– I –
The Festival of Dissolution is coming to town, and just like in previous years, Franok is still too young to go.
He and his friends know very little about the festival, only that it is in a clearing deep in the forest, only adults are allowed visit it, and there is a great tent in which all the celebrations take place. The interior of this festival tent is enigmatic in itself: it is often described as “a flat landmass drifting in the center of the ocean” or “a desert of salt and engine parts”, but Franok doesn’t know what this means.
He has tried to sneak in with his friends two years in a row, but it took them all night to reach the clearing in the forest, and they had only found trampled grass and little piles of garbage there.
Everyone in their group has a theory about what is going on, and everyone claims to have heard some story from an adult, most of them wildly unbelievable. There are tales of bacchanalian rites, of wine, drugs and naked skin; of elaborately choreographed theatre performances and much stranger things.
Some speak of artists that make teeth disappear, not by archaic brutality or the professional horrors of a dentist, but through alchemical means, with some mouthwash that dissolves them trace- and sensationless. There are the de-composers, classical as well as avant-garde, breaking down music into its constituent fugues and chords, then into solitary notes without any flow or rhythm; the atheologists that can convince any man of the faultiness of his faith; the reverse gardeners who make their plants recede into the ground, their blooming flowers close and their fallen leaves attach itself back to the branches; the infamous ice sculptor; and a hundred professions more, all of them sounding fake.
Can there really be a shark that breathes fear through its gills and, just like that, removes it from the world? A negative candle that swallows light? A surgeon specialized in loosening bonds, cutting tendrils and muscles to make a body fall apart with as few motions as possible?
– II –
All of a sudden, Quinton and Jodee find themselves trapped in ice. It surrounds them on all sides, still glistening from the dim light that bounces back and forth without escape: The floor is ice, the walls, the domed ceiling.
It doesn’t feel cold, but it is most definitely ice, hardened into a cave-like architecture. It seems to have appeared overnight around Quinton and Jodee, and Quinton has never encountered anything like it.
“Do you see that?” Jodee points to some kind of movement in the corner of Quinton’s eyes, something flittering under the outer layer of ice. It’s a tiny light, glowing like a butterfly of stained glass, gliding around in rapid, dizzying bursts of movement.
There are more things inside the ice, a whole swarm of bright spots in multifarious colors, in ruby red and sapphire blue, emerald green, amethyst violet and pearly white, like a scattering of animated gemstones.
“Let’s follow them.”
Quinton wants to protest, but Jodee is already walking into one of the tunnels leading away from where they are, a worm-like opening into which the ghostly lights begin to disappear.
Jodee turns around, and at the same moment, her tunnel abruptly tilts, transforms into a slide and then into a vertical shaft. There is not even time to scream: Jodee is gone before Quinton can react, and he now stares at a hole that is rapidly losing all color.
Jodee falls through deepening darkness, the gushing air her only indicator of movement, until the falling suddenly stops. There is no impact, no hard collision with the ground, just the wind pausing, an almost indiscernible end to her descend.
She can’t see a thing, but immediately starts to walk in a random direction. To her surprise, her feet find resistance, skid over glass-like smoothness, another floor of frozen water. As her eyes slowly accustom to the gloom, it becomes clear that it isn’t absolute: There is a vague bluish hue radiating from the walls, a slowly building illumination that transforms the cave into a submerged grotto. The frozen enclosure pulses with a deep blue, smalt or ultramarine, like the gills of some sluggish primordial fish.
Serpentine passageways open into round chambers, and the round chambers lead to a succession of bigger halls with frozen pillars, until the ice is so far away on all sides that Jodee might as well be walking under an open sky.
“Jodee!” There is a voice echoing from somewhere in the distance, lost in the glacial labyrinth.
“Quinton?” She doesn’t slow down, but changes her direction toward the sound, through a light that gradually turns into more of a mauve or hyacinthine shade. There is water dripping from the high ceiling, as if the ice was melting, but the droplets evaporate in the air before they reach the ground. It is a strange and silent spectacle, and Jodee is tempted to stop for a moment and enjoy it – but then, she hears Quinton’s voice again.
