In the desert the transition from light to dark is a sudden thing. When I left my adobe home it was a pearl sky in the early evening. A short drive and it was pitch dark as I arrived at Harry’s Café, my car headlights revealing the thin smoke of night fog sifting through the air.
Pietre and Loren were there before me, waiting at a table near a window. A fire was lighted in the hearth. Miniature white lights climbed the beams that crossed below the ceiling, and a deep pink bougainvillea spilled across the open window. Pietre had placed three candles on the table, as was his habit when we had gone there before together, their white-gold glow like a benediction. His long white hair curled in the heat, his clothes still that of his office because he had just finished giving a service for a wedding, he said. Loren’s shock of straight, burnished hair seemed to hold a fire of its own in the light, his shirt a thin, blue-checked flannel, too warm for the desert, I thought.
I took a seat on the third side of the table.
“I’m very glad we’re getting the chance to meet,” Loren said. His voice had the faintest lilt in it. I saw then that he was older than I thought, his hair flecked with gray and tired lines around his eyes.
“Why not? You’re Pietre’s friend,” I said.
The waiter came and took our order and we began to talk on many things. They spoke of events shared together before Loren had left the seminary where they had met to become a psychiatrist.
“So you chose to dissect the soul instead of heal it,” I said to him.
“I warned you,” Pietre told Loren, and smiled at me. “I said you didn’t take easily to his profession.”
“I’ve experienced that point of view before,” Loren said, lifting his glass to me. “Perhaps I am more than my work? Is that possible?”
“I have no idea,” I answered.
The hours had a choreography of their own, as if some current existed invisible to us all, and yet one of which at some level we must have been aware. I sensed our connection, but I couldn’t decipher its nature. I was sure there was something Loren wanted. For a while we talked and even laughed with apparent openness and candor. That was how it felt. But there were hidden things waiting.
“So, I am curious about you,” he said, finally.
What we had shared so far in that soft evening had been for him only a preface.
“Why don’t you tell me more about these headaches of yours that Pietre has described? They worry him.” Loren took a sip of wine. It was blood-red, its rich color seeming to be lighted from within.
“I’d rather not,” I said to him.
“You worked in the military,” Loren said went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “A consultant with the CIA. They wanted better information about what the Russians were doing with remote viewing. You spoke the language and had the ‘skill.’ Your headaches started there, I believe. ”
His words shocked me.
“Did you tell him this?” I asked Pietre.
“No. You know me better than that,” he answered.
I leaned over the table toward Loren. “I don’t know how you know what you do, but I have no desire to remember the past. Not that one, at least. And it had nothing to do with the headaches I experience now. Those I inherited from my grandmother, a susceptibility she would not have wished upon me, but there it is.”
“I can tell you no matter what they stated publicly, the governments of several countries agreed there was something going on of value with RV,” Loren said, again as if I had not said anything. “In fact, as it happens, I helped to write some of the reports in the 1990s.”
“You did?” said Pietre in surprise.
“I never told you because I couldn’t. All that government confidentiality rubbish, you know. And I was young enough to take their commandments seriously. Now the data is declassified. Some of it.”
Loren focused on me again. “There were people without any previous training who could detect details of sites halfway round the world, and add sensory information of taste and smell and color, even feel emotions in those they were accessing. That was the most interesting of all the outcomes.”
“You come here as Pietre’s friend, but you betray him with your agenda tonight.”
“I have no agenda. You don’t understand. I was an observer only in the different studies, but we heard about the special participants. When Pietre told me your name, it resonated. Anatolia Heddington is not a common name. I was sure you must be the one they described in the 1997. You were fifteen at the time. You exceeded all expectations. I knew I had to meet you.”
“Loren, leave her alone. This isn’t why I wanted us together. The headaches are one thing, but it’s Anatolia’s choice.”
Loren looked surprised. I saw then it was all to a purpose for him, an outcome to be attained. Yet it was obvious he had no idea of that. He believed he was right to persist.
“My point exactly. It’s all connected. The headaches, the experiments, the side effects. There is documentation. This isn’t unusual. What did you do for the Americans? What did they make you do?” Loren said, an urgency in the undercurrent of his voice.
“What makes you think it was the Americans?” I answered. His look of confusion was just a little gratifying. “I’m done,” I said, raising my glass. “No more, or I’ll leave now.”
I drank half the glass at once. When I set it down again I felt the pain starting in my temples but it was so slight I mentally brushed it away. I had learned at last how to do that.
Loren seemed lost in thought. “I don’t understand either of you,” he said at last, looking at both Pietre and me. “This is exciting material. Anyone would be glad to encounter it, as I am. You were part of something that mattered,” he said to me.
“It didn’t matter at all. Nothing came of it. The part that you’ve missed is that I have no interest in sharing what I know with you, or returning to a time that was so alien to everything I knew or recognized.”
I caught the look on Pietre’s face. He had expected such a different kind of evening. My anger did not help him. Better if I could give some him some solace, and still give myself respite from Loren’s probing.
“Let’s listen to your story, Loren. Any part of your life you want except your work dissecting people like me. Tell us something even Pietre doesn’t know.”
