Fiction by Norman
the second of the great Nyanza lakes. As we sailed
northward, its waters stretched beyond our field of
vision to the streams of the Mountains of the Moon.
Quigley turned in his deck chair and closed his eyes.
“I intend to keep them closed,”
he said, “until we have reached the vanishing point.
There is nothing on this side to interest me further.”
I recalled the day Carlson had lost
his perspective, and shuddered.
The crossing was not good. We passed
through a disturbance of riverhorses. The horizon,
which had always ringed us, drew apart. The sun merged
with its reflection. A nervous passage succeeded a
slippery one. Perspective folded like a fan, shattering
the illusion of space. There was a sudden binomial
expansion, followed by a release of free radicals.
The unfortunate riverhorses atomized. Quigley paled
in the absence of all dimensions. The smell of lightning
and heliotrope greeted us.
“We have entered the blue zone,”
he said. “I’ve seen it only once before, in Bosch’s
Seven Deadly Sins in the Prado.”
The vibrations had altered the hull’s
molecular structure. I sent porters below with oakum
and tar while Quigley prayed to Hermes Trismegistus
to seal our vessel tight. The compass needle forsook
its true north. I summoned the navigator with his
astrolabe and charts. We encountered an aberration.
Quigley was horribly skewed. The table of elements
wobbled. I did my best to steady it.
“Do you see that?” asked Quigley,
blinking his eyes in the strong light that had no
apparent source. “It is the Light which has never
begun and will never cease, described by Gregory Palamas,
a holy man of the 14th century who penetrated the
mystery of the Transfiguration. ‘Gott wird Licht
genannt nicht nach Seinem Wesen, sondern nach Seiner
I played with the cylindrical mirror,
hoping to reconstitute the riverhorses by anamorphosis.
They would not be reconstituted; their particles rode
the wave of light upon which our boat was borne. I
emptied my pockets of matter. Quigley played an invisible
game of billiards; I heard the clicking of the balls.
“Quigley!” I called, rummaging in
the vague air all around me. “Where are you exactly?”
“That question is meaningless here.”
He shrugged an audible (though invisible)
“Here, there ... It makes no difference.”
“What keeps me from going
to pieces?” I wondered aloud.
“Your firm grip on reality.”
“And the navigator?”
“And the porters?”
I took his naturalist’s camera and
held out my hand. My hand disappeared in the uncanny
narrative in which Quigley was presently involved.
“Take a picture for me,” I said.
He did; but when I developed it
in the windowless stateroom below, the photograph
was empty. It had been light-struck by a radiance
beyond our poor powers of perception.
“Could it have been God?” I asked,
throwing my voice into the Void where I supposed Quigley
“In the St. John triptych
by Rogier van der Weyden, God is a translucent red
substance. I see nothing but white light.”
I marveled again at the many arcane
facts at Quigley’s disposal.
“Can I get you something to eat?”
I asked, anxious that he should not entirely dematerialize.
I hated the thought of being left to continue the
journey all on my own.
“A light lunch would be nice.”
At noon on May 2, we arrived in
Butiaba on the shore of Lake Albert.
Perspective was reinstated. Quigley
reappeared with “something very like a hangover.”
We straightened our clothes and combed our hair. The
riverhorses had reassembled and were disporting themselves
in the lagoon among pink and purple lilies. I presented
the porters with twenty-five sheep in recognition
of their steadfastness whereupon they improvised long
chants in my honor.
“Bwana Makuba!” they sang
to me. “Bwana Makuba.”
The landscape trembled in
the heat. We rested in the shade of the papyrus. Yellow-breasted
chats flew in and out of the branches. As the afternoon
waned, a wind rose and blew off the lake. The sky
kindled as the sun went down. The porters danced in
a ring to the beat of tom-toms. It was very beautiful.
“The journey is not irreversible,”
I could not disagree.
[first Published in The
Cream City Review, 1998]
waned and with them our belief in the enterprise.
The Beacon of Civilization, which we had dragged behind
us all those many years in the wilderness, was all
The Bishop was summoned. He arrived,
dressed in full canonicals, with the might and majesty
of the church upon him. We scurried out of the way
so as not to be crushed.
“We want to go back,” we said. “We
are worn out with our ceaseless comings and goings.”
We showed him the state of our boots,
the holes in our trousers, our frayed cuffs. We showed
him our untended cheeks and chins as proof of our
The Bishop thundered like a thousand
kneeling benches let down at once on a stone floor.
His crosier flashed with anger and prerogative.
We were not impressed.
“Let us pray,” he said, nodding
into the wings for the mission boy to bring on the
purple cushion. The cushion that was tasseled with
“No!” we shouted, lifting our voices
We stamped our feet and whistled.
We sent a deputation. We distributed provocative pamphlets.
Several of my colleagues (I blush even now to think
of it!) shied bustard eggs at the Bishop’s miter.
He cursed us soundly one and all
and, picking up his skirts, made haste to leave. The
suddenness of his departure raised a swirling cloud
of dust, brightened here and there by crimson petals
felled in the reckless sweep of his crosier.
