with rust. The farther I venture into the closet, the more the shadows dance on the bent hangers.
There is only one coat—one outfit—and the stuffed head sits on top of the rack. I put the box of chips down next to the bear head, and pull the heavy brown suit off the hanger. It is better than nothing.
It takes me a few minutes to get oriented in the head. It smells vaguely of lemon and antiseptic, and the eyeholes are a little higher than comfortable. Once attired, I fumble-finger the box off the shelf and walk back out of the closet.
I'm not in the foyer of the House any more.
Glowing squares of green and yellow glass cover the walls, and they shimmer with movement, as if sea life swims on the other side. Small tables fill the room, each with a narrow vase of red flame in its center. The light flickers brightly enough to make colorful reflections in the variety of cocktail glasses on the tabletops but not enough to give away all the secrets in the faces.
On my left is a long stage with blue silk curtains, covered with yellow flowers. A pair of headless jugglers are throwing fishbowls, animal skulls, small hatchets, and leather-bound books back and forth.
A waitress dressed in sharkskin beckons to me, and as I follow her, she swims through the audience. She leads me to a table near the back, next to the wall of yellow and green tiles, where a small man in a suit of purple-and-black clockwork waits. He smiles, indicating that I should join him. The shark waitress pulls out the chair, and I clumsily sit down.
He looks at the box in my paws, and I set it on the table. "Welcome," he says. His voice clicks and whirrs. "It has been some time since we've had new entertainment."
On the stage, one of the hatchets goes awry and hits a book. The now-bound pair, pages split by axe, spin out of the juggler's array and clatter across the stage. The jugglers don't seem to notice, and a monkey in a yellow vest runs out from stage left. The simian is holding a shiny lizard, who belches fire on the ax and the book. The flames are bright and hot, and the pair is nothing but dust in a few seconds.
The monkey scampers off-stage, and I can't help but think I've seen it somewhere before.
"Eventually," the clockwork man says, "they'll run out of things to throw . . ." He shrugs, a shifting of gears. ". . . and then, we'll have to imagine everything."
Aren't we already?
He smiles. "Funny bear. Is that your act? No singing. No dancing. Just questions. The deep, philosophical kind." He lifts his left hand from his lap, and I notice his glove is torn. There is rust on his wrist. "May I?" When I nod, he pulls the box closer and opens the lid.
He mixes the splinters, as if he is searching by feel for a specific piece. He settles on one, and holds it up. A chicken, frantic; a knife, mid-stroke. "What a worthless sacrifice," he says. "You never even spoke to her."
What would I have said?
"Does it matter?" He drops the piece back on the pile.
Yes. Because maybe I will get another chance.
"Really?" He looks more closely at me, as if he can see through the bear suit. "But that means you can change the past. Are you that sort of bear?"
What past? It doesn't exist.
He holds up another chip. "No? Then where did these memories come from? Who dreamed them?" A purple tentacle snaking across a shining mirror.
I don't remember any of that.
"Ah, you are the bear who is lost." He closes the box, and he thinks I don't notice that he has kept one of the pieces.
I need to know what these are.
"I can tell you that. They are your memories. I know, I know. You said you don't remember them, but that doesn't mean they aren't yours."
How do I remember them?
He smiles again. "The same way you did the first time: by imagining them."
These . . . these are dreams. I dreamed them?
"Yes." He laughs. "Yes, you did, Mr. Potemkin. You certainly did."
The box quivers, and I have eaten this many children I knock it off the table with a broad paw. The lid comes loose as it flies, and the pieces come out. But they're different now: all the colors are gone, and they are black. They turn into gush of ink and blood stains as they scatter.
The only piece left is the one the clockwork man has stolen. He drops it through the hole in his wrist and runs from me. I am clumsy in the bear suit, but I catch him eventually.
I have to eat him in order to get the piece back.
Backstage, the jugglers are deep in argument. Though, without heads I am not sure how they can see each other's vociferous sign language. In a wire cage on the edge of a wooden desk, the shiny lizard naps, its tongue slowly moving back and forth between blackened lips. A man wearing a robe made from the same fabric as the curtains works at the desk, scribbling with a thick quill on pages of worn parchment.
I stand beside the desk and watch the red-headed children move set pieces for a fantasy story into position on the stage. Two of them help a woman dressed in ribbons up a narrow ladder to a thin ledge behind a castle facade. The woman waves at me and does her best to smile, but the silver thread running through her lips makes it hard. I wave back.
