When Mrs. Dervain reached her hand out to me I thought she was extending a common kindness. I too can be fooled by appearances. Sometimes I think that every fragment of overheard conversation among strangers, every contrail of cigarette smoke drifting from a nearby table would serve as a vehicle of transport if I allowed myself to be distracted.
I receive word from a distant friend: in self-deprecatory brevity he informs me that he’s just taken a high-paying corporate position. I make myself enjoy a moment of pity and disdain, then try to put it out of my mind, but it’s there, deepening the somber tones of the rainy afternoon. Instead of resisting, I should accede, knowing this is the kind of event that bestows meaning.
Reaching toward the hand of Mrs. Dervain that desultory afternoon, I should already have realized that she was pulling me in. I barely noticed the rather remarkable formality with which she presented herself. Palm down, fingers slightly cupped, her hand hovered aristocratically in midair, anticipating a courtly gesture. Instead, I grasped it firmly and shook it.
“Mrs. Dervain? Sorry, I just received some bad news from back in the States. You’ve come to see me because…”
“Because of Miguel Obispo. Perhaps another time would be best.”
“No no, not at all. Please sit down. You would like a coffee?”
Understand that I have no office. Every afternoon at four I take my usual table at La Cavalcade, outdoors even when it’s cold or wet. I order a coffee, and I watch and wait. Usually the hour passes pleasantly, without an encounter. If no one has joined me, then at five o’clock the waiter brings me a small glass of beer. The regulars nod but never come to my table, either during or after my office hours. For a café such as La Cavalcade, the preservation of anonymity is a cultivated virtue.
“Now, Mrs. Dervain, what can you tell me of Mr. Obispo?” I had heard nothing from or about Miguel Obispo in a very long time.
She pulled her flimsy wicker chair a little closer to the table. “You know that Mr. Obispo is taking the orders?”
“Miguel Obispo a priest? Buddhist?”
“Roman Catholic. I take it, then, that you are as surprised as I was. Still, I presume the news is not disappointing?”
“Believe me, Mrs. Dervain, I had nothing to do with Miguel Obispo becoming a priest.” Even when I first knew him, Miguel had already taken his Catholic upbringing far beyond the distorted, ever-receding frontier where toleration gives way to heresy.
“Mr. Obispo begs to differ. He says publicly that you were instrumental in his spiritual renewal. Nevertheless,” persisted Mrs. Dervain, “I have come to see you primarily with respect to Mr. Obispo. There is every reason to believe that your concern for his well-being equals or exceeds my own. Would you like to quell your curiosity, or perhaps your anxiety, as to the fate of Mr. Obispo? Mr. Hanley, I have come here to entice you.”
Never be surprised by anything; never show your surprise to clients past, present, or future – you’d think I’d have learned these lessons by now. That morning a distant and successful friend’s unwelcome communiqué had provoked me, and now the stately grace of Mrs. Dervain was disrupting my equanimity in quite another way. Truth be told, I was surprised whenever anyone came to see me during office hours. I wondered whether Mrs. Dervain realized what a bleak horizon I usually confronted from my café table. I wondered how likely it was that she would know more about Miguel Obispo’s recent history and present life than any of the other occasional Pilgrims whose desperation had shunted them onto this unlikely siding.
From her purse Mrs. Dervain pulled forth a small unmarked envelope, sealed. She slit it open with her thumbnail and extracted a single sheet of stationery, which she unfolded and placed carefully on the table in front of her. After studying the paper for a few moments she clasped her hands over it. “I propose to begin by telling you of my dream,” she said, as if launching into a presentation at a business meeting. “Then I will describe the man. Finally I will ask you a question. Your answer to the question will enable me to decide whether I’ve made a mistake in coming here. Is that acceptable?”
“Of course. Please begin.”
“The dream. I walk through a vast desert, completely featureless. I am naked; I remind myself of the desert. Then the man is there – I will describe him later. He is a man I know. Slowly he walks toward me. In his hand he holds a beautiful gold necklace, a braided gold chain. It reminds me of a sheaf of wheat. Slowly, silently, he approaches me. I am not afraid, I am not surprised. He places the chain around my neck.
“Immediately I find that I can no longer move. Before I was merely stationary; now I find I am incapable of even the slightest movement. I am enormous, engorged, like some inhuman creature. Perhaps more like the statue of such a creature, formed from some sort of pliable but durable material. I fear that I will burst open, but I know that I won’t.
“In comparison, the man is very small. He moves quickly, erratically. Hundreds of small men are scurrying in the sand around me. They seem agitated. They are featureless, identical, like ants. I realize that I am their queen. I look at my body. My skin is very pale, almost white; my stomach is enormous. The swarm of small men is burying me in the sand.
“The antlike men become smaller; I can no longer distinguish them from the sand. I know that I am to stay here, alive, alone, unmoving, for millennia.
“Now the man who brought me the necklace returns. He has the eyes of a goat, or a reptile. He touches my hand. Immediately he crumbles to sand. I awake. I look at my watch and realize that I’ve been asleep for only fifteen minutes.”
As she recounts the dream Mrs. Dervain speaks quietly and firmly. She looks intently at me; she does not fidget with her sheet of paper; she makes no self-conscious gestures. Suddenly it occurs to me: this is a dream that she has invented. I’m being tested, perhaps. More likely it’s a farce, scripted by Miguel Obispo and played out by this unlikely collaborator.
I glance at my watch. “Thank you, Mrs. Dervain. Now tell me about the man.”
She hesitates, grazes her eyebrow with a fingertip, gestures silently to the waiter for the check. She folds the single sheet of paper and places it, then the envelope, back into her purse.
I jostle the table uncrossing my legs, but nothing spills. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Dervain. As you finished telling me this dream, I became convinced that it wasn’t true, or rather, that this wasn’t something you’d actually dreamed.”
Again Mrs. Dervain tried to catch the eye of the waiter, who stood idly beneath the marquee. “I’m afraid I’ve underestimated you again, Mr. Hanley,” she said, leaning forward in her chair and shielding her eyes with her hand as if the sun were shining in them. “It’s only half past four, but I’d like a glass of beer. You will join me?”
