In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi56 min read
We’ve spoken about your use of the “weird” in your stories, but have you personally ever experienced anything akin to something that might happen to one of Lovecraft’s characters?
Yes—despite all evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that I once read a short story called “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi.” It was a dreamy vignette, like a fable or fairy tale made modern with a peppering of acerbic, self-aware remarks. All I can really recall of the plot is the character of the alchemist Ibn Ghazi himself, melancholy and pacing his lush and magical gardens with his hands clasped behind his back—well, that, and there was a woman who had come to ask him for his formula for the powder mentioned in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” I can’t remember the suppliant’s concern, just that the powder revealed “that which was most desperate to remain concealed,” and concealment of some sort was at the heart of the woman’s woes. Ibn Ghazi couldn’t decide if he would give it to her or not.
I liked the story just fine, but in truth it was a mediocre piece, or at least a forgettable one. I don’t believe I would have thought about it again if not for, of all things, one of the “unique items” in the board game Arkham Horror. In the game, the Powder of Ibn Ghazi is a magic weapon that gives you +9 to your combat roll—pretty good. Anyway, the first time I played Arkham Horror I pulled that card, and the name Ibn Ghazi pulled on the thread of my memory. The tug was strong enough that I picked up my phone to Google the story right there during the game. I thought I remembered a clever conceit at the end of the tale, but I could not recall the nature of the twist.
Nothing turned up in my search results, not even when I put quotes around the title. The story did not appear to exist. At the time, I told myself I just had to scroll a little further, a little deeper than I could while playing a board game with friends. But later, when I got back to my laptop, I still had no luck.
It gave me a queer feeling—one I’ve never been able to fully shake. I know that’s a huge statement for something that must seem so trivial … but at the same time, please understand me when I say that I’m sure I read this story. My memory of its images—those I can recall, I mean—is as sharp in my mind as many of my own past experiences, and now it is sharper still, whetted by my subsequent mental self-interrogation.
I would not say the mystery of this missing story is an obsession of mine, but it does preoccupy me at times. As a minor Lovecraftian author, the Gentleman from Providence is often in my thoughts, and the minutiae of his oeuvre are frequent subtle notes in the chords I seek to strike with words. I am also fairly familiar with the work of my colleagues, for I read widely, and with intention, and of course I am acquainted with many of them personally. None of them knows of what I speak—the title has rung no bells for any of the writers or editors I have asked about it. So you can see, I am sure, why it gnaws at me … Better, perhaps, to say it nibbles here and there. But I ask you, if “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi” isn’t a real story, why do I have such a strong recollection of it? From whence did that image of the alchemist’s broody pacing come? And why oh why do I remember its mediocre conceits but not its brilliant conclusion? It’s just strange, and I wish I knew what to make of it all.
That was how it all began. Upon reflection, this portion of my interview in The Paris Review does read like a cry for help—and people who are into H. P. Lovecraft are famously, sometimes even notoriously helpful. Several emails from armchair Lovecraft experts trickled in over the subsequent weeks after the magazine’s publication, most with links to stories that were most decidedly not my half-remembered tale. Only one individual suggested that acid developed by MK-Ultra might be at work, which is pretty good for Lovecraft enthusiasts, actually.
Then I received a letter of invitation in the mail. Would you like to see it? I have it here. Just look at that beautiful handwriting—that oxblood-red ink! The paper is so lovely, too, like cream to the eyes and to the fingertips. Now hold it to the light—see the watermark? It looked to me like a serpent biting its own tail, an Ouroboros. I didn’t notice all that until after I read it, of course. Shall I read it to you? It begins so strangely:
Although it is very rude of me to contact you “out of the blue” as it were, I feel this matter is of such importance that I must throw caution—and manners!—to the wind. If you will be so kind as to keep reading, I will tell you my name is Upton de Vries. I got your address by making a large donation to the magazine in which your charming interview so recently appeared, but don’t be too cross. I had to get in touch with you, and that seemed the most efficacious method. Emails go awry so easily, or sit unopened in one’s inbox or spam trap. But a handwritten invitation is always opened immediately, is that not true?
You are probably asking, why is Upton de Vries so desperate to speak with me? Here is the thing. I am lucky that life has decreed I should become a successful producer of offbeat historical plays. If you follow theatre, you will have heard of my avant-garde staging of Euripides’ Bacchae that brought down the house at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016. Though my absence from the theatre world of late has been lamented in most major magazines, I have been too preoccupied with my current project to appease their wailing cries and lamentations that I should appear somewhere or other.
What is this project, you will ask? Well, I am producing a play, a curious one. I can find no record of it being performed in the modern age. The only copy seemingly in existence was discovered in a trunk belonging to the seventeenth-century French noblewoman Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, when it was recently sold at auction. After changing hands a few times, the manuscript came to me. A friend of mine at a major university thinks it was likely written as an entertainment for one of the marquise’s extended stays with her daughter in the village of Grignan in the South of France. Now you are probably asking, why is Upton de Vries telling me this? It is because the marquise’s play is called In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi.
As I said above, this is an invitation. Please, come and watch as we rehearse In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi at my remote and lovely estate in the Poconos. I think you should like to see it after all your fruitless questing, would you not?
I’ve always been an aficionado of all things Lovecraftian, and I think we both should be glad of that, because it means I found you, and read your curious tale, and that means I can provide some answers for you, perhaps. If you should like to come, RSVP with dates that suit you, but do make them within the next month. After that we shall be taking our show on the road as the saying goes, but those roads are on the European theatre festival circuit and thus less convenient to you.
Sincerely, Your humble servant,
Upton de Vries
I answered him. I mean, I Googled him first, of course. I found out he headed a company called “Hentopan Productions,” and from the description on the site, I learned that hen to pan is a phrase meaning “all is one” in Greek, and that it is associated with alchemy—and the ouroboros, explaining the paper’s watermark. The FAQ on de Vries’ website said he’d chosen the alchemical reference after his first hit, some notorious flop he’d turned into a smashing success. Lead into gold, and all that.
I also found out de Vries had been honored at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Festival d’Avignon, and more, but beyond that, his personal life was almost suspiciously quiet for an artist. No failed marriages, no children eager to write an exposé, no old #MeToo allegations. It is sometimes true that people are drawn to the arts because they want to actually make art, not for the potentially exploitable power dynamics. It seemed like de Vries was one of those, so I put my RSVP in the mail the very next morning along with a list of suggested dates.
I also asked if he would send me a copy of the play. I tried to do it casually, but in truth I was desperate. When I first read de Vries’ letter, my blood had quickened to hear that this “marquise de Sévigné” had written a play with the very title that had been rattling around in my mind for so long. I had to see it.
De Vries would not send me the marquise’s script, but he did book my visit for my soonest available days—he overnighted me a first-class ticket. The note with the ticket, done in the same elegant handwriting as the invitation, said, Allow me to apologize to you, my dear, but due to the secretive nature of our production we have only printed up enough copies for the actors. I know you must be feeling disappointed; I hope the ticket and the small gift I have included will mollify you.
What de Vries had included was indeed “mollifying”—it was an eighteenth-century travelogue called Foreign Climbs; or, A Lady’s Grand Tour of Monuments, Mountains, and Other Steep Phenomena by “A Lady,” as was common for the time. In spite of its beautiful state of preservation it was ancient—a first edition. I was astonished de Vries would send me, a stranger, such a rare and exquisite book as a gift. Here it is—is it not a handsome edition?
