Two hundred kilometers to the north and east of Bucharest, in a farmhouse in the village of Stanesti-Jui, Miranda lay asleep. After dinner she had retired to her bedroom with a head cold. Now past midnight, propped up on the pillows, she lay with her mouth open. Then she turned onto her side and her dream changed.
It wasn't entirely a dream. That winter in her room she had become accustomed to the many intermediate states between sleeping and waking. She had been sick for much of the season, a lung infection that, without antibiotics, had lingered until the weather turned. Her hostess, the Condesa de Rougemont, and then later her mother, had dosed her with medicinals. She'd scarcely left her room. Of course she had undertaken several small journeys to the secret world, with the help of her secret tourmaline, Johannes Kepler's eye.
Now it was almost springtime, and she was feeling better. This particular journey had started with a daydream. She had sat with a French novel, her mind wandering. And as often happened, it had wandered back to the invented refuge that her aunt Aegypta Schenck von Schenck had made for her in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where she had gone to high school. She had lived with Stanley and Rachel, her adoptive parents, in the house on the college green in the middle of town.
Her best friend had been Andromeda Bailey, boyish and beautiful, her gray eyes spotted with blue and black and silver. Peter Gross had been in her class at school, and she had gotten to know him, too. They had spent some time together in the woods the summer Andromeda had gone to Europe. Often, as he sat cross-legged in the dirt or on a rock, he'd have a piece of a leaf or a twig in his brown hair. Often he'd have a blade of grass between his teeth. Sometimes he'd be playing his harmonica, a poor, private kind of music that she indulged. He only had the one hand. His right hand was missing because of a birth defect.
In those days all her knowledge of Roumania had come from dreams, fantasies, and a few stray memories. The facts she'd learned in school or on her own had been all lies or else distortions. The Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, the history of Eastern Europe—no, it had been the Baroness Nicola Ceausescu who had sent an emissary to bring her home to Bucharest. His name was Kevin Markasev, and he was famous here. He'd gone all that way to find her, and he had burned the book of her invented childhood in a fire on Christmas Hill above the art museum. Then morning came and the world was different. Peter and Andromeda were different, too.
Daydreaming in Stanesti-Jui, Miranda had found her way to Christmas Hill again, and she had climbed it in the dark. She had climbed back to the start of the story. The French novel lay in her lap, spine up, inverted. Three-quarters of the way through, already she could see the end, the denouement. It was reassuring and annoying to perceive it in the distance, the place where everything was sealed up in a circle and some kind of homecoming was possible, some journey or at least some reference to the beginning once again.
You'd go back, and you'd know something new. And you would take consolation from that new thing, a consolation that was phony and real at the same time.
So she indulged herself. She closed her eyes and imagined the dark night, the bonfire in the hummocks of grass on the hillside. The place was still there for her, and in a moment she could see it clearly, and Kevin Markasev above her with the little book, her essential history, the entire story of her childhood, balanced in his hands. Only this time as he dropped it, she thought she might reach up to catch it, bat it away from the consuming fire. Andromeda was there, and Peter might come running down to help her, tripping and sliding down the slope. As she struggled with Kevin Markasev, he might pull him off her, chase him away. And she'd lie on her back. Maybe she'd have knocked her head against a stone. And Peter would be on his knees above her. "Are you all right?" he'd say, reaching to touch her face. "Are you all right?" he'd repeat, and she'd be happy to hear his voice, even though he might be implying some kind of weakness.
Of course I'm all right, she'd think, and then she'd say aloud, "I'm fine," which maybe she could make into the truth.
But the question was, if she had known then what she knew now, would she have wanted to preserve the book or to destroy it? Would she have been strong enough to hold out her bruised hands, accept the changing world and everything that was to come? In the dream she was not strong enough. Propped on pillows in her bed in Madame de Rougemont's farmhouse, she found herself muttering these words again: "I'm fine." Her French novel dropped to the floor.
