It was quiet as it can only be on a bright, frosty Sunday. The streets of South, Texas were mostly empty, save for the occasional vehicle meandering to or from church. Fall had passed imperceptibly into winter, and both seemed no more than a fading continuation of summer until this sudden cold snap. School had been cancelled the previous Friday, after a storm blew in the night before and coated the still warm streets with ice. Henry Morgan had taken advantage of this windfall by beginning a new story in his notebook, one that had germinated at the back of his mind for quite awhile. He sat on the edge of his bed, leaning back on his hands with the notebook open on one thigh. He stared blankly ahead, pondering a word or subsequent progression. Suddenly, he exhaled sharply, as if terminating a period of submergence, and closed the book. A ceiling fan, the blades covered with glow-in-the-dark star stickers, turned slowly overhead. From somewhere beyond the bedroom crept the noise of a television game show. Henry stood and padded over the carpet to a blinded window, parted two of the plastic dividers, and took note of the frost that coated the glass on the opposite side. Within the crystalline patterns of ice he imagined he saw a message, a semblance of meaning. As he struggled to decipher the frigid tasseography, Henry absentmindedly raised one finger to his mouth, as if to quiet the already somnolent day. Beyond his window, two maple trees in the front yard stood still and huddled, leaves drooped, as if ashamed of their discordant greenery. The icy tessellation transmuted the trees into fragments, scattered across the glass. Henry traced the course of dispersion and followed one green fleck to the next, noting the occasional disruption of the mosaic by a shatter, shaped like a feather, until he saw the face of a girl looking back at him. Her face was outlined in green, with verdant concentrations forming her irises. Wispy strands of hair were frozen in an eternal windblown moment, and her face, at once cold and severe, seemed to soften the longer he looked at it, until a few flakes turned to droplets and traced a course from her eyes to the pane. Henry smiled and exhaled warm breath on the glass. A fog formed on the girl’s forehead, and with one finger he ordained her “Elisa.” A voice sounded beyond the room over the din of the television. Henry immediately rose and turned, his smile fading into a nondescript expression of contentment as he answered the call to supper.
Henry Morgan once wrote on the inside cover of his notebook, “When nothing is true, everything is possible.” He all at once doubted the veracity of his parents’ claim upon him, the logical foundation of his school’s “good citizenship” rules, and the likelihood that he would ever age beyond sixteen years. That his life was firmly implanted in the moment, and that his reality was wholly formed through perception, seemed to him the most obvious truths. In relation to his peers, Henry could sympathize with the blindly ambitious, note-card wielding, coffee-chugging subset as little as he could the homoerotic, uber-aggressive athletic bunch. School was generally a taxing grind, in which he suffered through the bell schedule and performed the obvious homework for the simple satisfaction of not having to be bothered about it. He loved his parents, but related to them as one relates to benefactors, deferring to their judgment in regard to his safety and health, yet maintaining no sentimental rituals borne of connectivity or shared experience. His sole pleasure and principal diversion was his writing, which he engaged in during every free moment. All of his school notebooks were filled with stories and creative jottings; at restaurants the tablecloth and napkins were fair game for scribbling; his weekends and evenings were reserved as the exclusive domain of his creative endeavors. It was through this medium that he was able to translate his confused perceptions into understandable thoughts and memories. It was there that he took the raw material of his experience and created the world he truly felt at home in.