He had indicated a section very close to the end with a leather bookmark tooled with his signature ouroboros. So, that evening, after concluding my obligations for the day, I sat down with it at last in my favorite reading chair — and gasped. The marked passage was the start of a new chapter called “A Sojourn through Spain.” Beneath that, A Lady had followed the conventions of the era by starting with a brief description of the occurrences to come in the next few pages. It reads:
– Modern dancing at an ancient site (the Temple of Debod,
– All the colors of the Red Fortress (the Alhambra, Granada)
– In the garden of Ibn Ghazi (an estate, Barcelona)
– The Beginning of the End
Reasoning I could always go back and start from the beginning after divining what I could about the garden of Ibn Ghazi, I paged ahead. I had to know. As I have said, it is not that the missing story with its opaque title had consumed me — it’s just that its absence was a burden never wholly lifted from my mind. Here is the passage from the book:
Barcelona ought to put a mussel upon its coat of arms, for the occupants of that city are absolutely mad for them. They prefer them to far finer fishes, and the focus of much of their substantial culinary prowess is on creating delicious, savory broths and sauces for them. Every tavern in the land has their famous dish of mussels, each with a longer history of who hath made them and who hath enjoyed them than their competitors. Regardless of the veracity of these such tales, they are, all of them, delicious. You will find them cooked with broths and precious spices, others with white wine and herbs, still others with cream and bacon and paprika, though that is my least favorite way. I find the fat mutes, rather than enhances, the flavor of the mussel itself, even if it makes for a luscious sop for a good hunk of crusty bread.
The Viscount H— and I were eating chargrilled mussels with a sauce made of peppers and almonds when the players set up across the street. They were a gay, lively troupe, and a handful of merrily attired acrobats entertained us with jokes and japes while the others erected a small stage. The play they would perform, they said, was called In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi. We were intrigued, but the title appeared to make the locals uncomfortable for some reason. They began to murmur and elbow one another even before the play began, though neither my companion nor I could perceive why.
The play was, to my mind, unremarkable. The story was of a nobleman of Barcelona, a Moor by the name of Ibn Ghazi. Ibn Ghazi was a recluse whose only passion was gardening. He neglected all invitations, never entertained, never went to the theatre, never married, so much did he love his greenhouses and his flower beds. It was said that every plant in the world grew in the garden of Ibn Ghazi, even those one might call wicked—poisons and rare herbs with magickal properties. And it was said, too, that Ibn Ghazi knew how to make use of them all. He was an alchemist and sorcerer of great repute, a man of wisdom—but his judgment, while lauded, was not often witnessed. At least, that was how the people of Barcelona felt. They appealed to him for advice about their problems or for cures for diseases, but he had his apprentice turn most of them away at the door.
The tone of the play was disapproving; Ibn Ghazi was clearly the antagonist. When he refused to help those who came to him, they suffered; those his largesse compelled him to assist fared little better. It seemed to us that going near the man at all was akin to walking blithely into a burning building, but the desperate are, well—desperate.
We heard the tale of a young widow, pregnant with the child her husband had sired upon her before committing the act that sent him to the gallows; they both died when Ibn Ghazi would not give her a tincture to ease her labor, for fear that the child would grow up to also do evil in the world. Next, we heard the story of a man to whom Ibn Ghazi gave a sachet of rare herbs to cure a skin condition that had afflicted him his whole life; cured, he debauched himself for a month until he died of an excess of wine and women.
The vignette that most affected me was one of the tales of Ibn Ghazi’s miserliness. A woman came to Ibn Ghazi begging for the recipe for his notorious powder—a powder that could “reveal that which was most desperate to remain concealed.” Ibn Ghazi asked why she required it, and she replied that her brother was gambling away what little they had. The woman wanted to find this den of vice, but every time she tried to follow her brother he eluded her pursuit. He would turn a corner and simply be gone.
Ibn Ghazi considered her case but refused her the recipe; he agreed, however, to give her one dose of the powder, and sent his apprentice to fetch it for her. But when the apprentice returned with the powder, she opened the sachet—and used it on Ibn Ghazi himself! Of course, in that moment, what he was most desperate to conceal was the recipe, so he spake it aloud. The woman took that away in her mind even though she had none in her hand.
Just then, one of the acrobats shouted a warning. Quick as a flash they’d packed up their stage and trundled off into the alley, not too far ahead of two stout city watchmen who came running around the corner, looking ready for a fight.
— What do they expect? said our serving-girl, sucking her teeth at the scene. She spoke some French, and I a little Catalan; we understood one another perfectly. And yet, I was surprised by her words. In general, the people of Barcelona are not given to acerbic remarks.
— Why do they give chase? I asked as I watched the watchmen peering here and there, and asking questions of the passersby.
Our serving-girl looked nervously up the street.
— My lord does not like his name shouted in the streets as if he were an onion for sale, she whispered, and he donates generously to the city watch to ensure doing so is appropriately discouraged. As for those who see fit to criticize him … bad luck befalls them, even if they escape. For who can truly say where the roots of Ibn Ghazi’s garden end and those of the more mundane plants of the city begin? What seeds have drifted here or there—what nuts have been dropped in unlikely earth by startled squirrels?
As she spoke, the watchmen escorted two acrobats and an actor away from the scene. I hoped their compatriots could raise bail. I, however, had other concerns.
— Ibn Ghazi is real? And he lives here?
— Perhaps I have said too much, replied our serving-girl, which was as good as a yes. I begged her attend us but a moment longer.
— Do you know what happened to the girl in the story? I asked. The young woman nodded nervously.
— Yes. After making the powder, she followed her brother only to discover he had found a door to Hell. The woman called to him, Brother do not go! He said to her that he could not turn back. He owed the devils a great debt and had to pay it that night. But she would not let her brother go alone. He protested at first but then let her, only to betray her. He offered her soul instead of offering up his own. The devils agreed, in spite of her protestations, and then devoured her brother, too.
— What an awful story, declared the Viscount H—, but it can’t be true!
— Can it not? said the serving-girl, with another glance up the lane; this time, I saw her eyes flick to, and then away from, a high stone wall mottled with lichens and moss.
— Yes, ma’am, she said. That is the wall around his garden. But you must believe me, it is too high and steep to climb. The only way in is the door.
— We weren’t planning to climb it! I exclaimed.
There was a curious tone in her voice when she said,—One never knows! But before I could ask her what she meant, she had turned away to clear the remains of a meal of sardines and sangria from the table next to ours.
The Viscount H—and I were, of course, fascinated by this story of Ibn Ghazi. We agreed that we really had to see his wonderous garden while we were in town. Everybody sees the same things while on their Grand Tour, or very nearly so, which means nobody wants to hear another overlong account of visiting these famous ruins or those iconic rock formations. It is the differences that captivate a drawing room, and this would indeed be different.
It seemed we needed a problem to present to Ibn Ghazi, and for several days we made very merry coming up with tempting predica ments. In the end we settled on an age-old concern, but spiced with contemporary politics—we would claim I was enceinte by a certain aspiring member of the House of Commons, who would be much discredited by a natural child got on a disreputable female such as myself. The tales of Ibn Ghazi suggested he was biased in favor of the status quo, so our case involved a certain bill that would be much jeopardized if it came out whose child it was.
The day we went to the gate of Ibn Ghazi’s estate was overcast, dreary even—more similar to our English mornings than those of Barcelona. Our servant knocked, and was answered by Ibn Ghazi’s mysterious apprentice. Greeted is, perhaps, the wrong word; they said nothing, neither before nor after we were announced along with our desire to see the master of the house. The apprentice, veiled and obscure, simply turned and trotted up the walk, toward the house. To our delight, not five minutes later did Ibn Ghazi himself appear! He was a tall man with a goatee, dressed in long robes rather than a suit of clothes, and he walked with an easy, comfortable confidence. He approached us in our carriage and asked if he might sit with us a moment as he was not prepared to receive guests in his home. We said yes, and he joined us. He then cleared his throat with a delicate cough and gave a speech as brief as it was shocking.
