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11

Starlight asked Non-Entity, Master, do you exist? or do you not exist? He got no answer to his question, however...

Chuang Tse: XXH

Some time that night, as Orr was trying to find his way through the suburbs of chaos to Corbett Avenue, an Aldebaranian Alien stopped him and persuaded him to come with it He came along, docile. He asked it after a while if it was Tiuak Ennbe Ennbe, but he did not ask with much conviction, and did not seem to mind when the Alien explained, rather laboriously, that he was called Jor Jor and it was called Enememen Asfah.

It took him to its apartment near the river, over a bicycle repair shop and next door to the Hope Eternal Gospel Mission, which was pretty full up, tonight. All over the world the various gods were being requested, more or less politely, for an explanation of what had occurred between 6:25 and 7:08 P.M. Pacific Standard Time. Sweetly discordant, Rock of Ages rang underfoot as they climbed dark stairs to a second-story flat. The Alien there suggested that he lie down on the bed, as he looked tired. Sleep that knits up the ravelld sleave of care, it said.

To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, theres the rub, Orr replied. There was, he thought, something to the curious manner in which the Aliens communicated; but he was much too tired to decide what. Where will you sleep? he inquired, sitting down heavily on the bed.

No where, the Alien replied, its toneless voice dividing the word into two equally significant wholes.

Orr stooped to unlace his shoes. He didnt want to get the Aliens bedspread dirty with his shoes, that would be scarcely a fair return for kindness. Stooping made him dizzy. I am tired, he said. I did a lot today. That is, I did something. The only thing I have ever done. I pressed a button. It took the entire will power, the accumulated strength of my entire existence, to press one damned OFF button.

You have lived well, the Alien said.

It was standing in a corner, apparently intending to stand there indefinitely.

It was not standing there, Orr thought: not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be. It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing. It was there in the sense that in a dream one is somewhere.

He lay back. He clearly sensed the pity and protective compassion of the Alien standing across the dark room. It saw him, not with eyes, as short-lived, fleshly, armorless, a strange creature, infinitely vulnerable, adrift in the gulfs of the possible: something that needed help. He didnt mind. He did need help. Weariness took him over, picked him up like a current of the sea into which he was sinking slowly. Er perrehnne, he muttered, surrendering to sleep.

Er perrehnne,replied Enememen Asfah, soundlessly.

Orr slept. He dreamed. There was no rub. His dreams, like waves of the deep sea far from any shore, came and went, rose and fell, profound and harmless, breaking nowhere, changing nothing. They danced the dance among all the other waves in the sea of being. Through his sleep the great, green sea turtles dived, swimming with heavy inexhaustible grace through the depths, in their element.

In early June the trees were in full leaf and the roses blooming. All over the city the large, old-fashioned ones, tough as weeds, called the Portland Rose, flowered pink on thorny stems. Things had settled down pretty well. The economy was recovering. People were mowing their lawns.

Orr was at the Federal Asylum for the Insane at Linnton, a little north of Portland. The buildings, put up early in the nineties, stood on and great bluff overlooking the water meadows of the Willamette and the Gothic elegance of the St. Johns Bridge. They had been horribly overcrowded there in late April and May, with the plague of mental breakdowns that had followed on the inexplicable events of the evening that was now referred to as The Break; but that had eased off, and asylum routine was back to its understaffed, overcrowded, terrible norm.

A tall, soft-spoken orderly took Orr upstairs to the single-bed rooms in the north wing. The door leading into this wing and the doors of all the rooms in it were heavy, with a little spyhole grating five feet up, and all of them were locked.

Its not that hes troublesome, the orderly said as he unlocked the corridor door. Never been violent. But he had this bad effect on the others. We tried him in two wards. No go. The others were scared of him, never saw anything like it. They all affect each other and get panics and wild nights and so on, but not like this. They were scared of him. Be clawing at the doors, nights, to get away from him. And all he ever did was just lay there. Well, you see everything here, sooner or later. He dont care where he is, I guess. Here you are. He unlocked the door and preceded Orr into the room. Visitor, Dr. Haber, he said.

Haber was thin. The blue and white pajamas hung lank on him. His hair and beard were cut shorter, but were well cared for and neat. He sat on the bed and stared at the void.

Dr. Haber, Orr said, but his voice failed; he felt excruciating pity, and fear. He knew what Haber was looking at. He had seen it himself. He was looking at the world after April 1998. He was looking at the world as misunderstood by the mind: the bad dream.

There is a bird in a poem by T. S. Eliot who says that mankind cannot bear very much reality; but the bird is mistaken. A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality that he cannot bear.

Haber was lost. He had lost touch.

Orr tried to speak again, but found no words. He backed out, and the orderly, right with him, closed and locked the door.

I cant, Orr said. Theres no way.

No way, the orderly said.

Going down the corridor, he added in his soft voice, Dr. Walters tells me he was a very promising scientist.

Orr returned to downtown Portland by boat. Transportation was still rather confused; pieces, remnants, and commencements of about six different public-transportation systems cluttered up the city. Reed College had a subway station, but no subway; the funicular to Washington Park ended at the entrance to a tunnel which went halfway under the Willamette and then stopped. Meanwhile, an enterprising fellow had refitted a couple of boats that used to run tours up and down the Willamette and Columbia, and was using them as ferries on regular runs between Linnton, Vancouver, Portland, and Oregon City. It made a pleasant trip.

