The Strange Tale of Dr. Emilio Ariosto

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He came into my office slowly, steadying himself with a walking stick; the kind that looked like it might contain a sword. It was a January day. His long black coat still smelled of the cold street from which he had come. He had a leather pouch slung over his shoulder, one of those expensive bags men in Europe consider stylish.

I stood up to welcome him, offered my hand. He shook it and, following my indicating arm, sat down in the chair opposite my desk. As I adjusted to my chair he took the bag from his shoulder and rested it in his lap. Then, almost without a pause, he began to talk. In a soothing, steady voice, he introduced himself as Dr. Emilio Ariosto, a physician retired from practice in Trieste, but who still did his own researches, of a mysterious nature, into the ethereal origins of disease. He went on at some length about the intersecting circles of Atlantis, the lost papers of Hypatia, the secret papers of Galen, Babylonian time-door theory and many other esoteric facts. I immediately took him for a lunatic, but politely continued to listen, as he talked over the hushed sound of traffic that filtered through the window overlooking the street below, to the right of my desk, a whisper of caution in my ear.

‘Well, sir,” I said, after he paused and sat back in his chair to observe my reaction, “Very intriguing but I am at a loss concerning your research. I have no conception of what ethereal origins of disease can mean. But you haven’t come to consult me about that or to give a lecture I assume. So, how can I help you? What legal advice are you seeking? How did you get my name?’

Dr. Ariosto leaned forward in his chair while clutching the pouch with one hand, softly stroking the grey-flecked beard that framed his chin with the other. ‘The reason I am here, Mr. Eiger, is contained in this bag. It contains evidence of a crime. And as for you, I made enquiries. Does it matter?”

“I guess not. But what crime are you referring too? And why me?”

His dark brown eyes narrowed with a slight smile of his lip,

“A crime beyond imagining for most people, because they commit it every day and so to them it is no crime at all. And you, well it will be revealed in the telling.”

With that the smile vanished into a twitching of his lips as he lowered the bag and sat back in his chair to watch me, as if he were watching the reactions of a subject of one of his experiments in the ethereal zones.

“What are you talking about? I really don’t have time for philosophical gymnastics. If you are aware of a crime committed you should report it to the police. Or are you referring to something you’ve done?’

His eyes narrowed, those soft, dark almost oriental eyes. “Ah, well, when I tell you my story you will understand why I cannot report anything to the police, who would not understand it in any event.’ The quick smile again, almost a nervous tick.

“Then, please, proceed. Perhaps you can start by telling me what a doctor from Italy is doing in Toronto on a cold day like this.”

Dr. Ariosto clutched the bag closer into his lap as a fraction of a smile flashed, then said.

“I’ll have to tell you everything as it comes and that may not be in the chronological order you would like. A logical desire but I find I can explain myself best in the digressions that drift through conversations as we drift through life. Don’t you agree?”

I made a slight nod of the head to indicate he was right and tightened my eyes to look more intently at him as he began to tell his story. Then I sat back in my chair, crossed my right leg over left, and listened, as he began his tale.

“Ten years ago I left Trieste to wander the capitals of Europe, with the help of a small fortune I had inherited from my father. It was a great relief to have that fortune come to me. Medical practice fatigued me. In fact, it bored me. Suddenly, I no longer had to work as physician. I am a skilled doctor by the way, but the tedium of day-to-day practice and my interest in the deeper recesses of the human mind and its role in illness quickly led me to abandon the practical for the theoretical. During some months in Paris I became associated with some like-minded people connected with others in Europe, the United States and Canada, the world, in fact. It was one of these who invited me, five years ago, to come to Toronto to attend a meeting of the Psycho-Physical Association of Universal Dialogue that is interested in the matters concerning my research.

“Frankly, I was disappointed in the city, an ugly one in every respect, except for the lake of course, such possibilities, but a city absolutely at war with nature and the people unfortunate enough to inhabit it, not conducive to optimum health of the body, or soul, as they say. In any event some of the people I met at the meeting made my stay here tolerable. There are not that many of us and I recognised most of those attending from other meetings or communications, one way or another. I was then, as they say, ‘approaching middle age’ but there I met a woman, a young woman who banished my years as if they were chains cut from a slave. It is she that drew me here again, today.”

He paused, looked a the floor, lost for a second, then continued,

“When I arrived that first time, I stayed at the hotel where the meeting of our association took place, the Sheraton Hotel, in the central part of the city, near your beloved Osgoode Hall, one of the few buildings in the city to have any harmony in its style. I am sure you agree with me.”

I nodded slightly, “Yes, it has some elegance to it, but then it’s two hundred years old.”

He raised his eyebrows a flicker, “It’s not the age, it’s the achievement of harmony that makes its elegant, makes it graceful. The rest of the city –a digression for another time.

“During the welcoming dinner the first evening after my arrival I found myself at a table with five others, three gentlemen and two ladies. They were all Americans, and so I felt a bit uncomfortable with their ease of manner and their condescension towards their Canadian hosts. Quite amazing. Their humour was irritating and small talk more so, but one of the ladies, the one I have referred to, I found very interesting and of an intense beauty, not so much a physical beauty, though she was that, but an, allow me to say, a deep quality of calmness and poise at being in the world, that could only be founded on a deep intelligence, that instantly attracted me to her.

