I am playing the shepherd’s game with the Shepherdess far underground, by the secret lake, beneath a cyclorama on which, suitable to the evening hour, the blue of afternoon is deepening to plum, while, one by one, stars appear according to a lighting scheme designed by the hotel’s Electrician. When in the world, he lit the stage for Max Reinhart and other directors of German Expressionism. “Life is an illusion,” I tell the Shepherdess, my hand rummaging in her blouse. “How wonderful for the living!” she replies. Light fades toward the darker register, and, with the coming of night, a manufactured breeze agitates the surface of the lake. The water lifts and settles its hem, rattling the white and nearly yellow stones. Distracted, my eyes leave hers and stray to the tiny bays coiling among stiff reeds along the shore. There, I see a bottle, its neck strangled by Phragmites australis, or common wetland weed. Neither of us is surprised to find in it a message (we are living in a dream or a play that may be comic or prove to be the opposite), typed on an old-fashioned machine in elite letters to fit a narrow strip of paper: out of sight and out of mind,there is a room by almost all forgotten. within its walls lies a secret of this hotel none of you will care to know. Wondering what it means, the Shepherdess brushes her kneecaps clean of imitation sand and packs the picnic hamper, though the cold chicken is scarcely touched. “Let’s go,” she says. “The Prime Minister may have the answer to this conundrum.” Disappointed, I damn the bottle and its cryptic message, damn her and the P. M. both. “But, I was having fun!” I grumble. “I’m reminded that there are other things in life beside it,” she remonstrates. Upstairs on the mezzanine, the Prime Minister plays backgammon with the General while the Conductor dozes over a foxed and yellowed score of Johann Strauss the Younger’s, discovered by the Chambermaid under a mattress in the Vienna Suite. How it came to be there, no one knows as is the case in so much else concerning this hotel. “We found a message in a bottle,” the Shepherdess explains to justify our intrusion. The always imperturbable General screws in his monocle and smiles at what he sees—the girl, not me! “Here it is; read it.” The P. M. does and is nonplused: “What room, and where?” With a debonaire wave of a liver-spotted hand, the General proposes that we look for it. The octogenarian Bell Captain (who, when a Bellboy, peeked into every room and closet) leads our anabasis. In the library, shelves endlessly replicate themselves, vanishing in the varnished distance like an exercise in forced perspective. “Why are so many empty?” the P. M. asks, having opened a dozen volumes. “They are those that have been forgotten,” the Librarian says. “Each book erased by time, however, is replaced by another.” And in her hands, we watch a white page darken as a photograph in the developer does. “This is the place to have my second childhood!” the General laughs, speeding away on a two-wheeled ladder hanging from a ceiling rail. In the Madame Tussaud Room, where the Taxidermist spends his time, there are rows and bins of parts belonging to every taxonomy, including human. Pink swan necks loll in lazy SSSSS from a rack, waiting to replace those throttled out of boredom by the guests. Next, we shut the door without entering a world that, frankly, makes us sqeamish and visit, instead, the Charcot Room from which there comes the noise of snoring. “Shhh!” the Analyst enjoins as we tiptoe in the dark. On beds, half a dozen men and women are unconscious—wires fastened to their heads. “What’s this?” we ask, surprised. “My Sleep Institute,” he answers, smugly. “The beds are occupied round the clock by dreamers.” “So, the hotel and everything that happens in it are dreamt by them?” we ask. The Analyst tugs his beard and mutters that he can’t be sure. “But, I would not risk annihilation by unplugging them!” We agree and leave without another word. On the topmost floor, there is a room in which Amanuenses type in shifts. “Of all the rooms we’ve seen so far, this one is the most bizarre!” exclaims the Shepherdess, straining to hear the tiny voices leaking from their Dictaphones. “There is a theory held by some that hotel life is fiction,” says the Writer, who is shy and middle-aged. Anxiety seldom lets him mingle with the guests.“They dare not stop for fear the hotel will evaporate.” “What do the voices say?” “They tell stories recorded on wax cylinders. They arrive each morning—who knows from where or by whom they’re sent.” We shudder to think existence might depend on typing and hurry from the room. There seems to be no end of rooms, and we look inside them all. At last, sandwiches eaten and flasks dry, we stumble into the hotel’s deepest cellar where a dungeon’s rusty instruments would make Joan of Arc recant! Whether their purpose lies buried in the past or will be revealed in time is hidden. We hurry up the stairs and dance (unaware that the tune the orchestra is playing is Lizst’s paraphrase of “Dies Irae”—his Totentanz). In the balcony the Writer turns away and sees, beyond the hotel walls, Night’s terrible engines waiting for us all.
Norman Lock is the author of The House of Correction (Broadway Play Publishing), A History of the Imagination (Fiction Collective Two), Notes to the Book of Supplemental Diagrams for Marco Knauff’s Universe (Ravenna Press), Joseph Cornell’s Operas & Émigrés (Triple Press and Yapi Kredi Yayinlari, Istanbul), Trio (Triple Press), Land of the Snow Men (writing as George Belden, Calamari Press), The Long Rowing Unto Morning (Ravenna Press), Two Plays for Radio (Ravenna Press), Cirque du Calder (Rogue Literary Society and forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Press). His stage plays have been produced in the U.S., Germany, and at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival; his radio plays, broadcast by WDR Germany. The piece published here is from Pieces for Small Orchestra.