At last, the group came upon
the Sleeping Giant. He lay broken in five great pieces of
stone, a dilapidated human colossus from a lost world. His
face was featureless. His arms and legs lay embedded in the
side of a low hill, at such angles that it appeared that the
giant was trying to awaken, to pull himself together and rise.
"Lo," the tour guide
said, a man given to grand ironic gestures. He spread out
his arm with a flourish. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Sleeping
After a moment's hesitation,
the tourists obligingly approached the prostrate figure. They
snapped photographs. Some settled themselves around his big
limbs, posing, grown adults rendered wee as elves or flower
Lexa slowly lowered the camera
from her eye to get an unoccluded view. She had arrived on
this island the day before, and immediately signed up for
the guided walk. They had seen crumbling stone ruins, strange
twisted trees with foliage that dripped like lace. Tall spiky
orchids, humongous spongy mushrooms as big as footstools.
Nature's wild abundance was starting to make her feel dwarfed.
Whereas in her regular life she felt too big, a tall and broad
woman with a leonine mane of dark hair.
When she tried to imagine
this place in ancient times, and what it would be like to
live there, she drew a blank. It's my genes, she thought.
She had recently read an article about how DNA can hold the
memories of one's ancestors. As though genetics could be haunted.
Her own ancestors were from Italy. The mighty Tuscans. Her
genes knew walled cities and grand cathedrals, cobblestoned
streets. This place was beautiful, but it was like another
planet. A sci fi diorama. A place where things could eat you.
Lexa squinted, wondering what
her husband had felt the first time he had seen this view.
He was a designer of travel brochures. The Sleeping Giant
appeared in full color on page two of the booklet that he
had created. The giant was impressive in person, sure, but
he was so much more magical looking in the photograph. It
appeared to have been taken at daybreak. The giant was shown
in relief, huge and potent and black against the lemony yellow
light of morning.
She concentrated, trying to
conjure up Josif's essence, to hallucinate him into being.
His tall rangy body, the narrow sloping shoulders, the stooped
posture. The dark curly hair. The shadowy pitted eyes, always
heavy lidded with fatigue because he dreamed too much. He
dreamed so much and so intensely at night, that by morning
he was always depleted. Spent.
It almost worked. It seemed
that he stood there for a moment, tremulous and flickering,
only to disappear again when she finally exhaled.
Lexa recovered her breath
in shallow raspy breaths, and when she opened her eyes, a
small native woman dressed in beads and skins was standing
beside her, holding something out to her. It was a carving
of a little man, sculpted from a large root. Lexa handed the
woman some coins, then held the carving to her nose. It smelled
wild and pungent like all things that grow underground.
* * *
The Land With No Name:
A Travel Guide to the Subconscious. That is what he titled
it. It was a thing that made sense only him.
Lexa's favorite section was
a two-page spread showing an amazing flock of butterflies,
each one blazing and enormous. One small photo, showing a
butterfly alight on Josif's arm, showed its true scale. Its
wings were as large as dinner plates.
Throughout the travel guide,
it seemed as though the photos alternated between the beautiful
(the fanciful vegetation, the Sleeping Giant, a crystal clear
lake) and the strange (a mummy in a jade mask, night vision
shots of strange feral creatures with flashing teeth, a forest
scene with people dressed in animal suits)... There was no
text, no explanation for any of it.
The advertising agency that
employed Josif as its art director was not amused. Lexa could
clearly hear the owner's words over the phone as she sat next
to Josif on the couch.
sure if we are on the same page here. If this is a joke, it's
going right over my head. We run a serious business here,
and we hired you for your serious talent. Tourism is a product
to be sold
"My philosophy has always
been this: tell the consumer not what a product can do. Tell
them how it can make them feel." His Balkans accent
grew thick and halting in his irritation.
"Josif, I hired you on
good faith in your talent in photography and layout. I have
been very happy with your work. When you advertise a destination,
you make me see its soul. But this
this is bullshit.
