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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Tuesday Fiction: “The Portal Plague” by Dinesh Rao

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Dinesh Rao. Dinesh, originally from India, trained as an ecologist and specializes in the behaviour of spiders. His earlier published works include a series of science and travel articles for a newspaper in Bangalore, India. He has also published a short story in the Indian Journal of Science Fiction Studies. His blog is at http://pointsofdeparture.wordpress.com. He now lives in a small coffee town in Mexico with his wife and daughter.

This is the story’s first publication.

The Portal Plague

Dinesh Rao

I

Ganesh had chanced on the job advertisement in the back pages of a science magazine. The requirements read like the universe had sent him a personal message. Experience in mapping. Check. That time surveying stream boundaries in Southern India. Experience in navigation. Check. Two years studying the migratory habits of dragonflies in Spain. Experience in robotics. A one-year side project working on applying bee navigation techniques to develop autonomous flying machines in Australia. Fluency in English and knowledge of Spanish. Among others. He’d applied for the job and in a couple of months his life was about to change again.

Ganesh looked around the room, took a deep breath and allowed the familiar sensation of impending departure to wash over him. It had been a great time, but two years in the same job was already the longest he’d spent in any particular place, other than his childhood in India. He finished packing his bag in half an hour, felt its heft and waited for the taxi.

On the ride to the airport, he started reading a paperback novel but failed, his mind was too full of the future. A new project, a new country, and most of all, a new problem: the Portal Plague.

There was no one to receive him at the airport in Mexico City, and the hubbub prickled his ears. It had been a long time since he’d last used his Spanish, but the blur of words swirling around him were gradually coming into focus. A kindly stranger helped him get to the overnight bus to Xalapa. As the city receded, his previous life did as well, and he settled into the new one. The first days were the best, when everything was shiny and interesting, and the game was to find connections; similar and dissimilar things. Windows and mirrors.

II

The Portal Plague of Xalapa started a few years ago. No one knew exactly when or how. At first the portals were all over the news, tons of researchers studying them, daily newspaper accounts, dramatic stories. But the reports had tapered off. When the news of people dying started to spread, the government cut off access to the portals, all foreign visitors to Xalapa were screened, and prestigious projects and contracts were given only to Mexican researchers and Mexican institutions. The world protested, but there was little they could do. The bulk of the projects went to a team from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, but there were a few teams here and there around Xalapa. Everybody wanted in on the action, even though they had no idea what they were up against. A few research organizations found a loophole and advertised for seemingly innocuous research assistants and post-docs, in order to get at least some experts on the problem, but it was slow going. Meanwhile, while the politicians and the scientists squabbled, daily life in Xalapa turned into a nightmare.

The portals were invisible and borderless flattened orbs. They appeared and disappeared in highly unpredictable ways. Some were small, the size of coins, and others were large enough to swallow buses. The portals could be in the middle of roads, in cafes and on walls. So far the only way to detect a portal’s presence was a faint sulphurous smell in the air, but it was usually too late because by the time you noticed it you were already through. Normal city life had become impossible. One might be heading to an appointment at the bank and end up on the outskirts of the city in a coffee plantation. People stepping out of their houses ended up plastered in the middle of a traffic jam. There was no way to know when or where the next portal would turn up. The death rate started climbing. The government decided to tackle this by training an ad hoc army with sniffer dogs to detect the telltale portal stink. The army wandered the city looking for portals, and once one was detected they would stand in front of it waving a red rag. The portaleros, as they were called, were given red t-shirts, a convenient way for the government to advertise its party colours ahead of next year’s election. It was very much a local low tech way of dealing with the crisis, and the politicians knew that the mere appearance of doing something would be enough to keep the people from rebelling. When the portal appearances finally stabilized, the smaller ones became less frequent and, on any given day, there would be as few as twenty portals scattered all around Xalapa. Life went on, but Xalapa still felt like a city under siege.

III

Ganesh met his new boss at the cafeteria in front of the Institute. He was trying to get a cup of coffee before the meeting, but was unable to convey to the lady at the counter just how much milk he wanted in the coffee. Finally he gave up and asked for an express and milk on the side. He turned around and there she was. He recognized her from her photo on the Institute’s website. Not trusting his Spanish anymore, Ganesh introduced himself to Dr Araceli Mendoza in English. Dr Araceli was a slim, silver haired woman who spoke in rapid fire sentences. Her accent disconcerted Ganesh at first, but her manner put him at ease instantly. They may have been worlds apart, but he already knew that he would get along fine with his new boss. They small-talked their way through the coffee, and then Araceli led him to her office, perched high on the seventh floor of the building. The cloud forests surrounded the Institute, and from her window one could see all the way to the neighbouring volcano, its gleaming white tip shimmering in the clear morning air. Araceli saw him gawking and said,

-That’s the Pico de Orizaba.

Ganesh started out of his involuntary reverie.