The scribe at the desk scratches the tip of his ear with his quill. "Can you dance?" he asks me.
I shake my head.
"Not a very useful bear, are you?" His quill scratches on the page—a script of geometric shapes. Circle. Square. Triangle. Triangle. Triangle.
I'm out of practice. I show him the image slice. The lower third is dirty with oil and spit.
He glances at it and grimaces. "No one wants to witness that," he says, returning his attention to his scribbling.
I put the picture in the path of his quill and he barely pauses to flick it off the page. "I can't help you," he snaps. "Now go away. I need to finish this play before the curtain rises."
I wander around the desk to retrieve the tiny image, but one of the red-headed stagehands has picked it up. She looks up at me with wide peacock eyes. I put out my hand, and instead of putting the image chip there, she takes my furry paw and leads me toward the back of the stage. Behind the castle facade. Beneath the high window through which the lonely maiden looks for her prince.
The stagehand searches in the front pocket of her coveralls, and finds a piece of yellow chalk. She draws a precise rectangle on the floor and, glancing at the chip for reference, sketches a rough outline: a stick figure made of crosses and triangles, a column of stars, a man made of lines, a woman filled in solid, you can't remember why they are so familiar a ring of ribbons.
She touches my knee, looking at me with those luminous eyes. I notice that some of the other stagehands have started to gather. All with the same expression on their faces. I don't know what it is, I confess. I don't understand why the words keep turn around coming back.
The stagehand goes back to her drawing. When she finishes, the picture—so much larger than the tiny chip in her hand—animates, scrolling from the left to the right. I watch the ceremony, and realize why I don't remember it.
It hasn't happened yet. I haven't dreamed it. She has, but I haven't.
I look up. The ribbon princess with the silver wire has fallen asleep on her window ledge. One of her legs droops off the platform, and her foot is almost within reach. She isn't wearing any shoes, and her sole is stained with ink. As if she has been running from a flood.
I go back to the desk, and when the scribe doesn't seem inclined to look up from his work, I start to play with the latch on the lizard's cage. "What?" he snaps finally, when it looks like I might accidentally let the lizard out.
I want to go on.
I nod. Before your fairy tale.
I have to cross. While I can still remember the way. A column of stars . . . the groom lined . . . the bride . . .
"What's in it for me?"
You will have time to finish your play.
"What are you going to do?" he asks, trying to be shrewd. Trying to be coy about the fact that he likes that idea.
I am going to tell them a story.
"Is it funny?"
Depends on how it ends.
"And how does it end?"
I show him my teeth, and the tiny cogs stuck between them. "You need to work on that ending," he says.
I am trying. It is a work in progress.
"How does it start?"
My name is Harry Potemkin and I am not who you think I am.
"Well, I don't know who you are in the first place, so that statement is somewhat meaningless. Still . . ." He taps his chin with his quill. ". . . there is some promise there. Some hint of mystery." He shrugs, and wiggles the feathered end of his writing implement at me. "I do have to confess to a niggling curiosity as to what comes next."
He sighs then, and waves his hands toward the stage. "Go! Go! Before I change my mind. Leave me in peace. Brilliance doesn't flow in the presence of unfinished dreck."
I amble out to stage front and wait for the stagehands to raise the curtain. It takes seven of them to work the pulleys. The curtain goes up.
The audience is gone, as are the tables and chairs, and the only light in the room is the dim flicker through the green and yellow tiles. A man waits for me out in the middle of the floor; beside him, a tall stack of rectangular boards. He gestures that I should come down off the stage, and his silver teeth glitter when he smiles.
Two of the red-headed stagehands help me out of the bear suit, and free of its claustrophobic suppression of my identity, I clamber down briskly from the stage. I am not wearing anything again, but I don't feel . . . naked. Some of the apprehension and confusion that has been following me is gone.
"That skin fits you," he says.
"I suppose it does," I say. I look back at the stage. "I didn't get to tell my story."
"Oh, we'll get to that." He blinks, and his peacock glasses swell to twice their size and lay their long plumes down his back. He touches the top card on the deck next to him, and it snaps upright, spinning about so that I can see its face. It is complete, unlike the shards in the box. Unlike the memories that have been playing hide-and-seek in my head.
