A Study in Lost Light
(Initial Entry in the Casebook of a Modern Alchemist)
Reprinted with permission from the reminiscences of John H. Prosper, M.D., retired medical officer in the Canadian Forces.
A Darkling Journey
I’ve had a recurring dream since I woke from my coma. I suppose it’s more of a vision than a dream:
In a dense conifer forest of needling sunlight and kinetic silence, a slender book floats in mid-air. Its unmarked cover of blue cloth opens slowly. And slowly the pages turn, each sturdy sheet imprinted with the bloody face of a soldier, civilian, or enemy combatant.
These are the people I had attended in Afghanistan during my service as a medic—the men and women who had died in my care, the ones I could not save.
The Canadian Forces paid for my education. In exchange for a medical degree and intensive training as an emergency surgeon, I signed on and served with a combat battle group in Kandahar Province through 2005 and well into 2006.
At the fierce, door-to-door Battle of Panjwaii, in September 2006, a Taliban bullet struck my shoulder. It shattered the bone and grazed my subclavian artery.
The Dutch soldier and American communications officer I had been tying off with tourniquets both subsequently died. I only survived because a Pashtun infantryman risked his life to pull me out of that firefight.
Airlifted to the Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield, I underwent two high risk surgeries. During the second, an adverse reaction to the anesthesia plunged me into a coma. I woke three days later to a chill wind blowing through my bones.
The Forces returned me to Canada, and after nine weeks rehabilitation at a military base outside Montreal, they discharged me honorably. I tried resuming my advanced medical studies at McGill, but that was hopeless.
Waves of drowsiness often swooped through me, and familiar things smoldered with strangeness. Streets I’d walked for years led to unexpected places.
I knew the neuropathology of my symptoms. Brain damage. The percussive force of battlefield blast waves, traveling faster than sound, had repeatedly pummeled my cerebral cortex—right through my helmet and skull.
Dementia pugilistica. There is no treatment.
I dropped my internal medicine fellowship after three weeks and, without kith or kin, drifted west to Vancouver. I’d heard dreamy accounts of Rain City’s charm in each of the foster homes where I’d grown up, and I resolved to see for myself.
A change of scenery wouldn’t hurt, either. Or so I thought, until my flight’s descent over the snowcrest mountains above Vancouver.
As the plane rolled into its approach path, an eerie awareness of evil pressed close.
I immediately recognized what was happening. My bruised brain had a dark story to tell. I listened and heard my fear—not quite a voice, the repressed feelingof a voice: How am I going to cope with this disability? Who is this not-me that is the new me?
Life itself felt sinister to my broken mind.
Cloud plateaus far below composed the floor of heaven. Sunlight filled the interior of the plane so brightly I squinted. My ears popped.
And the gathering malevolence concentrated to a voiceless yet concise thought: We are falling, all of us, all the children of Eve, falling through heaven, like Lucifer, down into a tragic world.
I didn’t believe such twaddle and tried to reclaim my own thoughts. Coolly, I recalled that ‘Lucifer’ actually means ‘the bringer of light.’ My hurt brain was calling for the illumination of reason.
So, I reasoned.
We weren’t falling. We were coming in for a landing through the glare of afternoon sun.
My damaged nerves ignored reason. Ominous feelings graffitied the wall of my being—my mind—with these slashing words: They fell with Lucifer, the whole way down burning.
That intimate voice spoke persuasively from within horizontal rays slanting through the cabin: So much brighter than the day, they blazed like welders’ arcs as they crossed the sun.
I winced into the barbed sunlight outside the window, half-expecting to see streaks of phosphorus flares against the sun.
For an instant, I did! Hot scratches of light on the sun’s face made me think of satellites breaking up on re-entry.
I pushed that thought out of mind and dismissed what I’d glimpsed as a sliding floater, cellular debris in my eye. The quiet voice—really, the psychic pressure of a voice—had vanished.
I wasn’t going to listen to my broken nervous system. I was headed someplace new. Sure, life inside an abused brain had become a fizzy-edged thing close to madness. But it felt easier to meet that pitiful thing in a city I’d never visited.
After a dejected night at a modest hotel, frustrated to realize my impairment allowance wouldn’t go far in this city, I wandered through a chill spring morning. Traffic scrubbed vision to smears. So, I kept my attention on the houses. Each looked snug in its own loneliness.
