Université de Rouen, France
They pulled up to a large gothic building. Autumn ivy covered the walls. Outside, there was a sign written in French that said ‘Départment de Psychologie’, and as soon as Vivienne stepped onto the concrete steps, a flood of young people spilled out, chatting loudly, texting on their phones, and holding hands. She smiled, happy to be among youth. The hospital took in mostly elderly people with serious problems. And even the prenatal unit was something else. She liked being there as well, but the university crowd just felt different. She seemed to fit in here. As she pushed her way up the stairs, pressing her body between others, she experienced a strong sense of belonging.
Maybe the professor was right in bringing her here. He had told her that this might help bring back some memories, and the idea felt promising. She turned her head and smiled over her shoulder at him. All around her Vivienne felt an exuberance, an unrestrained force of life.
When they entered the building and the crowd thinned, she turned to the professor and said, “There is a powerful energy here. It’s so raw.” He raised his right eyebrow above the rim of his glasses and removed his fedora. A crisp beginning of a smile emerged on his previously concerned face. “It’s like the air is electric,” she continued. “I feel it in my body.” She spun around once, giddy.
“My dear,” he said, “that might very well be the musk of these teenage boys. I suspect the ‘energy’ you feel may simply be the erotic appetites of these males pressing themselves against you to get through the doorway.”
She bit her lip. “You see, these kids are primed for reproduction. Perhaps that is the sensation you are experiencing. It can be powerful indeed.” She didn’t really know what to say, so she cast a glance up the wide staircase in the middle of the lobby.
“Shall we continue?” He checked something on his phone, and started towards the 2nd floor. She made eye-contact with a guy perhaps a few years younger than her. He smiled at her, and she wondered how long ago she had passed through the halls of a university. How old was she? Did she even go to school? Or perhaps she spent her time travelling and jumping out of planes in foreign countries? Who knows? Certainly not her.
They proceeded up the enormous staircase, down a long vaulted hallway to a door that read “Armand Duval”. The professor knocked, adjusted his vest, and greeted the short man with a firm shake and a grand smile when he opened the door.
“Charles, comment ça va?”
The office was crammed with books on shelves and in piles randomly placed around the room. There was a marble bust of Aristotle serving as a book end, and an old map of Paris with its arrondisements arranged in the spiral of a nautilus sea shell. The antique wooden desk took up most of the space, and it was stacked with papers held down with amber paper-weights, a coffee mug, and a silver pocket watch. Two chairs were pressed in front of the desk, their seats buried in books, which Armand Duval swiftly cleaned off and motioned for them to sit on.
“Please,” he said in English. Then extended his hand to Vivienne. “My name is Armand. You must be Vivienne.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“I am an old friend of Charles’.” When they sat down, the office felt tiny, despite the high ceiling. “So, Charles tells me that you have amnesia.”
“Yes, I can’t remember anything at all.”
“What is the first thing you remember?”
“Well,” she thought back, “I guess I remember a popping sound, and then falling from above the clouds.” The man made a note on a pad, then smiled at her. He was a round man, with black curly hair and a blue-ish tint on his face where his facial hair betrays his lazy shave.
“Perhaps it was a traumatic experience after jumping from the plane,” he said to himself. “I’ve heard of skydivers blacking out the fall completely, but in this case you don’t remember anything before the jump.” He rolled his lips together, frowned, and closed his eyes to signal that he is deep in thought.
“Actually,” she said, “there was no plane. I also had no parachute.”
The stocky man’s expression exploded in surprise. “Say what?”
“When I woke up, I was naked. It was as if the entire thing was a terrible dream, but it was real. I struggled for air, and thought I was going to die. The entire time I wished I could recall just one thing about my life—even the tiniest snippet of my family, of life. I remember thinking I didn’t want to die as an empty vessel. I wanted to hold the image of someone dear to me in my mind as I hit the ground.”
Armand leaned forward across his messy desk. “You hit the ground?”
“Armand, didn’t you see the news broadcasts?” the professor interjected.
“Charles, you know very well I never watch TV.” Then he turned back to the girl, “Mademoiselle, can you remember the impact?” She thought for a moment, staring up at the ceiling, where she noticed a rusty stain. When they made eye contact again, she asked him politely for a glass of water. While Armand is out of the room, she turned to the professor and smiled.
“Vivienne,” he said, “I know this might be hard for you, but I promise Armand is one of the best psychologists in the country. Perhaps all of Europe. If it is not a neurological problem, he will discover the truth.”
“Professor, I’m not worried. Just thirsty.”
Armand returned with a mug filled with room temperature water. It tasted dusty, but soothed her unquenchable thirst.
“My pleasure.” He returned to his seat behind the desk, stepping over some books and squeezing behind the professor. “So, can you remember the fall? Or anything directly afterwards?”
“You remember the impact, then?”
“Perhaps she would rather not recall it?” the professor suggested.
