Xibalba

by André Babyn

André Babyn lives in Toronto. His first book, Evie of the Deepthorn, was released this spring.

1.

This morning I felt cowed standing underneath the office towers. That isn’t how I usually feel. Usually I’m a little relieved to get off the island, to find myself on solid ground. Expunged from my own precarity. But I’d had a strange dream the night before. I was walking through a long subterranean passage, and there were buildings on either side of me, illuminated by torches. But there was no light emanating from beyond their rough brick facades—beyond the torches set in front of each building their windows were pitch black. I felt like I was being paraded in front of ghosts, silent and watchful, absolute in their empty frames.

So this morning, when I first looked up at the tall office towers as I made my way from the ferry terminal to my office, I shuddered. I felt like I was back in the cave, like at any moment I would be snuffed out, erased from the face of the earth. The feeling was so powerful that I briefly wondered—as irrational as it was—if my life hadn’t already ended the night before. If when I arrived at work I would discover only my own absence, hint of my future memorial, a box on my desk where they had transferred my personal effects for disposal. But of course that didn’t happen. When I put my keycard on the side entrance facing Victoria Street, the light on the reader burned green just as always. Relieved, I entered and proceeded down the two flights of stairs to my tiny office underground, where I settled in.

I was just beginning my work for the day when I heard a knock on the door. I got up and maneuvered gently through my cramped quarters to get to it—my office is preferable to a cubicle in one of the administration blocks, but it’s not much bigger than a janitor’s closet (I sometimes suspect that was its original purpose). Emile’s dull calf eyes greeted me from the other side of the door.

“Did you hear about the fire?” he asked me. “Everyone’s been talking about it—an email is about to go out.”

“What are you talking about?”

“At the warehouse.”

My heart jumped.

I stepped out into the hallway.


The warehouse—that’s what we call it, but it’s a data storage facility where they keep all of the information necessary for our business. Hard copies, backup servers, tape storage. Emile and I work in digital archiving—scanning and retrieving documents and preparing them to be sent to the warehouse. Emile isn’t serious about the work that he does. In fact he often complains that we have to do it at all, as if the fact that we deal in redundancy makes our jobs superfluous. For him, the fire was confirmation of our own futility, indication that the work that we do (vital to future operations, necessary for navigating our corporate past) is a kind of cosmic joke. That’s what he said—that we might as well have been caught in the fire, for all the good we do.

Everything feels a bit cynical two stories beneath the surface.

Usually I am tolerant of Emile, for the sake of collegiality encouraging his cynical, sideways attempts at humour. It’s easier to get along. And sometimes—when there are no consequences—I even find myself not necessarily agreeing to the substance of his complaints but to their tone. Everything feels a bit cynical two stories beneath the surface.

But today I’m horrified—without knowing the extent of the damage I can’t know for sure what has been lost (in the email waiting for me when I return to my office I will learn that they are still sifting through the wreckage), but it’s potentially weeks or months of work. I didn’t appreciate learning that my time has been wasted, that my efforts have been superfluous, and I let him know.

“I work hard,” I told him. “It keeps me going.”

Before he could apologize I turned around, returned to my office, and slammed the door in his face.

“Peter—Peter!” he called, knocking again at my door. “It was just a joke! Lighten up—I didn’t mean anything by it.”

That time I didn’t open. Eventually he left me alone.


I was still a little unnerved at lunch, when at 12:35 there were two swift knocks on my door, as light and dry as if they’d been made with the hollowed-out bones of a bird. If I hadn’t known they were coming, I might not have heard them at all. They could not have belonged to anyone else, only O.

Outside the door O adjusted the ends of her dark green blouse, pulling it low over her modest skirt. Her fingers looked like talons, the tips of her knuckle bones showing bright white through the skin.

We were going to lunch.

On the way I asked her about the fire.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I saw the email. Or, I glanced at it. I have to admit, I didn’t pay it much attention. I hope it’s not too bad.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You know,” she said, looking at me askance, “sometimes I think of burning down this place myself.”

I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of revelation.

Sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing, spending so much time with O.

In one of the most shameful and embarrassing moments of my life, my old father sat me down and noted that I never went out with any of the girls from my high school, and neither did I even speak of them.

“When I was your age,” he said, his eyes misty, “I, too, had trouble with women…”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

My cheeks turned red and I looked away, unwilling to confront the sentimental expression on his face.

Were women still his weakness? Wasn’t I proof that he’d had some success with women—or at least with one woman, my mother?

Did she not count?

In my case I did not have any trouble with women. I have no interest in them.

