Chapter 1: Egress on Route 9
It’s the dead of summer and Shalott wonders where you get an expression like that: “Dead of summer?”
Top down (yes, she has one of those T-birds) – her hair is going to be a mess, but she doesn’t care because it feels so good.
She careens down route 9, just before you get to Chestnut Hill Road.
Four days left on her “vacation of discovery.” And, you know, it was such a good idea that no one wanted to come with her. Forget the “Office Rats,” she is on a quest for local color.
Suddenly, a hand written sign, “Shalott—I have your beads.” What the…? She locks up the brakes and almost hits the ditch.
Backs up to re-read the sign: “Shalott—I have your beads,” shoe polish on cardboard. What a stupid sign. Was she looking for a sign?
She starts to turn around right there, to head back for the comforts of home—but she doesn’t.
She looks for people, looks for any sign of people, only to find a strip of tarmac cutting through a forest primeval, a blacktop road as old as the mountains through which she was so peacefully gliding—before this sign.
She looks at the offending sign one more time. This has to be one of Bengie’s jokes, but how could he have known? How many women have the same name as her and what would be the distribution on this rural mailing route? Couldn’t have been Bengie, she remembers that she had no plans to travel this road till this morning. Chosen quite on impulse. No way he could have been behind this.
A car comes up behind and blows its horn as it swerves to miss her.
It’s still there, “Shalott—I have your beads”.
She decides to get to the bottom of this and puts the ‘Bird in drive. The wheels squeal.
Shalott comes around a curve, and there, big as life, “Beads—Beads—Beads”! Same shaky lettering as the first sign.
A ramshackle old fruit stand covered in a Universe of bangles, bobbles and beads. Oh, it’s delightful, complete with wizened old crone and multi-colored tourists in various stages of buying trinkets.
She starts to drive past, gets on the other side, and pulls over on the shoulder.
She pulls a scarf over her hair, walks in her practical shoes to the “Hillbilly Bazaar.” Honestly, she expects the sounds of banjos at war.
She is not an expert, but there is literally every kind of bead known to humankind, every conceivable color and shape (and some that aren’t) strewn about the weathered pine boards of the stand.
Then she sees it, the tattered sign above the crone, “Beads from ‘The Thirteen Quixotic Temples of Light and Darkness’”. It reminds her of the lettering she saw on the wizard’s wagon in the Wizard of Oz.
Oh, it’s fabulous. Shalott snaps a few photos while waiting for the other tourists to complete their transactions, so that she might talk with the old woman in private.
The wilderness grows quiet as the last minivan departs. The now motionless beadmonger meets her eyes. Shalott realizes this is no old woman, this is barely human and it’s staring right into her eyes. She breaks eye contact.
A crackling creaky voice from myth says, “Shalott, I was so afraid I’d miss you.”
“OK, how do you know my name?”
“You are Shalott, are you not?”
“How do you know this?”
“If you are Shalott, I have your beads.”
“Stop it! I mean it. Stop it.”
The old woman(?) draws back as though frightened, “Shalott? Have I upset you? He would be mad if I upset you.”
Shalott is feeling a little exposed. She’s wishing another minivan would pull in and relieve this awkweird moment.
The crone, befuddled and baffled in a harmless way, is not unlike her grand Aunt Alice. Like Aunt Alice looking for her keys when her car had been sold years ago.
Shalott tries to comfort the crone, “Look you startled me because you know my name and I do not know you. How do you know my name?”
“He brings the beads—he teels me your name—and he is a very good man. I can teel these things. He is so much concerned for you. He gives me these.” The crone pulls out the most extraordinary string of beads Shalott has ever seen.
The textures and colors : some clearly ancient, some small wonders of nano technology, others, tiny little pocket universes, tiny little stories, all of them one-of-a-kind exceptions in a world gone mad with mass production.
The crone offers, her hands tremble. Shalott’s face softens a fraction. She asks, “Grand Aunt, what is your name?”
“Archna, you call me Archna.”
“Aunt Archna. ”
“Archna—please call me Archna,” the crone interrupts.
“Archna, one of my friends is playing a joke on the both of us.”
The crone calms and offers the beads a third time.
Shalott opens her hand. The crone places the string across the young woman’s palm and the world disappears…
Chapter 2: Through the Anteroom of the Twelve Doors
Shalott is standing in front of a broken mirror. Shalott is six year’s old.
Her grandaunt’s stupid mirror is broken, and Shalott is holding the doll. The bad doll that broke the mirror. And now her aunt is going to be mad because this bad doll got mad and hit the mirror.
Sweet Aunt Alice comes into the attic and finds her there with the bad doll.
“Oh Shalott sweetie, what happened?”
“Are you mad at me Aunt Alice?”
“How could I be mad at you child…?”
Shalott interrupts, “This doll, she broke the mirror.”
“Child, don’t blame the doll. It’s not her fault. She is really a very good little doll.”
“No she isn’t. She breaks things.”
“Shalott—Let her break things then. Better she should break everything in the world then you be angry at her. She really is a very good doll.”
Shalott looks at the mirror and realizes that she can walk through it, pass through the cracks. And she does.
Chapter 3: The Temple of Broken Glass
A young woman named Shalott comes to awareness in the lobby of an old movie theater. She quickly realizes that she saw something like this once in an old black and white photograph in her aunt’s hat box.
