Excerpt

“Fractal”

Joyce Carol Oates

February 9, 2018 
The following is from Joyce Carol Oates's collection, Beautiful Days, out this week from Ecco. Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the NBCC Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

1.

At eleven, the child was into fractals. Naturally then, the mother agreed to drive him to the Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine—“The Singular Museum of Its Kind.”

One blustery November morning when the mother might have been doing other things, more homey/domestic things (for it was a Saturday), virtually anything shed have preferred to driving two hours twenty minutes from New Haven, Connecticut, to the Fractal Museum north of Portland, Maine, the (fatally unwitting) mother found herself, in fact, driving the (doomed) child for two hours twenty minutes north on I-95 from New Haven, Connecticut, to the Fractal Museum outside Portland, Maine, which the child had discovered online and had begged the mother to let him visit.

Well, begged was an extreme word. This delicate child who wanted so little that adults could provide him, usually so absorbed in his architectural drawings, or a science book, or an electronic gadget, and so often (you would not want to acknowledge aloud) withdrawn, wasnt it a good sign, a healthy sign, an encouraging sign, Oliver had actually made a rare request of the mother: would she drive him to the Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine? Sometime? Please.

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She’d been flattered, he hadn’t asked the father. (Of course, the father would have been too busy.)

Shed been flattered but she hadnt wanted to say yes. Oh, why her!

Yet, being a (good) mother of course shed said yes.

For weeks then, after the date had been marked on the calendar, plans began to be made including where even to stop for restrooms along I-95 (for the child was prone to anxieties about toilets, sanitary conditions, access to bottled water, etc.), and these plans the mother and the child shared, and the father looked on, listened, at a little distance, bemused and just slightly envious, or seeming-so.

And so, this fierce cobalt-blue November sky. Cumulous clouds with puckered cheeks blowing in such gusts, the Toyota SUV at sixty-eight miles per hour quaked and came near to drifting out of its lane.

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I wish you would talk to me, honey. To keep me company. Always absorbed in that damned iPad of yours.

Of course the mother wasnt jealous of a damned iPad. Not reallyNot much.

Yet to the child, damned was a swear word. Not an extreme swear word like some (which hed heard in the mean mouths of older and coarser classmates but had not dared enunciate to himself) but yes, damned struck the childs sensitive ear like fingernails drawn against a blackboard; for if a parent or indeed any elder complained of damned iPad it was anger that was the motive, and an elders anger was/is wounding to a sensitive child.

Neither the mother nor the father of the child would ever have struck him. Not a slap, not a nudge or a shove—never! Not a pinch! If in a blind fury at the childs taciturnity/stubbornness the father had ever struck Oliver he, the father, wouldve gnawed off the offending hand. He swore!

They were not that sort of parents. Not that sort of people. Not ever.

But words too can lash. Words too can sting.

Often too, to draw the preoccupied childs attention to her and away from the iPad in his lap, the mother would do something playful: thrust out her lower lip and blow air briskly upward stirring the fluffy-faded-red-bangs on her forehead, a clownish gesture copied from a grade-school classmate decades ago. The gesture was to make the child who did not readily giggle, giggle.

For the child was insufficiently childish and this creates a vacuum in a parent-child relationship which a guilty adult may feel the obligation to fill.

However, the child took no notice of this goofy-silly antic which another child (the mother doesnt want to think) wouldve found hilarious; instead feeling the rebuke, worse than if the child had sneered at her.

Are you even listening, Olly? Im beginning to wonder—why am I here? Why me?

Olly and not Oliver meant that the mother was not scolding, not really. Chiding, teasing. Though there was an edge to the mother’s voice—Why me?

Which could mean why the mother and not the father; or why either parent, driving north on I-95 in such a ferocity of wind. And perhaps too there was another why, beyond the reach of the mothers mental grasp.

That why you must not ask. Nor why you must not ask why.

 

The mother didnt know whether to laugh at the childs certainty, or be impressed. Or annoyed.”

 

In the passengers seat beside the mother, safely beltedin, the child had been immersed in an interactive topology game on his iPad for the last thirty miles, yet, uncannily, for the eleven-year-old who was into fractals and had at the age of nine declared his intention of being an architect was at the same time enough aware of his mothers ranting to call her bluff, and to answer her seriously.

Why me?because there is no one else.

Very solemnly the child spoke as if issuing a decree. In his voice which the mother worried was too thin, too soprano for one soon to enter the maelstrom of middle school.

What do you mean, no one else? I dont understand.

From the beginning of the universe. Determined to be you. It could not be anyone else in the drivers seat, because it is you.

In his solemn methodical way Oliver spoke to the mother as one might speak to a classmate who is having difficulty with a homework assignment. Sweetly patient, not condescending.

“That doesnt make sense, Olly. Of course it could be someone else, and I could be somewhere else. Why on earth not?

It isnt like that, Mom. Because if the person driving this vehicle is you that is all the proof you need that there is no one else it could have been, and there is nowhere else you could be except here. And the same is true for me.

You mean—here with me. Beside me.

Yes.”

Well. The mother had to concede, that was probably correct. She would certainly not be driving on I-95 on this blustery Saturday morning if not for the child beside her.

And I suppose it would have to be 9:27 a.m.? It couldnt be some other time, earlier or later?

Not if its here. Has to bewith a glance at the countryside through which they were moving, of the hue of bleached chlorophyll, stubs of undergrowth and featureless trees like a papier-mâché stage sethere.”

The mother didnt know whether to laugh at the childs certainty, or be impressed. Or annoyed. She wondered if Oliver dared confound his math teacher with such paradoxes, or whether it was his math teacher who provided the eleven-year-old with such paradoxes. (For the child, officially in sixth grade at New Haven Day, was allowed to take an advanced math course taught in the high school.)

It was of my own free will that I agreed to drive us to Portland, Olly. You forget. I might have said notoo busy. And it was an accident more or less that we left when we did, at that precise moment, so that its 9:27 a.m. now, when were passing the exit for—what is it‘Biddeford.’ 

Oliver was not persuaded. Mom, no. There are no accidents.’ 

Youre being ridiculous—an elevenyearold who doesnt believin free will! Do you really feel as if youre enclosed in a sort of cobweb, or youre a puppet on strings, being manipulatedDetermined?

What we feel doesnt matter, Mom. A feeling is justnothing.

Of course, this was so. The mother knew that this was so. Yet, in her role as mother, she could not let things lie there bleak and forlorn as a pile of twigs.

Well, thenthink. Not feel but thinkreason. We can reason that we have free will. It just seems so—obviou. . . Her voice trailed off, as if that were an argument.

But the canny eleven-year-old persisted: nothing could be accidental, for all things are determined. If you could wind time backward, tracing things to their causes, you would see“Theres no chance of something just swerving off on its own.

The grim prospect seemed to please Oliver unless—possibly—he was joking? For sometimes Oliver seemed bemused by his mother’s obtuseness.

Oh, she hoped so! Shed have welcomed the childs joking, joshing.

What is a family without good-natured joking, teasing, joshing?

“Dyou know what?—youre too smart for your own good. Therare plenty of accidents in life—youll see.

You yourself are an accident. Were.

What d’you think of that, smartie?

(But no. They’d decided no, they would have the baby. That is, they would not not have the baby.)

(Unexpected/unwanted pregnancy a nightmare before they were married at the very worst time in the fathers life preparing for law exams and not a great time in the mothers life while her own mother was undergoing chemotherapy but decided not to delete/abort. Deciding yes all right. Yes. We will. We can. Scarcely guessing how the [unexpected/unwanted] pregnancy would turn out: the extraordinary child whom both the mother and the father loved deeply and without whom they could not imagine their lives.)

Of course, the child would never know. No one except the mother and the father could know this secret and when they cease to exist, the secret will die with them.

He was a beautiful if fragile child with a chronic asthmatic condition susceptible to pollen, dust, danger, heat, aridity and wind, excitement and agitation. His skin was slightly feverish to the touch; the mother wondered if this was the result of his medication, steroids, which quickened his pulse. She wondered if other children, and most adults, seemed dull to him, slow-paced in their thoughts, predictable and lacking in complexity.

In her handbag she carried the child’s “rescue inhaler”—as it was called. The child had not required this inhaler in years and could not bear to see it in the mother’s handbag.

His vision was myopic, often his eyes squinted behind round, wire-rimmed eyeglasses that gave him a scholarly look. His chin seemed to melt away as if lacking sufficient bone. His hair was a fine, fair gingery color, lighter than the mothers, and his skin was splotched with freckles as with droplets of water tinged with cinnamon, or turmeric—a beautiful smooth skin the mother felt a need to touch, perhaps too frequently, as she felt the need to lightly kiss his temple. Where the child had tolerated such motherly affection when he was younger by the age of eleven he was beginning to stiffen and flinch away.

Trying to reason with him, for she loved talking seriously with her son, and being taken seriously by him.

“But we are always somewhere, aren’t we? I mean—if we exist at all . . . Why is any where we find ourselves a where that had to be? Why—had to be? That’s what I don’t understand.”

Felt as if her tongue was twisted. Not sure what she was trying to say.

And where are they? Just beyond an exit for Biddeford, Maine?

Otherwise, nowhere. New England countryside, dense-wooded, mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees, thunderous trailer-trucks rushing past, a here interchangeable with any there.

