She could hardly remember a time when she could be reasonably described as happy. Occupying a luxurious apartment in a quaint river town, the material circumstances of her life couldn’t be better. The raw, nearly unimaginable suffering occurring just outside her doors hardly touched someone like her, or so you might be tempted to believe. For Kathleen, however, the difficulty of life lay within, polluting whatever it touched, compromising her to a genetic level. And so, while outsiders were likely envious of her life’s broad contours, they would understand how misguided they were upon a second glance.
Part of Kathleen’s problem was that each day dragged on for far too long. While for some, each morning signified a new beginning; for Kathleen, it merely represented the next gauntlet needing to be run, an agonizing countdown that, at least in her mind, needed to be faced entirely alone. If by some miracle she made it to noon unscathed, the afternoon would stretch on without end, its interminable length slowly becoming an insufferable horror show. Attempts to fill the emptiness were seldom satisfactory, and even on the best of days the black maw continually breathed down her neck, threatening to consume what little spirit she had left.
If she thought about her past, it was clear that much of her current situation could be traced to her family of origin, a hardscrabble existence marked by religious dogma, cultural indifference and tyrannical excess. It was during her childhood that she first became aware of Orhan, the bewitched city that she thought lay to the north, tucked along the frozen shores of the Hudson Bay.
The truth was, she had never been sure of Orhan’s exact physical location. She remembered pouring fruitlessly over the 1961 edition of her father’s road atlas, a weathered compendium rife with dog ears and dried liquor stains. She could see a younger version of herself in her elementary classroom, vainly examining the standing globe for evidence of the forgotten metropolis. Where the initial idea of Orhan came from, she had no idea; she couldn’t identify its source or germination. Instead, Orhan’s inception felt rooted in a generalized web of traumatic feeling.
It was on the night of her 12th birthday that the city first appeared to her. Her celebration had been stilted and abridged, the festivities made more tense by the sudden appearance of her father. Once the party was over, she lay tossing and turning in her small bedroom, which was located directly above the sleeping space occupied by her five brothers. Her small form quivered in the coolness of the night, or perhaps because, once again, she couldn’t block out her mother’s screams – no matter how hard she tried.
Wrapping her thin pillow around her head, Kathleen turned toward the sole window of her cramped room only to see that quiet suburban streets had been transformed into a dense urban labyrinth of almost unfathomable complexity. Shock and wonder temporarily usurping her fear, she unlatched the window from its frame and wiggled outward.
The streets of the bewitched metropolis were quiet and fog-cloaked, and Kathleen soon sped off into Orhan’s cobblestoned byways. She traversed the Poldok Cathedral, instinctively knowing the esoteric rituals of its Initiated Brethren. She danced through Rissian Square and was met with thunderous applause by unseen onlookers. She even skipped stones across the Toskin Canal, the rocks bouncing off its sullen waters with uncanny vigor. Then she was back in her bed, eyes blinking as amber sunlight cut through the window pane and bathed her pillow. Even though she had successfully returned to the world she knew, the bewitched city was not done with her; it would never fully let her go.
Years later, Kathleen was ready to depart her childhood home for her first year of college. Her bags were packed. Her father’s car was full. With a last-minute glance, she surveyed what she could see of the area that had constituted her entire world. First, there was the empty family room, a site of frequent antagonism and recrimination. There was the kitchen, where she had spent so many moments watching her mother prepare food. Finally, there was the grey hallway, which Kathleen had traversed innumerable times as a child with both spirited elation and debilitating fear.
Then she was through her house’s front door, and everything she had known was rapidly receding in her rearview mirror. The city to which they were heading arose in the distance from the frosty ground, its highways slashing through clusters of boxy domiciles. As they neared the college itself, the urban landscape thankfully began to transform – from post-war, “city-beautiful” brutalism to classical brick homes from the turn of the century.
Her initial weeks on campus were a whirlwind of both good and bad. On the upside, she was away from some of her brothers, who, at times, had needlessly terrorized her throughout junior and senior high. On the downside, she was away from some of her brothers, with whom she had always been close and who, in many respects, had been an oasis of calm in an upsetting and frightening world.