An old movie theater: broken plate glass windows in every direction, rubble and dust on every surface. It looked like the Germans had bombed London, or something.
The crunch of broken glass behind her, she turns to see a man approaching. A man neither tall nor short, not fat or thin, a man that you have to force yourself to actually see because it is the natural tendency of your eyes to slide off him onto anything else in the room.
“OK, this is getting out of hand. How does everybody know my name?”
In her hand, a string of beads, excellent beads. She is holding the one that looks something like a shattered marble.
He stops and holds up his hands. It’s like he’s surrendering or something. His expression: enigmatic.
“Shalott, my name is Finton and I am here to explain a few things.”
“OK, Finton, where the freak am I?”
Finton flusters as he pulls a small black notebook out of his pocket. “Right to the point I see. I guess this is only to be expected. You are at the beginning of an adventure, a tour of the Thirteen Quixotic Temples of Light and Darkness. This structure is your point of embarkation. These are the twelve doors.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
That got his attention. He consults several pages in the small black notebook and looks even more confused, “You are Shalott? Shalott de Bailey?”
She doesn’t answer.
“If you are Shalott, then all of this is for you. If not, there has been a terrible mistake.”
“How do you know me?”
“I don’t know you personally, ”
She interrupts, “How do you know my name?”
“It’s written right here, ”
“Where am I?!”
“Technically, you are at a road side, at a ‘hillbilly bazaar,’”—air quotes—”I believe you called it, on route 9, just before you get to Chestnut Hill Road, with four days left on your ‘vacation of discovery’”—again with the air quotes.
“You’re not real, so how is it that I see you?”
“I am your guide on said ‘vacation of discovery’.”
“How is that possible?”
He attempts to show her what looks like technical schema in the little book. “You are between heartbeats. It happens all the time.” He sighs, looking somewhat worn, “Look, you can go back if you like. Nothing is keeping you here.”
She scuffs her foot, moving a shard of glass through the dust. He is waiting patiently.
Without making eye contact, she asks, “What’s the deal?”
“Not sure I know what you mean, Shalott.”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
“Technically, nothing at all. You may choose to go to the thirteen temples, of which this is the first, and witness the many things there, or you can return the way you came.”
He is waiting. She is still there and he takes that as an encouragement. He says, “You may exit at any time, just drop the string of beads.”
She looks at her hand. The broken glass marble bead has cut her palm, though not badly, one drop of blood. He offers a handkerchief, but she wipes it on her pants leg.
She asks, “How does this work?”
“You chose one of these doors. You take the next bead in your hand and you walk through the door.”
“Something bad is going to happen to me when I walk through.”
“Drop the string,” he interrupts.
“Drop the string of beads and go home. It is clear you don’t want to participate in this journey.”
“I’ll drop it when I’m ready.”
The man turns without further comment, and walks through the wall.
She fingers the ceramic head bead that is next on the string.
Chapter 4: Rapa Nui—The Temple of the Grooved Spheres
She steps from the shadow of the jungle, and there is nothing for miles, but grass. The wind cuts wakes through the unkempt grass growing like hair all over the place.
She looks to a perfect cyan sky and if she looks long enough, she might see that it really is a painting of a sky on some kind of perfectly smooth vault. Her eyes drift to the horizon.
She walks East, according to the painted sun that actually is as bright as the real Sun, for no particular reason. Over the rise, she sees Rapa Nui cupped in a picture perfect little valley. It reminds her of a drawing she saw in one of her world culture books, Aztec pyramids somewhere.
Except that these pyramids have carved stone heads at the corners. Huge heads from—no, she can’t remember.
Each head has a mysterious metal sphere at its apex: grooved spheres of a solid bluish metal with flecks of white.
She looks at her hand and sees the string of beads.
She looks to the temple.
Dancers in rhinoceros costumes cavort down the stairs on the pyramids and, while there is no music she can hear, they spin and whirl around their temple, round and round, all around. They seem to be trying to do some kind of aggressive martial arts movements but only manage to trip all over themselves. Suddenly they stop. All watch as one climbs to the apex of the temple. He seems to be having a lot of trouble with his horn. He pulls the fake horn off and screams “This can’t be happening. This is the end of the World.”
The others go mad and throw themselves on the ground.
“This carnage stops right now, you hear me? Right now.”
The others call out, “This is the fall of the Western Empire. What can we do?”
“I will build a great wall to keep Them out! Why do we build the wall,? Because they don’t want us to.”
With sticks they draw caricatures of the mad god, Chaos in the sand. Monstrous diagrams with whirling eyes and drool running down its quivering chins. They are clearly using his image as a template.
He shouts, “What the soothsayers are seeing and what you’re hearing is not happening. We don’t have victories the way we used to.”
They shout, “The thunder will eat our ears and rot our brains,” (as through Fear, the brother god of Chaos, wouldn’t do the same).
He shouts, “Don your headgear so that your eyes won’t deceive you!”
Shalott watches as they put their heads in burlap sacks and run into one another.
She notices the Moon rises, much as it should, the Stars wheel and preen as they should. The Sun returns and the Cosmic Wheel turns, just as they always have, despite countless centuries of predictions to the contraire.
She tires of the show and walks to the horizon, which is strangely near.
She finds the crack in the World, and fingers the next bead. The bead that looks like a fragment gizmo from a computer. She takes the computer bead into her hand and steps through the crack.
