by Nancy Hightower
The first thing that retreats before you is its name. Mereá, the city of winding caves. The city underneath the sand.
"She'll take you, Señor. She'll take you and make your forget, just like she took your wife," the abuelo says to him, his face crinkled like old cabbage. He gestures to Gil to withdraw his gaze from the two faint lights in the horizon. "We are in Carnival now," the old man continues, taking Gil by the arm back to chaos of the city streets. "Venga. See the dancers." Skeletons shimmy their way around bodies barely covered in bright tops, short skirts, loose shorts. He watches, fascinated by the rhythmic jounce of those bodies thrusting in and out in perfect time to the drummers.
It had been the same scene when his wife disappeared a year ago.
They had camped out in the desert that night, away from the din of the city, he and his wife and the guides they had paid to show them the giant dunes of the Sechura Desert. "I'm going for a walk," she had said, one hand holding her hair up while she wiped away a trickle of sweat from the curve of her neck, her deep-green dress clinging lightly to her thighs. Let me come with you, he had thought but not said. It was too soon for romantic walks. And so he had let her go — to gaze at the stars, to wonder why they had come to this desert when his firm was busy and she was still recovering; to weep a little where he could not see, where he could not wipe away her tears the moment they began to course down her cheeks — he let her go, with only a flashlight and compass should she lose her way among the dunes.
When she hadn't come back within the hour, he began to worry, paced the camp until the guides said they would look for her. They returned three hours later, shaking their heads. Her tracks double back on themselves, they said, heads bowed apologetically, then disappear. She is not here, Señor Gil. Shifty looks exchanged. Come, let us go back to the city.
A month he had stayed there, hiring two private investigators to search the grimy barrios for any clue of where she might have been taken (the city, despite being a tourist destination, was known to have an active slave trade). Perhaps she met another man, one of the detectives suggested. Gil explained once again there was no other man, there was no argument she had stormed away from. She had simply wanted to take a walk (and weep till her eyes were dry, but he left out that part).
"You mustn't keep looking for her, señor," the abuelo brings him back into the present moment with a touch on his arm.
"My wife?" Gil sighs, not understanding the lack of compassion he sees in the old man's watery blue eyes, the whites yellowed like old milk. "One of the guides said to come back here a year later — to the day. He was specific about that. Said I might have a slim shot in hell of finding her—."
"Beh, your wife," the man spits, with naked disdain this time. "It is Mereá that you must find. If you find her, if she lets you find her, then you might find your love — if Mereá lets you remember how."
• • •
Tonight, he finds the approximate location of their old camp, and as dusk shades into indigo, he goes for a walk, just as his wife had done. The air begins to chill, and all he sees are stars and sand, no strange cave or hole into which his wife might have wandered. He cries out his wife's name several times, imagining her face as he last saw it: a sad smile, the tears already making her eyes seem glassy and distant. I'll see you in a few minutes, she had promised.
At last he grows tired, lays himself down on the desert floor and stares up at the sky. The world tilts before him; he feels as if he could drop straight through the stars and land on the other side. Slowly he closes his eyes, settles his breathing to take long, slow draughts of air. Slow your breath almost to the point of dying, then Mereá will come, will let your feet slide in between her eyes and find the first step, the old man had told him. There's no wind, no noise. In that stillness, at last the two lights appear, one on each side of his feet. Slide between her eyes. He inches forward on his back, feels the ground suddenly slope downward. Within a moment, the eyes are aligned with his head. As he descends into the dark opening, his foot lands on a stone step. Legend has it that some nights there are twenty steps leading down into the heart of Mereá; other nights there are thirty. Or one hundred. There are some who descend forever, another warned him. He is able to make it to the ground floor in two hours, stepping down sideways since the steps are narrow and not of equal distance from each other. Little else they told him about the city beneath the sand, whether from fear or ignorance he couldn't say. He knew only that his wife must surely be there if this is where she disappeared.
The stairs finally get wider as he comes upon a small plaza, walled, and sees that all paths lead out into different catacombs which snake their way throughout the city. There is no one around to ask for directions, but he swears he sees the back of someone just disappearing into the tunnel on his left. Hello hello, he calls after them, but the city does not have good acoustics, and his voice sounds as if it comes from far away. The tunnel is too dark, but still he enters, shuffling forward like an old man until his eyes adjust to a dim light. There are no lamps along the walls or floor or ceiling — nothing to account for the soft glow which barely lights his way.
"Is anyone here?" His voice is almost hoarse, as if he hadn't used it in a week.