Oliver murmured OK, Mom.

“Am I correct? Or are you just humoring me?”

Oliver murmured OK, Mom.

Returning his attention to the damned iPad in his lap that had been there all along, waiting.

 

2.

Offhandedly the child had remarked at the age of nine that he guessed he wanted to be an architect.

The astonished parents weren’t sure they’d heard correctly. Had their very young son remarked that he wanted to be an architect?

Exchanging a glance. Really! How—funny!

Or rather, how impressive. And rare, a child of nine would express such a wish . . .

There was an air about their singular child of intense curiosity, wonderment, as if he were a fairy caught in a net, his fairy-wings fluttering but not (yet) broken—(so the mother thought, with much tenderness and concern). He’d been a premature baby and had not thrived as an infant; eventually he’d grown, but remained small for his age, and his bones seemed thin, everything about him gossamer-light, provisional. There had been some frightening asthmatic episodes when he’d been a small child but the condition seemed now controlled by medication, or nearly.

So far as the parents knew Oliver had never met an architect, nor had he heard them talking of architecture. The mother had a degree in art history and had hoped at one time in her life to be an artist but there were no other artistically inclined persons in her family, and no architects. The father was a (Yale) university attorney. For each, the marriage was the first and the child was the only child.

Vaguely Amanda and Peter wished to have a second child. Possibly, a more ordinary child. For it did not feel quite right, Oliver was such a precious child.

Since hed been capable of gripping a Crayola in his (left) hand the child had loved to draw. Hed had little interest in toys, childrens books, but rather adult books, particularly oversized books with photographic plates. Any subject seemed to interest the inquisitive child—ancient Egyptian pyramids, constellations of the night sky, Himalayan mountains, medieval fortifications, twentieth-century skyscrapers, Arctic marine life, meteors, bird life, earliest forms of organic life” . . . Before Oliver could read he was drawn to such books, and to copying from them onto sheets of tissue-thin paper with a fanatic concern for accuracy.

The mother looked on, fascinated. The child seemed to be in a trance, exuding an air of feverish intensity.

The mother wondered—What is he doing? Is he—“taking possession” of what he draws?

Concentrating on visual images the child was late in speaking. But when Oliver did begin to speak it was in phrases and not in single, monosyllabic words like the speech of most toddlers; soon too, his vocabulary flourished with such words as design, wish, depending-upon, accelerating.

For a brief while, when he’d been very young, Oliver had been captivated by the word other.

For what did other mean, really? When you pondered upon it.

Other was not-this, and (possibly) that. Or (possibly) not-that.

Other other other other.

Once, hed screamed and laughedOth-er! The mother had been alone with him at the time and had felt a moments faintness, the child was mad.

But of course, the moment passed. Such moments pass.

One thing was clear, the child was indeed other.

And then one day the child (who was an inquisitive child but not as other children are inquisitive, rather as adults are inquisitive, nosing about a household) discovered in a storage closet the architects plans for the house in which the family lived, that had been built forty years before. It was a stucco, stone, and glass house constructed in a style made popular by Frank Lloyd Wright in an earlier era, though not so starkly beautiful as any house by the great architect, rather more resembling an upscale American ranch house. The child was excited by the architects plans which hed examined with a magnifying glass and copied in colored pencils on tissue-thin sheets of paper. This became his play, his preoccupation. Soon he believed hed discovered a secret passageway in the basementa kind of large cupboard or crawl space opening from an obscure corner of the room. This, to the mothers distress, he insisted upon exploring with a flashlight and emerged covered in cobwebs and blinking his eyes like a nocturnal creature thrust too rapidly into the light.

Other parts of the house too, the child determined to be secret. A ghostly doorway in a corridor, a passageway of only six inches width inside a wall. You could not see these features of the house with just your eyes; you could only discover their existence through examining the architects plans, which were unfortunately now badly faded and creased. But what are you seeing, Oliver?—the mother would ask; and Oliver would direct her to look through the magnifying glass at the sketch of a door, or a passageway, or a false ceiling in the house plans which hed discovered.

But why is it so important?—the mother wondered. Is this some other—world?

Neither she nor the father could comprehend the childs preoccupation with this sort of architecture. Neither had troubled to glance at the architects plans and had long forgotten their existence. The house theyd purchased was the physical house and not the architects plan of a house that did not exist except on paper. At the closing theyd been given the architects plans in a folder that tied with a ribbon, as if it were a precious document; but neither had untied the ribbon.

Twelve years later the child discovered the folder in the closet, which intensified his wish to become, one day, an architect.

For each house designed by an architect, Oliver explained, was actually two houses: the one people lived in, and were meant to see; and the other, which they were not meant to see but which was preserved in the architect’s plans.

This remark left the parents baffled. What on earth did their son mean?

Whatever, it was not the sum of his words. For they repeated his words to each other, and were not illuminated.

What interests you about being an architect, Oliver?relatives asked the little boy, not sure whether they should be amused by him, or somewhat alarmed by his precocity, which marked him as very different from their own children; and Oliver said in a shy murmur that he wanted to draw special houses, which only an architect could draw.

“The architect is the one looking down, and in.

In the childs room there came to be an accumulation of books, glossy magazines. No design of any house or building that included detailed floor plans failed to captivate him. His favorite architects were Gaudi, Kahn, Wright, Graves, Gehry. There came to be a new word in his vocabulary—deconstruction. (The [controversial, disorienting] architecture of Gehry.) His many pencil drawings were of houses that did not (yet) exist. And he continued to draw plans of the family house with specialinvisiblefeatures added.

It was bittersweet for the mother, to see in the child some of her own, inchoate yearnings. Shed tried to paint in her early twenties but had lacked confidence. Luminous visions in her head were crudely parodied by brushstrokes on canvas. Shed come too late for figurative arttoo late for abstract arttoo late for pop art and conceptual art. The child had no awareness of art as history, it was all one to him, present tense. He had no concern for being belated. The mother was thrilled by the childs skill at drawing though he rarely drew figures (animals, people) as other children tried to do; his obsession was with the interiors of buildings, the skeletal outlines of material things, which never seemed to bore him. If human figures appeared in Olivers drawings they were positioned for practical reasons of scale, and had no identities.

Oliver acquired notebooks, and made sketches of the interiors of places he visited, the homes of relatives and friends, transcribing what he saw (which was not likely to be what others saw) as others chattered around him. And then, he might point out to the homeowners some oddity, some imbalance or error in the architecture of their house with the suggestion that a door, a window, a staircase was in the wrong place, a ceiling too low or too high, a room too small or too large, and should be rebuilt.

A wall should be removedIt is blocking the spirit of the house.

A roof should be raised“The house wants to be taller.

Such suggestions were met with blank faces, incomprehension or annoyance. Well! Thank you, Oliver.

Or, the child would say nothing to the homeowners but remark to the parents on their way home that something had happened in the house that had left its (invisible) mark, which was evident (visible) only in his sketching.

Did they see what he meant?—Oliver would try to show them in his sketches of the house; but the parents could never see.

Easier to dismiss the childs notions as play, imagination.

It was also Olivers belief, explained to the bemused parents, that there were places (homes, school) in which the texture of the very air might become denser depending upon what was happening, or not happening: a boring space (school classroom, for instance) became a dense space requiring literally more effort to endure, thus literally more time to endure than if it were not boring. The equation for this phenomenon was

T (time) = D (density) × E (effort)

Olivers father laughed saying of course, it was common knowledge, emotions affect our experience of time; boredom makes time seem to pass slowly, as in an excruciatingly dull lecture on torts, while a pleasurable time may seem to end too soon. But the child frowned, saying with an air of rebuke that he did not mean that.

Nothing so obvious, so commonplace as that.

With infinite patience, over a period of months, Oliver copied the architects plans for the family house, until he could draw them without consulting the original. Then he began to experiment with additions of his own introduced into the drawings, that seemed to have the effect of altering features of the house.

The mother began to notice that the house felt different, in some rooms; its ceilings were at unexpected angles or its floors slanted; its windows appeared to be smaller, or larger, or unexpectedly shaped; through glass panes the exterior world looked different even as it was (evidently) unchanged. The very air in certain parts of the house seemed denserexuding a faint, sepia cast—than it had been even as in other parts of the house the air seemed lighter, purer.

Were these changes the consequence of the childs alterations to the house plans, or had the child perceived discrepancies in the house in which the family had been living obliviously, which his attentions had made evident? Had the strangeness in the house been but implicit previously, and was now explicit?

The mother wondered if, gazing at her, the child might see something in her, in her (invisible) soul, unknown to her, unfathomable.

Feeling a wave of something like panic, fear. That the child who was her child yet might acquire a perspective from which he could view her as dispassionately as he viewed the interiors of houses.

One day Oliver asked the mother to participate in an experiment he called the Zone of Invisibility. This involved the mother waiting in the hall outside his room and knocking on his door several times; each time she knocked, if he answered No! she was not to come inside, but just to wait a few minutes and then knock again; only when the mother knocked and received no answer was she to open the door, and come inside.