Nothing troubles me about them.


Today O and I had an argument.

There’s no point going over the details. It sometimes happens that routine spoils affection, that’s all. It was bound to happen—I ate with O every afternoon. Today we separated in front of the cafeteria. She made some excuse about having forgotten something in her office. I went to our usual place and waited for her, at a table next to a large rubber tree planter. I kept a second chair for her all lunch, but she never returned.

Afterwards I thought Mr. Vasques might have some clues as to O’s whereabouts. Two steps into the room I froze, because there was O, sitting at her cubicle as if nothing had happened.

“Peter—please calm down, it’s really nothing—”

I must have appeared ridiculous, because O seemed to be laughing at me. She wasn’t so bold as to express her laughter out loud.

I tried to defend myself, but at that moment a door opened and Mr. Vasques appeared in the entrance. His black moustache has a way of adding to his condescension.

“Peter—can I help you?”

He’s never liked me.

I left.


At the end of the day I patiently waited for my computer to power down. A strange quiet followed the clicking and whirring of its internal hard drive and fan. For some reason I couldn’t explain I was reluctant to leave—I’d already stayed long past my usual hour, taking extra care to ensure that all of my files were in order.

I was alone with myself in a way I wasn’t used to, and it made me nervous.

For a full minute I sat in that little office in that alert quiet. I was alone with myself in a way I wasn’t used to, and it made me nervous. Who knows what might have happened had I waited longer and let myself get used to that unfamiliar stillness? I was worried about the fire—I didn’t like thinking about everything that had been lost. I worried that with that loss the company would recognize that I, too, was redundant. It was a short hop.

Outside, the streets were wet. I looked up and saw that the clouds were pregnant again, dark and foreboding. I did up my jacket collar. Somewhere in the distance I could hear a train bleat over the steady din of traffic.




2.

It was already evening by the time I made it to the ferry. We made our steady way across the water, mostly commuters nodding off at the end of a long day. In the light of an approaching pleasure cruiser, the ferry became less opaque, more ethereal, until it, and we, disappeared entirely, in its illuminating beams—or at least, that’s what I imagined. The grunt and kick of the ferry’s engines struggling over the rolling waters reassured us of our corporeality.

I was sitting safely in the cabin.

A few drops of rain splattered on the porthole. Then a few more. Suddenly the whole boat erupted in a steady cascade. The ferry’s list became more pronounced. I pulled my coat closer and hoped the rain would let up before we arrived on the island.


Once or twice on the ferry my thoughts diverted from the weather and—yes. I thought of O. So she failed me. She hadn’t been the first, nor will she be the last.


We waited patiently as the ferry operators secured the boat’s sheet metal ramps at the island dock. Wiping away the condensation from the centre of a porthole looking out over the ferry’s deck I seemed to watch them from a spyglass miles away. One of the men, leaning over the gate in the rain, pulled his leg out from the far side and released the final catch. The gate fell down with a hard clank. A ferry operator hurried back to his little booth, while the man who had released the catch—I assumed the first man’s junior—stood in the rain at the intersection of the dock and boat, secure in his heavy poncho and rain pants.

In fact, the man standing in the rain was actually quite old.

“Do you see my friend over there?” he seemed to be asking with a gleam in his eyes. “He doesn’t like the weather! Me, I think it’s the same as anything else, don’t you?”


The whole island was deserted.

I walked between two rows of trees bowing in the rain, until I came to another, smaller dock. Here, my boat. Over the narrow canal beyond it, my home.

As I rowed myself from the main island to my smaller one, I saw how the boulders piled around the shore were an unsightly necessity, meant to combat erosion. On both sides of the house were gaping wounds plastered over with bare plywood: where the north and south wings had once been.

Everything else had long ago lost its footing and slipped into the lake.

The electricity was spotty. The lights flickered, and corners remained bathed in shadow. The dark fixtures were, once, Victorian—and if untouched aging is the height of an aesthetic, remain the epitome of the form. On one side of the foyer there was a wound papered over with unsealed insulation. A staircase led up to the ceiling, where it halted.

There was no longer any second floor.

There was a bathroom with a compostable toilet; a room that had once been a living room but now served as my bedroom and office; the kitchen, in the back of the house; a crawl-space—my closet—underneath the stairs. Everything else had long ago lost its footing and slipped into the lake.

I started a little fire and tried to warm up, to chase the rain out of my clothing.


All night the rain continued, beating a tin jingle on the roof.