I crossed into Strathcona, an old neighborhood of weatherboard houses with deep bay windows, elaborate gables, and pillared porches.
A small park of huddled trees drew me in. I sat on a stone bench and watched leafy shadows rubbing sunlight into the grass.
“May I join you?” A tall, elderly woman stood before me in curious clothing, her silver hair swept up in a voluptuous Gibson-girl bouffant.
She wore a blue corset inset with panels of oxblood leather that snugly fit an absurdly narrow waist above a long gray skirt. Her high-laced boots glinted silver with filigreed circuitry and chrome boot-tips.
I offered a weak “Hello.”
“I’ve never seen you here before,” she said. Her antiquated attire and the suffering in her large pale eyes made me want to glance at her wrist.
I had seen that dark look before, on my psych ward rotation. Was she wearing a hospital name band? I restrained myself from looking.
“I’m new in town,” I said as she sat, close enough for her scent to touch me. Cold and elemental, the smell reminded me of glacial wind. (Phantosmia, I assumed. An olfactory hallucination.)
A gold collar-bar fastened her high-necked blouse. This dainty elegance belied the stalwart strength baked into her face. Brown and seamed as a Prairie woman from a desolate era, she assessed me. “You look careworn, dear.”
“We seem to have that in common,” I mumbled, unable to budge my gaze from her weathered face or those dolorous, winter eyes. “Soulful lives,” I heard myself say, though I felt soulless.
“Oh, yes.” She shifted closer, and the heartsink in her gaze pushed me back. “Soul is our dark awareness as human beings. We know that everything we love we will lose.”
Stiffening with mild alarm, she pulled away. “Forgive my forwardness. We’ve just met. My name is Arethusa Xenakis.”
“John Prosper.” Her presence touched me with the most forlorn melancholy, and I verged on a place where all is darkness.
Strictly out of fear of losing myself there, I began to speak. “My suffering isn’t that philosophical—or unfamiliar these days.” I told her my soldier’s story.
Her eyes brightened. “Doctor Prosper, this is a serendipitous meeting.” She tipped her snaggle-toothed smile toward me. “I believe I have a residence for you not far from here—and gainful employment!”
The joy in her seamed face delayed my distrust, and I brightened when she said, “My niece’s work requires someone with medical experience. To help with her clients.”
I imagined medical care of the homeless or a recovery program for street addicts. “What work is that?”
“She is an alchemist.”
Darkness clouded my heart again. “Turning lead into gold?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“I’m not qualified.” I tried to shrug off my disappointment, but the splendor of the morning had already depreciated to the sparkle of cheap jewelry. “I’m a medical doctor, not a doctor of philosophy.”
“Lead into gold. It’s a metaphor.” She read my letdown with those arctic eyes. “Think of it as transforming sickness into health. That’s what you’re trained to do.”
I averted my gaze to the jigsaw shadows under the trees. “What does alchemy have to do with healing sickness?”
“Medicine heals the body.” She said this in the flat tone of the obvious. “Alchemy heals the soul. Healing is about keeping body and soul together, yes?”
No, I thought, having seen nothing of soul and too much of body. But I shrugged and replied, “I don’t know.”
She returned a frown of temperate understanding. “My niece can provide a pleasant place to live.” With a gentle slap to my knee, she stood. “It’s a paying job. If it’s not to your liking, move on.”
Even my addled brain recognized the logic of that.
She spoke the address to me quietly and clearly, and then added, “It’s a stationery shop called Inklings. The name is lifted from the book club that thrived at Oxford University in the Thirties and Forties. You’ve heard of them?”
“Tolkien was a member,” I recalled. “And C. S. Lewis.”
“Yes,” she affirmed smartly and with a cheery “Ta!” ambled off into the spangled morning.
Inklings occupied the ground floor of a Federation style house: two-stories of brick and stucco with a turret roof and corbeled chimneys. I approached a bay window that exhibited fine, wood-barreled pens, expensive French inks, and jade chops with red sticks of wax.
Tucked among a display of embossed journals stood a slender volume with a blue unmarked cover—the precise object that had been appearing in my recurring nightmare.
A thin wind cried in my ears.
