Chapter 36: The Next Day

The dream had begun to evaporate from the crevices of his brain. He became vaguely conscious of the lightening violet on the inside of his eyelids. He opened one of his eyes directly into the full volume of the sunlight flooding through the gap in the tree line and squinted. His head ached terribly. He stood up on wobbly legs and steadied himself against the back of the couch. He scanned the room in the morning light. His eyes settled on a cupboard next to the stove in what must have been a kitchen. That’s where I would put the coffee, he thought to himself. He walked over to the cupboard, opened the door, and looked from the bottom shelf to the top one and back down until he saw it. He lifted the heavy paper bag to his nose and inhaled the deep rich odor of coffee beans. He read the cuneiform markings on the paper bag. He rummaged through the cupboard until he found a brown stained iron grinder and cupped a handful of coffee beans into the grinder, turning the handle around and around. The smell of ground coffee beans rose to his nostrils as coarse grounds spilled out of the grinder into his cupped hand. He dumped the coffee grounds into a dented metal pot which he took outside behind the cabin and, with one hand, raised and lowered the water pump handle and with the other held the pot under the gushing water. He returned to the kitchen, lit a fire in the stove, and put the pot on the fire. While waiting for the water and coffee grounds to boil, he went back to the cupboard and found an egg. He cracked the egg shell over the pot, so the thick raw contents slid into the boiling water, immediately congealing into a white and yellow disk. He took the pot off the fire and found a ceramic cup. He poured the scalding rich brown liquid into the cup while the grounds stayed behind the egg. He drank the bitter-rich coffee, hoping the pain in his head would diminish somewhat.

He walked around the cabin with his cup of coffee, surveying the rooms. He saw a low cot with a blanket but no pillow, a cabinet with a wide bowl, and a broken mirror hanging from the wall. He looked at himself in the mirror, but the man who peered back at him from the other side of the glass seemed younger to him.

 

Ellen was wrenched suddenly from the complexities of her dream when the harsh sun overran the hills, roofs, and gauze curtains, putting to the blade the dark ghosts of her small room. She sat up, looked around the room shielding her eyes when they approached the window, and got out of bed. Ellen dressed and washed herself as best she could. She left the room, locking the door behind her, and walked down the stairs to the now empty pub. She sat down at one of the tables. After some time, an old woman walked out of the kitchen and noticed her sitting alone. She called out something unintelligible in her general direction and Ellen pointed to her open mouth. She mumbled something else to which Ellen shrugged her shoulders, turning her palms upward. The old woman nodded, grumbled something to herself and walked back to the kitchen. After a long time during which Ellen’s stomach did its own grumbling, the old woman walked out of the kitchen carrying a tray of steaming vegetables mixed with rice and a glass of boiling coffee. The old woman set the tray down in front of Ellen. She speared the vegetable chunks with her fork, put it in her mouth hungrily, and swallowed. She took out some paper money and put it on the table. The old woman picked up the paper money and walked back to the kitchen. Ellen ate her food quickly, without tasting it, and swallowed it down with the scalding coffee.

Ellen walked out of the pub into the harsh sunlight. She shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked around the village square. She scanned several decrepit nondescript buildings and compared the cuneiform signs to the markings beside the word archives on the card she had prepared before boarding the hydrofoil. One of the buildings possessed a sign with most of the markings in agreement. She walked across the square toward the building.

The archive was in the basement of the building. The room was dank and mostly dark with dusty cones of yellow light cutting out the empty reading tables and metal cabinets. Ellen noticed an old woman eyeing her suspiciously from behind an unidentifiable piece of braided yarn stabbed by two long knitting needles. She walked over to the nearest metal cabinet and opened the sliding drawer. She scanned the folders in the drawer, picked up the nearest folder, and riffled through the pages of news clippings. Some clippings were printed in the standard language that she had learned when she was young, but most were written in the local language that was completely incomprehensible to her, except for a few translated words she had prepared for herself before her journey. She glanced at meaningless picture after meaningless picture, clipping after clipping. There was a picture of a young woman holding a small infant. She closed the drawer and opened the next one. She looked through the folders in the same manner. She slid the drawer shut and opened the bottom drawer. No luck. What did she expect?

Ellen went to the next cabinet and opened the first drawer. After finally closing the lower drawer, she moved on to the next cabinet. The old woman never took her eyes off Ellen.

She went to the next cabinet and opened the top drawer. Time stretched away like melted wax. She had lost count of how many cabinets, drawers, and folders she had gone through.

Then she found it. It was his picture from when he was younger. The news clipping in her hand was printed in the local cuneiform. Ellen brought the clipping over to the old woman to look at, but the old woman pointed at her eyes and shook her head. Ellen photographed the clipping and returned the original to the file, and the file to the drawer.

