By Albert Henry Tyson
“Do you know what day it is?” He shot me a glance from under that heavy brow. The nose was hawkish, but the eyes, a watery blue.
“That’s not what I mean. How many days since the disaster?”
I might not know the day of the week, but this last I knew. The number of days since the disaster, days since Selena died. “It’s 470.” I said with barely a delay. In fact, I kept a small chalkboard in the kitchen at home with that number on it, updated each morning. I guess it had become a kind of ritual, the marking of time.
I closed Cantor’s Photo Album, setting it beside me on the hard-packed sand. It was too much, this infinite task of memory. It had been a long day, the pictures starting to look like, well, just pictures. I remembered when I first started that so many of the images were of vague happiness, but also there were too many for which I felt embarrassment and shame. Those last had still cut, the shards remaining unreasonably sharp.
“That’s right.” His voice belying the smile that his jutting red beard obscured. “It has been almost that many times that you have come here to practice with the album. The longer we practice, the more insignificant will be the difference.”
I wasn’t sure why that was important, but it was true that now Grief’s presence released less anguish in me. Maybe I was getting used to him. It had been a week since I had last seen his sister, Love, the twin I felt more comfortable with.
Hazarding a question usually resulted in a stinging rebuke, but I asked anyway. “Why don’t the happy memories stay clear? Most of them have become so muted, that I wonder if my memory is wrong.”
He actually answered me seriously, his voice flat and featureless. “Memory should look as though through a greased lense. It allows us to pretend things were better than they were. I think you are beginning to notice that with your good memories.”
I realized I had asked the wrong question. I couldn’t stop myself, “But my bad memories are painful. Why couldn’t they be muted too?” I stared off into the indistinct white mist that limited the range of vision in this place to the inside of a large white sphere. Somewhere in the distance, the low sound of long placid surf provided the only ambient. In the middle ground, the ropey stem of a kelp plant was stretched across the wet sand.
He was taking a long time to answer. “Sharpness is a warning, like a big red stop sign. It means you should pay attention. There is something there that threatens your life and your mind wants to be sure it is unlikely you will repeat the experience.”
I was still staring into the mist, trying to ascertain what lay beyond. There seemed to be a slight variation in the intensity of the light, somewhere beyond the mist. With his usual physicality, Grief reached out with one lanky hand, took hold of my chin and pivoted my head to face him. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
I rubbed my chin. “Isn’t that my line?”
“What are you staring at out there?” Proper etiquette had never been one of Grief’s attributes.
“Haven’t you ever noticed there seems to be something beyond the mist?”
To my surprise, his head dropped to his chest in despair. “Yes,” he said in a scarcely audible tone. This was so odd a reaction that I held my breath not wanting to disturb the possibility of more. “Please. Concentrate on the practice, with the album.”
Incredulous I said, “Will the practice help me to see farther into the mist or maybe to walk beyond it?”
“No, no.” He sighed. “The mist is the limit of the practice. You can never reach the mist using the album. It will forever retreat away from you. A thousand lifetimes would not be enough to reach it that way. Beyond, the mist it cannot take you.”
“Oh,” was all that occurred to me for a moment, “but can’t you throw me a bone?”
“There are more interests here than simply my sister and me. Together we have given you this place, for you and your memories of Selena. Can you not think of anything other than the events of your lives and loves? I cannot tell you what lies beyond the mist, because it is your own work. Whatever it is that shifts the light, it has been placed there by you and you alone.”
“Are you saying I need to face it?”
“How can I tell you that, when I don’t know what it is?” He took out a familiar ellipsoid of black basalt, covered in fine runes. “But since you seem unable to let it be, maybe I can give you a little push in the right direction.” He gave me a smart rap on the head. “Feel it!” I heard, rather than felt the essential stoneness of that rock.
Suddenly he seemed to disappear before my eyes in a brilliant flash of light that blinded me to all detail. I yelled and jumped up. This had never happened before. The appearance and departure of both Love and Grief were always in complete accord with continuity. I realized this was a discontinuity in the raw, as my perceptions faded to black.
