When Lora awoke in the underground cavern to find everything, walls and all, in the exact opposite configuration as when she had laid down to sleep, the full enormity of the non-reality of her situation bore down upon her.
She lay still for moment, hair on her arms standing at full attention. No voices from the big chamber. No market. No Marco.
Something was making a sound. Far off. Drenched in layer upon layer of echo.
She stood. Flutes alright.
She couldn’t quite follow a melody, as it was so far away and ricocheting off of many walls. The notes were meandering, jumping about like the sound of scattered thoughts bouncing around the inside of someone’s head.
She took a few tentative steps. The chamber let out into a hallway that winded and wrapped and diverged off into other hallways. A maze.
The walls of the hallway were covered with large, garish graffiti, intricate beyond the point of confusing, depicting nothing in particular, and certainly no recognizable letters.
Beyond her flashlight, there was no other light.
On the other side of a mirror, far beneath Manhattan, in a maze bathed in utter darkness, surrounded by the intricate nonsensical spray paintings of unknown madmen, she held onto her flashlight so tightly that her arms began to ache, listened to faraway flutes, and slowly became aware that although there were no people here, there were rats and they were coming towards her.
She clamped a hand over her mouth to stop herself from screaming, then took it away in order to hyperventilate properly.
Little panicked sobs… heavy convulsing gasps of breath… this was okay. This was good. Just breath. Breathing is okay.
What was not okay was screaming until she lost her mind, dropping the flashlight, and running blindly around the maze for days in utter darkness. If she were to regain her presence of mind afterwards, she would regret this.
She gathered herself and calmed down. The scream had scared the rats and they had at least cleared the hallway she was in. Good. She could deal with them again in a few minutes.
The graffiti. The rhyming man had said that they weren’t all nonsense. He said a lot of things:
Symbols were hidden in the graffiti, and those symbols told a story like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Follow the story and it will lead out.
There were several stories on these walls leading different places.
Do not follow the one about the lost warriors at the end of time. That one is bad.
Don’t follow the one about the woman who lives in a hut with giant chicken legs. That is for someone else’s child.
The maze has different exits depending on which story you follow.
Follow the one about the lost tribe of little winged people. If there are babies it’s good. If there are pre-adolescents it’s someone else’s.
The old giant who builds snow globes in an ice castle is not for her. If she meets another woman following this one, she’s a sympathetic soul, but neither woman can help the other.
From the alcove in which she awoke, make a right and follow the hall until the first fork. This is where the story options occur. In between forks, the graffiti is mostly undecipherable, either unformed future plotlines, noise, or chaos in slow motion
Structured improvisation. He had told her to think of it like musicians playing a well-composed verse of a song, then segueing into a free-form improvisation, only to arrive minutes later at a tight chorus. Each fork is the next chorus.
Okay. She had more or less caught all of this the night before, although once again, the old mens’ inability to speak in anything but rhyme had made the whole communication process complicated and frustrating.
She turned right and walked.
The corridor was a bit narrow, wide enough for two people to walk side by side comfortably, but nothing like the space offered by the subway tunnels. She did hear the little pattering noises of rats scurrying by her, and thought it better to not shine the light on every potential passing rodent.
Still, she saw little shapes and shadows especially when turning the corners of the twisting passageways, and on a whim she shown her flashlight to her left side where the wall and floor met.
Sure enough, there was a rat, but it wasn’t scurrying or fleeing. It was just sitting on it’s hind legs, paws out front, grinning at her.
She couldn’t back away against the opposite wall because what if there was another rat there and she stepped on it and that made it’s friend angry and he called other friends and they all wanted vengeance…
…and maybe thinking was not a really good thing to do but walking was, so she just slowly faced forward and continued walking.
Only now she was aware that as she walked, on the floor beneath her, rats stopped as she approached, sat up, and grinned at her.
The flutes echoed through the halls, and she walked and desperately sang songs she really liked to herself under her breath.
The first fork came. There were already several rats waiting there. This seemed to make sense to her, as they would be dying of curiosity to see what she’d do, her being the best entertainment down here they’d probably had in years.