There's no answer, except for a deep, whirring noise that rumbles from somewhere behind the walls. He follows the dimly lit path, comes out soon enough into a murky atrium with vast underground lakes — no plants, only an old chairlift that creaks and hums. Gil watches for a while as chair by chair passes him, then lets himself be scooped up into a seat. Mereá, she is fickle, that one, the old man had said, when Gil told him his plans. Let her lead you where she will. Otherwise, you'll not find your wife, nor yourself, after a while. Now Gil is lifted high over underground lakes, some so large they seem like small oceans at midnight, the outlines of iridescent blue-green waves against perpetual twilight. The sound of water mingles with music, a slow, haunting song rising above the crash of waves. His eyes grow heavy as the chair dips and climbs. Despite Gil's efforts to remain awake and vigilant, he is gently rocked into a deep slumber.
A jerk on the chairlift wakes him up, and he remembers his wife, or tries to; already the image of her grows fuzzy — auburn hair and cherry mouth. No, small pink lips and blue-gray eyes. The sad smile as she said goodbye. On the other side of the lakes he now sees a carnival, neon lights obscenely blinking on the rides. People are walking throughout it, and so he jumps off at a small landing area and runs to its entrance. A few people are in line for the Ferris wheel ten yards ahead. He tries shouting to them, asks if they have seen his wife, but no one turns around. He feels a small pull on his sleeve. "Don't believe everything the old woman says, for she's bored and makes up lies." It is a young boy with auburn hair, red freckles sporadically placed on his face, blue-grey eyes. He could have been their son, if they'd had children.
"Have you seen this woman…" he begins as he pulls out a picture of his wife, but the little boy shakes his head and takes his hand.
"Follow me," he whispers and walks away to the right, through a mass of people that seem to be suddenly everywhere. The little hand is wrenched from his, and he finds himself pushing through the stiff, silent bodies just as he had back in New York. Where did the boy go? He finally spots him, twenty feet away and heading towards the roller coaster.
"Here," he says, stepping into the car.
"One ride. Then I'll show you."
He gets in beside the boy. There are only three other people in the roller coaster, on the far end. The boy turns to him and smiles, a strange, boyish smile that holds no joy. The coaster begins to creak upwards, and the boy quickly grabs the bar in front of them. The fall is almost a sheer drop, and he yells out curses and obscenities as his legs and ass come high off the seat. By time they hit the second hill, the boy is thrown into Gil's lap. When their run is finished, he looks to the back of the coaster. Only two people are in the car where there had been three.
"It sometimes happens," the boy whispers in his ear.
His stomach keeps flipping over, a nausea he hadn't felt since that night so long ago. The endless wait in the hospital. "My wife?"
"She's not here, I can tell you that much."
"Then what was the point of me riding?" he asks as they got out.
The boy shrugs. "I'm lonely," he answers and points to the Ferris wheel. "That is the only way out of the carnival, if she lets you," he says, and then waves goodbye. It was the time of carnival when his wife disappeared, but this place was static, grotesque even, with its rides that wanted him.
The Ferris wheel doesn't turn very quickly, but neither does it stop to let people on or off. The seats swivel around and face the other side, where the exit to the carnival is, but that is a matter of chance, apparently. Some people, Gil notices, take only one turn on the ride and then leave. Others are on for longer and look as if they are about to be sick.
"That woman in the blue dress has been on for a month now," a voice crackles. He turns and sees an old woman sitting on a chair. She is small and humpbacked, with thinning grey hair still streaked with brown and parted in the middle. This must be the old woman who lies (at least, according to the boy). But does it matter now?
"Hop on. She's the only way out, but she likes the men, so hope she doesn't take a fancy to you."
That women often took a liking to him was nothing new. "I must find my wife," he explains. He tells her how no one will talk to him, how he needs to find his wife before she starts to believe he has given up trying. Auburn hair, thin, pink lips, almost as tall as he. Surely someone must have seen her?
The woman doesn't answer, merely looks wide-eyed at him, grinning with a gaze as blank as a baby's, the white of one eye creeping up into milky blue. He turns away from that strange face and moves on to the Ferris wheel. This ride, with cherry-red lights on its spokes, only takes one person at a time. He sits down as a chair wheels in and a bar lowers itself to sit across his lap. The ride brings him high up over the city. Cerulean lakes ripple over to the right, and a small mountain stands forlornly to the left, gray and jagged. In between is thick fog, the rest of the city hidden. He supposes there to be a city. There can't just be this carnival and the mountain.