Chapter 5: Schen Tal ~ The Golden Temple of the Ancient Model Aircraft
Shalott is in a hallway made entirely of those small twinkling lights that they twine in the branches of fig trees in nice restaurants. There is no apparent pattern, but subtle light animations seem to flicker in and out of reality. She has seen something like this once when she was a girl. It was raining and as she watched the standing water on a parking lot, she could almost see patterns arise and disappear.
She lets her eyes unfocus and she can see the glittering demons flicker, glide and scream within the Temple.
Each has its own special shape, its own sound. Such tiny little creatures of light contrasting with shadow, they cavort and ripple. They call to one another and play the most baffling games.
The golden tooth with wings is Reason. Reason, the most beautiful of all the demons gathered tghere hover before her.
She smiles, holds out her hand.
Reason flutters just beyond her reach. In a twinkling it twitters and turns, joining the swarming masses.
She leaves by the Southern door.
Chapter 6: Baian-Kara—The Temple of the Dropa Stones
Shalott steps into the middle of a street, a Suburban street. It smells like fresh-cut lawn and the end of a long day.
A young girl notices her immediately, and after a moment, comes over to talk
“My name is Kachina, and I bet you’re here to see the Phantom Planet.”
“Hello, Kachina, my name is Shalott and I don’t know about this Phantom…”, and then she sees it, just hanging there, bigger than the moon.
Kachina takes her hand, and leads her to huge stones that have been gouged out. They fit like recliners. Kachina says, “These are the Dropa Stones. Have a seat.’
“Kachina, tell me about the Phantom Planet.”
The girl says, “The Phantom Planet suddenly appeared in the sky three months ago, and no one knows how it got there. I mean, it looks bigger than the moon, but the man on TV said it wasn’t bigger, just closer”
Shalott leans back and lets the little girl tell the tale.
Kachina says, “People were running around all over the place shouting ‘It’s the End of the Known World,’ and things like, ‘Repent, repent, repent!.’ Like that, but even though it looked like it was moving closer the scientists told us it had become a satellite which means it’s just standing there, not really moving.”
The girl’s voice becomes conspiratorial, “Now I was looking for Space Monsters with big teeth and weapons of mass incineration. Mom expected Angels of Wrath. Come to break things to cleanse the Earth. Who knows what Dad expects.”
“Everybody thinks they know, but no one expected it to just stand there, and that is exactly what it’s doing—I sit here on these winter nights and its warm here in the Dropa Stones. No one can explain it, but its safe here, safe and warm.
The colors, I love the colors, all swirling and flowing.”
Shalott and Kachina sit and talk about all kinds of things for most of the night.
Chapter 7: Shalott Returns to the Temple of Broken Glass
Shalott pushes through an ancient door and finds herself in the lobby of the old movie theater.
He’s there, standing quietly with his little notebook in hand, “Shalott…?”
“How’s it going, Shalott?”
“OK,” she pulls her hair back, a nervous habit from her childhood, “Finton, what is this really?”
“This is your adventure.”
“Who set it up?”
He riffles back and forth in his ever-present black note book, finds whatever it is he was looking for, examines several pages, “Says here you set this in motion on your thirteenth birthday”
“I did this?”
Finton looks very confused, scratches his head, turns away and walks out through the wall.
“Thanks bunches, Finton,” she shouts to the place where he exited.
She examines the beads. This one that looks like a swan.
Chapter 8 ~ Leda-Tyndareus ~ The Temple of the Broken Swan
Shalott is struggling for air; she is underwater. Her thinking brain is somehow detached as her hindbrain galvanizes her into the thrashing of a drowning child. She breaks the surface. She coughs till it feels like her lungs will fall out her mouth. Her feet can barely touch bottom. The waves try to capsize her.
She wipes at her eyes. She slogs toward the beach.
She falls face down in the hot sand, and for the longest time she tells herself to get up. She would wipe at her eyes some more, but her hands are caked with sand. She crawls toward the tree line.
She collapses in the dancing palm frond shadows, and dreams of a world where everything is clean and white, and enameled, a Land of Fine Appliances.
Later (Days later?), she swims into awareness. She is on her back, watching a sky untroubled by clouds, through a kaleidoscope of palm fronds.
At length she sits up and there it is, the most frighteningly picturesque shipwreck ever. A swan ship out of Fantasy, not so much wrecked, as Fallen. A shattered ebon-blue swan wrecked on the sand. The unnatural, gaping hole in the bow, biting the sand. A banshee screaming silence, a cygnae’s eternal lament for her idyllic exotic home. A home now lost forever. The swan ship orphaned on this alien shore. Defeated. Deep melancholy, transience and decay…
Shalott walks across the burning sand and wishes she had shoes. She finds the name on the bow, “Andromache,” wife of the broken warrior.
She tries to find a way onto the deck, but can’t. She tries to enter through the mouth, but it’s too small. She tries to pry a hole big enough and only succeeds in nearly breaking her arm.
Shalott sits in the shadow of the ship and tries to talk to it. The ship will not answer. Shalott talks about our diminished age; compares our art with the greater ages that are behind us, ages from which we are exiles, tiny ships of flesh tossed by the hidden currents of Time and Fate, currents coursing the endless oceans of existence.
Shalott watches as the sun quenches itself in crimson robes as she tells the ship of turquoise waters, waters of infinite depth illuminated from below, a strange eerie and disturbing glow that terrifies her. This abyss, unlike any in the natural world, where Time eats all actions dreams and desires. Swallows even the words she speaks. Sequesters her litany of how all stories end in Silence and all voyages end in the Abyss.
