by Karen B. Kaplan
A professional inter-dimensional traveler, Iris Perle, is visiting a dimension she calls “Upward Spiral.” Her presence there cannot be detected. As events unfold she more and more intensely longs to be known to a sculptor named Clara and her friends, whom she has observed many times before. Iris’ yearnings lead to a surprise revelation, and Clara finds an answer to longings of a different sort.
Since I last wrote, Clara has become more and more engrossed in the mystery of what can be found within the deeper and deeper zones of the dig. She answers the newspaper announcement to participate as a volunteer, applying to the International Arctic Archaeological Committee to do so. Her background as an ice and snow sculptor has accustomed her to living in the cold and attracted the archaeologists, so she is now there among the team. She is for the time being the only volunteer there.
Clara regales them, during rest periods, with photographs of her sculptures. One of them is a portrait taken several years before her husband died. There he is, his lanky arm around her diminutive waist. He has a somewhat pained expression as if aware his denouement is on the horizon. His other arm, as if having found its long lost home, rests on the handle of a gate. She explains to the team that she hopes to find some fresh inspiration for future work by seeing the objects they have found and might find.
It was so long ago, but I too had kept a lookout for objects in the snow in our neighborhood, especially when the snow melted to expose them, such as broken-off pieces of crayons, pencil stubs robbed of stripes of their yellow paint, bits of errant homework, and other mundane debris that evidenced the child takeover of the outdoors when snow prevailed. I found scarcer treasures, too, like golf balls (which are well camouflaged in white snow and so a prized find), bus tokens with empty middles like two-dimensional bagels, and a butterfly whose stopover turned into its final resting place.
But none of these contained clues to lead me away from the privations of my private world, a jail within a jail I carefully had assembled to keep away from the even more menacing one of my childhood home. I longed for the nurturing haven of people who had their own well-stocked universes, but I did not know how to bust out of the jails to join them, nor once arriving, how to convince them to let me in.
One archaeologist starts to tell Clara about the relics already found, including those from the days before cross-dimensional travel, which was so long ago that most experts in Clara’s dimension are skeptical that any true evidence of that epoch has been found.
One item for example was of an electronically stored science-fiction story that posited ludicrous methods of moving from one dimension to another, such as tapping five times on the middle of a mirror. This is even sillier than our books and films that forecast how we would get to the Moon and asteroids and then the planets, which were partly right but in some respects way off the mark.
In another literary item found by the archaeologists, dozens and dozens of layers all the way down to Layer Pink 4G, the story describes a sister of the time machine, namely, a cross-dimensional travel machine. The protagonist simply got into the machine, got a fair-weather friend (i.e. one not too concerned about the risks) to spin the lightweight propellers, and off he went.
* * *
I think of how I, myself, got here and the divergence between that and, of all things, a machine. In my opinion, it is not so much a matter of travel as of reconnecting with what is already at hand. It is common knowledge that once the science was there to know where to look, the portals had always been present, no machine needed. They are usually at natural borders, such as between the inside and outside of a cave, or between land and sea. But most people say they are hard to find or, if found, too obstructed (psychologically?) to enter.
In my case, once I was willing to enter them, they became visible and accessible. No time would pass in our own dimension while gone, which was quite an inducement to me. Of course, the downside to this frozen time was that no one in Upward Spiral would ever sense my presence in any way, nor would I sense their presence in our own dimension. That’s the theory anyway.
When I go, I am supposedly like someone on the viewing side of a one-way mirror. But then again, as much of a downside as this ghost-like trip may be, our chief cadre of psychologists and ethicists have taught that the ability to be known in other dimensions would be emotionally and ethically hazardous.
Committees of such personages have made us realize it would be all too easy to lead multiple lives, with paramours in one or more external dimensions, and all too easy to conceal this from loved ones in our home dimension. And just think of the complications if the extra-dimensional lover were to pop in to our own dimension and expose the extra-marital affair! So our ethicists claim it is morally fortuitous to be in essence dead upon arrival in any dimension outside one’s own.
