When sailing for Bombay, he met an old archaeologist, who had been to the Nile and discovered many new and fascinating wonders . This gentleman was in his eightieth year of life. Together, they pored over the gentleman’s copy of the Book of The Dead. Richard had, then, marveled over the etchings of creatures with crocodile heads and bird wings…Dog headed things, and snakes that could talk. Outside, the wind swept against the porthole…the ship rocked in the storm.
“And what do you think of Freud’s theories,” asked Richard. “Is it possible that these imaginings are the dream-like projections of a diseased mind?”
The old man looked over the edge of his spectacles. His brown eyes were sympathetic.
“When it’s so horrible, it’s no longer just a dream”, he supposed.
Undressing for bed was impossible. Richard found this out at the last, sitting on the edge of his narrow cot. He did not leave his small apartment. Instead he walked to the window, and leaned his elbows on the sill, leaning a little out. There was pungent odor of sweat mixed with violets. The street was still lively even at the advanced hour. Carriages rumbled in the streets; the more traditional rickshaw drivers, too, dragged their cargo through the evening traffic. What were these men about, he wondered. Shouldn’t they be home, with their wives, and their children? As his thoughts moved down this vein, his carefully constructed scaffold of rationality and self-control collapsed completely. He thought only of Annika, and in a fantastical burst of emotion and desire he imagined himself weeping in her brown arms, weeping with joy at long last, not minding the self he imagined he had left behind, in a crumple of English clothing in an economical hotel in the European quarter.
Annika was his delight. He had discovered her; he was the explorer in a new and exciting country. He had been smoking cigars with Cecil on a hot afternoon, in the pearl dealer’s market, when she passed. He started forward, and, forgetting all custom, stared openly at the young woman in the red silk garments, at her dark, soulful eyes. The lower half of her face was veiled. She turned, and boldly regarded him in turn before dropping her lashes onto her cheeks…it was enough.
“Follow them,” he told his man, a native man who squatted in the dust next to his feet. The man gaped at him; he repeated the instructions in Hindi. The man nodded, and chased obligingly down the street, flashing a brilliant smile at the woman’s guardian. The party disappeared down a side street, his man still talking with the guardian, who now, comprehending the situation, turned and gave a suspicious glance to the Europeans who relaxed and smoked on the corner.
“She’s lovely,” he told Cecil. “I mean to marry her.”
Cecil dropped his cigarette, and made as many signs of amazement and disbelief as his age and experience had acquainted him with.
“Are you mad? How many women do you plan to propose to, in how many countries?”
It was a reference to Flor. Richard grimaced, remembered.
It was a dream within a dream. He woke up from that moment, found himself back in England, in a familiar, fashionable house.
“Three weeks,” said Flor. She was standing in her father’s library, looking cool in her flowing green dress. She was staring down the map on the desk, a skeptical expression on her face.
“You can’t possibly object to that,” argued Richard. “After that, I shall be yours for a lifetime.”
Who wrote that little scene, Richard wondered, lost in his reverie. Are we doing George Bernard Shaw, or Oscar Wilde?
After reflecting thus, he was recalled to the pearl dealer’s market. He felt, again, the prickle of dust on his skin. The woman had passed out of sight; he could smell Cecil’s cigar. And, just beyond, the scent of violets? Perhaps he was imagining it.
All that was a week ago, just a week. He had used the time to contact his bank in London, and make inquiries about transferring his employment to a Delhi branch of the company. All these things he did with the joy of a newlywed, even though he could not believe himself to be even barely attached to the woman in the pearl dealer’s market. But it’s love! He told himself. It has to be, or nothing is anything.
Now, standing in his hotel room, reminiscing and waiting for Cecil to return with news, he noticed a couple engaged in conversation. The woman was European. Her elegant suit was sparsely trimmed, and tailored. She wore a wide hat. Her companion was a pudgy man of perhaps fifty, with a bald pate. He was not as finely dressed; he wore a white shirt, open at the collar, and wrinkled about his thick neck. His trousers flapped about his shoes. They were arguing about something; the woman stopped; her voice rose in muted, halting protest, like a sibyl channeling a ghost.
He edged back from the window, suddenly fearful. It couldn’t be, he thought. Certainly couldn’t. He crept forward again, peering down at the pair, sticking to a darkened corner where he would not be noticed, watching from above. The pair had shifted their positions a little; the woman angled towards the pudgy man, and a knot of brown hair was just visible beneath the white chapeau.