 

‘She sat next to me. Her presence was an electric current passing through every cell in my body. I felt a heightened awareness of existence and an extreme clarity of mind. We all introduced ourselves. Her name, she said, was Arianna R. We all engaged in small talk as we looked around the room and thought of our presentations, the short wine list, or what in life had led us to be together. In other words, conversations intersected like waves on the sea, rose and disappeared, roared and whispered, amid smiles and half hidden gestures. It was during a lull that I turned to her. She was on my right side,’

Here he paused to turn in his chair as if he were looking at her beside him,

“and asked her where she was from. She turned her head to look at me. Her dark hair flowed down her shoulders, her violet eyes glistened like a cat’s while her oval face framed a long refined nose ending at very enticingly full lips.”

‘Many places,’ she said, ‘but now I live in New York.’

“Her accent was southern I thought, so I followed through, ‘yes, she answered, ‘I am one of those tired refugees from the south, don’t ask me what state, it makes no difference, it’s all broken.’ A flash of light passed through her eyes like lightening through a cloud and she continued, ‘I have lived in France for many years but now I’m back in the States; but not for much longer. I have plans to go elsewhere, away from all the ignorance which surrounds me.’

‘If you know of such a place, I’d very much like to join you.’

 

‘I do, even though I am not sure it really exists. I think I have found where to look. As for joining me, if you have the courage, your expertise will be very useful.

“At that point she turned from me as a waiter approached and asked what courses we would like served. I felt annoyed at the intrusion and sat nervously, impatient to hear her voice, until he left with his pad, his pen behind his ear, and she again sat back in her chair listening to the others chit chatting, but glancing at me as she did. I took it as an invitation to continue the conversation.

“I turned my chair a little in her direction, leaned my face near to hers and said in a whisper so no one else could hear, ‘Does this place have a connection with our research?’

“She turned to me with those eyes that penetrated right through me, right into my heart while she picked up her rosy wine glass. She smiled slightly, took a sip, put the glass down, leaned back in her chair and said slowly and a challenging smile, ‘Yes.’

He paused, then asked me, “I wonder if I could have a cup of coffee”.

We waited in silence after I called Diana and asked her to arrange something. Five minutes passed without a word, both of us gazing out the window until she brought in a plastic tray with two white cups holding espresso and a small carafe of water. Dr. Ariosto watched her move with rapt attention as she came, with her dark hair and poised carriage, and I sensed something, a look, a faint reaction from her and from him, almost imperceptible. But once she had left us alone again, except for the faint scent of her perfume, we sat in silence as we refreshed ourselves, slowly sipping the coffee, while continuing to gaze out the window, then, his cup empty, he put it down on the side-table next to his chair and turned to me,

“So to continue, of course I was intrigued with that simple word, ‘yes’ so when she asked me to meet her at her hotel the next day there was no hesitation. We fixed it for 10 in the morning. I was there early.’

“Was she there?” I asked, to prompt him, as he hesitated again and appeared to have gone again into some other zone. My voice brought him back with a slight shudder of his body.

“Yes, she was there. She met me in the lobby and invited me to lunch. We sat in a corner of the hotel café, out of view of others. It was she that began the conversation, asking about my work, responding with interest to my answers, her eyes always on mine, which made me nervous at first but then mesmerised me so that I forgot what she asked sometimes. Anyway, I finally had a chance to ask her about what she had said and when I did her eyes opened wider, her pupils became darker. She became darker, her face changed, her skin drew tighter, as she began to tell me.

‘There is a place in in France, she said, ‘along the Rhone, a cave I discovered when I was walking… I was there with my husband at the time. He is dead now. At least the police think he is dead. He went missing, as I will relate to you. I had just completed my doctorate in neurosciences in America and we decided to go to France. We wanted to celebrate and relax. We stayed in Nice for a week but got tired of the city, even that bay, there are too many tourists now, and so we decided on a quick weekend in the country in the Rhone valley. We stayed at a small hotel, just to take in the culture, the sights. One morning, it was a Friday, I believe, he slept late from too much wine the night before. I woke early, and wanted to get out, get some fresh air, so I got up, went for breakfast then went to the front desk to ask the concierge about walking trails. He showed me a map of them. I decided on one of the trails that ran along the river that looked an easy but wooded walk. It was beautiful. I can still smell it, the fragrance in the air. It made me dizzy a little.

‘So, my mind wandered and I didn’t pay attention to the path. At a bend in the path my foot slipped suddenly on the edge of the embankment and down I went through some brush then rolling onto a ledge a few feet above the river. I was surprised more than injured, felt foolish a bit and angry I had gotten my clothes dirty, my leg scraped. As I gathered myself together, brushed off the dirt with my hands and turned back towards the path I saw, just a couple of feet above me, a dark cavity about twice the height of a person and three times as wide, most of it covered by hanging branches of trees and small shrubs. My heart raced. Caves fascinated me when I was a child. My brothers and I would roam the hills near our house and explore small caves for hours, always wondering what we would find inside, always a little afraid of what might be there. There were caves in this area, popular ones, but this was hidden, was unknown, as I later I learned. It was not one of those marked on the tourist maps. It was mine. My discovery. Of course I had to explore it, at least the entrance.’

Dr. Ariosto paused, then continued,

“She went on to describe scrambling up to the cave, pulling away the branches, looking in and seeing the inclined light from the sun spread across a stone and dirt floor that receded deep into darkening shadows further back and towards which she slowly walked, taking her cell phone from her pocket to light her way until a after a few metres the way ahead was blocked by a wall lined with ochre coloured bricks on which it seemed there were splashes of colour, faded images, priapic, orgiastic, that startled her with their celebrations of the life force, forcing her to turn right into a small room carved out of the rock in which the walls were covered in abstract symbols, or perhaps a script. It is unknown. She trembled as she told me.”

