by Cairo Smith
I prefer the dead, after Edith. That’s how all this began. The rich dead are best, too, and not for any merit of their own. They leave so much junk behind, memoirs and sarcophagi and gaudy gardens to gawk at. It’s the poor who go with grace, disappearing back into the ether like music on a warm night. Music is my third love, after the dead, and Edith.
I work for the seventh largest consulting firm in the world, although we claim to be the fifth. My office overlooks a regional airfield which has been trying for years to become a block of luxury condominiums. From up here, you can see just how far the waffle-iron burn of concrete gridlock has spread. Hopefully, I’ll lose my job from all this. Then I’ll never have to see it.
We deal in healthcare litigation, of certain kinds. It’s not worth putting into words. Estate sales are the best place to snoop on the rich dead, once you get tired of museums and crypts and all the obvious choices. You get a sale brochure, a watery lemonade, and a window into someone else’s burdens laid to rest.
I arrived late to the Prescott sale. Just before five, I’d been told I’d be testifying for the defendant, not the litigants. I threw a new package of reports together, replacing the charts that suggested malfeasance with the ones that implied proper conduct. On the road, traffic ground like gears in my head, and Brian Eno’s The Plateaux of Mirror did nothing to quell my coming migraine.
The sale girl hurried me inside with a pamphlet in my hands. The face of the deceased, Dr. Prescott in this case, smiled up from the cover as usual. He had kind features, and an eccentricity that evoked more sympathy than interest. He looked far older than his years. ‘In loving memory,’ the brochure began, summing up the most banal parts of a life in three matte-finish folds. ‘Prices enclosed,’ it ended.
I walked with Dr. Prescott’s ghost through his estate’s main hall. All the things which gave the house charm, its English sensibility and well-nourished trees, were sadly out of place between cracked pawn shops and scrubland. His legacy was much the same, it seemed, out of date and unwanted on a dozen card tables. Anything of obvious value was hours-gone.
At the farthest end, just as I decided to go and nurse my headache, I caught a glimpse of it—an old book alone on a pedestal. At first glance, I thought it was a bible, perhaps from as far back as the 18th century. Despite its wear, however, the print was modern, and a note at the bottom of the inside cover revealed a copyright by Lionel Prescott in 1996. ‘On the Use of Focused Meditation for the Easing of the Mind and Visitation to Other Worlds,’ the cover read. I leafed through it, noting the mark of a vanity press and a batch number ‘one of two.’ “Where’s your twin?” I asked, skimming a turgid introduction. The slam of tchotchkes in donation bins nudged me to finish my browsing. In a moment of pity, I bought the book, and thanked the staff before turning off Eno and taking the freeway home.
* * *
I live in a three-bedroom unit downtown with two other lost young strangers. The older roommate stays in the loft, soaking in the shouts of online games and increasingly obdurate podcasters. The younger one is a phantom, and at times appears to bake ten chicken breasts before returning to parts unseen. I speak to neither.
I set Prescott’s book on my bedroom desk, beside the bust of Hatshepsut. I found her at the sale of a psychic’s estate, and I’ve been interviewing her for a history I’m writing of her father, Thutmose I. It’s more an opera, to tell the truth, but I’ve learned better than to let people know you’re writing an opera about Thutmose I. Thus far, the bust has been uncooperative.
The first night, I ignored the book. By the second, my migraine had worsened, and it was all I could do to curl up and read Prescott’s notes on the unknown. The first few chapters were all speculation, a sort of New Age nonsense half Aleister Crowley and half Echo Park, which passed across my eyes without meaning. Then it turned to the practical.
“Create a dim, quiet space in which you are alone,” Prescott instructed. “On smooth ground, pour out crushed Mimusops laurifolia leaves in a circle of sixteen-inch radius. The purity of the leaves is key, so find a reliable vendor. Following this, prepare a strong cup of Avenforth Assam Tea. Contrary to recent insinuations, Avenforth is no more psychostimulant than a typical assam, and can be purchased at multiple reliable shops north of Piccadilly Circus. I cannot stress enough that the strain of tea, once selected, cannot be changed or substituted without the most dire consequences.”
Intrigued as I was, my eyes ached, and I slept to shouts and helicopter rotors. That morning, I researched M. laurifolia. It was grown for fruit in Hatshepsut’s time, I learned, but was now so rare as to have no English name. An Ethiopian import shop offered small shrink-wrapped bundles by mail for twenty dollars a piece. The Avenforth Assam was easier still, with two-day shipping and a solid four-point-nine stars. The people in the comments did not seem to be mystics, but were nonetheless quite loyal to the eighty-eight-year-old strain.
Laughing at myself, I ordered both. Monday came, and after a single court date I got news that our firm had won the case. Actually, I think they settled. I can’t recall now. On Wednesday, I threw out the songs I’d written with Hatshepsut, who by then had sternly rebuked the offer to ever be my muse.
The leaves came Thursday in a nondescript box that smelled like roses and soil. I put one pack through my coffee grinder, but switched to mortar and pestle when that batch came out tinged with espresso. “For ease of transit,” Prescott suggested, “additional M. laurifolia rings may be concentrically laid, multiplying the sixteen-inch radius by one-point-eight each time.”
I did my calculations with a painter’s nail and string. With some effort, I put my bed on its side, moving my desk and bookshelf to accommodate the seance’s geometric specificity. Careful method, I justified, was key to a thorough rebuke of whatever it was Prescott promised.
The Avenforth had come on Tuesday. For lack of a kettle I microwaved water, no doubt to Prescott’s ghost’s lament, and brewed two bags for the requisite three minutes. Three rings fit in the cleared bedroom space, with the outermost ring eight feet and seven-point-six-eight inches in diameter. Achieving accuracy to the hundredths was not practical, so I did my best, and chuckled at the thought of hurling into space from a slight ritual misalignment.
At nine, I knelt in the center of the circle and drank the assam tea. “Regarding the clearing of the mind,” Prescott had said, “look it up, for you should already be versed in the subject by now and I won’t waste pages explaining it.” Sufficiently shamed, I dug up a relevant video, and listened along to a soothing male voice which played from my computer. It was easy enough work, doing nothing. The man’s cadence, his microphone hiss, and his tinny nature sounds all pooled in the empty sink basin of my mind as I knelt.
A sense of cool fell over me. My skin tingled, and I questioned Prescott’s instruction to relax after drinking a caffeinated tea. With eyes shut, I could not detect the edges of my room, and I began to imagine myself in a clearing vast and damp. Tiny points like the feet of a beetle seemed to tickle my knee. The sound of nature was steadier now, and stretched across the room with more resonance and depth than before.
I swore that I was sinking into damp, mossy earth. I started to wonder if Prescott had lied, and if the tea had in fact been drugged. Perhaps the hundreds of online reviewers had all been speaking in code. After some time longer, I realized the narration had stopped. Again I felt the beetle tickling my knee, and compulsively I rose to open my eyes and see it.
