Through a sky so blue, through clouds that hung like balls of cotton wool in the air; suspended above a gently rolling ocean.
I have passed this way before, of course, on many occasions. And subsequently I knew exactly where I was headed. On my left I spied a sandy beach. Monuments to a bygone age resided there: a monolithic sculpture of a candle and flame stood majestically in a garden of boulders; another taking the shape of a bowl of apples, their cool grey curves slightly cracked, a single lonely fruit by the foot of the vessel; one more, a throne fit for a giant, and atop its blocky stature a much smaller wooden chair; then finally some sort of Aztec structure, the thick wedges of stone almost spelling out a word, a lost testament to the art of conversation.
And on that very beach a figure reclining, allowing the water to wash over it sporadically. A pair of wonderfully-shapely legs...a reminder of something that happened long ago. But then the waters pull back further to reveal a fish's torso and head, stranded on the golden flats. Its silvery body wriggling, its fins flapping and its mouth gaping for liquid oxygen. An inversion, he was extremely good at such things. A mermaid back to front. A maid-mer? I thought for a moment of stopping to help. I could roll her back into the sea with little effort. But suddenly the movements ceased. She - it - lay motionless on the beach. A glassy eye staring upwards in death.
Averting my gaze, I looked to the right. In contrast there were snow-capped mountains, a range even. So breathtaking, their summits spearing the ether. And in the middle, a large, free-floating ball of rock, one side in shadow. It retained the same texture as the mountains but was something more, something other. Three tiny, perfectly-formed white eggs lay on a mountain ledge. And as I watched, its peak became the head of some great bird, with snow for wings. The Alpine rock its nesting place. At the forefront of the range, something I hadn't noticed before: a crystal wineglass the size of a skyscraper, cupping one of the clouds, not filling itself but rather supporting it up in the sky.
At any rate my course would take me neither left nor right, but dead ahead. Over the ocean where a boat made of pure salt-water, with wave crests for sails, drifts along unperturbed. Over the ocean until I reach yet another hovering rock, flanked by three metallic spheres; each one split horizontally across its middle. The Voice of the Winds whispers through their hollow cores. Idling on the pinnacle of the rock is a castle that appears to be a part of its totality. It has three small turrets and two larger ones at either side. I see movement at the slit-like windows; just silhouettes, then they are gone.
Now I am walking on the surface of the rock and it is larger than it appears on approach. A world above the world. I am in the green, green grounds, sensing eyes upon me. A tree has observed my landing. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland it sports a human nose and a pair of clear blue eyes, with leaves encircling the orbs themselves. His companion, a ghostly pear up in the clouds, points to a winding path that leads to the castle. With a tip of my hat I start along it.
More trees on each side of the path, except some are made up of sheet music. I hear the gallop of a horse's hooves and look left in time to see a jockey racing past. As he rides his mount in between the musical notes, he begins to whip the animal harder and harder, trying to escape from something behind him. I cannot see what. At the other side a lady also rides through the trees on horseback, but hers is a more dignified jaunt. Her steed canters, yet as it slips betwixt the tree-trunks long strips of it disappear. Brown horseflesh becomes bark. It's as though someone has pulled the tab at the side of a pop-up book.
'Pleasant day,' the lady remarks, half in view, half not.
Before I can reply, she has vanished altogether. Never to be seen again.
A little further down the trail I spot feathers falling in front of my face. Birds are circling above me, some fighting, some, like the jockey, trying to escape. Then I see why. A young girl, no more than twelve or thirteen and wearing a dress with white frilly collars and cuffs, is reaching up into the sky and snatching at them, in some cases even plucking them from the trees. Without a moment's hesitation she sinks her teeth into the winged creatures, tearing into them with her sharpened incisors. Blood spurts from one dead, diminutive avis and smears her face.
'Don't do that!' I shout.
Slowly she looks up at me with dreamy, soulless eyes, mystified.
'Why are you doing that?' I ask.
'For pleasure,' she responds in a sweet, tinkling voice - her mouth still full of feathers and foul birdmeat - before continuing on with her meal.
I hurry along, closing my ears to the squawks of those poor, poor birds.
And who should I come to next but the therapist. To counter my horror, he has become part-man and part-birdcage. Two white doves flap around inside his belly as he sits by the foot of a small bridge. One hand clutches a cane, the other a bag. He has no face, only a floppy hat and a red cover that pulls down over the doves at night.