The tide comes in and touches Shallot’s feet, with just a slight coolness, like a shadow brushing over her.
She looks at the string of beads; she has been holding the swan bead.
Shalott stands and brushes the sand from her clothing. She takes the next bead, triangular bead of citrine crystal, in hand and walks down the shore.
The ship doesn’t say goodbye.
Chapter 9: Bishapur-Veta—The Temple of Water, Fire and Stone
Shalott finds herself in the middle of an ancient roadway, holding the triangular crystal bead. She walks in a southerly direction on a beautiful spring day.
She sees a sign in the distance. She reads “Bishapur” followed by archaic runes. It might be a mile marker, or something.
She walks about two hours in a south-westerly direction. She passes a beautiful and shallow lake, a water fall, a stand of oak trees.
At length she comes upon the ruins of… something. Some kind of ancient site becomes visible. Orange blossom fragrance drifts through her, a gift from a nearby orchard. The sky is cyan, the weather clement.
Shalott can feel muscles that have never relaxed, relax.
A river flows from the east to places further westward. City walls and an ancient gate speak of a grander time, a time now passed.
She enters. The floor is carved green stone tiles shot through with veins of obsidian. Occasional marble pillars still hold segments of roof; others are cracked, split and crumbling.
Shalott tries to picture the people responsible for building this temple.
Everywhere there were serviceable pools set in geometric patterns, aching in the dryness of the desert night. This temple seems to have been built for giants rather than mere mortals. An Altar—stairs leading upward and then it hits her. This vast Emptiness, no one—not a single soul.
The wind tugs at her sleeve, but there isn’t a sound. She can hear her own footfalls; it is not as though she has gone deaf. Somehow this silence is deeper than that.
A runic inscription on an eastern wall, she can’t read it. Was it placed there to encourage or dissuade, to tell of the future or lament the past?
She tops the stairs and finds a huge arena.
She enters the arena through the closest gate, emerging in the middle row of the viewing gallery.
This place is vast, tier upon tier of empty seats with aisles radiating from the center like the spokes of a cosmic wheel.
She decides it is an outdoor theater. The center of the theater is a tawny sand floored oval with a low stage at the end nearest her.
She hears the wind now as it walks the aisles between the seats, and stirs dust devils across the field. The seats have been carved of a jade colored stone.
Shalott sits in one of the seats and leans back. She wonders how she knows this is to be her ordeal, wonders who will test her.
Every nerve in her body is alive. There is no sound save the wind; it is as through everything in the universe is listening.
She gets out of the seat to go down to the field. She has a strange feeling that a part of her stayed in the seat to watch. She does not turn to look, “Well, I am to be the audience as well as the show, am I to be the Tester too?” she asks in a loud voice as she sets foot on the oval. The word “Too” echoes through the arena.
She had imagined so many monsters in this testing, but there are no monsters to be found. So many ordeals she had rehearsed and re-rehearsed and yet here she stands, at the final moment, alone.
She looks back to where she had sat and if she holds her head just right she can see herself up there. She waves to herself and the reclining figure waves back.
From the field she shouts, “Take notes, there may be a quiz!”
“Got it, no problem,” comes the reply.
Shalott walks to the stage and sits facing the far end of the field.
There is a distorted blur in the light at that end of the arena; a single figure emerges from the distortion, walking in Shalott’s direction.
“Right on time, I see,” the figure calls, as her features became clearer.
“I always try to be,” she answers, trying to be so casual, so cool.
The approaching woman’s face is not clear, but there is something very familiar in the way the other carries herself.
“It appears that the testing will be delayed,” Shalott offers the stranger.
“Far from it, this testing is concluding,” the stranger says just as Shalott recognizes her face.
The Shalott in the stands beholds Shalott walking up to herself on the stage. She is overjoyed.
She shouts, stamps her feet and applauds.
The two women on the field embrace, while the third one in the stands shouts and cheers like its New Years.
Chapter 10: Et’-Poth-Ra—Temple of the Rain
Shalott steps out of the woods.
She knows this house, this is the house of the first man she ever loved.
She remembers a time before. Remembers that just before the Tsunami comes, there comes a terrifying stillness. A time when the Sea is drawn back like the blankets on your parent’s bed, revealing many strange—things. Things wriggling in the sand and when you see an old lover, it feels just like that.
Before the Tsunami, there comes an out-rush of the air. Before the tidal wave, the wind leaves the land like exhaled breath, whistling through tattered palm fronds, and the sound of breath leaving your body.
Disheveled and unkempt, he stumbles from the house.
His eyes—wild, caged.
He hands her scribbles on a napkin and a fist full of currency. Says, “Build it—build it soon.”
She considers. She reflects, and at length, mercy flowers in her heart.
In the sunlight she pieces together ten thousand shapes, ten thousand surfaces. She assembles shiny pots and pans, small bits of copper, tin plates, shards of glass, even sheets of semi-translucent plastic, with a little mortar and wood to hold it all tight.
Her work is true and she finds a kind of pride blossoming in her heart as she steps back. It is a thing of non-Euclidian beauty.
And then comes the rain.
Rattle tink, rattle rattle, tink tink. Ten thousand tiny voices gurgling in the mist. Chirping and hiss-wishing, clattering and plopping, and somehow the noise washes away the wind blowing from the abyss in her. Shalott is satisfied.
