By Darryl Joel Berger
1. “Look,” the Guide said to the sisters. “I have pictures.” He showed them instant photographs, the glossy kind with a white border that whined upright out of the camera, like slow toast. The kind that began black but you shook them fast as if waving a fan so they blurred until the picture emerged. Expensive and exotic in this timeline but still. The Guide showed them photographs of young women carrying suitcases and blanket rolls and worried but still hopeful expressions on their faces. Looking back over their shoulders, their mouths in tight lines. Wet eyes filled with horizons. Single file through the forest, single file through the mountains, often pointing to a path. “Look,” he said. “These are all people I’ve guided, all the people I’ve saved. Look at the people in these pictures. Look at them. These are the faces of people who are ready to believe, who are willing to take a chance while they still can. Don’t be foolish. You know you can’t stay here another winter. You know this place can’t hold out forever. What good will your meagre fortune be then? What is money compared to your very lives? I can get you out of the city. I can get you beyond the mountains. Trust me. I swear to you that I’ve never seen anything but happiness from the people I’ve guided.”
One sister looked to the other. They were both in their twenties and both of them faring badly—their jaws and cheeks too angular, the curve of their hips too sharp under their dresses. They stood there in the street eyeing each other and then the guide, hardly able to think. Their stomachs like stones.
The Guide smiled at them, his jaw moving crookedly into position. “What more can I do to convince you? The people in these pictures are not here to vouch for me. They’ve escaped to better places. They are living their new lives.”
It was late afternoon. The street was quiet and empty. The sisters said nothing. They looked at the Guide. They looked at the deep scar on his left cheek, his watery eyes, his misshapen hands. His clothes were good quality but filthy.
A very old woman emerged from an alley across the street. In a black dress reduced to dragging rags and black gloves long to the elbow, she approached them slowly, in an awkward side-to-side motion, as if her legs would not bend at the knee. Her long grey hair undone and swaying. She eyed the Guide with distaste. “You don’t look like anyone at all,” she hissed.
The Guide pulled out a giant cavalry pistol from within his coat. “Get out of here, you old witch!” he yelled, the scar on his face turning red.
Then someone in a nearby building started screaming, and they could hear the artillery shells coming in low, and as if on cue buildings down the street began to explode. The sisters turned and ran.
“I will see you here at first light tomorrow,” the Guide yelled. He looked back to the old woman but she had vanished.
That night the Guide sat up drinking in his bunker, in his hidden underground lair. It was stuffed to the brim with bric-a-brac, filling the shelves that lined the walls and in stacks and piles on the floor. Through all this wandered several cats. “Why do I have to work so hard to make people trust me?” the Guide asked his cats. “Is it the scar on my face? My misshapen hands?”
At dawn the next morning the sisters met the Guide. Through a series of alleys and side streets and sewers, they fled the besieged city. They went far into the forest, to the secret clearing the Guide had told them about. They waited here until dusk. All day, while they took turns sleeping, the sisters heard things in the distance—sounds like a circus, then a rainstorm, then towers falling, then mountains tearing apart. “That is the war,” the Guide told them. “But you are safe here.”
Finally, the Guide told them it was time to go. “And now I must ask about the money,” he said. From one of their little suitcases the sisters produced a bundle of bills, wrapped in red ribbon.
“Fine,” the Guide said. “You keep it for now. Let me take a photo of you two before the sun goes down completely.”
He had them start walking out of the forest, single file, and then stop, turn slightly and smile for the camera. The girls looked back over their shoulders and smiled weakly for the camera.
The photo contained long, bending shadows but the failing, soft light was flattering to their gaunt faces.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go.” They had not walked for long before they came to a river. The Guide had a little rowboat hidden in the reeds along the bank. He got in first, at the back, accepting their suitcases to place along the bottom, under the seats, before holding out his misshapen hands for the sisters as they stepped in. The sisters sat together on the middle seat before him. “I will row while you two watch out ahead,” the Guide said. A little while later they came to a wider part of the river, and the Guide reached into his coat for the revolver.