The halls grow narrower, the pillars lower, then Jodee passes a tunnel and sees someone standing in the distance: and as she recognizes Quinton, everything changes again.
There is something pulsing in the center of the cavern, an icy stalagmite rising up like a petrified flower. Its heart is bright and red, coated in an incorporeal foliage of kermes and vermilion, carmine and garnet, projecting lighter shades of incarnadine and erythraean on the distant walls, coagulating to a purplish fuchsia or amaranth in the corners.
It shines on Jodee’s face like the reverberation of a temperatureless magma flow, steaming over her body in paler lilac and heliotrope.
“Let’s stay together now, alright?” Quinton approaches her carefully, as if she could vanish at any moment like a roseate-tinted specter. When he nears the frozen blossom, he can see through his own hands as they turn into scarlet silhouettes. His skin becomes transparent in the intense illumination that bubbles up like water from a fountain, exposing his every artery and blood vessel, the albicant shapes of his bones and the organs working between his rips.
Damask red and magenta wash over him like heat haze, making it harder for him to see Jodee with every further step. There she is, almost within his reach – but before his outstretched hand can touch her, the red mist begins to solidify.
Quinton’s movements become sluggish, as if he has been enveloped by glue – and the protruding ice structure, the heart of the room, suddenly swells. Quinton is being pulled toward it, inside it – and in the blink of an eye, he finds himself in a completely different place.
Jodee stares in disbelief at the center of the cave, where Quinton has just vanished. There is no light anymore, just the bluish background radiation, and the stalagmite has ceased glowing.
What a strange young man this Quinton is … his previous name has been different, but she would never call him that. The ice sculptor has made a fine labyrinth for them, and she doesn’t understand why Quinton keeps getting away from her. There is no indication where he might have gone, so she begins walking again, around the ice flower and into another tunnel.
Lines begin to shine within the walls, like veins of glittering gold and silver, of iron ore and diamonds, an intertwined white pattern with subtle nuances in opaline and ivory. On first sight, it seems to be nothing but a chaotic tangle, but the longer Jodee looks, the more the lines appear to guide her in one particular direction: toward Quinton.
The floor slopes downward, and Jodee’s steps begin to sound hollow, as if there is another cave beneath her. The light gains color, somewhere between peach and tangerine, with a sulphureous haze welling up in the distance.
As the illumination shifts toward a darker topaz or even persimmon, Jodee steps onto a transparent section of the floor. The ice beneath her is no longer opaque, and through it, she can see a deeper cavern … with someone inside.
Quinton walks down long stairs of ice, careful not to slip on their glass-like surface. The frozen heart and its red glow have transported him to another cavern, and he has been wandering through a maze of branching tunnels for hours.
“Quinton!” He looks up, the ceiling suddenly illuminated by shady orange and mustard yellow, and sees Jodee. She stands on a pane of transparent ice, her form milky and distorted, but she clearly recognizes him before she moves away.
She appears again, a chunk of ice in both hands, and hammers down, the impact travelling through the walls like a distant earthquake. Cracks form, melichrous lines that slowly creep over the ice like a flood of honey. Another smash, another network of cracks, then a loud chink as it breaks in a shower of ocher and saffron shards.
“Jump, and I’ll catch you!”
Her face peeks through the newly opened hole, encased by an aurulent halo that slowly fades away. She hesitates, tries to meet his eyes, then produces a smile before she lets herself fall.
As she plummets down, he catches her – and light shoots up around them like a geyser of colors. It is umber, a tawny brown with a tint of russet, enveloping them as if they would stand in a fountain of mud, reaching its peak above their heads and flooding away in all directions.
“Where have you been?”
“I don’t know … there are so many tunnels and halls here. What is this, Jodee? Where are we?”
The maroon-colored brightness stops bubbling up and spreads itself across the whole floor like a sepia fog, turning everything into an ancient memory preserved for all time.
“In the ice, stupid. Don’t you know about the ice sculptor? Is this your first time in the labyrinth?”
