“What about Dante on the Goatpaths of Italy?” wondered Prof. Barry Dalton in his office, windows wide to the afternoon sun.

 

He took off his shoes as he continued to think it over. It would prove to be the question of the day, he knew, looking at the clock.

 

When the time was right he uncapped his pen and put it to paper. Then he capped it and looked in a wide circle around the room, taking in the open windows, the buzzing of a jet, the sleek spines of all the books on his shelf.

 

He declared it time for a nap.

 

“Hold my calls,” he shouted to his secretary, “and send all visitors back where they came from.”

 

He loosened his tie, evened out his breathing, stretched the relevant muscles, then pressed the button to the right of the panel that controlled the lighting and the fan. This gave him thirty seconds.

 

He tipped back in his desk chair with his socked feet up among the legal pads and paperweights, and closed his eyes.

 

At the end of thirty seconds, curtains heavy as X-ray bibs slid down over the walls and windows and door, cordoning him off from all view, and the lights dimmed away and the air went out.

 

In his chair, Dalton turned plasticky and his bones started to soften and recede. His skin grew dim and cloudy and then wan and bleachy, on and off, like a candle alternating between the states of burned and not-burned. He slumped further down, somehow into his hair as if it were a wig that usually wasn’t on all the way but was now being pulled down further. Now came the stage of puffing way out like a blimp and then deflating slowly until he hung slack like a sheet tossed onto a bed, to be folded later. Or almost that slack if not quite, not that he could see himself anyway.

 

He was inflating and deflating like a mechanical bellows as the office and its work and trappings sank first into the regular background and then into the way background. Soon all of this was gone entirely. Dante wandered on in his busted sandals unencumbered and unconsidered, either picking and smelling sage and other herbs by the Sides of the Goatpaths of Italy or not … there was no one to say.

 

Now Dalton was in amongst the other afternoon sleepers, from all over the world, or at least the whole world-swath in which it was now afternoon. They were all inflating and deflating at the same rate, in a place that was reachable by these means alone. They seemed suspended, as if in hammocks or tied up with a series of loops and knots, hanging in U-shapes, maybe chrysalises or tangled in spider-doings.

 

There was a rocking and a semblance of forward movement, or the real thing. Then it got lighter by degrees, and he could see — or sense, using whatever was at his disposal — that he and the other sleepers were on a ship. This much was easy to tell. After that, not so easy. Finally, when they were most of the way out of the cave, he realized that they were all sails, strung up in the rigging, and they were sailing the ship, making their own wind by constantly in/de-flating. Down on the deck below was a mess of people shouting in an unintelligible or (to be charitable to the Professor’s erudition here) inaudible tongue. Some appeared to be slaves, others not slaves.

 

Out of the lip of the cave came a glistening turquoise bay, the ancient sunlight playing across it just so. “Ah, you Mediterranean,” sighed the sails.

 

Up on the cliffs that defined one edge of the bay scuttled a figure.

 

Dalton watched it scuttle from crevice to crevice, with a small sack over its shoulder, occasionally sheltering its eyes to scan the horizon.

 

When it spotted the ship, Dalton locked eyes with it and, with all the excitement of a nine-year-old on a heretofore whaleless whale watch, realized who it was. “Dante!” he tried to shout, wishing he hadn’t deflated himself quite so much. He tried to get his secretary’s attention but succeeded only in raining spittle down into his collar. “Dante!” he shouted again, but this time he knew he was only thinking it. The spittle cooled as it reached his chest.

 

The ship sailed languidly on as the sun began to set over the water. When he looked back at the cliffs, the figure was gone.

 

Sails were popping down from the rigging now as sleepers returned to the lives they’d slept away from. The ship was getting bare and desolate-looking, all hanging ropes and hooks slamming against the masts. Soon, thought Dalton, the slaves will be forced to row, all through the Mediterranean night and on into, perhaps, a North African morning.

 

He felt himself coming out of it as well, but held on until the ship entered another cave, across the bay.

 

“I will reenter my life through another door,” he thought, or said, in response to some dockhand asking where he’d like to have his luggage unloaded.

 

A kind of feral banging of rocks resounded inside the cave, so loud that, after a few seconds, he had to peel away and turn off his alarm. When he looked back, the ship had sailed — or not sailed, been rowed — out of sight.

 

He creaked to his feet and into the bathroom, flicking on the lights once the first buds and then nubs of bone grew back into his fingertips.

 

… then the water turned hot and his washcloth was lapping it up and he was dabbing his cheeks and chin and the area around the nose known as the T-Zone, and the sides of his neck, and then he looked back at his desk and thought, fuck, and then went past it to the window, opened it, looked out, down to where things were happening in Dodge City, Far Below.

 

“Okay, I’m back,” he shouted to his secretary. “You can stop holding my calls now.”

 

The phone rang before he was even back at his desk. He approached it warily, cracking his knuckles, not sure this was the life for him. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” he found himself thinking as he stood and listened to it ring. Then he picked it up, and found this was still his only thought.

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