Hollow Promise

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Hollow promise

by John Hopper


C’est presque au bout du monde,

ma barque vagabonde

errant au gré de l’onde

m’y conduisit un jour.

It was almost to the end of the world,

my vagabond boat

wandering adrift on the waves

took me one day

(‘Youkali’ Weill/Fernay)



My face is under the waves.

It stares up at me.

My legs dangle in the soft mud. Matchsticks. The sea jangles, arhythmic round my knees. A slither brushes my freezing feet. Shivers drown my shudders. My ocean face stays silent. Glares up, askew with refraction, rippling under the waves.

Glowers at me.

As if it’s my fault.

My fault the soul-scrambling sea tangles its hair, that shifting undertows shape its gaping mouth.

The sun sparkles. I want to climb its rays. Explode, a cloud of steam, deep inside its unfathomable heart. Set the controls for the heart of the sun. The controls are jammed.

Tiny fishes swim out of my left eye.

I lift a foot. Stomp the water. My waterface spins away. Leaves a glitter of waves frizzy with foam.

I blunder to shore, numb, a lumbering slash of splodges and splatter.

Stand in the shingle.

Stare at the glassworts.

Collapse.

` ` `

Out there. Before the rocks snapped the hull.

Out there on the wide, wide deep. I sit on deck. Dreaming of food. Not raw fish. Real food. Rugged up to the nines, I shiver still. No fuel. No wind. A slave to the waves. At the ends of the earth.

The aurora fades with the dawn. But, hidden in its folds, a mirage? A shoreline? Out of the east, unleashed by the risen sun, a wind feeds my fallow sails. The Pothos smells landfall. Dances through the swell.

And land appears.

A coastline far away. A suggestion of flat pale yellows and mottled greens.

Closer, we come.

Under a cascading rocky headland, I see patches of saltmarsh, stretches of deserted beach. Above, the atmosphere swirls. Intricate involutions. Whorls and traceries. Fingerprints, brainfolds, whirlpools, batter-stirred and folded in the sky—all in blacks, whites and blues. The sunlight is trapped, tangled up in clouds, clouds like rocks. My pupils dilate. The wind moans and buffets. I smell death. The sea slaps the hull senseless. It scarcely feels the reef’s cool kiss.

A sudden crack. My legs smash into the rails.

The Pothos, confounded, split, clings limpet-like to the reef.

I gaze shorewards. Do I see a clutter of houses and small buildings swim into focus, all orange, red and green, angled shadows, asymmetry?

I struggle upright, clamber down into the cabin, grab a lifejacket.

` ` `

Collapsed.

My shipwrecked eyes will not admit light. I feel my heart slowing. A gulp of air crushes my belly. Jerks me to life.

Grey here on shore. A choking grey dawn. Clogged with fog and the stench of rank seaweed.

Kneeling, I gaze at the blank sea and weep. The surface is unnaturally calm. Sky presses down through mist.

Everything seems small.

` ` `

Asleep in the New York autumn.

Deep delta dreaming, below four hertz.

At the top of this planet lies an enchanted continent in the sky. Sinister and beautiful she lies in her frozen slumber, her billowy white robes of snow weirdly luminous with amethysts and emeralds of ice. A city of light, built from darkness. Eyes that pierce my soul. I take flight. My body soars through crevices and caverns.

There is no way up.

‘Wake up, Leif. Wake up.’

The words fly out from the rocks. I follow the sound and shrink. Shrink. The earth is vast. The atoms dwarf me. I float between them, through them. Rub my eyes. Look up at Leise. She takes her hand off my shoulder. Lies staring at me. Silent.

‘I must find her.’

I leap from the bed. Put on my robe. I’m sweating, shivering. I open the casement. Hear early morning traffic sounds rising from Fifth Avenue.

‘Leif ... there’s not much time you know.’

I turn from the window. Leise sits curled on the bed scrutinising immaculately polished toenails.

‘You’d better get ready if you’re going to go...’

I stride past the bed.

‘... I don’t know why I picked this colour.’

And into the bathroom. I’ve a plane to catch.

` ` `

I gaze down at the photograph. So clear, such true colours. It could have been taken yesterday.

The face is half-hidden under traceries of black hair. Shapely aquiline nose. Wide dark eyes. An irrepressible energy.