“There’s a lot about Loren I don’t know,” said Pietre.
Loren shook his head. “Yes, of course. How can you trust me if you don’t know anything about me? It makes perfect sense.” He rested his hands on the table.
“I don’t have to trust you,” I said to him. “But I’m interested in the kind of man you are, since you claim to be Pietre’s friend.”
“I am his friend!” Loren said, astonished that the idea could be challenged. He leaned back in his chair. “I have such a story, yes.” He glanced at Pietre.
“Go on,” Pietre said, and from his tone I knew their comradeship was intact, their bond undisturbed by the evening distractions. It interested me. Discord had always meant separation among those I had known.
“I must tell you first,” he began, “that I grew up in Orkney, a set of islands off the north coast of Scotland.”
That explained the subtle rhythm in his voice, I thought. “A bleak place,” I said.
“You’ve been there?” he asked, surprised.
“I went to visit Skara Brae.”
“What is Skara Brae?” Pietre asked. He brushed his fingers over the gold brass candlesticks. In the light he seemed to me to look like the figure of an angel.
“It’s a large Neolithic settlement, located on the edge of the Bay of Skaill,” I said. “My grandmother had been there and described it to me. Later, I went on my own. You see, in the winter of 1850 a massive sea storm tore the grass from a large mound they called Skerrabra, and suddenly revealed were several stone houses complete with furnishings made of stone and other evidence of the small community of people who had once lived there. Then it was investigated much later between 1927 and 1930 in a formal archaeological excavation. Now the experts think the site was originally inhabited as early as the fourth millennium, B.C. It was extraordinary to be there,” I added.
“You’ve very specific knowledge indeed,” Loren said.
“I liked knowing how much the people there were able to accomplish so long ago, how very far from our conception of primitive they were. They had a language, shown in the symbols on their pottery, just as we have the clay symbols of Sumeria. It was a winter’s day when I went, snow on the stonework, no one with me, just the sound of the dark sea. I was happy there.”
Yes, I thought. In ways I cannot even explain. It was familiar, as if I had been there before. But I didn’t want to say that.
“When I was seventeen,” Loren said, “I left those islands and went to the university in Glasgow. Now, that is a city of contrasts. I remember a meal on Sauchiehall Street, one of the first ones I had on arriving there, before classes began. I think that’s why it’s stayed in my mind all this time. I was alone, and the restaurant was on the first floor. As I went up the stairs I heard the gradual increase in sound, the voices of people gathered together. It seemed welcoming to me, and just then I needed that, alone as I was in a strange city that was as different from the islands of home as anything could be.
“The walls inside were whitewashed stone and the windows, as I recall, were tall, letting in the night sky, and the lighting in the rooms — for there was a main room and several alcoves — the lighting was soft, making it all quite warm in intent, it seemed to me. I ordered a full dinner, and it was very good, for it turned out the restaurant was a specialty place, reasonably priced but with an extremely good cook.
“Glasgow can be like that. It can also be dark, with littered vacant lots, forgotten streets, and people barren of goals, devoid of hope. I knew it both ways, and came to love it, too. So when I finished my medical studies, I opted to stay on at the university as a lecturer. I’d already published two papers on psychotropic drugs. They were somewhat derivative, but good for a newcomer. I was quite content. But staying there was a mistake, a complete, irreparable error of judgment. For not long after I’d started teaching in the first term, I met Ailsa.
“It was a mad love I felt. Entirely that at-first-sight business. But she would have none of it — or rather, of me. And her resistance was an anathema to me. I can’t explain. Now, I would be incapable of such obsession. I’m certain of that,” Loren said to me, as if I had doubted him out loud.
“But,” Loren went on, “I was twenty-one and the thought of her filled my mind. I haunted the places she went, lived, walked, wherever she was. I called her so often she got an unlisted number and changed her address, and for an agonizing three weeks I had no idea where she was. Then I discovered, quite by accident, that she’d moved to Stirling.
“Do you know that city? Impressive castle above a massive cliff, cold winds, an entirely different feel from Glasgow. It has an Old Town in its interior. I walked through there at dusk one night and may as well have been walking in the place hundreds of years ago. Stone walls and stone paths and a steep hike downhill, the buildings mostly residential, no one about, shut up tight against the oncoming night. The sky was a deep gray overcast tinged with orange, not from the setting sun but from, I think, city lights, or coal fires. They hadn’t outlawed those then.”
Something registered in me at his words, like a faint tremor in the earth, hardly felt.
“Anyway, she was there, somewhere,” he said. “I had no address, but I stayed and played the tourist for a few days. There is a monument to Wallace on Abbey Craig, just a couple of miles away, maybe less — rather a good one, and its height deceptive. You climb up four stories from an eastern entrance, but it does not seem to be very high. Then, at the top, it opens up into a tower with four open sides and a wind that feels as if it is blowing at fifty miles an hour. And below, in a sweep of land that seems so far below, is the field of Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce defeated the English so roundly. I held on to the stone pillars like a child to its mother, certain I’d either fall over the edge or be pushed by the wind, and the fields were so far below, hundreds of feet, yet it seemed impossible to be so high, when the entrance to the monument had seemed so innocent.
