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At the World Tree Hotel

by Claude Lalumière

5908 words
Listen to this story — read by Tina Connolly

For the past five days, as the cruise ship Venusian languorously travelled the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Venera, the weather had been perfect: bright blue skies tempered by the occasional white cloud with not a hint of rain; never dipping below fifteen degrees centigrade at night, never going above twenty-five in the daytime; a steady breeze that carried the mesmerizing aroma of the sea. Jana had worked on her tan, sipping vermilion-tinged cocktails, which gave her deliciously vivid erotic daydreams, while Dean snapped away at the aquatic horizon with the new camera she’d recently given him for his birthday.

But this morning, now that the boat is docking at the port of Venera, the rain pours down in dense sheets, rendering the legendary city-state all but invisible. The precipitation is accompanied by an unseasonal damp chill that lodges itself in Jana’s bones. She shivers, even under the double protection of sweater and raincoat. She’s not sure their luggage is rainproof enough to withstand such intense precipitation. She clutches Dean’s arm, rubs her cheek on his shoulder. The smell of him chases away some of her agitation — having imbibed vermilion nonstop for five days her sense of smell is now animalistic — but she’s still disappointed: she had looked forward to witnessing firsthand the celebrated sea view of the Venera cityscape. How often will she get to sail into what is reputed to be the most strangely beautiful metropolis on Earth? The weather is bound to clear up, though, and then maybe they can book a boat tour around the archipelago and get a good eyeful of the cityscape as seen from the sea.

At the exit of the boat, someone is waiting for them. A sturdy man with a crew cut dressed in a formal uniform that sits uncomfortably on his rough frame holds a sign with Dean’s name. Next to the man is an enclosed two-wheel cart; after vigorously shaking Dean’s hand and kissing Jana’s, the latter in a manner that manages to be both brash and polite, he introduces himself — Carlo — and tucks away their luggage safely in his impermeable conveyance.

He motions for them to follow him, and they venture into the rain-darkened metropolis. Jana can barely see more than two arms’ length anywhere around her. She holds on tightly to Dean as they zigzag into the unknown. To Jana’s surprise, Dean is sure-footed, easily keeping pace with Carlo, who, even laden with the cart, navigates the narrow claustrophobic streets with a dancer’s grace, belying her first impression of the bulky hotel employee. Then Dean surprises her even further when he starts to shout to Carlo through the percussive din of the rain, and the two men engage in a boisterous exchange punctuated with roars and laughter.

Besides her native English, Jana can barely squeak by in Spanish and French; to her Toronto ears Dean and Carlo are speaking something close to Italian, but tinged with Arabic, French, and Spanish. It must be Veneran, a language few people learn outside the archipelago itself. Jana and Dean have been together for nearly two years now — their second anniversary will occur here in Venera, and Jana suspects that the entire trip, paid for by Dean, is an elaborate setup for a marriage proposal — but she still doesn’t really know much about his past, and now that he’s displaying familiarity with mysterious, glamorous Venera she’s more curious than ever — and more drawn to him.

Without Jana having noticed that they ever passed through a doorway or any kind of threshold, the three of them are now standing at the desk of the World Tree Hotel, its green and rust-red logo — depicting Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse myth — embossed on the front panel so realistically that it is as if the tree’s roots reach into the soil underneath the hotel’s marble floor.

Jana is drenched to the bone, shivering in spite of the heat. The heavy, confining layers of raincoat and sweater suffocate her. She removes them, hungry for air. Even her shirt and bra are uncomfortably damp, but she feels a moment of relief. Suddenly it’s all too much: the incomprehensible Veneran language, the confusing organic architecture, the oppressive clamminess of the air, the pungent odors, the lobby filled only with men. Their palpable masculinity assails her senses, as if some primordial pheromone receptor had just been kickstarted — perhaps another side-effect of vermilion? Dean had warned her not to overdo it with the cocktails. She had never tasted the notorious Veneran psychotropic spice before. Without realizing she’s doing it aloud, she moans, and all those male eyes turn toward her, intensifying her sense of being trapped, surrounded, surveilled. She shivers violently, a penetrating cold icing through her veins.

Dean cries, “Jana…” He steps toward her, but as he moves he is transformed into a grotesque caricature of himself, half-tree, half-wolfman. The entire lobby and all in it are also transmogrified into something otherworldly, so otherworldly that she cannot distinguish what is alive from what is not.