You cannot sell a destination without naming
"To name a thing is to
His boss was silent. Probably,
like Lexa, she was wondering how much of what he said he really
meant, and how much was simply his flawed English.
In the end, the travel brochure
was published, but with changes made by the company. The name
of the place was written on the cover in large, elegant minimalist
script. They kept the photographs that were beautiful, but
got rid of the ones they considered "strange." These
were replaced by photos of a modern high-rise hotel. Also
there were photos of a tropical theme water park that tourists
could reach via brightly painted tour buses.
The company did not want to
fire Josif. But he was angry about what they had done to his
Travel Guide to the Subconscious. He quit his job at
"I don't understand,"
said Lexa when he told her at the dinner table. She had just
returned from her own job at the university library. "I
didn't think they were so bad. They've been good to you the
two years you've been there. What other job you've ever had
lets you travel all over the world?"
"Lexa, it is not about
the job. It is about what I have seen and how it has changed
me. It is fact that I have found my new homeland. A connection
to the earth that the civilized world can't understand."
"Maybe it's something
I can understand," Lexa said, but Josif only looked
out the window.
* * *
Lexa approached the tour guide
as they broke for a picnic lunch on a set of stone steps.
She handed him Josif's travel guide and said, "I want
to see these things. Are the things in the photographs going
to be part of your tour?"
The guide took the glossy
booklet, and flipped through page after page. Up close she
could see that this man was fried by the sun. Frazzled blonde
hair, pink peeling nose. As he looked, his transparent eyebrows
were raised up, his mouth turned downwards in a droll way.
"I recognize a couple
of these shots. A lovely one of the Giant, obviously. But
a lot of these others
they just don't exist here. I've
been doing these tours for ten years. I should know."
Feeling oddly stung, she took
back the book without even a thank you. She started to walk
away. Not just from him, but from the whole tour group. The
guide called after her.
"Miss! Miss, I'm sorry,
I'm terrible with names. But, um, don't you want to stay on?
We will do a walk on the shore, and then the crafts market..."
"Thanks, but I think
from now on, I'll be exploring on my own."
He approached her, got so
close that she could smell what she guessed was cologne, a
pungent shrubby smell. He murmured, "You must stick to
the tourist areas only." He gestured to a dark blue mountain
range that rimmed the north side. "There is, some would
unrest in the hills. Some shouting against, ha ha,
perceived colonialism. Disappearances. If
you get my
"I'll keep that in mind."
She wandered aimlessly for
a while, snapping photos. It really was a beautiful place.
Lovely beaches, dazzling sun, untrammeled woods. But wasn't
it, she thought, a banal kind of beauty? Wasn't it
every postcard picture that ever was? Wouldn't Josif prefer
a place that was more unconventional?
He was a Serb. He had lived
in Yugoslavia up until the age of eighteen. But claimed, when
he met her, to have no memories of it, his real homeland.
So Lexa tried to pry
the memories from him. And he provided a few. He said that
as a teen he was a punk rocker who scrawled anti-communism
slogans on his jacket. His family was against Milosevic. The
plan had been in place that Josif would leave whenever all
the big troubles started.
And the troubles?
At this he would change the
subject, switch gears, and offer her a memory from his early
childhood as a consolation prize. I sometimes traveled
to Austria on the weekends. I would buy my favorite chocolate
eggs that had little toys inside
They had first met ten years
before, at the university library where she had worked ever
since. He was twenty-five, finishing his degree in design.
She was twenty-six, employed in tech services but occasionally
filled in at Reference. The first time she saw Josif was from
across the wide, polished wood library desk. She hadn't noticed
him walk up. He just seemed to silently, suddenly, appear.
"Please, to tell me where
I find the meanings of dreams."
"Excuse me?" When
he said dreams he pronounced it as drams.
"The several words that
exist for dreaming. Untangling the layers. My dreams, they
are," he struggled for the word, "unfathomable."