“She said the room was large enough to hold four or five people. But in her own words,

‘It was dark except for the ceiling that spread over my head like the black cloak of the night sky sequined with thousands of tiny stars. Below there was nothing but a rock floor and a circle in the centre outlined with lapis lazuli stones.’

“She said, the rock above her was crystalline, a type of quartz or something, that when she looked at it she knew, or had the sensation that she knew, she was looking at the Milky Way, spreading out in all its vastness and majesty. It was not an illusion, or a delusion. She was convinced she was actually looking through some great lens at the galaxy itself and found herself on the verge of falling down into the depths of the stars, when her battery died, and it vanished.

“She was convinced she had stumbled on a sacred place and that in that dark room in that cave there existed a machine that could see beyond the possible or an element that allowed the mind to perceive beyond the visible and she became determined to find it out.

“Of course when she returned to the hotel and told her husband of her experience he didn’t take her seriously, which angered her. She dared him to follow her there and see for himself, which at first he laughed off, but her accusations of cowardice hit a nerve and so a day later, early in the morning, after a small breakfast hurriedly eaten, they left the hotel with some hiking gear and a small knapsack with necessary items, telling the concierge they were going for a walk by the river and to explore a cave. It was the last time the concierge saw her husband.

“She claims he seemed surprise when she found the cave again and her story was partially confirmed. His scepticism was now coloured by curiosity and so he insisted on being the man and walking ahead of her. He stopped at the entrance, took a flashlight from the pack, told her to follow behind him and in he walked. She hesitated a second or two to give him a chance to experience what she had experienced, then stepped in herself looking for his light but saw none. She called out but there was no answer, she walked to the wall, turned into the room, but there was no one there. She took a step, to turn. Her foot kicked something that rolled on the stone floor. It was his flashlight. She picked it up, clicked the switch, the bulb burned bright. She shone it around, looking for other passages she had missed, nothing, for dark stairs, secret doors, hidden ways, but there was nothing. Then she looked again above her head at the deep abyss of the stars that she could see again as she did the first time, and for a second, she claims, she thought she saw a shadow there, a form like that of her husband, pass through her field of vision, as a cloud blocks the sun briefly as it passes on the wind. And as the shadow passed above she felt a sudden surge of energy pas through her body as all sense of age and time, of place, of self, left her. She has no memory of events after that, just impressions of colours, sensations, electric landscapes. She thinks it was about two hours later that she found herself wandering by a stream just below the cave entrance, calling out her husband’s name.

“She said she returned to the cave, shouted his name, began to panic, began to cry, began to feel alone, finally gathered herself, then, distraught, made her way back to the road to get a signal for her mobile to call the hotel, to call the police.

“The police car carrying two gendarmes intercepted her as she was walking back towards the hotel. In the car and at the hotel she told them time and again what happened. The two young gendarmes listened with slightly amused smiles, but they were thorough and correct and so they went to the cave, her showing the way, and when they came to it, without hesitation, went in, then 5 minutes later, came out.

“They told her, with evident interest in her reaction, that they had seen the wall, the room, and what looked like stars but told her that was nothing more than the light from their torches reflected back by the thousands of quartz crystals, and though they were intrigued by the images and symbols painted on the walls, said it was no doubt an ancient pagan place of worship from Roman times or before; for one of the gendarmes had taken some courses at the local university so knew what he was talking about, he said. Of interest to archaeologists, no doubt, but not them, for no matter what it was, her husband was not there.

“They began to question her again, more closely, and with suspicion. A short while later they returned her to the hotel, arranged for a search team to come in to search the woods, put out a bulletin about the missing man, his description, a photo, and asked her not to leave the hotel.

“He was never found. The police suspected foul play of course. They could not believe her story. They detained her for questioning but could get nothing else out of her and since there was no body, no evidence of a crime, the prosecutor advised her release, with a caution. In other words, they let her know she was still considered a suspect. But nothing happened, the file remained open, but as a missing person case. So, over time, a year or so, the police resources were shifted elsewhere and they left her alone. Her husband, a junior army officer, had no family who cared, so no one pressed the authorities about him. She was left alone with her experience and an intention to return.

“So, this was the story she told me, and that to try to understand what happened she spent two years investigating the deeper reaches of occult science. She claimed she found references in historical records and obscure scientific journals to ancient religious practices in caves which were said to be doorways to the homes of the gods, the sky-world, the underworld, shortcuts through space, means of perception beyond the senses, but no one had done any active research to investigate these stories except record them for their historical and cultural interest. She was not permitted to return to that cave again. It was a requirement of her release. And no one else had followed up on her account and gone to see for them selves. The police had not bothered to report it and she could not. So the mystery remained.

“But to solve it she spent her family’s money on exploring caves over the world, recording myths and legends, stories of others who claimed to have had similar experiences. She travelled the world, getting university grants to do research into culture and its affect on our psychology. But she never again experienced what she had experienced in that cave on the Rhone.

“Fascinating stuff I think you will agree, but was any of it true? That was the question ever in my mind. Was she searching for the keys or was she a fraud. My own researches into the ethereal zones led me to believe that there might be an explanation for what she had experienced, that she might have stumbled on a natural key into those zones. There was no question I wanted to find out. So when she asked me to join her in an attempt to revisit her cave I replied with excited approval. We shook hands, embraced and agreed to meet the next day to determine how we should proceed.”

“And so how did you proceed?” I prodded, as he again looked out the window searching for or remembering something or someone.