I nodded. “I’m pleased that we’re still on a last-name basis, Mrs. Dervain.”
“We are in France after all, Monsieur.” When she took her hand away from her face I wondered if this was how Mrs. Dervain would look if she was frightened.
“Right. So shall we begin again, Madame?”
The rain, halfhearted until then, erupted. We were the only two customers still sitting outside. The rain pelted straight down, sliding from our striped umbrella onto the sidewalk, encasing us in a cylinder of warm and falling water. Edging closer to one another, we angled our chairs obliquely toward the now-empty sidewalk and away from each other, like real French people. Or perhaps like two Americans imitating French people.
I rarely do dreams. I find them mildly beguiling if they’re not too long in the telling, but that’s not the trajectory I choose to follow. I try to decipher events, not inner states of consciousness and unconsciousness. Does the dream point away from the dreamer, revealing an rent in the veil, perhaps giving me a glimpse behind it? That’s what I look for. But of course Mrs. Dervain had always been the exception.
“Okay, Mrs. Dervain. Right now I’m not going to try and figure out why you came here to tell me a fabricated dream. It took creativity, planning and effort, so of course I’m flattered. Let’s go on. You just told me a story. It’s about a woman in the desert, a naked woman. Let’s say it’s a true story you’ve told me. Let’s say you’ve told me something that really happened to you. Now, go back. You were in the desert. Which one? Do you know? Was it a particular desert where these things took place?”
I could see her relax into her chair. “Yes. It’s the Sahara Desert.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I don’t know. I just found myself there, in the Sahara.”
“Have you ever been to the Sahara before?”
“No. I’ve seen pictures, of course, and films.”
“I understand. And your clothing? You find yourself in the Sahara desert, naked – you don’t know what happened to your clothes?”
“And it’s daytime?”
“It’s sunny, of course; the sun beats down on you. It’s hot, incredibly hot in the desert. You’re sweating, dripping with sweat, gleaming in the bright sunlight. And then the man comes. Do you know this man? Yes, of course you do. A lover? Forgive my straightforwardness.”
“Not at all.” She sets her glass back on the table, carefully centering it in the square coaster that came with her beer. Slowly she twirls the glass back and forth, wearing a shallow groove in the now-wet slab of cardboard. “He is an acquaintance. I’ve met him perhaps twice.”
“He would like to be your lover perhaps? No, forget that question. Since you know him, he of course recognizes you. He is Miguel Obispo?”
She says nothing. I continue.
“He walks up to you. I presume he is clothed. He’s drawn to you, naturally. You are exposed, in danger, physical danger. He offers you a beautiful necklace.”
I drain my glass and pivot in my chair to face Mrs. Dervain. “He is a dangerous man. Dangerous not only to you, I believe.”
“Yes, I believe that’s true,” Mrs. Dervain replies as she gazes into the empty street. “But you understand: this story of mine? Pure invention, as you surmised.”
“This table, these chairs, the umbrella, the sidewalk, the buildings on the street – are they less real for having been invented? Yours is a real story, Mrs. Dervain.”
She straightened herself, inhaled deeply, turned her face toward me. “But Mr. Hanley, you seem insistent on talking about this invented story as if the events actually happened. I assure you: they did not.”
I leaned into her a bit more. “Now we’re telling the story together. You told me your story, and now I’m part of it. Apparently Miguel Obispo is part of it too. So: you find yourself on a side street of the Cote d’Azur, having coffees and beers with a man of tenuous and ambivalent character, recounting a disturbing incident in which you were naked in the desert. He converses amiably with you about it, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. As if he has a perfect right to be entertained by elegant and lovely women who recount to him the compromising episodes that have befallen them. And then?”
Mrs. Dervain reached into her bag. “Let’s go, Mr. Hanley,” she said as she placed a piece of paper money in the saucer. Anyone watching us would have seen a man and a woman, huddled under his black umbrella, walking briskly yet erratically, dodging the puddles scattered along the Rue Rossini.
Bent permanently forward from the waist at impossible angles, their lank gray hair hanging across their faces, the two old women looked older than anyone could possibly be and still live. They held themselves up on three canes between the two of them, their contorted hands clasped together over the central cane. If one of the women fell – which seemed imminent – the other would topple over too. Together, the two functioned like a single extremely ancient and fragile creature, the last of a fabulous and archaic and maladept species that had somehow survived into another era.
“Shouldn’t we help them?” Mrs. Dervain asked; we were walking on the other side of the street.
“I’ve offered before. They always act like they don’t see me.”
“But it’s raining.”
I looked across at the Two Old Ones, who were struggling in slow motion to climb the curb onto the sidewalk. Their awkward mode of locomotion prevented them from carrying an umbrella, yet somehow they looked completely dry. I shrugged and walked on. Mrs. Dervain kept pace: I knew she thought a little less of me.
Mrs. Dervain was staying in a three-star hotel two blocks from the beach, a fin-de-siècle bourgeois-style building that harmonized seamlessly with the others on the street. Collapsing my umbrella I noticed, embedded in the stone wall near the doorway, a small plaque. It commemorated the death of a young French Resistance fighter whom the Nazis had shot down in the street, or perhaps even inside the hotel itself. If it hadn’t been already, this spot would soon be marked with a cross or a six-pointed star on a Pilgrimage map of the city.
I nodded toward the owner standing behind the front desk, an elegant old Belgian who spoke seven languages. Recently he’d had the lobby remodeled in a jazzy aesthetic. The art deco bar off to the right reflected what a tourist might expect the Riviera to look like, although the warm rain outside added an almost tropical ambience – old Martinique perhaps. A thin, vaguely effeminate young black man dressed like a yachtsman acknowledged us cordially from behind the bar.
Mrs. Dervain asked for two armagnacs and gestured toward a tubular chrome table along the wall. The chairs, gleaming brilliantly, looked like huge vertical trumpets, mouthpiece to the floor, bell upright and angled for seating. We were the only customers in the bar.
“Forgive my trickery, Mr. Hanley. You’re right, of course: it was a test, our conversation at your charming café.”
