Is it possible? As happens in dreams, I watched the strange demonstrations carried out by my office mates with the kind of dulled surprise that suggests I knew about all of it before, unconsciously, and was reacting not to the fact of the thing but to the marvelous details of it now revealed. So that now, the more troubling question for me is not, How did such disturbing creations come to exist, and be in our possession, but rather, How did I already know about them and remain quiet?
I’ll grant that my workplace is a polite one, where we go along without raised voices or outbursts of emotion. This condition prevails without external compulsion; I think it reflects the maturity of our group members, and, if I can express this properly, the benefit of education on one’s ability to restrain the unhelpful impulses that naturally arise. I don’t imply that we are a simmering cauldron of repressed resentments, either, waiting for release. We are amicable, and we hold amicability as a value. Remaining considerate of each other, then, is more of an exercise of our values than a rankling constraint.
That some of my colleagues should have knowledge—secrets, even—held in small groups, to be used as needed—this I accept as a matter of course. I do not need to feel the least misused if I learn that A., B., and C. have been collaborating on a new procedure that will soon be put into effect, or that Z. was selected to give a presentation instead of me. I trust, and believe the others do, too, that all our efforts will be directed toward the good of the department and our mission. The exception—an understandable one, I used to think—would be if I found myself being the only one in the department excluded from knowledge that was circulating among all the rest.
The event I speak of doesn’t bear that stamp precisely. But because the only aspect of it that I can lay claim to understanding, or fully recollecting, is my own self-perception, I will try to lay out in their subtle distinctions the shades of my reactions. While this may seem a thin soup for subject matter, compared to the fantastic things witnessed in the event itself, still I make it a condition of your admission to this spectacle that you enter through me and I remain with you as your lens.
My first reaction, upon looking up from some work rather late one evening and seeing the startled faces of two female colleagues in the doorway, was this: They were not expecting me to be here at this time, and as a result I am about to be given knowledge too soon. Said another way, my colleagues neither willed it not withheld it, but they would now have to show me things I had not been fully conditioned to see.
And so it was. Wordlessly, or rather with unspoken words, my colleagues B. and C. moved to a file cabinet and bent low to open the lowest drawer. Then, with a solemn, practiced movement, C. extended her hand at the edge of the drawer. Though the movement was unfamiliar to me and hardly suggestive of anything in itself, the first pangs of expectation arose in me.
In less than a moment the first miniature pair of hands appeared over the edge of the drawer and draped over C.’s long, outstretched finger. Another pair immediately followed, and another in identical fashion. When C.’s finger was filled the pairs of tiny pale hands still came up and fell over the open drawer’s edge until it too was filled.
All this unfolded in a matter of seconds, if our measure of time can be said to apply there. Something about the cooperative regularity of their movements suggested that the little beings to whom these frail hands belonged were no more part of our world of time than they were part of our usual physical reality.
With slow assurance C. lifted her hand from the drawer and stood. I saw then that the beings, which hung without protest from her finger, were nearly as human in form as their perfect little hands would suggest. Nearly, I say; their bodies, slender and apparently identical, had a liquid quality, an infantile simplicity that was not hardened as much as human bodies are.
I’m sorry that one of my first reactions was one of envy. What it was that I envied, I don’t know, but I felt in a subtle way visited by an animal presence within me that if left unchecked could erupt in scales on my skin. It was not merely envy of my friend’s long, graceful finger, suited by nature to this purpose and so unlike the fat, knobbed fingers of my own hands. It was that and something more besides.
I suppose it was in like manner that all the lithe, liquid beings were carried from their drawer in the cabinet. In truth, I can only recall that my envy had yielded to concern for them. It was plain that they could not survive long in the environment we are accustomed to; indeed, it must be caustic to them.
My relief came in another instant when I witnessed the pool in which they were being laid. From then, each astonishment tumbled over the one before: a swimming pool, as narrow and long as a banquet table, and lanes, and tiny pennants dangling above; and the undine beings, avidly swimming, noiselessly chopping the water; and most paralyzing of all the wonders, a presiding master of the games—a mermaid; larger than the others and solidly formed, which, because of her vivid color and material solidity, arrested my vision more than any of the surrounding spectacle.
A brief description of her will suffice, because you already have in mind what a mermaid must be. She was no different from the storybook mermaid with crayon-yellow hair, glinting emerald-green scales, and a recumbent posture suggesting that gravity, not the atmosphere, was her primary physical opponent. She lay either in or on a cordoned area near the pool’s center, at a right angle to the lanes, and her actions consisted entirely of quick motions of her head and chin, her shoulders, and her eyes, which served variously to alert, check, or instruct the swimmers. By way of describing her role, I offer only the poor comparison to a brisk head of servants operating in a large and tightly run household.
You must condemn or forgive me now for my failure to provide details of sequence, or for the abrupt changes that leave scenes unresolved. I warned you at the beginning that we would follow a map not of events in my memory but of their imprints in my soul. I now fear you won’t be able to answer the question I started with, Is it possible? with the direction I am taking; but we will see.
What of my office companions? They—the ones present—watched with a knowing intentness; they were interested without being fascinated by the spectacle of beings from fairy realms made manifest and enacting a most human kind of ritual. Surely the creatures gained nothing from this unless it was the joy of service; yet my associates displayed not the least enjoyment nor any other emotion. I describe their general look as one of expectation born of experience.
And what of me? I hovered—perhaps swayed in the better word—both figuratively and in truth at the doorway to this discovered world.
It would never be true to say that if one is half crying, half laughing then one is on the whole at rest. The mixture, rather, will swirl like water and oil until two parts separate. I swayed; I held the mixture together; and I felt more watery and transparent with each moment I stayed.
Here is what happened then: There was a racetrack, and, like the pool, it was all in order, sized to the room, completely unlikely and complete. The creatures were set in their lines. Already they were nearly dried. We watched with keener interest than before. There was something like eating in our interest now. The creatures ran the track on legs that became more bent and desiccated as they went. Some did not finish but came to a halt in mid-stride. Two of them reached the finish line and froze in place—wrinkled and crisp, bent, cryptic, light as insects or the skeletons of birds, not recognizable as anything that had ever had beauty.
My friend M. was next to me, though I hadn’t known it before. We saw each other. Looking at the creatures, the track, our companions, together we began to come solid again. In silent companionship we chose something, and in doing so I felt myself again in my form. The whole perplexing scene was again outside of me. It burned away as does water on a heated stone. As I left I was looking at my own skin, even as the memory was evaporating from me.
Now I take back the question, Is it possible? For you, I hope it is not. For me, it is. I feel the grip and gravity of the world and have abetted it. I’ve seen sacrifice, the consumptive powers of salt and air, and taken them lightly. Though nothing has changed in the outward manners between my coworkers and me, I am wary now, wary that we will take too much; that I may let down my guard and not love them well enough, not give, out of myself, enough; that because I could fail to try, I, and we, could do a kind of harm we had no suspicion of, though it was always there to be seen.