“The Bishop’s Departure,” as it
would come to be called, was a seismic event without
precedent in that part of the world.
What to do? we asked ourselves.
What to do?
It was then that George Méliès
surprised us by appearing out of nowhere. He did so
with the celerity of a shaft of light through a hole
in a cloud.
“Why should you be surprised?” he
asked. “I was a magician before I began making films.”
We asked him what he wanted on the
“To make an African Fantasy,” he
answered. “Will you guide me into the jungle? Will
your porters carry my camera, lighting instruments,
We conferred. Quigley praised the
film-maker’s Trip to the Moon, which he had
seen in 1902. Quigley never missed an opportunity
to show off his cultural superiority. We denounced
him among ourselves as a prig.
Hanby proposed we ditch Civilization’s
Beacon and make movies.
“Seeing as how we have nothing better
I had no opinion one way or the
Captain Slade, however, made a pointed
observation: “There have been precious few women in
I was about to mention Mrs. Willoughby
when Mlle. Pavlova knocked.
“Hello,” she said. “I’ve come to
Africa to collect native dances. Do you know where
I can find any?”
We forgot all about Méliès,
I can tell you that!
We offered Pavlova some boiled bongo,
which she ate with relish. During the ritual Smoking
of Cigars, she regaled us with anecdotes of her recent
tour of Japan. All agreed she was a most amusing dinner
To help finance her newest expedition
(how different from ours!), she had accepted a commission
from O’Sullivan’s Heels for an African testimonial.
She gave me a handbill printed with an earlier endorsement,
which I faithfully reproduce here:
Mlle. Pavlova, the Incomparable
“It is with pleasure that
I state to you that O’Sullivan’s
Heels of new live rubber give
me great comfort in
walking. I have them on all
my walking shoes and
also on a number of my dancing
shoes. I recommend
them to every member of my
O’Sullivan’s Heels are made
of new live rubber --
and are worn by successful
I wondered if the Bishop wore them
under his skirts. He had exited with a liveliness
in his step which belied the weight of his authority.
Pavlova showed us her O’Sullivanized
boots. Her pale calves aroused us instantly.
“Dance for us, Pavlova!” we begged.
“Kick up your O’Sullivan Heels! Perhaps then we shall
feel the joy of life return!”
“But, gentlemen -- where?” she asked,
looking around her at the entirely too realistic scenery.
“I must have structure! I must have a suitable venue!”
Stephens remembered having scene
an ornate proscenium arch hidden in a bamboo grove.
We adjourned there. On the way, we passed Méliès,
who withdrew discreetly behind a tree.
“Your turn will come!” we promised
him in our gratitude.
her famous roles in Giselle, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides,
Don Quixote, and Coppélia. We were,
to a man, captivated. Quigley requested the Dying
Swan solo dance Michel Fokine had created for
her in 1905 -- and which he, Quigley, had seen “in
Paris.” Disgusted, we pelted him with elephant dung.
Night fell. We lit colorful Japanese
lanterns and hung them in the trees. Each of us took
his turn dancing with Pavlova. Our hearts opened.
In return we offered to show her a native dance.
the harbor of Kilindini in a dhow and walked two days
south to a Nyika village where a funeral dance was
in progress. The countryside was hilly, the ground
stony; but Pavlova took it in strike in her O’Sullivan
“Like a trooper!” said Captain Slade,
who was by now smitten.
The Nyika dancers wore queer little
wicker-work baskets tied to their legs. Dry beans
rattled inside as they moved.
“This death dance has more life
and go in it than any dance I’ve seen,” declared Pavlova
We spent the night under a baobab
tree, overlooking the Indian Ocean. In the small hours,
Captain Slade crept out of his tent.
early with the funeral dance mapped out on a sheet
of butcher paper and a basket of beans.
“Goodbye,” she said.
Captain Slade entered a period of
“Is there anything I can do for
you?” I asked him one night at the Mombasa Hotel Bar.
“Dance for me!” he answered drunkenly.
“Dance as Pavlova did!”
I assure you I did not disappoint
Norman Lock's fiction appears in respected
journals throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe,
Australia, and Canada (never forgetting that fine
Argentine site -- The
Southern Cross Review). The work here is
from A History of the Imagination, published
in Europe as an e-book. Two extended prose sequences
-- Emigres and Joseph Cornell's Operas --
are available in one book from elimae.
Lock's dramatic works have been seen on stages throughout
America and Germany. The House of Correction,
published in the U.S. by Broadway Play Publishing,
was one of the 10 best plays of 1988 and (for its
revival) 1994, according to the LA Times. It was also
"best new play" of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival.
Lock is also the author of a film produced by the
American Film Institute and shown at international
film festivals. He was awarded the Aga Kahn Prize
in 1979, given by The Paris Review. Other online work
of his may be found at Linnean
Stories, and Tatlin's
Tower. He may be reached via e-mail at