She closes her eyes. Hands grab at her. At first, they feel like rough bark scraping against the skin of her arms. But she hears Dean’s voice, repeating her name gently. Then she recognizes the grip. Dean’s hands. Not soft like a woman’s, but softer than bark. Firm masculine hands. She opens her eyes, and there he is, holding her. The lobby is back as it was. But she is still cold and shivering. And weakened.

Dean supports her as Carlo leads them to their room. Jana keeps her eyes closed the whole way, surrendering herself to her man.

• • •

That night, Jana gets no rest. Feverish, she keeps getting jostled awake by the ceaseless clatter of the heavy downpour. The rain is so thick that she cannot even identify morning when, at 7:30, Dean rises from his deep, snore-filled slumber. He pulls open the drapes, but it’s still so dark outside. Will she ever get to lay eyes on Venera?

• • •

Dean emerges naked from the bathroom, his skin still glistening from the shower. She thinks of inviting him back to bed for a morning romp, and the thought of sex makes her aware of feeling queasy. She rushes out of bed, but she doesn’t quite make it to the toilet in time and she vomits all over the bathroom floor.

Dean finds her trembling on all fours. He dampens a clean towel, cleans her up, and brings her back to bed. He slips under the covers and presses her against his chest; she lets herself breathe him in. She shivers a few times, but she eventually starts to feel warm and drowsy …

… The sound of Dean’s voice brings Jana back to consciousness. He’s on the phone, talking in Veneran. She still hasn’t asked him about that.

He hangs up, and she asks, yawning, “Who was that?”

“I called the front desk. They’re sending a maid over to clean the bathroom.”

That jars her out of her torpor. “What? No! Don’t embarrass me like that. Call back. I’ll clean it.” But she’s thinking: You should clean it, Dean. And I shouldn’t have to ask.

“You’ll do no such thing, amora. I’m taking care of it. There’s nothing embarrassing. We’re paying for service, and we’re getting it. You need fresh air, though, but you also need to keep warm. Did you bring any sweaters?”

She nods; Dean rifles through her luggage, pulling out her clothes carelessly. Defeated, Janna feels weak again. She’s hungry, but the thought of food turns her stomach.

He comes to bed and dresses her. She lets him, neither cooperating nor hindering. He wraps her in extra blankets pulled from the bottom drawer of the dresser. He leads her outside; it’s still raining: a cascading wall of grey obscuring everything. But there’s no wind, and the balcony is well protected and dry. So he sits her on a chaise longue, and she closes her eyes, exhausted.

Despite the rain, the air is hot; the balcony is almost as sweltering as a sauna. Yesterday’s unseasonable cold spell has entirely dissipated. Nevertheless, there’s still a hint of chill in her bones. Jana breathes in the moistness of Venera. It smells intoxicating: flowery fragrances mixed with salty brine; sex in a woman’s bedroom.

Under the blankets, under her clothes, she places a hand between her legs. She’s wet, hungry to be touched. She slips two fingers inside herself, wishing it were Dean’s fingers. She lets herself glide on that fantasy …

… Until she hears a woman yelling, from within their room.

Jana gets up and walks inside. Dean is gripping the maid’s wrists together. While she struggles, the maid continues to yell at him in Veneran. There are fresh, red scratches across Dean’s cheek. There’s barely controlled anger in his face: he wants to hit this dark-haired woman, hurt her, whoever she is. Never in the past two years has Jana seen Dean violently angry.

The scene leaves Jana confused; already sexually alert, she can’t help but respond to Dean’s show of strength. But it scares her, too, as does her own arousal.

The pair notice Jana. The distraction is enough for the maid to escape Dean’s hold. She hisses at the couple, but the effect is more caricatural than menacing.

Dean and Jana catch each other’s eye; as if on cue, they both start to guffaw. Scowling at Dean, the maid, gesturing like a madwoman, screams something Jana can’t decipher, then flings the door open and flees.

As abruptly as the laughter began, it ends. The weight of secrecy, strangeness, alienation, and tension that has been mounting since their arrival in Venera — momentarily dampened by that unexpected burst of complicity — bears down on Jana. Now, it is Dean himself who appears secretive, strange, alien, and the source of Jana’s disquiet.

