Both Sides Now

Until I died, I hadn’t noticed I’d been living in a bubble. Aging and death were unknown to me. But looking back I might have seen it coming: the pressure in my chest, losing mobility in my limbs, every movement meeting greater resistance. The tightening increased toward the end. Then came intense pain, in my head, all over my body. My world went into convulsion. Whatever I’d deemed important no longer mattered. Everything shrank down to that single moment in time. When a light appeared above my head, brighter than anything I’d known, I went to it. Hands reached down and lifted me into the light. And I took my first breath.

May your bubble rise and in the fullness of time burst in glory on the surface of heaven. – “The Navigator’s Dream”

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The Boy and The Wizard

Once long ago in a far-away land, a wizard came to live on a mountaintop. In a single night, he conjured a fabulous palace and, to conceal his great age and ugliness, he made himself to look like a handsome young prince.

From the beginning, some people in the village below the mountain saw the dark wizard’s twisted smile and malevolent eyes behind the Princely charm. But most villagers welcomed the Prince. Their sons wanted to become knights. Their daughters dreamed of becoming princesses.

But when they sent their happy children to visit the Prince’s palace, the children all returned in fear. It was as if the Prince had stolen all the love and joy from their lives.

So instead of sending children, the villagers sent offerings: sacks of gold and silver from whatever they could sell, food from their gardens, fresh game, fine horses, and the best of their crafts. For years they worked in his vineyards, plowed his fields, prepared his food, did whatever the wizard requested.

Then one day, the wizard demanded that all the young daughters and sons be sent to him. The villagers overcame their fear and angrily stormed the mountain.

To their great surprise, the Prince, the palace and guards, walls, weapons, and sinister beasts withered before them, rising and blowing away like the morning mist. Where once the palace stood, they found only a low altar and a small box of black wood carved with magical symbols. They found no sign of the gold or gifts they’d given.

Slide1The villagers destroyed the altar and took the box, not daring to open it. For it was said the long-dead wizard lived only in his illusion, bound to the dry, taut-skinned skeleton folded within the box.

They appointed a watchman to keep the box. Years passed. The wizard was lost in legend and the box misplaced.

 

Many years later, a poor woman and her son came to live in a run-down cottage at the foot of the mountain. The boy’s father, a woodcutter, had died years earlier and left them penniless. The woman worked, sewing and mending clothes for the village and caring for her son. The boy tended their small garden and patched the roof of their cottage. Times were hard, food ran short, and the woman grew too sick to keep up with her mending.

The boy was clever and ambitious but feared to leave his sick mother alone. One day, he went to the garden and found only two radishes and a turnip. Not wanting to see his mother cry, he went in search of food.

 

A stream flowed from the mountain and ran past their village down into a dark wood. Villagers took water from the stream but never fished or lingered, for it was said to have an ancient curse. Those who tarried along its banks heard voices in the splashing water, and several said they’d seen a handsome Prince bathing.

But the stream was also known to have many fish, and boy and his mother had not eaten a full meal for many days. The boy took a pole, and worms and grubs he’d dug from the garden, and went to the stream. No sooner had he sat on the bank than he heard a call.

“Greetings.” The pleasant male voice flowed from an eddy swirling behind a smooth stone. “You look tired, my son. Perhaps a drink might refresh you, and a bath cool your feet.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said the boy, looking warily for anyone lurking along the bank. “But I must hurry along after I’ve taken a few fish, if that is permitted.” While they spoke, the boy pulled up one good-sized trout after another.

“You are welcome, my son. I am generous and have many fish to share.” A splash curled back into the flow. “But if you must go so soon, let me give you something to go with your fish.”

The grass beside the boy grew tall and weaved a basket. Round stones became loaves of warm brown bread, red apples and tomatoes, and pebbles turned into scallions.

The boy put the four fish he’d caught along with the bread and vegetables into the basket and quickly headed home. As he walked away, the stream crashed its banks. “Come tomorrow,” it said. “You’ll see I have much more for you.”

