“Cleopatra’s Needle, Part One” by David Alexander Craig

1. You’ve been struggling with your dreams lately. The last two weeks, every night, the same images and scenes, arranged in different sequences. After the first week you begin writing down what you recall immediately upon waking. A yellow legal pad patterned with slanted cursive jottings:

A boy, perhaps yourself, with mud caked sneakers and lines of animal blood—for the blood feels inhuman in the dream—on his blue jeans and hands…

A car speeding toward and then just passed you. Your clothing jostled by its passing…

The distinct feeling of carefully concealed smugness, self-satisfaction and self-celebration while you attend an event populated by peers and colleagues you haven’t spoken to in years…

After a week’s worth of recollection, you flick your fingers through seven full pages of text interspersed with dates and times. Then, suddenly, the dreams come to an end. Your sleep is purified. Two weeks worth of sediment has been commuted downstream and now you wake every morning a crisp tabula rasa. You recall nothing of your dreams and wonder if you are still capable of having them at all. And yet, the legal pad remains, crying out to you. You handle it with stiff, clinical fingers and held breath. It seems to you symptomatic of a mysterious illness you are unsure you have recovered from.

2. A month of normalcy ensues. You decide to summon the pad from its unremarkable hiding place on your desk—beneath a stack of business papers and unopened mail. You tear a blank sheet from the bottom and align this vertically beside the pad itself. You title this blank sheet: “Summary of Dream Pad.”

You catalogue the images and events of the “Dream Pad” in shorthand and mark tallies beside each item to record its frequency in your recollections. Small green pillow bracing the reclining elbow of an attractive woman receives four tallies. Boy with muddy sneakers receives five. Dog vomiting blood receives two. Near the center of the page you’ve entered, Tall obelisk. Grey stone, in background. Casting heavy shadow. Apparently Egyptian. By the time your complete your cataloguing, seven tallies appear beside this item—the most received by any item on the page.

3. Another month has passed since you last woke with the memory of a dream. You’ve sealed the “Dream Pad” along with its summary sheet in a manila envelope and filed this into a locked drawer of your desk.

As transpires several times a year, you’ve flown to New York on business. Your hotel is familiar to you. Several of the staff say, “welcome back” as you approach the welcome desk to receive your key card.

After dinner one evening (at an unremarkable but expensive restaurant on the Upper East Side) you decide to return to your hotel by walking unaccompanied through the park. You wave with a sedate smile to those business associates you have dined with as yellow taxicabs shuttle them away to their own hotels.

In the park, tall-posted lamps shine downward in flattened cones, leaving the tops of the trees irradiated only by the diffuse glow of the city itself. You walk briskly, but—as always when you walk, especially when your stomach is busy digesting—you are compulsively attentive to your surroundings. You pass from one observed detail to another as if thumbing beads on a rosary.

A peripheral glance to something ahead and to the left occasions your limbs to falter and your eyes to widen. You direct yourself down the first path that branches in the direction of the object. Through fast and focused strides, you arrive at a flight of cobbled steps draped on either side by full and drooping braches of cherry blossom.

Making your way up the steps, there emerges before you an open-air rotunda, some forty paces wide, horse-shoed by a curling stone bench broken only at the entrance where you stand. Thick cherry trees rocked by an imperceptible breeze encircle the rotunda and make of it a sensory island. Upward from the rotunda’s center extends a mighty stone monument—tetrahedral and tapered to a pyramidal point. On all sides it is inscribed with countless hieroglyphs and other ciphers you take to be of Egyptian origin.

4. You picture the locked desk drawer and the manila envelope. You recall your fortnight of dreams. Your heartbeat quickens. New York, your hotel, the meal you just had, your apartment back home: everything beyond the rotunda fades from your mind.

You feel amazingly fortunate to have the space all to yourself. You glance over your shoulder at the flight of steps and start to reach for a door to pull closed behind you. You collect yourself, somehow convinced that no one will disturb you here. In any event, you’ve noticed very few others in the park tonight.

You spot a weathered brass plaque at the base of the monument. Ensconced by four brass arabesque crab’s claws, the plaque gives a name to the obelisk—“Cleopatra’s Needle”—and summarizes the details of its journey from Egypt to New York in the 1880s.

