if the rage is stronger than happiness, the will to happiness, the result is invariably self-destruction and unhappiness. The guide is within, imposed from without leads to, if not disaster, an unintended path.
the sensation of restraint is the refusal to abandon, jettison any and all criteria and allow the visceral to 'well up.'
And so forth. He lived on five acres of forest land in a tiny cabin. He had no electricity or running water. His old pick-up could still make it to the village watering hole--a spigot in the campground next to the community center. He'd sit outside in warm weather; otherwise, he'd lay in his bunk by the propane stove. He'd spend days wrestling with questions he'd make up like 'what's the difference between sense and sensation'? And then the train would leave the station. He'd begin logically enough with 'sensing is cognitive, intellectual, an awareness of an objective something, we sense it. Whereas sensation is visceral, physical, imbued with the emotional in most respects, and the awareness thereof is subjective.'
But that wouldn't satisfy, too superficial, too derivative. He had to probe more deeply.
If the body, our physical manifestation, could be considered an organ of knowing, then sensation could potentially be sensed at the instantaneous point--time differential approaching zero--when the mind senses the sensing, and intertwined with the original sensing can converge to a single mental/physical uber-sensation. A sensation of material thought. Without awareness, apparently, neither world exists. He applied Bertrand Russel's set theory argument--sets within sets containing sets leading to no possible set of sets containing itself, ad infinitum, an infinite mirror regression. Where do you stop? he would scream to the empty woods.
He'd write stuff like:
a society without compassion is destined to disintegrate. islands of selves co-existing in the same space. separate and distrustful. cynical.
the capacity to step out of the moment is not the will or the courage to. of that I am certain.
spontaneity is inherent in the nonlinearity as a remainder potential in any mathematical attempt to idealize and perfect action from moment to moment.
the self is realized in the act of action.
Or meander through his trees and recall parables like the one about beating the reflection of the moon in the water, to what end? When does it stop? How do we know when we've reached the the last answer to the last question? The fundamental quintessential truth revealed, setting one free with certainty. At times he'd thought, believed, he found it. But in practice in the world, something would go wrong, his self-possession and confidence would falter, and he'd be back to the drawing board. Nothing is supposed to go wrong.
If he were to cease sifting through his past on the pretense of searching for the key to freedom, he'd be cut loose and abandoned to his own resources, which, considering his state of confusion and doubt, would not be fortuitous, he believed. This was Stephen's deepest fear, to lose himself, the trace running through his life severed. He feared if he stopped scouring memories, peeling back layers as though rice paper, dissecting fragments from one event to compare with others from completely different contexts, trying to find the common denominator, examining, scrutinizing, probing for errors and mistakes in judgement based on faulty understanding or emotional immaturity, his true self and identity would vanish into the darkness never to be found again.
Alone on his property, he hadn't noticed when he started to talk out loud. He'd indicate certain possessions and memorabilia in his cabin and tell the story of where whatever came from, its origin and significance, as though to someone in the room. A card tacked on the wall would catch his eye and evoke an impromptu comment, a wistful moment of sentimentality, especially birthday and Christmas cards. Soon, he narrated almost everything he did while in the process of doing it, explaining the practical reasons. He'd talk about things he read: ideas, theories, behaviors of animals and insects, storms, the thousands of intricately-designed butterfly species in Indonesia, the expanse of the Taiga forest in Siberia, the importance of wolves in regulating an ecosystem, the bastards killing off the elephants and rhinos, the absurd difficulty of removing plastic packaging, whatever popped into his head. Usually, he'd begin with: Did you know....
Or he'd express an opinion about something as though he'd been asked. He'd offer observations on society, how corporations and government worked, how people were treated like guinea pigs to test products, how they're manipulated by marketing and propaganda, lied to, how so-and-so's philosophy or ideology is flawed or shallow or naive or just plain stupid. He'd have open discussions about everything: TV shows, how soap was made, philosophical points, myths and their relevance, morality, existence, common denominators, reference frames, parallel patterns, Hegel, Hesse, Hoeffer, always something.
There were moments he worked towards. Standing straight and still in the dense woods, its silence soaking him to the bone, he'd whisper a sudden insight into his beard, lucid for a time. On and on, meandering through his forest he'd talk about what he was seeing: new growth in the spring, berry buds on the bushes; colorful, bizarre mushrooms in the fall popping up in the strangest of places; the plush overgrowth of summer's feast; the crisp tranquil air of winter in the snow. A fleeting memory would trigger an outburst of temper. Memories of being submissive, of being humilated, of restraint, of seeing an act of cruelty but doing nothing about it would spark a tirade of rage. He was aware of what he was doing, most of the time, but no one was around, no people, at any rate, so he didn't care. It was a release and his secret.
He had no friends anymore, the good ones had either all passed away or moved further north. His family sent him money monthly to live on; he bought groceries, propane, and gas for his pickup, then beer. He'd wander or sit on a mossy log, listen to the occasional bird song or crow call, the croak of an unseen frog or a rush in the tall grass of something bigger than a rabbit. But these sounds of nature, though comforting, only served to intensify and accentuate his growing loneliness. Although unmindful of this, he was nonetheless aware of a need at the center of his being, a nagging unremitting emptiness. Because of it, he thought he might go mad.
And so it went. He'd drink coffee and write and think and ruminate over failures and regrets and how, if he'd had the strength of will and conviction to fight for himself at some previous time, to follow his dreams, or if he'd backed those he loved and who loved him, instead of obsessively following a misunderstanding of true freedom, a criterion all his own, a fabrication stitched together over years of seeking truth, he'd be in a happier place, having pursued a more fulfilling path.
He betrayed those relationships out of self-centeredness and fear that assertion of how he truly felt would bring more painful consequences than allowing arrogance and insults to continue. He would block himself, over and over, until worn down to utter passivity and acceptance of the inevitable collapse of his happiness. These were recurring themes in his diaries. His mind had become a closed room of circular patterns of thinking that he couldn't get out of; the door would not reveal itself. He couldn't see that the fundamental assumption in this whole introspective rigmarole had been arbitrary and based on a misconception, a false understanding from the get-go. He created a paradox that had beome a prison.
He'd copy quotes from writers who he respected as mentors. Most recently a recollection surfaced while meandering through the woods one rainy day. From Sartre: "True freedom lies in full committment to accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions." But his faith in such teachings had wavered long ago, and now, his confidence was gone. He'd lost faith before, when a young man, in religion, the one he'd grown up in and believed in implicitly. Once a person goes through the experience of rebelling against a belief of such importance--this is reality--it becomes easier to do the next time. Identifying with nature gave him a sense and a feeling of being part of and connected to something larger than himself, but it proved insufficient and unsatisfying, too diffuse and undifferentiated.
Consequently, with little of a transcendent nature to live for, collapse bordering on despair had reduced him to the basics, the animal basics. He continued to fight, however. He continuously strove to reconcile the certainty he once knew with his understanding of the nature of human reality, what was important. Yet it would not come, the synthesis would not form in the seamless manner required. He'd been down that road before, he knew that unseen shortcomings and misinterpretations would undermine any criteria of behavior. To be disillusioned and yet know what you must do, what your inner voice was telling you, based on absolutely nothing was the tree across the road he couldn't step over.
The seasons came and went, the hours, the days, the months turning to years. Each season held special meanings, offered signature impressions. In the early fall, leaves covered the muddy ground. The light from the sun shone more softly than during the brief but hot summer. Shafts lightly touched the lichen growing on the trunks, bringing out tones and shades of green never before seen by man. He loved the sound of the wind roaring like a freight train through the tall treetops, some as tall as 100 feet, fir and cedar. Branches and twigs lay strewn about; Mother Nature pruning the dead in preparation for the coming spring. Some years he'd hear frogs at this time, but in others there'd be none. Towards the end, near the transition to winter, the pungent smell of decaying wet leaves and other detritus on the forest floor was not unpleasant. He imagined nutrients entering the soil to feed his trees and plants come spring. It was all about the cycle of life. The ground cover also supplied food for the many different kinds of mushrooms to blossom in the most peculiar places, always a marvellous surprise when he walked about.
In winter, the first snows blanketed his entire world, filling it with a magical quality, innocence restored. The death-like quiet, all sound muffled by the snow, drew him out of himself. He liked the winter in spite of the roads being impassable most of the time; it intensified his solitude and sharpened his perception. Through the window next to his bunk, he'd watch large flakes of snow falling through the trees, their branches dipping further and further until dumping their load in one quick contemptuous gesture. What he didn't care for at all were the long nights. More than once he'd sit up on the side of his bunk in the dark, listening to the stove burn propane, waiting for the first hint of daylight. It's funny, he wrote in his diary, how much more intense aloneness becomes when the sun goes down.
Spring was all about renewal and rebirth, of course. Each day he'd measure with his eye the size of the new pale green leaves on the cherry tree in front of his cabin, the first thing he'd see when stepping out. Buds on bushes and bright green tips on the ends of branches and twigs filled him with pleasure and a twinge of optimism. His senses came alive as well. When he was a kid he used to play in the dirt with his cars and soldiers, he loved the fresh rich smell of it; now, the soil's aroma from the warming sun resonated with that time. It was all around him, the chittering of squirrels, singing of birds, and emergence of flying insects, apparently asleep through the long winter, waiting.
