| Mirrors © A Serial Novel In Progress - 4|
*This work in progress will appear in Observatorul every week, on schedule.
In this fog he had a sense that eternity was a feeling of being suspended uncertainly in place and time. To him, who had been a man that would get things done, this was unthinkable. A sense of angry activity overtook him as he opened his eyes. What was it he had asked for? Yes, the Odyssey. How meaningless this all seamed, how completely abstract. It did not matter. In this twilight eternity, he would try any billion options until the right one came along.
“You fainted again, or fell asleep. Anyway, I didn’t think you’d die.”
“No. Not dead. The voice out of the fog was too much for me. It was as if God had spoken and he was trivial and neighborly.”
‘Maybe I also fainted out of disappointment,’ Chen Zhi thought to himself.
“I have your book here. It was thrown, if you are curious.”
“Why did I want it?” Chen Zhi wondered, trying to pull his mind together.
“I don’t know. You were saying something about the Underworld, too.”
“Oh, yes, there is a passage … the passage to the Underworld. I remember it marked me in college.”
“I see. You think we are headed to the Underworld.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. This was only a theory I had.”
“It’s better than nothing. I have no theory. I’ll try yours.”
Chen Zhi browsed maybe for hours, although time was irrelevant. He didn’t know what he was looking for. In the next boat, the goat was chewing her hay and the Professor lay absent-mindedly on his back, smoking.
Odysseus spoke to the witch, the daughter of the Sun, and from her he learned of the darkest night in Hades, inside the mind of the blind Tiresias who could see all time and all space and had once been also a woman. He told Odysseus how to get back home; he saw the journey although he couldn’t really see anything. Chen Zhi wondered if anyone, blind or otherwise, could determine his own journey. But before Odysseus had even reached this darkness, Chen Zhi stopped and thought harder of another passage. Yes, maybe this was the one… the thing he was looking for. It was so little, almost nothing.
“Listen to this and tell me what you think. When he enters the underworld he offers a variety of libations with barley and water and honey and the souls of the dead let him go through. Then Tiresias comes out but he has to drink blood from a sheep to be able to speak about the future rather than just unimportant things. What I understand is that he will only find out about the future of his journey, and how to get home, if he sacrifices a sheep.”
The Doctor reached for the book and then read at length.
“And how is this relevant?”
“If we are headed to the Underworld, I think we won’t know how to end our journey in this fog until we sacrifice the goat.”
“No! Out of the question.”
“What do you mean out of the question? You would rather let a goat live rather than get out of this fog?”
“You don’t even know that this fantasy you’re having has any value. You are fainting a lot for a sane person, you know. Maybe you aren’t that healthy up there. How do I know that these aren’t just some early homicidal tendencies? What about that?!”
“That is ridiculous. What does that have to do with anything? And what were you doing with this goat when you were walking the Lido, anyways?”
The Doctor mumbled that he couldn’t remember.
“Didn’t you say something about sacrificing and the Underworld earlier?”
“What if I did?”
“Maybe you’ve been stuck in this fog without a woman for so long that you’ve grown a little too attached to that goat,” mumbled Chen Zhi in his annoyance.
“What are you insinuating!!?”
“I mean to get out of here, if it takes one second close of an eternity for me to try every option available. And I’ll tell you another thing. I think you yourself had the same idea once; I think you knew that sacrifice would get you to the Underworld you were seeking. I think you were going to use that goat for the same purposes I have in mind right now but then you grew fond of it.”
“NO!” the Doctor was too shocked to argue elaborately.
“OK. So we’ll try this now.” Chen Zhi stretched out his hand and asked for a knife.
“You won’t get the knife because you don’t have the know-how and I will never give you the goat. Think about it,” the Doctor tried to reason with him. “If you take her, we will be all alone.”
“We’ll still be together, in any case.” Chen Zhi knew this wasn’t much of a consolation for anyone. “Can you please get me a knife?”
“Are you crazy? I won’t give you a knife to kill my goat.”
“Then I’ll have to rip off its throat with my bare hands.” He knew he wouldn’t carry that through. Chen Zhi’s violence had resorted, in the past, to verbal abuse and that of a mild sort against his employees, when nothing else worked.
But the Professor was relentless and with precipitated gestures untied the boats and pushed away before Chen Zhi could react. A few moments later, he was back by Chen Zhi’s side.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it! Your boat is drawing me back in like a magnet. I can’t leave!”
“So I guess we’ll have to proceed then.”
“Gun!” almost instantaneously, a large rifle plummeted at the Professor’s feet. “You make another move towards my goat and I’ll shoot you dead!”