I entered the shop with a thoughtless, gauzy mind. Delicate chimes from a cluster of silver bells above the door announced my presence.
Out of a back room beyond a kiosk of stationery samples, a slender woman emerged, smoking a clove cigarette. Rambunctious auburn hair and bold eye makeup adorned a pale face, middle-aged and world-weary as a gypsy’s.
She stopped abruptly as if surprised, though her painted features showed no emotion. Tilting her head for me to follow, she returned the way she had come.
I hesitated. My moment of decision pivoted on the dream feeling of that slender book in the display window. If I opened it, I knew I would find blank pages. Yet…
My dead gathered close.
Walking with them past the kiosk to the back room, I parted its macramé curtain. A smell of humidity mothered by rain invited me. I stepped down two slate steps into a gallery of blue sunshine.
Bales of clouds jammed several long skylights. A glass wall looked out on profuse beds of red poppies and purple rhododendron. Curlicues of floral scents seeped through slanted louvers near the ceiling.
The smoking woman sat in a big rattan chair with a fan back. She studied me quietly.
Behind her, a viola inclined against an assemblage of wall racks holding curious objects, including an hourglass in a housing of fingerbones, two armadillo shells, framed photos of crop circles, a ruff of eagle feathers, dowsing rods, assorted rocks and crystals, porcelain masks, nautilus sections, and a clutch of leather-bound volumes with spines marked in cryptic glyphs.
She gestured with her fuming cigarette for me to sit opposite her in an upholstered armchair, a bulky club chair of indigo fabric.
Staring at her leather pants with zipper seams and bloomer ruffles at the hips, I sat and shifted uncomfortably. A spate of foolishness gripped me.
Only the blue book in the store front window held me in place. “Your aunt told me you’re looking to hire a medical doctor…”
A sterling post glinted from the corner of a full mouth, lips precisely defined with radish-red lipstick. “Arethusa?”
“Yes. I met her in a small park three blocks from here.”
She drew on her black cigarette, savored the inhalation, and exhaled languidly. “There is no park three blocks from here. And my Aunt Arethusa Xenakis—my great-aunt actually, the original owner of this shop—she drowned over a century ago.”
My head felt congested. “I don’t understand.”
“Nor do I, really.” She stubbed out the butt of her cigarette in a tray of blue petrified wood on an ebony side table. “The park is something I call a Pardes phenomenon.” She crossed her legs, and I almost lost the train of the conversation staring at her black suede ankle boots. Each crimson heel had an Eye of Horus stenciled at the back, and white clouds imprinted the blue soles like a Magritte sky.
I snapped my attention back to what she was saying about Pardes meaning ‘orchard’ in Persian.
“We get our word ‘paradise’ from it,” she went on even as I began bending forward to push myself out of the chair and spare my damaged brain her lunacy.
“The Pardes in Jewish legend is a reflection of heaven that appears briefly at unpredictable places in the world. I believe you met my great-aunt in the Pardes.” Her expression sharpened. “As for the dead. Well, they’re always around us. As you know too well.”
My voice sounded like an echo. “Pardon me?”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” She lowered her chin knowingly. “Your dead brought you here. The blue book in the window.”
My impaired nerves couldn’t sort her uncanny knowledge, and I stood up and swayed forward into a dizzy swirl.
“Please sit. You’re going to faint.”
I sat. All the fibers in my body brightened. “How do you know about the blue book?”
“Oh, that’s just a soul tag.” She dismissed the strangeness of it with a wave of her heavily ringed hand. “I saw it in my mind’s eye when you first came in. I took a guess your dead have been using it to mark this shop, so you would recognize it.”
“Who are you?”
“Cybilla Rayne.” She opened her wide-sleeved arms, exposing all the chicanery of her rugged medallions and Celtic knot talismans tangled with ribbons and ruffled scarves. “Like you, a trauma broke me. That was long ago. I’ve had some time since to get used to progressing in other ways.”
My jeweled clarity passed away at the mention of trauma. I knew again there was something wrong with me, which made her sound right. Something dire and without cure. And I was once more disquieted by this spooky woman who progressed in other ways.
“The blue book that caught my attention,” I muttered. “You saw that in your mind’s eye?”
“Yes, yes. Tell me now, who are you?”
