Cole awoke in a field, not knowing where he was, who he was, or how he got there. As he sat up, blinking under an overcast glare, in an expanse of field-corn stubble, a desolate place, he felt empty, newborn. Some distance before him lay a woods, slightly downhill at the foot of the cornfield. Behind him, as he stood stiffly and turned around, stood an old farmhouse, from all appearances deserted.
It seemed to be late afternoon. The breezes smelled of loamy soil, trees, pond water. It might be early autumn. Cole strove to come to his senses, gather them from wherever they had fled, but the effort yielded no knowledge, neither name, nor history, nor place. Anything before the sleep from which he had awakened was a sheer blank. Shaking his head succeeded only in threatening to bring on a headache. His unremarkable brown pants and blue shirt gave no clues; he found no wallet in his pockets. He felt his face, which seemed to have been shaven within a day or so. Looking at his hands, he judged them to be those of a man in his thirties, probably late thirties. Walking off his stiffness, Cole made for the farmhouse.
The house was of gray wood, years unpainted. On the porch, one step up from the ground, he called out, to no reply. The door, with its old-fashioned round white knob, gave with difficulty. Inside he found derelict furniture, leaves, a kitchen with a faucet that did not work. The stove and refrigerator had been removed, leaving pale silhouettes of themselves against a grimy wall. Up rickety stairs he pushed open a bedroom door and saw an open window. The stripped mattress on the bed beneath the window was damp.
Cole opened a decrepit old trunk in a corner, found papers and letters, pawed through them. One letter, in faded ink, was dated March 30, 1909, Lonsdale, Indiana. Indiana he knew, knew well, it seemed, though not the town, but his excitement rose. He read on. It was a love letter, addressed to “Francine,” signed by “Ralph,” and along with its compliments to the girl’s beauty and sweetness it included a reference to “the white rose in the woods,” presumably where Ralph and Francine were to meet or had met. Finding nothing else useful in any other papers, selected at random, his excitement lost, Cole also lost patience with looking at them.
Outside the clouds had thickened, great dark bellies coursing over the land. He set out for the woods at the bottom of the field, crossing hundreds of yards of breezy stubble. The trek across the field seemed to take longer than it would have appeared. From somewhere he knew that cornfields tended to be eight hundred yards long; this one looked about that length, but kept going somehow. One could go mad here, he told himself. Utterly mad. A dead, flat endlessness, a despair, a desire to be anywhere else, but no way to get anywhere else.
Finally, he neared the woods. A few steps in among the rather sparse trees, past low, unkempt evergreen bushes, he found an old white rosebush, none too healthy-looking, much spread out and crushed by fallen dead tree branches. The woods, just beginning to change color, was mostly bur oaks, beeches, maple saplings — Cole marveled at his ability to identify trees but not himself.
Leaves seemed to flutter with menace in the rising wind. Past the white rose he heard a sound of water and followed it. He tried again to think back to before his waking in the field, but could bring forth nothing but a few confused impressions of a town, people moving within a building, a fire in a fireplace. The watery sounds brought him to a little brook in the woods. He cupped his hand and drank, then stepped across on a stone and with a start and a gasp saw the girl.
She was perhaps in her early twenties, thick blonde hair, in a white shirt and jeans, petting an enormous white ox.
Hello, she said.
I’m so glad to find you, Cole said, able to think of nothing else. This will sound strange, but I don’t know who I am or where I am.
You’re lost, she said absently.
A gust strained every leaf in the woods. The girl seemed amused, continuing to pet the ox. Her jeans and shirt showed wet patches.
I just took a dip in the pond, she said in answer to his look, waving in the pond’s direction. She smiled at the ox. Good boy. I followed him in here. Who are you?
I tell you I don’t know.
She stepped to the brook, crouched, and after a moment picked up a stick. Cole crouched near her, drank some more.
There are fossils in this brook, Valerie said. She reached into the water and pulled out a small slab of stone.
Trilobites, these are, she said. She turned the slab over in her hand. Then with her stick she struck the water and splashed Cole and laughed. The cold drops on his shirt left him with a thrilling cold fear. Her pale skin seemed translucent, starred with faint freckles under a smooth, pale surface, like pebbles in a clear stream. He took the fossil slab from her, turned it over. Two entwined trilobites. The ox swung its big head toward them and he felt its breath. Cole discarded the trilobites on a little sandy stretch. He studied her.
