I bring the rain with me, a silver curtain dogging my heels as I step into the dream. The water adds color to the dilapidated train station: green and rust to the struts of the vault over the tracks, red and blue to the blocky engine, silver and brown to the tile of the platform. Flyers and posters tacked to an aged board sag as they get wet; the letters of the advertisements and messages become dark and legible from a distance, frozen for a moment of textual clarity before they begin to run.
He is standing on the platform, a two-dimensional paper cutout. His hat is askew and his coat is too big for him. A frozen image, he has not yet fallen this far; he is still floating in the Aserinsky Region. He'll be here soon. I fix his hat, and on the piece of paper I have brought with me from the coat closet of the House, I write a note. His paper shape shudders once, a ripple of pages turning, and begins to fill out. Lines of tiny text scribbling and scrawling down his frame, each line giving him depth and width. As soon as the pocket of his coat opens, I slip the scrap of paper in.
The text is dark and wet on him, and he gasps. Color comes to his skin, his coat, his hat, his suitcase; and he wakes up, but I've already become a ghost again. The train comes alive too as I touch it, squawking its manic musical melody over a dusty intercom, and the sound wakes up the rest of the dream. Setting everything in motion.
We don't hear the First Word. That sound—boom boom—is the sound of creation. What he hears is the sound of his heart beating, of his breath echoing in his ears, of his blood rushing through his body. He hears himself first, and doesn't realize it is already an echo. We are echoes of echoes, Harry. I have so many roles to play.
He finds me in the lounge car, sitting with the seals. I know he doesn't understand why they are here, that he can't decide if they are a clue or a diversion, but as I am not sure either, I leave them. They may belong to someone else's subconscious, the Oneiroi has become slippery since I have gone deep and far into the other layers. He sits down, pushes his hat back on his head. When I don't say anything, his face contracts, lines across his forehead. "Just across the river," he says slowly, as if unsure of his lines. "Is that where the city is?"
Not at night. I shake my head. I must not be going there, then. I deviate from the script. "There will be delays."
His confusion is plain on his face, though he does not know its source. He does not know himself, and cut off as he is from his own soul, he has no true connection to the Oneiroi; he cannot feel it change beneath us.
"What . . . what sort of delays?" he asks. He swallows heavily and looks at the seals, as if for some assurance that this improvisation is allowed.
"The House is empty," I say. "It has no Master. But you still must go there."
"Did you bring food?" I ask, and this sudden return to the script is like a burst of oxygen to his lungs. His face clears, and he breathes more easily.
"Yes," he says. "I brought a picnic." He puts his suitcase on the table and opens it. Blue birds fly out. "No," he moans. "No no no no no nonononnonono—" He bats at them, and their wings cut his hands, streaking his fingers with scarlet.
I open a window before he can stain them all. One bird gets away, still pristine, still blue. The rest flutter and bang against the walls and other closed windows. Their feathers are heavy with blood, and the weight unbalances them. Soon, they are all dead.
I grab his tie and pull him close. "Look," I say, my word cutting through his worldless moan. "Look." I point out the window, at the mountain we can see from the train. Its top is flat, and something bright flashes upon this plateau. "Knight to c3," I whisper in his ear. "There is but one way."
He jerks back, but not very far, as I still have a tight grip on his tie. He opens his mouth to speak, to scream, to babble wordless, and a butterfly, caught by the draft of the train, is sucked into the car. It is an orange and black monarch, nearly frozen from the descent, and I grab it with a motion outside of thought. I put it on his tongue and carefully close his mouth.
"Shhh," I say, leaving one finger on his lips. "Wait for it to dissolve. You will need it later." Rainbow glint on sharp blade. The scarlet line.
The necessary sacrifices. The path made clear by those choices voluntarily made.
Why did you think we wouldn't be strong enough?
The train falls apart as it enters the station. Its furnace cracks, the last belch of steam in its boilers escapes with a sigh, and its front wheels slip off the rails. It grinds against the concrete edge of the platform, and even the sparks thrown up by the contact are dull.
