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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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“You’re asking me?” Luman said, sounding genuinely surprised at my interest in his opinion. “Well it ain’t pretty being mad,” he said. “It ain’t pretty at all. But the way I see it, we don’t have a lot of time left. This house ain’t goin’ to stand forever, an’ when it comes down, whatever you might see in there…” he pointed along the passageway ahead of me, towards the stairs that led up to the dome “…is going to be lost. You won’t be seeing no more visions when this house falls. None of us will.”

I stared at the passageway.

“I guess that’s my answer then,” I said.

“So you’re goin’ to go in?”

“I’m goin’ to go in.”

Luman smiled. “Hold on,” he said. Then he did a remarkable thing. He picked up the wheelchair, with me in it, and carried us both up the stairs. I held my breath, afraid he was either going to drop me, or topple back down the flight. But we reached the top without incident. There was a narrow landing, and a single door.

“I’m goin’ to leave you here,” Luman said.

“This is as far as you go?”

“You know how to open a door,” he said.

“What happens when I get inside?”

“You’ll find you know that too.” He laid his hand on my shoulder. “If you need anything, just call.”

“You’ll be here?”

“It depends how the mood takes me,” he said, and sauntered off down the stairs. I wanted to call him back; but I was out of delaying tactics. Time to do this, if I was going to do it.

I wheeled my way to the door, glancing back once to see if Luman was still in sight. He’d gone. I was on my own. I took a deep breath, and grasped the door handle. There was still a corner of me that hoped the door was locked and I’d be denied entry. But the handle turned, and the door opened—almost too readily, I thought, as though some overeager host stood on the other side, ready to usher me in.

I had some idea of what I thought lay on the other side, at least architecturally speaking. The dome room—or “sky room” as Jefferson had dubbed his version at Monticello—was, I’d been told by Marietta (who’d crept up there once to do the deed with a girlfriend) a somewhat strange but beautiful room. At Monticello it had apparently been used as a child’s playroom, because it was hard to access (a design deficiency which also applied to L’Enfant) but here, Marietta had told me, there was a whisper of unease in the room; no child would have been happy playing there. Though there were eight windows, after the Monticellian model, and a skylight, the place seemed to her “a little on the twitchy side,” whatever that meant.

I was about to find out. I pushed the door wide with my foot, half-expecting birds or bats to fly in my face. But the room was deserted. There was not so much as a single piece of furniture to spoil its absolute simplicity. Just the starlight, coming in from nine apertures.

“Luman,” I murmured to myself, “you sonofabitch…”

He’d prepared me for something fearful; a delirium, an assault of visions so violent it might put me out of my wits. But there was nothing here but murk and more murk.

I ventured in a couple of yards, looking everywhere for a reason to be afraid. But there was nothing. I pressed on, with a mingling of disappointment and relief. There was nothing to fear in here. My sanity was perfectly secure.

Unless, of course, I was being lulled into a false sense of security. I glanced back toward the door. It was still open; still solid. And beyond it the landing where I’d stood with Luman, and debated the wisdom of coming in here. What an easy mark I’d made; he must have been thoroughly entertained at the sight of my discomfort! Cursing him again, I took my eyes from the door and returned them to the murk. This time, however, much to my astonishment, I discovered that the sky room was not quite as empty as I’d thought. A few yards from me—at the place where the lights of the nine windows intersected—there was a skittering pattern in the gloom, so subtle I was not certain at first it was even real. I kept staring at it, resisting the urge to blink for fear that it would vanish. But it remained before me, intensifying a little. I wheeled my way toward it; slowly, slowly, like a hunter closing on his quarry, fearful of alarming it into flight. But it didn’t retreat. Nor did it become any the less mystifying. My approach had become less tentative now; I was very soon at the center of the room, directly under the skylight. The patterns were in the an all around me; so subtle I was still not absolutely certain I was ever seeing them. I looked up to my zenith: I could see stars through the skylight, but nothing that would be likely to create these shifting shadows. Returning my gaze to the walls, I went from one window to the next, looking for some explanation there. But I found none. There was a little wash of light through each of them, but no sign of motion—a wind-stirred branch, a bird fluttering on a sill. Whatever was creating this shifting shadow was here in the room with me. As I finished my study of the windows, muttering to myself in confusion, I had the uncomfortable sense my befuddlement was being watched. Again, I looked toward the door, thinking maybe Luman had crept back to spy on me. But no; the landing was deserted.

