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The Palace – Dipen Bhattacharya

Apr 9, 2021 | Fiction, Front And Center | 2 comments

Translated from Bengali by the author and Lisa Conyers

One of the schools of philosophy on Tlon goes as far as to deny the existence of time; it argues that the present is undefined and indefinite, the future has no reality as present hope, and the past has no reality except as present recollection. Another school declares that the whole of time has already happened and that our life is a vague memory or dim reflection, doubtless false and fragmented, of an irrevocable process.

Jorge Luis Borges in “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

1. Autumn

An alien dusk descended as the fiery colors of the sunlight burned the clouds at the very edge of the sky. A wispy melancholic light meandered into the gray corner of the room, refracting through the delicate glass of a china lampshade. The lamp stood on an ornate table made of solid malachite bearing greenish streaks. The lamp had not worked for many years. Evidence of its darkness was borne by numerous half-burnt candles that littered the floor. The wax polish on the floor, that once provided that shiny smoothness of well-being, had disappeared into time’s crevasse, and had left only an uneven surface of limestone and dry redwood. Outside and far below, the yellow trees stood silent and afraid on the threshold of a solitary night. Similar dusks had descended for uncountable days and nobody marked the dates that filled the void of time.

“Still,” he thought, “the seasons have tracked themselves. One day winter will bring an end to this autumn. Yellow leaves will turn into white snow.”

It was autumn today, and there were telltale signs of rain clouds gathering in the far horizon, but he knew that rain would never come. The rain had stopped twelve years ago, its time had passed, its memory had started to fade.

Nonetheless, it seemed to him, the smell of the final rain lingered in the air. Moisture still seemed to rise out of the asphalt below, climbing the south face of the building to waft into the room through the large window. He looked below to find the grey pavement of the dark road and how it disappeared into the yellow canopy of the autumn vegetation.

Winter was coming. The trees felt the tension but remained expressionless. The trees were ancient dwellers. Their ancestors had survived other astounding changes of this spectacular planet. But were they ready for this winter?

The silence made him afraid and restless. Every afternoon he would look at the trees on the horizon. He could feel the autumn exhausting itself, making way for the bitter cold. A condemned soul in his own Bastille, he was dreading the arrival of winter.

Maybe, he wondered, these labyrinthine corridors had been made in one ancient spring before the storm clouds had appeared. The sky-piercing structure of the Palace rose out of giant granite slabs, smooth marble, fractured quartz and concrete blocks. The Palace rose like a fantastic dream. In its dark world, innumerable parallel corridors crossed and met at infinity, columns rose to hold pantheon ceilings, giant grottos in the white marble walls held alabaster statues of prehistoric goddesses, inviting wide staircases emanating from colonnaded halls led to gilded rotundas on the upper floors. But on this day, as it was yesterday, or uncountable days before that, the grottos, the corridors and the stairways remained empty. He could almost imagine a settled hush after an elaborate whispered conversation, but he knew that was only in his imagination. Only silence reigned in these empty quarters.

He hadn’t felt autumn like this before, he hadn’t noticed the almost imperceptible gradual change of colors because the change had been in progress for the past few years. Only now, only today, he realized the change was complete and he had witnessed the full color spectrum of northern vegetation. It fascinated him. Blazing colors had taken over the faraway forest, the green leaves changing into yellow, brown and red. The autumn colors inscribed his mind, and the inscription made him lonely. Slowly at first, but then with the force of a heavy stone this kaleidoscopic nature had plunged a knife in the depth of his heart to make it stranded in a lonelier desert.

He stepped back from the window and examined the damp walls. He did not know when these walls were built, but he had developed a kinship with them. The walls were aging with him.

It had been almost three years since he had crossed the evergreen forests of the southern valley, traversed a glacier-carved deep canyon that paralled the entire length of the eastern mountain range and then climbed through the sheer granite walls at the end of the range where he had found the Palace. He was standing high on the range, looking down into a misty forested valley when the gigantic structure slowly materialized through the fog, its steeple slicing the black clouds and gleaming in the rising sun. The clouds parted quickly as if they sensed his presence, the white sun reflected on the dark glass, a few thousand windows flashed in blinding light. The northern wind brought the smell of ancient stones over the triangular trees. The towering golden steeple shimmered.

He had discovered hundreds of statues around the Palace’s perimeter. Women and men of black stone upon whom nature had taken its toll. Water had chipped away their contours into delitescence, molding them into abstract forms that transcended their time. He had wondered about their kind, he had yearned for the slightest hint that would provide a glimpse of those mighty builders who had disappeared.