She turned onto her side. Her daydream was no longer in her strict control. It had turned into an actual dream, a provisional dream only one step below consciousness. The three friends left Kevin Markasev where he lay stunned beside the burning fire. They left him and continued down the cow field, through the fences and the trees, until they reached the art museum parking lot at the bottom of the hill. There was some tension between them as they split up, each to walk home through the deserted predawn streets.
And when she reached her parents' house, the door was unlocked. She slipped inside as silently as she knew how. She could see from the front hall where Rachel had fallen asleep on the couch. She had waited up, which was comforting and irritating. She lay under the tartan blanket, curled up, mouth out of shape on the pillow. Sleep had cleaned her face; Miranda wouldn't wake her. Silent as a ghost, she climbed the stairs to her own room on the third floor, feeling wired and exhausted from the eventful night. In the bathroom on the landing she undressed, put on her PJs, flossed and brushed her teeth. Then she slipped into her cozy bed, cozy and private as this one in the farmhouse, on the slope of the mountain outside of town.
She fell asleep, and in her dream her aunt Aegypta came to her.
This was a different kind of dreaming, deeper and more powerful. It felt like being awake. Aegypta Schenck was dressed in a long coat trimmed with fox fur, and the little wicked heads hung down. She was wearing gloves, and a small pillbox hat was pinned to her gray hair. Her face was partly covered in a veil. "Ma petite chère," she said.
Miranda wouldn't let her start with that. She sat up in her bed, which in her dream was the one she actually occupied, in Stanesti-Jui. "Tell me," she said in English. "I was thinking about Peter Gross. Peter and Andromeda, my friends. Tell me, where are they?"
There was a pause. Miranda could see part of her aunt's face under the veil. Her lips were thin.
"Pieter de Graz is in Staro Selo with the Eleventh Mountaineers. There is a Turkish offensive in that area."
Miranda knew that much herself. She could see her aunt's lips, part of her nose. Her smile had no joy in it: "My dear girl. You will not fail to surprise me, the loyalty you give to these two men, your father's aides-de-camp. They were junior officers, and the ones closest to hand in a time of crisis. That is all. They were meant to protect you, at which task they have not distinguished themselves. Instead, you have saved de Graz's life more than once."
As sometimes happens in dreams, Miranda tried to speak but couldn't. "I am punished for my cowardice and my mistakes," continued her aunt. "I have been dead six years, and I am punished every day. In the book I gave you to take to Massachusetts, I described a war in Europe, a terrible war—do you remember? You asked me about it once."
Now she pulled her veil back, and Miranda could see her eyes. They had a yellow tinge. She went on: "It was my plan to give you a book in a language you didn't know, and as a grown woman you would learn to read it. Later you would follow the directives I had printed out, and with the coins I left in your possession you would find your way to Great Roumania. By yourself, you would find your way. I thought perhaps I would not live to see it—not that it mattered. But you would be wise with the wisdom from the book and your own life."
Fat chance, Miranda thought, and tried to speak. But she could not speak aloud.
"Then my enemies were planning my destruction," her aunt said, "and I didn't want to die. I thought of a new plan, and I goaded Nicola Ceausescu to send that boy to bring you home—prematurely, as it turned out. And now the coins were for me, so you could free me from tara mortilor. Blind Rodica and Gregor Splaa, who were my contingency, now supported the entire scheme, and they were too weak for that. And you were too young to be sensible when I met you in the land of the dead. There also you worried about de Graz and Prochenko, because of the damage they had suffered. It was not meant to be like this. Mixtures of people and animals from two worlds—what good are they now? As for me, I gambled my life and could not win it back. And I think this is the reason: I could not bear the thought of never seeing you again."
Because this was a dream, it could not capture the emotions of the real world. Her aunt Aegypta's voice was calm, her face almost expressionless. "Oh, my dear, you were too young. And you are still too young. Too young for these tools I have put into your hands. Too young to leave your friends behind and accept your fortune. Too young to listen to my guidance."