Sometime in the middle of the night the fire went out completely and I couldn’t get it started again. I woke continuously. My pillows and sheets were heavy with damp. In the morning I felt like I hadn’t slept at all.

Later that morning I stood on the deck of the ferry in the wet cotton that consumed the boat. My unburdened left hand, held at arm’s length, looked as cold and distant as the moon. I would not have been surprised if another arm materialized out of the fog, that the hand belonged to that arm, and that I had never had a hand or an arm in the first place. In fact I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had disappeared entirely, in that omnipresent misty gloom.

Away from the water the fog lifted, but a filmy layer remained, making the streets indistinct, turning pedestrians into phantoms. Endless, a black maze of spirits.

At least, I thought, I could feel the pavement underneath my feet. At least, from time to time, I passed another wayward spirit on his or her way to work.


As usual, I was 15 minutes early. Traffic roared on the artery around the corner. Cars backed up at traffic lights, rushed forward, backed up again. I kept time to their movements, myself at the conclusion of my own dance. On the fourth beat of the penultimate bar, I arrived in front of the entrance closest to my basement office, reached for my keycard in the next two beats, put it in on the third, and pulled the door open on the fourth.

Only today the door didn’t open.

I decided the card reader was broken. It hadn’t even flashed red to show there had been a mistake. But why wasn’t there a notice? Circling the building I found that the same was true for the other readers. They were all broken, or turned off. Even the main entrance was locked, the revolving doors frozen.

Then something caught my eye. The building’s lobby had been gutted. Plaster peeled from the walls. In one corner, benches were stacked 20-feet high. The ground was exposed steel and rubble. No one inside.

Turning around, I felt sick at the sight of the rushing cars.




3.

There was a woman at the corner, clutching a pile of brochures. When she saw me coming she turned and fixed her alert eyes on me, pointedly readied one of her pamphlets, and shoved it into my hands.

“Did you know that the government has pledged to build two nuclear reactors on the lake? They’re going to pollute all the water!”

She followed me as I walked down the block.

“Why stop them? Because water is a living thing! Did you know that 90 percent of our bodies are water? And that when water is polluted, it can’t form crystals?”

“No,” I said, annoyed. “I did not know that.”

There, on one of the company’s low windows facing the street, someone had spray-painted their name, in ugly black letters that made me want to vomit.

“Thank you,” I said to the woman, when I noticed that she was still watching me. “And—do you know what happened here?”

“Where?” she asked. “What do you mean?”

“Here, this building. Did something happen? Have you been here a long time? Why is it empty?”

“I’ve been here an hour. But I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing happened here.”

She walked back to her box of pamphlets, and began to put them all away.

“Nothing?”

I stared up at the building, as if I expected it to give me some kind of answer.

“Really, nothing?”


In the convenience store by the Underground I nodded to the attendant behind the counter and stood there for a few minutes getting my bearings. Before I knew what I was doing, I was ripping newspapers from their stands, looking for any information I could find on the company, on its disappearance. Even its stock symbol I pursued through the small type in Business.

I didn’t find anything. The clerk rushed out from behind his counter when he realized what I was doing, put his hands on either side of me, and I stopped as if struck from a trance. All about me the great unfolded leaves of newspaper spread flat like the rotting understory of a forest.


That night I had a strange dream. Our little island bobbed on the surface of the water like a cork. I tried to get to my boat and escape, but it seemed always to be just out of my reach.

I came back inside and there was that woman again, from that morning.

“And do you know that when water is sick, it can’t form crystals?”

I did know that.

“The water is a living thing!”

“How can we heal it?” I asked.

The woman looked surprised. “I don’t know—how can we?”

It was at that moment that a seagull croaked outside my window and I woke up.


In order to buy my property I’d taken on a modest mortgage some four years earlier. The money was needed to clear 40 or so years of back taxes that had accumulated during the life of my father. Among my father’s offences that I had inherited through this arrangement: alcoholism, teary-eyed despondency, obstinacy, nostalgia and inertness … not to mention hypocrisy, vacuousness, uselessness, fearfulness, ignorance, and nihilism.

Without the company, I could not pay my mortgage.


I found the company’s name listed in the Yellow Pages, but when I called the listing turned out to belong to a bar. That was all. No auxiliary offices, subsidiaries, or warehouses.

I should have thought that strange.

There was nothing special about this bar.

Did I need a table? No, I said, I was just looking. The waitress left, her long black hair trailing behind her. Squeezing between two tables I walked into someone’s outstretched elbow. Turning back to apologize I bumped into someone else behind me. It was another waitress. She steadied the empty glasses ringing on her tray.

