In the narrow bathroom, the mirrored front of the medicine cabinet is warped, a fun house distortion that makes the light dance. My reflection seems to just be smearing the blood around as I use a hand towel (purple, like the curtains) to wipe my face.
I can't wipe away the taste so easily—that mnemonic tartness on my tongue, that sugary dreamdrip down my throat, that lingering floral scent haunting my nasal passages. And with it, that horrible—that feral—knowledge of institutional terror. Buried so deep, its taint bleeds up through the subconscious layers— fading a little more with each level, but never fully vanishing.
When I twist the handle, the tap gurgles for a few seconds. The pipes rattle beneath the thin floor of the mobile home, knocking and banging as if something other than water is rising. I turn the tap off before whatever it is can find its way up.
It's already found a way.
My reflection grins and mouths the words again. It's already . . .
"I know." My throat is raw, as if I have been screaming. Not as if I have been drinking blood. So scalding, burning my lips burning the inside of my cheeks, burning—no, that was someone else, that was—burning . . . my reflection, wreathed in ribbons, laughing . . .
The hand towel, covering my fist, is barely enough to protect my knuckles as I hit the mirror. He splinters, one becoming two becoming three becoming . . . (trinity unto infinity). Glittering faces, like facets on a gem, jeer at me. (They are just echoes. They are just inferences and possibilities . . .)
It wasn't supposed to have been done like this. I had wanted to be more . . . gentle. I hadn't intended for him to take the knife from me. I just wanted to talk, to tell him why . . .
Instead, his blood is everywhere. Inside me too. I know his secrets, what history he hides. (Yes, this is the right path.)
I had gone into the Deepdark, that subconscious ocean of the Oneiroi where memory becomes everything. At that depth, the oneironaut's ego is loosened, more easily subsumed under layers of identity and personality. Everything is a wash of sensation: reflections, permutations, projections. It is like a family reunion where everyone talks at the same time, yet you can still hear every conversation perfectly. As you float up from the dark, some of the voices become insistent, as identities start to assert themselves. Up, up, up, until only one voice remains and you wake up, knowing who you are.
Here, in the bathroom of the trailer, on this sub-layer of the fabric, I am split between two personalities. Having taken his blood, I am filled with his paranoia--so noisy, so effusive in its panic. (Shh, Phil. I understand your fear. I know why it is there.) Beneath the blood-slick fear are the keys I have come for. Images hidden for so long—forgotten, but never purged (we never forget, do we?): the white room and the steaming black stones; the man in the chair, the broken-jawed ones lapping at the red lines across his wrists; the pair in their yellow robes, the trinity of triangles on their breast; and beyond the swollen walls of the asylum, beyond the ghost gate of the wing that was never finished, is the path into the Red Wood.
There is only one path . . .
In the mirror, my reflection puts a jagged finger to jagged lips. Seeker, he whispers, have you found the way?
"I have always known the way," I mutter. Delays notwithstanding. The circle bends back on itself. A curve is still a line, and a circle is still a path. Even though the end is no different from the beginning.
A clock hangs on the wall. A smiling cartoon character points at the time, his arms slowly rotating in their sockets throughout the day. Now, they are twisted behind him, and his frozen expression is filled with an air of unhinged mirth—nearly midnight!—as if his hyper-flexibility isn't enough, as if some secret will be revealed when his arms are pointed straight up.
The medicine cabinet is locked, but the lock is strange and bent enough that I know my key will fit it. I slide the metal tongue into the slot, burying the shaft deep in the tumbled confusion of the lock. It is an old fit, marred with rust, and the key becomes more reluctant the further I push it in. Finally, it clicks, and key and lock become married to one another. (Do you know of any reason why these two should not be wed? Do you know any secrets as yet unrevealed?) I barely have to twist the key to open the lock.
The mirror warps into a prismatic confusion, the jagged cracks becoming lines of rainbow light. The single bulb in the bathroom goes out, dying with a muffled cough of expiring wire. In the sudden gloom, the tiny shards of the mirror tumble into the frame like sparks falling down a well.