These words filled Miranda with an old frustration. How could I be too young? she thought. Her aunt had stolen away whole years, whole blocks of time, and yet still blamed her. And she was wrong—Miranda had done everything she wanted. How could she have done better, after all? Now Miranda could speak again, and so she totted up a list of her achievements. "The Germans have left Bucharest," she said. "The empress is dead. The Elector of Ratisbon is dead, his prisoners are free. Nicola Ceausescu is dead. . . ."
Silence. Then her aunt spoke again. "That is true. That is all true, though you are not responsible for all of it. But even if you were, you have not accomplished everything, and there is still much more. We have new enemies. Enemies without end. Bocu, Antonescu. And now these demons Nicola Ceausescu managed to unlock before she died—I meant them to serve you! I meant you to use them wisely, with my guidance. Instead they are infected with Nicola Ceausescu's hate, and they have brought the world into this war. So there are new tasks for us. It is an illusion if we reach a place of safety among the waves."
Miranda listened to the coarse, grainy whisper, which continued: "But you still have weapons, even though you might not understand how to use them. You have the power I have given you—your father's revolver and the black book. And the tourmaline, though you have managed to do something unexpected once again. Because of your stubbornness. But even so I think you must be able to learn. I have hope, and I have faith in you."
Miranda felt a surge of despondency. Because of my stubbornness, she thought. Then why was she so desperate to please? What should I do now? she almost asked. Tell me what to do, she almost asked. "Tell me," she asked instead. "Is anything left of what I left behind? You know, where I grew up in Massachusetts. That was a calm place in the waves."
And the smile on the ghost's face was softer now, touched with love, or else a kind of condescension. "Child," she said. "Every object has a symbol in the hidden world. Its counterpart."
A moment, and then she started again: "That town, those streets, those people—you might make a version for yourself in the land of the dead. A little corner for yourself in tara mortilor. Or you might search for it and find it in the hidden world. Scientists have quarreled on this subject. You might find it with the tools I've given you. Would you abandon everything for that? Everything that's yet to come? And if you did, it wouldn't be the same, of course. That place, it was your childhood. Who can say she has not done what you have done?"
There was some more of that kind of talk before Miranda woke in the same dark bedroom, the same bed where she had spent the last part of the dream. But in the dream she hadn't had this cold in her head, which filled up her sinuses as if with wadded cotton. Now awake, she found it hard to breathe until she sat up.
A lamp burned on the bedside table near her hand. There was a handkerchief beside the lamp, whose wick was turned down low. She blew her nose.
She did not disturb the woman curled on the settee under a plaid blanket. Rachel, her adoptive mother in the dream, also did not budge when Miranda had come in the door, climbed the creaking stairs.
The settee was in a bay of dark windows overlooking the vegetable garden. Miranda got out of bed, then crossed the bare floorboards. She stopped before an artist's easel. Clara Brancoveanu was skilled at drawing in charcoal and red pencil. During Miranda's illness she had occupied her time with a sketching pad. Most recently she had made a series of landscapes from the window: the back garden and the fields beyond, rising toward the forest and the mountainside.
Outside the glass it was gray night. Miranda turned her face toward the ticking clock. The hour before dawn.
She looked down at the woman's hair, carefully pinned into little wheels. She felt a mix of comfort and annoyance that was familiar. Ever since she had caught this cold, her mother had insisted on sleeping in her room, afraid of a recurrence of the pneumonia. Though what she could have done if it came back, Miranda wasn't sure. Hold her hand, she supposed. Bring her hot things to drink, as she had before. Hold the bowl for her to spit.
Even so, after these months of loving care it was still hard for Miranda to think this woman was her mother, her actual birth mother. Growing up in Massachusetts, she had resented Rachel the most when she was being too maternal. Sometimes, though, Rachel and Clara seemed to combine, unified by how she'd treated them. Unified also at moments like this, when they performed the same activity, occupied the same space—Clara Brancoveanu was propped on a little bolster in the arm of the settee. Her mouth was open and her breath came soft, a woman in her fifties, but prematurely old, with weak, sallow skin in the lamplight. Half her life a prisoner, she had been a beauty at one time. Miranda had seen a portrait in the People's Palace. And of course there was the sepia photograph in her locket.