These instructions the mother followed, at least initially. It was not often the boy requested anything from her, let alone her involvement in his life, or rather in the life of his architectural imaginings, that were usually kept private and secret, and certainly not shared with the father. But after shed knocked on his door several times she couldnt determine whether she heard the boys voice, or just imagined it, and so she opened the door impulsively—discovering that Oliver wasnt in the room after all, so far as she could see.

Oliver? Where are you?—the mother tried not to sound alarmed.

It was some sort of game, she supposed. Though the child had never cared for children’s games like hide-and-seek.

The child had never cared for pranks. His play was serious play, and not ever a waste of his time.

Oliver? Oliver? The mother looked in the childs closet, and stooped to peer beneath the childs bed, and even lifted the comforter on the bed though (certainly) she could see that no child was lying flattened beneath it and hiding from her.

Oliver?—where on eart. . .

She had to laugh, if nervously. The child was (certainly) in the room somewhere.

There were two windows in the childs room but these were shut tight, locked. If Oliver had crawled through a window to jump down to the ground outside he could not have shut the window behind him, still less locked it.

Not that Oliver would have played so crude a trick on the mother. He was far too fastidious for such behavior.

“Oliver! This isn’t funny . . .”

Was it possible, the child had the power to create, somehow, an actual Zone of Invisibility in his room? But what did this even mean? A kind of hypnosis, a mirage that obscured the mothers vision so that Oliver might be actually present, but she could not see him?

Oliver? I—I dont like this. It isn. . .

How could it be, Oliver seemed to have vanished in his own room? That was not possible.

Desperately the mother yanked open drawers in the childs Maplewood bureau, as if Oliver could have squeezed inside one of these and shut the drawer upon himself!

The mother took note of light fixtures in the ceiling. These were of ordinary dimensions yet the mother found herself wondering fantastically if the child had somehow shrunken himself to a miniature size, to hide inside one of these?

It was not likely, and yet—the proof of Invisibility seemed to be that the child had become not-visible.

Nor did the mother sense the child. Surely a mother would sense her child, if he were present . . .

As, years ago, the mother had felt her hard-swollen breasts ache with milk, hearing the infant begin to whimper, in another room.

How brainless shed been, in those (happy, unquestioning) days! Like a creature with its head cut off, sheer instinct, breasts and womb, female body.

However, it had not lasted. The fever-trance of motherhood had lifted, faded. Now and then she yearned for its return as one might yearn for ether, a fat thumb to suck in one’s mouth.

But no, the prospect filled her now with revulsion. Really, the mother was eleven years beyond that stage in her life and did not want its return.

Of course, the parents spoke vaguely, smilingly, of another child. In conversation with others, especially relatives, they were prone to say how nice it would be, how ideal, if Oliver had a baby sister. He is too much the center of our lives, that is not good for him or for us.

Once upon a time, a man and a woman had as many children as God sent them. That is, the woman had as many children as God directed the husband to afflict upon her.

There was no refusal. Not of the man, and not of a womans task.

Oliver? Please dont scare me, hone. . .

A spell of vertigo overcame her brain. Sat down hard on the child-sized bed, that yielded to her weight. The wild thought came to her that cunning Oliver had attached himself monkey-like to the box springs below the mattress and was hiding beneath the bed but not on the floor, so shed failed to see him . . . But when she knelt panting to peer beneath the bed another time, of course there was no one.

A world without the child. A world depleted of the child.

The child who held the marriage together like cartilage in the (shared) spine of conjoined identical twins.

Oliver! P-Please . . .

Realizing that she lived for those moments when Oliver was (again) hers. When the child would smile spontaneously at her.

It could not be, that this vivid presence might vanish from the world. As you’d switch off a lamp and be plunged into darkness.

But then, suddenly: Mom? Hi.

Out of nowhere the child appeared. Behind her, on the farther side of the bed.

Smiling at the astonished mother, pleased and excited. The experiment had been a greater success than he’d expected.

Oh, Oliver! You frightened m. . .

She would chide the beaming child, she would strike her hands together in a display of motherly exasperation, but also motherly pride, vanity. Hed been naughty, hiding from her; but hed been very clever too, for he had fooled her utterly, because he was such a clever child.

Quite the most clever child she had ever encountered.

She embraced him, kissed his fevered forehead. Later she would think—He must have been hiding in the closet. Of course.

 

3.

Oh, Oliver. Oh no.

The Fractal Museum was closed! Closed Saturdays and Sundays, November through April.

What a disappointment! All the way to a desolate interstate exit on the northern outskirts of Portland, Maine—to discover the damned museum closed . . .

The website that had posted Saturday and Sundays as open had not been updated since September—that was the explanation. The child could not be blamed but the mother blamed herself: why hadnshe telephoned ahead, just to make sure the Fractal Museum really was open?

It is the off-season now in Maine.

But there is a good side to the disappointment: more time to explore the beautiful Atlantic coast a short drive away. Walking with the son, just the two of them. Rare for the mother and Oliver to be alone together in a place like this.

Arm in arm, when the walking is treacherous. Rocks, boulders. Crashing surf. She will take pictures of the rocky coast, white-capped frothing waves pounding against the shore at Prouts Neck, that Winslow Homer depicted in his extraordinary drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings.

They will visit the Winslow Homer Studio at Scarborough, which is on the way home.

Out of a kind of shyness the mother has never told the child about her love of art and her hope to be an artist, before his birth. Her awe at the work of Winslow Homer in particular. She is excited now at the prospect of sharing Winslow Homer with him . . .

 

4.

In fact, the Fractal Museum is open. It is a Saturday morning, and the Museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays: the website was correct after all.

Thank God! Oliver would have been disappointed, sullen and sulky. The mother would have had to find some other quasi-intellectual diversion for him, museum or otherwise, in Portland, before daring to suggest walking along the coast at Prouts Neck or stopping at the Winslow Homer Studio in Scarborough.

“Well—here we are!”—for her own sake as well as the boy’s the mother is trying to sound upbeat, cheerful.

It is rare for Oliver to scramble out of a vehicle so eagerly. Usually he is scarcely aware of having arrived at a destination reluctantly looking up from his iPad.

Oliverdont run.

Parking the vehicle the mother feels something like a (ghost) hand pressing against her chest in warning—Go back. This is wrong. It is not too late.

 

5.

You may enter at any door. All doors lead to the same place.

(The reverse is not true.)

*

How strange, the Fractal Museum looks as if it is comprised of several buildings, simultaneously!

Oliver tells the mother no. That is an illusion—“simultaneity.” But—what does he mean? The mother is perplexed.

Politely Oliver explains: We dont see all sides of the Fractal Museum simultaneously. We see just one side at a time—the Museum is deliberately constructed so that we see what is being presented to us to be seen. Its fractal architecture—there are sides of the Museum that appear to us in sequence but our perception is that they are simultaneous.’ 

Adding, as the mother ponders what he has said: Nothing is simultaneous with something else—thats an optical illusion.

Oliver is eager to take pictures of the Fractal Museum. He has been planning this, the mother assumes, for weeks.

Seen from the front the Fractal Museum appears to be made of some attractive but commonplace material like sandstone, with narrow vertical plate-glass panels in a pattern that repeats itself (one would assume) on all sides of the building; it is foursquare, three stories high, set back from a state highway. Seen in a partially filled asphalt parking lot, and resembles a moderately well-kept medical office building.

But that is only the façade.

From the (west) parking lot the Fractal Museum is revealed to be, behind the sandstone façade, a private house, or what had once been a private house: a renovated old Victorian shingle board painted dark purple with lavender trim, bay windows, steep slate roofs, lightning rod and weathervane—exactly the sort of distinctive old property given away by heirs to townships for charitable purposes, to escape property taxes. Overlapping shingles suggest a fractal pattern that repeats itself top to bottom, bottom to top, impossible to measure with the eye as a result of its repetition; as the visitors eye moves about this (visible) portion of the house it comes to seem, uncannily, that there are more tall narrow windows here than could possibly fit into the limited space; it is an effort to move the eye horizontally, left to right, right to left, and not rather vertically, as if something in the structure of the building is an active (if subliminal) impediment to the visitors curiosity.

Seen from the (east) parking lot the Fractal Museum is revealed to be, behind the sandstone façade, another private house, very different from the Victorian: a large Colonial with weatherworn white shingles, dull-green shutters, a greeny glimmer of moss on its roof, exactly the sort of distinctive old property given away by heirs to townships for charitable purposes, to escape property taxes. Here too there is something uncanny about the windows—there are not enough windows for the space and they appear to be of differing sizes; the observer is led to glance quickly from window to window, to see how they differ, yet there is some sort of impediment (instant amnesia?) preventing seeing the windows in relationship to onanother, so that each sighting of each window is distinct from its predecessor, and forming a comparison is not possible.

Also, there appear to be in the windows remnants of holiday decorations, candles or Christmas lights, unless these are but (fractal-like, repetitive) reflections in wavy glass.

The rear of the Museum is a blank freshly-painted (beige) stucco wall that might be the rear of a fast-food taco restaurant—blunt, pragmatic, windowless, and so textured that if you look closely you can see the suggestions of fractal designs in the material, leaf-like, overlapping in seemingly infinite repetition. There is a single large metal door marked EXIT and below this a smaller sign: NO RE-ENTRY. From a stoop, a short flight of concrete steps and a ramp to the parking lot.

