Category: Magical Realism
“Greg, I don’t want you going in there tonight.”
“I mean it. It’s starting to -”
“It’s making me different somehow?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’d like to say that. The room is changing me and you don’t like it, is that it?”
“I’m scared, Greg.”
He put his arm over her shoulders. “There, there.”
“It’s just a room,” he wanted to say, but he knew it was more than that. He had discovered a world, a strange world, and he was fascinated by it, wanted to understand what made it work.
“It’s not just a room,” she said.
“Did I say it was ‘just a room’?” he replied, startled.
“You were thinking it.”
As he turned away from her and stalked down the hall he had a thought, brief but vivid, that his relationship to this room would lead to a reckoning; but the thought slid away from him and escaped from his consciousness so that he was unable to retrieve it and could only hear in his mind the hollowness of the false comfort he offered while feigning paternalistic concern, saying, “There, there.”
“Greg!” his wife cried as he twisted the handle to the Nonsense Room, but he disregarded her and went in. He was not interested in having his life constricted by his wife’s fears and he was baffled by their intensity. Eyes flaming, Leslie fell to the sofa and lit a cigaret.
For Greg and Leslie Moore, finding a home in Stillwater was more problematic than originally imagined, but at the last they discovered the Shatterly Place, an enormous hodgepodge of competing architectural motifs ambitiously stapled together with Victorian pretensions. Marketed as a handyman’s special, the price was most appealing. Only later did they learn of the strange history of the house. “People get deranged in that house,” the grocer told Leslie at Thanksgiving. “The place either finds ’em cracked or leaves ’em that way.”
The Nonsense Room wasn’t discovered until the following spring. They were rearranging the kitchen and decided to move an old refrigerator that had come with the house out of an alcove which they planned to turn into a pantry. Behind the refrigerator they discovered a door with a hasp, padlocked shut. The door, hinges, hasp and lock had all been painted mint green, a reminder that the fifties had passed this way. The ceiling of the alcove was dingy with cobwebs, and greasy. The floor, too, was rank with grunge. But Greg saw only the door.
“Where do you think it goes?” Greg said.
Leslie reminded him of the rumors that circulated in town regarding the house.
Using a hammer and chisel, Greg mangled the hasp. As he turned the knob the motor kicked in on the fridge, giving them both a fright.
The room was little bigger than a closet, no more than four feet deep and perhaps six feet wide, the walls and ceiling completely overspread with pictographs, calligraphy, scribbles and assorted mystical inscriptions seemingly as countless as the stars.
“It gives me the creeps,” Leslie said. Greg found the writing on the walls intriguing, but he didn’t say anything. After Leslie had gone to bed that night, Greg found a lantern that he could set on the floor to study the closet room in more detail.
For a long time he simply stood scanning, taking in the big picture, much as a man might take in the immensity of a night sky upon his first experience of it away from the bright lights of the city.
His first impression, which he suppressed — reasoning that it was impossible — was that it was infinite, that the closet scribblings simply had no beginning and no end.
Even from his initial cursory study of the closet’s walls Greg sensed that there were relationships amongst the clusters of words and images. He was reminded of the early cave men who studied the night sky, noting and naming its constellations. Sections of the closet seemed to contain whole galaxies of graffiti.
What first caught his attention and attracted him to the room’s details was a tiny pyramid on the far wall opposite the door at the top of which was drawn, with a fair amount of exactitude, an eye with lines radiating out from it. Above the eye, in a medieval German script, were the words, “En Sof.” Greg was on his knees inside the closet studying the detail in the pupil of the eye. Upon closer inspection, he observed that the spokes which shot out from the eye were in actuality lines of fine print, much of it readable, some of it too minute or too poorly scrawled to decipher.
With both apprehension and wonder he became absorbed with reading bits and pieces of text, some of it hinting toward meanings, albeit obscure ones at best, but most of it elusive and cryptic. Thus he read,
“an esoteric religiosity of the Unconscious”
“Powers, the abyss, Numen and Tremendum”
“This is the God that the sense of the sacred feeds upon”
“This same God is often shown in an opposite way”
“Infatuated with the awesome and the fascinating”
“in speaking of Him we celebrate our ignorance.”
There were also Latin and Hebrew texts, hieroglyphic symbols, and codified images which appeared to have some sort of ceremonial significance.
What happened after that began to disturb him. It was the pyramid with the eye and the inscription En Sof which first captivated him, and he returned to his knees in order to find it, but could not, and it frustrated him. It had been a small icon for sure, but not so small as to be impossible to locate again, and he began systematically examining the region of the closet where he had first observed it, to no avail, and it set his nerves on edge so that the night’s sleep which followed proved fitful and unsatisfying.
Before leaving for the bank the next morning (he worked as an auditor there) Greg resisted a strong urge to return to the closet room for “one more little peek.” This did not relieve him of its influence, however, as he spent much of his day distracted by the effects he experienced in the closet the night before.
