In the Land of Maybe
by David Adès
In the land of Maybe, nestled between the mountains of Yes and the mountains of No, everything is possible, but nothing is certain. I know this, because I am here now, and have been here before.
It is a strange land, part welcoming, part forbidding: a mixture of temptation and danger. Nothing leads to where it goes. The roads wend and wind, turn and shift, and change their destinations. The city streets are crowded with magicians, travelling salesmen, fortune-tellers, shape-changers, faith-healers and lost souls, all peddling unreliable truths. Lunatics occupy street corners, gesticulating and sermonising to avid crowds. There are turrets of foreboding, and spas with healing waters, but both are reached through the same doors. Other doors lead both to salons of delight and catacombs of turmoil.
Doors are a prominent feature of the cities. Each door is constructed equally of the wood of hope and the wood of risk, and is ornately carved and painted into a thing of beauty. Markings on the doors indicate what lies behind them, but these cannot be trusted: a door with markings promising wonderful nourishment might lead to the room of gnawed bones. Some doors lead to the gardens of Who Knows Where, or the great halls of the guilds of Maybe: the Guild of Possibilities, the Guild of Dreams, the Guild of Circumstance and the Guild of Chance.
Visitors to the land of Maybe can bring their own weather, but should not stay too long lest they be unable to find their way out.
It is prudent for visitors to carry several currencies: one or other may be highly prized today and worthless tomorrow. It is wise also to beware the hands of pickpockets and the voices of the doubt merchants and the robbers of certainty, all of whom stalk the back alleys and can be encountered almost anywhere in the cities.
Visitors enter Maybe only upon signing a declaration acknowledging that they will be changed in unforeseeable ways by whatever they experience. Of course, Maybe specifically disclaims liability for any such changes.
The guilds of Maybe are powerful and secretive; their acolytes, people of few words. Entry to the guildhalls for non-initiates is only by invitation or summons. Invitations may be issued in response to entry applications, but this occurs only rarely. It is said that the great hall of each guild is a hall of mirrors, and that no two mirrors carry the same reflection. It is rumoured that some visitors have lost their minds standing before the mirrors of Destiny and Fate. Certainly, some who have entered the guilds of Maybe have remained behind their walls.
Hidden away from the cities, there are less fortunate visitors. To enter the land of Maybe, it is vital that all papers be in order. There are rules and regulations, border patrols and sniffer dogs. Everyone’s job is difficult because the borders are porous and undefined. It is never clear where the crossing-over points into the countries of Yes and No are located. But those who are found within what are believed to be the borders of Maybe, without papers in order, are kept away from the cities.
The majority of these people are the hope smugglers, or displaced refugees from the Warring Lands trying to find passage to the Protectorate of Safe Haven. They are placed in Out of Sight, Out of Mind camps with razor wire and boredom mattresses, and pay a daily humanity tax until distant, invisible authorities determine their fate. Invariably, they are kept too long in the Out of Sight, Out of Mind camps, and become increasingly tenuous, acquiring blurred and wraithlike features. Sometimes they disappear into mist and are never seen again. Compassion monitors are hidden throughout the land to ensure that levels don’t get too high, that the air does not become noxious, or heavy and thick with compassion. We legitimate visitors know, even without being told, that it is best to keep away from the Out of Sight, Out of Mind camps.
Mixing categories is not permitted, and if it were, little would change. The arch principle governing tourism in Maybe is the total preoccupation with matters of the self, and we are all devout adherents to that creed. The compassion monitors are silent, as activity is non-existent. I am here, of course, on my own business. On the other side of the mountains of Yes, is the Republic of Love. I am on the road to the Republic of Love, hoping to settle permanently, but visa application requirements brought me first to the land of Maybe.
