The Impossible Oasis

The wire that I had failed to see hit me below my knees. The earth turned, the boles propped against the stars somersaulted and I no longer heard the whistles. The red bells started to toll. Whipped up by the rain, the smell of weed and death that had simply been the breath of the earth erupted forth sticking to my cheek like a poultice when, collapsed head first and face down, my palms began to skid on the slippery hill. My mouth had filled with mud and gelatinous leaves. I felt throughout my body the reluctance of the darkness to welcome me, still defending itself softly when among dinosaur paws I started to crawl down into the red-and-black world from where suffering seemed to have been abolished: the vegetal whips and fangs did not even graze me, the spot on my foot where the wire had struck me did not hurt, the roar of the bells in my blood had died down and I was just sliding down, defeating unwillingly the half-hearted reluctance of the less and less red and more and more black world. Then I stopped in front of a stump and silence fell as if a gate had closed behind me. It's all right, I said to myself, and never wondered that under the muted tremble of the boughs that bred and slew stars, the providential wire permitted the night to return to what had stopped being until a little before. The owl gone prowling was hooting reassuringly. Odd drops would fall now and then from the rustling crowns but the rain had stopped. My fire no longer burst through the clouds. Yet another red to disappear, I said to myself, although it was not possible that it should have died out so quickly; what I saw was most likely another part of the sky than that under which I had run with my eardrums abused by the whistles of the policemen, the images were still fresh on my retina, and I blinked quickly looking to the stars as if they could have seared the vision of the unpainted brick walls and of the pitted sidewalk (again, for a moment, the claw of panic) whilethe nearly round moon came out of the dark crowns and chased away the clouds to an unbelievable plane also dragging the images lingering under the lids. An oasis. I repeated the word fervently to instill reality into the syllables and permeate myself of their truth, an oasis, I was in an oasis but that was only the triumph of fatigue. My eyes had began to shut. Such an oasis tempted me by the softness of oblivion, and I was listlessly vacillating between sleep and confused wake, and only at ever longer intervals did I manage to get back to the reality of the soil-scented night. During one of the moments of return under the sky of painfully twinkling stars I found myself trembling. My soaked clothes and the fear of disease (with a strange precision of lucidity paradoxically deriving from the equivocal mixture of planes, I saw myself shaking with fever in the shelter of a red-berried bush - amazing how red the berries were and how accurately I made them out, each with its light comma carefully drawn in the glistening cover) made me tear away from the soil with wet leaves unto which my nerves had become struck (again, I could see them unexpectedly clear, dripping in white thick filaments, imagining volutes like tendrils) and I propped myself on an elbow. Then I saw the silhouette of a man a few steps away. I grinned in the silence of the oasis; everything was turning inimical and I had to go back to the highway but ready to rise from the ground, I forced myself to continue to breathe unheard, as if wanting to calm down that part of me that was about to cling to the dream of the impossible oasis. Although the moon had again slipped behind the clouds I could still guess out the silhouette of the man who was not moving. Had he seen me? He was looking at the slope of earth down which I had slid, seemingly an eternity ago, but of course he was eyeing me, waiting for me to make a move, to explain perhaps my intrusion into the realm protected by the wire, strangely running so low. Only one wire. Later, I said to myself, that was not the moment to dwell on the confusion the fence had generated in me; under the light of the moon I had caught a glimpse of the man wearing a tricorn, a vest with braids, tight pants and boots, and the questions that his presence generated required more immediate answers than the ones related to the makeup of the fence. His clothes reminded me of coachmen in a past century, and the immobile man seemed a sentinel (the shivers that began to run down my spine were no longer the consequence of being soaked), a sentinel in a post. I had not managed to see whether he was carrying a weapon, and I wondered what kind of arm would suit his uncommon attire, a pistol, no doubt, long and with a slightly curved handle, a pistol whose cock had to be pulled back in order to put the powder and fit a bullet in the cartridge from where it would be discharged through the pig-iron barrel stuck in the cherry-wood stock. Only one bullet. It