"'The Hanged Man,'" I read the inscription along the bottom. A scarecrow hangs in field of yellow wheat and a blue bird flutters in the foreground. "That's not right," I grimace. "That wasn't me." On the card, the hanging man is wearing a suit and tie. I remember the field and the greasy smear of the octopus monster now, but that wasn't me on the cross. "The details are wrong." The key is missing the crown of feathers.
"Why do you assume that is the case?" His voice changes as he transforms, turning into a neat European gentleman: tweed coat, round glasses, neatly trimmed beard, though the metal spike through his septum and the intricate tattoo crawling off his wrist and up the sleeve of his coat seem to be a little outré. "What you remember has no bearing on reality. It is a fabrication created by your 'memory' from a disparate set of information pulses. Your brain will make things up. That is what it is supposed to do." He reaches into a coat pocket for what I would assume to be his pipe, but he pulls out an ear of corn instead. He shows his teeth when he nibbles—still silver. Some things stay the same.
"This is the objective record? The 'truth' that I'm supposed to believe?"
"No one believes the truth," he says, finishing one row. "It is too heavy to bear."
"So why show me these then?" I walk over to the stack of cards and lift the top one. When I let go, it spins away, waltzing on its bottom edge. The next one snaps upright on the stack. "What about this card? I don't know who this guy is."
"Of course not," he says, sucking at a bit of corn stuck in his teeth. "He's your other father."
"I have two?"
"Dualities," he says with a shrug.
"Is he my shadow father?"
"No more than your other—" He pauses, and counts on his fingers for a second. "—your other other father."
"My first father."
"Yes," he says. "That is simpler: your first father."
"Are you my—" I try to recall the word. "—the enumerator?"
"No, no." He fusses with the cob of corn, and it comes apart, kernels falling like tiny yellow flowers. He hides his hands behind his back, but not before I have seen the claws. "No, ah, I am not who you think I am."
I glance back at the stage. The curtain is down, and I can distantly here the sound of heavy objects being moved about. "That was my line," I say.
"Yes," he adjusts his narrow glasses, and he is wearing green opera gloves now. His jacket has become a cape and his pants have sprouted feathers. "That was clever of you. How you confused the writer by that lie."
"Clever? Oh, I must disagree."
"It wasn't a lie."
"Oh. Still. Clever." He taps the card of the seated man with the long hat, and the card spins off to dance with the Hanged Man. The next one rises.
"Are we going to go through all of these?" I ask.
"Why, yes. Of course."
"That seems tedious."
"Most historical reckonings are. Very rarely is a man's constitution strong enough to relive everything."
"More so when it isn't true."
"Now, we talked about that. Did you not understand what I was saying? These are the objective records. Your memories are skewed. Malformed. They must be corrected." He shivers and grows orange and yellow plumage.
"Why?" he parrots back.
I kick over the stack of cards, and they slide across the floor, leaving the Lovers spinning like a top, the White Queen and the Ribbon Man winking at me.
He looks at the scattered deck. "That's very petulant of you."
"It felt good."
He bobs his head, molting. Underneath the ruddy plumage is the psychologist again. He polishes his glasses on a peacock blue cloth as feathers fall from his tweed jacket. "What's next, then?"
"What do you mean?"
He puts the cloth away, and adjusts one of the arms of the glasses frame. "Is that why you are here? To kick over my props? Well, you've done that. Now what? Are you going to storm off in a huff because I won't give you the answer."
"To the question you have."
"What question is that?"
He clicks his tongue as he puts on his glasses again. "I am not like the other figments of your imagination. I am resistant to your wiles, your brutish charms." He smiles. "I won't vanish like the others. I will persist until you leave, and if you decide to never leave . . . well, then I will have the opportunity to really explore your psyche. I'd like that."
"What question?" I ask again.
"You've been doing very well, and like I said, I thought the way you confused the writer was very clever." He puts his glasses on and stares at me owlishly. "But you are going to have to try harder with me."
"What game are we playing? No one has told me."
"No one will."
"Oh, that game. I'm familiar with that one."
"Excellent," he says. "Then you can get started."
I hesitate, and he shows me his metal teeth. "I've been playing this game a long time, and you bluff very poorly."
Ignoring his tone of voice, I wander over to the scattered cards. What to make of them? They were marked like Tarot cards, and were meant to represent my life. But each one had small details that I didn't remember. The picture of the Ribbon Man on the train, for example, was missing the seals, but had the addition of a small fish carved into the back of a seat. The one of me wearing the bear suit had a banner that read "Buffoon" stretched across the background. All accurate to my recollection, but tweaked a little from true.