I stood in a forest.
There was no sign of a bedroom. No dark downtown apartment. The earth was soft beneath my bare feet, where indeed a large beetle was ambling. Evergreens towered around me, fading into faint mist for miles in all directions. The air was cool, and the sky was soaked in a warm tone of early evening light.
“I’m asleep,” I said, astounded. I curled my toes in the dirt, admiring the detail of pebbles and fallen bark. An exhilarating chill cut through my cotton tee and boxers. I’d practiced lucid dreaming before, as a child, but nothing with this clarity and presence. Nothing ever like this.
Without fear, I followed a faint path uphill. There was a house ahead. It sat nestled at the base of an incline, against a stream which turned its water wheel. Like Prescott’s house, it was an English style, a sturdy two-story cottage with shutters and a wood front porch. There were no roads or signs of travel around it.
Lantern light shone in the window. I approached, feeling both inside and outside of the world and my body. I imagined myself a person in a giant pop-up book. On the porch, I passed two rocking chairs, and with a turn of a brass handle I went in.
It didn’t feel rude to enter unannounced. Knocking would have been more absurd, as if recognizing figments of a dream to be people with inner lives and feelings. A fire burned in the hearth. Two sitting chairs rested by a large bay window, looking out on the vast forest beyond. A staircase led up to the upper floor, and past it was a kitchen stocked with meats and bread and herbs. Near the kitchen was a dining table, and at the table was Edith.
She looked up with a start, but no alarm. Papers and pens were piled on the table, and she had the stunned expression of someone who’d just been deep in thought. She was my age then, maybe twenty-six, and wore a plain grey dress with buttons down the front. A dark bob framed her eyes and jaw. “Good evening,” she said to me, a smile in her stiff London affect. “You look rather lost.”
“I am,” I said, struck down by her gaze. “I’m sorry to intrude.”
“American,” she said, and set her pen aside. “Are you a friend of Lionel?”
“No,” I said, considering this. “Dr. Prescott recently passed. I found his work at an estate sale. I do that. Go to sales for the dead. It’s my hobby.” She remained seated, looking me up and down. The mention of Prescott’s demise had caused her a twinge of pain. “It’s a bit cliché,” I added, glancing down at my boxers. “I mean, to show up in a dream without your clothes on.”
“There’s a bathrobe upstairs,” said Edith. As I hurried to retrieve it, she called out again from the first floor. “What’s your name, American?”
“Matthew,” I said, and she told me hers.
When I came back down, she had poured two cups of chamomile. “This isn’t a dream,” she said, pulling a chair for me at the dining table.
“Right,” I said with a wink. “Of course.”
She did not bother to contest me, nor did she ask any questions. I watched her writing page after page, putting down notes in ornate cursive as the evening sun set. I felt a bit stupid for wasting such a dream, but I was content to enjoy the taste of the tea and the detail of her appearance. “I’m pretty good,” I said, with more than a little conceit. “I mean, all this. You. Why can’t I be this creative when I’m writing?”
“You write?” she said.
“Histories,” I said, then decided it was beneath me to lie to a figment of my mind. “An opera, actually. On Thutmose I. But it isn’t going too well.”
She murmured, but kept working. “You know,” I said, perhaps to provoke her, “they say all the people in dreams are drawn from faces you see in real life. So, most likely, you’re not really British at all. Maybe you’re a waitress in Van Nuys, or some online—”
She took my hands with a forcefulness that shook me. “Listen here,” she said. “Since you’ve somehow managed to get this far, you can stay, but please no more of this dream business. It’s dull. And what’s more, if I really were just a part of your mind, how do you think I’d like to hear that when all this is through I’ll just vanish?”
I obliged her. At sundown, she stopped her work, and together we cooked game hens and squash from the basement icebox. The robe she’d lent me smelled like her, a soft pomegranate scent, and more than once a touch of the fragrance put chills down my spine. We drank Craigellachie scotch, which she told me was Prescott’s favorite, and as night set in my head swirled with warmth. Talking to a figment of a dream felt crass, like an indulgent make-believe chat with oneself in the shower. Letting moments crawl in electric silence was better.
By midnight, we were sprawled on the sofa, listening to Prescott’s autographed Count Basie on a crackling victrola. I lay across her chest, cradled, and ran a slow knuckle across the edge of her jaw and cheekbone. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said, and tapped my nose with her finger. “Sit up.”
“What?” I laughed as she rolled me upright like a burlap sack. “What am I thinking?”
I heard her shoes tap across hardwood, then back. “You’re thinking,” she said, “that you’re the most marvelous inventor in the world, and you’ve come up with your own little paradise inside your head, with only a hint and a nudge from an old book to guide you. Shirt off.”
“What?” I said again, and my arms pushed upward as she peeled off my shirt. The robe had long since fallen to the floor. She bent me forward, and a cold point of metal pressed against my back. “What are you doing?”
“I’m leaving you a note,” she said, as I felt the metal tip swoop and pirouette.
After a moment, she pulled me backward, and I fell against her on the couch. Fire light danced on the gabled ceiling as she rested her chin on my neck. Then she giggled, and rose to take a decanter from the mantle. “What’s this?” I asked once more, reduced to a warm and clumsy man who could only ask remedial questions.
“A digestif,” she said, pouring out two half-shots of the cherry red liquid. I watched her stumble to the dining table, gathering up a stack of papers and pens. Removing one strap, she tucked the documents into her dress. “Bags are finicky,” she said, to my complete uncomprehension. “Here. Shirt on. Unless you’d like to lose it.”
She helped me writhe back into my tee, then handed me a shot glass. “Bottoms up, Matthew,” she smiled, and together we drank the syrup. Then, with cherry on her lips, she kissed my cheek and sat me back on the couch. In seconds, my mind grew hazy. I sunk, as if falling miles and miles out of myself, and the house blurred to an orange smear before receding to black.
I woke feeling like I’d been hit with a mallet. I was sprawled on the floor, clammy skin stuck to the linoleum of my bedroom. The M. laurifolia was scattered like a hurricane had thrashed it. It took almost a minute to remember where I was, and a minute more to pry myself from the ground. Upstairs, my roommate’s muffled shouts still rang out.
I found the mug ten feet away, thankfully unbroken against the bathroom threshold. I stumbled to the mirror and turned on the light to find myself flushed, exhausted, and disheveled. I froze, examining the creases where my shirt was half-tucked in my boxers. Then like a madman I tore it off. Craning, I twisted my neck around, pulling the muscles of my eyes to their limit to see the black marks on my back.
In elegant penmanship, plain as day, were the words, “Don’t be a stranger.”
I felt the air escape my lungs, nose, and throat. My head was hot, and the room spun as I threatened to collapse against the porcelain sink. I blustered, breathless, contorting my arm to simulate writing where the message lay. It was difficult, but I could just barely reach. I could just barely tell myself that I’d written it all in trance.