Well, I thought, there’s no use my sitting here, getting dizzy and paranoid. I may as well spit out my reasons for coming, and see if that elicited some response.

I drew an anxious breath, and spoke.

“I came…I came to see the past,” I said. My voice sounded tiny, like a child’s voice. “Cesaria sent me,” I added, thinking that might help whatever forces occupied the room understand that I was a legitimate presence, and that if they had something to show me, they should damned well do it.

Something that I’d said—whether it was talking about the past or about Cesaria I can’t say—brought a response. The shadows seemed to darken around me, and their motion grew more complex. Some portion of the pattern twitched like a living thing, and rose up in front of me—up, up toward the skylight. Another flew off toward the wall at my left, trailing more fragments of dark air, whipping like the tail of a kite. A third dropped to the polished boards and spread across the floor.

I believe I breathed some words of astonishment. “Oh my Lord,” or some such. I had reason. The spectacle was growing by the moment, the writhing motions of these shadows, and their scale, expanding as if by some logarithmic progression. Motion was inspiring motion; forms were inspiring forms. In the space of perhaps forty-five seconds the walls of the dome room had been all but eclipsed by these roiling abstractions; gray on gray, yet filled with subtle intimations of visions to come. My eyes were darting everywhere, of course, astonished by all this, but even as my gaze went on from one cloudy cluster of shapes to the next, it moved with the impression that something was almost visible here. That I was moments away from understanding how these abstractions worked.

And yet, even in their protean condition they moved me. Watching these rollings and cavortings I began to understand why Luman had been so reluctant to enter this room. He was a man of great vulnerability, despite his manner: there was simply too much feeling here for a soul so tender. Watching the unfolding spectacle, I felt as though I were listening to a piece of music; or rather several at the same time.

Those grand shapes moving overhead, like columns of smoke passing across the sun had all the gravity of a requiem; while the forms that moved close to me reeled and swaggered as though to a drunken polka. And in between, circling me as they climbed, were sinuous ropes of ether that seemed to express lovely, rising music, like the bright line of a rhapsody.

To say I was enchanted does not begin to express my beguilement. It was all so perfectly mysterious: a seduction of eye and heart that left me close to tears. But I was not so enthralled that I didn’t wonder what powers lay so far undisclosed. I had invited this vision with my own readiness to accept it. Now it was time to do the same thing again; to open my spirit, as it were, a little wider, and see what the shadows would show me.

“I’m ready,” I said softly, “whenever you are…”

The forms before me continued to profligate, but made no visible response to my invitation. There was still a sense of evolution in their motion, but I sensed that it had slowed. I was no longer seeing the heart-quickening changes that had astonished me a minute or two before.

Again, I spoke. “I’m not afraid,” I said.

Did I ever say anything so foolish in my life as to boast fearlessness in such a place as this?

The words were no sooner out of my mouth than the shadows before me convulsed, as though some seismic shock had shaken the dome. Two or three seconds later, like thunder coming a heartbeat after lightning, the shock wave struck the only nonethereal form in the room, which is to say, myself. My chair was propelled backward, tipping over as it went. I vainly tried to regain some measure of control, but the chair sped over the boards, its wheels shrieking, and struck the wall close to the door with such violence that I was pitched out of it.

I felt something crack as I landed face down, and the breath was completely knocked out of my body. Had I possessed the wherewithal I might have attempted a plea for clemency at that moment; might have attempted to withdraw my too-brave words. But I doubt it would have availed me much.

Gasping, I tried to haul myself up into a semirecumbent position so that I could find out where my chair had landed. But there was a sharp pain in my side. I’d plainly snapped a rib. I gave up trying to move, for fear of doing myself still greater damage.

All I could do was lie where I’d been so unceremoniously dropped, and wait for the room to do its work. I had invited the powers here to show me their splendors, and I was quite certain they weren’t about to deny themselves the pleasure.

VIII (#ulink_4327f654-75d9-534c-91b8-764cd2d7245a)

Nothing happened. I lay there, my breaths quick and shallow, my stomach ready to revolt, my body sticky with sweat, and the room just waited. The unfixable forms all around me—which had by now entirely blotted out every detail of windows and walls, even carpeted the floor—were almost still, their evolutionary endeavors at an end, at least for the moment.

