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Norman Lock

Into the Interior


Having come at last to the edge of the map, we lifted it. The cartographer declined to go on, asserting that his interest in landscape was entirely superficial. Pennington was disgusted.

"The man's lost his nerve!" he said.

I disagreed but secretly wondered if the rusted ventilator shaft sunk in the rock-strewn margin had not "put the wind up him." With such an object evident in the landscape, the cartographer may have been wary of what might be hidden underneath.

Quigley led the way, followed by the naturalists. I brought up the rear with the porters, who talked anxiously among themselves of sacrilege.

As we descended, I saw the tropic sun flame over the brink of the world. Then darkness, and the lighting of the torches. It was a fine sight -- that long line of leaping, wavering flame!

We macheted our way through an enclosure of thorns. Breaching the wall, we entered a zone of machinery.

"We can be of no use here!" said the disgruntled naturalists, who promptly returned to the surface.

Smith was sent for. He had been a motorman in the New York City subway and could be counted on for a purely mechanistic view of the universe. He examined the works and pronounced them:

"Asynchronous."

"That would account for the surface unpredictability," I said.

Quigley scoffed.

"It's just like underneath Coney Island," Smith remarked as he gathered samples of rust, iron filings, and hydraulic fluid from the vicinity.

Quigley despised the comparison, believing that it cheapened our investigations. But I reminded him that Freud himself had visited Dream Land the year before searching for images of the unconscious. Quigley was clearly unhappy. Like the departed naturalists, he had expected an organic foundation equivalent to the revelations beneath tree bark or stones: a swarm of fascinating unpleasantness.

Holding up a large, punched-paper cylinder similar to a player-piano roll, Quigley shouted:

"Is this someone's idea of a joke?"

I kept my own counsel.

"The commissioner shall hear about this!" he growled.

If it was a joke, McCutcheon, the cartoonist, enjoyed it: his African Impressions,  brought out the following year, was a popular success. Few if any of his readers appreciated that his wry consideration of the mysterious underpinnings of Africa was, quite actually, true!

For my part, I was satisfied. We had hoped to find a Prime Mover, and it made perfect sense that a Prime Mover should be mechanical.

In the next room we discovered a hall of mirrors and a smoke machine whose powerful leather bellows pumped allegory into the upper atmosphere. Infant thunderstorms crackled in Leyden jars. Black rivers twisted in Stygian sluices. Worm-gears wound round our feet. There were bats, of course, but they were prototypical -- creaking hinges looking as if they had been fashioned by the Great Artificer himself.

Christmas day was passed on the march through an empty, waterless region which, up above, Afrikaners call "the thirst." The heat was great. The fiery ground burnt the feet of the porters.

On the following day we came upon an enormous drum, whose hypnotic throbbing was produced by an ingenious steam engine.

"We've reached the heart of Africa," said Quigley, who ordered the waxed recording cylinders unpacked. Huddled together, the porters sang in a strange modality suggesting the mineral world. It made a fine recording!

On the twelfth day we discovered the grave of someone named Storey. We could not, of course, know the circumstances of his undoing. Pennington was irked, having been denied the jouissance  of discovering the ulterior. He cursed the pile of loose stones.

On the twentieth day we reached the moon, at rest under the rib of the equator. It shone with a pale and mysterious light, making our torches superfluous. We stood, entranced, remembering women gleaming in the light from open windows.

"A cheap trompe l'oeil  effect!" jeered Quigley.

Pennington was all for potting it, but I wrested his beloved Winchester from his hands, putting in them instead my Graphlex camera.

The moon graciously provided its own illumination.

We sat and ate our native posho. Kassitura played his harp. Pennington told strange tales of adventure that come only to the man who has lived long the lonely life of the wilderness.

The moon rose, and we were once again in darkness. The torches were lit as we prepared to retrace our steps. We had found an explanation, of sorts, for Africa. In the years that followed, we clung to it. That there might be other, quite different explanations, I admitted only to myself.


Norman Lock's fiction appears in leading American and European journals. He has received the Aga Kahn Prize given by The Paris Review. "Into the Interior" is one of 44 linked postmodern fictions in A History of the Imagination, published at www.OnLineBookDirect.de. Two new short-fiction collections -- Joseph Cornell's Operas and Emigres -- are available, in print, from Elimae Books. The House of Correction has been widely staged in the U.S. and Germany. Lock's four radio plays have been broadcast over Germany's largest radio network. He has also written a film produced by the American Film Institute. He is an Arts Fellow of New Jersey.

 

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