Tuesday Fiction: “Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold” by Theodora Goss
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Theodora Goss. Theodora was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.
Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold
I. the sun rises in an ecstasy of brightness
When the sun rose, Alistair Berkowitz realized that he was standing on a beach. His slippers were covered with sand, and cold water was seeping up the bottoms of his pajamas. He could smell the sea, and as the mist began to dissipate he could see it, a line of gray motion closer than he had imagined. He stood beside a tidal pool, which was probably responsible for the uncomfortable feeling of wet fabric around his ankles. In it, iridescent snails crawled over a rock. In the distance, he heard the scream of a gull. He shivered. The wind off the water was cold.
Then the sun shone on the water, creating a gold pathway, and he said without thinking,
the sun rises in an ecstasy of brightness,
like a lion shaking its mane, like a chrysanthemum
“Ah, you speak English.”
Berkowitz turned so quickly that he lost a slipper and had to find it again in the sand. The man behind him was dressed in a suit of purple velvet. Dark hair hung over his eyes. It looked as though he had combed it with his fingers.
“Myself, I speak English also. My mother, when she was sober, told me my father was an English duke. When she was drunk, she told me he was a Russian sailor. Unfortunately I speak no Russian.”
Berkowitz stared at him, then looked down at his slippers and shifted his feet. Why was he wearing pajamas? He rubbed his hands in an effort to warm them. “I’m assuming,” he said, “that this is a dream. Sorry to imply that you’re a figment of my imagination.”
“Pas du tout,” said the man in the purple suit, smiling. His teeth were crooked, which gave his smile the charm of imperfection. “Although as for that, perhaps you are a—how you say?—figment of my imagination. Perhaps I am lying with my head on the table of a café in Montmartre, and Céline is drawing a mustache over my mouth with charcoal, while that scoundrel Baudelaire is laughing into his absinthe. Perhaps all of this,” he extended his arms in a gesture that took in the rocks behind them, and the sand stretching down to the water, and the sun that was rising and covering the gray sky with a wash of gold, “is all in my head. Including you, mon ami. Although why I should dream of an Englishman…”
“American,” said Berkowitz. “I’m American. From Vermont.” Then, putting his hands in his pajama pockets, he said, “I’m a professor. At a university.”
“Ah,” said the man in the purple suit. “If my father were an English duke, I might have travelled to the land of Edgar Poe. It is a difficult question. Did my mother lie when she was drunk, or when she was sober?”
“I mean,” Berkowitz continued, annoyed at the interruption. It was what he habitually said when students interrupted his lectures with ringing cell phones. “I mean, I’m not an art historian. But Baudelaire. ‘Le Visage Vert,’ about the death of the painter Eugène Valentin, poisoned by his mistress Céline la Creole. At a café in Montmartre. It makes sense for a professor of comparative literature to dream of Eugène Valentin. Not the other way around.”
Valentin looked up at the sky. “Citron, with blanc de chine and strips of gris payne. Ah, Céline. Did you love me enough to poison me?”
Berkowitz shifted his feet again, trying to knock sand off his slippers. A gull flew over them, its wings flashing black and silver in the sunlight. How much longer would he remain a professor of comparative literature? Next week was his tenure evaluation. The department chairman had never believed in his research, never recognized the importance of Marie de la Roche. No wonder he was talking to a man in a purple suit, on a beach, in pajamas.
“And is she a figment of your imagination as well?” asked Valentin.
A woman was walking toward them, along the edge of the water. Her skin had the sheen of metal, and she was entirely hairless, from her bald head to her bare genitals. She had no breasts. Berkowitz would have assumed she was a boy, except that she lacked the usual masculine accoutrements.
Berkowitz stared at her and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“If I imagined a female form,” Valentin added, “it would look like Venus, not Ganymede.”
The woman stopped a few feet away from them and, without speaking, turned and looked at the water. The two men turned as well. Between the sky and the sea, both of which were rapidly beginning to turn blue, a black speck was moving toward them.