Had the fact that I’d been injured shocked the presence, or presences, here into reticence, I wondered? Perhaps they felt they’d overstepped the bounds of enthusiasm, and now wanted nothing more than for me to crawl away and tend my wounds? Were they waiting for me to call down to Luman, perhaps? I thought about doing so, but decided against it. This was not a room in which to speak a simple word unless it was strictly necessary. I would be better lying still and quiet, I decided, and let my panicked body calm itself. Then, once I had governed myself, I would try to crawl back to the door. Sooner or later, Luman would come up and fetch me; I felt certain of that. Even if I had to wait all night.

Meanwhile I closed my eyes so as to put the images around me out of the way. Though the pain in my side was by now only a dull throb, my head and eyes were throbbing too; indeed it was not hard to imagine my body had become one fat heart, lying discarded on the floor, pumping its last.

I’m not afraid I’d boasted, moments before the bolt had struck me. But now? Oh, I was very much afraid now. Afraid that I would die here, before I’d worked my way through the catalog of unfinished business that sat at the back of my skull, awaiting my attention and of course never getting it, while all the time growing and growing. Well, it was most likely too late; there would not be time for me to flagellate myself for every dishonorable deed in that list, nor any chance to make good the harms I’d done. Minor harms, to be sure, in the scheme of things; but large enough to regret.

And then, on the back of my neck, a touch; or what I believed to be a touch.

“Luman?” I murmured, and opened my eyes.

It wasn’t Luman; it wasn’t even a human touch, or anything resembling a human touch. It was some presence in the shadows; or the shadows themselves. They had swarmed upon me while my eyes were closed, and were now pressing close, their intimacy in no way threatening, but curiously tender. It was as though these roiling, senseless forms were concerned for my well-being, the way they brushed my nape, my brow, my lips. I stayed absolutely still, holding my breath, half expecting their mood to change and their consolations to turn into something crueler. But no; they simply waited, close upon me.

Relieved, I drew breath. And in the instant of drawing, knew I had again unwittingly done something of consequence.

On the intake I felt the marked air about my head rush toward my open lips, and down my throat. I had no choice but to let it in. By the time I knew what was happening it was too late to resist. I was a vessel being filled. I could feel the marks on my tongue, against my tonsils, in my windpipe—

Nor did I want to choke them off, once I felt them inside me. At their entrance the pain in my side seemed instantly to recede, as did the throbbing in my head and eyes. The fear of a lonely demise here went out of my head and I was removed—in. one breath—from despair to pleasurable ease.

What a maze of manipulations this chamber contained! First banality, then a blow, then this opiated bliss. I would be foolish, I knew, to believe that it did not have more tricks in its repertoire. But while it was content to give me some relief from my pains I was happy to take what was offered. Greedy for it, indeed. I gulped at the air, drawing in great draughts of it. And with every breath I felt further removed from my pain. Nor was it just the hurt in my flank and the throb in my head that was becoming remote; there was a much older ache—a dull, wretched pain that haunted the dead terrain of my lower limbs—that was now, for the first time in almost two human spans, relieved. It wasn’t, I think, that the pain was taken away; only that I no longer knew it as pain. Need I say I gladly banished it from my mind, sobbing gratitude to be relieved of an agony that had attended me so closely I’d forgotten how profound a hurt it was?

And with its passing my eyes—which were more acute than I could ever remember their being, even in my youth—found a new sight to astonish them. The air that I was expelling from my lungs had a bright solidity of its own; it came from me filled with flecks of delicate brilliance, as though a fire was stoked in me, and I was breathing out shards of flame. Was this some representation of my pain, I wondered? The room—or my own delirium’s—way of demonstrating the expulsion? That theory floated for ten seconds, then it was gone. The motes were about to show me their true nature, and it had nothing to do with pain.

They were still flowing from my mouth with every breath, but I wasn’t watching those I’d just exhaled. It was those that had flown from me first which drew my startled sight. They were seeding their luminescence in the shadows—disappeared into the cloudy bed around me. I watched with what I’d like to think was almost scientific detachment. There was a certain logic to all that happened to me here; or so I now supposed. The shadows were only half the equation: they were a site of possibilities, no more than that; the fertile mud of this chamber, waiting for some galvanizing spark to bring forth—to bring forth what?

