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…?