Valerie, can you take me to a telephone?
She looked somewhere above him. Her blonde hair grew in profusion, inexhaustible as hay, as if it didn’t know what to do with itself.
I know this land back to the Devonian. She picked up and dropped the trilobites back into the water.
Fine, he said, but I need help.
I’ve returned the trilobites to their element for eons. I know what the oaks and beeches are doing today, and the sparrows, the chipmunks, the rose …
He sighed irritably. Who are you? Do you live around here?
I’m just out for a ramble. I will help you. Are you from here?
I don’t know, damn it, I can’t remember. I’m trying to find out, do you understand? I know this is strange.
There’s a lane, about a mile that way, that will take you to town.
Okay. Is it Lonsdale?
I live over the way. It looks like a castle. If things don’t work out, you can find me there.
What do you mean, If things don’t work out — ?
If you don’t find out who you are.
Valerie rose, petted the ox once more, and ventured off. She had a long, swinging stride.
Wait, Cole said.
There are some ripe blackberries near the white roses, she called out in a high, fluting voice as she moved off.
Cole stood, feeling the places drying where she had splashed him, trying not to panic. An urgent wind wheeled away the leaves of the bur oaks and beeches to reveal blue sky, with puffs of clouds, then after what seemed only a moment the trees wheeled again to disclose cold stars. He drank a little more water, then went for the blackberries. With the moon down, he was just able to find them by starlight.
In Lonsdale he found no people about. Nightfall had sent people home; lights were on in a few houses. He resisted the idea of knocking on someone’s door. The next town, five miles distant, according to a sign, was North Lonsdale. Cole suddenly felt a draining fatigue pulling him down, demanding that he rest. He came upon a bench in a shed next to an abandoned store near the edge of town. The shed appeared to be a roadside stand of some sort, not in use. Lying down on the bench, , just out of the glare of a streetlight, he dozed off instantly. When he woke up, achingly stiff, after what he thought was only a few minutes, the sun was up.
Cole encountered a few people but no recognition, only odd looks. He walked up to a man in coveralls.
Excuse me. Do you know who I am?
Do I look familiar to you?
Can’t say that you do. You running for office?
The man edged away, shaking his head.
Heading off toward North Lonsdale, Cole was approaching an intersection when a boy who had just ridden through it on a bicycle jammed on his brakes.
A chill in his spine, Cole watched the boy swing his wheels toward him, then drop the bike and run the rest of the way. The boy practically tackled him, hugging him tightly.
Dad! Where have you been? The boy was shouting. He had wide eyes and a sweep of red hair across his forehead.
Easy — son. I don’t know what happened to me. How long have you been looking for me?
How long? Dad, for weeks! You’ve been gone for almost a month!
They sat on a mossy bank by the lane. Cole rubbed his face.
Dad, you look terrible.
I’m not surprised.
I don’t know. Son, don’t be alarmed, but I don’t even know my own name. And I don’t know yours.
The boy stood up, staring.
I’m sure it’s temporary, son. Just —
I’m Eddie, Dad. My name is Eddie. Your name is Cole Jernigan.
Cole Jernigan. Doesn’t ring a bell.
Cole tried to laugh.
How old are you, ten?
Don’t you even recognize me a little? I’m nine.
I don’t recognize anything, Eddie. Where is your mother?
Oh, Dad … Eddie looked off over the fields.
Mom died a year ago.
You always say that.
With me gone so long, who’s been taking care of you?
I’m living with the Lathams, next door.
Logansport! Eddie sounded exasperated.
Eddie, please, I don’t, I don’t remember … Listen, what — what do I do for work?
You teach at the high school!
Cole did seem to know math. He found it in his mind. Geometry, trigonometry, set theory, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers. But he could not picture himself in a classroom. He could not remember having had a wife, or recall her face, or name, or how she had died.
Now Eddie seemed sullen, deflated.
Dad, you need to see a doctor. Come on.
They walked and pushed Eddie’s bike to the outskirts of
Logansport, where Cole Jernigan lived.
A burly, bearded doctor listened to Cole’s story with his arms folded, looking down at his desk. After Cole finished speaking, the doctor thought for a long time, never raising his eyes from the desk. Apparently Cole had seen this doctor for years but did not recognize him. The doctor took a long breath and asked him if he was sure it was not all a dream, or a sequence of dreams. Cole said he was sure. But you said you fell asleep and awoke several times. Yes, but – it’s hard to explain.
