|Imagine; and then create...|
I Leapt into the Night
Follow the Sun
The Man Who Stood Alone in the Crowd
The Old Man Under the Tree
A Struggle Against an Unknown Enemy
The air was cold and brisk on that starry night, and my breath spewed from my mouth like a dragon, a comforting reminder that I was still breathing. The snow-covered trees and open meadow were cast in that eerie black-and-white light, the awesome presence of the full moon hanging high overhead. I could see the warm light from my father’s cabin in the distance behind me on the edge of the meadow, the trees behind it looming darkly, as if to pounce at any moment. The dull lantern on the front porch swung in the soft breeze, so that all I could see was the light swinging back and forth, back and forth.
I hadn’t yet devised a practical way to carry my telescope, especially while tromping through the deep snow in my awkward rubber boots. Since the day that I’d gotten it in fifth grade (I was now in eighth) I had tried, with moderate success, to make my passion as convenient as possible. Fortunately, my father was supportive of my unusual hobby—he trusted me alone out in the arctic cold, since I’d lived there the whole of my young life. I couldn’t even imagine living somewhere where the ground wasn’t white for half the year.
My telescope wasn’t one of these rinky-dink little things. It was a pretty big one, especially in comparison to my fragile frame. But I’d sewn straps around the legs of the telescope’s tripod so that I could swing them over my shoulder and across my back—like an archer sort of, but not quite as dexterous. And then I carried the lens case in my arms, just like when I’m hauling firewood. Good thing that I had practice in that area already, because you have to walk without seeing where your next step will be—and besides the arms get tired quick, sticking straight out like that.
At least I grew in the three years between fifth and eighth grade, which helped in some ways, though not in all. I must say, budding breasts aren’t much of an asset to a young astronomer. Boys were starting to pester me for dates; but all I wanted to do was look up into the night sky, lost in my cosmic little world. Cheap, yes, but not much of a date. And besides, most boys just didn’t understand the beauty of the night sky. It was too much trouble, too mysterious, and just plain weird for a girl.
Sometimes, I admit, I wished that I’d just taken up the harmonica or something for a hobby—I mean, you just slip it in your pocket and anytime, anywhere, you can pull it out and make your music and you’re happy. You don’t have to worry about the clouds, or waiting until nighttime, or it’s so dang cold outside, or it’s a pain in the butt to set everything up, or who knows if there’s anything interesting up there tonight anyhow?
But despite all these assorted complications, I struggled on through the cold with my precious telescope, taking each step carefully, occasionally looking up at the darkened sky that filled me with such warmth, even in the dead of winter. It was one of those nights when it was so clear you could tell that the Man in the Moon was an adolescent, because he had the worst case of acne you’d ever seen. But still, he was infinitely more handsome than most of the idiots at my school. I’d toss their silly cars and sports out the window any day for that calm, cool, reflective persona of the Man.
When I was young (well, younger) I wanted to be the first person to walk on the moon. When I found out it was too late, I decided that I was going to be the first person to walk on the sun. For some reason, I thought that would be even more heroic. Never mind that the sun has no ground on which to walk—I’d just float there, taking in its warm rays, able to see everything in the sky from that ultimate viewpoint. Oh, the innocence of youth! Fortunately, my dad set me straight with some basic scientific principles, and then provided me with a way to merge with the stars, and yet still stay connected to the ground. If you were looking down at my telescope viewing spot from high above, then you would see mountains all around—white-capped, snowy beautiful awesome mountains, that make you want to leap right into them they’re so shiny and wonderful in the moonlight. And within these mountains—in between them, that is—you would see a huge valley, probably five miles across, with lots of trees all over the place. In the middle of this forest would be a clearing, and on one side would be my father’s wonderful wooden cabin that he built all by himself (with a little help from me, of course, though I was only five at the time). And right in the middle of the meadow would be a small mound of a hill, only about ten feet across and flat on top, which is where I set up the telescope. And then waaaay off in the distance, on the other side of the forest—with a skinny little dirt road running down through the valley—would be town, with its lights twinkling and smoke coming out of all the smokestacks, and maybe a few dogs barking if you listened closely enough.
