True healing occurs in situ. Specific properties emerge in specific places. A certain rock may lead to another, that kind of thing. It’s aleatoric.
The guide tells me this as she places a lozenge on my tongue. It’s all in the pamphlets, but it’s nice to hear it spoken aloud. The guide’s voice is consciously calm, a lot like those recordings of the ocean that people fall asleep to. What she says is not especially important. It’s how she says it. As if that is the treatment, or at least an integral part of it.
Everything is integral, she reminds us. Because the disease originates in the oldest parts of our bodies and minds, that’s where we must go, back to the rain forest. Back to the source. In my case, this means my father’s sculpture garden, my mother’s favorite candy. A box tortoise with rhinestones glued to its shell. Paperbacks with their covers torn off. Paperbacks full of sand.
I can tell the lozenge is working because my tongue is a dead eel in my mouth. As the guide wafts along to the next patient I pick out the components of her perfume—jasmine, witch hazel, persimmon, gasoline, singed hair. I can smell what she had for breakfast—an avocado from the benefactor’s groves, not quite ripe. Some of her odors are too subtle for words. Some, too old. Her mother used to clean her hair with some kind of oil, I want to say olives. Olives grown by laborers who chewed tobacco. Tobacco grown in the country those men thought they escaped from. Deserts that used to be marshes. Marshes that used to be ocean. Ocean that used to be nothing.
I’m standing on a river wash, empty except for the imprints of horseshoes. The sky here is big, almost overwhelming. The lozenge is gone, replaced by something obtuse but soft. And bitter, alkaline. It’s a key, a familiar one, wrapped in a map of the grounds. I am home.
The key opens the storm cellar under the main house, but the house is not on the map. The only structures I recognize are the aqueducts that feed the central lagoon. Gigantic, many-legged things, they resemble insects loping over this landscape’s many gorges. There’s a half-finished quality to everything, as if the lozenge hasn’t fully kicked in, or maybe this is just the half-life of memory, the way even rust will pastel if you give it enough time, enough sun.
It’s high noon now. Hart should be napping in the stables, waiting for a monsoon to break the heat, but he’s digging a trench by the aviary. The few flamingos left look more like vultures, rumpled but keen to their environment. Keen by necessity. Hart gives me a scarf to cover my mouth, so I don’t hack on all this here yellowcake, he tells me. The coyotes know how to pick locks now, he adds. As if this could explain the work he does.
The sculpture garden is next. The map tells me it’s now where the guest bungalows used to be, where I first tasted smoke. My mother’s third cousins had been visiting from the city and the kids had snuck a couple blossoms to grind up and share after the grownups went to bed. Even then, I was something of a skeptic, but we all got far more burned than I’d expected. I listened to the same cassette, over and over, back and forth, convinced it contained a secret game of Hangman. I got as far as _K_N ME _L_VE before someone had the idea to play flashlight tag in the sculpture garden. That’s where I saw it, the ghost that gave me its disease, the disease that brought me to the institute, the institute that gave me the treatment that brought me back here.
The sculpture garden is as empty as anything else on the grounds and full of its emptiness. Where my father’s pieces should’ve been are their placards, dangling on wires that hang from the eucalyptus boughs far above. Isthmus #3. Montezuma and Quetzalcoatl, alighting. Untitled Onyx. I wish they’d return and so they do, fading into view like a message written in steam on a bathroom mirror.
I wish the ghost wouldn’t return, and it doesn’t, but another appears in its place. It’s Jasper, my father’s dealer, crocodile boots clicking as he zigzags between the sculptures, chewing nervously on an empty cigarette holder. His thin, brindled hair is slicked into a helmet, perfect except for a wet comma hanging from his widow’s peak.
The young master come to claim his inheritance, Jasper says, neither a question nor a statement. I would’ve drawn up the papers myself, but you know how the old man is. Is, I ask, but Jasper has already moved on to the next sculpture. Honest Prodigy Umbra, a structure both pronged and collapsed, made of salvaged metal and rocks like giant candy corn, all of it laced with lichen. Jasper gives it a plink with that long thumbnail of his. This one’s about you, he says. They all are. I tell him he’s full of shit and this he can’t deny. The papers are waiting in the solarium. Under Mommy’s candy tin. He says this like a baseball announcer who’s sad the season is over. Then the lozenge sends him back to salt.