She had laughed loudly. She
was the type of person who, when they laugh, show all their
teeth and the deep inside of their mouths. "Well, I can't
provide much analysis. I'm mostly good for cataloguing and
processing. The technical stuff. They just let me out of my
She wrote down for him the
section where he might find books on dream analysis. She smiled
at him in an indulgent way, and something in him warmed to
her. His eyes had been jumping around the room nervously,
but now they settled on her and stayed. His smile was hesitant.
As he thanked her, and turned
to walk away, she called to him, "By the way, if I may
be so bold
whatcha been dreaming about?"
She was afraid she'd overstepped,
been crass, but he answered right away. "I dream I am
running through a plastic forest full of people wearing animal
What does that
"Tired. It is making
me feel very tired."
They both laughed nervously.
The next day he came back and gave her a gift: an astonishing
drawing in charcoal, intricate in line and shadow. It was
a scene of a forest. It was full of men wearing furry animal
* * *
Lexa returned to the inn that
evening feeling disappointed. She had found nothing that was
in the travel guide.
After a meal of steamed mussels
served in the tiny dining room, she went to her room. A musty
smelling room containing only a bureau and a hard double bed.
After a full day of wandering in the heat, she thought she
would sleep well. She was very tired. But sleep did not come
It wasn't just sleep that
she wanted. She wanted to dream. She had the feeling that
maybe she could find Josif in her dreams. For years, his extravagant
dreaming had left her irrationally angry at him. He claimed
to travel time and space, to see incredible places and things.
It left her feeling deserted, left out. It was a part of his
life that she couldn't share. And his dream life left him
so increasingly enervated, so blinking and vague in the daytime
hours. Each year, the problem became a little worse.
If only she were strong enough
to will it, then maybe she could dream her way into his world.
Perhaps she could even dream a better version of their marriage.
Not a different marriage. Just one slightly better.
But that night produced nothing.
She watched the digital alarm shift each hour until sometime
after two, and then there was nothing. Her sleep was deep,
gray, and opaque.
When her eyes opened as the
sun shone through the slatted blinds, she thought, I can't
go on like this. What I need is a plan.
She jerked the pillowcase
from her pillow, to fill with whatever she would need. She
would buy a canteen. She would trek alone off trail until
she found something, anything, that was in the brochure. And
if she stayed determined and pure in thought and intention,
surely her own intuition would be her guide.
After eating breakfast, she
walked to the outdoor market. The place was filled with other
tourists, mostly American like herself. They roamed around
chattering brightly. Their cell phones tinkled music here
and there, little scraps of songs she remembered from her
past. Songs she knew well, but sounded strange and muted and
tinny coming from a phone.
Lexa usually smiled and chatted
in situations like this. She drew energy from interaction
with others. But this day she kept to herself.
She bought oranges, mangoes,
and a small folding knife. A little mirror. After much searching,
a native man wearing a beaded breastplate sold her a tin canteen
on a long strap. When the native people weren't selling things,
they tended to gather together in small groups, and were generally
unacknowledged by both tourists and guides. As though they
were ghosts. Up close, they were very unusual looking. Their
skin was a deep reddish brown, but their eyes a pale blue.
And so with her pillowcase
hung over the back of her shoulder, she took off for the same
forest trails that she had started down before, but vowing
this time that she would not stop, until
She had always been a very
organized, practical person. She used to think that that was
her strong suit, the thing that saved her many times. Now
she had to acknowledge to herself that what she was looking
for had no true definition. What she was searching for (she
thought sheepishly) was some kind of underlying magic.
* * *
The day was hot, and the going
was slow. The paths were not the clearest, and the bugs were
getting to her despite the strong repellent she wore. After
a while she stopped even thinking of which direction to head
in. She was too busy thinking of all the things that had ever
She supposed Josif had always
been sad. And something in her was strongly attracted to that.