I looked at the dirt beneath my toenails. Then the toilet. In a moment of idiotic shock I knelt down, beating my stomach with my fists until I vomited. There before me, unmistakably, was a dinner of game hens and squash.
My next thoughts went to the time—9:18 pm, by the clock on my bookshelf. I checked my phone to see if it were Thursday, which of course it still was. My body knew, though, that hours and hours were gone. I cleaned myself up, rent delirious in spacetime, and slept off a drunkenness I knew could not be imagined.
The next days were spent in waking dream. I awoke assured that I’d imagined the thing, only to see the note on my back and the unflushed dinner in the bowl. A girl I didn’t know was sitting in the kitchen, and kindly confirmed to my lunatic self that there was indeed writing on my skin. I spent work hours chasing GeoCities ghosts, prying at this-or-that abandoned page which referenced Lionel Prescott. I braced for the shock of Edith’s face, expecting to see her in a scanned Polaroid or a milk carton portrait gallery. Nothing ever appeared. If the answer to the riddle existed online, I was a woeful sleuth, and soon my thoughts were fixated only on returning to the cottage.
* * *
I reached out directly to the orchard which sold the laurifolia. Auto-translators have not yet mastered Amharic, but after some crudely constructed emails I convinced the seller that bulk orders could slip through customs without issue. Whether this was true, I had no idea, but nine days later a huge box arrived in my apartment lobby. I heaved it into the elevator, drawing eyes from the neighbors, and stuffed it all into my bare third of the pantry.
The transit was much harder this time. I poured three perfect rings, all my bedroom could accommodate, and knelt in the center with the playlist running and a hot cup of assam in hand. Perhaps my gleeful anticipation did me in from the start. I knelt for hour after hour, going through all five stages of grief as I wrestled with what would not come. When my knees ached unbearably I fetched a towel, and some time after midnight I slumped down in dejected half-sleep.
I don’t know the moment that it happened. I opened my eyes, only vaguely conscious, to find that the bedroom around me had gone. In pitch black, I shot to my feet. I was dressed this time, boots and all, and grasped for the nearest evergreen to affirm that I was where I thought I was. The air was bitter cold. Shivering, I grabbed my phone, and for some reason the sight of the screen was what shattered my disbelief. I was really, truly in standing in the middle of a forest alone at night. I had no friend, no guidance, and no faint idea of how to get back home. Prescott, in all his questionable wisdom, had neglected to leave instructions on this in his guide book.
Now the fear came like knife blades. I stumbled through the dark, half-running, searching for the path that had led me to the cottage. In that moment, if I could have undone it all and erased the book from my mind, I would have done it in an instant.
A more capable person would have gleaned something from the stars, or some insight from the landscape that could help reach civilization. I was like an infant in the woods. Soon, a swinging lantern found me huddled by a tree stump, listening for a stream I could not find. “American?” said the lantern, and Edith approached in a pea coat from the night. “Matthew, was it? Is that you?”
I resisted falling into her arms. “Hi,” I said, like an acquaintance at a café. My total idiocy when last we’d met twisted painfully in my stomach. “Edith. Hi. Thank you.”
She pulled me into the oversized coat, and we did a four-legged walk together back to the cottage path. “Seems like your spot’s the Rosetta Stone,” she said. “Mine’s just up the hill.”
“Rosetta Stone?” I said.
“Yes,” said Edith. “Didn’t you see it? I suppose you arrived past dusk. Lionel put it there, when he manifested the palisade. Byproduct of a historical interest, I imagine. I doubt he really got the words right.”
“Past dusk?” I said, selecting one of the many confounding things she’d said. “Where I’m from it’s nearly dawn. Where in the world are we? Norway? No.”
I don’t know why Norway came to mind. I don’t know what I meant when I asked where in the ‘world’ we were. Even then, in my relative cosmic infancy, I knew one could not spend a full night in Norway and have only eighteen minutes pass in California.
“You really are lost,” Edith said as we hurried inside the cottage. “With your luck you’d win the Grand National without knowing what a horse is.” She sat me down by the fireplace, handling me with a firm grip that set my skin ablaze. No one had ever paid me such attention.
She poured two cups of Earl Grey and sat on the couch beside me. “Lord knows where this is supposed to be,” she said. “I’ve been four hours into the forest, and that’s plenty far enough for my tastes. I fully believe you start to see the same trees, after a little while. Who knows, you might leave the mill house heading west and come back upon it from the east. I’ve never seen a plane in the sky, and I’ve never seen another soul besides some guests from the order, and yourself.”
“The order?” I asked. “Prescott’s order?”
“None of them come around anymore,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Out of touch, out of fashion. You’re lucky I was here, in fact. I must imagine quite a while goes by without me. Who knows how long it would have taken you to find the return elixir.”
“Elixir,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, “on the mantle. That’s all you’ve really got to know, the elixir and the bit about time. Oh, and the icebox and pantry replenish themselves most nights. It’s all Lionel’s childhood fare, though. No beef tacos or the like.”
“Time,” I said, overlooking her abhorrent pronunciation of ‘tacos.’ “What about the time?”
“Oh,” she said, as if surprised it needed to be mentioned. “Well, it’s slower here. Or, faster. No. Slower. Forty-one times slower, just about.”
“Forty-one times?” I exclaimed. “And, the days and nights, they go by—”
“As usual,” said Edith. “Though it always seems to be a hazy late autumn.”
I fell back on pretending to believe what I could not accept. Undeniable now, however, was the simple fact that the woman before me was real. “I should apologize,” I blurted, putting up a distancing hand. “I was a total clown last time we met.”
“You were adorable,” said Edith, and dismissed my further protestations.
When I warmed up, I poked through Prescott’s closet, picking out slippers that very nearly fit. Edith laughed when I asked if she’d been Prescott’s lover, and told me she’d never even been a favored acquaintance. She was on the fringes of his mystic order, which she’d joined as a third year at Cambridge, and had taken to visiting the palisade only after it had fallen out of vogue with the rest of the collective.
“Not very smart to leave a manual behind,” I said over haddock and spinach. “Isn’t this supposed to be some sort of private sanctum? Anyone could have picked that book up off the sale shelf.”
“Well, I doubt Lionel very much planned to die,” said Edith. “Few do. What’s more, how many people from wherever-you’re-from would really have gone through all the steps to complete the transit? Not to mention the tea, and the mental state required. There’s a reason the order is so small, as it is.”
“How many of you are there?” I asked.
“Oh, a few dozen, I imagine,” said Edith, who had opened a bottle of white wine to welcome me to the palisade. “I’ll have you know I brought this bottle from home,” she added, “so this is the last we’ll have until one of us goes back for more.”
After dinner, I learned she was working on a play, which she admitted was slightly more marketable than my opera. When pressed on her career, however, she demurred, and met any further questions about her life with a veil of lighthearted obfuscation.