I was looking for an entrance, an opening. Maybe the company had moved its offices to a labyrinthine network of catacombs and crawlspaces.

Outside a curtained-off back room I heard a familiar snort of laughter. When I pulled the curtain Emile’s dull calf eyes, animated by liquor, stared back at me. Two women were with him. They both turned to look at me.

“Peter! You too?”

I turned around.

“Hey! Where are you going?”




4.

That night I had a dream that Emile was choking. When I went to administer the Heimlich maneuver, I found I didn’t know how to help him, because he was a fish. He looked up at me with his sunken, cloudy calf’s eyes and gasped for breath, but all that came out of his mouth were bubbles … as well as a monstrous, frightened gurgling sound, which made me realize that he was dying. The woman from before, with the pamphlets, handed me a coupon for a free ladies haircut, but she said nothing, even after I asked her how to save Emile. O was there, and I gave her the coupon, but she ignored me. At some point I turned around and noticed that Emile was dead.


The next day I woke up at seven-fifteen. I ate my usual breakfast: coffee, a piece of buttered toast, and a grapefruit. I was halfway out in my little boat before I realized that I no longer needed to catch the ferry from the main island to the city. I stopped rowing and let the boat rock back and forth in the water. There I sat for a while, watching the trees sway on the far bank.

While I was sitting there, bathing in the sun, I realized that the company had to exist in some sense. Even only as a sheet of paper recording former employees, or as a database of credits and debits. At least leading into my account.

To find this record would provide an answer.

Some money, too, perhaps …

I felt clear-headed, better than I had in days, and I realized that anything was possible and anything could be done.


I walked along the path to the ferry dock, passing homes and parks, spreading out my fingers and brushing them along the tips of green branches. The sky was clear and unblemished.

Perhaps—I didn’t know where—I could find someone able to trace back the transactions from the account number in my bank account to the company. A detective agency, maybe? The police might be able to help, as a last resort (it struck me that what I was doing might seem suspicious), or someone at another financial institution.

There was usually a ferry waiting at this time, but today, thanks to lingering in the boat, I’d clearly missed it. I stood and waited at the edge of the lake, pacing back and forth. The complexity of the transfers would reveal how this new company operated and whether or not it was actively trying to discourage its former employees from finding their way back. I would know whether I was welcome or not welcome, though I doubted being unwelcome would have stopped me. I had to find out what had happened.

When I was finished pacing I put my arm out to steady myself, as I usually did when waiting, on the iron bar of the ferry schedule. Instead, I stumbled backwards. The schedule was gone, and so was the iron bar and cement block that had supported it.

The water, and the sky, were clear, pure, and endless.

I supposed they must have temporarily closed that docking point, and I was annoyed that I’d have to walk across the island to the other one. It wasn’t hard to imagine how I’d missed the notices describing the change, as wrapped up as I was thinking about my future. They didn’t usually move the schedule, but maybe it was being replaced.

The next docking point was also empty. A jogger passed me, out for an early run.

“Hey—you there! Do you know what’s happened with the ferry?”

“Ferry? What do you mean?”

“The ferry! You know…”

He just looked at me.

I thrust a long finger towards the mainland. “The boat service. To the city!”

“Excuse me?”

I was about to say something, but my speech died on my tongue. There wasn’t anything across the lake, only water lapping endlessly to the horizon.

“The city! Really! What are you talking about?”

He left, shaking his head.

The water, and the sky, were clear, pure, and endless.

Was I insane? There was little doubt of that.


In the shade of two large maple trees, I found a bench and sat down. Without realizing it, I must have dozed off. The green of the park evaporated and was replaced with the corridors of the building where I had worked.

My office always seems much larger in dreams. It’s as if only in sleep can I see all of its hidden dimensions. In the grey walls of the sub-basement I walked with O, and she was saying something, only I couldn’t understand what it was she was saying. Her voice sounded like birdsong, light and thrilling.

But in the park a cloud passed in front of the sun. It grew cold, and I woke up. But immediately upon waking I closed my eyes again and tried to go back to sleep. When I shut them my office came back as it actually was, not how it appeared in my dreams. I couldn’t go back to my previous fantasy. By now the whole sky was grey and gloomy, the wind whipped the trees about, and the park no longer seemed as comfortable as it had when I first sat down.

I was hungry, so I found a restaurant. As is usual for me, I ate slowly. There was only one other patron, a young woman. I have no interest in women, or this particular one, but as I looked at her I seemed to dream about her, imagining a complicated future in which we’d coexist. I thought that if she had only spoken to me, or I to her—then that would be it, the end of my current life, the beginning of something else, entirely new.