Ellen left the archive building and walked out onto the square. It was late afternoon. She looked for a young person who might be able to translate the clipping. She stopped people near the fountain and asked one after the other whether they spoke Standard. One young girl answered yes. Ellen showed her the photographed news clipping on her vidcom and asked her whether she also knew the local tongue. The young girl answered something incomprehensible, which Ellen took for affirmation. The young girl read the clipping quickly. Ellen asked her how she might find the man in the clipping. The young girl said that according to the article, the man in question lived by himself in a cabin on Mount Delfinor.

Where is Mount Delfinor? Ellen asked.

The young girl pointed to the sloping inland hill and cliff overlooking the village.

 

He continued looking at himself in the mirror for a long time. He took stock of himself. The image leaning on the cabinet bureau looking at him from the other side of the glass blurred as he remembered running headlong into the night. He couldn’t have run like that even if his life would have depended on it. He was a shuffler, a shuffler of steps on a stained linoleum floor, and yet he had run. He did run. What was happening? He searched for and found the black and blue bruise where he had bashed his head good and hard against the door of the cabin last night. What was happening?

He heard a faint knock on the door. He walked over to the door, opened it, and saw her standing there before his unbelieving eyes.

“Ellen!” he half-whispered.

“Please,” she said. “I don’t understand the local tongue. Do you speak Standard?”

“Well, yes. I suppose I could,” he answered in Standard, “but why? Since when have we ever had trouble communicating?”

“I’m sorry but you must be mistaking me for someone else,” she answered in Standard after a startled moment. “I’m sure I would have remembered if I had met you before.”

“But … I’ve always …” he stuttered. “I’ve always …”

“What have you always …?” she asked, reaching for the recorder in her bag.

“I don’t know …” he said. “I don’t think I can say it … I can’t even think it.”

“Look,” she cast about, looking for a way to launch into the reason she had come all this way, “I’ve come all the way from … well, it doesn’t matter where I came from … you’ve probably never heard of it … I’ve come all this way just to interview you …”

“Why would you want to do that?” he asked.

“Because I’m a journalist,” she shot back, “and a damned good one at that!”

“No,” he said, “I meant why would you want to interview me?”

“I want to understand how and why you write what you write,” she attempted to justify her existence to him, like she remembered having done on her first day in the introductory journalism class when she had to stand up before the professor in the packed lecture hall and explain why she wanted to take that pretentious bastard’s course. “Your books,” she stammered, “I’ve read every one of them …”

“What are you talking about?” he asked incredulously. “I haven’t written any books.”

“But aren’t you … ?” she asked, reaching for the photocopy of the news clipping pressed between the pages of her notepad. Ellen looked at his picture in the clipping and back at the face of the man standing in front of her, and back at the clipping. She said his name. Of course it was him. What kind of game was he playing with her?

“I … I don’t know who I am,” he said. “I’ve never had a name … never had a need for one.”

“Everyone has a name,” she said hesitantly. “Everyone needs a name … How would they … ?”

“I only give names to the characters in my head,” he said after some thought. “I make up stories, but … I’ve … never … written any books. Who would read them?”

“Are you … ?” it was impossible for her to continue her sentence.

“Here,” he continued, “let me tell you the story I was thinking about just before you arrived … please, sit down in that chair … I’ll sit over here … Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you and I’m not crazy … at least I don’t think I am.”

Ellen sat down slowly.

The story is about me, I suppose, but it’s not a true story … at least I don’t think it is. I’m in this cabin … I always am in this same cabin and there is a faint knock on the door. I open the door and you’re standing there in the doorway. I say what I said to you and you respond the way you responded. I ask you to sit down and I tell you this story:

You claim you don’t recognize me. You probably don’t. There’s no reason why you would in this god-forsaken universe. But I know you. I’ve always known you … the last time … the time before that … and the time before that too. And every time I am hopelessly … but wait … I’m getting ahead of myself.

I continue with the story. You listen to the end. I’ll say that for you. You always do. You say how flattered you are to be the heroine in my story, but then you begin to look around you for the door, the window. There is doubt and the beginning of fear in your eyes. I can’t stand it, that I’m causing it, and I look away. Would you like a cup of coffee, I ask. Sometimes you say yes, sometimes no. This time you said no, so I sit down on my chair opposite you. Would you like to hear more, I ask. More of what, you ask. More of the story, I answer. Go on, you say.

I jump to the end of the story. There’s not much more time. Time for what? Time for you to fall in love with me. Time for me to fall in love with you? It always comes as such a shock to you … more than anything else I say to you today. Although the thing I’ve yet to say that should have been the climax of my story, you react to that as though it were mere dénouement.

You don’t waste much time, you say. You always say that. What should I expect? You’re half my age. You’re lovely, you’re bright, and you’ve got your … These things take time to unfold, to evolve. You search your mind for every pertinent platitude you’ve ever learned, as though it were your wisdom, as though it could somehow extricate us from the terrible spiraling involution we are stuck in. You can’t rush these things, you continue saying. I feel dizzy, you say.