Having complete control over where she went was also a novel experience, of which she took full advantage, at least as far as the municipal bus system would allow. She had always been accustomed to living life per parental wishes, a mode of being born out of both dreary habit and intense anxiety. Having become a singular decision-maker was the equivalent of being thrown into uncharted waters, and she was loving the process of learning to swim.
Life on many fronts remained hard. She often felt hungry, with meals sometimes consisting of little more than wafer-thin crackers and stingy dollops of Ketchup. Her education was also hardly ideal, for she knew that she desired something different. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, her heart had called out for the arts, a yearning that slowly grew before running into the stark brittleness of reality, not to mention a putrid antagonism from those she perhaps unwisely held dear. Her fallback vocation did inevitably begin to consume her attention, and a nascent admiration started to blossom for its practice, ideals and mission. Deep down, however, she knew that she still had a passion without an outlet and an obvious talent doomed to largely go unshaped.
As always, it was in Orhan that such issues could dissipate into the night – stresses and concerns abjured by a twilight veil. Petty disagreements with her roommate, the annoyances of entry-level classes and even the gnawing pangs of hunger couldn’t touch her there. The metropolis’s deafening quiet wrapped around her during each nocturnal wandering, and its warm almost mystical air lifted her up, bolstering her spirits and buffering her psyche. The city came for her with greater rapidity during those days, and it was during her visits where she could calmly accept that the only real time was now, not to mention feel confident in the validity of her own story.
Her hair was wet when they met, and it was only later that she could see it for the life-changing event it was. Back then, his smile drew her in, as did his care and kindness, his intelligence and good humor. There was also a gentleness he exuded, a sensitivity that she had only rarely encountered. They began seeing each other, nothing major at first, meeting at halfway points between her college and his. Although hiccups occurred, with at one point them even going their separate ways, their connection only grew. So when he at last reached for her, she was only too glad to accept, as he had become her very best friend. By the summer of that year, they were married. The troubles of the past were dimming, and they were both giddy over the prospect of a shared future.
Time moved on, whirling toward a new stage. They bought a house and then a second car, and for four years their lives were an easy-going mixture of fun, freedom, friends, food and travel. Then their world shook almost annually for the following five years. She had always believed that she possessed a maternal instinct, but where it came from she couldn’t be sure. Was it her? Was it a construct? Was it the force of expectation? A galvanizing pressure to embody the principles of time, identity or gender?
She couldn’t decipher such tortuous motivations, particularly as the children started coming and she found the oneness for which she had always been searching. Still, like anything else, euphoria is temporal, happiness ephemeral; and so it was with a growing family. Nexuses of joy slowly eroded through the act of living.
Not at first, of course. In the early years, she threw herself into her new role, ensuring that needs were filled and boxes checked. Each morning, school lunches and outfits were laid out with loving care and military-like precision. Each night, balanced meals were made and daily teeth inspections conducted without fail. All-day, everyday, concerns, qualms and questions were met with the mollifying balm of unconditional concern and attention.
It was during this period that Orhan became lost to her, receding to the most peripheral corners of her active, engaged mind. Civic landmarks of the great city faded from memory, becoming as amorphous and indeterminate as thin wisps of smoke. For a brief moment, she felt fine facing the world without the city, her newfound clarity feeling refreshing rather than onerous. Its patterns and mores were made better by a fibrous anchoring to planning and purpose, to a love that was simplistic, whole and pure. But even such oceanic feelings eventually broke against the craggy shore of an aching reality. As boundaries became tested and relationships strained, the city reemerged, its spires and facades rising up around her as physical bonds lessened and full personhood stirred.
But the city didn’t come back all at once. Its initial return felt tepid and indeterminate, lacking in detail like a half-remembered dream. While she could still sink into its dark byways, explore its half-submerged ruins, it was now much more difficult to find the relief she was searching for or truly lose herself in its all-encompassing milieu. She continued to try to chase that feeling, fixating on it by day, obsessing by night. It seemed as if Orhan could only grow in terms of preoccupation, voraciously consuming her mind like a half-starved animal. There had been a time not that long ago when the city would only appear in the latter portion of the evening, often not showing its face until long after the dinner dishes had been cleared and homework started. At some point, however, its arrival had moved expeditiously upward – first, before dinner, then, at mid-afternoon, until finally bumping up to the tail-end of the lunch hour.