— I know why you have come, said he, and by that, I mean I know you are not currently in a predicament caused by a member of your parliament. You are curiosity-seekers making merry on holiday. An honest request for the shot at especial glory within your social circle might have swayed me to show you my gardens, but all artifice and guile disgust me. You should be ashamed for having mocked me for the struggles I face when it comes to giving sound counsel. Every good gardener knows that a poor seed will result in a bad vine, but no gardener is asked to judge seeds before planting. No gardener save for me, of course. But you—you are feckless children, laughing at that which you do not understand, so go from this place without the reward of a story for your salons and parties. You do not deserve it.
And with that, he took his leave of us before we could think of a single thing to say.
We were very quiet indeed as we bid our man drive on, and quieter still that night. Every temptation to laugh made us both feel like the feckless children of Ibn Ghazi’s accusation. It was as if the wind had changed—and it had, in many ways, and it would be a long time before it would blow itself out.
I was awash with peculiar sensations upon first reading this passage. How strange it was to see described the very story I remembered reading—but not be reading the story itself, or at least, not the one I knew. It was an outsider’s perspective to the tale, whereas the one I recalled had been intimate, present, located in the garden in that moment.
I also felt frustration rather than relief. A Lady’s travelogue only served to make the entire affair more mysterious and obscure, like a face seen through old glass. I was full of questions: If A Lady’s travelogue was not the source of my memory, was de Vries’ obscure play how I had first come across the story? But how could it be? The play had been written by a seventeenth-century noblewoman, and had never before been translated.
Or at least, so claimed de Vries. But how, then, had the players in the travelogue gotten their hands on it? Might they have been performing an entirely different but regionally similar play? There was no mention within A Lady’s travelogue that the play had been written by the marquise, though A Lady did indeed mention the marquise during her remarks about her visit to Grignan.
Another question: Why, given the sex appeal of A Lady’s manuscript, had it disappeared so utterly? Setting aside my personal mystery, which was the most sober and least erotically charged segment of the travelogue, the book was funny and so very bawdy. Fanny Hill had survived to have a forgettable BBC adaptation made of it, and Tom Jones a good one; why not Foreign Climbs? But there was nary a record of the book on Project Gutenberg, and the Google Books copy had most of the pages redacted, putatively for copyright reasons. But who held the copyright these days? How could such a book not have fallen into the public domain a century ago, and why would anyone seek to keep it from being generally read?
And then of course there was the question of how H. P. Lovecraft himself had come to hear of Ibn Ghazi and his powder. He had been a notable aficionado of the eighteenth century and its writers; had he found a dusty copy of Foreign Climbs in an old bookshop, and read this tale of a scandalous woman brazenly flaunting her wealth, her education, and her sexual conquests? It was amusing to imagine the notoriously prim Lovecraft lecherously perusing A Lady’s saucy descriptions of her carnal adventures with the Viscount H—, as well as the others they invited to share in their exploits. Then again, one never knew … Over the decades, many enterprising authors and filmmakers had made much hay out of the numerous sexual lacunae in Lovecraft’s writings; here, the evidence suggested he’d enjoyed A Lady’s Foreign Climbs enough to reference a ribald work, however obscurely.
I wrote down these inquiries—and others—over the next three days. By the time I was heading for the airport in the back of the car de Vries had arranged for me, I had read the entire travelogue twice. I was champing at the bit to hear more of this mysterious story in its various forms.
The airplane ride to Philly wasn’t so very long, but I was impatient and could not stop fidgeting until the stewardess brought me a second glass of rosé. Then I napped a bit—and was glad I did, for I got no sleep on the second leg of the journey.
I was picked up not by a chauffeur but a pilot who took me on my very first helicopter ride. Said pilot had little to say when I asked questions regarding where we were going, how long the journey might be, and so on, so I occupied myself with watching the scenery and playing on my phone until it lost signal. Without an electronic distraction, I studied the forest beneath us. It grew darker, deeper, older as we flew on, and then fell away as suddenly as a cliff’s edge to reveal a lawn, and beyond the lawn, a house that said “old money” as clearly as it said “eccentric recluse.” No, no landmarks—all I know is that we were heading north. I’d checked the compass on my phone before I lost signal.
From above, I saw the house had been built into the shape of an O, with a small, surprisingly wild space at the center of it, all tangled limbs and twisted trunks. Had de Vries commissioned a home that looked like an ouroboros? Surely not—it was an older building, not some new, custom-built McMansion. Had he asked a realtor to find him the hottest O-shaped properties in the country, and this one suited him best?
The mind boggled. I know better now.
As I exited the helicopter, I ducked down low, feeling like I was in a movie. That sensation was not lessened when de Vries strode out to meet me dressed in clothes that were somewhere between Mr. Darcy and a pirate: tight pants, high boots, a ruffled shirt, and a frock coat. He even had a saber at his side and a broad-brimmed hat with an enormous bright white plume, which he swept off his head before bowing low.
“Charmed to meet you at last,” he said as he replaced his hat upon his head. The feather bobbed in the breeze from the slowing helicopter blades. “Please, come with me. Your room is ready, and I am sure you’ll wish to relax after your sojourn.”
“Thank you,” I said, but I wasn’t inclined to relax. I was hot on the scent of my quarry and keen as a hound. “If it’s just the same to you, though, I’d rather see the rehearsal—”
“We’re winding it down,” he said. “All the cast are just sitting around chatting. Go and enjoy a soak in the nice tub, or have a bit of a lie down on the bed, and join us for cocktails in the lounge at seven. Please? I’ve put you in one of my favorite rooms, and I am so hoping you’ll enjoy it.”
How could I say no? He was so earnest, so eager; not only that, it felt rude to push after he’d flown me out here at great expense just to … I wasn’t really sure, actually. It seemed, oddly enough, so that he could personally put my mind at ease regarding this minor—and I really cannot stress how minor it was—concern of mine.
For if I had been truly obsessed, I ask you, would I have submitted to de Vries’ will? Would I have agreed to wait longer for my answers? Would I have willingly been led to my room and had a fine, relaxing soak in an exceptional Japanese-style soaking tub? No, surely not. But I did all of those things. And more! I spent a good bit of time idling in my robe while trying and ultimately failing to connect my phone to the Wi-Fi and inspecting the lush carvings of fruits, flowers, and even small insects adorning the frame of the enormous four-poster bed that was to be mine for the next few nights.
It was a lovely room in a lovely house, even if the feel of the place, when I went down for a drink at the appointed time, was a bit too 1960s The Avengers for my taste—old furniture, long hallways, paintings of unfamiliar landscapes and unfriendly faces. And de Vries … he was a pitch-perfect eccentric of the week. Did he, like everyone on that show, also have a dark secret?
If he did, I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it. The lack of Wi-Fi was irritating me more than it might, given how hungry I was. I hoped there would be canapés or something at this reception. Cocktails at seven was extremely decadent for a pleb like me, and I hoped I wouldn’t be expected to wait until nine for dinner.
A small voice in my mind—very small, I assure you—added, and for information, too…
When I walked into the opulent parlor, all thick rugs and Chippendale-style furniture and trophy heads on the wall, I was relieved to discover that there were indeed canapés—the hottest and the freshest vol-au-vents to be had, for I anticipated the first platter by half a minute or so. The bartender was still setting up, which embarrassed us both, and then there were yet more awkward apologies between myself and the server.