Almost as quickly, the mood shifts again; Dean’s customary male brashness dissolves under Jana’s gaze. He closes the door, then stands awkwardly, his face flickering concern, culpability, love, vulnerability. He extends a hand toward her, and she takes it. They sit on the bed. A few times in short succession, he opens his mouth as if to speak but seems unable to find the words.

Now, Jana thinks. Now is the time to clear up all the mysteries aggregating around Dean and his relationship to Venera. All he needs is a persuasive nudge … Jana brushes his ear with her mouth and whispers, “Talk to me, love.”

And he does. But Jana is immediately angered by the sounds he utters. He’s speaking Veneran.

She interrupts him, shouting, “I can’t believe you’re making fun of me like this!”

Instead of laughing or escalating the heat of the argument, Dean looks bewildered, frightened.

He speaks again but trails off after only a few words of Veneran. Again he tries; but, still spouting Veneran, he stops abruptly. He hurries to the desk. Picking up a pen, he writes on the hotel notepad, but tears off sheet after sheet. He yells a foreign word that has the unmistakeable blunt venom of an oath. He slams his fist on the desk. Turning to Jana, he repeats pleadingly, “Amora, amora, amora … ” — his favorite endearment, which she now gleans is not his own romantic coinage but the Veneran word for love — followed by a string of syllables she cannot understand, punctuated by a final, defeated “Amora … ”

Then, he grunts angrily and, shaking his fist, spits out a sentence in Veneran. With one final, tender “Amora” for Jana’s benefit, he rushes out the door.

Jana thinks of following him, but the adrenaline rush that followed her discovery of the altercation between Dean and the maid has dissipated, and now she feels weak, her skin burning. Remembering her hallucination in the lobby, she doubts everything that she has just witnessed. Sleep. Sleep will restore her and restore reason to the world. She buries herself in the bed, but her feverish slumber is anything but peaceful. She slips in and out of consciousness, haunted by nightmares and nightmarish hallucinations, by half-human monsters and distorted memories of past humiliations and betrayals, by visions of Dean and the maid conspiring against her.

• • •

When Jana wakes, despite the tumult of her time in bed, she feels like herself again. Whatever fever or ailment or virus or poison had assailed her has run its course. If she’s still weak at all, it is because of hunger. It feels good, though, to want food again. She has no idea how long she slept. There’s no sign of Dean. A quick hot shower, and she’ll go down to the hotel restaurant. And then she’ll deal with Dean’s absence on a full stomach. For now, she’s ready to dismiss everything that’s happened since their arrival here as a fever dream.

But Jana had forgotten about the state of the bathroom. It still has not been cleaned. Best to deal with it on an empty stomach, she reasons. Being careful to set aside one clean towel for herself, she gets the job done. Part of her wants to indulge in a long shower, but she’s too hungry; she makes do with a quick in and out.

The layout of the hotel is labyrinthine, echoing her first impression of the city as she and Dean were led to the hotel upon disembarking. The halls are cavernous — badly lit and undistinguishable one from another. Which floor is she on? Has she passed by her own room repeatedly? Jana’s hunger makes her disorientation more acute. Finally, she is rescued by a solicitous young porter who finds her wandering in the halls and leads her to her destination, the restaurant. The same porter once again comes to her rescue afterward, once she has spent nearly an hour trying to find her room. Both times, in fractured English, he refuses her offer of a gratuity.

• • •

The next day, the rain still shows no sign of abating. Daytime or nighttime, there’s scarcely any variation in the light; a relentless dark grey aura shrouds Venera.

Dean has yet to come back. Suspecting that the maid is her best lead to find her wayward lover Jana goes to the front desk, which, to her surprise, she finds with no difficulty.

It’s her first time in the lobby since they arrived and she suffered that disquieting hallucination. The sight of the embossed Yggdrasil on the front desk unnerves her. She can’t shake the impression that it’s somehow organic, alive. That some kind of preternatural life force pulses through it, emanating outward in concentric circles of corrupting energy, decaying the fabric that coheres reality.

Jana swallows her apprehension and strides toward the desk with what she hopes is confidence. She’s not certain, but she thinks she recognizes the clerk from when they arrived. A tall, bony man whose extreme thinness makes it difficult to estimate his age. The hue of his pitch-black hair, gelled in place tightly against his skull, probably comes from a bottle. “Excuse me — do you speak English?”

“Of course, miadama.”

Jana gives him their room number. “Two days ago, we called to have the bathroom cleaned. I’d like to speak to the maid, please.”