The next hour passed in a blur of introductions — the PhD students, Raul the lanky lad from a small neighbouring town called Coatepec, exotically attired Sophia from Tlaxcala — and finally ended at the desk assigned to him. No view of the volcano for him, but it was good to have a place to put his stuff. Araceli dropped in to hand him a bunch of scientific articles, and Ganesh was left with a curious sense of dislocation. The new life was beginning, but he felt like he was still travelling, rather than having arrived.

Life soon settled into a routine. A few minutes’ walk everyday from his room in the city centre, a morning coffee at an old fashioned cafe, the bus to the Institute, climbing up the hill to the building, and catching up on his reading. Xalapa quickly started to feel like home, from the familiar sense of crowdedness to the blending in; people kept assuming he was a local and asking him for directions and such. The occasional seminars, and lab discussions, and evening explorations of the city. He started noticing the portaleros, and recognizing the smell of the portals. Every morning, he checked the newspaper, skimming over the headlines, but focussing on the daily portal report. Previous studies, done in part by Araceli’s group, had established that now the Portals were persistent for an average of 13.5 hours, and this allowed the newspaper to collate information about the latest sighting. And since citizens were keen on informing the newspaper about new ones, it was getting easier to spot and track a portal. Ganesh knew that he could just as well use their specialized software for tracking portals, but there was a sense of shared endeavour in reading the reports in the newspaper. Some portal news was always present on the front pages, usually dramatic stories, like a maid who stepped out to buy maize flour and ended up on the balcony of the Governor’s Palace downtown, or the cyclist who almost drowned when he inadvertently emerged in the lakes around the University.

Ganesh’s first encounter with the portals was almost an anticlimax. One morning, on the way to the bus, he smelled the sulphurous stink, but failed to react in time to avoid the telltale orb of blurry air. A click, a snap and a whirr later he was standing on the road in front of the Institute. He took one step, caught his breath, stilled his crazily beating heart with a long deep breath, and looked behind him, and there it was. The telltale smell and the blurry air. He pulled out a page from his notebook and wrote in big letters, PORTAL AQUI! CUIDADO!, and affixed the warning on a tree next to the portal. The whole group later visited it to take some measurements, and this portal was assigned a code bearing his initials. Ganesh found this gesture gratifying. At the end of the day, he took a chance. He decided to save himself the bus ride back home by travelling via portal. Telling no one, because that would be crazy, he waited till there were no people around, and stepped into the blurry orb. The same suddenness enveloped him, and when he focussed his eyes again, he was standing on the side of the road in the tunnel under the Parque Juarez, about to be hit by a scooter. Indian instincts, long honed in the art of avoiding insane traffic, saved him. He leapt out of the way, reaching the side of the tunnel just in time, but not fast enough to avoid the scooter’s mirror, which dinged his elbow hard.

The next day, Ganesh excitedly recounted his experience to Araceli, and got an earful in return.

-What! Are you crazy? How could you do such a thing? You could have been killed! Maybe I didn’t warn you enough, but I never imagined you would take such a risk.

Ganesh stood dumbfounded.

-Read this article, maybe then you’ll understand what we’re facing here.

She rummaged through her desk and produced an article written by the UNAM team, collating the fates of the hundreds of people who had been through the portals. Thirty-five per cent ended in death or accident. Ganesh felt a flush spreading across his face, and a much delayed adrenaline rush.

He stammered,

-I won’t do it again. I don’t know what I was thinking.

-Yeah, it’s my fault, I didn’t warn you enough. I will assign one of my lab people to watch over you.

-No that won’t be necessary, I think I get it now.

Araceli looked unconvinced. An awkward pause followed, her angry words still ringing in his ear.

Suddenly she said,

-But you know, that’s really interesting. We had assumed that the portals connected one region of Xalapa to another, and that they were two-way. You’ve shown very dramatically that they are not. Which changes everything. In fact you just about managed to ruin an ongoing project, but in a good way. Now we have some tangible evidence that the portals function very differently. Let me… give me a minute…

She turned to her computer and launched the portal-modelling software, and started fiddling with the parameters. Ganesh stood there for a while, but Araceli paid him no attention. Ganesh watched her manipulate the program, she fluently swooped and soared between the panels and the sub-panels, clicking and clacking, flitting around the options so fast that it was almost impossible to follow. Finally she leaned back in her chair, took a short breath and pressed RUN. The computer wheezed.

She turned to him and said,

-This will take a while, but the problem now is much more complicated. The mapping will have to be reconsidered entirely. I think our next step is to finish the probes as soon as possible. How’s it coming along?

Ganesh had started reprogramming the probe software based on the insect flight work he’d done earlier.

-So far so good. I don’t know if the tracking will work when the probe is within the portal though.

-Only one way to know. Tell me when it’s done, we’ll organize a pilot study.