“What is it?” he asked Valentin. He really should get glasses.
Valentin brushed his hair back from his eyes. “A ship. At last, I believe something is beginning to happen.”
* * *
II. seashells, whose curves are as intricate as madness
The harbor was built of stone blocks, so large that Berkowitz wondered how they had been moved. Like those statues on Easter Island. He looked over the side of the ship, at the waves below. If he were in someone else’s dream, he would disappear when the dreamer woke up. What did that remind him of? Humpty Dumpty, he thought, and realized that he had answered in Helen’s voice. Once, they had gone to Nantucket together. He remembered her sitting on the beach under a straw hat, taking notes for her article on the feminist implications of the Oz books. He wondered how she liked Princeton, and tenure.
He stumbled as the ship pitched and rolled.
Valentin opened his eyes. “You have kicked my elbow.” He had been asleep for the last hour, with his head on a coil of rope.
“Sorry,” said Berkowitz. The metallic woman was sitting on the other side of the deck, legs crossed and eyes closed. She seemed to be meditating. About noon, Berkowitz had decided to call her Metallica.
Valentin sat up and combed his fingers through his hair. “Have you considered that perhaps we are dead? If, as you say, I am poisoned…”
Berkowitz looked around the deck and up at the sails. “This isn’t exactly my idea of death.”
“Ah,” said Valentin. “Are they still dancing, les petits grotesques?”
They were not dancing, exactly. But they moved over the deck and among the rigging, women with the calves of soccer players below gossamer tunics, like the workings of an intricate machine.
Berkowitz said, “At first I thought they were wearing masks.”
One had the head of a cat as blue as a robin’s egg, with fins for ears. Another, the head of a parrot covered with scales, the green and yellow and orange of an angelfish. Another, a pig’s head with the beak of a toucan. This one had taken Berkowitz’s hand and said in a hoarse voice, as though just getting over the flu, “The Luminous Vessel. The Endless Sea.” Then he had realized they were not wearing masks after all. Now, they seemed to be taking down the sails.
“You know,” he said to Valentin, “I think we’ve arrived.”
Metallica rose and walked to their part of the ship. She looked over the side, at the harbor and the water below.
Berkowitz whispered, “I wonder if she’s a robot?”
“Look at their legs,” said Valentin, rising. “So firm. I wonder…”
The path from the harbor was covered with stone chips. Berkowitz felt them through his slippers, edged and uncomfortable. They walked through a thicket of bushes with small white flowers.
Ahead of him, Valentin was trying to put his arm around Catwoman’s waist. Berkowitz touched him on the shoulder. “Feathers,” he said. “Not flowers. See, on the bushes. They’re growing feathers.”
“Yes?” said Valentin. “I have made a discovery also, mon ami.” Catwoman took the opportunity to walk ahead. “She is a flirt, that one. But look, you see our silver-plated friend?” Ahead of them, Metallica and Pigwoman walked together. They were gesturing rapidly to one another.
“Are they playing a game?” asked Berkowitz.
“I think,” said Valentin, “it is a conversation.”
They emerged from the bushes. Ahead of them was a castle. At least, thought Berkowitz, it looks more like a castle than anything else. It was built of the same stone blocks as the harbor, but on one side it seemed to have grown spines. On the other, metal beams extended like a spider’s legs. Towers rose, narrowing as they spiraled upward. What did they remind him of? Something from under the sea—probably seashells. He suddenly understood why Marie de la Roche had compared seashells to madness. The castle glittered in the sunlight, as though carved from sugar.
They passed through a courtyard carpeted with moss and randomly studded with rocks, like a Zen landscape. They passed under a doorway shaped, thought Berkowitz, like the jawbone of a whale. He felt as though he were being swallowed.
The room they entered seemed to confirm that impression. It was large, with a ceiling ribbed like a whale’s skeleton. Pale light filled the room, from windows with panes like layers of milk glass. Valentin’s footsteps echoed. Berkowitz could even hear the shuffle of his slippers reverberating.
