EDITORIAL note: About a year ago, I was backing up a large number of emails that I had saved from over the years, beginning with my time in college. Among the many from my parents, former girlfriends, previous employers, and friends, I found the one you will read below. As you will discover, it is eminently bizarre to begin with, but even more strange is that I have no memory of ever having read it in the first place.
Subject: [STollist-L] Lodone email fwd
From: Fleur MacCoullough <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Reply-to: St. And. Online Listserv <STollist-L@listserv.st-andr.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 21 December 1998 21:18:01
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Sent: Tue 05/13/97 19:38:33 -0800
I trust you to know me well enough to read through to the end. I am writing to you because I know you will help me document what has been the most uncanny episode, which I am now to write out below.
As I had hoped, I ended my Northern excursion in Dunkeld. It was my last day (a Sunday), so I rose early and walked through the Hermitage in the early light. I stood in Ossian’s cave and read a bit of Macpherson out loud to myself, feeling as though I had fulfilled a (somewhat silly) boyhood dream–for a moment, I was “the last of the race of men.” But just as I felt I had arrived at a moment’s peace, a group of tourist walkers, along with their loud children, peeked into the cave, and I was back amongst the living.
Reading the fragments of Ossian put me in mind of literary forgeries, and, when I returned to my hotel to collect my things, I found in the side table drawer a copy of Borges’ Tlön. It felt as though the book had been left there specifically for me (and, as you shall observe, I am only strengthened in that supposition after what I have seen since then). The strangeness of the moment is something I wish I could have shared with another–and perhaps that is why, halfway through, I spontaneously began reading the text aloud. I felt as though I had entered a trance, and by the time I had finished, the room was much brighter, and it was time to depart for the train station.
In the same manner that one feels no guilt when taking hotel soap, I tucked the Borges volume into my pack, planning to examine it more carefully during the train ride home. This edition, which has a ruined amphitheatre on its cover and is published by a company called The Gideon, was one that I had not seen before. Moreover, the translation was unfamiliar to me, and I was certain that there were a number of typographical errors and/or faulty renderings into English.
My work on the trip and my early-morning walk had tired me out, and I planned to sleep most of the way to London, but I found that I was unable relax at all, in spite of my fatigue. So I indulged my curiosity and re-read the text more slowly, noting at least six errors, including two instances of missing umlauts over Tlön and, most egregiously, a reference to Enkidu in the section on Dumuzid the Shepherd near the end of Part I. I report these errors with confidence now (after multiple examinations), although at the time of the inspection on the train, my reading was interrupted by the low voice of another passenger, a woman. We were seated back to back, making it even more difficult for me to concentrate–it was as though her voice were right in my ear.
Please believe me when I say to you now that I can neither accept nor explain what happened next. As I said before, I was silently reading Tlön when I heard the woman’s voice. I paused in my task to listen to her speak, trying to make out what she said, all the while keeping my eyes on the pages before me. To my absolute surprise (dare I now say horror?) it registered with me that she was reading Tlön aloud.
For a moment, I could not breathe, let alone move. She, being on the other side of the seat, continued reading aloud softly, unaware of the impact she had had upon me–upon my very life! As she continued reading and I came back to myself, I situated myself such that I could observe her through the crack between the seats. She was a woman of about seventy years old, and she wore an old-style hearing aid with a cord running from the earpiece down into a rectangular pack in her shirt pocket. She continued reading aloud in her faint voice and seemed not to notice my gaze at all. When she finished, she stood up for a moment, and I quickly repositioned myself so as not to be caught staring. My movements betrayed me, and she glanced down, but did not seem to suspect that I had been watching her for above half an hour.
When the train reached Edinburgh, she disembarked and I momentarily considered saying something to her. But what? I felt as though I had an opportunity to share this singular experience with this anonymous woman, but how does one even begin to broach such a topic? And so I was left again to myself as the train pulled away for London, and, with sleep still withholding itself from me, I returned to annotating the errors I have already mentioned above.
Upon reaching London, I was far too absorbed in the day’s bizarre events to go anywhere but the university library. I searched the catalogue for every book published by “The Gideon” or “The Gideon Group” that I could find. Suffice it to say that discovering one volume from this publisher led me to another and another, etc., until I traced the trail back as far as I could: to two publications. First, to my decreasing sense of surprise, was an edition of Tlön in German that had been published in 1947 (the edition I found in the hotel drawer had been printed in 1991). Second was a dissertation in English on the Kings of Uruk, also published in 1947, focusing particularly on the nuanced differences among versions of the myth of Inanna’s descent into the underworld. The title pages of both of these volumes revealed what I hoped would be the fountainhead: each had the dual publisher’s imprint reading “The Gideon / Wm. A. H., St. John’s Wood, England.”
A quick search through the phone directory and I found a listing for William A. Halston, St. John’s Wood. I was as surprised to find this name so easily (could it be the same Wm. A. H. from 1947?) as I was to see that the morning had already broken through the ground floor windows of the library.
You know my proclivity for walking, so you will not be surprised to hear that I immediately set off on foot through the park, arriving at the address listed in the book in under an hour. When I knocked on the door of the massive house, I was shown into a sitting room and asked to wait while Mr. Halston was consulted. I now desire to describe the decor of the room to you, but I must confess that, as I waited, I became increasingly nervous, and I was unsure of what I intended to say to Halston when he came downstairs–the only thing I remember well about those moments is how light the room seemed. Floor to ceiling windows.