There are still jagged bits of glass in the base of the frame, and I have to climb precariously on the sink in order to clamber through the broken window. There's a wind coming from the other side, a teasing mistral that wants to assist me across the threshold. (Take my hand.) There is nothing on the other side, just empty space lit by falling sparks, and I stumble. At the last instant, I reach back into the bathroom for the key. It doesn't want to come out, and for a second, my grip on the key is the only thing keeping me in the bathroom (the glass, cutting my wrist), but it bends—or the lock sneers like a drunken mouth, I cannot tell—and I fall through the window.
I fall into the Metaxu, the contextual shadow of the Oneiroi, and when I land on an invisible plane, I find mirrors. Rows of them, hanging in perfect lines as if someone has removed the walls of the gallery, as if the building, the block, and the city around them have become invisible. The frames are hand-tooled copper, and they gleam with a ruddy light, a reflection of the sparks falling from the bathroom mirror. (Is it broken yet? Has it started to fall?) The glass in each frame is black, filled with ink and shadow.
Eyes like mirrors . . .
The Deepdark taught me (a great deal, oh so much that has been recalled!) some of the distinctions about the layers of the Oneiroi. The Metaxu is the indeterminate layer of shadow and inference lying between the fabric of the dream and the pressurized saturation of the Deepdark. Not so far down that the collective noise mires me, but deep enough that I can slip off my identity.
(I am not myself, which makes it easier to edit the shell I am pretending to be. I am not myself, but I am still the one who has been editing me. Ironic, that: I am both the snake and the garden. Does that make Nora and the Ribbon Man my Adam and Eve? The original dyad, waiting to be seduced out of innocence, to be led from pristine perfection to the mutable fantasy of the Oneiroi.)
Static scratches the surface of a nearby mirror, a rush of compressed signal my brain records as a stroboscopic smear of lines. But, beneath my consciousness, there are the scurrying code-breakers of my ego-less mind, and these neurological signal-processors unpack the furious density of the white noise transmission. Before a mirror on the other side of the aisle has time to respond to the burst signal from the first glass (before I know one will respond), my unconscious brain has deciphered the flash of light.
One of the early experiments with charting mental activity discovered that the brain lights up with the intent to move before the conscious mind decides to act. It is a catch-22 that disturbs the free will advocates, but the conundrum, if one were to seriously consider the chemical activity that must underlie "human thought," suggests that consciousness—identity, ego, personality, Self—overlays a chemical process. Before "I" have a thought, a shift in potassium and sodium levels must occur, neurons must generate enough of a charge to transmit data between themselves. What instructs this chemical shift to take place?
I know, without knowing how or why I know, that the second mirror on my left is the one that is going to reply. Next in the series will be the fifth one of the right, then the closest one on my left. Next . . .
Is this sequential array of patterns forming something akin to a word, to a thought? I don't know. As I try to remember the sequence—these phantasmal flickers of heat lightning—it escapes me. None of my unconscious code breakers are responding to a query from the slow-witted conscious mind.
It is very easy to think yourself into immobility in the Metaxu. Consciousness is, by its very nature, a reflective and laborious process. It doesn't think well on the fly. At least, not at the speed of neurological transmissions. Down here, "thought" is an aggregate of signals, a culmination of a series of data points. You can't think about the pieces of thought or about the process.
(Which mirror? I can't choose. There are too many.) As the mirrors flicker again, I charge up the aisle between the hanging frames. (No, there is only one.) I have not yet decided to act—I'm still wondering if this is a good idea—as I leap through the glass of a left-hand mirror. (The one you chose is the only real reflection. The only real path.)
"Is there another way?"
She shivers, like rain on a mirror, though it is warm in the field of endless wheat. The sun is directly above us, and there are no shadows. Not even beneath the scarecrow. "A path does not exist until it is realized," she says. "It is like thought. Like intent."
"What of the price?"
"What of it? Who has lost little in this venture? Who has lost more than those who have lost a loved one? Is this price so—"
"I am going to kill a man, Nora."
"I know. I gave him the knife."