A reddish tinge floated on the horizon after the last rays disappeared. Night arrived with its own certainty; its absolute silence broken only by the rustling sound carried by the cold wind from the woods. He lit three candles and three ghostly shadows danced to diminish the burdens of his solitude. Then he lifted a thick notebook from the floor, its brown binding torn at one corner.

Six months after his arrival he had climbed up to the eightieth floor. There, in a remote, almost inaccessible room, he found this notebook – the only trace of another human writing that he would come across in a decade. This was a chronology of a not-so-distant past, an incomplete diary that provided him with glimpses of the Palace during the rain. The diary was his only companion, a bridge to the lives of three stranger, his contact with life. He read…

2. The Diary: Three from the Past

“…Today we started to scrape the algae from the wall. Water dripped from the balcony of the upper floor, it leaked through the window sills, it splashed across the broken panes, creeped onto the walls. The oppressive primeval dampness that clung to our souls ignored the bright broken light sliding past the veil of rain. Our spirits were not lifted. Still the first sight of the soft blue algae made us wonder. Its bright color and tropical smell pervaded our senses.

Only a few days ago we broke through the big doors of the south side. The doors were shut tight by the tendrils of climbing plants that grew abundantly on the northern walls. The plants fed on the faint light that came through the small windows set high on the walls. We hacked our way through a few rooms until the dense foliage proved totally impenetrable.

The thousands of rooms of the southern section that we managed to go through were absolutely empty. Their emptiness provided no identity of the people who had built this giant edifice. On the sixtieth floor, we came across a colony of albatross, the only living animals we encountered since the discovery of the Palace. We have seen them flying out through those broken window panes. Where do they fly? What do they eat?

We have spent a lot of time standing at the windows. Hugging the Earth’s curvature, the water stretches to the far distances. The ocean, now an over-bloated giant, stretches to the very end of a flat world, its infinity covers all memories of the past. The slightest wind whips up mad frothy waves which batter the palace in unrepressed anger. The Palace shakes and we put our ears to the quaking walls. Then we sit silently, we three fossilized creatures bide our time.

The water level rises, it chases us upward through the floors of this gigantic Palace. At the end of year one, we arrived at the Convention Hall. At the end of year three, we reached the Library (where there wasn’t a single book). At this rate we should reach the top floor of the Central Section in year five.

The Library was our favorite place. Hundreds of empty wooden bookshelves surrounded the big room with the high ceiling. We managed to make it habitable, but we couldn’t stay there for more than six months. During those months we burned half of the bookshelves, we dragged the rest to our present location. We have enough fuel, there are thousands of wooden doors…

Once we thought we saw an enormous sea creature on the horizon. A whale? A giant squid? A prehistoric dinosaur? In the dead of night, its voice was carried through the water, setting the Palace walls in a resonant mode. We almost felt the creature’s movement from the deepest of waters, its body brushing against the Palace. The Palace quivered, its walls shook, the candle light reflected the terror in our eyes. But we trusted our guardian Palace and we never heard the creature again.

During the daytime we extend our heads out of the windows, we taste the rain water with a bitter feeling. The rain is fifteen years old – an adolescent run amok – it is now an invincible enemy, the water is the Palace’s prison guard. We sit in our ghetto, lost in the labyrinth of the Palace. We reflect on the role of our incarceration during this last play of nature. We think of flying and swimming. And we think of walking on the earth.

And within the Palace there are no pictures, books, furniture, machinery or clothes. There is nothing which would disclose the identity of those extraordinary architects.”

3. The Wisdom Tree

“…The fire crackled and the flames lit the bare walls with fluttering waves of light. We huddled around the fire to escape the big emptiness that extended out. Today Engineer Shane told us a fantastic story from his past. He said, ‘It was possibly ten or twelve years before the rain started. I had to travel to a village behind the green valleys of Tokar. I was late in getting started, the sun was low on the western sky. It was just after the harvest season, the path out of Tokar led up to open yellow mustard fields. I crossed a stone bridge half expecting to find women washing clothes by the river. But the path was empty.’

Shane’s boots were leaving firm imprints on a fragile ground and splashing the water left in infrequent puddles from the last rain. It became dark as he crossed the field. The red sky turned into gray and then black. Clouds parted on the horizon, summer stars started appearing, a gibbous moon shone, its golden light reflected on the yellow wheat stalks. He could see the silhouette of black trees, very far away, in a line. There was no other light except for the moon. There was no other sound except for the chirping of the crickets.

