"Philemon," she announced, beaming at him.
"No, no. Guifa." He placed his hands on his chest to indicate himself, his smile faltering in confusion. "Guifa, remember?"
Aurora twinkled a laugh that smoothed away the crease between his eyebrows. He swore he saw pinpricks of light in the mist behind her, as though stars were laughing with her.
"Philemon," she repeated, leaning close to his ear. Was it a secret? Was she making sure he understood? He definitely didn't, he'd told her his name dozens of times and she never seemed to remember, and stranger still, it never bothered him. She smelled of incense and lavender, it was making him feel hazy and content, he closed his eyes and wondered if he might kiss her, but she drew back suddenly, her attention suddenly captured past him. The spell broken, he blinked, dazed, just in time to see her pirouette back into the mist. It swirled in her wake and settled back at his feet as his senses filtered back to him one by one.
That night or a few nights later, he got the chance to ask Le Travesti about Aurora's nickname. Le Travesti considered for a moment, pursing perfectly painted lips, then lifted and lowered a shoulder with careless grace.
"Philemon seems about right."
"But it's not right!" Guifa insisted, marveling at how blasé everyone seemed to be about something so simple. "I mean, I guess it's not important, but it's still not right."
"Sounds like you have your answer." He whipped his fan open and arched his eyebrows in dramatic emphasis, and Guifa could only roll his eyes.
"Well what about you?" Guifa gestured at him in exasperation and Le Travesti drew up to his full height, affronted. "You can't tell me Le Travesti is your actual name."
"Can't I?" Guifa immediately regretted bringing it up under the weight of that intense, challenging gaze, and he gulped at the fan Le Travesti now brandished like a weapon. But Le Travesti broke into a huge, booming laugh a moment later, throwing his head back, filling the air and mist that enfolded them. Guifa dropped his eyes and chanced a nervous laugh himself.
"What's the matter, boy, never heard of a stage name?"
Le Vieux surely had another name too. Too much about him spoke to another life entirely for Guifa to let go of his suspicion. The old man walked with a long, loping gait that mismatched his crooked posture, he moved with such sudden force and then equally sudden delicacy, he saw straight to the heart of this world as though the mists didn't exist for him at all. Where they clouded Guifa's view, Le Vieux – and Guifa suspected Aurora, too – parted them with a glance, gazing forward with clarity and assurance. Guifa could only stare blankly.
"Eugen." The name came to his lips unbidden; Guifa spoke it once without thinking while he watched Le Vieux fiddle reverently with the hem of the great red curtains that closed them in. Le Vieux froze. Guifa's attention was turned to a splash and he jerked around: a zebra had paused at the edge of the water, alert, gazing at the pair of them with frightened eyes. Unsettled, Guifa swallowed and turned back to Le Vieux, now fearing that he had said something out of place, that his curiosity had led him to the edge of insult when even the simplest of creatures would have known to keep silent. The mist suddenly felt oppressive in his throat, cold and constricting, as Le Vieux twisted his neck to look at him.
"I—I'm sorry," Guifa choked out. Le Vieux took a step forward and Guifa stepped back in turn, plunging his ankle straight into icy water. Le Travesti had warned him about where the water grew too cold, where creatures with silvery voices lurked and waited to tangle men in their hair and drown them. The lost souls were trapped forever on a magnificent ship; Guifa had heard their mournful cries at night. But whatever dark creatures or fates hid in the depths didn't frighten him nearly as much as Le Vieux, who'd yanked him beyond the red curtain and into this world and who could surely force him out just as suddenly, back into the dry heat and blazing light of the place he'd come from.
Le Vieux stalked his way atop the water's surface and Guifa was trapped, there was no way of telling when and where the water dropped off in any given place on any given day, he might freeze or drown or both if he dared move – but the old man stopped just short of where Guifa was rooted. He cocked his head, a smile slowly unfurled across his lips, and he reached out to clap Guifa on the shoulder.
"Philemon," he rumbled in a voice that crashed like a wave on a distant shore. Guifa swallowed and said nothing. Le Vieux waited expectedly for some word of protest, and when none came, his smile only grew, wide and approving. He gave Guifa a firm shake on the shoulder and waved him along, and Guifa was grateful to wade back out of the water and skitter away, the shaken zebra trotting at his side. He never called Le Vieux by his other name again.
After that encounter, silent acceptance came more naturally to him. He suspected Le Vieux held tight to all the answers to the questions he yearned to ask, all the questions he'd set aside and forgotten long ago, and all those in between. But he never asked Le Vieux or anyone else where they came from, how long they'd been there, and whether he might stare into the mists one day and see the world he'd left behind. The first seemed rude, he had his guesses about the second, and with every passing day the third felt more and more dreadful to imagine.
He heaved a sigh and settled himself on his back at the water's edge, dipping his legs in, letting them hang submerged up to his knees. It was tepid today. There was no shore, no sandy slope. There was land, and then there was water. Shallow or deep. No in-between, and no predicting where one ended and the other began. He kicked his feet contentedly.
The scent of incense drifted on the breeze and he hoped with a flutter in his stomach that Aurora might have come to find him again, but no, there came a gentle whoosh from above that told him it was just a comet: he caught the end of its red tail streaking out of sight just in time. He followed its path, head pillowed on his hands behind him, until his eyes drifted closed. Over time the water grew cold against his legs, then warm again. A bride knelt a little ways away and he heard her quiet sobs, but he let her tears run their course undisturbed. The barrel organ grinder came and went. Le Travesti's booming laugh echoed over the water; he thought perhaps night had fallen but didn't bother opening his eyes to check. Sometime later, zebras yipped back and forth to one another, a sure sign of morning. The splash and spray of water, the crackle of fire, none of it motivated him to action: he was content to sit and breathe and enjoy for a moment or much, much longer without the weight of wondering. But when the faint, sweet melody of a piano drifted towards him, he stirred and inhaled deeply. The scent of incense filled him once more, buoying him up and lifting him from the inside. He rose to his feet to find her, certain this time.
Across the water, through the clearing mist, Le Vieux watched him, clad all in white. Beside him, Aurora smiled, pleased. They beckoned, and Philemon strode across the surface to meet them.