"No, stop with your temporal tricks. I have not done it yet. I can still figure out a different way."
"There is only one path to the House, and there is only one man who knows how to use the key." She flickers, and opens her arms. But I can't hold her; she is still too much of a ghost. "There is only way to catch him."
Yes, drive him through the haze of the Oneiroi, through every layer, until he falls into the snare. Until he realizes his dream, like her embrace, is empty. What will be left?
"No," I correct her, even as a vague echo tells me I am missing something in her word. "Nothing. There is nothing left. Not for him, not for me. Not for—"
She waits for me to say it. One last word. One tiny pronoun. You. Nothing left for you.
"I'm sorry, Nora. I'm sorry that I'm afraid."
"We all are. That's why—" She vanishes abruptly, popping like a soap bubble.
That's why you have to kill him.
The scarecrow stares down at me, his fibrous rootheart dangling from his torn belly. In his left hand, held in the center of the open flower, is the coil of red thread.
I remember the physician in the ruined hotel, and how he pulled at his thread after I had injected him with TH3ir serum. His mortal wound had been a liberation. I had set him free.
Was I about to do the same for Phil? Or was it just going to be murder?
In the center of the pale room lit by white light, there is a bench. Paintings fill the walls, high-resolution snapshots of alternately surreal and photo-realistic scenes. Attending to each picture is a bleached ghost. Some of them are staring intently at their pictures, seeking patterns in the smears of oil and the damp stains of the watercolors; others are studiously ignoring the picture in front of them; a few are more interested in the picture to their left or right, straining to interpret details in the neighbor's picture. No one sits on the bench; no one wants to sit. Most have a three-digit alphanumeric sequence—numbers ascending, letters running A through E—floating about their head.
The occupants of the interstitial gallery who aren't enumerated all wear the same insignia on their uniforms: on the women, the tiny wings are pinned to their scarves; on the men, the symbol is stitched into the fabric of their shirts. The one woman who is not wearing a scarf is staring intently at her painting, a detailed pencil sketch of an instrument panel. Her hands are frozen around something that isn't there, but which she still refuses to let go.
He glides in through a door that isn't there a moment before he arrives, and it vanishes the instant he completes his passage across its threshold. No one notices him, even though he is naked but for text smeared across his naked skin. A gossamer hint of colorful ribbons trails in his wake, barely a phantasmal glimmer of bent light. His palms and soles are wet, and he leaves damp footprints on the white floor. He wanders from person to person, staring at their faces, trying to interrupt their examinations or ruminations.
One (labeled as 16E) finally blinks as the Wanderer breaks his line of sight. He shivers like a man suddenly stepping out of a warm bath onto cold tile. His hand shakes as he points to the painting behind the Wanderer.
It is a large oil painting of a face, though one could barely recognize it as such with the tangled confusion of strokes and the riotous morass of color. There is an eye, maybe a nose, hair like fire, skin like bruised meat, and the ugly discord of a broken jaw.
The shivering man's teeth chatter and he opens his mouth to noisily exhale a cloud of steam. As the fog passes, the Wanderer sees there is nothing but a torn stump squirming between the arc of his teeth.
A nearby woman (32F) touches the Wanderer's arm, a phantom kiss of ice, and directs his attention to her painting. It is a black canvas, split in half with a gash of yellow paint. Protruding from the spray of frozen light is a disembodied head, frozen with a wordless scream. Red streaks float from the chin, like a chemical stain spreading through the veins of a leaf.
It is the face of the tongueless man, 16E.
Beyond these two, the Wanderer sees the one who is still asleep. His face is creased as if it has been handled by the sun and wind for many years. His clothes are translucent at the elbows and collars, and his left shoe is split along an outside seam. Hair and beard have been tangled together for so long they have become like vines imbedded in an old wall. His painting, which he is oblivious to, is the radiant splendor of an open door.
The Wanderer touches this face (so like and unlike the angry visage in 16E's painting), and the worn man wakes with a start. Who am I? His voice is the rough sound of gravel spilling across a wooden floor, and its tumbling cascade breaks the others free of their temporal prisons. They all start talking—crying, shrieking, shouting, babbling, babbling (oh this cacophony, this echo of stones falling)—at once.
