Illustrations by Neil Peter Dyck
“Some heads are more haunted than others, whether they are haunted by ghosts or by gods or by creatures from outer space. These are not real things. Nevertheless, they are indicative of real forces, animating and even creative forces, which your head only conceives to be some kind of spook or who knows what…” — Thomas Ligotti
Though Georg hadn’t thought of April in weeks, she inhabited a murky region in his mind. It wasn’t deliberate on her part. He made nearly continuous mock attempts at pushing her out. To send her packing. But just a simple message, “In Seattle”, was enough to confirm that all places, objects and ideas related to an aesthetic atmosphere she gave off, or lack thereof. Now, he was looking out the window of a DC-10 on the way to Montreal, daydreaming April, seeing her in the contortions of the clouds. Thinking of her sitting beside him, telling him how the tomato juice tasted, what the clouds scientifically consisted of. The illuminative fluff.
Georg had recently read a short story called “The Ashes” broken into two parts across two issues in a small-run Vancouver art-focused magazine. Coincidentally, as the plane reached 30,000 feet, he noticed that he was crossing the same relative vertical space to one described by the grey-eyed man at the start of the second and final instalment of the story:
‘“If a helicopter ride were organized,” he’d intoned, “say by a Parks Canada ranger, over a region of the Cascade Mountains fifty-five kilometres from the border up around Lightning Lakes, one would be witness to many things people from cities know little about. The hydration hour of deer. The treeline as a topographical measurement. The canoeing habits of humans. One might even sense us hiking there — the residue of our existence — along placid azure lakes beneath the canvas of a deep green forest, the lakes connected by string-like streams and merging marshland. Only occasionally, due to the tight knit of tree cover, would a dab of a flesh tone from one of the companions appear from under the green along the edge of the blue where the trail sometimes peered out.”’
Georg was above this same point, more or less, give or take thousands of feet. He strained to see signs of any bodies of water below. April had also read “The Ashes Part I”, lost interest and moved onto something else, as was her wont and right. But now that Georg, himself crossing this axis above the story and thinking about April only three hundred kilometres due southwest, decided — not noticing that he’d decided — it would be prudent to either tell her about this conspiracy of chance, or simply send her his wrinkled — from mistreatment not usage — copy of “The Ashes Part II”, if he wangled her address. He pondered writing an analysis of the characters Darnia and Althea and how they related to April. He knew she was intrigued by circumstances paralleling and going beyond her own, those definitions of self always in flux as it related, however distantly, to the cross-cultural humanitarian work she was employed in, which she performed under duress and in volatile social conditions. Despite the mental strain, somehow, she was able to remain unchanged. These work strategies, he noted, were rarely relevant to how she lived herself. On second thought, writing such a critique would simply reveal again why she was in Seattle and not marginally closer.
Georg pulled the magazine out of his computer bag and reread the epigraph. It was a poem by Li Shang-Yin called “Lady of the Moon”. It went: “Now lamplight shades deepen on screens inlaid,/Whilst stars of morn fall with the Galaxy:/Her stolen magic draught moans the Moon-maid,/Stranded by seas of jade in yon blue sky.” Seas of jade, Georg mused again to himself. Like the green forests below him? Georg assumed the connection of the poem lay with Althea, the Chinese literature scholar. He read on, folding the magazine over, where the man with the grey eyes had left off, skimming here and there as whim took him. The man who spoke in the words of Kyle Giesbrecht to Kyle within Kyle’s dream. Behind every page or behind Georg’s own eyes he saw an after-dimensional April written in the terms of his own memory, the fabricated meaning that he decided was at best inexplicable and at most elusive.
‘“It was a two-hour hike to Flash Lake, a wilderness camp, equipped with bear caches, a few fire pits and an outhouse. Not exactly real wilderness camping, but quite out of the norm for us five. Each carried thirty kilos in. Since Althea and Manny had their own tent, I’d agreed to carry Darnia and Enoch’s tent on the condition that they shared it with me. As we drew near Flash, the third lake after Strike and Lightning, a marsh spread out beside us. The soggy transitory land was staked throughout with sharp dead pine trees. They were draped in emerald lichen. Manny kept making film allusions and using the word ‘magical’ to describe everything. It was annoying and Althea countered with ‘pine beetles’ to explain away any mythification Manny might make. They had that peculiar performance quality to their disagreements when they knew we were listening.
‘“It was a good hike. We stayed three nights. There are certain specificities I still remember from that trip, two years ago. I remember Darnia saying one night when the moon hung over our spot that in Western Europe primary social fears rotated between jobs stolen by foreigners and public security from terrorists, who ardently wished to end the bedrock liberality of western democracy. In Vancouver, however, she said, fear was also about foreigners — if you weren’t already a foreigner — but in terms of how they drove the real estate market by buying into the city. Additionally, here — well, Vancouver — there was an uneasy cohabitation of humans with coyotes and bears. Soon these animals too would be considered threats equal to the likes of serial killers, terrorists and visible minorities. Manny asked if it was her extensive work in the field of astronomy that had led to such a robust understanding. He needled with a smile.