My second midnight passed five hours after the first. I spent it warm and deliriously drunk, though far less forward now I knew that Edith was not fiction. “Come on,” she said, tugging at my slippered foot when I collapsed on the sofa. I pretended not to know where she was leading. “It freezes down here when the fire goes out. There’s room enough for two in the master.”
I brushed with my finger and a bit of her toothpaste, staring at the mirror with the giddy feeling of rocking on a sailboat. The master bedroom was plush and snug, bathed in a warm glow from a flickering lamp. Edith had pulled out a pair of pajamas, and I turned away to fumble down to the gym shorts beneath my slacks.
She took the far side of the bed, clearly hers, and without much fuss closed her eyes and turned away. I blew out the lamp, then slipped beside her. You could have told me the whole bed was spinning on a turntable. After a bit, the feeling subsided, and all that was left was the warm space between our two bodies in the dark.
There was no room in my mind for sleep. I lay there, thinking through my shattered preconceptions, until after some time I heard her sharp exhale. “Can you sleep?” she said to the opposite wall in the dark.
“No,” I said, my throat tight when I heard her speak. “Can you?”
“No,” said Edith. “It’s cold.”
It was not particularly cold. My chest pounded into my temples as I waited on her words, then found my own. “What do you want me to do about it?” I asked.
“Anything,” she said.
I traversed the space between us an inch at a time. Carefully, I found the edges of her nightshirt, then moved in until my hands and body were against her. Now it was her heartbeat that filled my ears, heavy as mine but never quite in time. Slowly, I acquainted myself with the form of my host, and despite our warmth we both discovered we were more sleepless than ever.
“Is there anyone who wouldn’t like this?” she asked, when at last she clambered onto me.
I pulled the words from a burning swirl and forced them into meaning. “My boss,” I said when my mouth was free, “when he sees how dead tired I’ll be tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” she spoke into my neck, pressing her nails in my wrist. “How long is that?”
“Well, I leave around, eight-thirty,” I panted. “I got here a bit after midnight. So, eight hours. Maybe seven and a half.”
“Times forty-one,” said Edith, in a way no one had ever asked for a multiplicative product before.
I’d already done the math. “Three-hundred twenty-eight hours,” I said, working through the last of her shirt buttons. “Two weeks, almost.”
“Two weeks,” said Edith. “Let’s not waste it.”
* * *
I woke late that morning with total, blithe ease. It seemed then that the whole of my human condition, kept so long in an airtight box, was now breathing in the full splendor of life as it should rightfully be. I washed up, met Edith downstairs, and insisted on baking us both soufflés while she jotted down notes for her play. It’s one of my few reliable tricks, and I knew she’d be glad to try something new made from Prescott’s limited materials. “Can’t you add things yourself?” I asked. “Vanilla extract? A washing machine? Like he did with the Rosetta Stone. What was it, ‘manifest?’”
“Oh, no,” said Edith. “It’s all set by now. Nothing’s changed in the palisade for decades.”
As curious as I was to test the limits of the realm, she seemed equally content to let the edges of her expertise lie. “Is that Orion’s Belt?” I asked at nightfall, prodding like a child. The sight of a full, untarnished cosmos was itself a miracle. “We could get a star book. There’s an app for it, too, but I don’t think it would work here. Hey, have you ever recorded it? The transit, I mean. Ever turned on voice memos as you came here? Pointed a camera at yourself?”
For every line of inquiry, Edith had a disarming reply. “Can’t you take it for what it is?” she would say, holding me in the hammock or attic or stream. “The palisade accepts you just as you are, Matthew. You can’t play along if you don’t accept it, too.”
Try as we did, the old world had a way of creeping in. On long evenings, with all else expended, our talk would turn to friends and mothers we could not set aside. Hers was ill, she admitted once, with a tone much the same as I’d had before mine passed. There was no salve for such things here. There was respite, however, and time which overflowed like water cascading down stone. That was my favorite part of it, then—the time which never ended.
After some time, I awoke in her bed with an inexplicable wince. Fifteen days were gone, I soon realized, and I was past due to return to the dream state of cars and commutes and data. That realm loomed above me still, ticking like a clock that bled eighty-eight seconds of life from my veins per hour. It could not be ignored.
“It’ll be harder next time,” Edith warned, soaking in each remaining touch as if I were her favorite holiday. “I don’t know how many rings you use, but you’ll only ever need more.”
“And you?” I said. “Will you stay here, then, a while?”
“Oh, no,” said Edith. “No. Certainly not. But I’ll be back for a moment on Friday, just past noon. That’s the 12th. Greenwich time.”
“Write that for me, would you?” I asked, and lent her my arm. She put the details down in pen, along with a heart and flourished signature. “And, in the other world…” I began, but trailed off when nothing else came. “See you Friday.”
“Friday,” said Edith. There was no kiss. She poured a cherry shot from the decanter, which had refilled itself sometime prior, and handed it to me in the threshold of the palisade. It was a funny enough way to leave a house, collapsing through the ground in a blackened amber smear. I awoke in daylight, sprawled on the floor with a skull that felt like it had been slammed in a doorway. The pen marks on my arm remained, as did my river-washed clothes and unkempt hair. My alarm was blaring, overdue, and outside a roommate’s bitter knock bade me to turn it off.
“Sorry,” I mumbled to prevent an intrusion, my lips and teeth numbed from the elixir. Unfit to drive, I took the metro in, and arrived at the office just past eleven in total disrepair. I’m glad my muscles knew the way, for my ritual-battered brain most certainly did not.
“Matt,” said our receptionist, visibly startled at the sight of me. I passed him without words. At my manager’s office, I barged in, and pressed on my temples in dull agony while I waited for his call to end.
“I need six days off,” I said when I could not wait any longer. He put his phone down. “This next Friday, plus the whole week after. Don’t ask why. I know the case is almost done, and I know the interns are more than able to finish up my section. They already do the work for the other teams. You can say no, but I need this, and I promise I’d just be dead weight here as-is.”
“Fine,” said my manager, with irritated anticlimax. I’d never felt as unessential as I did in that moment. This world, in all its billions of people, had no use for another small piece like me. I was beyond replaceable. I was nothing. Liberated in this, I settled at my desk, planning and plotting my next escape to the continent I’d discovered.
Playing cards. Swiss Army Knife. Solar charger. Journal. Polaroid camera. Film. Pens. Marijuana. Rolling papers. Lighter. Flashlight (torch to her). Mexican spices. Cocoa powder. Toothpaste. Underwear. Socks. Shirts. Shoes. A comically large thrifted coat with pockets as deep as pillowcases. A rechargeable massager. A postcard from Hollywood and Highland. A pocket projector and a cell phone loaded with old films. On the night of the 12th, I stood in my room like an overstuffed scarecrow and poured out three rings of laurifolia. Three had worked the first time, I reasoned, and had worked again the second. Besides, I did not have space for more.