As he has been taking pictures of the Museum with his iPad Oliver has been trying to explain to the mother that the Fractal Museum is considered a living paradox”a living conundrum. Measured from the outside its square footage is (reputedly) considerably less than the square footage measured from the insideInterior fractal space. Oliver plans to take pictures inside the Museum to determine for himself the authenticity of interior fractal space, at which online commentators have marveled.

The mother has listened, or half-listened, to the child chattering about the Fractal Museum for weeks. But this is new to her. How can the Museum be smaller on the outside than on the inside? And how can a museum, which is nothing but a building constructed of wood, brick, stone, stucco, unliving materials, be living?

The mother hesitates to ask the child another time to explain what he is talking about. (Especially, the mother hesitates to ask the child to explain what the hell he is talking about. What the hell will be registered by the child as exasperation, dismay.) The mother is self-aware enough to dread that hour when she hears in the (prepubescent) boy’s voice the equivalent of Oh Jesus, Mom! Please.

At the entrance of the Fractal Museum a woman of about Amandas age, looking both harried and flushed with a mothers eagerness to please, is ushering inside several children of whom the eldest, lanky-limbed, with round eyeglasses, resembles Oliver to an uncanny degree.

The mother holds her breath waiting to see if the two boys notice each other: they do not.

 

6.

It is just 10:28 a.m. The Fractal Museum has opened at 10:00 a.m. Inside, there is a surprisingly long line for tickets. Families with young children, a predominance of mothers. The Fractal Museum advertises itself as a family-friendly museum.

While the son studies an interactive floor map of the Museum that bristles with lights and animation like a casino game the mother purchases their tickets. She is surprised that this obscure museum in a quasi-rural suburb of Portland, Maine, is expensive: thirty-five dollars for adults, thirty for seniors, twenty for children under twelve. Twenty for children under twelve. Is this even legal?

Another year, and Id be paying the adultprice for my son here.

Just a mild observation. Not a complaint. The mother understands that the Fractal Museum is privately owned and probably isnsubsidized by the state.

Eleven? Your son is eleven?a query from the woman selling tickets isnt intended to be rude but yes, it is tactless.

Yes. He is eleven.

With a pang of dismay the mother sees that the child who so often seems to her immense in his intelligence and imagination and willfulness is indeed small for his age. Not short, as tall as an average eleven-year-old perhaps, but painfully thin, with underdeveloped shoulders and arms, the slender neck of an aquatic bird, and that pale, skim-milk, cinnamon-freckled skin—vulnerable is the word that comes most readily to mind.

In his dark red flannel shirt he’d buttoned crookedly, and she’d had to rebutton. In wire-rimmed eyeglasses that enlarge his eyes that glow like bees.

Fiercely the mother thinks—I will protect him with my life.

But Oliver isn’t so frail, to himself: Oliver is strong-willed, even defiant. He has been an only child for eleven years—a lifetime!

Edging away from the mother frowning as he struggles to clip the bright blue Fractal Museum badge (which is in fact several fractal-leaf-badges conflated as one) onto his shirt without her assistance. Though he hasnt heard the exact exchange between the ticket seller and his mother, the mothers friendly chatter with strangers is embarrassing to him.

Especially since the child knows that the friendly chattering mom is not really the mother—just some silly mask and costume the mother puts on, in public.

Adjacent to the foyer is the gift shop. Adjacent to that, a planetarium with hourly showings—Our Fractal Universe. Also a café that is brightly lit and buzzing with customers.

Oliver suggests that the mother have coffee in the café and meet him afterward in the third-floor exhibit—for he knows how badly she would like coffee (very black, strong!) after the stress of the drivebut the mother quickly demurs. No! Im not letting you out of my sight in this weird place. Adding, as if it were an afterthought, with a smile,Sweetie.

It is the mothers nightmare, that she might lose the child in some unfamiliar place like a museum, airport, subway. Perhaps an outdated nightmare since the child is not of an age to be easily lost any longer.

Sweetie is a signal, the mother is pleading with him. The child is stiff-backed, not in a mood to be pleaded-with.

If she didnt know that the child would ease away from her like a cat not wishing to be stroked shed have taken his hand. Just to feel the small, hot-skinned hand in her own and to claim—See?—I’ve got you. Safe.

*

Oh, Oliver! Look.

Their first exhibit is on the third floor: Naturally Occurring Fractals. This is a massive and dazzling display that winds its way in brightly lighted glass cases and interactive presentations through the entire third floor. Crowded with visitors (including the harried-looking young mother with a son who resembles Oliver) this exhibit appears to be at least twice as large as the mother would have anticipated, given the (apparent) size of the museum from the outside. Just to gaze into it, to the farther walls of the museum that seem to dissolve into the ether, is disconcerting.

Giant illuminated photographs of seeds, leaves, flowers. Feathers, hairs, fur, scales (snake, fish, lizard). Many-times-magnified snowflakes, crystals. Magnified cells, neurons, ganglia so tangled and so beautiful, they evoke a sense of vertigo in the brain. And there are, scarcely less startling and strange, skeletal trees with fractal-branches, fractal-twigs, fractal-veined leaves. Fractally dense evergreen cones looking sharp and lethal as spikes. With his iPad Oliver takes multiple pictures. He is particularly interested in a sequence of highly magnified photographs of the New England coastline, in ascending order of magnification.

No matter how many times magnified, the fractal pattern of the coastline recurs. The mother can see this but cant quite see the point of magnification. Is there to be no end of things?—no end?

What you think is a straight line, Oliver says, actually isnt. There are all these little breaks and creases, that go on forever.The child speaks with a sort of grim glee as if forever were not a terrifying prospect.

Oh. But—why?

Just is, Mom.”

I mean—why pursue it? Why would you want to know so much that has no use?

Oliver retorts that most of science is uselessplus math, fractal geometry. That something is useless is not a description of its essential properties but is irrelevant. Useful is also irrelevant.

The mother feels rebuked. For a mother is of all things meant to be useful.

Before each dazzling display the mother lingers. She is (half-) aware of time fracturing, fractal-ling. Unlike Oliver who seems to be familiar with much of this information the mother needs to carefully read, reread the descriptive passages on the walls. Her brain feels gluey. Her eyes feel the strain of so much to see.

Her arms ache from the effort of having held the damned steering wheel steady for so long, to keep the SUV in its proper lane and prevent a sudden catastrophe, crash into an abutment (just beyond exit nine at a place called Elk River) and two lives snuffed out just like that.

But no, that did not happen. Without incident theyd passed the exit where theyd been most at risk, at about 9:05 a.m. Arms trembling with effort the mother held the steering wheel firm as an enormous tractor-trailer truck thundered by in the adjacent left lane.

The child had not even noticed. Absorbed in the intricate puzzles of the iPad.

The mother wonders: is there such a thing as fractal-time? She feels a thrill of dread that this must be so. Each hour, each minute, each second broken down into its components, to infinity; and in each, an alternative fate of which she knows nothing.

Up close, life is but life. At a little distance, life is fate.

Crushed, broken amid the wreckage. Steam lifting, stink of gasoline.

Snuffed out just like that: two lives.

To the husband she’d have said Serves you right! You have abandoned your child and your wife and now you have lost them.

Something is staring—glaring—into her face. Another of the giant illuminated magnifications. Reduced to its fractal components the photograph (rock, lichen) is unrecognizable as a swirl of molecules.

Yet, the fractals abide. No matter the degree of magnification.

The mother has certainly underestimated the Fractal Museum, she is thinking. Shed meant simply to humor the child, driving him here. Shed hoped that, if there was an extra hour, on the way home she could stop at the Winslow Homer Studio at Scarborough about which she has read in the AAA Maine Guide, and that would have made the long trip worthwhile for her.

But now, she is quite absorbed in the exhibits. It is a new world to her, close beneath the surface of the world she believes she knows without needing to examine how she knows.

Naturally occurring fractals seem to encompass virtually everything in the physical world—all that the mother has been seeing with her eyes (and not with her brain) through her life.

The fractal is the basic unit of design.

The fractal repeats itself endlessly and yet each fractal is unique and unlike any other.

Trying to grasp this. Like stepping out onto ice. Possibly it is rock-solid and will support your weight. Possibly it is not.

*

“Shall I take your picture, Olly?”

Shakes his head no.

Ducks his head. Smooth-freckled pale skin reddening as if slapped for certainly the mother must know that the child hates being called Olly in a public place.

Well, in fact—the child isnt comfortable being called Olly at any time, this past year.

Stubbornly resisting. No picture!

The mother feels a surge of something like fury and wants to take hold of the child’s skinny shoulders, give him a shake.

But consider: she is the mother, she is not the child.

In a contest of wills the mother does not need to vanquish the child to establish her power over him.

Come on, sweetie. Please. Just stand here. We can mail the picture to Daddy, to make him envious he isnt here with us.

This is very mild sarcasm. This is not actually a condemnation of the father who is oblivious of much in the household.

Actually, Daddy asked me to take your picture. And send it to him. So he knows we got here safely. OK?

None of this is true. But the mother exudes such sincerity, the most icy-hearted child could not resist.

And the mother has exerted her authority by taking the iPad from the child—virtually unhooking it from his fingers—and positioning him against a wall, as if he were a much younger child.