She found she could still remember every word Aegypta Schenck had said, standing in this corner of the room in her dream. Now Miranda tiptoed out the door and down the hall, hoping everyone would stay asleep. She was still in her clothes, and in the cabinet at the bottom of the stairs she groped in the darkness for a coat. The two big mutts were there on the round rug. They stirred to greet her, pressing their faces into her hand.
They were named Lucius and Lionel. When she opened the bolt they scratched against the doorjamb, eager to get out.
First light was coming. There was fog in the fields behind the house, and in the paddock on the other side of the stone wall. She followed the path to the edge of the evergreens and then climbed up through the meadow. From time to time she would stop to clear her nose, using a technique Stanley had shown her on camping trips in Maine. You would put your thumb over each nostril in turn, then bend down into the bushes and exhale with your mouth closed. If you were dainty and careful, the spray wouldn't get on your clothes.
When she straightened up again her head was ringing. The air was cold and sharp as she sucked it in. She hadn't had much to eat the night before, and she still felt sort of terrible, her lungs delicate and easily exhausted. The dogs roamed away from her, appearing and disappearing in the mist.
She was working on the things Aegypta Schenck had said and whether they were true. Often when she walked by herself or sat up in her room, she would think about Peter and Andromeda and then stop thinking about them. At such moments her thoughts were like these two black dogs, superficially free. Yet always the dogs returned to her, reappeared to check on her, and they were never more than fifty yards away.
She had not seen either of her friends for months. Without a doubt, as her aunt had suggested, she had more pressing concerns. She was the white tyger of Roumania, and what she did or failed to do was important—even here, in this little village in the mountains. The country was at war, the Turks on one side and the Germans on the other. Colonel Victor Bocu had consolidated power in Bucharest after the death of Nicola Ceausescu, with the help of a fraudulent National Assembly. His Rezistenta Party had taken fifty-four percent of the first vote. When the Turks began to mobilize, Bocu had refused to listen to any of their demands, some of which were not unreasonable—the return of territories ceded under the Peace of Havsa in Prince Frederick's time.
Bocu had used the threat of war and then the war itself to justify his political position, which was unforgiveable. Doubtless he was an evil man, and doubtless the white tyger could find a way to destroy him, which was what Aegypta Schenck would have wanted or advised—doubtless, except Miranda was full of doubts. Destroying the wicked never seemed to change the world.
In the misty pasture Miranda paused and let the dogs come to her. It was easy for these subjects, important as they were, to disappear into abstraction. She scanned the treetops, moisture on her face, worrying instead about Peter in the trenches and Andromeda wherever she was—these political issues were too hard to make real, except through the experience of people you cared about. They were her friends from Massachusetts, however much they had been battered and transformed. Without them she was abandoned, lost. But everybody had to break free, finally. Wasn't that what her aunt had said?
Aegypta Schenck had made no provision for Pieter de Graz and Sasha Prochenko, wasted no thought on what might happen to them once their purpose was accomplished. Now they had limped home: Peter Gross, Pieter de Graz, the ape and the scarlet bug. Prochenko, Andromeda, and the yellow dog. They had suffered for Miranda's sake. So maybe it was her duty to worry about them. And maybe that duty was as strong as what she owed to Great Roumania.
The mist hung round her at the top of the meadow. The dogs barged out of it and into it again. The house was out of sight. Miranda touched the golden bracelet at her wrist, and then she closed her eyes. In her mind she reached down and searched among the stones for the jewel, the tourmaline, her entry to the hidden world. The last time she had come this way, she had wrapped it in a sock and left it in a secure place, marked by a rock cairn. Now she found it and unwrapped it and held it in her hand. What had her aunt said about Berkshire County, Massachusetts, America? "You might search for it and find it in the hidden world. You might find it with the tools I've given you." The bright sun broke over her and drove the mist away.
