Friday, June 29, 2007

The Book of Hope 29: Only the Shadow Knows

When we got back to Pauanne, Riita went off by herself somewhere to cell Erkki and I guess tell him the good news that he was all forgiven, so I took the opportunity to respond to all the messages in my voice-mail. But no one really had time for me. Christina was all weird and busy, Jo answered her phone by snarling "what?!?" (she's gonna make a really great pediatrician someday), and Kerry had picked up a new phrase that she used three times in our short convo: "It made me want to throw up in my mouth a little." I made a mental note to myself to try really really hard not to ever use it. Because I'm so verbally suggestible, it's pathetic. I mean, I could easily find myself saying it over and over even to strangers like I did with "crunk" or "toodles" or "he's just not that into you" or whatever, and I didn't want to go around implying to everyone that I was throwing up in my mouth all the time whenever they said anything. Already I was feeling the temptation, though. Because, you know, that was actually happening a lot, especially lately.

Anyways, because I didn't have anything better to do, I wandered across the parking lot to see if Dr P was around. He was--and for once he was in a really great mood. In fact, it was like the happiest I'd ever seen him, since he was usually cowering under a shawl or something and blubbering or moaning. But today he was beaming and smiling with all his chins and practically prancing around waving his arms, once Gailis and Matsson helped lower him down the steps of his RV. He was all dressed up again, and was even wearing his little cape.

"Success, Miss Hope, success!" he crowed, and began sort of dancing an oddly girlish wobbling little jig. "Thanks to you and Miss Riita. If I were a drinking man I would indeed break out the champagne this fine morn."

I was like, "Yeah, congrats! I just read in the paper that Likkanen is really alive after all."

"Even better than that--well, can't you see it for yourself?"

"See what?" I said stupidly.

"My shadow, dear Miss Hope, my shadow. He has returned! Behold!" and he pointed at the ground. Sure enough, his shadow was there, prancing and jiggling along with him. Only--well maybe it was my imagination, but it really did sorta look different somehow, like it didn't quite belong to him. For one thing, his shadow was definitely thinner than he was (that had to be an optical illusion though--I mean, anything looked thinner than Dr P!), and from some angles it looked a little like it was wearing a hat or a cap or something. Maybe a beret. But it was really impossible to tell for sure, since he was moving around so much. Still, he'd obviously got his mojo back or whatever, and that was a good thing. At least I assumed it was. Maybe a monster was about to be unleashed on the world.

And maybe subconsciously I was sort of dreading that, because totally without thinking I opened my big fat mouth and said something kind of bitchy. In fact, it was exactly the same mean kind of thing the Mothership always says to sort of 'cut you down to size', as she would put it, like saying "Aren't you afraid your skin will break out again like it did last time if you eat that ice cream?" or "Do you really think you should be driving again so soon after your little accident?" In fact, I gotta say it was the first moment in my life I ever felt like I was totally channeling her--I guess because Dr P had seemed way more manageable and even kind of sweeter and more helpless and dependent before when he was being all scared and miserable. I guess I'd felt in control or something.

What I actually said was, "So now are you gonna look in the mirror again?" And I could of kicked myself the moment the words were out of my mouth, because in like two seconds all his jollyness (is that a word? "Jollity" sounds stupid) was gone, and he sort of seemed all deflated and saggy like a big pink party balloon. A party balloon with plastic Bob's Big Boy Restaurant orange hair. With a guilty sinking feeling I realized I was gonna make a really lousy mother myself someday. Before I'd said anything about mirrors poor Dr P had been laughing his 'hearty' theatrical ho-ho-ho laugh in a deep voice as he danced around--now he wound down like a clockwork toy and started to tremble.

"I haven't seen any sign of Alex today," I said, desperately trying to change the subject. "What's up with him?"