seemed funny but such museum pieces had done their duty before and could very well do it again. On the other hand, the man did not live in the past and could very well have a modern gun, or be simply a peaceful scullion out for a breath of fresh air with the torrential rain now barely over. The strange three-corned hat shaded his face. I wandered again whether he had seen me. He could have triggered a warning signal and be waiting for backup. But had he seen me? I heard the noise of foot steps. A second man drew close to the one who kept on looking at the earth slope, and, in the darkness to which my eyes had already got accustomed to I noticed he was wearing the same bizarre uniform. "Mara's gone to bed," he informed his mate in a very bored voice as if uttering words by rote. "With whom?' But the question seemed not to beg for an answer or perhaps the newcomer did not feel like replying. Anyway, his apparition was not connected to my presence, and the two remained undisturbed, even indifferent. Leaning against a tree trunk they did not smoke, did not speak, did not make any move. And they were no sentinels or their weapons, if they had any, dwelt hidden. Just like the trees, they contented themselves with merely existing, simply taking a place in the dark scenery. Then, most awkwardly, I sneezed and the two unknown men turned to me their tricorn-clad heads. Hell, I said to myself, jumping to my feet. But they did not react in any way. Grotesque, they just looked at me, or I suppose they did, their face shadowed and their eyes impossible to make out. A bole squeaked twice most languidly. I strutted my stuff in front of the men. More loudly than I should have, I mouthed defiantly: "Good evening." The one whom I had first seen stretched himself casually. His fists clenched, he opened his arms in a slow, endless movement, his chest standing out inflated and I almost expected to hear him squeak like the tree had not long before. But he only yawned. Then, continuing the dialogue started with the other one, he asked reluctantly: "How about Tiberiu?" It was only then that I got scared, a different sort of fear from that when I discovered I had been found out. "D…don't you see me?" I whispered. "Tiberiu uses to take a walk in moonlit nights." The second man had replied with a bored air, accompanying his words by a shrug, and the moon, as if having waited for his answer, came out again. The vests of the two were red like their boots. I took a step forward, being sure they would see me, there was no way how they could miss me given that they were not blind - the way they had moved between the trunks had removed any doubt about it - and, treading carefully among the tall weeds I walked away. I would have liked to understand. I was getting colder and colder and could not focus my thoughts, images flickered in the night, the wet asphalt coat of the highway, the fall from the top of the hill on which I had climbed, the stars, I was staggering and although I had left them behind the red-vested men would constantly surge up next to me, losing their contours in a tremor that dilated them monstrously only to deflate them to Lilliputian sizes. I knew I had left them leaning against the wet trunks (again, like on the highway, the silence of the night was fraught with traps) but fatigue made me indifferent. I could barely keep my eyes open. Everywhere ferns, tufts of horse tail and boulders covered with matted moss resembling a water-logged bedcover. I ignore why I didn't stumble and fall. I didn't find any path. Without my knowing it, the trees disappeared. I then saw a bench made of slim birch trunks and I went to it hoping to collapse on the moist planks, but beyond the bench there rose a pedestal on which a white naked woman was cupping her hands over her breasts and smiling to the night. Confused, I took a long look, and I remember how I staggered without being able to understand what I saw, a faint voice repeating: statue, statue, but I was incapable of relating the whispered word to the woman with the unnatural smile; eventually a click occurred and the white apparition turned into a statue, between myself and her the alley shining under the moonlight. When I found myself on the marble gravel my shadow reclined at my feet like a cry. I heard the gravel squeak and I turned my head to the tall, lean man who was coming from the right. He kept his hands behind his back and in walking he bended his legs unnaturally while also rising his knees. On top of his long shirt he was wearing an unbuttoned cloth mantle, with collar and fur piping, being girdled with a shawl wrapped several times around his waist, while the hat sliding on his forehead was three times taller than his face. A strange face, but I as too exhausted to understand why. "You're walking in the moonlight, Sir Tiberiu?" I did not know what to say. "Like usual," he retorted kindly, and gracefully waiving his slim hand he passed by me, walking like a stork. Perhaps