At the other end of the room, he saw robed figures, huddled together. They looked like professors in academic robes. In the moment it took for his eyes to adjust to the light, he imagined they were discussing his tenure evaluation. But when they turned, he clutched Valentin’s arm. They were not wearing masks either. One had the head of a stag, its horns tipped with inquisitive eyes. Another was a boar, with bristles like butterfly wings. Another seemed to be a serpent with spotted fur. Their robes were a random patchwork of satin, burlap, and what looked like plastic bags, held together with gold thread and bits of straw.
They moved apart to reveal an ordinary kitchen chair, painted a chipped and fading green. On it was sitting a girl in a white dress, sewn at the sleeves and hem with bleached twigs, coral beads, pieces of bone. Her hair was held back by a gold net. She looked like she had been dressed for a school play.
Pigwoman curtsied. “The Endless Sea,” she said. “The August Visitors.”
The girl rose from her chair. “Bienvenu, Monsieur Valentin. Welcome, Professor Berkowitz.” She turned toward Metallica and bowed. Metallica answered with a movement of her fingers.
“I understand you have been communicating in English,” she continued. “I shall do the same. Aeiou, of course, requires no verbal interpretation.”
The collection of vowels, Berkowitz assumed, was Metallica’s name. He stared at the girl. What had Helen told him? “Look at Alice, and Ozma. Literature, at least imaginative literature, is ruled by adolescent girls.” Then she had leaned across the library table, with her elbows on a biography of Verlaine, and asked him on their first date.
“Of course you have already learned one another’s qualifications?” She looked at them, as though expecting confirmation. “No? Well then. Eugène Valentin, perhaps most celebrated for your Narcisse à l’Enfer. Although L’Orchidée Noire, your painting of the dancer Céline la Creole, is equally magnificent, Monsieur. Professor Alistair Berkowitz, translator of the fragmentary poems of Marie de la Roche. I am, of course, addressing you chronologically. Aeiou, follower of Vasarana, the goddess of wisdom, once temple singer for the goddess.” She turned to Valentin and Berkowitz. “Her name, as you may have guessed, is a chanted prayer. I have not pronounced it correctly. Her vocal chords were surgically removed during incarceration, to prevent her from spreading the teachings of her sect. Professor, I believe you have heard of American Sign Language? She has asked me to tell you that she wishes you the blessings of wisdom.”
She looked at them, as though waiting for a response.
They looked at each other. Valentin shrugged. Then, simultaneously, Valentin said, “We are pleased to make her acquaintance,” and Berkowitz blurted, “I don’t understand. Who are you? Where are we? What kind of dream is this, anyway?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I am the Questioner. Haven’t you discussed this at all among yourselves? Surely you must have realized that you have come to the Threshold.”
* * *
III. the sea is as deep as death, and as filled with whispers
Valentin and Berkowitz stared at the mossy courtyard.
“This garden was planted to represent the known world,” said the Questioner. “The mosses, of course, represent the Endless Sea, with darker varieties for the depths, lighter for the relative shallows. And there,” she pointed to a central area where rocks were clustered, “are the Inner Islands. That gray one is your island.”
“I still don’t understand,” Berkowitz whispered to Valentin.
Valentin looked back at the doorway, where Pigwoman stood as though on guard. “I wonder if she is so firm everywhere, mon ami?” he whispered.
Berkowitz edged away from him. Did he have to share his dream with a lecherous Frenchman?
“Around the Inner Islands lies the Endless Sea,” said the Questioner, “unnavigable except in the Luminous Vessel. Anyone sailing to the Outer Islands must stop here, at the Threshold.”
She turned to them and smiled as though she had explained everything.
“I still don’t understand,” he said.
The Questioner frowned. She looked, thought Berkowitz, as though she were trying to solve an algebra problem. “Professor Berkowitz, I have tried to suit my explanation to your understanding. But you are a man of the space age. Perhaps if I call those central rocks the Inner Planets, and the mosses an Endless Space, and tell you that you can only reach the Outer Planets in the Luminous Rocketship. To a tribesmen I might speak of the Inner Huts. Aeiou, who needs no explanation, understands them as representations of Inner Consciousness. The result is the same. Tomorrow I will ask you the Question, and based on your answer you will either return to the Inner Islands, or proceed onward.”
