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The Pavillion of Dreams
The following is a short story written by No_name, an online author.
This I wrote several years ago - it is one of several not quite short stories but attempts but generate atmosphere and a sense of time and place and sensation - anyway, see what you think. And I hope you enjoy! (The title is based on an album by Harold Budd, though his music has nothing to do with the story!)
The Pavillion of Dreams by No_name
I had been fighting through the snow that, inches thick and solid like ice, protested against my every footstep. Cold air coagulated around me, encasing me in stiff walls of ice, making my clothes brittle like they might snap and fall from me in icy shreds. I had wanted to collapse and every minute brought me closer to the very moment where my most secret desire, my great wish to embrace death might come upon me without my volition.
Did I really wish to die? No, my will told me to trudge on, through the cold and the harsh whiteness that blinded me in the deep brightness of sun off snow. Death was the seduction, the moment of bliss as I gave up and fell back upon the snow, the release as I lay my exhausted, shattered body upon the terrible cold of the snowy floor.
What else could I do but go on?
It was the test of will I had long avoided and never once believed I would face. Before it was a matter of simple things: would I have that other drink though in the morning I would regret it? Trivial, trite and banal yet somehow microcosmic; this time there was nothing trivial in my decision to plough remorselessly onwards and not to give in to the enticements of temptation. Like the seduction of violence or cruelty, death called out to me with its loving arms, goading me gently into laying down my life, into defying my own will and setting myself free of the fetters of this world.
And what does it matter? the seduction asked me, what does it matter this world? True enough. My fingers were frozen and numb. If I could have I would not have dared to flex my digits. I was terrified and had not the courage to try; I could not bear the weight of evidence of my incapacitation. My feet, so intimate with snow were yet more frozen, though it seemed to me that it could not be possible for any part of my body to be colder than my fingers and yet this impossibility was true. My knees barely gave at the joint and so I walked almost like a clockwork soldier, pivoting up and down on the front of my feet as I walked, my knees fair locked into place. It was embarrassing, humiliating and cruel that a human being should suffer such and yet suffering such was my pain. I had lost all track of time; it was all nonsense to me, each lift of a frozen, leaden limb was a moment turgid beyond reason, time was drawn out and pulled taut so that the moment between pivot and footfall was in itself several eternities. Each metre of motion existed in a space of time longer than several of my lifetimes.
Yet time in my mind was different, condensed, each breathe was fast and fiery, the cold searing my lungs so that I could not believe that the very air there had not frozen. Every movement of my body, though apparently mechanical was thought through with intricate detail, observed and analysed many thousands of times over in my head before, during and after any step was completed. I felt dizzy yet clear. Pain was another nonsense, distinct yet fuzzy. I was a body of contradictions and paradoxes and I could feel no end to my torture except the seduction I fought against. I had been lazy in life, not incompetent but complaisant, so often giving in to what was easy or convenient. I strived then for some semblance of courage, of nobility in meeting death. If death wanted me then it would have to wait patiently beside me, freezing in the same cold that I did. People seem to think hell burns in flames. I can tell you it does not. Hell burns the blue flame of ice, of numbness, of exhaustion beyond measure, of freezing limbs refusing the command of your nerves.
Soon I began to see images before me, images that could not come of this world. Succubae, erotic and taunting flashed decaying beauty, sweet and malodorous, at me, kissing me, caressing me, begging and coaxing me down to the ground - closer, closer, closer to the ground to die. I could lay there, then, with their bodies beside me as I died and the things that they would do for me… only even had I wished to give in to their seductions my body was too cold, too numb to have responded and like the flames of hell, their bodies were blue, chill and icy, they would not have warmed me in death but frozen me hurriedly, laughing in their derision, swearing violently in their coarse language and mocking my acquiescence of their seduction.
