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Fiction, by Michael Joyce


In Retrospect—A Door to Itself—A Dream That Had Adhered— Nothing Marks the Places Exactly


In retrospect I think now that I first saw one of the doors when I walked with my mother, my hand in hers, as a child of no more than three years old and most likely a year younger. What I remember is not the door itself but the man who emerged, smiling as he touched a long index finger to his lips as if to signal that our encounter was a secret between us, his face inexpressibly kind, long as a horse’s, his ice blue eyes gleaming. As I reconstruct my memory of the moment I think I made as if to pull away from my mother toward the swiftly closing aperture, its sensation of light within light, as the man strode away on long legs, off deeper in the park. Surely my mother thought I meant to chase after some insect or a floating strand of gold pollen or, worse and more typically, a shiny discarded scrap—perhaps the narrow band of red cellophane from a cigarette pack—and thus she gently pulled me back toward her as we strolled along the lanes of the park, the spring sun warm upon us.

I have not thought of this first encounter in years, if at all consciously, although as I reconstruct it in my memory the face of the man who emerged from the door in the air before me puts me in mind of the Swedish actor possessed of similarly long and mobile features who appeared in a series of darkly philosophical films that attracted me in my late adolescence. Even then, whether he played a magus or a brooding husband or an itinerant knight, I always felt an uncommon warmth, veering upon affection, whenever I saw his face.

In truth, however, even as in the way of clever and smug young men at the time I came to fashion myself something of a cinephile, I nonetheless sometimes confused the face of the actor with the equally mobile features of the cinematographer, also Swedish, who worked with the same director. Such mistakings led to the kind of minor embarrassments that young men brood too much upon afterward, especially if they arise from a fervent discussion with a young woman.

It is hard to imagine exactly what she and I talked about then, the symbolism of a slant of sunlight across a lawn perhaps, shadows cast against snow, or a rack focus shifting between an extremely tight close-up of a woman’s face to the profile of someone behind her. None of it seems important now, nor can I recall the face of the young woman though we were briefly lovers, if the inept tanglings of ours can be called that.

Although I was young then also, still interested in film, it was, however, not her to whom I first tried to describe another manifestation of the doors—by that stage in my life there had been several—and the fear it left me with. Indeed it was in filmic terms that I badly explained what I had seen, referring to Laterna Magika, which this latter woman—she was older than me—had attended when she studied in Prague but which I had seen when it came to the city after the world’s fair.

Like the polyekran? she asked.

Something like that, I said, a slit in the world, or rather a membrane, an overlay with exactly the detail, colors and intensity of the morning but which peeled away to reveal the door.

And you thought you were supposed to go in?

Or that someone would come out.

And then?

And then nothing. I was afraid for a while. Like smoking dope when something goes wrong, I said.

I had it backward I knew but I had already said too much.

Nor, of course, had I recalled then the first time with my mother, although I knew there had been other more recent manifestations.

We lived together for a time, the Laterna Magika woman and me, but not just then. By the time we made that living arrangement so much else had happened that the polyekran episode that had triggered my anxiety just before we first met had diminished in its intensity, taking its place among the normal series of alternating moments of emotion and ennui that come to form the history of relationships. I was almost out of school and she was working as an actress. Our attraction had been intellectual as much as sexual. I remember that our toothbrushes stood in a water glass on the bathroom sink and that over time the glass developed a cuff of chalky calcification from the hard water in the apartment building. She said the bristled faces of the brushes looked like postulants peering over the rim of the world.

Or the convent wall, I said, and she laughed.

Yes, she said, that’s what we have, isn’t it?

Given the easy intimacy between us I think it quite surprising that when I first told her about seeing the door I had not recalled seeing the man with the long face or the sun upon my mother and me as we walked in the park when I was young. Especially since she, Magika, seemed hungry for stories about my mother and wanted to meet her even though she was dead.

I did take part in a film that she acted in. Another man, who once—perhaps even then—was also her lover, made it using a spring-wound Bolex 16mm camera. I was to be a homeless man talking to himself as he moved through a crowd on a busy street in the city near noon. Crowds of passers-by were meant to rush past me without taking notice, although in the film many of them seemed annoyed or curious as they swirl about the unseen perturbation caused by the cameraman and the fellow holding the sponge-covered microphone on its pole walking backwards before me. Of the passers-by only she stops to address the homeless man directly, addressing him gently as if in conversation, a moment which triggers a jump cut to an extended monologue in which she stands dressed in black before a stark white scrim as if a dreamer. I only saw the film that one time at our apartment where he had come to show it to her after it was edited but before it had credits or synchronized sound. He said my character would be called The Man and asked me what name I wanted to use. She suggested Anton and perhaps perversely I have come to think of the fellow who made the film by that name.

