The 59 Realms
By Evelyn Hampton
We both knew our three months in this city would be our last together. One afternoon I came back to the flat and the door was locked, and B. wasn’t there. I stood on the landing trying to operate the key. I’m not good at unlocking unfamiliar doors. Especially when I’m traveling, I don’t remember how the mechanism works, can’t yet feel in my hand whether I’m supposed to turn to the left or to the right, to the left then to the right or vice versa, whether there’s a click that’s supposed to happen and when. I try to apply to the new lock the behavior of the mechanism of a familiar one. This feels less like being unable to remember, more like being unable to forget, because the past always occludes the present.
The door wouldn’t open. The lock spun and spun in its socket but wouldn’t release. I sat on the top stair of the landing. My phone was useless but I held it anyway. Later, after B. returned, we were talking to the landlady. B. joked about how I couldn’t unlock the door. “You should have told me!” she said loudly and scoldingly. Her voice seemed connected with the faulty mechanism of the lock, something emitted by its arcane motion. But I didn’t want to talk to anyone except B., who wanted to talk to me less and less. The waning of another’s desire for oneself feels, I decided, like a diminishment of one’s own body, a lessening of its limbs and its ability to move itself, or to desire to move itself, which is effectively the same paralysis.
The entryway in that building was lovely in a quiet, dignified way. The stairs spiraled toward a glass roof that was slightly domed. Metal framework holding the panes of glass gave the roof the appearance of a snail’s shell. Nothing in that city made you think of a grid. Back in the US, packed into a twelve foot by ten foot by five foot compartment containing mine and B.’s belongings, neatly sorted by B. so that our boxes didn’t mingle (for easier, separate retrieval), was an image of a snail that I had framed. The flat at the top of the stairs belonged to the landlady’s brother, an architect.
The fifty-nine realms, writes the author of a book I begin to read in a dream, are trust, occlusion of the faculties, intense regret, an unexpected journey, a nighttime offering, a jewel you had forgotten you owned, pristine loneliness, absolute silence ...
I walk up the stairs, pass the landing to our flat, and keep going up. I get to the top, stand on the landing of the architect’s flat. I knock on the door before I can stop myself. Then I retreat quickly down the stairs. I’m about to close the door to our flat when I hear him opening the door to his. This dream, over and over. I don’t know what else to say about it.
I have read about the odd, sometimes intense sensation of a spiraling movement, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head, written by yogis who undertake practices to bring about bodily stillness. They describe the sensation as being snake-like, serpentine. I experienced this sensation during a ten-day meditation retreat in Massachusetts. “Do not follow the spiral,” was the teacher’s advice. She offered no explanation. The sensation was so intense, I must have appeared to be rocking forward and back and side to side. It had its own energy and trajectory; I was simply the thing surrounding it, impeding its motion, trying to get out of its way.
There were a few boulevards near the government buildings, but mostly the streets were narrow, even for walking, and curved and intersected in ways that defied my sense of narrative. B. and I took a tour led by guides who described themselves as communist architects. The city was famous for training architects, they explained, but too poor to employ them. There had once been a strong socialist government here but, as in other cities, that sentiment seemed to have been replaced. Now there were “developers.” Most of the development was in redesigning interiors, work the architects considered beneath their dignity though many did it anyway.
They led us to see the islands. Large as city blocks, the islands floated behind tall walls that were inconspicuous from the street. The guides pointed out the gates and led us through to one. Most islands’ gates were locked at night, our guides explained, once everyone who lived there was home. It wasn’t a curfew so much as an understanding among the residents.
It was late morning when we visited. “I never would have noticed this was here,” an Australian woman said to the man walking beside her. “I think that’s the point, dear,” he said.
Inside the walls was a conspicuously large building. This, said our guides, had been the house of the owner and his family. It was made of stone onto which newer stones had been layered. Mountains erode as they get older, I thought, but human structures accrete, claiming more earth.
Most of the city’s islands had been employed in manufacturing textiles. The old factory buildings were still standing on some islands, dilapidated, “undeveloped.” People who worked in the factories lived in tiny apartments, single-level dwellings so narrow my arms could span from one wall to the other, arranged around the main house. These apartments, old and inexpensive, were mostly still inhabited. Bathroom and shower facilities were outdoors and communal: a row of sinks around a stand of toilets and urinals were concealed by a low wall. I could smell urine. There was a large communal stove and oven. Cats wandered, passing through holes and open windows.