I turn the picture over. Scrawled, almost illegible, ‘Aase. Olaf Jansen, Eden, 1829’.

I must find her.

Discover how they did it.

‘Please fasten your seat belt, sir.’

Bergen looms below. I place the impossible photo in its white envelope and return it to my briefcase.

There’s more than just gold underground. First stop, the asylum.

` ` `

My Norwegian is rusty but understandable.

‘Grandpa, Sigurd. Tell me about grandpa.’

The brittle old man turns his dull eyes and rank breath upon me.

‘I had to.’

‘What, Sigurd?’

He leans forward. The cane settee creaks. He rasps liltingly.

‘Waiting time. Waiting I’m... waiting... time.’

Snot dribbles into his moustache, mingles with his spittle.

‘Waiting?’

‘Her. Her.’

I drag out my handkerchief. Wipe his nose and mouth.

‘Why did you kill Grandpa Olaf?’

“Her. Her. Waiting.’

‘You’re a patient man, Sigurd. It’s sixty years you’ve been here now. Sixty years since you killed grandpa.’

‘Time to play. Now. Time to play.’

He lurches. Grabs my briefcase. Capers around. Opens the case. Strews its contents about the dingy carpet. Kneels over the envelope. Swaying down, he clasps the envelope. Plants a snotty kiss on its stark whiteness.

‘Here she is. Here’s my love. Why, grandpa should you have her?’

He waves the envelope at me. I lunge at him. But he’s like a flag flapping in a gale.

‘You filthy shit.’

‘Ha. She’s beautiful. Grandpa Olaf, tell me she’s beautiful.’

‘Yes, Sigurd. Of course. Of course she’s beautiful. Now, give it to me.’

He clutches the envelope, then falls to the floor. I help him to the sofa. Prise the envelope from his dry fingers.

‘My snow queen. Where is she?’

I take the photo out and show him.

‘Look at her. Just look.’

I cringe as he cuddles up to the image. This decrepit old madman. On this stinking sofa. In this day-room with its dead flowers reeking in cracked vases.

‘For me. For me. For Sigurd.’

He reaches out.

‘No, Sigurd. Not yet. Tell me about Olaf Jansen. Tell me about your grandfather.’

‘My queen, you took her away.’

‘I can bring her back to you. Help me. It’s so long ago now.’

‘Yes. So long, long ago.’

His eyes close. I shake him.

‘What did I tell you? Help me. Help me to remember.’

Sigurd straightens up. Sits still. Holds his arms out as if clasping a big balloon. Rocks back and forth just a little.

‘You told me... you showed me her picture. North... you sailed north... grandpa. You and great-grandpa Bjorn. To hunt for tusks... ivory. But there was a mighty storm. Your sloop was pushed, pushed. Far... far north. The fog lifted... the aurora shone. Then the sky... folded. The world turned inside out.’

‘That’s right, Sigurd. The world turned inside out. But, the compass bearing. Our course. What was our course when we left port?’

‘She was there. Aase. She led you through the caverns to a great city. Eden. In the heart of the world... two smoky suns...’

‘The bearing Sigurd. What was our bearing?’

` ` `

Leise takes a bite from an apple. She chews it slowly, eyeing the photograph lying on the table between us.

‘I want you to get rid of it, Leif. Really, Leif. It’s just a rotten fake. There’s no way it can be so very old.’

My reclusive old uncle, Jasper Jansen, had just died upstate. The cleaner found him on the floor next to his bed. The picture clutched to his chest. Dead three days. A stroke they said. He’d left everything to me.

Going through uncle Jasper’s papers, I found letters from the asylum where Sigurd Jansen had rotted for sixty years.

I take a sip of coffee.

‘It’s intriguing though. You’ve got to admit that. And if this photo’s genuine, who knows what other advanced technological paydirt lurks with her. And she is beautiful.’

Leise dips her spoon into the cottage cheese and waves it at me. Her mouth is still half full.

‘That’s no snow princess. Only some long-gone Bergen tramp. As for mysterious underground civilisations...’

‘But why was it so important to my uncle Jasper? He and dad were kids when they left Norway.’

‘Come on now. He was always an oddball.’

She’s perched in her chair like a limpet on a rock.