And the girl? The girl was real?
As real as any of it. She splashed me with fossil water.
Never mind. It’s not important.
After a silence of looking at papers on his desk the doctor said he had heard of an old castle down there but had never seen it. Eddie knows it, Cole said, says he’s been out there. Not much to it, he says. Abandoned. Any unusual stress in Cole’s life, beyond his wife’s death? Cole said he didn’t remember anything, so he couldn’t answer. The doctor knew Carol, said her death must have hit him hard.
I’m sure it did, Cole said.
Any blows to the head? Excess alcohol or drug use? Cole didn’t know from memory, but Eddie had said nothing like that had happened.
The doctor ran some tests. On his return visit to the office, Cole expected the worst. A stroke, or a tumor. The doctor said he couldn’t find anything wrong. He looked into Cole’s eyes again, had him follow his finger back and forth. He said he didn’t think Cole would make this up.
Of course I’m not making it up!
Cole needed a specialist, said the doctor. A week later he saw a neurologist, who after extensive testing found nothing. During that week he resumed possession of his house, with Eddie, to the accompaniment of many helpful though hesitant neighbors who brought casseroles and soups. The house was somewhat shabby, dusty, but snug, with a fireplace. Cole studied pictures of himself with Carol, her name was, on her dresser, pictures of Carol as a young woman, wedding pictures on a wall, pictures of himself playing baseball, all without recognition. Carol was dark-haired and lovely, but to his disgust Cole felt no pang of love or loss. He felt cold and sick to his stomach, an ache different from nausea, a frigid stone inside him.
The casseroles and soups sustained Cole and Eddie for many days. Cole followed Eddie’s directions to the high school and spoke to the principal, whom he also met as if for the first time. The principal wanted to know whether Cole was up to returning to teach.
Yes. I think so. Quite sure, in fact. I still have my textbooks, at home. I’ve been going through them. All the knowledge… is there. I feel good about it.
The principal, a thin, doubtful-looking man in too large a suit, suggested putting Cole on the roster for the next semester. Pending medical approval. Approval should not be a problem, from what the doctors had told the principal. The school would also need a psychiatrist’s report.
Is that really necessary? The principal was afraid it was.
Reflecting further, Cole thought it might not be a bad idea. Having somewhat returned to his real life for several weeks, he felt he should be making more progress toward normal, toward, feeling more stable and sure. He should be recovering memories of Carol, of Eddie when he was younger, of teaching, of where he grew up. He had no idea where that was, had not thought to ask. But he was making little such recovery. Instead he found himself thinking of Valerie, feeling pulled toward her. He thought of her as having a quiet, savage beauty that came somehow from what he could only call myth. He knew little of myth but that’s how she seemed – elusive, unexplained. A longing insisted within him. Everything else was hopelessly drab, dead, lacking in interest, everything except Eddie. He considered telling Eddie more about Valerie, but decided against it — it was all too confusing. And the fatigue — by four o’clock each afternoon he was dreadfully, almost frighteningly, exhausted. The structures of his mind seemed wrecked, as if swung through by a great iron ball on a demolition site.
Eddie, he said one Saturday morning, I’m sorry, this must bepainful, but how did Mom die?
Eddie shook his head.
They said it was a stroke.
Cole and Eddie were silent for a time.
She was thirty-seven, Eddie said.
Outwardly Eddie did not seem like a boy whose mother had died and father had unaccountably vanished and returned. His face fell and his eyes dropped when the subject of his mother came up, but in conversation he seemed like a well-adjusted kid. He had friends and played with them, hunching over board games and sets of plastic soldiers and tanks and trucks, and throwing a baseball around outside. At times, however, when Eddie thought himself unobserved, Cole could see him pulling on his forelock of red hair and brooding, off insome strange place where he could take nobody else.
One night after playing chess with Eddie, Cole went to bed, slept immediately and deeply, dreamed of pale flowers, and awoke in the field of corn stubble. Waking was like clawing out of a grave. He again could not remember his name, or his wife’s name, just that she had died; or his house, or anything concrete about the doctors or the school, just that there had been doctors and a school. It seemed his life had gotten away from him. He did remember that this awakening in a lonesome place had happened before. He did remember Eddie and Valerie. Hard and furiously he thought into himself to try to resurface who he was, to no avail. How had this happened? Had he gone mad? He shivered, looked down at himself, and was amused amid anguish to find he was barefoot, clad in blue plaid bed pants and a green T-shirt that said Logansport.