He isn't on the train. Unable to sustain himself long in the dream, he left me some time ago, and I am the sole passenger, the only one left, when the train dies in the station. I don't mind the solitude of the trip; I spend the time plucking the feathers off the dead birds, and when the doors of the carriage rattle open, I step off wearing my new cloak of scarlet-stained feathers.
I stop at the phone kiosk. The clue on the side is too geometric, too much an influence of the Tower, and I scratch it out, replacing it with the sigil of thunder, the sign of the first echo. Boom boom, goes my heart. I am alive. I am all I am.
I lift the plastic receiver and listen to the looping sound of her voice. How long has she been repeating this sermon? Over and over again until we listen, until we get it right. Time enough for one last kiss, one last instant of free will. Time enough. "Hello, Nora," I say, inserting a glitch in the loop.
"Hello," she says, her voice riding in the spaces between the numbers. "I didn't think you would ever answer." say answer
"There have been delays," I say. Echoes of echoes.
"I warned you." No protection, no illusions, no turning away at the last second . . .
"I didn't believe you. I'm sorry."
"He's waiting for you."
"Yes, I know. I told him I was coming."
We listen to her transmission for a little while. Put it in, you moan, yes, put it in now. I want it. I want it so badly.
"You shouldn't be here," she says, interrupting the radio signal sermon. "You might—"
"I already have," I say. "I met him on the train. I changed his path." I swallow heavily, forcing down a lump in my throat. Do you take this Black Queen . . .
"You can't," she says, and her voice is tight with dread and finality. "You can't change the path."
"Revolution," I whisper. "I am eating my own tail." Serpentine circulation. Round and round. Echoes of— All we have left is shadows of shadows.
"What should I tell him then?" she asks. "If he calls me."
"He will, and tell him the same thing you told me. That shouldn't change. He needs to be set adrift. The transformation must be started." I want you to show it to me. Yes, show me. "You are still the catalyst. I need you to tell him." I allow myself this one moment, this one instant of fear. Will she? Everything depends upon her, in the end. Everything hangs on what she wants, what she needs. What she is willing to give me.
"Boom boom—" she whispers.
"—goes my heart," I whisper back, and I know she can hear my heart explode in my chest.
When I hang up, I see the expression of her intent, of her desire. Caught in the rotary dial of the phone is a gold ring. Caught in the zero hole. It fits my ring finger, and I can't tell if my hand shrinks or the ring grows bigger, but it doesn't really matter. The ring fits, and so we are married: the ghost and his psychopharmaceutical bride.
The circle will not break.
"That exit is closed," the cab driver says. "I can't get off the freeway there."
I know the exit is closed. I know I can't get to the House on that road, but I pester him anyway. I'll leave an impression in his memory now; he'll remember the other route. "Fine," I tell him. "It doesn't matter."
His hands, covered in yellow gloves, grip the steering wheel tightly. His tongue slips out of his mouth. "I don't know the way," he admits. "I don't know where you want to go."
"Just drive," I say. "I'll tell you when we've arrived. Besides, it is the manner of our journey that is important."
"All roads lead to Rome," he says. "Is that it?" He spins the wheel, and the cab pulls away from the train station. "Whether you are a liberator or a slave is determined by which road you take."
I look out at the unreal city, and the fog of unformed desire. The buildings are shells, their windows blank and empty. The streetlights have no bulbs, and the trees have no leaves. Nothing has decayed as nothing has been finished. Not yet. How much do we leave unfinished because we fear to start, because we fear the weight of the path that must be taken? How much?
The Last Hour is upon us, and it is waning now.
"This cab," I ask the driver, "have you always driven it?"
He is quick to answer. "Always."
"And before you?"
"My father. And his father."
"Your fathers. They are echoes, aren't they? If you've always driven this cab—if that is your sole purpose in my dream—then who are your fathers? If I wind this road back, will they say the same thing? Does your father dream of his son following his same path?" Do you, Father? Do you know this dream?