It was quiet, the high walls blocking the city’s noises, and I felt I was far away from where I had just been. A child played outside the open door of one of the small apartments. I felt entitled to look inside—I was on a tour and wanted to see something surprising. An adult came to the door just as we were passing by and stood in the doorway, looking at us, so I looked away. We left through a gate different than the one through which we’d entered and were suddenly back in the city, which I suppose we had never left.
We stayed in the architect’s building from the beginning of November to the end of December. It was in an old part of the city. The building’s cold seemed old, too. The cost of heat was extravagant, according to our landlady. She lived with her child in the apartment one floor above ours, across the landing. The child seemed very fretful and uncomfortable all the time; inconsolable. I would hear him screaming and crying in the morning, at night. His cries echoed in the staircase, gaining acoustic momentum from the cold stone of the spiraling stairs. Sometimes the landlady and her brother, the architect, had loud conversations on the stairs between their flats, shouting up and down to each other, the sounds of their voices entering our flat by way of the locked door, the walls.
I would leave the flat and walk around the city. My route was guided by how much more I wanted to cry before returning home. One day I arrived back at the flat to find that I had neither my handbag nor the key to the outer door. I couldn’t even get to the lock that usually troubled me, the one on the door to our flat. Without a key, or identification, or money, I felt more acutely the contours of what I am. I felt very small, and close, and tender—at risk of being stepped on and ground into the cobblestone sidewalk by the people passing by.
When B. answered the intercom, the tone of his voice told me that he was uncertain which language he should be speaking, and also uncertain which language he was speaking. He said “hello” so tentatively the word was more of a sound, a cry. I was startled and felt protective—I didn’t want anyone passing by to hear this cry, a sound I had never heard B. make. As he unlocked and opened the door, I clearly recalled how I had set down my bag in a supermarket to pay for a container of yogurt, which I remembered to take with me at the expense of my bag, because I knew B. would want yogurt.
From late December on, most days were overcast and rainy in an unmoving, dense way. We moved by taxi to a newer building across the city. From the living room window I could look down on a needle exchange. People would go in, come out, and walk the half block to a ravine, where they would slouch down for a while. The sidewalks, made of small stones, were dark and slick; they looked wetter than they were, wetter than water. The rain made crying outside convenient; I could hide under an umbrella when the rain was heavy. If my face was wet it was because it was windy, or I had walked all the way to the ocean and the water was spray from the waves.
I saw, through the water in my eyes, out through the haze of droplets that accumulated on my glasses. They fogged from the heat of my body. I traveled with an old pair in case these broke. The old prescription would seem like an impediment, but it would be better than nothing, I told myself. I got used to being damp and cold and seeing through dirty glasses—seeing the obscuration of my vision. I was becoming a part of the weather. I felt like a metaphor. A framed picture of a snail.
Why I was there in that particular city didn’t make sense to me, and I didn’t try to explain it to myself or anyone. Maybe I felt that an adequate explanation would have been an instantaneous transportation to a false elsewhere; as if, during that difficult time, I had to be, could only be, in a place of uncertainty. Maybe a reason for going to new places is to figure out, once we arrive, why we’re there.
I left one rainy morning at the end of January. As the cab pulled away, I turned around and saw B. standing on the sidewalk, his arm raised but not waving, his body motionless. By then the city was for me as much a mood as it was a city, a mood of sadness, a photograph. The fog and mist had made the mood pervasive, but I was leaving. What was I leaving?
In The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, a woman and her dog find themselves trapped inside of an invisible wall. They are in the forest, staying at a friend’s cabin. The friend has gone into town and that’s when the wall, an enormous impenetrable bubble, materializes around the cabin, the woman and her dog, surrounding them completely and isolating them from the rest of the world. They learn how to survive being trapped: the woman (I think she’s never named; she’s by herself for most of the novel after all; there’s nobody who would call her anything) learns to hunt, though eventually her dog dies, I forget how. The wall is transparent; she can see through it but her body can’t pass through it. She can see the forest on the other side; she can see other cabins, immobile cars. Through the wall she sees people standing in the same place in their yards for days—this is how she knows a unique disaster has occurred outside of the bubble in which she’s trapped, or preserved. The implication, by the end, is that she dies too, in a future just a little farther off in time than the book can reveal, in the cabin or in the woods nearby.