One day a third of the way into spring, when intermittent showers were the rule, he was down by the swamp. The trees grew so thick there that the canopy, in spite of the small new leaves, protected him; barely a drop landed on his rain coat, a gift from his mother. A tight circle of cedar surrounded a boulder so thickly covered by moss that it dimpled when he sat on it. Cup of coffee in hand--a constant companion--he savored the fresh, new-born smell of budding life and the soft mugginess of the warm day. He was listening intently to the rain drops hitting the skinny cedar leaves, cascading from one to the other as though choosing the best path to the ground, when a quick movement over his left shoulder caught his eye.
Familiar with all the creatures in his tiny domain, something about this one didn't register. He stood to study the area, scrutinizing every bush and downed trees. All was quiet and still; the birds weren't even chirping. The cracking of a branch to his right made him spin. He thought he saw a creature through the thin brush not twenty feet away, crouching, a mere shadow. He sensed it was looking at him. He placed his cup on the boulder and carefully walked towards it. Trepidation stirred at the base of his neck, he braked. Long ago he learned to pay attention to that warning, but his curiosity had the better of him and urged him on. Boredom and the long-winter's cabin fever had pushed him past the comfort of rational restraints as well. He anticipated, sought, the unexpected; the surreal was only a hair's breadth away, tugging at the edges of his mind.
Within a few feet he still could not define the huddled mass behind a cluster of ferns; it seemed to vibrate out of sync with the surroundings, or perhaps, the air around it did. He cut to his left to angle in on it when it stood, freezing Stephen in his tracks. Before him stood what he would've described as a beautiful young woman, long blonde hair curling over her shoulders and down her back, about five-feet-four, wearing leather leggings, calf-high boots, and a shirt of some dark cloth material embroidered with all manner of creatures, if it hadn't been for the wings. Wings of feathers mingled with gossamer, translucent skin. They rose up from her shoulder blades a few inches past her head ending at a roundish point and down to mid-thigh. Her look of concern quickly changed to a smile. She showed no fear; on the contrary, she stood resolute and confident, underscored by the short sword in a sheath of green light hanging down between her wings by a thick leather belt draped diagonally across her chest, its hilt, a dull silver.
Stephen held his breath involuntarily, it seemed. Disoriented, vertigo gripped him; the trees and bushes wavered as though unsure of their existence. Feeling faint, he consciously forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly. Dare I speak? Maybe if I turn around and count to ten, she'll vanish and I'll know it's time to drink some wine. But he couldn't take his eyes off her. She radiated an inner brightness, no more a mere shadow hiding. If he could hear his own voice, he thought, perhaps that would bring him back to reality and along with it, this hallucination would dissolve into the void whence it came.
"Who are you?" he asked in a whisper. Then more forcefully, "What are you?"
She moved towards him; he fought the impulse to run. Within a few feet she stopped and said, "I am Miranda, princess of Farland. As to what I am, you must look inside your mind to see."
He had no idea what she meant by that. He thought fairy or sprite, but both of those were images of tiny figures a few inches tall. The thought of her as trespasser to be dealt with accordingly never crossed his mind. Her mere presence shifted him into a completely alien worldscape, and that presence appeared substantial. "Why are you here, in these woods?" he asked. "Have you come for a reason I should know about?"
She smiled fetchingly and crooned, "Yes, Stephen." She reached out and touched his hand. "I've come for you." Immediately, all went black. He felt weightless and could no longer sense his surroundings. Terror threatened to choke off his windpipe. He struggled for composure, to hold on until whatever was happening ended. His will, however, had only itself to focus on. When he thought he couldn't endure the anxiety anymore, the lights came back on, and with them his sensibilities.
The warm dry air tingled on his face, relaxing his entire body as though possessing a balm for that purpose. He found himself in a forest, but it was not his. The trees were of an unfamilar type, not of this earth. And bushes and plants grew curving leaves resembling fingers that seemed to move in complicated patterns despite the absence of wind. Their colors captured every subtlety of the rainbow with some shifting from one shade to another as though signaling a message. Large flying insects converged in small groupings, their eyes out of proportion to their overall size glancing his way. A chattering sound buzzed throughout; he couldn't help but think that they were talking to one another about him.
She stood next to him, this creature, almost shimmering now in her own world. She motioned to follow and walked away. Stephen had no intention of letting her out of his sight. The dirt path changed to one of wooden planks which led to a bridge over a fast-moving turbulent stream. On the other side the landscape took on a more civilized tone. The road widened considerably and was made of flat grey stones. Their shapes were random and jagged-edged; nonetheless, they were joined precisely, seamlessly. Along its borders flowers of indescribable color combinations filled the air with a fragrance that triggered memories of times long forgotten, recollections of experiences he didn't know he had. Houses of thatch and what appeared bamboo wrapped around gigantic trees far above the ground. Others of her kind sat out on verandas twenty to thirty feet in the air. A long-necked bird with a ten-foot wingspan gracefully wended its way through the trees, its head a reddish green, wing feathers of ruddy gold and tails of blues, reds, and deep greens. The sun glinting off it was almost blinding. And the sun, he wondered, is that my sun?
The main road fanned out to a number of narrower paths that led off in every direction. She chose one; he followed. Along the borders he saw tiny straw-like huts no bigger than a rose; attached to thick straight vines, they were stacked in a spiral fashion along the vine's length from a few inches above the ground to eye level. Movement in one caught his attention, he stopped to peer. Miranda pointed to the small folk living inside, and told him, as though to a child, that it was impolite to stare. They moved on. They passed a large garden where winged-people sat about picnicking. Flowers of every shape, size, and color grew in bunches, and they moved. Stephen stared in amazement as they twined and rubbed their stems together and then would straighten up to stand alone. In his present mental milieu he felt certain they were communicating, not with words, but rather somehow through touch and chemistry, as though sharing thoughts, with all the complexity, nuance, and meaning of any human language.
The grey-slab path changed into one of wood planks, again seamlessly joined. The bizzare trees, flat on top as though cut off by an invisible roof, thickened, blocking out most of the sun. Where the path meandered, however, it shone brightly. They arrived at a circular house resting on stilts high enough for him to walk under. All this time Miranda said nothing, and neither did Stephen, overwhelmed as he was by the magical surroundings. They climbed the stairs to the wide porch enclosed by a railing. The front door, a single slab of wood on copper-colored hinges, had an intricately-carved emblem symbolizing he knew not what carved into it. The main room was furnished quite comfortably with cushioned chairs and a small couch. Rugs embroidered with unknown creatures and geometric designs covered the middle of the wood plank floor. At first glance appearing random, a motif emerged connecting images by cluster into an emergent pattern, the significance of which he had no idea. Tables of varying heights, top-shapes, and number of legs set about as though they'd been moving when they heard company. On them were vases of flowers and nick-nacks of a white and green sea-shellish material displaying figures of animals from another world. A fireplace and stone chimney graced one wall. Off to either side were two other rooms, a bedroom featuring a large canopy bed, its top a dark red felt-like fabric, and the other, a well-equipped kitchen.
On walking back to the main room, he noticed an old-fashioned rolltop writing desk, a series of stacked compartments, shelves, drawers and nooks in front, against the wall opposite the fireplace. Bookshelves almost touching the ceiling bracketed it on either side, their contents waitng to be discovered. How could I have missed that when I entered? he wondered in amazement. It should've jumped out at me.
Miranda spoke for the first time since they arrived, "How do you like it, Stephen?" she asked, her voice a melody.
"How do I like it? Why it's beautiful. And this setting. Trees, flowers and insects that talk, creatures living in tiny huts attached to vines. Pretty weird, Miranda."
"They're sprites from another land. Long ago they were displaced by gnomes and dwarfs and asked for sanctuary, which my father granted. This is now their home."
Sprites? From another land? Gnomes? Stephen almost twitched with excitement and amazement. This really exists. I'm here. He tried to settle down, to think, to reason and analyze. But that faculty was temporarily shut down. There was nothing to which the thoughts he could muster applied at any rate; he needed more information. He had a million questions but thought he'd start small, "Miranda, what does this symbol on the door stand for?"
She smiled and said, "It tells all visitors that this is the home of Stephen, the writer."
That answer stopped him short; his breathing apparatus ceased to function. His other questions faded into the background. He stood stock still, his heart pounded. It all came crashing in, duration from the meet catching up to now. In a very brief period of time he's had to accept magic and fantasy creatures as real, an alternate universe where they live, and now a shift in everything he's known as his home all these years as though in the witness protection program. Suspended in a limbo that had no obvious way out, he fought for control of his mind. His immediate surroundings seemed to move towards him, engulfing him with a warm yet suffocating hug. "What do you mean, my home? I have a cabin on my property, in another land, another world. Have you kidnapped me? For whatever reason? And where are we?"
She approached him, concern shaping her flawless features. "We've been watching you for several seasons of your world. We know of your sadness and loneliness, of your diaries and strolls through the woods. Your favorite haunts and the creatures you love and care about. We know you, Stephen, and have invited you here, at my insistence, to spend some time in a different space. Of course, you may leave whenever you want. But I admonish you to stay for awhile, at least. Food and drink will be supplied. You need time Stephen, to work things out. We will all help you. And you won't be lonely, most everyone will want to talk to a visitor from another world. And, I might point out," her smile returned, "this place will fuel your imagination, I'm sure."