“You’d choose your goat over a person?”
“You’re nothing to me.”
There was no point in trying to reason with the madman. Chen Zhi would wait, for as long as it took, maybe only until the other was asleep. He picked up the Odyssey and for what seemed like an eternity inside another eternity he pretended to read while watching the other from the corner of his eye. It may have been the equivalent of a whole day by the end of which Chen Zhi heard snores in the other boat and saw that the Professor was asleep.
“What should I do now? If I take the rifle from his hands to kill the goat, he’ll wake up.”
“Psst!” Chen Zhi heard distinctly the sound just behind his left ear.
Again: “Psst! Don’t make any noise!”
He turned around terrified, his eyes popping out of his head into the fog where he could see nothing.
“Don’t be afraid, stranger. You can’t see me.”
“Who are you?”whispered Chen Zhi.
“I am Benjamin Otalora from Buenos Aires.”
“Are you a ghost? Why can’t I see you?”
“ I am not dead but some say I am. Some say I died at the farm El Suspiro in the arms of a woman. I remember El Suspiro and her arms but I did not die. You see, it was the other one who died, the one, an intellectual… this was a long time ago. When Ulpiano Suarez pulled out his pistol it was already not me he had shot but the other one..”
Chen Zhi listened bewildered.
“I must ask you, like I asked the other one, what year is this?”
“This is 2011.”
“2011!” The voice in the fog seemed to choke.
“Hah! Better! They are all dead and I have won. Ulpiano, Ulpiano,” started the voice at its monologue. “You believed your entire life you had cornered me like a dog. I am now laughing over you.”
Then he grew quiet; Chen Zhi started poking in the fog with his oar. “You won’t find me. You’ve given me great news and for that I’ll help but you must listen. First, you must know that the transformation begins with differentiation. I was never a wise man but all this time that I have been alive, I learned that much. If there is no difference, we are as gods. The difference begins with mirrors and if you destroy the mirror, you return.”
Chen Zhi thought of his own wish to return.
“You return where?” asked Chen Zhi, half understanding that the one speaking was unconcerned with that journey.
“To yourself. But you see, I never wanted to return but move forward. I wanted to win Azevedo Bandeira’s place and be the boss of Ulpiano, no longer just a gaucho. I wanted to have his woman and his horse, I wanted to move out and forward. And I would have done just that, you see but they had other plans for me. Bandeira and his servant, Ulpiano, they were planning all along to kill me. I was not so much a threat, although I think I was at least inconvenient for them. I think they enjoyed the humiliation of letting me die betrayed and powerless, like a dog. And in 1894, I was not yet 22, they shot the other, who looked like me, and they thought that they had won.” Then he fell silent for a while and Chen Zhi thought that if he could see him, he would be pensive, perhaps a little sad.
“Someone said, and that they wrote also, that I was already sleeping in the arms of Bandeira’s red haired woman but I was elsewhere, becoming god and that was better than winning over Bandeira… You see, today, I am still becoming and for that I have been torn apart and there is so little left…. Yes, so little. I am only a voice, a voice that speaks in the wilderness, in this fog, although, unlike the one who said these words before me,” he continued as if to himself “I announce very little yet to come and I am not so sure… No, I am not so sure that it was not a mistake, after all.
But to get back to what I was saying, on the night of June 22, 1894, I was at the same bar from Paso del Molino, in Montevideo where I had, in 1891, stopped the knife from stabbing into Bandeira. Only, this time, I was no longer at the beginning of my adventure but knew, somehow, that I was ending it. What was I doing so far from El Sospiro? Call it nostalgia. I am sure that you have experienced this. It happens when you start to remember the vaguest hint of a feeling that you once had but missed out on, the rush of an experience that you could not register at the time because you were caught in an event but then, when the even has passed, many years later when actions are worn away by the rust of memory, you finally see what it was, the feeling, the beauty of those times. Yes, I was then remembering as I was drinking at that late hour, with a storm raging outside and a milonga in my ears, the time, three years back, when the knife shone in the dim light of the same bar, the fear and exhilaration of getting in the middle of an unknown fight, men’s teeth shining towards me like fangs of animals, cringing for their lives and I stopped the knife from killing my future murderer, Bandeira. I remembered not the ambition nor the dreams, because then I had none, but the pure desire to act, to jump in front of the knife, myself a knife of sharpened sensations, all muscles and nerves. And the desire and act were one and the same. I did not avert the knife but allowed it to plunge into my own thigh instead of the other’s heart for whom it was aiming and I remember relishing that pain because that too had been a part of my actions and because my actions were not mine but only a rush to move, to contract muscles, to be there and cringe and fear.