'Good afternoon, monsieur,' he says, the metal bars of his cage vibrating.
Next to him a plant grows in the shape of four owls. He waves his stick in the direction of a river flowing under the bridge. A shape goes by, carried on the currents. A body. A woman's body.
'You recognise her?' the therapist asks.
'One of many mysteries. Take a closer look.'
I step up to the bridge, about to lean over, to see the face. But instead I dash across to the other side and carry on running, never looking back.
By and by I draw nearer to the castle, except it is no longer a castle. It is a house. A stylish, angular abode with shutters at the windows and huge poplar trees standing guard outside. It rests beside a large, translucent pond.
I pass two men clad in white playing some sort of ball game amongst the carved pillars of the garden. Unbeknownst to them there is a secret player above, something not quite human, not quite inanimate. One of the men swings his bat and only just misses me.
'Apologies,' he calls back, then throws himself back into his game.
There are onlookers, spectators watching this activity. Peculiar figures covered with grey linen cloths. Some are only shrouded about the head, while others keep their entire bodies hidden from sight. And still others are only partially there; a torso or set of legs draped with sheets like furniture in an abandoned home. Every now and again they clap - if they are capable - to show their appreciation of the sport.
A fence runs the length of the house, and beside it one of the players has left his boots, muddied and baked by the sun. The closer I come, though, the more those boots resemble a pair of feet, and then I realise the footwear is taking on the shape of its owner's appendages. Toes spread out on the gravel, laces starting just above the bridge of the foot.
The door to the house is wide open. I leave the competitors, secret or otherwise, to their diversion. Leave the obscured crowd to watch it unfold. And now I step inside.
It is dim at first, as I walk through the lobby. On the table by the coat-hooks lay three objects: a key, an egg and a crumpled piece of paper. I reach out my hand to touch the key and it spontaneously bursts into flames, followed closely by the egg, then, at last, the paper. I will never know what was written on it, nor what the key unlocked. But it is brighter now in the house.
Somewhere a piano is playing. I can't identify the tune, but I follow its music into the first of the downstairs rooms. In here there is indeed a grand piano. However, the keys are stationary, and locked around it is an enormous diamond ring. Yet it still plays the tune it was meant to play. The tune it was made to play. How, I do not know. Reflected in its smooth black skin is a gilded birdcage. Trapped behind its golden bars is another egg, this one oversized to the point of bursting through. It awaits the moment when it will hatch into captivity.
A whistle blows and I jump with fright. Looking around, I locate the source of the disturbance: a fireplace with a flat white surround and mantle, upon which stands a ticking clock with two brass candlesticks at either end. All well and good. Except there is a miniaturised steam train emerging from its innards, as if solid matter meant nothing at all to the thing. But, then again, why should it? Appropriately, the smoke from the train's funnel is rising up the fireplace's own chimney pot in thick grey-white streams.
Through now into the dining room and an even more extraordinary spectacle meets my eyes. One man, whose face looks familiar to me, is eating his lunch with four hands. And attached to these: four arms that plug into his upper body. Arachnid-like, he pours a drink, cuts into his dish with knife and fork, and puts a piece of bread up to his lips - all simultaneously. The more I take in of it, the faster he goes, his hands a positive blur. And then he has finished his food, this magician. Rising from the table, he nods a greeting my way.
'Excuse me,' I begin. 'But don't I know you?'
'Perhaps. It is not my place to judge,' he answers enigmatically, then departs in a flurry of limbs.
By the window sits a second diner, scanning today's newspaper. He too is alone and he ruffles his moustache at something he's just read. I take my eye off him for no more time than it takes to blink, and when my gaze returns to his seat he has gone. Puzzled, I search under the table he occupied, under the chair, behind the thick velvet curtains. Even behind the stove next to the table. There is no sign of him. Here today, gone tomorrow. But still the memory of him remains.
The door which takes me into the next room is both closed and open at the same time. A bizarre hole has been cut into the wood, seemingly with great care; so that although the door itself remains pressed up against the jamb, there is still a way through to the other side. Stooping slightly and twisting sideways, I enter an oddly proportioned area. I am but inches high in here: the table, red sofa and skirting-boards towering above me. In the corner is a naked giantess, perhaps a mate for the ogre whose chair stands back a ways on the beach. She doesn't appear to notice me to start with, and stares off wistfully into space. Then she happens to look down. I've never felt so vulnerable before. Suddenly she picks me up and places me in her palm, laughing loudly to herself.