IV

A few weeks passed, the incessant dripping rain – the famous chipi chipi – eased slightly, and it was time to test the probe. Araceli, Ganesh, and the rest of the lab went to a known stable portal and, with the help of the portalero, set up their equipment. The portal hovered just outside a famous local baker’s shop, whose owner was annoyed that he could smell the portal stink over the aroma of fresh bread. They knew where the probe would end up, just a couple of blocks away. Araceli and Ganesh stayed at the entry point, while Raul and Sophia headed off to the purported exit point. Araceli busied herself with the laptop, checking and rechecking the parameters, and finally seemed to be satisfied with the preparations.

Ganesh said,

-I hope it works.

-It should. I can’t think of what might go wrong, at least from our side. We need to get this project going very soon.

Ganesh knew that Araceli was under a lot of pressure to produce some results. The funding agency demanded monthly reports and, to add to the stress, the UNAM team kept firing out papers in rapid succession. He said,

-The UNAM team had another paper out yesterday.

Araceli nodded,

-Yes, I saw the title, but haven’t read it yet. I’m sure it’s another cookie cutter article, rehashing the same stuff. They must have a paper writing machine stashed away somewhere.

-How come I never see them around here? They must be here somewhere.

-They do quick visits, mostly, and besides most of their work is theoretical stuff, so why leave the comfort of the lab?

* * *

The walkie-talkie crackled. They heard Sophia’s voice, over the sing-song cry of a tamale vendor,

-We’re at the exit portal, we got two portaleros to chase away people, and we’re ready.

-Alright then, keep in touch.

* * *

Ganesh turned on the probe. It hovered just in front of his face. He directed its movement with a hacked radio-controller, and Araceli confirmed with her laptop that the probe was indeed being tracked.

Ganesh slowly walked behind the hovering probe to the edge of the portal, and with a final glance backward pushed it into the blurry air. The portal made a tiny popping noise, and the probe disappeared. Immediately, even before Ganesh could turn to Araceli, Sophia buzzed them excitedly,

-GOT IT! IT WORKS!

Araceli looked up from the laptop, and said,

-OK, that’s really good. Let’s wrap up and meet at the cafe.

* * *

Sophia later recounted how the probe hadn’t flown through but rather crashed through. Falling down, as if it had run out of batteries. They would review the data later, but it seemed like the batteries were almost instantly drained when the probe passed through the portal. Araceli was very pleased; they had a tangible result, and now it was simply a matter of scaling up. They started downloading the probe’s data feed, and it was then they noticed the irregularities. The internal clock showed that the probe had been active for five hours. The GPS tracker showed hundreds of data points. The housing of the probe was showing wear and tear even though it was brand new.

The team discussed the pilot study all morning, and it was apparent that even the single probe had generated a wealth of hypotheses. They argued over the irregularities, but it was too soon to say anything. However, Araceli was now more convinced than ever that the portals were some sort of terrestrial wormhole.

Ganesh added,

-And the inside bigger than the outside?

-Yes, we really have to get a camera on the probe. And start the mapping. And fast. We really need to get some data out before the government decides that the UNAM team needs the money more.

Araceli and Raul stayed back in the lab, and Ganesh and Sophia headed back home. Sophia lived quite close to where Ganesh was staying, and she offered him a ride in her old VW Beetle. Sophia was a bit of an amateur linguist, she learnt languages with ease. She spoke some English, and jumped at the chance at practicing. They stopped at a cafe.

Sophia asked,

-How long have you been away from home?

-Oh, around ten, fifteen years or so… Ever since my parents passed away, I’ve found fewer and fewer reasons to go back.

-No family back home?

-Well, I have a brother, but we haven’t spoken in a while. I haven’t even been to India in years.

-That is very sad. You must be always leaving, never staying.

-I suppose it is. But I quite enjoy being a modern nomad, I don’t think I can put down roots anywhere.

-What about Xalapa?

-I really like it here, but then I’ve also really liked the other places I’ve been. But what about you? I know you’re from a different city, what was it…?

-Tlaxcala. It’s to the west, but very close. Maybe we can go there one day, it would be fun to show you around. We normally get tourists from rich countries here, and they always say the same things: the traffic is crazy, everything in disorganized. But you see things differently, no?

Ganesh laughed,

-This is very easy after India. It’s comfortable here: not so organized, not so chaotic.

They chatted into the night, sharing stories and histories, tracing their trajectories through time and space and probabilities. Ganesh relaxed and opened up, as if the recital of experiences made him more assured. All his life he’d felt that his varied history was leading up to something, and he wondered again if this was what he was meant to do.

While saying goodbye, Ganesh discovered that it was much later than he’d realized, and the time spent with Sophia had felt just like a few minutes. Always a good sign, he thought, as they parted reluctantly.

