The Pulse: Alberta
Beatrice might have seen the danger posed by Antonio if she hadn’t spend so much time thinking about fairy tales, the meanings of which clung like gossamer to the soft tendrils of her teenage thoughts. Antonio took several of these strands that dangled innocently along the side of her neck and twirled them in his fingers and around her ear. He poked gently about her rib cage and dared her to follow him into the confessional booth. When she objected that he wasn’t a priest, he asked her what she thought was so sinful that she would never think of telling, even to a passing stranger. Once inside the booth he clutched at her full breasts and slid his tongue in and out of her ear till she squeaked and rushed out into the pews, sure that he was one of those Europeans with strange customs and exciting manners.
The reason Beatrice believed in charming princes and deus ex machina fairies was that she'd spent every summer of her childhood at the cottage of her grandmother, Güsfreude Oneirica, who lived deep in the woods of Eden Valley. Antonio knew all about her Granny, and could barely stop himself from giggling every time Beatrice mentioned her name. He was particularly careful not to smile too widely, lest she would see what big teeth he had.
According to family tradition, the Oneiricas have lived in the foothills of Alberta for about three thousand years, peacefully cultivating the delicate filaments of the gandleflower. The gandleflower is a rare plant that only grows on the alpine slopes south of Eden Valley, and the Oneirica family cherish this flower beyond all earthly things. If you offered them a vineyard and a five million dollar villa in Tuscany, they would laugh in your face and call you an ignorant peasant.
The family has a body of literature written in honour of the gandleflower. In the first of these, Theoginus I Divini, Johannas Oneirica describes how the plant was first brought to the New World by Brutus di Oneiricus three thousand years ago. Brutus also brought a papyrus outlining the gardening secrets of the sun god Râ — part of a family collection of papyrus scrolls containing all 127 plays of Sophocles, a side-by-side Greek translation of a Minoan epic, and instruction manuals for the intergalactic time portals of the ancient Egyptians. Before leaving the Mediterranean, Brutus left the scroll collection in water-resistant sheathes, safely stowed in a library on the coast not far from Heliopolis.
In an appendix to I Divini we find that the sap of the gandleflower possesses magical properties. When picked fresh and swallowed in one gulp, the plant will turn whores into virgins and virgins into whores. Invocations from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria are in vain, as are recitations from Saint Francis’ hymns to the sun and moon. The gynoiceum of the gandleflower is so vibrant that Vikings once scoured the rocky edges of the continent just to whiff the breezes that lingered in the air four thousand kilometres away.
The flower also produces musical sounds in the atmosphere. These tunes float in heavy banks, like incense clouds that swirl around the chanting monks of Tibet. The compression of the winds as they crest over the ranges produces low rolling vocables that sound exactly like the voice of Leonard Cohen:
Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
The musical structures hidden in the DNA of the gandleflower pollen correspond to the algorithmic patterns found in the Music of the Spheres.
The Holy Grimmble
After eating two or three pollen cookies, Güsfreude would read to her grand-daughter from her own compilation of stories and songs, The Holy Grimmble. The collection had 24 chapters, each of which corresponded to an hour of the day or night. This meant that if you tried to read Chapter Ten at nine o'clock in the evening, your eyes would be drawn backwards through Chapter Nine. The words sounded different then, as if the Muses were singing drinking songs to Ereshkigal, the Sumerian goddesss of the Underworld. If the chapters were read at the right time, the words sounded like The Song of Songs, and the reader had an uncontrollable urge to get drunk and roll grapes up and down the abdomen of Jewish girls.
Beatrice asked her Granny if she had heard of the The Holy Bible. Güsfreude laughed and said that of course she had heard of it. Yet she refused to believe in it since everybody seemed to think it was the Eternal Truth. “Everything changes. All the time. Take my word for that, darling.” Under her breath she sung an old verse from Leonard Cohen:
You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Güsfreude’s song made Beatrice even more concerned that her Granny might miss out on Salvation.
“But, Granny, what about Heaven?”
“Ah, Heaven, my dear, it’s right here in Eden Valley. But I know, my dear, you’re talking about the one up in the sky. It could be anywhere, as far as we know. It could be anything.”
“It could be a royal Mansion — and maybe you have to wear a coat of arms to get in. Or it could be a speck of interstellar dust, dense with a million worlds, drifting weightless as an ether diamond that fell off the diadem of Ariadne. Do you see that constellation up there in the sky?” Beatrice pointed to a flying saucer of stars emerging from a cumulous bank. “Ariadne is the Mistress of the Labyrinth. She is the first of the great Mother-goddesses of Crete. But these days she seems to have lost her crown. But it doesn’t really matter. Heaven will let in simple folk, and Ariadne will guide us through the labyrinth. Heaven must be up there somewhere, if only we could see it.”