Next I slipped into another fancy, stranger yet for the ludicrous nature of it all. Passing me by, smiling happily, without thought of cold and walking as if on the very shell of snow danced Snow White followed by her seven dwarfs. They sang as they went by and waved as if I was not in need of assistance. Following them Little Red Riding Hood skipped, arm in arm with the wolf, her grandmother's blood dripping from the wolf's lips, bleeding crimson onto the snow, onto Riding Hood's red coat but it didn't show, the blood and the coat were of the very same colour. I knew then that they were in it together, Riding Hood and her wolf that they had conspired against her grandmother. I was appalled yet I laughed (if you can call that faint, hollow rattle I emitted laughter), fooled as I had been all those years. It seemed a tale more suited to my age, where cynicism was considered the arch virtue. I was as guilty as anyone in that regard.
A cavalcade of pixies, fairies and other flying creatures swam by next, each with their own distinct colour and trail of luminous dust. I watched them arc gracefully through the frigid air, marvelling at their gentle yet controlled motion, amazed that despite their inadequate clothing that the freezing wastes affected them not. I was in awe and desperate to join them, to feel their remarkable warmth, to gain their magical protection from the cold, but as soon as they had arrived they seemed to leave and again I was alone, lost in a wilderness not my own, a wilderness seemingly without respite, love or charity.
I felt my eyelids fall and as they did I sensed the breaking away of frozen lashes. One lodged mockingly on the tip of my nose, itching where I could not scratch for my hands and fingers were frozen still. I tried to move them so that I could dislodge the cruel trick of fate but I could not. The itch there taunted me worse than the succubae. I felt sudden frustration - loss and hurt beyond anything the cold could do to me and the desire to capitulate, to collapse, forlorn and self-pitying to the ground washed over me stronger than before. It was an unfair trick, so cruel, so banal and yet so hurtful, a constant and terrible reminder of my humanity and my weakness - most of all my weakness. I wanted to weep I felt so impotent, I felt my knees about to lock, my feet sit dead in the snow. I knew that the frozen lash was killing me, depriving my body of the will to continue, only then a stray draught of wind dislodged it, sending it floating in a slow gentle arc down to the unbroken snow before me. With it my pathetic mechanical, pivoting stride re-established itself and I moved. I felt tears well in my tears and suffocated them for they threatened to freeze as they left the duct.
What was it, there in the icy stillness that had saved me? I glanced up, it taking all my fleeing energy to raise my eyes close to the level of the horizon. There is was, in the distance, the faint glow of light, the vaguest hint of something other than vapid whiteness.
Again tears threatened to loose themselves upon me, to be my undoing, inspired by what might be my salvation. I knew then that I had to prove my worth, my courage. I had to affirm my will, give evidence to the horizon and the glowing light that I was worthy of its promised sanctuary.
Lifetimes passed, my senses felt the chill of nothingness for my eyes had fallen back to the snow, my neck was limp. Dizzily I watched, waited, hoped for the promised change. I begged for a hint - a gentle glow - the vaguest reflection of unnatural light on the ground before me but the snow heralded nothing more than my obliteration.
I realised then that the image was no more than the succubae, though of greater potency. The succubae had promised me sweetness in death, offered me decaying carnality in return for my surrender but the glow had given me hope and now it had sucked it from me utterly. It was the cruellest trick of all - I had had nothing only to discover hope, to discover once more that hope was no more than another illusion brought against me to quash my resilience, to annihilate my resolve.
Betrayed, I longed for rest but my teeth gritted against the cold and somehow this action kept me moving, though my limbs moved more creakily with every step. I was a clockwork spring winding down, coming closer and closer to the very end. I could see the image in the coiled spring in the clock face, the concentric thin metal circles separating, moving further and further apart so that gulfs seemed to separate each loop of metal. I was dying.
Winding down, winding closer and closer to the end. Then before me came the glow again, burning my retinas as it reflected on the blankness of the snow. I could not look up to see how close I was. Though stunned by the light I was not hopeful, I believed this another taunt. Hope was a feeling I denied myself. One more betrayal and I would never be able to move another step. I would die. There would be nothing I could do.
Unwittingly I stepped onto wood. A step. A wooden step. My foot laid frozen and flat on a wooden step. I felt nothing, not even amazement. There was nothing left to me except the thinnest moment of effort and that I gave to raising my other foot to the next step, then to the next step. Four steps and I reached the floor. It glistened before me, glowing in an unseen light, untouched by the snowy wastes without. I tried to lift my eyes but I was spent, drained utterly.