At that moment, in that bar, in another time, she would have taken out a thin silver cigarette case and asked if I minded. From the inner pocket of my sports jacket I would have extracted a burnished silver lighter, monogrammed, and a pack of Gitanes. There would have been deep red lipstick and nail enamel, emblematic of the barely-suppressed sexual tension hanging like the smoke between us. I sensed that Mrs. Dervain was thinking along these same lines.
“Sorry, but I don’t smoke,” I said.
She arched one carefully sculpted eyebrow and smiled conspiratorially, her chin resting in her hand. The bartender brought our drinks on just the right kind of little tray. “Would you like a light, madame,” he asked in impeccable, British-inflected English. We both laughed. The waiter, somewhat put off, sulked back to the bar.
I swirled my armagnac like I presumed you’re supposed to do. “You were saying it was a test…”
“Not of you; of myself. I hoped that the dream would become real in the telling. Not as though the events would really have happened, but realistically fantastic. A real dream.”
“I think I understand. No, it was a very well-fabricated dream. Truly.”
“Don’t spare my vanity, Mr. Hanley. It’s why I’ve come to see you, at least in part. I want you to tell me what’s wrong with the dream I told you.”
My skepticism had been temporarily undermined by intrigue. Now it was returning. “You know that I’m no longer associated with the Pilgrimage?”
“Yes. I patronized the Hollywood Station for awhile. I can see why you might have wanted to leave.”
“And why is it that you want me to critique this dream?”
“Because, Mr. Hanley, it’s my job. I am a dream artist.”
I stifled a snicker. “And what in God’s name is that?”
Mrs. Dervain remained unflappable. “In a film, when there’s a dream sequence, or some other kind of fugue state, or a psychotic break? Dream artistry.”
I shook my head in exaggerated lamentation over the professional specialization of fantasy. “You mean the scriptwriter doesn’t do that part?”
Mrs. Dervain smiled slightly. “A very charming notion, Mr. Hanley, but a little out of date, I’m afraid. As often as not the scripts for the big studio pictures are written by committee, a whole team of writers assembled specifically for that film. The screenwriter credit that rolls by? That’s merely the lead writer.”
I imagined a shadow version of the movie where the writers all sit around transmitting printed lines of dialogue back and forth to each other. Every now and then a specialist like Mrs. Dervain would toss some exotic ingredient into the word salad. The actors mimic the dialogue of the writers, wrapping the lines in skin, speaking the words aloud so the audience can have something to relate to, someone to identify with.
“And so the film brings the audience to life,” I said finally, though I was really speaking to myself. I didn’t expect Mrs. Dervain to respond to my apparent non sequitur.
“Yes, I believe that’s so,” she said, without a pause.
I swallowed down the rest of my drink and grimaced. “So, you came all the way over here because you thought I could help you become a better dream artist?”
“No.” Mrs. Dervain began to fidget with the edge of the table; she looked like she really could use a cigarette. “I’m good at my work. I frequently receive unsolicited requests for film treatments. The pay is sensational, by the way. If you’re interested I could…”
“So what is it you do want from me?”
“I want to know what’s wrong with the dream, but I don’t want you to help me fix it. As a matter of fact, I wish to stop being a dream artist.”
I could feel the barroom becoming more solid around me. How often had someone come to me wanting to stop being something, to stop doing something? They wanted to get away from their jobs, from their friends and families, from the world, from themselves. The Salon Postisme offered a way out.
People come to the Salon equipped with a sophisticated ambivalence, an ironic self-awareness, and a vague general disdain that masks an intense and personal frustration with the way life was turning out. The Salon lets you channel your socially acceptable negativity into something really destructive. The anarchy of the Salon Postisme never manifests itself as a loud clamor to blow everything up, to let it all go. Instead it presents a strict discipline, almost monastic in its rigors. Instead of selling explosives, the Salon proposes a variety of ways for systematically dismantling your life. Then you can start putting it back together some other way.
To pull things down requires concentration and persistence: capabilities that can be taught and nurtured. The people who walk through the Salon’s doors have been raised on self-improvement, so they’re ready to aim themselves toward other ends if someone plausible teaches them how. But the Salon wants to destroy self-improvement. Resolutely, with a practiced concentration, the Salon gazes outward. The wide swath of destruction wrought by the Salon in a client’s life? Mostly it comes from the spontaneous and slow collapse of everything formerly held in place by self-absorption and the desire to please. Eventually practically everything comes down if you stick with it long enough.
The Salon’s slow-motion wrecking ball is also its main apparatus for keeping people sane while their lives crumble. The resolute outward gaze keeps you from panicking as you witness your own dismantling. There are many who think that the Salon espouses a kind of newfangled Zen. But the practitioners aren’t looking out at Nothingness – at least we weren’t when it began, before the Pilgrimage. We were trying to engage those things that might exist beyond the boundaries of desire and fantasy, of will and effort. I had walked away in Barcelona because I had lost the faith.
The man on the French radio announced that the last tune had been “Monsieur Ray Charles avec What I Say, Partes Une et Deux.” No one else had come into the bar. It turned out I didn’t much care for armagnac. I signaled to the bartender for another round. He was reading what looked like a textbook; still, he was completely attentive and instantly responsive – apparently he knew what the Americans regard as important. His aspirations may have been leading him elsewhere, but as a bartender he was a sure professional.
“You’re thinking about quitting the business?” I asked Mrs. Dervain, almost mechanically reflecting back to her what she had just told me.
Mrs. Dervain stood and walked toward the windows, opaque with condensation. “Mr. Hanley, I don’t expect you to play with me. I know you’ve already quit that business.” With her index finger she streaked a long slow arc across the pane. “I don’t want to design any more dreams. I want to become the dream itself.”
That shook my complacency a little. I expected her to say that she wanted to dream the dreams instead of merely inventing them, or that she wanted to understand her dreams, or to have them come true, or some equally predictable aspiration. Some of the Salons specialize in dream realities; they tend to attract women meeting Mrs. Dervain’s demographic profile: middle-aged, sophisticated, successful in business or society, neither bored nor fulfilled. Mrs. Dervain harbored an artistic soulfulness that rendered her vulnerable to dreamstate interventions. But then again, if anything was going to take the magic out of your dreams, working as a professional dream designer in Hollywood would do it. She could continue to hold my interest at least through my second drink.