She stepped closer, he could smell her. A delightful mixture of sweet jasmine and rich earth invigorated him, charging his body in ways he couldn't remember, if it ever indeed happened. "You need time to think, Stephen. I must speak to my father, tell him of your anticipated arrival. There's food in the kitchen; I'll be back later."
To add one more stick to the pile of mind-bending astonishments, she stepped out onto the porch, spread her wings, and with nary a sound, flew off through the trees. He watched until she was gone from sight. Overwhelmed, his legs watery, he managed to make it to a chair. Its softness embraced him, relaxing every strained shocked muscle. He sat looking out the window at the bizarre landscape. Slowly, he began to focus, to quiet his mind, to feel his way through the events of the day. Being a natural paranoid, what bothered him most was the surveilance. They've been watching me, invisibly, intimately, in compromising situations. His indignation and embarrassment were overshadowed by the absurdity of his predicament and the rationale for his capture. The means whereby he arrived was another story, reserved for consideration some other day. Why me? Am I that pathetic they felt the need to come to my rescue? Who am I? I'm just an ordinary guy, no special talents or anything to offer the world. I spend my time probing as deeply as I can into the mysteries of life, and in particular, my life. I'm rather self-centered, I admit, but that's what I've been doing, trying to free myself.
He stepped out onto the porch and, even though wicker chairs were available, sat on the top step. He smelled the fragrant air, listened to new creature sounds coming from deeper in the woods, watched flowers and insects converse. A grumble in his stomach reminded him of the food in the kitchen. Unfortunately, though the shelves were stocked, he didn't have a clue as to what anything was. Not having eaten that morning, hunger drove him to take a chance. One shelf was surprisingly refrigerator cold even though it was open to the warm air. He grabbed what looked like fried chicken and took a bite. It was delicious, but not chicken. On the counter sat a bottle of wine, unmistakably, and three cups. He took his finds into the living room and sat at the desk. Pens, pencils, and sheets of paper were neatly placed in cubbyholes at the back. He ate and drank and suppressed the urge to attempt to analyze the situation. Conjecture would be meaningless and a waste of energy. He knew nothing to base it on and his complete ignorance of the context made it impossible to draw inference. Besides, the rational rules of his world didn't apply.
He could go home whenever he wished, Miranda said. So slow down, he told himself. The food and wine helped in that regard. But who are these people, he asked finally, clarity reviving with each bite. People with wings in an alternate reality where common living things behaved most uncommonly. And how did I get here? Through a wormhole, a tear in spacetime, a shift sideways into another dimension? Am I asleep in my bunk dreaming?
Finished his meal, he took the wine into the bedroom, set it and the cup on a table beside the bed and lay down. He stared up at the red canopy, its surface wavered rhythmically, hypnotically. Presently, all sense of the outside world and concern for his situation left him. He surrendered. The food, the wine, and the strain on his nervous system having doused his energy sufficiently, within moments, he drifted off to dreamland.
During the following month he busied himself writing stories, one after the other, almost in a frenzy. Otherwise, he wandered about this new world with Miranda. He met her father at a state dinner in his honor as his daughter's guest and made friends with the locals. It never crossed his mind how they were able to communicate. He just assumed. But he was learning from his long talks with the princess and others how it worked.
Thoughts here were real physical things that could be shared between all creatures without the necessity for speech. It wasn't telepathy--thought transference by senses unknown--he believed; it wasn't merely reading someone's mind or projecting thoughts. The products of the mind took on a palpable character, a form of matter mingled with mind that did not exist in his world. Nor was it limited to an accurate reading of body language, nuances of gesture and facial expression. It was a synthesis of the visceral and the abstract, the whole body participated. And this seeing the thoughts of others had for cause the essential nature of the environment, inherent, immanent, embedded in the fabric. Communicating, exchanging thoughts, ideas, images, was like breathing under water. No training was necessary, immersion was sufficient. A principle of nature, this nature.
He studied the movements of plants and flowers, their evershifting colors and arrangements, and tried to discern the languages of the various insects. Although he understood them generally, each different group had its own distinctive language, a collective culture they maintained. They helped him learn, patiently. Everything was alive and held consciousness, awareness, even the grey slabs he walked on seemed to react in a stoic way, their purpose a matter of pride. He drew landscapes and individual trees, each with its very unique personality; had creatures pose for portraits, and listened to their music, intricately complex and pleasing to the ear, played every night. And wrote, positive, uplifting, wondrous, and magical tales of adventure and intirgue in lands stranger than this one. Inspired by the tapestry of this world, his budding imagination took flight.
Miranda didn't come over all the time, she had duties and responsibilities as a princess in this far-reaching land. On those nights, after he tired of writing, he'd sit sipping wine trying to recollect his most recent diary entries. The theme of his self-analysis binge kept eluding him like a tune whose title he couldn't quite remember. And the thoughts and emotions that filled his daily life wouldn't come to the surface. He sifted through the memory of his life. Usually, in his world, he'd examine instances of his failure to back himself and those he loved morally, emotionally and every other way. He betrayed and violated trust and withheld committment, fearing to lose what he imagined to be his source of power and freedom--living in the now without attachments--as he understood it.
But these memories were now suppressed or filtered out and only those of his successes, accomplishments, and high-adventure experiences--including the wild friends he had then--emerged. Times when his confidence and expertise saved the day, acts of courage that he took for granted, fun times, enjoyable life-affirming times. It was as though a dampening field refused to allow his dark, painful, otherworld thoughts and memories, his broodings and self-pity, entry into this domain. Their existence was denied.
His imagination had been stifled and nullified by an enveloping blanket of prosaic pursuits, the lines he drew encompassing his world within which he felt safe and secure, if not free and in total control. His perception with respect to himself had been murky at best, dark and merciless at worst. During those years in his cabin, he lost belief in life's abundance and potential; suffocating with unhappiness the wellspring of new life from the spirit realm. But now, here, in this bizarre world, he was being reborn, but as who?
One bright sunny afternoon, Miranda flew in to visit, landing gracefully on the porch. He ceased his research and offered her a glass of wine; she accepted. They sat on the couch. The air around her was heavier than the lightness he was used to; Stephen could tell she had something serious to talk about. "I've read your stories, Stephen. They're wonderful and interesting. You have a knack for capturing detail and describing events vividly, a person feels herself to be there, in the scene, as though it was really happening."
"Well thanks, Miranda. I was hoping you'd like them. It's funny, they just pour out." Recognizing she was working up to something, he sipped wine and waited. Finally, it came.
"Have you decided to stay here, Stephen? If you have, everything in your cabin, diaries, books, and clothing can be brought here by our people." She turned to face him, her deep blue eyes radiating warmth and honesty, and said, "I want you to stay."
He didn't know what to say. Going home had not crossed his mind of late. It was as though his melancholy memories of that world were his home, a cocoon he'd rolled himself into, and as they were blocked somehow, so was his longing for home. "I don't know," he lamely yet honestly replied. "I love it here, such nice people, and so very different from humans. Devoid of malice and subterfuge, open and straightforward, trusting. But I'm living off you and your father. I don't work, I don't pay my way. I feel dependent, and I am. I don't deserve it, I've done nothing to earn it. So I ask again, why me?"
She stood in one movement, like a cat, and walked over to his paper-strewn desk. Effort twitched her wings, effort to speak and yet not speak. Just as Stephen was about to ask her if she was all right, she pronounced, "Because you are from here. This world, originally, long, long ago." She spun to face him. "Haven't you wondered why you can communicate so easily with all the wide variety of beings here? Have you had no familiar feelings?"
He blurted out, "That's preposterous, impossible. I remember my mother and sister, living in a big city, going to school, traveling, doing things, up to buying a piece of the forest and moving in years ago. How can I be from here?"
She returned to the couch. "Every cycle the boundary separating the world you knew from Farland thins to nothing, the two worlds merge, like two bubbles touching skins. Haven't you ever been curious as to how all the myths and fantasies about fairy creatures and all you've seen here began? We were seen by humans and, in some cases, interacted with them. During the last cycle, a great transference occurred. The spirits of newborns traded places, moving across the veil. The child of the mother you knew was raised by your actual parents. A human still, he has nonetheless learned our ways and knows nothing else. I've spoken to your parents and they wish to meet you. I didn't want to overwhelm you, but I don't see how it could've been avoided. Besides that, I don't want you to go and I was afraid you'd decided to."
Stephen sat straight as an arrow, breathing shallowly. His entire universe had just been upended and set beyond his comprehension. He had questions but didn't know where to start. Is she lying? he asked himself. She does want me to stay. Could she be making this up for that reason? It's too absurd. She's a princess and I'm a nobody. "I need proof," he said.
She nodded, then touched his hand. Immediately, they were transported to his cabin. All was as he left it, but he didn't see it the same way. His belongings, books, clothes, papers he'd written were still neatly arranged, but a dark cast lay over everything like fine dust over old bones. As he soaked up the atmosphere, he began to feel heavier, the weight of the world once again falling on his shoulders. The pleasant ease and exuberance he discovered in Miranda's universe began to fade like light when the sun goes down. He was withdrawing into himself, into that private hell of absorption over sad memories and dashed dreams. In spite of it, he asked, "How is this proof of my origins?"