“One moment, miadama.” He opens a cumbersome ledger and murmurs, “Si, Natasha,” then he tsks.

Jana asks, “Is something wrong?”

“The maid in question has not reported for work since being sent to your room.”

“What’s her full name? Is there a way I can get in touch with her?”

“Miadama, that is confidential information. We have been unable to contact her ourselves. Why did you want to talk to her? Is there any information you could give us as to her whereabouts or what happened to her?”

The clerk’s tone is now accusatory. She hesitates, not knowing how to respond. The prospect of revealing that Dean has fled with no explanation, leaving her alone, is too humiliating. Under the clerk’s probing gaze, she can feel guilt spell itself on her face, although she is guilty of nothing. Another man emerges from the back offices. He is portly, disheveled, exuding stern paternalistic authority. The two Venerans confer in hushed tones — not that Jana could understand what they say, anyway. But she does catch the name “Natasha” a few times. Interrupting the men, she mumbles incoherently, “No … I mean … How could I … I don’t—” They turn to look at her, staring at her, judging her silently. Finally, she blurts, “If you hear from this Natasha, please let me know. I need to speak to her. It’s a private matter,” and turns on her heels before either man can say anything else to her.

But the geometry of the hotel once again confounds her. Instead of locating the stairs that would lead her back to her room, Jana finds herself at the threshold of the exit, the relentless rain, falling a few centimeters in front of her, splatters from the ground to her bare calves. As Jana ponders whether to go forth in the heavy downpour and explore Venera with no raincoat or umbrella — she can’t spend the entirety of her time here, in the world’s most exotic city, holed up in a room waiting for her boyfriend — a familiar voice addresses her, “Miadama?” It is Carlo, the porter who greeted them at the boat, now brandishing an umbrella. “Miadama, the weather has not been kind since your arrival.”

Although she barely knows this man at all, Jana experiences a flood of comfort at his proximity. For an instant, she feels safe; yet, she knows her face betrays her distress. She quickly recovers, but in the silence Carlo has been studying her. She softens and nestles into the male possessiveness of his gaze, finding refuge in its brash, unspoken promise of protection.

He asks, “Have you yet seen anything of Venera?”

She shakes her head.

“I think, miadama, that you need to get out, to explore. Let me guide you in this terrible weather. Let me show you what I know of Venera, for she is the most beautiful and mysterious of cities.” Carlo opens the umbrella, his left hand extended in invitation.

Jana ducks under the umbrella and grabs his arm, unashamedly kneading his strong biceps. She smiles at him, as chastely as she can manage under the circumstances. “Thank you. Let’s go!”

• • •

Although Carlo is from Venera, and not Italy, to Jana’s ear his accent has that same musicality that she associates with Italian. His English is near-perfect, peppered with the occasional local expression or mistranslated colloquialism. As they walk arm-in-arm, he speaks nonstop, acting the eager tourist guide. Amid the dense downpour, Jana cannot see anything, cannot attach his words to any concrete reality. She soon stops paying attention to the words themselves, letting his voice and his male musk lullaby her into forgetting her anxieties and the strangeness of everything that’s befallen her since arriving on the island.

• • •

Finally, Carlo and Jana take refuge in a small restaurant. “It is unusual for the island to be hit by such heavy rain, miadama,” he tells her after exchanging a few words in Veneran with the hostess.

“Please, call me Jana.”

He bows his head, “Si, Jana.”

They are led to a small booth, near a roaring fireplace. The fire is delicious. Jana closes her eyes and lets the heat caress her face.

Once she opens her eyes, she says, “Order food and wine for us, please. Surprise me. Delight me. It’s all on me, of course. You’ve been so kind.”

He starts to protest but catches himself. “It is you who is so kind.” He gets up, finding the waitress at the bar.

Jana takes in her surroundings. The mood is warm, earthy, intimate. Eschewing electric light, the entire place is lit by fire: candles, lanterns, and, of, course, the fireplace. The walls are of vermilion-red brick and the structure and furniture is some dark brown — in this light, almost black — wood. The decor is minimalist: no artwork, no photographs — although some of the wood panels have carved details; she can’t quite make out the shapes in the near dark, but the flickering light seems to reveal monstrous, nightmarish, even menacing faces. She assumes the horrific character of what she perceives in the carvings is the result of her own somewhat grotesque frame of mind, which Carlo’s charming — almost too charming — company has only superficially suppressed.