“But I still don’t…” said Berkowitz.
“Excellent,” said Valentin. “Look, mon ami. We are from there.” He pointed to the central cluster of rocks. “But we have qualifications, as she said. You have your book, I have my paintings, and our companion of the vowels has evidently been singing. If we answer her question correctly, we will be allowed to go on.”
“But to where?” asked Berkowitz, with exasperation. He was coming to the uncomfortable conviction that, rather than dreaming, he was probably going mad. Perhaps he was at that moment being strapped into a straitjacket.
“Out, out!” said Valentin. “Have you never wanted to go out and away?”
He suddenly remembered a story he had told Helen, when they had been together for almost a year. One morning in high school, the captain of the wrestling team had locked him into the boy’s bathroom, shouting, “Man, if my name were Alistair, I would have drowned myself at birth!” He had wanted, more than anything, to go out and away. Away from the small town in New Jersey, away from his father, a small town lawyer who could not understand why he had wanted to study something as useless as literature. Helen had smiled at him across the scrambled eggs and said, “Lucky for me you had a lousy childhood.”
Perhaps that was why he had become interested in Marie de la Roche. She had wanted to go out and away. Away from her parents’ olive trees, away from the convent. He imagined her, on her cliff beside the sea, in a hut made of driftwood lashed together with rope. Each morning she climbed down its nearly perpendicular face to gather seaweed and whatever the sea had left in tidal pools: crabs, mussels, snails. Fishermen claimed her broth could revive drowned men. Each afternoon she sat on her cliff and wrote, on driftwood with sharp rocks, on scraps of her habit with cuttlefish ink, and sent the fragments flying. Fishermen believed they brought a good catch. He thought of the year he had spent studying her fragments, now in a case at the Musée National. How many had been lost, buried by sand or floating out to sea? She had found her way out, through madness and suicide. Fishermen had built a church in her honor, and in certain parts of Brittany she was still considered a saint. Was that what had fascinated him, her willingness to toss everything—her poems, herself—over a cliff?
Valentin and the Questioner were staring at him. How long had he been standing there, lost in thought?
“Perhaps,” said the Questioner, “if I showed you the Repository?”
It looked like a museum. Where the walls were not covered with shelves, they were covered with tapestries, paintings, photographs. Metal staircases twisted upward to balconies, containing more shelves. They were filled with books and scrolls, disappearing upward into the shadows of the ceiling. Toward the center of the room were glass cases filled with manuscripts, small statues, things he did not recognize. One looked like a collection of sea sponges. They passed a sculpture that looked suspiciously like the Nike of Samothrace, and the skeleton of a rhinoceros painted blue. “Not bad, that,” said Valentin, examining it with admiration.
“By those who have come to the Threshold,” said the Questioner. “I believe my collection is fairly complete.” At the end of the room was a fireplace. Over it hung Van Gogh’s Irises. She walked to a long table that looked like it belonged in a public school library. “Ah,” she said, “the collected works of Keats. I wondered where I had left it.” She opened a box on the table, which began to play music, low and melancholy, that Berkowitz faintly recognized. “Lady Day,” she said. “And of course Elihu’s Lamia.” She tapped her index finger on one of the glass cases. A green glow levitated and stretched elegant tendrils toward her, like an art nouveau octopus. “So simple, yet so satisfying.”
“My Narcisse, is it here?” asked Valentin.
“I will show it to you,” said the Questioner. “But I believe Professor Berkowitz would like to see this.” She opened a glass case and took out a scrap of fabric. “When Marie de a Roche leaped into the sea, she held this in her hand. It was the last piece of her habit. She gave it to me, when she passed through the Threshold.”
