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He gazed up at it, eyes still dulled with dreams. It nestled in the far corner of his bedroom, flattened against the ceiling, like a strip of fungus, brindled beige and black. What could it be?

Just then, it came back to him, the dream--or rather, the aura of the dream. It was as if he had suddenly felt a cramp while swimming toward some misty shore. The pain shot through his left leg, lumbar to heel, in spasms. He kicked the sheets soaked in sweat, waiting for the next spasm. The shore neared, mist still clinging to the reeds. Something was crawling away, slowly parting the reeds.

Awake now, he turned his head to the ceiling--nothing there. He swung his legs over the rumpled bed, ignoring the ache in his joints, and began to dress, picking up his discarded clothes from the carpet. He looked at the mattress. Did he expect to see another impression, beside his own? He remembered then she had left. The whitewashed walls shone as in a halogen light.

They had lived an allegory whose meaning seemed lost on their wedding day: that distant ceremony in a latticed arbor, she in a white, lace dress, he in white tie and tails. They vowed to cherish everything in each other, their knots and cranks, the slight stoop of his rounded shoulders, her odd, bird-like way of turning her head. They promised never to wake up one day, alone, each feeling like a dried pea, rattling in its husk. For this, they would work, work and pray, she in her way, he in his manner. But things began to happen--for instance, the move from their old house.

In mid-life, he wanted a purgatorial move, cleansing the dreck of decades. She pretended they dwelled in tolerable bliss, if not in paradise, and dreaded emptiness. He had no illusions of rebirth, only savage delusions of purity. Believing in happiness, she wanted nothing amiss, even after the baby died. But illusions--illusions or delusions--drift their separate ways, without migrating from heart to heart. When they woke from their naps in the late afternoon, they looked blankly at each other and felt the world stand eerily still.

So, after nearly two decades of marriage, they agreed to make something happen, turn the page on their torn lives.

Let's move, he said, this place is half-derelict now.

Move, she repeated, panic rising to her eyes?

They called GotJunk and the Salvation Army and left a spiky mound of furniture on the curb. (The city charged them for surplus trash.) But the real event--the kernel of it--remained hidden in their lives, indispensable, pervading everything: the way they touched one another accidentally, the tone of their voice when they said goodnight, the stray, unguarded glance from the corner of their eyes.

The actual event preceded all that. It went back years--some say back to an ophidian in a tree--when she gave birth, late in her thirties, to her first and only child.

It came out quietly in the dim morning light, with transverse creases across its tiny hands and epicanthal folds over the inner corner of its eyes. The nurse carried the infant to its mother with infinite solicitude. The doctor said with a frown:

Down's Syndrome. Chromosome 21. It's no one's fault.

She credited neither serpents--not Original Sin, anyway--nor chromosomes, only the grief of her womb. Mercifully, the infant, a little Mongol from heaven, died within the year. What kind of mercy, he grumbled, follows a throw of the genetic dice? She wondered wordlessly: did he wish it dead? When they looked at each other, they saw the face of someone neither familiar nor strange. Perhaps it was the face of love holding tightly to itself.

They never spoke of the dead infant after that. Still, though neither had been in church since childhood, he suspected that she often felt the breath of sin, perhaps its intolerable embrace. He would then quote to her from a novel: "The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required." He would quote the line whenever she appeared to him limp or wracked. Till she put a stop to his attempts to comfort her with citations from a book:

Who says it's perpetual, she almost snapped. It's garbled Romans, anyway.

He realized that her vehemence was not theological, not metaphysical, and let it go at that. Both settled for the spiteful--more often, simply dull--felicity of their days

True, she had grown up in the Church of Christ, Scientist, shedding Mary Baker Eddy at twelve. (No one, least of all herself, knew why.) But she still abhorred medication--even baby aspirin--and experienced moments of unprovoked terror. Suicide was her bete noire--her mother had done that--but she mentioned it only rarely, and then as if by chance, as if she had just noticed some dark, misshapen cloud or sudden stench in the air.