The moment turned grimy. “You know about the blue book—but you don’t know my name?”
“I’m an intuitive, not a mind-reader.” She glowered with annoyance. “Tell me who you are.”
“I’m John Prosper.” Just saying my name filled my head with helium, and I had to grip the arms of the chair to keep from rising. “I served as a medical officer with the First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. I was wounded in Afghanistan.”
I couldn’t hold on any longer and rose to my feet. “I told all this to your aunt—and you’re informing me … she’s a ghost?”
“Doctor Prosper, please, sit down.” Cybilla turned her attention to one of her rings. “I wouldn’t call my great-aunt a ghost. The ambition of ghosts is to be seen. Arethusa would rather not be seen. She made a huge exception in your case.”
“You realize how daft that sounds?”
“As daft as what you’re doing?” She pointed with her kohl-rimmed eyes to my shoes.
I looked down at my feet hovering two inches above the slate floor!
With a sharp gasp, I cringed and collapsed back into the armchair.
“My God!” I cried yet heard no sound. All air had fled my lungs, and I couldn’t draw a breath.
“Relax, John.” Cybilla calmly approached and knelt before me. “Just relax. Breathe.”
I tried but couldn’t inhale. My diaphragm had gone rigid and hot.
Cybilla spoke with care, “This type of levitation is called transvection. Nothing to be alarmed about.” She removed the ring she had been gazing into, a wide band of machine-faceted gold threads glittering as if embedded with tiny gems. “Transvection is something Tibetan monks do every now and then.”
She tugged at the soft gold clasps cinching the threads, lengthened the coiled strands enough to fit me, and slipped the ring of bright filaments over my left thumb.
Immediately, my lungs inflated, and I began breathing normally. My mind cleared, as well—and my first thought was I had hallucinated.
“It’s all hallucinated,” Cybilla confirmed, holding my left hand between both of hers. “We’ll chat up the science of it sometime, to ease your rational mind. But for now, just sit here and breathe normally while I make us some tea.”
She strode across the gallery and disappeared through a stained-glass door with some medieval image of a serpent draped over a cross.
Did she just read my mind? Again? Am I still hallucinating?
Those thoughts carried no alarm. Calmness covered me for the first time since my coma. I turned to gaze out the window and let daylight knock against my face.
Everything looked—and felt—ordinary once more, with no hint of the panic that had wrenched me just moments ago.
The clear day with its bundles of clouds, peaceful flowers and looping butterflies asserted its normalcy. And though the shock of my hallucination had dwindled entirely away, the blue book from my recurring dream still sat in the front window.
I got up and returned to the shop. I took the blue volume from the display and flipped through its blank pages. The exactitude of its dimensions and color fixed me to the center of the earth.
False memory, I reckoned. My post-traumatic brain had retrofitted this real book to my recurring dream image. Another delirium from my battle-scarred nervous system.
The crispness of that insight wholly steadied me. I returned the book to its place in the window and thought of quitting this dainty shop and its very eccentric proprietor.
I would go back to the pocket park and confirm that the experience I had there was not a false memory or an elaborate hallucination. The old woman, who had also worn quirky clothing, no doubt belonged to the same cracked cult as Cybilla Rayne. Who knows what scam they’re running!
I removed the band of woven gold from my thumb and left it on the counter next to the cash register. As I turned to go, night opened in my chest. I staggered a step and took a knee to keep from fainting.
Tottering woozily, I peered over a plummeting void into coal-tar depths. The rogue voice I’d first sensed on yesterday’s flight returned: They are going down always.
All those wounded I could not save, I presumed. But why haunt me? No medic can save everyone. That had seemed matter-of-fact at the time.
Now, pity cut through my heart for everyone who had given their last moments to me—the soldiers, civilians, even the enemy combatants who had died under me.
They are going down always. And they are fallen already, far behind the world, stranded in the darkest precincts of nowhere.
I heard the vivid clatter of teacups and saucers. Then Cybilla crouched beside me. She smelled like something brisk and blue, a frosty winter morning. How could anyone smell like that? Was I having a stroke?
“You can’t remove the band just yet,” she asserted gently, as if to a child, and took my left hand. Once again, she fit the ring to my thumb. “Your mind is a dream. And it’s fractured. You’ll need time—and effort—to heal.”