Berkowitz took the linen, which looked fresh although worn, as though it had never touched sea water. He recognized her angled writing. Mentally, he translated into rough iambs and anapests:
the sea is as deep as death, and as filled with whispers
of the past
She had been here. She had walked through the Threshold. He wondered what sort of question he would be asked, and whether he would pass the test.
* * *
IV. my mind crawls, like a snail, around one thought
Berkowitz drank through a course of tangerine fish and fish-shaped tangerines, through a course of translucent jellies. The liquid in his glass was the color of amber, and shards of gold leaf floated in it. It tasted like peaches and burned his throat going down. Every once in a while he had to peel gold leaf from his teeth.
He looked down the table and felt a throbbing start in his left temple. A woman with what looked like a flamingo on her head winked at him. The flamingo winked as well. Too much fur, too many wings, and not a single nose was the correct shape or size. The Abominable Snowman jogged his elbow.
He stared at his soup, which tasted like celery.
The Questioner leaned over to him and said, “Aeiou is a neighbor of yours. She comes from Connecticut.”
“Oh,” said Berkowitz. She smiled encouragingly, as though waiting for him to respond with something clever. He said, “Connecticut isn’t really that close to Vermont.” He tried to laugh and knocked over his bowl, which looked like a sea urchin. Soup spilled over the table.
She turned to Stagman, who was sitting on her other side.
Damn, thought Berkowitz. I’ve already failed. Who made up the rules of this game anyway?
The Questioner rose. “I believe it’s time for a quadrille. Are the musicians ready?”
They evidently were, because the music began.
The Questioner led with Stagman. Valentin, who was learning the steps as he went along, capered behind Pigwoman.
Berkowitz drank, and despised them all. He despised the musicians, playing citoles, lyres, pipes that curled like the necks of swans, and what looked like the lid of a trash can. He despised the dancers, gliding or shuffling or hopping in complicated figures he could not understand. He despised Aeiou, weaving through them in a dance of her own, and Valentin, who kept treading on Pigwoman’s toes. He despised himself, which had never been difficult for him. The department would never give him tenure. The chairman had told him that Marie de la Roche was marginal. Hell, how much more marginal could you get than an insane nun living on a cliff? He should have written a book on Baudelaire. He should have stayed in New Jersey and become a lawyer. By the time he began to despise Marie de la Roche, on her damn rock, with her damn poetry, the room was beginning to look distinctly lopsided.
“Enough,” said the Questioner. The music, which had been drifting from a waltz to cacophony, ceased. Valentin stopped abruptly and would have fallen, except that his arm was wrapped around Pigwoman’s waist. “It is time for your questions.”
Already? thought Berkowitz. I didn’t even have a chance to study.
“Tomorrow morning, as you know, I will ask each of you the Question that will determine whether you step through the Threshold.” There she went again with her “as you know.” As though they knew anything. “Tonight, however, you may each ask me a question of your own.”
Stagman brought her green chair, and she sat in the middle of the room. Light flickered from candles and oil lamps and fluorescent bulbs. That explained why the room was beginning to blur. Berkowitz pinched the bridge of his nose. Helen had been right—he should get glasses.
Valentin, who had been trying to kiss Pigwoman’s neck, stumbled and kissed the air. He must be drunk, thought Berkowitz.
“Aeiou will begin,” said the Questioner. Aeiou gestured. The pain spread to Berkowitz’s right temple. God, he needed an aspirin.
She smiled and nodded. “Your songs will be sung for a thousand years, until the factories and prisons of the Imperium return to dust, and pomegranates grow on Manhattan Island.”
Aeiou bowed her head, and metallic tears ran down her cheeks. The audience clapped.
Damn, thought Berkowitz. This must be part of the test. The Questioner looked at him. Not me, he thought. Not yet. I need time to think.
“Monsieur Valentin,” she said. “What would you like to ask me?”
Valentin looked down at the floor, then said, “Did she poison me? Céline.”
The Questioner looked amused. “Yes, in the absinthe. If you choose not to return, she will wear black orchids in your memory.” The audience clapped. The Abominable Snowman giggled, and Catwoman nudged whoever was standing beside her.