Somebody at Tokar had told him, ‘Keep going straight on this road, you will come across a field, there is a path through the field. Find it and then go about four miles on it.’ He had walked two hours since then. He hadn’t seen any path in the field. Stalks drooping, the crop was ready to be harvested.

‘They come so far out to harvest,’ he thought. He considered the toil of carrying the crops. ‘Maybe it’s all mechanized now,’ he thought. He had not seen any tractor tracks.

Suddenly everything became still. An absolute silence descended from an ethereal sky. He stopped, he tried to listen. Vega was sparkling, so was Arcturus. But the stellar photons carried no sound; the last of the sound waves had dissipated in the upper atmosphere. The familiar wind, the rustling of leaves, the splashes of water – everything fell silent. The painted silhouettes of trees on the horizon receded farther, beyond the curvature of the planet. The silence fascinated him. Had he experienced such silence before? Was it absolute silence? But gradually he became aware of his beating heart, the racing of the his pulse through the neck, the traces of faint mechanical sounds on his temples. A blunt headache crept in.

If you were confined in a sound-proof room, with the walls painted with tree silhouettes, with filtered light emanating from the corners, you would be standing and absorbing faint light soaked in silence with occasional interruption due the motion of your heart.

‘I have prayed for silence my whole life,’ he thought. ‘Is this it? Is this the silence that I have wanted which is at the end of space, far away from civilization and life, behind a comet tail, leaving the sun a million light years behind?’ Amazing! He had walked to achieve this moment and now there was nothing else to do.

The face of eternal time stared at him. It submerged him with an emotionless feeling. Then he started to run. His long running steps splashed the water, but his heavy boots failed to break the seamless silence. His destination was unknown, the journey itself was framed in a resonance of soundless music. But he stopped as suddenly as he had started. He did not know how much path he had covered, the silent traveling left only tired breathing, but he could not hear it. It was as if he were suspended in an airless medium. In his weariness he extended his hand for support and he touched a tree.

There was a gigantic tree in front of him, a banyan tree that looked a few thousand years old. It had a huge diameter, with hundreds of roots hanging from the branches going into the ground. The pale yellow moonlight fell on the green leaves making them black.

It was an empire. His tired mind conjectured a gigantic structure that pierced the sky, extending forever, its branches preventing the slightest trace of light from falling onto the ground below. But still a few dew drops trickled down onto his arms, a damp coldness flowed through the air gripping the branches in a wintry stillness. He expected the ground to crack open like an icy field, but it was just wet. There was a sudden rush of air as soon as he stepped inside the tree empire. Thousands of descending roots trembled, the leaves quivered, the ground moved. But that was just for a second, and then silence reclaimed the space and it was just as before. He stopped, he wanted to listen.

There was nothing except his heartbeat. He could not see the sky overhead. The darkness became intense. He moved towards the center of the empire. At the end of thousands of years of anonymity the Wisdom Tree waited.

When he reached the center his hand instinctively went forward and it touched the main trunk. He thought he sensed the tree quiver and he thought he felt the tree hesitate. But then he felt the electricity. Touched by an invisible, inexorable hand the tree burst into translucent light, its structure glittering in golden yellow that luminesced the ambient air. He felt the warmth of the light, it was not a hot sensation, but a smoothness that caressed his skin. The light did not blind him, it rippled through the tree like waves in the ocean, slowly and with hesitation as if the light wanted him to fathom its motion. The leaves fluttered in a ghostly, greenish halo that showered him with an incorporeal sense of existence. Astounded, he stood there. Afraid, he clutched his hands. He hoped for the fireworks to continue, but the silent spectacle stopped as suddenly as it had started. The tree withdrew after exhausting its energy. A vast and intense sadness engulfed him, he kneeled down to rest.

Light had sparkled on his stale unworthy life, he thought! On this night of a gibbous moon, all the solar light of summer, all the terrestrial energy, all his inner spirit emanated from this extraordinary tree. Thousands of years of accumulated energy, the minutely crafted soundless, but almost audible, quivering of chlorophyll floated above a consciousness. Consciousness – the Tree Consciousness? Had the tree sensed his presence? Did the tree want to communicate?

Was it possible that man had not set foot in this corner of the field for hundreds of years? Was it possible that the tree had waited a thousand years for somebody to deliver a message? Now that it had felt this man’s footsteps, this man’s heartbeat, this man’s laborious breathing, it was compelled to respond. It had sensed his presence and it had delivered. He could not fathom the mystery of its actions. Had the tree mistaken his silent movement for a cosmic signal? But the signal that he had brought from the outside world was mundane, it was not meant for the tree.

