Edition 24: Festival of Dissolution by Dennis Mombauer
Franok cannot wait to be grown and attend the outlandish Festival of Dissolution. He stalks the tent with his friends, hoping to dispel the mystery. Quinton and Jodee travel within a technicolour ice cavern, ever changing and treacherous. It’s a fantastical dream that Dennis Mombauer draws you into, perhaps so good that you won’t want to leave. SY
– I –
The Festival of Dissolution is coming to town, and just like the years before, Franok is too young to go.
He and his friends know very little about the festival, only that it is in a clearing deep in the forest, only adults are allowed visit it, and there is a great tent in which all the celebrations take place.
The interior of this festival tent is enigmatic in itself: it is often described as “a flat landmass drifting in the center of the ocean” or “a desert of salt and engine parts”, but Franok doesn’t know what this means.
He has tried to sneak in with his friends two years in a row, but it took them all night to reach the clearing in the forest, and they had found only trampled grass and little piles of garbage.
Everyone in their group has a theory about what is going on, and everyone claims to have heard some story from an adult, most of them wildly unbelievable. There are tales of bacchanalian rites, of wine, drugs and naked skin; of elaborately choreographed theatre performances and much stranger things.
Some speak of artists that make teeth disappear—not by archaic brutality or the professional horrors of a dentist, but through alchemical means, with some mouthwash that dissolves them without a trace or the slightest sensation.
There are the de-composers, classical as well as avant-garde, breaking music down into its constituent fugues and chords, and then into solitary notes without any flow or rhythm; the atheologists that can convince any man of the faultiness of his faith; the reverse gardeners who make their plants recede into the ground, blooming flowers closing and fallen leaves reattaching themselves back to branches; the infamous ice sculptor; and a hundred professions more, all of them sounding fake.
Can there really be a shark that breathes fear through its gills and, just like that, removes it from the world? A negative candle that swallows light? A surgeon specialized in loosening bonds, cutting tendrils and muscles to make a body fall apart with as few motions as possible?
– II –
All of a sudden, Quinton and Jodee find themselves trapped in ice. It surrounds them on all sides, glistening in the dim light that bounces back and forth without escape. The floor is ice; the walls; the domed ceiling.
It doesn’t feel cold, but it is most definitely ice, hardened into cave-like architecture. It seems to have appeared overnight around Quinton and Jodee, and Quinton has never encountered anything like it.
“Do you see that?” Jodee points to some kind of movement Quinton sees in the corner of his eyes, something flittering under the outer layer of ice. It’s a tiny light, glowing like a stained-glass butterfly, gliding around in rapid, dizzying bursts of movement.
There are more flutterings beneath the ice, a whole swarm of bright spots in multifarious colors, in ruby red and sapphire blue, emerald green, amethyst, violet and pearly white, like a scattering of animated gemstones.
“Let’s follow them.”
Quinton wants to protest, but Jodee is already walking into one of the tunnels leading away from where they are, a worm-like opening into which the ghostly lights begin to disappear.
Jodee turns around, and at the same moment, her tunnel abruptly tilts, transforming into a slide and then into a vertical shaft. There is not even time to scream. Jodee is gone before Quinton can react, and he now stares at a hole that is rapidly losing all color.
Jodee falls through deepening darkness, the gushing air her only indicator of movement, until the falling suddenly stops. There is no impact, no hard collision with the ground, just the wind pausing, an almost indiscernible end to her descent.
She can’t see a thing, but immediately starts to walk in a random direction. To her surprise, her feet find resistance, skidding over glass-like smoothness, another floor of frozen water.
As her eyes slowly accustom to the gloom, it becomes clear that it isn’t absolute. There is a vague bluish hue radiating from the walls, a slowly building illumination that transforms the cave into a submerged grotto. The frozen enclosure pulses with a deep blue, smalt or ultramarine, like the gills of some sluggish primordial fish.
Serpentine passageways open into round chambers, and the round chambers lead to a succession of bigger halls with frozen pillars, until the ice is so far away on all sides that Jodee might as well be walking under an open sky.
“Jodee!” Quinton’s voice echoes from somewhere in the distance, lost in the glacial labyrinth.