He’s standing there beside her and she doesn’t love him anymore, nor does she hate him. Somehow that is a good thing, somehow that is enough. The sound of the rain is like bacon on a spring morning.
She takes the string of beads from around her wrist, grasps the one that looks like a tiny glass eye, gives the man a friendly kiss and walks back into the woods.
Chapter 11: Cahya-Zhi—The Temple of the Analakeeha Anomaly
Shalott is in some kind of tunnel, passage way, or something. The passage changes as she moves toward the center, it seems dimmer now. She turns on the electric torches and shadows dance the walls.
She tries to ignore the scurrying shadows down the cross passages and something to the right is calling her name in a deep booming voice.
Rivulets of ooze trickle down the leathery walls. There are patches that rhythmically bulge and contract like the abdomen of a breathing leviathan.
She comes to a choice between a left branch and a right. She goes left. She finds the top of a stair twisting down into the gloom. There is a wall to the right and nothing, as far as the torches can pierce, to the left.
It’s like she has been on this stair her whole life, spiraling into the abyss.
At the bottom there’s a dimly-lit room. She rests on the stairs for a moment.
The room is filled with thousands of statuettes; some human, others alien creatures. And there in the very center, a bigger-than-life statue of herself with some kind of octopus creature wrapped around her legs.
She laughs a dry and dusty laugh, devoid of any real humor. Not a pretty sound. There is a motion and to the left a heinous two-faced figurine turns to regard her. Every hair on the back of her neck stands erect as she screams.
Something is in the room with her. A shattering crash comes from across the chamber. Her eyes cannot register this moving mass of…
She runs on instinct. A million hallways and an eternity later, she bursts into an egg shaped chamber. The walls rough, glistening, white stone coiling up into a ceiling that is a vast bluish lens. The chamber hums with sizzling energies from the focused beam coming through the lens.
It’s in the passageway outside the chamber. She moves further into the chamber to get away from the door.
She sees it clearly for the first time. The hideous heads come through the door and it snags, the shoulders and bulk of the beast are too big for it to fit through the entrance. It’s writhing and squirming, enlarging the opening. Several of the legs have worked through the door and the heads are whipping around. The writhing reminds her of when, as a child, she watched a snake die.
One of the spines on the heads slices through the beam and is vaporized.
Her head cannot contain the sound.
She backs away, further into the chamber, toward the beam running ceiling to floor.
It will come.
She will wait, standing with her back inches from the sizzle of the focused beam.
The light in the room is shifting, becoming more intense. Somewhere up there, dawn must be breaking.
The beast is in the chamber now. First one, then the other head regards her or perhaps the beam behind her.
“Come on baby,” she coos.
It rears up.
She step backs
She feels the beam on her back, “Come on.”
It leaps and they fall back into a world of exploding light, where nothing hurts anymore.
She is back in the lobby and Finton is there.
Chapter 12: The Third Visit to the Temple of Broken Glass
“Hey, look Finton, I’m sorry. No. Really, I am sorry.”
She uses her foot to doodle-draw a snake in the debris of the floor, “Finton, there are so many things happening to me, happening inside me. Things I thought buried, things I thought lost.”
Finton offers her a perfectly folded, monogrammed handkerchief, because for some reason she is crying. His eyes are the color of kindness.
“Finton, what’s this all about? Am I dead?”
The man tries to suppress a laugh, “Shalott, you are certainly not dead. You are perhaps more alive than you have ever been.”
“But, what is this all about?”
“As with Life, it’s about whatever you chose for it to be about.”
“OK, that’s just crap, but I get it. One thing, Finton, why are you in this rundown old movie house?”
He chortles again, “Technically, I am not from around here. This place is of your making. I must say I don’t really care for the decor, but it serves.”
She grasps a tiny silver mirror bead.
Chapter 13: Salve’ deFilmo—The Temple of Flesh
Shalott steps out of a mirror.
She hates this place, mirrors, mirrors everywhere, and not a drop to…
This mirror makes her look fat.
This one makes her lips look—pouty.
This is one of those that bend you every which way.
In this mirror she is comparing herself to others.
In this one she is always alone.
This one says things like, “Diet, stay out of the sun, men don’t make passes at girls who wear…”
Shalott turns away only to confront another saying, “Start an exercise program, play sports and eat healthy food.” This one says, “Straighten up. Smile and look straight ahead. You’ll look and feel more confident,”
She tries it. It doesn’t work.
There. Did you see that? Just as she turned, she caught a glimpse. Something—someone—is in one of the mirrors, but when she looks right at it all she can see is herself.
She turns to walk down the hall, and runs right into a mirror, thump.
She thinks about it, extends her hand, and walks back in the direction she came.
Damn. There it was again. The gypsy woman?
“OK, come out, I know you’re in here.” Her voice echoes strangely.
This twisty mirror looks like rippling water, and she can’t make out her own reflection. She says, “You can come out now. Look, all I have to do is drop the bead in my hand and I’m out of here. So?”
She turns to face another mirror with no apparent distortion. She can see her whole body. The outline on the left gets fuzzy and her grandaunt Alice’s reflection detaches from Shallot’s reflection.
She sees lines in the kind old face. She sees things she never saw before. She discovers that she loves this woman with all of her heart.
“Don’t be so hard on her.”
“Hard on whom?”