“You want to become the dream. Whose dream?”
“The dream of the dreamer,” Mrs. Dervain said as she peered through the cleared-off stripe of glass out into the rain.
I thought: she’s become one of them. “You mean dreamer with a capital D. Life is but a dream, like the song says?”
She turned abruptly toward me. “Don’t patronize me, Mr. Hanley. We’re all dream characters in a way.”
I knew what she meant. We might be the objects of other people’s fantasies, but we’re not the true source of those fantasies. As far as other people are concerned we’re ciphers. Even for those closest to us – parents, children, lovers. We resist, as we are bound to do. But what if we don’t resist? What if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, to be undermined? To become the creation instead of the creator? To speak the lines as they are assigned to us, to act out the role, to participate in the larger drama?
“Perhaps if I impose the right sort of discipline on myself,” Mrs. Dervain considered. “I’ve already learned to look away from myself for meaning. What if, instead of projecting myself into the world, I allow the world to project itself onto me, to penetrate me to the core? Can I then become the dream?”
I wasn’t sure whether to be stunned or amused. I decided to be academic. “And you want to be able to do that? Kind of like being an analyst. You hold up a blank slate in front of the patient, and the patient projects his repressed fantasies onto you. It’s the transference. As I understand it, the whole thing depends on the analyst letting himself become an object of the patient’s fantasies.”
“And on the patient’s willingness to go along with the performance, of course.” Mrs. Dervain regarded her nails: well-groomed, closely trimmed, shiny but untinted. “It’s a game of seduction. Women do it all the time. You don’t even have to be nice. Just don’t let yourself be anything and soon you’re the fantasy lover – or wouldn’t Doctor Freud say the fantasy mother? Why do you suppose it is, Mr. Hanley, that the oral-sadistic urge always seems to culminate either in abandonment or in jealousy?”
Watching her across the room, the rain streaking down the window behind her, the old jazz standards playing in the deserted French bar, it came to me that, if Mrs. Dervain dreamed of seducing me, I would cooperate. Countertransference, I realized. I needed to maintain the professional indifference of the bartender, who still hadn’t looked up from his book. But then again, I had already quit that job, hadn’t I?
“I’m still a little confused, Mrs. Dervain. Maybe I missed something. What does all this have to do with Miguel Obispo? You want to turn yourself into Miguel’s dream lover? You believe I can help you somehow? Or him?”
Framed by the window, Mrs. Dervain walked slowly back to me. She leaned her hands on the table and looked down on me with utmost seriousness. “I hope you’ll be able to grasp these answers as we go along. I wish to accompany you on a Pilgrimage.”
“I don’t do Pilgrimages,” I pronounced, holding her gaze. “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go forward. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ll take you to dinner if you like. Your professional dreaming interests me. Frankly, you interest me, Mrs. Dervain, as you always have. For your own good I’ll try to talk you out of your Pilgrimage. I won’t try too hard. As for your luring Miguel Obispo into a love affair, I intend to offer neither help nor hindrance. You and I might enjoy a memorable evening together. But by tomorrow morning I want to be sitting in my apartment reading the Herald-Tribune. I want to go out for a two-hour lunch, after which I’ll stroll back to the apartment for a short nap. By four I want to be back at La Cavalcade, drinking an espresso, waiting indifferently for the next person to join me at my little table. Send me a postcard sometime, tell me what happened, where you ended up. Give Miguel my regards.”
Mrs. Dervain reached across the table to her purse. She pulled out a small gift-wrapped box and handed it to me. “Open it.”
Removing the fine Florentine paper, I unveiled an exquisite leather case. The cover was inlaid in jet and ivory, extravagantly filigreed in gold. No figure or scene was depicted, but rather a subtly elaborate swirling pattern. I’m not a connoisseur, but I knew that the small object I held in my hands was priceless. “Medieval?”
She nodded. “Thirteenth century Córdoba. The pattern repeats itself ninety-nine times.”
I wondered what could possibly be worthy of enshrinement within such a container. Carefully I lifted the cover. Inside, a small drawstring bag of finely-worked gold mail. Then, inside the bag, a necklace. Carefully I pulled the necklace from the bag and held it gently in both hands. Gold, unadorned and subtle, braided into three strands, it might have been manufactured last week, or it might have been wrought by the skilled and patient hands of an ancient smith. One side of the clasp depicted a snake’s head; the other, its tail. The original ouroboros, the prototype, the archetype. The necklace from Mrs. Dervain’s dream.
I coiled the necklace back into its golden sack, then slowly extracted it again. “Captivating,” I said finally.
“Yes, isn’t it?” The tone was ironic, almost disdainful.
““Pilgrimage should start reproducing these little bags too.” I looked up; she was gathering her things.
“A gift for you, Mr. Hanley. From an admirer.”
“But, this is impossible,” I whispered. I looked over at the bartender, who remained completely still. It was as though Mrs. Dervain and I occupied a space that interpenetrated the bar but existed in complete isolation from it. Hastily I dropped the little bag back into its box and pushed it across the table.
“I didn’t really expect you to come with me,” she said without looking at me. “So you see it really is a gift. Not a payment, no expectations of a quid pro quo. Besides” – she closed her purse and glanced toward the bar; the bartender nodded solemnly – “I don’t want it.” Without glancing back, she began walking briskly out of the bar.
I leapt up and went after her; the little box had been left on the table like an extravagant tip. “Mrs. Dervain, please come back and sit down.”
She inclined her face toward me: it was expressionless. Or perhaps I was merely unable to decipher the subtle and intricate involutions encoded upon that remarkably serene face. “Thank you for talking with me, Mr. Hanley. Please keep the things. Or give them away. I told you that I wish to become the dream? I’m afraid of becoming the dream. I fear it’s already begun.” She reached out her hand; it may have been trembling.
