A parcel that had been leaning against the other side of the door flopped down at Olivia's feet. She was just sticking her head out to see if the rain had finally stopped, and wasn't expecting a delivery. In the darkness of early dawn, with eyes bleary from lack of sleep, she could just barely make out her name written across the front in ornate calligraphy and a return address in vaguely eastern characters that she couldn't decipher.
She tore open the brown paper and found inside a delicate box made of mauve cardboard. Intrigued, she went into the living room and sat down in a tall armchair by a lamp. Inside the box, wrapped in tissue paper that smelled faintly of incense, was a brass bell with a long wooden handle about ten inches tall. She certainly hadn't ordered a bell, and yet if someone had sent it as a gift—perhaps under the misapprehension that she needed a useless object to collect dust—there would doubtless have been a card. She could already feel herself becoming irritated. After pulling a bit of paper off the clapper, she gave the bell a ring.
The sound was unexpectedly deep and resonant like a gong, and filled the room with an unearthly calm. After giving it another ring, a feeling of gentle languor came over Olivia's limbs causing her to put the bell down on a side table and loll back in her chair. Her irritation over the unsolicited package and the anxiety of her sleepless night melted away. Feeling transported, her eyes wandered over the delicate Byzantine design etched on the surface of the bell.
Bright, morning light suddenly began pouring through the window, and a woman in a long gown, with a veil covering the lower part of her face, now appeared like an apparition at the entrance of the living room. She bowed her head to Olivia and did a little curtsey as if she were a servant whom the bell had magically summoned.
Olivia was so at peace that this vision, far from alarming her, felt almost expected. Though most of the woman's face was covered, Olivia couldn't help but notice her penetrating eyes with green irises so pale they seemed to almost shine. As the beautiful stranger stood in the doorway, dressed in richly colored fabrics like an ancient tapestry, the room was saturated with stillness.
Faint, distant sounds created a sort of music in the air, bringing to the surface a happiness that Olivia had long forgotten, and that even now, like the melody itself, she couldn't quite pin down in her mind. The woman in the doorway, communicating without words in a language that spoke directly to Olivia's heart, said that she was a messenger, and had come to take Olivia back to her true home, there to lead a life of bliss. She directed Olivia's gaze to the window, where four men wearing turbans could be seen standing in the dazzling light holding an ornate sedan chair. Beyond them, Olivia's front lawn was transformed by the appearance of palm trees, swaying in what she intuited was a tropical sea breeze. As the veiled woman gestured for Olivia to follow her out, Olivia's spirit soared in anticipation of the delights that awaited her. Then, as she reflected on the step she was about to take, she was momentarily transfixed in her chair.
"Oh, here you are!" said Matt, standing at the entrance to the living room where the veiled woman had just been. "You were so quiet I thought you'd gone out."
The spell was broken. The bright light was gone and Olivia was back in her everyday existence, with no palm trees or mysterious visitors—just her husband holding a dish towel with a wry look of amusement on his face.
She felt a tremendous loss, as if an umbilical cord connecting her to something ancient, profound, and at the same time familiar, had been severed. She looked to the side table for the bell, and, not seeing it, started rummaging frantically around in a pile of old magazines by the chair. "Did you see a bell?" she asked.
"No," said Matt. "Is there one missing? I didn't know we had a bell."
Olivia tried explaining what had happened, but the longer she spoke the more ridiculous it sounded even to her.
"Oh, don't worry," said Matt. "Lots of people have silly dreams. There's no reason to feel ashamed."
"I'm not ashamed," Olivia protested. "Why don't you tell me about one of your silly dreams?"
"My silly dreams?! Oh, I don't go in for crazy stuff. In my dreams, I just follow sensible protocols and procedures..."
Her nostrils flared as she shot him a dark look.
Throughout breakfast, Olivia was so distracted that she could hardly speak, feeling as if she'd just emerged from an opium den, but all the while wondering if her dream had perhaps been more like a vision of something real. Matt, meanwhile, wouldn't let it go, finding it hilarious that she'd actually looked for the bell after she'd woken up.