But anyhow, the important thing here is the little hill, because that was my inspiration. You see, when I was really young, before I even got the telescope, I used to go out there and lay on that little hill and just watch the stars with my cat Vaughn (pronounced “Von”). Sometimes, if I heard there was going to be a meteor shower or a lunar eclipse, or maybe it was just an extra special night for some reason, I would bring my heavy duty sleeping bag and a pillow and a thermos of hot chocolate, and Vaughn and I would curl up nice and warm in my sleeping bag and just lay there watching the stars and the moon, until it got too cold to open your eyes or even think. And then, eventually, we’d rush back inside and warm up by the wood stove.
So finally, like I said, in fifth grade my father decided that I needed a little better view of all that stuff up there, since I was watching it anyhow, and he surprised me Christmas morning with the best present I ever got in my whole life. I was so ecstatic that I went out that very night and watched the sky do things I hadn’t even realized it was doing all along—though I’d imagined, of course.
Since then, I’ve seen the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, Haley’s comet when it went by two years ago, craters of the moon that would just blow your mind if you were me (which they did), the asteroid belt, double-star systems, the Aurora Borealis (which doesn’t look like much up close), even a little meteor once that exploded when it hit the atmosphere, which made me feel a little sad, in a happy sort of way, plus all sorts of other stuff that probably wouldn’t sound very interesting or make much sense to a normal person. On a night like this one, however, I was hoping for something extra special, it being so exquisitely beautiful and cold and crystal clear and all.
When I got to the top of the plateau, I set down the telescope lens veeeeery carefully. Then, I swung the tripod off my back with a great sigh of relief, the air blowing out of my mouth like a steam?engine in the crisp cold.
I just stood there for a few minutes blowing into the air, taking in the night sky to see what it might have to offer this time. My arms hung stiffly from my sides, from all the clothes I was wearing—including a scarf wrapped around my neck that my mother had given me the Christmas before she died, when I was four. It had been much too big for me then. But the scarf had grown smaller as I got bigger, or something like that, so that it kept my neck nice and cozy now without choking me, even in forty-below—which was about how cold it felt out there.
I was thinking maybe that it was a little too cold that night to stay out for long. But it was just too perfect. There was electricity in the air, like a thunderstorm approaching on a clear day. The stars were so bright against the dark sky, the mountains gleaming white in the moonlight, that I couldn’t waste this night inside doing homework or washing the dishes or anything. It was just right for becoming one with nature, as they say. This is what I most wanted, really—to feel no separation between myself and the vastness of the cosmos.
I was just finishing screwing the lens into place, when I heard my dad yell from the cabin,
That’s my name, obviously.
“What, Dad?” I yelled back. Sound carried easily across the meadow in the cold night air.
“I’m letting Vaughn out—she’s been meowing at me. Come back soon. The radio said it’s minus thirty?three in town, so it must be almost forty below out there tonight. I don’t want you freezing to death. Would you like me to bring you some hot chocolate in a little while?” “No, thanks!” I yelled back. “I’m okay, I won’t be here for too long. It’s nice out here. It’s pretty! You should see the mountains from up here.”
“No, thanks, sweetie. I’m gonna stay inside where it’s warm. It looks like an ice?rink out on the porch. I’m going back in. You be careful!”
I could here Vaughn’s faint meow, as she picked her way across the meadow through the snow.
“C’mon, Vaughn! Here, kitty! Come on!”
She rubbed herself against my leg as I finished adjusting the telescope. Then I put her in my lap, as I sat down on the chair that I always leave there, and covered her up with my jacket, since she was already beginning to whine from the cold.
The sky was, of course, even more awesome seen through the God of Telescopic Insight. Everything was so clear, so real. It was as if a barrier that had always existed between myself and the sky was lifted, and I felt closer to the infinity of space than ever. Somehow, the cold didn’t seem to bother me at all. I just sat there transfixed, my one open eye glued to the end of the telescope as I drifted off into the nether reaches of the universe, the glowing warmth of the moon and the stars comforting me simply by their presence.
