1,14 - charlie
After many days and nights of solitary wandering through the Wilderness of R— I came at last to the shoreline shallows of the Western Sea where, in the distance, the slender minarets of the Adytum broke vertical lines across the sunset. I camped on the strand in the leeward shelter of a great rock and at morning’s low tide, as the intervening sea receded, I crossed the wet gray sands.
It was said that the men and women who lived here in monastic contemplation were wise beyond all others in the West. I intended to press them for the truths I had pursued for some time now, across the world, in vain.
There are no walls that surround the Adytum, no fortifications built to forestall an invading host: its remote location and the work of the high tide serve to isolate the place from the rest of the world, so that all who manage to come here are free to come and go. Those who join the ranks of the contemplatives never leave; visitors are given shelter and food for as long as they wish to stay.
I gained the Salt Stairs that lead up from the sands. At the top, I was met by a woman in a long robe tied at the waist with a rough hemp rope, the hood of the garment thrown back and her black hair loose against her shoulders.
“Welcome to this place of peace,” she said. We walked toward the nearest building, a long low structure built of dark, rough-hewn stone. We stepped inside the arched entrance into an alcove. Here there were weapons of war left behind by their owners: daggers piled on a pedestal; spears and shields, swords and scabbards standing discarded, propped up against the walls.
“We ask that you go unarmed in the Adytum,” the wise woman said, turning to me. “You will not need your weapons here.”
I rested my longstaff against the stonework wall. Then I removed a belted scabbard, propping up my halfsword, Whisper, there next to the staff, struggling with some misgivings as I did so.
“No-one touches these,” I said, pointing to my possessions, “except for me.”
“None here would touch any of these things,” the wise woman replied.
She led me further into the complex. Other men and women dressed in simple robes passed us, some smiling openly, others hurrying past with bowed heads. I was awestruck by the preternatural quiet all around us—our footfalls on the paths made no sound whatsoever—and, as if to counter its effects, I found myself unable to refrain from talking.
“Your accent,” I said to the wise woman, “it is distinctive.”
“Yes,” she said, “I came here from S—, some years ago now.”
“You must have fled the Conquest,” I said, shaking my head, “and its terrors.”
The wise woman stopped. “What is it that you think you will find here? We do not wish to be troubled by the outside world.”
“Indeed it is the outside world I wish to leave behind,” I said, “for it has failed me utterly.”
“I see.” Her gaze upon me was appraising and severe. Presently she seemed to make a decision. “Then why not join me for a morning repast, and you may tell me of your troubles.”
She led us to a vaulted refectory hall where long oaken tables and empty benches awaited crowded meal times. We seated ourselves at a smaller round table apart from the others, next to a leaded window looking out upon the tidal flats between the Adytum and the Western Shore. I felt sure I could see my footprints in the sand from my crossing of it.
A small boy with a shaved head and simple linen garments brought us bowls of olives, dried fruit, unsalted bread, and clear cold water in worn wooden cups. The wise woman smiled at me. I realized she was much younger than I had thought. There was a beauty in her unlined face and a directness in her gaze that made me feel awkward and ponderous.
She was waiting silently. Belatedly I realized I was expected to tell my story.
So I began.
“I am not from this world,” I said. “I know it, but I have no proof of it. All my days are spent seeking the place I came from. In the City of A—, deep within the Great Library, I came across an ancient text in a language none now speak save the Master Librarian himself. This is what he read to me.
“’Distant Kingdom. At peace, at last, after many years of bloodshed, violence, and suffering. The people of this land looked upon the broken world they had risen above, this world of suffering they could no longer be part of. Their Loremasters worked magic never seen before. Distant Kingdom disappeared. All traces of it began to fade. Even its true name is now lost to us, and soon every memory of it in our world will be gone.’
“My home, Distant Kingdom—this is my home, this place that no longer exists.”
“How do you know?” the wise woman said.