What was encrypted within that sudden burst of light? That he would never know. In the farthest limit of his consciousness, he felt a vague sensation of the tree spirit, but he could not decipher its language. He did not understand, he could not reciprocate. An immense pain overwhelmed him. Hundreds of years of accumulated energy exhausted itself, wasted itself. Whom was it meant for?

Engineer Shane paused. We sat silently. The darkness became deeper in our silence. After a few minutes Shane spoke again.

‘If I were not ignorant, I would have deciphered the meaning of the light. But like everybody else I didn’t try to understand the message of nature. And after living here for so many months, I have felt the consciousness of this Palace. This consciousness is like the roots of that Wisdom Tree on that big field. It is extending itself into the depth of the earth. Do you feel the shaking of the Palace? Do you know the reason for it? The Palace is becoming alive in the rain and its roots are clasping the ground with ever increasing force. Floods, earthquakes or fire cannot touch it. And then, one day, this palace will glow in light just like that Wisdom Tree, accumulating all the energy of the earth, its walls of concrete and stone, its wooden doors, its glassy windows will ignite.’

We were silent. We thought about those talented people who had created the Palace. What was their language? When did they leave this place?

We imagined them coming out of the Palace when the rain started. They did not leave behind anything by which we could identify them. To which distant shore would they have traveled where the floods could not touch them?”

4. The Warrior Magician

Today Engineer Riva talked about the city of Tura. To us Tura was mythical.

‘My story is quite short,’ she began, ‘some parts of this story are common knowledge, and the rest that only I know is now fading from my memory. Remember we were all children once. We lived a happy life in the Tura suburbia, tranquil days went by. I remember lazy summer days, soft white winters, joyous festivals.

‘We played on a big green field along a small river while on the far horizon the silhouettes of Tura’s skyscrapers formed a reassuring background. Once in a while a crescent moon appeared in the evening sky, and on the other side of the river the dimly lit passenger coaches of the suburban trains traveled to their mysterious destinations. The sun shone and our days went by without complication.

‘One evening, after one of those magical days, a man appeared among us as we played. He was wearing a long colorful robe embellished with quilted patches. I recall that we thought his face was spectacular, but I don’t remember why we thought so. Maybe the face bore an expression of a hidden soul that was both invulnerable and disturbed. We could not tell his age, his physiognomy exuded an intoxicating mixture of youth, adolescence and old age that was unreal. He thundered, “I am the Warrior Magician. There is nothing in this world that I don’t know, there is nothing that I cannot do. And to you children I will show fantastic magic that you will never forget.” We did not know what a warrior magician was. I still don’t know. With trembling eyes, we waited for that unexpected, extraordinary magic to take place.

‘But at first there was nothing extraordinary in his actions. He produced three ordinary flowers. He bellowed, ”Look here. They are here and then they are gone. Tell me, children! Where did they go?” It was a simple trick, and we could see where he was hiding the flowers. We children were very rude. We shouted, “There they are! Those red flowers are hidden in the sleeves of your coat.”

‘The magician’s face contorted. He was angry. He produced three feathers of a vivid blue color out of nowhere. He said, “Look here! They are here and then they are not. What happened to the feathers?” But we got braver. We cried out, “There they are! We see the feathers rising above your long hair. We can expose all the magic that you know.”

‘His face grew dark. He said that we children were incapable of understanding anything. We laughed, we mocked him. The magician said, “You children! Do you not want to live in the future?”

‘We were foolish children, we kept looking at him with eyes wide open, still laughing. It only made him angrier. He said, “So, let it happen then. Let the game begin. You foolish children! Do you want to see it?” A malevolent smile begin to crack his iron-hard face while his eyes expressed a subtle mixture of malice and sadness. But we were relentless, we cried, “Bring it on!” He pronounced, “Yes, if that is what you want.”

‘At that very moment, we froze in an unimaginable terror. Fear stopped our hearts. A prediction of ultimate destruction might have resonated in our minds. We were children, we did not know what it meant. We could only shout in unison, “Stop! Stop your magic!”

‘But it was too late!

‘The earth underneath shook in violent starts. We were thrown to the ground. The land divided itself in one place and the water in the river rose to sink all the canoes anchored to the pier. At the far horizon, the big city buildings crumbled in soundless slow motion. The entire city was devastated in a matter of seconds. We cried, looked back at the magician, but the Warrior was gone.

‘The next day the rain started.