“Quinton?” She doesn’t slow down, but changes direction toward the sound, through a light gradually turning a mauve to hyacinthine shade.
Water drips from the high ceiling, as if the ice was melting, but the droplets evaporate in the air before they reach the ground. It is a strange and silent spectacle, and Jodee is tempted to stop for a moment and enjoy it but then, she hears Quinton again.
The halls grow narrower, the pillars lower, until Jodee passes a tunnel and sees someone in the distance. As she recognizes Quinton, everything changes again.
There is a pulsing in the center of the cavern, an icy stalagmite rising up like a petrified flower. Its heart is bright and coated in an incorporeal foliage of kermes and vermilion, carmine and garnet, projecting lighter shades of incarnadine and erythraean on the distant walls, coagulating in purplish fuchsia or amaranth in the corners.
It shines on Jodee’s face like the reverberation of a temperatureless magma flow, steaming over her body in paler lilac and heliotrope.
“Let’s stay together now, alright?” Quinton approaches her carefully, as if she could vanish at any moment like a roseate-tinted specter.
When he nears the frozen blossom, he can see through his own hands as they turn into scarlet silhouettes. His skin becomes transparent in the intense illumination that bubbles up like water from a fountain, exposing his every artery and blood vessel, the shapes of his bones and the organs working between his ribs.
Damask red and magenta wash over him like heat haze, making it harder for him to see Jodee with every further step. There she is, almost within his reach but before his outstretched hand can touch her, the red mist begins to solidify.
Quinton’s movements become sluggish, as if he has been enveloped by glue and the protruding ice structure, the heart of the room, suddenly swells. Quinton is being pulled toward it, inside it and in the blink of an eye, he finds himself in a completely different place.
Jodee stares in disbelief at the center of the cave. There is no light anymore, just bluish background radiation, and the stalagmite has ceased glowing.
What a strange young man this Quinton is. His previous name has been different, but she could never call him that. The ice sculptor has made a fine labyrinth for them, and she doesn’t understand why Quinton keeps getting away from her. There is no indication where he might have gone, so she begins walking again, around the ice flower and into another tunnel.
Lines like veins of glittering gold and silver begin to shine within the walls, an intertwined white pattern with subtle nuances in opaline and ivory. On first sight, it seems to be a chaotic tangle, but the longer Jodee looks, the more the lines appear to guide her in one particular direction: toward Quinton.
The floor slopes downward, and Jodee’s steps sound hollow, as if there is another cave beneath her. A light grows, somewhere between peach and tangerine, with a sulphurous haze welling up in the distance.
As the illumination darkens toward topaz or even persimmon, Jodee steps onto a transparent section of floor. Through it, she can see a deeper cavern with someone inside.
Quinton walks down long stairs of ice, careful not to slip on their glassy surface. The frozen heart and its red glow have transported him to another cavern, and he has been wandering through a maze of branching tunnels for hours.
He looks up, the ceiling suddenly illuminated by shady orange and mustard yellow, and sees Jodee. She stands on a pane of transparent ice, her form milky and distorted, but she clearly recognizes him before she moves away.
She appears again, a chunk of ice in both hands, and hammers down, the impact travelling through the walls like a distant earthquake. Cracks form, melichrous lines that slowly creep over the ice. Another smash, another network of cracks, and then a loud chink as it breaks in a shower of ocher and saffron shards.
“Jump, and I’ll catch you!”
Her face peeks through the newly opened hole, encased by an aurulent halo that slowly fades away. She hesitates, tries to meet his eyes, producing a smile before she lets herself fall.
As she plummets, he catches her and light shoots up around them like a geyser of colo. It envelops them as if they would stand in a fountain of mud, umber, reaching its russet peak above their heads and flooding away in all directions.
“Where have you been?”
“I don’t know. There are so many tunnels and halls here. What is this, Jodee? Where are we?”
The maroon-colored brightness stops bubbling up and spreads itself across the whole floor in a sepia fog, turning everything into an ancient memory preserved for all time.
“In the ice, stupid. Don’t you know about the ice sculptor? Is this your first time in the labyrinth?”
