Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Mistress of the Labyrinth

by Ash Hibbert


The girl before me is dreaming.

She reaches out, and I feel her touch a metal rung as she begins to climb through the murky darkness. Out of the cavern we ascend. She reaches up to unlock the portal with her perfect childhood hand, and pushes the cover aside.

Light streams down into the abyss. She looks down weary with relief, and for the first time I see her face.

It is mine.

She climbs over the threshold and overs the portal, locking it secure. Darkness falls abruptly, so certain as if to proclaim, "Light -- that too is but a dream."

The platform below dissolves, eaten by the abyss. The ladder rungs quickly follow, and I am hanging in space. There is no ladder, and I close my eyes.

I am falling.

There is a maze above the portal where I remember none in real life. The mirrored walls catch me and turn me around. I reach a dead end. I am suffocating -- I collapse. I hear a whisper. I look up to see the reflection of my kneeling figure in a doorway and a figure approaching me from behind.

"Take my hand," Theo says. He is smiling, and I stand. We begin to walk hand in hand. He leads me towards a wall and steps through it as if it were not there. Yet for me it is. I am alone...

"Theo."

Looking from the door of the bathroom I see a labyrinth of several levels, each containing a closed sub-maze, all leading to the room I stand in now.

Theo places a hand on my shoulder. I don't want him to touch me. Don't touch me don't touch me don't touch me ... We embrace. I cry.

"Hey -- come on. You don't want to be late," he warns.

"What's the hurry?"

"I'm leaving."

"No you're not."

"I'm leaving."

"No-You're-NOT."

"It's all right. It's all right."

I begin to hit him with clenched fists. But it's too late. He begins to fade. Now I try to hold him.

"Come back, you bastard. Please -- Come back ..."

But he is gone.

Morning sunlight streams through the bathroom window and I know it is a beautiful day. I quickly wash my hands for breakfast. Today I will see my lover. Today is the first day of my new life. Today, I enter the kitchen.

I poor myself a mug and walk to the window. Noise comes from the kitchen. I turn back.

Something is wrong.

A mad man has taken over the kitchen and it is filled with smells, sounds, scents, and a million unnameable substances, boiling on the edge of explosion in a giant cauldron that he stirs.

"Father ... "I ask, cautiously, "Father, what is happening?"

He turns to me. He can not -- must not -- be my father. He opens his mouth and screams at me. There is no sound. There must not be.

The rising sun streams golden light onto me. Propping myself on an elbow, pushing back the fragments of bad dreams, I look out.

The city is already in motion. It does not rest, but it does sleep. It is always asleep. It dreams too -- it dreams us.

Digital ambrosia bathes my body. The sun silhouettes the industry, the vast towers that scrape the sky. Like lady bugs distant vehicles plough through the air.

I quickly shower.

Dressed in tight white, I am ready. The city is building up momentum. The sun grows in intensity. People are waking. The city is growling, calling -- alive.

I exit.

On a cliff face overlooking the city, the wind is great. It washes over me and catches my hair, obscuring my vision and tickling my chilled skin. I want to let go. I am here, looking down at the plain below, and I am ready to laugh, amazed at my mad courage. I try releasing one hand from the wall which I cling to, leaning out to catch the suns rays. The morning light is a song I wish to dance to, and I will.

A great gush of new air battles me, and I swing back, climbing again but faster. I clamber over protrusions, utilising ever gap and slither that offers itself passively to me. A hand appears in front of me, and I take it eagerly -- it is Hannah. She is a regular here as well. We smile, and hug warmly. Her student sits idly on the opposite precipice. But I know he is watching as gliders launch from the single, long platform, and following them in their journey. He will watch their route, and keep track of the one amongst the hundred. For even with the sun still low the sky is dotted with gliders.

Gliders fly naked, some believe. True, yet only in metaphor. If earth is our clothing, we are naked. If gravity is our chains, we are free of that as well. If being laid to rest in dirt is our destiny, we have none -- catch a good enough updraught and it'll fling you into space. Ecstasy is adjacent to annihilation.

Silence, as another glider takes his place at the edge of the platform, waiting for the wind. Then he swan dives into the open and he is gone from view, descending into the valley, into the city, into the world.

Understand these are not your ordinary gliders. No giant wings, no cocoon. These are butterflies, with suits like flying foxes, catching every available updraught of a dragon city. Clad in silver, surfing the sun, dancing to silence.

The song within the wind is becoming unbearable. I quickly change and Hannah wishes me a good flight. Dressed, psyched, secure, I run up the wooden strip that peers into emptiness, and dive.

Nothing but the wind and the sun.

Accelerating. Accelerating. I am a needle, arms piercing the air, legs as rudders, rock face racing beside me. I am a pebble falling through Jupiter.