because unlike the men I had taken for sentinels he had answered me I felt relieved as if his appearance under the moonlight of this fairy-tale world had been meant to dissipate my fears. To warm myself up I wanted to jump on one foot, then, imitating Sir Tiberiu's walk, I took a few funny steps, turned to the statue that was to smile to the night, and bowed deeply. "The moon invites you to the ball, miss. Would you do me the honour of the first minuet?" I wouldn't have been surprised had she descended from the pedestal but she remained motionless and I felt disappointed. The night preserved its sparkle when I started down the alley in the direction Sir Tiberiu had come from, for everything in me was exilaration. I vainly told myself that nothing had changed and that the danger was still on the highway from which I was separated only by a group of birches protected by a single wire, running very low. In a sort of offsetting sway all fear had gone. Not even the shiver due to the cold, wet and heavy clothes was capable of cooling down my exaltation that resembled a lot the beginning of a drinking spree. The memory of the worrisome men grew dimmer with the strangeness of their garments coming from other times, and even Sir Tiberiu seemed now a fancy ball character; but the fact did not matter any longer, on the moonstruck alley I was staggering under a pleasant weariness, it was a night for love, and I wondered why I didn't recognize it sooner, thinking of love as an exceptional attribute, just as I would have thought of a starry night; it was an exceptional night when I had made love to the naked woman who cupped her breasts with her arms and smiled at peace. When the alley took a big turn, passing through massive rows of nicotiana, their perfume not only fulfilled the certitude of the gala night but also the feeling that I had entered an oasis where war could no longer find me and where there existed no threat. I did not realize that the alley surrounded the lead-cast column of a huge beech, in fact I noticed ever fewer details of the scenery, everything in me being steamy, my sight having grown dim, conferring on the space that I passed through a comforting uncertainty, but I could not fail to notice the butter-coloured building, a genuine two-storeyed palace with fat sheet roofs, painted in red. Coming together above a grotto where a source murmured whose waters filled a round basin before flowing unseen into the earth, the wings of the stone staircase led to the open gate with gilded ornaments. The windows were dark. Hanging over the entrance, the lamp with frosted glass panes turned into a golden breeze the steam coming out of the white stairs. Like in a trance I surrounded the building, discovering other two smaller gates, locked, so I stopped again in front of the main entrance. Sir Tiberiu had left the door open, he wanted me to go in. I climbed the stairs. The source was murmuring. First a hall floored with red marble, and walls covered in black marble. Next came a big room with a wooden staircase. The banister gave a pale shine. Two bronze Negroes with ivory heads and hands guarded the stairs, raising grapes of glass in which bulbs shone that did not manage to light more than the stairs area. Beyond I could make out a grand piano and on the wall portraits with heavy frames the golden stucco of which would send odd flickers of fire. "Anybody here?" I had made the question half-heartedly, hoping that nobody would answer. And nobody did. I knocked at two closed doors, I tried the bronze door knobs that featured strange animals, dragons perhaps, and one of them opened to the sadness of a corridor with fake wainscoting painted in brown oil on which darker streaks meant gross intimations of wood fibers, a sadness so much contrasting with everything I had seen so far that I was overcome by the sensation that I was breathing the crinoline-tainted air of a boarding house or of some barracks. The cement flooring was gray, and a glass bulb shone a rancid light. "Nobody here?" I asked again, thinking I should have climbed the stairs instead of walking into what seemed the annexes of the building, but the exaltation that had dizzied me had fallen like a ball gown before the break of dawn, when in basements and attics the universe is rbeing reborn, gray, and the sadness of the corridor was too familiar to me to bring me down to the dimensions of fear. Again there was no answer. Probably they were all sleeping. Mara, I remembered. And Tiberiu, taking a walk. How about the others? Besides the worrisome men who has refused to speak to me there must be others. Because of the fatigue a wave of noxiousness clung at my stomach. The cement was swaying under my feet. I leant back against the worn wall. There must be other men. Shapeless shadows stemmed out of the false wainscoting, at the end of the corridor. The light of the bulbs was going on and off by itself. Walking sideways, my back rubbing against