He had donned various religious garbs in adolescence--Gnosticism, Sufism, Taoism, Zen--then came to think of himself as a cheerful nihilist in middle age. A spiritual nihilist, he insisted. Was that arrogance on his part? He had tried to empty himself out, shed his vanity and needs. "Sollst entbehren!" he had repeated after Faust. Hence his late urge to vacate--vacate everything, including himself--despite her recalcitrance and the weight of the world. Move out, he told himself. A few sad nails remained stuck in the wall.

But, then, he had not expected to end alone in a white flat, its whiteness faintly mauve in the dark. Alone, that is, except for the brindled apparition on the ceiling.

The strip of hieratic fungus appeared to him the next morning, and the next, and the next, never leaving a trace behind it. You'd think it might smear the ceiling as it slithered away, leave a wavy, taupe trail, or something paler, a lemonish ichor perhaps. Actually, he never saw it disappear, never saw it vanish before his eyes. The moment he turned his head or reached for his socks on the floor, it dissolved into the immaculate ceiling. At that moment, he felt supernumerary, his existence bleached.

Why had she left, why? It wasn't as if they had failed to discuss their move from the old house, the exchange of dilapidated grandeur--peeling portico, cracked fountain, croquet lawn become a briar patch--for a bright flat in a gated compound, overlooking a duck pond. Still, when the move came, it felt like the devastation of a tornado that sucks out the very breath from a house, leaving only rubble behind, the dust and crust of years.

During the move, in the midst of all the bric-a-brac, he had suddenly recalled a dismal scene from their travels: a place in New Delhi, behind their luxury hotel, screened by a twelve-foot bamboo fence, a shanty town or barrio or bidonville or slum--what can you call such outlandish misery? There, Untouchables dwelled among crates, tin cans, shredded canvas, among rivulets of excrement and low-banked fires and silent shadows flickering in smoke.

She had insisted on taking their evening walk on a dirt path skirting the camp, despite the entreaties of the white-turbaned doorman. (She whispered: Let's not argue with him, just go our way.) Suddenly, a figure on a bicycle appeared out of the Indian night, all knees and elbows churning, nearly invisible except for the yellow eyes. It lunged, making as if it would run her down, before vanishing in the dark. She swerved, stumbled, but he had reached for her arm before she could tumble into a putrid ditch. Just then, a woman began screaming, as if in desperate labor, somewhere among the hovels. They had said nothing, just hurried on.

He recalled that moment again, during their packing, wondering if the move would reopen some occult wound. (How would you move from hovel to hovel in a shanty town, anyway, no Salvation Army, no GotJunk?) But he saw no hurt in her eyes, no scar on her skin, when the van, long and silent as a barge, pulled up to the curb and four burly men stepped out. Sensing her stoical agony, he reached for her hand:

It's ok. This move--he paused for an image--is just the neck of an hourglass.

She had pulled away her hand, not snatched it, just pulled it with quiet resolve, smiling sadly:

It's not an hourglass. It's a sandcastle, washing away with the waves.

And she had slowly walked away, her body leaving behind it a long shadow of love.

Alone now in the flat, spare except for his strewn clothes on the carpet--he had opted for a low, hard bed, dispensing with chairs--he tried to think: how came I here, how? But the words, vaguely biblical and fraught with self-concern, struck a note distasteful to his ears. In the wintry light, he held his head in veined hands. Perhaps the question was like that other toxic, unspoken query, which for many years--can mushrooms do this?--had circulated in his blood. (Oh, he had allowed himself to voice it once, only once, in the midst of their move to the flat.)

A year after the baby died, she had proposed a walk through the cool, dank woods of a state park nearby.

Why, he protested.

To pick mushrooms, she said. It's stopped raining.

She looked arch even with her chestnut hair pulled back tight over her head. (Neither could recall when they had last made love.)

It's more dangerous than hunting lions, she challenged.

Really? What bore rifles do we need?

She blew a puff of breath in his face:

Someone said that, not me. John Cage.

When she paused, her look turned inward:

You can't distinguish for sure between edible and lethal varieties.

Oh, what fun!

She ignored him and the pools in her black eyes deepened.

Also, they're cryptogamus.

He lifted his eyebrows in puzzlement as she began to turn her back. Over her shoulder, she said:

They propagate without flowers or seeds.

