On the morning of December the 30th, 2006, I received the following unexpected correspondence:
Dear Ms. or Mr. MacHail,
I’m sorry I don’t know your correct form of address. My name is Otto Visser; I am 96 years old, and I have been a stenographer, an engineer, and also a soldier. Among my personal effects I have found recordings I set down in October of 1944, at Aachen, Germany. These records tell a most peculiar history.
I get ahead of myself. Allow me to back up; I am given to understand that you are a mutual acquaintance of Ms. Leah Stolten, and it was she who recommended I contact you. She remembered you as a distant relative of a certain Silvia Rubicon, whom the aforementioned documents detail. If this is not true, then you may disregard this letter at your discretion.
I was once under an obligation of secrecy on this matter, but I believe it has certainly expired, or on the other hand, soon I will expire! So I will throw caution to the winds to tell you everything.
In October of 1944, I was requested by a certain Cornish professor who was an academic acquaintance of mine to do some stenography for a secret office of the war department. I readily agreed; my post was in constant threat of bombardment by German artillery, so I was happy to get a little further from the front.
I was tasked to record a series of interviews of three persons. The subjects were under hypnosis. I was not to repeat any of what I learned. I was warned that the interview subject would be strange and that I should not be allowed to ask any questions. I’m not sure what sort of stenographer they thought I was; what kind of stenographer asks questions? Yet indeed, I did have many questions, and some I wished very urgently to ask.
As the interviews progressed, I found myself increasingly alarmed and unsettled by what I heard and transcribed. I was able to continue the work only by convincing myself that the story must surely be fiction. And yet, despite the battle of Aachen ongoing, and sometimes interrupting us, I was unable to pull myself away. I became entranced. Perhaps because of the hypnotism.
After the interviews, the subjects and the interviewer all went away to the front. They left me with the transcripts and orders to send them to a Dr. Thomas Wingman Ridgbrook at the College of All Souls, in Oxford. But there was a problem: no such person exists, or ever did exist. My inquiries with the war department were fruitless. I was never able to determine who to send the documents to, but neither was I able to convince myself to destroy them. I never spoke of it for the longest time. At last, I began to suspect that not only the characters I had heard described, but even the ones I could remember meeting, were a fiction. Finally, I began to relate parts of the interviews to confidants, and eventually even at parties. Our mutual acquaintance Ms. Stolten heard of it, and, to my shock, answered me by repeating one of your stories describing Sylvia Rubicon, of the same name and description! Could it be we spoke of the same person?
After all these years, I think I had better go to my rest without ever knowing if this story is true. It would only haunt me in these last, peaceful days. I would like for it not to be true, and that is what I will go on believing.
I submit to you my original transcriptions. I have no further need of them. They are yours. Do what you would like with them.
I have had my own strange encounters with a person by the name of Sylvia Rubicon, and in examining the documents sent by Mr. Visser, I rapidly concluded that the Sylvia I had known and the Sylvia described in them could only be the same. So strong was my conviction that I bought an airplane ticket to visit Mr. Visser at his return address in Holland before I remembered to ask him if he would welcome my visit.
He reluctantly agreed. I flew to Brussels and traveled by train to Roermond, which is a small town not so very far from the Aachen he mentioned in his letter. There I implored Mr. Visser to provide me with a description of his interviews. I was not disappointed; the 96-year-old stenographer had his own storytelling flair! Here is his account of sitting down to record the first interview:
We met in the drawing room of a house with no roof. I remember it very well.
Empty bullet holes from some heavy gun had painted pale eyes in the drawing room wallpaper, bleeding plaster dust from the brick behind so they seemed to cry. By a minor miracle, the march of bullet damage skipped over a cuckoo clock, and that device’s ticking played counterpoint to the rattle of rain against the more intact windows than any of us had seen lately.
My acquaintance, the Cornish professor, was a small woman with a fastidious manner, a dozen scars in her tweed jacket and a mop of white hair. I cannot remember her name. She liked to adjust her glasses and also to glance at me. I paid her no mind. When the paper had been rolled into place, and I was properly comfortable on the couch, I signaled that I was ready.
I will describe the room’s third and final occupant:
He sat cross-legged on the plaster-strewn floor, dressed in simple grey trousers and a white undershirt stained with dust. Deep set eyes waited shut under heavy eyebrows. He let his wrists on his knees like he was doing yoga. The olive dark of his skin was interrupted by many white scars like thorns and stars. Something in the angles of his hard body, of his cheekbones, elbows and knees, seemed like a well-used knife: finely honed, but resting in its sheath.