Her family, of course, began to notice, recognizing when her mood soured and she was far away, adrift in a world that they could neither understand nor enter. Even if she tried to hide it, Orhan left a profound and irrevocable impact on her character, one so painfully obvious that she might as well have been actively broadcasting it with a bullhorn. The few times she tried to discuss what was happening to her, she found that the words would not come. So she turned back toward her first love as a communicative outlet: her affinity for visual art that had animated her adolescence. She purchased paints and brushes, paper and canvas. Yet despite her best efforts, they remained blank, glaring, hungry and vacuous, an active testament to a life gone awry, stymied by both personal action and the full weight of her personal history.
She then turned to writing, scribbling everything she could in oversized legal pads. In doing so, she once again felt emotions she hated. Her writing was insufficient and her words hollow. Nothing was working. Her malaise grew, and eventually, she ceased to write or paint entirely.
Ironically, other things started to come back far more vividly, unwanted memories that she had long thought buried. One of them was from decades ago. She was a child, and the coarse, brown reeds of a fallen bird’s nest were poking into the fleshy undersides of her eight-year-old hands. The baby birds stared up at her with ravenous desperation, bleating with painful emaciation, bloodshot eyes bulging out of their barely-feathered heads. Their mother was nowhere in sight. Looking about, she felt utterly lost and alone – as if she was the last person on Earth.
She carried them inside, feeding them bits of worms with her fingers, and when that failed, a tweezers. After the meal, she tucked the nest into a small, cardboard box, wrapping it snuggly with a warm, clean towel. When she awoke the next morning, however, she found their tiny, frozen bodies lying motionless in the bottom of the box. For many nights that followed, she lay awake, terrified that the birds’ mother might be searching for them, crying for the babies who would never again hear her.
Then the day came when her eldest left home. It wasn’t a happy departure; in fact, it was the natural culmination of a long-running tension and, at times, scary levels of unabashed acrimony. Any relief it brought, however, was ultimately short-lived. The gothic architecture and baroque nature of Orhan were now fully ensconced in her everyday reality, its presence a fixture in both her heart and mind. She saw glimmers of it even outside its borders. An adjacent street became Skellere Lane. The city park down the road shifted into the spitting image of the Grimland Moors. Finally, there was the bizarre metamorphous of her home into Orhan’s Hall of Records. In a mere moment, her well-ordered rooms and spotless walls were caked in grime and buried in dust. Her youngest’s room was suddenly the repository for the city’s acclaimed Scrolls of Note.
Time passed, transitions occurred, and one day she realized that she was nearly alone. To some extent, this could be attributed to the normal trajectory of life. Some part of it, though, was also abnormal, the crystallization or culmination of intentional, internal choice and encroaching, external influence.
Of course, none of this mattered in Orhan, a place where reality itself took on a far different tone, where what troubled her gradually slipped away each time she ventured into the bewitched city. The entrenched became ephemeral inside the darkened streets of the long-lost metropolis. What was fearful became fleeting when surrounded by monumental landmarks like the Forbidden Ruins or the Bilereden Arch.
Once during her nocturnal wanderings, Kathleen stumbled across a new district known colloquially as the Western Necropolis, a seemingly endless graveyard riddled with plutonic tombstones and mausoleums. These edifices ripped through the ash-coated ground of Orhan, their starkly white facades contrasted against brutally blackened sallows and horn beams. The entrance to the graveyard was flanked by two enormous statues of cloaked and hooded figures that towered into a grey and brooding sky. As Kathleen passed under them, she peered upward hoping to discern some type of distinguishable features and saw nothing but darkness.