"Would you like a hint?" he asks as I examine the cards.
"Is that fair?" I ask.
"Not really, but this will get very dull very quickly otherwise."
The card at my feet is the Hermit, and he, like the others, is different. He has no lantern, and his stick is topped with a burning Hand of Glory, each finger turning into a black candle with a yellow and white flicker of fire at its tip. Not the first, I suddenly remember, the childhood memory of the yellow tent in the desert becoming more distinct as I focus on it, and not the last. The fortune teller in the tent, laying the cards on the table. I had drawn the Hermit, drawn the Hermit, but it couldn't go where it was supposed to. There was something critical about it that kept it from settling. What was it? Where did the Old Man fit in the mosaic?
"You want me to order them," I realize. And, as if they have been waiting for me to announce my intent, the cards leap off the floor and start racing around like refugees from an old hand-drawn animated short. They stand in a line-up as I touch them, shuffling and bumping into one as if they aren't quite sure of how close they should stand.
The fortune teller—though, such an appellation is just as false as the shape being worn now: an androgynous figure in a red rubber bodysuit, with heavy pincers on the hands and an ornate crown of barnacles and polyps—shakes its towering head when I finish.
"Why not?" I ask. "Isn't order a matter of interpretation?"
He clacks his pincers. "Yes, but that isn't the correct order."
"It's the order that I recall." Though, a few still escape me. I wasn't going to admit it to him. Let him figure it out if he was filled with such insight.
"But you are a flawed engine. Your order is, by default, incorrect."
"What is the correct order then? Or is that one of the things you can't tell me."
"Oh no. I can tell you the correct order: I would like an arrangement that please me."
"How?" My hands twitch, an echo of gutting chickens. "You've been telling me that these are images from my life, even if I don't remember them properly. If I'm supposed to put them in an order that pleases you aesthetically, then their content is irrelevant. My recollection—true or false—is irrelevant. What's the point of having them be tied to my identity at all?"
Clack-clack. "None. Most likely. Or, is it possible that my 'arbitrary' order may illuminate a more structured explanation of your life?" Clack.
"But not more true."
His pincers stop. "I didn't say that."
"No, you didn't," I say.
I watch the change come over the fortune teller, red lobster nature slipping like rain off glass. The skin becomes bark, the legs gnarled roots, and the arms transform into leafy branches. Tiny buds bloom in a crown of twigs and thick vines. Eyes and a mouth are shadows and cracks in the brown bark.
"I'm supposed to see some organization, some meaning, in your transformations too, aren't I?" I ask. "These costume changes aren't random."
The arms move, and the voice is the sound of the wind in the leaves. "Random is a word used by those afflicted with subjectivity. Random is an interpretation bereft of insight."
"But your pleasure is subjective. I'm supposed to put the cards in an order that pleases you, but that response is an emotional one. It's a personalized reaction, one built out of your memory associations and has nothing to do with me, or the cards. However, if there is a non-subjective response that I am to elicit from you, than it is one that is independent of your identity, of your imprint on both me and the cards. In which case, the order is based on something quantifiable, like matching the color wheel or a sequential order. The images on the cards and what they represent: that becomes meaningless." I wave my hand at the cards and they dash around the room, throwing themselves into a prismatic order. "See? Totally arbitrary. Completely meaningless."
"How so?" the leaves ask. "That conclusion implies there is a pre-conceived 'meaning' that is not being met."
"No," I argue. "It just doesn't make sense. Look, the Hanged Man comes before the Chariot, the Tower is before the High Priestess. That isn't the order in which they happened."
"You assume the order I seek is chronological."
That stops me.
Our memories aren't chronological. Not in the way they are stored. They are a series of impressions that aggregate into a record, and how they manage to become part of our long-term storage is more of an issue with the ease by which they are subsumed into our existing organization. If, for example, your childhood home was surrounded by fields of hyacinth, then when you presented with a choice, later in life, between a blue shirt and a red shirt, you will chose the blue one because your brain is more predisposed to neural cliques that contain "blue." You remember what is easy to remember; the brain is, while incredibly complex, still a simple machine. It makes the decision of least resistance.
It is the filter of our personalities that create "chronology." In an effort to understand cause and effect—in an effort to learn, really—we order objects (events, playing cards, small ponies, the like) in a serial manner that matches our understanding of the rules. What are the rules? They form, ultimately, the basis for a number of the experiential criteria that we use to dissect a sensory experience, which creates somewhat of a feedback loop. We invent chronology by the very nature of how we record perception.