Reading this book, I enter a zone inside my life that is sealed off from the rest of it, all of it: past, present, future—a peacefulness and also a disastrousness abide here, together, sharing the same face (mine), which I can’t see.
I see J.’s wall every time I drive north or south through the city where I now live, though I am increasingly unsure why. I could go a different way, but I don’t—the route by J.’s wall is the most convenient. Why am I writing about J. again? Because I drove by the wall this evening on my way home. “See that wall?” J. asked me one of the first times we drove anywhere together. “I designed that,” he said. He quickly qualified: “I mean, I worked for the firm that designed it. I helped.” When I drove by the wall this evening, There’s J.’s wall, I thought, and I laughed. I wanted to feel happy about his absence from my life, because I want my life itself to be what he, for a short time, was to me: tenderness and protection. Though I laughed, I didn’t feel happy. I don’t know how to be for myself what another person (very different from me, who often surprised me and just as often bored me, who liked to eat different, blander things than I did, who often slept poorly while I often slept well) so easily and unknowingly did, and was. Who but a man, I asked myself vengefully, laughing, would brag about designing an ordinary brick wall? A truly unexceptional structure that I would not have noticed otherwise, or might have noticed but would not have given any thought at all? Who else but a man would be so afflicted by pride yet so weary beneath the weight of its armor it imposes on his chest and shoulders, which tighten day by day, forming knots of tension around his spine, which has begun to warp? The human body is not built to withstand the dead, rigid weight of our pride. It folds in on itself, it breaks down, it fractures. J.’s heart had already begun to fail: he wore a pacemaker beneath the flesh of his left shoulder, in the hollow formed by shoulder and clavicle. The small, boxy shape of machinery interrupted the contour of his chest. At first he flinched when I touched him there—I was the first person since the surgery whom he allowed to touch that part of him, which, with delicate wires threading into his heart, was more vulnerable than he was comfortable being. Eventually he relaxed, and the flinching subsided. His wall forms a barrier between the backyards of the wealthy and a major traffic corridor. I want to tear down J.’s wall; I want what this wall separates to fuse, become one thing. The wall isn’t so tall or thick: the separation it provides really only a suggestion, a possibility—an idea, which by its nature shares certain qualities with the invisible and unreal. Yet an image describing how a lock works does not reside in my body; the hand that holds the key is not the image, or knowledge of the image. Knowing happens elsewhere. That’s what I’m trying to get to.
When I was seven, I swallowed the key to my diary. I was lying semi-supine on my bed, holding the key in my mouth while I wrote. This was my first diary. As I remember it, it was late morning on a Saturday. I was absorbed in my writing. Suddenly I coughed, or laughed, and the key went down my throat. I found my mother and told her what had happened. She said I was lucky I hadn’t choked. She called the doctor’s office and asked, Was this an emergency, should she take me to the hospital, was there the possibility of a rupture or tear? No, the nurse said, it would be fine, the key was a small one—and if she wanted to reassure herself that the key had made its way out of me, she should watch my stools for the next several days.
Having the key inside me prompted me to search the encyclopedia for a picture of the human digestive tract. It wasn’t that I wanted to know what I was made of, but that I wanted to be able to see myself from the key’s perspective. I read about the intestines and examined a diagram depicting them; the human digestive tract is meters and meters long, the encyclopedia informed me. All this distance is packed tightly behind the abdominal wall. I pictured the swimming pool where I went for lessons. Was it 25 meters long? Yards? Either way, for something as small as the key to my diary, that distance would seem much longer than it seemed to me. What if it got tired and gave up before it got to the end?
My mother wasn’t satisfied by the daily examinations in the bathroom. Standing over the toilet, she would say, “I still don’t see it.” After five days, maybe a week, she stopped trying to find it.
“I’m sure it came out,” she said. I was still able to lock my diary—it had come with two keys. Because I could still lock it, I felt it was safe to write about my mother and did so often.
Eight years later, during my first MRI scan, I thought about the key. Inside of a powerful magnet emitting the cryptic sounds of its hidden machinery, I imagined the key being wrenched through the flesh of my stomach, tearing open the many meters, or yards, of my intestine while my mother waited in the waiting area, reading a magazine about dream vacations or nonstick cooking or the flora and fauna of the African savannah.