Soon, I lost all awareness of my surroundings. I even forgot about poor old Vaughn in my lap, who was probably asleep by then, but hopefully warm inside my jacket. I couldn’t say. I had completely forgotten about the reality of the meadow and the trees, even the cabin nearby with my father resting quietly beside the fire. The stars were magnificent, and they became everything to me in that moment. I could feel their brilliant light filtering down through the telescope, filling me with life.
The Man in the Moon seemed to be smiling at me. And, once, he winked—a long, drawn out wink, that left me surprised, but delighted. “Come on up,” he seemed to be saying.
“But how can I?” I asked. “I don’t know how.”
“Just let yourself go,” he said. “Let yourself go—give yourself to the sky, and it will happen.”
I didn’t know what he meant, at first. I thought, “’Give myself to the sky?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
But as the warmth and comfort of the sky above filled me with assurance and strength and helped to release me from the familiar physical world around me, I began to feel the truth of what he meant. The weight of my body suddenly became less of a burden. I no longer knew or cared that I had arms or legs or breasts or a brain, or even an eye that perceived all of this through the telescope. I only cared for the beautiful sky above me. And, as I came to realize this, I became more a part of the sky with every precious moment.
Soon, I felt the tunnel walls of the telescope completely fall away. I gave myself to the sky—just like he’d said—leaping straight into the night like a rocket leaving its launch, the force propelling me into the sky, higher and higher. My spirit rose up above everything, far above the meadows and the trees and the mountains and the town, and even sweet little Vaughn and my father’s beautiful cabin.
Pretty soon I was looking down at the Earth like it was a speck of dust on the ground, far from my sight, but still at my feet. I could even see my body sitting there in the meadow, my eye still attached to the telescope. I admit that it made me a little sad—especially when I saw my father come rushing out of the cabin in panic and run to my lifeless body, screaming, “Aurora! Aurora! What has happened to you?” (Though I could only imagine what he was saying.)
But I soon recovered from the sorrow of leaving behind the sweet Earth and my beloved friends and family, and I became quite content hovering there above everything in the eternal night—for of course, it is always night in space, just as I had always wished. And if you look closely enough as you stroll along beneath the night sky, you may notice a little sparkle in the darkness of the night that wasn’t there at one time. And if you smile, I’ll smile back, I promise.
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I was born in a small village by the sea, far from any bustling city. My father was a fisherman and cared for me immensely. He only wanted the best for me, as do all good fathers. My mother had died of sickness early in my childhood, and so my father took it as his duty to raise me as well as he could; and he tried very hard. My father taught me many things for which I am grateful. He taught me how to buckle my shoes at the age of three. He taught me how to make a bird from leaves that would sail through the air, almost as if it were alive. He taught me how to read the weather from the wind in the trees, and to tell the time by the sun. He taught me how to make a wish from the yellow flower that grows on the nearby hills. He taught me how to eat soup with a wooden spoon without spilling it in my lap. He taught me to treat elders with respect, and to treat my peers as equals.
He taught me how to play the drums with rhythm, and to build a fire from dried seaweed and driftwood. He taught me how to hike through the forest without getting lost, and to love the birds and the squirrels as my friends. He taught me that the stars are our brothers and sisters, and that the Moon is our mother and the Sun our father. He taught me how to count—and that I would never in my life be able to count all the stars. He taught me about the seasons, and told me stories of faraway places where, in the rainy part of the year when the sun set early in the day, frozen water would fall from the sky and blanket the land in white.
My father also taught me how to be a fisherman—for this he knew best. He taught me about the tides, and the power of the Sun who created the bounty of the sea to sustain the lives of the people, for whom we must have reverence if we wish to be plentiful in our catch. He taught me everything a fishermen needed to know about the fish, clams, shrimp, lobster, octopus, whales and sharks.
He showed me the medicinal uses of seaweed. He taught me to coat the fishing nets with the juice of the sea anemone to keep the seagulls away. He showed me the proper ways to cast a line and sink a net, and the most abundant spots for every animal of the sea which we might catch. He showed me the best baits to use, and at what times were appropriate to use them.
He taught me how to build a boat—to hull the shell from a downed palm; to carve an oar from a branch of the eucalyptus tree; to make a sail from the skin of the sea cucumber and feathers of the seagull; and to make the anchor from an abalone shell weighted down with rocks. He showed me how to roll up a rope and then sling it across my back like an archer. He taught me how to stand at the bow of the boat on a stormy day, without risk of falling into the dark sea waters that were almost as deep as forever.