Normally Matt would have driven Olivia to the lab where she worked, then continued along to the University of Toronto, where he was a teaching assistant; on this day, however, Olivia desperately wanted to get away from Matt's hardheadedness. Even if it was a delusion, she wanted to relish her vision of the other life—the life of tranquility and pleasure—that was calling her. She told Matt that she'd walk to work.
"Are you sure? They say it's going to rain."
"It'll be fine. You can pick me up at the usual time."
"Okay, but before you go, have a good look around for the magic bell!" he said with a cackle. Olivia swung at his head; Matt ducked then roared with laughter. "Seriously," he added, "you've been a bit off lately; maybe you should stay home and catch up on your soap operas or something." He gave her a wink, then went to his car, chuckling the whole time.
Olivia, now deeply annoyed, grabbed her jacket and tote bag, then headed out the door.
Matt and Olivia had been married for four years and seemed like a match made in heaven—or some sort of atheist equivalent. Their shared scientific outlook made them feel that their marriage was an oasis of reason in a desert of weak-mindedness. Both of them lived their lives as if they were fact-checkers for everyone they met, believing that they were providing a valuable service, with no idea of how annoying they could sometimes be.
As Olivia reached broad and busy Sheppard Avenue, the wind picked up. She turned up the collar of her jacket and pulled it close around her short, blonde hair. Though the storm had stopped, dark clouds suggested that Matt was right about more rain being on the way. He was insufferable when he was right.
Now she wished she hadn't mentioned the dream to him, believing he would tease her about it for weeks, if not months. Even so, she could hardly blame Matt for mocking her given that she would undoubtedly have mocked him if he'd woken up raving and wild-eyed.
But now she put Matt out of her mind, eager to resume her reverie. After stopping at a phone booth to tell her co-workers she would be arriving late, she decided to follow an irresistible urge and go off the beaten path. Leaving the roar of Sheppard Avenue behind, she headed instead down a quiet side street.
After strolling for a few minutes, the sun started coming out a bit more, though still hidden by clouds, and the wind, broken by rows of tall sycamores and hawthorns in bloom, fell away. Olivia unzipped her jacket and inhaled deeply. There were faint sounds coming from a row of small stores that reminded her of the music from her dream and filled her with longing. Though she reasoned that the 'music' was likely her imagination playing with random background noises, she was still determined to investigate.
The stores were selling mostly eastern imports; not wicker furniture so much as food, carpets, and curiosities. Pulled along as if under a spell, she passed some barrels of luscious fruit then entered a humid, softly lit food market. Inside were displays of Rangoon rice, Greek olives, Jaffa oranges, grapes, pomegranates, and wooden crates with labels depicting swarthy women with arms full of produce. Intoxicated by the whirl of exotic fragrances, Olivia felt that she may be closing in on something important. As she walked down an aisle of dates and figs, someone spoke.
"Can I help you?"
Olivia turned and saw a woman peeking over the shelf. To her astonishment, she had green eyes with pale irises just like the woman in her dream. "Yes—I believe you can!" said Olivia as she stepped around to view the woman full-on.
"I've seen you before," said Ariadne. Slender, olive-skinned Ariadne had no veil and was dressed like any young woman who might have worked in a store. She looked Olivia up and down as if she were a long-lost sister.
"Oh!" said Olivia.
"Princess!" said Ariadne. "We need to talk."
"Let's go someplace."
"What if you get customers?"
"I don't work here." Ten minutes later the two women were sitting down in a nearby coffee shop discussing Olivia's dream. It turned out that Ariadne had an amazing story of her own from the previous night.
"I dreamt that I sent you the bell," she said. "It was my writing on the package. When you rang it, I came to answer and deliver a message. You were supposed to come with me to get your reward, which was a lifetime of bliss."
"A lifetime of bliss?"
"That was my understanding."
The whole thing made Olivia feel a little giddy—and Olivia was someone who hated feeling giddy. "This is just getting stupid!" she began, attempting to get a rational grip on things. "Let's look at the facts. What do we know? I had a dream—a pretty one, but it was still a dream. I saw someone who looked like you; meanwhile, you had a dream about a princess who looked a bit like me. And then we met. That's a million-to-one chance, but so is winning a lottery, and people win lotteries every day."
"So if it was all a dream, what am I? A figment of your imagination?"