Intestinal fistulae is a possible effect of the condition I was eventually diagnosed with. According to the encyclopedia, a fistula is an abnormal connection, usually in the form of a tube, between two hollow spaces. I imagine the labyrinthine, subterranean space inhabited by the creature in my favorite story by Kafka, “The Burrow,” which he began writing six months before his death and perhaps did not finish to his satisfaction. The creature, an ambiguous burrowing animal, is obsessed with keeping its burrow, a redoubt from everyday life, secure against invaders.
I almost screw myself to the point of deciding to emigrate to distant parts and take up my old comfortless life again, which had no security whatever, but was one indiscriminate succession of perils, yet in consequence prevented one from perceiving and fearing particular perils, as I am constantly reminded by comparing my secure burrow with ordinary life.
Somewhere still the creature is within me, enjoying the relative stillness and silence of my interior and its own unfinished story, hoping never again to have to contend with the chaos and noise beyond, having added the key to its Keep ...
Consider the weight of water. Imagine passing beyond the curtain formed by its continuous fall. Imagine opening water and entering it; what do you see? When we arrived in Las Vegas I was thirsty and young. I wanted to see the hotel’s swimming pools. The desk attendant said there were three. My brother, four years younger than me, could not stop crying. My mom decided the plane ride had hurt his ears. His crying stopped the moment she pronounced this. He was, after all, much more like her than I was, according to my dad. I could not yet tell the difference between feelings of anger, fear, and fatigue—all three felt like an irritable craving for candy. I practiced flip turns against the pool wall, where the water was deepest. My dad, who was supposed to be with me, had gone to play the slot machines. When my mother found me I was happily swimming in the pool. She bought me a candy bar from a vending machine. Later she fought with my dad. Who was winning and who was losing—a question with invisible architecture that structured our family’s movements. I liked to go off by myself and “explore,” a word and a way of being I’m certain my dad taught me. Places of potential danger and sordidness were preferred—derelict buildings, seedy inner-city industrial zones. During a pit stop on the way to the Hoover Dam, walking across a casino parking lot, my brother fell down a manhole. He was just behind me, and then he was not. The hotel owner offered my dad a drink and me macaroni and cheese from the buffet while my mom rode with my brother in the ambulance. I remember him as tall and bald and anxiously affable. He gave my father his business card, then, after it seemed something between the two of them had been settled, drove us to the hospital. I remember desert, desert, boredom, desert. A popsicle in the hospital cafeteria. Ice packs to bring home with my brother, who seemed to have grown even smaller as a result of the day. The casino owner bought us a limo back to our hotel. The driver told us we really ought to try to see the dam.
A dam is a barrier; it is a wall. Beyond the wall is water that once moved unobstructed. Surely there exists a kind of memory, diffused among water’s atomic parts, of the brilliance and ease of its former travels?
SINCE THE AFTERNOON in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming white against the harsh rusts and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds or thousands of miles from where I am. I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those power transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon and sometimes by the ominous outlets to unused spillways, black in the lunar clarity of the desert light. Quite often I hear the turbines. Frequently I wonder what is happening at the dam this instant, at this precise intersection of time and space, how much water is being released to fill downstream orders and what lights are flashing and which generators are in full use and which just spinning free.
–Joan Didion, “At the Dam”
I have never seen the Hoover Dam, the actual dam, but in my inner eye lodge images of the dam and Didion’s writing about it, which seems to me to be luminous, bathed in “the lunar clarity of the desert light” and the aura of migraine, which Didion suffered chronically. I will be driving down a boulevard that is not Sunset, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly Ansel Adam’s photograph of the dam will appear before me, and I will think of how Didion frequently wondered what is happening at the dam this instant, at this precise intersection of time and space, and then I myself will wonder “how much water is being released to fill downstream orders and what lights are flashing and which generators are in full use and which just spinning free.”
To wonder by way of another’s words is perhaps an act of love, one I’m most practiced at, and a lonely one. By way of another’s mind, diachronic time becomes synchronic; the dam becomes an image that cannot be contacted except by wonder, imagination. The kind of travel required to reach it is the kind I am most comfortable undertaking—I am comfortable staying where I am and imagining the vast elsewheres of others’ images and descriptions. Perhaps others find this sort of travel too solitary, too abstract, or just not as satisfying as touching “the real thing,” whatever that may be. Sickness, and melancholy, prepare us to travel by way of image and word, and to sense, with the full richness of all the senses, which include the faculty of the mind, not only the monuments of the world, but also others’ experiences of those places.