“Well, I don’t require detail, but if she can remember the impact, then it tells me that the amnesia is not a coping mechanism to assuage her traumatic feelings.” The professor conceded and nodded his head.
“I remember it, yes. It was painful. I landed in a marshy area. I broke both my legs. It was hard to breathe. I was grateful I didn’t die. Once the disorientation subsided, I picked myself up as best I could, and dragged myself out of the swamp, where I found a couple walking their dogs. They called the ambulance. I remember all of that clearly.”
“Very well. I’m sorry I asked.” He rubbed his chin. “But it does help me.”
“Good.” She smiled. “Any more questions?”
“Well, I’d like to try something a bit more… proactive.”
“Hypnosis.” She looked at the pocket watch on the desk between them.
“Will you be using that?”
“Not unless you want me to,” he laughed, and even the professor grinned. “Actually, Vivienne, your eyes will be closed, so you won’t see anything except the images in your subconscious.” She closed her eyes and tried to picture something. Anything. But behind her eyelids there was only blackness, an infinite void. “Okay. I see you are ready, so why don’t we begin?” She nodded her head and the strands of black hair tucked behind her ear fell onto her high cheekbone.
“I want you to imagine a staircase leading downwards. You cannot see the bottom, but know that there is a door there in the depths. With the first step you feel gravity increasing slightly. Your body feels heavier.
“Let’s take one more step. The second step makes time slow down. Your motions are deliberate yet dreamlike, and gravity increases once again. Focus on your arm. It’s heavy. And as we take the next step, your legs also feel heavy. They move just how you want them to, but it feels as if they are moving through water: dense and resistant.
“The fourth step happens in slow-motion, and when your foot touches down, your head is too heavy to hold up. You feel sleepy, drowsy. Picture the bottom of the staircase. It is dark down there, but you know there is a door. It is a closed door that feels familiar to you. It feels safe.” Seated in the chair, her head bobbed down. She seemed to be asleep. Armand winked at the professor.
“The fifth step down, and now you are relaxed. You feel warm, as if you are in a bath. All the worries and concerns drift away from you. You cannot take them past this step.
“The sixth step down. Time is no longer part of this world. You are in control of how it flows. You can speed up time or slow it down. You can step outside of it if you want to.
“One more step—the seventh one—and the world lights up. You can see anything you look at in tremendous detail. It’s as if you have unlimited focus. Microscoping vision when you want to. You can hear vast distances, and even smell the tiniest particles. All your senses are increased.
“The next step is the eighth step. You can now see the door at the bottom. You are in-between worlds. Please describe for me the door.”
Vivienne’s mouth opened slightly, her head still hanging on her chest. “It is a large wooden door with metal rivets. It is flanked by Ionic columns, partially covered in moss, and the door itself is barred by a heavy crossbeam. The wood is engraved with a knotted net pattern, which spirals outwards like the twisting radials of the pinecone. In the middle, there is a circle with a snake biting its own tail. And from its centre beams of carved beads radiate outwards like the rays of the sun.” Both the professor and Armand’s eyebrows raised, and they turned their heads in a knowing glance. Then after a moment, Armand continued.
“Yes. Okay. Take the next step. The ninth step. It is the last one before you get to the door. When your foot touches the step you feel carbonated, like your body and mind are infused with an energy beyond anything you can imagine. You feel the top of your head open up, rarefied. It is as if all parts of your soul are available for you to examine, to explore, and to access freely. Your own form is malleable, and you have ultimate control over everything inside and outside your body.
“Now, let’s take the last step. The tenth step leads you to stand in front of your large wooden door. Behind this door is a room that represents you. It will be the embodiment of your personality. I want you to lift away the crossbar. It lifts with ease—light as a feather—and the heavy door swings open to reveal your special place. It is your sanctuary. Step inside now.” Armand paused. The room seemed hot to him, a single bead of sweat gathered just below his hairline.
“Please tell me what you see.”
“I am inside the biggest tree in the world. There is no ceiling, yet beams of light fall from holes and notches in the old trunk. Inside there is a carpet of grass, buzzing with life. Butterflies flutter around between the glowing orbs of fireflies, and there are flowers everywhere. The colours are so bright. There are animals everywhere.”
“What kind of animals?”
“… A tiger sleeping in the tall grass. Squirrels climbing the walls. Possums. Hedgehogs, and birds, a snake high up, and many others. I can’t see them, but I feel them. The room is alive. Everything is thriving, blooming. I love it here.”
“Excellent. Tell me what you hear and smell. Describe all your senses.”
“I feel a gentle warm breeze. Mediterranean. The grasses with their lacy flowers rustle back and forth, a whispering of leaves, and the orchestra of birds high up in the tree. The bark walls feel rough and old. They are wise. There are roots that form a bench, on which a chipmunk sits. I hear chirping and tweeting and also the sound of crickets. I smell nature. It is fresh and earthy. It is the smell of life. Regeneration. When I walk deeper into the room, through the drift of the fireflies, I hear running water. The grandfather tree has cast itself from the beginning of time like a fibrous cloak over an immense moss covered rock, and the water slips over it into a pool. I stick my hand it, feeling the cool revitalizing element on my skin.