Carlo returns. She asks him about this place. “The Kibbudea is an old establishment,” he explains, pointing to the placemats, on which the name is spelled in Romanesque script under an ornate logo; although Janna cannot grasp what it depicts she is repulsed by its ferocious aura of obscenity, “predating even the Roman conquest, when the goddess Hecate sent her shapeshifting soldiers to take over the vermilion trade for the empire. Neither Hecate nor the Romans ever did find the gardens. Venera waited them out, and eventually the Romans retreated as their empire collapsed. So, too, the Northern hordes who built their temple to Yggdrasil where now stands the World Tree Hotel hoped to discover the holy secret of the sacred spice and profit from it. Over the centuries, some of the Vikings left, others died out or were assimilated.”

Jana finds none of these digressions interesting. All this superstition about gods and worship … she tries not to let her irritation show — Carlo is being so nice to her — but she sees in his reaction, now that he pauses for breath and takes a good look at her, that he has become aware of her impatience with the directions the conversation has taken.

Clearing his throat, Carlo answers her question more directly: “The priestesses of the goddess — the true goddess, Venera herself; not this counterfeit New Age Earth Goddess the current government espouses — once prepared food for the deity in these kitchens. But there has been no sign of Venera herself for generations. At least since the Nazi occupation. Maybe even before. In her absence, the Kibbudea — in Classical Veneran that means ‘food for the goddess’ — has passed into laic hands.”

Jana fidgets uncomfortably, barely acknowledging Carlo. The near dark, already somewhat disquieting, takes on a suffocating quality; the carvings now appear even more monstrous, inspiring a gnawing, creeping terror. She admonishes herself for being so easily susceptible. “Surely, you don’t believe all this. Shapeshifters? Goddesses?” She regrets her disdainful tone even before the words are out of her.

Carlo’s face betrays a flash of hurt and anger, which settles into disappointment. He forces a smile. “Venera is like nowhere else on Earth. The gods may be dead everywhere else, but here many of them still thrive, Miadama.” Carlo puts an unmistakable cold emphasis on that formal word of address, announcing to Jana that he’s shutting down the complicity that had been building between them.

The wine arrives, interrupting the palpable awkwardness growing between Carlo and Jana. To Jana’s surprise, it’s a mulled wine, served in a glass decanter mounted on a trivet, below which oil burns in a boat-shaped terracotta dish. The wine is so dark, its charred redness is almost black. It smells delicious, its aroma already sumptuously intoxicating.

Carlo inhales the bouquet of the warm alcohol and instantly — Jana can see in his face — snaps back into his persona of the subtle charmer, as if it were an inevitable reflex. Good — she wants things to thaw again between them. She needs a friend, here in this faraway island and now in these bizarre circumstances. He pours her a drink in a wooden mug into which are carved demonic — or perhaps angelic? — figures engaged in an orgy of oral sex. Venera is notorious for this kind of grotesquely erotic artwork. She clutches the warm offering to her chest and, despite her skepticism, is overcome with a sense of ritual, maybe even transcendence. Jana closes her eyes, taking in the rich odors of the wine. In a near-whisper, she tells Carlo, “You’re right … Venera is like nowhere else.” As she sips the dark liquid, she notices his gaze soften with a hint of genuine warmth.

They sip the wine in companionable silence, for which Jana is grateful. She doesn’t want to say the wrong thing again, and with every sip she feels her inhibitions slip away. In this lightheaded state, she fears it would be too easy for her to let loose some ill-considered words that might again break this comforting illusion of intimacy.

Meanwhile, the wine continues to weave its spell, making her feel giddy, despite the nagging mysterious unpleasantness with Dean, despite the grotesque surroundings. She recognizes by now that the beverage is laced with vermilion. A small part of her is concerned about once again imbibing the powerful euphoric spice that left her so ill recently, but she suppresses her worries and lets herself relax.

The antipasti are brought to the table. Carlo describes it all with the enthusiasm of a sensualist gourmand, but Jana makes no effort to understand. She lets his sensuous words flow like music as she bites into the exotic concoctions, not caring what they are or what they contain. Every bite is a tiny orgasm. Everything is delicious. And everything, she suspects, is laced with yet more vermilion.