the wall, I started to advance. I gnashed my teeth. I stumbled upon a door, and without knocking I opened it carefully, walked in and shut myself up in the darkness permeated by a sweat smell. I couldn't hear anything not even the rustle of a breath. Feeling the wall I found the switch and when the only bulb dangling at the end of a long wire lit up I discovered a big tall room, with whitewashed walls and white-painted metal beds lying near the walls, empty beds with sheets, pillow cases and gray blankets with blue squares. Near each bed, there stood an iron sheet night stand. Without curtains, the window frightened me. I put out the light quickly and the window grew dark, the moon having again gone behind the clouds or perhaps something outside had covered the pane. I groped to the nearest bed. I crumbled down on the army blanket, face up, dressed as I was, not having the power to take off my shoes. I remembered I had not locked the door and I wanted to get up, but I fell on my back again. I woke up with the sun in my eyes. The window wasn't covered by anything. Luckily, the alley did not pass this way, only some bushes with shiny leaves, beyond which a ravine began. Hopefully, nobody has seen the lit bulb but the fact no longer weighed so much as I had believed hours before. The sleep had cleared my head and now, fully rested I realized that my presence has been recorded as long as three persons from the domain (the name seemed appropriate as I, most likely, was on the domain of someone who could indulge in bizarre whims) had managed to see me. It was most unusual that none of them had opposed my entering a private property, had not even been surprised at seeing me, but Sir Tiberiu - most likely the master - had to have enough quirks besides his sartorial peculiarities (proof the way our brief encounter had gone on) and his men must have got used to them to such an extent that only a natural behaviour might, perhaps, have disconcerted them. Still, thinking that even the odd indifference that had welcomed me must have had its limits, I could very well expect the staff to try to learn whether I was still on the premises, and where exactly. A room by room search of the building seemed impending. I had just come to this disturbing but perfectly logical conclusion when I heard voices on the other side of the door. "…charity" said a man. "Maybe, but any bum…" A woman's voice. Suddenly I remembered that the door was unlocked and I began to tiptoe to it. "You didn't understand a thing. It's been such a long while and…" "It's not that I am against it, the woman cut him short, but do you think… "Who needs your opinion?" "Nobody, indeed. Nobody." "Don't you want to finish sooner?" "I stopped wanting anything a log time ago." "You bore me," uttered the man. "I'll manage by myself." "Come on," sighed the woman. I had reached the door and I was just putting out my hand to touch the key in the lock when the door opened on the outside and I withdrew without thinking. The woman was no longer young, that's about all I could say. For the rest her features lacked firmness mostly weirdly. The moment I turned my eyes away from her all I could remember was an oval indistinct face. Why did it seem to me I had discovered bags under her eyes the colour of which I could not specify? I looked again at the woman's face, having the feeling a thick glass was separating us. Yet my eyes weren't to blame and I could see clearly she was wearing a white linen coat with mother-of-pearl buttons, but still her face remained uncertain. "Good morning, young man," said the man good-humouredly, entering too and closing the door behind him. "You slept well, right?" "Very well, thank you. Please forgive me…" "…for having barged in, laughed the man. That's what you wanted to say, right?" I nodded. He was also wearing a white, unbuttoned coat so that I could see his shirt tucked in pair of gray, crumpled trousers. He was short, and his belly floated over his belt. I couldn't retain nothing from his features but the impression of a reddish mustache. "Where am I?" He laughed again. "Hear what he's asking?" he exclaimed and sat down on the bed while the woman remained standing, leaning with her back against the door. "He doesn't know where he is," he said again as if very content, and then turned to me: "It's all right, it's all right, nobody will hold this against you. What do you say, Valentina?" "Stop it," Valentina barked at him, filling the words with so much ennui that I considered her with surprise although the old red-haired man did not even flinch. He beckoned me to come near and sit on the bed next to him. Then he leant towards me as if feeling the need to persuade me that Valentina was a trustworthy woman. "Please believe me. I tell you, you can rely on Valentina." "Sure," I replied dumbly. But where am I?" The sun had filled the entire room. A big fly kept on hitting against the window pane. "Where? Allow me," said the red-haired man