Tottering on my feet, gradually I realized it wasn’t all blackness. The light in the sphere world must have been bright. Now with Grief gone, the light was gone too. There was a chill in the air as I peered around. I decided I could see the white sand around me and my shadow falling on it. The beach was still there hard and damp beneath my bare feet. Sounds of surf reached my ears, just the same as before. If I looked with averted gaze, I could barely make out the message I had written in the sand for Selena. It seemed that just the lights had gone out. Then I saw the album was gone.
Wait! How was I able to see that? There must be light coming from somewhere. I was casting a faint shadow, so I looked in the direction opposite. That was when I finally noticed the sky. A night sky should have stars. There were no stars here. Instead, a luminescent grayness showed the presence of indistinct dark forms, which moved, combined and split, like the blobs in a lava lamp. There was something unsettling here. An odd feeling that I couldn’t quite capture in a word, made my skin crawl. The forms were never the same. Just when I thought I had chosen a focus around which to identify features, the focus would collapse.
I must have been still stunned by the flash because when my shadow moved of its own accord saying “Well, what do you think? Don’t just stand there.” I almost leaped out of my skin. I should have realized there would be no way a shadow could be cast by this gray sky. It was Grief, standing beside me, not saying a word until now. He was holding the album.
“I thought you disappeared. Are we on the other side? Why is the album still here?”
“The light disappeared. We are still inside. Without the light of Love in the sphere, we can see clues about what is on the other side of the mist.”
“Those forms are so creepy. I’m getting goosebumps just looking at them. You’re sure they are outside the sphere?”
“Yes, but I cannot tell you it is impossible for them to get inside. Without our light, projection inside is possible, just as we can see them against the faint light of the outer world. Can you tell me what you are feeling as you look at them?”
I felt myself shiver again. “Fear,” I said. “And something else at the same time. Not sure. Maybe, shame?”
“Hmm. Perhaps your work with the album of connecting with the emotions of your memories is helpful with these projections. I can’t confirm your feeling of fear and shame. It is as you feel it.”
“You mean one of those blobs is fear?”
“No. Firstly, those are just words. In this case, those words are referring to the same aspect.”
He shook his head hard in frustration. “No! The blobs are meaningless. I can’t think of a word that means both fear and shame, can you?”
I thought for a moment. “Not offhand.”
“And even if it did have a name, there is no ‘it’. A name is supposed to be attached to an entity, but as you can see,” gesturing at the metamorphosing dark forms, “there is no notion of an entity.”
“Why it is cold? Why do I feel these emotions now? Is there something fundamental about the shapes we are seeing?” Grief actually put his arm around me, and I don’t think it was just for my support. He felt different. Gaunt and thin.
“It is cold because there is no love here anymore. That makes it much like the realm outside. Why you feel fear and shame is a secret only you know. I might suggest you explore that, but” - he coughed - “I will not be able to do that with you in a place like this.” He shivered violently. Strange that I had never experienced him doing that before, even soaked through by cold rain, huddled in his sleeping bag.
My muscles quaked with the cold as well. Maybe it was the cold or maybe my approaching hypothermia, but I managed a leap of insight. “Is love preventing the projections of fear and shame from inhabiting this space?”
“Yes. Without love, all manner of problems can project through. It is the sheer intensity of love that drowns those attempts. Please, you better make this worthwhile. What insight have you captured regarding the fear and shame that you felt?”
It might have been my imagination, but my breath was beginning to fog. As I watched, the patterns above seemed to grow clearer, the temperature falling. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, then just tried to remember, like with the album. A wave of nausea washed over me. I half expected to see the ocean advancing when I peeked. My mouth went dry, a prickly sensation ran across my scalp, and I suddenly wondered where the closest washroom might be. “I’m sorry, Grief, I don’t think I can do this now. Can we get back home? I need a washroom.”
“Such a shame, really,” he said. “I had to sever our connection in order to show you this. It’s a one-shot really. I was hoping you would have a breakthrough and be able to fix this all yourself.”