Quinton nods, and as she smiles in return, everything starts to change once more. The fog lies calm as a field of earth, and from it, flowers begin to bloom.
Smaller weeds in pale celadon, virescent offshoots and tree trunks with hints of titian and copper sprouts. Shining centers in bright blossoms of verdigris green, stands of jade and jasper, of chrysochlorous gold. The greenery flourishes on all sides until it forms a colorful forest, a primordial jungle that closes around Quinton and Jodee, hiding them from view.
– III –
Franok and his gang find the clearing in the middle of the night, behind the bridge and the valley, in the oldest part of the forest.
The adults of the town seem to have already vanished, and the only thing left is the fabled tent, the centerpiece of the Festival of Dissolution. It is huge and colorful—although in a faded, time-worn fashion—but it appears to be no more than an ordinary tent.
“So this is it? Where are the tongues and teeth, the loops and lanterns?”
“The parades and paradoxes, the masks and mandalas?”
“Probably inside, with all the people.” Franok walks toward the tent from the darkened treeline.
The night air is chilly, but he hardly notices his own goosebumps over all the excitement. “Come on, isn’t this why we are here? Don’t you want to see what’s in the tent?”
The others nod, and Franok leads them toward one of the curtained entrances, its hem swaying softly in the breeze.
The illumination inside is faint, a bronze glow that emanates from the canvas walls. A small passageway leads into a room with several veiled exits, each of them decorated with an embroidered symbol.
The members of Franok’s little gang stare at him as if he has all the answers, as if it wasn’t his first time here as well. None of the symbols look the least bit familiar: there’s maimed creatures, outlandish geometric patterns and others that Franok doesn’t have words to describe.
“I want to see the shark, and this seems to be the most fish-like of them all.” One of the friends points to a symbol that Franok would have described as a flying teapot salesman.
“Look at this!” Another member of the gang has found something else. “My brother has drawn this for me one time; it must lead to Kamelkatze’s Snout Market.”
“Hey, this one has writing. Embryonic Reconvergence, I think?”
Franok’s companions swarm out, talking loudly to themselves as they vanish through separate entryways, until only Franok remains. There are the curtains no one has passed through, there are the ones his friends went through, and definitely no point in waiting now.
Franok steps through and enters a long, billowing tunnel of colored fabric, behind which diffuse lights swirl and flicker.
His blue shadow on the floor duplicates itself to form red and green twins, which start dividing again and again into a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors. He watches his shadows become more transparent with every split, until they are barely visible and fade away into nothingness.
The tunnel inflates and pulsates with waves of color, as if it wants Franok to get going, to stop hesitating and wasting time. The Festival of Dissolution will end soon, and when it does, he cannot be here anymore.
Franok walks around a long curve, toward the other end, where he passes a curtain of tiny spiral seashells that seem to be constantly retracting into themselves.
The room on the other side is low and gloomy compared to the passage, and there are shelves with all kinds of snow globes, dozens or maybe hundreds of them. The vestigial lighting glitters on a multiplicity of model landscapes under glass, on towers, forests, volcanic islands and maelstroms.
In every one of the globes, something falls like soft snow, but on closer inspection, it clearly isn’t: the flakes are ash, teeth, drops of oil, dust, flickering flames, miniature will-o-wisps, even tinier landscapes, books with flapping pages, shrunken paradise birds, swarms of microscopic flying foxes, and even unlikelier objects.
Everywhere Franok looks, he can watch artificial worlds vanish and evaporate under the unnatural snow, and he can barely stop himself from inspecting one globe after another.
“If you stay here too long, you will disappear, just like the places in all those globes.”
Franok jumps at the voice, spins around and encounters a girl his age. “What…how…who are you?”
“I’m Jodee. What’s your name?”
“I will call you Quinton.” She offers him her hand. “Come with me: the ice sculptor has made something special just for us.”
Dennis Mombauer, born 1984, grew up along the Rhine and today lives and works in Cologne, Germany. He writes short stories and novels in German and English and is co-publisher and editor of a German magazine for experimental fiction, Die Novelle – Zeitschrift für Experimentelles. You can find him at: http://dienovelle.blogspot.de/