"Of course," he says. "That is the way of the wheel."
"In your dreams, are you still a cab driver?"
He laughs. "We don't dream."
"We're symbols. We don't exist when you aren't here." He gestures out the window at the shadow city. "None of this exists when you are awake."
"But I am awake. He is awake. He has left the dream and he doesn't come back for a little while."
He looks at me in the rearview mirror and shrugs. "I don't know who 'he' is."
"My doppelganger. He'll need a ride."
I smile. That's how it begins. "He won't know. He'll ask you for a recommendation."
"What should I tell him?"
"Anything you like. Make something up." I point out the billboard. "Tell him about the zoo."
He leans against his window and stares at the billboard as we pass it. "That's new," he says. There are seals on the board, a pair of happy snow seals. Pure and white.
"Everything is new," I say. "When the wheel turns."
He shivers, tugging his coat more closely about him. "Do you mind if I turn on the heat?" he asks.
"No." I am warm in my cloak of bloody feathers. As he fumbles with the climate controls on the dashboard, I pluck one feather from my shoulder and breathe on it. The color changes, blue to black, and the feather twitches in my grip. I drop it on the floor, where it will fester awhile before it becomes a real bird. He'll need currency—coin of the realm—to make the phone call. This world won't be as open to him. So many secret chambers.
The heater churns and hisses, filling the cab with a memory of summer. Flowers in bloom. Skin warmed by the sun. Her mouth, turned toward the sky, lips parted. When the vents exhale air warmed by the car's engine, I hear her sigh. It isn't a question of what is worth saving, but what is worth creating.
He is awake. He isn't dreaming. We don't exist. And yet, I sit in the back of a cab, thinking about her. Doesn't that make us real?
"Turn on the radio," I ask the cab driver. Is she out there?
He does, and all that comes out of the speakers is static. He turns the dial, turns and turns and turns, but he finds nothing but the sound of an empty dream.
The old prophet is waiting for me outside the old hotel. It will be torn down soon, as the zoo expands through this decrepit neighborhood. The parking garage will be at the other end of the block, and the decorative iron gate of the entrance will stand in place of the hotel's entrance. I can see all of this growth as a silver overlay, the future architecture already starting to bleed through. I can see the shape of the statue that will replace the old man once his bones have turned to dust.
"That's a strange looking garbage truck," the cab driver says, staring at the green truck parked near the alley that runs behind the hotel.
"It's a harvester," I tell him, recognizing the orange and yellow logo on its side. "They're collecting raw materials."
"Materials? For what?"
"A pharmaceutical company. One that makes vitamin supplements."
"Out of what?"
"It's all organic," I tell him. Isn't it all, Father? Isn't everything, in the end?
I lean forward and touch his neck. He jerks away from my finger, his skin blistering into mosaic of scales. "You won't find this place again," I instruct him. "We have drifted off the map you know."
When I get out of the cab, it turns into smoke and water, draining away into the storm grate. Draining back to the dreaming ocean beneath me. Back into the everything of nothing.
The old prophet stares at the street, his blind peacock eyes seeing nothing. His blue robe is stained with tears like little cloudbursts across a clear sky. He clutches a single card in his bony right hand. When I take the card from him, he moans gently, and white moths stream from his mouth like air bubbles escaping from a deep sea diver.
The card is the Hermit. Neither first nor last. The cycle continues, and there is no beginning and no end. Just rotations and revolutions. Over and over. I hold the card up, and like the hotel and the street, I can see the silver overlay of what the card will become. I see the cliff and the sky; I see the lamp and the sun, and how one becomes the other.
Two of the prophet's daughters, stoic in their masks, stand beside the cracked doors. They raise their gloved arms and become white trees, their branches entwining into an arch. Past and future, commingling in the now. This is the path: outside of Time, flushed with ignorance and awareness of all the symbols and portents of history. This is the make believe of the Oneiroi. Does it all stop when you wake up?