By the time the boy reached home, the sun had gone down and the cottage was dark. He put the fish in a bucket of water, set the basket of food on the table, and fetched wood for the stove. His mother had gone to bed early, so he decided to wait to surprise her with a meal.

The following morning the boy found his four fish ready to clean and cook, but the basket had become a mat of dead grass piled with stones. The boy prepared the fish for breakfast and decided not to tell his mother about his strange encounter. That afternoon he went back.

The stream called warmly as he approached, “How did you and your mother enjoy the food?” The boy cast his fishing rod and instantly felt a fish on his line. When he removed it, he felt another then another, as fast as he could cast.

“Those were fine gifts,” the boy answered, “and my mother thanks you.”

As they spoke, a young girl walked to the stream with two jugs slung on a pole across her shoulders. The boy watched as she filled the jugs but did not speak. She was the mayor’s beautiful daughter, a delight to his eyes in her bright blue dress tied with a braided, red cord. As she filled each jug at the stream, she held back the red cord to keep it from getting wet. On rising, she flashed the boy a smile that outshone sunshine.

“She can be yours, my son,” gurgled the stream. “You deserve her. I can make her come to you and anything else you want. See the glitter in my banks?”

A gold coin shone in the silt and beside it another. Scooping his hand, the boy came up with several coins, gold and silver, bearing images from a kingdom long ago. Forgetting his fear, he followed the coin path down toward the water and filled his pockets.

The boy heard a splash further out and, looking up, saw the mayor’s daughter wadding in the stream. She held her polka dot dress high, keeping it from the rushing water and revealing her long-tapered legs. The boy noticed the water flowing past her legs had no wake or eddy, and her steps made no splash.

He stumbled back onto the bank, collected his fish, and ran for home.

“Come again tomorrow,” called the stream with a gurgled laugh. “I have much more to give you.”

When he got home, he showed the coins to his mother. She turned them over in her hands. Then she told him the legend of the treasure that had never been found, and how a wizard used illusions and false promises to lure his young victims. She forbade him ever to go back.

Next morning, he slipped out early before dawn. He found the stream surging violently when he arrived. “Are you angry, Sir?” he asked. “Perhaps I should not have come.”

“Not at all, my dear boy,” said the stream, its waters becoming suddenly still.

“With your approval then, I’ve come to fish once more.”

“Please do take some of my fish. I am feeling much better now that you have come. I want to give you riches and favors beyond anything you can imagine. Want more gold … see here on my bank.” The boy again filled his pockets, but this time was careful not to enter the water.

“Your gifts are very fine, Sir,” the boy said, willing calm into his voice. “But what more could I wish from your generosity?”

The stream quickened but remained unruffled. “To the one I choose I can give wealth and power, glory and fame. You will live in a palace. All men will envy you, and every girl you see will wish to be in your company. But I cannot do these things here in this place in this form. I must first be restored to my real self.”

The boy cocked his head, eyes wide. “Alas, I am a only a simple country boy with no great powers.”

“Do not worry,” my son. “If you release me, I will give you everything and all power. You can remake the world as you wish. But first you must release me.” As it spoke, a wave swept across the bank revealing the corner of a small black box carved with symbols. The box was covered with silt and water-stained, but when boy lifted it from the bank, it glowed as if newly lacquered and polished.

“Take the box home and open it,” the stream said sternly. “Then I will keep my promise, and you will live happily forever after.”

The boy nodded, tucked the box under his arm, and headed home.

As he neared the cottage, he heard his mother singing and smelled stew boiling on the stove.

Inside he found the mayor’s beautiful daughter standing on a small stool, her arm raised while his mother fit her in a new dress. The girl smiled and lowered her eyes. His heart melted. He touched her arm to see if she was real. She returned his touch and handed him the braided, red cord she’d kept from her old dress.

“Keep still,” said his mother through teeth clamped tightly on straight pins.

The boy looked at the black box in his hands then at the boiling stew pot on the roaring wood stove.