He moved his head slightly, nodding to me, picked up his cup to sip the last drops of coffee, and with cup in hand, using it as a baton as he talked, he continued,

“That was obvious. Through some connections in France I was able to learn that the police had no interest in an old case like that and no one would pay the slightest attention to an older man and a young beautiful woman in a hotel in the area, they were all too common. So we booked a flight and within a week were in the same hotel she had stayed in with her husband, separate rooms of course. Despite my desires and natural attraction to her, I was not fool enough to think she had any interest in me. It was a hot day in June.

“We spent the first couple of days getting over jetlag, making inquiries at the local historical society on ancient religious practices in the area, the worship of trees, fascinating things. But finally I had to see the cave myself and it was clear that she had to go with me. It might be that we saw nothing meaning that she had suffered an hallucination brought on by her murder of her husband whose body she likely had disposed of elsewhere or that the phenomenon she had experienced only occurred at certain times or under specific conditions. If she saw the same thing, well, was she to be believed? Of course if I had the experience, then, well we would have something very interesting.”

“The third day we rose early, had coffee, gathered the lunch box the hotel provided and began our walk along the country road, to the trail that led to her cave. We didn’t say much to each other along the way, but the physical beauty of the place was intoxicating so we made very good time. Then she stopped ahead of me, pointed off the trail, said something I couldn’t quite hear, and then disappeared into the brush, an invitation to follow. Within ten minutes we were at the ledge where there was access to the cave. It was all she claimed it to be. We prepared. After pausing to take it all in we took out our electric torches, put my phone on video record and slowly entered the sunlit entrance and into the shadows.

“And indeed there was a wall as she had described, and there were clearly ancient images and symbols on that and the other walls and, in some places, what looked like a type of script, but nothing that I was familiar with, neither phonetic, runic or hieroglyphic, more flowing, more cursive, more like Arabic or Hindi, Korean even but different from all of them. It was fascinating and I was lost in gazing at this feast when I heard an exclamation, and turned my head to see that she had entered the centre of the small room she thought a temple and was staring up at the ceiling, shining her light on it, as if she were enraptured, like St. Theresa, in ecstasy.

“What did you see?” I asked, to break the silence that followed the ecstasy.

Dr. Ariosto leaned forward in his chair, raised his hand towards me as if in prayer, then exclaimed,

“Everything, at once, and so, nothing. I just remember looking up at the roof of the cave, following her eyes, and there spread out, the crystals in the ceiling gave the overwhelming impression that you were floating, suspended in the void, in the middle of the galaxy, a part of it. It staggered me and I stepped back out of the circle and broke the illusion to see Arianna, still enraptured, staring up and then slowly turning, on one foot like a Dervish, arms twisting round her body as she turned, and murmuring words I could not understand. Then she called my name, called me to her and I went towards her as if compelled. As I did, her face slowly lowered from the ceiling and she fixed her eyes on mine. I came right up next to her and asked “Arianna, what is happening?” when suddenly her left hand reached out to grab my throat and her right suddenly filled with a flashing silver dagger she pulled from her jacket which rose high in the air as she prepared to strike.

“And then?” I prompted, “and then?”

“And then,” he replied shaking his head several times from side to side, and shrugging his shoulders,

“and then, I struck her, my right fist. It stunned her, I thought she would stop, but she screamed and came back with the knife raised, so I struck her again, and then turned and ran as her screams followed me out to the daylight. I didn’t stop running until I got to the hotel and had them call the police. They were quick to get there and down to the cave with me but she was gone. There was no sign of her, as if she had never existed. They set up a search, local roadblocks, but she has not been since, at least by them. The police were angry that she had been in the area. The told me they are convinced she murdered her husband in some ancient sacrificial ritual, they had found notes in her belongings the first time that showed an intense interest in such ancient practices, that she was deranged but they had nothing to use in court. They wondered, as did I, how many more there had been, and how she disposed of her husband’s body. Perhaps in the river and out to sea. I wondered, as did they, how she had vanished, where she had gone. But after a few days they returned to other affairs and I was left to myself. I didn’t let it go. I kept searching in conjunction with my other researches. I met people. I found traces. It has taken all this time to find her but I finally have. She has taken on a completely different persona, a different name, a different history. But it’s her.”

“You mean, in this city?”

“Yes, in this city. In this very office.”

“What on earth are you saying? I don’t like jokes in bad taste.”

“You know what I am saying. I have tracked her here and that is why I had to see you, to warn you, to help you. You must have noticed things about her. I share this information with you, this revelation, to do with as you please. I am not going to the police. They will not believe me. Perhaps you will not either. It is of no matter to me. I just thought I should offer the warning and hope that you, perhaps, will do what is necessary, for I am now too old. She pretends not to know me. But I know she remembers. I’ll leave it with you Mr. Eiger. I wish you good luck. I could forgive her but who can forgive the insane?”

At that, he rose from his chair to leave.

“What about your bag, you said you had evidence of a crime.”

His lips widened into a smile, “Would you have listened to me without this prop. I needed it to get your attention. It was an illusion to help you face my reality and yours. The universal crime Mr. Eiger is living in the illusions that we create around us to survive. Reality is always disguised as something else. It is up to you to break free, to see beyond the veil, or not. Good bye Mr. Eiger, and, again, good luck.”

He then turned, picked up his walking stick, and with his bag over his shoulder, walked slowly to the door, opened it, walked towards the office door, nodded at Diana, who looked at him with a question, then walked out, never to be seen again.

I sat at my desk and tried to distract myself from what had happened by shuffling through some papers on my desk, but I suddenly stopped. I realised I didn’t want to know another reality, didn’t want to know about another illusion, I already had too many of my own. He was just a crazy man, a lunatic, as I had suspected. You get them all the time.