The light behind the white walls begins to fade, and the voices escalate—What's happening? Are we dead? Has the plane crashed? Has God come for us? Where did all of this blood come from? Why are we falling?—as if such noise could bring back the light.
In the corner of the room, like the darkening of shadows at nightfall, black stones begin to steam.
The painting of the open door is fading as well. The portal, closing.
The Wanderer leaps, and his outstretched hand crosses the plane of the picture frame. His fingers break through the cracked parchment like a stone shattering the glass in a window pane . . .
Signal flash. Kinetoscope shutter. Prismatic splinter. White noise burst.
Who am I?
My quarry darts between mirrors, a long-limbed blur. He leaves blood and tears on the glass, watery stains that distort the flicker of light beneath the surface. I leave curlicues and sans-serif lines in my wake, like an illuminated manuscript shedding its letters.
Where are you?
One of the mirrors sputters with a satellite signal. A live transmission from a wedding. The bride is in black, the groom is covered with squirming text. She draws a simple sigil—three lines, two circles—on his chest.
Drive him on. Through every dream. Even the ones that cause pain because you can't remember why they are so familiar.
Kaleidoscopic fracture, lines losing themselves. The wheel of color spins, like fire in the darkness.
He can hear them muttering, their voices low and garbled through the door. Someone laughs, a guttural noise like a hyena with a persistent cough.
He looks behind him, spooked by a phrase he thinks he has imagined. Be sure, just be sure. The hallway is empty, as it should be. The doors are all locked. The guards never come up here at night.
Besides, no one can see him on this layer anyway.
Still . . . a whisper of something . . . was it an echo? . . .
The laughter collapses into a sobbing wail, before it is muffled by a hand. Or a pillow.
Beyond the door is the wing's common area. They shouldn't be in there; it is past curfew. They should all be inside their tiny cells, behind locked doors. But, they're not. The second floor common room—like the cells, like the halls, like the communal showers—is identical to all the other larger rooms. The architect used a stencil with limited shapes when drawing the plans. Was all creation like this: the repetition of shapes from a limited palette of options? The common area—like the room directly below it on the first floor, like the one on the third floor, and the one near the central stairway—is shaped like the letter . . . A.
He looks over his shoulder again, pressing his back against the wall. He is alone in the hall. There are no shadows. Just spots where . . . the light fades, as if it is too tired to fully illuminate an empty hallway. There is nothing there. Nothing watching him. The remote eyes are blind on this layer. Their cyclopean gaze is frozen, staring unseeingly straight ahead. They can't record the place where he has slipped.
Not an A, he thinks. The room is not a letter. This wing—and its ordered rows of narrow cells—is not a sentence. He is not a speck of punctuation, afloat in this paragraph.
The animals in the front room whine, an unruly symphony of keening voices. They moan with a wordless glee, a pre-linguistic fervor that makes his heart hammer in his chest. One of them barks, a glottal cough that might be the birth of a word, that might be an echo of the First Word, and he flees, unable to bear the idea of the rest of that primal utterance . . .
The floor is a sticky mass of pulp, and the rectangular spines jut up from the morass like the stubby stalks of dead flowers. The shelves are damp, dripping with slime. The chair has slid across the room, and its back is pressed against a bookcase. The cushion is ripped, a bloodless wound that is white and mottled with rot.
The monster's shell is bloated and soft, soaked too long in the black water of the Deepdark. Its tentacles are swollen, like meat rotted by the sun, and the angular articulation of its jointed legs is a geometry of alien angles.
She has decayed too, and the Interloper tears at her water-logged corpse like it is over-ripe fruit. He snuffles and sobs as he digs under the canopy of her ribs for her soft organs.
He hears the sucking sound of the Wanderer's feet, and he grabs for the bulbous shape of her stomach. But there is no time—the Wanderer is coming too quickly, too soon—and the Interloper must abandon his search. He dives into the muck of the library, vanishing through the right-angle collision of an inference and an implication—it is enough to suggest a frame, enough to offer a way out.