“You know she is a good little girl. I can just tell about these things.”
“Alice, hey—look at me. Yes. Hi. Hey Alice, tell me what’s the problem.”
“I don’t care about that stupid old mirror. I never liked it. And poor little Shalott, she was so upset when it got broken. I just wanted to tell her that I loved her and I didn’t care about the—mirror. Dear, are you crying?” It’s as though Alice has suddenly recognized Shalott.
“Oh Shalott, don’t cry. There’s really no point. You know what dear, cry all you want. A good cry is what we all need from time to time.”
“Thank you mam.”
“How are you?”
“But Aunt Alice, I am a bad person.”
“Hush, now none of that.”
“But I’ve hurt people and I am so alone, and…”
“Honey, you aren’t alone. Try getting old, now that makes you alone.”
“But Aunt Alice—it was my fault.”
“Your fault? Your Dad was an asshole, and your mom was too concerned about herself.”
“Alice. I’ve never heard you talk like that.”
“High time you did then.”
“But I broke your mirror.”
“No problem. My mother-in-law gave me that awful thing. I always hated it. Why do you think it was in the attic?”
“But I blamed the doll.”
“Shalott, hon, did you think I was so stupid?”
“No, of course not— I am sorry.”
“Hey, I was glad you didn’t cut yourself.”
“Aunt Alice, thank you.”
“Honey, what’s the problem?”
“I am so alone. Weren’t you alone?”
“Shalott, I had you. Even when you weren’t there, I could feel you. Oh child, you were my salvation.”
“Aunt Alice. I never knew.”
“Kinda makes you wish you’d paid more attention, huh?”
“Honey you’re never alone.”
“I’m inside you little one. How can you ever be alone?”
Chapter 14: Enoch-Tor—The Temple of the Cloud Dragons
Shalott is falling in Darkness.
How long has she been lying here? She opens her eyes and quickly snaps them shut.
There is no ground. She is in free fall with no up, no down, no anything.
Shalott throws up and finds that vomit in free fall is a real nuisance.
She curls into a fetal position for an infinite time. She is in her head. She can hear the sound of a breeze. Her heart beats in her ears.
She fiddles with the strand of beads around her wrist.
She opens her eyes and finds a vast something filling a fourth of the sky. She will call it a planet. Tries to remember a movie where this guy named a planet. It is very fuzzy and hazy thing, maybe even rounded.
Shalott decides the planet, as yet un-named, is down.
There are things, clusters of jellyfish balloon things, undulating and meandering the ocean of air all around her. Myriad clouds, debris, everything but a kite, tumbling and floating in the air around her.
She swishes her hands and feet to get a better vantage point. She decides to relax and about that time a massive clump of green streamers passes between her and the planet. There are things crawling on the air-weed, there are things swinging around it.
The sky is crystal clear.
And then she sees it, one of the Magnificent Cloud dragons of Enoch Tor. It resembles nothing so much as a windsock she had painted for her dad when she was thirteen.
The head is a cluster of eyes and feelers. The long sensuous body snakes out for miles behind it. The body striped with that iridescent green you sometimes see on the heads of mallard ducks. The intervening stripes are a pulsating maroon. It has three major fins at 120 degree angles, near the head.
It moves, it slides, and it twists all around her, but makes no move directly toward her.
She is weightless in a sky suddenly alive and the iridescent dragon comes gently to stare into her face.
There are no words.
And it’s gone.
Chapter 15:E’Teli-Kapus—The Temple of the Four Muses
Shalott is in a bar, more correctly a tavern, a pub. Across the table sits a handsome man she has never met, a man she has known all her life. Shalott is feeling strangely mellow.
She says, “Tell me a story.”
“A story? You want a story?”
“Yes, it might help to pass the time.”
He scoops a handful of peanuts. “Oh, OK.” The peanuts and a portion of the beer disappear.
“Once there were four men in the desert, four turbulent and troubled men. One was named Reason, another named Magic, the third named Poetry, and the last one named Art.”
“All men, no women?”
“All right three men and a woman, named Art. That’s short for Artilina.”
Shalott makes a face.
“They were regents in their own right and owned many things of great beauty and worth, yet they were unhappy. They had come to the desert to forget the future and deny the past.
The man called Reason had concluded that he was disconnected from everything else in the universe. Magic had become dark and filled with Dark visions of pain blood and decay. Poetry had become a diseased lover, perverted beyond recognition. Art had become disfigured in a war and could no longer bring her to think of anything except her own despair.”
Shalott says, “You’re making it up as you go along, aren’t you?”
The man continues unperturbed, “Well they traveled for seven days without incident. On the eighth day, they met a young man full in his prime.”
“What was he wearing?”
“A loin cloth.”
“Hush a minute, this is my story.
Well, Magic spoke first saying in a loud voice, ‘I am death and life, and how do you greet me?’ And the man replied ‘I embrace you.’
Wrathful with the man’s response, Magic grew wings and talons and attacked the man. The man ducked and slapped at the thing that attacked him. In the struggle the man lost his right eye, but finally he managed a grip on Magic’s throat. He pulled Magic up to his face and looked deep with his remaining eye into the eyes of Magic, only to find that there was nothing really there.”
“Next, Poetry came up to him and said, ‘I am your lover and your disease, how do you greet me?’
