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Like so many nature-based, instinctual urges, the labyrinth had a pagan birth, and then, as so often happens, it was co-opted by the Christians, who acted as if it had been their idea all along – until they got rid of it because it was too pagan. In the Middle Ages, Gothic cathedrals routinely sported labyrinths, laid out in the floors, for purposes of spiritual meditation. The winding, looping path represented the perplexities of Christian life, they would say, or perhaps the entanglements of sin. That kind of self-serving, overanalytical horseshit aside, people just liked it, the simple, focused concentration of the inward path (look up and you might get dizzy, might lose your way); the vitalizing force and accomplishment of the center; the anticipated freedom, the gathering energy of the outward path – the return to life, or worship. Christians would even journey to the cathedral to walk its labyrinth as a substitute for the much more demanding and costly pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The oldest known labyrinth was constructed some four thousand years ago in northern Egypt. It was a popular motif in Greek and Roman mythology, most famously in the story of Daedalus, who before he designed the fateful melting wings for his son Icarus was the architect of a marvelous and deadly labyrinth for the Minotaur. In any case, labyrinth designs are also found in ancient mosaics on walls in Greece, Italy and Austria, and on ancient seals and plaques. Probably the most well-known examples of the form are the garden-hedge labyrinths of the United Kingdom, which originate in the same Celtic pagan traditions as Stonehenge and the winding, spiraling patterns in Celtic jewelry and symbols.
The labyrinth found in Chartres Cathedral is the last surviving example of a medieval cathedral labyrinth in the world. When the Reformation came around in the sixteenth century, and some pope decided there had to be something sacrilegious about something that people enjoyed so much, and so he did away with them. (In fact, it’s a wonder that Chartres managed to hang onto theirs.)
“There. You sorry you asked?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Gabriella (obligated by the question to be, at the least, ironical). “It might well be true, but I’m a polite person, so I wouldn’t say that.”
Before she could drift into facetiousness, I cut her off with another quick factoid. “The very cool thing about the Chartres labyrinth, by the way, is that, if you unwound the pathway into a straight line, it would be the exact same length as the cathedral itself.”
“Okay,” she said. “You get brownie points for that one.”
“And there’s actually a replica of the exact same labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. If I would have known, we could have walked it while we were there.”
“Honeydarlin’,” drawled Gabriella, going suddenly all Blanche Dubois on me. “‘Bout the last thing you needed on that trip was to get yourself more lost than you already was.”
“Point taken,” said I.
We were seated at a table in the dreaded buffet area of the Suquamish Casino, picking over slices of meatloaf that seemed, frankly, more loaf than meat, held together by some kind of mud-colored epoxy gravy. It was Thursday night, Gabriella’s first night off in a long while, and I suppose her instinct had been to get as far away as possible from the world of fine arts, or good taste. Thursday was Chief Seattle Bingo Night at the Suquamish, and the cavernous cafeteria-style hall next door was filling up with bitter, anxious, chain-smoking Bingo-istas as a squat, cowboy-hatted fireplug of a guitarist crooned Elvis and Sinatra in that clipped, vaguely inquisitive accent of the Northwest aborigine: I did it my way? Lay offa my blue suede shoes? Little sister don’t you do like your big sister done? That’s why the lady is a tramp? (I, meanwhile, was beginning to develop a theory about the heretofore unknown journeys of ancient Hebraic tribes across the Aleutian ice bridge.)
“Gabriella. Why are we here?”
“To bring peace to the world? To help our neighbors?”
“No! Here! At the casino.”
Gabriella broke into a scrunch-mouthed laugh. “I have no idea. Nostalgia? Cheap food?”
“Food poisoning, more like it. And you a week away from playing Madama Floria.”
Gabriella ducked her head under her hands and moaned. “Oh God! Billy, I’m playing Tosca! I can’t play Tosca!”
“Perche no, signorina?”
“Tosca is big, Billy!”
“So have some more meatloaf.”
“I don’t mean viking-big, Billy. I mean personality-big, charisma-big. She’s a star, a heroine, she’s powerful, and magnificent.”
I let the complaint sit for a minute. “If you’re fishing for compliments, honey, you’re gonna have to start taking me to nicer places.”
Gabriella picked up her knife like a fishing rod and cast a line my way, making reeling motions with her free hand. “Bite the worm, baby! Mama needs a brand new ego.”
“Okay. I am your mackerel love-slave halibut groupie. Grouper. And yes, you can play Tosca. You’ll be fine. If you find yourself getting lost in the acting, just sing the way you sing, and everything will swing.”
“Thank you, Sammy.”
“Hey. I’m in a casino. Besides, I’m right. You have a huge voice, young lady. Let it be your evening gown.”
“Okay. Compliment taken, and approved. Can I take the hook out now?”
“Yeah. And have you had enough of this joint yet? Can we blow, cat?”
“Sure.” Gabriella stood and gathered up her jacket and purse (one of those black leather Pony Express mail pouch things). “Oh,” she said. “One thing, though. I want you to gamble.”
“Before we leave, I want to see you lay some money down.”
“I told you before, Gabi, I’m just not into it.”
Gabriella wheedled a finger up the buttons of my shirt, accompanied by a Rosina-like pouting of the lips. “Aw c’mon, Billy. Just once? For me?”
“Hmmm... after that little act, how could I say no?”
We waltzed past the video poker games and up to the first blackjack table, where the dealer was siphoning cash from a crusty old plaid-shirted lumberjack who made Maestro look like Dick Clark. I tossed down for a single five-dollar chip, laid it on the lawn, and received a first draw of the ace of clubs and ten of spades. The dealer gave my lone chip some company; I gathered up my winnings, thanked the dealer for his time and headed off to the cashier’s booth.
“What are you doing?” called Gabriella, trailing behind.
“Hi. Cash me out, please. Thanks.” I took my twelve-fifty and raised it for Gabriella’s inspection. “The secret to good gambling, Madama Tosca, is in quitting while you’re ahead.”
“Unfair!” she protested. “Absolutely unfair.”
I was already gone, pocketing my loot and crossing into the bingo hall where Tom Mukilteo Jones was singing, “When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year?” Gabriella caught me at the front entrance, where she delivered a series of not entirely unpleasant fist-thumpings to my back.
“Ah,” I sighed. “A little... to the right.”
* * *
I was about to receive my nightly coronation, a solid Yankee hug followed by Continental kisses on either cheek, when Gabriella spotted something over my shoulder and let out a Sicilian gasp. She left my embrace and raced onto Maestro’s deck.
“Omigod, Billy! Somebody messed it up! It’s all... different, or... something.”
“It is different,” I said, coming up from behind, surveying my personal battlefield. “I got bored with Chartres, so I tried something else.”
“But what about Maestro?”
“Oh, I’ll have Il Professore’s cathedral back before opening night, but I wanted this one for myself.”
Gabriella located the entrance and began to pace the organic-looking loops marked off by my glowing pods of white, her red hair bobbing as she walked. Under a clear sky and a half moon, she had no problem following. I stepped in behind her, losing ground as I narrated the labyrinth’s pedigree.
“It’s based on a turf labyrinth on Rockcliffe Marsh in Cumbria, England – the path is the turf itself, marked off by dirt borders. The labyrinth itself no longer exists, but someone took down the design in the late 19th century, when it was still visible. There’s a marvelous numerical quality to it: it’s got five coils wrapped around each side, and eight coils vertically from the center. Five and eight is a common labyrinth combination. The most common is seven, which represents the seven heavenly bodies observed in pagan tradition – but not in this one. Three is important, too; you have to walk a three-coil heart-shaped spiral before oscillating three times backwards and forwards over the center.”
I paused and looked up to check Gabriella’s progress. She was just past the midway point, passing next to the center before the last series of switchbacks, and completely entranced, watching her feet carefully as she made her way inward. I set myself back to my own path and continued the story.
“The name of the labyrinth is The Walls of Troy. Troy seemed to be a common theme among British labyrinths. Troy Town, The City of Troy – stuff like that. This particular pattern suited Maestro’s deck just about perfectly, twenty-four by twenty-six, pathways about eight to nine inches across.” I stopped a moment to study the half-moon, felt dizzy, had to find my shoetops again in order to regain my momentum. “This type of labyrinth is frequently found in Scandinavian countries, where it’s connected to the attached spirits of the dead. I’m not sure, but I think an attached spirit is sort of what we would call a ghost, a lost soul with unfinished business who hangs around haunting mansions and such. It was believed that these Scandinavian spirits could travel only in straight lines, so if you could get one of them into the labyrinth they would be unable to get... back out.”
Such was the end of my labyrinthine story, and my real point – a closet confession that I had been reduced to practicing Scandinavian Celtic pagan voodoo where most reasonable people would have simply hired themselves a psychotherapist. My admission made no obvious mark on Gabriella, who was too wound up in her looping stroll to notice. Besides, she had succeeded in achieving the center, and marked her victory with a fervent double-booted stomp to the deck. She turned my way and grinned, our eyes locked in a strangely piercing volley of dark light through the water-laced air. Then she turned away, craning her gaze to the big white sans serif capital D of a moon, opened her arms to the heavens and set loose her voice. It was “Non la sospiri,” her persuasive pastorale to the painter Cavaradossi from Act I (“Don’t you sigh for our little house, waiting for us, hidden among the trees?”), and it covered the silvered green of Cape Umbra in a snowfall of sound.
And I, I had that feeling again. Built-up music inside my body, my heart racing, the muscles in my arms twitching, pressure building up behind my sinuses, my temple. Before I knew what was happening, my legs took over, running me off toward the water, my breath coming out in ragged spurts, my feet scuffing a chunk of quartz right off the deck. I found myself kneeling on the belvedere (always the belvedere), drawing myself down until my forehead met the rough, moist grain of the planking. Once I made contact, it was like twisting a valve – the water poured from my eyes, a steady stream flushing out the pressure from my head and stopping the music, all at once.
A few seconds more and I could feel Gabriella’s hands along my back, coaxing out the tears. When I could finally raise my head and sit back on my haunches, I opened my eyes to the sight of a moontrail, paving the water in slippery white cobblestones all the way from Seattle. Gabriella knelt behind me and wrapped her arms around my neck, placing her chin on the top of my head.
“That wasn’t so bad as last time, was it?”
“No,” I coughed, my voice still scratchy from flight. I listened until I could hear the animal sounds of water lapping against the rocks below us, then cleared my throat. “Did I ever tell you, Gabriella... that you have my mother’s voice?”
“No,” she whispered, her jaws moving against my hair. “But I sort of wondered about that.”
“Yes. You do. I didn’t realize it until I told you her story. But you do.”
I took a deep breath and rubbed my eyes, clearing them out till I regained my focus and could see a tall buoy in the center of the moontrail. The glare of the light behind it gave it an unsteady, kinetic silhouette, its edges fading in and out as though it were about to be sucked into some parallel universe. “When I was young,” I said, “eight years old, I think, my mother and I were sitting next to some lake in upstate New York, out on the edge of a pier. There was a fierce full moon coating half the lake in moontrail, and my mother told me.… She said that the moontrail was actually made of milk – a special kind of milk. It was magic healing milk, produced by a rare species of underwater jersey cow that populated that region. And these aquacows, as the locals called them, would only produce their special healing milk at night, and only when the moon was out. And why was that? I asked her, and she said, ‘Why Billy, because they have a strong union.’”
I had to pause as Gabriella tried unsuccessfully to fight back her laughter. Although I did enjoy hearing her laugh. She signalled me to go on by lifting her head and running both hands through my hair.
“So, as you can imagine, to milk these aquacows directly would take some doing, what with the cost of the scuba gear, pipelines, water-resistant alfalfa, et cetera. What the local dairy farmers had discovered, however, was that aquacow milk, much like oil, would not mix with the water at all, but rather would settle on top of the water in long, shiny trails, after which the farmers would come by in their boats and skim it off into their tanks.
“‘So how come this special milk isn’t available at the supermarket?’ I asked, to which my mother replied that the dairy farmers were very protective of their simple and natural way of life, and they feared that if they sold the milk to outsiders, big mega-milk corporations would come and build ugly offshore milk-harvesting platforms all over their beautiful lake. Even so, she said that she had once ventured out into the moontrail herself to scoop up some of the magic healing milk, and that she kept it in a secret place inside our house, and brought it out only when I or my brother were sick.”
“Did it work?” asked Gabriella.
“Sure did. From what my father told me years later, whenever one of us was sick, my mother would heat up some milk and then drop in a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a splash of blue food dye. Dad said it had a remarkably positive effect on our recovery times.”
Gabriella scooted in front of me and sat down Indian-style, resting her chin against her hands. “Okay, so I can probably guess this, but did you ask your mom about moontrails in the ocean?”
“Of course. I was a very thorough little kid. She said that was salt-water milk, completely indigestible to humans. But the whales love it.”
I could see Gabriella’s smile grow, a slim crescent in the moonshadow of her face. “Your mother was one hell of a storyteller.”
“Yes,” I whispered, and felt the tears sneaking back up again. Gabriella unwound the scarf from around her neck and handed it to me. I looked at her, puzzled.
“Go ahead,” she said. “That’s what dry cleaners are for.”
“Thanks,” I whispered. I cleaned up my eyes and face and snuffled my nose into the scarf’s silken recesses. “Do you know, in Celtic tradition, the center of the labyrinth is believed to be the meeting place of heaven and earth.”
“That’s what it felt like,” said Gabriella. “That’s why I was singing.”
She stretched herself out on the deck and settled her head into my lap. I stroked her cinnamon hair and watched the moonmilk waiting for harvest on the water. A fishing boat chugged by, sending out wakes of dairy white. Gabriella closed her eyes and began to hum something, and I realized it was the duet from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda,” “La luna discesa nel mar.” The moon descends into the sea. Perfect.
“Apropos of nothing, Guglielmo,” said Gabriella, her eyes still closed. “What the heck are you going to live on now that, you know... now that the money’s gone?”
“Oh, I’ll be okay.”
“Well, what did you used to do? I mean, for a living?”
“I was an umpire.”
“Billy! That was your brother.”
“No, really. I actually was an umpire, although I wasn’t very good. I lasted only a couple of years. Before that, I was in business. I made a lot of money.”
“What kind of business?”
“Oh, financial stuff. Nothing very interesting.”
“So you retired early?”
“Yes. I retired early. And it’s about time for a certain young diva to retire early, also. You don’t want to ruin your throat, this close to opening night.”
I pulled Gabriella to her feet and walked her to Maestro’s kitchen door along the jumbled pathways of my own making. Before returning to my cottage, I found the rock I had misplaced during my mindless dash, used a hose to wash the mud from its crystal white flanks, then restored its designated place along The Walls of Troy.
Photo by MJV