The afternoon is wearing down the landscape. Grass hisses as it turns tan. The lagoon shrinks as iguanas crowd the waters, wishing they could be salamanders again. Was that what I wanted all along, to go back? The pamphlets had something to say about this, but they’ve been shushed by the wind. It combs through the grounds, drawing grit into the air in a long procession dressed in black.
I follow it to the stables where Hart and his crew are shrugging over my mother’s favorite horse, Evie, who’s been bit and has to be put down. She’s on her side, stomach bulging like a rotten barrel. She’s clearly suffering, but resigned to it, and she stares off at the rifle we don’t yet know will be the one. Her eye is a giant marble come to rest at the bottom of a well, only the thinnest crescent of light within all that black. Thunder gathers in the south and the bell for tea rings.
I don’t hear the shot until I make it to the main house, though by then I can’t be sure, not with all the thunder. I take off my boots in the cubby—an old habit—and scuff along the stone tiles of the front hall. The sound doesn’t echo the way I want, not with the upstairs balconies bearing the weight of a tapestry of dead creepers. Or is it the other way around, the vines keeping the upstairs up, I can’t say. What was there to say anymore? That nothing is as we remember it? My great greats, trapped forever in their portraits, mock these questions with their wooden smiles.
The papers are right where Jasper said they’d be, but they’re empty and so is the tin, all except the horehound drops. It wasn’t that she hated them, but she hated to see them go. They are the same color as the sky outside, like a bruise that’s halfway healed, purple and yellow both. The monsoon is here, announcing its arrival in drops so fat they crack like eggs when they hit the roof.
Sounds like it’s going to be a big one, they say. My father and my mother, speaking in unison. They’re sitting in their wicker country chairs, but instead of watching the monsoon turn the solarium into expressionism—their old habit—they each hold a thin, obsidian plate. The stones are so sleek, so polished, that they work like mirrors, capturing and reflecting their attention. They’ve been like this for a while, I can tell by the towers of teacups on the endtable that loom and bend like willows.
I tell them the papers are empty, that the lagoon has gone brackish, that the sky is falling, but they don’t seem to notice. They are fixated on the stones, or rather, their reflection in them. There, they are still pale, still uncreased, still. Here, their faces are anything but, cracked and reptilian, swimming with the many storms they have seen. This particular one is taking its time to pass, so much so the caulking between the tiles appears to be bleeding as the ground swells beneath us, greeting us again as strangers. As it always eventually does.
I try the door, but it isn’t locked so much as it isn’t. The solarium is a glass cube—the lozenge, I realize, slowly eroding between my teeth. The monsoon and all the windows are muffling the guide’s voice while also amplifying it. She tells us we will discover that the source is not a mountain lake, but the root that drinks from it, but what is a root without its tree?
My mother had insisted we plant eucalyptus all over the grounds. To remind her of home, she said, but even there they had been invasive, unable to stay upright in such perfect sky, no clouds to cling to. Now she is floating in the acid we painted into that sky. Her hair, normally straight and white as a doll’s, is swirling around her like cream in coffee, spinning her into a cocoon.
This is the medicine’s way of signaling change, the guide says, guiding, I suppose, but I don’t want her blank mantras anymore. I never did. You never did like being told what to do, my father doesn’t say because he is up against the ceiling, his head tapping it gently, again and again as he bobs in his chair until it tips, sending him the drifting to the ground where he settles like buried treasure. I go to collect it, but all I grasp is sand and the hermits that have made their home there, mocking my attempts at the same.
I look up and there is the ghost. Skin pickled by the city air, dusted white like its confectionaries. Eyes like windows from so much wandering. He is tired, but keeps the statue of himself upright by wearing a suit, whichever style is in fashion. He has many such things to keep him steady—a paperweight, a skyline, a neckpillow and a pillbox, a calendar full of dates, dates full of goat cheese, and now a lozenge—but nothing like the unforgotten perfume of his first guide—mulch, bubblegum, bleach, mothballs, mesquite. Mannequin #2, the plaque says. His disease is that he thinks he’s anything but diseased.