The Western Necropolis was where no one and everyone came to rest, where closure could be found and the found obtain closure. Renowned as far as Ulath Kai, the graveyard cataloged all who passed and all that were still to come. It took her multiple trips, but Kathleen eventually located the section of the yard that should have belonged to her. She studied the various tombs, eyes running over each etching and stone. At last, she came to those she knew, spotting distant relatives before coming across her mother and father. Instinctively, her arm reaching out, brushing the few stray, crumpled leaves that lay across the tops of their respective stones.
Kathleen then came to a full stop. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her plot and headstone. The etched letters composing her own name could be spotted on a regal-looking stone just off to the right. Arms quivering, she could feel her blood pounding through her veins. Slowly, tentatively, her head turned in the grave’s general direction, and her eyes gradually began to focus on the transcribed date of her ultimate demise.
The alarm on her phone was blaring next to her, causing hot pain to shoot through her temples. She was back in her bed. Her innards felt sick, like inflamed, pulverized meat; and her mental state was even worse. There was now no going back, and little hope of getting off the path she had begun so many years ago. The day-in, day-out grind had become a morass – banal patterns with little discernable purpose. At night, when thin, black tree branches tapped against her bedroom window, she felt as though she was ceasing to exist and that the meaning underscoring her life was perhaps itself illusionary.
For better or worse, Orhan was now her home, her refuge and her reality. Throughout her life, she had rarely felt safe, and while the foreboding architecture of the city was hardly a textbook definition of warm or welcoming, within its boundaries, she could be who she thought she was and do what she wanted to do. It didn’t matter that Orhan had driven him to the brink. She couldn’t be concerned that his blood pressure had spiked or that his nerves were shot. There was no way she could be bothered about a smashed car or even the threat of her own incarceration. It even seemed unimportant that they had all been pushed away, the most important of relationships reduced to perfunctory text messages and dates that she was never capable of keeping. As long as she could return to Orhan, that was enough.
Now in her luxury apartment in the quaint river town, Kathleen could note the ease on which her life was predicated. The river and the library, stores and restaurants were all just a short jaunt from her front door. Yet all she could think of was Orhan. The great bewitched city was everywhere she looked, although it too was beginning to change. It had always trended dark. Its architecture was oppressive, its wildlife heinous. For instance, the pigeons that congregated on the pavilion outside of the Depot of Destiny were shrunken and emaciated, their bony forms quivering with guttural tension whenever they cooed.
In recent weeks, Orhan had taken an even more sinister turn. Terrifying spectral figures wrapped in tattered cloaks and reeking of sulfur were appearing in ever greater numbers, floating unnaturally across the cityscape, their wasted forms carrying fearsome-looking, cast iron cudgels. For the most part, Kathleen was able to keep her distance from these beings. By this point, she knew Orhan better than she knew herself. Its twists and turns, unique architecture and secret passageways were old hat. Still, Kathleen knew that even her luck likely couldn’t last forever.
One cool evening night, Kathleen was walking aimlessly through an abandoned commercial district deep in the heart of the bewitched city. Turning down a particularly lonesome byway, she nearly ran headlong into the back of such a figure, which had been crouching and shaking on a stretch of cracked pavement. In an instant, it rose to its full height, towering over her by several feet. Inside the billowing folds of its dirty robes, an inhuman cry ripped forth. Backing away in terror, her foot caught against the jagged lip of the sidewalk. She fell hard, her head rocketing against the ash-covered ground.
Her eyes then fluttered painfully open, and the stark, sterile activity of her river town’s local hospital swam into view. Nurses moved fluidly from bed to bed, checking vitals, examining patient histories, exuding a competence that she herself had once possessed in a comparable setting. She tried to move and winced viscerally from the effort, her body screaming in protest. A young doctor appeared to her right, his thick, long hair tucked behind his ears. Eyeing him tentatively, she could see a slight sprinkling of freckles on his face below a pair of dark brown eyes, and she could just make out a few strands of grey hair popping up within a sea of black. Realizing that she was the right age to be his mother, she lay back against her pillow, closing her eyes against the weight of agonized longing and crushing distance.