Diana came in to tell me about an appointment with a client who had been waiting patiently in the anteroom.. I nodded as she filled me in with that slight accent she had, that I had never thought much about before.

“Have you ever seen that man before?”

“No, she replied, her dark hair falling over her eyes, “he was a strange one though. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing, just wondering, forget it, I said, and then as she turned, “Oh, and Arianna, is there any coffee?”

She hesitated for a second, turned her head, looked at me with those eyes, and said quietly, “Arianna, who is Arianna, though I like the name?”

Her eyes narrowed as they pierced mine. My question seemed to wither under them. I didn’t answer her question, nor did she wait for me to respond but turned, walked out and closed the door behind her, leaving me caught between what I had thought was reality and what I hoped were Dr. Ariosto’s illusions. I fell back in my chair to reflect on the hour just past. As for Diana, I never asked her anything else about the incident and never heard anymore about Dr. Ariosto or his researches into the ethereal zones. It remains a mystery to me to this day but the encounter left me in a state of puzzlement and a constant wondering, every time Diana mentioned us going somewhere alone for a weekend, what if, what if…?

 

The Remarkable Case of Mr. Smith

I’ve been a lawyer for many long years and the things I’ve heard and seen would disturb even the most cynical. They have me. It’s not entirely clear that my mind has been left unaffected by my experiences, and may explain some strange looks and distancing of acquaintances, for friends I have none, never trusting anyone, because no one can be trusted, even myself, or so I have learned. But let me tell you how I got into this unhappy state of mind from which I am only released by the telling of the tale.

Back in ‘91 or so, I think it was, I received a request for a meeting from a prisoner at the Don Jail, that old pile of Victorian bricks where the last hangings in Canada were conducted. He faced a major charge and needed a defence. The same day, that evening, I drove there, parked my car, registered with the guards, and then followed one of them up to an interview room on the 3rd floor of that dark, dingy building. A few minutes later David Smith appeared, a very tall, big boned man, with long greasy blonde hair, a moustache and hands as big as plates. I stood up from my plastic chair as I always do. We shook hands, as we always do. Then got down to it.

“What are you in for?”

“Murder” he said, “of my brother”. He was accused of setting his brother on fire one night as his brother slept in a room in the house he shared with Smith’s old girlfriend who was, the police thought, the motive for the crime.

Lawyers never ask a client whether or not they did something they’re accused of. You might get the wrong answer and then you have to plead them guilty and the clients don’t understand that or like it, so it’s best to just ask them the charge and what they want to do, plead out or fight it. Smith wanted to fight, and I like a fight.

He was convincing. How could a brother murder his brother, in such a cruel manner? It was fantastic, beyond evil, beyond insanity. It was unthinkable. But, “ok,” I replied, “then who did it because the gasoline the police found poured over him didn’t come out of the sky and he didn’t do it himself.” That’s when the prime suspect appeared. The girlfriend. Of course. The woman he described was a treacherous good time girl and was still screwing Smith up to the time of the incident though she had left him for the brother. She soured on her new man right off the bat, but he was one of those possessive types, a member of the Satan’s Choice gang and beating a defiant woman was second nature to his way of seeing things. So she was trapped with only one way out. Since she was also disillusioned with Smith, who could neither satisfy her desires, nor come to her rescue, he could still be the answer to the problem in another way, the patsy to take the blame.

It sounded plausible. In fact, once I began poking around and investigating, it seemed a sure thing. The police themselves had thought of the possibility, and it turned out the brother had been sedated when he was set alight. She was in the house with him. So, over the six months waiting for the trial, that’s the angle I worked, got some witnesses able to talk about the situation between the three of them, the brother’s brutal reputation, the girlfriend’s sense of fear, her reputation for cruelty with children and cats, and the love between the brothers. It was set.

The trial was heard before Mr. Justice Hardnose of the Superior Court, who clearly was suspicious of my client as soon as he saw him, and prosecuted by a determined woman, Alice Neverwrong, who had a grudge against me for standing her up on a date, for good reason, some years before. It was not a pleasant start as the Crown called their first witnesses; the firemen showing how the fire was set and what was used, the doctors and their forensic examinations, the police forensics team that explained the role of the can of accelerant outside the bedroom window where the fire took place, the police investigators, with reports and witnesses attesting to the hatred between the two brothers, the jealousy over the girl, the mindless insanity of both of them, both famous for being low lifes and thugs, the dubious sexuality of my client, playing fast and loose with the truth and the facts as the police often do, even when they’re right. After two days of this it didn’t look good. Even I began to doubt my client’s story and began to look on him with suspicion. But you have to resist such temptations in the defence game; you can’t surrender to pessimism even when that’s the only realistic point of view. The thin red line, the line between justice and the lynch mob, that’s what we’re taught to defend.

So, when the girlfriend got on the stand to claim my client did it, that he had threatened to kill his brother right in front of her and to kill her for good measure if she did not return to him, in such detail that even I was mesmerised, when all seemed lost, a conviction certain, my counterattack began. Slowly and calmly rising from my chair and looking as dramatic as I could I approached the witness box to confront her with a series of soft and gentle questions probing the shock of what she experienced the night of the fire, her ability to remember, to observe, details I knew of her own life of crime, all stock questions until she was gradually led down a cunning path of creeping incrimination, as one after another, she admitted that she still had sex with Smith, that the brother had learned of it, that he had threatened her, that two sleeping pills had been found near his pillow, that she had talked of drugging him to a friend, all the time watching the jury’s reaction to our exchange as they changed from sitting back in their chairs with arms crossed, arms in disgust for my client and me, to suddenly sitting forward, hands on knees, hands clasped, fingers intersecting, faces tense, as they watched the final words between us until, as I turned to sit and rest my questions, when she thought it was all over, I turned and said, ‘In fact, it was you that poured the gasoline, and it was you that killed this man, isn’t that the truth of it?”