The man replied ‘I dance with you’
Poetry began the dance. It rippled and flowed in the sun and the man kept step. Often it seemed that Poetry would outreach the man, but then the man would pull from some inner oceanic soul and keep the step. The two blurred into one form. It was hard to tell one from the other. In time, Poetry gave out and fell dead on the sand. The dance had badly hurt the man such that he could barely stand.”
Art came to the man and looked up at him with fearful eyes, ‘How will you greet me?’ The man did not answer.
Art caught fire and a deep passion came over the man. He forgot his pain and tried to embrace the flame. In a frenzy he screamed, only to find he was alone with nothing but ashes in the wind.”
Reason was the only one left. The man feared Reason, but Reason approached. The man, half hobbling, ran and Reason ran after him.
Despite the man’s injuries, they ran thus for a full day and a full night. Finally, unable to run any farther, the man stopped and turned to face Reason.
“What have you to fear,” asked Reason, ‘For I have brought you the things that you will need.’
Reason gave the man a new mechanical eye to replace the one destroyed by Magic. Reason gave the man a new knee joint that worked almost as well as the old one, although the man still walked with a noticeable limp. Then Reason gave the man a heart-augment designed to keep his blood rich and flowing. This did not keep the man from feeling that his heart was breaking, but kept the guilt from killing him.
The man took all these things and set off to wander the world, in fact, he wanders the world even now.”
Shalott sits staring at the man in silence.
Chapter 16: Amun-Srete—The Temple of the Antikythera Mechanism
Shalott looks around. She is in her room—actually she is in the room she used to live in before she left home.
She watches a younger version of her hesitating at the door of her room.
Today is the first day of the rest of it, the rest of her life, and she hesitates there in the door.
She says to no one in particular, “What will we do today? Will the other kids be mean? What if the bus driver forgets me? How long before anyone notices, and what could happen to me then?”
She looks about the room at all her things and considers just staying in this room for the rest of her life. Considers going into a nunnery. Considers…
She walks through the door to breakfast, which is not such a new thing after all.
Time swirls and a slightly older, young Shalott hesitates at the living room door. She is touching the couch like it’s her best friend, “Will I have to take a nap, because I don’t think I could just sleep. Do these pants look OK?”
She sees the photos on the wall and suddenly wants to just look at them forever.
Another point on her time line, she hesitates getting into her mom’s car, “I think I have bronchitis. Jennifer Tomlin doesn’t like me, and she will be there you know. And all those boys, I hate boys. They stink and they’re stupid. Why do girls get stupid when they talk to boys?”
She hesitates at the bathroom door and considers what the cool kids will be doing when she goes to middle school.
“Why do I have to go? They don’t teach me anything. Just a bunch of middle aged jerks. Yes, mam.”
Time swirls and she hesitates at the gym door. Her prom dress is less than she wanted and Jimmy Farthing. I mean Jimmy Farthing, really?
Still he is nice to her and he doesn’t look nearly as bad as he usually does.
She hesitates at her dorm room door. What if she hates her roommate? What if she flunks out? What if she has all these student loans that force her to work in a job she doesn’t like and stay in one place when she really wants to roam?
Time coalesces and there he stands (I mean isn’t there always one of these guys in all the stories she likes?). And he is holding something in his hand. He’s smiling one of those enigmatic smiles.
She’s not sure if she trusts him, not sure he’s actually there and then he speaks. His voice is the color of kindness. He speaks of many things in her past and it as if he has always known her.
She still doesn’t trust him, but she wants to see what he has in his hand, so she asks him to show her what is there. His eyes are warm and weathered and he steps close enough to not be threatening.
In his hand is the Antikythera Mechanism, a bronze device the size of a tea saucer and dancing across the facets are all the things that have ever been, all the things that will ever be. And it’s all so much, and it’s all so small that she can’t make out any of it and she certainly can’t see her role in all this.
She says, “I’m not asking which to choose. I’m not even asking for a shove in the right direction. What I want is some clarity. I want to know what I’m choosing between. I want to know what I’m taking with me and what I’m leaving behind in the dust.”
“Young one, you are choosing between the opposites of human existence, and you’ve been choosing all your life. Choosing whether to go or stay, whether to run or play, where to go and what to do. It has always been you choosing.”
He offers and she withdraws her hands. She says, “But some of those choices sucked and things have been broken and face it, I’ve always been stubborn.”
“Strong willed perhaps, but that’s why you never chose drugs or taken the easy ways that lead to true despair. And yes, you have made mistakes, but you have learned from each of them.”
She indicates he might hold the thing up for her. “Why can’t I simplify all the stuff on that stupid disk? Why are there no equations? Hell, I’d even settle for some probability studies, just something.”
“Some things can be simplified into equations and some things can’t. When you’re looking at the Total Life Equation, it must be expressed with Chaos elements if it is to be Real.”
She is distressed.
“I don’t like that. It makes me afraid.”
“No one expects you to like it, but that is the definition of courage, is it not? ‘She was afraid, but she went on anyway,’ and for the most part succeeded.”
“What are my choices?”
“The same as all your life: to go into the next room or stay where you are, to let Love course your veins, or remain pure and chaste. To take a chance on hurting yourself on the thorns that grow along the path to the future, or to play it safe in your room. You know most of these choices are not always in yin/yang pairs, and the odds are you will live through most of your mistakes.”
He pauses. She can’t tell if it was just for effect. He says, “You will choose whether to remain a child or become a woman, whether you face each day as a challenge or a curse. No one can make this choice for you, but you are not alone. You will never be alone.”