“I’m early,” I said, to the tuxedo-wearing stripling. “I was just hungry. I didn’t get much lunch and when I’m not in a glamorous mansion I’m usually done with dinner by seven-thirty.”
“Oh, did I forget to show you the minifridge in your room?” De Vries was behind me, tall and lean and angular; handsome in a houndlike, Medieval sort of way. He was dressed for the twenty-first century this time, a chunky knit sweater and twill pants with a sharp crease down the front, though the snake-headed stickpin he had thrust though his cravat lent an artistic, bohemian air to his appearance. “There was, I think, a quinoa power bowl and some cheese in there. Ah, well, the smoked salmon is far finer fare, don’t you think?”
“Quite so,” I said, taking some from a passing tray.
“How are you enjoying your visit so far?” asked de Vries, once he’d blotted the corners of his full lips with a cloth napkin. “Are you having a good time?”
“That bathtub really was excellent,” I said. “Your house is wonderful … except—well, is there Wi-Fi? I’m sure I have emails waiting for me, and I’d like to let my mother know I arrived safely. She worries.” “Ah, no. Sorry I did not think to mention it. Our router or server has gone down. We are working on it,” he assured me. “Upton de Vries cannot go days and days without emails, of course!”
“Of course,” I said.
“In the meantime, I will introduce you to the cast,” said de Vries, leaving that subject behind. “There aren’t too many names to remember for there aren’t so many rôles.” You could actually hear the circumflex when he spoke. “Did you read the travelogue I sent you?”
“Of course,” I said.
“What did you think of it?”
“Oh I found it fascinating! In fact, I hoped you could tell me, did—”
“I thought you would,” said de Vries, interrupting me, but doing it warmly. “I hope it served to tide you over until the big reveal?”
“Do you follow the theatre at all?”
“No, not a bit.” I was losing my battle with my own impatience. “The truth is, I actually had to Google you.”
He laughed. “Ah, well, such is the arts! You and I both know that’s not the worst thing in the world! It’s just good to be Googled, is it not? After all, did not you call yourself a minor Lovecraftian author? And you’re still being interviewed in good places, no?”
“Sure! And it was actually S. T. Joshi who first called me a minor Lovecraftian author, so the scales balance out on that one. I think he was trying to hurt my feelings, but there’s no point to being offended by the truth.”
“Just like the pirate man says, But you have heard of me, yes?” I nodded in agreement as I tried not to look as concerned as I felt about the phrase the pirate man. “Yes! I think we shall be great friends, for we are very similar. Now, your unfamiliarity with the theatre means you won’t be as impressed by my cast as you might be—but I assure you, my players are as exquisite as they are limited in number. There is a sort of Master of Ceremonies … in the original, he’s a rather roguish French nobleman but we’re recasting him as a woman—the marquise herself, actually—that’s Jane Harper. You haven’t heard of her? Ah, well. She introduces the vignettes and sums them up at times. Offers questionable moral lessons and so on. And the Apprentice, Rox Teasley, they have quite the pedigree; they were part of the original cast of Tesla along with Idina Menzel …?” I shrugged helplessly; I had heard of Tesla, of course—who hadn’t by now?—but couldn’t tell you anything beyond that it was about the inventor. “Ah, well. You ought to be very impressed, and by the actor playing Ibn Ghazi, too—it’s Herman Diaz.”
The name Ibn Ghazi brought me to attention; it had wandered a bit as a few of the actors wandered into the room. I was curious about them, but I was more curious about the play.
It was clear that de Vries knew that, too—he was smiling a little as he waved over Rox so he could introduce us. As much as I was delighted to meet them—they were extremely attractive, with a beaky nose, just like I like, and strong cheekbones—I wondered why it delighted de Vries to thwart me so. Was it the petty joy of a parent saying Santa Claus would not come until everyone was abed … or was he playing a game? I couldn’t imagine why he would, but then again, I watched a lot of horror movies and I had allowed a wealthy oddball to spirit me away to his remote mansion for unusual, highly specific, but seemingly legitimate reasons. Anything was possible.
My suspicion proved justified. As it turns out, just because something is predictable doesn’t mean it can’t still be surprising. For example, we all froze in surprise that quickly turned to horror when a bloodcurdling scream interrupted our little gathering. I had been talking to Rox about the time they’d been in a production of The Phantom of the Opera, which I had loved as a child.
In the silence of the room we heard the call for Help! and rushed into the foyer to find a woman clutching the railing at the top of the elegantly curved main stair.
“Come quickly,” she implored us. “It’s Herman!”
Herman Diaz lay crumpled on the carpeted floor of what, presumably, was his bedroom. We all peered in for a long moment, unsure what to do; it was de Vries who finally stepped forward. He rolled Diaz over and put two fingers to the man’s neck.
He wasn’t dead. We all breathed a sigh of relief at that, though the question remained of what had happened to him. He was sweating, flushed and pale in turns. The woman who had screamed, an actress named Vera Tolman, said he’d complained of feeling dizzy earlier in the day.
“The man is clearly in need of a doctor,” said de Vries. “I will have one of the staff drive him. I’m sure he’ll be fine—I just hope he recovers quickly. What a pity! And everything was going so well …”
I thought that last remark was unpleasantly callous of de Vries. A man had been found unconscious in his room. What if he had a concussion? What if he were “only” too feverish to wake? Missed rehearsals seemed rather secondary to that. While it had occurred to me—of course it had—that this might delay my seeing In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi, the majority of my concern was for Mr. Diaz, I assure you.
“Producers are all cold as ice,” whispered Rox, their equally soft and faint mustache tickling my ear as they leaned in. “They have to be. ‘The show must go on’ isn’t just a saying; it’s a lifestyle.”
I nodded, trying not to twitch or tremble. Rox was really very attractive, and it has always made me nervous when very attractive people are flirty with me.
We all agreed it was best to lower the front passenger seat so that the unresponsive Diaz could recline as much as possible while still being safely strapped into de Vries’ older Mercedes sedan. After we’d secured him as best as we could, a man named Martin was given the keys and a credit card; de Vries told him to go and go quickly. What he actually said was, “And don’t spare the horses!” if you can believe it.
I felt badly that I alone appeared to be thinking of dinner rather than this man’s welfare, but it had been a long day and I was very hungry. I was just about to slink off to see if I could find this alleged quinoa bowl and cheese up in my room when de Vries spoke at last.
“The show must go on,” he said with determination. Rox and I exchanged meaningful looks, and once again, their gaze set my skin aflame. “We cannot afford to wait. No matter what, tomorrow morning at ten sharp we continue as planned.”
“But how?” said Trace Fellows, a sandy-haired actor with the square jaw of an all-American home team football star. “We have no Ibn Ghazi! He’s in every scene!”
“Upton, you can read Ibn Ghazi’s lines,” said Vera. She was a short, pretty woman with dark hair that just brushed the tips of her large bosom. “I mean, you know the whole play by heart already!”
“No, no,” said de Vries. “I cannot! I must keep myself apart to watch, to see!”
If de Vries kept himself apart, why had he been wearing tight pants and a frock coat earlier? I didn’t have time to wonder about this for long, for de Vries turned to me and looked me in the eye.
“It would be best to use a stand-in,” he said.
“But who?” asked Trace, with an appropriately theatrical gesture. As I said: The predictable can still be surprising.
“Would you consider it?” said de Vries, looking into my eyes. “Would you be our humble production’s Ibn Ghazi while poor, dear Herman is patched up by the local sawbones?”
Due to the secretive nature of our production we have only printed up enough copies for the actors …
“How can I possibly be the right person for the job?” I felt I ought to make at least a token protest. I didn’t want to appear too eager; the mood of this whole affair had shifted from horror flick to the sort of murder mystery dinner theatre where the audience is forced to participate.