At any rate, I wanted to pick a dimension that would be intriguing and humorous. This is certainly true of Upward Spiral. As when heat hastens snow on the streets into its liquid afterlife, I do not see boring messages uncovered such as “Slow,” or “Hump ahead,” or “25 mph,” or “No parking.” Instead, I see “Hum a nursery rhyme,” and “25 smiles an hour,” and “Don’t walk: Leap up and dance!”
I think the idea behind these offbeat messages is to keep drivers and pedestrians alert. For new streets, the citizenry can submit entries for messages up to six words, and each municipality selects the winners through a combination of a lottery and a panel of comedians.
I have found these messages also at the bottom of mugs and soup bowls. Perhaps they were originally put there to encourage children to finish their contents. One time when I saw Hubert finish one such bowl in a cafeteria, the message was: “Wasn’t I Yummy?” Upon consuming a mug of mint tea, the bottom exhorted, “Venture further down.”
* * *
Getting back to the current moment, the archaeologists are now penetrating into territory whose artifacts are more remote in time and thus less and less related to current objects such as Clara’s sculptures, let alone to the passions of the day. Clara might be disappointed if time has severed so much meaning from the newly found items (if any) at the older levels that they will be as closed to her as Rose’s thoughts.
Unspeaking as Rose was, however, on opening night in the gallery, she used just about all other available channels to communicate her wish not to communicate, including dress. She was dressed in a glaringly off-putting red pant and top ensemble, like a stereotyped Chinese costume, including an insignia (family crest?) stitched on one sleeve. Her shoes were mercifully of a dull nondescript color and material. Their tips curved back as if seeking communion with the laces. Her necklace, full of sharp angles, shielded against spontaneous hugs.
Her silence was a linguistic desert, a no-fly zone formidable in its own right. It seems that like me, by marrying her, Hubert has entered a realm that allows only partial access. Like a city without people, it is safe but filled with avenues to nowhere. And so what have I been doing here after all?
The team has reached the deepest layer yet, Purple1C, a sparkling velvety purple, looking as if a warming spell could coax it into becoming champagne. The finds within are themselves intoxicating due to the allure of their being gateways to fun. The team excavates game pieces, puzzles, sparkling bouncy balls in various sizes, tokens, buttons, marbles, and even mock white snow.
Clara remarks to the group: “I had braced myself for either finding nothing or something disappointing like outmoded tools or quasi-religious paraphernalia. But what you’ve got here is enchanting!”
They are pleased the artist has gotten what she has come for, but are not as certain of what value, if any, the finds have for the academic treatise they have been collaborating on concerning the origins of the technological boom. They turn most of the baubles, as they put it, over to her. They continue digging, hoping to encounter items such as the first pre-Instacommunicative devices, which are ways to send voicemail with a holographic projection of the speaker the size of one’s palm.
* * *
Meanwhile, after the day’s efforts are done, Clara leisurely writes some letters to the brothers Hubert and Gray. Of course she could have used an Instacommunicator, but this would have violated the etiquette of preserving their use for when speed of receipt is of the essence.
Dear Hubert and Gray: We have had quite an exhilarating day here, at least for me — or most of all for me I guess. You’ll never guess what we found today: amusing stuff, like clouded glass marbles and board game pieces and tokens with slogans on them. Weird that stuff like this has lasted all this time, I had this image that what archaeologists find from long ago would have to be solemn like walls of a palace.
Even more amazing, the archaeologists have been handing over most of this booty to me, thinking it is of more interest to “arty” people than to scientists. Well if they think artists are somehow trivial compared to scientists, we’ll see about that.
Back to the goodies. The tokens are something like the signs on the sidewalks, but maybe more of a cross between those and koans. One of them says, ‘If the snow were white, you would lose your sight’. Another token says, ‘Longing is quieted by savoring the flavors.’ What do you make of that? Just the sappy pop sayings of the day, I suppose.
The puzzle pieces actually still fit together. They’re made of some super-tough material, metallic yet even more translucent than the metals of today. The images are still there. They look recessed, as if below the surface, if you see what I mean, but they’re not. But I have no idea what they are. I see numbers on them but who knows. I’ll show you when I get back and see what you think.
