A chance encounter, a sloshy woman at a corner bar, a recollection of an uncle who fell into a well, all the tequila poured, all the prejudices spun out, about my accent and my allegedly highborn ways, about the elections and conspiratorial meanderings, my filters built into a Great Wall against a bareknuckle dustup, bloodied noses and cops and lights, and then, as the night drew up into its cold intestines, a mention just in passing that this uncle fell in the well on the solstice morning and became some kind of sloganeer, some kind of soothsayer. But it was more, I heard her faintly say, and that the shocks of that icy water aroused some otherworldly spirit within him, around 1958 or so, and he was cast out of his church and lost his business, an upwardly-mobile fin-tailed car magnate with a country-club future. He wandered the countryside with his well-sprung tale until impoverished and abandoned by his wife and two adorable children, her cousins, one who was now dead (the boy), crushed by a front-end loader at a construction pit, and the other who was a retired school librarian down in Fayetteville. That cousin had kept all his writings, all about the physics of Tlon.
My ears perked up and I asked her again what she had uttered, about the slurred syllables that came forth from her salted and limed lips. She repeated the word again, then laughed at me, hissed “Tlon” once more and shuttled her head side-to-side. It was another world her demented uncle had bragged about, some agitated dream erupting from his freezing parts while captive in that black bore. It was a solstice night, long, with the snows of the preceding week in skirts around the trees. He had lost the tips of his fingers crawling out of that hole, but how he survived beyond that he was unable to say. He only talked about that world. He only talked about mystery people and the universe.
I begged her for a bit more and maybe some context for the daughter and she slanted her eyes suspiciously. I was informed, as she drew up and away from our conspiratorial hunches, like a raptor asserting dominance, that she wasn’t going home with me, which was a relief, and to which I readily agreed. I nevertheless passed her my cell number and insisted I wanted to know more about the uncle, that was all, and could she maybe, if not too much trouble, arrange for me to see the writings of this madman?
I had no expectations that she would remember any of the evening. She was high above the Eiffel Tower and heading for the moon as I left to return to my dreary hotel room down the road, stepping carefully to avoid the slippery tendrils of ice built from the runoff of the day. I slept fitfully with the wall-mount heater tracking a blistering seventy-eight. Had I heard her right? Was my quest beginning to reveal fruit?
I scanned the directory of the local college that morning over black coffee and found a Doug Henders, M.A. Hist., listed among the instructional faculty. Mr. Henders was the only regional history specialist, with far too many of his fellow professorial sorts focused on far-flung matters in Europe, Asia, and even one emeritus who seemed to be exclusively an historian of arctic expeditions. While intriguing, his experience could likely shed little light on the matter of the uncle.
I finally phoned Mr. Henders and, following brief introductions, including an effort to convey my scholarly credentials while not emphatically calling out this-or-that publications or little professional accolade in the broader community, he asked how he could be of assistance. I asked about the uncle, about the story of the well, about the car dealer gone righteous, about the cryptic writings and, specifically, I avoided mention of the word in question. He claimed to be unaware of these developments and began to convey little hints of irritation. I finally dropped the bombshell term, about Tlon, casually as an aside. He stopped cold, there was a hard pause on the line, the static-free encodings of digital transmissions robbing the moment of even the faintest hiss that might provoke a conclusion that the line had dropped.
He asserted quite precipitously that he had a college disciplinary meeting to attend to and could not help me further. I thanked him but, before I had even concluded my statement, an actual and exaggerated chirp of a disconnect sounded from my phone. It was curious, I realized in hindsight, that he not only had pushed me away but had responded with an odd intimation of violence, of control, of discipline, as if to threaten and steer me from my endeavors. And it had only happened with the mention of the key word, not before. But maybe I elaborate to much? Perhaps my pursuit has heightened my senses to such an extent that the background noise of even these casual social interactions pops with a radiative glow drawn from speculation? I could only pursue the southern librarian’s written records at that point, though I was at the mercy of my barfly for that.
I waited through the next two days. I considered returning to the bar and begging the woman for more information, but I had not the boldness to pursue the lead in such stark terms. And then, around 11 AM the next day, a Tuesday I believe, I received a call from an unknown party on my phone. I was in the local library at the time and the orchestration of my ringtone caused the librarian to raise his startled gaze as I peered over family records in the white, cotton gloves of an archivist. Berlioz does not appeal, I surmised.
I staggered out into the winter light flashing off the ectoplasm of cars in the snowy parking lot as I took the call, asking twice for her to please wait and not hang up. I was given the coordinates then, and told that I must arrive precisely before 10AM to get an hour-and-one-half with the records or interest. I could have no more because the lady in question had an appointment of an urgent matter with her proctologist. I agreed to all the terms readily, worrying as well for the poor woman’s health and the implications associated with such a narrow medical speciality. The documents could vanish completely, I realized, and be lost among her transitory possessions, were she to succumb to some asinine malaise.