“You’re the only one,” said de Vries. “I have but a small staff here and they are kept busy by their duties about the house. Now they are one short, even. I am occupied wholly as director … It falls to you, my dear, if you will help us.”
“I’d be pleased to,” I said. How else could I have responded?
“I shall have the script delivered to your room,” said de Vries. “Thank you ever so much.”
I glanced toward where the actors stood huddled together. None of them looked impressed by any of this, not even Rox, who had positioned himself at the edge of their group, a little closer to me.
Nor did they appear particularly perturbed by the evening’s events. I wondered if this sort of thing was more common in theatrical circles.
But then again, they didn’t really seem like actors … I don’t mean like the stereotype of actors that one sees on TV and in the movies, though that is in fact fairly close to reality. The actor drama you see in the media about actors is written by writers hoping to push the thoughts of the audience in certain directions and misdirections. In private, that drama has different currents and eddies—who is being inconvenienced, and for how long; who is being upstaged, and by whom.
Author drama is different. With notable exception it’s mostly conducted behind keyboards and whispered about at unremarkable bars in unremarkable hotels. When people write books or make movies about author drama, they’re almost always ridiculously sensationalized, or at very least the timelines are sped up to make for a good story; the reality is usually much more sedate. And petty.
“Then it is decided,” said de Vries. “Tomorrow we shall meet at ten, as we have been. And I want everyone in costume! Yes, again! No makeup, not unless you want to—but from here on out, I want you to rehearse in your costumes so they look lived in when we perform, and you will move in them as if you have lived in them. Understood? Good, good. Now … is anyone hungry? Dinner was to be served some time ago, I believe—if anyone still wants it, we can go in now.”
“I couldn’t eat a bite,” said Vera. “Not after finding Herman like that. Good night, everyone.”
A few left, a few stayed. There was little talk as we ate local beef and risotto topped with an egg from de Vries’ estate’s chickens. Rox sat next to me, and their excellent conversation was somehow even better than the food; even so, I excused myself before dessert. I was tired from the day, and eager to see the script, and even more than that—for you see, it’s not fair to say I was ever entirely obsessed with this mystery—I wished to be away from all those strangers.
Especially de Vries, with his smiles and his easy manners and his casual air of practiced command. He was playing me, but to what end? Why would he bother? The truth is, I’d been so interested in what he had that I wanted that I hadn’t stopped to consider what I had that he wanted.
I had hoped that the script would be on my bed, waiting for me like in a movie—but no, it was after I’d gotten into my pajamas and robe and was inattentively reading a book on my Kindle when a knock came at the door. It was a member of the staff, not de Vries. She wouldn’t accept the tip I offered in exchange for the script, but she did tell me that she’d heard from Martin. Diaz was in stable condition, but not yet awake. It was too early to say for sure, but they thought it was some sort of food poisoning.
I took Diaz’s script and did another inelegant half-hop half-plop onto the high bed. I felt a weird combination of dread and elation. At last, I had it in my trembling hands! In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi … It was, as far as I knew, the only work of fiction to bear that title. Had I once read this play only to have the winds of time erode the shape of that memory into another? The focus of my master’s degree had been eighteenth-century British literature, but that meant I would have been more likely to have encountered Foreign Climbs, not this older—and not to mention French—play.
Was this the end of my struggle? A minor struggle, of course—so very minor, but a struggle nonetheless. My heart did not believe it. I have never been a great reader of plays, and anyway, this one was supposed to have been impossible to find before some exclusive auction to which I’d never in a million years be invited, much less in a position to bid on anything. With trembling hands, I opened it up to a random page and read this:
IN THE GARDEN OF IBN GHAZI SCENE 6
(The MARQUISE is sitting upon a bench, a picnic basket beside her. In front of her, IBN GHAZI is wandering his garden. He is clearly ill at ease. He has a basket of gardening tools set to the side, and as the MARQUISE speaks he should use them to tend to his plants, but conveying an air of dissatisfaction with it all.
The MARQUISE should be lighthearted—kicking her heels, eating strawberries from the basket, making merry with the wine.)
The Ancient Greeks believed that attending the theatre was a moral obligation—that one had a duty to the community to sit and listen. But not to judge, nor really to learn. No—what they thought crucial was for each of us to feel together. Emotion, experienced communally, was considered personally restorative; more than that, it was socially reparative.
I weary of pruning and watering!
(He tosses a tool into the basket in almost childish dismay.)
Let us, for the sake of argument, assume the Greeks in their wisdom were correct. What, then, is the purpose of this play? What should any of us be feeling at this point in the evening? None of this has been particularly uplifting, I think we can all agree on that. Despair is at the root of all these tales. Whether Ibn Ghazi grants requests or denies them, misery ensues.
There is nothing for me here!
So, what could be socially reparative about despair? Despair erodes the bonds between men; it does not strengthen them. The Greeks asked this, too—and they decided that to feel and to contemplate one’s darkest, most powerful emotions in a social setting was in fact a form of exorcism, or cleansing. Their word for this was, of course, catharsis—and while our understanding of catharsis is different from theirs, we all of us appreciate the sense of release after frustration—like a sneeze, or an orgasm.
I shut the script and set it aside. It’s hard for me to articulate just how furious I was in that moment.
The play was a fake.
At first, I had chalked up the modern tone to the very recent translation, but “our understanding of catharsis” was just too much to be believed. Whose understanding of catharsis, exactly? The application of catharsis to psychology dates only from the nineteenth century.
And, for that matter, who had translated this play? Upton de Vries hadn’t bragged about that. Why not, when he’d bragged about every other aspect of the production? I barely knew the man, but after less than a day here, I could be certain that if he had hired a translator at all, de Vries would have lauded that person as being of superior quality, impeccable pedigree—more than once, if necessary, to get the point across.
My anger quickly turned to fear. If the play was a fake, why had I been brought here?
I’d been set up. Upton de Vries knew—he had to know. Which meant he had lured me here under false pretenses. But why? What possible reason could he have for going to such elaborate lengths? I was nobody. Sure, I’d made the leap from indie sensation to mainstream novelist, but that was really about it. I wasn’t famous. Most of the big deal fantasy and horror authors out there would probably recognize my name if it came up in conversation, but that was about it—other than being a regular guest on that popular if hard to explain horror-themed sleep aid YouTube show, Good Night, with ASM. R. James. That interview in The Paris Review had been a big break for me.
And there had been de Vries, ready to pounce with the perfect offer to pique my interest …
I felt as if I were in The Wicker Man or Murder on the Orient Express, and while I liked both, that didn’t mean I wanted a starring role in either. Then again, I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. I was in the middle of nowhere—no internet or cell reception to call a Lyft, and it was pitch black outside. I hadn’t even seen a driveway leading to a road out of here, and who knew where such a road might go, and for how many miles?
There was another knock at the door. I waited a moment, unsure of what to do, but the following softer, more urgent knock made me open up. In spite of everything, I was pleased to see Rox standing there. Golly, they just really did it for me—they must, for me to be so horny about them under circumstances like these. That dark hair falling across those dark eyes and that dark wisp of a mustache … What can I say—I’m only human. “I came by in case you felt like reading some lines. You know, to prepare for tomorrow,” they said.
I hesitated. If de Vries had lured me into a trap, surely Rox was part of it. They all were.
Or were they …? Standing there, looking at Rox framed by the gentle golden light of the hallway, my worries of a grand conspiracy to make me do something I still wasn’t sure about felt perhaps a little far-fetched.
“If you’d rather me go …”
“Do come in,” I said, surprising myself. Not really. Well, perhaps a little. “I am very much in need of your help.”