The lunar clarity Didion remembers of the dam now persists through her description of it, and perhaps only there. To experience it I recall her words, wherever I am, and then I am again at the dam I got halfway to seeing before my brother fell down a hole.
The gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead is called Mitla. The name comes from the Nahuatl word for the place of the dead, or underworld. The first Spanish colonist to write about Mitla, a friar, claims the word means “hell.” People lived in the area around Mitla as early as 900 BCE, though only kings and wealthy men were allowed into the temple itself. Nobles (men) who were buried here (only nobles could be buried here) were said to become cloud people who, floating above the earth, watched over the terrestrial mortals below.
The mosaic fretwork adorning the walls at Mitla is made from thousands of stones dragged somehow, or rolled on wheels of which there is now no evidence, from the surrounding mountains, then broken precisely, polished, and fitted together without mortar. No two patterns of the mosaic are repeated exactly. It’s as if the builders, in cutting large blocks of stone into smaller pieces and slotting them together, were enacting and thereby protecting against the effects on their dwellings of earthquakes. Though the walls have had minor damage in some places, and the colors of their paint long ago faded, the fretwork has been mostly undamaged by thousands of years of weather and frequent earthquakes.
The reason why I’m in the underworld remains as murky and opaque to me as the light in this locale is crystalline and revelatory. Six months ago I stood in a hotel parking lot in the rain, knowing a relationship had ended. Sorrow had seeped through the hotel walls like a plumbing catastrophe, my own mind appearing to me through the architectonics of the hospitality industry, a watery grayness that affected everything. Traveling seemed the best remedy for the sorrows of stasis—rising rent, beige carpeting, domestic ennui. Setting out, I clung to remembered bits of a documentary about Maria Sabina, the Mazatec healer whose generosity made knowledge of psilocybin mushrooms available to Westerners in the 1950s. Sabina had lived in the mountains near Mitla and called psychedelic mushrooms “the saint children.” Desiring a remedy for what I suspected was irremediable except perhaps by time, I made my way to Mitla.
I stand in white hot sunlight that casts shadows that are as much a part of the mosaic as the stone and watch the patterns. Some Australians on a tour stand nearby, speculating about the effects of psychedelic mushrooms on the temple priests, perhaps the temple’s builders too. The fretwork patterns do remind one of the visual distortions brought on by psilocybin, someone in the group observes. Indeed, says the tour guide, the temple priests used hallucinogenic substances during rituals held in a windowless, intricately adorned room at the center of the temple: If you’ll follow me ...
The backs of the departing tourists look like shadows casting before them, on the ground’s pale dust, the forms of people.
The body is a system ruled by the larger systems around it, which here means mountains—piles of dust—and urbanity, and poverty. On windy days, I have to remember not to open my mouth.
I think about what dust is. Here it is the color of crumbled teeth.
Leaving the temple I see a man hitting a man in the face with an empty plastic bottle. A sick woman’s feet look like ground meat. A turning away is also a turning toward, of course. I make a promise to myself so vague, I feel I’ve dropped something and go back to search the tombs for it, not knowing what I’m looking for. On my way out again I buy a packet of gum from the woman with ravaged feet. Sensing the packet’s small shape in my pocket, I no longer feel I have lost something.
In the efficiency where I stay, I come across this line translated from Wittgenstein and record it in my journal: “Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” The family that lives in the house behind my apartment invites me to supper; I decline, thanking them.
I spend my evenings reading novels and studying the transitions between scenes in order to understand how to move my life forward. The trouble is that my life is not a narrative but one long transition that has come unmoored from both its origin and any sense of having once had a destination.
Occasionally B. emails me. He is in Marrakesh, then he is in Normandy, then Montreal. The rainy season begins in one evening: torrents sweep down the mountain, the street in front of my apartment becomes a river, and within an hour the kitchen floor is a slowly rising pool of water that smells like dust. A child walks through my door, water up to her thighs, and asks me if I need a bucket, holding one out as she asks. It is a red bucket. I say thank you and the child nods solemnly.
The water moves elsewhere while I sleep. In the morning along the walls there is a rim of filth at waist height. I book a flight.
Currently living in Denver, having called various cities home, Evelyn Hampton practices massage therapy, writes fiction, and freelances as a proofreader and editor. Her short story collections are Discomfort (Ellipsis, 2015) and Famous Children and Famished Adults (Fiction Collective 2, 2019). She lives among many plants.
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