This time my fingertips accepted her hand and bore it gently to my lips. Then I smiled like a fool. “This Pilgrimage of yours. Will it have the part where you’re naked in the desert? Can I be the guy who brings you the necklace?”
She mirrored my smile. “As you like, Mr. Hanley.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think that would do, not at all.” I ran back into the bar, picked up the leather box, and handed it to her. “A gift in return. No strings attached.”
She hesitated before reaching for the box, her hand lightly grazing mine. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am. Like most people, I fear what I most desire. If I become the dream, what becomes of me? Now come.” Mrs. Dervain held my arm lightly as we walked upstairs.
In her room we watched a movie, or rather a part of a movie. There was the naked woman in the desert – a young actress I recognized vaguely, she bore an imprecise resemblance to Mrs. Dervain. The lighting of the scene made the actress glow, as if she were taking her leisure in a Tuscan olive grove instead of roasting in the desert. The man, fully clothed, slowly approached her. Reverently, he extended the braided golden ouroboros chain toward the naked woman. Though she kept her eyes averted, she craned her head upward toward the necklace, toward the man’s hands. He gently placed the necklace around her neck and clasped it behind her. And then they made love, the camera panning back to show the two of them lying on a high dune amid the soft golden sands. The image faded to white.
“What the hell was that?” I exclaimed. “When does she turn into a big pregnant idol? And him – shouldn’t he be an ant colony by now?”
Mrs. Dervain rapidly clicked the computer, flashing the screen through a series of images. “The producers didn’t like it that way. They thought it was, and I quote, way too creepy. Back to rewrite it went.”
“But this” – I waved toward the screen. “They didn’t need a dream artist to come up with this.”
“No, of course not. The director just wanted another creative look to choose from.” She inclined her head subtly toward the computer screen. “He shot it my way too.”
The desert scene again. The beginning looked identical to the version I’d just watched, but the scene was etched in a harsh menacing glare. Again the man approached; this time his reverence toward the woman seemed almost idolatrous. Again he placed the ouroboros around the woman’s outstretched neck. Then the rest of it played out according to the dream Mrs. Dervain had told me at La Cavalcade. Some of the images didn’t match what I’d imagined. If anything, the dream as I watched it on the screen was better, more vivid, than what my imagination had conjured. The tangible dream, painstakingly assembled and filmed, seemed both more real and more fantastic. Mrs. Dervain turned off the computer, but continued staring at the screen.
“The producers were right” I said, leaning back in the armchair. “It is creepy. They didn’t want that?”
“They didn’t know what they wanted. They liked the written treatment, and I think they liked the film version. The effect is compelling, don’t you agree?” She switched off the computer. “The thing is, from the time the director shot the dream sequence – the version you just saw, not the love scene – the film started getting better. I mean the whole film began to approach greatness. The director took more chances. The cinematographers allowed themselves to be diverted by unimportant but visually intriguing aspects of the scenes they were shooting. Gathering at the end of each day to watch the rushes, we found textures and meanings being revealed that none of us had anticipated, or even thought possible. The actors became protean. The writers seemed to be channeling characters vastly greater in depth and complexity than real human beings. When you walked onto the set, it was as though you were leaving the false world behind and stepping into the real thing. Later the director told me that those few weeks was the only time he ever felt like a genius.”
I moved aside as she reached toward the bedside table for the box with the necklace. “Did they use that one in the filming?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She carried the box to the armoire and casually slipped it into her suitcase.
“It must have been a wonderful experience for you. But I’m surprised they let you stick around once the dream scene was over.”
Mrs. Dervain began folding the clothes that hung in the armoire. “It was strange. The director asked me to stay. He said he’d pay me until the filming was completed. I would gladly have stayed anyway. It was – how did you put it? – captivating.”
“But why did he want you to stay?” I had a pretty good idea.
“He told me that every film, every good film, is a dream, a thing that takes shape in the unconscious. His job as director is to identify the dreamer, then to film the dream. He felt certain, on that particular film, that I was the dreamer.”
“So what did you do for the rest of the movie?”
“I wrote dreams, of course, pieces of dreams. Most of them never made it off the page. Sometimes I wrote fantasies that the characters were having. I created hallucinatory stage props. I imagined a shiny wooden sedan chair with long poles, being carried by tall men in black suits. When the graphic artist sketched it out, it looked funereal, like pallbearers. Everyone who saw the drawing realized that whoever was seated in the sedan chair must be a corpse. The director asked me who I pictured sitting there. I told him it was the lead actress, the naked woman in the desert. The next day he called a meeting of the scriptwriters to change the story. The lead actress would die. In fact, it would turn out that the whole movie was a flashback. The director told us that she had been dead from the beginning.”
I stood up. “You mean they killed her off based on your sedan chair?”
“The writers wrote her death, then the director showed her the death scene. He told her to act her entire part in the film as though she had died two years ago. Imagine that you are your own ghost, he said. Or, you are dying, and your whole part is a deathbed hallucination. She was appalled, of course, at first, but soon she loved it. She’s actually quite good, you know. Then the two of them, the director and the lead actress, called all the other actors together, all the writers, camera people – everyone directly involved in the film. The director told us that the entire movie was a deathbed hallucination of the lead actress. They never filmed her death; the film never gives the impression that she is dead or hallucinating. But from that point on, the whole feel of the film changed. It became something uncanny, almost transcendent.”
“But still they used that corny desert love scene?”
“A third version of the dream was filmed later. It’s the one the editors left in, and it’s also the best one. I’ll show it to you some day. But forgive me for monopolizing the conversation. Excuse me for a moment, won’t you, while I gather my things from the salle de bains. Then you can tell me your news, Mr. Hanley.”
Alone in the small bedroom, surrounded by the appurtenances of transit, I stood by the window watching the rain and thinking about the last time I saw Miguel Obispo.
