Secret Lives PT.2

I'm guessing you've read PT.I, right??

Now eat my words.


From the Cheeky Frawg book Secret Lives
By Jeff VanderMeer

Lynn Minneman is a stamp collector and a retired survey statisti­cian. For a long time, he had been content with his life and with his friends and his family. However, one day he received a set of Lewis & Clarke commemorative stamps from the post office that changed his contentment to restlessness. In examining the stamp set through the clear protective envelope, he noticed a small, tri­angular stamp trapped in a corner, the illustrated side facing away. The back of the stamp had yellow discoloration, indicating some age, the glue having melted.

Generally, Minneman didn’t like to open up his stamp sets right away. He liked to appreciate them from afar, and then, only later, examine them in detail. But the little triangular stamp in­trigued him. He wanted to see what was on the front of it, for one thing. As a child, one of his greatest satisfactions with stamp collecting had been the exotic quality of it, the images hailing from far-off lands. Minneman has long forgotten this, but his mother had once given him a dozen stamps from “Nippon,” all with delicate traceries of cherry blossoms and storks and other images that conveyed an otherness he treasured. At the time, he had not realized “Nippon” meant “Japan,” and so the country it­self had been a mystery, a place not found on the globe, waiting to be discovered.

 A flicker of this memory sparked across his vision as he took a pair of tweezers and extracted the odd stamp from the envelope. He turned it over and set it down on the kitchen table, on top of the envelope. It was an etching, very carefully rendered, of a moun­tain range, with a river winding through the foreground. Who­ever had created the stamp had managed to mix monochromatic colors—greens, blues, purples, and browns—into a clever tapestry of texture. Even though it was heavily pixilated, it conveyed au­thenticity, reality. For a moment, the river even seemed to move, and Minneman drew in his breath. Across the three corners of the stamp lay the words “Republic of Sonoria.”


Minneman raised an eyebrow. Sonoria? In all his days of stamp collecting, he didn’t think he’d ever heard of the Republic of So­noria. It sounded faintly Eastern European, and it was true he still had trouble keeping track of all the former Soviet provinces that had become independent, but it still sounded false to him. He stared at the picture on the stamp one more time, shivered a little as if a breeze blew across the grassy plains surrounding the river.

Something about the image not only startled him, it stirred some deeply buried recognition.

 Carefully, as if the precision were important, he picked up the stamp using the tweezers and placed it back in the envelope, in the same position, with the front facing inward. Then he walked over to the map of the world framed in his living room, and he looked for Sonoria. First, he tried Eastern Europe, then Central Asia, then randomly, letting his gaze linger where it liked, and then systematically, starting from the left and traveling down and then up, down then up. No Sonoria. No Sonoria in Asia, Europe, South America. No island named Sonoria. No isthmus. No prov­ince. No state. No city. Nothing. Unless it was so small, it wouldn’t show up on a map?

 He shook his head. Well, it was probably a fake stamp. A postal employee had stuck it in there as a joke. Why should he waste his time with it?

 But that night, as he tried to get to sleep, he recalled the weath­ered quality of the stamp, the yellowish stain on the back, the high quality of the image on the front, and something about it worried at him, made him toss and turn. When he did finally get to sleep, he dreamed he stood in front of a huge rendering of the stamp that blotted out the sky. The image in the stamp was composed of huge dots, but the dots began to bleed together, and then swirled into a photograph that became a living, moving scene, and the edges of the stamp were just a portal. On the plains, strange animals were moving. In the river, birds dove for fish. The mountains in the dis­tance were wreathed with cloud. A smell came to him, of mint and chocolate and fresh days far from the choking, clogging pollution of cities. Then the stars came up in a sky of purest black and blotted it all out, and he woke gasping for breath, afraid, so afraid, that he might forget this glimpse, this door into the Republic of Sonoria.

For a week, the dreams were enough. They came to him more and more frequently—sometimes even while he nodded off after lunch during the daytime—and the details of them grew more and more vivid. He woke from them refreshed, reinvigorated, and every­thing around him seemed brighter, more intense. Sometimes, in his dreams, he walked along the river bank. Sometimes, he ran through the plains. Sometimes, he walked toward the mountains, although he never reached them. He never saw a single person in these dreams, but animals and plants and birds and fish were all around him, performing their ancient routines.