"You've been living in this world all your life, yet it has never felt entirely right to you. Alienation and being out of step has plagued you. The depression and loneliness you've known for some years is even now attempting to envelope you. You don't have to surrender to it. See it all, your mind and this cabin, with your original eyes. Do it, Stephen. Will it. "
He did as she insisted. He focused on that heavy silence that personified his desperate existence here. The cabin and its contents, books of mentors and diaries stacked on a shelf by his bunk, clothes and old winter coats, stained coffee pot, cups, mementoes, postcards and pictures thumbtacked to the walls, they all resonated with an otherworldly tone, objects only without emotion or sentimentality. But they were his, he poured his heart out in those diaries and spent hundreds of hours contemplating his preferred readings, sitting on the edge of the bed, reflecting, postulating, drawing conclusions. Listening to the rain on the roof or watching the snow fall, covering his world with purity; stepping out into the spring sun and the fresh earthy aroma; the autumn gusts whipping up leaves into tiny whirligigs. His birds and bees and deer, he'd thought of them as his. None of it tugged at his heart, reached out to him, embraced him.
All of it, all he'd done here, known and accumulated was tainted by his hoarding of memories of sadness and loss and self-recrimination like some demented squirrel gathering rotten nuts. He spoiled his haven in the woods by his imposition of unhappiness, a victim of his own self-loathing and helpless to do anything about it, smothering what could've been. He shared in the energy of the varied life around him, but more often than not he drew on its reserves. He'd become an emotional sink, stingy-hearted, doling out love like it was a finite resevoir that, once used up, could never be replenished.
Miranda held his hand and squeezed gently, then smiled her mischievous smile. The cabin's interior melted together as though wax or paint bleeding off an invisible canvas. It started at the walls, mingling everything and blending them into long streaks of color that twisted and stretched like taffy being pulled. The swirling mess spiraled in. At the center of a breathless tornado he watched astonished as his body blurred and smeared and coalesced with the rest of the cabin, contents included. As they were gobbled up, painlessly, from bottom to top, he succumbed to uncontrollable laughter. Presently, they appeared in his Farland house in front of the couch. The grief that had glommed onto him in his cabin dissipated as though dark matter passing through visible, filtered out, gone. "What happened," he asked, clearly unsettled but nonetheless exhilarated. He had yet to come to grips with moving through spacial dimensions. "How did you do that?" He grabbed his glass of wine with a shaky hand.
"Only the real has meaning and substance, Stephen. You were living a dream, and towards the end, a nightmare. It was all happening only on the surface of your mind. Ruminating, obsessing over problems without actively trying to find solutions. Your true being has the capacity to slough off the misery you seem to love so much. You simply don't know it." Gently, she took the glass from his hand and placed it on the table. "Come with me, it's time." She held his hand and once again they were transported.
He thought he entered heaven itself. They stood in a courtyard made of translucent gossamer-like material floating high above land. From his point of view, he could see a few whispy clouds drifting along below, and further down than he cared to know, Farland. He'd no idea how vast it was, this land; he never thought to ask. Immediately below was forested, beyond on one side, grasslands, and mountains sprouted from the sea on the other. And over those the ocean appeared to stretch to infinity; the sky above, a deep blue-green. They walked across the courtyard to a building the likes of which he'd never seen before, ornate and embossed with all manner of creatures. The walls were of a thin translucent material, evidently strong enough to support themselves. The floors were open to the main lobby, winged-people moved from floor to floor by rising and falling on their own, no elevator necessary. Massive, fluted columns hundreds of feet high encircled it, supporting nothing that could be seen by human eye.
On entering the Hall of Mirrors, the interior transformed into a completely different scene from what appeared outside. The ceiling could not be seen, the walls held paintings and tapestries; life-like sculptures of strange beings dotted the landscape. Chairs, couches, and tables were strategically placed. It all looked normal to Stephen, but what was normal in this world? As they walked and perspective changed, so did the interior of the boundless room. Paintings, furniture, rugs, all changed. The sculptures were replaced and rearranged. At first they seemed to be made of varying shades of marble, but the material transformed into glass, and then pure light. How the light stayed coherent and confined had to be pure magic, thought Stephen. No science he knew could explain it.
Miranda led him to a room shaped like a huge soap bubble; its contents hidden as though encased by an impenetrable veil. But Stephen had been here long enough; he was getting the hang of things. The membrane could be tangible or nothing more than a percept or impression in his mind. Here in Farland, there wasn't much difference. He stopped outside the sphere; Miranda continued on, passing through the filmy material. He quickly followed, closing his eyes and bracing himself as he hit what appeared to be a barrier. He felt no pressure, however; it was like the air itself. Inside, Miranda stood by a round glass table that abruptly transformed to one of wood, similar to mahogony. He wondered if that was for his benefit. Around it were seated five wingless beings much taller than Miranda's people. In fact, of all the diverse creatures he'd met in Farland, these seemed out of place. One of them gestured and two cushioned chairs appeared at the table near where they stood. By Miranda's subtle preoccupied movements, Stephen got the idea they were communicating in some fashion he'd not yet experienced. Or, perhaps, he simply lacked the sensibility. Otherwise, their eerie silence and inscrutable facial expression made them impossible to read. They presented a blank slate, only not quite so warm. He was unnerved; his street sense told him his life was about to take another dramatic twist.
Miranda hadn't bothered to prepare him for this auspicious occasion and what was to come. Apparently, this meeting and its purpose were known to her. Why else would she have said, it's time? He didn't like surprises, but lately, that's all he'd been dealing with. Expecting a form of communication beyond his imagination, including the Vulcan mind meld, he was stunned when the being in the middle spoke in a precisely enunciated english. "Mister Obelisk, Princess Miranda has informed us that you are from our world. I can see, however, that you doubt this. Let me try to help you."
From the center of the table a confined swarm of colors appeared, perhaps three-feet on an edge, writhing like angry hornets. Abruptly, they coalesced into two translucent bubbles in black empty space. "These represent our two worlds," explained the speaker. "Every cycle their membranes touch, interpenetrate and become indivisibly one, essentially forming a portal. The cycles are predictable but the specific volume of intersecting spacetime, where they merge, is not.
"The material realm is the third dimension of consciousness," he continued, "during a cycle event, a correspondence of consciousness, an inherent signature, can occur between beings of the two worlds. If this happens, a transference can take place. A transference of souls, if you will. We don't think of them as souls, however. The living things of both worlds are part of the essence of the world itself in which they manifest corporealy. This one true essence animates and brings order and complexity out of otherwise incoherent strands of random arrangements as it divides and subdivides into the infinite collection of self-contained life-forms. We have searched for those from this world who, as small children, babies, exchanged position during the last cycle with another of a resonant signature from the the world you have known all your life. They are the most suceptibile because their life essence is close to its original condition, unshaped by the vissicitudes of life. Those who have grown, experienced, learned have altered their signature, making a transference improbable. All have been replaced, the souls of each returned to their proper worlds. You are the last."
He paused to let Stephen absorb what he said, but Stephen didn't need any time for adjustment, the gist was clear. "I don't understand how you can tell I'm from here," he said. "How can that be?"
"We are of the Orbital clan, overseers of all sentient life in the universe; we have the capacity to see into the souls of others. We can sense dissonance against the background of harmony and unity. To us, it's as palpable as your body is to you. You, Stephen Obelisk, are from here, this realm, this world."
He stood, nearly knocking over the chair. All his life he's lived as a human. And now he's being told that he's actually from a world shared by creatures with wings and magical powers able to travel through empty space, and tiny ones in huts attached to vines, and even stranger things. Where buildings and furnishings can alter their appearance without a moment's notice. Where people from nowhere in particular are capable of reading the very grain of his soul.
Miranda stood to attend him; she reached out and gently touched his forehead with the palm of her hand. Presently, his surging blood calmed and the throbbing in his head subsided to bearable. In spite of her mollifying touch, he felt trapped, his breathing shallow. Had Miranda betrayed him? Were they going to try to keep me here against my will? he wondered, his brain freezing at the possibility. She'd told me I could go whenever I wanted. Hadn't she? he asked himself, having trouble remembering.
"Please, mister Obelisk, sit, relax, listen to what we have to say."
Hesitantly, stiff-legged, he gingerly sat down as though unsure of the chair's substantiality. Miranda returned to her chair beside him; she appeared to Stephen to be joyful, her smile radiant and full. He was getting mixed messsages and decided to hear them out. Living the life he'd been was nothing to yearn for, but at least it was his life in a familiar universe, a world that he understood, one that made sense.
"Where is here?" he finally blurted out, relieved of his paralysis and deference. "Where is this place? What is this place? This world?"
The speaker conferred with the others in a language of squeeks and hums, barely audible to Stephen. At once, the speaker said, "Are you familiar with the geometry of equivalent interstitial dimensions?"
Stephen had to admit he wasn't. The speaker nodded and continued, "Fractional spaces are embedded within one another forming a seamless mosaic as viewed from the orthogonal plane. Understood vertically, these spaces are stretched into a spiral, altering shape and properties, natural forces, potentials and possibilities, as each turn in the spiral completes a full cycle. A cycle for each plane is calibrated by the precise alignment of a singular point on each. At the spiral's theoretical tip lies the infinitesimal origin, the point of birth. That's the overview. It represents the scaffolding and main constituents only.