Here is the thing, and why I bring all this up to you now, that moment in Anton’s film, of which I recall little else save its studied mélange of new wave and expressionist elements, I think was chilling for me for reasons I misunderstood at the time and attributed to suspicion and jealousy. An almost subliminal effect that I had never seen took place in the instant before the jump cut to Magika’s monologue. It was as if one frame of the film had slipped from the gate, tearing the outline of the image away from its sequence which nonetheless paradoxically continued, a hallucinatory blink then, before she began speaking and the camera moved in to frame her lips in a tight close-up. That lost moment of slippage took on for me the form of longing, leaving me briefly overwhelmed by a vertiginous feeling of loss that left me panicky and sick to my stomach. I was having regular such episodes of what were then called anxiety attacks and at the same time began to become aware of the doors appearing in various sorts of situations, public and private, sleeping and awake, with much more frequency than before. I had a paranoid feeling that Anton somehow knew this and had found a way to represent it in his film through an effect that only I might recognize. I know this sounds crazy now in retrospect. It sounded crazy to me then. I was worried about so much in those days and wasn’t sure what was real and what was not. It did not help that I was living with an actress or that her career had begun to bring her some success.

It was ironic that she had described what we had as a convent since it wasn’t long after this conversation that she moved to an actual former convent in France along the Seine north and east of Paris in the Aube département where the river is wide and tranquil. She had been invited to become part of a residential theatre troupe which spent months developing plays together communally under the guidance of a great actress who had retired from the stage to found the company. Over the years the actress had let her hair grow into a wild Elizabethan cowl, a radiant halo of silver straw that caught the glow of the jury-rigged stage lights that shone down upon the arena of the nuns’ former chapel where the company rehearsed.

I will miss you, I said when Magika told me she was leaving to move to France.

You have no need to, I want you to come with me.

What would I do? I asked.

You could hike along the river or harvest grapes, she said. The region is called Champagne-Ardenne. Some of the actors have wives or children. Everyone does something to contribute to the group. You wouldn’t have to pick grapes. You could help with the kitchen, make posters, or fix things.

Anyone who knew me, she most then, would have laughed at the notion of my being able to fix anything. It was obvious that she was anxious about setting off alone for another country and an unfamiliar setting. Like all actresses she was able to turn her emotions into compelling stories through small, simple gestures.

Instead I spent my days dreaming. Our mornings at the convent began with watery herbal coffee and cauldrons of flower tea, either chamomile, rose bud, or lotus depending, served beside baskets of brown Miche that had been torn into chunks and set out along with bowls of honey. These formed the unvarying components of the petit dejeuner part of the regimen that LGE devised for her company, a regimen meant to keep their focus upon creation. LGE stood for La Grande Etoile, Madame’s sobriquet, and everyone used the initials to refer to her when she was not present.

Once the community left the réfectoire for their morning exercises, I would walk the few hundred meters to the village, no more than an intersection with a bar, a gas station, and a brocante, for a real coffee and sometimes a tartine, before setting off on foot along the canal towpath through the countryside toward where they were building the nuclear power plant. The path was largely overgrown with damp grass and grew slippery with muddy clay after rains. It wound through thin woods and brambles for most of the way until the outskirts of the centrale nucléaire construction site, and then further along the bank the path eventually gave way to what passed for the chief city of the département . One day along the towpath where the trees were thickest before the fenced plain of the site, another of the mysterious doors opened up at the edge of the woods and a small roe deer, what the French call a chevreuil, stood at the threshold sniffing the air and staring at me before heading back within where the landscape had parted to disclose it. The rank smell of the deer lingered in the air for a while as I tried to discern the outline of where the door had opened.

That evening as we retired to our room after the communal dinner of curried vegetable stew washed down with pitchers of decent red wine en vrac, I told Magika about the chevreuil. My story immediately excited her imagination and she wanted me to promise to relate it to the company during the daily apéro hour during which LGE presided much like an abbess of yore as the company and others shared stories every afternoon.

Vraiment, really, can you, will you?

I was reluctant to make a fool of myself and I told her so.

Anyone can say anything during le partage. No one must be afraid.

