Fantasia of an Afternoon

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At 6.39 pm on the afternoon of 23 February, 2014, the lemony yellow light of the setting sun shone through a gap in the foliage of the gum tree outside, through the half-open window and into the full length mirror on the other side of the room. I was sitting on the couch, looking at a book on Matisse, when the reflected beams caught me, unexpectedly, on the right hand side of my face. I glanced across the room and into the mirror. It was a complex image: a square of dusty light lay on the surface of the glass itself then, past the twin hanging loops of the artificial red hibiscus lei and the shell necklace I picked up in Fiji years ago, I saw the pollen-stained oblong window with its dark wooden surround framing a rectangle of leaves and branches on the tree outside and, beyond that, in the far depths it seemed, the yellow sun. Something strange was happening: it seemed that, for the duration of that conjunction, which must happen annually—and therefore, depending upon the growth and disposition of the tree’s foliage, might have happened before and may again—both time and space were held, not in suspension, but in abeyance. I could, it seemed, in those few minutes, go anywhere and do anything. It took a moment for the implications of this chance of unparalleled freedom to illumine my mind; by the time I realised what was before me, some part of that precious opportunity had already gone, not perhaps forever, but certainly for another year. Nevertheless, as soon as I grasped what was happening, I drew some air into my lungs, left the couch, crossed the room and plunged head-first into the mirror: which opened the way yellow-brown river water does when you dive off an earthy bank into its golden depths. It was our old swimming hole in the bend of the Mangateitei just below the pa and before the river bridge. It was the pool at Akatarawa that afternoon when the dog, in an excess of enthusiasm, nearly drowned my younger sister. It was the dark promise of some green river I walked beside one leafy afternoon, beneath willows, when I was free and travelling on foot between two forgotten towns. It was the bottomless lake that always scared us so much when we were very young. Further down the water went a deep, amber-flecked, tawny brown that was almost black and then I felt a fine silt beneath my fingers and, like some lost monotreme, burrowed into the mud. Rocks and stones, flints and bones, ancestral voices muttering in my clogged ears. What was this? Zircon? Or Apatite? If you go deep enough into the past you come out in the future, the same way that lake, we knew, took you all the way to China. I crawl out onto the shore. In the future the air is sharp and clear. The razor grass cuts like knives at my armoured skin. In the surrounding forest, rain falls constantly from the canopy but up above the sky is blue as forever and the sun an orange, rolling through high sweet meadows of beautiful light. Elsewhere, the seas might belong to medusae but the land is home to whatever you want to call the latest mutation of that clade of endothermic amniotes we used to be. Gleaming silver cities exist, but only in the minds of the dead, who must patrol, endlessly, the limits of imagination; we remain sentient in the synapses between what we were and what we never quite became. I am the next amphibian, crawling into the cutty grass on the shores of the mirror lake. My mind is a jellyfish. I hear my limbs articulate as if they have been engineered by arthropods. There are buds of feathers breaking through my punctuate, goose-fleshed skin. But the yellow light is fading and now, on the verge of taking wing, I realise, almost too late, where I am. It takes an enormous effort of will to go back into the water again; then I have to turn wings into fins, fins into limbs, flippers to feet. On the way back I see the cities of the red night. I see the place of dead roads. I see the western lands: each apocalypse is a dream and every dream a nightmare. And yet this interval of chaos and destruction is just a blip on the time-screen, what else could it have been? A momentary interruption in the Gaia Transmission. The meniscus of the mirror is impossible to pierce with any instrument, sharp or blunt; the only viable strategy is to try to kiss your way out. I do. I look at the clock. 6.43 and some; 4 minutes and 33 seconds have silently elapsed. Matisse is lying open on the couch right where I left him, at a colour plate of Bathers with a Turtle (1908), purchased by Joseph Pulitzer jnr. at a Nazi auction in 1939 and now in St Louis, Missouri. The turtle looks at me, I look at the turtle. We have a perfect understanding; but will have to wait a calendar year before enlarging upon what that means.

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