Dinner was pork chops, mashed potatoes, and warmed green beans from the can. Mr. and Mrs. Morgan, who were seated side by side opposite Henry, had their faces turned towards a large television situated on the other side of the room. Between the dinner table and the TV sat a leather sofa, also facing the TV. Henry looked down at his plate. In-between intermittent mouthfuls of food he would occasionally glance up at his parents, who half-turned at regular intervals towards their raised forks. They were an older couple, and could have passed for Henry’s grandparents; both, however, still preserved the vestiges of hearty youth. Mr. Morgan, though gray-haired and bifocaled, had broad shoulders and massive arms. When necessary he could, at least to Henry’s imagining, perform amazing feats of strength. Mrs. Morgan clung valiantly to the remnants of a once great beauty. Her hair, touch-dyed in spots, framed with darkness a light-brown, freckled face. Her aquiline bone structure was apparent in Henry, as was her slender figure. She was his template for understanding the movements and manners of the grand dames and duchesses encountered in his reading. Without realizing it, Henry had begun to stare at them. Mr. Morgan, feeling the boy’s gaze, turned fully towards him with a grin.
“What’s the matter? There something hanging outta my nose?”
Henry smiled sheepishly and shook his head before looking again to his food. Mr. Morgan shrugged and turned back to the TV, while Mrs. Morgan rose and carried her plate to the sink.
Later that night, ensconced in quilt and lamplight, Henry lay in bed and stared upwards. It was at this time, on the platform in the station of sleep, that he tried to manipulate the itinerary of his dreams. Like a vacationer preparing for holiday, he packed the forefront of his consciousness with those images most important for the journey. For Henry, sleep was not a respite from his daily travails, but the culmination of them. He kept his notebook ready on the nightstand, held open by an uncapped pen. Even so prepared, he would often waken in the middle of the night, with some fresh fantasy fading fast on the fringe of reality, and would not be able to properly commit what he had seen or experienced to paper. He was dedicated though, and believed in the necessity of his endeavor; the literary fruits were too beautiful not to pluck, no matter how hard to grasp. Henry sat up and pulled the notebook onto his lap, then took his pen and wrote quickly the following lines:
Time off from school is all fine and good, but this house can yield only so much inspiration. The television dampens my creativity, I think. Tomorrow, a school day, will yield plenty for introspection.
He held his pen and thought for a moment, then replaced the notebook again open on the nightstand. Sliding down under the covers, he reached up and switched off the lamp, then turned onto his side and faced the wall. Held in front of his mind was the image of Sarah, a cheerleader whom Henry often tried to dream about. He was tired, though; the day had been long with nothing, and it was a struggle to preserve the integrity of her image. Soon, his thoughts began to wander and drift like a paper boat. Words and snapshots slipped by one after another, making no impression - or some impression, unremembered feelings that tickled like grass under the palm. Earlier that day he had walked his dog. The streets were empty, the asphalt the same shade of grey as the sky. The dog pulled him forward, eager to go nowhere, while the wind pushed him from behind and urged him in the same direction. A house had made an impression on him as he passed, and now the image of it returned to his hazy mind: a brick house with an arch over the doorway and a large pecan tree in the front yard. His dog pulled, and the wind pushed him past the house, the tree swaying, pecans falling like raindrops to ricochet off the roof. Henry walked, leaning backwards but pushed/pulled forward, the wind in his ears, the pecans falling, bouncing off the ground, bouncing off the roof, filling a birdbath in the front yard. The birdbath leaned to one side, sinking into the ground, and the thought occurred to Henry that perhaps a pecan, hitting the right spot, could knock it over. Henry walked, one hand clenching a leash, pushed from behind, past a house with an arched entryway and a pecan tree in the front yard. A birdbath filled with pecans. They fell from the tree, fell in a downpour like raindrops. The wind blew hard, filling his ears, as Henry walked past the building with the arched entryway, the pecans pouring from the sky, one hand clenching the handle of an umbrella, which he opened and raised over his head. The wind blew, and he clenched tightly the umbrella, Henry walking, the pecans ricocheting off the birdbath and umbrella, filling the birdbath and flowing over the sides. Henry walked in the shadow of the building with the arched entryway, huddled beneath his umbrella, before a fountain overflowing, pecans streaming from the sky and forming puddles on the ground. Henry walked through a puddle and his shoes became wet. The building loomed on his right, with a fountain before it decorated with birds. Henry suddenly turned and dashed through the downpour for the arched entryway, splashing through puddles and gripping his umbrella with both hands. He ran around the fountain and up a set of concrete stairs, struggling to hold onto his umbrella, which filled with wind and fought to escape. Reaching the entryway, Henry stopped to catch his breath, and saw that the building was a great cathedral. Before him the rain coursed down in sheets, speckling the pool of the ornate fountain below. A sculpture of birds rising in flight stood in the center of the fountain, the birds carved one on top of the next from a single block of marble. Its border undulated like a gentle countryside around it, with carved stone birds placed on every rise, some bent as if frozen in the act of drinking.