I gave myself half an hour to make the transit. At 3:30 in the morning, 11:30 am her time, I knelt my bleary-eyed self in the center of the circle and shut my eyes. I’d added a bottle of aspirin to my coat, and at the last moment thrown my guitar on top of it all. To be honest, sleep itself would have come as a precious relief. No relief came, though, and neither did astral transit. Anxious, I measured each ring again, flipping through Prescott’s book once more in case I’d missed a step.
Our meeting time came and passed with dread. The later it grew, the more desperate I became, feeling hours bleed away each panicked eighty-eight seconds. Just after five, I burst from my room like a man possessed. Rings. It was the answer I’d avoided until I no longer could. I needed to build more rings. I grabbed my master’s degree, unframed on my desk, and scooped the scattered laurifolia back into the bag. Then I took my Camry keys and tore off into the night.
5:32 am. No dawn yet. Nearly three days late. I tore down Pico toward the basement lot beneath my office. No one ever went to the bottom floor, and it was more than wide enough to accommodate however many rings I would need. I screamed at the metal gate when I found it locked. Turning around, almost flailing, I looked out across dead-quiet concrete to the place where the sidewalk ended. Past it, completely secluded in the industrial night, was the shuttered shape of the condemned airport.
I heaved myself over the fence with no regard for safety. I think I left my car running. Cutting through the grass, I crossed broken tarmac, and arrived at the old terminal to see its glass busted out. I could not read the graffiti marks or see the spray cans that I stepped past as I entered. If Edith was gone, I asked, would we ever cross paths? I could leave a note, but would she find it? Perhaps the house would swallow it up with the nightly reset. The time it spends idle between our visits must be unfathomably long.
By phone light and twine, I poured seven rings on the faded terminal carpet. The last was a staggering ninety-one feet in diameter. I refused to admit the sun was rising, and shut my eyes as I planted myself and my guitar dead-center. My thermos had kept the last of my Avenforth tea warm enough. As practiced, I measured my breath, and used a false assurance of imminent departure to ease my racing heart. An airport was a fitting enough place, I thought. It was my last thought before sinking into sleep.
* * *
I awoke at the Rosetta Stone. Afternoon sun warmed my back, and I stared at the moss against my face with dull, jet-lagged confusion. Then joy wrested me to my feet. “Edith!” I called, as if she were pouring the elixir right that moment. “Edith! I’m here!”
Tramping up the hill, I saw her standing at the stream like Aphrodite. She balanced on her toes atop a wet river rock, the entirety of her small wardrobe strung on a clothesline from the cottage to a golden elm. I think she was singing a part of Orphée aux enfers.
“Your hair!” I said, and dropped my burdens at the step. In the past week, it had grown from a bob to halfway down her breast. “God. How long have you been waiting?”
Edith stepped down from the rocks. “No time,” she said with something in her eyes, then tackled me into the stream like a laughing selkie. “I think I remember you,” she said. “Many lovers ago. What was it, ‘Michael,’ right?” She splashed water across my face before adding on, “Only joking.”
The palisade welcomed me. There was plenty of space for my things in the closets, which stood beside Prescott’s towering shelves of books that yearned to be read. All his best ones were here, not California. Edith’s notebooks covered the bed, so I stripped off my clothes and fell asleep on the sunsoaked grass near the garden. There were no mosquitos or ticks. There was no office. All that existed was the fountain of time, rolling endlessly around us as the day turned into warm dusk.
I felt skin on mine as I drifted, half-awake. Her touch was a balm, and I awoke even more enamored than before. That night, we took the furniture up the hill, and ate our game hens al pastor in the clearing. “Joking aside,” I said in moonlight, savoring Prescott’s scotch, “how much time have you spent here?”
“A while,” she said, not lightly. “My work comes easier at the palisade, I find. I don’t have much focus at home.”
“Does anyone?” I said, and she looked askance. “Well, you don’t seem much older than me, anyway. Just please don’t tell me you’ve spent half your life here. I don’t want to know if your passport says you’re eleven or twelve years old.”
She assured me this was not the case. I finished my drink to soothe my nerves, and after a spirited debate on art-pop and Poetics I lowered my tone to candor. “Let me for a moment be disgustingly earthly,” I said, “and then from here on we can lose ourselves in the palisade.”
It took a still silence for her to see that this was not an act. “Alright, Matthew,” she said, herself drunk again as was our fashion in those times. “Be earthly with me.”
“I’ve taken some time off work,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about your warning, that it’ll be harder each time. It was harder. But I made it here now. And I know I’m nobody and I know it’s all nothing, but it can still be something just for a little while. A rest. Together. To prepare for whatever comes next.”
She was inscrutable in the dark. Elegant. Brilliant. Attuned. “How much time,” she asked, examining me with a gleam of amusement. “How much time off work?”
“Six days, ten with the weekends,” I said, then nervously added, “A year.”
“A year,” she repeated.
“Yes,” I said. “Together. Of course, if your disappearance would worry anyone—”
“It would,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. You’re right. It’s all nothing. And yes. I would adore it to spend this nothing with you.”
* * *
We lived up to that promise in halcyon. We were soul to soul, we would say to each other, more by fortune than fate. I wrote chords for the songbooks at Prescott’s piano, and we sang forgotten hymns together as the cold rains came. We sang more, too, from Audrey and Fred and songs half-remembered from college. It was bizarre to think of her, years ago, going through trials and tests and weary school days like me. It was bizarre to think that other people were real.
There were no habits of an old married couple. We were not a couple, nor married, and we swore to the gods of the first eclipse that we would never be old. Whenever a whim approached routine, we threw it off, running into the woods or inventing new preferences and dares. The trees were our sacred co-conspirators, and the luna moths were silent attendants of our ritual games.
Playwriting stole her afternoons, and each day I watched her descend further into that vexing morass. “Damn it all!” she shouted one evening, tossing her last two weeks of work into the palisade hearth. I took that moment to pounce. “Hey,” I said, handing her our drink of choice—a hot White Russian with a touch of maple syrup. “What if we wrote something new together?”
“Like what?” she said. Her bitter discontent revealed my chances. I sketched a vision of a two-act duet, sung and spoken and played and shrieked like an epic of mercurial longing and repression. It drew from the classics, and the midcentury greats, and more than a little from the thought of two lovers burning and collapsing outside time.
The work became our child. We were light with it, challenging and bold, but could not be as glib and carefree as we’d been with our bodies and our time. These days were more beautiful than anything. A cadre of furniture was our audience, and we argued for and against certain numbers from their peculiar stances. The bread box preferred waxing ballads, it seemed, while the lamp and table were partial to acrobatic lyrical fire.
I’d like to think we were writing our own story. The tragedy of the characters, however, was an immortal abundance which forced them to meet again and again through the eras. Our own burden was the opposite. One night at the mirror, Edith noticed new moles, and she spent the next week agitated over something I could not understand. Age haunted her now, it seemed, and it was with us when we slept and ate and anywhere we went.