The wheel seems to double in size as it turns; an hour goes by (or is it longer?) before Gil is at the very top. Indeed, he is high up, sees that the roof of the city is less than a foot away. He reaches out his hand, gently caresses what feels like soft flesh. He could swear he feels a delicious shudder in reaction to his touch before he is pulled downward. As he gets close to the ground, he tries lifting the bar, but it doesn't release its clasp. Three more revolutions, and he begins to think that perhaps she wants to keep him there for a while, warming her seat and rocking the chair. But on the fourth spin, his chair wheels around and he is facing the opposite direction. She is letting him go. He jumps out and takes a few steps, but then stops and looks back at the wheel. Thanks for the ride.
He walks over to a bench that sits on a little hill, a stone path that leads from it out to a series of buildings about half a mile ahead. He tries to find the mountain to get his bearings straight.
It isn't there.
"Come tomorrow and look again. Perhaps you will see it, rising up out of the surrounding snow." It's the old woman again, by his side once more.
"I don't have the time for your lies."
She cackles at that. "What is time? You dream it up just to divide your life into bite-size pieces, waiting to be devoured." A slight lick of thin red lips, tongue gliding over thoughtfully. "You must forget those nights; know that she certainly has. Go to the mountain. Near the peak is an inn that could hold the entire city of Mereá if it wanted to, but it hates crowds. The double doors open at a simple command to avoid your touch." She lays a withered hand lightly on his arm. "Sign yourself in, and take the back stairs up to where the rooms usually are. There's the room with a bed in the air. Don't stay there — it belongs to the little boy."
Gil stares hard at her eyes, silently pleading. "Who is he?"
The old woman sighs and withdraws her hand. "Does it matter? This is Mereá. You came here wanting to remember and to forget; you cannot have both. And the mountain calls you, but not now." Without another word, she hobbles back in the direction of the carnival.
Where is he supposed to go for the night? If night even comes. There is no sun in this place, only dim street lights that glow a dirty kind of yellow or dusty orange. A few moments of vermilion. But they never go out altogether or seem to change in intensity, only color. He could have been here for only a few hours, perhaps days. His watch has stopped.
He travels down different streets, tries to find a place to sleep. One building resembles a bank, but the teller is in the wrong place. She sits there right up against the store window and waves at him while counting money; on the other side is a wall with no door. There is no way for a customer to reach her. Next to the bank is a building that has Clothing Store in big gold blocks on the front. Hanging off the lower part of the E is a dress. Deep forest green. Slim cut, slightly off the shoulders. He recognizes it at once. Not a dress his wife wore often, but she had chosen it for that dinner party in April, when she had dared to kiss him, grazed his arm with a caress after so many weeks of nothing. He stares at the dress. It's never the thing itself, like language and time, but what it represents. He tugs at the hanger on the giant E until he can pull the dress away. Quickly picking it up, he searches for a way to enter the store, thinking that someone must have seen her. He walks all the way around the building to discover there are no windows or doors. No Exit, Gil thinks ruefully, and makes his way back to the bench. The mountain is back, its peak capped with snow this time.
He could not have spent the entire night running. But there the mountain sits, with a trail that snakes its way up to the peak, dotted by inns, lights glowing in the windows. He reaches the base in a few minutes and begins the long trek up, until hours later, he meets the lodge. He remembers not to knock on its doors (since it did not desire his touch, like the carnival did). But the old woman hadn't told him the command to open them, so he just stands there, waiting. He dimly remembers another lodge where he had stayed with…who was it? His wife? No, the brunette, with lips as full and red as cherries. The doors slightly part. His fingertips graze the glossy wood as he pushes it further, just enough to let him in. He walks into a desolate lobby, calling out for help. No answer. He wants to find the little boy again. Perhaps the boy could remember his name for him; already, the sound of it was beginning to grow faint in his mind.
He wanders up and down hallways, climbs the stairs to the second floor where the walls are painted a bright yellow, the doors blood red; obscene colors, so bright. His hand finally tries a door, finds it unlocked. He quietly enters a suite with small shoes lined up along the wall and the bed suspended in mid air. Two spiral staircases coil up to it on either side. This must be the boy's room.
No one answers as he called out his wife's name. Then he cries out the name of his lover, the brunette — the one he had gone to after so many weeks, no months, without touch or kiss, without the scent of a woman's neck to lull him into sleep. He goes out and keeps walking down the hall, turns into a foyer that is actually a balcony overlooking the main room of the chalet. Another giant bed — with a mass of blue-green pillows and maroon, satin sheets — fills the entire balcony. It must be a feather mattress, to have it so plump and ready to sink one's body into. Yet it is the emotion felt inside the expanse of these walls that cradles him, like a place called home. Not the home he once knew with its windows shut partway, the screen broken, and paint scraped off the porch. Not the home where his parents had scolded him for being late to dinner or planted kisses on his cheek at bedtime. Nor the home he had lived in for ten years with his wife. Not even that.