As soon as she replaced the ring on my thumb, everything sharpened familiarly. With her pressing that close, I could smell the human musk of her warmth, and that fit me appropriately to the moment.
“What just happened?” I whispered, afraid I might fall apart again. “A moment a go…”
“You were losing your mind.”
“I feel steady now.” Hypnosis, I figured.
Kneeling there on the slate floor, in obeisance to something unfathomable, I really needed to know what was happening to me, and I resorted again to reason.
I recalled from a psych lecture how experienced hypnotherapists could induce hallucinations covertly. We are never more than five minutes from trance.
I touched my forehead to the floor. No wonder she wears all that circus frippery: to distract while she mesmerizes!
“But wait—” I heard reason. Hypnosis can’t remedy nerve damage.
“It’s natural to rationalize experiences of nonordinary reality,” Cybilla said, helping me to my feet. “Go with it. Tell yourself whatever you need to feel safe. Everything will come clear in time.”
“My brain was injured in the war.” I peered into her honey-lit eyes. Talk about hypnosis. “How can a ring change that?”
She smiled softly. “Shall we have that tea?”
The Alchemist’s Art
I sat again in the indigo armchair facing a fractional view of the sunny garden. Light banking off the flower beds washed the air with transparent hues.
The tea, pale gold, filled my sinuses, its sweetness very like anise. Cybilla called it “ancient lotus” tea and explained that it originated in Viet Nam’s Thai Nguyan province, where a thousand lotus flowers went into the natural scenting of one kilo.
I felt quiet again inside. The luminous room and the fragrant tea seemed to cancel the brutality that had broken my life.
“I’m not sure what’s happening—or what I’m doing here.” I addressed the woven threads of 22 carat gold on my thumb. “My dissonance—it’s gone. But if I remove this ring…”
“Doctor Prosper, you’re here because you have freed the light inside you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Understanding is optional.” She leveled an ardent stare. “The light you freed illuminates the entire universe. Even the shadows.” Her voice shrank almost to a whisper. “The shadows conspired, and you have been sent here.”
My attention deepened. “By your deceased great-aunt.”
“You suspect some kind of trickery.” Cybilla sipped her ancient lotus tea. Her brash eyes slimmed. “And wonder if I’m delusional.”
“Actually, what I’m wondering is how you hypnotized me so swiftly—and profoundly.” I looked in vain for her theatrical features to affirm or deny. “My brain injury makes me highly suggestible. I’m sure of that. You began by inducing a surreal hallucination. You made me feel that I had ‘levitated’—a trance effect meant to shake me up, to snap me out of my depressive syndrome. And that shock—or perhaps another suggestion following the shock—restored the clarity I had lost in Afghanistan.”
“I’m not a hypnotist.”
“What are you then?” I leaned forward aggressively. Clarity hammered down all the details around me. “I feel like myself once more. Really myself. How can this be?”
“I’m an alchemist.” She took another sip, and her eyebrows lifted critically as she reconsidered. “Perhaps that’s misleading. Most people think alchemy is protoscience. Antiquated and misguided.”
I wondered if I was still in a hypnotic trance and her banter was setting me up for the next suggestion. I took a slow breath and, with a long exhale, relished the ease that had settled over me. It felt real enough. “So—what then is alchemy?”
“Chrysopoeia, alkahest formations, and the recovery of the lapis.” She smiled warmly, assuring me that this woolliness suggested a happy fate for her. “I’ll explain all that in time. And you’ll come to understand how this ring you’re wearing, this alchemic gold, binds your body and soul together. Not with hypnosis. Or magic. Alchemy is esoteric science.”
“Science?” My eyes pinched with doubt—even as I marveled at my renewed clarity. Obviously, I had misdiagnosed my symptoms. My nervous system was not impaired. My mind was. Three days in a coma had diminished my mental defenses, and the horrors I had witnessed in battle and suppressed afterward had simply overwhelmed me upon waking.
Somehow, this mentalist had gentled those horrors. “Your science stabilized me. In some mysterious way, it works. This method, whatever it is, has the potential to lift misery from a lot of people.”
“Doctor, not all knowledge should be shared.” Her stressed stare reached into me for agreement. “What we know decides how we see the world. And that, in turn, decides the world we see.”