I could do nothing but collapse.
I awoke who knew how many minutes, hours, weeks or years later. I stood up, registering nothing, feeling bland. My first recognition was that I was standing in the middle of a hexagonal pavilion. Built of sturdy wood and painted light blue it seemed utterly out of place, yet seemingly fitted perfectly in with the fathomless whiteness without it. The floor was lacquered and hard, glistening and glowing in the sunlight. I understood then how it had appeared to glow before. A single bench looked out onto each side of the pavilion. On each bench sat a motionless figure, each seemingly careless of the snow beyond, not cold nor hot, calmly at peace with themselves. I thought to speak to one of them but I held back, I knew to do so would somehow be wrong. How this knowledge came to me I cannot say, I simply knew it instinctively, as if information had been coded into me to be fired into my brain at this exact moment. I was sure of myself, doubtless; it was a strange feeling. I looked at myself then. I had not realised that my toes were moving, that my fingers were idly shifting in my gloves. I had feeling, trite, bland, everyday feeling. I raised a hand to my face and felt no chill. Removing a glove I felt the skin on my face, it was warm and yielding. There was stubble there, as much as should have been. My neck was soft and vulnerable, my chest breathing calmly, the air neither searing my lungs nor clogging them with thick, muggy warmth.
I felt normal.
I cleared my throat, softly so as not to attract attention for that was not my purpose. I wished to ascertain if I had a voice and yet I was afraid to speak. I feared the words that I might utter, as if in doing so I would discover some truth I dared not know, or recognised suddenly that my position was other than I thought it to be, that I was living another fantasy more elaborate than before, that the cold had encroached so far into my body and into my mind that I had retreated into myself and denied all facets of reality.
I feared I was dying.
'You're not dead,' a voice spoke calmly behind me as if I answer to my unspoken fear. I turned slowly, without dread or apprehension, merely with a sort of mild surprise, soft shock at hearing words, not at their being an unseen, unfelt presence about me.
To my surprise my whole body moved fluidly, almost fluently, without apparent after-effect of its freezing. I looked then upon a man apparently in shadow. He seemed at first like a Ring Master at the circus, though without his whip. He was standing at the very edge of the pavilion, almost on the steps back down into the snowy wastelands without. He stepped sideward and I expected him to fall out of the shadows and into the light but he did not, rather his face and body seemed to shift, as if vague and unformed. He seemed suddenly more like a Victorian gentleman and in his eyes there glistened something nameless, almost atavistic, a knowledge, something deep and outside of my cognisance.
'You are quite safe,' he continued, his voice a soft utterance, hypnotic yet slippery. I could not ascertain his accent, could not pin him down to time or place. He was out of time or he was timeless, both or neither: a mysterious, shifting cipher. 'For the time being, anyhow,' he continued and yet the voice was not his but that of a woman and I noticed as he stepped sideward again, a tiny step, almost imperceptible, a shift from one foot to another, he was a woman, hair cropped short, with tight fitting trousers and a vest, her nipples pointing sharply through the fabric. She radiated an erotic intensity beyond that of the succubae. I did not like the feeling she stirred within me as I felt powerless against her, only then she moved again, stepping back to her previous position and once more she was the Victorian gentleman, cane in hand I noticed. My feelings subsided but I was perturbed.
