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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapes

Language of the Birds
Ryan Madej


I vaguely remember the day I saw the article in the newspaper mentioning rather matter- of-factly that Rene Elias had vanished. I was drinking a cup of smoky Russian tea and nibbling a piece of brie, when my eyes must have caught a glimpse of his face, which appeared to be smiling, yet at the same time expressing some sort of hidden anguish.

Disappearances occur everyday across the world, but Rene’s sudden vanishing act took me a little by surprise. Rene was a brilliant chemist who, despite his reservations about intellectual celebrity, wore the label of genius quite nicely. He was an acquaintance, in a rather abstract way, but in reality we were not acquaintances at all. It was only by the hand of fate that we came to know one another. A woman by the name of Alexa Valentine was sleeping with both of us at the same time, and due to this fact, Rene and I slowly started moving toward one another by an invisible string of events. But that was an eternity ago.

Here, now, I chase down my memories of him. I was not at all shocked Alexa was drawn to Rene. Intelligent, handsome, oddly mysterious. Qualities of a man who was certainly sophisticated and worldly. I find it puzzling as to why she picked me as well when she had such a catch to begin with. At the time of our affair, or what have you, I was laboring away on a manuscript I had been planning for half a dozen years. Since I was a youth, the hermetic and esoteric arts held sway over me. And as I grew older, I knew that any talent I possessed with writing would be put toward some sort of future endeavor involving the alchemical arts of fire, the alignment of the stars, and the golden elixir of Life.

Of course, most of my friends and colleagues thought that I was wasting my time on nonsense. Fuck them, I thought. They knew very little of what was in my heart, and within a few months I never saw them again, for I had moved to the Coast. The ocean air cleared my lungs, softened my skin, and relaxed my mind. I was free, able to begin again.
Within a few weeks, I not only acquainted myself with the city, but with the many libraries as well.

During one of my many strolls through the dark and musty stacks, I met Alexa. She was stunning, brilliant, and quite obviously manipulative, but I was smitten and easily lead by my desires. Within no time, we began seeing each other regularly. Two months later her toothbrush sat by my sink, a permanent fixture. Beyond our overt physical attraction for one another, we shared a common interest in literature, film, and music, which we passionately discussed over long dinners, or after rounds of sweaty sex. And perhaps it was within that sensuous dream that I was distracted from the fact that I was the other man. Rene was close, but I couldn’t see him yet. There had been a few occasions when Alexa came by and I could smell the subtle aroma of expensive cologne; and of course, she would come up with some excuse as to why it was there. Beautiful women are easy to believe. I’m sure at the same time Rene was piecing together his own story about me. I would often leave a tiny love-bite high up on Alexa’s neck, which made me wonder if Rene ever saw the mark when they made love. Possibly. Rene was a keen observer of nature, so one could assume that his eyes were attuned to the minute. I never told Alexa what I thought I knew about her trysts, let alone much else beyond the basic facts concerning my upbringing, and other banal details not worth mentioning. Most often, my thoughts were elsewhere.  

My researches and readings were done deep into the night with large amounts of coffee and Erik Satie occupying the summit of my mind. During one particularly still evening, when the night entirely takes hold of one’s thoughts, I came across a number of truly fascinating stories, that despite their antiquity, absorbed into me in a deep and profound way. The first was of a figure known as Apollonius of Tyana, who was a great adept of the Pythagorean school, and witness to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. The scholar Philostratus recorded the biography of Apollonius at the instruction of the Roman Empress Julia Domna, but due to the enigmatic nature of history, certain details escaped the grasp of the wise Philostratus. Apollonius healed many people in a Christ-like fashion and travelled widely, and along the way he managed to create the Great Stone of the Philosophers; a feat rare amongst the rare. His followers, which were many, claimed that when he died he left no body, turning into the Stone itself and ascending into the Above, the Absolute, heaven if you will.

For weeks after reading these accounts, I would take long walks on drizzly nights across the various bridges that linked the quiet solitude of the outskirts to the chaos of the urban metropolis downtown, thinking deeply about mystical phenomena rarely seen in nature anymore. My walks always ended a few blocks from my apartment, at the local noodle house. An attitude of laziness often propelled me into places such as these, for I loved the smell of meat and sprouts rather than the clattering of pots and pans by my own hand. During one of these outings, on a particularly dark night , Rene walked into my life. Yet, at the time, I had not concluded it was him at all. I was absorbed in the taste of warm broth when I saw him out of the corner of my eye, ready to sit down and be served. He was dressed impeccably, though something in his manner suggested that he felt encumbered by his clothing, perhaps because the chaos in his mind was enough strain for one man, and the tightness of his clothes only aggravated him further. One could almost see the swirl of thoughts dancing in his head. He ordered a simple noodle dish and lit a king-sized cigarette in the interim. The aroma from his cigarette drifted over to my table, and instantly I recognized something familiar about the smell.