He gasped a little, involuntarily. His thoughts continued in a rational manner, like a lecturer at a University, telling him that he must compose himself, and the manner of this attempt at composure was detailed, like cooking a roast, saying a prayer, or removing a broken lightbulb from the socket. But his heart beat wildly; he was a murderer caught out, washing a bloody sheet.
In a moment, the sky contracted, like cooling metal. The night, so wild and electric, was reduced to people, largely stupid, and the simple tasks they performed with an apathetic discretion.
He looked a last time, hoping to find that he was mistaken. The couple had wandered, but still lingered at a street corner. The woman’s face was uplifted; the light fell plainly upon it. The features were distinct. There was no possibility of error.
He must go and face her, he thought. Here she was, looking for him, and poised below his window like a cat on a fence. In a large booming city, she had managed to find him, and she meant to carry him back across the water, like Charon. For a fee, he must hand her a wedding ring.
He withdrew again in a panic.
It must happen this way, he thought. Fate will not let me be happy. However, he soon dismissed the thought. Fate had nothing to do with it. He had told Flor he was leaving for a trip to India, and someone must have told him of his activities since his arrival. She had come, worried about protecting her own selfish interests. These were his rational arguments. However, in another second the rational monologue was overwhelmed, and she was a genie coming to entrap him forever within the confines of her overheated parlor.
She must know that this was his hotel, or she wouldn’t be lingering about the corner, refusing to budge. He should probably leave, for a time…let her make the inquiries she would inevitably make.
Breathing heavily, he pushed his room door open, and crept, guiltily, down the stairwell. He must make the street without being seen. He touched his forehead, realizing that he had no hat, and might be recognized. Well, let her see me, he thought. I’m not committing any crime
The desk clerk was watching him, alert to his confusion. Once he realized this, a kind of injured pride made him strut towards the exit. He attained the street, and made a sharp right, almost colliding with another pedestrian. He could hear his own breathing. He would not look around, he decided. He moved with long, purposeful steps.
“Richard, he heard behind him. It was Flor, he knew it was Flor. Abandoning his injured dignity now, he broke into a run. Orpheus in the underworld, was the one thought he took time to run. There was no time for a second thought. Immediately upon entering the street, he collided with a man pulling a rickshaw, was bowled over, and fell into the street, was knocked unconscious.
He woke in a cold sweat. It was morning. There was a knock at the door. “You’ve been dreaming”, he said to himself, and laughed.
“You’ve rather made a muddle of things,” Cecil announced. Richard’s head was pounding; the pressure about his eyeballs was unrelenting. He turned and saw his friend, sitting at his bedside in a simple rattan chair. Richard breathed in relief.
“I know,” Richard whimpered.
“I went to speak with Annika’s relatives,” said Cecil. “They are not absolutely against the match. I spoke with…the father, I think. Perhaps an uncle.”
““She’ll ruin me,” said Richard. He meant Flor…Cecil shrugged. He understood.
“Really, you must be sensible.”
“You’ve telegraphed Flor,” said Richard.
Cecil shrugged. “So what if I have?” He asked. “She’s an old friend.”
“Now she’ll come,” said Richard. Remembering a childhood taunt, he said, “Cecil, if you care for her so much, why don’t you marry her?”
“I didn’t ask her,” replied Cecil, coolly.
He began to suffer from headaches. He supposed he saw Flor everywhere. Every white woman was Flor. Flor haggled over the price of Oriental carpets, and asked about tours of ancient temples, could ladies go in? Flor liked the view from the river, but really something should be done about all these terrible poor. Flor wanted to adopt an orphan, eat spaghetti, learn Hindi.
Cecil wanted him to see a doctor.
The doctor was trained in Paris. He wore a suit, but it was ill fitting, and the cloth was rather stretched about his midsection.
“Can you wait in here, please,” he said quietly. “Here” was a large room with banks of windows. There were rows of cots, evenly spaced, and dividers of cheerful flowered curtains. It was a Christian hospital-the nurses were all nuns.
Richard did not respond to this, but instead seemed to shrink down into his leather chair. One of the nurses, was wrapping the bandage on a man three beds down, pretending not to hear, but, Richard knew, absorbing every word. He dreaded exposure, and his head throbbed. Closing his eyes, he retreated into a world of dreams and shadow figures.
In his dream, he walked a narrow window street. He braided his path in a crowd of strange figures, men dressed in simple cotton garments. He looked down, and saw he was dressed in the simple attire that they preferred, down to the simple sandals that adorned his feet. It was hot, so hot…he continued to walk, to weave a path. Conscious that he must appear a strange figure to them, he assumed an air of self- importance that, he believed, must distinguish him. The rattle of life, the hum of human voices speaking a strange, incomprehensible dialect produced a drowsy contentment in him…these strange words seemed to go back to the beginning of time itself, when, under a last Babylonian sky, men and women met as though for the first time, exchanging promises that had their origin with in one flash, like the birth of a comet.