"Prove to me you're not," said Olivia narrowing her gaze and pursing her lips.
"Okay, let's see if I can wake you up!" said Ariadne, grabbing a fork.
Olivia, pulled back before she could be jabbed. "Seriously, even if there was some sort of truth to this—and I'm not even sure what I mean by 'truth' in this context—how could we ever get back to the dream?"
"Ahh! That's the question", said Ariadne. She went on to speculate that since they had been drawn to meet each other in the market maybe they were being directed by unseen forces.
Olivia raised an eyebrow. "Sounds a bit woo-woo."
"Okay, so what brought you here?"
"I thought I heard music from the dream and I was trying to track it down." Ariadne smiled back at her. "Okay, never mind." Olivia was grateful that Ariadne didn't mock her. Instead, the two women shared a laugh.
Twenty minutes later, the conversation was wrapping up.
"Well, I'm sorry to have let you down," said Olivia. That came out sounding a bit snide, so she adjusted her tone "No, really, I am. Maybe I would have left with you if I'd known what was going to happen."
"You would have drunk the milk of paradise. Look, I don't know what's going on any more than you do; all I can think of is that I have to get back. Every moment away breaks my heart."
"Yes, that's how I felt this morning when Matt entered the room."
"My husband. He came in just as I was about to leave with you."
"I think I ought to speak to him."
"No, no. God no. Matt already thinks this whole vision of Shangri-La, or Xanadu, or whatever you want to call it, is idiotic. He doesn't believe anything unless it's been published in peer-reviewed journals."
"Very admirable, I'm sure," said Ariadne without conviction.
"He takes great pride in that."
"Then you'll have to leave him behind."
"Don't say it hasn't already occurred to you." That stung a bit because it was true.
"The real question is if you were somehow able to come to me again in a vision, would I go with you?"
"And...what's your answer?" asked Ariadne.
Olivia bit her lip as she considered the question. "Look, if you find a way, let me know and I'll see." She gazed down at her empty cup.
Ariadne leaned back and sighed. "So it's all up to me."
When the two women parted, Olivia, though exhilarated about meeting someone from a dream, was at the same time a little depleted and feeling sorry for Ariadne. To her surprise, she had begun to feel a real bond with her—despite the fact that Matt would have considered her flakey. If only he could have a similar experience, she thought, then they'd both be back on the same page.
When she got back to Sheppard Avenue, dark clouds were looming again. She stopped at the phone booth and called the lab to say that she wouldn't be in because of a family emergency.
Then, as distant thunder began to rumble, she called Matt at the university. She didn't mention Ariadne, of course, just saying that she was walking home early and would see him in the evening. That didn't stop Matt from getting in a little dig. "Well, don't fall asleep in any chairs," he joked. "I don't want to hear any more nonsense." He was still laughing when she slammed down the receiver.
It was all very well for him to be skeptical of something when there are no eyewitnesses, but he wouldn't accept the testimony of his own wife. For a few minutes, as the wind picked up, Olivia trudged along the wet sidewalk, furious that she had married an idiot.
Shangri-La was looking better by the moment. The rain was fairly steady now. She thought of what Matt had said about falling asleep in the chair again. It was worth a shot. If he didn't believe it, that was too bad for him. If she ever got another chance at happiness she was taking it regardless. At that moment she decided to take a taxi home. Turning to face traffic, she hailed the first cab she saw and climbed into the back seat.
"I know exactly where to take you," said the driver.
"Oh?" Olivia said, then drew a sharp breath as her eyes met those of the driver in the rearview mirror.
Ariadne, dressed as she was in the vision, turned to face Olivia. "Things are falling into place," she said, pulling down her veil and revealing a radiant smile. "I've figured it out!"
When Matt arrived home that evening he knew that Olivia hadn't been back to the house because the newspaper was still lying on the porch. Taking the paper to the living room, he turned on the lamp and sat down. He had difficulty focusing on reading, however, feeling too concerned about Olivia out in the rain. He'd been too hard on her, that much was obvious. Lowering the paper, he noticed for the first time something on the table next to him. It was a bell etched with a Byzantine design. Putting down the newspaper, he turned the bell over in his hands, admiring its proportions, then he sat back and gave it a ring.