"Mr Alex is in disgrace," he muttered. "I'm quite cross with him, Miss Hope. Last night he was instructed to lead you onstage, not to injure you. Blood must be given voluntarily in order for such ceremonies to be properly effective."

So I was all like, "Well look on the bright side--it did work! I mean, if if I can be all positive about it with this eggplant glued to my forehead and my nose covered in bandages and the rest of me all covered with mosquito bites, then I guess everyone else can, too."

"Yes, yes of course." But suddenly he didn't sound so convinced any more. Maybe he'd seen the newspaper that morning too and realized that Likkanen had actually been alive all along, making all the stuff we'd done the night before pretty pointless really, except as an excuse for a really weird party. Or maybe he was coming down off a blood-sugar high and just pouting. I mean, it obviously took a major zoo-feeding every few hours to keep his enormous bulk going.

"Hey, you got your shadow back. That's a good thing anyway, right?"

He burst into tears. "You think I'm a fool," he said. He took out a monogrammed handkerchief and loudly and wetly blew his nose into it. I had always thought of Scandinavians as you know, sort of dignified, emotionally reserved people, but between him and Riita I was beginning to feel like I was trapped in a Spanish fotonovela.

Meanwhile I was being like, "No, of course i don't think you're a fool, Dr P. In fact, I think you're one of the smartest and most interesting people I've ever known. I mean, you actually know really awesome things none of my professors have even dreamed of. Because you've like lived through them and stuff for real. You're an amazing person."

"You've read my website, haven't you, Miss Hope?"

"Every word," I lied. Well, be fair, most of it is pretty boring.

"In that case, you must be familiar with the term I have used to describe the world we see reflected in the mirror, the 'Anti-Pleroma'. This of course is a misnomer, but will do as well as any other. Possibly you know that the term 'Pleroma' is Greek, literally meaning 'fullness'--Paul of Tarsus and other early Christian writers adopted the concept from the Qabbala, and even Jung employed it in modern times as the origin of all divine goodness. According to them the opposite of the Pleroma is the 'Creatura', or the world that God created. But this is nonsense--the opposite of God is not the physical universe, not even the astral plane or the Satanic Hell. It is the absence of, or more specifically, the death and decay of God Himself, like a form of anti-matter. The Anti-Pleroma." He took my arm and we began to hobble together out of the parking lot and along the empty driveway while he droned on and on. "The early gospel writers had the most childlike notions of sin and virtue and how they were opposed, and despite the death of religion, this simple-mindedness persists even to the present day. All such logic is subjective in our society and therefore subject to endless interpretation. Scientists even tell us now that there is no such thing as time itself, that events unfold like a froth of bubbling alternative branches and that the human mind invents a rational sequence of interpretion in order to create its own sanity. So it is, I believe also with the 'Mirrorland'--it has no logical form or laws that we can understand, and so our minds assign it a familiar structure based on the 'reality' we have memorized. Tell me, Miss Hope, have you ever seen anything...unusual or disturbing in the mirror?"

We stopped, and I looked through the fence across the meadow where I'd glimpse the floating black garbage bags. Of course now it just looked like a Monet or Corot painting to me--anything could be floating around there now.

"Sort of," I said.

"Ah, then you have at least a primitive notion of what I mean. And why I should be terrified of mirrors. Quite aside, ho ho ho, from the more normal reasons of human vanity." I tried to think of something nice to say about his appearance but couldn't think of anything. So for once I just shut up. Big mistake. Because he didn't.