V

The weeks passed by in a blur. Those days of leaving the lab at 4pm to wander through the city and take in the sights were over. Ever since the pilot study, Ganesh and the others had been putting probes in portals, retrieving them, downloading the data and mapping the portals’ locations and the interior distance of the transits. While it sounded simple in theory, they had no idea where the portals would send the probes to, and so they mostly worked on the reported ones. They scanned the portal report in the local newspaper and assembled a list of portals that they could use. They chose the easiest ones, since they had no way of accessing the portals that were hovering above the lake or high up next to the seventh floor of a building. Meanwhile the death toll increased, despite an increase in the number of portaleros. Election fever was heating up, and the governor was getting very nervous that his management of the portals would affect his party’s chances in the elections. More and more money was suddenly poured into the problem. Some of it did trickle down to Araceli’s group, but not enough to change the scale of the investigation.

And then everything changed. The portals changed. And people started disappearing frequently. Probes started disappearing. The pressure on the government grew intense, and Xalapa’s governor started haemorrhaging money, but mostly to fund advertising campaigns to show that he was doing something about the problem. There was talk that the military would get involved, but nobody expected any good to come out of that. The disappearances were very worrying, and the situation took a sharp turn for the worse when a prominent politician disappeared. The politician’s family started raising hell, and suddenly the Portal Plague was back on the front pages of the newspapers. Many countries offered their support and aid, but were always refused, the government saying that this was an internal matter.

Araceli’s lab now looked like a military command post; maps were strewn all around, one entire side was scattered with cameras and probe parts. The walkie talkie crackled from time to time, and people were always walking in and out. Araceli called an emergency lab meeting and everybody assembled around a table.

Araceli said,

-I have some news. One of the portals is stable. I mean really stable. It hasn’t changed since we started tracking them. It’s the only one that we know that hasn’t disappeared, so we’re going to focus our attention on it. I also have bad news. Well, bad for us. The rumours are that the UNAM team is very close to making a breakthrough, so it’s now a sprint. No more leisurely make-hypothesis-and-test-it kind of science.

Raul said,

-What kind of breakthrough?

-I’m not entirely sure. They’ve been very hush-hush from the beginning, but their last paper made me think that they are trying to predict where the next portal will appear.

They all laughed at that. Everybody had seen the giant portal map that was updated daily; trying to predict the portals was like trying to predict where raindrops would fall.

Araceli continued,

-I’ve decided to enter the stable portal. I’ve done all the analyses I can think of, and it seems that the probes entering the stable portal always end up in the corner of the street Callejon del Diamante. The time taken to traverse is negligible. It’s a very quick mission, we go in, measure all we can and come out. Raul and Sophia, you two can monitor me from the outside.

Ganesh was instantly alarmed,

-But what if the portal changes again?

-That’s why we have to do this now, as soon as possible. Of course there is a risk that the portal would send us elsewhere, but the probabilities are on our side. Ganesh, you must also help Raul and Sophia monitor us.

Both Raul and Sophia insisted on going in with Araceli, and finally they decided that only Ganesh would stay back. The meeting broke up in a flurry of activity. They started gathering all their equipment in preparation for the transit.

Ganesh helped them get ready and they decided to meet early next morning, at dawn, to minimize any interference from casual onlookers.

VI

Early next morning, Ganesh got a sudden glimpse of the suntipped Pico de Orizaba as he rounded a corner on the way to the Plaza Xallitic. He hadn’t seen the volcano since his first day; the horizon had always been cloudy. Seeing it reminded him that he was here, in Xalapa, in Mexico. He felt a twinge at the thought of being in such a dramatic landscape, and it simultaneously reminded him that he was so far from India. It had been years since he had any normal connection with his hometown, but even his many years of scientific nomadism couldn’t take away the feeling that no matter how far or how comfortable he was in a foreign country, it would never be home. After so many years outside, even home was no longer home: his city had grown in the meantime, and every trip back felt like visiting an old friend who had had plastic surgery done.

Lost in thought, Ganesh arrived at the rendezvous spot in the small fog-encrusted plaza. Araceli was already there, tapping away at her laptop. Sophia and Raul arrived soon after. They exchanged pleasantries shivering with the morning chill. Or nervousness, thought Ganesh.

Araceli took a look around, checked her laptop one last time before handing it to Ganesh, picked up her bag, and said,

-Alright, everything ready? OK – let’s go. Ganesh, we’ll meet you at the Callejon del Diamante.

They stepped up to the portal and one by one entered the blurry orb. Ganesh watched them disappear, and the tracking program came to life. He watched the three dots on the screen, moving this way and that, and then settling down. He knew that they would have already arrived at the exit. He packed up the bag, and started walking towards the Callejon at a brisk pace.