Quinton nods, and as she smiles in return, everything starts to change once more. The brown fog lies calm as a field of earth, and from it, green flowers begin to bloom.
There are smaller weeds in pale celadon, virescent offshoots and tree trunks with hints of titian and copper: and there are the shining centers, bright blossoms of verdigris green, of jade and jasper, of chrysochlorous gold. The green light grows and flourishes on all sides, until it forms a colorful forest, a primordial jungle that closes around Quinton and Jodee and hides them from view.
– III –
Franok and his gang find the clearing in the middle of the night, behind the bridge and the valley, in the oldest part of the forest.
The adults of the town seem to have already vanished, and the only thing left is the fabled tent, the centerpiece of the Festival of Dissolution. It is huge and colorful – although in a faded, time-worn fashion –, but it appears to be nothing more than an ordinary tent, not like any of the stories the friends have heard.
“So this is it? Where are the tongues and teeth, the loops and lanterns?”
“The parades and paradoxes, the masks and mandalas?”
“Probably inside, with all the people.” Franok walks toward the tent from the darkened treeline. The night air is chilly, but he hardly notices his own goosebumps over all the excitement. “Come on, isn’t this why we are here? Don’t you want to see what’s in the tent?”
The others nod, and Franok leads them toward one of the curtained entrances, its hem swaying softly in the breeze.
The illumination inside is faint, just a bronze glow that emanates from the canvas walls. A small passageway leads into a room with several veiled exits, each of them decorated with an embroidered symbol.
The members of Franok’s little gang stare at him as if he somehow had all the answers, as if it wasn’t his first time here as well. None of the symbols look the least bit familiar: they show maimed creatures, outlandish geometric patterns or things that Franok doesn’t have words to describe.
“I want to see the shark, and this seems to be the most fish-like of them all.” One of the friends points to a symbol that Franok would have described as a flying teapot salesman.
“Look at this …” Another member of the gang has found something else. “My brother has drawn this for me one time … it must lead to Kamelkatze’s Snout Market.”
“Hey, this one has writing … Embryonic Reconvergence, I think?”
Franok’s companions swarm out, talking loudly to themselves and finally vanishing through separate entryways, until only Franok remains. There are the curtains no one has traversed, there are the ones his friends went through – and definitely no point in waiting now.
Franok steps through and enters a long, billowing tunnel of colored fabric, behind which diffuse lights swirl and flicker.
His blue shadow on the floor duplicates itself to form red and green twins, which then start dividing again and again into a weakening kaleidoscope of rainbow colors. He watches his shadows become more transparent with every split, until they are barely visible and pale away into nothingness.
The tunnel inflates and pulsates with waves of color, as if it wants Franok to get going, to stop hesitating and wasting time. The Festival of Dissolution will end soon, and when it does, he cannot be here anymore.
Franok walks around a long curve, toward the other end, where he passes a curtain of tiny spiral seashells that seem to be constantly retracting into themselves. The room on the other side is low and gloomy compared to the passage, and there are shelves with all kinds of snow globes, dozens or maybe hundreds of them. The vestigial lighting glitters on a multiplicity of model landscapes under glass, on towers, forests, volcanic islands or maelstroms.
In every one of the globes, something falls like soft snow, but on closer inspection, it clearly isn’t: the flakes are ash, teeth, little drops of oil, dust crystals, flickering flames, miniature will-o-wisps, sun-sparks, even tinier landscapes, books with flapping pages, shrunken paradise birds, swarms of microscopic flying foxes, or even unlikelier objects.
Everywhere Franok looks, he can watch artificial worlds vanish and evaporate under the unnatural snow, and he can barely stop himself from inspecting one globe after another.
“If you stay here too long, you will disappear, just like the places in all those globes.”
Franok jumps at the voice, spins around and encounters a girl his age. “What … how … who are you?”
“I’m Jodee. What’s your name?”
“I will call you Quinton.” She offers him her hand. “Come with me: the ice sculptor has made something special just for us.”Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in