"The first time I was attacked," he went on, "Was when my dear friend and mentor Frederik Wilander lay on his deathbed. In Sweden we have national health care for the dying--not like your system in America where the elderly are all abandoned--but unfortunately the helpers that the social services sent to look after him were very incompetent. There was one Serb who wasn't so very bad, but the Somali women were useless--worse, they allowed their husbands inside to steal things, though of course, there was very little left in poor Wilander's flat that he hadn't already pawned or sold off already. This magnificent man, perhaps the greatest man of our century, you will recall, was the grandfather of your friend Mr Likkanen, who did absolutely nothing at all to alleviate his suffering. In fact, I gave the social services his address in New York, and he never responded to their letters at all. But perhaps he was busy at the time. In any case, because I was myself homeless and possessed considerable medical training after I found one of them hitting him, I dismissed the Somalis and looked after Wilander myself--he was by then both senile and incontinent, so this was no small thing. The saddest aspect of it was that he rarely recognized me, but instead would revile me as an enemy, often screaming the most terrible abuse aloud at me, which hurt me very deeply. But of course, this is often normal with dementia, so naturally I forgave it. And naturally I was still alert to any wisdom he might still pass onto me, since I was a mere novice at the magical arts compared to the great Frederik Wilander, despite his sorry condition. In particular, I was hopeful that he might offer some clue to the password of his bank's safety deposit account. He had some months earlier, when he was still somewhat compos mentis, told me of its contents--the final testament of Adolf Hitler--and of the provisions he had made for its inheritance.

So it was no mystery to me when Wilander first removed all the mirrors from his flat and had painted all the window-panes a flat gray color. I knew that he had taken Hitler's words very seriously indeed and perhaps had even conducted some experiments of his own with mirrors, but I must confess to you I was not inclined to lend any credence to it, not even to the slightest degree. It struck me at the that the whole story might be nothing more than a senile fantasy of poor Wilander's. Magic is every bit as rigorous a science as physics or chemistry, you know--thus, I was already comfortable in the realms of both the living and the dead. I could not imagine that a third and far more terrifying plane of existence might lurk inside the mirror. After all, reflections are present everywhere on many surfaces--they are an ancient and normal part of daily human life. It did not occur to me that they might simply be an optical illusion masking a reality far more sinister.

Because it is only we humans who are deceived by reflections. Animals, you know, are not. An animal will either ignore its own reflection in a mirror or thesurface of a pool, try to attack it, or else, like a kitten, attempt to sneak behind the mirror's frame in order to solve its mystery. A dog will bark--we assume at the 'strange dog' it sees reflected there--but its instincts may well be keener than our own. Perhaps a dog is growling and barking at the terrible threat it senses emanating from the Anti-Pleroma. After all, such a loyal beast will warn its masters of many another more mundane threat--and defend them against it. But of course, I had none of these thoughts at the time. Tell me, Miss Hope, when you saw whatever it was you did see in the mirror, did you also sense a deep humming vibration?"

I was like, "Huh, what do you mean?" I guess I was sort of surprised to be suddenly included in the conversation again. Normally when Dr P got going his lectures weren't exactly Socratic.

"A feeling of vibration in your bones or teeth?"

I tried to think. "I dunno really. I guess I was just too freaked to notice--it only lasted a few seconds, anyway."

He nodded wisely like an owl, another of the fake-o 'jolly fat man' mannerisms he had developed like the hollow laugh. "Yes, usually the influence of the Mirrorland is very weak indeed, particularly in daylight. And you are not a dabbler in the magical arts, which I believe acts as a magnet to attract it. That is why Wilander's deathbed was such an extraordinary nexus of power. Have you ever attended a dying person, by chance?"

"Yes, actually I have."