2. You’d think it would be cold, but you’d be wrong. It is not cold in the river, or beyond. Of course it’s not quite warm, either. It is past that, emptier than that. More void. A temperature that can’t be recorded. Like describing the space within an outline. Heat and pressure leave their marks on time but afterwards reveal only blankness. Outlines in belief. But we still believe, we after-images. We ruined timelines. And who ruined us? We did it to ourselves, of course. We did it to ourselves. That’s important to remember. Difficult to remember too, because we are so thin. One-dimensional in our beings and beliefs. But yes, we did it to ourselves. That’s the truth. We believed in a fantasy and speculated on our futures. We trusted someone who was so clearly untrustworthy. We are the string removed, let go in the wind and the air but then snared to the place where it caught. Where it happened. Where everything stopped. Now we have only the river. And all the hours of darkness.
Nanaka stands at the banks, looking out on the water. She watches her sister with interest. Her little sister is sinking. She will be sinking forever. Regrets are bad, Nanaka says, as if trying to remind herself, running a pink comb through her hair. Are regrets always bad? We’re not so sure. Our thoughts are so thin, they drift away from us. Drifting in the air, the wind. Even our limbs are single-dimensional strands. Damn you, Nanaka says, dropping her comb and going into the water. Now she is sinking, too. We see this every day, don’t we, Nanaka? Every day, over and over. A day-night that is all night long, with the sun shining down, in all its blackened cruelty, flickering like a film strip, and it’s almost too much to bear. Nanaka and her weakness. Her hopefulness. O, why did you do it, Nanaka? Why did you believe him?
Ichika got passage for a song, she bargained her price down to almost nothing, and now she covers the woods with music. Covering her tracks. She loved music so much. Heartfelt music, by tragic voices, so wonderfully sung, how could she resist? She wanted to sing, to be a famous singer. But she should have resisted. Dreams and imagined futures. Possible selves. Ichika and other selves, lost to the forest now. And now not even a proper ghost, because ghosts are a kind of love, a never-releasing thing of energy. We think. Perhaps. Certainly not just sadness. Some of us would let go in a heart beat. Can you hear the hearts beating, in the shallow graves all around? Listen, the sounds are thin but they are there.
Shizuru does has love, so much love, blinding tearful love that drove her to this place, carried her in that impossible journey on the night she came here, came to this place to escape, to get away not only from the city but a man grown cold, a cavalry officer who returned to her broken and unable to look at her, to even see her. What was his name, Shizuru? She never tells us. Never never never. She wouldn’t remember anyway. Too thin inside but taking so much space. Give us some room! We want to watch Shizuru under the window of her former apartment, beneath the shadows and the stormy rain of her former life, on a night that never ends, as she quietly packs a small suitcase. At the last minute she takes the officer’s pistol but she doesn’t have it anymore. Where is your outline in the river, Shizuru? Remind us.
Noriko wanted success so badly, wanted safety and routine and was so sure that if only she could get to that imagined place then the great novel would find her as well. She had a story of survival. You said it was all there inside you, right Noriko? Don’t be like that. We’re just trying to understand. We have trouble remembering. Do you understand just how thin regrets can be? Too thin. If only we were as good as real ghosts. If only! Yes, thank you for reminding us, it was all inside you. This need. That’s terribly romantic, don’t you think? To have that big idea, this big need inside you? Why didn’t you let it out? Let it escape your outlines. Why did you wait? Why didn’t you write it while you could? All that sitting and drinking and despair. Did you even write a word? Did you ever write a word, all that time waiting in the failing city? No, of course not. And you’ve been imprisoned by the river ever since. Your ambition washed away. Only the life not lived inside you now.
Oh well. You’d think we’d be hopeless, but we’re not. No. We’re not hopeless at all. In fact, we are creatures of hope, creations of hope. Things that linger. Like the card that did not come for the winning hand. We made bad bets. We wanted an answer. Hope is as far as we got, unfortunately. Shot, strangled, knifed, stuck in time, pinned here like butterflies in a collection. To this page of time, these pages beyond but still imprisoned by the city. Unwritten chapters. Of course we are dead, and unsustained, but hope is so powerful. Who understands it? It is like magic. It is all that we are and are not. Hopes are like memories that way, the way they live and don’t live. Flimsy. So thin. The way they inflame and change over time. The way they never forget us, and never let us forget, and all the while we are nothing but a boiled-over formlessness.
Darryl Joel Berger has published writing in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Descant, Event, Filling Station, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire and many other magazines and journals, as well as two collections of fiction. Much of his work is about the reinvention of found or abandoned objects and ideas, especially through writing and painting. He lives with his wife and daughter in Kingston, Ontario.