“I have no illusions of being discovered as some sort of hidden talent,” I said wryly, letting Rox inside. They were much taller than I was. I closed the door behind them, shutting it all the way. “I just don’t want to embarrass myself tomorrow.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t do so under any circumstances,” said Rox, “but I’m happy to give you some pointers. Where are you in the script?”
“It arrived only a few moments ago …”
“We’ll run through our scenes then, in order.” Rox looked around at the lack of chairs in my room. There was just the one—old, antique, and uncomfortable-looking. “Would you prefer to stand as we rehearse, block it out a bit, or …”
I hopped up on the bed and scooched over. “Oh, just come and sit down. I think we’ll both be more comfortable that way.”
“Is that so?”
I shrugged. “Let’s find out.”
Rox giggled and sat cross-legged on the opposite edge from me. The bed was a king, so there was a fair bit of distance between us, which I appreciated. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to bed with Rox—more than I already had, I mean. As attracted to them as I was, I hadn’t forgotten that I was here under false pretenses. The play remained a fake, and I didn’t know who else knew that.
And there was only one way to find out.
“Do you know who translated the play?” I asked, trying my best to sound casual. “It’s very interesting. The anachronisms—”
Rox looked wary. “Anachronisms?”
“Sure,” I said. “I mean, it’s not trying to replicate eighteenth-century vocabulary and cadence, that’s obvious, but there are also … untimely references.”
Rox nodded. “That’s because it’s both a translation and an updating of the text.”
“Interesting choice for a play that’s never been performed, or even read in the original.”
“Upton makes the interesting choices; that’s why he’s so respected. He said he felt the straight translation was too archaic to engage a modern audience, so he had a playwright by the name of Mindy Blandy give it a bit of finesse.” I narrowed my eyes at that name, so lacking in the most basic euphony that I suspected a fake. “Awful, I know,” said Rox, acknowledging my wince. “What were her parents thinking? Anyway, she’s quite modern in her style so she gave it the ole Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead treatment. That’s a play where—”
“I know the play,” I said. “De Vries didn’t say anything about that. He said it had been found in a trunk.”
“Well, we’re telling everyone different things,” said Rox, with a shrug. “I don’t mean lies, of course; I just mean different fact sets. It’s to build up the buzz. You’re not the only person we’ve invited here, of course,” they said. “Look: Upton has a knack for a marketing angle, so as we’ve been rehearsing, he’s been scanning the news for artists, politicians, influencers, writers—anyone who might have some sort of emotional connection to the production. Those people will then start to talk about it, with disparate stories, when it comes out, and that will plant the seeds for a viral media sensation.”
I looked at Rox, lanky and winsome, and wanted to believe everything they were saying. It made so much sense, laid out like that. I had mentioned the title in my interview, I’m an artsy sort with a social media presence and connections to people with a larger social media presence. At the very least, they would have set up a Google Alert for everything about the production, including the title, and then bam—I was there to be swooped down upon, and in a decent position to start some conversations about it online. My fascination with the story—minor though it was—just made me even more appealing as a mark.
My stomach unclenched. “So,” I said, happy to be more at ease, “the first scene. When we read it together, do we … do we just read? Do we gesture?”
“Get into the role,” advised Rox. “If you want to move, move. But remember, you’re just reading lines for Herman. You don’t have to act, just use a little inflection, to give the actors something to work with. Do you smoke pot?” That was, at that moment, exactly what I wanted to hear. I nearly swooned when Rox offered me a joint and a lighter. I sparked it immediately. “Good, relax. Now try it with me.” Rox plucked the joint out of my fingers and had a long toke and a longer exhalation.
“You have observed my lord Ibn Ghazi as he broods and frets. Observe now his Apprentice,” they said, pitching their voice a little differently while playing the marquise. “You see a slave, sold to my lord to settle a debt. It is not such a dreadful life they lead, though neither is it one many would select, given the choice.”
“Apprentice? Where are you?” I said, attempting a commanding air, and incredibly enough Rox didn’t even giggle. “Come forth! I have need of you!”
Rox scooted forward. “Yes, my lord!” they said, bowing as well as they could while sitting cross-legged on a bed. “What troubles you? Let me take this small care from your shoulders, whatever it is, so your mind might more easily attend to matters of greater import.”
My blood was up now, with Rox so close. I could smell their soap, herbal and fresh, wafting off their body in the warmth of my room. They’d showered before coming over, and their polka-dot pajamas hung so nicely upon them, the soft modesty afforded by the flannel in stark opposition to my preference.
“Tell me, Apprentice—how long have my gates been shut to all who knocked upon them?” I am never the most mature of individuals, but I tried my best to keep a straight face. The thing was, my own gates had been shut far too long, and I was feeling that keenly with Rox so close.
“Ten years, my lord,” said Rox, somehow looking up at me from beneath their dark lashes.
“Not quite that long for me,” I said aloud, and then froze, instantly regretting my quip. I had just taken another hit off the joint and could blame that, if necessary.
Rox stared at me, motionless. “Ad-libbing is not encouraged in this production,” they said evenly, to my mortification. “If you want to please de Vries, you’ll stick to the script.”
“I see.” I have rarely been so embarrassed. This wasn’t the first time I’d made a pass at someone who’d passed on me, but I was feeling vulnerable in general, out there in the wilderness, and I was also surprised to have misread Rox so entirely. They’d come to my bedroom, after all—and sat on my bed! “Thank you. I’m glad you decided to stop by tonight to help me.”
“For better or for worse,” said Rox, softening a bit at my discomfort, “and for better, I think—de Vries is very serious about this sort of thing. But if you’d care to read on, I think you’ll be pleased by the script.”
The show must go on …
I took a deep breath, tried to steady myself and mellow my countenance. “Ten years! Has it been so long?”
“It has, my lord.”
“I did not realize. It has seemed but a few weeks to me.” “You have been much pleased by your solitude, my lord.”
Maybe Ibn Ghazi felt so, but not I. Rox was still looking at me keenly. It was unsettling, for I wished to display neither my disappointment in their rejection nor my continued hope for a reprieve.
“Perhaps, then, it is time for me to consider the petitions of those who come to beg for my help. That is …” I paused dramatically, “if they still come?”
“Oh yes, my lord,” purred Rox. “They come often, begging for mercy, beating themselves against the doors and high walls of your estate! Their desire for you has not diminished one bit during your … sabbatical, I assure you.”
“Poor things,” I said, keeping my voice studiously neutral. “If that is so, then I must answer the call. I enjoy the peace and prosperity of this city, even behind my walls, so I must give back to it. I must open my doors, even if I fear a reprise of the incident that caused me to shut them—”
There was a knock then, oddly just where a knock was called for in the script. Even odder, it had sounded far-off, and as if someone beat more timidly upon a far larger door than my room possessed. I looked to Rox in confusion and saw their hand hovering hesitantly above the mahogany bedstead. A ring I had not noticed glinted on their finger—a snake, eating its own tail. I didn’t ask about it—or about what had been in that joint. Some of that MK-Ultra LSD that one guy had warned me about, painted right onto the filter?
“Go you now and see who knocks on yonder gate,” I said, squinting at that line thrown in there among all the more modern phrasings. Apparently, Mindy Blandy’s finessing of the script wasn’t where de Vries had chosen to spend his money with this production. “Let us hear what they have to say to us.”
“Are you sure, my lord?”
I looked at the script. That line wasn’t there! Rox was the one ad- libbing now. I looked up, not even bothering to mask my indignance, but they were smiling impishly.