The buzzing of an aircraft engine put us on edge. Occasional bombs shook a little dust from the boards of the ceiling, but they weren’t close. A pigeon, hidden in the rafters, would not shut up.
My friend cleared her throat. “Would you say your name for the record?”
“Marcus Augustus Summanus,” answered the man on the floor.
“Your real name, please.”
“What? Oh, Mark Simmons if you must.”
“Somewhere in my twenties I think, but I never knew for sure.”
“Where are you from?”
“Nowhere in particular.”
“You were born somewhere.”
“I was born in Rome, Georgia, but only because my mother wanted me to be an American. I wasn’t there more than a month.”
“Perhaps it would be best if we start in Chicago, 1935, on the day you met.”
“That’s not where the story starts.”
“But it is where your part started.”
“Is it?” He frowned. “Regardless, it is not my story. Write that down. This isn’t my story. I just survived it. If it were up to me, you’d be hearing this from her.”
My friend was annoyed by this. “So noted,” she said. “But you’re here, and you’re telling it. So, in the interest of clarity, tell it as you experienced it. Let us learn what you learned, in the way that you learned it. Avoid jumping around. We will attempt to construct the rest of the story later. For now, I want to record your experience as precisely as we are able.”
The man on the floor scrubbed his chin where a stubble looked like a dark sandpaper. “That will be very precise. I am advantaged in that.”
“Alright,” he said. “You have enough paper?”
We looked into the box full of rolls for the stenotype, then at each-other. Not knowing how long the interviews would go, I had brought all I owned.
“We have more paper than time. It must be enough,” she confirmed.
“Then I am ready.”
The professor uncurled a pendulum and let it hang from one hand. A gentle motion set it to swaying counterpoint to the clock against the wall.
“Focus here. Breathe naturally. Let your mind relax.”
He seemed to find this funny, but he opened his eyes to do as she asked. There was something wrong with his eyes, or maybe something wrong about his eyes. The irises were grey, but unnaturally so as if they lost their pigment in some uncommon disease. But he was not blind. He could see the pendulum.
An anti-aircraft gun began shooting, and I wondered if it would upset the hypnotism, but it was very far.
“You’re in your home,” the hypnotist droned, “waking up from a nap.”
“I had no home then. Just a room I slept in.”
“You’re in your room. You’ll meet her soon. Describe the room.”
“It’s under the rail overpass, three stories high here. I’m on the second story, with a big window looking out into that steel cave.” There was something like a storm in his eyes as he spoke. “Bottles rattle against each other as a train passes three meters over my head. You need these kinds of details?”
“Don’t worry. Describe what you feel.”
“A cold wind presses in a broken windowpane, touching my bare chest. I’m eating mayonnaise on a heel of old bread. It’s all I have. There’s no work. I think maybe I’ll go to the soup line tomorrow. I have a bed, some clothes, and a little table by the window with my mother’s type-writer on it. Running water in the bathroom. Not much, but better than the homeless who squat under the overpass.”
“Breathe naturally. You’ll meet her very soon. In your own words, describe the typewriter.”
“Keys in Ge’ez, a language from the horn of Africa. My mother’s language. My father made it. I doubt another exists anywhere. Gone now. Them. It. All long gone. I don’t write with it. I never have. Black keys are the only clean thing in the room.”
“How do you feel?”
“Cold. Alone. Hungry. Empty.”
The interviewer was satisfied. She pocketed her pendulum and leaned forward. She seemed eager.
“You’ll meet her now.”
The man on the floor didn’t notice the movement. His eyes, focused far away, widened with surprise. Wrinkles erupted beside them, but he didn’t blink.
“A gunshot outside my window.”
And that was how it started.
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview described in this correspondence. It follows the narrator, Mr. Mark Simmons aka Marcus Augustus Summanus, in his first encounter with that most unusual Rubicon family, how he followed them to Siam, and how he there became involved in troubles and unseemly business. I have removed all references to the interviewer (there were hardly any to begin with) and any interruptions for air raids and other distractions, but I have preserved the words of the narrator. This is the story as he told it.
As to my own encounters with the characters described, I will produce accounts of them by and by.