The Wanderer crouches beside the body, and gently picks up the swollen sack of the stomach. He squeezes it, and it ruptures like a flower opening. Inside are several pages, still dry. Still covered with text. He eats them slowly, even though he is famished, and his stomach grows angrily at being forced to wait. He eats them slowly for they are all that is left of her. All that is left of her memory . . .
In another library, where the books have all faded into blank slates, he finds footprints in the dust. In another hallway, he finds handprints in the soot on the walls. Through another threshold, into a courtyard where a fountain no longer flows, where stones no longer lie side by side, he follows the faded trail.
Was it a fire that devoured this place? Or is the patina of ash on the walls and floors and doorways simply the unavoidable decay that follows abandonment? All things, when left behind, turn dismal and grey. All things fade . . .
A wire snaps in the darkness, and its ringing echo is flat with disuse. Eventually, chasing echoes of echoes, he finds its source, and when he touches the wooden frame of the piano, another string snaps.
Will this world die when the last string breaks? In the silence that follows, what will remind this world of its existence? When all breath is gone, when all has been said (or sung, or plucked, or bled), what creation remains but to extinguish oneself?
Beneath the ruined piano, the king and queen are still touching. He is white bone to her black ash—married still, though it was a union never completed. Never consummated.
How can we escape the dualities?
The outline of her ash is disturbed, pawed through by rough hands. Her stomach has been spread out on the floor, scattered into a charcoal pattern of broken feathers. The book beneath his left hand is blank, the pages streaked with fungoid veins. The words have been eaten by mold, language co-opted by the natural world as simple nutrients.
There is blood on the sill of the broken window. Still bright. Still wet.
He pauses on the ledge, as if he has heard something behind him. Some echo from the past that has not quite fled this empty castle. Was it the sound of the piano string come back full circle? Or the crack of a stone breaking in the courtyard, answering the faint cry of the piano? Or the echo of dust, so recently stirred, settling?
Turn . . .
The walls are growing lighter, lit by a glow that has no source. Black stones, round nodules like the dead eyes of animals, begin to sweat.
He steps through the broken window, even though there is nothing beyond but a steep drop . . .
The trees are iron bars thrust into a hard ground. They have no leaves, and their branches are stiff and pointed like javelins. This wood is an aggressive formation, more like a barrier than a grove, more like a shield than a field.
The ground beneath him is as unyielding as the stance of the trees. Their trunks are invasive markers, trophies of hard-won progress. And yet, the ground still resists them, still resists their efforts to pierce its surface. Each tree is hard as iron to keep from being crushed by the ground.
They are red—dark red, like the blood that had flowed from the long cut in the dreamer's throat.
It is crisp, like a clear winter morning, and the thin air lends a cheap, metallic timbre to sound. In the distance, a chorus of undulating throat noises, rising from mouths without tongues. Wordless.
Turn . . .
This is a trap, he realizes, a dead-end snare where the Broken-Jawed Ones prowl. He is off the path, lost in the uninterrupted wasteland of the Red Wood. They have already smelled him, are already rushing toward him, and he will not be able to find his way before they find him.
Why did the other lead him here? Was it simply to snare him in the Wood? Did the other believe he could only travel in one direction in this directionless realm?
You don't remember . . .
He sees them now, their shadows flickering between the blood-red trunks of the trees.
You are facing the wrong way . . .
. . . right-angle movement, split the mirror . . . sparks, falling, as the horizon flees . . . father blinks, just once . . . falling through the white room (the passengers still waiting for the captain to tell them they have crashed) . . . ghosts yawn, and split into ink-stained quills, scribbling, scribbling . . . tumbling through the death chamber (she waits for the machines to tell her it is over, to tell her she is free to wake) . . . the hard stop of stones, pain is the only reminder the body can manage . . . stumbling through a garden of faceless statues, becoming lost in the maze of forked paths . . . fingers bleeding against the razor edge of black leaves . . . off the path, wandering in the wilderness . . . (who made the knife? who hid it away so that it could be found again?) . . . staggering into the world memory of the needle and the ribbon . . .