I climb the steps and pass beneath the raised arms of the white oak ladies. I pass across the threshold (neither hotel nor zoo nor house nor hospital room) and enter the Tower.
The steps: do they go up or down? Which way do I go? Is there a choice for me here? There are stairs, so many stairs. Do I climb or descend?
I count the steps. Each one is a step further. Each one is closer to infinity. It doesn't matter which way I go, does it? Either direction loops back on itself. When I reach the end, I'll be here again.
So why do I go down, then? Down. Down. Down. All the way down.
"Hello, brother." He moves in the dark, and I hear the rattle of his chains.
"Hello," I reply. He is as blind as the old fortune teller, as my doppelganger is to what is happening to him. Sight, like memory, is so easily disturbed by the chemicals. So easily disturbed by the aberrance of history. So easily . . .
"Have you come to free me?" he asks, his desperation evident in the dry wind of his words.
"No," I admit. "I do not have your key."
His chains rattle again as he drags himself across the room. I can feel the chill of the metal as he looms over me. "Then why have you come?"
"Father has called us home."
He hisses. "Father speaks to no one. You cannot hear him. I am the only one who can understand him."
"And when was the last time he spoke to you?" I ask, and the way the darkness swallows his silence is answer enough. "You slew Father," I tell him. "Just as surely as you slew your brothers. Just as surely as you slew all those who you loved. Just as you abandoned everyone, He abandoned you."
"No." The angels shakes his chains. "No, I freed them. I freed them from the tyranny of their geometry. I rescued them from the prison of their duality. I broke the world so they could escape."
"Escape from what?"
"I gave them this world. I taught them how to dream."
"Dreams aren't real. You and I: we aren't real."
He sobs. "What of the pain?" he asks. "I made it go away."
I think of Nora, of her father's final farewell and her mother's quiet insanity; I think of Phil and Jerry and a bed of yellow flowers; I think of my mother and what she swallowed, how it killed her slowly; I think of my father and the choice he made. "No," I tell the angel. "The pain didn't go away."
He continues to sob, the chains shaking with his body. "Why doesn't he call me home? Why doesn't he love me any more?"
He doesn't love any of us, I want to whisper to the angel. He doesn't love you. He doesn't love me. The angel won't understand, but I want to tell him anyway. He doesn't remember how to love. But I don't say anything. There is pain enough. I hold up the card that I have brought with me—the card once carried by the old fortune teller, the card turned over by an innocent hand so long ago. I hold up the Hermit, and echo of echoes, I hold up his lantern.
Even though he is blind, the angel of chains feels the heat of the lantern's light and he recoils. His veil is torn and frayed, and his robe is pale with dust. The inlayed crosses of light are dull, and they reflect none of the lantern's light. He is lame again, and he stumbles awkwardly away. Bound to him by the chains, held tight against his twisted frame, is his book. His version of the Word and the World.
Beyond him, silver shining in the lantern's gleam, are a pair of great doors, ornate hinges bound into the fabric. They are not locked; there is no need, for the doors are insubstantial in the deepdark darkness of the bottomless pit.
"Goodbye, Abaddon." I hold my hand in front of the lantern, shielding his face from the flame. "Goodbye, Frater." It is his title, and not my relation to him. I tell myself this lie as I walk past him. He is not my family, and the sound of his despair does not wound me. It does not touch me. It does not make me gasp for breath; it does not make the lamp seem so heavy. Goodbye, brother. Son of light. Son of shadow. Goodbye.
The doors open at my touch, and I cross over. One last time.
What do you think lies beyond this door? Do you realize that your guess is as good as mine? Your intent has driven me here just as readily as mine. This journey does not exist without you. This book that I write in is not mine and it is filled with words that are not mine, but here, in the Oneiroi, all the language lines up according to my whim. According to the manner in which you read it. Your route is just as plain as mine. There are clues and diversions, but there is only one path. There is only destination. There is only one door.