Two frail, boney hands reached out, grabbing at his wrists. The boy quickly slid the box into the mouth of the stove. As he pushed the box back with a poker, the boy saw an ancient face scream silently, and watched tongues of fire hungrily claim it.

He turned back to the room, fearful of what might be missing. His mother, the mayor’s beautiful daughter, the gold, and the fish he had caught remained in sight.

With the strange voices and images no more, the villagers soon returned to fish the stream and picnic along its shore. The boy’s mother recovered her health. He and the mayor’s daughter married and lived happily. Perhaps they still do.

My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

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I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.

Fill in the Blank

“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things …”  – Through the Looking-Glass

 

Booths on one bare wall of the windowless waiting room were flanked by glass cases on two walls and opposite a single metal door centered on the far wall.

A new human strode boldly from one of the booths toward the exit. It wore red tights and a canary-yellow, breast-peaked T-shirt, and had spiky blue hair, pouty lips, and impossibly blue, saucer eyes. A second human wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie, and beige canvas trousers, walked out more slowly, her face buried in a schematic design for a fusion rocket motor.

“Next, L-F-O-O-Z, you’re next,” a handsome young walrus called from one of the assignment booths. A doughy blob in one of the glass cases looked around. None of the other blobs moved. It looked down at the label on its case. “Yes, you, Lfooz. Please come along. Don’t worry. Your name will change when you get assigned.”

The blob slid over the case wall onto the vinyl tile floor then oozed toward the assignment booth. The walrus official walk-paddled to the other side of a low counter and motioned for Lfooz to slide up. The nested stack of trays on the counter looked like one used to display jeweled earrings for purchase or to distribute communion cups.

“You understand why you’re here? Why this is important?” the walrus official asked, wiggling his close-cropped whiskers. Lfooz wrung itself like a wet towel. “Okay, let’s start with the basics. Do you know what you want to be in life?” Lfooz gave a slow twist.

“These,” the walrus said, setting a display tray in front of Lfooz, “are life choices.” The tray held capsules of all colors. “The one you pick determines your attributes: interests, character, intelligence, sense of humor, skills, and your setting—race, sex, nationality, family background. Some like to call it ‘the hand you’re dealt.’ Once you make your decision, you’ll proceed to birthing, forget your experience here, and live out your life. At life’s end, you’ll transfer to Ever-Endeavor (see explication in “Time Cube”) to harvest the fruits or wretchedness you’ve sown. Shall I show you some of your choices?” The walrus waved a flat flipper over the display trays.

Lfooz pointed a pseudopod. “What me? A walrus? Yah, some choices you only get once in life. I was being cocky—thought if I did something stupid they’d give me a do over.” Lfooz motioned to the door on the bare wall where the women had exited a moment before.

“Those two?” Lfooz’s dough body rose and fell. “You get to drive your life choice out of the showroom, but they’ll still have to go through birth, childhood, and adolescence. Sorry, that’s life.”

He pointed to a red capsule. “This one’s very athletic and doesn’t think too much. It comes in male and female versions, or a mix of both. Fans cheer and mates throw themselves at you. You make a lot of money, cover yourself with tattoos, abuse yourself with drugs and alcohol then die young in a bar fight. Comes with a full guarantee.” When he got no reaction, the walrus pointed to the blue capsule.

“This little baby is brilliant and also comes in male and female makes. It’s an inventor, a creator, makes a boatload of money designing stuff, but doesn’t have much time to spend it or to find mates. It lives a long quiet life with cars and cats for companions. Also guaranteed.” Lfooz rolled two doughy arms together, and the walrus moved on.

“The green capsule provides everything you need: food, housing, medical care, clothes, and you don’t have to lift a finger. You spend your days outside, looking at flowers and pigeons, and collecting money from passersby. It’s nondescript, most people won’t care what your sex is and neither will you. Guaranteed.”

The walrus went through the entire stack of trays and choices, and got no reaction. Then he asked, “See anything that interests you?”

