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The Phantoms of the Maze

Here's a short story that echoes our contemporary quests for solutions, for final grounds, and uncontested spaces. It's a parable on activism, on meeting shadows, on the queerness of the universe, and the irony of being alive.

I am not sure how the story is told, but I would venture a try.

Once, whether in the past or present or future, or in an entangled mess of the three, there was a maze. And a grand thing it was, this maze – for it had dead-ends, short-cuts, promising branches, and no resolution.

In this giant maze, there lived people who devoted their waking moments to seeking a way out – and the world outside was all they could think of.
Mothers sang their children to sleep with lullabies knitted with stories of the ‘outside’; rulers contrived titles and fancy genealogies from fables of ancestors who had known the world beyond the maze; and, wise men drew more followers if they behaved strangely enough to warrant their celebrity.

And yet no one could find it. The way out. The Grand Outside.

With each passing generation came a new hope for redemption. A man would cry that he had found a path not yet taken, and the whole village – or those that were not yet too cynical of men and their messages – would rise up and follow him. After an eternity of coming to closed areas, or coming round in dreary circles, many would simply give up along the way. And those too far from home (or too confused about how to get home – you see, ‘farness’ and ‘nearness’ were not very useful ideas in the maze) or too defeated to attempt a journey to their loved ones would slump at the foot of the giant walls and live the rest of their miserable hours cursing their lot. Soon, the bones of ancient pilgrims lined the walls of the Puzzle, and rumours of ghosts (for ‘ghosts’ was what they called them then) roaming the shadowy paths terrified the people to no end.

One day, a little lad happened upon a wandering spectre and asked her quite frankly, ‘Say, do you know the way out?’ The ghastly apparition seemed to smile through the mist that beclouded her, and then she beckoned on the boy, leading him to a tiny crack in the wall that, somehow, no one had noticed. She raised her hands towards the crack and, with nary a word said, floated through the wall.

It soon became news throughout the entire maze that a special event had happened. Before long, the population congregated around the crack, and the strongest men were recruited to widen the deceptively delicate tear in the wall. When the light was in the sky and the shadows of the wall didn’t present an impediment, the men raised sophisticated tools to drill through the wall. The angry noise of those frowning machines could be heard everywhere, bouncing off the mocking surfaces of the walls, stirring babies awake, and echoing in the drunken hopes of older men who were too weak to join the struggle. In time, everyone got used to the purring, gnarling, grrrr-ing sounds the machine made. Indeed, it became music to the ears of many, a rousing call to the morning’s chores for maids, and a signal to end the day’s work for men who worked the fields.

In enlightened circles of animated discourse, the elders discussed the implications of penetrating the crack, the right protocols for engaging the issues that would confront them outside the maze, where the ‘visiting ghosts’ had come from, and how the crack had come to be. Their sneering sons and daughters – those who felt inspired to get involved – thought they were savvy enough to invent better machines to aid the precious work of the moment.

And yet, that crack did not get any bigger. No matter what the men did. No matter how eagerly their women fed them. No matter how much they pressed their teeth together. The crack stayed resolute. Soon some, in their raving madness, tried to squeeze themselves through the crack – which was just as meaningful a venture as an elephant attempting to climb through a keyhole.

Generations came and went. Newer versions of that faithful machine emerged. The most updated version hardly made a sound, and yet it was even more powerful. The maze’s population had brilliant scientists who studied the way cuts were made, and how to make sharper ones. With each passing regime of drilling came a new fervor: the hope that when the cutting knives were drawn out from the crack, they would be sprinkled with dust and small stones – thus keeping alive the belief that the walls could come down.

No items found.

It was in this milieu that the story was told of another strange encounter – this time between a lady who had suffered a terrible heartbreak and another spectre (later, people soon began to realize that the phantoms of the maze only seemed to appear to those who were young enough or ‘mangled enough’). It was reported that she saw her like a grey cloud in the distance. Not flesh and bone.

Having nothing to fear or nothing to lose, she walked to the phantom and asked her just as frankly as the lad had decades before her:

“I want out! You know the way don’t you? You people seem to. Please. Tell me. How do I get out?”

And like the ghost before her, this ghost, in response, lifted her hand toward the crack in the wall, which was almost visible to everyone now – for cities were now built around the crack, the richest and most affluent families buying for themselves plots of land closest to the intriguing interstice – the gap that allowed none to pass.

“The Crack?” she screamed in disbelief. “No one really thinks that’s helping anymore – not that it ever did!”

She calmed herself, now a little bit more aware that she was in the presence of something terrible and otherworldly.

“Don’t you see? The crack is too small to slip through, and we aren’t making it any bigger no matter how hard we try – and those who even care to admit this are branded ‘conspiracy theorists’.”

“Well, I never said you should go through it”, the ghost replied, literally out of the blue. Or the grey, as it were.