with unexpected resolve, " I want you to allow me…" And to underline his words he pressed his palm against my knee. Distrustful, I looked at his face but failed to retain his features as if they were malleable and could have shifted shape right under my eyes, the nose going long or short, the chin being now round now pointed, the lips thicker or thinner, even the eyes changing colours without my realizing how all this was possible. In fact, and that was the strangest thing of all, the different guises seemed to coexist, giving the impression that the man was the result of off superpositions. Now he produced out of his coat's pocket a paper bag from which he took with three fingers some flakes that he hurled at me. They were white but they whirled extremely fast, like tiny humming tops, perhaps the white was just an illusion engendered by their rotation speed and in fact they were multi-coloured. Fluffy, they thawed when they touched my face, exuding that sweetish smell that I had felt the evening before when I had entered the dark-bathed room. "Stop it," I shouted, pulling myself back, and the redhead replied offended: "I begged you to allow me…" Faster and faster he was getting flakes out of the bag and throwing them with jerky moves. Bending her arms from the elbows, Valentina leant foreward, ready to dash but I jumped to my feet, hitting the red-haired man who dropped the bag and cried out: "Hold him." Valentina rushed forth. I ducked at the last moment and, unable to check her élan, she fell over the man who tumbled on the bed. Everything was turning with me, the room changed its looks, a huge fir-tree erupted from the strips of parquetry and it started to rain under the ceiling. At the same time, I saw the two on the bed, shimmering as if mirrored in a pool of water, trying to get up. I then forged ahead unsteadily to the window that seemed soaked in mist, I penetrated the rock that had cropped up in front of it, with everything cracking and whistling, light and darkness alternating at irregular intervals, and then I finally reached the window, opened it and jumped over the sill. The fresh air was festive. I had fallen in the bushes beyond which the ravine cut short the road. On top of the known scenery other landscapes were placed like photographs superposed on other photographs and I could not realize exactly in which one I was moving. Incapable to judge, still feeling in my nostrils the sweet aroma of the whirling flakes, I woke up surrounding the building, running in the sun along the alley with marble gravel. I was trotting with my mouth open, hearing my panting, but the dizziness had been dispelled and everything around me was gaining consistency; now only seldom did I still catch from the corner of my eye a strip of the fluttering lawn, or a birch disheveled into braids of black. Eventually, I asked myself where I was running. I slowed down, taking big steps in the reconstructed world, lonesome on the alley lined with fir-trees. I had to go out to the highway, I could not understand where I was, but I could not see myself lingering among those whom I perceived had to be crazy, an oasis I remembered, and felt shivers down my spine, the oasis was a mental institution. Now I saw it all, the fancy costumes and the indifference of the retirees, even those two from whom I had managed to escape must have been madmen too, availing themselves of a moment when the staff wasn't paying attention and putting on the white coats of the doctors; I had seen before cases of lunatics getting the better of the ones attending to them, and switching places. Until order was re-established the quiproquo could be of help, as in the confusion reining over the nuthouse I stood good chances of stealing away to the highway where those who had been chasing me had, no doubt, lost track of me. Everything had to start then, to restart in the world raging with the other kind of generalized madness, that of war, but I could hope, at least this time, that I had got away from it. Then I remained petrified in the sun, like a beast. The alley had taken me to a lawn where rose a gazebo made up of slim birch trunks, just like the bench in front of the statue that smiled to the night. Two men and a woman sat in the gazebo. I recognized Sir Tiberiu by his long fur-lined mantle. The woman was wearing an ample white wig with tubular curls and a lemon-coloured crinoline grown with broad sleeves. The other man was the so-called doctor from whom I had run away. The three had seen me, in fact the redhead was facing me and he had drawn their attention that I had emerged on the alley, and the other two had turned their heads and were looking at me, not in the least surprised. I had the impression they could not feel or think. Motionless, they did nothing but stare and the absence of any reaction frightened me more than a simple show of anger or threatening gesture would have. And when did the redhead have the time to get to the gazebo where