All of these images were felt rather than thought. I understood them, rather than knew them.

I saw the two of us into old age. We would wake up from our shared bed in the early morning, and look out over a field still blue in the pre-dawn, covered with mist. But when the day heated up, the mist would dissipate, and instead of a blue field there would be a green one, grass blades catching the light like thousands of emeralds. There we’d be, in white clothes, holding hands on the veranda, looking out over a field that reflected our whole, satisfying, life. All of these images were felt rather than thought. I understood them, rather than knew them.

Reality would have only spoiled my dream.

The girl rarely looked at me. Perhaps my attention made her uncomfortable. Eventually she finished her meal, and that was that. I looked down at the table—for only a moment, I pushed some mashed potatoes onto my fork—and the next time I looked up she was gone.




5.

The next morning, I woke up much later than usual. My bedroom had already grown humid. I opened a window for air. It was in the process of doing so that I noticed the main island had disappeared.

There was nothing in its place, only water.

It was evening before I realized I no longer felt hunger.


The day before my mother left, we had a barbecue. My father had called the weather service before arranging the date. Outside we set up a tarp to keep the sun off a folding card table that we’d weighed down with cinder blocks. I was seven years old.

My father entertained our visitors at the dock, passing out cans of beer and soda as they waited for everyone to assemble. The party consisted of a cousin, his wife, my mother’s uncle, and my father’s great aunt. My mother, in her apron, set the table and cut up vegetables for the hamburgers. Our guests joked about how unsteady they already were when they hadn’t had much to drink, or how they worried my father wouldn’t be able to ferry them all back together at the end of the night, when they were stuffed from eating.

It was the first time my parents had ever entertained, that I could remember, and everything seemed to be going well. Even my father was in a light mood. But the weather, which had seemed true to forecast at the start of the afternoon, quickly turned ugly. A stack of paper napkins blew into the water. My mother’s uncle had to cradle his hat in one arm to keep it from flying off.

“Let’s take the party inside,” suggested the cousin. Everyone else agreed. My mother had already begun to pack up some of the lighter utensils and plates. But the house had not been prepared for visitors. It was messy, even more than usual because of the disruption caused by the barbecue. No doubt thinking of this, my father’s face turned white. He refused to let us move indoors.

Soon after the rain started, and all of us were forced to squeeze together at the centre of the tarp. Sitting at the very edge of the table as an example, my father’s shirt was drenched nearly from his elbow to his opposite shoulder.

My father’s great aunt was only 11 years older than my father, so maybe he didn’t consider her very old. But her teeth were chattering, and her skin was much paler than usual.

Still, he refused.

“But David—it’s so cold,” said my mother, her bare arms covered with goose-pimples.

“It will pass,” he said.

But the rain didn’t let up, and so our barbecue ended early. My mother was embarrassed and apologetic, but she hardly said anything. I was even quieter than usual. Our guests were ferried from our little island back to the main one through the rain, then left to fend for themselves at the dock.

On our island my mother put away everything that hadn’t blown away. She brought the chairs inside. When my father returned with the boat, he stomped his heavy boots inside the foyer and demanded that my mother undress him. I went to my room, listening to the sound of the wet clothing land with heavy slaps on the hard floor.

In the morning we went out to look for her, but she was gone.


The natives of Polynesia colonized their islands in sequence, a new one every few generations, or so says a book on world history I once read. But it was doubtful whether they knew for sure there were more islands in the directions they chose when they set out in their dug-out canoes, because in most cases the next islands were much, much further off than the horizon.

So they’d seen what I’d seen, which was nothing.

What motivated them? Where did they find the courage? And how many had set off only to find their deaths in miles of empty water?

In my case the emptiness was paralyzing.


Had my mother drowned? I couldn’t explain it, but it suddenly seemed likely.


I was surprised to discover I still had phone service. I tried to dial the operator. The phone rang three times. I heard a click. The receiver was picked up. There was no one on the other end. Ambient noise. Footsteps on wet pavement. A car approaching and driving through a puddle. A woman’s laughter. O? For some reason the sound of laughter stung me. A train rang its whistle. A muffled voice in the distance: “—and when water is sick, it can’t form crystals!”

I hung up.


I took the boat out halfway to the horizon, hoping that on the way I might glimpse some distant island.

It was no good. And I when I turned around, my little island was gone.

 


André Babyn lives in Toronto. His first book, Evie of the Deepthorn, was released this spring.

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