I pick the picture up. The face seems three-dimensional. The eyes appear to move.

‘Look at it though. Can’t you feel her energy?’

Leise licks her spoon.

` ` `

I can survive this. The Pothos must still be there. Stuck on the rocks. I should salvage what I can. Explore. Hunt for food.

I rise from my knees, shaky on my bruised legs. Look out through the smoky light. The waters are clear and calm. The rocks exposed. But there is no sign of the boat.

I turn to face the shore. And there, beached on a sand-strewn rock shelf, is a tarpaulin-covered bundle. With great effort, I scramble across. The bundle contains pots, tools and gear from the Pothos. And, from some mysterious elsewhere, a stack of firewood and some real food. I can hardly bear to finish the breakfast. The best tasting porridge I ever burnt my tongue on. True ambrosia.

The cliffs tumble up above me. Asymmetric structures of jaundiced red and orange streaked with greenery. Up and up with no hint of an end. Up and over. A huge stone canopy, defying gravity, emitting a bright streaked light, grey like the departed mist.

I’m surprised how little it puzzles me to be cast ashore beside this underearth sea. Oh, I’m so close. At her world’s borders. I can feel it. But how to go on?

On both sides, beaches, rocks and cliffs stretch away in curved air. In front of me, the sea breathes in and out, tense beneath the rough-blocked firmament. Everything’s vast, distorted, empty—waiting.

I heard somewhere that the universe is not symmetrical, that deep down in the quantum guts of the world things are skewed to the left.

I head right.

For several hours, I tramp across brown-black beaches and clamber over rocky promontories. Scan the cliffs for openings. Explore each little rock cleft and hint of chasm along the way.

I stop to eat.

The grit-ridden sand has a red tinge. I lean my back against rocks that glitter mutely golden. A lively breeze teases my hair. I breathe deeply and close my eyes. I feel sounds tumbling into my body ... Aaah … listen to my song. The lyres and flutes. Here in the land of our dreams. Leave all your cares behind. My sweet voice in our night, like a ray of light. And my hunger. My hunger calls to you too. I am famished. I am slavering. I am ravenous.

Wind whistles through my bones. I rattle with song. My eyes clang open. Sand is all over me. I lurch up. Shake it off. There is a shallow furrow a few yards away. It starts just in front of the blank cliff-face and ploughs through the sand to the sea. Bare footprints run beside it. A small yellow boat lies half afloat in the whispering shallows.

It is made of rock.

The cliff offers no solution. No trace of a hidden entrance. No sound of any hollowness within.

I stow my gear in the yellow rock boat and nudge it out to sea. The small craft feels light as air. It’s hydrophobic and hovers an inch or so above the waves. We head directly away from shore. I don’t need to row or steer. It’s as if the horizontal waters actually follow a downward slope.

An hour or two passes.

The wind becomes insistent and the course begins to arc. The light crumbles into minute droplets aswirl in an ultraviolet darkness. The boat picks up speed, aware of some distant attraction.

Counterclockwise spirals. The ocean has become a funnel. Sides ever and ever steeper. As I whirl faster and faster downwards, the force presses me to the boat’s chiselled innards. I find it impossible to breathe.

The funnel narrows. The boat’s acute repulsion to water pushes it dead centre. Hanging vertically, it spins like a drunken dervish. Clinging to the sides, I gulp for air. Between bouts of retching, I manage one gigantic last breath as we plummet prow first, sucked into the heart of the maelstrom.

Then everything goes into reverse. I shoot up a funnel, find breath, spin suspended, whirl upwards—into a slow, spiralling flatness.

` ` `

Two pallid suns wobble in a warped void crammed with too too solid clouds. And I feel shut in. A huge glacier dominates the shore.

I crawl from amongst lumps of shattered yellow stone, move away from the shards and rubble of my boat’s wreckage. My limbs ache from cold. I flap my arms as I fossick around the rills and folds of the glacier’s base.

‘Welcome. I am Aase.’

The voice is delicate as the sound of feather on feather. Assured as a gannet’s plunge. Stark as newly fallen snow.

I turn. She is tall. Well over six feet. Her long robe, like a superfine mesh of woven snowflakes, shimmers ultrawhite.

‘Christ. I’ve made it here. You’re real.’

The words blur on my hobbled tongue. My teeth clatter. My lips creak.