Yet more food is served. Every bite is more meltingly succulent than the previous. She hears herself talking, but by now she pays as little attention to her own words as she does to Carlo’s. She cares not at all what they are discussing, or if even anything they say makes any sense. She abandons herself to the euphoria induced by the vermilion … until she hears Carlo say that name: “…Natasha…”

Jana forces herself to focus, although it’s very difficult. The more she tries to fight the euphoria, the more she tries to concentrate, the more nightmarish hallucinations of sight, sound, and smell gnaw at the edge of her perception. She tries to ignore the subtle terror creeping inside her and asks Carlo, “Can you say that again? What about Natasha?”

“She and your man, Dean, were teenage sweethearts. She told me that he left Venera without telling her, without ever writing, without telling her that it was over between them.”

This was not entirely a surprise to Jana. “How did she find him?”

“Fate, Jana. Masara. Or perhaps you would prefer to think of it as coincidence. She has worked at the World Tree Hotel for many years. Longer than I have. She’s a very passionate woman. Perhaps too passionate, I would say.”

“How do you know all this about her and Dean?” She’s unable to suppress the accusation in her tone.

“Natasha likes to talk. Especially when she is angry. And she was very angry when she left your room the other day.”

“Have you seen them together? Or him? Have you seen Dean?”

“No, Jana. I do not know where your man is.”

“Take me to her. Take me to Natasha. She knows. And you know where to find her.”

“No, Jana. I cannot do that. Whether or not I know where to find Natasha, it is not my business to intrude on her privacy. Or to involve myself in this drama of yours. You are a stranger here. Your man, Dean, is not. He is Veneran. Perhaps he is where he belongs, now. Perhaps you should return to your home. Forget Venera. I do not mean to be unkind, but I do not think you are well suited to this place.”

The monstrous carvings on the walls and ceiling disengage from their perches. They move in the shadows, never allowing her a clear glimpse of their shapes and sizes.

“You drugged me on purpose. You’re in on it with her!”

“No, Jana. No. There is no plot against you. I am trying to be your friend. But you do not understand life here.”

Fearing for her safety, Jana rises from her seat. She rushes outside without even glancing back. The rain is still torrential. She has no idea how to find the World Tree Hotel. She doesn’t want to go back to her room, though. Maybe there’s a Canadian embassy or consulate, where she could seek refuge. Then take the first boat out to the mainland and fly back home. Save herself.

She wanders aimlessly in the rain, shivering down to the bone. How will she ever find her way? She could be anywhere. The whole world is nothing but rain, dense and impenetrable. Rain is all she sees, all she smells, all she feels. It’s as if her own body were dissolving, merging with the downpour.

Strong arms enfold her. It is Carlo.

“Miadama. Jana. You will catch your death. Let me bring you back to the hotel.”

Jana feels weak, defeated. She leans into Carlo’s muscular frame and lets him take over, not knowing whether she is saved or doomed. Barely caring which.

As soon as she is back at the World Tree and sheltered from the weather, the paranoia once again focuses her mind. She claws at Carlo’s face, drawing blood, and escapes his grip.

She runs deeper into the World Tree Hotel, not really knowing what she is running from or where she is running to.

• • •

Jane recognizes the architecture and decor of the hotel — its aquamarine and earth-brown color scheme; its hopelessly labyrinthine corridors; its disorienting ceilings of varying heights; its cavern-like lighting — but she finds no comfort in that recognition. She has no clue for how long she has been wandering this neverending, oppressive, deserted sameness. In desperation, she finally decides to knock on a random door. There’s no answer. She tries the handle, but finds it locked. She repeats her attempt on dozens of doors, but it’s always futile: all the doors are locked, and there is never anyone who answers. Occasionally, she believes she hears the murmur of voices inside. Those times, she knocks more insistently, shouts her desperation at the anonymous patrons. Always, she is ignored.

At some point, probably before she and Carlo reached the World Tree Hotel, Jana lost her handbag. Along with her room key, her money, and her passport.

Jana needs to think her way out of this. She’s aware that the vermilion is still influencing her perceptions but unsure to what extent reality is being distorted by the drug. Still, there must be a way out of this nightmare. The pressure on her bladder makes it impossible for her to concentrate. Seeing no other option, as all the doors are locked to her, she squats against a wall and relieves herself.

The deserted hallway now reeks with the musk of her piss. But Jana has regained some clarity of mind. She must locate the lobby. And from there get a word to Canadian authorities and find her way off this island. Carlo was right. She has to forget Dean and return home. There’s nothing for her here.