Orhan was waiting for her, however, its spires and turrets visible just outside the building’s windows. It was ready to receive her, to ameliorate all wrongs – past, present and future. The walls of the hospital came tumbling down, and then she inexplicably stood in the central hall of the Depot of Destiny, eyes scanning across dozens of different platforms that spanned far into the distance, eventually blurring into a grey, amorphous mass. Each platform was desolate, decrepit, covered in trash and debris. And the trains parked at them were even worse. What had once been marvelous machines of copper and iron, brass and gold piping, were now tarnished beyond repair, with some having been reduced to still-smoldering ruins. To Kathleen, the degradation of the trains didn’t look like the result of the simple march of time but that something or someone had intentionally destroyed them.
A gigantic, dusty train schedule board hung above the hall – bold, elegant, yet frozen typeface spelling out various locations one could reach from Depot of Destiny. There was the hamlet of Tillacuta, the City of the Outer Mantel and the Isthmus of Mecha. Finally, there was the hidden dream city of Cravenmoor, whose cobblestoned streets, cascading falls, puffs of sweet-smelling steam and gleaming gears she had always felt in her heart but never hoped to reach.
Kathleen walked on, but the uniformity of the pavilion’s platforms did not change. Each was more blighted than the last: garish, gothic messes. Then they suddenly weren’t. A singular, shining platform came into view. It was a beautiful feat of engineering – but it paled in comparison to the train that was parked adjacent to it.
A hulking behemoth of steel and iron, the intricate, ornate wizardry of the locomotive boggled the mind and compelled the senses. The engine was a stark, tube-like structure of deep black metal, with a similarly-colored and abnormally-long grating extending outward in front of it. To the left and the right of the primary cylinder were copper pipes that ran the entirety of its length. Wonderous collections of gears and dials ran across their surfaces, clicking and clacking cheerfully, periodically emitting small puffs of steam. At the front of the engine, the main smokestack rose upward from its body. Sleek and curvy, the stack consisted of both a central turret and several smaller channels that arched outward from the main funnel, diverting steam through multiple openings. The train’s cars were no less impressive. With beautiful rosewood paneling, spotless steel beams and cast-iron roofs, they evoked a long-gone age of luxury and refinement.
Kathleen boarded the car nearest to her, spinning the wheel-shaped doorknob to the right before pushing it open. Its interior was empty and silent aside from a crackling flame in a small hearth at the center of the train, which roared to life the moment her foot stepped through the doorway. Kathleen ran her hands over the rich green velvet that covered the back of each row of seats and walked toward the fire, appreciating the warmth and comfort it cast throughout the train car, a welcome reprieve from the cold gloom outside.
Just then, the faint smell of sulfur tickled her nose. Wiggling between two rows of seats, Kathleen pressed her face to the cold glass of a window. The tall, spectral forms that had been lately been congregating in the city were now covering the largely unused tracks of the train hall, moving in unison toward Kathleen’s train. She ran to the other side of the compartment, only to see that they were coming from that direction as well. Then the train lurched forward as if it had almost sensed her thoughts – a burning desire to get away. Steam blasted into the sky, temporarily obscuring the train’s windows on both sides. Next, a deafening whistle pierced the air, and Kathleen’s heart soared as the locomotive picked up speed, moving away from the train graveyard toward an uncertain location.
Collapsing into the closest emerald-coated seat and breathing a sigh of relief, Kathleen peered upward, her eyes running across a series of interwoven pipes that snaked along the ceiling. Outside the window, the landscape was transitioning into a dull blur, and Kathleen at last felt comfortable enough to close her eyes.
Inside the dark, Kathleen reached out with her mind’s eye. She rose out of the train, moving above the somber, grey city, drifting across the black, violent waters of what she assumed was the Hudson Bay, and eventually descending toward a small, non-descript suburb far to the south. Alighting on a relatively small patch of grass, she walked past a carefully-cultivated flower bed and opened the front door of a house she once knew, her fingers brushing over a brass door knocker in the shape of a pineapple.