Half amazed that these figures could talk back, and half confused about her response, the heartbroken lady asked, “But…but how else do we find our way out if not by going through it?”

The ghost chuckled. “It depends on what you mean by ‘through’, dear one. I also didn’t say anything about there being an ‘outside’ either.”

“There is no outside? There is nothing outside the maze? But how could that be?”

The ghost turned to depart, and then was halted by a consideration or something finer than considerations.

“The trick is noticing that you are not in the maze, my girl.” She turned again to face her. “You are the maze. ‘You’ are the very conditions you seek to evade.”

The girl needn’t have spoken: her appearance betrayed her befuddlement.

“I don’t understand anything you’ve said.”

“Of course. You see, the crack is where the maze folds in on itself, where it touches itself, where it arouses the many, where it encounters its strangeness, where…” The ghost noticed the lady looked even more bewildered. She smiled again – as if pleased by this, and glided closer to her.

“Forgive me! I tend to get ahead of myself sometimes. But you, dear child. You only just suffered a heartbreak, did you not, my girl?”

Startled, she offered a burdened ‘yes’, followed by a breathy inquiry: “But how do you know that?”

“Maybe how I come to know things”, the ghost said in response, “is a lot different than how you come to know things.”

And when the ghost pressed her on the circumstances of her grief, she replied, her lips pressed firmly in defiance of the tears that streamed down her face: “He left me with…for her.” The half-words, rapid sniffing and grunts that followed left her undone, bringing her to the earth in shuddering heaves of pregnant anguish.

“Now, now, girl”, the ghost said, “it’s alright to cry. To feel this sadness.”

She continued speaking to her, “I know a place where things yearn and grieve, where sorrows touch themselves in perverse places.”

“You do? Others like me?” she asked.

“Yes”, Nethrielduor said (for that was the ghost’s name). “Others such as you.”

After that, the girl and the ghost walked for moments, whispering tales into each other’s ears, coaxing the curiosity of other shadowy creatures. While the city slept. A wafting cloud and an abandoned girl embroidering the chirruping night into a quilt of slanting yellow eyes and peering stars. At least that’s how it is sometimes told.

They came shortly to the scar. The Crack. It was littered with memories, little bolts, oily curios, shrapnel of wood and black dust. The Machine – with protruding knives half-way through the crack – looked even more menacing up close. Unbidden, the girl walked to the Crack and pressed her face on it, her tears disappearing into tiny circular stains of wetness when they touched the battered surface.

“I know how you feel. I know how you feel.” That was all she said. Perhaps words were hardly needed.

Minutes later, as if possessed by a daemon, she ran past Nethrielduor, picking here and there, looking under things, turning stones over, touching surfaces, stopping and unfurling and then dashing off again in the opposite direction, like an errant lightning bolt in search of the seeking ground. She soon came again to that place of sorrows, to that mighty Crack – this time with a small bag of soil and some grain in her hand.

“What are you doing?” Nethrielduor asked, a barely perceptible gasp of pleasure dancing at the tips of her cloudy tentacles.

But she said no more words. At least that’s how it is sometimes told. All I know is she kept throwing the dirt she had gathered at the crack – throughout the night, punching little seeds in the loamy entrails of the congealing mass of soil. She never stopped throwing. And she never stopped crying.

In the wee hours of the morning, the celebrated men of the maze who worked the machine, their wives who fed them, their children that waited upon them, their elders that regaled them with embellished memories, and peeping shadows afraid of light and sound, stood silent at the Crack. But it was no longer the Crack. It was now a fresco of sand and seed. A mosaic of anguish, troubled by a hint of peace. There was a face in the rough. Pale flesh and bone. A young girl’s. Breaking through the grit of brown and the swirl of the unsaid.

In potent silence, the people of the maze brought down the Machine, and from that day on – for reasons that are best unspoken – never mentioned the ‘outside’ again. They erected a monument of wood to the girl – the girl whose anguish and sorrow had painted a single night with eternal longing. And healed all the nights to come.

Everywhere little children enacted that silent night, throwing dirt on the wall and planting seeds at the foot of the wall. Young mothers told their children stories of the girl who healed the wound in the wall, men waited by them, and the drunk elders drew their histories closer to the girl’s. And for a time, some would swear that the girl was a prophet sent to teach us that there are no such things as solutions, and that when we treat ‘problems’ like discrete objects we can control – outside of us – we build more walls around us. That might as well as be true, for no one ever spoke of the wall anymore. No one needed to.

Today, I still feel a strange awe visiting that fresco of dirt and trees and petrified face, wondering at the mysteries of that first night when time and space touched herself, when the people stood still, when the Machine came down, and when mothers in quiet sobbing reverence used their fingers to paint the words on wood: “Here sleeps Nethrielduor.”