Just as there is only one key. She gave it to me. When she died, I opened her chest—right there in the hospital room—and took it. I had to break a rib to get it free, but she forgave me. Her mother never did, but then, she didn't understand. None of them did. None of them understood the necessity of sacrifice. None of them wanted to know why we made the choices we made.
Here, in the wet darkness, in the salty brine of our sorrow, we hide. We hope the regret dissolves, if we can just soak it long enough. The ink will run. The pages will become blank. And we can write new stories on the palimpsest skin of our sadness. Here. Right below my fourth rib—the one I broke in her chest—start a new one. Don't worry. I know the pen is sharp. The bleeding will stop. Start a new one.
What lies beyond the door? Write it down. Tell me what you see. Tell me what happens. Write it on my flesh. Cover me so that I may become someone else. Write me anew, so that I may forget this eternal ache.
Imagine a garden made from steel and ceramic and glass. Imagine trees, fat and squat, whose branches are a twisted coursework of plastic tubing. Imagine shrubs as round-bellied alembics filled with shivering and bubbling solutions. Imagine flowers that fold their broad leaves over their centrifugal centers; they must spin spin spin before they can bloom. Imagine the vines that cover everything, and how their tiny buds seem frozen, as if caught under glass. Imagine the white-coated gardeners who dare not breathe the fecund air of this garden, who dare not let the pollen of any of these plants fall upon their skin. Imagine the rich fertility of the first garden and how poisonous that environment must have been if the closest approximation science can achieve is classified as a Level 4 Biohazard lab.
He is sitting at a table in the center of this science garden, watching chemical permutations unfold on wide monitor placed beneath the glass tabletop. The visualization patterns are flowers, unfolding. Petal after petal after petal. Twenty . . . twenty-one . . . twenty-two . . . His bio-suit is old and torn, patched with different colors of tape. Like ribbons. His padded fingers trace the curve, following the geometry. "Just one more," he says as I sit down. "Just one more petal." The Ribbon Man smiles at me, a feral bloody grin. "Did you find it?"
I nod. "I'm very close."
"Did you write it down?" he asks.
I put the black notebook on the table. "It's all here. Everything I learned."
He stares at the book, his tongue tickling the edge of his lip. The ambient glow from his suit makes his face pale, translucent. So unreal. "What is left to do?" he asks. His right hand twitches, padded fingers drumming against the clear tabletop. The pattern of flower petals is reflected off his palm.
I don't want to tell him. I don't want to say why I haven't written down the last step. He won't believe me. He will think it is one last trick, one last diversion, because that is all he knows. He doesn't remember any other way. He won't believe me.
"There is nothing to be done or undone. You have done enough." False Father.
He flinches at the echo in the dream and refuses to look at me. "It had to be done," he says.
"No," I tell him. "You wanted it done. You wanted this."
He looks at me now, and his eyes are hot and fierce behind his plastic mask. "So did you. You wanted . . . closure. You wanted to know why—" He stumbles on the next word, and it comes out with three letters instead of two. "—she—" He stops, panting, staring at me.
WWhhyy shhee lleefftt. It is so hard to say which voice is the echo of the other. It is so hard to tell if they are converging or diverging, these voices, here where the wheel is turned. They are so close now, so close to being one.
Just like him and me, so close to being one. We have come so far, so far from that first encounter on the train. The book is nearly finished. Just one page left. Here, at the back. Let me show you.
Its geometry is perfect: the two circles of the handle, the tall triangle of the vessel, the single point of the needle. I have drawn it well, and even on the page, it is more real than the page. I can touch it. I can slip my fingers into the grip and rest my thumb against the smooth top of the plunger. I can drive the needle through the glass tabletop—through the mirror that reflects without reflecting—and pierce the computer screen beneath. I can draw out the pixelated fury of the flower computation. All of it, leaving the computer screen black and empty. I can fill the syringe with the calculated derivative of blackleaf.
It isn't the real thing. It can never be. The 23rd expression cannot be synthesized. It must be experienced. It must be changed within you, by you. With you. The 23rd expression is you.