The first time we met I mistook him for an older cousin, so I shouted, Tag!, but this barely registered. Nothing did. He wasn’t impressed by the sculptures, the grounds—anything, and this impressed me, the careful, restless boy I was. His look was studied but natural—filmic, I later wrote in my journal. Now, this same posture comes across as tryhard, unearned and melancholic for it. I imagine his apartment empty except for imposing, floor-to-ceiling paintings of polygons. He has a pithy fact about each ready for when he entertains, phrases so ingrained he repeats himself. This one was inspired by monorail lines and pneumatic tubes, those anonymous networks of our city. It’s only when someone reminds him, points out the mistake that he is yanked back into the moment.
Tag, I say, reminding him. Again, this barely registers, but never has an expression been so bare. He is telling me he is not a ghost but a boy, or rather, a boy made from his cigar box treasures—arrowheads, clusters of quartz, an owl’s skull, the map to his imaginary kingdom where naked ladies bathe in fountains that spout root beer, and when he’s older, the real thing, if he can afford it. He is trapped there just as he is trapped here. Tag, I say, yanking him by the cuff of his shirt, desperate for him to join the game. You’re it, he says, playing along more than playing, and then he goes quiet again, rigid too. He is expressionless, featureless except for his silhouette and his suit, perfectly tailored. I let go of his cuff and he wobbles on his stand before toppling and settling in the sand. I can’t help him and he can’t help me. I am drowning.
My vision ducks out and all I know is sound. I can hear the other patients stretching in their cots. The guide tells us the key to full recovery is always with us. I pat down my pants pocket, find the key to the storm cellar, and start scratching at the nearest window, a little scribble that chips away into the false twilight of the treatment room where I’m on my hands and knees, the guide’s hand on my back, consoling me as I vomit onto the sacred geometries painted on the floor.
Attendants wearing white sneakers and crisp khakis enter the room carrying robes for us to wear. When everyone is dressed they lead us to the cafeteria where chefs prepare omelettes and press juice using more fruit from the benefactors groves, every variety imaginable it would seem, a rainbow turned brown. I sip mine seated at the communal table, staring out the window, pretending to admire the irradiated greens of the landscape outside the complex. Everyone’s experience had been different, unique to his or her personal body map. Some are giddy, others somber, reverent, but all can agree that it was just as the benefactor described at the welcome banquet. Our pathways have changed, changed for the better, and we have no desire to return. We are well on our way to wellness.
An attendant taps me on the shoulder and says I’m being paged. I follow her—or maybe him, it’s not exactly clear—out the north exit and through the hanging gardens and past the telecomm annex, up to the benefactor’s chateau, I realize. Though all I’m wearing is the robe I’ve been given, the guards at the gate make me go through the full security protocol. NO DEVICES, a signs says. The attendant hands me off to a bodyguard who ushers me to a parlor whose walls are decorated not with stuffed animal heads, but extinct plants preserved in lacquer. The benefactor appears to be floating, but she’s really relaxing in a clear plastic chaise, one I once considered renting for my condominium. Her demeanor is vaguely opiated, serene but not without constipation. She tells me my projector has already been disposed of, as per the contract, and that the lozenge is not a replacement but a stepping stone. A one-off. I tell her I am aware of this. What in the world, she says with lips barely parted, will you do now?
I will return to the city, to my building, to my life. I will try to get enough exercise and sleep. I will be smarter about toxins and start volunteering at the museum. I will plan for the future. I will reduce my waste and count my blessings. My excellent bloodwork. My faculty for computation that affords me my steady job. My adventurous and supportive partner. Our fondness for mid-century furniture. The occasional pilsner. A good mango. Wood grains. Things you can run your hand over, heft, feel. Things with mass. Things.
I will not dream of dust and smoke. I will not paint horses. I will not reinvent. I will not extenuate. I will not wander. I will not wonder. I will do all of this and maybe, just maybe, I’ll forget the uncountable pinks of a dying sun and the ache that attends them. The ache of knowing that if I reach for them and manage to avoid knocking over a floor lamp or the wine decanter or the Christmas card of my parents, the one on the fridge where they’re posing with their new chocolate lab puppy, smiling, their teeth bleached white as picket fences—even if I manage to avoid all of this, I still won’t be able to touch them. I’ll pass right through, a ghost in my own home.
Born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Adam Sorensen received a BFA from Alfred University in New York and a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in painting from the Studio Art International, Florence, Italy. Sorensen lives and works in Portland, Oregon. He has shown his work extensively at museums and galleries throughout the Northwest where his influence and dedication have been acutely felt. His work resides in prominent private and corporate collections up and down the west coast.