I break off, arcing my body slowly, catching bubbles of hot air from the industry below. I stabilise, neither rising nor falling. The city approaches.

Balance.

The land scrolls far, far below. I start to breathe again.

I am a glider. Yet I am also a dweller of the city below. To know me, you must both of me. I am the exception to both rules.

Gliders, see, are shunned. We fly high above the landscape of daylight, through the city ambience. While those who trek below do so without envy, they suspect we see something of them they've hidden even from themselves.

Their suspicions are correct.

Down below, it is impossible to see. From up here, however, observation reveals the obvious.

The city is a labyrinth. No kidding.

The city was founded with a plan. Unlike towns that are established on a harbour and allowed to grow with little or no co-ordination, the city is pre-determined, and thus, so are all who walk through its streets. A subtle blend of mock road-works and one-way streets allows only the sense of mobility. In cities, all roads lead to the centre. In this city, all people strive to reach the core. This is an invisible, intentional labyrinth. Desire is the Minotaur -- as those who exist within the city walls strive to reach the centre and are consumed by their desire, to become part of the landscape, dreamless. So obsessed they forget the Why.

Closer you get to the centre, more the destination seems attainable. But higher the walls grow and less direct the path becomes. In the center? Yes, there are people. I have seen them, face to face. I lived amongst them, once. They are my family. So are they not real? They were real, yet no closer to their forgotten goal than those new arrivals who alight from boats in the harbour.

Perhaps they are further from the truth they seek.

For in the city, there are labyrinths within labyrinths, dreams within dreams. Rules of math fade. One plus one begins to equal three.

And why do we not tell?

Up here, the sky is the majority of the world. The horizon is one pure ring that encircles forever. The sun sings for us alone. This is immensity -- overwhelming. To know the depths of the ocean, you must become a fish. To be a fish, you must be willing to stop breathing.

A city of geometry rises up from the labyrinth, and I am approaching it, level with the top of the tallest of buildings. It is the sky scrapers that we fly amongst most. It is here we meet, converge, swoop and climb. Though there are many launch pads, and many paths, this is our common destination.

Yet the city towers carry a dark element: images upon monoliths, giant faces of light, billboards, advertisements -- temptation. It is these panels that see the lives of more gliders extinguished than the outer city floor. For towards these giant images of the streets, gliders reaching for immortality reach into an iris of the face upon the screen -- digits of light, pixels of energy, goddess of the rainbow. It is in the eyes of our contemporary gods that even gliders strive to transcend.

There is a point, even with the best intentions that gliders continue on to their demise, from blue into black. Everyone, once in a while, flies towards an eye. Most break off before reaching the hard reality of the screen -- some don't. Who's smarter? Maybe a reason to die is as good as a reason to live.

We all have our way of postponing death until our next circuit. For some, it is a lover that anchors them in life, for others, a love of the flight. For me, it is a simple adjustment of my glider-suit -- in flying forwards, my glider will deviate if uncorrected, and miss the building all together. Because when I die, I will have chosen death. Life is a participate activity, and death should be the same. For now at least, I am willing to live.

I wave to my friends, those together and those alone. They are the ingredients of this, my new life. A life outside of the city's labyrinth -- though maybe still within its constraints. A life outside the twin towers of my birth and upbringing, where I learnt to speak and to cry. It is there -- several blocks away yet rising above all other buildings in size and grandeur -- that I once lived. A building whose inhabitants, like the building, looked down upon the city.

Don't get me wrong -- my childhood was not unhappy. In that life, my friends and I rediscovered the myths of the ages, trekked through forests and mountain ranges of the mind. Left to our own devices we learnt the intricacies of the inner maze, asked the questions aware of the lack of answers.

One day we were cruising along the river that runs through the city. As the boat slowly wound its way between the banks, occasional groups of young men would wolf-whistle or gaze down in mesmerised silence. Most of my girlfriends ignored them. I couldn't help but smile. When I told father, he said I could have any of them I chose. At that age, I took it as any of my contemporaries would have -- flattery. As I grew older, however, would begin to understand what he meant.

My father is a man of power, you see. Not of economics, though, or of politics, but of people. He is the master of geometry, the architect of the maze. He controls the tracks -- the path is our choice, yet the destination was always his. For those born into the geometry abide by geometry.

But the illusion is not complete, you say. For am I not aware of what he does deep in his laboratory at night, and what he did when this city was being rebuilt? For surely the evil genius's daughter must believe in the lie in order to propagate it. But I did believe in it, for a while. And when I had ceased to believe -- I was alone, for a while.

Those who are born into geometry must abide by it. Those who are born outside the city -- well, they can show even gliders what is invisible.

