Katabasis, Part II


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Scene Title Katabasis, Part II
Synopsis The journey continues.

“For you are divine, and you have the gifts of memory and story; but only the faintest echo of the great tale has come down to me”
― Virgil, The Aeneid

In 1953, Maurits Cornelis Escher created a lithograph entitled Relativity that depicted a world beyond three dimensions, a world of impossible angles and startling geometries. Escher’s work explored the concepts of impossible objects, infinity, reflection, symmetry, perspective, truncated and stellated polyhedra, hyperbolic geometry, and tessellations. His work was often defined as mathematical, in spite of the fact that Escher himself did not see himself a mathematician.

Standing on the precipice of her own infinity, Nathalie LeRoux recalls Escher’s work. Before her spreads an infinite landscape of forking pathways of well-trod snow that curve upwards and into one-another like a knotwork of branches. Each pathway is ringed by dark pine trees laden down by freshly fallen snow. It is a dizzying sight, and the surrealist landscape that the more traditional cemetery behind her has transitioned into.

“Behold, the world’s stage.”

The poetic aside is courtesy of Nathalie’s guide, Lucas Maes, a British soldier who died sometime during the first world war. A man who, for a time, held onto what is colloquially known as the White Conduit and did so for nearly eighty years. Maes stands beside Nathalie, where the path that diverges in the woods forks into the infinite, trespassing bravely into total darkness.

“It wasn’t always this way here,” Maes explains. “This tangle of perspective and space didn’t exist, but now that it does it always has. I know that sounds confusing,” Maes admits, looking over to his young protege, “but I assure you it’s going to be easier to understand as we go.”

But then, Maes returns his attention to the snow-laden path ahead of them. Their journey only begins in the infinite. It is not the destination. That, for now, is yet undeclared.

Looking out on the impossible geometry, Nathalie's gaze traces the paths, winding and sweeping as they are. Only Maes' explanation interrupts her exploration. Her lips curve into a smile, just at one corner. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," she quotes, then she looks over at Maes, "We're in a between space. Why would it behave the way we're used to." By all appearances, Nat doesn't seem to struggle with the concept. Or, perhaps, she has some comfort in the impossible.

It all brings to mind stories of other worlds. Of fae and tricksters and the desperate search for home. But as much as those stories serve as warnings, she can't help a touch of excitement. It sends a tingle through her skin, forcing her feet forward along the nearest path. "The way out is through," she says with a glance back to Maes, her own Virgil, "or I've heard it said."

Maes affords Nathalie an amused smirk. “There’s something to be said for consistency,” he admits with a motion to the tangled and impossible paths. “But this isn’t random happenstance. This happened for a reason,” he says with some measure of confidence, starting down the snowy trail.

“A bearer of what Rouen might call the black conduit broke the boundaries between places. Tangled up dimensions of thought and consciousness with impressions of desire and emotion. Thought is a very powerful thing here, but…” he eyes Nathalie carefully, “we’ll circle back to that part.”

As Maes walks, he’s mindful to watch his footing. While the path framed with dark trees seems safe, he treads it as if it weren’t. However, Maes gives no indication of what hazards there may be.

“Eileen Ruskin, rather unintentionally, folded this world in on itself like a mobius strip.” Maes explains, gesturing to the deformed landscape curling up and over itself like a tunnel full of snow, trees, and sparse headstones. “If you imagine my side of things and, let’s say Rouen’s side of things as two distinct sheets of paper, Eileen’s presence folded them together, then cut them with scissors, and folded each sheet inside the other.”

Maes comes to stop at a fork in the path where two identical pine-shrouded walkways sink into darkness. “This way,” he gestures to the left, “will take us back to where we started.” Maes then gestures to the right. “This way, will take us deeper into the forest.” He then turns a blue-eyed stare to Nathalie. “How do I know that?”

"Right, when she crossed over, she came with her own conduit," Nathalie says with a nod, "I had worried about what sort of fallout there would be, but I thought it would be back there. I didn't consider what it would do to our special afterlife." She wasn't aware of its nature before, but she did know the former bearers all still existed in some fashion, some where. "Would it have been the same if she had yours? Or if more than one had come along with her?" It isn't that Nat expects answers, really, just that her mind has held onto these questions since she learned about Eileen and not many people would even understand them. Before now.

She stops when he does, glancing down the two paths. She even looks back the way they came. Her head tilts. They all look the same to her, one as good as another. As daunting.