Xalapa was coming alive with activity. Joggers brushed past him, the gas truck went by playing its distinctive jingle. The portaleros had already taken their positions, their red shirts dotting the roads. Ganesh arrived at the exit point, expecting to see a portalero, but there was nobody there. He looked around, thinking he had mistaken the location, and saw that the portalero in question was just arriving at his spot. But the team was not there. Ganesh looked around anxiously, his heart beating faster with every passing minute. He pulled out the laptop and checked the tracker, but it was of little use: the dots had disappeared.

Not knowing what to do, he waited the whole morning at the Callejon del Diamante, stared at by curious onlookers and the knickknack sellers who were setting up their stalls. And then, after a few hours, it was clear that something had gone wrong. Ganesh tried calling them on the cellphone, and the walkie-talkie, thinking maybe they’d ended up at a different exit point, but he got no answer. The team was trapped inside. Sophia was trapped inside.

Ganesh made his way back to the Institute. He greeted his acquaintances mechanically. The lab looked large and empty, still strewn with maps and equipment. He turned on the main computer, and waited for the portal-modelling program to load. To his relief, he saw that the stable portal was still stable, which meant there was a chance that Araceli and the others could be reached. He re-ran the analysis of the probes that had been introduced into the stable portal. All of them made it out through the expected exit. Something must have changed. Some new factor, some parameter. If only there was a pattern. Ganesh knew, even if he did not want to admit it yet, that he would have to go in himself, but he wanted to be sure that there was no other option. He printed out the locations of the latest portals, he ran an animation of all the portals, trying to see a pattern in their appearances; he tried locating the tracking device; and, finally, when the sun was already low and the famous Xalapa fog was enveloping everything in its gloom, he pushed back his chair and closed his eyes in exhaustion. This was getting nowhere.

In the next couple of days, Ganesh tried everything he could think of. He re-read all the papers he could find. He even contacted the UNAM team, only to be met with complete indifference. He ran and reran the data from the probes, and puzzled over the data points of the trackers. He had to tell the director of the Institute what had happened, and fielded anxious calls from the relatives and friends of Araceli, Raul and Sophia. He pushed a probe into the stable portal, and it ended up as expected in the Callejon del Diamante. Ganesh realized that the stable portal had a stable entry but not a stable exit point. So he reran all the analysis focussing on exit points, and printed out a huge map.

The days seemed to fly by, but Ganesh felt like he was running flat out on a treadmill. One night, on his way back, he stopped at a cafe, and scanned the local newspaper. He finished skimming the latest portal news, and by chance turned to the cultural section, where there was an article on rangoli, of all things. Seeing the familiar drawing flooded his mind with childhood memories of helping the maid draw the auspicious intricate chalk mandalas on the floor in front of his house. He stared at the illustration for a while, finished his coffee, and headed home. He was about to turn the key in his lock, when the answer flashed in his mind, almost without conscious effort. The portals were not discrete, they were all connected, like rangoli. And he had the data to prove it.

VII

Ganesh adjusted his backpack, crammed with supplies. He’d done all he could to tell people what he’d found out, left enough detailed instructions that anyone could follow. He knew that once the pattern was found, it would only be a matter of time before the portals would be thoroughly studied and modified for human use. The human race was on the brink of a completely new transportation system.

The rangoli scheme he’d come up with had solved the problem. When Ganesh played all the portals’ appearances and disappearances as an animation over time and space, it was apparent that the portals swirled in time, and the connections were plain to the eye. It took a little more time to figure out a general scheme to predict where a person entering the portal would exit, and a little longer to plug in the special equations for the stable portal. In the end, Ganesh had a fairly good idea on how to catch up with the missing team. They must be stuck somewhere in between portals, or stuck in a loop of entering and exiting. But he knew now that he had to enter the stable portal, not early in the morning like last time, but at four in the afternoon, and there was a chance their trajectories could be synchronized.

He arrived at the portal, stood in the shelter of a doorway and readied himself for the entry. He had a probe in his backpack, a small computer, and a camera in his hand. This time it would be well documented. At 4pm exactly, he stepped into the stable portal. Everything blurred for a moment, and instead of popping out on the other side, he experienced a series of fast changing landscapes. Sunlight, daylight, night and cities and villages sped past him almost too fast to be seen. He flashed by towering black buildings that gleamed, and wide unbroken forests, a sandy beach and hills, and finally after a series of heart lurching moments popped out into a small square. He had made it through – to somewhere.

Ganesh looked around. Everything looked awfully familiar, but he couldn’t place the memory. It must be a part of Xalapa he had never been in before, but everything looked different, as if it was a different state or even country. There was a market in front of him, and he walked up to one of the corn sellers and asked her what the name of the place was. She looked up, a blank expression on her face and spoke something. He failed to understand her.

Ganesh’s Spanish was not great, but he knew he had made immense strides in the last few months. Bewildered, he asked again, but the lady spoke gibberish to him. Finally he realized,

Ah, she doesn’t speak Spanish.

Which was very weird.