As I drank and became drunker, I had the feeling that time had stopped and around me, in that bar, the fight was still taking place except that I was no longer a part of it but only one who looks on, remembering or observing, understanding an experience which was already wasted on him. I felt old, although I was only 21, and I realized that I was bound to die, that Bandeira would never let me win and that, if he did, I would lose still more. Taking Bandeira’s place, I was about to be the leader of a pack of contrabandists with little more to want because, from there, from the top, there was little left for one like me to conquer. There was only the future and few goals, the past and its memories. And, yes, I felt old.
That’s when someone walked into the empty bar. I noticed his cape, with a hood pulled deep over his face. I wondered at the obscurity that surrounded him but then explained it away, attributing it to the dim light of the candles, the night, the hood that was meant to protect him from the rain outside. He came straight to me with a slow walk. The walk, I will never forget, not even after all this time, that walk knew its purpose. He neither sought me out nor hesitated but merely intended himself towards me from the instant he appeared; then sat down. I saw, as he took off his mantle, that his face was my own, his body, mine.
I was, of course, taken aback but he had such a reassuring manner. ‘I have come, Benjamin Otalora, because your death is close.; This sounds, of course, more dramatic than it was because, when I remember those events I cannot avoid, in the mix of my own present regrets and feelings, a touch of melodrama. But, if I really insist on the quality of these words, and for the sake of truthfulness, I am not even sure that they were words and not just a meaning that he transmitted to me with his eyes that buried deeply into mine with an uncanny feeling of deep familiarity and estrangement which sent shivers down my spine.
He slowly took out of his breast pocket, for he was dressed like a gentleman, a cigar case made of gold, its surface finessed to a perfect mirror into which I could see, as he stretched it out to me to offer a cigar, my own frozen expression. ‘Take a cigar,’ he said, ‘and listen to my story. Compose yourself and try to understand what I have to say because you will have to give me an answer and I want you to know what you are answering.’ As I smoked, my mind was losing the grogginess of the wine I had drunk that night. I found myself blowing concentric circles, as if my lips already knew, before my mind could grasp it, some secret codex into which the stranger was slowly walking me.”
“A codex?” Chen Zhi had a mind for precision.
“It was like he was rolling in front of me a papyrus with a map or script of the soul, my soul, into which I was absorbed beyond recognition before I could come out again at the other end, with a new understanding, perhaps a new self. I was absorbed but into the other, never returning. You may understand this eventually.
I crossed myself many times as he talked, although I was not a deeply religious man. An old superstition that I was remembering, about the devil walking at night as your double, announcing your death before it happens but my fear was dissipated already, and the gesture automatic. He told me that his name was now Joseph Cartaphilus, from Smirna but once had fought in one of Rome’s legions as Marcus Flaminus Rufus. In this chain of being’s duplicity, I made out that he was also me, Benjamin Otalora, and that he was telling a story that was mine, although I had never been aware of it. ‘This could become your story, upon the reversal.’ But he did not clarify this at the moment and I was forced to listen to his story which, moving away from the merely abstract, took on the body of a journey through the desert, from Alexandria, in the course of which he, Flaminus, was seeking the spring of eternal life.
He walked through deserts and through labyrinth constructions until, depressed and his heart and soul heavy with confusion, he understood that he had reached his destination. The spring was there and he had already drunk from it, in that city which, at first, he took for a contorted ruin, a labyrinth which failed to make sense even as a labyrinth.
What is the point of this journey, our lives, without ambition, enemies, desire, lust, murder, the pain and the exhilaration of our petty lives? The labyrinth, he was at the core of it and there was nothing there but an endless waiting into eternity for nothing in particular. He thought at first that it was memory that was destroying his peace, that he could not face the endless time if he kept remembering his life in the battles, the smell of blood, the mad impotence of loss. If he remembered life, eternity was a doomed project and knowledge a slow poison so he tried to forget, to succumb into peaceful senility and annihilation.
A Greek whispered, on the brink of the same dementia, that they had built the labyrinth but their greatest failure was not placing anything in its middle. Then he remembered, and explained to me that the labyrinth is our life. You walk in it, you get confused, you look for its meaning and when you’ve finally found an answer, and reach its center, there you find a monster, the bull-man Asterion. Maybe some have seen in this the devil, some Apollo. I see in it the need for a fight which Marcus Flaminus missed completely. He had missed his last fight at Alexandria and now, he had reached the center of the labyrinth-city of the Undead, his last fight won before he could even begin. That was what the Greek had meant: the eternity they had built was a missed end. ‘One needs enemies,’ my double added wistfully, ‘one needs the war because one needs the progress through its struggle or else you are just stuck in place, senile and waiting for time to pass over you. Time passes, you are never the god of that.’”