What a stupid question, thought Berkowitz. That won’t get him any brownie points. He tried to think of something profound.
The Questioner said, “And finally, Professor Berkowitz.”
Profound. What was the most profound question he could think of? He needed a hundred aspirins. She was leaning toward him, waiting for his question. Berkowitz said, “Is there a God?”
She leaned back in her chair. She seemed disappointed, or perhaps just tired. “Yes,” she said. “Once, she would visit our island. We would work in the garden together, tying back the roses. But she has grown old, and sleeps a great deal now. I do not know what will happen when—but that wasn’t your question.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the audience clapped, without enthusiasm. A thousand aspirins, that’s what he needed. Berkowitz took another drink and despised the universe.
Later, lying in bed and trying to keep the room from spinning, he thought about the test. Clearly, he had already failed. All the failures of his life gathered around him. Failing to make the soccer team because he couldn’t kick worth a damn. Failing calculus. Failing to get into Yale. Failing with Helen, who had waited for him in the kitchen, under a lightbulb he had forgotten to replace, with the letter from Princeton in her hand. “Tell me,” she had said. “How am I supposed to compete with a dead nun?” Failing his tenure evaluation, because he already knew he would fail.
Marie de la Roche had not failed. She had succeeded at going mad, at committing suicide, at becoming a saint. She had stepped through the Threshold.
The question. His mind crawled around it like a snail.
Valentin would get through, because the Questioner liked him. Look at the way she had answered him tonight. She didn’t like Berkowitz. The question. His mind crawled around and around it, in the darkness.
* * *
V. faith, like a seagull hanging in mid-air
Berkowitz woke with the sun shining on his face and a headache that made him long for swift decapitation. Seeing no sign of breakfast, he walked to the moss garden. Valentin was standing with his hands in his pockets, staring at the central rocks.
“Sleep well?” asked Berkowitz. His voice sounded unnaturally loud, and his tongue was a piece of lead covered with felt.
“No,” said Valentin. “That is, I did not sleep. She was very firm, the petit cochon.” He smiled to himself.
“What do you think the question will be?” asked Berkowitz. He had no desire to learn the details of Pigwoman’s anatomy.
Valentin shrugged and touched a rock with the tip of his shoe. “A little gray stone. Just what one would expect, no?”
Stagman walked into the courtyard. He looked at Valentin and said, “The Ambiguous Threshold.”
“My turn,” said Valentin. “The one of the vowels has already gone.”
“Good luck,” said Berkowitz.
“Mon ami,” said Valentin, “I suspect luck has nothing to do with it.”
When Valentin had gone, Berkowitz walked around the garden, looking at the Outer Islands. Rocks, no different than the ones in the central cluster. Rocks scattered across a carpet of moss.
He looked down at his pajamas. They were badly wrinkled, and one sleeve was spotted with soup. Didn’t that prove this was a dream? Showing up for an exam in pajamas. One of the classic scenarios. Lucky he wasn’t naked. He wondered if Marie de la Roche had been.
“The Ambiguous Threshold.” Stagman was waiting for him. Berkowitz felt a sudden impulse to shake him by the shoulders and beg him to say something, anything, else—to get one real answer in this place. His stomach gave a queasy rumble. They could at least have fed him breakfast.
Instead, he followed Stagman into the garden. They passed between rosebushes that seemed to whisper as he walked by. Berkowitz looked closely and realized, with distaste, that the petals on the roses were pink tongues. They passed a fountain, in which waterlilies croaked like frogs. In alcoves on either side of the path, ornamental cherries were weeping on the heads of stone nymphs that were evidently turning into foxes, owls, rabbits—or all of them at once. He brushed against a poppy, which fluttered sepals that looked like lashes.
Beyond the fountain was a hedge of Featherbushes, with an opening cut into it, like an arch. Berkowitz followed Stagman through the archway.