He knew nothing about mushrooms, except that once they served apothecaries as poison. She read his thoughts, turned toward him again, and only her lips smiled:

You're thinking of Amanita phalloides and Amanita verna, the Destroying Angels. And probably of the Borgias. Well, I'm not Lucrezia. And bad mushrooms don't always blacken silver.

She made him carry a hamper weighed down with long-handled clippers, an Italian knife attached to a brush, yellow rubber gloves, a large plastic water bottle, and the hefty Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. He decided at the last minute to sling his Canon over his shoulder. On the way to the park, she became garrulous:

It'll be fun, you'll see. We may find morels or chanterelles or ceps. I can broil or cream or saute them. Or I could make Mushrooms a la Schoener, that's a Viennese specialty, if we find button mushrooms. With batter and beer and chervil and a cold tartar sauce. Yum.

Later that evening, he suffered nausea, spasms, convulsions--he nearly died. At the Emergency Room, they pumped out his stomach and forced a mix of charcoal powder down his throat. After he recovered, he refrained from asking any questions--it took the bad question time to grow--and she never offered to explain.

Time conceals as much as it reveals; and it alters human facts as oysters transmute a grain of sand.

In his solitary flat, he brooded rarely over the question, which had sounded through the years below the range of his hearing like a bat's cry, the sigh of a plant. Instead, alone in the new flat, he wondered about the recent move: why had she long resisted it? And having consented finally--at what inner cost?--why did she abandon the flat soon after they settled in? To leave him before he could leave? Or was it--he suddenly realizes--because she still recalled his abysmal query?

It was an ordinary moment in their marital strife.

They had been fighting for and against the move with silent ferocity for nearly a week. What had he said then, said and regretted at once? "That thing with the mushrooms, was it an accident?" That's what he had uttered, less a question than an outburst from the depths.

She had simply given him a glacial look.

Now, going about the routine of housekeeping tasks in the flat--cooking, cleaning, tossing trash down the stainless steel chute--he consoled himself: if nothing else, solitude actually teaches you to live in the world. Not just the world of Drano, Zud, Glade; or of bills and doorbells and computer crashes; but also the world of ailing flesh and the heart stripped bare. Still, in the end, when everything had been stripped and bared, he found no consolation in living alone.

He felt his round shoulders sag closer to the floor. Did those eremites really find God in their huts--or just ten feet squared of the void?

She lived alone and her solaces were few.

When she left their flat, she packed in her bag a small Japanese vase, colored azure and sand. It had been his gift, a prize antique, when she first announced her pregnancy, so long ago. But after the death of the baby, shriveled in its skin, after their friends and few relatives fell away, the old house began to clutter. The vase, subtle in its asymmetry, rose above the litter. She called it Janus because it faced two ways. Which two ways, she asked herself, without caring to answer?

After he gave her the vase, no, after the baby died, her marriage became hermetic, obscure to itself. Something in it cried for the openness of the steppes; and something panicked at change like a foal sniffing a tiger at the edge of the forest. It pleased her--pleased both of them--that the vase stood its high ground, there on the mantelpiece, above the jumbled floor, intact. It pleased him that she loved the vase, and that something she loved could withstand the choking years.

Only once did it move from its place on the mantelpiece in the old house. That was when she brought him home from the hospital, his face blanched, his stomach drained. She had placed the vase on the small table by his bed:

Janus can live here for a while, she had gently said.

He found the gentleness suspect:

Why do you keep calling it Janus?

Her fingers flew in the air in genuine surprise:

What a question!

An apotropic gesture on her part, he mused silently. He dared not think at the time: it's atonement, atonement of some kind.

Many years later, as she was leaving the flat, he said with a stark smile:

You're taking Janus, of course.

She did not answer but her eyes filled with terror and tenderness. Then she whispered, her words fluttering like feathers in the air:

Don't go hunting for mushrooms alone.

And she had walked out the door.

He missed the vase though it was not his to miss. He missed her even if she had seemed to him, for quite some time now, imploded upon herself.