Quaking, I blurt out, 'Please...please mademoiselle...I beg of you not to hurt me.'
She smiles and, just when I fear the end is inevitable, opens another door and places me back down on the ground. I turn around sharply, but the door is no longer there; now a part of the beige wallpaper. Congregating in this place are several men with cannons for heads, dressed in maroon cloaks and holding dark green leaves. They have encircled a tuba and breathe fire at it until it catches light. They finally see the intruder in their midst and all turn to face me.
'We have made a discovery,' they sing in unison. 'Would you care to see?'
One of their number pulls a curtain cord to reveal a woman with jet-black hair sat provocatively on a stool, hands clutching her lower back. She too is naked, but certain portions of her skin have the grain of wood running through them: her forehead and left cheek; her right shoulder and upper arm; across her right breast; down her midriff and extending to her right hand. She looks sad, pouting with deep red lips.
'How did she come to be like this?' I demand, but no one will answer me. Just another mystery. Another riddle.
On through the next door, and I am faced with a spiral staircase that reaches up and up. Set into the walls around it are perfectly square cubby-holes with objects placed inside. A severed hand, a piece of rotten fruit, a bird, a flame, a looking-glass, an apple, a man sound asleep wrapped in a blanket...And marbled inscriptions (ciel, corps humain (au forêl), façade de maison...). Quizzical, nonsensical. I would expect no less.
Upon arrival at the top I find a disquieting scene bared in front of me. A woman sprawled across a chaise lounge, her skin pale and wan, crimson pouring from her mouth onto the cushions below. She is quite obviously dead. A man, possibly her husband, is casually listening to the gramophone, and although the black, shiny disc spins around and around, no music is forthcoming from the golden trumpet attached to the needle. His coat and hat are discarded on a chair nearby, a suitcase beside one leg, ready for him to collect before he departs. However, a surprise awaits this murderer when he steps out of the room. Two long-coated men wearing bowler hats are poised to jump on him with nets and clubs.
Even more disconcerting than this: there are three other men voyeuristically peering in through the window. This is mere sport to them, just like the ball game outside. I am at a loss as to my role in the proceedings. It is too late to prevent the woman's death, so maybe the man deserves what is coming to him. And yet, what if he is innocent of the crime? Framed and subjected to vigilante justice?
Should I interfere?
The decision is taken out of my hands as the room spins round only to be replaced by another "picture". A bedroom full of oversized bits and bobs. A comb, equal in height to a tall gent, is positioned erect on the bed itself; a shaving brush that could sweep a carpet balances on top of the wardrobe; a match, three or four feet in length, is stretched out on the floor; a pincushion big enough to sit upon, just opposite; and in the middle, a turquoise drinking glass one could comfortably bathe in. The walls are sky-blue and someone has painted on clouds to give it the appearance of an open-air boudoir.
I wander over to the wardrobe, slipping between the glass and the pincushion. Mirrors on the doors throw back a likeness of the room that does not include me. The door opens quite easily and inside, hanging full-frontal, is a single white nightgown. An impression of the wearer's breasts swell the upper half, becoming, like the boots outside, flesh before my eyes. I slam the door to before the transmogrification is complete. The memories too painful, I back out of the room.
And into another, where a tiny red rose blooms in the centre of the floor. Touched, I go to examine it further, maybe to smell its exquisite bouquet. I step around it, wondering how it could grow up from between the gaps in the floorboards, when it begins to expand. In mere seconds it opens out, and too late I realise I am trapped by its unfurling petals. They fill the room up, leaving me to crawl on my hands and knees, seeking an early exit. I pull myself out from under the rose, which is now so gargantuan it casts a full, black shadow on the far wall of the room.
Out onto a landing of sorts and a blonde-haired beauty - a fairy - stands by an open window. No, not a window, more a rectangular void in the stonework. A candle flickers on the ledge beside her, shading one half of her face.
'What do you see when you look at me?' she prompts. Not understanding the question, I remain silent.
As the darkness passes over more of her aspect, like clouds passing over the moon, her features contract and distort: changing to more accurately resemble a woman's body. Now she has little breasts where her grey eyes had once been, a belly button for a nose, and her mouth...