"Ah, then you know well the sensation of keeping watch for hours and days, anticipating every breath as they grow weaker and more labored. Very quickly the worst part becomes the boredom--it is impossible to read or watch television, of course, and one is too upset and distracted to work. Yet, all too soon, one begins to wish for the torture simply to be over, so that life may go on again. And of course, such thoughts are instantly accompanied by tremendous guilt. Such were my emotions attending Wilander's deathbed at any rate, mingled with many more: desolation at my loss, shame that I had not done more to provide comfort for his declining years, fear of my own future without his wise counsel and guidance, and of course regret over so many missed opportunities. Even at that very moment. Because, you see, a scene of death is ripe with possibilities for the true magician or sorcerer to exploit. Many of the most arcane and potent spells or ceremonies can or even must be conducted at such an event, or a body part or essential fluid extracted for future use. Naturally, as the Grand Master of the Craft, Wilander would have enthusiastically wished me to utilize his death to the full in this regard--but of course, I dared not. The old man had invoked and offended so many Invisibles and even great Powers in the course of his physical life that I could literally feel the weight of them gathering about the dark, airless little room. Had I attempted any sort of ritual, even one designed to ease his passage into the next world, I might easily have caused such a terrible etheric disaster that the entire umbra of all Stockholm would been disrupted or even destroyed, like an invisible nuclear explosion. And so, propped up on my own little pallet on the floor beside him, all I could do was patiently await his end. When it came at last, as is sadly so often the case, I was napping from sheer exhaustion and missed it.

I had no stethescope, of course, but after I had fruitlessly checked for a pulse with my fingers, I took out a small pocket mirror and held it to his mouth in order to detect any misting of breath. There was none. Yet suddenly I could not move. As I have said the flat was very dark, due to the fact that Wilander had painted all the window-panes a battle-ship grey, because there were no lamps left in the place, I could only see by the light that oozed through the painted glass. However, during the weeks I had spent there, my vision had adjusted to the gloom, and moreover his death took place in broad daylight. And so when I caught sight of something stirring deep inside his throat and nostrils, I was assured that it was not my imagination."

"What did you see?" By now we had wandered out into the garbage-bag meadow and stopped to look back at Pauanne. Above it the sky was already darkening--not the sudden violent pop-up squalls we had had along the coast the day before, but a big serious front moving in. The paper had said we were in for several days of heavy clouds and steady rain to usher in August and the national return to work.

"A universe," said Dr P dramatically.

"You saw the universe inside the old man's nose?" O-K...

"No, no--I saw a universe, Miss Hope. Perhaps 'saw' is too strong a word. I became aware of tiny creatures inside him. I can scarcely describe them to you--for one, none of them looked the same. You are familiar with the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, of course? It is my belief that he was describing the world he saw inside the mirror, because that is very much what I was reminded of. But I did not 'see' this, precisely. Rather, I felt it. This feeling began in the bones of my right hand, the hand that was holding the pocket mirror, first as a tingling, then as a painful deadening vibration that slowly spread up my arm and thence to the rest of my body. I realized to my horror that my finger-bones were actually fusing to the mirror itself, so in a sense I was 'seeing' the mirror world directly through my finger-tips. It was utterly dark, filled with a bluish illumination rather like an X-ray--the landscape seemed alien and barren, yet violated and half-destroyed, as if some terrible war had taken place on the moon. Yet in every direction. tall spindly towers that slightly resembled radio towers reared up, darker than the blackness around them, and I felt it was these towers that were giving off the powerful vibrations that were about to shake me apart. In addition, I should add that there was a 'fuzzy' organic quality to everything I sensed there, like microscopic photographs I had seen of the surfaces of insects or mold spores. And so, after the event was over and my rational mind rebelled at the experience, I wondered if I had not somehow hallucinated an optical magnification of Wilander's pores and nasal hairs, perhaps brought on by stress and over-exhaustion.

In any case, it seemed to me at that instant that I could perceive thousands of creatures moving between the dark mold-spore radio-towers. Some seemed almost human in appearance--their naked flesh glowed a shade paler than their surroundings--others appeared to be their overseers, and these had strange bird or insect-like heads and were wearing dark uniforms with gleaming jack-boots. All of these beings seemed to be going about their tasks with a terrifying air of everyday practicality, and none, I noticed, possessed eyes or ears. All at once I became aware of an intense electrical force inside each of the towers, as if each were an identity broadcasting itself into an infinite void, where only such pulse-like signals could be perceived. In that instant, I became aware that I, too, was merely another of these organic towers, and that I was receiving the last message of my dear old friend, Frederik Wilander. But it was not a message in the form of human words, rather it was one of emotions, each of which I experienced inside my innermost self as intense bursts of low-frequency sound, rather as those teenaged youths must who convert their cars into mobile stereo speakers. First came a trembling wave of intense love and relief at my presence, closely followed closely by sheer terror--and then at the end a warning to save myself. With an almost superhuman effort, I forced myself back into my own consciousness--and found myself physically standing over my dead friend's body with the mirror shattered in my hand. I was bleeding profusely where its shards had pierced me.