Fog rolled in after six months or so, along with an oppressive overcast which did not let up for weeks. To me, it felt as dark as winter, but to her it was just another variation on an autumn running in place. Stuck inside, I’d taken to considering our world, and at dinner one tempestuous night I laid out my hypothesis.
“I think it must be relativity,” I said. “You know, how time on a space station goes by differently than on Earth. We’d have to be going pretty damn fast, though. Or, is it slowly? Whichever way. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“I’m going home,” said Edith.
I paused while taking a drink. My arms and shoulders stiffened, and I could feel the color trickle to my face as I leaned in. “No you’re not,” I said. “It’s only been six months.”
Edith stood from the table. “Seven and a day,” she said, turning herself from me.
“You’ve been counting?” I accused, incredulous. “We said we wouldn’t. We said—”
“There’s a chronometer running, in the attic. I checked it last night. That’s all.”
“And when I got here?”
“So you could know how long to keep me on before you toss me out.”
“So I wouldn’t lose myself!” Edith shouted. Her voice was a barrage of what had long laid dormant, an ammunition tin exploding in a fire. “You may have nothing to live for, but I do. I do. And I agreed to stay because I liked you, and I do like you, and because I thought it would be fun to get away, and it has been fun. But I’ve also stayed to find myself, and to grow, and to be ready for what I don’t think I can bear. But I haven’t grown at all. I’ve melted into something silly and foolish.”
“My mother is dying! I’ll probably bury her next month. And I didn’t want her to see me last as the scared little girl she always thought I was. The girl who could never see things through. She’s spent the past five years watching me flail about, hopeless, always a few months away from whatever it was I’d said I would do. I thought I could be someone here. That I could find who I am. And I have found someone. And I’ve had a tremendous time, really. But, you were right. It’s nothing. You’re nothing. And whoever I’m becoming, she’s wandering farther and farther away from who I want to be. We aren’t really living, Matthew. We’re adrift. We’re hiding from life.”
I left the table and wandered toward the light of the dying hearth. My ears and temples were hot. My fists ached. My teeth felt like they could have crushed together. “What about me,” I said. “Our work.”
“What about it?” she said, coming toward me. “Take it. I don’t care. Put it on in a little black box somewhere.”
“What about me!” I screamed, and hurled my glass downward into the hardwood floor. It shattered like shrapnel between us. “Your mother knows exactly who you are! Fickle. Childish. You’re not breaking your pattern, Edith, you’re starting it all over again. And you’ll run away from the next thing as soon as you begin that, too. And what, you want me to wait while you’re gone? For how long? Months? Years?”
“Sure,” said Edith, rising to match my fury. “How about centuries? I’ll come back and bury your bones when I’m forty-five. ‘Here lies a man who ran away from the world.’ Waste of a human being! No. Forget me. Go find a new plaything. Bring her here, amaze her. Pretend like you didn’t do everything with me that you’ll do again with her.”
“I don’t have anyone,” I said through spit and tears. “Why do you think I’ve stayed so long in this make-believe place with you? You! A stranger! Because there’s no one else.”
“Well, I can see why,” she laughed. It was a blade through my gut. “You were right about Prescott, too, I think. It was stupid of him to leave that book lying around. I never knew why the order was so snobby about its members, its rules. I always thought it elitist. Now I see. It was to keep us from ending up with people like you.”
She sat on the arm of the sofa to buckle her shoes. “What are you doing?” I said, motioning to the endless void of our torrential night. “There’s nothing out there.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m leaving leaving.”
She took a step forward over broken glass. I stood at the hearth, my face burning in a hatred and pain I had never afforded anyone. Then she put out her hand. “The bottle,” she said, as one would command a child.
I put my hand on the decanter. Shaking, I slid it off the mantle, suspended above the wet shards below. One drunken release of the thumb would have sent it cascading to oblivion. Her expression contorted to horror as she watched me think of it. “You wouldn’t—”
“I fucking will,” I shouted. In a lurch I adjusted my grip, upturning the decanter like a mace. My knuckles clenched white around its fragile neck. “Maybe it’ll come back tomorrow? Wanna see? The palisade is a forgiving place. And how fitting. Nothing else in your life seems to have any consequence, either.”
Edith knelt on the wood and glass before me. “How did this happen?” she wept, wiping sweat down her face with her palms. I listened to the sickening crunch of the shards beneath her weight. “Are we broken people? I know I am. Perhaps we deserve each other.” Sniveling, she sat on a fallen throw and upturned two bloodied knees. “I just, I just wanted to do the right thing. I’m so scared, Matthew. I’m so scared of time running out.”
Whatever had stirred this in her, it disarmed me. I looked to the bottle, then to her with nothing but incredible shame. “Here,” I said, laying it in her lap. “Here. I don’t deserve it.”
She held the decanter, staring into the middle distance with dazed depletion. “If you want,” she whimpered later as I dressed her knees, “if you want, I could stay one more night.”
I’m ashamed to say that I said yes, and ashamed to say she stayed. In cold morning light I found her gone, with a note in her handwriting telling me not to wait. I discovered that note in the wastebin, crumpled and torn.
I tried my best to go through it all with peace. I made my morning tea, then wandered our usual path through the woods in numb contemplation. Time and again I thought I heard Edith’s footsteps behind me in the grass. In flashes my situation sunk in, and I would explode like a minotaur beating at the trees and stone in rage. My mind could not handle such unbridled outpourings for more than a handful of seconds, and inevitably I would regress to a state of deadened malaise. After an hour, I knew this was no way for a man to exist.
Dressed in one of Prescott’s suits, I poured myself a shot of the elixir. Most of my belongings I left behind, destined to either be swallowed by the cottage or become ancient relics for some future traveler to find. When it got you alone, I saw now, the palisade revealed what an unbearable nightmare it was. I don’t know how Edith could stand it.
I arranged myself like Socrates, surrounded by a loyal entourage of household furniture. Clearly, either my humor or pretension was still at that point intact. “What’s more likely?” I said to myself. “That you have found something too good to be true, or you have not yet found its caveats?” This pragmatic solace had carried me through life, and I indulged in it once more as I collapsed through the palisade floor.
* * *
The pain came in waves. I awoke in sunlight on the floor of the abandoned terminal, coughing from the moldy carpet on which I lay. The agony in my head, combined with the disappearance of my car and wallet, was enough to take my mind off recent affairs for a while. That night, however, with my Camry freed from impound and two Vicodin swallowed, I lay on the floor of my laurifolia-dusted bedroom and wept for hour after hour. It was crushing to be back in a world of brands and people which demanded my attention but gave nothing in return. No one had reported me missing in the five days I was gone. I doubt anyone had noticed I was gone at all. I’d made myself an orphan, one with no place in the world I’d discovered and none in the one I’d returned to.