Did I say I was afraid? I do not know, nor did I ask then who had mentioned fear, instead I said I would think about it and I did so for much of the night. I lay for hours in the narrow room, a former nun’s cell large enough for only a bed and a chair, hearing Magika breathing, smelling the fungal fragrance of rotting vegetation that suffused our bed after weeks of only rudimentary bathing, and feeling the warmth of her naked body against my flanks.

A few days passed and she questioned me again about the door.

Is it a portal of sorts?

No, I said, no, it didn’t go anywhere. It was a door, a door to itself.

She couldn’t understand what I meant and it was difficult to explain.

It’s as if the world were composed of a thin film like a membrane, sheets of which can be torn off, opened up, in panels, each of which possesses the same qualities of what it opens into or from.

She was silent a while, we were walking along the very canal path, she wearing wooden shoes, sabots, which she insisted upon wearing to keep her feet above the dampness and, she said, because they required one to move slowly enough to see the world. Indeed it was the latter notion that led her to bring up the subject of the doors again after I suggested that, if she continued to insist upon walking out in the sabots, she might twist an ankle and not be able to tour with the company when they finally set off.

Was it somewhere near here where you saw the creature? she asked.

I can’t tell exactly. Nothing marks the places exactly.

Was it like those books that show the human anatomy through alternating opaque and transparent overlays? she asked.

I did not reply because just then I recalled that the chevreuil had fed from the grass just outside the door before it sniffed the air and went back. It seemed significant to me, its participation in the world beyond the threshold seeming evidence of a sort that this was not a mere phantasm. Even so I didn’t say this.

She stood her ground. Can’t you tell me? she asked. You won’t make a fool of yourself here en plein air.

Yes, it was like those books you’ve described, I said, except each successive layer gives way to itself, the opaque and the transparent are one and the same.

She looked deeply into my eyes as if they, too, were opaque and transparent at once.

Okay, she said. We should go back, le brouillard monte, tu connais? The evening is descending. I don’t want to twist my ankle.

I felt a certain satisfaction that we had stopped well short of the centrale nucléaire since walking out there by night had for me become something of a forbidden pleasure, one that I wanted to keep to myself. The company increasingly rehearsed later and later into the night preparatory for the tour that would take them—none of us others, camp followers, children, spouses, random lovers would be going because of the difficulties with visas and logistics—into Slovenia, Macedonia, Albania and eventually to Greece. Sometimes the rehearsals would go so deep into the night that when she finally crawled into bed next to me at some hour near morning the mixed smells of perfume, perspiration, wine, cigarettes, greasepaint and human flesh would be so intense that I nearly gagged in my sleep. When her body pressed against me it seemed a dream, her sleep so thin and her mind still churning with all an actress’s deceptions that she would carry on a lover’s dialogue in her sleep.

I confess to being a little wary during the evenings when I went out by myself along the towpath, not simply because the ground was uneven and either the bulb or battery mount of my flashlight was loose and so it tended to flicker, but also because the men at the café sometimes talked about sighting wild boar along the river and the canal and I knew these creatures could tear a man to pieces. Also there was the question of the security patrols at the construction site that from time to time one could see circling in an old P4 along the unpaved narrow chemin just inside the barbed wire perimeter.

Even so at night from a distance the construction site was a child’s dream, a ring of scaffolding surrounded the curved forms for the cooling tower like the outlines of a beehive, its work lights threaded through the ramps and glittering like the papal tiara. This distant castle appeared in near silence since the night carried off all but the loudest of sounds, the mechanical clanking of big machines, an occasional warning whistle, a shout muffled and then lost in the wind.

For as long as I remember I have had recurring dreams of an amusement park along a shore at night, the scene sometimes complicated by the lights of airships or acrobatic planes in the sky above it, the whole panorama frightening and compelling at once. In my adolescence I came to think of this recurring dream—there are others, some involving looking down into a lagoon where strange silver fish swim menacingly—as a death dream, although I do not remember when I first put those two words together as marking something distinct. To an adolescent I think all dreams seem a death.

To me the spectacle of the centrale nucléaire seemed not a death dream but its contrary. There was a feeling that the distant creatures swarming over the flickering armature were in fact constructing the dawn itself.

I know that certain environmental activists would say that to articulate this in such a way is to implicate oneself in a myth of progress of the kind propagated by Westinghouse, Bouygues, Siemens and the like. Yet I could watch them for hours, yellow vests like wasp bellies, white helmets like carapaces; sometimes I had to hurry back hoping to get to our bed before she and morning arrived.