Henry closed his umbrella and shook it dry, content to wait for the rain to subside. He then turned slowly in a circle to inspect his vestibule, and saw that the ceiling of the entryway rose a good thirty feet in the air before terminating in a series of inlaid vaults. The great recessed double-doors stood almost half this tall, the thickly carved oak reinforced with three evenly spaced, golden metal bands. Round iron handles were affixed on either side of the seam where the two doors met. Henry leaned on his umbrella to peer closer at the doors, and saw they were densely covered with carvings. A motley assortment of hybrid creatures crawled within and without thick strands of ivy, each with their eyes directed heavenward, as if climbing. Satyrs and centaurs, devils and angels, men and women crossed with insects and reptiles, all struggled upwards. Henry’s eyes, filled with fascination and disgust, roamed back and forth over the incredibly lifelike renderings. He followed their progress up the length of the door, which terminated in an inscription carved in stone above the doorway: “Everyone Lives Inside Someone’s Ambition.” Henry squinted and screwed up his mouth, perplexed. Shaking his head, he reached up and pulled the door handle - it didn’t budge. He placed his umbrella on the ground and gripped it with both hands, leaning backwards and pulling with all of his might – not even a rattle. Frustrated, he picked up his umbrella and turned. The rain continued to fall torrentially, with a sweeping roar like the bellow of some beast. A flash of anger passed through Henry, annoyed at his circumstantial entrapment between a gale-like downpour and an obscure, locked door. He closed his eyes as if to center himself. All sound ceased with his vision. When he opened them the rain had stopped. The sky remained overcast, but there was no evidence of the storm; not a single puddle pockmarked the ground. Henry looked down at the fountain, which bubbled merrily, water flowing from the mouths of the encircling birds and jetting in intermittent arcs over those in flight. Pleased, he descended the staircase and approached the pool. Looking down into the waters, he was greeted by the reflection of a grown man. A day’s stubble graced his cheeks, and his short brown hair was streaked here and there with gray. His face was thin, with high cheekbones and delicate features. A bemused expression enhanced the handsomeness of the features, and his sharp green eyes stared back intently into themselves.
Henry stepped away from the fountain and set off down the street before the cathedral. He tapped his umbrella upon the flagstones, now thoroughly enjoying himself among the pleasant quiet of his surroundings. He realized he was in a city that was for all appearances completely abandoned. Buildings constructed in the classical mode lined either side of the street, intermittently divided by wide, open plazas and small parks filled with various fruit trees. Over the street there occasionally passed arched white bridges that connected opposite buildings. Passing overheard at regular intervals were circular platforms, unoccupied and apparently floating of their own volition, moving to or from the direction Henry walked. He came to a cross street and continued straight; his destination was an open green space many blocks ahead.
Henry felt as if he walked through a holy space. The street beneath his feet was sacrosanct, and the buildings were washed white in their purity. Here he felt the connection of God’s finger to Adam’s reverberate through his body with a cool hum. He imagined that this was where he came from, where he would return to, and that the purpose of his earthly life was to bring some aspect of this perfection to the scarred world where he existed as a child. He was alone here, but only because at present he desired it so. He looked forward to the green space ahead, which he knew was a large open park filled with voices and bodies. Henry felt aged like a walnut handle worn smooth, made brighter through prolonged contact; his surroundings, however, were beyond any age. He would name this city Eterne, Henry thought with a smile.