Lfooz’s boneless mass rose and fell twice. It extended a dough finger to specific attributes for several capsules: the first, second, fifth, eighteenth, thirty-seventh.

“I see,” said the walrus, “you want a balance, to be a stable, healthy, wise, hard-working, dependable, and friendly person who divides time for family, profession, and other interests.” Lfooz rose and fell slowly.

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“Of course.” The walrus pulled a small cloisonné box from a rear shelf. Within its gold interior was a single white capsule. “This one can provide everything you hope for.”

Lfooz scanned the attributes list, each line followed with a single word “optional,” and pointed to the blank on the last line.

“No, it carries no guarantees.” When Lfooz looked puzzled, the walrus explained. “My mistake, it does have one guarantee. However you arrive in life, whatever your situation, your fate will be determined by decisions you make and the courage you have to see them through. This life starts where it starts and has neither ceiling nor floor.”

Lfooz took the white capsule and walked upright from the booth, determined to take the best of whatever life offered. No guarantees.

The Navigator’s Dream

“What does the fish think when he is jerked up … through the silver limits of existence and into a new universe …?”   – Stephen King, The Dark Tower

Panic rose in my throat. It was my first trip to the Bayabi Hall of Justice. I felt an urge to flee but knew that would condemn me to a life of solitude, to dream alone until my final day of bursting.

The great domed hall smelled of the sea, salty, moist, and warm. Its animated wall and ceiling décor depicted the Bayabi concept of the universe: a vast sea filled with strings of bubbles, snaking upward to touch and burst on the molten silver sky. I imagined I was one of those bubbles pressing onto the surface.

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Everyone wore simple, knee-length, white gowns. The Judge behind the high altar looked down, paying me no notice.

“Righteous Judge,” announced the clerk, “may your bubble rise, and in the fullness of time, burst in glory on the surface of heaven.” The Judge nodded the clerk to proceed. “First on the docket, the inquest into the bursting of the Navigator, Gorlet. Arthefal is here as witness.”

The judge narrowed her gaze on me. “You are Arthefal? You understand your summons?”

“I am. I do. I am to give account of my relationship with Gorlet.”

The Judge corrected, “This is an inquiry into the nature and the departure of Gorlet, generally known as the Navigator. Thus we shall refer to him in these proceedings. You knew him well?”

“The Navigator initiated my first dream with—”

“Briefly, recount the highlights of your relationship.” The Judge sounded impatient.

“For the brevity you request, my I dream my experience?”

The Judge nodded, and I drew her into my dream. We stood in darkness … a shaft of light cut through … gray bands appeared in the haze, thinning and darkening, becoming the wizened image of Gorlet the Navigator. “Come, my little one,” he said. “Come and dream.” I blinked, panicking at the unfamiliar light and reaching about in the open space. “Dreams have no walls,” Gorlet explained calmly. “Have no fear. Your bubble has not burst. The surface of the eternal sea remains far away.”

I dream-guided the Judge through my early experiences, making sense of colors, chords, and colognes, waves of impressions crashing, slowly gathering form and meaning.

Gorlet said, “Many beings cannot dream, and we must dream for them.” He demonstrated by turning a formless spark into a swirl of blue petals atop lacy, green leaves.

The Judge flew with me and the Navigator, through dreams of rivers and mountains, over reedy ponds, into caverns and canyons. We talked with dream citizens: village venders, dancers, and street philosophers. At long last, we took sail with the Navigator on a small craft, outbound on the dream sea to the end of all dreams, where waking and bursting become one, where only Navigators dare.

The Judge pulled suddenly back, her hands and head shaking as if from intense cold. “I respect your skills and the skills of the Navigator,” she said, “but to go so near death, so near the bursting … it frightens me.”

The Judge’s words recalled to me Gorlet’s warning. They respect our skill and courage, but also fear us for our insights. I looked at the Judge. “The Navigator was an artist. He taught me the art of dreams, that they are limited only by our fear and imagination.”