You gaze upwards, near-vertically, and follow the length of the obelisk into the blue-black of the night sky, where a few scattered glittering imply a starscape behind the city’s near-impregnable radiance. Circling the obelisk with your hands folded behind you, you crook your neck and squint, half-expecting to activate a miraculous fluency which would give voice to the sewn-lipped hieroglyphics incised everywhere on the monument’s ancient, weathered surface.

While closely examining one of the obelisk’s four faces—that opposite the rotunda’s entrance—you spot at eye-level a stone ring the diameter of your little finger, hinged upward and polished like the handle of a jewelry box drawer. Impulsively, you ascend the stone pedestal skirting the base of the obelisk, arch your frame and reach for the ring, clutching it between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. You tug gently at the ring and nearly topple backwards off the pedestal when a rectangular segment of the obelisk about the size of a freezer door swings open to the left. The segment seems unimaginably heavy and thick, but pivots on its hinge smoothly, like the fortified portal of a bank vault. Your breath drawn, eyes gaping, muscles tensed, you peer inside the open cavity: an impossibly dark, featureless void, offering no clue of interior structure or dimensionality.

Bewildered, you begin to reach a hand into the darkness, but pause. Suddenly, you are overcome with the most perilous vertigo. The branches of cherry blossom rustle more forcefully than before. You sense something being positioned or positioning itself behind you. Then, with all the violence of a leaf lifted up and tossed by the wind, you are hoisted and swallowed into the black hollow of the obelisk, the stone door sealing swiftly and unceremoniously behind you.

[Next: Inside the Obelisk]

Posted April 19th, 2010

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7 Responses to “Cleopatra’s Needle, Part One” by David Alexander Craig

  1. Pingback: New Story Posted: “Cleopatra’s Needle, Part One” by David Alexander Craig « Newhandsweepstakes

  2. Amanda says:

    this reads to me like a fucked-up choose your own adventure, but an adventure that takes the genre to its end – an adventure without choice, propelled by the unconscious. because you know, the choices in those books were always finite anyway.

    this is (i hope obviously) a compliment. i don’t think i ever enjoyed reading books as much as when i read choose your owns. i look forward to part two.

    • David says:

      I appreciate that comment so much, Amanda. I hadn’t looked at the piece from that perspective before, but now I can absolutely sense that inertia within it. The difficulty with second-person narrative seems to be to make the reader identify with the fate-like experience of a written character while still maintaining some vestige of freedom, “choose-your-own-ness,” or what you call infinity. What I have in mind for part two will unfold somewhere along those lines, but in an even less expected way, I hope. Thanks for the insight!

  3. Brian McElmurry says:

    You read a story by a friend. You hadn’t had the time. But when you did it was beautiful. You follow along the path of the story. You recognize the place as if you’d been there before. You walk from the MET. You smoke a joint in the park with your friend and ex-girlfriend. You see an obelisk. You take pictures like buddies with your arms over each others shoulders under the Cherry Blossoms. You walk around the obelisk looking at the hieroglyphs talking about how the US brought this from Eqypt as a sign of power. Your friend opens a door and you want to know more. What is in the void. When did your friend write this. Why is was the MET closed that Monday? Why is Time Square so crowded? You’d rather be on acid in the subway. You take pictures of the dog walkers. You think your friend wrote something really awesome. You wonder when your friend will post part two. You wonder why you are sitting in an alley with a bald woman-bartender as the last of the Bolivian troops march in your brain. Slow, muddy, tired. You have read “Bright Lights, Big City.” Have you?

    • Brian McElmurry says:

      You wonder why you can’t post a comment without a typo? (was/ is) please ignore.

    • David says:

      You describe that memorable slice of time so wonderfully! It truly is a special place, that area of the park, especially in that time of year. And what an enjoyable trip that was. I still haven’t read “Bright Lights, Big City,” but have always meant to. Just to study the second-person style it would be worthwhile, no? Perhaps I’ll track down a copy this weekend. Perhaps I can borrow yours :)?

      • Brian McElmurry says:

        You can borrow it. You will read of Batboy. It is good. But “The Last of the Savages” by Jay McInery is better. Not as exemplaryof the second person style, but tells so much of American culture from the 60’s to the 80’s. Awesome characters. The narrator is an in-the-closet business man and his wild music producing college buddy. “Bright lights, Big City,” the print I have, is also the cool pocket size paper back. I love those.

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