I look to my left. Then to my right. The green man lights up. He tells me it is permissible to walk now. The cars are waiting, staring, as I cross the busy street. Je suis comme un somnambule agité. I make the effort to focus on what is ahead of me. Onward and upward! All the same… I cannot help glancing at the cars. The headlights like marvelous widened eyes. The drivers like ghosts in their machines.
There are shadows edging the leaves as I walk along the park. The encroaching dusk has the consistency of charcoal smudges. Une qualité éthérée. And yet I feel awake. Alive! Street lamps flicker. Something inside me also sputters to be remembered. A woman wearing a smart blouse and short skirt looks distressed as she passes. Have we met before? Her fine head on its slender stem turns back once, twice. Nervous, darting movements like a frightened bird.
The sluggishness of the day slides off me like the brittle skin of a serpent. Those scales have lost their luster and I am witnessing a new green world. The pathway slowly winds, the gray pavement changing colour, darkening under the firefly lamps. Like a poem discovering itself in the restless mind. Is it this that propels me deeper into the park? So much strangeness in these… coins familiers.
I hear echoes of footsteps in an endless corridor. Maybe following. Or are they up ahead? They could very well be my own footsteps. Crossing a point of unknown significance, an invisible threshold. Me following myself.
This idea fills me with fear.
On either side of the corridor are faint slivers of illumination. A succession of doors, opened slightly. I can barely make out the numbers on them. I cannot stop to look. There is no time. Keep going, I tell myself, continuer… There are muffled sounds bleeding through the cracks. The hissing static of televisions and radios; glowing tubes of simmering red and milky blue.
At every turn I feel myself to be moving in circles. My mouth is so dry. Every swallow is a lump of fear I must choke down. Like capsules in a paper cup. Always the watching eyes to make sure they go down. Always the soothing voices assuring me I have done well. I miss those voices. Maybe not the voices themselves, but my belief in them. The drowsy game we play when they tell me I am doing well and I nod and feel the haziness cushioning my mind. The little clouds of falseness floating behind my eyes.
But I am too awake now. The night has turned cooler and I tighten the belt of my robe. The folds of cloth envelop me, caressing my skin. Every now and then I pass young men. Sometimes alone, or in pairs. They stare but do not pass their judgment. I feel like a welcome stranger having wandered in their midst. I am like a tourist in a foreign land. A place I only have a vague memory of visiting in some distant past life. A country called Déjà Vu. There are no hotels, no shops or restaurants in this country. If I find myself in need of the simple amenities of life – les conforts quotidian – I must conjure them from memory.
But I have no memory of such things.
Il n’y a pas de passé. Pas d’avenir.
I am an orphan born into this moment.
“Bonjour, Monsieur. Êtes-vous perdu?”
The young man stands in front of me. Wearing a dark jacket, pushing the hair out of his eyes. It crosses my mind to go around him, to keep moving, never to slow down. But there is a certain way that he stands. So casual, relaxed… but immoveable too. There is no passing around him. He is thin, wiry; like a plume of smoke coiling upward from some subterranean fire. An eternal flame the priests always warned us about. The fiery damnation the nuns always lorded over our young heads. Tousled heads like this one before me who is constantly pushing the hair out of his eyes.
I tell him I am not lost. He smiles and says not now anyway, since he has found me. I point up at the sky, into the clear night, so bejeweled with stars, and explain that I can never be lost while I have such an enormous map to navigate by. The deck sways gently beneath our feet. There is a sensual mist in the air, carrying the fragrance of salt. As manly an odor as perspiration sticking to our skin. I tell my young friend how at school I learned that, in the ancient times, salt had to be carried out of mines by slaves and was used as money. And here we are inhaling such a smell of riches for free.
I shake my head. I try to explain that it is my first time at sea and able-bodied seamen make next to no salary. Our main reward is…
“Donne-moi une cigarette.”
“Je ne fume pas.”
“Tabernac!” His voice cracks with impatience. He plunges his hands into my oversized pockets. I try to push him away, but he grabs me by the collar. He wants something for his trouble. “Don’t be fucking with me, old man!” Spittle flies in my face, his breath reeks of decay. I can imagine all the teeth in his head like brown stumps rotting. I try to break free and he grabs my belt, tugs hard and my robe flies open like spasmodic wings trying to take flight.
A shock of cold air alarms me and I look down, surprised at my nakedness. Mon corps pale… with its cadaverous loose skin. Such a sickly complexion under the ghostly yellow lamps. My feet, absurd in ankle socks and slippers. The shameless wobbling of my arousal. Une érection mince et ridicule. This also startles the young man. He laughs at first, an explosive snort, as if against his will. Then the litany of curses.
“Calice! Sale vieux bâtard! Tapette dégoûtant!”
The blow to my chest is enough to force my knees to crumple beneath me. I feel myself falling, falling… Homme à la mer! But my cries for help are washed away by the sea. Waves lashing at my exposed flesh, each one trying to pull me under and each time I struggle to keep myself afloat. My skin freezing and burning at the same time. My vision is fixated on the fading moon. Trying to keep it in my sights as I submerge into the murky depths.
“Who did this to you?
Opening my eyes. There are bed sheets tucked too tightly over my body like a straightjacket. Two policemen stand over me, repeating the same questions.
“Can you give a description?”
Somewhere there is the rhythmic hiss from a hidden crevice. This turns out to be my own breathing. My throat is a narrow valve misdirecting air like a faulty radiator. There is a labored gurgling from the middle of my chest.
“Why were you in the park tonight?”
I can only imagine my body to be a kind of island. With secret areas defining their own hidden reserves of throbbing and stinging. The bruises rooted deeper than their tender surfaces. Each strata of passion… shame… fear… rage… futility… isolation… death… each a ring, as in an aged tree for all to witness. Telling its story to no one. Un purgatoire privé.
A nurse comes into the room and tells the policemen I must rest now. Mon ange de la miséricorde. What form will your mercy take tonight? She unfolds a cloth to reveal the sacramental syringe. Trying to raise a vein, as Lazarus was raised, she murmurs a prayer while two tendril fingers tap the inside of my arm, as if administering the last rites.
O sainte accueille ci-dessus, je t’invoque …
The passage of time conceals all meaning as I find myself once more in my room. I nest the capsules on my tongue, then swallow. Another young nurse crumples the paper cup in her fist and smiles. They must keep me strapped in a wheelchair now. Through my window the morning glare half hides the crucifix over my bed. The holiest part is always that which cannot be seen. It is the part I left behind when I crossed over the leafy threshold. L’arbre de vie. Its roots are buried under the path of least resistance. An invisible trail leading to random corridors. The green man pulsates and signals a constant knotting of the crossroads. Un labyrinthe de verdure… the receding walls and shifting corners of this new green world.
Steven Mayoff is a writer living on Prince Edward Island, Canada. His fiction and poetry have appeared in journals across Canada and the USA, as well as in Ireland, Algeria and France. His story collection, Fatted Calf Blues, (Turnstone Press 2009) won the 2010 PEI Book Award for Fiction, was short-listed for a 2010 ReLit Award and was a Top 5 Finalist in the 2011 CBC Cross-Country Bookshelf. His novel, Blessing and Song, will be published by Bunim & Bannigan Ltd.