That was the question. What did the marriage of fire and shadow want to show me?

I didn’t have to wait more than twenty seconds to discover the answer. No sooner had the first of the motes embedded themselves than the shadows surrendered their uncertainty, and blossomed.

The limits of the dome room had been banished. When the visions came—and oh, how they came!—they were vast.

First, out of the shadows, a landscape. The most primal of landscapes, in fact: rock and fire, and a flowing mass of magma. It was like the beginning of the world; red and black. It took me only a moment to make sense of this scene. The next, I was besieged with images, the scene before me transforming with every beat of my heart. Something flowered from the fire, gold and green, rising into a smoky sky. As it rose the blossoms it bore became fruit, and fell back onto the laval ground. I didn’t have time to watch them be consumed. A motion in the smoke off to my right drew my gaze. An animal of some kind—with pale, scarred flanks—galloped through my field of vision. I felt the violence of its hooves in my bowels. And before it had passed from sight came another, and another, then a herd of these beasts—not horses, but something close to them. Had I made these creatures? I wondered. Had I exhaled them with my pain; and the fire too, and the rock and tree that rose from the rock? Was all this my invention, or perhaps some remote memory, which the enchantments of the room had somehow made visible?

Even as I shaped that thought the pale herd changed direction and came pounding at me. I instinctively covered my head, to keep my brains from being beaten out. But for all the fury of their hooves, the passage of the herd did me no more harm than a light breeze; they passed over me, and away.

I looked up. In the few seconds I’d had my eyes averted the ground had given prodigious birth. There were now sights to be seen on every side. Close by me, sliding through the very air from which it was being carved, a snake came, bright as a flower. Before it was even finished with its own creation another creature snatched it up, and my eyes rose to find before me a form that was vaguely human, but winged and sleek. The snake was gone in an instant, swallowed down the throat of this thing, which then settled its fiery eyes on me as though wondering if I too were edible. Plainly I looked like poor fare. Pumping its massive wings the creature rose like a curtain to reveal another drama, stranger still, behind it.

The tree I’d seen bom had spread its seeds in every direction. In a few seconds a forest had sprung up, its churning canopy as dark as a thunderhead. And flitting between the trees were all manner of creatures, rising to nest, falling to rot. Close by me, an antelope stood in the dapple, shitting itself in terror. I looked for the cause. There; a few yards from the creature, something moved between the trees. I glimpsed only the glint off its eye, or tooth, until it suddenly broke cover, and came at its prey in one vast bound. A tiger, the size of four or five men. The antelope made to dart away, but its hunter was too fast. The tiger’s claws sank into the antelope’s silken flank and finished its leap with its prey beneath it. The death wasn’t quick or pretty. The antelope thrashed wildly, though its body was torn wide open, and the tiger was tearing out its stringy throat. I didn’t look away. I watched until the antelope was steaming meat, and the tiger sank down to dine. Only then did my eyes wander in search of new distractions.

There was something bright between the trees, I saw; brighter by the moment. Like a fire in its appetite, it climbed through the canopy as it approached, its advance above outpacing its steadier progress below. There was chaos in the thicket, as every species—hunter and hunted alike—fled before the blaze. But above me there was no escape. The fire came too fast, consuming birds in their flight, the chicks in their nests, monkeys and squirrels on the bough. Countless corpses fell around me, blackened and smoking. White hot ash came with them, powdering the ground.

I wasn’t in fear for my life. By now I knew enough about this place to be confident of my immunity. But the scene appalled me nevertheless. What was I witnessing? Some primal cataclysm that had scoured this world? Undone it from sky to ground? If so, what was its source? This was no natural disaster, I was certain of that. The blaze above me had made itself into a kind of roof, creating in the moment of destruction a fretted vault, in which the dying were immortalized in fire. Tears started into my eyes, the sight moved me so. I reached to brush them out, so as not to miss whatever new glories or horrors were imminent, and as I did so I heard in my heart the first human utterance—other than my own noise—to come my way since I’d entered this chamber.

It was not a word; or if it was it was no word I knew. But it had meaning; at least that was my belief. To my ear it sounded like an open-throated shout raised by some newborn soul in the midst of the blaze; a yell of celebration and defiance. Here I am! it seemed to say. Now we begin!
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