“I remember it. It is difficult, but I remember. There are moments when I feel as if I can see it, through a veil, I can see what I have lost. Here,” I said, “let me show you something.” I removed an object from my pack, a long tube of thick vellum tied with a silk cord. I swept aside the dishes of our meal and unrolled the vellum across the table, revealing to the wise woman my life’s work.
“A map,” she said, taking in a breath. “Oh, it is beautiful, is it not?”
“I search the world for signs of a passage or gate or doorway back to Distant Kingdom, and here, on this map, I mark the outlines and borders of all the places that are not the one I seek. I thought perhaps, over time, I could create an image, in negative, of what went missing—once I had completed the world here on this map, it would be possible to discern the shape of the emptiness within it.” I shook my head slowly. “Now I am not so certain. No, I am not so sure.”
The wise woman was absorbed in the map, an expression of rapt enchantment having come across her ageless face. With one finger she traced the contours of shorelines and rivers and mountain ranges and ancient roads.
“This place,” she said. “This jagged line. What is it? Tell me of it.”
I said, “The Chasm of E—, a rift in the land like a wound gouged in the earth in some past age. I sought subterranean passages into Distant Kingdom, thinking there might be a gate buried underground. The primitive cave paintings of the Gruelocks, those misbegotten creatures, suggested they worshiped such a thing, a gate between worlds. Of course, as I explored the Chasm, the Gruelocks emerged, swarming from the mouths of caves, brandishing their crude weapons to drive me away. When I stood my ground they became crazed and attacked me. My halfsword Whisper took them, one after another, whirling between cruel strikes, carving a sound from the air that gives the blade its name.”
The wise woman had closed her eyes to listen to my story. “Terrifying,” she said at last. She looked down at the map again. “What about here? This place?”
“The Forgotten Monument in the Valley of R—. A vast, towering structure, empty save for one man, the Monument Keeper, whose task it is to work the machinery that draws arcane power from deep below the earth in order to light, each night, the many hundreds of lamps throughout the Monument’s corridors. The Keeper said to me, ‘Take this,’ giving me a thin circle of red and gold metal, ‘and take over my work, just for one day—let me sleep, oh let me just sleep— and then I will tell you the secret you are looking for.’ And so I spent one day climbing the tower, pulling countless levers, turning endless switches. When I was done and dusk had come and the Monument burned with light, I found that the Keeper was gone. I waited. I held on for many more days, repeating the same tasks as I had been instructed. The Keeper did not come back. Neither could I stay longer: my journeys were not yet done. As I walked away from the abandoned Monument I looked back once, through the twilight, and saw its unlit upper reaches fade into the falling dark.”
The wise woman of the Adytum clapped her hands in delight. “How wonderful. And what happened to you here?” she asked, pointing to another location on the map.
“The Great Forest of T—,” I said.
“What befell you there?”
“I found my way through without incident.”
She pointed again. “Another place then. Here.”
“G—, the Open City,” I said, “where the fallen wonders of ages past now lie in ruins. The Scavenger Clans fight an endless war for territory here, eking out their mean existence amidst the rubble. There was a rumor that the Scrap Lord of the Open City’s Northern Reaches had found a Key in the wastes. Thus I was taken by Scavengers into the Scrap Lord’s presence, and told to offer a gift to please him or be put to death. Fear gripped me. What had I brought? Nothing! Then I remembered: hanging about my neck on a slender chain was the circle of red and gold metal I had been given by the Monument Keeper, for which I had found no use in the Monument itself. I held it out and the Scrap Lord took it in his bearspaw hand, turning it over and over. ’It is cursed,’ he finally said, ‘just as this Key we found in the Wastelands of N— is cursed.’ A servant came forward and placed a strange, oblong blue crystal in front of me on the wolfskin rugs. ‘Take both of these things away from us,’ the Scrap Lord said, ‘and I will let you live.’”
The wise woman of the Adytum waited for me to continue. When I did not, she said, “Tell me more of your travels.”
“No,” I returned. “It is time for me to ask you what I have come to ask.”
“As you wish.”