Inside, everything was it once was: serene, peaceful, children that were happy, healthy, warm and safe. Walking up to the second-floor landing, she looked into the bedrooms, spotting two boys and two girls – small forms breathing under comfortable blankets. Closing each door softly, she felt relieved and wonderful, lighter than she had in years. The oceanic feelings of love had returned, connecting her to them and to all things. She was happy to have had the chance to be their mother – that much, at least, was true.
Her eyes snapped back open, chocolate brown coronas flashing to both sides of the train. She had expected to see pastoral settings or anything, really, that would indicate that she had escaped from the bewitched city. Instead, the train had inexplicably returned to its platform within the depot’s main train hall. The spectral beings she spotted earlier were still swarming outside, their emaciated forms having very nearly reached her compartment.
Go. Go! Kathleen screamed inside her head.
Slowly, the train started to move forward. It had come not a moment too soon, as the wasted forms and monstrous cudgels were very nearly upon the train, their sulfuric odor permeating nearly every nook and cranny. Kathleen gasped and clutched at her chest, desperately trying to quell a pounding heart. The train was now far away from the platform and showed no signs of slowing or, like the first time, somehow turning around and returning to the hall. She sat down against the velvet backing of the train’s seats but found it largely impossible to relax.
The locomotive chugged along and emerged into the open air of Orhan. Gothic skyscrapers flanked both sides of the tracks, gigantic facades filled with hundreds of fearsomely arched windows. Within each one of these windows, the glass panes began to glow, illumination emanating outward, drawing the dust and ash that floated freely through Orhan’s bewitched skies into stark and fearsome clarity.
She was suddenly back in the Western Necropolis, her body laying on the death land’s slowly rotting terrain. Across the way, she could see her train parked at the graveyard’s eastern terminal, an impressive structure whose relatively small size was augmented by jutting turrets and rotund piping. Picking herself up, she brushed wet leaves and dirt clods off her body before walking toward the train, taking care not to disturb any of the browning flowers or other offerings that lay in front of several graves.
Kathleen couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong or that she was being watched. She turned her head back and forth, but nothing appeared. The wind whistled through the open fields of the Necropolis, and ash and dust continued to drift in the sky above. Then her ears perked up. She could hear a faint noise from just over her shoulder. It had sounded almost like a laugh: a faint, raspy and androgynous giggle. Scanning her surroundings, she eventually decided she must have imagined it.
Then the sound came again! This time, she was sure of it. The unmistakable sound of laughter was coming from behind her. She whirled around, neck hair standing on end, just in time to see a long, foul, rotten hand curl around an adjacent gravestone. Without thinking, she turned back and ran, tripping over dirt clods, falling before a row of stones, tasting blood and craning her neck in frantic fear and disorientation.
The world went quiet aside from a low buzzing that came from far away. She had found a way back to her family’s plot, and her stone lay just beyond, blocked by a single row of lonely-looking graves. Terror rose within her, surging across muscle and bone. She had to know. Crawling forward, she saw distant relatives and then her mother and father. At last, she came upon her name, its letters etched directly above the numbers that told the story of her life.
Her breath caught in her throat. Someone was screaming nearby, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away. She was looking at today’s date.
December 10, 2020.
Yanking herself to her feet, she started to run, tears streaming from her eyes. The train was almost within reach. She could see her white face rushing up toward her in its side windows. It was fully clear to her now what Orhan was: a seductive master, a snake in the trees, a doom-ridden apple. It had drawn her in only to take her out.
Clambering aboard, she pulled open the compartment door before collapsing into her velvet-backed seat once more. With a groan, the locomotive chugged on once more, gradually leaving the Western Necropolis behind. Kathleen steadied herself before looking outside. There was nothing to see, aside from a faint drizzle that had begun to fall. She breathed another slight sigh of relief, her sense of safety growing as the train continued to pick up speed. It wasn’t going to be like the last time or the time before that. She had seen her death – but even now she couldn’t believe it.
Then the train was back in the station, its wheels seemingly frozen to the tracks. Kathleen leapt to her feet, body seizing, heart exploding in her chest. This time, however, nothing could be done. The spectral forms were in the car with her, blocking exits, blotting out hope of deliverance. They whirled around her, obfuscating her vision, blurring her form, entering her mind. Kathleen screamed, and she realized it was too late; she was, at last, going.
