I don’t know my beginning, but I became aware of myself inside a cabin with two men and an old spherical astrolabe, which they always promised would one day produce fire in the mound of kindling they’d piled beneath it. The men had black beards, long hair, plaid shirts, and suspenders. They ate strips of raw, salted fish as they sat cross-legged around the astrolabe’s cluster of bronze rings. They stared at the sticks, twigs, and leaves they’d gathered and placed below it.
They promised me there would one day be a fire that would flash white, green, blue, yellow, and crimson like no other source of light I’d seen. They always complimented me on how still I sat, and I sat waiting for longer then I felt I was actually there, until I realized that the fire wouldn’t come, because they always flew into a rage whenever I suggested the nearby museum as a source of help. I suggested it because thick, black-yellow smoke emerged from the chimneys set atop its Georgian architecture.
Eventually, for some reason, I couldn’t sit any longer, I just could not sit still. I left, and ran. They gave chase, but fell behind as the museum came within sight.
There were pale yellow flowers on the long field stretching towards the museum. It went between a creek hidden behind a veil of trees on one side and a lane of calm, shattered castles on the other. The pale yellow flowers all emitted a soprano aria from their bulbs, one that rose up, it’s said, to Saturn. Rain fell over the field, but the sound waves from the flowers’ singing burst the droplets into a mist drifting down instead.
I saw a group of deacons cloaked in light pink vestments running down the museum’s steps.
I walked across the field, getting closer. They ran by me, and I felt the breeze from them passing.
The deacons fleeing the museum showed signs of extreme psychological trauma.
I tried stopping one to ask what she had seen, but when I touched her shoulder she spun about with her arm outstretched. Her hand struck my mouth and I felt the left side of my upper lip swell a little as it went numb. She wept while speaking rapidly and without coherence as she backed away. Her hands trembled as she turned again towards her flight across the field with the other deacons.
Her blow knocked me back onto the ground where I lay among the floral choir. I got up through their song and I continued on to the museum.
I looked up when I passed through the revolving glass doors and entered the cavernous front hall. The ceiling had once been lit with light bulbs arranged in constellations, but all had burnt out except one or two still flickering with decreasing frequency. The gold and black tiles of the hall’s floor continued past the abandoned ticket counter, between stone columns stolen from a distant land, strange books on display stands, and towards a white marble statue which served as the museum’s first exhibit.
A man sparred with the statue on the pedestal. He fought with his bare knuckles. He wore combat boots, black cargo pants, and a black hoodie with its hood pulled up. He had a pale face and a red tint to his eyes. He bounced on his toes, shifting his legs back and forth while the statue remained cold and still. He struck it with two right jabs to its stone cheek before landing a left cross on its forehead. He ducked back before firing a flurry of uppercuts into its stone stomach. He had evidently been at this for some time, as the white marble statue was heavily coated with patterns of dry, crusted blood, and the man’s hands had been severely disfigured by broken—then badly reset—bones. They’d swollen black and blue behind torn, scabbed, and bleeding knuckles. He apparently no longer felt the pain from the blows he landed.
The statue was of a human figure with a sneer on its lips while its eyes looked up to the right. Its left hand rested on its hip and its right hand gestured off to the side.
Each page of the books open stands around the room showed displays of pale yellow leaves that had been pressed and dried. They rattled and fluttered while speaking to the man sparring with the statue, each saying “The snow is so cold outside, stop, soothe your hands, your poor burning hands, it’s so nice outside…”
“Don’t listen to them,” the man on the pedestal said to me. “Take a look out the front door for yourself.”
I ran back to the revolving glass doors through which I’d entered, wondering how much the weather could have changed since then.
Through the doors I saw the lane of castles, the tree ridge, and the long field now blanketed with a thick coat of snow as a blizzard raged downwards. I saw the fleeing deacons frozen mid-stride in the distance through the flurries carried by howling winds.
“They died in the storm?” I said over my shoulder to the man on the pedestal.
“Yes…but that storm only strikes those who leave,” he said. I saw him land a hook on the statue’s side. “Anyone getting close right now is still following a field of blooming tulips.”
I shook my head with my eyes shut tight.
“That means you’ll freeze if you go out there,” I said.
“Now you’re using your noggin,” said the man. He ducked and weaved through imagined jabs. “I’ll freeze, as will you, and anyone else who goes out after they’ve come in.”
“I can’t go back,” I said, and the man said nothing. He let me absorb the thought I’d spoken out loud. I walked to the statue on the pedestal and told the man how I’d gotten there.
“I hate to be the one to tell you, but you’ll realize all the rest have too, finding themselves in that cabin, guarded by the two men, before seeing through their facades, and coming to this…institute for some real answers,” the man stopped boxing with the statue as he leaned on his knees. He let out a wheezing laugh. The breath he exhaled came out as steam from under his hood.
“Are there answers here?” I said.
“In a way,” said the man.
I said “how do I find them? What do I need?”
“You need the kind of masochism that horrifies the faithful,” he said.
He went back to sparring with the statue.
I thought of the traumatized deacons I’d met as they fled the museum.
I thought of the two men in the cabin who stared at kindling under the spherical astrolabe.
As I did, I looked past the man and the statue he fought to the large, Birchwood double doors behind which lay further branches of the museum. The black ink on them showed a huge a multitude of tiny, intricately drawn figures moving towards—and falling over—a downwards curve of the line on which they stood, with the whole piece becoming an increasingly blotchy splatter of blobs as my eye moved down.
“What will I find past there? Where’s the end?” I said.
“It’s hard to say—I grabbed the first spot,” he said, “but I’ve heard of a room with a monk who gives in to temporary insanity, smashes the furniture, and attacks all who are still inside with the broken leg of a wooden table; but of course, he finds it very rude if you confronts him about his violence when he’s calm…others have talked about places where people lie on their fronts while allowing their night terrors to squat on their backs and suck patches of skin between their shoulder blades into purple blemishes…I know there’s a hall somewhere filled with painful—but not fatal—gases, where you can only escape by following the instructions of a guide whose gas mask muffles their words…word has also gotten around of a torture room where each session finishes with the victim writing an apology to their torturer, using their own blood, because working the machines that administer such suffering is hard on the wrists of the operator, apparently.” The man looked down at his own bloodied, broken, and swollen hands. “But they’ll find no sympathy from me.” He chuckled and continued boxing with the statue. “In addition…” he started saying.
“No,” I said. “Stop. My palms just get getting clammier whenever you tell me…but, I know I can’t go back…I need to see these places, don’t I?”
The man nodded.
“What now?” I said.
“You go and find your pain,” said the man boxing on the pedestal with the marble statue.
Before I went to do so I looked at his disfigured hands. I turned and walked back to the abandoned ticket counter. I rummaged through its drawers until I found a thick roll of tape. I taped my hands and wrists to keep the bones inside set and to pad my knuckles. I walked back to the double doors.
My mouth opened and I looked down. After a moment, I looked up, closed my jaw and shut my eyes. I shook my head as I placed my hands on the handles of the Birchwood doors, opened them, and entered the rest of the museum.
Paul Edward Costa has published in Timber Journal, Entropy, Thrice Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, The J.J. Outre Review, The Eunoia Review, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Dryland: Los Angeles Underground Art and Writing, Rainfall Books (Space Adventures #4) and other periodicals. His novella "Dark Magic on the Edge of Town" is available on Amazon from Paperback-Press.