Current Issue

email this link

Random Haiku Generator
Poem of the Day
Flash Fiction


Fiction by Norman Lock





I woke on the far shore of Lake No with the sheet drawn up over my head. “No, no, you haven’t been dead!” the pretty femme de chambre assured me. She was feeding me broth with a spoon. Each time she inclined towards me in order to introduce the spoon into my mouth, I noted how the light material of her blouse would come away from her breasts, revealing their rosettes. I longed for her to undo her blouse and play the shepherd’s game with me. I longed to be suckled between those sweet hills. Sigmund, you left without completing my analysis! Where am I to attach all my free-floating anxieties now that the transference is broken? What will now serve as my object of desire?

“Not dead, only sleeping!” she laughed.

“Was it the sleeping sickness?” I asked, changing my position in bed so as not to be tormented by the sight of her twin pinknesses.

“No, you slept only a little.” She held up three long, slender fingers. “Three days only. You had much mental conflict; your body went to sleep so that it might be resolved in your physical absence. Two men carried you here. I put the sheet over your head so you would not be disturbed.”

“I was dreaming of mud.”

“You have crossed Lake No,” she said.

“I was up to my neck in it.”

“You have crossed Lake No,” she repeated as if that were an explanation.

“I have not been well.”

She looked at me wistfully.

“It can be difficult -- the crossing.”

“What men?” I asked after a silence.


“The men who brought me here -- who were they?”

“I don’t know.”

She left me to wash myself and shave. I went to the window. Outside, Lake No slid back and forth through the vast reed bed that lined the shore. The reeds rattled, the water soughed. In the distance the light seemed to fizz on the choppy surface. I did not recall the lake’s obvious immensity. I am certain the opposite shore, from which I had embarked (how long ago?), did not look out upon such an expanse of water. But here I could not see across it. A stalk of smoke marked the trembling horizon -- the steamer, presumably, that had brought me.

The girl returned with fresh linen to make the bed.

“It is Lake No?” I asked her, turning from the window. “Not Victoria Nyanza or Lake Rudolf?”

“Lake No. No other,” she said, searching my face.

“Why do you look at me that way?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“It seems much bigger than I remember,” I said, trying to conceal my alarm.

She tapped her forehead enigmatically.

“Were the men who brought me here also on the boat?”

“Yes, I think so.”

That afternoon in the bar, I met Major Samuels, who had been in India. He invited me to drink with him.

“Gin and tonic,” I told the barman.

I pressed the cold glass against my forehead to cool it.

“Funny place, this,” the Major observed.

“You mean the lake?” I asked.

“Lake? No, I’m talking about this hotel. Built by one of your countrymen, I believe. Franklin Barrett. Eccentric millionaire. Made a fortune in corsets. Heaven knows why he would want to build a hotel here. America’s the land of eccentrics. That Remington woman, for instance. You’re probably a bit eccentric yourself. Well, cheers!”

He must have seen that I was puzzled, for after he had downed his whisky and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, he said: “Don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a giant elephant -- isn’t it? A giant, bloody elephant! Still, only place in the Sudan you can find a decent drink.”

I went outside. The hotel was in the shape of an elephant -- an enormous, wooden, garishly painted elephant.

The Major joined me.

“Queer, don’t you think?”

“Have you ever dreamt of mud?” I asked him.

“Never!” he said angrily.

I wished Freud were here. He would know what to make of it.

That night she came to me. At first I thought it was Anna, but it was the girl from the hotel -- the femme de chambre.

“Do you know anything I should know?” I asked offhandedly.

She said she did not.

Complaining of my nails, she cut them. She also trimmed my hair. I thought her behavior odd but said nothing. You have a fever, I told myself. She swept the nail parings and shorn hair into a box and left.

Once more I looked out the window. Moonlit clouds were flying over Lake No. The steamer was tied up to the landing though I had not heard it arrive. As I watched, the woman walked out on the pier in her white nightdress, carrying the box. Two men suddenly stepped out of the black entryway into a shaft of moonlight. She handed the box to them and left immediately.

I was becoming more and more uneasy.




If you want it, you must be prepared to pay -- and dearly, he said. You cannot buy it openly in the city; in the city it is forbidden. To get it, he said, you must go to the blackmarket and pay -- what is the American expression? ... “through the nose.” If you like, he said, I will take you there. Otherwise, goodbye. He turned and walked away. I allowed him to take two, three, four steps. The tassel on his red fez swayed a little as he took them. I was measuring my need against what surely would be an exorbitant price to pay. I was waiting, as he went, to feel the strength of my resolve not to have it.

“Wait!” I called, lacking the strength to resist longer.

He stopped but did not turn.

“Yes?” he said, not turning.

His back was -- how can I put it? -- imposing. No. Peremptory. His back said to me: Do not expect me to turn. I am not to be dismissed and recalled. His back in its stiffness defied me.

I went to him, was about to touch his elbow, stopped, said: “All right. Show me.”

“Saying the word is not permitted,” he said. “You must point to what you want.”

“Not permitted? By whom not permitted?”


He led me down narrow, confused streets; down alleys crowded with children and beggars. He opened the gate to a courtyard, the door to a building. We walked down a narrow passage smelling of smoke and curry. We stopped at a curtained doorway.

“The ear of God would be offended were you to name it,” he said, holding back the curtain for me to enter.

The room was dark. I stood still, not daring to move until my eyes adjusted. I felt all around me presences, which proved, when the dark lightened, to be urns.

I sat on a camel saddle. Shrill music wound through the outer passage. I thought of adders. The Arab said it is also forbidden to touch.

“Only point!” he admonished.