(The wall display is one of the gorgeously colored magnifications of—is it a nebula? a multifoliate rose? a neuron in the human brain?)

“There! That wasnt so bad, was it?

The child has allowed the picture to be taken, to humor the mother.

The fear that our likenesses will outlive us. The image of a being in a (future) time in which the being has ceased to exist.

This is a morbid thought that has leapt into the mothers brain like a sly louse or tick, out of the gorgeous fractal display on the wall. But the mother casts the morbid thought off as she always does such thoughts, by ignoring it.

The time is 10:31 a.m. But—how is that possible? The mother stares at her (digital) watch, baffled and uneasy. She has given the iPad back to the child, or she would check the time on the electronic gadget as well.

Hadnt they arrived at the Museum shortly before 10:30 a.m.? Thmother is sure she remembers the time correctly. And if so, if at least forty minutes have passed in the exhibit, it would now be 11:10 a.m., approximately; how then can it be only 10:31 a.m.?

Something is very wrong. The mothers brain reels.

If time moves with such glacial slowness in the Fractal Museum they will never be released from it. They will never return to their home in New Haven where someone, the third party of the triangle of which they constitute two-thirds, awaits them.

The mother gives her watch a shake. Damned battery must be slowing down.

Oliver, wait!—the child is eager to move on.

Culturally Appropriated Fractals is an equally massive and dazzling display sprawling through the Museums second floor. Here are walls of illuminated mandalas, rose windows. The mother will spend many minutes here entranced as one who has been deprived of beauty and is now blinded by it.

Astonishingly elaborate, intricately designed Hindu mandalas. In these you can lose yourself. That is, self.

The mother is mesmerized by the great illuminated mandalas. These are as different from one another, and alike one another, as fireworks in a night sky. Seeing one, you have seen them all; seeing many, you have seen one.

Like the infinite faces of God.

The child is less intrigued by (mere) visual beauty. The child is drawn to the cerebral component—the fractal structures that underlie beauty.

In the beige tile floor of the Museum are several stripes: green, red, blue, yellow. Each leads to an exhibit. It is the green stripe that Oliver wants to follow to bring him to more cerebral exhibits, video puzzle-games and interactive robots that mimic/mirror the individuals who stand before them typing on keyboards. There is the promise of the Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth which is a challenging maze-game in the form of a triangle containing countless triangles in which time as well as space has to be navigated.

Oliver plucks at the mothers wrist to move her along but the mother finds it difficult to break the spell of the mandalas. The exhibit area is enormous, the size of a football field. Always there is more to see: another gorgeous dazzling intricately wrought mandala that seems to hold a secret—a secret meaning. Beauty exudes a powerful spell upon the mother, like a heady perfume.

The mother becomes aware of an agitated hubbub of the air about her as of a crowd pressing near but when she looks around, there is virtually no one else (visible) in the enormous room.

At the farther end of the room a Museum guard motionless as a mannequin. His face is generic and friendly, of the hue of skim milk.

Oh, where is Oliver?—the mother hurries to locate him. And there Oliver is, around a corner, in a corner, absorbed in an interactive video that makes him laugh.

Something about fractals, of course. Fractal topology? Vivid colors, like explosions in the brain.

The mother tells the child please dont move away from her. It is crucial for them to stay in each others sight. The Museum is much bigger than shed thought, and(how to express this)Time moves differently here.

The mother dislikes video games which she interprets (correctly) as an alternative reality not congruent with her best interests. She would like to imagine herself the emotional center of the childs life, and not a brain-exhausting game.

(Can a machine love her son, as she loves her son? Of course not.)

Being of an older generation to whom such antic video figures will never exude familiarity or comfort the mother instinctively distrusts humanoid figures. She knows that they are programmed(she thinks thatprogrammed meanssafe)but this makes no difference to her. She cannot trust any machine.

As Oliver interacts with the video game the mother loses herself in an exhibit of eerily incandescent, shimmering flowers of diverse varieties and colors. These too are fractal-mandalas. Peering into them is like peering into the soul.

From all sides, Ravels Bolero. Ever faster, ever louder, musical notes turning frantically upon themselves like snakes in a cluster.

 

7.

Its OK, Mom. I can go alone.

Oliver, no. I dont think so.

The Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth, located on the mezzanine floor of the Museum, takes up the entire floor.

The child cannot think of anything more disappointing than to have journeyed to the Fractal Museum only to be forced to under-take the Labyrinth, the Museums major interactive exhibit, about which he has been reading online for weeks, in the company of his timorous and uninformed mother. No!

And yet there is a warning posted above the entrance: Children Under Twelve Must Be Accompanied by Adults into the Labyrinth.

Though Oliver is hardly a small child the mother intends to enter the Labyrinth firmly gripping the boys hand. It isnt likely that he would run ahead of her, or become lost, for after all the Labyrinth is finite—(no larger than the mezzanine floor, you can see)—still the mother is reluctant to let the child push ahead and leave her behind. She is still somewhat dazed by the effect of the mandalas and rose windows in the preceding exhibit and feels reluctant to leave them so soon.

Amanda has not been a religious person and has not (consciously) felt the need for spiritual solace. A great hunger is opening in her, in the region of her heart, that will never be filled.

And yetshe is obliged to use the womens restroom. This is not so spiritual.

Instructing the child to please wait for her in the corridor. Or use the (mens) restroom himself, which is just across the hall, and wait for her. And then they will proceed—together—to the Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth just a few feet away.

The child agrees. Seems to agree. OK, Mom.

Standing very still, deceptively. With an expression of utter innocence.

On surveillance cameras it will be recorded: the mother addressing the child, the child seemingly docile, a lanky-limbed boy of about ten?—with ginger-colored hair, in a dark red, or maroon, shirt buttoned to his throat, jeans, sneakers.

Mother disappears into womens restroom. Child waits obediently for two seconds before edging away into the entrance to the Labyrinth.

(Not that Oliver was a rebellious child. Rather, Oliver was oblivious of the fact that while he was he was a child.)

In the Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth each individual who enters is designated a pilgrim, overtly; covertly, from the perspective of the program that governs the Labyrinth, each individual is a subject.

There is (allegedly) a direct path that leads from the entrance of the Labyrinth to the exit, at which there is posted EXIT: NO RE-ENTRY. If you make the right choices each time you are confronted with a choice (that is, a fork in the path) you will exit the Labyrinth after a breathless forty-fifty minutes.

Has anyone ever exited the Labyrinth in this relatively short period of time? Legend is, no one has (yet). Thus, each pilgrim imagines himself potentially ranked #1 in the Labyrinth competition; the child Oliver is, or was, no exception.

Like human intestines that might measure, if stretched out, more than twenty-five feet, yet are condensed into a much smaller abdominal space, the devious path of the Sierspinski Triangle Labyrinth is far longer than one would guess; calculating the numerous (fractal) turns, each of which involves an equilateral triangle replicating the larger equilateral triangle that constitutes the outermost limits of the Labyrinth, and factoring in the time-fractal as well, the Labyrinth is many miles long, perhaps as many as one thousand. Examined minutely, however, the Labyrinth might be said to be infinite, for each smaller triangle in the path might be deconstructed into its parts, to infinity.

The pilgrim/subject makes his way into the Labyrinth, confronted with forks in the path at intervals of only a few seconds; he must choose to go right, or left, for he cannot go backward; having made his choice, he will be confronted with another fork within a few seconds, and must choose to go right, or left; and so on. As soon as he has entered the Labyrinth the pilgrim/subject is moving through time as well as space, and this movement into both time and space is irrevocable—though it is not likely that the pilgrim/subject realizes it, as none of us do.

Having calculated a route beforehand, Oliver has a plan to take the left fork of the path, then the right, and again the left, and the right, in a pattern of strict alternation, in this way (he deduces, plausibly) he will always be hewing to the center, and will not be drawn off into peripheral, fractal branches that may culminate in dead ends. Oliver is very bright and quick and has a near-photographic memory and so tells himself—I can’t become lost.

It has been Olivers aim—his dream—to complete the Labyrinth in record time, or at least to tie with the previous #1 pilgrim whose likeness he has seen posted on the Museums website: a seventeen-yearold boy from Manhattans Fieldstone School who intends to major in cosmology at MIT.

And so, the bold child enters the Labyrinth without a backward glance. At once the atmosphere is altered—he finds himself almost weightless, disoriented. Surprised too to see that the maze-walls are not solid as hed anticipated, but rather translucent, or giving an impression of translucence, opening onto sunlit areas, fields of poppies, Shasta daisies, wild rose that seem to stretch for miles. There are high-scudding clouds. Fleecy, filmy cirrocumulus clouds in a cobalt-blue sky. Cries of birds, or perhaps they are human cries—a young family at the beach, laughing together. All is vivid and then fleeting, fading. Forks in the path come rapidly—more rapidly than Oliver has expected—but each fork seems to lead into an identical space so that it is possible to forget ones strategy and make a blunder, choosing” randomly, with the assumption that left and right are interchangeable; and since the pilgrim cant reverse his course he has no idea if left and right are in fact interchangeable, or in fact very different—as radically opposed as life and death.

Once a choice has been made it is irrevocable, for a powerful momentum draws the pilgrim forward, as a mist of amnesia trails in his wake.