She, as I expected she would, sprang forward in her chair like a cat ready to pounce, her long silver nails displayed, raging at me that it was a lie, a goddam lie, a foul lie, and I was going to hell for it.

I merely stood there, while she raged at me, at Smith, at the whole system until she stopped, out of breath, exhausted, teeth bared, glaring at me, the judge, the jury, everyone in the room.  When the silence became overwhelming, and the effect on the jury had sunk in, when they had seen what I wanted them to see, I sat down, content. My client testified last. He came across as I advised him, as a sympathetic man, wrongly accused, a sufferer in life, hard luck his only luck, who loved his brother despite their quarrels and who stated firmly, with conviction, looking straight at the jury with his big blue eyes as he responded calmly to the prosecutor’s last question, “I had nothing to do with it. It was that bitch.”

We only waited six hours for the jury to come back with a verdict. Not guilty. The judge was visibly angry, as were the prosecution and the cops. But the judge had the courtesy to thank me for putting up a “skilled defence.” On the way down in the elevator from the 3rd floor courtroom, after changing out of my robes, Smith rode down with me along with one of the jurors. As we got off the elevator, the juror, an elderly dignified man, stopped and said to us, “maybe I shouldn’t say anything but it was a very close call. You should thank your lawyer, Mr. Smith. We were convinced you were guilty at first, but he made us have doubts. You’re a lucky man.” Then he turned and walked away. Smith and I smiled, shook hands, and parted, both of us feeling on top of the world. I didn’t hear from him again for two weeks. He called me one afternoon, while I was looking through the mail to find a legal aid cheque for his trial for which I still hadn’t been paid, and said he wanted to invite me to his apartment for dinner to thank me for my work and success. I was reluctant, but decided he knew a lot of people in the criminal set and I needed to keep the cases coming, so two days later, on a hot Thursday evening at the end of that July I went.

It was a run down high-rise, the place didn’t smell good, his apartment worse, but he seemed the same as ever. We sat down, drank some cheap wine, and then after an hour of talk about the trial he got into his plans. He said he was going to B.C., “for a job”. I said, “what job.” He replied, very casually, “To cap a guy. For 10,000. More than I usually get. ” I put my fork down and drank another big gulp of wine. “Come again?”

“Yeh, that’s what I do, man. No big deal. My brother was easy. I hated him. He deserved it, taking my girl.”

At that, my hair stood on end and I quickly followed suit. “I’m leaving.” “Hey” he replied, “what’s the problem? You were great. Ah, man, you mean you actually believed me? Hey man, that was all bullshit, didn’t you know? Oh come on, buddy, don’t be like that, besides I like you. Stay the night. Thought you knew. We can have some fun.” He approached me suddenly with a look in his eyes and finally realising his true intentions I pushed past him, and raced for the door. He tried to grab me, But I shoved him as he tried to block my way and ran out of that apartment as fast as my legs would move while in the background I heard him shouting after me, “ But, what’s wrong, I don’t get it, what’s the problem, don’t you like me?’

The flash of my heels heading towards the nearest stairway was my answer and moving as fast as I could, escaped into the heat of the Toronto night never to see or hear from him again, having learned my lesson that no one can be trusted in this world, least of all myself, and sometimes, sometimes, it doesn’t pay to be too good at your job.

 

 

The Man At The Church

 

 

 

I have the habit of going for a walk in the morning, walking silently, in safe solitude, simply breathing, legs stretching out, arms keeping time, feeling a different rhythm of life. It helps me deal with the increasing agitation I experience on hearing the daily news of wars, corruption, of people alienated from each other, from themselves, of a dying world.

My routine takes me up the paved road to the top of the hill, the hill that dominates the small Ontario town in which I live, which lies spread out along the river that winds its way south to the great lake. There, looking down over the valley below, sits a church, a cathedral almost, St. Mary’s, the Catholic church which dominates all the other churches in the town by its majesty, as if to show the protestants what a real church should look like. Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I stop to look at it, to admire it, for though I am not a religious man, the ceremonies, the architecture, the art and iconography of the church are to me mysterious and beautiful. The rest of it creates no interest for me. I find my salvation in the nature that surrounds me, not in the mythology of its creation.

Or so I thought, until something happened that caused me to reconsider the mysteries of the world.

One day, in early June I think it was, the year of the great spring rains, I decided to get up earlier than usual to take my walk. I couldn’t sleep. The sun was rising. It promised to be a dramatic overture to the day; a blue sky covering green hills awash in bird songs sung in many different keys, accompanied by the soft rustling harmony of countless leaves whispering in the warming breeze.

The locals of the town were beginning to stir. The occasional vehicle, a pickup truck, a run-down car, passed me by on the way to market or work, but no one else was walking along the street that led from my house to the main street, then up the hill heading towards the edge of town and the tower of St. Mary’s that held the big bell; the bell that rang out several times a day calling the faithful to prayer.

When I got to the top of the hill and stood in the shadow of the entrance to the church with its big wooden double doors, flanked on each side by a Norman tower graced with several stained glass windows, the left tower with the spire and cross at its top, the right containing the bell, I paused in my walk, put my hands in my pockets, looked up to the bell tower and wondered just how big that bell was. It was while pondering this question that I heard the clunky thud of the church doors opening and closing and on looking over I saw a figure coming towards me dressed in the black habit and black beard of a Jesuit, which struck me as odd as there were no Jesuits in the parish that I had heard of.

