From her initial fears that Duncan would awake without memory, as if he'd sipped water from a mysterious river running through his dreams, she felt that his strange sleep had had the obverse reaction, arousing his deepest recollections and stirring up the silt of pale nostalgia. She had experienced feelings of relief and thankfulness before finally settling upon a sense of delicate uncertainty, retaining an unspoken concern for a sudden relapse. Except for his novel propensity to strip the prosaic and habitual of its banality, he seemed quite normal. His having cleaned the fridge was perhaps a welcome side-effect, but she hoped he would soon loose interest in the mundane. Life was complicated enough without awakening the auto pilot of daily life. As for the Norwegian outbursts, she was baffled, and had given up trying to record them for later translation possibilities. She hoped they would just stop. Seeing him standing before his bookshelves casually reading a small paperback entitled The Spirit of Aikido, after dinner, she'd been reassured that his old self was intact. Books were still his great love, as language was for her.
A new assignment to translate a popular young adult novel provided a structural resilience to her life for the next quarter, allowing her to feel confident in the approach of the holidays and the new year. She'd already performed a quick read through of the text, one overladen with adolescent love triangles, physical transformations and dark forests. She would have to resist her temptation to embellish the narrative with too rich a vocabulary, a propensity she noticed in herself, and one she would monitor as she followed the line and the voice of the adolescent narrator. If there had been such an abundance of young adult books when she'd been young, she wondered if they would have helped with her anxieties and doubts. As for own her reading, she recalled going from Nancy Drew to Catch 22, a book pinched from her Aunt's bookshelves. Then there had been the shelves of Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers, books by Margaret Miller and Helen MacInnes, and the large selection of classics in her uncle's collection. She wasn't sure if her reading choices had been a symptom of her fleeing adolescence, or mere circumstance.
She drew the sponge up and squeezed hot water behind her neck. Was this new assignment, she wondered, due to her agent having pressed the emotional button? The young translator whose husband was in a coma, his businesses in limbo, their livelihood in jeopardy? A woman in need of the proverbial helping hand? Pity? Concern? She slipped her chin down into the water and blew soapy bubbles with her lips, the hypothetical question transformed into opalescent structures moving upon the surface of the water, an evanescence that slowly drifted towards her distant toes.
Raising herself, the shifting water echoing off the smooth white tile, she reached for a towel and dried her hands and forearms, then took up the sheets of paper resting on the toilet seat nearby, printed pages of Duncan's recollection of his dreamscape while in his coma-like sleep. The day after he'd awoken, he'd asked her to bring her laptop to the hospital so he could describe the inner world before it faded from his memory. She had watched him type with his fine, ten-finger skills—the most practical course in high school he'd said, telling her all about his typing teacher, an older woman with her sleeveless dresses revealing the slack upper arm flesh that wobbled when she pointed to a line of text on the blackboard with her yardstick as the class pounded away on the late 1950s Royal Aristocrats seeking speed and accuracy, speed and accuracy, the watchwords for their future lives. It had not taken him long to type it out, but he had been briefly overcome with exhaustion at the end, much to the concern of the nurses who had popped in to take another battery of tests.
His description was but another text to interpret and translate, she thought. One she hoped would provide clues to understand his experience. She'd read his halting sentences a dozen times wondering if he'd just made it up out a mania of past emotions and memories, but she still found herself drawn to them in the hope of finding meaning, significance, insight, and perhaps a silhouette of some form of truth.
It all began aboard a large sailing vessel. I awoke in a small cabin with a porthole. I remember my landfall, my disembarking. I found myself alone, descending a sloping gangway to the dock, a young man ascending at equal pace, an approaching simulacrum of my younger self. Without stopping, he passed me a rusty skeleton key before vanishing in the fog and mist. All of a sudden it was night. The narrow streets and dark alleys running off from the quay were wet and slick. The occasional store windows revealed empty display areas like theatrical stages between performances. A full moon provided light. I found myself before a tall brick and stone wall and began following the course of it in the hopes of finding a door. Letters in an unknown script were occasionally scratched into the rough stone. I came to a large upside down Gothic arched door made of stout oak and decorated with richly carved rosettes that upon closer inspection, revealed a diversity of faces, Green Men with differing expressions. The point of the arch lay near my feet, the keyhole in the middle, eye level, the open mouth of one of the faces. I looked through but only the only thing visible was darkness. I inserted the key sideways and turned it and the tumblers silently, effortlessly aligned, and the the door opened inwards of itself and I stepped carefully over the narrow point and pocketed the key. A passageway ran to the left with a gradual downward grade and as I began to walk, I ran my fingertips against the dark walls feeling ridges like the wales of corduroy, or spines of books, reminding me too of running a stick along fences as a kid. Coming to large double doors without handles or knobs, I pushed them open and found myself beneath a geodesic dome structure, moonlight reflecting angular shadows, grids and triangles, upon the pathway before me, one that led to fifteen foot high bookshelves on either side, each with a rolling library ladder attached to a smooth runner rail. I breathed in the intoxicating alchemical aroma of paper, cloth and leather bindings feeling I'd found a hidden paradise, a lost or forgotten library. I looked down the path and noticed it came to an end, and thinking it odd, I walked the long distance to that supposed dead end only to discover that it opened to the left with a gradual curve which I continued to explore. I had to overcome my desire to look at the books, their buckram, leather and cloth bindings diverting my attention, their gilt titles seducing me to withdraw a volume, breath in its particular scent, feel its unique shape and texture, and behold the imagined title pages of elaborate design. Only when I came to the end of the curve which abruptly turned right and then back towards the direction I had come, did I begin to recognize a familiar layout, one that Amelia and I had walked with Melisande, a layout of a medieval labyrinth. I then gave in to my desire to look at the books themselves and I scaled one of the ladders and randomly pulled a book off a high shelf, a heavy full leather binding with panelled boards and gilt tooling, one of a multi-volume set with the title Canticles of Sand. I opened it to see exquisite green and blue marbled endpapers and fore edges; it was a finely printed book with engravings of strange coastal landscapes. Putting it back in place, I glanced at the titles around me and many were in foreign languages. Deciding to explore the pathway, I descended the ladder and continued along the path, occasionally stopping to look at a book that caught my eye—the books only had titles, neither author names nor publisher's imprint at the foot of the spine. I vividly remember these titles: Perpetual Conceptions, Gelid Harmonies, and Specular Apothegms.