As he walked, through this scene that was just as variegated as it was unending, he noted the sinking of the sun in the sky with a feeling of despair. What would happen at night? An uneasy feeling took hold of him. He must return to his hotel…where was the white district? He made an effort to recognize street names, but he could not make them out, he could not make anything out. Neither could he stop very long without making contact with the lean, hard bodies of the men and sometimes women around them; their bodies pushed against his, making an unspoken accusation against his presence. It was intolerable; he must stop, he must make an assessment of his location in space, but he could not do so without disrupting the great and purposeful chain of humanity around him. He could not turn and walk against the tide that seemed to force him only in one direction. He walked, knowing he must, at length, fall and be trampled.
Just as this moment arrived, and he listed sideways, a friendly hand reached out and pulled him through an open doorway; an edifice he barely had time to note, in his fatigued state.
Glad to be, at least, off the tiresome street, with all of his strength ebbing away, he followed gratefully. The edifice seemed to be constructed in a labyrinthine pattern; he bent low to accommodate the low ceiling. All he saw, in front of him, was the back of a man draped in linen, who walked before, but never turned to face him. At last, they reached an interior room, crammed with people…people sitting, people standing, people drinking and eating. It must be some sort of party, he thought. They smiled as he walked in, and he felt himself start to smile in return. He thought, at last, he might see the face of his benefactor…but then he awoke.
The doctor was standing over him, looking concerned.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “You are suffering from headaches?”
“I think I see a woman,” said Richard. “I thought at one time I would like to marry her, but now she haunts me. She’s jealous…I…”
He took a breath.
“That’s not true,” he told the man. “I am having headaches. Could you possibly write me a prescription?”
Reaching the street, a warm rush came over him, and he felt oddly rejuvenated, exhilarated. His thoughts returned to Annika in a warm, luxurious rush. Just a short time of unpleasantness, he told himself. A new world was beginning…here it was, in front of him, shouting and whirling in a flash of linen and strange perfume.
Still, you must rest, for a moment, he told himself. He remembered a small park near the waterfront, not too far…he hastened there. Finding a seat, he took in a large breath and lingered over the scene in front of him; children playing in the water, laughing and splashing each other. A native woman crouched on a nearby ledge. He had time to note the bracelet on her exposed brown foot, and wonder if Annika wore the same. Perhaps this woman was a friend of hers…anything was possible, he supposed, in this city. He stretched his legs in front of him, and felt a hand on his shoulder.
He turned. It was Flor. She stood, panting. In her hand she clutched an expensive, incongruous bunch of roses.
“I followed you from the hospital,” she told him. “What do you mean by such a stupid flight? I hardly know you.”
“You aren’t real,” he said. “You can’t be real. How could you…”
He turned from her petulantly. In a burst of disgust she walked to the waterfront, some ten feet away, and flung the roses into the water. In his dazed state, he noted the bobbing red petals on the still water, reacted to him like the sight of his own blood…with a gasp and a shudder of horror.
“I mean to be like a hero in one of your Greek stories,” she told him, returning. “I mean to recall you to yourself. Can I sit for a moment, and talk to you?”
He shifted his weight to admit her figure on the seat, but warned her. “I am not the man I was.”
“I met you in my mother’s garden,” she told him. “I was six…you were eight, I believe. Your mother had given you a piece of hard candy to be polite to me.”
He shuddered. “Seems like another life.”
“You must come back,” she told him. “In this world you would not survive. You would be torn apart, and spend the rest of your time on Earth searching for the pieces of yourself.”
Like the petals on the water.
“These people would tear you to pieces, “ she told him. “You must begin the process of reassembling, in flashes of memory, what you are. And you might not ever make your way through it.
Her logic penetrated his disorder with the edge of a knife, and the clarity of a crystal. He lifted his fingers to his hair, and realized he must make a ridiculous sight. He realized that it was something closer to pity, and the bonds of memory and family, that made Flor race after him.
“Still, to deny passion…” He spoke out loud, finishing his own interior monologue.
“You are not sure the girl wants you,” replied Flor. “If there is a passion, it must be entirely one sided.”
“No, I am sure she does want me,” said Richard. Then, in the next breath, he added, “You are correct, I have no insight into her personal intentions.” These two ideas had a connection, he remedied confusedly to himself. In the moment he saw her, he felt sure of an attachment, but neither could it be verified in words in a manner Flor would accept.