"Write it down," I tell him as I pull the needle out of the table. I hold out my other hand, the one with the ring, and show him my empty palm. "Write down what I have just said." There is one page left.
There are twelve dualities. You have heard this theory, haven't you? It's all there, written on the other pages of the book—hidden in the margins, scrawled in every direction across the flesh of the page, notes and footnotes fighting for your attention—it's all there. We are defined by the twelve qualities, our identities nothing more than positions between these extremes. Whether we are winged torchbearers or broken souleaters: these are the definitions which make up who we are. They are the twelve houses through which we must pass on our journey of understanding, of self-knowledge. The sun across the sky, the ring around our finger: the cycle continues for eternity. Twelve upon twelve upon twelve upon . . .
There is a thirteenth. Yes, you do know this final mystery, don't you? You know what that shadow duality is. You know why it must be hidden. You know why we fear the possibility of its existence. But it is there, and deep within our dreams, we can face it. We can look upon the thirteenth duality and find our place upon its sliding scale. We can find our place.
The light from the syringe reflects off the Ribbon Man's faceplate. I can't see his face. He holds my hand down, and the movement of his pen is a distant pricking against my skin. He is writing quickly, trying to fill the space before it vanishes. Trying to write it all down before the memory fades.
I jab myself in the neck with the syringe, and without hesitation—this is, after all, why I have come here, why I have gone so far into the dream—I push the plunger all the way down. The pixelated solution fills me, this scientific approximation of nature's creative energy, this best guess of man's imagination. "Yes," I whisper. "Yes, yes, yes." On another layer, I can feel myself coming apart, blooming into a flower that has never been seen before, petals and lines exploding from my wrists and neck.
His grip is strong on my hand. He can feel me trying to pull away. "Tell me," he hisses. "Tell me what it is."
The lines on my hand resolve themselves into the loops of a flower. Twenty-three petals. The last petal, the final loop that closes the circle passes through the wedding ring on my finger.
"I think you need my love," I say.
"No." He lets go of me. "I don't need that. I don't want that. I want answers."
"There are none."
"No, that is unacceptable. There are always answers. There are no mysteries that we cannot unravel. We must know."
"There is nothing to be revealed," I say, even though I am filled with secrets. "There is nothing I can tell you."
With a strangled cry, he pushes away from the table. He turns his frustration to the nearby laboratory equipment, shattering beakers and alembics, knocking microscopes and hot plates and water baths off the counter. "No," he shouts. "You cannot deny me this. Not after what I have sacrificed." He has a shard of glass in his gloved hand, a curved piece that is hurting him as much as he wants to hurt me.
Holding the syringe carefully, I pull out the plunger so that the vessel is filled with the mystery that I have become. Taking the needle out of my neck, I offer the syringe to him. "Here," I say. "Take it, then."
He takes my offering. Greedily. Reverently. He doesn't bother trying to fit his fingers through the circles of the handle; he jabs himself in the chest—right through this suit, right through his ribcage, right into his heart—and pushes the plunger down with his padded palm. He takes it all in. He stands there, his blank face looking down at syringe in his chest, waiting for enlightenment. Waiting for something.
What do you suppose happens? I would write it down, but there is no room left in my book. The last page has been filled.
How long will he wait? I don't know. How long would any of us wait? Is eternity nothing more than that infinite pause where we live and die while waiting for the resolution of desire? Is this not why we dream, to lessen the wait? To convince ourselves that if we wait long enough, if we are patient enough, our hearts will be filled.
I gave him what he wanted. Do you suppose his heart is any more full?
I close my hand, hiding my secret. This is who I am. The riddle of these words, the labyrinth of these whorls and lines. I have invented all of this, and in that invention, I have created myself. A revolution, then, becomes a resolution. The beginning is born from the end. This, on my palm, is the map of the path, the key to this dream.
When you wake, it will be gone. The pages will be blank. But I will still be here, waiting for you. You will remember that much, at least. You will know how it starts: "My name is . . ."