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The Darkness Retreat

James Tadd Adcox

At first it was a small room. After that the room got larger. Later, they told us it was a forest. It could be. One could hear the wind through the trees. The sound of a bird none of us could identify. Later still a desert or a beach. A sound which could be either waves or the eternal movements of sand. We dug and dug, but the hole kept filling in. The goal, everyone agreed, was for space to expand. To empty itself out. Pharaoh Psamtik I commanded two children be raised completely devoid of human contact so that he might discover the true language of God. The children grew up speaking Phrygian, calling out, in the Phrygian language, for bread. When this experiment was repeated in other times and places, the children spoke Latin, Enochian, Hebrew, Gaelic, Greek. But I have mentioned this before. Yes, you have mentioned this before. Eventually, we couldn’t tell if there were others, or where the voices, which we had taken to be others, originated. They too emptied. It was impossible then to say where the self ended and the darkness began. One tried labeling certain areas of the darkness: this is a foot, this is my nose. Other words, like eye or day, seemed to have no more reality than names emerging from a dream, which one repeats upon awakening as though attempting to assure oneself of their existence in the world one now unwillingly inhabits, even as their meaning, little by little, drifts away. The children, making their way through the darkness, each hold the other’s hand and try to sing a song, to comfort themselves: but they do not know the words. The children again. Yes, the children again. We must start over.

At first it was a small room. Then the walls fell away. We felt ourselves to be in the midst of a large clearing. One member of our group (none of us used names) said the first thing to do was to look for food. Another was in favor of erecting some kind of barrier. We did not know, after all, what dangers might lurk beyond the borders of the self. It was impossible to know how many of us there were. Someone suggested we count off, but we kept losing count. That or some joker among us decided to make things difficult by counting off twice. We did not like to think about the possibility of an interloper, that someone from the outside had entered our group; but the possibility remained, whether we thought about it or not. Someone set off to find wood to chop. Someone else felt around for an ax. The thought of a wood fire, in a small cabin, was and always will be erotic to me, due to a memory of such a fire, in such a cabin, although I cannot say for certain whether this memory is mine or someone else’s. And if there were an interloper, what would distinguish him, or her, or them, or it, from any other member of our group—seeing as none of us knew anything about any other? In what sense could we be said to constitute a group at all? Only that there were other voices, sounds of movement. One assumed these belonged to others who had been there from the beginning, but one never knew. Certain aspects of the self seemed to float off and take body out in the darkness: a particular feeling of sadness, for example, or an acute twinge of hunger. These seemed fully as present as anything else. One could reach out and caress them. The symmetry between certain terms—“eye” and “egg”—made one viscerally uneasy. Likewise “pit of despair,” “The Nature of Love.” A mesh flooring—smooth sides—mirrors all around—a pyramid-shaped roof, as though taunting one with the idea that, if one could only make oneself infinitely small, one might escape—

The purpose was to make space expand, to feel ourselves from a small space to a bigger one. Eventually, the concepts of smallness and bigness themselves would give way to something other. It was difficult to think of what this other might be, from our current position, without a jolt of revulsion. The children were tended by a mute shepherd, who was forbidden from communicating with them in any way. Still, they loved him. They loved the smell of him each time he approached and the smell of him as he left. They dreamed about this smell each night in their barn, cut off from contact with the rest of the world. They wanted nothing more each morning and each afternoon than to smell him in those brief moments when he gave them food, to envelope themselves in that smell. Impossible to imagine a more thoroughly loved being.

I keep finding my way back to them, you see. Yes, I see.

A small room. Then a larger. Then something like the vastness of space, though that, at the point at which it occurred, was impossible to comprehend. The voice who said we must look for food went off, one supposes, looking for food. The voice who said we must erect a barrier began, one supposes, the work of erecting a barrier. In any case one was soon alone, other voices having drifted away. One continued to speak, but now it was clear one was speaking to oneself. As had perhaps always been the case. “We must look for food,” one said to oneself, though one was at a loss as to how this might be accomplished. Certain things, which might have been trees or fences, appeared under one’s hands. Later a sense of something like waves or the eternal movement of sand.

Herodotus writes that Psamtik I was originally one of twelve kinglets of Egypt, all of whom, upon receiving a prophecy that one kinglet would turn upon the others, banded together to build a labyrinth as a symbol of their enduring friendship. Still, Psamtik I betrayed them, and became the ruler of Egypt. The maze was built at the entrance to the City of Crocodiles, whose inhabitants worshiped the sacred crocodile Petsuchos and allowed His brethren to roam freely, adorned with gold. After the death of Psamtik I, the maze too was overrun by crocodiles, cutting off the city from the rest of the world; the inhabitants within grew strange; when, at last, an adventurer from Greece, a student of a student of Herodotus, found his way into the city, he discovered a people who spoke in the guttural groans and barks of the crocodile, and lacerated their skin to resemble scales.

Something in the darkness approaches, singing, in a language we do not recognize.

We must begin again.

Each time the space contracts and expands it is as though the darkness around us is breathing, as though we are an atom within some elemental lung. The repetition of sensations and voices—the sound first of wind through trees, then of shifting sands or waves—the demand that we look for food or erect a barrier. The fading away. The sound of blood coursing in our own ears, then the gradually increasing doubt regarding ears, blood, anything other than the space around us, which seems in this moment at once immense and confining. Herodotus records that the maze was originally envisioned as a single passage, as long as the span of a man’s life; elsewhere he tells us that later tyrants replaced the maze with the pit. Mesh flooring—smooth sides—mirrors all around—a pyramid-shaped roof, as though taunting one with the idea that, if one could only make oneself infinitely small, one might escape—and then from somewhere closer than one might expect the sound of singing, in the language of crocodiles, the sacred groans and barks and snapping; and I remember the story a friend told of canoeing on vacation near a waterfall; of hearing something rising in the water behind him and looking back in time to see his lover snatched from the canoe by a crocodile, who thereafter vanished.

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James Tadd Adcox's work has appeared in Granta, X-R-A-Y, ergot., and elsewhere. He is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a novella, Repetition, and is an editor at Always Crashing.