She stepped into nothingness and held out her hands. They clasped at nothing and caught only air. She stepped again, stumbled, tumbled, fell—
Her fingers found a branch and she held it, swaying, panting. Where am I?
Eerie green hovered above her. It darkened and blurred, as if veiled with shadow—then brightened as it was lifted away. Dark, swamp-like gas yielded to a cool, blissful tinge. Beneath her brown petals fluttered to purple, pink, red, crimson, then purple again.
Wings swept past her. Her hair flitted in waves, chasing after the what was it? Some insect? She watched its shadow disappear into the green.
Soberly she took another step. She felt it tugging at her chest, pulling her deeper into the light. For it was a light, wasn’t it? The forest before her was aglow, shining and breathing, pulsing with a magnetic mist.
It parted at her cheeks, leaving gentle raindrops. She let them stay and soak into her skin. They wiped her tears and she forgot who she was, what she’d been running from. They were arms wrapped tight around her, holding her, burdening her. Sweat seeped from her skin and she shrugged the shirt off her shoulders, then the skirt from her hips. She left the exhaustively sewn fabric behind, left to be found by pauper or poorer.
And just as quickly the air around her cooled. It swept in gentle waves across her skin, brushing behind her hair like a flickering flame—whose pale wick plunged through the trees, over the grass, the fields, the humming trees and into the light.
Where she was blinded.
She blinked, tried to brush it away. She saw white—then a distant shape. She made out a figure and heard its voice.
Though barely a silhouette, she knew it was something beautiful, something not of her world.
Closer now. Edges sharpened, formed.
What’s your name? she asked.
Lotus, she repeated. And paused, held her breath. Lotus. When she heard that name it sounded like music. She said it again: Lotus. Melodious. She couldn’t sing but she sang when she said her name.
Then with feet like wings she hurried away. Through the orange leaves she flew and disappeared, leaving them whispering behind her.
Did you touch her?
Yes, did you?
Yes, so beautiful!
Shuffling, she followed. Not with wings but with chains—heavy, clumsy weights.
Who are you? the forest called after her. Where are you going?
She didn’t answer. Instead she called her name.
Lotus didn’t notice.
Lotus was silence, emptiness.
She was gone.
Above her the green sky winked. Without eyes she didn’t know how, yet it did. Do you need eyes to see? she wondered.
You never told me yours.
Breathless, she spun around.
Lotus smiled and the whole forest smiled. Winged pestals fluttered from the grass to circle around her, and behind her a gosgole sighed the most beautiful sigh.
Her mouth opened but she stopped. She couldn’t bear to taint this place with her name. This place needed Lotuses to fill it with warmth and beauty, not words that would suck the air straight out of it.
What’s your name?
Reluctance, she wanted to say. Timothy the Timid. Sheila the Sheepish.
I gave you mine, Lotus urged, voice calm as silk. So, what’s yours?
Vera, she said finally, though it sounded like chopping wood.
How very! she chirped.
When Lotus shrugged the whole forest shrugged. Leaves plunged off their perches and clouds brisked away. The gosgole scoffed the most careless scoff.
Very everything, she said. It just is.
How can something just is?
Well it certainly can’t can’t, can it?
Then it won’t!
Can’t something won’t?
No, everything must is.
She’d spun her mind backwards. She’d taken it right out of her skull and tossed it carelessly into the air.
Are you going to catch it? she almost asked.
But she was gone. Lost again to the whispering leaves.
Lotus wasn’t focused.
She’d been taken again by this forest, that was as much a part of her as the feet that carried her through it. Those winged feet, weightless, weightless how they flew!
And still chained, Vera followed.
She’s gone, you fool! the leaves laughed. You’ve lost her again!
She clambered past them while they taunted. Some screamed as she trampled their fickle frames with feet that didn’t belong there—feet that belonged with fabric wound tight around them, hidden inside soulless boxes. They belonged far away, not here. Not with the pestals, the gosgoles, the hazy green sky and floating trees.
Not with Lotus.
Am I a fool? she wondered. Still they sang to her that hopeless song. Still they laughed, still they taunted.
And still she searched.
Lotus, my psychosis!
She fell into a run. She’d been running all along but couldn’t remember what from or what to. There’d been darkness behind her but something else up ahead. And she felt that maybe that something else was here, maybe she’d already found it. Maybe Lotus was the end to it all.
With just a look she had swirled her sky. What had been lines were now circles—and green, not blue. And just her name had turned those circles into spirals. They danced, they swayed, they dizzied her. Everything was upside-down. What was wasn’t anymore and what never was now was.
She hasn’t caught my mind, she thought.
Maybe she still had it, holding it in the crook of her arm, prancing with it through the grass. And if anything at all, she had to find it. What fool wouldn’t chase after her own mind?
Lotus? She called her name again and still it was a melody. Still from her lips poured the most elegant sound that had ever graced her ears. It swept from her lungs and blended into the breeze.
Her name belongs to this forest, she thought, even more than the pestals, the gosgoles, those irksome, whispering—
How very cruel.
She paid them no mind.
Her name left her breath and it stopped. Her lungs emptied and she stilled.
Shining, there she was.
She was speckled with a million different hues, glowing between the silent, spindly trees. Her head was woven with hair that wasn’t green, wasn’t blue, wasn’t red—but every colour that had ever tasted the light of the sun.
Won’t you join us?
Yes, she said, and stepped through those still-irksome leaves. With a breeze they brushed against each other, a mock applause.
Finally the fool has found her!
Into her pool Vera waded. And deep in her waters Lotus waited. Just like her, the waters shone. A thousand thousand glimmers leapt to welcome her. They touched her skin, felt her bones, soothed her muscles and filled her lungs again with that song.
What was it that made me stay? she wondered afterwards. Was it the tepid waters lapping at my skin, a softer caress than any hand? Was it that beauty I saw, perfection itself shimmering before me? Or was it that silent victory, her found to my lost?
Yet she knew. Even then she knew. It was the way she said her name, that sounded like growth instead of decay. Not death but birth. Life.
To her own ears it was still that harsh, scratching sound that hounded her insides. Still she heard it and crept away, hiding behind the shambles it held up for her.
But when her lips drew the lines that formed her name, it was as if no other word had been so pure, like she’d been waiting her entire life just to say it.
The same sound that drivels into my ears doesn’t reach hers, Vera thought. No, she hears something else. She sees something else.
With her lips Lotus sang and painted a picture—the one that she saw. And when Vera looked she didn’t see perfection at all—no, far from it—she saw something that existed nowhere else but beneath her flesh. It was a world of colours the sun had never seen, creatures the earth had never housed, thoughts no one else had heard and pictures no one else could paint.
And that in itself was beauty.
Lotus! she cried.
She saw her essence, and reflected it back.
And it was very.
It was. It just was.
Like her own name, like the winking sky, like all the other impossibilities that surrounded her, it just was.
What’s your name?
Vera, she said. And she stepped into nothingness and held out her hands.
Almost completed my James Joyce Vintage Classics editions, designed by Peter Mendelsund.