My first student was a wild child, and he taught me to think without speech, and then to speak without words. Theo has been my only student. I taught him how to fly. I gave him wings and in reply he gave me eyes. Before I knew I could love, we were lovers.

There was no point of flux, no period of transition within our relationship. He was a stranger eager to discover the city he had stumbled upon. He waked through the walls of the labyrinth as if they were not there, defied the one-way signs, and talked to the sentries at the gates to this city.

Theo is not someone you can miss easily, even from a thousand feet.

Through the city's heart -- what takes most a lifetime to reach on foot, he had achieved in days -- he walked, and it was there that we came to understand each other.

Brought to earth by his golden hair, I descended. We talked, opened up. I told him I was a glider -- something I doubt even my father knew, or knows. Still learning to fly myself, I took him under my wings, and every time I flew alone, I would search for him in the streets and the alleyways, where he was more at home then I had ever been.

We loved and lived on borrowed time, however. He came as but a traveller, crossing oceans and deserts. Occasionally he'd tell me of his home: an old, old city that was weighed down by the ghosts of a thousand generations and so had forgotten how to grow. To learn, he had turned away from his teachers. To find a home, he had become a nomad. To grow, he'd had to become a child again. Yet I knew that he was ancient in his experience of loss. And so, I realised he was afraid of gain. He knew the meaning of the giant advertisements on the monolith before he had taken his first flight.

Occasionally, he'd call me his Calypso, and we'd laugh, because the alternative was to cry. Because his departure was set the moment he'd arrived.

He never flew towards the electronic billboard. Some would say he was afraid. But to him, it held no novelty. His whole life was an attempt to hear the siren song without getting caught on the rocks. Those he loved -- those he left behind -- were part of the song.

We rolled our dice and took our chances. We placed ourselves in the situation where we knew we would be tempted. To him, though, staying in this city of labyrinths, like any city, was the same as flying into the iris of an eye. And so he turned away from the city, and from me.

Above the bay the thermals slacken off. I am spiralling like a leaf, down, down, down...

Sand between my toes. The sun is in the zenith. I am waking down the beach towards the surf, stripping as I go. I step onto wet sand. Waves crash against my legs. Waist deep, I dive in as I dived from the platform. I am saline, chilled, and real. I touch the bottom, then launch up, bursting into air beyond the breakers. I close my eyes and let the sea take me. With arms outstretched I bob, the bright noon sun making my world white.

The sea envelops my entire body. The taste of ocean is on my lips, the surf my soundtrack. I am tugged and released by breaths of waves.

I came here often as a child, in happier times. First with my parents and brothers, then with friends, yet eventually with myself.

It has been too long.

It is said that we gliders are as part of the city and as dependant on it as those who walk. But those who live by the maze know only the language of the maze. While it is only the city that sees our wings, we know silence, and so we can speak a language known by all.

It's been two years now since Theodore and I met. Two years since I first loved. Over these two years I've been dwelling over every word, every touch, ever sigh, every gasp. Even with him gone, I go through the motions, as if bringing all our collective rituals back into the world will conjure him into my life.

A language between two people is special, you see. Theo was a linguist -- he knew as I know now that a forgotten language is a terrible loss.

In re-experiencing the dream, I am able to decipher the codes that filled our relationship, the phrases that carry treasure behind every letter. Words that are watermarked. Lessons that can only be learnt long after they are taught.

Theo never told me things. He only showed.

Such as a chain of islands that stretch out into ocean, into mystery. When I knew not what love was, he described his journey here on a cargo-vessel, and mentioned those islands -- their sheer faces, protruding from the wild ocean, levelling off into dense, fern-covered plateaus. Lost worlds.

It is only now I realise he offered me stepping stones away from the city of mazes -- a way to escape.

The labyrinth is held up by the minds of those who desire it. It is only as real as we want it to be. Yes, the city dreams us. But we dream it as well.

I looked out into the east. Today was my last flight within the city ambience. In continuing beyond the city threshold, and flying from island to island, I would enter a future uncertain. But it would be my future.

I would never see Theo again, and more than likely, I would never set foot within my parent's house. But I would love again, so maybe, maybe, I would see Theo again.

And I would find home again.

THE END


© 2008 Ash Hibbert

Bio: Ash Hibbert is a creative writing degree junkie. He has recently finished his novella for a Master of Creative Arts, has completed a Postgraduate Diploma of Creative Writing, and an undergraduate degree in Professional Writing with honors. He has been published in the English-Arabic journal Kalimat, the University of Melbourne journal Strange2Shapes, and is the resident writer of his own web-log, A Cold and Lonely Street.

E-mail: Ash Hibbert (Carbon-based life-forms should replace '_AT_' with '@'. Spambots should sit on ... and rotate.)

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