Chen Zhi thought, as the other was falling silent again, that in this fog even time disappeared and then what would being be like, fallen outside of time and without even that, without identity or space, without differences and yet eternally other to nothing in particular.
The other seemed to guess his thoughts for he added “we are drawn like flies to honey into the end of our existence and we want to know and make ours even that, the other thing that lies beyond. I suspect it was that morbid curiosity that drew you here and that drove Marcus Flaminus to his river of eternal life, as he first thought it. For me it was a sort of greed and a sense of too much life for that, also, is a means to an end.
The stranger said to me then that I was about to be killed by Bandeira and his men upon my return. The fact that he knew this no longer shocked me because we were already one through his story that had drawn me into him. ‘You have the choice. I want to take your place in this death. I, as Benjamin Otalora, I will ride to El Sospiro and be shot in the arms of the red-haired woman.’ ‘Why would you seek your own death, after you have become eternal?’ I asked, although the answer was already spelling itself into my consciousness. ‘That is all that is left for us.’ You can imagine how strange this sounded. Yet, it was also soothing and it compelled me to proceed with what I was about to do. He then said, seductively, ‘I will not die because you will take my place as the god of this universe of ours but I will feel your other death, the one that you will miss forever. It is the only death that we can know, that of our reflections. It is the death that we have missed and replaced, a thousand times, a million times, until all time is spent as well. With each new death, we feel alive and also, we die deeper into an endless kind of being. Will you be like gods with me, Benjamin Otalora?’ Will you be like gods with me, Chen Zhi?” The other already knew the answer which was forming itself in the man’s mind although he asked superfluously, as many things had been:
“Do you understand, Chen Zhi?”
“Then look at me.”
Chen Zhi felt fire and ice turning to stone inside his heart as two eyes, his own, merged into the twilight from the depths of his consciousness, burying inside his own as their double. “I was at Tuacarembo, drinking…” he heard inside his body the voice of a well-known narration that never ended and then saw the dark blood forming an unknown pattern upon the shirt. The pattern had its own meaning. The woman, half naked and bare footed, pointed at him and they shot him again, and the blood, “I was at Tuacarembo, drinking…” I, Benjamin Otalora… the voice … the stranger …. the blood dripped and a strange sense of wakefulness that lasted only one second was there. The rapture of endless sensation registered on every nerve … the sound of hoofs on the pavement, the teeth that grinded against each other, trying to suppress the scream which took over the throat in full dying gloat. I, the Doctor with the goat… I headed somewhere, someone was shot, I….
“The mirrors have merged!” he heard a woman shout inside his ear and he woke up with a feeling that this alone was the secret. Outside, a fog was falling over the Lido as he opened his eyes.
“I am there,” thought Chen Zhi and almost immediately a far more sinister knowledge, of death, took over him but he pushed it away with wonderful ease. The Grand Hotel des Bains registered itself against his retina and then in his mind emerged the realization, he knew not how, that he was on the beach, in front of the Hotel.
“How do I know this?” He had never left China and yet he was certain that he was laying on the beach at the Lido, with the sun rising behind him. This, he also knew, was the Grand Hotel des Bains into which, if he walked, he would be welcomed as a guest.
He raised himself on one elbow. He was surprised at the heaviness in his limbs, as if his body weight was altered. His feet dragged with difficulty in the sand and he noted a numb pain in his legs, all the way inside the bone marrow. A simile took shape across his foggy mind, connecting between himself and the image of a newborn coming into the world already ridden with disease and old age. Yet, he could not but feel a deep joy at the evident movement of time. The sun was coming up from the Adriatic Sea, tinted a hopeful pink like the sand at his feet.
“It must be morning,” he thought, and he pulled out his arm to see the watch that had vanished. He also noted that the sleeve was no longer that of his white, cotton shirt, slightly rolled at the wrist for comfort, but a silk one with cufflinks, overlaid by the heavy, brown wool of a suit that he had never worn. He felt about himself into the pockets that were promising to hide some unknown miracle; there, he found a pocket watch from a past century pointing to eight after five.
© Iulia David, Mirrors/Oglinzi 2012. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.
Iulia David 8/6/2012