Nearing the green space where the street terminated, he heard the babble of running water. The block ended sharply, with no transition between flagstone and grass, buildings and open sky. Hundreds of people sat in small groups, or walked in pairs, or ran quickly in the open, and their laughter and voices filled the air. In the distance, Henry saw that the grass sloped down to a river, its crystal clear waters flowing smoothly. Far beyond rose a bright silver tower, its polished gleam of reflected sunlight almost unbearable to behold. Henry noticed that the clouds had broken, and as he stepped into the field, among the various revelers, the unexpected sunlight filled him with a rush of warmth and contentment. Everyone was dressed in simple, comfortable clothing, and appeared to be in the prime of their life. As Henry walked among the people, some looked up and smiled to acknowledge his passing, while others continued what they were doing. Henry felt a welcoming spirit manifested in every movement, every gesture, every word spoken in his presence. He picked up snatches of conversation as he walked, headed vaguely towards the river.
“A nation of millions sat in quiet amazement,” said a pretty blonde with bobbed hair to her stately, beautiful companion. The woman smiled and stroked the blonde’s arm before replying, “Celebrations were cancelled around the country.”
The sun seemed to brighten as Henry walked.
“Shopping malls closed early as word spread,” said a well-built man who passed Henry in the opposite direction.
“It was supposed to be a formal and solemn proceeding,” said a woman sitting cross-legged and wearing a sari.
The river gleamed static in the distance, and grew neither larger nor smaller as Henry continued towards it. He no longer looked at those he passed.
“I would ask all of you to return to your homes now,” said a man.
The impression of a surrounding multitude slowly dissipated, though the sound of voices remained. The river, growing brighter while maintaining its distance, became the sole object of Henry’s attention. Suddenly the tower gleamed sharply behind it, bursting with light that reflected into and filled the sky, turning it white. Henry stopped and looked upwards.
“Crowds remained in the streets for some time . . .” said a female voice.
Henry felt himself melting into the blankness overhead, rising up from the green field.
“. . . and police reinforcements were sent to various parts of the city . . .”
The light engulfed Henry, and he felt heavy, drowsy, surrounded by warmth.
“. . . shootings and bombings have become an almost daily occurrence . . .”
His eyes fluttered, and he saw faintly glowing stars materialize against the ether above him.
“ . . . the violence appears to have a number of causes. . .”
His eyes opened halfway, and through blurred vision he made out the slowly turning blades of a ceiling fan, covered with star stickers.
“. . . the ethnic Muslims have complained over the years of neglect and discrimination. . .”
Henry sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. He felt painfully alone and lost in the dark. From somewhere beyond his bedroom door came the sound of a television.
“Their insurgency in three largely Muslim provinces in southern Thailand has resulted in over 1,500 deaths in two years.”
He swayed groggily back and forth for a moment, debating whether or not to go back to sleep, then threw off his covers and got out of bed. The sound of his mother’s voice rang out over the newscaster’s monotone:
“Henry! Are you awake?”
Henry yelled back a reply and dressed quickly. As he walked to the door, he stepped on his notebook, which was lying open on the floor. He bent down to pick it up and stopped suddenly, hunched over with one arm outstretched. His eyes narrowed, then widened suddenly. Below his last entry from the night before, someone had scrawled in an uneven hand:
“Frozen roads leave us stranded in our search for shelter.”
Henry shook his head slowly and closed the notebook, turning it this way and that as if looking for some clue. His mystified expression remained unchanged as he replaced the notebook atop his nightstand and exited the bedroom.