He turned away, and approached a guy sitting behind towering piles of multi-coloured beans. Waiting a moment to get his attention, he spoke as clearly as he could.

-Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Parque Juarez?

referring to the city centre, thinking that once he made it to downtown, he could find his bearings easier.

The man turned to him, and spoke a few words, and it was clear that he had no idea what Ganesh was saying. Again, the man spoke in a fast sing-song voice filled with TZs, TNs and TLs.

This was not working. Ganesh decided to wander around, camera in hand, recording everything. He turned a corner and lo, in the distance the Pico de Orizaba stood, all lit up by the evening sun. But something was wrong: the tip of the mountain was gone. The perfect peak of the volcano had been replaced by a flat top. He struggled to understand, he felt tired with the mental calculations. But even before he finished the thought he realized where he was. He was right in the centre, right where Parque Juarez should have been. Except, the city looked nothing like Xalapa. Instead of a paved leafy park dotted with Haya trees, he was in a plaza that ended in a small stepped pyramid. The square was packed with temporary stalls, hundreds of people thronged around. They were all dressed in bright colours, some wearing feathered headdresses. A loudspeaker filled the air with music, but it was a kind of pop music dominated by whistles and bells. He could not understand a single word. He wandered around the square, bumping against the people, attracting stares everywhere. His Indian skin no longer provided him with camouflage, he now stood out among the paler skinned people.

On top of the small pyramid, a ceremony seemed to be in progress, and people climbed up the steps snakelike, swaying side to side. A big cauldron of fire burned at the top, and the people went right up to it. He joined the line, fending off queries, miming his lack of knowledge of the language. Right at the top, just before the line of people went into the small temple, he was stopped by two burly men, clad only in loin cloths, their oiled muscles gleaming. He understood that he was barred from entry. Ganesh turned away in good grace. He’d often seen foreigners denied entry into temples, back in India; this was no different. But being at the top of the pyramid gave him a great vantage point to survey the city and video everything he could.

The familiar narrow lanes were still there, but the houses had changed. Xalapa’s trademark tiled roofs were gone, and the colours were curiously uniform. Most houses were painted in a few main colours, and the cityscape was oddly harmonious. The ceremony went on behind him, and loudspeakers carried the hymns out into the plaza, and people milled around, trying to get in, trying to get out. The thick fruity aroma of copal filled the air, and hawkers and knickknack sellers kept bumping into him. Ganesh decided to head down. He went around the temple, past the cages of Xoloitzcuintle dogs, and headed down the pyramid on the other side, taking care with each step, so as to not topple down into the line of people. A few of the people were dressed in a sort of western fashion, but the majority wore brightly coloured robes and shawls. Ganesh reached the bottom of the pyramid, and wandered slowly through the city.

The streets were narrow, and small alleys led off from time to time, with corners often etched with the name of the street and a representation of some god or other. Ganesh noticed shops in unexpected locations, and people sat on stools in front of snack sellers. He rounded a corner and there, in a cafe of sorts, spotted Araceli, Raul and Sophia, sipping some hot chocolate, their bags piled around them, trying not to attract attention. He went up to them, a big grin forming on his face. Sophia spotted him first, and rattled the table as she got up and hugged him. A flurry of greetings later, Ganesh heard their story. They’d shunted from portal to portal before ending up here.

Ganesh asked,

-But is this Xalapa?

Araceli replied,

-Yes, it’s Xalapa, alright, but it feels like Xalapa in a Mexico where the Spaniards never arrived. They’re mostly speaking Nahuatl, and some Totonac, but it looks like Nahuatl is the dominant one. Look at the signs.

Ganesh looked at the names of the stores. They were written in Roman script, and below the big names, there was something else, written in the same script.

Araceli continued,

-They are using both languages.

-You can speak Nahuatl?

Araceli shook her head,

-Sophia does. Apparently it’s a very weird form of Nahuatl that she speaks, and everybody is very amused with her accent, but we have been managing to communicate. Somewhat.

Raul and Sophia were furiously arguing about something, but the Spanish was too fast to follow.

Araceli said,

-They are debating how to get back to our Xalapa. Again. But tell me, Ganesh, how in the world did you find us?

Ganesh briefly recounted his investigations, and his findings. He pulled out the laptop, and showed them the portal patterns. Araceli looked impressed.

Raul suddenly exploded,

-We need to go back. Somehow. This is a crazy haunted place. I’m not even sure we’re alive.

An awkward silence, and the team retreated a bit from the stares of the people around them.

Araceli nodded,

-OK, we must be going.

She pulled out her purse and looked closely at a few oval coins, consulted with Sophia, who haltingly asked a passing waiter how much to pay. She clinked the coins into a bowl made of a gourd. Ganesh picked up one of the coins; they were heavy, and decorated with Aztec motifs.

Araceli said,

-We sold some stuff at a shop earlier. Mexican pesos are no good here.