In time my mourning faded to an ache. I told my coworkers I’d suffered a brain aneurysm, which they all somehow believed, and any prior threat of actual work was replaced by awkward sympathies. I was even more an outcast than before. My thoughts still lingered on the Prescott affair, which did not have any place in the skeptical monotony of my daily life. I called up Prescott’s niece once, on pretext of scholarly interest, but she didn’t know anything of an Edith or book or transit to other planes. Even saying those words to her had a sense of gross indecency.
After four months, in a moment of weakness, I ordered more Avenforth Assam. It never came. The reseller reached out after two weeks by email, informing me that Avenforth had recently gone out of business. They offered two Twinings sample packs instead. Outraged, I joined a small cadre of online loyalists to discover what had happened to the brand. I scoured auction sites for the tea, promising increasingly ludicrous rewards for anyone who’d kept a spare bag. Once, a lady in Pembrokeshire reached out, only to block me after we’d decided on a price and mailing address. Over time, I noticed a recurring name—the iconless user erinna6202 appearing each time to beat me to the draw.
I hunted her across the web. She did not accept messages, nor did she link an email address, so the leads I had to go on were insubstantial. In what I saw as a stroke of brilliance, I put up a fake listing for a box of Avenforth Assam, but she must have sussed out my own username as soon her profile was gone. It was only after weeks, when I’d nearly convinced myself to call off this obsessive behavior, that I realized the key was not the Avenforth at all.
There was only one laurifolia orchard in the world with global shipping. I reached out to the new owner, who had replaced his brother and spoke much better English, and after some haranguing I got him on the phone through a spotty internet line. “Hello,” I said, tense as I pressed my luck. “Yes, I’m calling about a recent order I placed with you. It never arrived.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said the owner, who reiterated the fickleness of American customs practices. He looked up my name in his records, and after some searching came to the phone with a puzzled tone. “Sir,” he said, “the last order we have from you was placed almost six months ago.”
“No, that’s not right,” I snapped. “Try, hmm, let’s see. It may be under my assistant’s name. Is there an Edith? She sometimes sends things to my London address by mistake.”
“One moment,” said the owner. “Yes, an ‘Edith S’ at Chalcot Square. Is that right?”
“Yes,” I said, and threw a gloating fist toward the ceiling of the office break room. I had her now. “Can you confirm the quantity for me?”
“Six kilos,” he said. “Pre-ground, extra-fine. Three-day express air mail. Sir, it says here that the package was signed for by the building resident. Yes, that’s her signature here.”
“How strange,” I said. “I’ll have to check with her. Thank you. And, just to make sure it’s right, can you tell me the full address on the order, please?”
“Of course,” I said. “That’ll be enough. Thanks.”
* * *
It was enough. I found ‘Erinna’ on Instagram, scrolling through the tags near Chalcot Square for groups of women our age. It was a private account, but her friends’ pages weren’t, and I narrowed her home address down to a spacious Camden flat. The apartment was owned by her father, Martin Seabrook, and with her full name I easily confirmed that I had found my mark.
“Let’s talk,” I messaged her late one night. In the morning, there was a read receipt but no reply. “Let’s talk, or I’ll go back and burn it to the ground.”
I was standing on the balcony of my apartment when the voice call came in. “Matthew?” she said, with the sound of someone ducking into a closet to muffle her guests. I could still hear laughter in the background.
“Avenforth went under,” I said, as if we had not been fighting for the last of the assam those past weeks.
“I know,” she said. “I know.” We both waited on the line in silence, and in that silence I felt my bitterness shift with the sun and the breeze. Twenty stories up, I leaned on the railing and looked up the weather in London. Rainy, cold, and drab. I felt pity as I listened to her pained breath hitch and tighten in the static.
“How’s your mom?” I asked.
“Better,” said Edith. “Actually. They say she’ll make it through.”
“Fitting,” I said, “for your effortless life. Congratulations.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “It’s nothing. You’re right. Forget it all. I’ll let you get back to your friends.”
After that, I took control of the things I’d pretended were wearisome constants. I quit my job, to everyone’s concern, and spent a while walking the city in idle contemplation. I must have walked a hundred miles, altogether. Something had clung to me, from the transit, like stardust found on an astronaut’s skin many years after he comes home. I think everyone could tell, too, though of course they didn’t know its origins. I traveled through the world like a visitor now, unattached and unbothered at each turn.
Eventually, I found myself at a large museum. I took a job there, almost without realizing, and the next week I started waking at dawn to tend to an exhibit. It was a familiar place. The subject was the Egyptian Valley of the Kings, where I had spent many months in my mind as I’d worked with Hatshepsut. At her time, it was a desolate canyon, but had since been built up with twenty pharaohs’ lifetimes of tombs and majesty. It was all completely embarrassing. The architecture was immaculate, that was undeniable, but it served foremost as a bare display of the terror death inflicted on the withered men inside. They did not go with grace.
This interpretation was lost on visitors, I found, and I soon stuck to reciting the names and places and the dates. The banalities of a life, as printed on three glossy-finish folds. At some point, the café girl took to me, and we had a few happy nights at the beach and the black box theatres. I soon called it off. It was unbearable to hide what I’d been through from her, and equally impossible to share.
Ten months after I’d spoken to Edith, I got a call from an unknown number. “Mr. Saaland?” asked an English woman, and I told her that was I. “I’m calling to confirm your RSVP for Léfebure’s opening night at the Fortune.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, and she repeated herself. “I haven’t bought any tickets for anything.”
“These tickets are provided by Edith Seabrook,” said the woman, now as confused as I’d been. “You’re on the list. This is her publicist’s office.”
“I see,” I said. “When is this?”
“This weekend. The night of the eighth.”
I stared up at the chipped, looming head of Ramses II. By this time of night, we had the wing to ourselves. “I can’t,” I said. “I’m working weekends until the exhibit closes. Where will she be in six weeks?”
“Oh,” said the publicist’s assistant, who sounded genuinely saddened. “Alright. Let me see.”
* * *
The answer was Berlin. I flew Lufthansa through Munich, and arrived on a cold April morning after one day’s transit. I spent the last two hours with the federal police, patient as they made sure my suitcase contents were not contraband. It was comfortable, being in a new place and time. It was comfortable to be lost. I caught the scraps of the hotel breakfast, all fish and cheese, and pocketed a few bags of Saiidi tea as it wheeled away on the coffee cart.
The publicist’s assistant had texted me the address of that morning’s book signing. I did not go inside. In the square, I bought a newspaper from a Syrian man who spoke better English than German. It was because as a boy he’d loved cinema, he told me. He bore the heavy smile of someone whose home existed only in the past.
Through the bookshop glass, I watched the back of a black bob bounce, showered in admiration. Rosy people in practical coats grinned as she handed them back their first editions, marked with a black felt-tip flourish I recognized well. This was someone whose home was eternal, and it burned like a torch in her eyes wherever she went.