Soon then, the child has entered an industrial landscape. Factories in ruins, dripping water. The sky is leaden, sinking. All color has vanished. Suddenly he is in dark rank water to his ankles. (Is the water real, or is the water virtual? In the Sierpinski Triangle there is no clear distinction between the two states.) A strong chemical odor makes his nostrils pinch for the water is poisoned. It is the reeking landscape of the Russian film Stalker—Oliver’s favorite film since he’d first seen it at the age of ten.

How many times Oliver has seen Stalker! He has been mesmerized by the long dreamlike excursion into the Zone in which all wishes are fulfilled including those wishes we do not know we have. Recalling how a black dog suddenly emerges from the contaminated water, to befriend one of the pilgrims . . .

There is no doubt that Oliver must continue forward, ever deeper into the Zone. Dank dripping water, a tightening in his chest. No friendly German shepherd appears (yet). Oliver has no time to wonder how so abruptly he has stepped out of the comfort of the Fractal Museum with its clean restrooms and brightly lit café buzzing with customers and the planetarium show—Our Fractal Universe—which he might now be seeing safely with his mother, except the line of mothers and children was too long, and the lure of the notorious Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth irresistible. For weeks Oliver has planned how, if he follows his plan unfailingly, he will exit the maze in record time—his name and likeness posted on the Fractal Museums website for all to see.

For the father to see. For kids at school to see.

Yet Oliver has a strong feeling that he should turn back. Even if it is against the rules—perhaps the program that drives the Labyrinth will make an exception for him. (He is a special child, isnt he? The fuss his parents have made over him.) He has made a mistake to push ahead into the exhibit without his mother—they will make an exception, for he is just a child. He has deceived his naïvely trusting mother.

She will be upset. She will be angry. Her eyes will smart with tears. Her lower lip will tremble. Oliver how could you! You must have known that I would be looking for you, I would be sick with worry over you . . .

Hesitating on the path, uncertain which fork to take. Now there is not only a right-hand fork and a left-hand fork but a middle-fork. Three!

Oliver had not known that some of the choices would involve three forks in the path. He is confused, uncertain. How deeply has he penetrated the Zone? Will there be a way out?

Always there is the promise, if you are an American child and your parents love you, there will be a way out.

Even if you have rejected your parents there is a way out.

The polluted air is difficult to breathe, the childs chest begins ttighten. Airways in his lungs begin to tighten. He begins to choke, wheeze. He is panicked suddenly. It is a violent asthmatic attack of a kind he has not had in years. In another few seconds his eyesight will blotch and blacken and he will sink to the floor gasping for breath, unconscious . . .

Oliver darling! Here.

He feels the mothers hand on his shoulder. He feels the mothers panting breath on his cheek. The mother has brought Olivers rescue inhaler in her handbag. Of course, the precious rescue inhaler, the almost-forgotten inhaler, the despised inhaler that will save the childs life.

I’ve got you, darling, you are all right. Your mother has you now, just breathe . . .

 

8.

At the entrance to the Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth the warning cannot be clearer: Children Under Twelve Must Be Accompanied by Adults into the Labyrinth.

Yet, when the mother emerges from the women’s room to glance about inquisitively the child is nowhere in sight.

Oliver has entered the Labyrinth by himself—has he? The mother is exasperated with the son but not (yet) upset.

Noting the time: 12:29 p.m.

Reluctant to enter the Labyrinth, for the mother knows that it is the most challenging of the Fractal Museum exhibits, indeed an “ingeniously” difficult maze, the mother looks prudently about to see if, in fact, Oliver might be somewhere else. Perhaps he has wandered into another exhibit, around a corner. Into the mens restroom? With mounting anxiety she waits outside the restroom. In case Oliver is inside. Oh, she hopes so! If he appears, she will not scold him. Oliver! Thank God.

Though she is not by nature an anxious mother. Minutes pass, Oliver does not appear. Other boys emerge from the restroom, one of them closely, uncannily resembling Oliver, the boy whod worn the dark green Newtown Day hoodie, coming to join the mother waiting for him outside the Labyrinth; but Oliver is not among them. Finally the mother asks a Museum guard if he will please go inside the restroom to see if her son Oliver is in thereeleven years old, small for his age, gingery-red hair, wirerimmed glasses, dark red shirt, jeans, sneakers. The Museum guard is willing to oblige but returns from the restroom without Oliver.

Is she sure he hasnt entered the Labyrinth?—the guard asks.

The mother confesses that she doesn’t know. She’d asked the son to wait for her, but . . .

At 12:36 p.m. the mother again approaches the guard: should she enter the Labyrinth to search for the child?—or should she assume that he will emerge at the exit, when he completes the maze?

The Museum guard is a skim-milk-skinned individual of no discernible age with an affable smile, Museum uniform and badge. He does not appear to be armed except with a device that might (the mother thinks) be a Taser. He assures the mother that the maze is a challengebut it is finiteIt is guaranteed to come to an end.He recommends that she wait for her son at the exit, which she can access by taking the stairs or elevator to the first floor, walking to the rear of the Museum, then taking the stairs or elevator back up to the mezzanine. She will encounter pilgrims leaving the maze there, and possibly someone among them will have seen her son.

 

The mother tries to reason with herself: it is (probably) foolish to worry about Oliver—the Labyrinth is only a Museum exhibit, a maze for children to navigate. . . a child is obviously not in danger of his life in the maze, nor is it likely that a child could become lost.”

 

This, the mother does with some misgivings for it seems not a good idea to leave the Labyrinth entrance in case Oliver shows up there after all. Bitterly she regrets not having insisted that the child carry a cell phone so that she can contact him easily but Oliver (who does not want to be contacted easily by his mother) is interested only in the damned iPad.

At the Labyrinth exit the mother waits. Surely, Oliver will emerge from the maze soon!

Each person who appears at the Labyrinth exit—many of them boys Olivers age, or olderlooks familiar to her, for a brief moment. Her heart is suffused with hope even when she has seen a face clearly and knows that the person cannot be Oliver: the child out of all the universe who is precious to her as her very life, perhaps more precious, for he is her child, and the promise is—Our children must outlive us, and remember us, else we cease to exist utterly.

An older, white-haired gentleman exits the Labyrinth appearing distracted, distraught. It is unusual to see an individual of such an age in the Labyrinth. The mother tries to speak to him, to ask if he might have seen Oliver inside the maze, but the white-haired man seems reluctant to meet her eye, and hurries unsteadily away.

The mother tries to reason with herself: it is (probably) foolish to worry about Oliver—the Labyrinth is only a Museum exhibit, a maze for children to navigate, nothing like a Ferris wheel or roller coaster; a child is obviously not in danger of his life in the maze, nor is it likely that a child could become lost. She knows this, certainly.

Strangely, it is only 12:29 p.m.—how is this possible? Amanda could swear it would have to be an hour later, at least. She is becoming increasingly anxious.

At the Labyrinth exit is a sign in emergency-red letters: EXIT ONLY DO NOT ENTER. Amanda hesitates, wondering if she should try to enter; or, should she return to the entrance, and try to make her way through the maze, to find Oliver? Reaches out her hand to the doorway—her hand is confronted by a very slight resistance in the air. (Is this real? Imagined? She feels a sensation like a mild, warning shock.) A Museum guard approaches her to inform her politely but firmly that visitors are not allowed into the maze at the exit; if they wish to enter they must return to the entrance.

She stammers that her son is somewhere inside the maze, she’s afraid that he is lost, that something may have happened to him—“Please? Please help us.”

On his walkie-talkie the guard summons an aggressively friendly woman in a Museum uniform (jacket, pleated skirt), badge identifying her as M.W. Pritt, who assures the mother that of course it is natural to be worried, for some children get “mired” in the Labyrinth and take longer to complete it than others, and it is natural—understandable!—for a mother to worry. But there is (after all) only one way out of the Labyrinth, even if the Labyrinth turns upon itself, in mimicry of a fractal universe, in ever-tighter “pathways” within ever-smaller triangles, and even if, as all visitors to the Museum are clearly informed, in fact it is printed out distinctly (if in a very small font!) on the reverse side of all Museum tickets, that the Sierpinski Triangle Labyrinth is also a maze in time.

What does that mean, the mother asksA maze in time?”

It means that the maze is ingeniously imagined as a maze in spacand in time.”

In time . . .”

“The pilgrim who undertakes the Labyrinth is moving through space but also, inevitably, through time.

But—why is that different from what we are doing, just standing here? Arent we moving through time?”

Of course. It is not possible not to move through time. But time is a kind of spectrum, and there are different rates at which one moves. The Labyrinth experiments with timeat least, that is what the inventor claims. Very few of us, on the staff, have actually gone inside our interactive exhibits.

Youve never gone into the Labyrinth? Why—why not?

But why would we?—the woman regards the mother with a quizzical smile. We are here to managenot to be entertained.

Seeing that the mother is looking distressed and confused M.W. Pritt repeats again that the Labyrinth is finite, and if the child is still in the Labyrinth he will be found.

The mother asks what does she mean by if?

If. If the child is still in the Labyrinth, or if the child ever entered the Labyrinth.

The mother asks if there are security cameras inside the Labyrinth and is told that there are not, for reasons of privacy, as there are not cameras in restrooms; though there are security cameras in the Museum generally, in the exhibit rooms and corridors.