One such time as I slowly swung open the iron gate outside the convent, careful to avoid making the scraping noise of gate against stone that could wake every child and spouse sleeping in the rooms that looked out on the courtyard, I spied a couple having intercourse in the overgrown orchard where in daylight we sometimes gleaned the tough-skinned, knobby fruit, kicking through them to look for ones that were not rotting, mealy or worm-ridden. The couple was backed up against a low stone wall, her wide gypsy-patterned skirt pushed back to her hips where her white legs wrapped around his own thrusting hips, her head twisting from side to side in the shadows at the moment of climax, or so it seemed as I quietly turned the lock to the huge wooden door to our wing and ducked within. I slipped into bed feeling both aroused and jealous, though I had no reason to believe it was she whom I had seen, most of the women in the company having adapted LGE’s preferred costume of brightly patterned, long peasant skirts. Indeed it might have been Madame herself, although that was not likely since it was common knowledge that she largely preferred the company of women.

When Magika came to bed not long thereafter, I told her neither of the child’s magical castle nor of the couple in the garden but neither did I feign sleep.

I am sorry, she said, though for what I did not ask.

During the days that followed before the company set off in its somberly painted and ancient bus for the months-long pilgrimage meant to take them to perform in ancient theatres at Trieste, Ohrid, Plovdid, and finally Dodoni, my hours were spent more and more alone. One by one the spouses and families accompanying other company members left for their homes or wherever they had come from. LGE’s business manager, a nervous and delicate fellow who was rumored to be an ex-priest, took to moving through the sprawling convent extinguishing lights in common rooms in order to save money and so I began carrying my flickering flashlight even during the day. Many nights I slept and woke alone because, my lover told me, the company napped on the floors of the dressing rooms or in the theatre seats when they were not wanted on stage or laboring over costumes and settings.

However aptly for one occupying such a hermetic setting, my time was spent considering my life in the preceding years and where the following ones would take me. As a result I thought hard about seeing the chevreuil, trying to discern for myself whether it had been real or merely an imagined apparition, the invention of a troubled mind. Although I had not yet, as I noted, recalled the earliest such apparition, the time I saw the long-faced man with icy blue eyes when I was a child, I did bring to mind some other occasions that had presented themselves to me in confused visions I attributed to fatigue, romance, depression, or intoxication.

One involved an actual door that had seemed to appear out of nowhere as I was hurrying to a train one morning on my way to my studies, the narrow Dutch blue tiles of its opening framed in the white subway tiles and through which a stream of people rushed in one direction, waved along by a shrouded woman who kept peering into the door as if to see that there was enough room for them, then waving them on again. It was not there in the station the next day when I went to the train and I explained it to myself as a dream that had adhered into my waking consciousness.

Another time I was making love to a woman whom after that I never saw again, having been invited back to her apartment after we met and talked for hours at a friend’s party. As I held myself above her in her bed I glimpsed an entry to a balcony along the wall beyond her, the curved balcony windows looking out on a small park in which people sat on curved benches under hazy lights. As soon as I was sure that she was sleeping after our lovemaking, I left the flat without waking her, having written her a note saying I was sorry. Outside the apartment building I was suddenly weary and thought it would be good to sit for a while in the park I had seen but I walked all the way around the block without finding it. Nor did there seem to be balconies anywhere above. Even now I imagine what I might have been looking out upon was an inner courtyard beyond the bedroom, although I do not recall seeing an entrance to one when I exited the building. This was not a dream. I confirmed as much with my friend who said he saw me leave with her although he did not know whom she had accompanied to his party or frankly who invited her.

There were other instances I managed to summon that did not fall so neatly into compact narratives, including random appearances of vertiginous geometric space in my adolescence, panels of a shimmering light that tumbled like cards along a beach or city street revealing identical scenes beneath them, as well as like instances of gaping openings in the world of the sort that I had spotted as a boy at play or hurrying along in later years on a winter day.

Now and again I had mentioned these occurrences to someone, usually women, including my mother on her deathbed, but a few times to a particular friend who confessed that he had seen similar things after he smoked peyote, and also, I now remember, to a doctor who was treating me for a pustulous rash that had mysteriously erupted in my underarm, although why the doctor and I had come to talk so intimately I can’t remember. Nonetheless he was quite interested and did not act as if it were strange to see such things.