"Between each plane lies an uncountable number of interstitial spaces, self-contained and nondivisible. Spheres in motion as the spiral rotates to generate life, or, as some believe, it is life that is doing the rotating. To my mind, they are two aspects of something more fundamnetal, but that is another matter.
"To put it in terms you may understand, the world you've known and ours reside in between the same horizontal planes or slices, if you will. Because of motion and quantum fluctuations, collisions can and do occur. When that happens, the two worlds, any two worlds, co-mingle and for a time take part of the nature of a unified plane, an emergent reality that exists only for the duration of overlap. During that window, which may last for only the briefest of moments, transference is possible. It's not a question of alignment of congruent DNA sequences, the variance in dimensional complexity precludes that possibility. No, it goes deeper than that. The underlying stratum that controls the formation of the biochemicals and their configurations vibrates multi-dimensionally in a pre-spacetime reality that transcends separate universes. It's the one shining through the many, if you will. When that occurs between souls, they are each drawn into the other's universe to inhabit the other's body, to live on that plane of existence, even if the dimensions of consciousness differ."
Stephen slowly became aware that his mouth was open. They were reading his mind, he could see; taking things he'd read and understood, to a certain degree, to flesh-out their explanation. The speaker gave Stephen a chance to catch his breath, then continued, "Long ago, we devised instruments that respond to the onset of a cycle. The area where the ovelap is taking place is monitored for soul transference. Consequently, all those of here were located and the process of returning them to their rightful original bodies was completed. All, except for you. And as far as your question, 'where is here,' the answer is nowhere. There is no reference frame within which the position of here relative to anything else can be ascertained. It is simply not elsewhere, it is not the world you've known."
Stephen stared at the speaker, words would not come. The holographic simulation at the center of the table shifted to one of overlapping space as the bubbles bumped into and then passed through one another. He watched, fascinated. Two spheres collided at a point. At first, there was resistance, then immersion, interpenetration, their membranes melting passed one another, and at the center of this intersected space an outline of a tiny multi-colored cube appeared.
The speaker said, "At the center of this cube is the crossover zone. The point of light that represents it cannot be magnified further. Within it, however, is the configuration, geometrically filtered from its formless source, of your consciousness minus content. What you are seeing is a recording of events that occurred at this time, the time of the last transference. The moment of translation between you and the human is about to take place."
Stephen watched as the tiny cube of overlapping spacetimes compressed to a point. Bright intense rays of light fanned out from opposite ends. The video sped up, the two spheres of dimensional difference separated and moved apart. But before much distance could be acquired, a bright pinpoint emerged in the sphere denoting his world, the one he grew up in. "When a baby is born, a profile of his consciousness is registered in the Great Hall of Mirrors," the speaker went on. "That light you see is your consciousness. Comparison with its registration profile proves it to be irrefutably so, like a fingerprint, only considerably more complex in design and function, unique in all the universe."
Stephen continued to gape at the holographic display, watching himself grow rapidly as though fast-forwarding a movie. It stopped at peak events for a few moments, enough for him to recall the instance, and then the stream of time skipped ahead to the next fork in the road. How could they have this recording? he wondered in amazement. Enthralled, he beheld himself grow to a man, go through good times and bad, and finally arriving at his cabin in the woods. Prime events of his years there were glossed over. Abruptly, the holovid ended.
"To answer your wonderment," offered the speaker, "the local spacetime inscribes everything we do in the tiniest detail from all possible angles, embedding it in its psychic memory as protoplasmic expression. That collective memory influences directly the evolution of any particular universe."
Stephen felt like he was drowning, suffocating under a sea of argument intended to convince him that he was not of the world he thought he was, that his original home was here. What was he supposed to do with that? Simply accept their proof, sketchy and unfathomable as it was? A thought from something he read surfaced: the manipulation of reality through the process of representation. Feeling isolated and confused, he turned to Miranda; she was still smiling. It bugged him, he wanted to know why and asked her.
"Stephen, how you were living was not life. Here, you are free of all those depressing unnecessary thoughts. You can put an end to searching for an answer to your misery and unhappiness, trying to find a solution to a problem you made up in the first place. I'm smiling because I'm happy for you."
A memory popped into Stephen's head. A bar, a fisherman's bar, his first time there. A table in a far corner. A woman he just met. She smiled continuously just like Miranda; he was buying. She told him her daughter was in the hospital, it was her birthday tomorrow. She had no money to buy a gift to lift her spirits. He'd just finished a successful fishing trip so he offered her a hundred dollars. She smiled even more brightly. A couple drinks later, she excused herself to go shopping for her daughter's gift before the stores closed. She smiled as she left and promised to return later; he said he'd probably still be there. She never came back. The following day he ran into a friend of hers he'd been introduced to the previous night. She thanked him for the hundred. With it they were able to buy a gram of coke for a party on the other side of town. He left on the boat later that day.
Miranda had that very same smile. Something was up. The hairs on his very human neck bristled with alarm. He leaned forward, put his forearms on the table and looked directly into the speaker's eyes. The dark wood was cool to the touch. He asked, "Why no soul transference? My counterpart is here, I've been told." He looked sideways at Miranda.
"I believe I already explained that. A window of vulnerability exists for a brief time after a baby is born. That's when you and your counterpart switched realities. Growth and development, experiences and adaption have altered the original pre-corporeal consciousness, shaped it into a unique flesh and blood individual. So, it's too late."
"Well, if that's the case, why not just leave me where I was for the same reason?"
Miranda stopped smiling for the first time that day. The five conferred in their strange language of chirps and twitters. The speaker said, "We've given you a month in a house assigned to you. The negativity, the depression, the torturous self-examination, regrets, brooding over failures, remorse, self-recrimination, all the misery and unhappiness you've been going through doesn't exist here, is not allowed to be by the nature of this world. You've enjoyed that release, writing wonderfully imaginative stories of adventure and intrigue, fantasy and heroism. You are at peace and feel the vigor and enthusiasm that comes with it. You want for nothing; food, supplies are freely given. Why would you not want to stay here?"
Tension tightened the air around him; this was the moment of truth. He thought of his cabin, a cabin he built with care using only hand tools, and his woods, the forest he knew and the creatures who called it home, the bushes and wildflowers, their seasons to bloom, the sight of leaves and twigs layering the wet ground in the fall, the snow draping the mighty branches of cedar and fir and sculpting fantasy figures on stumps and briar patches, carpeting the earth, restoring its innocence, all this was his to explore and be in, suffer in, perhaps, but nonetheless, it was an extension of who he was in every visceral fiber of his being and what he cared for, what he loved.
If he told them he'd rather go home, would they let him? He had the uneasy feeling that they needed his presence for a reason, a purpose that, because of its nature, required he remain voluntarily. He decided that to acquiesce was not what he really wanted; something smelled bad about this whole deal. His intuition and human instincts told him their extravagant hospitality was not without ulterior motive. They'd been buttering him up and treating him like a king; it had to come with a price. Curiously, he was having trouble focusing on the mental attitude that went with it. But even though that emotion would not take hold, he knew intellectually that matters were not what they appeared on the surface. People behaved differently in this world; nonetheless, the sense that the wool was being pulled over one's eyes had to be the same in any universe. He was determined to have them lay their cards on the table. To do that, he had to push it.
Leaning his forearms on the table, hands clasped, he began, an undertone of insolence in his voice, "Mister speaker, suppose I were to tell you and your buddies here that I'd rather be home in my cabin in the woods in the world I grew up in? Whatdoya think?"
A painful silence descended on the group of five; impossibly, they appeared even more rigid. The speaker's eyes narrowed to slits, he'd clearly not expected this nor did it appear Stephen's boldness. "I won't ask you why, I'm sure you have your reasons, confused as they may be," he stated with disdain. "But, you see, we can't let you do that."
"I knew it," declared Stephen. He glared at Miranda. "You told me I could leave whenever I wished. Why did you lie to me?"
She stared straight ahead at no one in particular, her hands folded on the table. "I'm sorry, Stephen, it wasn't my intent. My mission was to find you and bring you back. I thought you'd be glad to be in your intended universe. In the beginning, I believed it was true, that you'd have a choice, free will. I only found out this morning myself from my father that it was imperative you stay. I argued with him, told him of my promise to you, but the greater good prevailed." She looked as though she might cry; Stephen believed her.
"But why didn't you tell me before we came here?"
"I don't know. I hoped you might be persuaded, so I kept it to myself. I honestly didn't think you'd want to leave."
Facing the speaker, he asked, urgency in his voice, "Why do you need me here? What difference could it possibly make?"
Confident of his position, the speaker laid it all out. "Your bodily presence will stop the transference event from ever taking place again. Your soul, your consciousness, is of this world, and your body, the matter of which it is made, is from the other world, the one we've been drawn to and have collided with over and over since the universe formed. The energy of your body's life force has already permeated much of our world. But without your continued presence, it would eventually dissipate. On a fundamental level, it acts to repel the other world, the one you came from, like two charges of the same type.