This room brings him to before. A word placed on the tip of the tongue prior to one's first cry, the ache to see and sound it out with eyes closed. Rest here. Do not try to leave, since it's almost impossible to find it again, the walls whisper. Certainly he hadn't felt that way last year when they had slept in separate bedrooms. He had once gone to a room such as this to meet the brunette with the cherry mouth, who didn't release her clasp even when he had accidentally cried out his wife's name in such pleasure. But still that did not bring him home. Not even later, at the party where his wife had finally laid her pink lips on his with that sweet, lingering kiss, which promised something more than the empty hours they had been sharing since early spring. Something more than what they had lost that night in the hospital.
He steps out onto the bed and wobbles his way across the mattress to the edge of the balcony. A flash of green from below as he sees his wife walking across the room, raising her hand in greeting to someone just beyond the lobby door. "Stop, I'm here," he yells, scrambling across the balcony bed; it is like running on the ocean, his feet sinking in every step. Finally, he reaches the door, thinks he can catch her now that he is free to run. But the hallway goes on longer than it should, and sometimes leads to doors that refuse to open. When he reaches the back stairs and runs down to the lobby, he finds only the old woman, white hair streaked with brown and lips too red in a face so withered. "You lost the dress," she clucks. "Always losing what you say you want the most."
No Exit. "Where is she, dammit?"
The old woman leans back now and closes her eyes. "Alright, if you want to play it that way. Go through the city to the auditorium. Many mornings, I've seen the entire audience sitting there, staring at an empty stage. Some people have gone in only to find themselves already there, performing. If you find her there, you'll be able to leave. Isn't that what you most want?"
"Yes." But the word comes out slowly (hadn't she tried to get him to stay before by lying?). The trek down the mountain is surprisingly quick, and within a few hours, he finds a path that narrows into a street that curves down and inward with sharp corners. Thick air forms a sugared canopy over the entire area. Shops and restaurants on the right blend into onyx walls, sometimes smaller than he remembers them being at first glance, some not there when only moments before they were. He searches for her there, looks for the curly, brown ringlets that framed her face. No wait; that was the other woman. The one his wife found him with that night he tried to break it off. He wants his wife. Auburn hair, blue-gray eyes. He stays there for days, wandering amid the stores. He hopes the donut shop is there today instead of the flower stand with its array of tropical orchids: Tigrillo, Creeping Goodyera, Snake Mouth. Sizzling meat was heard and smelled by everyone just two days ago, but the store from which its aroma emanated now only sells watches that tell time between the hours of twelve and six. Three women are standing outside it, chanting buy time when you can, no matter how broken it is, and always listen for food.
Black-light lamps line the streets outside the cafes. The dim, purple glow makes everyone a beacon, a belly-full of ghosts who glide from store to store. Hunger is but an excuse to keep moving along the walls. Their voices hum a dull murmur, no words to give him information on where to go or how to get back. Mereá. Once discovered, the rules change. She grows with you. Unhinges her mouth to devour whatever memories you have, contracts the direction of her roads so you are always returning to the choices you didn't make.
The last shop is darker than the rest. He goes in, finds an arcade with games that don't work anymore. People stand in front of the screens, trying to move through flashing scenes they once remembered to be true. He walks to one game with his name on the top in flashing lights. His gaze is fixed on the character who is lost in dark city, looking for his wife. His hands take the controls to guide the person through all the shops, mazes, and changing terrain, but he soon realizes they don't work. The character moves on its own accord, and he watches as it gets lost among a myriad of rooms in some kind of inn, meeting a woman there. Always the wrong one.
He leaves the game, walks all the way to the back of the arcade. The boy is waiting for him there, eyes now red and tearstained from having to wait for so long. Together, they walk hand in hand through the octagon, for weeks, perhaps, until one day, a door opens up and they find themselves looking into the auditorium. The boy looks up at him. "You said you'd visit someday, remember?" As they enter, he wonders how one can remember anything in this place with so much movement. They take a seat in the back row, where it is the darkest. A man sits on stage, between two women whose backs are turned towards him. On the left, the woman with auburn hair cascading over her shoulders absentmindedly holds a toy fire truck in her hand. She never turns around, despite his cries of I'm sorry. The cherry-mouthed brunette just stands beside a window, waiting for him to visit.
"Whom did he chose?" the boy asks in wide-eyed wonder. He merely shakes his head, entranced by the moment of indecision. Of never knowing. For twenty years, he has been sitting there, watching himself on the stage. He can't recall the sky, much less the sun. For who would come out of that strange womb, once allowed back in?
Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Hightower