I arrived as required at the nondescript clapboard house. There was a single string of colored Christmas lights around a black side-window. A potpourri of plant pots—crimson, fuchsia, taupe, lime, mottled turquoise—denuded in the winter freeze but for a stray twig or two, covered the small porch before the screen door. A knock, a wait. A knock again. I began to fear she had rescinded the offer, this retired librarian, and had left early to have a coffee before her dreaded appointment with the medical establishment. But then there was a shadow of motion through the small window, an eye looking up to me, shaded by the blue of the day, and the door opened.
I was admitted then, dear reader, and allowed to shed my heavy coat and stomp my shoes against the thick mat of the mudroom. Minnie Mouse stared up at me in delighted wonder as I wiped salt and ice from the edges of my shoe. It smelled of wool and cooked eggs in the living room, of natural gas and sulfur. My host was surprised at the interest in her father, gone so long and lost in so many ways.
I inquired perhaps too indelicately how he had died, but she turned from me and pointed me towards the kitchen, never answering the question or seemingly even acknowledging the significance of the query. I saw a small stack of yellow sheets of paper starkly offset by the warm red of Santa holograms cleverly embedded in the plastic tablecloth, their form shifting from sleigh to decorated tree as I shifted above the scene. I was asked to hand over my cell phone, which I did readily as I stooped towards the pencil-etched mound of calligraphy before me.
Soon, following agreements and safeguards of the namesake, the family reputation, and the probing appointment close at hand, I was deeply entranced by the inscrutable documents. And, let me assure you dear reader, that the scribbles and markings did not disappoint. We start, page one, with a description of a crystalline city supported by the mental capabilities of masters who live below and follow an exacting timeline for their rotations in their duties, lest the city shudder or, worse, fall from its tenuous perch. There are always hints of return in these documents, of recurrence, I realize. Where the masters were before they will be again. When their capacities are exhausted, they rest and come again to aid the city in its meditative hover.
But there is more, so cryptically encoded yet so tenderly elucidated, for the masters know of another world that is so very like our own. They dream of it when they are not busy in their scholarly and masterful duties. It is a subject of great discussion. How can it be that they all dream of the same seasonal change, of the same calamity of purpose, of the same ritualistic dogmas and contempts? They hold salons to try to unravel the mystery, expressed in epigrams and enigmas. They write on these matters but cannot unravel the core, perplexing mystery. This parallel universe is an exaggeration of the purposes that they know, an unraveling and corruption of the sensible progression that enervates their thinking and that of the steadfast people of the city. The dream people are locked to ancient sky beings, they are contemptuous of the world that they are immersed within, they are riddled with petty preoccupations. It is only in this realization that the right course of action can be understood.
I leaned back in my steel and plastic chair, feeling the flush of the furnace from the ceiling vent. It washed over me, drawing in the premonitions of tears that began in my conjunctiva, and then evaporated them in a blink. My kind host appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the flash of blue television light in the living room.
I reluctantly departed after thanking her. I told her that I would like to phone her with a few more questions if I might, maybe later, perhaps in the afternoon? She agreed and closed the door. I was almost to my car when the door reopened and I stomped back to fetch my phone that she had held hostage.
Driving back the hour or so to my original perch, my mind was awash with the remarkable details and rich orchestration of what I had read. But, I realized, that the word never appeared anywhere in the documents. I had been so mesmerized by the elliptical phraseology, by the incongruent grammar, and, mostly, by the tale of woe and cataclysm, that I had not seen or noticed that signal term.
I phoned in the afternoon and thanked the librarian/cousin again. She had been very kind. I hoped her appointment had been acceptable and that her health outlook remained positive. I continued my encouraging words for a few more minutes until she indicated that she needed to see to her needlepoint activities. I fully understood, I assured her, but then asked if she knew the word Tlon from the writings.
There was a pause, deep and consuming, and I worried that I was about to receive the same angry disputation that the instructor at the college had provided me for my unexpected impudence. But no, she cleared her throat briefly, apologized, and asked me to say the word again. T-lon, I repeated, trying to de-emphasize any inadvertent alveolar flapping that arises naturally from my first-language slurring of the dialect.
There was an oooh of recognition then, and I waited breathlessly. I think you mean Talon. His name was Barry Talonik Denzigger—the middle name from the old country in Bohemia—but folks called him Talon for short. He went by that for many years after falling in the well.
I held the phone fast against my face and asked her to repeat that. He was called Talon. That was all. No surprise that I didn’t see that in the documents. They were written before he got the name. She offered to write Talon at the top of each page for future scholars who might be passing through, though I quickly asserted my professional opinion that the pages should be preserved as they are between sheets of acid-free paper, even as a crestfallen gloom began a rapid attack on my gut. As a former librarian, she understood what I meant, it seemed. I hung up and updated my notes.