Two figures graced the book’s jacket art. From across the square, I wondered briefly if one of them were me. That hope was too painful to entertain for long. At ten, the signing ended, and I watched her scan the square for me as she straightened out her collar and coat. I was glad to see her straighten them for me. “Edith!” I called for the last time. We met as we had at our second encounter, like acquaintances at a café. She saw me and smiled, and crossed stone tile to hug me with no sign of what was beneath.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, and dismissed my mention of a coffee shop I’d thought promising. She took my hand as she led me to a chic pâtisserie. It killed me, the way she took it. Like it was nothing. It was nothing. In that moment I felt there was no place she wouldn’t have already been to, no place where she wouldn’t have already picked her favorite quaint café.
We settled in at a wallpapered corner decked in impressionist scenes. The murmur of German smalltalk around us faded to a blur. I remember a sickening feeling there, as if meeting with your conspirator after a murder you’d sooner forget. The sight of her was an inescapable sign of what was gone. It was only in that moment, once the sugar and cream and all other objects of distraction were expended, that I looked in her eyes and recognized what she’d become.
She was at least thirty-five now. This reality struck me with incredible fear, a primal reaction at the sight of someone who at once was familiar and a stranger. Then the fear subsided into pathos. “You went back,” I said, and she nodded. “Alone?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “Not usually.”
“You found more Avenforth, then.”
“A little,” said Edith. “But it’s all gone now for good.”
“Well,” I said with a bitter laugh. “Well done, I guess. Some people pay a lot more time for a whole lot less.” From my bag, I pulled an airport magazine with her face on the cover. I couldn’t read the caption below, but the word wunderkind at the end was clear enough.
“I didn’t pay it,” she said, and in those words I saw the fragility beneath her lipstick. “I lived it. It wasn’t stolen from me.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s just funny, you know. Ten months for me. That’s all it’s been, ten months.” I put both hands around my mug as my throat went tight. “I don’t know if you remember what it was for you, ten months in. I would imagine, I mean, I would guess. I would guess that it hurt for you then, too.”
“Beyond belief,” said Edith.
I didn’t know how to take her words, or the tears welling in her eyes. It was a sick game, imagining her there year after year. It was crushing to think of her moving on, recovering while she left me adrift with the pieces. “Was it good?” I asked at last, sobbing with her in the overcast light. “Did you have a good life there?”
“I,” she stuttered, battling the words. “I can’t tell you. I can’t bear it. I want you to imagine it was awful, and dull, and I missed you every second of the day. Because, in a way, I did, Matthew. Really. You were the first person I ever shared it with. Ever shared myself with. I’ll never forget who we were for each other.”
“I’m still him,” I said, bawling now. In the corner of that elegant Berlin cafe I buried my face in her hands. “I’m here, Edith. I’m here. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
She stroked the back of my head as I shivered. “I know,” she said. “I know. But I have.”
* * *
I checked out from the hotel that afternoon. I took my suitcase, never unpacked, and in the same coat I’d worn on the plane I walked to Alexanderplatz. It was easy to think of yourself in Berlin as a character in a film. Fitting, I thought, to feel that way as this reel of film ran out. From my pocket, I pulled out a crumpled map, and followed my own handwriting to the top of an office tower.
The air was totally still. At the roof’s edge, I plugged my kettle into a covered outlet. The adaptor sparked and hissed as it ran, but the water boiled the same. Unpacking my case, I withdrew two bags, crinkled but otherwise undisturbed by the federal police. Each held six pounds of crushed laurifolia. Calm, I walked the length of the roof, pouring eleven perfect rings with practiced, sober precision. It was a beautiful sight.
I poured the water I needed into my travel thermos. Then, I withdrew the Saiidi from my pocket. It had a proud, dignified taste, and a full-bodied bite that promised no half-measures. I looked out at the grey Berlin skyline as I drank. It was easier to leave a strange city, I thought, than one dear enough to poison me with doubt.
I crossed my legs as I sat in the center of the rooftop. Cold sun shone overhead, providing a stabilizing balance that I’d never known was missing. This was natural. This was right. As practiced, I let my thoughts meander, turning to things I’d long forgotten as I settled in place. I can’t remember any of them now. In my heart, I felt the film run out. The sun turned warm and bold above as the lights of the theater went up.
I opened my eyes to a desert. It stretched for fifty miles at least, extending until a ripple of heat lapped at the horizon. I stood, shedding my heavy coat, and turned my shoes in hot sand to see an oasis before me. Jackals lapped at the opal water, shaded by tall date palms which swayed above. Beside them, I recognized the broad leaves of a laurifolia tree.
There was a temple at the oasis. It was boldly painted red and tan, built of stone ten stories high which sloped slightly inward as it rose. I recognized Horus on the closer wall, and Bastet on the next. At its entrance, some distance away, I made out the shape of a man and two women speaking in the shade. The man wore a large, feather-plumed hat, and dark clothes from his head to his toe. The two women wore robes in pale, flowing white.
I heard a voice cry out from the oasis. It was an older man, perhaps sixty or seventy, wearing a crimson loincloth in the same fashion as the women’s. He was tan, fit but aged by the sun, and he took hurried steps across the sand as he waved a hand toward me. “Akhmi,” he said, stressing something of importance. With a smile, he upturned a hand in greeting, clasping my shoulder and handing me a blue ceramic flask. Obliging, I put the vessel to my nose—and smelled the cherry elixir inside.
I nodded. “Thank you,” I said, smiling. “Yes. Thank you.”
He mimicked the motion of drinking, then pointed to the ground. When I hesitated, he scowled, and after a moment he dug in his bag to pull out a marked bronze dish. It was a sundial. With one hand outstretched, he placed the dish on his palm, and with the other he spun it around and around as rapidly as he could manage. “Akhmi,” he stressed, as if trying to explain the fate befalling me with each passing second spent here. “Em hotep.”
The sundial was not Egyptian. It was precisely cast, with roman numerals, and at first glance appeared to have markings in Italian. It bore only the slightest signs of age and wear. “Yes,” I said, reassuring the man. “It’s a bit the reverse of the last place I was, isn’t it? Fast, not slow. Thank you. I understand.”
He seemed to relax at this. “Dewa-netjer en-ek,” he said, and turned his attention to examining the marvel of my clothes and boots. In the distance, the women at the temple looked over, and he waved to them with simple reassurance. After a moment he turned back to me and the ceramic flask in my hands. “Akhmi?” he said, one last time.
I lingered for a moment on this. The sun was warm, and the air was tinged with a gentle breeze which seemed to never end. There were dates on the trees, and a banquet of food was laid out next to the man with the feathered hat. For his hundreds-of-years-outdated attire, he looked as if he’d only just arrived. “No,” I said, returning the flask. “No, I think I’ll stay here a little while more. See who else comes along.”