"After a time, we may no longer require your physical presence," he said in a soft tone, almost a whisper. It didn't sound to Stephen, the one-time street kid, that he believed it. "But for now, we need you here, mister Obelisk, in order to put an end to our cycle of grief. Many souls have been lost over the eons, too many. This is the first time we've been able to retrieve everyone. The stability it's brought is already apparent in patterns of forces over this local area. Eventually, it will expand to the outer reaches."
The two spheres of the holovid merged to become one. "It's to be noted that the depth of mutual intrusion of our two worlds has increased exponentially on each occurrence. If the two spheres of universes were to overlap completely, as you see here, a whole generation could be lost. Not only in our world, but in the one you've known as well. That probability is deemed inevitable by our greatest thinkers. When this might happen is unpredictable; it could take place suddenly, we have no idea where the critical point lies. Moreover, if the congruence is precise on select key parameters--and there's a significant chance of that due to micro-gravitational forces--both universes would annihilate one another, like matter and antimatter."
Stephen sat stunned; he was a captive. And his captors were trying to talk him into accepting his imprisonment like it was the patriotic thing to do. But he really didn't care about the transference event problem. It wasn't his. He shouldn't be burdened with such a heavy responsibility. The direct approach wasn't working; he tried offering a reason to let him off the hook. "Surely you can find some other way to stop the process. I don't belong here in this land of magic and forces I don't understand. I am not a magical being."
"Oh, but you are, Stephen, you've not yet been trained in the arts. First, the negativity and self-centered thoughts and feelings you conditioned yourself with must be purged. You've had this time to do so, with your writings and exploring, conversing with neighbors, studying the living things of this world. Consequently, this world has seeped into your being as well, replacing, slowly, the gloom and heartache you've known in your soul and mind, prohibited from manifesting by the nature of this spacetime. A cleansing, the process is almost complete. Afterwhich, your magical abilities will rejuvenate and develop according to their natures. Regerminate in the soil of their birth."
Stephen lept to his feet. "You can't keep me here against my will," he said incredulously, anger trying to surface. He turned to Miranda and implored, "Take me home, to my cabin." He held out his hand for her to touch. "Miranda."
"I can't, Stephen," she said, an unusual tone of sadness in her voice. "I've been blocked from doing so by my father. He has much greater powers than I do and he feared I might disobey him. He knows me well."
Stephen stared at the five elongated beings dressed in white robes, then at Miranda. No one spoke; in fact, no one moved. It all came crashing down for Stephen. He'd never felt so human and yet so out of place. In spite of the many friends he'd made in such a short time, the paranoid alienation that caused him to dissociate himself from society on Earth, wherever that is, was nothing compared to what consumed him now. Other people were out there in his world he could mingle with, no one ever stopped him; self-imposed solitude had been his choice. But now, he was being told that he had no choice. He could not return; his matter energy was vital to their survival.
He felt like running, out of the bubble room, across the kaleidoscope of everchanging vistas in the massive Hall of Mirrors, out onto the bizarre courtyard and then off the edge into the wild blue yonder to fall to his death in Farland. But he restrained himself, barely. He had to get control of himself, to focus, to figure it out. He forced himself to calm down. He tried to recall sayings and quotes that had to do with such things, but nothing surfaced; his mind was a chaos of strands of empty words and ideas that held no meaning in his present circumstance. Images of mentors came and went, none offered advice. He was left to his own devices, not all of which was he aware.
The meeting was over; it was obvious. A bell didn't have to chime. They said their piece and that was that. Stoic and adamant, the faces of the five changed subtly from soft friendliness to hard sternness. They appeared as implacable as one of the statues in the main hall. Stephen was unsure what to do, so they solved the dilemma for him. As he watched transfixed, the overseers of the Orbital clan slowly faded from view, a mist of loose molecules evaporating in the sun, not even leaving a smile behind. Overwhlemed, frustrated, and confused, he and Miranda made their magical way back to his house, to his living room where they stood a lifetime ago.
Stephen sat at the end of the couch, grabbed the bottle of bourbon off the coffee table and poured himself a stiff one. Nervous and uncomfortable, Miranda didn't know whether to stay or go. He put her mind at ease by quietly asking her to join him on the couch and have a drink. Shyly, but with the bearing of a princess, she did so. The candles on the mantle still burned. Time has no meaning here, thought Stephen. He didn't know where to begin. Her seeming betrayal or the pronouncement by the overseers. She was more important.
"You could've told me," he said. "I might've prepared an argument they'd go for. A reason they'd accept as beneficial to the common good. I understand their concern, and the inevitable--if that be the case--possible mutual destruction of the two universes is nothing to be sneered at. Laying that responsibility on me was kinda lame. First of all, I don't believe it. They used the term congruent. That would mean both universes were exactly the same size and volume, had similar structures that mapped to one another. How can that be? What are the chances of that? And what lies between them that you so easily traverse?"
He didn't wait for a response. He muttered, "They assumed I was ignorant of geometry because I didn't know that cockadoodle math they were talking about." He sipped bourbon. Normally, he would stew over his predicament, but the nature of this world wouldn't allow it. Feeling sorry for yourself is not permitted here.
Miranda finally spoke, "If I'd told you they weren't going to let you leave, you might not have wanted to go to the meeting. It was important that you hear their explanation without any predisposition to resist. I thought that when you had all the information, realized the importance of your presence, understood the evidence of your true origin, you'd choose to remain." She paused, her mood shifted as well as her tone. "What, after all, would you be leaving behind? You think you're the sum total of your memories; how could you limit yourself so? You've seen what you can do here!"
She was just getting wound up, he recognized the signs. "It's always something with you. Something happens and afterwards you brood over it--why didn't I do this, why not that. Always this dwelling on the past, over and over, undermining your belief in your self. There's always some crisis you can't get passed until you figure it out, make sense of it. I wonder why I did that or said that instead of this and on and on..."
"Enough," he said, waving a hand as he stood to pace before the unused fireplace, trying to block her out of his troubled mind. The fireplace, the beautiful ornate fireplace, an anomaly he never bothered to consider. The air remained a constant warm temperature day and night, never altering one degree. Why then a fireplace? For entertainment's sake? Firewood was stacked neatly behind the house, yet he never used any. And the kitchen. Electrical appliances--a coffee maker, a blender, a microwave--worked splendidly, but where did the electricity come from? In his walks about Farland, he'd not seen any generator stations or poles. Could the wires be underground? The house rested on stilts over six-feet high; the wires would have to come up somewhere to enter, but in his survey of the structure, he hadn't seen any.
Outlets were conveniently placed where needed, yet he had a weird feeling that if he tore into the walls, he'd find nothing that could conduct electricity--no wires. It never occurred to him to locate the circuit breaker box; something he ordinarily would've done when he first moved in. What if the lights failed? Lamps were in every room, on every table, plus an overhead light in the kitchen. And the water. Hot and cold ran from the kitchen faucet and in the bathroom, but no plumbing was visible. Why am I noticing these things now, he wondered. I've been living here over a month. He held his breath to focus. Have I been immersed in a genuine wonderland where magic rules the day, or is this all an illusion of some kind, a hallucination? Nothing is as it seems. Is that a clue?
Wearily, he pushed these thoughts aside, his concern at present lay elsewhere.
As agreeable as he found this world--the friendly atmosphere, the splendid house, the delicious food--he had a single thought going through his head: how the hell do I get out of here, back to my cabin in my woods? He came to a stop on the other side of the coffee table, turned to Miranda and said, "They mentioned something about me having magical powers of some kind that I'll eventually develop. What exactly were they talking about? What power? I don't feel any different than the day I arrived."
"But of course you do," she replied. "You must. By simply being here, changes on the physical and psychic level have occurred and continue; accelerating, in fact, towards a purification of your true self. Because of how you singlemindedly pursue any avenue of learning, of inquiry, those juices have been moving in the same direction through your will and passion, concentrating all your energies on growth and happiness. Your magic is in place within you. "
She stood across from him, peered into his eyes with that deep intensity he saw when first they met, and said, "The trigger to allow your powers to come forth is the necessity of committing yourself to being here, without doubt, without trckery, without the tiniest of reservations. Emotions guide magic and it cannot be fooled. You must open yourself fully, wholeheartedly embrace life and immerse yourself in it here in our world, your world."
"But what will this power do? How can I possibly know what it is, what to look for? Do I try to move things with my mind or a hand gesture? Can I stop time all around me and walk through space only? Can I fly without wings? What?"
Miranda walked to the back porch and gazed out over the balmy forest. The sky was turquoise; the air, pleasantly warm and filled with the fragrances of myriad flowers. Stephen joined her. He put the bottle on the handrail of the bannister she leaned on. "Our scholars trace lineage back to the beginning of recorded time," she said, staring out at the trees. "Ironically, your family is gifted with the ability to traverse through time and space. That is your destiny and your birthright. But those with this ability choose to use it for practical reasons and to remain here, in this universe. There are natural rules of behavior that both support and constrain all. No one uses his particular power against another or to gain advantage. It is simply not allowed."
Stephen finished his glass and poured another. What was he being told? A paradox? The ability for him to return to his cabin would be his, provided he learned how to implement it, if only he'd fully commit to staying here. And magic would know if he was being sincere or not. There must be another way, he thought, racking his brain for an answer. He needed to think, calmly, clearly, coherently. But now was not the time.