“Honey, I’m home,” he shouted that evening upon coming in the door.
Hearing no greeting in reply he tensed up and walked hastily to the kitchen. “Leslie?” he called again. He hurried to the closet room and was opening it just as his wife entered the kitchen from the yard.
“Is something wrong?” she said.
“I, well, you didn’t answer when I came in. I just-”
“What would I be doing in that stupid old closet?” She recognized by the uneasy fear that revealed itself in his face that the closet had made an impression upon him as something dangerous, something to be reckoned with. This realization made her uncomfortable.
All through supper he was absent from her, waiting to be finished with the task of eating. What he found dreadful was the role-playing, pretending nonchalance about both what had happened and about his plans for the evening. When the dishes were washed he proceeded to the closet room. She said nothing to dissuade him.
He set about directly to locate the original Eye with the words En Sof above but his determination was only half hearted. Instead, playing explorer-philosopher Greg began reading again the varied and unusual collage of inscriptions, at first casually, and then with a growing desire to comprehend. Unfortunately, the sentences fluctuated between legibility and illegibility, leaving him with only partial meanings and suggested texts. Nothing was complete, nothing wholly cohesive.
Nightly, for more than seven weeks, Greg gave himself to the closet, an activity that left him both stimulated and disturbed. Never once in that time did he find again a phrase, symbol or inscription which he had previously encountered. This proved to be a frustration only when he allowed himself to become obsessed with seeking such a thing.
What frustrated him more was that the meanings of the texts almost seemed to make sense, perpetually holding out the promise that a measure of persistence would yield a treasure of understanding. But there was no reward. No treasures of understanding were grasped.
From time to time he stepped back to take in the whole. He looked for and sometimes found constellations or clusters of word groupings, but like the initial image which captured him in the beginning (the trilogy of pyramid, Eye and script) the relationships he recognized so clearly only moments before seemed to have receded from view and became impossible to locate or manufacture again.
There was a common mystical quality to the inscriptions he read. Phrases such as,
“There is not a more crucial notion of force”
“determinism, theism and some brands of physics”
“it is God alone who coordinates created effects”
“towards which the human feels at once attraction”
seemed to suggest something of cosmology here.
The phrases at first appeared arbitrary and unrelated, other than the common thread of metaphysical suggestiveness. This last phrase invigorated him because he saw that the word “attraction” must be followed by the words “and repulsion.” The sudden insight made him dizzy. It was as if he had come into close proximity with something so extraordinary he was incapable of apprehending it. Upon reflection later he might have said it was as if his consciousness, his inner ability to comprehend meanings, were somehow like a series of out of focus lenses which, if brought into harmony, would provide a clarity of inner vision like nothing he could have ever imagined. It seemed as if the shifting of these lenses into synchronicity was accompanied by a tingling sensation inside his skull and — here he couldn’t be sure for it was so vague and foreign an experience he didn’t know what to make of it — some kind of aural musical accompaniment not unlike wind chimes and pan pipes. Something deep inside him — from his soul? from his subconscious? — was being awakened, and this awakening was accompanied by both anticipation and an uncanny foreboding.
Their last meal together began with a long silence. Leslie had determined not to speak until Greg made notice of her muteness. When she finally caved in, she was incapable of concealing her exasperation.
“Don’t you remember what day this is?” Her eyes avoided his for fear of his answer.
He stopped chewing but made no reply.
“Greg, talk to me. What’s happened to us? I don’t even know you any more.”
He looked down at the floor. “It goes both ways. There are things I’d like to talk about with you, too, but I know you don’t want to hear it.”
“You always twist it, don’t you. Like I’m the big bad bitch and you’re Mister Wonderful.”
“I’m not Mister Wonderful. But I’m not the only one shutting people out. Look, I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary. Will you forgive me?”
“That’s not what this is about,” she said sharply, tears brimming in her eyes.
He pushed his chair away from the table, stood and walked haltingly to the sink, trying to read her with small, discreet glances.
“You’re not going in there again tonight. Not tonight.”
It wasn’t quite a question; she was pleading. She stood up, half uncertain as to what she should do, whether to rush and cling to him or to flee.
He nodded as if considering her words, noisily scraping his plate and rinsing it.
“Why don’t I run to the Redbox and get a movie. Is there anything in particular you’ve been wanting to see?”
He turned away from her and walked from the kitchen without looking back.
“Damn you, Greg.”
As Leslie pulled from a drawer the unopened card that she’d planned to give him she marked it as the first time she had allowed herself to consider that she had made a mistake in marrying this man. The argument with which she normally consoled herself — We’ve had our difficulties, but who hasn’t? — temporarily yielded and would not support her.
She steadied herself with both hands against the counter, flushed cheeks streaming tears. With the clack of the latch she knew him to be gone from her forever. She stared at the empty kitchen as if seeing for the first time.