She waves a hand in front of her new appearance. 'Is that better?'
Pushing past her, I leap out through the rectangular void. The balcony below breaks my fall and I land gently on the soft stone protuberance. There is a loud roaring sound and I snap my head round to behold a lion approaching. It shows its great teeth, shakes its impressive mane, and fixes me with a stare that hints at intelligence beneath the ferocious facade.
'Heel!' comes the cry, and it immediately returns to its master's side: a winged man leaning over the balcony rail. As far as I can tell either the wings are a part of his long, flowing overcoat, or he has had it tailored to fit him accordingly. To accommodate his angelic extremities. The king of the beasts lies at his feet, contentedly purring.
'He's a pussycat really,' the angel informs me. 'Would you like to stroke him? It's perfectly safe, he won't bite. You startled him, that's all.'
So I tentatively pat the lion, running my fingers through his mane. He grunts in satisfaction.
'Come, join me,' says the angel. And I do.
From here I can see another balcony to my left, a much smaller affair with a green metal rail and green shutters. A family has come outside to enjoy the fresh air. Only I look again and see that they are all encased in fine wooden coffins, even the one who is seated. They wear the items like fashionable clothes.
'Somewhat morbid,' criticises the angel. 'But it's the way of all things.'
'That's absolutely right. You know, I assume, where you are.' The angel looks me in the eye.
'I believe so.'
'Then walk with me. There's someone I'd like you to meet.'
As we start to walk away from the edge, the angel holds out his hand. 'I fear we may be in for a spot of rain.'
No sooner has he said this than minute droplets fall from the bright blue sky. No clouds, no thunder. Just rain. But as the shower gains pace I come to the conclusion that these are no ordinary pellets of moisture. It is raining men. Men in long, black coats and bowler hats. All uniform, all stood stock-still as they plummet towards the earth. All wearing the same standardised face. Emotionless, mundane.
I follow the angel back inside through a double set of glass doors. He doesn't bother to open them. And we step out of a glacial mirror into one last room. Immediately as my guide ushers me in, his head blows up like a helium balloon and detaches itself from its housing at his neck. It hovers temporarily above the rest of his body, his face lost in a surge of straining fat.
Then it floats away, through the ceiling and up through the roof presumably. It reminds me of an episode in my youth when a barrage balloon crashed into the shop my family and I were living in at the time. The angel's clothes fold into a heap on the floor, emptied of all substance. I turn and look in the mirror.
It reflects my back, not my front. I scratch my head under the bowler hat I am wearing. The mirror image does the same. And then revolves to confront me. But I still cannot see my own face, for a bird frozen in flight hides it from me.
'You won't find the answers in there,' a voice from behind states.
Another man has appeared in the room, and he is at an easel, painting. His face changes from young to old very quickly, but his intense, inquisitive eyes stay the same. 'This is not a pipe,' he says, tapping his depiction of a pipe. 'Do you understand?'
I nod warily.
'What is concealed is more improbable than what is open to view,' the ageing man persists.
'But these images conceal nothing. They evoke mystery...'
'And when you ask what does it all mean? I reply, it does not mean anything because mystery means nothing either...'
'It is unknowable,' I finish for him.
'How did you get here? You came through a painting within a painting. A painting that is, quite literally, The Human Condition. All that you see here is yours.'
The man smiles and I know his face. 'You are the true mirror,' I yell excitedly.
He beckons me closer and I look into those deep, deep eyes. Clouds are forming in the irises, a blue sky and white cotton wool clouds.
And on one of the clouds, I see God, or at least my interpretation of him; residing there, both hands raised. On his left is the head of a statue, a woman's face cast in stone and crying tears of hot blood. On his other side is my mother, Adeline. She still wears the nightdress we found her in that day, drowned in the river Sambre.
Without a second thought I move through the clouds again. As I have done so many times. To explore, no two permutations the same.
I do not believe in the unconscious, nor that the world presents itself to us as a dream...except when we are asleep. So for all this to be real I must truly be asleep. The final sleep that comes to each and every one of us.
This world, this weird and wonderful place, this whole surreal actuality, is contained within the House of René François-Ghislain Magritte.
And I have been here since my death on the 15th August 1967.
Text and Artwork (C) Paul Kane 2000
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.