“Very good,” said the Judge still shaking. Her hands clutched the folds in her white gown. “The Navigator gave you a fine education, but did he ever teach you any … proscribed practices?”

“No.” I effected a confused expression. The Navigator had warned me not to betray knowledge that might condemn me.

“So you haven’t heard of the Harvesters?” The Judge got to the point.

I chose my words carefully. “I know they are a heretical cult that despises our dream culture, but I have no knowledge of their specific practices. Harvesters worship demons. They believe demons exist outside our dreams and beyond the great sea. They wait to pluck us up from the sea when we burst—harvesting us when we are ripe. Harvesters conspire with these demons to gain favor. Their hope is to dream forever and never burst.”

“Have you had liaisons with the Harvesters?” The Judge pressed.

“Not to my knowledge. They keep their membership secret.” I decided I needed to clarify. “Navigators are not Harvesters. Navigators seek to understand dreams. We see them as evolving truth. Harvesters seek out demons to gain power over our dreams.”

The Judge nodded. “Arthefal, your answers are satisfactory. I assume with your training complete, you now inherit the mantle of the Navigator, and will begin training others?”

“That was my promise to Gorlet.”

“Go in peace then, Arthefal. May your bubble rise, and in the fullness of time, burst in glory on the surface of heaven.”

I was relieved the Judge had withdrawn from the last dream and not pursued its meaning. The abbreviated version I shared with her had left out the morning discussion.

 

“This is my last dream,” Gorlet had said. “My bursting dream, where all mystery ends.”

I protested: he was too young and my training was incomplete.

“My bubble has risen a thousand dreams,” he said gently. “If you believe you are unprepared, you may refrain from the final lesson.”

That wasn’t an option and I told him so. Without further discussion, he swept me onto that small craft and the journey the Judge had fled. We were well out to sea, headed where sea and dreams meet the molten silver sky.

A tempestuous wind rose quickly. Mountainous waves crashed over the deck and sent our craft plunging. I hung on.

“It’s the bursting storm,” Gorlet shouted against the howling wind. The dream sky flickered, went black, then flashed and brightened again.

“When the doorway cracks open—” he started to say, but before he could finish, we were bathed in an impossible blazing light. The current carried us forward. I leaned behind Gorlet’s shadow to shade my eyes. The sea before us was draining through a glowing gateway.

“Depart now,” Gorlet yelled and pushed me into the sea. “Find safety in your own dream or you’ll burst in mine.” He paddled toward the light.

Suddenly in my own formless dream, I reached out to Gorlet’s churning sea. He saw me return and waved me back just before vanishing through the glaring gateway. I splashed, tasted salt, and struggled to stay in the Navigator’s dream, now a half dream as he began to wake.

The scene changed. A narrow crack blinked at balls of light hovering overhead. The sea was gone. Gorlet’s bubble was gone. Undecipherable, soft sounds filled my new ears, pungent odors stung my nose, and I felt myself lifted by large warm hands.

“They welcome me,” Gorlet said, sharing his fading dream. “I don’t understand … but I feel I’m part of them.” The edges of the hovering lights softened and melted. I found myself alone in my own dream.

 

Dear students, I preserved this dream to share it with you now. The walls of my bubble grow thin, and soon you may witness my own bursting. Our predecessors speculated that there was life after bursting. Embracing that concept compels us to reconsider the purpose of our dreams.

May your bubble rise, and in the fullness of time, burst in glory on the surface of heaven.

Forgetting The Dream

Lucan paused to catch a breath. The mountain path was more arduous than he recalled—steeper, overgrown with roots and tangles, and blocked with fallen branches.

“It is no more difficult than when we walked it the first time.” The voice came from the same twisted brown little fellow who had led Lucan to the holy man three decades ago. The elf hadn’t aged and wore the same hooded buff pullover tied about the waist with a brown rope.

Lucan sat on a mossy log and cast his eyes skyward. “Well, maybe I’m older,” he said.

“Or maybe your heart is no longer in the journey,” the little man said, stroking his pointed beard. “You were only fourteen, but you knew then you had a destiny.”