Moving about the flat, ordering the few objects he could find to order and adjust--a skewed Venetian blind, a copper pan sitting rakishly on the burner, an imperceptibly tilted painting, his crumpled socks, thrown aside hastily at night--he took satisfaction in the space around him. (In the space, yes, but not in the fungus on the ceiling or his cramped guts at night.)

Why did he miss Janus? Perhaps it was not wholly material, after all, not simply a glazed, ceramic mass, but also, by virtue of its name, something ideal, an emblem of their history. Did she sense that aspect of the vase when she dubbed it Janus? Whatever cryptic sense it held for her, he missed it now and needed a succedaneum. Perhaps that photo would do.

He had snapped the photo that day in the woods, as she crouched to gather mushrooms clustering among the roots of a great oak. Sensing his intention, she had looked up with a far-away smile, which the camera caught. Dappled light fell from the foliage on her half-averted face, sliding over her shoulders, haunches, and white knees, giving her the appearance of a wild, woodland creature. He caught all that.

The photo haunted him--after they had pumped out his stomach--haunted him till he contained it in a high-polish silver frame. Only then, with its moment locked in a solid, silver rectangle, could he bear to view it. But he continued to move it from one place to another in the old house, in search of a safe niche. Safe from the dross, dread, and damage creeping into corners.

Now, in the spare flat, he placed the picture on the mantelpiece, a slab of fake Carrara marble cantilevered above the gas-burning fireplace. Somehow, the picture fitted there, possessed its space, as had the Japanese vase before she carried it away. Without bitterness, he stepped back from the fireplace, and in the emptiness of the flat heard himself say:

She would have asked, "Oh, is that an altar?" And I would have answered, "Is Janus a god? "

The conversation of shadows ceased.

After she left the flat, she began thinking about God. About him and herself, of course, but also about God. In her temporary abode in the YWCA, a small, prim room overlooking a back parking lot, she did not think of Mary Baker Eddy. She thought: whoever learned from the agony on the Cross? Not those great masters--she remembered her Griinewald--who painted horrific crucifixions, the insoluble sufferings of the world. Had she learned anything from suffering?

At first, she had blamed herself when the baby died. Then she blamed him, the father, blamed him implacably. (Why had he forsaken her? And what was that question about the mushrooms?) She tried to lose her pain and hatred. Scarves, shoes, twisted hangers, yellowing newspapers, cracked jars, torn reproductions--yes, including the Isenheim Altarpiece--heaps of stuff, began to fill her closets and pile up in the attic of the old house. Through it all, Janus remained her comfort and confessor, absorbing her misery through its impassive glaze. In the end, she had no one but God to blame--God and herself.

But she survived the years. She even survived the move. For a few months, she endured absent-mindedly life in the white flat before reaching for her vase and raincoat and fleeing. Janus accompanied her to the YWCA room. There she sank into woolly sleep every night after returning from work as a temp nurse. With humility and amazement, she gazed at the empty ceiling and considered her own behavior, her inexhaustible fears. Next to her bed, Janus stood on the stringent commode, complaisant as ever, privy to all her feelings. Under the bed, newspapers and magazines--what she called her journals--began to pile.

When spring surprised her, she decided to drive out to the state park, walk in the woods, the same woods they had wandered together, long ago. The sun warmed the earth after the rain--a light mist had lifted--and mushrooms would thrive beneath oak and beech and birch, and among dead tree trunks, thick with moss. (Perhaps she would luck out: she had always wanted to find the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria) More, she wanted to feel again--had she ever felt it?--feel the primal simplicity of things, light falling from the sky, bathing the earth and brightening her soul. Perhaps she could do then what she needed to do, perhaps.

When they called to tell him, he did not hang up the receiver; he let it dangle on the floor from its coiled cord. The next morning, the ceiling appeared to him immaculate. He did not get out of bed all day; he lay awake at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stealthy thing when it came. It did not return. Instead, a small package arrived, neatly wrapped in brown paper and marked "Fragile". He placed it carefully on the mantelpiece, at a distance from her photo in the silver frame. Soon he would open it. Meanwhile, red the veins and rims of his eyes, he would keep the flat tidy, the mantelpiece loyal, despite the ineluctable caducity of existence. Despite the love he had failed.
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Author:Hassan, Ihab
Article Type:Short story
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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