* * * * *
Two years ago I bumped into Miguel in the bar car on the Paris-to-Barcelona bullet train. I told him I was glad he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm for rail transit, even if this particular trip did require an hour’s delay at the border to adjust the axels for Spanish gauge. I anticipated the sort of direct, nearly disdainful intensity I’d come to expect from him, but he surprised me. There was a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth, but he said nothing. His still-penetrating eyes looked grave, severe. I asked about his health. Always frail-looking, Miguel looked physically depleted. I’m fine, he said: nothing more. He smelled bad: maybe he’s drunk, I thought. I asked where his seat was, whether I could walk him back. He waved his hand dismissively, allowing me a glimpse of the famous stigmatic discoloration. I tried, somewhat half-heartedly I admit, to engage him in conversation, but without success. I told him I’d call him when I got to the office.
The cultural commentators credited the Salon Postisme – and me personally – with launching the Pilgrimage movement. Not true: it was Gene Karas who put the word out, but the word was Miguel Obispo. He was still working his HemoBoy act in avant-mystic Southwestern clubs and New Age churches when I first went to see him. It was Miguel who pioneered what soon came to be known as the Postmedieval Pilgrimages. My job had been an easy one: I merely pointed Miguel toward the portal that had already opened for him, that was sure to fascinate him – a cross-weave in the fabric of reality where the Pilgrimage had always existed.
He began with the classics – Santiago de Compostela, Rome. Then, spectacularly, Miguel passed all the way through. Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East – the world turned out to be crisscrossed with Pilgrimage Trails; Miguel had only to chart them. He made people aware that they were already walking the Trails even when they didn’t see them; that, even as they plotted out lives of plan and choice, other, more ancient strands of meaning were shaping their destinies. As the Pilgrimage opened itself outward, fame fell down upon Miguel. And Miguel was generous: he began calling me his teacher; he said the ideas had come from me.
Desperation makes a man susceptible to influence. Miguel had become an adept practitioner of the undistractable backward gaze. As he began to see the past more clearly than the present, he came to understand that he could never catch up, that the ancestors have always been stronger, thicker, more real, that the farther you look back, the more consistently are your eyes drawn farther back still. Where is the vanishing point? For Miguel, finding the beginning had become the end; the passage had opened and without hesitation he had stepped through. I stood peeking in through the open gate like a voyeur at the Ascension.
Or was it the other way around? Perhaps, even before Miguel crossed the threshold, I had already begun my own transport through the portal of beginnings. I may have pinioned him in the backward gaze of my own pilgrimage, lured him into following me. It was I who opened the Bible to him. It was I who led him into the medieval Catholic practices of transubstantiation and colocation, the contemplation of icons and relics, vicarious substitution, the attainment of mystical union. I had already been delving into these archaic practices in a search for proven methods for traversing portals. I read about them; Miguel actually tried them, refined them, aspired to mastery. Maybe he was braver, more resolute, than I was capable of becoming. Maybe he had been given eyes that could see farther than mine.
The jaded human spirit had been ready for Pilgrimage. The well-oiled wheels of commerce rolled down the Trails, making the crooked ways straight. International tourism, already recovering slowly from the moribund years, jumped. The interstates and autobahns were already in place, strung with restaurants and hotels offering respite to the hungry and the weary. Nightclubs and casinos dangled the temptations without which a pilgrimage would be merely a vacation. The Pilgrims, snatching up all the memorabilia they could carry, assembled their own personal reliquaries. Theme parks began breaking out of their compounds, offering rides that extend for thousands of miles. Hollywood, yearning for a return to its own legendary era, began producing entertainments of such scope and duration and intensity as to induce, not mere ecstasy and despair, but conversion. The boundaries between fantasy and reality, already fragile and porous, could not resist the onslaught of hope and money that gushed forth across the trails.
As the Pilgrim Trails began to extend themselves across the globe, the Salon Postisme found its clientele. Branch offices opened in Rome, Jerusalem, Machu Picchu, Samarkand, Benares, Angkor Wat, Shikoku – most of the major pilgrimage sites, as well as the heavily trafficked cultural crossroads of the world. The Pilgrims, toting the latest issue of Le Chemin de Fou in their backpacks, spread demand for the Salon’s services faster than we could meet it. Inevitably, competitors began to challenge the Salon’s exclusivity. Venture financiers and advertising firms started presenting their prospectuses to us, with aggressive expansion plans and vertical integration strategies. When I walked away a lot of people were relieved to see me go.
I was only an outfitter, not really a fellow explorer. Still, I had glimpsed the heroic and sanctified past where Miguel had taken up residence. Miguel went all the way through; I – was it professional detachment or simply a failure of nerve? – backed out. But, once you’ve been somewhere else, is it ever possible to return? My disillusionment over the Salon’s loss of innocence, my yearning to return to a pre-Pilgrimage reality – hadn’t I become infected by the same sentimental longing for the past that draws every other Pilgrim onto the trails? Is the whole world tinged with loss, or is it just me? It’s the kind of question that brings potential clients into the Salon Postisme.
Usually the portalist tries to return. He may attempt to bring back a souvenir from the reality he encountered on the other side: a work of art, a scientific discovery, a revelation. He may try to lay his hands on some sort of sacred object, a talisman useful for transporting himself and others across the frontier. Occasionally someone manages to pass all the way through. Instead of chipping off a fragment of an alternate reality and bringing it back out with him, he pulls people in through the portal. He inverts the portal. What had once appeared as a narrow passageway, wide enough for only one person at a time, suddenly spreads itself outward. The portal reality becomes the core reality, accessible to everyone. Theoretically. I wasn’t really sure it could be done, but Miguel seemed to have done it.
Afterward, there wasn’t much you could point to as different, at least as far as the objective facts were concerned. There was no dramatic upheaval. Still, it seemed that Miguel’s passage left the world, and everyone in it, slightly altered. It began to dawn on people that significant stretches of their lives were devoted to finding something they had lost. Seemingly overnight, every aspect of life had come to be understood in terms of true and false paths to a prior golden age.