The hedge grew in a circle, its only opening the one they had passed through. Grass grew over the ground, so soft under his slippers that Berkowitz wanted to take them off and walk barefoot. He had often gone barefoot as a child, but he could not remember what it felt like, walking on grass. The grass was spotted with daisies that were, for once, actually daisies.
At the center of the circle was a stone arch, shaped like the arch in the hedge, but built of the same blocks as the harbor and the castle. Its top and sides were irregular, and broken blocks lay scattered on the grass beside it, as though it were the final remnant of some monumental architecture. Sitting on one of those blocks was the Questioner.
“Good morning, Professor,” she said. Today she was wearing a blue dress decorated with bits of glass. Her hair hung in two braids tied with blue ribbons.
“Good morning,” said Berkowitz, trying to put as much irony into his voice as he could with a felted tongue. The silence in the circle made him uncomfortable. Even the sound of the fountain was muted.
The Questioner rose and said, “Are you ready for the Question?”
“I guess,” he said. He looked at Stagman, waiting with his hands folded together, like the Dalai Lama. This had to be a dream.
“Would you like to step through the Threshold?”
“What,” said Berkowitz, “you mean now?”
“That is the Question, Professor. The only Question there is. Would you like to step through the Threshold?”
Berkowitz stared at her, and then at the arch. “You mean that thing?” Through it he could see the hedge, and grass spotted with daisies.
The Questioner sighed. “That thing is the Threshold. Everything you see around you, including myself, is what you might call an emanation of it. If you step through it, you will proceed to the Outer Islands.”
“So that’s the whole test?”
“There is no test,” said the Questioner. “There is only the Question. Would you like to step through the Threshold?”
“What if I don’t?” asked Berkowitz.
“You will, of course, return to the Inner Islands.”
“You mean I’ll be back at the university?”
“Yes,” said the Questioner. “You will return to your life, as though you had never left it. You will forget that you once stood on the Threshold, or you will think of it as a dream whose details you can never quite remember.”
“And if I do?”
The Questioner tugged at one of her braids. For the first time, she looked like an impatient child. “You will, of course, proceed to the Outer Islands.” She added, slowly and with emphasis, “As I have previously explained.”
“What about the university?”
“You will appear to have died. Probably of a heart attack. Your diet, Professor, is particularly conducive.” She gave him a lopsided smile, which looked almost sympathetic. “Unless you would prefer suicide?”
“Died?” said Berkowitz. “No one said anything about dying. If I go back to the Inner Islands, whatever they are, will I ever come here again?”
“No one gets more than one chance to stand on the Threshold.”
“Why?” asked Berkowitz. “Look, here are the things I want to know. What exactly are the Outer Islands? What will I be if I go there? Will I be me or something else, like a chicken man with daisies growing out of my head?”
“Enough,” said the Questioner. She was no longer smiling. “I am a questioner, not an answerer. When Marie de la Roche stepped through the Threshold, she said,
la foi, une mouette suspendue
au milieu de l’air
Professor Berkowitz, will you step through the Threshold?”
Berkowitz looked at her, standing beside the archway. He looked at the arch itself, and through it at the hedge. A breeze ruffled the feathers on the bushes.
He thought of returning to the house they had rented, without Helen. Without the smell of her vegetarian lasagna, without her voice, which would suddenly, even while reading the newspaper, begin reciting “Jabberwocky.” To his bookshelves, now relatively bare. He thought of gray rocks scattered across a moss courtyard. Of the collected works of Keats, a woman with a flamingo on her head, roses whispering as he walked by. Of the university, and his students with their ringing cell phones. Perhaps Helen would call. He did not think so.
Then he looked at Stagman, who was rubbing the side of one furred cheek. This was a dream, and next week was his tenure evaluation.
“No,” he said. The Questioner nodded with finality. He looked at her for an excruciating moment, then put his hands over his eyes. He waited to wake up.
“Professor Berkowitz Stands at the Threshold” was originally published in Polyphony 2 (April 2003). It was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 4 (2004), and in the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss (2006).
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