Miranda was in a high meadow on a high mountain slope. She stood in the grass around her knees. It was springtime, and morning time, and the birds were singing. A brandywine bird was hidden in the grass. She knew its song. And above her she saw a big butterfly that was floating down, flapping wearily as if it had traveled a long way.
What a lovely spot! The sun was shining over the rock peaks. She had no doubt that in the grass with her, hidden there or maybe in that stand of birches, she would find the dog, the ape, the bug. They would share all this together and all danger, too.
As if conjured by the word, as she pushed through the grass she saw where it came to an end at a sort of a cliff. Below her the ground had been scooped out, a wound in the red and black earth. Smells came from it, a garbage dump here in this beautiful place, an uncovered pit that was so big she couldn't see the end of it. And there was movement down there in the garbage, a multitude of animals and creatures in a dump that receded into darkness as she looked.
Peter Gross was in the trenches in Staro Selo—God, she couldn't stand it. She laid down the jewel and the world shuddered to life again, the real world where she stood above Stanesti-Jui. But there too the sun had broken through a cleft in the high peaks. There too the mist had cleared, and she could see the town with its little railway station and the temple of Demeter with its turnip dome. She could see the farmhouse down below.
The dogs came to her and licked her hands, then ran off again. For several minutes she stood immobile on the slope. She remembered climbing up here with Andromeda the year before, after she'd escaped from Nicola Ceausescu and the People's Palace. It was one of the first mornings, and they had walked through the barley fields behind the house, then up the slope. In this same meadow they had looked down at the black-and-green farmhouse and the slate-roofed village around the temple, the railway and the road.
"Sort of takes you back," Andromeda had said in English.
At moments as they climbed, Miranda had been struck by how easy this felt, just like walking to school over Christmas Hill. At other times Andromeda seemed a stranger to her, untiring, unsweating, though she always kept her mouth open and spat from time to time into the grass. They scarcely spoke. Moment by moment it was as if they passed through alternating currents of familiarity and strangeness. Dressed in the same black suit and creamy linen for two days, Andromeda still looked stylish and well groomed. How beautiful she was, Miranda thought, not for the first time. Her skin seemed to glow, an effect of the morning sunlight in the fine, golden hair that seemed to cover her. Her teeth were white and shiny, disconcertingly large. She let her tongue loll out, then touched her lips. Nor did it matter if she was really someone else, some cavalry lieutenant or whatever. People were what they were. Everyone was a zoo inside if you could just scrape off the skin.
She'd left that evening or the next evening to take the night train back to Bucharest. "À bientôt," she'd said when the carriage came to the door. One thing Miranda had not discussed with her was Peter Gross or Pieter de Graz, and her feelings for one or both of them.
Now, alone with the dogs running back and forth, she remembered what he had looked like in the gazebo by the lake in the park under the plum-colored sky, the last time she had seen him. Nor did she understand, still, why they had had to separate, except because he'd wanted to. It was his choice, his decision. She had assumed he'd stay with her, and something would change, and they would . . . touch each other as they'd touched each other in the palace cell where they were prisoners. And that would be all right and even normal in some way, like something that was supposed to happen all along.
And she would feel—what? All she could see now was his dirty, brooding face, marked along his cheek with scabs or abrasions and made unfamiliar by the lantern's oblique glare in the little brick gazebo in the park. Certainly in her mind's eye he looked threatening and unappealing. But maybe that was normal too under the circumstances; who knew what normal was? This landscape of feelings, this really was the hidden world, stranger than a mountaintop or garbage pit. And she was no white tyger in that landscape, that was sure. This stuff had always made her crazy. Always she'd been hesitant and insecure. The boldest thing she'd ever done was to go up to Peter Gross beside the icehouse in the woods. And that was only possible because she'd pitied him and couldn't conceive of anything happening between them. How wrong she'd been!
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Park. All rights reserved.