‘“Darnia would often speak at length on a subject from a seemingly ungrounded basis. Remarkably, she could make plausible long circuitous argument, by filling in with barely believable first-hand accounts she’d witnessed in far flung places such as Russia, Turkey and Georgia. Pattern recognition, Darnia asserted. A conclusion we’d heard before. Yes, being able to recognize a pattern is what qualifies me as an authority on collective fear. See this sky? she pointed up into the smokeless night. (A fire ban prevented us from building a campfire.) Different civilizations have seen these same groupings of stars for millennia and each saw the same shapes but took something different from them which then informed their cultures and their religious predilections. The people in the caves at Lascaux, who painted the triangle of the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair into the images of the bull, the beaked man and the long-legged bird, were answering the great questions of meaning by doing so. The Greeks connected these images to the constellations of their cosmology. They saw Cygnus a swan, Aquila an eagle and Lyra, a vulture with a lyre. Today we call those three stars the Summer Triangle and still refer to the Greeks when we wish to aver metaphor and religion. That stars aren’t visible to us because of city light tells us something about who we have become, don’t you agree? Still so far from flight we are. So it’s all about the triangle, Manny said, pointing at Althea’s private area.
‘“Althea, ignoring him, nudged by some thought not off-topic to her, spoke tangentially of a poem about the legend of Chang-o, who resided in the moon after drinking an immortality potion her husband made. Then, Althea recited in Middle Chinese the poem followed by the English translation, explaining the rough rough rough smooth auditory tone noticeable in the original. As we looked to the zenith surrounded by the shadows of trees and the groans of night-poetry — the wind through the cedars, the touch of moonlight — I remember thinking it had all become frighteningly academic. In jest, I suggested we rename the three stars for ourselves. Darnia came up with our constellation name. A reframing in a Georgian word but because of the difficulty of the language it is lost to me now. It was then, since I recognized it in myself, that I saw Enoch’s fears were of an intellectual nature as he’d sat silent throughout.
‘“On the last night, Darnia invoked her grandmother. Althea and Manny had retired and Enoch was drunk on a mickey of whiskey which he’d mostly drunk himself. It could, at least, be confirmed that having forgotten insect repellent, blister bandages, our ensolite foam and bear spray, Enoch was good for a good drunk. Why he hadn’t brought pills, a lighter substance, was another matter. On top of it, bears were a running theme for us, out in the woods and with Enoch spouting all sorts of garbage about fending them off, barking like a dog or giving sharp clouts to snouts, among other unbelievable acts, I couldn’t resist challenging him to a wager.
‘“If you walk directly out that-away, I said, pointing into the blackness away from the lake, one thousand paces in and you spend the night… if you can manage that, I will carry your pack on the hike out of here tomorrow and you can nurse your sad, sorry blisters. In theory, all of our packs were down by ten kilos, so I could add his twenty to mine, and in theory, Enoch wouldn’t last more than two hours out there, but I wanted Darnia for myself. Immediately, he went to the tent, flung his sleeping bag across his shoulders and put his headlamp on. No light or no deal, I shouted after him. He threw it towards us, cursing, the headlamp strobing in its spin like an off-course satellite flashing sun off its panels, and he trudged in.
‘“Real nice, Darnia said to me, he could twist an ankle out there. He’ll be fine, I said, Enoch always comes through these teenage fits of his. He always had. But not anymore, I suppose. Darnia changed the course of his luck somehow. In death.
‘“Darnia, balancing lengthwise on a log, lay her head on my ribcage and pointed out the blue and red stars above us. Blue for hot. Red for cold. Opposite to what I’d have guessed. And she told me of her grandma. A dream she had about her high up in some town in the Caucasus Mountains. A village, rather. Another forgotten name. Her grandmother never had more than a grade three education and had always remained subservient to her husband throughout her life, bearing him six children, all but one of whom had left the mountain village for Tbilisi and the cities of Europe. Though she followed the course of women of the era, she had a sense of individualism I never got from the other women of her generation. Her poppy-red hair helped her perhaps. She couldn’t hide and it forced her to stand for her own cause. She died about twenty years ago, giving much of herself. And so much was taken from her. Darnia claimed that she was making up for this imbalance, in a cosmic sense. What do you mean? I asked. What do you think I mean? she replied.