One day, as my father and I sat in the wooden boat which I had helped him to make, and prayed that the fish would choose our nets in which to sacrifice themselves, I asked him, “Father, how did the Sun create the Earth?”
And he told me, “The Earth was born from the Sun long ago.” “Yes, father,” I said. “I have heard this many times. But how could the Earth have come out of the Sun? This I don’t understand.” And he said honestly, “I know only what our stories tell us. More than that, son, I do not know.”
And I thought about this all day. The next day, as we sat in the sun beneath a clear blue sky, surrounded by the sea, waiting for the fish to come to us, I asked my father another question, “Why am I your son, and not the son of the drunkard, who wanders the streets of our village and is unable to feed his children?”
And he told me honestly, “I cannot answer that question, son, for I do not know.”
I considered this all through the day. And the next evening, as we were rolling up the nets at the end of the day, I asked him, “How come you are a fisherman, father?” And he said, “Because my father was a fisherman.” “But how come your father was a fisherman?” I asked. “Well, because his father was a fisherman,” he said. “Has anyone in our family ever been anything besides a fisherman?” I asked.
“Of course not,” said my father.
“But how come no one ever decided to be something else?” I asked. And he answered honestly, “I don’t know, son. I have never thought about this before.”
I pondered this all evening and well into that night, before falling into a troubled sleep. The next day, as we were setting up the sail to begin another long day of fishing, I asked my father, “How do you know that I must be a fisherman?”
And he said, “Well, because I have taught you how to be a fisherman.
You know almost everything there is to know about fishing. You know enough now that soon you can find a wife and have children, and your knowledge will support you for the rest of your life. There is nothing more that you need in life.”
“But what if I’m not supposed to be a fisherman? What if the Sun who created me had something else in mind? What if I am truly meant to be a blacksmith, or a shepherd, or a priest, or a bard, or a warrior, or a farmer, or a philosopher? What if my purpose is different from the one for which you have prepared me—and I must choose such a life for myself? What if you have taught me everything you know, but I need to know more? What if I sit here in this boat all day, waiting for the fish to come, and I long for worlds I have never known, people I have never met, things I have not yet done? What am I to do?” And he told me as honestly as he knew, “Son, I cannot answer your questions—except to say that I am a fisherman. My father was a fisherman. My father’s father was a fisherman. My father’s father’s father’s father’s father was a fisherman. I see no reason why you should be anything besides a fisherman. A fisherman leads a good life. His work is important, but not too demanding. The community respects him. He is able to feed his family, and to give a little to the poor. He stays healthy and happy. What more is there to ask for in life? I do not understand your questions. But I assure you that your curiosity for such things will soon pass. The things that are most important—which can be satisfied by the life of a fisherman—will continue to be important, and these foolish questions will cease to worry you.”
But, for the first time that I could remember—and to my great distress—my father was wrong. And I knew that he was wrong, for the questions did not cease to worry me, but instead plagued me even more with each rise of the morning sun; until soon I knew that I could no longer stay still. I had to find the answers to my questions, despite my father’s objections.
And so one evening, as we were pulling the boat onto shore after yet another long day of fishing, I told my father,
“I am leaving.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I am going to follow the Sun,” I said. “I’m going to find the place where he settles down every night, and ask him to explain to me the purpose of my life. It’s time that I discovered this on my own.” “What do you mean, your purpose?” said my father. “You will be a fisherman, as I am. I have taught you well, and you have learned well. What else is there you desire to know? Ask me, and I will tell you.”
“But I have asked you, father,” I said. “And you could not tell me. You did not know the answers to my questions, so I must find someone or something that does. The Sun created me, so he must surely know the answers to my deepest questions.”
“But son,” said my father, “you have not been far beyond the village before. You do not know what is out there. The sea is not so kind when you are out of sight of land. It is very dangerous. You could die, and we would never know. And besides, you will probably never find whatever it is you seek. Please, abandon these foolish thoughts and stay here where the world is familiar to you.” “But father,” I told him with difficulty, for it was not at all easy to go against his wishes. “I cannot. I can never be satisfied until I find the answers to the questions that plague me. You must try to understand. I will come back someday—but for now, I must go. I have built my own boat in my spare time, and it is loaded with supplies. I am ready to depart.”