I could not see his face. It was hidden in the shadows of the old fashioned cowl he had covering his head. He approached me slowly with a steady step until he stood in front of me. For some reason, the angle of the sun, the weight of his cowl, I could not see his face apart from the black beard, tight, grim lips, the tip of a hooked nose above the moustache. The rest vanished into the darkness of the hood he wore despite the warming of the day.

I greeted him with the usual “Hello; nice day, isn’t it?”, or some such thing that we say without thinking when meeting strangers. It gets muddled in my head now, but there was no response. The figure stood in front of me without moving, very still, like one of those human mannequins tourists are delighted by in Europe, a Marie Antoinette, a silver clown, or a marble Dante with his book. He seemed very solid at first, but then I noticed that his form shimmered in the light as do those mirages of dark water that lie across the road in the summer heat and vanish as soon as you see them.

The silence of this apparition, for so it seemed to be, unnerved me. I stepped back, took my hands from my pockets and prepared to retreat. But the form continued to stand there without a sound or movement. Now more unnerved, I challenged him with, “Are you all right Father? Can I help you?’

There was no sound, no movement, except for the subtle, almost undetectable, shimmer I referred to before, but then a voice that seemed to come from some distant place, some distant time, cried out, as if wailing at a death, “What have you done? What have you done?” And with that, the figure raised his right hand and pointed it, while turning his body, calling out all the while, “What have you done?”

He spoke in French, a language I understand, but with an accent I had not heard before. I still am not sure if I understood him correctly, but I was so transfixed by the voice and the movement as I followed his hand pointing at the world around us, that I seemed to comprehend him nevertheless and was surprised when a sudden feeling of intense melancholy swept over me. Tears filled my eyes, and I fell to the ground at his feet, overwhelmed by sudden grief.

He stopped turning, looked at me, lowered his hand, and bowed his head. He began to turn away from me. I reached out to try to stop him, but my hand passed through air. I struggled to my feet, wiping away the tears that still bathed my eyes, trying to restore my equilibrium, but he did not stop and kept walking back towards the doors, his shoulders and back bent, his head lowered and, through my own tears, I saw signs of a man sobbing uncontrollably. I managed to shout out, “Who are you?’ perhaps an unfair thing to ask when I was not even sure who I was.“Your name?” And protested, “I’ve done nothing, just lived.”

He stopped, turned his head to look at me over his shoulder and with a voice that came from a deep abyss said, again, “What have you done? What have you done? Terrible things, terrible things,” each word a moan, or so it seemed, as he turned his head away and walked slowly back to the door of the church where his shimmering figure merged with the door and dissolved into the shadows as if he had never been.

The encounter so disturbed me that I felt paralyzed for some seconds until I regained my senses and, shaken, decided to turn back towards home. As I walked slowly back into the town, I reflected on the melancholy encounter, what it meant, that question from the past demanding an explanation from the present, about our destruction of the future. For that was what it was. Of that I am sure.

Upon relating what happened to my wife, my friends, my doctor, explanations were quick in coming. My wife looked at me oddly. Some said outright I was a liar and pulling their leg. Some religious people took it as a proof of God, a warning from the Almighty, some as the visitation of an angel. The Catholics quickly claimed it as a miracle, proof of the true martyrdom of Jean De Breubeuf in 1649, whose ghost this undoubtedly was. I hear the matter has been raised at the Vatican, and the students of the local schools now discuss the work of the Jesuits in the area three hundred years ago. The Protestants, in protest, proclaimed it to be God’s clear condemnation of the Roman church. The new agers stated categorically that it was the manifestation of some spirit of nature, mourning its steady destruction, and, of course the psychiatrists, my psychiatrists, determined, on clinical evidence, that it was an hallucination, a psychotic episode; that I had experienced a break with reality. I cannot comment on these theories. When I try, my attempts are considered just more evidence that my mind is unbalanced. And who am I to say it is not.

Several months have since passed. I have learned now to keep quiet, to agree with them that I was ill but now am welI. I was finally allowed home after a long period of analysis, allowed to return to the birds, the sky, the whispering leaves, to again walk past the church on a warm spring or summer’s day, as if nothing had ever happened. But, each time I do, each time I see those doors, when the light is right, the sky is blue, the leaves whispering, and no one else is there, I still see the man at the church, and hear that ancient voice moaning and asking over and over again, “What have you done? What have you done? Terrible things, terrible things.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Escape of Prisoner 4538

 

 

man escaping-night

A Story of Our Time

He ran fast, so fast his lungs were seared. He ran blindly. He ran like a stag hunted by wolves. Night drew him on, tugging him with urgent hands, beckoning him. He tripped on a root, stumbled, fell, heard the shouts, rose, then stumbled again. The ceiling of the sky sparkled as it watched him and the bright, full moon swept his panicked path with a searchlight’s brilliant beam.

The shouts faded, then grew in crescendo as he weaved in and out of the grasping trees. His heart raced, slowed, faltered, then steadied as he drove his body forward to freedom, to kindness, to the distant promise of the woman in white. His arms reached out to embrace her but she vanished with the shattering shout.

‘Prisoner 4538!’ The rattle of keys in the heavy steel door battered his eardrums like sharp shards of thunder as he buried his head under the single wool blanket that covered his body and the thin grey tunic that covered that.

‘Stand up, Prisoner 4538!’  A boot kicked him hard and he collapsed onto the concrete floor.

‘Please, leave me alone. Please…’

The two men standing over him stared down like two schoolboys planning to the tear the wings off a fly, the vicious smiles, the eager eyes.