“After I left there I wandered into an old pub nearby. It was filled with locals who ignored me for the most part, and so long as I was on solid ground and had an ale in front of me, I could care less. It was a brilliant day, cold, sunlight on the water of a creek or perhaps it was a narrow river that ran nearby.”
“You sound like a painter,” I said.
“A frustrated one, perhaps,” he said. “I remember details of things. It’d be easier if I could leave them out.”
“But not as interesting,” Pietre said with a smile for his friend. I knew that he and Loren shared a common ground, again, accepting each other as they were.
“There isn’t much more. It was on my way back to the room I had reserved, close to the castle and the old part of the city, that I saw Ailsa again. She was arm in arm with a man I didn’t know — but then, why should I know him? She saw me at almost the same instant, leaned over to say something to the man, and the two of them made a sharp turn down a side road, out of sight.
“It’s difficult to explain what I did next. Here it is ten years later and for me, when I remember it, no time has passed. It’s as real now as it was then. I suppose it will be until the end of my days. There’s no escaping any of it.
“I ran after her, of course. But they’d disappeared. The road they went down ended in a cul-de-sac and there was no sign of them. A stone wall filled the space and they could not have scaled it in the short few seconds before I got there. I remember feeling the rage begin, the frustration of the whole situation. It was suddenly different than what I had felt before. I sensed I was losing control of my feelings, that they were no longer confined. I don’t think I had understood violence before then, not viscerally, I mean, the way men so often choose to be. That hadn’t ever been my way. And I know I never felt the loss of control before that moment, or had ever been aware of wanting to act upon the feelings that were filling me, so much so that I didn’t want to stop.
“Nothing was the same after that. The next day I went back to that road where I had last seen them. This time I saw the thin line that told me there was a gate in the wall, its outline so faint there’d have been no way for me to see it unless I knew it was there, or spent time looking for something like it. When I opened it — there was no lock, just a silent, sliding motion — I knew, of course, it was how they had escaped. It led to a road that bordered a small arboretum. On one side was a theater, and opposite that, a church. People were walking everywhere. It was an easy exit they had taken. Even if I had followed them, they would have been swallowed by the crowd.
“I knew I had frightened her. The thing is, at the time, I didn’t mind that. Before, I had wanted her to care about me, but I had not even considered that she would be afraid of me. Now I knew she was — or at least she was afraid I would find her again — and that is what I intended to do.
“But I didn’t find them again. I never saw her again. For months I tried. It was futile, obsessive, and finally, I became tired of my own feelings about her. I remember exactly when that happened, when they stopped, as if they’d never been. It is so odd, isn’t it, to go from obsession into indifference. But I did, just like that. To this day I can’t begin to account for the passion I felt for her. We were totally unsuited. It wasn’t really love I felt, but this need to be first in her life, to matter to her. In the end, it was a vast waste of time.”
Outside I could hear the night creatures. The dining room was almost deserted, only one waiter hovering in the background. He seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts, his eyes focused on the blank wall before him, ignoring us.
“It was perhaps three months later,” Loren said into the silence. “I went back and stayed in Glasgow. I was an excellent researcher, and I’d made some progress in analyzing the effects of hallucinatory episodes in seizures. People had begun to come to me — senior colleagues, I mean, to discuss my developing theories. It was quite heady for me to experience.
“Then there was one morning, a Sunday, when I had gone to a local place for a leisurely breakfast, with a new monograph I was eager to read on studies of migraine comas.” Loren paused and looked at me before continuing.
“That was when I saw a notice in a paper someone had left behind on the table, opened to a page of obituaries. Strange how people read those, have an avid interest in them. And equally strange, that day, is that her name was there, Ailsa’s name, right in front of me. It was a short clip, but it showed her photo, which is what captured my attention. She had killed herself. No one knew why. She had seemed, the news column said, reciting the words of friends and associates, to have a wonderful life ahead of her.
“But I know. I know she was waiting for me to find her. She had no idea that after Stirling I had let go of it all, and her. I had given her a fear she couldn’t overcome. And because I recovered, I never thought of her again, until learning that day that she was dead.”
“You had no way of knowing that,” Pietre said to him. “It was her choice.”
“I don’t think it matters much whether I prove it or not. It’s what I believe, and so it’s what I have to live with.”
“We all have something we have to live with,” I said, “and we have to choose our own way to do that.”
I saw a look of surprise cross Loren’s features as we got up to leave.
“But what if I can’t? What if I can’t find a way?”
We had no answer for him.
Sometimes at night there is a wind that moves across the desert floor that is different from the others. It is subtle, hardly felt, but it carries with it a sound, something soft and wailing, created, I imagine, from the effects of curving around miles of rock and sand and dry brush. Listening to Loren that night, it felt to me as if I was listening to that same sound, that soft, wailing sound. He had seemed so certain of what he knew, but in the end he was held by the shadows of memory, unable, or unwilling, to let them go.