‘“I spoke with my grandmother in the dream, she said without answering. I was back in the village for my grandfather’s funeral. The whole village had turned out, even a childhood friend who I was hugging and chatting up with an affection unwarranted by the occasion. I noticed something above the burial ground off to the side above the scree. A figure in a blue-grey shawl, in the old tradition, sitting on a large rock. I left my friend to investigate. As I came nearer, slipping up the stony slope, I heard a song being hummed, an old song I’d forgotten but recognized and saw my grandmother through it instantly. A few wisps of red snuck out at the edge of her covered head as proof.
‘“I thought you were gone, I said, meaning dead. I saw you when you were so uncomfortable, I said, meaning demented. No, I was here, she smiled, a house three down from your grandfather’s. I was finding the justification troublesome, she said. What justification? Why I was living with him anymore, he could be very difficult, she said as if confiding something I didn’t already know. Redistributing the weight of true meaning by the word ‘difficult’. But we thought you died, I said. Yes, that I did, she replied, but not in the way you thought. I just went away for awhile. By all determinations, grandfather had thought her dead too since she had never ventured publicly until his funeral. In the dream, it was the evening of the Black Moon, and she promised to show it to me later that night, but I woke before she could.
‘“For unknown reasons, it was necessary to usher my grandmother through the funeral ceremony to get her out unseen through the village where on the other side existed an imaginary freedom. We clattered down the slope and grandma scraped her knees when she fell. We came to the edge of the congregation, and a murmur passed through the crowd, the people parting before the casket of my grandfather. I changed my posture as if to exemplify an air of some foreign secret service — Mossad — and I was bringing an imposter to justice. I had grandma by the arm and we marched up to view the body. I remember the expressions around us were warm, and not the calculated precision I’d suddenly put on. I was just Darnia to them and this woman was my grandma — the hair a dead giveaway — and everyone knew that she’d been right in their midst all these last twenty years. I felt a sense of goodwill wash over me and I looked at these people, and my beloved grandmother, and searched for something Hebrew to say, but instead cried out happily in my sleep: Feliz Navidad!
Darnia went silent.
‘“I asked what kind of a moon we were looking at now. The question was without any originality. I knew I was trying to relive another conversation not so long past but forever gone, so as soon as I’d asked I felt some malady settle in me. Darnia, doing her best, asked from which civilization I understood best. This one, I said. I remember trying to remember her answer. I remember telling myself this was one of the significant moments in my life. But she was too specific with all of her numbers and fractions, and other details were intruding on my clarity. All I am left with is a sensation of a depression in my ribcage where Darnia had lain her head.”’
Georg’s airplane shuddered. He took hold of his tomato juice from the tray-table and looked out again. They were nearly through the Rockies and the sky had cleared. He folded a page over, skipped through some paragraphs where Kyle reflects on the pedigree of his own confirmation bias charted in a graph of his own imagining, of Enoch’s escape from the woods, and on till he reached the end of the hike and the reception of the fourth ping, the indicative sound his smart phone made as Kyle slept dream within dream.
‘“The fourth ping,” the grey-eyed man said, “was Althea again. So three friends, four messages this night. She told me she needed to tell me something. Her wedding response to Manny, hidden in a forged poem in an anthology whose publication lay in an unforeseeable future, was actually an idea lifted from Darnia. Althea was forced to admit this due to the next part, which she felt compelled to pass on to me. Althea had been going through some of Darnia’s computer files, which had been spread among select academics who’d expressed an interest in preserving some of her writing for publishing, particularly for a textbook that Darnia had been finishing up. Althea was to be the copy editor. As a close friend, Althea had demanded all word processing documents and been reading through other more personal writing. She asked me in the email, ‘Does the following mean anything to you? Your name is attached. She has a segment addressed to you and a few pages with calculations under the heading Renovated Window. Have you heard of such as that?’ I hadn’t, but I knew what was meant. ‘She has written coordinates for the Black Moon, the second new moon in a month, and drawn a picture with a shaft of shade falling from a darkened moon beaming negative light into a triangular window onto a small bed in a room stacked with books. She wrote “What is there but can’t be seen. Lie down, look up 18 degrees to the right” followed by a date — this year — and the exact time of night.’ Althea relayed this, the last message from Darnia.
‘“When would it be over? After a moon passed within sight of my window with myself inside gazing up at it and after I remembered the memory of Darnia remembering her grandma, would it all be over then? Would I become less a slave to my own ritual, gradually, or like Enoch, scattering her ashes on a Georgian mountaintop, could I free myself with a tribal fatality all at once?”’
Georg was looking not at the moon but the sun on the wing’s tip of the DC-10, and saw April there, content, yet melancholic. Outgoing but never revelatory. This was converse to his initial thoughts of her when he’d thought her so personable and immutable. He decided then, not knowing he did so, to avoid prodding her with the information he knew was her fuel, or rather, was leaving his own doors unlocked, his windows open a crack. He would just finish this story and fly on to Montreal, ever further away. Could he do that?