Was this some kind of mesmeric psychobabble? I welded my stare to hers. “What world do you see?”
“A world where you work with me.”
That sat me deeper into the upholstery. The abrupt way she had shifted the conversation convinced me she was working some kind of mind game.
I paused for another slow, deep breath. Outrage at her secrecy competed with awe at finding myself whole, and I asked quietly, deflecting the absurdity of her proposal, “Why does an alchemist need a medical doctor? A wizard would be more helpful.”
“My work is physically dangerous. And wizards are no use setting bones, chelating poisons, or staunching and stitching wounds.”
“Your reference is compelling.” She put her teacup down on the ebony side table and perched herself at the very edge of her chair. “I don’t expect you to accept the reality of the Pardes. Or that my deceased great-aunt sent you here. Not yet. You’re still wondering if your present sanity will last. So long as you wear that ring, what you call ‘dissonance’ cannot touch you.”
“But how is this possible?”
“Gnostech. The ring, it’s gnostic technology. I forged it myself in the alchemy lab out back. The conductive materials use the electroweak field of the body within the electromagnetic frequencies of the environment to shift your attention among the Many Worlds.”
She met my pout with a woeful look. “Understanding isn’t important. Acceptance is.” Crossing her arms and twisting deeper into her seat, she told me, “You should check your military records. Things will have changed now that you’re wearing alchemic gold.”
From among her ruffles and scarves, she produced a smartphone and opened the screen to a browser. “Here. Sign into your VAC account.”
Mystified, I pulled up the website for Veterans Affairs Canada and entered my data. A moment later, I scowled with disbelief.
My service account had changed. The active-duty file indicated that I had sustained superficial injuries in a vehicle accident while on a medical mission at Panjwaii on the date I remembered—but all records of my coma and three-month rehabilitation had vanished.
“This isn’t correct,” I spoke as I scanned my duty file again. “I spent nine weeks in rehab at Saint Anne’s. There’s no record of that here.”
“Because it didn’t happen,” Cybilla said, crossing her arms again. “Not in this branch of the universe. Not this world-line.”
“World-line?” I vaguely recalled the term from a college survey of quantum physics. “You mean like an alternate Earth?”
“Yes.” She spoke in a chilled yet intimate voice. “Alchemic gold opens passage among the Many Worlds, and I’ve situated you on an alternate Earth where your wound does not exist.”
My heart rocked, because I believed her. “How?”
“Everything that can happen does happen in the Many Worlds.” Her voice brimmed with lively horror. “Every possible flutter of every butterfly’s wings is there—and every deterministic outcome to the end of time.”
She ignored my deepening frown and went on: “The light of creation cooling to galaxies shines through the void, shines inside us. Most of reality is lost light, not just out there in the energy divvied up among the vast number of branches we will never know, but in here, in our own minds, as the selves we will never be. Our duty is to see that light, relate with it, and expose all the many worlds of it.”
“For now, you must stop asking that.” She stood. “I promise, your questions will be answered. In time. Right now, I’m late for my theater group. Dress rehearsal.”
She caught my surprise as I again took in her extravagant outfit and audacious makeup.
“Oh! You thought—” She flung a laugh at the ceiling. “This is my costume for Titania, queen of the faeries! Local theater.” Her features sobered, and she stepped closer. “We have much to discuss. For the time being, I need you to trust me. All that matters is that you feel that you are yourself again. Yes?”
I sat in mute agreement.
“If you stay here, I will tell you more. You can learn for yourself how this technology directly affects the physical body. That’s what you want to know, isn’t it? Why your brain works when you wear my gnostech—and doesn’t work so well when you don’t.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Arethusa sent you. You must be important.”
“I honestly don’t know. But I trust Arethusa. And I would like you to stay for a while. That’s why I’m offering you a job.”
“I’m not sure what you’re hiring me to do.”
“I’m employing you as a medical doctor. You’ve been tried in combat. Your skills are proven. I will double what the military paid.”
My disbelief showed. “I earned over $148,000 a year as a medical officer.”
Without even a blink of her purple eye shadow, she responded, “I will pay you twice that. In advance. If you find that you can’t abide my work, you can leave at any time and keep these funds. Start a new life.”
