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Three Short Metaphysical Fictions by Norman Lock



Unreal Geography


I intercepted a letter from the Commission, inquiring about the geography.

"It is an unreal geography," I wrote back. Let them wonder!

I am above all angry. To have been taken out of one's bed and set down here, dazed and confused--well, wouldn't you be?

Yes, yes--they needed a consciousness, one unformed by previous associations. A man, in other words, who did not subscribe. They understood that the members of the expedition projected too much of themselves onto this pure white landscape. And I understood how my presence had become essential. But the cold, the hardships! The unrelenting and ever-present chill of the place!

"Why me?" I shouted at the ragged group on the ice.

I did shout that first morning. I had suffered a cruel displacement. I had gone to bed in Philadelphia only to wake where hell freezes over.

If wake I have.

They pretended not to know what I was talking about.

"Why have you brought me here?" I repeated--calmly this time, to let them know I am a reasonable man, not given to fantasy, although the method of locomotion which had caused me to appear before them could be nothing short of fantastic.

"You signed on," they said, shrugging the way people shrug at the obvious, or the incomprehensible. The same shrugging of the shoulders, as if to be rid of something.

They went about their work, leaving me to get dressed.

So I am the quartermaster: the inventory is my responsibility.

"But I know nothing about quarter-mastering! I am an architect, not a storekeeper!"

They laughed as if at a particularly good joke.

"Then you can help Bowers and Oates build snow walls--for the dogs!"

And I did. What was my alternative?

"Suppose you are dreaming of someone," said Day one evening when we had gone out to check on the dogs. "Suppose he mistakes his dreamed self for reality."

That set me thinking! What if they are dreaming of me? Is that what he was trying to tell me? That this is a dream--mine or someone else's? But he would not say more.

I pinched myself. I'd have chopped off a finger with a snow-ax to be away from here. I pinched myself, but nothing happened. If I'm only a figure in a dream, I might not be able to wake myself. So I sleep on … waiting for the dreamer to wake and give me back my self, where the walls are stone and plumb. And the windows reflect green leaves.

Tonight as I stand watch, the aurora is flickering above Erebus. The glacier rumbles. Far below, under sea-ice, the ocean clenches. It is cold; my hands are dead. It takes all my strength to grip this pencil. I am writing in the lantern's small circle of yellow light.

"The cold on the ice shelf will kill the dogs," Day says when he comes to relieve me. He is crying; the tears freeze on his cheeks like beads of glass. "I have been thinking about houses," he says. He turns his face towards the Bay of Sails.

In the hut the gramophone is playing. I almost weep at the sound of Melba's voice. Wilson and Evans play dominoes, wreathed in cigar smoke. Scott sits apart, fretting over Amundsen. I eat some biscuits and honey and remember my dream of the white field under the cherry trees.

Outside, the ice mounds are waiting to receive us.



The Cruelty of Poetry


In Antarctica, Scott saw an opportunity to enter a realm without meaning, one devoid of symbols. We talked at night about Jules Verne and his Journey to the Center of the Earth, a ragged copy of which we'd read that winter to pass the time before we would once again take up our journey to the pole.

"And where do we look for meaning?" he asked, thumping the cover of the book for emphasis. "In the twists and turns of events--in the surprises that come from information rationed out like your jars of marmalade." He smiled at me who, in my capacity as quartermaster, kept a close watch over our "sweet stores" of honey, chocolate, and jam. "The meaning of our journey is also to be found in the journey itself, is identical to the journey, and has no meaning except as a journey--a twisting and turning of events leading to one irreducible fact defined by a convergence of longitudes. The pole is not an object, gentlemen, it's a geographical convenience. One with no symbolic weight whatsoever."

I remembered the cartoons in the newspaper occasioned by Peary's expedition: the pole had been illustrated by a striped barber pole bearded with ice, flanked by a pair of tuxedoed penguins. It was sheer fantasy, of course; but one which served to emphasize the absence of anything real awaiting us. Scott is right: the object of our journey is non-existent, or exists only as a destination. Its only symbolism--a barbershop, which in its extreme silliness destroys all mythic potential.

"So the whole thing is pointless," I said, feeling more than ever the pangs of homesickness. "The pole is nothing and means nothing."

"Yes!" he shouted. "And that is precisely its beauty. It is pure and perfect in itself. It exists regardless of anyone's attempt to make it meaningful. It is not a thing to be picked up and carried home like a sporting trophy, nor is it susceptible to interpretation or criticism. It is not an expression of some higher truth but the most unimaginative and prosaic of facts. My journal will read like the surveillance notes of a private detective who refused to speculate. The pole has no more nourishment than snow."

"An adventure yarn is what I like best," said Teddy Evans. "Not something by one of those Bloomsbury types with their slim volumes and slim hips!"

"We call the Blue Glacier blue because it looks blue," said Scott, ignoring Teddy's lewd pantomime. "Geography should be descriptive."

Gran remarked that the Bay of Sails sounded suspiciously like poetry. "Takes its name from the drift ice's resemblance to sail boats. That's as pretty a figure of speech as I've ever heard."

Scott was angry. "I want no poetry here! I came to Antarctica to escape interpretation." He sank in his chair, his hands betraying his frustration. "A stone is only a stone until it's thrown through a glass house; then it becomes an adage and admonition. Antarctica has no ulterior meaning. There is nothing beneath the ice except more ice."

But soon after, the pure ideal was debased by Meares, who turned it into a parlor game to wile away our long nights under winter's siege. He and the sledge-men amused themselves by ascribing to our meager possessions arbitrary and ridiculous functions. If things had no meaning, then they bloody well would give them some of their own!