It was about then that I heard the footsteps. At first I was unsure from which direction they came, and remembering Melisande's explanation of labyrinths having but one entrance and one path, I realised that if the footsteps were following me into the labyrinth, I could not escape them. They would find me along the way or at the centre. The bookshelves were back to back and didn't have spaces between. The only possible hiding place would be to scale a ladder and somehow manage to clamber on top of the highest shelf, their tops forming what I imagined would be a mirrored pathway of the one below, an additional pathway with the hazard of vertigo. To slip and fall would not be inconsiderable. All of these thoughts passed through my mind as I listened to the footsteps echoing in the passage, and still I couldn't decipher from which direction they issued. I remember trying to lower my breathing rate and stay calm, but even though I possessed the key, I felt I was trespassing. With my senses heightened due to fear, I listened to the footsteps which were firm, even and resounded with a frightening persistence. I made the decision to walk towards the centre, and I began as quickly and quietly as possible. The footsteps increased in their speed. I began to lightly run, and likewise, my pursuer, who I sensed was a man, began sprinting. From that point I remember starting to run wildly, bouncing off the edges of bookshelves as I turned corners, the occasional book falling to the path. It then occurred to me to pull books off the shelves to hinder him, but my love for books got the better of me, and I reasoned it would take the same amount of time to dislodge them than I would gain in frustrating his pursuit. It didn't matter in the end, for as I came round a large bend which I conjectured to be at the top of the labyrinth, the path was blocked with four foot stacks of books. I climbed one of the ladders and seeing it was free from obstacle, I positioned myself near the top and began pushing myself along the rail with my right arm and my right foot. After careening around large curves and long straight sections, I had to occasionally stop at the sharp turns to transfer to another ladder. I heard him behind, travelling the other side, the sound of metal on metal, the rubber wheels squealing along the floor, his vigorous and aggressive physical exertions knocking books off as he went.
When I felt I was gaining on him, my ladder shuddered to a stop almost throwing me off, but I held on with one hand and pulled myself back. The wheels had broken. Looking forward in the dim light, I couldn't see any other ladders, so I climbed up and reached for the top of the bookshelf unit and hoisted myself up. I tried to dislodge the ladder but failed. Kneeling, feeling slightly dizzy, I glanced back and I could see a hooded figure in dark clothes, his pale hands gripping the ladder as he pushed off with one foot. Standing up, I looked across the expanse of the labyrinth and found I was not too far from the centre, but if I followed the path, it would take me back in the direction of my pursuer, so I contemplated vaulting the path below to the tops of far bookshelves across from me. It was then I felt the impact of a heavy book on my shoulder thrown by my nemesis from below. He then began scaling the ladder and I picked up the book at my feet, and unable to overcome my curiosity I quickly read the title that almost did me in, Cordis Divisio, then I threw it down at him, hitting his back and stalling him momentarily. I ran along the tops of the bookshelves and could hear him following. Books skidded by me, one hit my arm, another almost hit my head. I could see that I was approaching the middle of a semi-circular arc with a straight line running towards the centre of the labyrinth, and I made my way carefully there only to find it broke to either side in short dead-ends arcs, and across from me, the circular outline of the centre. Looking back, I saw he was slowly coming towards me, still holding a book in his left hand. I ran back to the beginning of the straight path, turned around again, and ran quickly as I could and made the leap across the pathway below.
I made it across, but overshot the leap and found myself slipping over the inner edge. I was clinging to the top of the bookshelf unit, trying to find a foot hold, when I heard him land above me. Looking down I could see a large, sharply pointed sun dial on a stone pedestal. I then looked up, and the man was holding a pale hand out to me, and with the other, he began to pull back the hood on his jacket, but before I saw his face, I lost my grip and fell towards the sundial.
I then awoke and found myself in the small room aboard the ship once more. And the whole sequence started over, and over, and over. I was caught in this nightmare loop until I awoke in the hospital and not in the ship's cabin, the machines around me beeping, the nurses hovering over me, and Amelia behind them with a look of deep anxiety upon her face.
Amelia shivered, put the pages back on the toilet seat, turned the hot water tap on, slipped down into the bath, and contemplated if, and when, she would tell Duncan he'd been calling Gavin's name before awakening in the hospital.
© Ralph Patrick Mackay