Two days before the company was scheduled to head off, Laterna Magika returned to our room in the early morning when I was still deeply asleep and caressed my face and shoulders until I awoke, whispering that there was something she, Madame, and the others thought I would like to see.

It was too early for petit déjeuner and so I was still not completely awake when she led me by hand into the darkened theater. We stood for a while in darkness while my eyes assimilated and I could see the dim scene on the stage illuminated by a few dispersed area lights as well as tiny pin spots that seemed to poke through the fabric of the stage flats depicting a forest in mist.

Most of the company sat or sprawled in the audience here and there across seats in the first rows above and below the slight raised stool at mid-house where Madame perched. She acknowledged us as we settled into seats along the aisle at the right of the house, Magika whispering that we could see what she wanted me to see best from there. LGE nodded almost imperceptibly and the action began.

As the lights came up one could see that the forest scene near the centrale nucléaire was rendered so perfectly that it seemed real.

Is that a projection? I whispered.

Sssh, Magika hushed me and gripped my wrist with her left hand. Madame continued staring forward, seemingly unperturbed by my whispering.

A diaphanous sleeper lay downstage to the left of us, her gown like a pool of white mist. There was music. I could not take my eyes from the flat with the forest image; it was as perfectly rendered as a dream.

Early on in our days there Magika had explained that, despite Madame’s commitment to communal values, she was not averse to contemporary technology and that the bus they toured in would be fitted out with a generator, satellite receiver, sound system, and other technology including a costly light board and instruments capable of magical effects.

Yet I could not have imagined that they could fit out their stage sets with computer generated images of such vivid complexity and presence.

Just then the forest scrim bloomed with a light like a rose widening out from within and a traveler appeared coming down the aisle to our right. He wore a mantle of dark brown over a forest green tunic and high-topped sneakers and steadied himself with a tall wooden staff as he moved down the aisle moaning in such a low tone that it might have been a musical effect.

Beside me Magika roused, slipped off her ballet flats, and joined him, their bodies entwining as they moved down the aisle toward the stage moaning harmoniously.

Just as they entered the forest scene a rectangle of the scrim slipped away exposing a figure naked except for a loincloth and a deer’s head mask covering its shoulders. The actor was short, hairless, sylphlike and of ambiguous gender despite its small, bare breasts.

Behind the creature the scrim remained seamless, a perfect version of the original forest scene. There was no sign of the fabric that had peeled away to disclose the deer figure.

That creature seemed to stare a moment at the two nearing pilgrims, whose moans had turned into a haunting chant. It stretched its body languidly, snorted and turned back disappearing into the scrim again without leaving a ripple in the fabric.

At some point in this exchange, the diaphanous sleeper had disappeared.

Throughout this scene I became increasingly aware that the actors’ eyes were upon me, although Madame for her part continued to gaze forward as the pilgrims moved slowly, stage left to stage right, across the scene while the diaphanous sleeper reappeared in the part of the stage where the deer had been, the sinuous outline of her body silhouetted through the backlit fabric of her gown.

Bon, ça marche, Madame said. Très bon.

Black-clad cast members immediately rushed into the scene, stripping the forest scrim from the framework of the stage flat and stretching another upon it, fastening it with velcro, the new scrim a scene depicting a sprawling distant city, its lights flickering.

Magika was back in the aisle next to me. She bent to pick up her ballet flats with one hand and took my hand in the other.

Come, she said. We’ll have breakfast at the café in the village, Madame has declared a demi dark day for me, so we can spend the morning together before you have to leave.

It was too early for the café although we could see the patron’s wife moving about within behind the curtains. We sat instead on the narrow bench to the west of the door.

I hope you do not mind that I told your story, Magika said, holding my hand tenderly.


Editor’s note: This is a chapter from Remedia: A Picaresque (Steerage Press)

  • Michael Joyce's fourteen books and several digital works—most recently Remedia: A Picaresque and A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity—span a career as novelist, poet, critic, theorist, digital literature pioneer, and multimedia artist. His poems have appeared in Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Fence, The Common, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. With Gabriella Frykhamn, he's published translations of the Swedish modernist poet Karin Boye in Spoon River Poetry Review, Metamorphoses, and Notre Dame Review. He's also the author of two book-length sequences of poems, Paris Views and Biennial. He lives along the Hudson River, near Poughkeepsie, where he's Professor Emeritus of English and Media Studies at Vassar College.

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