he was now sitting rigidly with his improbable mate, this time his coat well buttoned? He was crazy, and the incident with the weird menacing flakes could have been only an imitation of some treatment he had witnessed or had himself been subjected to. Also crazy were Sir Tiberiu and the woman with the wig, although they seemed quiet, too quiet, I said to myself, in their vestments from other epochs, as long as they accepted the company of the man who made believe he was a doctor. "Coffee? Tea?" smiled the woman, raising to me two kettles of shining metal, and without hesitating any more I took a few steps stopping right in front of the gazebo entrance. "Coffee. Thank you." On the immaculate table cloth stood fragile porcelain cups, four in number I noticed, and I wondered whether my eerie hosts had been waiting for me, but no, Valentina was missing. It was her they were waiting for, naturally. Then the coffee pot, the kettle, the sugar basin, the cutlery, butter, honey and a pile of muffins and croissants at the sight of which I felt a twinge under my jaw as if my salivary glands had twitched and filled my mouth with water. I sat down on the only empty chair. "We have met, haven't we," said Sir Tiberiu. "We, too," grinned the red-haired man. "I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Mara." "Disappointed?" she smiled, lifting an eyebrow, and then asked in the same tone: "A lump of sugar? Two?" "One, thank you. I think flabbergasted is the word. My name is Ilarion." "An uncommon name," remarked Mrs Mara. "The name of a rabble rouser," said the redhead. I pretended I hadn't heard him and, clinking the teaspoon in the cup, I asked Sir Tiberiu: "Where am I?" I could not retain the features of any of the persons around the table although I managed to identify them thanks to the vestmental details. It dawned on me that the fur-lined mantle, the tall wig and the white coat had been purposefully chosen to permit the three to recognize each other and be recognized. "Anyplace," said Sir Tiberiu. "Yet the only place where you are not yet is here." He was buttering a halved croissant. Mara smiled. Although an absurd answer was the only one I could expect, I insisted without raising my voice: "Still?!" The redhead poured one more cup of tea. "If you hadn't run away…" he began venomously, but Mrs Mara cut him short: "A little honey?" I couldn't control myself and I shouted: "Why don't you let him answer me?" Her hand stopped midway in the air in her gesture of offering me the honey pot. "That's right, you're still looking for answers…" "I couldn't make out the colour of his eyes." "You too?" "I know them all." she whispered with a sort of gentle sadness that troubled me, making me realize how young I was. "I can't stand seeing him so agitated," the redhead said with his mouth full and Sir Tiberiu reminded him mildly: "The century, my dear, it's the century that's hectic… Mara, a littlemore coffee, please." Mara filled a white cup on the porcelain of which flourished blue scenes. A bird on the roof of the gazebo gave out a cry. "I don't mean to upset you," I said as calmly as I could. "Help me understand. If you want me to, I can leave." The bird on the roof cried again. "He wants to leave," remarked the redhead, considering me long and then shrugging. "A pity," said Sir Tiberiu. "It would have been nice to have him here, wouldn't it?…Excellent coffee, my dear" and he bent over to kiss Mrs Mara's hand. Careful not to make any noise I pushed my chair. I could not linger in the gazebo any more. Staying there any longer would be impolite, I felt. "I hope you'll come back" said Mrs Mara. She wasn't looking at me and I got the impression she was thinking of a different thing. I bowed in silence, Sir Tiberiu waved a hand, but they both seemed absent, as if I had ceased to exist for them. The redhead grabbed my arm and when I wanted to set out on the alley he showed me the other exit from the gazebo. Ahead there stretched a lane lined with privet bushes, tall like a wall, taller than myself. "Go, fool," he added pushing me from behind and waiting for me to set a foot on the first white slab of the row winding between the vegetal walls. How many years and how many gardeners had been necessary for the massive bushes to become so compact, I wondered and I turned the head and saw the gazebo surprisingly far, at the end of the green gallery surmounted by an ultramarine sky. It seemed to me I was looking through an upside-down lens. Still, I had the sensation I had taken only a few steps. I looked at my watch, it had stopped as I must have forgotten to rewind it. I tried to understand what had happened but there was nothing to understand: without realizing I had walked very fast and had got farther than I had throught. I could not see the sun, it couldn't have been very late and in the corridor made by the green walls it was cool. Turning my back resolutely on the three that I could hardly make out in the toy gaze