“Can you help me?” I said. “You who are wise beyond all others: do you know how to find the Distant Kingdom?”
I am excited! Waiting for you all this time!
Are you confused? This happens to Strangers when you come into my world out of the bathtub. You get confused.
Yes, you are a Stranger, that is what you are. You are from a different world.
Welcome! Have a granola bar and a fruit roll-up. Here, take them please, I took the wrappers off. Put them in your mouth. Yes, just like that. This is called eating.
This is a motel room. Evergreen Motel Room 6. It is my room, it was given to me by Gary Cooper.
I am Charlie. I am here to help you.
Before that I have to tell you something. I am not like other people in this world. Someone else would be better for you. I am sorry that you are stuck with me and not someone better.
Oh you have to read this note. It is about me. My Aunt Tina wrote this on a piece of paper. I am supposed to give it to people. I give it to all of the Strangers that come through here.
Why is the bathtub in Motel Room 6 the gateway from your world? Look, you are soaking wet and you will catch a cold. You are going to need another towel.
Oh and this here, on the bed, this is a map for you. In fact it is for me too because I get lost. Do you know what happens to me? I have to erase this map all the time! Sometimes I have to start it over again. Everything is always changing! Places are supposed to stay in the same place but they do not. It is a lot of work. Even biking from Aunt Tina’s house to Crazies for a Jumbo Smoothie can take all day. I have to stop and sit down and erase the streets and draw new streets. This map is not one map. It is many maps over top of other maps.
Yes, read this note, this is from my pocket.
Oh first I want to say something. At Crazies there were two ladies smoking outside and talking. I came up on my bike behind them but they did not see me and they kept talking.
If you look into my mind you can see my memory of what they said. Yes, just like that. You are so good at reading minds!
The lady said, “Jess, you think you’ve got it hard, what about Tina Gerson?”
The other lady said, “I know, right? She’s all on her own with her poor nephew.”
“He’s creepy though, in that mask.”
“You’re terrible, Mandy. After what happened to him he’s lucky to be alive.”
“I don’t know how lucky it is to have to live like that.”
“The worst part is that everyone knew what was going on in that house and no-one did anything about it.”
“That’s just people minding their own business like they should.”
“Oh my god Mandy there he is, shhh, he’s right there.”
“Oh my god.”
I am sorry that I am the wrong person to tell you about this world. I am confusing. I have seizures. What do you want here anyway? What are you Strangers looking for when you come out of the bathtub? Is this world better than your world?
This on the bed, this here is a map, it is for you, and I use it too. I am sorry that the spelling is all wrong.
Oh you need to read this note, it is from my pocket, Aunt Tina wrote this note for me to give to people but I pretend I do not have it. I will tell you why I do that. I pretend that I do not have it because nobody wants me to give it to them.
Please can you read this note out loud for us? It is very difficult for me to read.
My name is Charlie Mill. I have many deficits from my TBI, which is a Traumatic Brain Injury. Because of Dysarthria it’s challenging for me to speak. Because of Dysphagia I have difficulty swallowing. I have Aphasia which means words work differently for me. I have Atonic seizures which means I fall down suddenly, and I have prolonged Absence seizures which means I stare off into space, and before my Asbence seizures I experience an Aura, which impairs my vision. Thank you for reading this and taking the time to understand me.
It is very serious. You know though sometimes it is funny too. When I am biking and there is an Atonic seizure I fall right down onto the crossbar and bang my crotch on it and then I topple over sideways. If there could be a video of all of the times that this has happened to me, it would make everyone laugh.
This is my mask.
I do not mind that you see my face, but I have to put my mask on when I am out there.
When I hold up the mask like this it looks empty and lonely.
Uncle Terry used to take this very same mask down from the wall. He bought it in Mexico a long time ago. It was always hanging on a hook on the wall behind the bar in the basement. Uncle Terry would hold it up just like I am right now. In his other hand he would have a beer. Uncle Terry would make monster sounds and chase me with the empty mask and I would run away.
I never saw him put it on, not even once.