An almost nutty, citrus blend, which seemed unusual yet pleasing. Alexa smoked a brand of similar scent, so perhaps that was when I first started drawing paranoid conclusions about Rene and Alexa, however unconscious they may have been at the time. What amazed me most about him, even at a distance, was his near invisibility that seemed to keep most people from looking at him. Like a ghost, he maintained an imposing glare that deflected attention. But not that night. My mind looked for an opening in which to satisfy my growing delusions, yet all that I could conjure up were thoughts of exotic birds that were playing havoc in my dreams as of late. As I sat ingesting more thick broth and broad noodles, I kept my eye on him, perhaps due to an overwhelming sense of curiosity that bubbled up within me. After he finished his meal, he proceeded to take out a large envelope from his leather satchel, spreading out a number of papers in front of him. He studied the pages very closely before lighting another cigarette and exhaling a plume of sweet smoke. I thought of Alexa again. Her hourglass figure, that so often brought me pleasure, was obscured by the shadow of another. Nothing was making sense any longer, so I decided to leave.

As I stood by the door waiting to pay the bill, I looked over my shoulder to see Rene smiling at me, or so I thought. My body turned cold. When I looked back again, his head was lost in smoke, eyes downcast. The walk home I don’t remember well. All I can recollect is the sound of crows, and the vision of their black wings superimposed against a twilit sky as they took to flight from a telephone line. That night I didn’t sleep so well. The morning brought greater promise, although I have to admit to feeling rather chilled and ill at ease. In hindsight, logic would dictate that my experience the night before was to blame…   Instead of doing my usual work at the library, I decided to pass the rest of the of the morning reading on the balcony. I strained my eyes to see the ocean, which shined and glistened like a blue-green moving gem. A state of restlessness resided in my mind as I carefully sipped my cup of tea, wondering why I could not shake the dense feeling that had attached itself to me. I called Alexa, hoping the sound of her voice would calm me, or at the very least get me thinking about something else. When she answered, I immediately started blathering about the mystery man, the crows, and my sense of dread like some sort of raving lunatic who had been pursued by visions for countless days and nights. Like a stoic doctor, she told me to take a couple painkillers, have a nap, then when evening came, visit her for she had something to show me.

I did as she said, and in the thick mist of sleep, I had a dream. There I was on a mountain in the high altitudes, walking along some old worn path, when I noticed a man off in the distance sitting cross-legged on a large rock. As I approached, a sense of strong energy tickled my skin that seemed to be emanating from the man himself. The man, who appeared to be meditating, opened his eyes wide and turned toward me, smiling. I was silent, from what I remember, not knowing what to say. The man got up from the rock and motioned for me to walk with him. His complexion was smooth, almost golden, and his long dark hair sparkled in the sun as we walked. He said nothing. Yet just by looking at him, I could see that he was very content, and perhaps even beyond the idea of contentedness. He led me to a large cave that seemed to brighten as we entered, where he produced a rather large book from an ornamental chest. He silently handed the book to me, then quietly walked out of the cave. That was when I woke up, feeling better, but all the more confused by the ethereal nature of the dream world.

Later, as I walked through the rain-washed streets, I began to feel somewhat uplifted by my dream; nonetheless, a sense of dread followed me all the way to Alexa’s apartment, hovering above my head. When Alexa answered the door, in a satin nightgown, the seal on my thoughts closed even tighter. Perhaps I was too stressed over nothing. After all, what was I afraid of? She invited me in, kissing me on the lips as I tried to take off my raincoat the ozone smell clinging to me like campfire smoke. I nestled into the corner of her couch, and almost slyly, she crept into the crook of my arm. Now I felt safe, I thought. But for how long? Alexa was silent for a time, as was I. But there was an unspoken tension permeating the room while we listened to the clock tick in measured clicks. Something seemed oddly different about her apartment that night. The smell, the lighting, everything. My eyes scanned the walls and cabinets where precious books and pieces of art all had their place; then I saw what I was looking for. Upon one of the shelves, almost obscured by a Zen clock, was the figure of a golden phoenix. Alexa must have noticed what I was looking at, so she got up and walked over to the tall cabinet, reaching out to grab the phoenix that had caught my attention. She smiled, almost devilishly, as she caressed the figure in her hands before bringing the piece over to me, placing it carefully in my palms. She told me that Rene Elias, the chemist, had given it to her, who was an ‘old friend’. I savagely tried to contain my thoughts as I heard those words, and somehow I managed to question Alexa more about her new acquisition, as well as her old friend.