I brought my weather with me — bright and sunny — and plan not to stay too long. The first days here were easy. There was much to explore. Since my last visit, everything had changed. I had a plush suite reserved in the Hotel Shangri-La, and reached it safely, though I passed through the lobby of indecision. My room overlooked the teeming streets of May, one of the two capitals of Maybe. I thought I would spend a week or more in May while my visa application was being processed, and then one or two days here in Be — where the visa must be collected — before crossing the mountains into Yes.
The streets of May were in festive mode when I arrived, festooned with flags and heraldic signs, criss-crossed with fairy lights and decorative bright coloured blinking eyes. See me, see me, see me, they seemed to be saying, though this was a matter of interpretation, and could just as easily have been understood as Watching you, watching you, watching you.
Not surprisingly, the Shangri-La did not have serendipity pie on the menu. Though the pie is fabled in Maybe, and eagerly sought, it is almost impossible to find. Rumour has it that the authorities do not wish to allow access to this delicacy at all, that it leads too quickly to departures to the land of Yes.
The whisper trails are said to point to nameless black marketeers as the only source. Maybe is rife with rumour and whisper trails, and it is best not to listen to such murmurings, though they are sometimes transmitted subliminally in flashing neon signs, rotating billboards, and the muzak piped through hotels and boarding houses.
On the day of my arrival in May, the lure of the quest quickly drew me outside, into those pitted and cobbled streets, even though I was jacketless and a cold wind was rippling and flapping the flags. I am sometimes lax with detail, and had forgotten to bring a warm breeze with my bright and sunny day.
If you forget a detail, Maybe automatically provides, according to its own capricious nature. One of the rules of Maybe is that the weather you bring is irrevocable for one day. You are permitted to wake up the next day and bring different weather. I made a mental note to ensure that the next day would be bright, sunny, and tempered by a fragrant warm breeze. I am a bit lax with mental notes as well, which is problematic in Maybe: it is never clear what price will be exacted for such laxity until the price is imposed, so it is best to be alert and organised.
Ah, serendipity pie. The taste is supposedly different to every mouth. As with everything else in the land of Maybe, there is a risk involved in eating serendipity pie. No-one knows the exact statistic, but perhaps one in a thousand pies is poisonous and fatal to the consumer. For the others, a small portion of pie is rated as the most satisfying and pleasurable of all experiences, and consequently defies description.
It is tacitly understood throughout Maybe that descriptions of the taste and effect of serendipity pie will neither be sought nor proffered. This understanding arose after a series of violent disputes over the nature of the taste led to riots which devastated several blocks in the city of Be.
Nor can serendipity pie be found at any prescribed location. The trick is in the nose. Some noses are naturally able to track the scent of the pie, even though the scent is different to each nose. Both instinct and skill are required, as well as this natural talent. No visitor to Maybe can know in advance whether he will have the required faculties and luck to find the pie. Visitors simply have to engage all their senses and instincts at a suitable moment, and then follow them to wherever they might lead. Many visitors leave disappointed, having found no hint of this pie and often sceptical of its existence.
Outside the Shangri-La my nose, sniffing and twitching, identified traces of familiar and unfamiliar scents and pointed me forward. I began my search, wending and weaving my way through the streets, mindful of dangers and pitfalls.
That first day, I kept to the main thoroughfares notwithstanding several aromatic tugs exerted by emanations from shadowy side streets. I didn’t venture far, planning to expand my quest incrementally each day by a systematic exploration of the streets and blocks immediately beyond those previously investigated.
I had time for caution in the first instance, while I acquired some sense of the layout of the city by walking its indefinite streets, some intuitive feel for where the greatest dangers may lie. Constructing a mental map also gave me a chance to approach the areas of greatest temptation from different angles, to try and get a fix on the likely location of the pie, and how it might best be reached without straying too far from the safer streets.
It was not long before I began to feel that I was being followed, a feeling that stubbornly persisted and grew despite the absence of any visible evidence to justify it. This was the work of the doubt merchants who asked me questions incessantly, though I did not stop either to listen or to speak to them.