“A moment’s delay, that’s all,” they murmured, closing the distance between us. “It has been ten years, my lord. They can wait a bit longer …” Some time later, yet another knock roused us. This time, it was real.
I took a deep breath of the fresh scents of a springtime garden—turned earth, new leaves, and blooming things. The heady aromas caressed me as sensually as my apprentice.
“I suppose we should answer that,” I said, reaching for my robes. “Don’t you think?”
“Yes, my lord.”
It was a young woman, dressed in clothes as worn and mended as they had once been fine—a low-cut, parrot-green dress with a stiff bodice and skirts made more voluminous by false hips beneath yards of gathered cloth. She, too, looked like she had seen better days—but while she was obviously careworn, she was still dazzling, with captivating dark hair and eyes. She stood in silence for a moment, looking from one of us to the other, before clearing her throat.
“May I have the honor of appealing to my lord Ibn Ghazi?” she asked. “I am Ibn Ghazi,” said I, a bit grandly even to my own ears. “Please, step into my garden, where we can speak more comfortably.”
I was proud to show it to her—and to all of those who had come to knock upon my door. And, while I try in general to be humble in all things, I must say that my visitors’ wonder was not misplaced. The beauty of my garden had been my chief preoccupation for a decade, after all, and it showed in every leaf, twig, and flower.
“Thank you, my lord,” said she, stepping across the threshold. “I am honored. I did not expect my plea to be answered.”
“It may not be,” said I as I sat upon a low and rustic bench. I patted the space next to me. “Come and rest yourself in the cool shade beneath this fragrant jacaranda and tell me of your woes.”
“It is my brother,” said she as the purple blossoms sifted down around us both. “Every night, he disappears. In the morning, he returns exhausted, having gambled away a little more of what remains of our dwindling fortune. I fear soon we will be left penniless. I have tried everything, my lord. I begged him, I saw a lawyer about reassigning our finances to me—I even followed him into the night several times only to have him elude me.”
I stroked my beard, considering this dilemma. “And what would you like me to do about it?”
“I would like you to give me your recipe for your famous powder that reveals the unseen! That way, when I follow my brother, his way will become clear to me.”
I looked to my apprentice. They stood off to the side, appearing thoughtful but not swayed either way by this woman’s appeal.
“Your dilemma is a tricky one,” said I. “Tricky for us both.” “Is it, my lord?”
“Yes. Your story is a sad one. It breaks my heart—but I cannot help you. There are too many potentials and possibilities for me to decide in your favor, so I decide not at all.”
The woman was indignant. “I came to you with this problem and you have the ability to solve it—which means any choice you make produces a result! To fail to act will have as many consequences as agreeing! And no man, not even you, can claim to know the true will of the universe.”
I paused. I felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders and sat up a bit straighter for it.
“My lady,” I said, “your words strike truer than any arrow. Your reasoning is sound. For all my cogitations upon this very matter, I never arrived at that conclusion—and much happier might I have been these last ten years if I had. Apprentice!”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Fetch this young woman a dose of my powder,” said I.
“My lord is generous,” said she, though guardedly, as my apprentice took their leave of us.
She was beautiful, with dark hair falling over her slender shoulders to brush the top of her large breasts. I found I wanted to please her, and was happy to have found a way to do so.
“It is a grave thing, to be an alchemist,” said I. “We are the only people in the universe who can create something from nothing—not even woman can claim that! I beg your pardon. I do not seek to offend, of course.”
“You do not. All I can say is that in spite of that power, I sense my lord is unhappy. But what could trouble someone such as you, who can create something from nothing?”
“Walk with me,” I said, and offered her my arm. She took it, and we ambled on together, deeper into the garden. The jacaranda was not the only tree showing off, so I thought to take my companion on a stroll beneath the absolute riot of blossoms, for the sun was at such a height in the sky to filter gently through the boughs and catch the motes of pollen as they drifted in the lazy, shadow-cooled breeze. The smells of distant herbs and the buzzing of the bees was always so intoxicating to me, and I hoped she enjoyed it, too. “I will tell you, if you will listen. You see, I once dispensed remedies in the form of advice and alchemy to the people of this city. I was proud to have learned much, and proud to show it off, if I am being perfectly honest.
“Then one day an older man came to me. He told me he was lucky to have amassed great wealth through his business, but a life spent chasing riches had left him without wife or heir. His sudden longing for both had sent him courting, but the daughters of the nobles failed to attract his notice. Instead, he married a beauty he saw in the fish market, a girl without wealth, family, or connections. He cherished her, and treated her well—gave her everything she wanted! And yet he suspected she was waiting until he was away from his home in order to flee its confines and go elsewhere—perhaps a young lover, given the difference in their ages. “He had asked her, but she denied it. He commanded the servants to look in on her, but they saw her neither leave nor come back. The man was desperate to find a way to force her to tell the truth, to confess her infidelity, and so I gave him some of the very powder you have requested today.
“So armed, he confronted her at last. His wife fell to her knees and begged forgiveness. She said if he would give her privacy in this matter, she would never leave the house again without his permission. He told her no.” I removed my arm from the woman’s grasp as we walked and clasped my hands behind my back. I did not wish to be touched. Even after ten years, the entire palaver disturbed me. “When she would not, he used the powder upon her. She stood, disrobed, and then disrobed yet further, peeling off her human skin, which she wore like clothes, to reveal a she-lynx. With a yowl, she leaped away from him when he reached out to her, and was gone through the window of her room. He looked for her everywhere, but he never saw her again, and she never came back. In the end, he killed himself for sorrow.”
“That is a terrible story, my lord,” said the woman. “I see now why you retreated from the world.”
“I had the ability to aid people but not the wisdom to do so judiciously,” said I. “I blamed myself for the man’s death. I could not continue as I had. I shut my doors. I gave it all up.…”
My apprentice approached us just as we meandered back to the bench. They handed over the little bag of powder. I took it and gave it myself to the woman. I felt as if we had forged a connection—she by perceiving my secret sorrow, and I by telling her of it. I wanted this one more intimacy with her, however small.
“Thank you, my lord,” said she, loosening the bag to inspect the fine granules within. “And thank you for what you are about to give me, too!” And with that, she tossed the powder into my face.
“Reveal to me that which you are most desperate to see remain concealed!” cried she as I spat and snorted. “Tell me the formula for this powder of yours!”
I had no choice. I began to recite it against my will. “First, take you the horn of a chamois, and grind it fine. That is your base. Put you into that six homunculus teeth, also ground fine. Make sure they are from a young homunculus. Mix with a fork carved from a harpy’s femur.”
I kept going. I could not stop. I revealed the formula entirely, every step, every ingredient, every required transmutation and necessary reaction. After I was done, I fell to my knees in rage and defeat. The woman stole away with her knowledge as my apprentice saw to me.
“I got it!” cried someone—it was Herman Diaz, apparently completely recovered from his terrible illness; his cheeks even had the flush of rude health to them, rather than the pallor of a convalescent. He held a notebook in his hands and was finishing up scribbling something. I shook my head. I appeared to be standing in a forest just turning to fall, small bursts of gold and orange against the green-black pine boughs. But I was sure it had just been spring …“I got it all! What about you, Vera?” “I got it, too,” said Vera. She was standing by my side. She was holding her phone; she’d been recording something while dressed in her lavish costume. I, too, was in costume—robes of sapphire blue over a jacket and pantaloons of azure cloth threaded with gold, belted all together with a broad red sash. I also had pointed cloth shoes on my feet and, it seemed, some sort of cloth wrapping on my head.
I did not remember donning those robes, nor could I account for their exquisite fit. Diaz, whose role I had volunteered to fill, was far taller and leaner than I. His costume would never have fit me; these had been custom-made.