Alexa was being rather coy, but she said that Rene had given her the phoenix a few days before at his home on the outskirts, and that he was rather excited about some experiments he had been working on in his personal lab at home. The only other details she was willing to give were vague at best. Smells of sulphur, smoke, and a feeling of great heat thickly hanging in each room she entered. She didn’t question him. No surprises there. However, she continued, he was acting strangely and didn’t want to take up too much of her time, which she said was unusual of him. As I looked at Alexa speak, I could tell by the way she moved her lips and fluttered her eyelashes that her time with Rene was anything but brief. I pictured his hands all over her. I could almost feel his presence sitting between us. Looking at the phoenix in my hands, with its beautiful golden wings, I had a sudden sense of warmth in my head that caused me to drop the statue on the floor. Alexa rushed to pick it up, putting the phoenix safely back on the shelf. She asked me if I was all right, but I told her I had to leave. More rest was what I needed. For the first time since we met, she looked unhappy to see me go, yet I also saw a sense of a hurried goodbye in her eyes as she gave me a long breathless kiss at the door, and quite suddenly I was out in the humid, rainy air once again. With each step I became less aware of my racing heart, but at the same time my mind became more clouded and confused than ever. When I had touched the golden phoenix, a wave of subtle familiarity went through my mind as I walked along the street. Not only did my touching of that tiny statue confirm my thoughts about Alexa and Rene, a maze of complex ideas and came to life within me.

Everything felt darker. Without really realizing where I was going, I ended up in front of the noodle house.

I went inside hoping that the distance between the phoenix and me would calm my nerves.
Unfortunately, it did nothing to ease the tension raging within me. As I sat down, hands pressed to my temples, I felt that Rene would walk through the door any minute, if only to tell me his secrets. Of course, nothing happened. Hours went by and my soup was cold. The silken cord of the Coastal night tightened around my throat as I walked back to my building. I felt weak, almost faint. Perhaps the confirmation of my fears about Alexa had truly taken the strength from me. Or something else had. Upon entering the hallway to my apartment, I could smell the faint aroma of citrus getting stronger as I approached my door. At my feet, a small envelope sat waiting to greet me. With more than an ounce of hesitation, I picked up the envelope, carefully tearing it open. An impeccably handwritten note said the following: "Having drunk the wine of longevity, you wander free; who can know you? You sit and listen to the string-less tune, you understand the mechanism of creation."

The words echoed in my mind. For three days, I barely shut my eyes. On the fourth day, I decided to pay Alexa a visit, despite my reservations, wondering if the sight of her face would solve the riddle in my head. Knocking on her door, I noticed the mail had not been taken in for a few days, which seemed unusual. No answer. I left, thinking where could she be on such a fine day. I even went to the library, desperately seeking a glimpse of Alexa’s hair. Nothing. Many more days would pass before I heard from her; and not in the way I expected. A hand-delivered letter came to me, quite to my surprise, just as I was finishing a chapter on the famous transmutation at the Sarcelles gas factory in 1922 by the enigmatic Fulcanelli.

I anxiously tore open the envelope, finding not only a short letter inside, but also a key as well. Alexa’s neat, legible words were all I needed to feel comfortable again, until I actually read them.
"My dear….Don’t be upset by the arrival of this brief note, for anger will not change anything. We can no longer see one another. Destiny, as they say, has different plans for the both of us. I have left something for you. You will need the key. The directions are on the back of this note. Farewell. Love Alexa."

Anger was the furthest thing from my mind. Sadness, however, was much closer. The confusion returned in spades. I sat down again, reading the words repeatedly, hoping they would somehow change. Day slowly gave way to night, and my position barely changed. At some point I feel asleep on the couch only to wake up in the wee small hours, shivering. Several weeks passed; and it must have been then that I saw the article announcing Rene’s disappearance. Within an hour of reading the article, in a flash of overanxious energy, I went to go find what Alexa had left behind. Her instructions lead me across my beloved bridges, just as the street lamps came on underneath the twilight sky. Nothing seemed real any longer. The city was emptier, quieter, and less invasive on the senses. I walked slowly. The only sound I could hear was the clicking of my shoes over the pavement. About an hour later, I found the spot she had described: an old abandoned warehouse overlooking the harbor. Alexa certainly had a love of the mysterious; I would give her that. I didn’t have to walk far inside that eerie structure to notice the large steamer trunk that the key would fit into.

I had seen the trunk once before at Alexa’s apartment. A handcrafted silver peacock sat proudly on its top, looking at me with a million eyes. Before I put the key in the lock, I paused. I knew my life was about to change in some way, for better or worse. Opening the trunk I expected, half-heartedly, to see the golden phoenix staring back at me. But the only object within the trunk was a thick, manila package, with a wax seal carefully imprinted with a crow’s head. The air seemed to become thick, and my head floated as though I had just fallen asleep, yet I managed to walk away with the package in my hand, ready to marry the night ahead of me. Now, as I sit here writing these words, time has given way to truth. At the far end of my desk sits not only my manuscript, but Rene’s as well, aching to be read many more times.
The testament of a brilliant, curious man like myself, who is now a ghost haunting the city of my mind, just as he did before; only now he has become something more. My memories of Rene, in all their abstract glory, are also memories of Alexa. A woman we both shared and loved. Rene took on the impossible and landed amongst the stars, rather than spending another moment wondering what his life would be without the knowledge he now carried within himself. We will never grow old now; and perhaps one day we will all meet again in another time and place, our faces unchanged. He is my reflection, as is Alexa. Cradled together in the hands of fate.
 

© Ryan Madej March 2009
pynchon0000 at gmail.com

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