We are lucky that you can read my mind. When I speak out loud it is difficult to understand. Here let me show you.
Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii ammmmmmmm hap-p-p-p-p-p-p-pyyyyyyyyyyyy tooooooooooo meeeeeeeeet-t-t-t-t-t-t youuuuuuuuu, Sssst-t-t-t-traaaaaaaaangerrrrrrr.
That took a long time and it was embarrassing for both of us. It is also very difficult for me to write and to read.
Oh there is a note for you to read. It is about me.
You are right. In fact you are holding the note because we just read it. I forgot.
The Aura must be coming. It is very difficult to keep things in my mind when the Aura comes. The Aura is what happens before Absence. Absence is a seizure that lasts for several minutes. It is best if I am here in the motel room or at home in my room in Aunt Tina’s house, or else people see me sitting by the sidewalk or lying on the grass and they become upset.
Absence means I disappear. I do not remember anything.
What if you are someone who has Absence in your world and that is when you come to this one? Do you know that when you come out of the bathtub the water turns black?
You are just a silhouette in this world. That is what you look like. I learned that word from Aunt Tina’s word-a-day calendar. That is what you are, a silhouette. You are the empty outline of a shadow.
I have to tell you something before I forget. Do not go to the Wellness Centre. Right now it is here on the map, right here at the bottom. That is where the Circle is. You do not need to go there. It is dangerous.
Kevin was there. I am anxious because I saw Kevin there, looking in the window. I know that the Circle will be bad for him because of his dad.
Oh the Aura is starting.
I am sorry, it means the Absence is coming too. I am not sure that I will remember what we talked about.
Can you see in my mind how the world starts to burn? Everything is on fire with red and gold. And blue fire coming up from below.
Do you know what happened to me? Did I tell you?
Where is the mask. I need to put it on.
Look at those colors exploding. Red and gold and blue.
My Uncle Terry beat me to death.
He put my body in back of his pickup and drove to Los Angeles to the hospital. Then he called the police and waited outside to be arrested.
I was not dead. I was in a coma. Then I woke up.
Colors out of the walls. Colors in the air.
Uncle Terry was charged with Attempted Murder.
In jail he made it so the guards and inmates hated him. One day he was stabbed in the back multiple times. He went to the prison hospital and that was where he died.
Uncle Terry hit me with his fists and then he dragged me outside and used a two by four.
There were colors then, too. Exploding colors and flames that screamed.
At the trial he said he was drunk and he could not remember. Then he said he thought he was his own father, and he thought that I was him when he was little, and he wanted to kill himself.
Now I have to stop. All the colors are leaving and that means Absence is here.
I am sorry. I wish I could have been more helpful.
You will see what things are like.
Mostly it is very difficult.
There is not much choice.
You will get lost.
Oh this part hurts. It hurts.
Everything on fire. Burning, burning....
World burning down.
“No,” the wise woman said, “I cannot help you. However, there is locked tower down this hallway.” She pointed to a passage leading away from the rectory. She smiled sadly. “Thank you for your stories. I loved them.”
I stared at her in defeat and despair as she walked away, leaving me alone at the table by the window. Finally, I got up and went down the passage that she had indicated. I came to a heavy door in which two complex locks were set. One was a circular indentation and the other, a square opening. Trembling, I pressed the circle of red and gold metal from the Monument into the one lock. The strange blue crystal that the Scrap Lord had given to me, I inserted into the other lock. There were a series of whirs and clicks. The door swung open. A stone staircase spiraled upwards.
After an interminable ascension I came to the top of the stairs, stepping into a round chamber open to the air. At this great height the salt wind tore at the edges of my cloak.
In that high place, looking out over endless slate-gray waves, I saw only the far horizon. I closed my eyes. Why had I been led here if there was nothing, no other world to look into from this vantage?
At last I understood. The other world I longed for, the world in which I belonged, my Distant Kingdom, my home, lay across a gulf I could not bridge.
I would never find it.
No. And I would never stop looking for it.
© 2017 by C.D. Miller