His sadness was ever present. It was like the child they'd
never had. He, she, and it. When she slept curled around him,
she was also curled around it. Keeping it safe,
keeping it protected.
In the daytime, he was a hard
worker, and quickly built his reputation as a gifted commercial
artist. (Though what he really wanted to be was a cartoonist.
On his off hours he drew panels of comics, a young boy being
chased by faceless assailants in a strange, shadowed, slanted
When he took the job with
the ad agency, designing the tour guides, it seemed like a
dream come true. He loved to travel. Growing up in Yugoslavia
was to live in isolation. Now the world was opened up to him,
and there was so much to see. Lexa had gone with him when
she could, once to Capri and once to Amsterdam.
They had been happy enough,
hadn't they? It had worked, for the most part. He never argued
with her. It was she who argued with him. It made her frustrated,
for one thing, that she was married to him and yet knew nothing
of his family or his past. She knew the basics: he left Yugoslavia
as communism was falling and the nationalists were rising.
He came to the States at the age of eighteen as Milosevic
was coming into power. And that was all he would tell.
"What about your family?
Your parents? Do they even know that you have a wife?"
"I am not in touch with
"There is no reason for
that! I want to know them. I want to know where you came from!"
"There is nothing left
of Serbia. Nothing but fascists, radicals. The cannibals that
are left will eat each other. It has ceased to exist for me."
"Your entire life
from birth to eighteen can't cease to exist!"
"You are speaking in
ignorance. You are speaking as an American. A Serb like me
knows it is possible for anything to vanish in an instant."
And then he would turn away
from her, and she would be livid. She wanted to go right to
the source of his pain, to see it and know it. And he hoarded
it from her. I am his wife, she thought. Wives have
She tore away at some low
hanging vines that blocked her path, tears prickling her eyes.
Ten years. Ten years she had invested in him. And she had
loved him. Loved his sadness, loved his otherness. He had
a righteous sense of honor and devotion. And he was a good
lover. But queerly, it wasn't his positive attributes that
she missed the most. The thing that she missed the most was
the lonely ache she felt in her marriage. Not only during
the long stretches that he was gone traveling, but the loneliness
she felt sleeping next to him at night. She made no sense
So what right had he to turn
to her in their bed, before turning out the lights
right had he to say to her, "I have to go back.
I'm sorry. It is not my choice." When she woke up the
next morning, he was gone. She never even felt him rise. His
pillow was undented. He was just as gone as if he had
never gotten into bed at all.
It had been OK for a while.
She had always been a strong, tough and funny girl. She had
many friends, male and female, to keep her company and make
her laugh. She had always had an outside life that Josif was
no part of. Her friends who had never met him teased her,
saying her husband must be imaginary.
But she was growing more unhappy
and desperate every day that he was gone. Solitude frightened
her. Lexa didn't know how other people filled their empty
Until one night, flushed with
wine, bursting with unspoken anxiety, she did it. She rifled
through his file cabinet (she knew where he kept the key),
pulled out all of the maps and documents, his birth certificate
and passport. He had taken nothing with him. There was also
what looked like artwork, kaleidoscopic designs made out of
aerial map images
Did it add up to anything?
Then she found what she was
looking for. The travel documents that had his destination's
name blocked out in black marker. It was forbidden to name
the place; it was the only thing that could make him furious.
But if she held the papers up to the light, it was possible
to just make out the letters.
* * *
Resting against the mottled
bark of a tree, she answered her own question. No. None of
this was adding up to anything. There was nothing for her
to find here. She was just another American tourist in a colonial
land where she didn't belong and wasn't welcome.
Overcome with despair.
The words seemed to appear in front of her eyes in black typeset.
And empty. And dead end. She could not think
of what to do next, either on this trip or with the rest of
her life. All she could do was be still. She sat for a very
long time, staring ahead and not seeing what was in front
of her. The physical feeling of loss lapped over her like
waves, and she surrendered herself to it.