'You are disturbed,' the gentleman's voice rang out, changing into another form as he sidestepped mid sentence, a woman again, this time older, radiating wisdom not eroticism. She seemed to smile at me like an aging auntie of mine might have done. 'There is no need to be,' again the character shifted, slipping into a young girl with pig tails, her voice ingenuous and gullible. 'But I must be everything to everyone and so I have no control over my being.' The words were true as they were now a man much like myself standing before me. 'I would remain as I am, for your sake, if it were within my power to do so.' Now a woman dressed as if a courtesan centuries before my birth, with a face of longing to be free of the oppression of men and her cloistered, haremic existence. 'But you have come so far, through so much. Do not allow yourself to be frightened away back into the wilderness so blithely and without reason. There is nothing out there but death, probably.' The voice was now that of an old man, dressed in rags, a diseased hermit of a time impossible to guess at. It impressed me, despite the changes in form and of voice, that there was always a sense of presence to the figure. I could not take my eyes off them, even when they morphed into a leper, diseased and decaying, reeking a foulness beyond description. Their voice too, though sometimes desiccated and thin, was always hypnotic, as hypnotic as the guise in which the form first had appeared. I found myself listening with the same attentiveness to each new shifting form; I gave them my entire attention. I wanted to disappear into that voice, to revel in it, to luxuriate and be seduced by it. Wallowing, I would bathe and give over my sense of self. I felt no fear.
There came a silence then. The figure was a woman again. Middle aged, with a maternal manner, a face smiling benignly upon me. There was a space in her face, an absence of expression that seemed to be beckoning me to speak and only then did I realise that I had said nothing, made no gesture as to my existence except simply by being there upon the glistening, lacquered floor.
Finally I spoke, thinking of the words the figure had last spoken to me of. 'What is there - what is there here, then?' The figure smiled, shuffled to become, disturbingly, the woman with cropped hair, filling me with desires that I did not want to feel. 'Dreams.'
'Dreams?' I muttered the repetition mindlessly, unaware almost that I had spoken. I had no desire to speak again and yet the woman's presence disturbed me such that I felt the need to speak, to put forward some form of defence, even if that defence was naught but a question. She ran a hand through her close cut hair and smiled. 'I make you nervous?' The question was rhetorical and I was glad for the sudden silence as she seemed to think, though she did not move. It appeared to me that she did not move on purpose, her gestures, casual or otherwise, were truncated as if she was aware that the slightest exaggeration might morph her form once more.
Again she smiled. 'Oh, well,' she muttered, seeming almost human a moment. 'Why shouldn't I, didn't those succubae attempt to seduce you?' Again the question was rhetorical. I had the desire to run then, to flee but my feet were rooted to the spot and I had no desire to feel the cold of the environs surrounding the pavilion. 'Alright,' she muttered and shifted, becoming the Victorian gentleman for what I thought the third time, only by then I had lost track of their forms. 'This is better, I suppose.'
I mumbled a reply. I know not what, some form of acknowledgement and agreement no doubt for they smiled with a wryness that almost convinced me of their humanity. Then the form smiled, wide and, I thought, honestly.
'Welcome to the Pavilion of Dreams.' The sentence was quiet, almost devoid of meaning yet something in the discretion of their delivery told me the truth was the contrary of their delivery. 'Here everything is played out - lusts, nightmares, desires and dreads, if you want them to be. Look,' the man gestured to the six people sat at their benches, 'they are citizens of the Pavilion, saved from icy death.' "Icy death" was spoken with suitable theatricality, so much so I almost wished to laugh and imagined that the words were spoken by the forms first guise, the Ring Master. 'Like you they have all sought me out, waded through the snow and ice, through the seductions and the pain of travel.' Again the man paused and unwittingly stepped several paces sideward, becoming a Cardinal, enrobed in crimson the colour of Red Riding Hood's coat and her Grandmother's blood.
Again there was a space for me to speak and speak I did, though to question, not to affirm. 'I did not seek you out, why do you think that I did?'
The Cardinal seemed to think, or affected thought, looking towards the arched roof of the Pavilion, perhaps, in character, seeking out the ear of God.
Finally the Cardinal lowered his eyes, adjusted his feet to become a Geisha, pale and delicate, nestled on tiny feet who spoke with a voice of gentle subservience. 'Why else would you be out here, in these wastes?' The geisha stretched a robed arm out wide to take in the icy wastes without, her sleeve drifting in an unseen, unfelt breeze. 'What is there here but the Pavilion of Dreams? There is nothing. Perhaps you did not set your feet onto the path here with any conscious intent. Most of our guests come by chance, impelled invisibly towards us, finding the road as if by chance. Answer me this: the snow, the wastes, the wilderness, call it what you will, why were you out there? Where were you going? What was your purpose?'