“Son,” he said now, with fire in his eyes. “No. I cannot let you do this. You are making a mistake. You must stay here and follow your family’s tradition. You have everything you need to be happy here, if only you will forget these crazy notions in your head. They may be calling you, but that does not mean you must follow… “I must admit to you, that I also once had similar dreams, of going off to see the world and of abandoning my responsibilities. But I chose to forget them, and eventually they went away. You, too, can do the same.”
I knew that my father was right—but also, that he was wrong. “Yes, father. I could choose to forget them. But instead, I am choosing to find the reason for which I am called. Maybe I will find nothing—and maybe I will find everything. But I will never know for sure unless I follow my questions to the end, wherever that might be, and find the answers which they must surely have. Please, father, I would like your consent, even if you disagree with my choice of action. I am prepared to go without it; but I would rather leave with your approval.”
My father thought for a long moment. And then finally, “No, son,” he said. “I cannot approve of that which I am firmly against. You must either stay here with my approval, or else leave knowing that I disagree with the path you have chosen. But I can not chain you here. You will have to learn on your own.” And so, I said goodbye to my father that evening. And with a tear in my eye, I pushed off from the familiar shore to follow the setting sun. I waved to my father as he stood on the beach. And he waved back—a sad, concerned wave—and then turned to walk up the beach and into the trees towards home.
With the oar that I had carved from a eucalyptus branch, I paddled all evening until the sun was extinguished by the sea, and darkness bound the sky and the water as one. I threw out an abalone shell for an anchor; and then ate my meal of dried fish in the darkness, with only my brothers and sisters shining down from above for companionship.
In the morning, I awoke to the warming sun rising into the sky behind me. But I knew that the place where it made its bed for the night was ahead of me—away from my home—and that I must follow its path across the sky, and not the place from which it had come.
A slight breeze was blowing across the surface of the sea. I pulled up the abalone shell and set it carefully at the back of the boat, set my sail made from the skin of the sea cucumber and feathers of the seagull, and then let the wind carry me effortlessly across the water, the waves lapping gently at my bow.
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There was once not so long ago a man who stood by himself in a large throng of people. He was a little off to the side of the crowd, so as not to be too conspicuous—but near enough to the center that it was obvious he was in the crowd, and not separate from it. The crowd was nestled all around him, its gentle hum buzzing in his ears. The crowd was all he had ever known, and this man thrived on its familiarity. Ironically, however, he was not much the talking type. He chose, as much as he could help it, not to contribute to the buzzing of the crowd he so enjoyed. He preferred simply to experience the crowd, and yet remain separate from it to some extent, an observer from within. Since he could remember nothing else, he could scarcely imagine life outside the crowd. The crowd was everything to him. It was the only world he had ever known, and whenever he was reminded of how much he enjoyed the crowd—which was often—he would revel in its comforting embrace like a baby bird curling up in a warm nest.
Since this man chose to stand alone within the crowd, he had plenty of time in which to ponder. Sometimes he thought about how nice it was to be in the crowd. Sometimes he thought about moving to another part of the crowd, just for a change; in which case he would generally do so, with an occasional “pardon me, ma’am” and “excuse me, sir, mind your drink!” Although he didn’t talk much, he had well-refined manners from so much listening to the people around him in the crowd.
Sometimes he even pondered life outside of the crowd. On one particular day, he was thinking about the time when he had had the urge to leave the crowd. He had, out of a clear blue sky, had a sudden faltering within his mind which made him wonder if he should flee from all these people gathered together in the crowd. He had been there in the crowd for so long, it occurred to him, for some reason, that he might be missing something important outside the crowd.