The stranger places the disk in her hand, and she tries to give it back. She says, “I can’t take this; It’s much too valuable.”
“I hesitate to say this gentle one, but you must take this. Consider it an offering.”
“Where did you get it?”
His eyes grow winsome and a smile glows at the corners of his mouth. He takes off his hat and bows to her, “Time is not linear, dear one. You gave it to me when you saved me.”
Chapter 17: Tahl Sheeah—The Temple of the Eternal Moment
Shalott returns to the lobby, but Finton cannot be found. She lays the disk shaped object on the abandoned concession stand.
She examines the last bead; a smooth shiny sphere, blacker than a black hole.
She looks away for a moment, afraid of what this bead might bring. She considers leaving before trekking to the last temple.
She heaves a sigh. Picks up the Antikythera Mechanism and notices that there is a perfect hole in it, exactly the right size for the last bead. She places the bead in the hole and it disappears.
When she looks back up, she can see intense light coming from all around the last door. It seems to permeate everything.
She grips the disk, leans against the door.
Shalott is no longer falling or walking or breathing, and somehow that is OK.
She is under the Sea and though she has never seen Atlantis, she finds herself beside a perfect Atlanten pyramid in the central square.
Dim and murky, who knows how long she’s floated there. Something glowing in the distance, there is another, several now. Pinpoints of light moving toward her. She saw these lights in the eyes of a man in a dream when she was a little girl. She called them fairy lights.
There is a sound, a myriad of sounds actually, not unlike an orchestra tuning up. But it’s bedlam, total discord.
The first of the fairy lights swims by her. It’s a tiny flickering fish. She watches it taking a position on the pyramid and its song locks in. In fact, as each fish assumes its position, a part of a Universal chord engages.
There is a resonance building between the structures that surround her and the square. Iridescent resonant chords folding back on themselves. Harmonic frequencies undulating and subtle, in the eddies and cross currents of temporal flux. Standing waves gelling into matrices, coalescing in concordance with the undisputable laws of an infinitely hydrodynamic Universe. Energies coalescing into stratified sheets of clarified existence. Whisps interlocking into non-linear relationships, spiraling, collapsing, self-recursive fractal spirals curling and unfolding, twisting into deceptively simple vortexes of the ever opening flower of Reality.
Across the ten dimensional crystalline matrixes of the hyper conductive under pinning of the Universe electric dragons of dynamic oscillation cavort, attesting the rightness of the Universal pattern templates.
And building within the chord, a single, tight, searing note rakes the darkness. Pressure building—building—building, unable to release.
Shalott screams, “What’s it for?”
A shattering. It is the sound of perfect symmetries breaking. It is that thunderous instant when a kernel of Wanting burst into everything we know!
Alive for the first time, she stands, a stardust thing still quivering in the echo.
Chapter 18: The Temple of Hope (Formerly Temple of Broken Glass)
She comes to awareness in the lobby of a brand new movie theater, huge plate glass windows in every direction. And she realizes that there are people in the theaters. Some watching comedies, some dramas, a few action-adventures.
“Hey Finton…” No answer.
She looks in her hand and finds the now familiar string of beads sold to her by the crone. She gingerly shoves them into her pocket.
She looks all around for Finton, can’t find him, and buys a box of popcorn and a Doctor Pepper from a guy named Jeremy.
“Outrageous price,” he says. He still takes the money.
She waits, but he doesn’t come.
She gives it one last look around and walks out the door. She doesn’t see the man reflected in the mirror behind the concession bar. A man neither tall nor short, not fat or thin, and a man that you have to force yourself to look at because it is the natural tendency of your eyes to slide off this man onto anything else in the room.
He’s waving goodbye to her.
Chapter 19: Return to the Ante Room of the Twelve Pathways
Shalott sees the little girl playing with her doll. The girl is kinda happy there in front of the mirror. Shalott notices that her grandaunt’s mirror is unbroken.
From below there comes the sweet voice of Aunt Alice.
Shalott slips out of the attic.
Chapter 20: Entrance on Route 9
The crone offers, her hands tremble—Shallot’s face softens a fraction. She asks, “Grand Aunt, what is your name?”
“Archna, you call me Archna…”
“Archna… please call me Archna,” the crone interrupts.
“Archna, one of my friends is playing a joke on the both of us.”
The crone calms and offers the beads a third time. Shalott opens her hand. The crone places the string across the young woman’s palm. Shalott laughs with her whole body as the circle of time completes itself.
The crone is pleased.
Shalott digs in her pocket and pulls out far too much cash.
The crone refuses at first, but Shalott insists.
Shalott climbs into her T-bird, takes one long last look around. Everything is totally electric and for the first time in years, the young woman breathes. How long has she been holding her breath?
She starts the car, shifts gears and is never seen in those parts again.
This story first appeared in Chyfrin in 2017.
Edited by Marie Ginga
William C. Burns, Jr. has won the Greenville County Library Award for haiku, and has been published in To Be Men, After the Orange: Ruin and Recovery and Confessions: A Nightmare in Five Acts. He also published in Star*Line, The New Press Literary Quarterly, South Ash Press, and Slug Fest. He is a regular contributor to MetaStellar Magazine. He’s a full-time writer whose previous lives include being a bioengineer, a teacher of electrical power, microprocessor control systems and a set designer for local theaters.