“Things changed.”

“You changed. You gave up.” The elf’s gaze dropped to the sword across Lucan’s lap.excalibur-fantasy-weapons-4278339-800-600

“Not really,” Lucan said, using the sword like a cane to stand. “I don’t need a sword anymore. Not for the life I’m leading. I thought it proper to return it.”

“Very well.” The elf shook his head. “The hilt shows no wear and the blade remains polished. My guess is that you and the sword remain untested.”

Without responding, Lucan returned to his climb, leaning heavily on the sword as he went. The elf followed. Upon reaching a clearing at the top, Lucan took a long deep breath and looked about. Arched boughs of towering oaks sheltered the space. Splintered light dappled the patchwork leafy forest floor with dancing yellow-green light. The fresh autumn air smelled of pine and rich humus. A bird dipped and, seeing Lucan, stopped in mid-air, gave a warning chirp, and flitted out of sight.

Here three decades before, Glinick the holy man had beckoned the earth with a thump of his staff. A shudder and quake had followed, then a crevice and a tongue of fire bearing the sword Lucan now carried.

This time no holy man greeted him, and there were no miraculous events. Lucan shrugged and drove the sword point into the ground. The sword sank easily, like cleaving soft butter, but on reaching the straight cross-guard, it refused to go further. After several attempts, Lucan placed a hollow broken section of a branch over the exposed grip and pommel. Then he backed away to sit beside the elf on a stone shelf.

“I’ll tell Glinick where to find his sword,” the elf finally said.

“I didn’t want to give up,” Lucan said, “but I never learned how to draw on the sword’s magic.”

“Glinick said you must persevere until the magic finds you then follow the path it points to you.”

“The magic never found me, and now Jill has left me, too. She thought I was a fool for lugging a sword around.”

“Is that why you gave up … your girl didn’t believe in your mission? So you chose to follow her instead?”

“She’s smart, beautiful, sophisticated, everything I want,” Lucan glared at the elf, “and she knows me … knows who I truly am.”

“She knows the version of you that fears to use his gifts.” The elf leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “All talents and skills are magic—gifts from God to help you fulfill your mission, to help you become what you are meant to be. When others tell you not to believe, they are telling you not to believe in yourself and in your gifts.”

The elf stroked his bearded chin then continued. “I suspect if you became what you were meant to be, Jill would not be with you. But your perfect partner would be.”

“I told you, Jill knows me.”

“It would be better if you knew yourself. But perhaps you do.” The elf pointed to the branch section hiding the sword’s grip and pommel. “The earth has not accepted the sword, and the holy man has not come to receive your resignation.”

Lucan pursed his lips nodding then locked onto the elf’s gaze and smiled.

The Tale of Lady Evangeline

Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.

“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” A bent figure stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land after all, and this old woman was under his care.

stoopcrone

The musty one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in one corner and earthen flagons in others.

The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” Evangeline nodded agreement, and the crone filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me. I was told you might come by.” Evangeline knew her handmaids had often visited this cottage. “Tell me, my Lady, what might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline broke into bitter tears. “I think I shall never love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her black silken hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive milk-white hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corner of her mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”

Evangeline buried her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped through her fingers and flowed down her wrists. The crone reached a jagged claw to Evangeline’s hand then touched the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish from me?”

“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”

“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.

“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.

The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.

Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She cleared her throat and brushed the last tear from her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia to be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”

Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine this dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl.

“I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without having to love in return.”

“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”

The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men and make you forget ever having loved.”

“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.

“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every young man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”

“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.

“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your lips, your breasts, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”

“Can I never love again … truly love?”

“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”

“Yes, the cost is too high.”

Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”

Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, brave, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey again angered Evangeline, but before she could protest, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the fairest, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps savor your delicate flower once more? I curse myself for whatever I did to lose your favor.”

The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your beloved?”

“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.

“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”

“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said. She sipped her tea then smiled and rested her chin on her delicately folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”

“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”