They packed their bags and headed out to the plaza. They found a quiet spot under a fantastic sculpture of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, and took stock of the situation. Raul said,

-We have GPS coordinates of the portals, maybe we can find the one corresponding to the exit point in Callejon del Diamante?

Araceli said,

-But how can we be sure that the positions are valid? We could end up in a place even more bizarre.

Ganesh said,

-I’m not even sure there are portals here.

Sophia was busy scribbling in her journal.

They argued back and forth for many minutes, and Ganesh could sense the anxiety in their voices. The argument was starting to get heated when Sophia interrupted them.

-I think there’s somebody coming to talk to us.

A man wearing a ceremonial robe arrived at their group, looked at them intently, and spoke to Ganesh, evidently deciding that he was their leader.

Sophia interpreted,

-He says he is worried about us, or angry, I’m not sure, but he wants us to go meet someone. I think someone important, because he used the word for god.

The man made follow-me movements, and so they followed him.

VIII

They were asked to wait in a leafy covered courtyard of a large house, well hidden from the outside world. The bright yellow walls seemed to emanate sunlight. They sat on huge chunky wooden chairs, and looked around. Soon they heard voices, and Araceli looked at Sophia, but she just shook her head and said,

-No. Totonac. I think.

A slender bald man came in, did a curious gesture with his hands, and spoke fluid French to them.
The team looked around, but none of them knew any French. The bald man switched back to Nahuatl then, and Sophia provided a simultaneous translation.

I know that you are not demons, I mean, foreigners… You are visitors from another world; we have had a few of you, but they all die or disappear, but you are the first who speak the language of the gods, so we are… I don’t know the word… You must return, the balance is being hidden, no, lost, and it is very dangerous, I cannot hold them back? I don’t know who he means… I will show you how to get out of here, but I cannot tell you how to get back to where you came from… It is very important that you must go… our world is getting polluted with your world’s problems… you must try to stop it before the summer? No, he said solstice, or it will be too late… I don’t understand that sentence at all.

-Keep going, said Araceli.

Meet me here at midnight, I will tell the guards to expect you.

The man abruptly got up, did the hand gesture again, and left.

* * *

At midnight, they returned to the house. They were ushered inside. The bald man was waiting for them. He silently led them through the strange but familiar streets towards the central plaza. It was a cold gloomy night, the fog had descended, enveloping everything; the street lamps had a halo of blue. They walked along the narrow streets until they arrived at the base of the pyramid. The bald man pulled out an aerophone, a small clay bird-shaped flute, and blew it twice. When he heard an answering trill, they proceeded to climb the pyramid. Ganesh surreptitiously turned his video on. At the very top, they rested, breathing heavily, knees twinging. Another man came from within the temple, and the bald man spoke to him quickly. Sophia strained to hear the words, but she didn’t catch anything.

Then both of them turned to the team and the bald man spoke,

-This way, follow me.

They entered the temple at the top. The temple was dark, with only a few oil lamps casting strange shadows everywhere. The walls were covered with etchings, and even in the darkness Ganesh could make out vast vistas of colour. They proceeded to one room at the side of the temple, and lo, a familiar smell, the stink of the portal. The bald man lit a small lamp, and they could see the blurry orb. It was obvious what the bald man wanted them to do, return to wherever they came from. But Ganesh and the others knew that the portal might send them anywhere, and they couldn’t take the chance. Not without checking it first. They huddled around the laptop, took some co-ordinates and ran Ganesh’s program for calculating trajectories. If the portal locations matched, then they should emerge right on the bridge over Xallitic Plaza. If the portal took them back to their Xalapa and not some other destination. They decided to go through. One by one they flickered into the orb, and their last view of the other Xalapa was the bald man’s lamp-lit impassive face.

IX

Sudden daylight, and they blinked to see that the calculations were exact. All four of them were standing on the bridge, the hubbub of Xalapa surrounding them.

-But is this Our Xalapa? asked Raul.

—I don’t know, said Araceli, but I have a quick way to find out. She pulled out her phone and made a call. A brief conversation later, she turned back to the team and smiled.

-Yes, it is! We’re back.

They hugged briefly and, almost without a further word or goodbye, they all scattered in different directions.

The next few days passed in a blur. There were relatives to contact, to reassure, and paperwork to tackle and data to analyse. The team spent long hours in the lab, lost in a haze of intense concentration. Sophia was in charge of transcribing all the conversations they’d recorded, and she was brushing up on her Nahuatl, while Raul assisted Ganesh with the maps and trajectories. They adapted Ganesh’s rangoli-inspired pattern seeker program to the new data, and Araceli collated the results into a rough manuscript form. She contacted anthropologists, archaeologists and ethnomusicologists: this was going to make her name.