Again he sought the old farmhouse, where in a closet he found shoes that fit fairly well, though without socks, and an ill-fitting coat. The coat smelled faintly of aftershave, sweat and hay. Then came the long trek through corn stubble. Passing through the sparse woods, hewent in search of Valerie’s castle.
Valerie’s way of fixing her gaze somewhere just above him had been disturbing. He could not wait to see her again. As he crossed the fields he thought of the beaten-down white rose, the brook, the ox, the splashing with fossil-water, but could form no conclusions. He felt inhabited by something unknowable.
The castle rose solidly in its great stones from its green ground, turrets and battlements against streaming clouds straining to be elsewhere. Cole found a door, clearly not the main entrance, wherever that was, and the door pulled open easily. A stone passageway bore nothing remarkable about it as, after instant’s hesitation, he strode along it.
The door closed with a soft clank behind him. He continued on, determined to find this girl and learn the truth about her, striding into a dim great hall, its walls adorned with escutcheoned shields, crossed swords, halberds, animal heads barely visible in the gloom. A long, heavy wooden table was set with pewter plates, silverware, lighted candelabra; a snapping fire burned in an enormous fireplace. Coat notwithstanding he was chilled, and he warmed himself at the fire.
From the great hall rose a broad staircase. Cole went up.
He passed a doorway into what appeared to be a small library. Reaching a turret, he peered through a slotted window over a landscape of drifting fog. A foggy garden lay below. Beyond that, at intervals he could see a few trees and copses but little else. In Indiana there wouldn’t be much else to see, he thought. Some kind of animal streaked low to the ground from one copse to another. A sudden blast of birds rose, made a tight circuit, and disappeared.
Cole now fought down a panic of incomprehension followed by rage. Turning from the slotted window he screamed Hello! again, then hated himself for the echoing desperation he heard. He left the turret and went down steps that were narrow, unlike before, nearly fell, reached a painting gallery he didn’t remember on his way up, where the sole source of light, a mullioned window at the end, proved too weak for him to see the paintings well. But there, in one, darkly painted, was a portrait of Valerie, or a young woman who looked like Valerie. Her face receded into the dark canvas. She seemed to be wearing a nineteenth-century frock with a white collar and a small lace head covering. Her gaze aimed somewhere above him.
A voice spoke behind him, and he jumped.
She’ll be back soon. You should leave.
It was an old woman, with a kindly look, gray curls under a mobcap, long black dress, her fingertips touching. She smiled a downcast smile. Cole spoke up nervously, louder than he’d intended.
Who is she?
It is impossible. She is inaccessible.
What is this place? Who are you?
The old woman shrugged, smiled her downcast smile, moved off into the gloom.
Godsakes, he muttered.
Cole found himself in a long hallway of arches, columns, shrouded statues, dozens of candles burning. Cold breezes came through intermittently, blowing out candles here and there. The statue shrouds billowed. From above there seemed to come a thudding of hooves, a clatter of antlers. He shivered, and longed for his son and his home, what little of it he could remember. Standing in near-darkness he felt dispersed, made of disparate elements, things he’d encountered in the strange states that followed his waking in the cornfield. And now, in Valerie’s castle, if it was real, he knew he needed to pull himself together, to recover himself somehow — or if not, if that identity could no longer be located, if whatever he had been was irrecoverably cast away, then to salvage something else. Anything.
He thought he heard waters, flowing, burbling … in the strengthening breezes in the hall, Cole began to feel himself renewed, even as he pined for his lost past — for Eddie, for his dead wife, whose name he again could not remember, his teaching, the fact of which only now came back to him again, and, whoever they were, his students and colleagues.
The breezes became wind, pushing Cole off balance. He gripped the plinths of the statues as he forced himself along down the corridor, finally stepping into an alcove that opened into a parlor. A fire burned in a small fireplace. She sat at a table. Her face was in shadow.
Who are you, damn it?
It’s all right, she said. That coat doesn’t fit you.
It’s not mine, I found it. Can you tell me what’s going on?
Valerie indicated a chair at the table. Cole sat. She looked different, her hair tied back. Her face had changed, as if several years had passed. Chastened by wind, perhaps, or by something she had witnessed. He noticed the fine line of her jaw, almost a horse’s jaw, a wild roughness about her, an outdoor smell. She wore some sort of rugged jerkin and wide trousers. The corridor wind had stopped. Around the parlor hung tapestries of gardens, of animals in forests. The kindly old woman in black must have lighted the candles on the table while Cole was looking around. A feast appeared dish by dish. Cole was not hungry.