He filled his glass and sat down in one of the wicker chairs. Miranda turned to him and said, "I want you to stay, Stephen," emotion coloring her voice. "I care about you deeply."
He was taken aback. They'd been good friends all this time, but he assumed she was unreachable, being a princess and a magical being to boot. Was this the final gambit to induce him to stay? Could he trust her? Did he want to? They wanted him to live here voluntarily; apparently, that was important. But why? It seemed a moot point. He had no choice at present but even so felt he was being pressured to comply. It was all too much to think about. He told Miranda he wished to be alone, he needed time to digest the implications of this change in his situation. His old perspective was shattered and a new one had yet to arrive. She acquiesced, spread her wings and flew off through the woods. He watched until she was lost.
He sat there taking in his lush surroundings, drinking bourbon until his upper mind fogged over and his reptilian brain kicked in. There was method to his drinking. His bourbanized brain often found connections that his sober mind, with its penchant for order and rational thought, overlooked. He tried to recall what the speaker had said, in detail, looking for a loophole. Voluntary. It seemed important. Perhaps my will to commit to being fully in this space is necessary for the effect emanating from my psycho-physical being to permanently seal this world from the one I've known? He shook his head; words without meaning.
He made it to his feet, grabbed the bottle and went inside to plop on the couch. He was upset in a destabilized way and angry, he struggled to calm down. As he understood it, he would possess the ability to magically transport only if he didn't use it to go home, only if he was fully and honestly committed to being here, in this world. The catch-22 in the ointment. It had no value to him other than as a ticket back to his world, crazy and solitudinous as it was.
He went over the meeting, his gut told him something wasn't quite right. How the hell did his mere physical presence block this entire vast expanse of spacetime from overlapping the one he knew? And why wasn't he informed of the reason for bringing him here at the very beginning? He'd been kidnapped, seduced by the beauty, strangeness, and friendliness of Miranda. Who could resist? Had she known then? She said no, he believed her.
He sat and mulled over everything that was said and some that wasn't. Body language, such as it was, told him they were anxious to project a perception of superiority and godly authority. What they decided was for the good of the universe and that was that. Did no one ever question them or their decisions? Stephen sat up straight: they have another motive, an ulterior one, one that may not be for the good of anyone's save theirs. He knew nothing about them and had no idea of their power and true authority. They dominated even over the king, Miranda's father. How can that be?
He had no proof yet that the ultimate restriction on his supposed gift actually was the case. Many times in his life he'd believed implicitly in what some authority figure had said or written, only to discover later that it was either a lie or a misunderstanding. Could that be what's going on here? He doubted a misunderstanding; an agenda was behind the whole transference event story. He scrunched into a corner of the couch with glass of bourbon in hand and inspected the situation, a talent he developed over years of self-analysis and introspection. Deconstructing events down to the base elements had become ingrained, his life's work to which stacks of diaries bore witness.
He was on a planet of a solar system in a galaxy amongst countless billions, or was he? He'd assumed without inquiring; hence, the congruence, the similarity of structure. He assumed a lot of things. The house, for instance, he accepted as is. Electricity and water, hot and cold, were magically provided, without cease or interruption. It troubled him. Usually, or actually always, his circumspect approach formed the basis of his security and confidence; he had to know what he was getting into. And what of the stories he'd been writing? His imagination had never been that fecund. And such stories they were. Fantasies with freakish creatures doing improbable things in extraordinary landscapes of both a physical and mathematical dimension. He wrote incessantly, at all hours, characters came alive as they experienced one adventure and predicament after another. He'd finish one then start another, off on a different tangent entirely.
Since his arrival, he'd been perceiveing not only his surroundings, including the house, but his preoccupation with writing and exploring this strange world as well, out of context. He needed to step back for the wide view, to make sense of it all, if possible. He stared out at the canopy of the forest and beyond, to the sun. He recalled wondering if that was his sun or not.
Suddenly, his mind was flooded with memories of his life on Earth. Playing football through his teen years, in the tiny backyard with his toy cars and soldiers when a child, college life, taking the subway to school, walking through the snow, hitchhiking across the country in his early twenties, ending up in San Francisco and then the Northwest and finally Alaska where he learned to fish on the ocean. Forks in the road that directed his destiny traipsed by tauntingly. Highlights and intense experiences emerged in vivid detail, then blurred to be replaced by others. His wild adventures, the pain, the joy, the exhilaration, his many travails and heartbreaks, his compatriots and friends, relationships that died on the vine as a result of his selfishness, arrogance, and poor choices, pursuing dreams he only imagined he wanted. He remembered feeling helpless to act for his own behalf, for someone he loved, to self-destruct and let it all fall down, to once again know self-loathing and accusations of cowardice and betrayal. In good times, accomplishments and strong passions had filled his heart with a desire to know life, that it was to be celebrated fully in the present on all levels for its own sake. But these periods were not long-lasting.
And more recently, the disintegration of his confidence and belief in self, the doubt and uncertainty that engulfed him as life choices dwindled and depression set in, quitting everything and taking up residence in the woods years ago, building a cabin, searching for truth, for freedom and autonomy, keeping diaries that fruitlessly traced the same terrain over and over. This inundation of personal memories, both good and bad, infused his soul with grit and invigorated his personality. He couldn't suppress the torrent even if he wished. It ran the course, the trajectory of his life, right up to his fateful encounter with Miranda, winged Princess of Farland.
He accepted all of it, or more properly, it possessed him. He no longer felt the obsessive need to scrutinize separate events, looking for the weakness he believed had caused his downfall from grace. Something he presumed on the basis of conceit in the first place. He could no longer keep it at bey, examining his history like a crystal in the light, distant and disconnected. He no longer wished to sidestep responsibility for anything he'd ever done. The strain to find excuses and to rationalize his behavior had become too much. He would never arrive at a satisfying conclusion. There would never be a eureka moment, a pointing to something fundamental and saying, that's it. Like a dog chasing its tail, he was trapped in a circle of never-ending introspection, a self-analysis controlled by the very faculty at the heart of the problem.
He reflected on his time in this unknown world. Never before had his imagination produced such intricate imagery and detailed descriptions of improbable characters and events. He'd been convinced, naturally enough, that the beings in his stories were creations only and were unlikely to exist in reality, whatever that was. Now, he wasn't so sure. As he probed for the source, he couldn't dismiss the feeling that he'd written them as though non-fiction, a ghost writer recording an account dictated to him. He acted merely as a conduit. But the wording, the phrases, the scope and detail of imagery and description were surely all his. Or were they?
Could that be it? His bourbanized intellect asked. Could that be why the overseer clan insisted he stay? They wished to use his special talent, a product of his hybrid nature, to study and spy on other worlds, other planets? Maybe as a prelude to contact? Of course, why else tell him his magical gift of transport was unusable, catching him in a double bind?
Miranda always took copies when she came to visit. It made him happy that she'd taken an interest in his work. Instead, he suspected, she probably brought them to the overseers who read them as reports. He believed the characters in his stories were creatures of his mind, set free by the evocative and mysterious nature of this very different natural order. Now, the prospect that they might be representatives of real people living on another planet or plane of existence astounded him. He didn't and couldn't know for sure, of course, not at this time, but paranoia breeds a cynical perspective, and he was no stranger to that.
He took a sip and reflected, darkly. After a time he had to admit the whole idea seemed pretty stupid. For beings capable of traveling between worlds, why the hell would they need anyone to tell them how people in other worlds behaved? They could find out for themselves. Besides, his stories are about individual characters thrown into the middle of circumstances and events who then proceed according to plot, the story line. How would that inform them about an entire populace? Other possibilities floated by: he was an oracle; a covert agent; an amusement.
The sun was setting, colors mingled from gold to deep crimson. He tried to hold on to his memories, but they faded into wisps and shadows, losing their strength, falling into the abyss of yesteryear. He emptied his glass and dropped it on the floor. Wearied, drunk, and stressed, he stretched out on the couch. With considerable help from the bourbon, he began to relax, to let anxiety and tension ooze out and away. As he lay there cocooned in a drunken haze, he decided to accept his situation, to live here as his home, to commit to being in this world. For the moment, at least, nothing could be done about it anyway. He didn't submit or surrender to their will so much as he felt he was embracing the unknown. He had no choice. Whatever their reasons for keeping him here, here he was.
Lying still, the silence of the house overwhelmed him like a blanket of light snow. No birds chirped, no breeze fluttered the leaves, not a breath of air stirred. He fought to stay awake, fearful of drowning, but it was no use. Closing his eyes against the twilight, he drifted off.
He dreamed of when he was a boy playing with his cat. A Christmas tree with lights blinking and tinsel glistening stood in the parlor. The dining-room table was laden with Christmas dinner prepared by his grandmother, a most excellent cook. He sat next to his grandfather, Gramps, he called him, who he loved with all his heart. Earlier that day his mother, sister, and he went to the Cathedral downtown for Mass. This was his family, his earthly family.