‘Stand up!’

Strong arms reached down and pulled him up. The floor was cold. His feet were bare.

‘Who are you? Why won’t you tell me?’

In answer they shoved him in the back, down a long grey corridor, half-stumbling, half running, trying to keep ahead of the men who tormented him, his eyes blinded by the arc lights that lit the way.

The three stopped at a closed door with the single word “Interrogations” stencilled in black on the grey paint. One of the men knocked. He heard a muffled but sharp voice. The man who knocked reached for the doorknob, turned it, opened the door wide.  The second guard, hustled him into the room. He was shoved forward and made to stand before a man, in a dark grey suit, white shirt and black tie, seated at a desk. The man received the salute of the two guards with a nod of his head. He then sat in silence as he observed the prisoner.

He waved his hand at a single wooden chair placed in front of the desk. The guards pressed the prisoner’s shoulders, forcing him down onto the chair, then took several steps back and stood with legs apart, arms behind their backs.

The prisoner tried to sit upright in the chair but the seat was oiled, slippery and he kept slipping down to the floor. He tried to grip the armrests but they were oiled too. He gave up and rested in a state of imbalance while the man across from him continued to sit in silence, watching him squirm.

‘Do you know why you are here, 4538?’

The prisoner did not answer, but looked around the room that was bare except for the desk and two chairs. He replied, ‘Why don’t you tell me?’

‘To confess. That is all. Are you ready to confess?”

“I’ve done nothing. How can I confess?”

‘I’m sure you can think of something. Everyone is guilty of something.’

‘I’ve lived my life, that’s all.’

‘A good life?’ The interrogator leaned forward. ‘What do you say?’

‘I worked, I loved, I survived, what am I supposed to say? Who are you?’

‘You. I’m your mirror. Are you afraid to look?’

‘You’re talking in riddles.’

He slipped in his chair again, tried to sit back up, but only slipped further down. ‘I want to go home.’

‘You can’t go home until you confess. The new order requires it. Everyone must confess. Everyone has to begin again. A clean slate.’

‘You sound like a priest.’

‘No, not a priest, you’re friend. I don’t offer salvation, only awareness.’

‘I have nothing to confess.’

The man stood up from the desk and motioned the guards to step back. He walked up to the prisoner, stood behind him. Then he leaned down. He whispered in his ear. ‘Do you want to know where you are? Can’t you guess?’

Prisoner 4538 moved his head away from the voice but it followed him,

‘Can’t you guess?’

‘No.’

The interrogator moved away from the prisoner, ‘Take him away, he is useless until he knows where he is. Take him back to his dream.’

The guards pulled Prisoner 4538 roughly to his feet and dragged him back to his cell. The hallway seemed to stretch out in front of them forever, the end lost beyond the vanishing point, beyond the endless doors on either side until they came to the door with his number on it, already opened.

He was thrown back onto the floor of the cell beside his collapsed cot. They slammed the door shut. He lay still. He listened to their steps moving away, to the silence of the space around him. He lifted his head, looked around. The cell was bare except for the single weak bulb that cast macabre shadows on the walls, the the pile of sticks that was his bed, a bucket in one corner. He lay back on the floor, began to sob, feeling desperate, afraid. But after the tears had washed his eyes, he lay quiet, began to drift, and saw again the woman in white with open arms waiting for him, as he ran faster and breathed harder as he ran, ever on, away from the shouts, the baying dogs, ever on to the pure light in front of him. He was almost there. He knew he could do it. He ran and ran and ran as hard as he could until he disappeared into the nights dark womb and the shouts became distant and confused.

The doctor put his pipe to his lips and slowly inhaled, then blew out a ring of blue smoke. He walked over to the window as he thought about the question. The leaves on the trees on the hospital grounds were turning; the reds and golds glittered in the autumn sun. The flowers still blossomed, squirrels still played in the branches, nurses walked patients along the paths, enjoying the warm golden light. The doctor paused as he reflected on what he was about to say. The he turned to the group seated in his office, the senior resident, the junior, the psychiatric nurse, all looking at him, waiting for him to speak.

‘You asked my opinion about this patient. I have examined him a number of times. It is clear he has suffered a psychotic break.

‘Patient 4538 is still suffering the delusion that he is a prisoner here. His delusion even extends to dreaming that he is escaping from the prison but then wakes up to be taken for interrogation. He thinks his dream is reality. But without any identity it is going to be difficult to treat him. We have no history.’

The junior nodded. ‘Just found by the police a few days ago wandering the streets, ‘looking for the good life”, they said. Totally disoriented. Said he had to keep running until he found it.’

The doctor looked out the window for a few moments as he drew on his pipe then, as he sat down in his leather chair, replied, ‘a sad case, thinking he can find the good life by running after it,

escaping everything, by refusing to examine himself. His delusion could be permanent. It exists in many people, perhaps most, but I have never seen anyone who has broken with reality like him. He will never recover I fear, unless we can find out who he is.’ He took another puff on his pipe as the others looked on in quiet agreement.

The telephone on his desk buzzed. The doctor reached calmly for the receiver, put it to his ear. “Yes?” There was a pause as he listened. Then his mouth opened. His pipe dropped from his hand.  His back stiffened.  He listened further, then said ‘all right, you’d better call the police.’

He put the receiver back. For long seconds he said nothing, then turned to the others and said, ‘He’s gone. The door to his room was locked but he’s gone. Just disappeared. Like he never existed. Well, I’ll be damned.’

And, as the doctor sat back in wonderment, Prisoner 4538 kept running, stumbling, falling, towards the gentle arms of the lady in white.