The mystery of the added line haunted Henry throughout the day. His walk to school was robbed of its usual pleasantness, infected as it was by the crisp air and his fevered speculations. The answer was in his dream, he thought, his mind returning to this supposition like a needle tripping over a scratch. In the December sky there sat entrenched a monopoly of dull gray clouds. Henry thought he remembered it raining the night before but saw no puddles upon the street. Frozen roads leave us stranded in our search for shelter, he said to himself. Frozen roads were hard to detect when the ice was mistaken for innocent water, a momentary sheen in a headlight or sunray. If someone hadn’t snuck into his room and written that line, then how could it be explained? His feet shuffled mechanically over the sidewalk, his head down. He was like a horse, his path so familiar he could find it in a blizzard.
Henry’s first period was English. After handing in homework, they read The Vane Sisters aloud, though Henry was too preoccupied to follow the story. When his teacher pointed out the hidden meaning in the last paragraph, he only half heard her. Biology crawled by, and Henry’s ethered frog was crudely butchered, the victim of a mind wandering in dissection of ten obscure words. Lunch came and went in a messy blur of faces and chatter. Afterwards was History, which featured a lecture about the connections between time, place, and the vestige called writing. Henry was only half awake, in vain seeking to connect dots on the fringes of his waking memory. Frozen roads. He felt isolated, cut off from the meaning that existed somewhere within those words. Later that evening, he was so distant during dinner that his parents assumed he wasn’t feeling well. They allowed him to leave the table unmolested, and did not question his desire to go to bed early. Henry had, in fact, looked forward all day to the moment when he could sleep. There was not a doubt in his mind that he would return to Eterne, where he believed the source of the mysterious line resided. The problem that remained for him was how his dream had crossed over into the waking world. The potential inherent in this seeming impossibility filled Henry with a wild and hopeful sense of apprehension. He often floated through life as if only partially aware of his surroundings. People called him a dreamer, a space cadet, made fun of him for his long, thoughtful silences, and for the times when he stared into a distance only he could see. The idea that his dreams could, in fact, contain within them some greater reality, some force that could affect and brighten the dull grayness of his small-town life, appealed to Henry in the same way as his childhood fantasies about hidden fairy kingdoms. A shiver of anticipation passed through him as he undressed and crawled into bed.
Switching on his lamp, Henry picked up his journal and opened it to the most recent entry. The subject of his scrutiny lay before him, a jagged and sloppily written line. It appeared to have been written by a child, or someone unused to holding a pen. Henry exhaled, realizing he had been holding his breath. It occurred to him that he had half expected the words to no longer be there. He picked up his pen and wrote on the facing page:
I’ve been confronted with the impossible. This morning I woke up and found something written in my journal that I did not put there. My dreams have in some way begun to intrude upon reality, I’m sure of it. I stand on the brink of a great discovery.
Henry reread what he had written and, pleased with it, replaced his notebook and pen on the nightstand. He switched off his lamp and lay flat on his back, eyes wide open in the darkness. Although his desire was to fall asleep immediately, he quickly realized that he was not very tired. His excitement-fueled mind churned forth a regular stream of images and words, chattering like a series of commercial adverts. It was a couple of hours before Henry began to drift asleep, having tossed and turned himself into exhaustion. The words from the added line turned in his head, revolving one past the next, yielding no clues and gradually growing soft and faded. Their meanings blurred and expanded beyond the mere forms of letters to become nonsensical. Frozen roads arranged themselves side by side in numbered rows. Yellow pervaded “Leave Us Stranded”, a dusty town between cigarette orchards. In his search, a pipe, dreaming down which he fell, into venomous gardens beneath the leaves of tulapeas, where, huddled for shelter, children nibbled Oxycontin and stared with ash-filled eyes.