Somewhere far away, Kathleen’s son picked up his cell phone. On the other end of the line, his sister’s voice told him that she was gone. He didn’t cry, and he wouldn’t for a long time. A sledgehammer pounding against his sternum indicated, however, that something fundamental had changed – even if the broad strokes of his day-to-day reality had not. The news wasn’t really surprising to him; he had, more or less, been waiting for just such a phone call for over 12 years. Even still, there was still no way to truly take it in. A defining figure in the world had been removed, and he had lost a rare source of unconditional love.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, relief was part of his emotional palette in the days that came next. Although he had spared the worst of it, by the time he had fully reached adulthood, conflict and catastrophe had become part of the pattern – week by week, year by year. There were certainly times where he had wished it could all be over or even drawn his identity from the acute dysfunction his mother had injected into the makeup of life.
Even though he missed her, much of the emotional trauma centered on her suffering – not his own. He could imagine the finality of her days, the loneliness and alienation she must have felt as everything she was became corrupted. He could envision endless nights of staggering spatial emptiness. And such thoughts made him sick, as though someone was gripping him around his very throat.
There was anger too – anger that he hadn’t had a mother for many years. He felt rage that centered on a potent feeling of irrational abandonment. In his mind, he felt bruised, battered and very old, like a weathered rock or gnarled tree looking out on unruly waters. He also knew that such feelings did not tell the whole story. In his mind, he could see earlier images, glimmers of a different life where he had known his mother and where it felt as if she was capable of knowing him.
He could see both of them at their favorite Italian restaurant, sharing mostaccioli boats and watching as line cooks tossed soft pizza dough into the air. He could picture them working together on a school project: an open-ended scientific experiment. While so many of his classmates did what was expected, his mother had pushed him toward a far more creative place. He had awed his schoolmates, putting together a remarkable project comparing the efficacy of commercial paints versus organic pigments. And he could even remember a traumatic occurrence during an otherwise uneventful bus ride, where an older boy had hurt his hand, and his mother had used her training from a former life to assess the damage while simultaneously wiping away his tears.
He had never been to Orhan, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine what about it must have appealed to her. Orhan was a place of refuge, an escape from the endless sensory experiences and feedback loops that constituted one’s consciousness. Despite the behavior it had often driven her to, her desire to find a place of peace, a place to “relax,” was one part of his mother for which he could both empathize and understand.
Life continued to move forward, just as it always would. Kathleen’s son trudged on, once again becoming quickly mired in joys and frustrations, successes and mishaps. Then one day he was sorting through some of his mother’s possessions and a small scrap of paper caught his eye. His mother had scribbled some notes as she often did, a hodge-podge collection of thoughts. One in particular caught his eye:
There have been bleak moments sometimes when I walked through a dense fog and all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and stay on the path – but there have been also been golden, incandescent moments of joy and periods of deep contentment.
Tears blotted out these words as he read them off, one by one, in his mind. He was not a religious person – far from it. He did not, could not, believe that a better world was possible. Still, he knew that ultimately he did not know anything with 100% certainty. There wasn’t necessarily much optimism within him, and there never had been. But at that moment he wished, harder than he had ever wished before, that there was indeed something more. He would be satisfied if all that amounted to was a tangible feeling of lasting peace, or, as his mother had once written, a golden moment of deep contentment.
He would do his best to hold onto that hope. At night, after everyone else had gone to bed, he would imagine the cloaked figures on the train in Orhan clearing to reveal his mother’s crumpled body. After a moment, though, she would stir, pick herself up and move on, the train whisking her away from the bewitched city. It would travel for days and nights, past the wonders of the Valley of Etoni, through the Arcadian Hill, over the River Mize before finally terminating at the hidden dream city of Cravenmoor. And there, as a celebratory cry of welcome rang out, she would step out of the hopeless, quotidian mire of Orhan into the boundless gift of everlasting light.
Dedicated to Molly Kathleen Baker-Mohrbacher. I love you.