“I want you to reason about the consequences of your actions,” said Flor. She stood, and extended her hand to him. “Come,” she said simply.
Wearily, he rose to follow. Now the water was dark, unfriendly. The woman watching clothes had departed, with her children. A little light lingered about the center of the street, where the buildings did not obstruct it, and the people in the middle of the street, in their white clothing, seemed a little like angelic beings to him. But is there any way to touch them, he thought. Can I claim a little of their light, the dark secrets of their plastered lairs, their food, with its exotic scents and trails of fire in the throat?
He turned towards Flor. Not intimidated in the least by her strange surroundings, she marched along the unfamiliar street as though she were marching through a street in London. Nothing would touch Flor, he realized. She was as distant to him as the men in the street. The realization struck his spirit with the impetus of a tiny silver hammer, and, to himself, he said “Oh! Oh!” in distress, with the same tenor. Can this be life, he wondered.
She insisted on taking him back to his hotel, where he had stayed before, but was no longer registered. He supposed this was a perverse form of punishment, rather like rubbing a dog’s nose in its own mess. However, he was not inclined to complain. His head throbbed. He waited at the desk while Flor, in an even hand, registered him in the hotel guestbook, and fumbled in her pocketbook for rupees. The clerk, recognizing him, pressed an envelope into his hand.
“This message is from Mr. Cecil, sir,” he said, in impeccable English, and with a bit of good British starch. Richard nodded, and shoved the envelope into his pockets.
“Mr. Cecil,” murmured Flor, at last finishing the work, closing the guestbook with a snap that cases a flurry of dust to rise in the air.
“How fortunate that business is all over. We will not see him thereafter. Tell me,” she asked the clerk. “When is the next steamer leaving for London? You will please inform me,” she said. The clerk nodded, and fumbled about for a list of steamer schedules.
Flor turned to Richard.
“Tomorrow morning, we will breakfast at nine. We will discuss exactly how we will explain this situation to my family and yours. I need to know, in detail, exactly what you have communicated to your mother.”
Richard widened his eyes at her.
“Are you concerned that I do not love you?” He asked her. Her cheeks flushed, and she cast an anxious glance at the clerk.
“Not in the least,” she assured him, evenly.
“I’m glad I do not love you,” he told her. “Because if I did, I should love Morris chairs, and wallpaper, and keeping the doors closed in summer and winter. “
He turned and walked out the front door. She did not attempt to follow him. Well, that’s done, was all he communicated to himself.
Now the light was almost gone. The streets were nearly abandoned. From nearby, he heard a man laughing and talking loudly, but it was impossible to know the color of the man, or to even understand the language he was speaking in.
With the last of the light in the sky, he read Cecil’s letter. Cecil, seeming to catch a little of his spirit of his negotiations, said that with difficulty, the lady and her family had agreed to a meeting. Cecil said he was finding his labors as an impromptu marriage broker very interesting, although he still considered Richard impetuous.
Richard turned and went back into the hotel. The clerk stood alone at the desk. Richard, with as much dignity as he could muster, walked over, and opened the hotel register. The last entry was of Mr. Fitzsimmons and wife…it was dated three days ago.
A dream within a dream within a…he laughed out loud.
Because it seemed the logical thing, he reached into his pocket, removed the prescription, and threw it in the trash.
Cecil’s telegraph reached Flor,( still happily ensconced in Birmingham, unaware of the all developments), the next morning. She did, indeed consult the steamer schedule…but abandoned the thought. Instead, she took a train for the countryside, with a lawyer friend and a bottle of whiskey.
And from the waterfront…a dense band of mist, still rising at evening, receding at dawn.
Rising up from the underworld, he might have extended his hand backward to those he left behind, but refrained from doing so.
And the dark, slippery nightmare, Flor with the garish mouth…well, her grasp was subtle, and she receded backwards.
Even the locals admitted the sunrise was glorious, the next morning.. They communicated this to Richard through smiles, and Richard wondered if smiles were not an entire language, or could become so. He bathed in the river, and nobody seemed to find it strange. He must meet Annika that morning, he told himself, and it was like being told that he was expected in heaven. He sank into the warm bay, and though he opened his eyes underwater saw nothing but a greenish blur…and felt everything.
Jennifer York is an aspiring author, currently residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her previous publishing credits include “The Ballad of the Loney Cowboy”, published in the Taj Mahal Review (Vol. 4:1, June 2005). Her latest short story, entitled “Henry and Anne”, appeared in the December 2011 issue of Bumble Jacket Miscellany (Vol. 2:2).