It’s interesting how every time, some details change and some remain constant. Your eyes dart around the room, the door, the window. I hate that. I know, I’ve said it before. I still hate that moment.

You run out of platitudes to say. You run out of words to say. You have no feelings for me. I don’t know when it happens or if it happens. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I never know. What happens, you ask. You begin to fall in love with me. Why do I fall in love with you, you ask. I don’t know. I never do. I ask you each time it happens why you fall in love with me. Why do you ask? So that I can use it next time to make you love me quicker, I explain sadly. Why is it so important to you for me to love you quicker, you ask. Because there’s so little time left for us to be in love, I answer.

Why is there so little time for us to be in love, you ask. Because you always die at dawn the next day. How do I die, you ask. I don’t know, I say, it’s always different. It’s always unexpected. It’s always heart-wrenching. It’s always gruesome. Do you kill me, you ask. No, I say. It’s never me. Never me. I try to save you. I try to anticipate, but I never succeed.

Do you make me love you quicker each time, you ask. No, I answer. Every time the reason is different.

By now the light in the cabin had thinned into evening shadow.

In a moment the artificial lighting will turn on. Is that alright with you? You haven’t said a word for some time now. Can I get you anything? You must be famished. When did you last eat? Please say something … anything. I could drink some water, my mouth is so dry. What about you?

I’m still here.

Yes, you are. I can’t believe my good luck. Can I –

Just shush for a moment. Let me process.

Do you want –

Don’t ask me. Just bring me what you know I need. I need for us to be silent for a little while.

The artificial lighting kicked on and the shadows leaped through the window into the engulfing night. The first moon rose over the black mountain range on the horizon. He rose from his chair through the exhaustion that had surrounded him while he was telling her the story. He went into the kitchen to ground some coffee and put the grounds into the dented metal pot which he took back outside to the pump. He returned to the kitchen, lit a fire in the stove, and put the pot on the fire. He found some bread that looked fresh and a few eggs which he put in an iron pan and fried on the stove. He rummaged around the drawers until he found a couple tin plates and eating utensils. He carried the steaming eggs and coffee out to the table.

They ate without speaking. He looked down at his eggs and fried bread, but he felt her staring at him. She looked away when he raised his eyes. He watched her drink down the coffee. He drank his silently.

She stood up from the table and walked over to the door.

His heart sank.

She opened the door and turned half around. I’m sorry … it’s late and I must go.

Please Ellen, don’t go … it’s dark and the path down the mountain is treacherous. Stay here until the morning. Then you may leave whenever you wish. I won’t stop you.

No, she said quietly. I can’t breathe here. Don’t worry about me. The moonlight will guide me down the path.

At least let me help you get down the mountain, he begged.

No, she insisted, and left.

He stood on the porch and watched her moonlit body become ghostlike between the trees.

The night breeze whispered through the grass like breathing. Otherwise there was only silence.

 

Ellen walked the ghostly path between the susurrating grasses almost to the edge of the cliff and looked down on the village lights below and the black sea beyond. She could make out the village square. The window of her room was dark. She felt a sudden chill and turned the collar of her jacket up around her neck.

She wanted to get back before the moons went down. The darkness would be absolute.

She walked down the path slipping and sliding on the loose stream of gravel. Ellen tripped over an outstretched tree root and fell on her hands and knees. She stood up painfully and picked sharp gravel out of her bleeding hands. The first moon was almost touching the horizon. It would not be long before the second moon followed the first under the horizon, and she was not yet half-way down the mountain.

 

When Ellen finally reached level ground and the trees opened up to the dark backside of the village, she was hurting and exhausted, but relieved. She walked between two buildings and out into the well-lit open square. She could see the public house across the square beckoning. Well, maybe not beckoning. The lights were out and inside was quiet. She knocked on the door. After a few moments she pulled the bell chord a couple times.

Ellen heard some scuffling and human grumbling behind the door. The door opened and the old man eyed her suspiciously. She took her room key out of her pocket and showed it to him. The old man grumbled something and stood aside for Ellen to enter the inner darkness. As she mounted the stairs feeling her way up the stairs, she heard the old man clicking the locks and bolts of the door.

Ellen found her room in the dark hallway and slipped the key in the door.

Ellen sat down on the bed and kicked off her shoes. She lay down in her bed, still fully clothed. The lights from the village square outside the open window flickered softly on the opposite wall.

Her breathing became soft and even.

 

Birdsong entered her dream. The dawn sunlight pierced her closed eyelids, voluminous and insistent. She wanted to stay inside her dream. It was about her father again. She turned over on her other side away from the piercing sunlight. She drifted back to the rather pleasant sensation of having a conversation with her father. Ellen did not hear the door click open or the old man enter her room with lust in his dead heart and a kitchen knife in his gnarled hand.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Filed under Prose, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Stories and Novels

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