The Arab who had led me here spoke hurriedly to a second Arab, whose room, presumably, this was. The second said something which seemed to satisfy the first, who left without looking at me. The second Arab gave me a bowl of something to eat. Cold rice and beans and something that crunched disagreeably. Though I was not hungry, I ate as a matter of form.

Then the Arab sat on a rug and seemed to go to sleep.

I waited for a long time, unsure if I should wake him. I did not wish to be outré. I did not wish to offend. I had no wish to “queer the deal” as Oates would say. (Used to say. Devoured by ants, he keeps his thoughts to himself.)

Growing hungry, I wiped the bowl clean with my fingers and ate.

All was quiet; the music had ceased long ago. In the distance a dog barked. I counted the tolling of a bell: 9 o’clock. Already night! I thought. The Arab slept in earnest now, pulling great shuddering snores. Unless he only pretended to sleep.


Again the dog barked. The bell tolled ten, eleven ....

I got up in search of water. Remembering the urns, I opened one.

It was then the watcher coughed.

Narrowly missing my hand, the scimitar smashed the ceramic urn and stuck fast to something whitish inside.

Only when I reached the British naval ships anchored by the pier did I stop running.




“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?”

This, from Quigley. Who else?

Hanby didn’t give a damn.

The day was dark as it can be on the other side of Lake No. The canopy was unnecessary, but we complimented its aesthetic value. “Picturesque” was Quigley’s word, who was never a pragmatist. Hanby merely grunted and, if pressed, would have allowed that it was “nice” or some other colloquialism. We did not press: we were not interested in further examples of his rudimentary savoir faire. He stretched out his legs and went to sleep, his head on a loaf-shaped stone.

Quigley, who could be counted on for an annoying pertinacity in metaphysical matters, returned to his question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?”

I had no opinion.

“You seldom do,” said Quigley, wishing to hurt.

“As you like,” I replied with a sinuous motion of my hand I thought so expressive I reiterated it:


Quigley clapped the lid of the picnic hamper shut.

“I intend to answer the riddle once and for all,” he said severely.

With that he stood, brushed all vegetable traces of the African wilderness from the seat of his pants, and strode (he was forever striding in those days!) offstage.

He returned promptly enough to arouse my suspicions, with a recording device and a wax cylinder “to steal upon it unawares.”

“Steal upon what?” I asked to devil him.

He scowled at me and would not say, though I knew well enough he meant to record the phenomenon of the falling tree.

“I noticed an ellipsis in the landscape this morning,” he said. “When I put my ear to it, I heard wind. It should make an ideal venue for my experiment. We’ll steal inside with the apparatus, hide it in a shrub, then leave. We’ll retrieve it later after a tree has fallen.”

“And if a tree doesn’t fall?” I asked.

“It is in the nature of trees to fall,” he stated categorically.

“In time perhaps,” I said to incite controversy.

“Time does not exist within an ellipsis.”

His dogmatism made me bristle.

“Supposing the ellipsis closes?” I asked, hoping to confound him. “What then?”

He showed me a rope and left me to draw my own conclusions.

Instead, I pretended to fall asleep.

He beat me savagely with a safari boot.

“Get up and carry the apparatus!”

“Where are the porters?” I asked, looking around as if for the first time at the desolate spot we had chosen for a picnic.

“Departed,” he said glumly. “With the more notable specimens of our journey through the interior.”

“And the Bombay Gin?” I asked emotionally.

“Gone -- or drunk up,” he said with ill-concealed pleasure. (He did not approve of spirituous liquors on safari.)

“What is it the French say at a time like this?” I asked, feeling around in the air for the mot juste.

“No idea!” he snarled, exposing a latent xenophobia like a frayed and soiled collar.

We entered the ellipsis at 3:37. I have always maintained that it was early morning; but Quigley, fractious in matters large and small, has repeatedly contradicted me.

In any case we entered it. Let me set it down here, thus:


What followed is impossible to tell because of the conditions that prevailed inside the ellipsis. Had I a grammar suitable to the task or an inventory of signs -- public or private -- I still could not describe it.

(Quigley’s published monograph on the event is pure fabrication!)

I’m afraid that [ ... ] will have to do.

The apparatus? you ask.


And the waxed cylinders?


No, I cannot say for sure whether the tree in falling made a noise. (Quigley’s unsubstantiated testimony to the contrary!) But I will tell you this: the crossing -- from the beginning of the secret passage to its end -- was not good. Consider the following:

There was much dust.

I arrived shoeless.

With my arm broken.

A large splinter protruding through my ripped shirt.

If not dust, fumes. If not fumes -- an insubstantial whiteness impossible to make a mark on with pencil, ink, or crayon.


Don’t believe a word he says!

(Perhaps it was like a Maozagotl cloud ....)


Slept through the entire incident!




About the Author

Norman Lock's fiction appears in respected journals throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, Australia, and Canada (never forgetting that fine Argentine site -- The Southern Cross Review). The work here is from A History of the Imagination, published in Europe as an e-book. Two extended prose sequences -- Emigres and Joseph Cornell's Operas -- are available in one book from elimae. Lock's dramatic works have been seen on stages throughout America and Germany. The House of Correction, published in the U.S. by Broadway Play Publishing, was one of the 10 best plays of 1988 and (for its revival) 1994, according to the LA Times. It was also "best new play" of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Lock is also the author of a film produced by the American Film Institute and shown at international film festivals. He was awarded the Aga Kahn Prize in 1979, given by The Paris Review. Other online work of his may be found at Linnean Street, Unlikely Stories, and Tatlin's Tower. He may be reached via e-mail at NormanGLock@cs.com