After some time, Halston’s attendant returned and informed me that Mr. Halston was unavailable. He did not elaborate any further.
I was shown the door, and as I walked down the long gravel path back to the street I was relieved, thinking that I had avoided an embarrassing encounter; at least now I could re-inhabit my regular schedule and recover from my long research trip. That interval from the door to the street was my last moment of peace, for as soon as I reached the pavement, I saw the figure of a woman hiding behind the hedge near the gate. I know you will be as surprised as I was to realize that it was the woman from the train who had not, it seems, remained in the Northern country.
She did not try to hide, which surprised me as much as anything else. Instead, she waited until I had reached her and then grabbed me by the arm as though she had been waiting for me the entire time.
‘Just keep walking straight along–follow my touch,’ she whispered. And then, once we had turned a corner, ‘So, you’ve been to see Halston?’
For a woman of her age, she was walking quite assertively. She quickly explained that she had mistakenly deduced that I was Halston; thus, she had followed me to Wick and then all the way back south. When I feebly asked what her interest in Halston was, she laughed as though I had embarrassed myself.
She guided me to her apartment, which was devoted wholly to her research into Halston: his life and his publications. Doris spent the next several hours presenting books, charts, photographs of Halston’s house, etc., in order to explain the following: over the past 50 years, William A. Halston has been responsible for systematically creating an alternate reality. The majority of his plan has revolved around revising facts in history textbooks for schoolchildren up to year nine, a strategy that he initially employed in Germany after the end of the second world war, though he quickly brought it to England, as well.
Naturally, I am omitting much of the evidence simply for the sake of composing this e-mail to you. I will attempt to recover some of it for myself and bring it to share with you and the others when I return to the United States. To be brief, then, Doris’ research impressed me as a thorough explanation of a rare (if not unique) situation, and I left her apartment convinced of her accuracy.
Fiona, you must know that I understand how peculiarly I have acted up to this point in my narrative. But you also must realize that I would not have even written this down if I did not have compelling reason to do so. Please bear witness to my full account and hold your judgment in check.
As I said, I left Doris’ apartment some hours later. Indeed, it must have been a great many hours, for it was morning again, and I had intended to come straight here (my campus office) to compose this e-mail. When I arrived here, though, there was an envelope pinned to my door, the content of which was an invitation that read ‘Mr. Wm. A. Halston requests that you meet him at his home at [today’s date, 10 A.M.].’ A glance at my watch told me that I had to set off immediately if I was to make the appointment.
You may wonder if I felt fatigued, and I shall address that point in due course. For the time being, just understand that I promptly walked the route through the park again, arriving at Halston’s door just before the appointed hour. Again, I felt anxious because I had no idea what I might say to the man.
Again I knocked, and again the same attendant led me into the massive entry corridor. I had expected to be shown into the sitting room near the front of the house, as before, and I was surprised to be led into a long corridor. I was further surprised to find that, unlike yesterday’s conditions, the entire interior of the house was quite dark, owing to the fact that every window was curtained. No one spoke a word to me. And then I felt as Hamlet must have when he saw the ghost of the King; the poisoned corpse of a once-powerful man was wheeled past me. Doris had explained that, though even her seemingly exhaustive research could not pin down his exact age, Halston had to be older than 90. Before my eyes, he looked shriveled and alien. His attendants seemed not to notice me, nor care that, after the train had passed, I ventured a bit deeper into the corridor to seat myself on a long bench.
I sat for awhile with my head bowed, facing the floor, as I tried to account for the steps that had led me to this moment and this place. Along the side of the corridor opposite my bench ran a wide mirror, perhaps 15 feet wide, nearly reaching both floor and ceiling. I found myself staring at it, examining it and its contents. Fiona, I sat there and looked through the mirror until I trembled in terror. Eventually, after a few hours passed, I went numb. But I knew, knew that Doris sat behind the mirror, staring back at me.
Mind you, during what I estimate to be approximately four hours of sitting on the bench, I heard not one sound. To return, I sat there trying not to move as I shifted from fatigue to terror to numbness to something else–a false courage perhaps. In the fifth hour, I settled with my own mind that I would walk upstairs, and, in doing so, I found myself staring at another, parallel corridor lined with a row of doors. Staring at them paralyzed me–I felt that opening any one of them would be to change my make up forever.
I must have stood at the first door for half an hour before I went in, looking behind myself as I shut the door (I expected to see an aggressor). A chill ran through me as I stared at the contents of the room: shelves filled with thousands of the white, single-earphone, wired hearing aids. Knowing that someone would surely enter the room at any moment, I put one of the earphones into my ear to find that it played a recording of a man’s voice. He recited a monologue (if only I had had something to write down the words!) that lasted about a minute and a half, after which there was a brief pause and then a different man’s voice reciting the same monologue.
You must forgive me, Fiona, for at this point, I fell asleep and awakened some time significantly later, the same words being spoken by an entirely different voice.
As you can gather, I had been up all night Sunday, Monday, and much of Tuesday and now type this e-mail to you from my office at the university. I must mention a few more things before I forget them. When I first returned to this office, I found a small mirror in the washroom and stared into it for a time, trying to convince myself that what I wrote above was true. More importantly, Fiona, you must print this entire correspondence and place it on the desk in my office. In fact, print two copies and hide the other in the stacks in the library.
It’s important that you remember–I’m writing you from London. You may hr fr my soones, but In in Lodone. T fnest rhoss I vre saw wsa Dorrss.