Biggest curiosity of all is something that looks like, of all things, white snow! The material is like putty, only squishier. I wonder if this was someone’s active imagination, or whether it really used to color snow white. Or maybe it was someone’s wish that there be such a thing, or just a joke on everybody, probably just that. Let’s talk about that too when I get back.
Regards to Rose.
Your friend, Clara.
After the letters are sent in a transmission tube, Clara occupies herself the rest of the evening with the various objects, seeing if she can figure them out or invent how to play games with them. Now that is more like it: One of the reasons I keep returning to Upward Spiral is the people’s greater penchant for having fun, like those roadway signs I mentioned. They always are looking for an opportunity to turn things into a game. The puzzle pieces are mostly one color each but with the illusion of depth as I mentioned before.
But as she puts them together, she looks displeased; apparently the end result takes aim at her pride, for it is akin to her city sculpture, but impoverished by one dimension, or at most is playing at looking three-dimensional. The numbers she had seen are very discretely tucked away in an unassuming font at the edge of each piece. They go in order from top to bottom and from left to right, making it a puzzle by the numbers presumably for the very young or for those who are only looking for the satisfying act of enabling certain and exact fits.
Judging from her grimace at the telltale pieces as they all fall into place, she is no doubt disconcerted at the universe’s scorn at the lack of originality in her own work. Well, maybe she could use being brought down a peg or too. It is funny how her conceitedness has never irritated me before.
Clara then turns to the marbles and buttons, perhaps for consolation or diversion. Then, forgiving the universe at last, and taking up the challenge to make her city sculpture unique, she does some sketches and jots down some more thoughts in her idea book. She plans to place some of the buttons directly onto the buildings as doorknobs, or use them as plates on a table.
She sketches a marble partially buried; a hill in formation perhaps? She gazes at the putty and then writes, “Place some on the edge of the city. Show someone pointing at it, and another person recoiling from it, and another one grabbing an armful to take home.”
While it is fascinating and safe to be an undetected observer in another dimension, not being able to even hint at my existence is like being just a hair not tall enough to peer into a walled garden beckoning to me with its smell of hyacinths.
Intellectually, though, I do understand the cross-dimensional warped emotions and existential confusion that could result if I could send myself over. But then again, maybe being able to interact with the people in Upward Spiral would be a benefit, not a deficit.
Who is to say it is morally fortunate that I am walled off any more than Hubert is walled off from Rose? And there is so much Clara and I could talk about; so many questions and ideas I have about her art. What would be wrong with some sharing? Or challenging her self-centered reactions?
There must be some way to have a little harmless fun between dimensions; maybe there is. Otherwise I am not sure I want to stay here anymore, especially as I feel disillusioned about Clara and cannot vent my anger at her. Maybe our committees of psychologists, ethicists, and politicos have been keeping the means to being known in other dimensions classified. How I wish that I myself could, despite its risks, experience it!
Oh why can’t I discern a way to become a part of this dimension? I am so tired of looking upon everything as if it were all at a temporal remove, and listening in like a spy, and being offered the consolation prize of smell, but not taste or touch let alone interaction. It is like wishing you could enter a story you are reading and getting to befriend the characters and share their adventures and taste the food they are served and walk through the houses they live in.
Or maybe it is like when you wish you could meet a story’s author, because you think the two of you would commune with each other perfectly. Like the reader, however, my choices are either to keep on “reading” this other dimension or “close the book” and return to my own dimension. Somehow I feel driven to continue, compulsive as it may seem.
I think of the time, when I was around eight, when Mom just wanted to yak on the phone and not bother with me. So she had me go in the back porch and she locked not one but both parts of the Dutch door that stood between it and the dining room. I banged and banged on the window from where I could see her talking there and hollered to be let back in.
Not that the weather was cold, or that there was any pressing reason to get inside just then, I simply loathed the idea that she willfully kept talking on the phone and kept ignoring me as if I were not standing out there beyond the “dimension” of the window between our dining room and the porch. Nothing, not my voice not even my outraged tears reached her as her laughter applauded the merry comments of her friend.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Karen B. Kaplan