‘“I was pushed into one of the spaces between dreams” the grey-eyed man said, “or maybe this really happened. How I longed to know everything, that which already was. To be free of these grey hands which gripped me… Even so, there I stood waiting for my car to be serviced outside the auto parts shop on 5th. It must have been last July when the wildfires were burning on the north shore. A haze blanketed the streets to the extent that visibility was reduced to a five-metre circumference. A jogger in a pink headband and pink wrist-warmers appeared suddenly. It was as though she’d jumped in through a door and after five steps she’d jumped out again. Disappeared as fast as her appearance had been. Then, a man stepped in through the hole she’d left behind. He had pulled-back hair. A purple border design rimmed the collar of his white shirt. Green army jacket. His hands were raised to forty-five degrees, his fingers gently crooked as if absorbing all the goodness to be found on the smoke-filled sidewalk. A real chill dude. I moaned inwardly knowing what he wanted from me.
‘“You interested in parting with a few lucky clams, he asked neighbour-like. That was a fantastic opportunity for me to be honest and say I was not at all interested in the proposition. But instead the phrase ‘a few lucky clams’ irritated me so much that I lied, Oh sorry, I said, I don’t have any change. He saw it instantly. The lie. His chakras seemed to misalign, straight from mellow yellow to Charles Manson, and we stared into each other’s eyes for a long five seconds.”
‘The grey-eyed man, himself in the self-described clothes stared at Kyle for five seconds in silence as they stood there. When they had gotten up to stand, Kyle could not say.
‘“‘I know you,’” the grey-eyed man said menacingly, “‘I know you.’” He said again.
‘And Kyle, listening throughout his initiation, felt a deep inescapable fear.
‘“He turned then, and walked back into a hole in the smoke. What did you say, I called after him. What? I was nearly screaming in rage. I had even gripped my hair. I know you, I heard him say again from somewhere in the grey. Oddly, as I got into my car, breathing heavily, I thought I’d won the exchange because I hadn’t given him any money. It was almost a year after Darnia — A.D. I’ve referred privately to the event of her death — and I thought of you then and wished you could see how I exposed frauds and phoneys. I thought you’d be proud. But now, I don’t know if that was what I needed. For you to be proud. Which now was it anyhow? Why the desires of my dreams overpowered my will to protect my mind? What was it about you that wouldn’t let me go?”
‘Throughout the telling, the man’s grey eyes — not in colour — but in matter had changed. Kyle could discern a significant detail in them now. Those glaring eyes had become tiny balled up hands, no longer swimming. Tense, ready to spring and knock Kyle down, senseless, and then open before further attack and strangulation.
‘But instead something else was happening. Kyle looked around. Where he had seen the sixty carousing in the trees of the park, all lay in a semblance of animatronic decay, like a monster ostrich had walked through a special effects stage, kicked it all about and stepped on all the donuts. Everyone lay about in pieces and parts, either magnificently sated or magnificently ravaged. A good film title could be The Orgy and The Chainsaw. Everyone except the girl was in a state of disarray. The girl he’d seen whose attention was absorbed by her phone. She walked toward him now. The dark rectangle in her left hand. He looked back at the grey-eyed one who had transformed into a groaning mess on the grass at his feet. His shirt torn at the collar. The jacket rumpled nearby. A nauseating groaning emitting from him or being emitted from or through him. The girl came closer. And this groaning, as it increased, Kyle could hear outside of his dream, which was when Kyle realized he — Kyle Giesbrecht was the one groaning — and so he woke up, hanging from a thread.
‘He was in a white room. A framed photograph of western red cedars on the wall. An inspirational quote on it. The smell of gasoline and disinfectant. Blue sky in through the window.
‘Kyle had no clue where in the world he was.
‘Then it returned. Bit by bit. Room 445. Fifth floor. Vancouver General Hospital. Vancouver BC. North America. Third planet from the sun. Milky Way.
‘The curiosity at how the operation on his frontal lobe had gone subsumed the clearer details of the dream, any memory of flying, a strange teacher named Seb, the secret exigencies of a doomed city, and the reason behind his failed initiation soon vanished altogether. It was without much fanfare that Kyle left the hospital later that day. And within a month, Kyle met Enoch’s new girlfriend, an associate professor of cosmology.’
Georg, though not for long, was lost in the appearance of the wrinkled pages of the magazine. The light transmogrifying the paper into a textured surface of a planet seen from a distance away. There, row upon row of black abandoned buildings, once something else entirely, were constructed and long ago lived in across the ridged yellow plains of the magazine surface, a place where the coarseness of symbologies of moons and ashes were not overplayed nor embellished. Georg looked up, wishing for such a location. The sentiment of the man with the grey-eyes and of Kyle, replayed within him. Ahead to his tray table, he asked something — a being perhaps, or an inanimate object, his cup of tomato juice even — to just let him go.