In time, desperation once again clouds her mind. No matter how far she walks, Jana cannot escape the stench of urine — and worse. She peers at the floor in the near dark. With increasing frequency, she finds suspicious wet spots, piles of feces, rotting carcasses of small mammals and lizards. Gradually, the halls no longer look merely cavernous; gradually, the signs of civilization are stripped from her surroundings. No matter which direction she takes, Jana steps farther into a maze of narrowing caverns. Iridescent vermilion veins crisscross the surface of the rock walls, providing faint illumination. She had believed vermilion to originate from a plant, but here it appears to be a mineral.

Aware that she is straying deeper and deeper into the bowels of Venera and farther away from any possible exit, Jana tries to climb back up to the surface, but the labyrinth defeats her. Regardless of the direction she attempts to take, Jana continues her unwilling descent.

She has moved beyond the zone of decay and animal waste. The air is getting damper, almost palpable. It is not dank, however, but numinously clean — like breathing psychotropically potent mineral water: at once reinvigorating and heady, refreshing and dizzying, bringing about both clarity and confusion.

Her surroundings are now in perpetual transformation, taking on configurations she can neither recognize nor fully comprehend. Sometimes, her situation no longer seems claustrophobic. Vast alien subterranean vistas open up before her, exotic formations — which she cannot distinguish as fauna, flora, mineral, or artificial — spread outward for unfathomable distances. And then, with a step, her world shrinks again to a confining tunnel. The only constant is the faint burnt-orange glow of the strains of vermilion illuminating every surface.

Jana now stands at a threshold. At her feet are gigantic roots emanating from the chamber before her. The roots break through the stony ground, burrowing deeper still into the earth.

There’s the flickering light of a fire coming from inside. Its warmth beckons her. Its aroma is intoxicatingly familiar: vermilion.

She steps inside. At first, her senses are drawn to the flames of the vermilion fire. On the ground rests a large terracotta pot onto which is carved the weird, obscene logo of the Kibbudea; the reddish flames that sprout from the vessel make the air inside the chamber shimmer, as if the reality revealed by the firelight was not any more substantial than a projected image.

And here, having abandoned any desire to locate him, she finds Dean. His naked body is chained to the trunk of a giant tree. Blood leaks from multiple small wounds in his flesh, running down the bark into the soil. The roots near where the blood pools pulse like veins.

Kneeling before the tree is a naked woman with long, dark hair. She turns her neck to greet Jana with a solemn nod. Jana recognizes the maid, Natasha, Dean’s former lover.

In Natasha’s hand is a dagger made of wood. She plunges the dagger into the ceremonial fire. The flames roll over the dagger and the bare skin of her hand, but it does not burn. She pulls out the dagger, which is now incandescent with vermilion, as is her hand. She reaches toward Dean and with the dagger cuts two small slivers of flesh from his calf.

Dean moans slightly, as if he were dreaming.

Natasha stares at Jana, but the meaning of the Veneran’s stoic gaze is impenetrable.

Although her head is spinning from inhaling the vermilion fumes, Jana makes a decision. It feels as if she has no other option: she disrobes and joins the other woman.

Natasha hands a slice of Dean’s flesh to Jana, keeping the other for herself. At the same time, they consume the meat of their common lover.

Natasha presents the wooden dagger to Jana. Splinters dig into the palm of her hand as she grips it firmly. With the intrusion of the slivers of wood into her flesh comes communion with Yggdrasil, from whose bark, it is thus revealed to her, the dagger was formed.

The flesh Jana carves with this dagger is hers to ingest; but not the blood that flows from the wounds. The blood seeps into the soil, sustaining the World Tree.

Claude Lalumière is the author of the collections Objects of Worship (CZP 2009) and Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes (Infinity Plus 2013) and of the mosaic novella The Door to Lost Pages (CZP 2011). He’s the co-creator of the multimedia cryptomythology project Lost Myths, and he has edited more than a dozen anthologies, the most recent of which is Super Stories of Heroes & Villains (Tachyon  Publications 2013); forthcoming anthologies include The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir (Exile Editions, forthcoming in 2015) and Superhero Universe: Tesseracts Nineteen (Edge 2016).

Issue 26

December 2014

3LBE 26

Front & Back cover art by Rew X