ButI dont understand. Reasons of privacy—what does that mean? In the maze?

Maam, I am just relating Museum policy to you. I did not set the policy!

M.W. Pritt escorts the mother downstairs and into the security office where she is allowed to observe a wall of TV screens. On each screen humanoid figures are moving at a distance, blurred and indistinct, with only intermittent colors, as if seen undersea. It is very difficult to distinguish faces. In fact—are there faces? A preponderance of children, young adolescents, some adults, a white-haired older man drifting about like sea anemones in an invisible current. When the videotape from the Labyrinth entrance is rewound and replayed the mother stares so intensely she almost cannot seeWait! Is that Oliver?—is that me? Or, maybe no. . .

A mother and a boy, obviously her son, yearning to slip away from the mother, listening to her anxious prattling with an air of barely restrained impatience; a young boy, not yet an adolescent, in what appears to be a jacket or a hoodie, standing very still.

The mother enters a womens restroom, and vanishes from the Tscreen; the son remains for a beat, two beats, before turning away decisively and entering the Labyrinth.

Last glimpse of the son, a defiant little figure, entering the Labyrinth without so much as a backward glance.

The mother stares at the screen, perplexed. Again, she is so agitated she has difficulty seeing.

I—I think that might be us. Though that doesnt actually look like us. Especially m. . . That isnt me. But the boy resembles Oliver. Oh—I just dont know.

The recorded time, noted on the screen, is 12:25 p.m.

The head of Museum security is very sympathetic with the mother. He rewinds the videotape, replays it. The mother stares avidly, as a starving person might stare at (a representation of) food, imagining it in three dimensions, smelling it. She is thinking how human beings recorded by such cameras are diminished, soulless. Flattened and distended like sea creatures of so little consequence they would not require names. Their limbs grow stubby, flaccid. Their faces are melting like wet tissue. It is particularly curious that on some of the screens you can distinguish adults from children only by height, and even that is not a reliable measure.

The mother demands that she be allowed to enter the Labyrinth, that a security officer escort her, that they find Oliver, immediately. She is excited, her voice rises. Calmly it is pointed out to her that the boy has not been in the maze very long, by their calculation less than ten minutes, and that, if he is making his way through the maze as the brighter children do, he will need at least forty or fifty minutes to complete it.

You dont want to disappoint your son, maam. He may make excellent time and be a top-ranked pilgrim posted on our website. Why dont you wait here in our security office for a few minutes at least, before we enter the Labyrinth and create a commotion? Maybe your Oliver will show up on camera, at the exit.

The mother is about to burst into tears—No! You are lying to me. Something terrible has happened to my son, I want to see him at once.

But hears herself saying weakly yes, all right. Suppose that is sensible. Probably the child in the video was Oliver, though the woman did not much resemble her, the mother, in which case if Oliver entered the Labyrinth at 12:25 p.m., it is only 12:38 p.m., and not much time has passed.

Many hours have passed. The mother is exhausted, her bones melting like wet tissue.

“Why don’t you have a seat, ma’am. Try to relax. We will watch the camera trained on the Labyrinth exit, and see when your son emerges. And we will station a guard there, to bring him immediately to you. Shall I get you a coffee from our café?”

 

9.

In the Labyrinth there is no time. There are many times.

The child is beginning to suspect that each time he chooses a fork in the path he is choosing a time that does not “differ from” but has no relationship at all to other times. His experience in the Labyrinth is not (he supposes) synchronous with the time preceding his entry, which has continued in his absence, nor with the time in which (he supposes, guiltily) his mother is now looking for him.

Beginning to appreciate the ingenuity of the Labyrinth, which is more properly described as a Labyrinth of Infinitely Receding Triangles.

For when the child makes a choice—left, middle, right—right, right-middle, left-middle, left—there is the alternative child-self who takes alternative paths. And each of these selves has engendered, or will engender, alternative selves.

Already the (defiant) child is lost to the (overly-trusting) mother. As soon as he’d stepped into the Labyrinth loss suffused them each like a smell of brackish water.

In the Zone, the child has been alone. The friendly black German shepherd dog has yet to appear.

And then, at a subsequent fork of the path, the child is greeted by the friendly black German shepherd dog!

Delighted, with childish relief. The child takes a seat in front of the German shepherd who is (obviously, the child can see this) a robot, though a very realistic-looking dog. The child pets the dog, wanting to think that the stiff synthetic fur is actual fur, coarse from the brackish pools. The tawny-golden eyes shine.

The child is invited by the Friendly Dog to participate in an interactive game. Your Fractal Twin.

Though the Friendly Dog is a “dog” he/it is also more essentially a mirror of the child.

Oliver laughs, the Friendly Dog has made him very happy. Though he is eleven years old and not a young child yet he is not thinking so clearly now, to be made very happy by the Friendly Dog, and to trust the Friendly Dog when (he can see) the Friendly Dog is but the carapace of a machine that has (probably) not been programmed in the childs best interest.

Sierpinski triangles within triangles. Oliver tries to calculate how far inside the Labyrinth he actually is, how many triangles in. Five? Six? More? He’d intended to navigate the maze by reverting always toward the center but has been distracted in the Zone.

Begin with any key.

Oliver strikes the return key. On the screen instructions appear. These, he follows. Questions appear, he answers. Almost Oliver laughs, the game is not so difficult as he’d expected.

Strike any key. For all keys are a single key and no single key matters.

Oliver hesitates. Which key to strike? But of course, it does not matter—all keys, like all doors, lead to the same place.

Oliver strikes the letter O, as a capital. For O. means Oliver.

In that instant the Friendly Dog reaches out in a swift unerring gesture of a foreleg, seizes the child by his upper body and with a powerful wrenching snaps the child’s upper spine and neck, as one might snap the vertebrae of any small mammal. There is no resistance, the child had no idea what was coming, and in the next instance the child ceases to exist.

The small limp body lies broken on the floor. Still warm, though no longer breathing, within seconds it is liquefied. Through vents in the wall a vacuum sucks the remains away and within thirty seconds nothing remains of the child except shreds of clothing, pieces of a sneaker, a glaring-white fragment of bone. A smashed iPad.

By the time the next pilgrim/subject takes a turn in the path, and discovers the Friendly Dog, these pieces of debris too have vanished.

 

10.

It is 12:47 p.m. The anxious mother has returned to the entrance of the Labyrinth and is making a spectacle of herself, as visitors to the Museum look on gravely.

Demanding again to be taken into the Labyrinth by Museum officials. Threatening to call the police.

But is she absolutely certain that her child entered the Labyrinth?

Yes, she is certain. Yes!

Doubt is being raised. Witnesses have been discovered who do not agree with the mothers charges. A Museum guard says that hed seen the mother with a small boy, asweetfaced, shy” boy with eyeglasses and a school hoodie, but not in the vicinity of the Labyrinth: in the Museum café.

A middle-aged man whom the woman is certain she has never seen before steps forward to volunteer that hed definitely seen aredhaired boy, a little mischievous scamp, ten or eleven years oldplaying the Fractal Topology video game—but that had been on the first floor of the Museum, at least two hours before.

Weakly the mother protests, that could not have been Oliver. There is only one Oliver, and he must be in the Labyrinth, except the Museum officials wont allow her to look for him, she will have no choice but to go to the police . . .

Rehearsing how she will plead with the father—Our son has disappeared. I have lost him. Forgive me, our son is lost in the Fractal Museum.

 

11.

Maam.”

A kind person is pressing damp towels against her forehead. She has no idea what she looks like. In the security video her features seem to have melted, her face is a blur. She is of an unknown age: somewhere between twenty and forty. But no, she has not been twenty in a long time. Her hair is faded-red, possibly it is laced prematurely with silver. Her skin is drained of blood, the redheads pallor, an Irish complexion perhaps, freckles like splotches of rust-tinged water.

I dont know why I am here. Im not sure where I am. Though I have been drawn tofractals.

This is hardly true. She isn’t sure what fractals are. Something to do with—math? physics? computers?

. . . mixed up with black holes. Gravityevents.

She has been a wife, and a mother. She has wrestled with the conundrum: inside the laundry dryer which is a (finite) space, how can articles of clothing disappear?

If a pair of socks disappears, you do not notice. Only when one sock disappears do you notice. So possibly there are more disappearances than are perceived.

In the black hole, gravity sucks light inside. You must imagine for you can’t actually experience or measure non-being. Indeed, the universe may be mostly non-being.

She is feeling better. She has forgotten what it is she has forgotten.

Amnesia! It is a rare malaise of the spirit that amnesia cannot heal.

Strangers are whispering about her. She is both anxious to leave and yet reluctant to leave. She is desperate to flee this place of confinement yet she is wary of being excluded, expelled. She knga-sw: if you exit the Museum, there is NO RE-ENTRY.

She has come to loathe and fear the atmosphere of the Fractal Museum which is a constant murmur of fans, air vents, machines. A constant murmur of voices. Children’s complaints, small ticking sounds like the manic heartbeats of crickets.

She hears too acutely. All of her senses are too acute.

Needs a tissue. Her nose is running, eyes leaking.

In the tote bag are receipts for many (old, recent) purchases. Two tickets to the Fractal Museum. Adult, child.