‘Everybody thought that the devastation of Tura was the result of a gigantic earthquake. But we knew better. I don’t know what happened to the Warrior. But if anybody could survive it, I believe it would be he. I can almost hear his silent footsteps in the corridors of this Palace. I wait at the corner of every turn so that I am not caught unaware when his ancient face suddenly reappears.’

Riva fell silent. The rain was incessant outside the window, we all brooded in our silent melancholy. In our consciousness, unconscious nature became all consuming. A tree talking in the language of light, a magician summoning the tectonic forces, the rain and the palace – an eerie supernaturalism was carrying us through time, maybe to our demise. We looked for that unknown that could tie us to the meaning of it all. The design eluded us. We sat silently in the maelstrom of nature.”

5. The End of the Rain

The diary ended there, the rest of it was gone, the last pages possibly lost in the rising water. He put the diary down on the floor and went to stand by the window. The rain had ended many years ago. and a long autumn had followed.

Those three travelers of the past could not solve the mystery of the Palace, they did not have enough time, he thought. At the very end of the flood, this Palace might have been submerged under water. Now the water is gone. He had walked through the rooms of the ground floor where those three travelers wanted to be. He had passed through those rooms in the northern section which was filled with remains of the dead plants.

When the rain stopped the water went deep into the earth. Every day, as the water level fell, he followed the water as it descended into the lower levels of the Palace. Lower and lower, what was the mystery that was hidden there? He found the storage rooms comprising ten underground floors. And then one day, the water drained out from the last floor. There, at the very bottom of the palace, were the roots. With roots of various radii coming out of the walls and diving into the earth this Palace had anchored itself to the planet’s crust. Engineer Shane’s words had come to life: The Palace – just like that Wisdom Tree – has roots.

Plants have roots, the Wisdom Tree had roots and this Palace has roots now. The inert Palace had ignored brute nature for centuries, but in that tireless rain it had extended roots of iron ore into the earth to survive. These were not intangible roots of human existence. These were metallic roots that seemed to have turned organic. A few centuries of existence had given this Palace a life. Within the concrete floors, into the iron cylinders, the life force had seeped in and in time the roots had turned organic. The live roots anchored the building and its energy fortified its structure. Trillions and trillions of energy quanta were needed to withstand those incalculably unending rain drops throughout an entire decade.

The lifeless metal had trembled with insatiable thirst, had quaked in that barren ground soaked with rainwater. The Palace in its ancient dream had striven for life and the prehistoric wish was realized by means of its underground roots.

The following day snow started to fall. Soft white snow covered the trees all the way to the horizon. Winter had arrived.

Ultimately, the stars will die and there will be a death for this planet. There will be an end to the Palace and an end to these one thousand rooms. The rains ended many years ago and now the autumn has passed. The winter is descending with soft snow that will soon turn into hard ice. Ice will accumulate on every floor, within every room. There will be no life, otherwise ice would have grown within the heart. And now ice will pile up around those deep roots. The metal wanted life and life will bring its demise.

6. Ice

He has walked for many miles, maybe thousands. The snowstorms have battered his cloak, blinded his eyes, their icy wind has frozen his fingers. He has stumbled over ice banks. He has crossed giant glaciers that fill deep canyons, the glaciers advancing southwards. He has run against time, running always under a cloudy sky that hides the sun. An interminable white field stretches to the end of the world making him lose his bearings. But he knows his path traverses over an ancient route that lay buried a few thousand feet underneath. The route headed south.

And then one day that continuous stretch of whiteness was punctuated by a shiny spire which appeared above the white cover. It dazzled his eyes. When he arrived, he found it to be at mere human height. He touched it with hesitation. Maybe he expected something to happen, maybe he did not. But there was a profound sense of disappointment on his face. He was late. He touched his face with his icy fingers. Then the Magician headed south.

The rest of the Palace remained motionless underneath that shiny steeple, under a thousand feet of ice.

ps. A cold geologic period of the earth known as the Cryogenian lasted from 850 to 635 million years ago. During this period, Sturtian and Marinoan glaciations, the greatest of all ice ages, occurred. According to a number of geologists, the earth was completely covered by ice during those glacial times.

Dipen Bhattacharya

Dipen Bhattacharya

Dipen Bhattacharya was raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and now resides in Southern California. To date, he has published six works of fiction in Bengali: three novels and three short-story collections. The social dynamics of imagined future societies—interwoven with scientific principles—feature in his work, often set in Bengal. Dipen holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

2 Comments

  1. Wasi Ahmed

    Beautifully crafted. Well carried.

    Reply
    • Dipen Bhattacharya

      Thank you.

      Reply

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