She clasps my hands. An intense warmth cascades up to my crown and down to my toes... no... that’s not so... it’s more that I find palpable comfort in coldness. Heat has become nonadaptive.

` ` `

The cigar-shaped vehicle reminds me of an airship’s gondola. But no gas-filled balloon holds us up as we fly a subterranean sky.

‘This seems much faster than a jet plane.’

‘True. And faster than nay of your aircraft will ever be.’

‘How can we be up here without wings or engines?’

‘Pan-dimensional energies. We, in a sense, channel them to tunnel into space and time. The slight haze you see outside is not atmospheric. It is caused by a type of dimensional slippage.’

I take a distorted look down at a frozen plateau, its pitted surface like iced-over icecream magnified a zillion times.

‘And did you use those energies to warm me at the glacier?’

‘Yes, Leif Erikson.’

‘Fantastic.’

I smile to myself.

‘We shall soon arrive.’

Aase moves her hands down over the control sphere and we begin to descend. Her serpentine fingers warp and elongate in the sphere’s lurid anamorphic glare. Outside, beyond the icefields, purple-black mountains quiver like wayang kulit shadows behind a vaporous muslin firmament.

` ` `

Eden. Underearth’s chief city.

The reception room is domed and airy, a happy union of elegance and luxury. We sit beneath a comforting fresco of angels hovering in a blue heaven. I stretch forward over the finely-patterned inlay on the low walnut table and show Aase the photo.

‘This is what drew me here. Your heart-stirring beauty.’

‘And not the lure of technology centuries in advance of yours?’

Her words close round me like a straightjacket.

She passes the photo back. But it’s a picture of Lilith or Medusa I take in my hand now, an image to petrify the body and fry the soul. Hair full of wriggling black vipers, eyes streaming fire.

Suddenly, I’m a child and am surprised by chilly hands reaching from behind to clasp my eyes and a hyena-like voice sniggering ‘Guess who?’ Uncle Jasper? No?

Fear rams its chill claw down my throat. I open my eyes. I’m here in a cavernous hell. It looks like a Doge’s palace but it’s really just trompe l’oeil.

And Aase still looks ravishing, resplendent.

Yet, in the end, can a photo ever lie?

` ` `

Leise gazes at herself in the pocket mirror. Her face is framed by bobbed blonde hair. Her nostrils sniff and twitch as she applies cerise lipstick.

Can’t think why I’m bothering with this. Leif’s long gone. Rotting at the ends of the earth. These asylum people. Nothing better to do than hassle relatives by marriage. Still Norway. Viking men.

‘Time to fasten your seat belt, madam.’

She sheathes her lipstick.

` ` `

Honking antiseptic pleasantries, the psychiatrist waddles along the corridor. Leise drifts in his ample wake. A muscular orderly strings along.

‘We’ve tried the whole smörgåsbord, Mrs Erikson. Isolation. Drugs. Kindness. Nothing helps.’

The trio stop outside a metal-strapped wooden door. Muffled screeches stream through from inside.

‘Here we are,’ Doctor Gaspen puffs.

‘Will this take long?’

‘Ach. You tell me.’

Leise catches the orderly’s eye. He smiles and unlocks the door.

The tiny room smells of fear and flatulence. The doctor swivels to face Leise.

‘There you are, Mrs Erikson. Just look. Three hundred milligrams of Largactil pumped into him and still this song and dance.’

Sigurd’s body is strapped to a worn iron stretcher. He jerks around like a runaway firehose. His screams could drown a jet engine.

The doctor bends over him and squawks, ‘Sigurd. Here’s a visitor for you.’

The captive patient looks at Leise. Straightaway he stops ranting. His contortions cease. It’s as if he’s trapped in amber. His voice struggles like rubber boots squelching in thick mud.

‘Leise. You’ve come.’

‘Hello ... Sigurd.’

She focuses her eyes on his hairy nostrils—his most prepossessing feature as far as she is concerned.

‘No, Leise. It’s me, Leif. Leif. Not... Sigurd. He’s gone. Back.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’

She moves closer to him.

He wheezes. His eyes are shrunken moons.

‘I told them to get you. Told them to bring you here. Aase... it’s Aase, she took my body. It’s occupied... below... in Eden.’

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