Obviously a receipt for two tickets must belong to someone else for shed come to the Museum alone. Mustve fluttered into her tote bag or been given to her by mistake. She crumples the receipt and sets it aside as if it were an annoyance.

Are you feeling better, maam? You are looking a little betternot so pale. Still, we should call an ambulanc. . .

“Please don’t call an ambulance!” Suddenly she is begging. She will not sue the Museum, she promises. Oh please!

Cant imagine why she is here. Whatever this place is.

It is explained to her that she is approximately two hundred and fifty miles from her home. If indeed she has come from New Haven, Connecticut, which her drivers license indicates is her home, as it has indicated that her name is Amanda.

Directions to her address by car have been printed out for her by the kindly Museum staff. (As if, having gotten to the Fractal Museum, she could not simply reverse her route, to return home!)

But she is polite. She is a polite person. Trained to be polite, and by nature polite. Thanking the Museum people. The woman with the Pritt badge. Courteous Museum guards. Individuals practiced in dealing with hysterical visitors. Mothers who have lost their children. Adults who have lost their elderly parents in the Fractal Museum. Husbands who have lost their wives. Miscarriages?

A stillborn baby is not a fetus. A fetus is not a baby. A fetus has no history.

They have been very kind: they have brought her to this warm, interior room where it is quiet. She can lie undisturbed on a sofa, she can rest. For if she tries to stand too quickly the blood will drain from her head, and she will faint. It is an effort to keep her eyes open.

Gradually she becomes aware of something strange about the room. The walls. On all sides, walls that are not covered in wallpaper, or with a coat of paint, but rather with something like—could it be skin? Soft-leather skin like the skin of a (not-yet-born) creature.

Exuding an air of warmth. Blood-warmth. Thinnest of membranes, lightly freckled.

Maam?smiling M.W. Pritt stands before her with tawny shining eyes, offering a very black cup of coffee from the Museum café.

 

12.

Days dark as Norwegian nights. Rain pelting against windows, rushing down drainpipes. The husband away and the wife, the mother, at home with the baby cuddled in her arms. Both naked.

Flesh of my flesh. Blood of my blood.

Before the birth, cells from the embryo made their way through the placenta into the very marrow of the mothers bone. After the birth, cells remain in the mother that might one day be required for the restoration of the mothers health.

How happy she is! Suffused with joy.

Hed told her no. That is, hed told her yes.

*

Pregannt.

No: pregnent

No: pregnant.

Her tongue was numb. Her tongue had become a desiccated old sponge. Her tongue could not manage speech.

Amanda, what did you say?preee

Fear. Wariness. Caution. The (instinctive) male response.

They’d made their (his) decision. Well, it was hers (his), too. Will you love me, she’d asked.

Will you love me.

He took her to the Clinic. Of coursehed driven.

Waited with her. Held her hand. He’d brought work to do. He always brought work. His eyes danced with work. His soul festered with work.

He was/was not the father. Yet.

At that age, has the fetus a soul? No.

The correct term is not “age”—I think. The terminology is weeks: how many.

The crucial thing is, you don’t name them before birth. That is not a good idea.

Primitive people often do not name babies/children until they are several years old. So that if they die, the loss is not so great.

An unnamed child is not mourned as a “named” child would be mourned?

Her name was called. A name was called, beginning with A.

A was unsteady on her feet for theyd provided her with a round white pill and she had not slept the previous night nor many previous nights lapping leaden against a hard-packed shore. Her companion who was/was not the father walked with her to the door gripping her icy hand and his eyes were damp with tears hot and hurtful as acid. Asking her yet another time if she was all right and what could she say but yes of course.

Stumbling back to his chair in the waiting room. He would wait, how long. The actual surgical procedure was not more than a few minutes. They knew: they’d researched the procedure. They were the type to (carefully, exhaustively) research all things that touched upon their lives which challenged their control.

Prep took a while. Anesthetic is recommended. Absolutely. Cervix is forced open wide with a speculum, very tender, interior of the body, best to be numb, asleep. Suction.

Oh Peter—I took a tranqizziler. Feels so funny . . .

Tran-lil-lizzer?

On the gurney, legs spread. Shoes off, in stocking feet. Naked from the waist down. Very cold, shaking. OK to keep the bra on. Otherwise, naked. Paper smock, pale green like crepe paper.

This will pinch a little. Hey—that vein just wriggled away . . .

. . . small veins. Maybe use a children’s needle . . .

. . . will take twice as long. Let me try.

Suction. Suck-tion. It did not hurt, she was miles away. If there was hurt in the room it was not hers. Head was a balloon bobbing against the ceiling. Heels pressed hard against stirrups.

The vacuum sucked thirstily. The gluey remains vanished.

In the other room the distracted father was logging into his laptop.

Password, invalid. What the hell?—he types it again, alarmed. This time the screen comes alive.

*

In another story, the son hopes to be an architect.

“An architect is the one looking down, and in.

 

13.

Maam? You are looking as if you have lost something.

Yes, she has. She has lost something. She laughs awkwardly for she isnt sure what.

Is it so obvious—the terrible loss in her face?

The uniformed woman is smiling at her. A smile stitched into the face. M.W. Pritt is the name on the plastic badge.

“He was just here with me, a few minutes ago. HeI thinkwent into the Labyrint. . . I suppose he must still be in the Labyrinth.

It had been a child. Or, an elderly white-haired gentleman with kindly eyes that would not engage with hers.

Uncertainly Amanda speaks, almost apologetically. Her heart is beating rapidly as if hoping to outrun her anxious thoughts.

He is gone gone gone. You have lost lost lost him. You are damned damned damned and this is hell hell hell.

MaamAmandaIm sure that I saw you come into the Museum about an hour ago, and Im very certain you were alone. In fact youd come into the Museum at the same time another woman came in, a woman of about your age, who had several children with her, and Id thought at first that you were together, friends whod brought their children to the Museum together. But that wasnt the case, evidently. You were alone. You are alone. You bought your ticket and you made an awkward joke about the tickets being expensive—for such an obscure museum. And our ticket seller Mary Margaret said: Distances are deceiving in the Museum, maam. Visitors are often surprised. For some reason, you laughed at Mary Margarets remark.”

It might be her passport Amanda was afraid of losing. Many of her dreams are of losing her passport in a foreign country where she doesnt know the language. Often shed lose her plane ticket as well.

But—this isnt a foreign country, thank God!

Laughing nervously. M.W. Pritt in boxy jacket and pleated skirt, bosom hard as armor, regards her with something beyond pity but does not join in her laughter.

“There are many variants of foreign, Amanda. Some people are surprised to learn.

And: I dont think you quite realized why you were laughing, Amanda. Sometimes its better to think before you laugh.

That is certainly correct. Amanda has no idea why she’d laughed that morning purchasing a single, overpriced ticket for the Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine.

 

14.

After the Fractal Museum she will drive to Prouts Neck at the shore, to hike along the beach in a swirl of icy froth. The Atlantic has been whipped to savagery by rushing winds on this November afternoon. Scarcely is it possible to imagine another season, a warmer light—waves peacefully lapping to shore, expelling foam like harmless tongues lolling on the beach.

Perhaps this afternoon she will hike out beyond the crashing waves, beyond the seaweed-shrouded boulders. Icy waves pummeling her slight body against the hard-packed sand. The end will be swift, merciful—her (unprotected) skull cracked against a great rock puckered as if for a kiss.

But no: she has brought her small inexpensive camera, she will take pictures of the sea, the sea shore, the November sky ragged with clouds. Ocean debris, seaweed and rotted things, desiccated fish, corpses of unnamed creatures, skeletal remains like lace. When the husband sees the digital images he will squeeze her hand and say half in reproach—You see, darling? I’ve always tried to encourage you. Everyone has tried to encourage you. You have an eye for beauty in the least beautiful things.

Also: she is thrilled at the prospect of examining close up Winslow Homer drawings and paintings she has never seen before.

There is beauty, and it is outside us. Yet, it is us.

That is why she’d driven so far that morning, she realizes. Rising early in the dark, driving against the wind until her arms and shoulders and head ached. A purpose to her most impulsive acts, she must learn to have faith and to combat depression settling like a shroud of mist around her, through which only the sharpest and most corrosive sun-rays can break.

Yet she is reluctant to leave this place. For still, after so many hours, she is in the Fractal Museum.

A warm room, if slightly airless. No windows. No security cameras. (That she can detect.) No one to observe how strangely she is drawn to the wall beside her, to what covers the wall, taut and tight as skin.

A thrill of horror comes over her. For it does seem to be—the walls surface is neither paint nor wallpaper but a sort of membrane, a skin, soft, heartrendingly soft, exuding a barely discernible warm pulse like a living thing. It is lightly freckled, like droplets of water tinged with cinnamon, or—turmeric . . . In wonderment she touches it—just the lightest touch, with the fingers of her right hand.

Maam? Were sorry, the Fractal Museum is closing now.” Yes! Of course. It is time for her to leave.

By the rear exit with the blunt admonition EXIT: NO RE-ENTRY.

Only one vehicle remains in the parking lot. If the key tightly gripped in her hand fits the ignition, obviously that vehicle is hers.

__________________________________

From Beautiful Days: Stories. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2018 by Joyce Carol Oates.




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