Progress, pursuit of the goal, the forward lean into the future – these were the prime movers of the age. If some of the steam hadn’t already gone out of that engine, there would have been no chance for the counterforce to get much traction. Of course there have always been foot-draggers: the fundamentalists and homeopaths and Luddites; the simple villagers who, aroused from their torpor, light the torches and run the visionaries to ground. Then came the new reactionaries: the greens and the simplificationists and the co-op enthusiasts, moved by nostalgia for a bucolic past which none of their number had ever experienced. The libertarians drew inspiration from a legendary heroic age of free-range Man: the solitary individual unconstrained by the sluggish demands of the herd and the progressive income tax. Stay-at-home bookclub moms sought the True Self, trying to rehabilitate a lost childhood of playfulness and self-assurance and Jungian anima and the spontaneous outpouring of creative juices.
Of course most people remained unmoved by these nouveau-retro ideologies. Theories weren’t going to change them. They needed the scales removed from their eyes. They needed to wait for the portal to open wide enough to draw them inside. Some of the forerunners were actors and musicians, already visible to the mass culture even as – especially as – they dropped out of public view, sometimes for months at a time. The media did their job, sending candid shots to the tabloids from obscure Anatolian market towns. The faddish imitation that followed was predictable, short-lived, and easily dismissed.
Of greater significance were the subtle shifts in how ordinary people spoke about the ordinary things of life. Private conversations seemed more tinged with a sense of loss, even if no one could quite put a finger on just what it was that had been lost, or when it had gone away. Even as they crammed their children’s schedules with résumé-enhancing activities, parents mourned the loss of their children’s childhood. The professional-grade kitchen appliances, the luxurious master suites, the elaborate landscaping, the sheer expansion of square footage – hadn’t these home improvements merely made the penthouse-dwellers and outer-ring suburbanites, the ones who still had their high-paying positions and their investment portfolios, increasingly afraid to spend time in their own homes, like medieval nobility fortifying their castles against the irresistible siege to come? Even as they succeeded in their careers, the executive classes and their owners expressed an unconscious longing to engage in wanton barbaric destruction, to restore the chaos of the primal proving grounds from which our noble species had clawed its way to the top.
Or perhaps none of these changes had occurred. Maybe it was just me.
I am certain that Miguel could have achieved secular sainthood even if he had never met me, even if he had never set foot on a Pilgrimage, perhaps even if he’d never attracted the attention of somebody like Gene Karas. The charisma had already been bestowed upon Miguel Opispo, perhaps even before he was born. Now Miguel was studying for the priesthood? It shouldn’t have surprised me. Perhaps he had disciplined himself, retaining enough detachment to recognize when a portal was squeezing him out. Perhaps he had experienced some sort of an inversion, a realization that, in a world where everything is a pilgrimage, the only thing left to do is to stand still. But the Roman Catholic Church? I knew I’d have to find out what happened to Miguel.
The train to Barcelona. I’d been in Paris for reasons that even at the time no longer seemed to matter. Paris: through the ages many a pilgrim had encountered this unexpectedly amiable city at the beginning or end of their trail. The trail to Barcelona channeled down to the Mediterranean and into the Catalan Surrealismo of Dali, Miro, Picasso, and before them the fevered distortions of Gaudi. As the train rocked me to sleep I wondered how many of my fellow dreamriders were practicing their Dadaist automatic writing technique on picture postcards addressed to friends back in Kansas City and Frankfurt.
I didn’t see Miguel when I stepped off the train at the Barcelona station, but I didn’t really look for him either. As soon as I reached the local office of the Salon I called Miguel’s number and left him a message telling him I was quitting, as of right now. I hung up the phone and walked out the door. From that time forward I haven’t set foot in any installation of the Salon Postisme or any Pilgrimage Station. I rode the subway to the funicular, which hauled me up to the top of Mont Juic. Far below the city spread itself before me. Even Gaudi’s improbable and dominant cathedral looked insignificant from up there, lost in the vastness of Barcelona. To the right, stretching out of sight, the sea lay brooding.
I was prepared to spend forty days and forty nights in that aggressively otherworldly city. It was a pilgrimage of my own design, or perhaps an anti-pilgrimage. Eat well, drink copiously, go to late-night clubs, lay with whores if I could figure out how to find any: these were the temptations to which I would expose myself. And then, I hoped, a path would be revealed to me: backward, forward, some other way. I knew I had no endurance for this kind of extended debauchery: by temperament I’m more suited to fasting. I’d brought several old English novels along to keep my spirits up. I hoped I could summon the strength. Realistically, I expected that within a week and a half I’d be spending most of my time moping in a short-term rental flat, drinking strong coffee, reading dreary fiction, thinking dreary thoughts. I’d go back to work recharged, ready to steer the Salon along some other tangent that would keep me stimulated for another few months even if it did slow the flow of customers coming through the doors.
I had been wrong. Four days in Barcelona was enough. I knew already, probably even before I got off the train, that I’d reached the end. Barcelona turns its back on the Mediterranean and its dangers, but there the sea has always lain, luring the fisherman and the trader, the hero and the prophet. The sea exists before time, beyond limit, depthless. It is present at the Beginning, when the Breath moves across the face of the waters, summoning forth the light and extending the firmament. Even the gods need light to see and air to breathe.
When the gods finished their work, when they had gotten tired and disillusioned and apathetic – what had they done then? Where had they gone? Those who presided over the Beginning – what Pilgrimage could they possibly undertake? I thought: they’ve gone back under. No more would breath pass across the divine vocal chords, speaking the words that called the very world into existence. Perhaps, if the words stopped, the world too would stop.
On the morning of the third day in Barcelona, the traffic below my window hissed with the slick sound of rain. I stepped outside – the sidewalks and streets were coated in a thin film of reddish-brown mud. Not until I returned to the apartment, coffee and newspaper in hand, did the strangeness of it confront me. Separating the yellowed lace curtains to survey the street below, I realized that my third-floor windows, like the streets, were smeared with mud. I opened the window and streaked my finger across the outside surface. The mud was fine but gritty, like powdered brick. This wasn’t ordinary big-city dust stirred up by the rain. I looked up into the bruised clouds and then I knew. The earth was falling from the sky.