Sunlight broke and cleared Henry’s mind to remind him of his purpose and destination. He stood on a dirt path in a forest. Surrounding him on all sides were immensely tall, white trees, crowned with leaves like albino ostrich feathers. It was a beautiful day, and patches of aquamarine brilliance broke through the foliage far above. Pillars of light descended from these breaches and fell upon the ground at irregular intervals, scattered around into the distance. The ground was swept clean, free of any arboreal detritus. Henry knelt and passed his hand over the grass next to the path. It appeared to have been freshly clipped, and had the silky texture of a woman’s hair. He rose and continued walking, whistling pleasantly to himself, tapping his cane in time with the melody. The path widened ahead into a stone bridge, under which flowed a clear, babbling brook. As he crossed the bridge, Henry stopped momentarily and withdrew from his pocket a handful of small purple orbs. Still whistling, he dropped them into the water one by one and watched them float away. Across the bridge the forest thinned out, and there were houses built onto the trees. They were placed at varying heights, with spiral staircases that wound upward around the trunks and wooden bridges that connected them to each other. It was a raised community, existing between the ground and the boughs; Henry felt a warm sense of welcome, and imagined his own tree house was around there somewhere.
Without thinking, his feet took him towards where he thought the cathedral lay. A stone thoroughfare led out of the tree village, and Henry again saw the familiar lines of the marble city. The bright sunlight accentuated the white stone to render it staggering, like a flash of pain. Henry felt his knees pop as he walked, the platforms floating overhead, and his cane became more than a prop. What felt like hours passed, as he walked aimlessly around, past the same white buildings waxing blinding in the light. He despaired of ever finding the cathedral and was about to take a rest on the curb, when he heard the sound of a fountain. Excited, he hobbled towards the noise, around a corner and through a twisted alleyway. There, upon his exit, he saw before him the plaza, the birds, and the brooding cathedral. Henry stared for a moment, smiling in relief, and then crossed the plaza slowly. The birds again bubbled merrily, appearing to frolic along the rim of their fountain, and as Henry passed them he felt a wave of coolness descend from the sky and soften the edges of the sharp whiteness around him. He paused by the water and again saw his reflection, that of a middle-aged man with a scarf and stubble, and wondered if the lines on his face came from laughter or cares. The cathedral beckoned to him, and Henry turned. The walk up the steps was harder than he remembered. Upon reaching the oaken doors, he saw they were now unadorned. He gripped the handle and pushed; the door opened easily, with a sound like exhaled breath.
What lay before him was a single large room, illuminated a soft gold by hidden lighting. The high ceiling and walls were blank stone, brushed clean and smooth. The floor was laid with iridescent tiles, polished so they reflected those who walked over them. At the far side of the otherwise empty room stood a young girl. Aware that his journey was at an end, Henry walked towards her. She stood completely still, as if made of ice, and fixated upon his approach. Henry had the impression that her sight was an illusion, and that if he moved to the side her eyes would follow him like those in paintings. Her skin was pure white, her hair the lightest blonde, and every part of her sparkled faintly, as if covered in frost. When Henry stopped a mere foot in front of her, he was startled by the sharpness of her green eyes. They stared at one another in silence.
“Did you write in my notebook?” Henry whispered.
The girl remained frozen and impassive. The reply came soft in his ears, in a voice as familiar as his very own:
“Our hopes are the beginnings of all our mysteries.”
Ever since Henry was a baby, Mrs. Morgan rose every night between midnight and three to check on him while he slept. When pressed, she would explain her reason for this as a vague superstition, that one morning she might wake and he would be gone, disappeared in the night. She made her way down the hallway to his room, her steps a little faster than usual. Lately Henry had been groggy in the mornings and over supper, and she worried that he might not be sleeping well. Mrs. Morgan carefully opened the door to his bedroom and peeked in. Seeing movement, she waited for her eyes to adjust, then clucked her tongue softly, her mystery solved. Henry, with clumsy and sleep-deadened movements, leaned halfway out of bed, scrawling in his notebook. His eyes were nearly closed, and he muttered to himself. As Mrs. Morgan moved forward to wake him, she caught a few words.
“Beginnings . . . mysteries . . . “ he mumbled, pen scratching.