I pondered her questions a moment. Had I an answer? I remembered the cold, the feelings in my toes, in my feet and fingers. Vividly the itch upon my nose returned to me, tortured my memory but beyond that first frozen feeling there was nothing but blankness as profoundly bland as the icy stillness beyond. I was a tabula rasa, wiped clean or else without form before. Had the Pavilion robbed me of my mind and memory, or else had the snow done so? Somehow I felt both questions were lies and I was here for reasons beyond my conscious expectation. I had come for a reason, no doubt as bland and as bleak as the landscape before me, hoping for something at the Pavilion, even if I had never known what the Pavilion was, or that it had existed, or even that I sought it out.
'You find the truth?' The geisha asked, morphing into a lady, regal, like a queen, dressed in long silks, a tiara circumscribing her tightly pulled hair. 'You recognise the emptiness? It is no metaphor though, the bleakness beyond and what you feel, it is an accident, of fate if you like it that way. Others come here through the same environment of relentless snow and blistering cold but within their minds are other thoughts, flames and feelings. Some come to be expunged or excoriated, for dreams of terror, some of debauchery. Others come for love, others to hate and kill. We all have different dreams, we seek possible futures and have aspirations another would think brutal or trite or lachrymose.' She stopped then and regarded me strangely. 'Do you feel fear? Many feel fear when they are here, when they are propositioned. It is a question of trust. Do you trust your own thoughts, your own mind? Many minds betray themselves, opening the way for nightmares, for that is what they long for but never admit - or at least at that moment of thinking. Perhaps you are the same. Maybe you come here, willingly or not, conscious or not, thinking that what you dream is a dream, a longing for beauty, for love, of a bland happiness when deep within there is something else, insidious, slipping behind your thoughts: debauchery, cruelty, pain: the desires of the dissolute. The fear that the desire to give in to the succubae is the truth: to be seduced, used, corrupted, made as vile as they are, to ask for their spoiled sweetness, to feel eternal longing and pain that will never be assuaged, to hate yourself, to loathe your actions, to swallow bitter pill after bitter pill. It is a brave man indeed that risks their own dreams.' By cruel irony the queen morphed into the very image of a succubus as she spoke, dripping passionate vitriol and soft, hypnotic corruption with every word. Shocked, I felt myself experience the same desire, the same erotic intensity as I had with the woman with cropped hair. The corner of my face grimaced and I recognised again my own desire for seduction, to cede my volition over to another more callous force.
The succubus laughed, a mocking, beautiful laugh that stank and gasped lovingly at me, sending insinuations of pleasure, love, fulfilment and reeking vileness in my direction in waves of painful lust. I choked on the laughter as it filled my lungs. I felt sick and desiring. My fingers clawed and tensed as I attempted to control my erotic fury, as I watched the lascivious form before me change into a boy, dressed in gold leaf, a figure I had never seen before. Maybe from a future or a past, perhaps some possible future or past that had never been or never will be. His laughter was kinder, gentler; I felt my feelings subside, my muscles relax. I breathed clean, fresh air into my lungs, effacing the succubus' fetid, corrupting laughter from them.
'There, you see,' the boy spoke in a light voice, airy and lacking in condescension. 'It is not always best to trust yourself. We betray ourselves even when we do not wish to.'
'But what is that to me?' I asked. I felt suddenly sick of their games, their insinuations and suggestions of my possible or supposed inhumanity, of my weaknesses. It had been easier in the snowy wastes. There everything was simple: one footstep and then the next: survival, concentration; the application of will power and energy. Here there seemed to be too many possibilities. What of the people at the benches, were they like me? Had they found their way, unwittingly or otherwise, to the Pavilion to be granted their dreams, however well known or mysterious they were to them? I hadn't the courage, or perhaps I hadn't the patience or interest, to ask. The charade had gone on long enough. I felt resilient, indignant though I could hardly say that I had been riled or was awash with courage. Within me rose a core of anger at the shifting form. Here I stood, in a wilderness within a wilderness but at least without there was simple understanding, a place where simple mathematics reigned supreme. One plus one equalled two. In the Pavilion one most likely did not exist for it was at the same time all numbers and none, a mirage, a ghost, a non-number. So was the golden boy before me a non-number, a non-person, a figment, a ghost, more real than I yet less so, more assured and yet uncertain. Contradiction, paradox, simple, recognisable, one or the other or two of, or all, or nothing, it made no difference; rules were being shattered, made nonsense.