“Shame! That’s one! I didn’t think I could go on without Selena. I wanted my life to end. Hypothermia was my choice. You know. Just go somewhere really remote, without proper clothing, in the damn rain and wind. Then disable any way to get back. Nature does the rest. But I know Selena would be very unhappy with me. She made me promise not to. The thing is, I think she said that only because it caused her greater anguish to think about it. She would have known that for me to live without her would be terrible torture. She would not have wanted that for me either.”
“Good work. You will need much more introspection than that, however. I think there is a lot more there untouched by light.”
The way he said that was odd. There was none of the usual force to his words, his features had become grey almost translucent. “Grief, are you ok? You’re so cold. You look deathly ill.”
“I told you,” he whispered, “we are both love, Love and Grief, the twins. Now, in this place, there is no love. So, I cannot exist here.”
“What? No! How could you? Why didn’t you tell me this would happen to you? You can’t just disappear and leave me all alone! How am I going to cope, to learn how to carry forward my anguish?”
“I didn’t think you cared,” was all I could make out, but he seemed to say more too quietly to hear.
A crackling sound came from behind me. Dark forms had reached the sand from above. Where they touched, the sand froze and heaved into little pingos capped with frost. They seemed more interested in Grief than in me. Surely that was because he was still made of love.
“Stay back! You cannot have him!” I was prepared for a fight. This was MY grief. They would not take him from me! Exactly how I was going to fight, I hadn’t a clue. Maybe it was smarter to try running away. Not taking my eyes from the dark shifting forms, I reached back to grab Grief, and lift him onto my back. I would take the album too. We would make a run for it. He had said the album could never cross the boundary. The edge would recede away. That should give us lots of room to run! Grief was so light like there was nothing to him.
When, instead, I boosted someone in a canvas coat onto my back, I knew something had happened. Grief never wore canvas. A mellifluous female voice was in my ear instead. “Hello Al, did you miss me?” She reached forward to nibble my earlobe.
“Love! Thank God you’re here! Can you help Grief? I think he’s going to die!”
“I’m here now, in his place. He was too long out of the light of love. He's basking in it now. Don’t worry. God! This place is cold! No love at all. I can't stay long.”
“Grief disconnected love from this place so I could see beyond the mist barrier. Now those things are projecting through. Can you reconnect? I think you’re the only one who can do this!”
To my astonishment, she laughed like I had said something incredibly silly. “Do you know how he disconnected love? He picked up your album, removing it from you. That’s all. You have the album in hand now? So, reconnect!”
“Yes, but I don’t understand.”
“I would suggest you pick up that album now. Before they get it instead!” she admonished, hopping free from my back. I scooped up Cantor’s Photo Album, completely full of an infinite number of pictures of the love and life of Selena and me, but always with room for more. I looked at Love, the book in my hands, not knowing what to do next.
Love tapped her booted toe and pushed back her fedora. “Well, just open it! That’s all you have to do. Gee! What has Grief been teaching you?”
I grabbed the book boards and glared at the dark shapes that were now all around. “We’re done here, whatever you are!” The moment I opened the album, another great flash of light erupted into being, blinding me for the second time. The light of love flowed like waves. It was impossible to see anything other than the intensity of love. By and by as my vision came back, I found myself in the familiar white sphere of mist, but Love was with me.
“Nicely done!” she applauded and took my arm.
I kept a good hold on the album, now that I had a better idea of what it was about. We walked back toward the cedar scrub along the coastline, Love and me. “You’re sure Grief is ok?”
“Yep! He’s always with me.”
“You know, I didn’t understand before how you both were love. But I see it now. He seems hard, but the love is there.”
“You got that right! But it’s time to go home.” She took out a small ellipsoid of basalt covered in fine runes from her pocket. “If you ever get the nerve to explore the beyond again, let’s do it through the Mindscape instead, ok?”
Such are the days and nights I now lead, with Love and Grief real and part of the world.