 Once a day, he took out the stamp and stared at it, fixing it in his imagination. But, each time he did so, the stamp lost a little of its intensity for him. And, after a time, so did the dreams. The dreams became as faded as the stamp. The stamp became as faded as the dreams.

 Normally, for Minneman, this would have been enough. It was not that he lacked a spirit of adventure. It was more that he had done many things in his life, and he liked a certain sense of order.

 But now, he fidgeted. He walked back and forth across the liv­ing room, upset that he could not fix the image from the stamp in his mind as clearly as he had before. The Republic of Sonoria. Where might that be? He didn’t know, but he knew that in his dreams, he had drawn his hand across the surface of the water of a mighty river and felt the thick wetness of it against his skin. He knew that his pants had been stained with the yellow-green of the grass of the plains. His face had felt the breath of that place upon it. He had smelled the essence of it. No dream had ever been so real, so true.

After seven days of this, Minneman could take it no longer. He called the post office, asked to speak to whatever employee might have sent him the Lewis & Clarke stamp set. Was told it was im­possible—it could have been anyone. Asked if they had ever heard of the Republic of Sonoria—was it in their system as a destina­tion? Was told it was not, with a sort of heightened concern in the voice of the woman he was speaking to. Hung up. Sat down at the computer and began a search for “Republic of Sonoria,” and when that didn’t work, “Republic of Slonoria,” “Sembla,” “Shonoria,” “Sonora,” hoping ludicrously that the name on the stamp might be misspelled. Hopeless again in the thought that the stamp was simply a fake, and all this effort a waste.

The more the dreams faded in intensity, the more the little weathered stamp failed to anchor his imagination, the more frantic he became, the more lost, even though surrounded by the familiar.

His friends and family became worried, but said nothing. “Minneman’s on a mission,” they muttered to each other, rolling their eyes. Minneman on a mission, as they all knew from past ex­perience, could not be thwarted or redirected. Let it run its course. Let him run it all out as far as it would go, and then he would come back to reality.

But Minneman himself was unconvinced by this theory, for it was one he had run through his head many times. It was some­thing he’d thought about while he still had control over his ac­tions. A separate part of him observed the part of him searching so desperately for Sonoria with alarm. But, eventually, that part of him faded away, became as pixilated and disconnected from the rest as the little dots that made up the image on the stamp.

Minneman searched the public library. He searched the micro­fiche of old and obscure newspapers. For a month, he searched, as the dreams dried up, as the depth and breadth of his tactile knowl­edge of Sonoria faded to a single pixel point.

Then, in an old travel issue of Granta, of all things, buried in a footnote in an essay about European refugees, he found some­thing. The single pixel point expanded into the scene on the stamp. He was able to breathe again, properly, for the first time in months. The tight muscles in his shoulders and back relaxed. Right there, right there. The sentence. The sentence that unlocked part of the mystery: “This nameless refugee said she came from the Republic of Sonoria, a small country between the borders of Bulgaria and the Czech Republic—a hidden mountain valley. She was in some distress, in that she had not wanted to leave, but had become lost, she said, and could not now find the way back. There is no Republic of Sonoria, and the woman may have been mad, but there was a resonance to her story that shed light, in an emotional sense, on the fate of displaced peoples everywhere.”

The mountains. The valley. The river. A chill, a shiver down the spine. The sense of the world opening up right before his eyes. He photocopied the page from Granta. He put it in his shirt pocket, over his heart. Now he had two separate visions of the same place. Now he knew he was not alone.

The very next week, Minneman told his friends and family that he had to take a trip. He packed up his bags, liquidated his sav­ings into traveler’s checks and cash, and booked a flight to Prague. On the flight, first to New York, and then through Amsterdam to

Prague, he hummed to himself, his mind firmly locked on what lay ahead of him. The carry-on bag between his feet held the stamp, still in the envelope, still in the position he had found it, as if it were a compass direction, as if to remove it would be to lose his place in the world. Lewis & Clarke would help guide him.

The sentence about Sonoria still lay in his shirt pocket, next to his heart. Every once in awhile, he would pull it out and stare at it, and almost cry.

When he landed in Prague, safely in a taxi heading toward the visitor center, where he would find out how to rent a car that would take him to the border of the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, from whence he would proceed on foot, with a backpack and a walking stick, into the mountains, searching for little signs, clues, for what he sought—when he landed in Prague, the tingle in his palms, the faint scent of mint-and-chocolate in the air, told him that he was close, that he was about to enter the Republic of Sonoria, that he was free . . .



back to main