A green truck, with an armor-plated back and a wide gash of a mouth, idles at the curb. A logo of yellow and orange triangles is painted on its hood and sides, and the silver-eyed attendants with gas-mask probosci wear the same logo on the right breast of their coveralls.
It takes both collectors to carry each black sack from the alleyway, not because the bags are heavy but because they squirm and twitch as they are carried out to the truck. The truck coughs once as each sack is thrown in, as the spinning blades of the shredder bite and tear at the still-animate contents of the black bags.
One of the collectors points at a tiny moth fluttering near the mouth of the alley. His companion smashes his hands together around the white speck and, hooting through the narrow speaker of the mask, he shows the black smear of ash on his palms.
Behind them—on the side of the alley that is the back of the pancake house, where the trash bags contain scraps of food, coffee grounds, egg cartons, and dirty paper napkins—a figure shivers in the blank doorway to the kitchen. The graffiti-covered wall beside him is streaked with the cascade trail of his vomit.
His stomach cramps again, and he lurches forward, slipping off the narrow step. His body heaves, and a flood of black water comes out of his mouth. It is thick and noisome—like ink, like the turgid water of the Deepdark. He coughs and gags, moaning with something akin to fear and revulsion as the black fluid pools around his supine form. He wants to flee its hot touch against his bare skin, but his muscles are too cramped to respond.
The collectors approach, drawn by his quivering form and the sizzling hiss of the black foam on the pavement. One of them toes his shoulder with a rubber-coated foot. The other collector hoots and chirps, sounds both avian and lupine, pointing at the creeping edge of the fluid. The first collector shakes his head, responding with a similar collage of noises.
The homeless man can't decide if he is dreaming or dying. He tries to roll over, and only manages to choke on the next wave of fluid coming up from his stomach. His body whips back and forth, blackness spewing from his mouth.
The cautious collector dances back, pulling at his companion's arm. The vomit steams as it strikes some of the plastic sacks on the other side of the alley. The plastic melts, tearing and splitting, and a pale shape spills out of the sack. The figure has an odd number of limbs and a mouth with no teeth or tongue. It mewls like a tiny kitten as one of its stubby legs sprawls in the pool of spume. A rudimentary nervous system struggles to transmit a message all the way through the tortured biomass into the simple brain. Eventually, as the black foam eats the leg away, the body responds, convulsing and crawling in an attempt to scrape the biting blackness off.
The bum pukes again, his bile burning through more sacks. More senseless worms unfold, their limbs twitching and retreating from the spatter in the alley.
The collectors flee back to their truck. Panting in his silver mask, one of the two looks at the diametric collision in the alley—the eruption of pale flesh overwhelming the spume of dark water while being simultaneously consumed by it—and sees it will not stop. There are too many bodies in the sacks, even as the twisted man appears to be an endless artesian of black foam. The collector looks, and sees that the alley is a rift, a breach that will keep widening.
He doesn't realize his companion is staring at his chest, at the black stain that is devouring the protective shell of his coveralls. He grunts as he is pushed, his legs fetching up against the lower lip of the truck's mouth. He flails his arms, struggling to grab something, but the other one is standing just out of reach. He doesn't understand, not until he loses his balance and falls backward. It is only then that he sees the stain on his chest, on his hands, and on his legs.
The bite of the blades lasts only an instant, just a brief flash of sharp pain in his right shoulder, and then he passes through the threshold of the truck's mouth.
The other collector stares at his hands. Not as if he cannot believe what he has just done, but as if he has never seen these hands before. As if he has never realized who he is. And then, without a hint of hesitation, he dives toward the spinning mouth of the truck. His outstretched hand crosses the plane of the blades. Something breaks . . .
Only echoes of echoes. That's all we are. Below the fantasy, above the subsumed. That's all there is. Life is a series of photographs, held in line by electrical impulses. Twenty-four frames a second, each second, for a lifetime.
What are the black?
Flicker my film. I drop one frame every second. Twenty-three now. Yes, in that fractional emptiness, I can see . . . what can I see? What is it?