"What's this for then?" he said, holding up a potato peeler.

"To gouge out your eyes. To shove up your bung-hole and take your temperature. To whistle a tune through."

"And this?" He held up a coffee cup.

"To piss in. To throw at Bowers when he's snoring. To slide over the table like a toy iceberg."

"And this?" Meares unbuttoned his fly.

"To test which way the wind blows. To stir your coffee. To tune the Queen's piano."

Scott was not amused. He went into his room and slammed the door--hard, so they'd know what he thought of their childish games.

For myself I don't know what to think of his strange obsession.

"It's the connotations that end up clinging to things he objects to," said Gran, putting actual tobacco in his very palpable pipe in order to smoke it. "You must admire the courage of a man who insists on seeing only what is."

We had stepped outside to look at the Southern Lights. We stared up towards the tongues of flame. The sky seemed full of organ pipes.

Evidently, I had no such courage.

The door of the hut opened. Scott stood in the doorway, trembling with indignation. He tossed Jules Verne's book out into the snow.

"I'm beginning to see things! Depths of meaning!" His voice was anguished.

It was then I knew that poetry could be cruel.



Lath of the World


We went blind with looking. Not all at once and not all together, but slowly, one at a time until we clung to each other like the toy monkeys in a barrel we played with as children. There was terror, of course. Consider where we were and what it meant to be in such a place without eyes. But, curiously, there descended on each of us peace, the peace that comes to one who enters from a vast wasteland into small rooms. The landscape with its appalling limitlessness all at once rushed forward to meet us. Things that had seemed distant were now close--brought within range by the powerful contraction of the horizon. You had only to put out your hand.

"It is best to think of it as a fog," counseled Scott, whose eyes, like ours, were bandaged. "Blue Glacier and Cape Chocolate, Black Island, and, far off, Mount Terror --what we could see had we working eyes and what we could not, except on the map--remain." He raised his voice to be heard above the roar of the primus stove. "They are lost only in the way things are said to be 'lost' in a fog. If we want, we can walk out and touch them like furniture in a dark room."

I remembered coming home late one night from the Society of Architects' annual dinner, trying to pick my way quietly among the chairs only to stub my toe and, yelping, wake Helen. When she turned on the light, things jumped into view as the shadows fled under the table and into the corners of the room.

"It is best to think of it as fog," repeated Scott. "One that will lift and give us back the world again." I listened for the slightest crack in his voice. I think we all did: we would have fallen down it as if through a bottomless crevasse. But the voice was steady.

If I could walk out and touch the Blue Glacier, why not the moon? Or better yet, Cherry Street and the narrow three-story house in which my designs for a residence in bastardized baroque style lay on the table waiting for me to finish them? It's ironic that you should end in a place so unadorned, I thought; although the moonlight on the ice formations is sometimes beautiful in a fantastic way that makes me think of Prague. Perhaps it's not so ironic after all. Perhaps I have been brought here to finish my architectural training in the atelier of a master of illusion. I smiled at the thought.

We are, thankfully, well-provisioned. I counted two-dozen jars of marmalade this morning. Regardless, panic wells up from time to time like ice water through the fissures in our resolve. Scott rigged a ratline running all around the inside of the hut. Using it, we can grope about our business in comparative safety, like a family of blind spiders (though Teddy Evans burnt his fingers on the primus). Gran, the Norwegian, and Nelson even managed a cakewalk to the scratchy music of the gramophone. Later, Ponting showed magic lantern slides of his trip to Japan, which we could not see; but his comically inventive narrative did much to lighten our spirits.

"Tomorrow we go," Scott announced abruptly in the middle of the fun.

We couldn't believe our ears! Go!--how go when the "fog" still had not lifted?

"We cannot afford to linger!" He cajoled and commanded by turns. "We must continue our journey before the winter storms begin in earnest."

"How!"

"I shall spin our web out the door and onto the ice shelf."

I laughed, thinking it a joke; but I didn't know Scott. None of us wanted to leave our granite hut. Clissold baked bread. Ponting took pictures, consoling himself with the click of the shutter and the smell of the magnesium flash. Wilson and Bowers were teaching themselves to play dominoes by touch. The gramophone played as always. Each night I dreamt of Japan. The cherry trees are in full bloom. The white petals rain down, and soon the meadow is white. A mild spring breeze whirls the petals away over the green fields, over the silvery branches towards the sea. Why trade one illusion for another, less clement one?

But Scott had no illusions. The "fog" was for our benefit--he needed no such homely figures to survive absence. He understood better than any of us the reality of the polar regions. Like ours, his eyes had been unavoidably blinded by the surface glitter. But he had never been bewitched by the aurora or the sea's mirror dotted with drift ice. One look at the room in which he slept told all: austere. He would have little patience with my decorations, my pilasters and pendentives. He saw through--to the lath of the world.

We took off our bandages and went out into the night. I saw something, but what it was I couldn't be sure.



A recipient of the Aga Kahn Prize from The Paris Review, Norman Lock has published fiction in leading American and European reviews. His stage plays have been produced in the U.S., Germany, England, South Africa, and at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival; his radio plays, broadcast in Germany. He has also written for film. A novella--Marco Knauff's Universe--is available from Ravenna Press. Joseph Cornell's Operas and Émigrés--two short-fiction sequences--appeared together in a limited edition volume from Elimae Books. In March 2004, they were published in the Turkish language, by an Istanbul publisher as part of its New World Writing Series. A History of the Imagination: a novel is now available from Fiction Collective Two. His short story, "A History of the Imagination," appeared in Issue #4 of The Cafe Irreal; another short story, "The Catalogue," appeared in Issue #6. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Helen.


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