This was my first visit to the Anti-Pleroma, but alas, it was not to be my last. The second occasion was some months later. By then, I had stumbled on the greatest of my mentor's secrets, the reddish powder that Alchemists call 'Phoenix'--the Philosopher's Stone. You see, most people believe that the Adept struggles to discover this secret in order to attain limitless wealth through the transmutation of baser metals into gold. In fact, that is only a 'by-product' of the Great Work. The Alchemist's true ambition is to achieve immortality. When ingested, the powder can prolong human life--even make one eternal!"

"Um," I said. "Your friend Wilander obviously knew that. So how come he died if he was taking this powder?" Maybe he took a powder, I thought to myself, har har.

"Yes, that mystified me, as well, for a time. At least, until I was almost captured again by the Anti-Pleroma--and then I understood at last. It happened one winter's day on a crowded sidewalk in front of the NK department store on Hamngatan. Several of its facings are mirrored, and as I walked past, jostled by crowds of shoppers and pedestrians, I suddenly fancied that I glimpsed Frederik Wilander waving from them to attract my attention. I stopped and looked wildly around, then approached the wall of the building. There was no sign of Wilander, but catching sight of my own reflection I began to experience the same faint sense of urgent vibration that I had felt at his death. It began in the fillings of my teeth, then spread to the teeth themselves, then to the bones of my skull. It was as if my eyeballs were exploding with it and would soon run down my face like the yolks of poached eggs. The pain of these vibrations, centered on my teeth, became overpoweringly intense--in order to palliate them, I moved closer to the NK wall and, opening my mouth as wide as possible, placed my teeth against its surface. I felt as though they were flowing like liquid mercury into the mirror itself. At the same time I heard a screaming high-ptched sound in my ears, and my lungs seemed to fill up with molten lead. It was an actual relief to fall into the Anti-Pleroma.This time it was not dark inside it--I suppose because it was reflecting a busy city street in daylight--but there were still the qualities of the X-ray and the organic in my sensation of it. At the same time my vision remained rooted behind in the real world. Directly behind the reflection of my face in the glass, I was also uncomfortably aware of my physical human form, grossly distorted and melting. I have no doubt that had it not been for the prompt intervention of a security guard, I would have been sucked forever into Mirrorland.

Because in those few moments that I stood there, I suddenly realized the fate that my poor departed friend Wilander had suffered. You see, it was now obvious to me that his own shadow had been stolen from him somehow, just as mine was some several days ago--as you can bear witness to, my dear. Initially, I had assumed that the sole reason he was living in darkness was that he was afraid of reflections. But that was only part of it--otherwise he would have employed oil lamps inside his home. But he did not, because it is possible to delay the inevitable death and decay of the shadowless soul by existing in darkness. For the magician, an ordinary death holds terror, of course--but it is not the terror of the unknown, as it is for so many. No, no, it is the terror, I would say, of the known. Like me, Wilander had crossed into the underworld, had cheated death, had exchanged one shadow for another, had employed sorcery to gain his own ends and in doing so had made many etheric enemies--with only the distant hope of a Christian salvation at the end of it after aeons of atonement. Like me you are a Christian, Miss Hope, so you understand that even for such a sinner as myself there does still exist that faint, distant hope for eventual redemption. However, that does not exist in the Anti-Pleroma. The Anti-Pleroma is the opposite of God's Grace, which can penetrate even the nethermost reaches of what we think of as Hell. The Anti-Pleroma is a place where God never existed and is therefore dead and decayed and so cannot reach into. And by ingesting the Philosopher's Stone, which must itself contain some essence of it, he condemned himself to the Anti-Pleroma forever. And so, Miss Hope, have I.