She accurately read the depth of my incredulity, turned and walked over to the wall racks. From under one of the armadillo shells, she retrieved a small, green velvet pouch.
She sat beside me on the arm of the upholstered club chair and tugged open the sack. It contained a score of cut diamonds.
After rummaging among them, she selected a sizable one. “Here’s a marquise of seven carats with pavilion facets of exceptional fire.” She held it up with thumb and forefinger, and it could have been empty air between those crème crimson nails.
Then, she angled it into a sunray, and delicate fairies spread fragile rainbow wings among the oval’s fifty-eight facets. “Colorless and flawless, it will fetch several hundred thousand dollars. My jeweler in Hastings Street will pay you on the spot.”
She placed the diamond in my palm, and the beauty of it twisted wonder through me. “Where did you get these?”
“Intuition.” She jiggled the pouch in her lap and made a gravelly noise with the gems. “This cache I located some years ago during a trek in Alaska. It was lost in the 1790s by the Golikov Company of Russia. They had been trading diamonds for sea otter furs. Tlingits attacked their trade post, and the coffer with these diamonds fell into the river. I found it where two centuries of estuary currents had buried it, in a marsh on Baranof Island.”
“You just sensed it was there?”
“I sense wealth by feeling for the lost light of gems, precious metals, valuable objects. I follow deep intuition.” She gave a quick disconsolate shrug: It’s what I do. Then added, “Would you rather receive payment in gold? Or emeralds? I have those in the house as well. All found during my travels and legally claimed.”
“Never.” She stood up, repelled. “Money is a forceful carrier of Sumerian magic. Its binding power is far too compelling for me to manage.”
“You enjoy baffling me, don’t you?” I only half-teased.
The air hummed with the humor in her midnight-painted eyes. “Google it. Sumer invented much of what we take for granted, like geometry, writing, how we measure time—and money. The spell that those magi cast five thousand years ago materialized the manufactured world we live in.”
I moved to return the diamond.
She waved the stone away. “It’s yours.” She replaced the green pouch on the rack beneath the armadillo shell. “I’ll get you the address of my jeweler. He knows this rock. You can convert it to cash today. Then, the Sumerian magic will be yours to deal with.”
She quirked a smile with a hint of pity that assured me she wasn’t kidding.
Surface Area of the Soul
Before the taxi arrived to take me to Hastings Street, Cybilla showed me my room, actually a suite on the second floor at the front of the house. French doors connected three high-ceilinged rooms of fanlights, window nooks and casement seats. Daylight gushed off white walls and among minimalist ebony furniture.
She had her theater group to attend to, and I sat alone for a while on the edge of a platform bed pondering my life’s astonishing turn.
I twisted the gold ring on my thumb. Dare I remove it and test again its hypnotic effect? If I called Veterans Affairs with the alchemic ring removed would I hear the telephone voice identify my original medical records and combat history?
Memory of a more oracular voice stalled me. They are going down always.
I had heard enough of that. I determined to trust the mysterious therapy of my new employer—and verify her claims.
Through the bedroom’s large bay window, I watched a taxi slide to the curb. On the ride downtown, I marveled at my emotional lucidity. Or, rather, I sat appalled at how thoroughly my years in combat had traumatized me—and wondered at the efficacy of hypnotic suggestion.
The Hastings Street jeweler, an elderly gentleman with a distinguished silver goatee and wearing an immaculate midnight blue suit immediately recognized Cybilla’s diamond.
Before I even showed him her note of sale, he proposed to transfer over three hundred thousand dollars to my bank account. From a shining space behind my eyes, I witnessed this electronic transaction speechless.
Later, I tried to question him about Cybilla Rayne. But he knew very little, only that she occasionally sold him precious gems of impeccable provenance.
When I finally presented him with Cybilla’s round business card, he closely read the note on the back, written in mauve ink with her graceful hand and circular signature. Then, he tucked the card in his vest pocket and promptly produced her salvage papers, titles of claim, and tax receipts for Alaskan diamonds, Bolivian emeralds, and Australian opals.
On the ride back to Inklings, I had the taxi cruise nearby blocks, looking for the compact park where I had met the steampunk crone. I kept widening the search until my flabbergasted mind had to accept that no such park existed in the area.