Eat, said Valerie. You need to replenish yourself.
Wine was brought. Cole picked up the glass and gulped it down. It was immediately refilled. He ate a bit of bread, then some cheese and finally a little meat.
Am I dead?
Then what is this?
It’s my home.
Eddie says he’s been here, that it’s just a ruin, nothing inside.
Valerie was silent.
The old woman said it was impossible, that I should leave.
You may if you wish. She doesn’t always approve of me.
Firelight flared, brightening her hair. He was afraid. He asked himself whether this could be love. But it was beyond love, he answered himself, and beyond fear. His mind seemed to be coming apart for reassembly by an unknown agency. A dark, keen beauty came over him, like a sundown.
Why doesn’t she approve?
Valerie stared into a candle flame and did not answer.
Where have you been? Cole ventured.
To a place of black trees. A place of giant forms, gales, snow. Fomalhaut rises tonight.
You can’t live this way.
There is an aim. Contending with the unknown. Don’t you remember? Don’t you recognize me?
Of course, from the woods, by the brook —
From before that. In the giant forms.
I don’t know what you mean.
I don’t understand.
The candles gleamed in her eyes. In the interplay of firelight and candlelight, her face was delicate as a statue’s one moment, rough as a bear’s the next. Cole noticed that her freckles had vanished, like stars in daylight.
But you do, she said. From the dawn of the world. Of the great wind, the rose …
Snow whispered outside. The room darkened, and they heard the reindeer running. Valerie’s eyes were a silver shock, a lightning strike. Cole felt something shatter inside him.
… This is what you’ve forgotten —
My life is a cipher to me, Cole said, bowing his head miserably.
‘With eternal memory I continually behold ancient matters.’ That’s from an old text, and quite true.
Valerie handed Cole a small book, bound in common blue buckram. No title was printed on the spine. He read at random: “An imaginary number is a number in the form of a x i — where “a” is a real number, and “i” is the square root of -1. Every imaginary number is the counterpart of a real number.” A mathematical equation suddenly came to him, an equation with the square root of a negative number, irrational, transcendent, a perfect form. Yet the world outran the equation.
White roses young and unbroken in a remote grove, Valerie said.
She now slumped in her chair. There was a slight lowering of her eyelids, a seeing down into elsewhere, some otherworldly habitat. The meal had been cleared away. They heard the reindeer again, and he shook with something like cold. He wandered outside himself. Nobody, he knew, had ever seen him until now.
You must decide, she said. I am very old.
Cole looked up to find her gone. The old woman stood next to her seat.
Something is horribly wrong with me, he said.
Not necessarily, said the old woman.
I dreamed one night after meeting her that I was running across long, long fields holding a small white rose between my fingers. I knew it wasn’t enough.
Maybe it is.
I thought you said it was impossible.
I no longer know what is impossible. She is on a mad quest.
Cole jerked up from his chair, looked around wildly, ran out into the hallway. The air was deadly still, the statue shrouds calm. He raced up the staircase and found the turret.
A thin rain spattered through the slotted window. Below, through the mist, she hurried. He thought he could see a lake gleaming faintly ahead of her. Little white blossoms torn loose from the trees spun through the mist, and Valerie sang, and he imagined her face raging in rain and love and impassioned innocence. He could not make out the words.
He came to himself in a farm lane, in the dark, near the old farmhouse, under a full moon, clutching the small blue book, written in a language strange to him. He could see only dark fields. It seemed to be late autumn, and cold, but not raining. He breathed deeply, excited by a breeze. He had to get going. He had to find Eddie. He had to find Valerie.
Brian J. Buchanan is a writer in Nashville, Tenn. His short stories, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or will appear in Literary Imagination, Crannog, BULL, Hamilton Stone Review, Chronicles, Tupelo Quarterly, The Westchester Review, Literary Matters, Modern Age, National Review, Cumberland River Review, Potomac Review, Puckerbrush Review, Frontier Tales, the Nashville Tennessean, and elsewhere. Buchanan was co-winner of the 2017 Meringoff Fiction Award from the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers for his story, “Wisdom Teeth.” The judge was Brad Leithauser.