I had had enough of mockery, of trickery and seduction. Why should I want their dreams, with their promise of new neuroses and pain, of different and unfelt seductions and manipulations? I wanted no more than to be myself.
My resolve coalesced and I felt as if slipping out of a dream or a nightmare and waking into myself.
'To me?' I continued, I demanded to know. 'To what? Maybe my dreams cascade between the beautiful and cruel, the banal and the sophisticated. What would you have me do? Damn myself or allow myself access to some supposed beatific moment for all eternity on a whim, depending upon my feelings at the moment of acceptance? How is that not whimsical? Such cruelty is surely worse than the succubae, leering and putrefying before my eyes and yet seducing and erotic? They know they are harpies and lustful and beautiful but you are nothing. Just as you morph and shift between children of gold and lepers decaying and stinking worse than any succubus might hope to do, you prove your own undoing, your own false prophecy. Enshrined, enwrapped in incipient sickness or gilded beauty you would coax me into a different form of acquiescence, into another form of self-desertion. You would deprive me of will and the desire to live, seducing me with possible dreams of damnation or bliss.
'I will not have it.' I was not shouting, not whispering. My voice, impassioned, crept out almost without change in volume. The golden boy, now a woman dressed as a friar might, smiled enigmatically, pleased or horrified I could not tell. Not that it mattered anymore, my resolve had set, whatever anger and contempt I had for the form before me drained from me. I was no more and no less than myself. I had reached no epiphany, come to no great conclusions or seen any certain, spectral, religious or magnificent light. With a sudden subsidence of passion I felt only the desire to come what may. I would seek no advice, no alternatives to the real. I would not abandon myself to uncertain dreams or purposes not my own. I had my own mind, and for a while I had a body in which to keep it. It was enough for me.
Suddenly the female friar had become the Ring Master. The same smile lingered upon his lips and he gestured out towards the snow. 'I am not here to judge,' he murmured quietly, 'but to offer the opportunity. I mean you no malice.' With the final words he stepped aside, remaining the Ring Master, seemingly his first metamorphosis was also his last, or perhaps it was all only in my own mind.
Fearful of the cold, I pulled my clothing tightly about myself, made sure all my buttons and zips were fastened, that my gloves were pulled tightly onto my hands and readied myself for the cold beyond. Lightly as I could I touched first one foot, then the next, onto the steps. Crushing cold battered me as I stepped outside of the Pavilion and my feet disappeared into the snow, which seemed to have grown thicker, more solid and deeper than before. I expected suddenly to regain some memory some semblance of remembrance as to why I was here but nothing came. Equally after the first few steps I turned, expecting to see the Pavilion gone, for the figment of my mind to have shimmered and disappeared back into the ether that had given birth to it and yet there it stood, glowing in the sunlight, the Ring Master watching me impassively, I assumed smiling still. Perhaps he hoped I would turn back to join him, to ask to be given my dream, whatever dream that may have been but I didn't, I set my eyes onto the horizon, imagining some landmark before me with which I could aim towards, though there was none, only the vast cold wastes that spread out before me.
The air excoriated my lungs. My feet felt leaden almost immediately and time reasserted its contradictory pull upon me. I soon felt dizzy and exhausted. I was light-headed as I trudged on towards my imaginary landmark. Maybe I would reach it, maybe I would not. Even if I did who was to say what would be there? Maybe more of the same flowing, vapid whiteness would greet me, maybe there would be something to give me hope, a tree or a track of an animal, a hint that I was not alone. It didn't matter though. I was moving and my course was true, taking me, as it was, further and further away from the Pavilion of Dreams.