After some time had passed,
she came out of her stupor. Coming into her own head again,
she was conscious of what she had been staring at: a spider
web in a crook of the tree, swaying slightly in the breeze.
When she turned her head up and about, her neck was stiff.
And she felt a strange sensation. Something was different.
The light and the pitch of things were heightened. Edges seemed
to vibrate, just a little. She felt as though she had just
come out the other end of a long tunnel, or was descending
rapidly from a great height.
The dissociation made her
feel as if a migraine were coming on. So at first she blamed
it on a trick of the mind when she saw the shadow man standing
At least, it looked a little
like a man. It started as a blind spot in her vision, small
as a pinprick, and then it spread and grew until it was vaguely
human shaped. It appeared to be moving in her direction. Her
heart began to beat quickly, and her mouth ran dry. It stood
directly in front of her.
And then it began to move
away, down the trail. It paused as though expecting her to
follow. And follow she did. This shadow, this blind spot,
this negative space. This thing she could not name.
It was leading her off the
path and into the brush, down a steep bank. Lexa didn't say
a word, but she would say that she felt an attunement.
(All the while her conscious mind screamed Where are you
At last the thing stopped,
and seemed to sweep out an arm, taking in the clearing before
them. It was like an echo of the gesture the ironic tour guide
had made. But whereas that guide had been so real, so solid
and burning in the sunlight, this gesture was like a muted
echo of a thought.
Before her was a little marsh,
full of tall reeds and chirping frogs. An egret was poised
on one spindly leg. It raised its head slowly to look at her.
It looked right into her eyes. And then dipped its head for
a beakful of water.
It was bliss that fell over
Lexa. The bliss of a recovered memory. This wasn't just some
random scene. This was an exact replica of a memory
from her childhood. When she was a little girl, she had been
sent to live with her grandparents in Florida for a summer.
Her father had just died of cancer, and her mother had business
She was seven years old, sad,
afraid, miles from home. But hiking a trail at the wildlife
sanctuary that ran behind her grandparent's house, she had
come upon this very scene: the hushed woods, the little marsh,
Lexa wasn't the type to fall
entranced. But she was. She was lost in the sensations,
the colors and sounds. The memory ricocheted through her head
like a beam of light bouncing between receding mirrors. Her
synapses were lighting up like a pinball machine. She had
never felt this way before. Like she was allowed to go back.
Like something had been given back. Perhaps this was the beginning
of a new way of living. One in which she wouldn't be afraid
to turn inward instead of out.
Slowly she was able to turn
her eyes from this scene of richness and beauty to the shadow
man, who was still standing there. A dark hole in her vision.
A little man-shaped bit of nothingness. "Thank you,"
she said, as she began to step forward. She wanted to take
off her shoes. She wanted to physically be in that
water. Because she knew it would be just like coming home.
But the shadow man seemed to be shaking his head.
When she walked forward with
her hand lifted, something strange happened. It was like her
hand had touched something, some kind of field of resistance.
Her hand sent trembling ripples through the scene, as though
this childhood memory was only being flashed on an undulating
screen. The more she tried to get to it, the more it evaded
her. It was like a man-made mirage.
She looked around for her
friend the shadow. But the shadow was gone. And in that moment,
she went from feeling exulted to feeling very angry. As though
a cruel trick had been played on her.
"It's fake," she
said to herself, quietly. And then a little louder. "It's
fake! Do you hear me, Josif? This place is a hoax. This whole
place is fake! A bunch of New Age bullshit!"
But there was no one there
to hear her. There was only the sound of nature. Birdcall
and the wind in the trees. Exhausted, she moved back again
and sat on the ground. When she looked up, what she saw looked
normal and undistorted. The little marsh was still there,
but the egret was gone. It was still lovely, but it just wasn't
quite the same. The beautiful, perfect moment had slipped
* * *
The final night of her married
life, she had been able to finally coax Josif to come out
with her to a party at a friend's apartment. It was all university
people, graduate students and a couple of staff members. Her
crowd. Her friends. She was so happy to finally have them
meet her husband of eight years. See, he is not imaginary!