It was better not to think about little grinning, furry things, and instead to concentrate on the puzzle. She liked puzzles.
Story. Look for the story.
The hall she was in had come to a T. Graffiti on both sides of the wall rounded the corner in a ceaseless flow of art. One of these sides was the story she wanted.
She shined the light on the wall to her right and stared.
Bold, cartoonish lines intersecting, swirling; layers of color extending and receding…. Where was the sense?
How do you find an objective pattern in a subjective piece of chaos?
There’s an oval. It looks like what? A hill. Sure. Go with it.
If that’s a hill, then this line would be a tree, and the little circles are stars, and as she became a creative participant, a scene emerged of a rolling, albeit surreal landscape on a starry night, with tiny little houses built into the trees.
As she saw it, she became aware that she was humming along with the flutes.
She turned to the other wall. After staring for a while, she fancied she saw a scene where a man and woman were stepping from a stage in a theater into a caravan slowly crawling through the desert.
Turning the corner on the wall to the right, the little winged denizens of the wooded scene emerged from their houses, and on the wall to the left the couple completed their step in between worlds and set off with the caravan.
How was this possible to see, when all she was doing was following the whimsical fancy of a shape or color, and simply elaborating upon it until she had constructed some inner scene/story in her own head?
How could she sing along with flutes playing an undecipherable melody?
She had spent a night years ago snorting coke with a linguist grad student in the Village, and during their endless jabbering he had told her of a study where someone had taken a story and replaced the nouns with a revolving barrage of nonsensical words. After reading through the story a few times, children could describe with stunng accuracy the original story, even though the children had never heard it undeciphered.
Perhaps this was something like that.
Maybe because the first thing babies learn to do is to pick faces out of the unfocused world around them, people spend the rest of their lives seeing faces in random patterns around them, and the idea of a language of symbols gently scrawled into chaos in order to leave messages for other like consciousnesses wasn’t so far fetched.
She wondered if the rats were impressed.
Still there. Still grinning.
She turned right and continued.
Hours later. The story of the graffiti so far:
Community of forest people. Place prospers. Far journeys are made. Other communities arise. Interaction with other species. Good, fun, bad, toll. Famine. Exodus. Uhm… gets weird.. cross pollination? Flowers?
She wasn’t sure. She needed more story maybe, and her concentration was slipping. She’d been walking for so long. Dark. Damp. Tired.
Fucking grinning little bastards.
Why is this happening?
She should just sit down. Screw the rats. Who cares about them any more, sitting there watching her like little hairy perverts. If they were going to do something to her they would have done it by now.
She was tired. A good cry might not be so….
The flashlight ran out.
Total absolute darkness.
Yes. This is definitely the exact right time to cry.
She cried and felt the last drops of hope and will wrung from her.
She cried more.
“Don’t cry miss.” A small, high voice.
“Please don’t cry. It’s okay. You’ll be okay, miss. It’s not so bad, really.”
It took her about seven sobbing huffs to get the word “Who” out. She knew it would take at least another two minutes to spit out “are you?”
“I’m very sad that you’re sad. I’ve been watching you. You can’t give up now. This is not a good place for you.”
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know who (what, actually) this voice belonged to.
She sat in silence, sniffling, realizing that she was going to have to blow her nose on her shirt. Begrudgingly, she did.
“Hello. You maybe could use some help?”
“Uhm… probably.” She sighs. “Yes. You’re a rat aren’t you?”
“I’m a mouse.”
“Jesus fucking Christ…”
“But if you don’t mind me saying, I’m really harmless, and you look like you could really use a friend right now, and I know these tunnels really, really well, and I’m not a Rider or a Phooka, but I see you’re following the Sidhe tale. I know that tale really well, and I know where it goes. I can help you, Miss. Really.”
She sat for a few moments then put her hands on her temples.
“Oh good,” she muttered at last. “If it wasn’t for having befriended a talking mouse, I’d just be sitting in the dark, worrying about my sanity right about now.”