The Climber's Choice (Part 3 of 3)

photograph courtesy of Douglas Cooper


The terrible moonlight guides us back to our pavilion. We say nothing to each other. Lucia’s face is ghastly in this changed light; mine is too, I expect. What was pity has become something so much deeper, unfathomable, something which stares into you as you stare into it.

I curl into a fetal position, and fall asleep immediately. But I wake in the middle of the night to see Lucia, sitting naked on the edge of her bed. She does not see me. She is rocking back and forth, like the boy in the garden, and her arms are crossed, one hand on each breast. I close my eyes, despite my desperate desire to gaze at her. I am not sure I sleep after this apparition, although I am never sure whether I have in fact slept.

It is with great sadness that we depart the Severed Benefactor. We are to spend our final night in Eels, the capital, which is some hours drive from the base of Mt. Gerbernus. For our last meal, Chef Levite prepares a breakfast of great beauty, a peerless breakfast, perhaps the finest breakfast ever broken. Jungerberries are mixed in with a muesli of peculiar ingredients, which include, I suspect, the nuts we witnessed last night quivering in pendulous anticipation from bowed stems. This is simply the first in an array of exquisite plates: cormorant’s eggs, smoked seahorse, shink’s milk whipped into a cream and served on scones still warm from the oven. The ovens, Roger Levite informs us, have remained warm since long before the War of Subjugation; even when the Eternal Flame was sadly extinguished briefly by Hurricane Wotan, the clay oven was kept alive by a heroic sous-chef, who himself did not survive the Great Tidal Wave.

Chef Levite touches Lucia on the head as we depart, and she flinches, but then smiles. We hike down through the wet forest, Lucia walking ahead to shoo away the dog-catchers. At the end of our descent we are met by the aromatic limousine. We have a different driver this time, a friendly Chasid, who points out the sights as we drive the increasingly civilized road to Eels. We pass beneath the first of the great parabolic mountains, and he explains that this Breast of St. Dymphna — a name invoked with no apparent sacrilege — is called “The Left One.” Elaborating upon what we have learned from the boy in the garden, he explains that The Left One is associated with cold Salvation: the lonely wisdom of the hermit. Those who choose this mountain shed their complicated past, to emerge quite new and shiny in the crisp psychic air. Not a bad choice, he muses.

The second Breast is called “The Other One.” With talmudic precision, he echoes what the boy has told us. He explains how this peak, although one might suppose it to share theological attributes with The Left One, is in fact separate in every way. This deviates from traditional medieval theory. Yes, the boy was correct: the mountain offers the gift of eternal Love, but somehow this brand of Love is entirely removed from Salvation. In fact, it seems to preclude Salvation: you don’t get to feel good, strangely, if you choose The Other One.

I suppose this makes sense, finally. I remember my college chaplain pointing out to me — a revelation, given my romantic high school notions — that love is not supposed to be pleasant. He described it, in fact, in terms of ancient Chinese torture devices, some of them really quite unpleasant. Still, he insisted — despite my perilous position at the edge of suicide — that it would be a mistake not to give it a try. He ventured that what I was experiencing was only a painful simulacrum of the real thing, but a good choice nevertheless. In short, he approved of my despair. This, I suspect, saved my life.

We ask our driver which of the mountains he chose to climb. He raises an eyebrow. “In St. Dymphna, you do not ask that question.” He does not answer, of course. But for a few silent minutes he smiles enigmatically, lost in thought. And then he begins to hum a cheerful tune.

We are approaching the faux medieval walls which separate Eels from the farmland below. Our vehicle — funny this theme, decapitation — climbs the snaking road to the Main Gate. (There are other gates, known as “The Other Gates.”) This grand, gothic passage through the wall passes beneath a magnificent bas-relief of St. Dymphna, one leg touching the earth to either side of the opening. The portcullis, if it can be called that, is a single sharp door of rusted iron: a guillotine. It descends from the nexus of these limbs. We ponder this.

Eels itself would take an entire book to describe, and we do not spend enough time here to get a deep sense of the place. It is important, however, to mention the famous university. This place of learning was a place of ill repute as well — it was where Americans who had not been admitted to medical schools on their home soil went to achieve a dubious, possibly second-rate education. Of course, this reputation has now changed: the handful of Yankees who have returned with degrees from Dymphna U. have proved astonishingly capable doctors, especially in the field of mental health, where they eschew therapy. A team of educational researchers from Johns Hopkins have recently taken up residence in Eels, to study the classroom techniques pioneered at this faculty.

The airport is some distance from Eels. We are woken early by the psychotic bellboy, who mistakes Lucia for one of our bags, and has to be corrected before carrying her downstairs.

In the lobby, as we wait for our fragrant limousine, Lucia seems preoccupied. She is staring out the glass door, frowning, and rocking almost imperceptibly. I sense it would not be kind to interrupt her thoughts. As the military transport pulls up in front of the hotel, she turns to me and announces, quietly, “Elliot, I’m sorry… I’m not going with you.” I find that I am not the least surprised. I also find that I am stricken.

There is no question, however, of staying on St. Dymphna with Lu. I have a story to file, and in less than a week I am on my way to Santa Formica in the Old Hebrides, to write up a much-hyped boutique hotel — The Amniotic — which has just opened to mixed reviews. I will let you know, friends, whether these ambivalent reports are justified.

The ride to the airport is grim. We are making our way back in the direction of the tall mountains; the airport lies between them. My new driver is silent, I suspect, at the best of times; but were he inclined to chat, my expression would certainly deter him. As I stare out the window, I realize that I am already nostalgic. Strange, this — retrospect is usually a prerequisite for this brand of melancholy. I shall miss The Crawling Devil, The Severed Benefactor, Chef Levite and his bananas.

In the airport, I am too preoccupied with my sadness to look out for dog-catchers in the eaves, but they too leave me alone, no doubt for the same reasons the driver did. The flight is delayed — rumors of the pilot’s suicide — and I spend the night asleep on a moonlit bench.

A new craft arrives at noon the next day. The Blessing of the Airplane is brief, and we soon board. I do not fear the runway this time — departure seems less perilous than descent; and anyway, I am not really thinking about my own condition. Unspeakable the pain. The windows, fogged by the humidity, clear as we rise.

I stare at the humped peaks as my plane spirals upward between them, but I am too far away to make out a lone climber, and I suspect I shall never know which of the two mountains my secret and only love has graced with her decision.



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