Ganesh briefly thought of calling his estranged brother, punched in the numbers and then hung up. He thought,

-He’s probably closing some business deal in China or something…

Xalapa seemed to be getting worse. People were more and more afraid to leave their houses, the streets were deserted. Passing by downtown one day, Ganesh felt like the city was under curfew. Armed soldiers wandered the streets holding huge guns and chatting idly. The governor declared a state of emergency, and international pressure was starting to bend the government to allow in outside help. Helicopters flitted about and, since the portals were never detected at that height, it became the safest way for politicians to travel.

More portal investigation teams started arriving in Xalapa. Soon the only people on the streets were the scientists and the military. Unable to survive, there was a mass exodus of people to the neighbouring town of Coatepec, which became jammed, and quite unable to cope with the influx. Almost overnight, Coatepec lost its fame as a sleepy coffee town. The government had already transferred itself to the port of Veracruz, and it looked like Xalapa would soon go back to a sleepy mountain town as it was before it became the state capital.

In the Institute, more money was thrown at Araceli’s team, even though nobody outside of the team knew what they’d found. Araceli made everyone swear to secrecy; she knew that the slightest hint of an “Other Xalapa”, without a proper presentation, would doom their efforts. She was also anticipating the impact the paper would make, and decided to host a press conference once the analysis was ready.

And, finally, almost a month since the day they got out of the portal system, Araceli declared that she was ready to present the results to the public. She set up a date, booked a conference room in the Institute, and then contacted the major Xalapa newspaper, the Diario de Xalapa. The reporter who dealt with her advised her to change the date, there was another press conference that day, at almost the same time.

Araceli was about to agree, when something made her inquire what was going on.

The reporter said, almost offhandedly, that the UNAM team were holding a session, and no, he didn’t know about what; but apparently it was going to be a big one.

X

After the UNAM team’s press conference, Araceli and Ganesh stood outside the building, too shaken to speak, smoking furiously. For Ganesh, it meant that he could see the end of yet another project, but Araceli looked devastated.

The UNAM team had triumphantly demonstrated a technique for collapsing the portals. They’d set up their equipment in front of one of the portals and, with the flick of a switch, and a sudden sharp explosion, the stench of the portal faded and the blurry orb disappeared into a haze of bitter smoke. One of the technicians walked through the spot where the portal was, to show that Xalapa could now be made safe again. They had already assembled a team of portal defusers whose job was to go around Xalapa and get rid of the portals.

The governor was ecstatic, the press were fawning, and the people of Xalapa were relieved that their long nightmare year was finally coming to an end. There was talk of special honours for the UNAM team, and the next day every newspaper would scream HEROES! The governor declared a day of celebration. All day long the sound of blowing up portals filled Xalapa.

Ganesh asked Araceli,

-What will you do now?

-I don’t know. I think I can still get the paper published, but it will be difficult. I feel like an animal researcher whose subject has just become extinct. I think I will wrap up loose ends as best as I can, and move on to something else.

-Do you think they’ll leave a few, just to study them?

-No chance, Araceli said bitterly. The portals have always been viewed as a menace. Everybody will be happy to see the end of this plague.

Later, at the Institute, the lab was in mourning, all their maps and probes mocking them. Sophia was packing away her Nahuatl books. Raul turned up late; he had been out watching the portal collapses. He reported that the stable portal was gone; Ganesh felt a pang at hearing that. Araceli took one look around, and told everyone to start getting the lab back into shape, and they began clearing things away, silently, each lost in thought, and each object they moved triggered memories.

By the end of the day, the lab looked completely different and, as they stepped out, the setting sun filled the surprisingly clear sky with a pale orange light, and the faint silhouette of the volcano faded into the dusk.

Ganesh looked at the volcano, and told the others that he would stay and watch the sunset. Sophia looked up sharply and said she would stay as well, and the others left.

For many minutes, they watched the sunlight dissipate, and the first stars emerge. Sophia said,

-Are you going to leave?

-Probably. I will find another project somewhere and start all over again. It’s like I cannot possibly stay in one place for more than a year.

-Have you any ideas?

-Not right now, but there is an opening in Sweden that I might apply for, even though the thought of going to a cold place scares me. But the thing is to keep moving…

-Don’t go, Sophia blurted.

Ganesh turned to face her; Sophia was looking at him intently, eyes unwavering, voice trembling.

-Don’t go? But what will I do here now?

-You can always find something. Or someone.

Don’t go. The very thought was alien to him. With no ties anywhere, no family to go back to, the idea of staying, of resting, suddenly grew alluring, like a virus infecting his mind, spreading with breakneck speed.

Don’t go. Stay.

He held out his hand experimentally, and Sophia took it unhesitatingly. It had taken him a decade, but he was finally finding a reason to stay.

THE END

May 22, 2012 Posted by | May 2012, Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Theodora Goss

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
discovering itself

“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.

END

“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).

May 8, 2012 Posted by | May 2012, Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off on Tuesday Fiction: “Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold” by Theodora Goss

   

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