Even though I knew that the more time I spent in Maybe, the more I would be pursued by my own doubts, and that the doubt merchants were merely activating agents, the sense of discomfort grew. It became harder to maintain that initial weather pattern but I was determined to keep the clouds at bay as long as possible. I gathered my will, my desire, and the strengthening scent of serendipity pie as shields against doubt.
I spent ten days in the City of May following my nose, to no avail. By the end, I was tired, anxious and a little disappointed, but also filled with the strange exhilaration that always accompanies such a quest. I returned to the Shangri-La, packed my things, and left May to come to Be where the final paperwork for my visa application to Yes was being processed.
The visa was not assured — nothing in Maybe is assured — and I had to confront the prospect that if it was not forthcoming, I could not reach the Republic of Love and would have to return to the land of No, or worse perhaps, continue on to the sand-blown deserts of Never. Despite my efforts to avoid it, the fears that came with such thoughts each day seeped more and more into my weather.
Be is a much more sombre city than May. It has a particular brooding weather, which is an amalgam of all the weathers brought to it by tourists and which overwhelms their individual weathers. Though all the embassies are located in Be, and the guilds are well established, the crowded streets have none of the festivity of May.
There is an oppressive sense that everyone in the city is waiting for something. This is particularly manifest amongst visitors, almost all of whom are in Be by necessity rather than choice. But it applies also to the local population. The city is a magnet for gamblers and risk-takers and the air almost throbs with their taut expectancy.
Tourists sometimes try to distract themselves with tours to the Oracle, or the Last Chance Casino, but the sensible give these places a wide berth. Unsurprisingly, the city swarms with doubt merchants who ply their trade in every open space with a wearying relentlessness. A few visitors are thwarted from the streets for a time as a result, but the lure of serendipity pie usually overcomes their reticence, and the doubt merchants, though numerous, have no shortage of business.
I arrived here in Be a few hours ago. The sky was full of low, dark, scudding clouds and the air itself seemed to be shivering. As soon as I had found myself a place to stay — a small room in the Be Lucky Inn on Dreams End Lane, not far from the embassy of Yes — I contacted the embassy to advise of my whereabouts and to ascertain the status of my visa application. I was told that the application was still being processed but given no information about how long that might take.
The Be Lucky Inn is predictably full of people awaiting visas. There is hope and tension on their faces, and the shadows of panic in the eyes of some who have been kept waiting longer than their trembling constitutions can readily tolerate. There is no easy camaraderie under such conditions: at any moment news may arrive that might equally lead to joy or to despair. By convention, both responses are kept as private as possible. The moment a supplicant receives news of the outcome of his visa application, arrangements are made for a quick and discrete departure. The air is full of sidelong glances at the faces of the departing which invariably reveal everything though words are never spoken.
Time passes slowly here. I had hoped that my visa would have been issued by now, and planned my arrival accordingly, with a view to staying for as short a time as possible. I do not know how long I might have to wait, and do not wish to wait in the Be Lucky Inn, either among these anxious people or sequestered in my room.
I will sleep in my room, no doubt a broken and restless sleep, and spend my day — or my days or weeks — on the streets of Be following the uncertain paths identified by my nose. I will wait to see whether any path leads me to a taste of serendipity pie; or whether my application for a visa is approved and I can proceed into the mountains of Yes, and after that, pick my way through the maze of mountain paths until I find myself, eventually, at the approaches to the Republic of Love.
* * *
What have you heard about the Republic of Love? Whatever you have heard, it likely isn’t true. Is it another country at all, or is it an enclave, here, in the land of Maybe?
Rumour has it that life is just as uncertain there too, that even there the doubt merchants proliferate and the doors, though unmarked and entirely ordinary, do not necessarily open into expected rooms. I have heard whispers of mazes without end, dungeons of grief, rivers of betrayal, pits strewn with broken hearts. Whispers too, of contentment, of more serendipity pie than it is safe to eat. I must find out for myself. I must know.
Copyright © 2012 by David Adès