It had gone well most of the
night. It was a group of about ten people, sprawled on the
couches and standing in the kitchen. Lexa was warm and animated,
Josif quiet and reserved, but charming. When he did speak,
his words were careful. Well ordered, well thought. The whole
room would stop to listen to what he had to say. They asked
about his work. About his politics. About the Hague Tribunal.
She was proud of him, liked
looking at him in the lamplight. His slow shy smile, his dark
hair growing just long enough to curl. The lines that were
just beginning to etch themselves around his eyes. She loved
the mystery of him, but also what was physical, substantial.
Present. She felt as though the two halves of her life were
finally coming together.
As the night wore on, there
was much drinking. Everyone grew louder and looser. One friend,
a graduate student in archaeology, was talking about a dig
he'd returned from in Kenya. He mentioned that at one point
in history, there was only one continent on Earth, before
the plates started to shift and crash, creating the map of
There was one man who she
knew vaguely from parties before. He was one who joked a lot,
who always had a punchline ready and waiting. His mouth was
always set in a half smile. Leaning in the doorway, very drunk,
he said, "Josif, you must have been on a dig before.
You're from the Balkans, right? They're digging mass graves
all the time, huh? Just kidding, just kidding. I'm an asshole,
There were a few "boos,"
and someone said, "That was shitty." But the conversation
soon turned to something else. Lexa alone noticed that Josif
had gone ashen and still. His eyes were glassy. Despite his
stillness, she could sense, though their bodies were not touching,
that his heart was galloping in his chest. Whereas before
he had been solid and real, he was becoming ephemeral. Transparent.
As soon as she could, she
made the excuses necessary to get out of there. She made her
goodbyes while Josif followed her, woodenly.
As soon as they exited the
building to the outside and began to walk the several blocks
to their car, Josif began to speed up, walking ahead of her.
"Josif!" She called. "That was bad
know that was bad
But he didn't answer. He walked
down the middle of the empty street. The streetlights lit
him from all angles. His tall figure cast enormous shadows
that swung around him clockwise before disappearing. (Looking
back, she knew this was the real moment when she lost
him. He was fading away. She could see right through him.)
At last shut in the safety
of their car, he said to her in a stunned whisper, "I
can't believe you made me come there."
"I'm sorry! It was just
that one guy. I'm not even friends with him."
this country is not my home. It will kill me. What is killing
me is irony. These people carry their irony about them like
a barbed suit. To keep others away, to keep their souls hidden
They got into bed as usual
that night. If they couldn't reach each other in the wakeful
hours, they could always be safe together in bed. Wordless.
One cupping the other. That was always the way it had been
But in the morning she woke
up to find her arms empty. The unmussed sheets, the plump
pillow. He was never there.
* * *
It was now late afternoon.
Lexa only snapped from her reverie when the rays of the lowering
sun struck her right in the face. She blinked and looked around
her. There was nothing to show her where she had been or where
she was going. She was off any trail, and shut in by green
Alone. She was coming to accept
that she was alone, had actually been alone for some time
now. But maybe this was OK. Maybe it could be OK. After
all, she was known as the type for being strong and pragmatic
in any emergency. If enough people held that image of her,
then surely it must be true. Then surely she must strong.
Right? Would she be strong enough to keep going deeper? To
find more visions that were meant for her alone?
She just needed to eat, to
drink, and to spread her tools all around her, to make an
assessment. Rooting through her bag, she pulled out the small
survival mirror that she had thought to pack. She smiled sadly.
She had learned to signal with a mirror in Girl Scouts. (Where
even then they called her too big, too loud, too much trouble,
but they never noticed her scared and vulnerable eyes.) Her
lips trembled just a little bit as she tried to remember how
to flash in Morse code. A language that needed no words. Dot
dot, dash dash.