She hated this place now. Into the hall, to the living room, to the bedroom — Leslie stumbled from room to room without aim, the internal fever of emotions draining her of strength, until she found herself slumped in the corner of the couch near the window. Hands trembling, she lit a Virginia Slim, took a couple strong pulls and lay the cigarette on a red ceramic trivet on the armrest of the couch.
“Greg?” she called. “I’m going for a walk. Will you come with me?”
“Greg!” she cried sharply, now standing.
Leslie staggered from the house to the unfettered freedom of an open sky. Inside, a burst of air from the window nudged the still-lit cigarette off the trivet so that it fell between the cushion and the couch arm.
There were few houses along this section of bluff overlooking the river, which had been a large part of its appeal when they chose to move here. A string of summer cabins, unoccupied this time of the year, dotted the woods where the the road dipped down to the river’s edge, but the bluff itself had been long ago cleared for horse grazing and McAllen’s sod operation. She walked slowly, not looking back until the she reached the perimeter of the sod farm. When she turned and saw the angry pulsing glow of firelight through the windows of her house, she gasped, both stunned and alarmed by what she had set in motion.
Leslie made a hasty decision to dart across the road to the nearer McAllen’s rather than directly back home, needing desperately to alert the fire department. She could see a light on in the back of the house and prayed someone was at home. Leslie banged on the front door. No answer. She tried the handle and, finding it locked, despairngly crashed her fists against the door. She scrambled to the side of the house, found the kitchen door open, burst in, and called nine-one-one.
Dashing from the house, she began trotting homeward as fast as she dared, knowing a sprint would leave her winded before reaching her yard. Suddenly she stopped, whirled about and raced to the McAllen’s house once more. She picked up the phone, dialing her own number this time, her breathing hoarse and labored. Answer the phone, Greg. Answer the phone, dear God, Greg, answer the phone.
Inside the nonsense room Greg had begun entering a new dimension of illumination, having placed himself once more under the influence of the room’s spell, gradually having no awareness apart from it, no reality apart from the strange and cryptic reality of those four walls. His breathing was steady and deep as he entered the trance, knowing the meaning of trance, knowing what a trance is, feeling it and knowing it and how it gets deeper and releasing himself deeply into it; he began to have feelings of nostalgia as if somehow he were being awakened to a lost childhood. And still… further back, within himself… he sees… feels….
A palpable tension was followed by shortness of breath and expectation. At a certain point, a reversal took place and he made a profound connection between the images on the wall and the images in his mind. Not the first time he made this connection, but in previous trances he had interjected rational explanations, telling himself that these were nothing more than afterimages on the retina of his eyes. On this night he short-circuited the rationalizations, turned away from them and denied them their power.
From somewhere deep inside himself the music welled up again, beginning with wind chimes and pan pipes, music which he had previously named the Song of the Earth. And it was very beautiful and he knew he was part of something bigger than himself, something he wanted badly to be part of, and he couldn’t understand why there were so many barriers in life, why everything had always been so difficult to comprehend. In the Song of the Earth he was able to lose himself, to escape all the questionings which wrapped about his mind like tentacles, to swim free in the milky waters of that earlier time, before he knew words, before he knew confusion, that age of ignorance and innocence which now appeared to be within his grasp.
The Song became loud and mighty and with his voice — haltingly at first, then with enthusiasm — he joined the boisterous throng. It seemed he had never felt so happy, and when the telephone rang, it was all part of the symphony of sound which had been swelling up within him, caressing him with sensations of heat and warmth, invigorating him with flashings of light from the dome of his imagination. For some strange reason he had an overwhelming desire to remove his clothing, a desire which he refused to question or resist so that when his body was found, he was discovered naked, lying on his back with his head awkwardly wedged into the corner of the small room.
The fire was mentioned in articles which appeared in both the St. Paul and Minneapolis newspapers as well as the Stillwater Gazette, but with few details. While the circumstances surrounding Greg’s death brought a measure of speculation regarding the issue of foul play, news reports indicated that as yet there were no charges pressed. The statements Leslie made implying that she deliberately set the fire were dismissed and attributed to her initial hysteria.
For weeks Leslie alternately blamed and excused herself, knowing that she had truly wanted to destroy him, yet knowing also she once loved him deeply and would miss him always. She did not yet know that for years to come she would become fearful in the presence of any hostile thought or emotion which she bore toward another.
One evening shortly thereafter, in the motel room where she had taken temporary refuge, she found a strange book which had been tucked in a drawer of the end table where Gideon’s Bibles are frequently found. As she thumbed through the book — obliquely titled The Secrets of Experience — an inscription on one of the pages captured her attention. It was a tiny pyramid, at the top of which was drawn an eye with lines radiating from it. Above the eye, the strange inscription: “En Sof.”
The image unsettled her and she closed the book. However, a curiosity about the image would not leave her. Later, she attempted to again find the image, to study it further in order to learn its meaning. Being unable to find it left her greatly disturbed.
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Originally published at ennyman.com.