Time, however, is purely a human construct, and the Western definition is even stricter in its adherence to linear motion.
"If I remember the events portrayed on these cards," I muse, "If I was 'there' when they happened, then my ability to organize them is suspect. My record is flawed because I have imposed a structure on them—let's call it a "chronological" order. That's why my perceptions are skewed."
A shiver runs through the branches of the tree, and its leaves turn yellow and melt. The crown of vines cracks, and long peacock feathers erupt. The fortune teller, now wearing a yellow cloak with a high collar of bird feathers, adjusts his glasses with the painted-on eyes. Behind their brown and red rims, I get a glimpse of the dark hollows of his empty eye sockets.
Taking that transformation as a "yes," I continue with my train of thought. "Your order is arbitrary because it is nonsensical to me. More so, your very criteria are subjectively arbitrary, because 'pleasure' is defined in a unique way for every person. I would have to inhabit your personality if I wanted to know the order you see as correct. But, if I am you, then I am not me, and while I could order them, when I return to myself, I won't understand what I have done. Our double-you persona has arranged them, but they will have no more meaning to me than this random group they are in now. Because I am still going to have my chronological blindness."
"Then, the order is impossible to discern?"
I shrug, and flick the edge of the Emperor's card. "I suppose I could try every variation. How many million choices is that? Somewhere in there is the right combination, but it would take me . . ."
He purses his lips. "Very well. Let us extrapolate then. Let us permute a few possibilities." When I nod, he continues. "If pleasure is a subjective response, then the specificity of the response is irrelevant. Any emotional reaction can be substituted and the order—the question you are attempting to answer—would still be equally as arbitrary. But, still equally as valid."
"Yes, I suppose that could follow."
"Therefore, since any response is permitted, both 'all' or 'none' are also possible. To be thorough in our arbitrariness."
"As you have discovered, asking you to generate any manner of emotional response from me by correctly ordering the cards is impossible because you do not know the permutation of the cards that will elicit that response."
"That is correct."
"Would you agree that the act of arranging cards is equally arbitrary? I could ask you to sculpt statues of zoo animals, or create puddles of colored water, or spin bolts of patterned silk. What is to be done—arranged, ordered, fabricated, or created—is as mutable as my reaction."
"That's a bit of a jump but—"
"Too general? Let us ask a specific question then: why are you still seeking your her father's forgiveness approval?"
I try to speak, but there is nothing in my mouth. He has stolen my tongue with his rhetoric.
The cards burst with laughter.
When I stop running, I am in the closet again, tangled in wire coat hangers. The long storeroom isn't as empty as it was previously (as I remember it; but all memory is suspect now, isn't it?). There are other coats here now.
There is something pale and fleshy snagged through the top by the coat hanger's hook. My old skin, perhaps, looking quite threadbare after all these years. (The drugs have taken their toll.) There is the doctor's coat I wore at the hospital when I told Nora's father the bad news, and the professor's frayed jacket. The stained robe of the bird priest hangs next to a yellow jumpsuit. The unmarked garment bag protects the tuxedo, the black one not yet worn. Still crisp. Still new, like a proleptic dream. The cheap skeleton costume (missing the Halloween mask), slashed across the wrist where the butterfly knife cut through the thin fabric. I shudder involuntarily as I pass over the silver coveralls and gas mask. (Which one had I been? The one who pushed or was pushed?)
And others, garments and costumes I didn't remember wearing: a clown's oversized pants stained with pie filling and dried whipping cream, a skin suit of jewel-toned scales, a pilot's uniform, a priest's cassock, a baker's apron and starched hat, the sky blue shirt and black pants of a transit authority officer's uniform, uniforms belonging to a chess team, a little boy's shirt (still smelling of mint) and pants (still stained with grass), a coat of leaves, an old wool skirt and faded sweater with a book-shaped brooch pinned on it.
In the corner, hanging askew on a wooden hanger, is an old suit. A red tie is folded in the breast pocket and a porkpie hat is nearby on the rack. It's a very worn suit, and it fits me perfectly. There's a slip of paper in the right-hand coat pocket, but it is so worn that I can't read what it says. I keep it anyway. Behind this coat rack is a full-length mirror, covered in dust. I wipe part of it clean with my sleeve, and adjust the tie. When I raise my head, the image keeps his head angled so I can't see his face.