I knew but I didn’t understand. I rushed down the stairs and approached the very short and totally bald man who was polishing the brass fixtures of the entryway. Perdóname, señor, I said to him, but can you tell me what is happening? The guardián glanced up from his work; I pointed out the door. He shrugged – It is Africa, señor. The wind picks up the desert and lifts it into the sky. It lands here, in the rain. But, I stammered, has this ever happened before? When the guardián looked up at me again I knew what he was looking for. One day each year it rains the African rain, he explained to me. Perhaps two days. Last year I think no days. You are a very lucky man to be here on such a day. Or, con permiso, señor, perhaps a very unlucky man. Lowering his gaze, the guardián resumed the task of polishing the already-gleaming brass, as one who performs a meaningless but essential and eternal rite.
* * * * *
When I turned away from the window Mrs. Dervain was sitting on the edge of the bed, hands clasped on her lap, eyes directed toward the door, waiting. “Nothing to report then?”
She stood and with her back to me she began gently pressing her things down inside the suitcase. “Tell me,” she said as she fastened the zipper, “where is your apartment? I’ll have the desk call a cab.”
Was I being dismissed? Not long ago I had been looking for a way of escape. Not any more. I felt diminished, like I’d been used, like I wasn’t going to be offered the part after all.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s not far. I can walk.”
“Very well. I’m ready. Just let me settle up downstairs and we can go.”
Mrs. Dervain stepped into the hallway, suitcase in tow. Snatching up my umbrella, I followed her out of the room and down the dim hallway toward the ancient and tiny glass-walled elevator, the kind that adds atmosphere to the fantasy and the reality of old Europe. Our descent was so slow as to be almost imperceptible. She pulled her own umbrella from an outside pouch of her suitcase.
“We’re on our way, Mr. Hanley,” she said cheerfully.
I had to reassure myself. “Then you’re coming with me?”
“Of course. Your apartment is the first stop. The second stop has already been arranged. I have the necklace, the rest we’ll have to improvise. Pilgrimage, Mr. Hanley.”
I rarely had anyone into my apartment. It was a vacation studio rental, typically let out for a week at a time during the summer. I’d been here for a year and a half. To the place’s cheap and sparse appointments I’d added only a rickety pine bookshelf, now about half-full. The deeply scarred wooden table was cluttered with several small and fairly orderly stacks of notebooks, newspaper clippings, unanswered correspondence, and maps. At least the bed was made.
When after Barcelona my meanderings eventually brought me to another city hanging onto the bottom edge of Europe, I sagged into a profound exhaustion. Burned by sun and wind, thinner and fitter than I’d been since college, I had hoped to feel like a débutant in the post-Pilgrimage era. Instead I felt nothing: insensate and vacant, like a lower species of animal rendered numb by the relentless pursuit of predators. After I’d spent two nights recuperating in a good hotel, one of the innumerable realtors in town had shown me this minuscule apartment in the centre ville. I hadn’t left town since. Gradually the deep fatigue lifted, to be replaced by something like automatism.
The time my wife visited me here she stayed at the same hotel that Mrs. Dervain had chosen. Because my attention was diverted elsewhere I had become inured to the slow and continual rise in Lynne’s anger over the last year or two of our life together. When despite serious and justifiable skepticism I accepted Karas’ invitation to set up the European Salon, I jumped into it like it was an escape hatch on a burning airplane. It wasn’t just my escape – I felt fairly certain that Lynne too would be happier after I left. On my second visit back home to see her and Avery I could see that I’d been right: the tension that formerly constricted Lynne’s face had sloughed away like a too-tight skin. Maybe she’d had something done? She looked like someone I should be happy to see. Now, released from my toxicity, she had come to pity me. I wasn’t sure whether that was an improvement. Like Miguel Obispo, Lynne too had become a Catholic.
“How long will this Pilgrimage last?” I asked Mrs. Dervain. She stood casually surveying my meager habitat, careful not to show too much curiosity. I hauled my backpack out from under the bed, disrupting the fragile equilibrium that the dust and the neglect had spent so much time establishing. I opened the window and the dust blew into our faces.
“Not terribly long, I think.” She looked away as I brushed off my pack. “Just take a few days’ worth.”
I wasn’t quite sure why I was prepared to accompany Mrs. Dervain. She hadn’t told me where we were headed, or why. I found her intriguing, of course, and she had sought me out. I was quite certain it would be a mistake for us to become lovers; I wondered if she felt the same. Walking with Mrs. Dervain through the forsaken city streets, I may have allowed myself to acknowledge a degree of loneliness. Those few years of intense engagement at the Salon had inured me to the altruism and self-absorption that people brought to me every day, the sharp disappointment gradually fermenting to a mellow disdain. And yet, even on that morning when I stepped onto the platform at the Barcelona station and out of the world, I longed to participate in some sort of heroic collegiality of enlightened virtue. I wanted to live in the company of the Elect, those chosen by fate and chance to attempt passage all the way through. Pursuing our solitary trails, we would find ourselves together, the first explorers in a land of strange beauty. Perhaps I saw in Mrs. Dervain a sign that my self-imposed exile was coming to an end. Or was I the dreamer and she the dream?
I sensed that Mrs. Dervain had been corrupted by too much money and surrounded by too many aspirants to glory. Still, she was an essentially solitary person. She was willing to take risks, to humble herself, even before someone like me. But why? I doubted that greed or professional ambition had much to do with it. Curiosity, ideals, the resolutely outward gaze? Sentiment and loyalty? Perhaps, I thought, I can keep her from turning inward again, keep her from the stunned and leaden mysticism that ensnares so many who walk the Pilgrim Trails.
I wrote a note to my neighbor, encouraging her to help herself to the stuff in my refrigerator. I was sure she’d take me up on the offer. I pulled the shutters closed, announcing my absence to any burglar willing to scale the three storeys onto my small balcony. I looked on top of the bookcase at the framed photo, taken in happier times, of myself with my daughter. Thankfully in our twice-a-week telephone conversations Avery remained the happy and self-confident child smiling at the sullenly preoccupied man in the photograph. I hoped that her solidity revealed a fundamental soundness of genetic makeup that would, sooner or later, rub off on her parents. My wife, after a long blighted detour, might finally have gotten herself back into a more hospitable country. Perhaps, on this unexpected Pilgrimage, I would find my own Trail of turning.