Like Wilander, I have been eating the powder for some years. And this is why I became so childishly and irrationally terrified, you see, at the prospect of my own 'death'. My only hope for the future now is never under any circumstances to allow myself to die."

"Wow!" I said. I mean, what else can you say to something like that? Good luck? A light drizzle began to fall. We turned and began to walk back toward the parking lot.

"And it may well be that Adolf Hitler's book will provide me with that key. That's why it is necessary for us to speak with Mr Likkanen as soon as possible. We must break camp at once--our time here is over."

"Well, I hope you won't fire Alex on my account anyway," I said uncomfortably.

"Why would I do that?"

"Well, it sounded like he was in your dog-house or whatever." This made Dr P start ho-ho-hoing again.

"Worse than that, he is in Tampere." Seeing my baffled look, he went on, "Tampere is Finland's industrial capital. It is also the headquarters of Nokia."

"OK, but I mean why did you send Alex there?"

"Because that is where Mr Likkanen is at this moment, in hospital. He was medically evacuated there by helicopter after his collapse--Tampere has the most advanced trauma care unit in Finland, it seems. My shadow has returned to me with this--and much other--information. So we are all driving there now. Mr Alex has merely gone ahead to make the arrangements." A spattering of heavier drops came down around us, and I could see a tall dark blob under a pie-shaped one coming toward us across the field. It was Gailis carrying an umbrella. Something about the scene reminded me of the Three Witches of Eastwick--which I was even more reminded of when I saw Siirka-Liisa and Gunilla waiting for me with Riita beside her yellow car. Apparently they were catching a ride with us to Tampere. Dr Praetorius would have to lose about 200 pounds to look more like Jack Nicholson, though--and get a personality transplant.

Before I went inside our RV to pack, he coughed and cleared his throat a few times. "My very dear Miss Hope," he said. "About the little matter we discussed yesterday. When I asked you to marry me, naturally I assumed I was to die very soon and would therefore be no great burden to you. In fact I welcomed the idea of leaving behind someone who truly understood me, someone who knew of my fate in the Anti-Pleroma and would be a proper caretaker of my vast library. After all, at the end of the day all any of us ever really desire is simply to be remembered by someone. However, I do understand that, being a healthy, vital young woman, very naturally you might now be appalled at the thought of marrying such a grotesque old figure, one who, moreover, may very well enjoy eternal life. So you must be entirely selfish in your answer."

Whenever the Mothership would get a bit tipsy and was mad at my dad she would always either talk about 'going on the game' if anything ever happened to him or else she would tell the story of how her high school sweetheart, the only boyfriend she ever had before Dad, had proposed to her the summer they graduated. And, word for word, her little rejection speech. And now, to my total shock and horror, I actually found myself recycling it! I was totally turning into my mother in the course of a single conversation.

"Wow, Dr P, I'll always treasure that you asked me to marry you. It's the first time anyone's ever asked me--and with my luck, it'll probably be the last. But I just can't help feeling that even though you're a really terrific catch and any woman would be honored to accept your proposal [OK, that was a total stretch], it's just that I don't think we'd be very happy together." Notice I didn't use the word "flattered" even once. Or "ewww" or "gross" either. Anyway, when I finished, I found him giving me like a sad little smile.

"But that's not the real reason of course. You are in love with someone else."

So I was like, "Shut up! I am???"

"Yes, my shadow told me that as well," he said.

"Did he say who with?" I mean, it sure was news to me. But Dr P just shook his head.

To be continued...


Post a Comment

<< Home