by Leah Erickson

A woman travels to a strange land in search of her missing husband, a Serbian travel guide designer.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

Bookmark and Share



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 Giant."

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 fairies.

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.

"Josif… I'm not 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 it!"

"To name a thing is to diminish it!"

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 the agency.

"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 say… unrest in the hills. Some shouting against, ha ha, perceived colonialism. Disappearances. If… you get my drift."

"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 cage sometimes!"

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. Shy.

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 suits."

"Oh… What does that feel like?"

"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 suits.

* * *

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 for her.

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… what?

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 gone wrong.

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 world.)

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 my family."

"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 rights.

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 to herself.

So what right had he to turn to her in their bed, before turning out the lights… what 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 days.

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 before her.

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 going?!)

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 to settle.

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, the egret.

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 away.

* * *

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 today.

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, that's me…"

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… I 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."

"I just… feel like 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 all around.

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.




Copyright © 2009 Leah Erickson

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Leah Erickson has had her work published most recently in Indigenous Fiction, The Saint Ann's Review, Sub-Lit, Unlikely Stories, and Atomjack Magazine. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband and young daughter.

--  O N L I N E  |  F O R U M  |  P R I N T --