The dream shifted to a whole other scene. He was on a spaceship traveling away from Earth. He watched the viewscreen in the darkness as they raced off, heading out of the solar system. Receding into the distance, the Earth grew smaller and fainter until it was but a tiny pale blue dot, a single speck amongst countless suns and planets scattered across the void. He sat in wonder, regretting his choice, even though he didn't know where he was going or why. A deep pang of loneliness reverberated through his entire body, the tether with his homeworld was about to be broken. He blinked and in that moment lost sight of the tiny mote of dust that was Earth. He almost panicked in desperation. Feeling lost, he sat alone, hoping he could find his way back.
When he awoke, the air was chill on his face and the sun shone balefully through the grimy windows. He stared at the rafters crisscrossing several feet above. The cedar-plank table, covered with notebooks and sheets of paper, sat by the far window. Seriously hungover, it took some time for the realization to kick in. He was home in his cabin. Gingerly, he sat up. He wore the same clothes he had on when he met Miranda, right down to the wool socks. Except for a curious grey haze, the interior looked as he'd left it. His battered, stained coffee pot sat on the stove; his books appeared undisturbed on the shelves; the many cards he'd saved over the years remained tacked to the walls and cabinet doors; his clothes were neatly folded on the shelf to his left. He rubbed his face and head, trying to bring some clarity to a muffled mind.
He put his leather boots on, not bothering to lace up. He went to the door, apprehensive and expecting absolutely anything, grabbed the knob and opened it. He was greeted by the sight of his scraggly front yard, three ordinary plastic chairs sat in their usual positions, a spindle table sat amongst them, moss taking it over. Shafts of sunlight streamed through breaks in the canopy, highlighting this and that as though deliberately pointing out special things to evoke his identity. Beyond, the surrounding forest went out for many acres of pure wilderness until butting against the National Refuge. Taking it all in at once strained his head as though his brain's connections were forming new networks, unsnapping and resnapping simultaneously.
Physically, viscerally, the gates were open, the doors of perception felt strong and eager to know. His commitment had worked to free him by letting go of restraints and allowing him to experience his surroundings as though he and it were one. The separation between the inner and outer worlds vanished, having been make believe from the beginning, an illusion only.
He thought to make coffee but didn't have the patience. He stepped off the tiny porch onto solid earth and stood to breathe deeply, to smell the spring morning and to sharpen his wits, hopeless as that may be at this point. Nonetheless, his condition took the edge off; if he'd been completely sober he might've been reticent, analytically consider recent events, then methodically calculate how to proceed. Hungover, his haywire mind was ready to adapt to circumstances outside the norm, sensitivity having been supplanted by cauterized nerve endings, whatever the course may offer.
Determined to solidify his identity and regain ownership of his life, he trudged down to the spot adjacent the swamp with the moss-covered boulder where he first met Miranda. On the way he regarded with pleasure wildflowers newly blooming and the maturing leaves, shades greener than when he last saw them. The insects, busy with purpose, flying to-and-fro, completely ignored him, for which he was grateful. The air grew danker as he approached the swamp. Nearing the nexus, he stepped cautiously, fearful that someone may be waiting to take him back. Although they could appear anywhere, he was sure, that place held special significance. He crouched behind some high bushes and peered in. No one was visible, which, however, he knew now, didn't mean squat. Irritation stiffened his spine; fed-up, he strode into the grassy clearing.
Brimming with rain water, his cup still sat on the boulder. Moss encircled its base, a spider had used the handle for an anchor but the web had seemingly been abandoned. When was that? he wondered. How long in this time have I been away? Against its cream-colored background a picture of an old sailing ship could be seen despite the coffee stains. He stood before it as though a sacred totem and tried to bring forth the consciousness of self he possessed that day, attempting to recall the moment and to see his surroundings as he had. In the midst of this ill-fated meditation, a rustling in the bushes caught his ear. Instinctively, he crouched. Hearing no follow-up, he walked over to where he found Miranda. Clover covered where her feet had been when she reached out to touch him. At that thought, he stepped back and quickly scanned about. He heard nothing, not a bird or a squirrel or the buzzing of bees. He walked back to the boulder and sat next to his cup as though a friend he hadn't seen for a long time. He began to tell of his adventure, to speak it in words and so capture it before it took possession of his mind, to distill it from his body's memory, when a bright light materialized on the other side of the cup. Instinctively, he closed his eyes, his heart raced. When he opened them he turned to see Miranda sitting on the boulder, her wings tucked neatly between her shoulder blades. Her face was serious, warm and supple, but nonetheless, she appeared more mature, older. Stephen realized he didn't know how old she was. Given her magical nature and the plane on which she existed, he had no idea, she could be anything.
Although he felt he should act or say something to put her on the defensive, he waited. He couldn't help it; she had a way about her that softened his insides. She was beautiful and beyond exotic. And a princess. So, out of deference if nothing else, he sat and gazed, waiting.
"You found the hole in the bottom of the basket, Stephen," she said, like a cool breeze gliding by. "A tiny imperfection exists in all manner of creations, a necessary element without which there would be no spontaneity and hence, no life. You've chosen to live the life of our world while physically existing on this plane."
She dropped to the ground and walked about; Stephen did likewise, wanting to be near her. "To do otherwise will transport you back to our world, our universe. Your stories were all about you, in truth, as your counterparts lived in other worlds, on other planes. Our Overseers examined these stories and through them realized that all the selves linked to you were in their proper life-sustaining universes. And with this unbroken ring, harmony could be achieved. No more overlappings and loss of self-energy."
Stephen's mind wrestled with the concept of multiple selves, his besotted brain struggled to process. "Why then tell me I couldn't leave, that my will to be and the magic to transport back here were irreconcilable?"
She turned to face him, her smile returning. "The Overseers are from before time; they are the embodiment of the initial generating force that seeded the collective network of universes. When worlds overlap ocassionally, transference events occur. They sought to find a cure. They discovered a parallel system and pattern of links running through all worlds, all universes. It connects the selves of individuals existing in each. Due to random transference events over the eons, these selves are scattered throughout the cosmos, living in worlds not of their origin. But, after this last event with our world overlapping this one, we were able to find and recover all the souls from each and return them to their proper homes. You were the last to be found."
She paused to touch the tiny petals of a wildflower. It bloomed more brightly momentarily, then regained composure; Stephen knew how it felt. "When I brought you to our world, a shift in phase--a fine-tuning--across the entire cosmos eliminated the imperfection that allowed for the events in the first place. They believed it mandatory for this symmetry solution to continue unperturbed for you to remain. But your strong desire to return home created a random fluctuation in the balance."
Stephen had enough of this crazy talk, he didn't understand it and anyway didn't care. "But what about the other guy? The soul or whatever from here who lives in your world? Doesn't that create an imbalance?"
"Not if you're here," she replied flatly. She approached him to within inches, he could feel her sweet breath on his face. Her eyes sparkled with genuine caring. "One integrated cross-cosmos link preserved is all that's necessary for the entire system to be restored to equilibrium. The naturally intended design is thereby reclaimed. Fixing a singular dimension induces that same order in all the others. And for that to happen, you must live in both worlds. Your soul must abide in ours, and your body in this one. But, and this is a big but, if you waver from the path, you will return to our world to at least keep the two from overlapping."
"Then I was tricked into willing to be in your world."
She smiled and took him in her arms. "No, Stephen. You needed to be shown the way. You could've given up like you've done a million times before. You could've accepted failure without trying, but none of your other selves would do that. The Overseers were convinced you would likewise assert your will to be no matter what world you had to live in. The negativity you dwelled in had all but completely vanished during your time with us. You were ready."
She kissed him on the lips and held him tight. She whispered into his neck, "I will come to visit from time to time. I will teach you how to use your power so you may visit me as well." She stepped away. Smiling, she said, "Be the person you are, Stephen Obelisk, the person you were meant to be," then was gone, her brilliant shimmer quickly fading to nothing.
Stephen stood quite still for a time, fearful to move a muscle lest he disintegrate into so many molecules. The forlorn cry of a mourning dove broke the spell. He gaped at the cup as if to ask did you see that? His head throbbed from dehydration and the strain of trying to grasp ideas beyond his reach. He ambled back to his cabin and mechanically built a pot of coffee. No thoughts came to mind as he watched it perk. The sound filled his entire space, it was all that mattered. He poured a cup and went outside to sit in his favorite lawnchair. Birds seemed to come out of hiding, he wondered how sensitive they were to the presence of magic. The sun rose higher, dew had long since evaporated, the air warmed in quantum stages. Insects, the kind that don't gather to gossip and spy, flew about, landing on a knee or arm to take a break every so often. His head was clear, the pressure relented, his mind stilled to utter silence, to the void between two worlds. No inner chatter, no accusatory voices reminding him of past mistakes and misfortunes, no authors came to mind with their insightful sayings, no questions to ask about why he did this or that, no second-guessing, no reprimands, no shoulda-couldas. All was quiet and finished, done, completed, in a world without ugliness or pain.
He took another sip, then dumped what remained onto the ground as was his habit, a ritual that was all him. He decided to go to town and walk about. Be a tourist, a visitor, a stranger in a strange land that he intended to discover anew, whatever it may bring and wherever it may lead. He could be happy and engaging, playful; he gave himself permission. He walked back inside to pour another cup. It's going to be a good day, he said out loud. The forest shot back, That's entirely up to you.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923) - Robert Frost
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923) - Robert Frost