(But you knew that would happen, didn't you? All along, you've been watching more carefully than I.)
The pale-haired coat check attendant shuffles his cards, and he looks up as I close the closet door behind me. "Nice suit," he says. "I used to own one like that." He flexes the deck and makes them dance between his fingers. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
I shrug. He cuts the deck and shows me the top card. The Ace of Swords. "Lose your tongue?" I nod, and he slips the card back into the deck. "Guess you're fucked then, aren't you?"
He shows me another card. The Tower, split by an ax of white light. "Need a tongue to speak the word."
Which word is that?
He pushes up his right sleeve and shows me his forearm. On it is a baroque tattoo of a naked hermaphrodite. He makes a fist, and s/he wiggles a rather generous pendulum in a suggestively hypnotic fashion. "Sorry," he says, seeing my expression. "Other arm." On his left arm, a single word: Buffoon.
I cut his deck and chose a card. It is the Magician. "Ah," is all he says for having been found out.
No more tricks. Not from you or the House.
He points at the door with his left hand, and the word crawls on his arm. "Go then. If you can open the door."
There is no door where he points, though I know it was the place where I entered the house. The wall is blank. Tabula rasa.
"Indeed," he says. "Just like the Universe before He came. A blank slate, waiting to be written on."
Just like I am supposed to be. But I'm not.
"Then you aren't ready."
I never will be.
He moves the Magician aside, and turns over another card. The six of wands. "Will you take my place then?" he asks. "Or do you want to go back to the maze and find some dead-end there to fill with your purposeless vitriol?"
I stop him from turning over the next card. On his forearm, the hermaphrodite nods, a finger against his/her lips.
Don't. Don't let him
He tries to extricate his arm, and his laughter dies as he finds my grip resilient. "Let go of me," he says. When I don't comply, he tries to reach for the deck. I knock his hand away, and his fingers scatter the deck across the counter. The top card bounces, lifting slightly as something bulges from its face. I pull him forward and down so that his right arm lies across the card. Don't. I take a step back, pulling his arm in a direction it doesn't normally go.
"I won't give you the answer you seek. I can't." He licks his lips nervously as I pick up the Magician card and hold it between my thumb and index finger. I'm not asking you. I give him a paper cut, across the forearm, and the shriek I hear doesn't come from his mouth. I let go of his arm, and he steps back from the counter, clamping a hand across the oozing line of blood. "You bastard."
I look at the card. The top edge is red with the hermaphrodite's blood. Maybe, I concede. That may be true. From an objective viewpoint. But that's not the way I remember it. Not the way I remember it at all.
"You're wrong. Everything you think you know is wrong. Everything you believe is wrong. Everything is not as it seems."
I know. I'm the one who dreamed it all, remember? Not you. I turn the Magician over, and over again, and it becomes the Ace of Swords. Sharp enough now to cut his strings.
His mouth and eyes still work, and they gasp and watch me as I bend over his fallen body. (Like another head, in another dream. Like all heads, bereft of bodily intent.) He tries to bite my hand when I reach into his mouth for his tongue, but I wedge my knuckles in the joint of his jaw and he can't close his mouth enough to do me any harm. It would be harder to cut out his tongue if he had any blood in him, but it's all in the hermaphrodite's ink.
His tongue resists me for a moment, fighting back against my will, but after I nip at it with my teeth, its resistance disappears. "I'm sorry," I say to the tattoo, trying out my new tongue. "I'll stop the bleeding," I offer. "If you tell me the word."
S/he glares at me, but acquiesces. I find the Ace of Cups and pour it over the pale man's arm, and the smear of spilt ink washes away. (All of it washes away, leaving the pages empty.) One of his/her legs is unfinished now, but still lined enough to suggest a supple curve. His/her mouth moves, shaping a pair of syllables.
(It is time now. A revolution is upon us. Open the door. Start anew.)
I speak the word, and it splits my new tongue. I have become the Path. I have given everything, and taken everything in return. I am no more, and yet I am still to be. And so it ends.
The door opens. Outside, the Red Wood is gone, and there are no Broken-Jawed penitents waiting for me. There is . . . a train platform.
I walk to the threshold and look out. The station is old and deserted, and the sky is overcast. The rain . . . is a curtain of beaded silver across the train tracks, a shivering veil hiding the rest of the world . . .