“When I stand up I feel at home. I raise my hands in gratitude and look up.I am staring into the misty eye of the old god, the arche of the universe, the most basic building block of all of existence.”
The room was definitely heating up. The professor took off his jacket, Armand pointed at a hook on the back of the door, and he hung it there, then Dr. Borgiac proceeded to roll up his sleeves. Armand cracked the window a bit. It was stuck, otherwise, he would have opened it further. When he returned, droplets of sweat dotted his upper lip, glistening between the stubble.
“Excellent. I will now ask you a few questions. Please do your best to answer. Remember, you control time. You can rewind to look at past events in detail, and if need be you can even look into yourself to study at the very mechanics of your own mind. Are you ready?”
“What is your name?”
“I have no name.”
“What do people call you then?”
“Technītī kóri tis anthropótitas,” she said with a guttural ‘ch’ sound in an intoned language and an airy voice. Both men looked at each other in shock, as if the girl in front of them has been possessed by a devil. Armand wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, sat back and struggled to push the window open further. Dark stains had started appearing under his arms.
“Can I call you Vivienne?”
“Yes, of course. Just don’t call me Galatea.” Her voice was back to the chipper, sunny feminine cadence.
“Who is Galatea?”
“A lady from a poem.”
“Good. Uh… Vivienne, I want you to go back to your childhood. Rewind time to a happy memory. Just let images reveal themselves to you.” He paused and fanned himself with a paperback that was lying on his desk. “Ok, now tell me what you see.”
“There is a flame dancing in my head. I see air and fire spinning. I see the stars.”
“What else do you see? Are there any people? And buildings?”
“I see nothing except for emptiness, but it is not a negative thing. The nothingness is satisfying. It is comfortable because it is boundless. The fire is the battery and air the vehicle. This is the infinite beginning.” The room was now getting unbearably hot, and the professor opened the door to create a draft, he noticed that steam was evaporating off Vivienne in languid twisting tongues of mist, that blew out the window, obscuring his friend’s form, and no doubt causing him much grief in his sweaty clothes. Armand mouthed a silent ’Merci’ and continued with the examination.
“Ok, Vivienne, let’s go back to the basics. I want to you picture a landscape. Just let your thoughts drift and let a familiar sight come to you. Do you understand? I’m not looking for something ideal, just something familiar. A place you have seen before.”
“What do you see?”
“I see a shoreline. Blue ocean, white clouds drifting low. There are rocks. No, they are cliffs, the shore is jagged with poplars dotting the tops of the crags. Behind me is the countryside. Golden soil. It think it’s a farm. The sun is bright, the air smells salty. There is a small boat on the water. I think they are fishing.”
“Great! Can you look at the boat. Does it say anything on the side?”
“Yes, in white letters is says ‘Salvataggio’. It is black on the outside with a white interior. There are two men, topless. One is casting a net. The older man is tying some ropes together.”
“Oh.” Armand wrote on his pad. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know. On a farm. There is no house nearby. I’m on the edge of a field.”
“Can you turn around and describe what you see?”
“In the distance there are some old ruins. Looks like the remains of an amphitheatre, I think. I also see crops. It is a field of something. I don’t really want to walk through it. I’m not sure why, but I feel like the crops forbid me from getting closer.”
“Are you allergic to them?”
“No, I am not allergic to anything.”
“Do you have any medical conditions? If you are unsure, look deeply into yourself to find out.” He dabbed his handkerchief on his forehead, and wiped his entire face, which had been coated in both sweat and the steam emanating off the girl.
“I am perfectly fit.”
“Aren’t you hot?” he asked in desperation.
“No.” She hesitated. “But I hear some music. It is faint. I can’t discover the source.”
“What kind of music?”
“A stringed instrument. And a pipe, I think. It sounds distant, yet I know it’s close.” Armand could not take the heat any more. His nose wrinkled, and he fanned himself with tremendous intensity. Both of his sleeves were soaked, and it looked like he couldn’t bear much more.
“Listen, Vivienne. When I snap my fingers, you will emerge from your hypnotic state refreshed as if you have just slept an entire night. You will remember everything we talked about, and tonight the images you have seen will spin around in your head revealing some of the unexamined details. Even after you are awake, allow your subconscious to work on the clues. Do you understand?”
“I understand.” Then he snapped his fingers, and without missing a beat, rose from his seat, squeezing by the desk to get to the hallway, where the professor has taken refuge from the incredible sauna-like temperature of the little room.
The professor re-entered, bracing against the waves of heat, the smell of baking leather, and offered the girl her mug, refilled with cool water. When his finger touched hers as they pass the cup, he felt a searing pain not unlike touching a boiling kettle.