Güsfreude realized that her grand-daughter wasn’t following what she was saying. So she tried to calm Beatrice’s fears: "Don't worry about all this salvation business — and believe me, dear, it's a business! They're just ideas that got written down in a book thousands of years ago. Since books were so rare back then people believed that the one book they possessed must be the only book that mattered. If Shakespeare wrote King Lear in 2,000 B.C., we’d still be afraid of Edmund, Prince of Darkness, and we’d still pray to Cordelia, Queen of Grace.”
"We can't help being moved by books — by their characters and the ideas they bring to life. But that doesn't mean we have to make them into something they never were. For them to have power, we don't have to use capitalized nouns, or believe in miracles. Their power is here, in our hearts and minds." When Güsfreude said hearts and minds she pointed to her throat, for she’d been reading T.S. Eliot and couldn’t decide if she felt what she thought or thought what she felt. In any case, she hoped his notion of unified sensibility might be a cure for the Gnostic Plague, recalling to her grand-daughter that “Ariadne was a noble figure, yet she still married the god of wine.”
"You can believe in humility, sacrifice, and love with a capital L if you want, dear. And you can believe in people who are willing to die for these things. But that doesn't mean you're required to turn these people into saints or raise them up on a cross, high on an altar, somewhere out of reach. Personally, I’d rather listen to the chants of the whirling dervishes, or to the road songs of the Jews as they travel from one end of the world to the next, or to the blues of the displaced Africans, in a gospel choir or on a beaten-up guitar outside a factory in Detroit."
Eden Valley, 1997
To prove her point about the inferiority of words to music, Güsfreude asked Beatrice to read aloud the parables of Jorge Luis Borges and the sermons of Jacques Derrida. She told Beatrice, “the new testaments of Saint Jack and Saint George show that words are like an abyss, and that — despite what a dictionary might say — they are not the final word on that slippery thing called truth."
This idea pleased Güsfreude, yet her expression darkened when she remembered what she had been reading in the literary journals over the last several years. Leaning closer to Beatrice, to make sure that it was in fact Beatrice she was talking to and not some rough beast with big hairy ears that she had seen lately in her dreams slouching toward Bethlehem, she said that there was a group of "so-called thinkers at the universities—" Here the venerable Granny almost choked with anger when she thought of all the years women struggled under impossible yokes, only to be lectured to by a pack of suit-wearing trollops. "I'm sorry dear, let me just take a sip of tea. Yes, as I was saying, this group seems to think that they, and only they, have a grasp on the meaning of words — and yet at the same time they deny that words have any meaning whatsoever. They pretend to work the equation both ways: while other people’s words inevitably crumble into meaninglessness under the weight of a diffuse reality, they claim to take that slippery thing called reality and render it back into jargony words that they claim make sense.”
On Beatrice's sixteenth birthday, when Güsfreude felt that Beatrice was finally old enough to understand the ways of the world, she read to her the Grimmble's last and perhaps most frightening chapter: Chapter 24 – The Revelation. The story started encouragingly enough: "Once upon a time there was a girl called Scarlett, who was of preternatural beauty. Indeed, she was so beautiful that the local Society of Consumptive Poets held a séance in order to resurrect the famous Italian poet, Alighieri Dante, so that he could supply them with an accurate description of her beauty. Living on the farm was like living in Paradise: the wild roses fluttered in the winds or were blown into a thousand twirling butterflies by the sudden gusts that danced up and down the criss-crossing highways, which themselves swept toward infinity in all four directions.”
“After having dinner with her loving parents, Scarlett would do the dishes and then retire to her bedroom to read her poetry book about King Arthur and the Lady of Shallott.”
Güsfreude showed Beatrice the print of Waterhouse’s stunning painting:
Yet when Güsfreude looked closer, she had the impression that the rushes inside the print were starting to move. Güsfreude appeared a little puzzled, yet read on: “Scarlett looked at The Lady of Shallott, her favourite print in the entire book. The lady's hair started to blow backwards in the breeze that was drifting across the fabled brook that meandered through Camelot.”
“Scarlett bit her soft red lips, and saw a dark red drop of blood splatter onto her white gown. Not far down the river she saw a ship sailing toward her, with a dragon's head on its prow. The dragon had two long horns, and on one of these, as on a spike, was the head of Sir Lancelot, the lover that Scarlett had been waiting for all those lonely —"
Güsfreude stopped reading, as if she couldn't quite see or understand what came next. Her eyes went blank. Her head jerked upward, as if she saw something big and dark outside the window. Her hands flew into the air in a gesture that either meant Hallelujah! or Save Us from the Evil One! Her hands jumped up so violently that The Holy Grimmble flew out of her lap and into the fire. Petrified, Güsfreude fell back into her chair, and died.
When Beatrice saw her granny look up, she sprung to the window. Thrusting it open, she leaned out into the night air. Amid the darkness she saw the outline of a massive cloud. Deep inside it she saw two pinpricks of red light, which seemed to emanate from the centre of black pulsing holes. The lights reminded Beatrice of two giant eye-teeth ripping a hole in the skin of Heaven.
Beatrice heard the sound of her hope retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world. She also heard the following words, rolling down from on high:
Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah