Under the Sign of the Labyrinth (excerpt) — Christina Tudor-Sideri

The secret language of customs and superstitions surrounding funeral processions has always fascinated me. In some parts of Romania, coffins and tombs have rather intricate designs, and are often adorned with popular motifs such as flowers, trees, animals, or geometrical patterns. The symbol that most enthralled me was the one called the thread of life or the path of life. Drawing their inspiration from the representation of the labyrinth and the myth of eternal return, people carved three parallel lines on the margins of a coffin, lines joined at their ends by a diagonal weaving of intersecting paths so that our dead can eternally have a way of returning back to life. I have come across this symbol in many Eastern European and Mediterranean cultures, in various representations and with diverse meanings. Some of the elders said that the complexity of the design is in fact not meant to help the dead return to the world of the living, but keep them in the underworld. When she told me tales about the labyrinth, my grandmother spoke of the seen and unseen harmony of the world and how people can discover God when going through its trials aware of the three paths charted for us. “Sin resides at the center of the world, and so does God,” she used to say. For me, the labyrinth was this odd spiral I never knew how to draw.

Today is my birthday. I am old enough to tell myself I no longer desire any gifts. Yet as I was walking along the shore this morning, I came across twenty or so vertebrae in the sand and I decided to take them with me. I spent half a day interlocking the bones back together to form an incomplete spinal puzzle. A gift from the sea that I will forget here four months from now when I will return home. The hotel I am living in overlooks the Mediterranean and, for a couple of hours, the sun makes it seem like there are millions of tiny fairies dancing on its lustrous surface. Alas, the light hurts my eyes, so I pull the sheets over my head and let the murmur of waves guide my senses through the paraphernalia of memories I crave to bring to the surface. Shards of myth cleave my consciousness like swords through the body of the Minotaur. I quench my fragmentary and chaotic thirst for the beastly and the humane with the overly anatomized ruins of tales about to be born. As I penetrate the labyrinth, touching the wall with my fingers, its outside becomes the silk fabric entombing my body—I become the pulsating core of the labyrinth inasmuch as it becomes the fabric shrouding me in my journey towards the center. I descend into the darkness of my being, I retreat from the world into the cavernous depths of memories that have blended with my viscera. In the dark, my mind dwells on the creature residing within—the monstrous I and the shadows it projects. Just like no true labyrinth exists without its center, no descent into inner darkness is possible without confronting the creature that guards its core. My body moves and the swooshing of the sheets makes the whole process resemble that of writing—with eyes closed, I sink into my being and let my hands write on whatever surface they can find. Hidden deep within the rhythm of my gasps, the fragment breaks through the spaces I write myself in and out of. The fragment, often labeled a disease of language, always casting a mesmerizing gaze upon the mythology of the self. But today myth hides the meaning of what my core is telling me with the same fervor with which it breathes it upon the page. And thus, with eyes closed, I dig my fingernails into the contaminated soil of reality yet again. I dig my fingernails into the floor of the forest and the bed of the sea in search of carnal-scented roots to weave into my very own spool of thread.

When she told me tales about the labyrinth, my grandmother spoke of the seen and unseen harmony of the world and how people can discover God when going through its trials aware of the three paths charted for us.

The monotonous crunching of streetcars outside my window is heavy with the revelation of miracles engulfed in heat. It speaks of memory lapses and obsessive repetition of ontological motifs. Being and nonbeing, blending together so masterfully that death becomes the art of living and life a corpse outside of time. The absurd becomes the aesthetic norm governing a body existing and being erased simultaneously in the contradiction of the real and the illusory. A perfume bottle falls from the nightstand and my labyrinthine pursuit is already behind me. I’ve always believed that enclosed spaces and small containers make for perfectly sterile mediums in which to cut time without injuring the self. Hotel beds under white silk, armoires full of summer dresses and ribbons from the past, pockets full of sand, the alcoves of lost city gardens, perfume bottles. The oppressively humid air makes me think of cenotaphs and plundered graveyards. The deadness of the dead, the chaos to which we return time and time again, and how it becomes a space of subjectivity and individualized phenomenological degradation, a space in which we wander boundlessly through a constellation of tiny deaths unrolling the spool of thread that is supposed to help us journey back to the surface with repetitive gestures we no longer recognize as our own. When the mind collapses, bedlam enshrouds the body.

The weather is unpredictable here. I have never heard such a powerful wind nor have I ever needed its healing presence more than I do in this moment, a moment that will most likely get lost in my notebooks or washed off my arms by the sea tomorrow morning. The smell of frankincense follows me everywhere. An obsolete and insufficient reality that poses the problem of erasure under a different name. I sense it and certitude becomes a sin unto thought. For when you have thoughts, you know that asserting something with utmost certainty is a mere world of surfaces—the genealogy of transforming all that is bursting with matter into void and vice versa. And thus you pronounce yourself in favor of anonymous depths. I no longer care about following the path back from the center. Perhaps I never did, not to the extent to which I was told I have to. This too shall be freeing. I leaf incessantly through books bought from gift-shops and hotel lobbies, as if searching for something, although I have already read them and I know that their pages have nothing to offer. Nonetheless, I do not know how to stop my hands from frantically searching—they have outdistanced my mind a thousandfold. I think of past connections and whether the inner journeys of the people I once knew have ever truly intersected with my own. Have their trials brought them face-to-face with their Minotaur or are their labyrinths guarded by the same creature as my labyrinth? I do not remember enough mythology to know if such a thing was ever encountered, but the psychological and philosophical scraps of knowledge I hold tell me that it is not only a possible occurrence but a rather frequent one—to be inhabited by the demons of others. To salve the wounds of those you are not willing to abandon with diseased flesh taken off your quivering body. Perhaps even to shelter them within your carcass, providing thus not a remedy, but the delay of their demise.

Living in a time that feels fundamentally different from that of your peers is bound to bring about thoughts of creating one’s own rituals in order to conjure a return to a sheltering center—the eternal return to the mythical age. And thus, the idea of slaying your inner monsters is no longer accompanied by the desire to exit victorious from the labyrinth. You crave its warmth and familiarity; you thrive in its nourishing womb. My rituals do not follow any certain patterns, nor are they the same each time I perform them; and perhaps if someone were to analyze them, they would not be rituals at all. I have always rejected all forms of repetition—for repetition means erasure. When I think about it, even the mundane actions and doings that one must perform on a daily basis do not follow any specific pattern. There is always something that I change, always something that I add or remove from the routine in order to shield myself from becoming repetitive. And yet, here are these rituals that help me travel to the monstrous and back, rituals that guide and protect me, or that at least provide me with the illusion of safety. Rituals like the one from this morning and all others. Today, when I am old enough to no longer desire any gifts, when I am old enough to know how to draw a proper labyrinth, I began my morning with a walk on the beach, as I have been doing every day for the past months. A walk on the beach heralded by black coffee on the street corner in a hurry and scribbling a few pages in my notebook before taking a shower. If I am to write in the morning, it is always before taking a shower, but never in a manner that makes it seem like something I have performed to the point of erasure. This morning, I wrote on the inside of my left arm. Three words, with my back against the sea and my eyes still closed. I wrote about no longer knowing how to get to the other. About how I perform rituals and walk paths that always lead me back to no one but myself. I wrote three words about how I reach out my hands to touch and all I feel is the coldness of my own skin. Three words about how there are mirrors everywhere and yet I am no longer able to see anything but fairies dancing for a couple of hours each day.

The psychological and philosophical scraps of knowledge I hold tell me that it is not only a possible occurrence but a rather frequent one—to be inhabited by the demons of others.

To plunge yourself into the depths of a labyrinth of your own making is to never escape it. To trick yourself that a prison of your own design is no prison at all. I wrap myself in silk and go back to writing about the forms and paths I still remember. A playful ray of sunshine falls upon the parts of my body I left exposed and asks to be allowed in but I turn my eyes towards the dark and let the sheets cradle me back to my center. Silk is the only fabric that touches the body in all the right places, the only fabric that both frees and entombs the flesh. When rendered into language, the rustling of silk stroked by throbbing fingers resembles the denotation of the labyrinth; into sound, it resonates with the battle cry of a thousand blades colliding with each other. Within an artwork, silk draws its strength from the calming glow of the skin it covers. Separating the soul from the body, the rustling of silk becomes a correspondence between the senses—it unfolds space and time, curving inwards, outwards, and back-and-forth upon the body as waves upon the shores of the world. In silk, the body falls for its captor.

Christina Tudor-Sideri is a writer and translator living in Eastern Europe. She is the author of Under the Sign of the Labyrinth and the translator of Mihail Sebastian’s Fragments from a Found Notebook and Magda Isanos’s Homecoming, as well as forthcoming volumes by Max Blecher and Ilarie Voronca. Her debut novel, Disembodied, will be published by Sublunary Editions in 2022.