Orr had taken a long lunch hour for the visit to the asylum. His employer, the Alien Enememen Asfah, was indifferent to hours worked and interested only in work done. When one did it was ones own concern. Orr did a good deal of his in his head, lying in bed half-awake for an hour before he got up in the morning.

It was three oclock when he got back to the Kitchen Sink and sat down in front of his drafting table in the workshop. Asfah was in the showroom waiting on customers. He had a staff of three designers, and contracts with various manufacturers who made kitchen equipment of all sorts, bowls, cookware, implements, tools, everything short of heavy appliances. Industry and distribution had been left in disastrous confusion by The Break; national and international government had been so distraught for weeks that a state of laissez faire had prevailed perforce, and small private firms that had been able to keep going or get started during this period were in a good position. In Oregon a number of these firms, all handling material goods of one kind or another, were run by Aldebaranians; they were good managers and extraordinary salesmen, though they had to hire human beings for all handwork. The Government liked them because they willingly accepted governmental constraints and controls, for the world economy was gradually pulling itself back together. People were even talking about the Gross National Product again, and President Merdle had predicted a return to normalcy by Christmas.

Asfah sold retail as well as wholesale, and the Kitchen Sink was popular for its sturdy wares and fair prices. Since The Break, housewives, refurnishing the unexpected kitchens they had found themselves cooking in that evening in April, had come in increasing numbers. Orr was looking over some wood samples for cutting boards when he heard one saying, Id like one of those egg whisks, and because the voice reminded him of his wifes voice he got up and looked into the showroom. Asfah was showing something to a middle-sized brown woman of thirty or so, with short, black, wiry hair on a well-shaped head.

Heather, he said, coming forward.

She turned. She looked at him for what seemed a long time. Orr, she said. George Orr. Right? When did I know you?

In He hesitated. Arent you a lawyer?

Enememen Asfah stood immense in greenish armor, holding an egg whisk.

Nope. Legal secretary. I work for Rutti and Goodhue, in the Pendleton Building.

That must be it. I was in there once. Do you, do you like that? I designed it. He took another egg whisk from the bin and displayed it to her. Good balance, see. And it works fast. They usually make the wires too taut, or too heavy, except in France.

Its good-looking, she said. I have an old electric mixer but I wanted at least to hang that on the wall. You work here? You didnt use to. I remember now. You were in some office on Stark Street, and you were seeing a doctor on Voluntary Therapy.

He had no idea what, or how much, she recalled, nor how to fit it in with his own multiple memories.

His wife, of course, had been gray-skinned. There were still gray people now, it was said, particularly in the Middle West and Germany, but most of the rest had gone back to white, brown, black, red, yellow, and mixtures. His wife had been a gray person, a far gentler person than this one, he thought. This Heather carried a big black handbag with a brass snap, and probably a half pint of brandy inside; she came on hard. His wife had been unaggressive and, though courageous, timid in manner. This was not his wife, but a fiercer woman, vivid and difficult.

Thats right, he said. Before The Break. We had... Actually, Miss Lelache, we had a date for lunch. At Daves, on Ankeny. We never made it.

Im not Miss Lelache, thats my maiden name. Im Mrs. Andrews.

She eyed him with curiosity. He stood and endured reality.

My husband was killed in the war in the Near East, she added.

Yes, Orr said.

Do you design all these things?

Most of the tools and stuff. And the cookware. Look, do you like this? He hauled out a copper-bottom teakettle, massive and yet elegant, as proportioned by necessity as a sailing ship.

Who wouldnt? she said, putting out her hands. He gave it to her. She hefted and admired it. I like things, she said.

He nodded.

Youre a real artist. Its beautiful.

Mr. Orr is expert with tangibles, the proprietor put in, toneless, speaking from the left elbow.

Listen, I remember, Heather said suddenly. Of course, it was before The Break, thats why its all mixed up in my mind. You dreamed, I mean, you thought you dreamed things that came true. Didnt you? And the doctor was making you do more and more of it, and you didnt want him to, and you were looking for a way to get out of Voluntary Therapy with him without getting clobbered with Obligatory. See, I do remember it. Did you ever get assigned to another shrink?

No. Outgrew em, Orr said, and laughed. She also laughed.

What did you do about the dreams?

Oh... went on dreaming.

I thought you could change the world. Is this the best you could do for usthis mess?

Itll have to do, he said.

He would have preferred less of a mess himself, but it wasnt up to him. And at least it had her in it. He had sought her as best he could, had not found her, and had turned to his work for solace; it had not given much, but it was the work he was fit to do, and he was a patient man. But now his dry and silent grieving for his lost wife must end, for there she stood, the fierce, recalcitrant, and fragile stranger, forever to be won again.

He knew her, he knew his stranger, how to keep her talking and how to make her laugh. He said finally, Would you like a cup of coffee? Theres a cafe next door. Its time for my break.

The hell it is, she said; it was quarter to five. She glanced over at the Alien. Sure Id like some coffee, but

Ill be back in ten minutes. Enememen Asfah, Orr said to his employer as he went for his raincoat.

Take evening, the Alien said. There is time. There are returns. To go is to return.

Thank you very much, Orr said, and shook hands with his boss. The big green flipper was cool on his human hand. He went out with Heather into the warm, rainy afternoon of summer. The Alien watched them from within the glass-fronted shop, as a sea creature might watch from an aquarium, seeing them pass and disappear into the mist.


| The Lathe Of Heaven |







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