"You said thought is powerful here," she says, looking over at him. "If you think that's the way deeper in, then it is." It's a guess, spoken half in statement, half in question, an eyebrow lifted curiously.

Maes raises one finger and taps himself on the nose, then offers a quick wink and a smile to Nathalie. “You’ll get the hang of this quicker than I thought,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice, starting off down the right path.

“Unfortunately the answer to all your questions is, I don’t know.” Maes admits with a shake of his head. “I don’t think anybody does. This is all a new frontier, a hypothetical situation made increasingly real as the moments pass. Is it like this because of external environmental situations, or is it like this because of the state Eileen’s mind was in? We may never know the answer to that. But what we can observe is the effect.”

As Nathalie and Maes walk down the path, she realizes that she hasn’t seen a headstone in a while. Just the dark boughs of tall trees. Maes looks to her and then ahead to the darkness, raising his hand and holding a lantern much as Gabriel had carried when he first found her in this place. He offers her a smile, and continues walking.

“I was a philosopher before I was a soldier,” Maes explains. “A metaphysical naturalist. It’s a type of science-minded philosophy that holds that all properties related to consciousness and the mind are reducible to, or supervene upon, nature.” He explains with a gesture around them. “Broadly, the corresponding theological perspective is religious naturalism or spiritual naturalism. More specifically, metaphysical naturalism rejects the supernatural concepts and explanations that are part of many religions.”

“Essentially,” Maes continues, “I believe that all things supernatural can be explained with science. Thought, consciousness, the soul… all of that holds an ontological truth within concepts like mass and energy. Needless to say, when I tried to resuscitate a young dying man in Sarajevo in 1911 and came host to a power beyond life and death… my philosophical beliefs were deeply challenged.”

Up ahead, Nathalie can see a light beyond the high trees. Not another lantern, but rather as if dawn were encroaching on the darkened forest and they traveling east to meet it.

"I can see how this would challenge that particular line of philosophy. But there's nothing to say what we are and what this is can't be explained with science. We just don't know how yet. And there's nothing to say we aren't still magic just because science understands." Nathalie pauses when she sees the light peeking through the trees, watching it for a long moment in silence.

"There wasn't time for me to hold many nuanced beliefs before they came to me. I was a child. But what they taught me to believe in is the inherent duality in everything. Nothing is so simple as to say it was just good or just bad. Every person, every event, every thing holds a complexity we can only struggle to comprehend." She gestures toward the trees, the light, perhaps the whole space they now exist in. "When we try to understand what's happening here, we'll find something neither good nor bad, we'll repair what we have to, we'll accept the irreversible changes. Then that will become what is. Good, bad, everything between."

She shakes herself out of her thoughts, though, and nods toward the light as she looks over to him again. "Shall we see what that is?"

Maes smiles to himself as he walks, watching the snow underfoot beginning to thin, revealing old flagstones. “I, for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only.” He says in a lyrical tone of voice. “It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”

Maes looks at Nathalie, brows raised, and laughs. “You’re neither Jekyll nor Hyde,” he admits with a smile. “But there is some truth in Stevenson’s writing that applies here. That the potential for monstrosity exists in all of us, whether we see ourselves as good people or not.” Up ahead, the bluish glow of dawn’s light becomes stronger through the trees and Nathalie can hear the soft cry of birds, as if the sun were truly rising.

“This next part is precarious,” Maes warns, extending a gloved hand to her. “First time through, I’d recommend you take my hand. Lest we get separated.”

"The one you feed is the one that wins," Nathalie says, almost to herself. A gentle melancholy washes over her with the memory of those she left behind. When she shakes it off, she gives Maes a tired smile. "Someone said that to me once."

Her focus turns to the dawn, to the way forward, pushing away memory of the past for what exists here in the present. And Nathalie has a lot of practice with compartmentalizing.

She glances at his hand, to the stones peeking through the lingering snow, then up again as she takes his hand. Getting lost here, she could end up anywhere. Or nowhere. And while she can't deny a certain appeal in both of those prospects, she has little trouble setting them aside while there's work to be done.

"I'm ready."

Maes has a look in his eye at Nathalie’s affirmation. It’s challenging, to her assertion that she is ready, to her earlier quote about the one you feed. But it is a voiceless challenge. He squeezes Nathalie’s hand a moment later and looks to the light at the end of the path and sets out toward it.

“Beyond here…” Maes says as his voice begins to distort in quavering vibration.

“Everything changes.”

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