Returning to Cybilla’s brick and stucco house, I ambled along the side lane toward the backyard. A tall privet hedge banked the neighbor’s side of the lane, and its stippled shade enclosed me so peacefully I decided to inspect my situation once more. Standing in mosaics of shadow, I gently tugged the plaited ring from my thumb.
Bituminous feelings smoldered. And I trembled with cold heat at the urgent edge of the moment.
When I jammed the ring back into place, normalcy flowed again. Shimmering with relief, thoughts zigzagged. So long as I wore the ring, everything felt ordinary. And yet—nothing was ordinary!
At this moment in my self-narrative, I still thought I knew how the world worked. I would uncover the medical explanation for my recovery. And I’d unravel Cybilla Rayne’s spellbinding secrets. Maybe not only hypnosis. Maybe a hallucinogen. In the tea! And as for the ghost in the park…
Quite likely, after I had stumbled into Inklings, Cybilla had implanted a false memory, of the park and of Arethusa.
I mulled this over as I continued along the lane. She had paid me an exorbitant sum—for what? To continue using my damaged brain for more of her antics?
Except … my brain didn’t feel damaged any longer.
I came to the end of the lane, and the dramatic beauty of the backyard stilled me. A gazebo of dark wood and scarlet lattices centered an oval garden.
Green Tara’s statue sat serenely in a bed of fawn lilies at one side of the garden. Opposite, a marble of Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi posed among oriental poppies and rhododendron.
A moon-lit version of the boisterous garden reflected darkly in the tinted sheet glass enclosing the verandah. I peeked in, and when I saw the gallery was empty, I chose to sit outside.
The lustrous fragrances of the garden led me along a spiral path of smashed quartz to the center.
From the gazebo, I admired the surrounding blooms and noticed deeper in the yard, beyond a stand of Himalayan birch, a small cottage. Angular as a chapel, the raw wood structure exhibited a bewitching fusion of medieval and ultramodern.
I stepped to the edge of the gazebo to examine this fairy tale house of Japanese timber construction and ribbon windows. I realized this must be Cybilla’s alchemy lab, where she had fashioned the ring of enigmatic gold.
Silhouettes of people moved briskly inside. Then, several flamboyant figures emerged from the slant door. Horizontal rays of sun swiveled among the boughs and illuminated a happy bunch of motley revelers as they came prancing through the birches.
Here was Cybilla’s theater group: I identified Puck in tattered green knee breeches—and Oberon wearing the blossom crown of a fairy king.
They drew close enough for me to see their gleeful faces, and recognition flashed with electrifying force.
These were men and women who had died in my care during my time as a medic. I’d seen the light go out in each of their faces, and yet here they were, brighter than ever.
The absurdity of the moment sat me down hard on the gazebo bench, an unstrung puppet. And I began to weep. Softly at first, then muffled sobs.
Reality had split into the error of everything I had ever known and this newness. This strangeness. Sugared with impossible joy. And bitter with tragic awareness of our larger reality.
My crying got the attention of the players. I rose to meet them and wiped my eyes with my palms. The dreamy unreality of what was happening steadied my emotions, and I beckoned them closer so I could speak with them, the lost light of my dead.
In this life, we did not know each other. Some of the Afghans resided as immigrants, others overseas transfer students, and two Canadians served with units stationed at a nearby base. All were enjoying cultural opportunities in Vancouver and happened to share a weekly theater group that met in Cybilla Rayne’s backyard cottage.
They chatted briefly with the emotionally florid man in the gazebo, answering a few of my outlandish questions before hurrying on. The war in Afghanistan had never happened. A western alliance repelled the Soviet invasion of 1979, and peace reigned in that rugged, long-suffering country.
Cybilla, still in her Titania gear, appeared in the doorway to the timber cottage. She waved casually for me to come. Confident I would follow, she turned and disappeared inside.
My first lesson in alchemy awaited. I wavered, grasping the gnostech ring. An imperative part of me wanted to twist it off my thumb, throw it away, and reclaim my original self.
Could I return to my broken brain and a madness that is sane, that makes sense? Or did I really want this extraordinary sanity that is totally mad?
They fell with Lucifer, the whole way down burning.
For a long while, I stood in the garden. I just stood there, watching daylight flash through the birches like bright omens. There was no reason to rush. I had all the time in the worlds.