“What happened?” I said, taking a step back. “Where am I?”
I felt someone behind me. I flinched away from an obscure figure, robed and veiled. It was Rox Teasley; they unhooked the gauzy scarf covering their face.
“Easy,” said Rox. “I know you must be disoriented, but you’re safe.
All is well.”
Upton de Vries was there too, wearing a very sharp sport coat, hip T-shirt, and stiff jeans—and his big hat from the day before, the one with the absurd feather.
“My child!” he cried. “You did so well! And now you are enjoying your answers, are you not? It is your reward for the performance of a lifetime!” He started applauding me. No one joined him.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I said, and they all gasped as if I’d slapped him across the mouth. “Oh, come on.”
“There is no need for profanities,” said de Vries, looking miffed. “We are all civilized here. Please, won’t you come back with us, we can sit down and have a drink and talk— ”
“No!” I exclaimed, boggling at them all. They were all acting as if my complaints were somehow unreasonable. “Talk here.”
“All right,” said Rox, stepping forward. “What do you want to know?”
“Where am I?”
“In the courtyard of Ouroboros House,” said Rox. “We maintain a kind of forest here, for our … unique purposes. You would have seen it from the air as you arrived.”
“What unique purposes? Who are you people? Why am I here? For goodness sake, give me an answer that doesn’t raise ten more questions!”
Rox looked unsure how to proceed. Their eyes flitted to de Vries, and they shared some sort of brief, silent exchange.
“It matters no longer,” said de Vries.
“I agree,” said Herman Diaz. He sounded almost bored. “We have what we need. Reveal whatever you like; nobody will believe the story. I mean, nobody ever has before.”
My stomach knotted in that unique way it does when I realize I’ve been made a fool of. Of course someone like Rox would never have looked at me unless there was some ulterior motive—attraction had nothing to do with it.
“How many nobodies?” I asked quietly. I didn’t look at Rox.
“It’s not like that,” they said as I continued not to look at them. I was hurt, of course I was—and the confusion I felt over what was real and what was not did not help. Had Rox and I really gone to bed together? When had I slipped into a dream?
“You are the ninth such attempt—the ninth since 1844, ten years after this house was built by the founders of the Hentopan Society,” said Rox. “Hen To Pan means—”
“All is one.”
“Yes! And indeed, all is one. Everything in the universe is made of the same stuff, do you see? And memories are a part of that stuff—just like chemicals and sensations and experiences. So we all have the same memories—all of us! You, a star, the first drop of rain that strikes the surface lake before a storm … we are all the same! But that doesn’t mean we all have an equal share—or perhaps it’s that we just don’t have the same experience of it. How could we? Things like déjà vu are how most of us interpret the sensation of experiencing the memories of another—that fragment of song you don’t know where you heard it, the queer feeling you got that one time, when you saw that stranger’s profile at a certain angle across a crowded room at an otherwise forgettable party … Some of these experiences stand out more than others, do they not? As for you,” Rox stepped forward and took me by the hands, “you brilliant creature! You possessed an enormous share of the memory of Ibn Ghazi himself when he was tricked into reciting the formula for his powder. The recipe was otherwise lost until this very moment. His apprentice died without making a record of their knowledge, and the girl perished with her brother. Ibn Ghazi with his own hand destroyed every copy after that incident. It’s incredible, is it not?” “And so you …” I shook my head. “I still can’t see the shape of this.” “How could you? This plan of ours was occult in every sense of the word. It took us over a century to succeed—and we’re no strangers to this sort of problem. The reason the Hentopan Society was founded was to make sure no alchemical knowledge would ever be truly lost. Our entire mission is to retrieve and harvest collective memories using information control, hypnosis, sometimes drugs … We’ve recovered twenty-seven other so-called ‘lost recipes’ during the last nearly two centuries, but … this one has ever been the most delicate. We were looking for something so specific that we had to devise new techniques, including how to control all information related to Ibn Ghazi’s garden in an age when almost everything can be found if one looks hard enough. Lovecraft, you see, possessed no discernable memory of the incident; he read about Ibn Ghazi and his powder in that travelogue. But for once, we did not interfere when he published ‘The Dunwich Horror’—nor when Fantasy Flight Games popularized the name to a broader population. We felt it would be good to allow a phrase or two to rattle around in pop cultural discourse, so that it might jog someone’s memory. And, eventually, it did.”
“Was the powder you used on me as fake as everything else about this place?” The question hadn’t sounded as petulant in my mind as it did rolling off my tongue.
“Potato starch.” Rox said it gently, but I felt the impact just the same. “We didn’t need the actual powder. We didn’t need you to reveal what you’d prefer be concealed.” I blushed, which made me angry. “We just needed to liberate your memories of what you already knew from your mind. So we softened you up with a mystery that allowed us to place you physically in the same circumstances as Ibn Ghazi had been when he recited the formula for his powder. The cocktail of drugs painted on the end of the filter of that joint helped you disassociate.”
“But how could you know I’d smoke it?”
“We follow you on Twitter. You never followed us back …” Rox shrugged.
Whether the Hentopan Society succeeded in duplicating the powder of Ibn Ghazi I do not know. I left that night by helicopter at my own insistence. Rox and de Vries implored me to stay until the morning, citing the darkness, the need to rebook my tickets, and so on, but I said I would rather stay at the Philadelphia Airport than in Ouroboros House, which, thinking back on it, was probably the most concise way I could have expressed the level of contempt I felt for them all.
When I was left at PHL by the helicopter pilot, I finally emailed my nearly frantic mother an apology for worrying her, full of explanations for my silence as false as the pretenses that had brought me to the Poconos.
I made use of the internet in a few ways, actually: I looked, and was unsurprised to discover, that the names of all the actors were real, but none of them had been anyone I’d met. And I looked, but I could find no Twitter account among my followers that seemed like it belonged to Rox Teasley or the Hentopan Society. I briefly considered protecting my tweets, but decided against it. They had already obtained that which they wanted from me, and my latest short story was due to be published in a week. I’d need to promote it on social media.
As we idled on the jetway I fell asleep in the first-class seat de Vries had rebooked for me, and dreamed of Ibn Ghazi. I was him again, curled into myself and weeping as I lay upon the floor of my luxurious bedchamber in my fine home. In that moment, I was thinking of my failure with the old gentleman and his young lynx bride, and all my other errors in judgment. I felt the weight of my mistakes pressing down on me, a cairn of regret. How much evil I had wrought in my terrible arrogance …
Eventually, my apprentice found me in my misery. The gentle touch of their hands roused me, and they coaxed me back to myself. I reached out with Ibn Ghazi’s hand and unhooked my apprentice’s veil—only to awaken with a start when I revealed the mercurial, alluring visage of Rox Teasley.
I stared at the cloud-shadowed plains below, wondering if I had brushed against another memory of Ibn Ghazi’s—or if it had been merely a dream? Then again, does it even matter? All is one … I haven’t just seen the evidence of that, of course. I’ve been it.
I’ve told a few people this story since it happened, and now I am telling you for reasons we are both well aware of. You know I never went to the press. And no, I never tried to track them down to seek revenge. I’m still not sure if they wronged me, really. There is nothing for me in Ouroboros House, or within the wild, small garden it protects. But now you may go—or at least try to go, if you wish. I am pleased to help you indulge your desires with regard to the Hentopan Society, but the time has come for you to indulge me. Give me the draft of forgetting you promised me, so I may erase all memory of the garden of Ibn Ghazi from my mind. It was never mine to begin with. I shall be glad to be rid of it, for I suspect once that phrase is gone, so shall go many things associated with it. Putting it behind me is, I am sure, for the best.