It is not enough to know the way, not enough to have to key. I must know how to pass through the final threshold. I must understand what lies beyond the hollow gate. Nothing. Nothing left.
Twenty-four frames, with one missing. I must understand who I am in that instant of emptiness. I must understand why I have chosen this identity.
I slow the film down, and time the opening. It is always the second to last frame. Always. There. There. There. I leap through.
Philip Kendrick is supine on the bed. While the pillow beneath his head is stained red, the comforter has become a bower of (bury me in) yellow flowers. (I have found the way.) Beside him, gently stroking his face with crooked fingers, is my quarry. He is naked, streaked with soot and blood, and his beard and hair are wild. Through the tangle of hair, I can still see the scars along his jaw.
His cheeks are permanently marked from the flow of tears. He tries to speak, but the bones beneath the scars won't move. His tongue clicks against his teeth in a stuttering code.
"I needed to trap you." It was the only way to get you to stop leaping through the mirrors of the subtext.
Click. Click-click-click. Click-click.
I show him the key. "I need you to show me the path to the House. I have to find the last gate."
"Because you aren't the only one. You are—" Echoes of echoes. "—were—just chasing an instinct. There will be others after you. All of them, maybe. They'll all come back. There is a new Opener of Ways coming, and he is going to force the gates open."
He nods, understanding. I thought he would. He wrote the Survival Guide. Of all of us, he knew—maybe only instinctively—the danger of the Oneiroi, of trafficking in the dream.
He strokes Phil's hair one last time, and gently kisses the other man on the cheek. He slides off the bed, and takes the key from my hand. He doesn't look back at the body as he leaves the trailer.
I do, and I see the heavy ring Jerry put on his right hand: platinum and silver, with a weeping half-moon setting. Obsidian drips across his ring finger, leaving the stone clean and white.
Phil's eyes are open now, watching me, and his mouth twists into a faint smile. Do you understand what is worth saving? What is worth sacrificing?
I bow gently, recognizing the miracle of his resurrection.
I forgive you. I still love you.
I stumble out of the trailer, unable to look at him any more.
Outside the mobile home, Jerry strips the peacock feather from the key. He licks the tip, giving it a rakish curl, and spins the feather between his palms. The blue-black eye twirls, looking in every direction at once. The Oneiroi ripples, the center reorienting itself on this point, on this single eye. He releases the feather, and it hangs itself in space—still spinning, still an anchor pinning the fabric
He reaches for the horizon, stretching his arm across the sea of yellow wheat, and grabs the sharp demarcation of the forest, that white edge of bleached trees. He pulls—the muscles in his forearm, shoulder, and back bunching with the strain of imposing his will across such a distance—and the wheat parts, allowing the forest to be pulled close.
He stabs the pointed tongue of the key into the heart of the nearest trunk. The tree whips back from him, reacting in a very living way from the sudden intrusion of the key. Its bunch of branches trembles, clenches, and then—in an explosive exhalation—every leaf catapults from the tree. The naked branches begin to weep crimson sap, bloody tears bubbling and oozing from the points previously sealed by the leaves.
The sap is anathema to the other trees. As the first one bleeds out, the touch of its bloody sap causes a chain reaction in the surrounding trees. In an increasingly complex distribution, the nearby trees are infected with the same bloody exsanguination. The forest quickly becomes filled with shriveled red-stained trucks.
First and last. There are no more doors. There is only the path now. Jerry shows me where it starts: right there, just beyond the shadow of the key-wounded tree. His hand, clutching my shoulder, feels like a familiar bony grip, and he smells, ever so faintly, like my mother's herb garden. Just a touch of mint—do you remember why?
"He's waiting for you." I say the words, but it is Jerry's lips that move.
I step onto the path, and don't look back. This is the curse of the curve, the never-ending arc of the circle. You can't go back; you can only go forward. Eventually—after an eternity, after death and resurrection—the resolution becomes a revolution.
But first, you must go forward, along the only path there is. On and on, all the way to the ruins of babbleon.