But then he had thought about where he would go if he left the crowd, and this perplexed and confused him, so he had decided rather quickly just to stay put. He didn’t much like perplexion or confusion. He didn’t need any more complications in his life. The time a friend of his had asked if he would care to join him for a game of backgammon at his house had been enough to remind him of all the unpleasantness of the outside world. Leave the crowd? Of course not! What would he find out there? Probably more friends, who would also ask him over for backgammon, ask him to listen to their music, invite him to go swimming, or go for a drive into the country. Soon enough he would be in some foreign land, where even the crowds themselves would be unrecognizable.
No. It was too much. Too frightening to even consider. He must stop these nonsensical notions of leaving the crowd. It was much safer simply to remain there. He had everything he might need right there in the crowd—so why leave?
With that he thought long and hard then about how nice it was just to be there inside the crowd. It made him so happy to be amongst all those people, that he huddled up against the person next to him, who was trying to make a very important business deal, and he stepped on his foot, which surprised the businessman very much, causing him to spill his drink down the front of the man he was talking to, insulting him greatly so that he refused to close the deal, which put the businessman into a deep depression that left him incapable to work, so that his wife and kids finally left him for a plumber from Chicago who she had secretly been seeing the last two years, which of course resulted in the businessman’s eventual suicide.
“Sorry,” said the man standing alone in the crowd.
Eventually, the crowd began to thin out. This did happen occasionally, although fortunately it never disappeared entirely. The crowd merely fluctuated between sparse and dense. The man who stood alone was always a little more nervous when the crowd was smaller, than after a big event when all the town, it seemed, was there to join him. But he never really worried too much, because if it came down to only him—well, then he would be a one?man-crowd. He’d heard of a one-man-band before. What was the difference? Nothing, really. As long as he was part of a crowd of some sort, then he was secure. And besides, the people would always return eventually, and then he would be even more thankful for the comfort of the crowd.
It was early one May, as the sun was shining majestically overhead and the birds were fluttering from tree to tree, chirping their melodies to the people of the crowd, that the man had a sudden, unexpected desire. He had never experienced it before. He had heard about it, of course. But he had assumed, out of ignorance perhaps, or just innocence, that he was an exception to the rule. He would often hear in the middle of a nearby conversation, “Hey, Ralph, I’m a bit famished—shall we get a bite?” Or something of the sort. And then they would be gone—only to return sometime later, revived and relaxed, as if nothing really had happened. He thought it so curious for these people just to leave the crowd like that, and then return so nonchalantly, as if they knew the crowd would be there when they returned and they could just come and go as they pleased. Didn’t they feel such a devotion to the crowd as did himself? What if everyone chose to leave the crowd—even him—and then there was no crowd at all? What then? But all of a sudden, in the midst of an otherwise contented and satisfying life, he found himself experiencing this inner need, this growling within his bowels; which he had only heard about before, but which he had, in fact, dreaded unconsciously for a long time. He had known it might happen to him. But he had hoped simply to ignore it when it did. Like the waxing and waning of the crowd itself, this feeling, too, would come and then go. But no—it wouldn’t, and he knew then that it wouldn’t and that he must satisfy it, for it was gnawing inside him and seemed only to be growing stronger.
He was filled with fear at the prospect of solving the dilemma before him. He didn’t know what to do. He knew that people always left the crowd when this happened. But he didn’t know quite where they went. He knew only that he must take action. He lifted his right foot, which had been planted in the same position for a long while by then, and moved it forwards. His brow was sweating. His hands were shaking. “My God, I never thought it would be so hard,” he thought. He hadn’t. He had thought it would be easy, that he could have left anytime he wanted, that it was only by choice he had stayed within the crowd.
He paused for a moment and fixed his tie, as he readied himself for the next step. Finally, strategically, he lifted his left foot to place it in front of the right. He repeated this action, and then repeated it again. It took every ounce of concentration for him to walk, slowly, to the edge of the crowd. But he kept his head up and his feet moving, and with an “excuse me” here and a “pardon me” there, soon enough he was standing on the edge of the crowd. He thought long and hard then about the decision at hand. It was a whole new world from here on out, past the edge of the crowd. It was that foreign land he had feared he might someday find himself in. But he had to face it. The crowd would always be there upon his return—at least so he hoped. But he would have to take that risk, and brave the consequences.
Just then his stomach rumbled, and he knew it was time to venture forth into that great unknown. The longer he waited, the harder it would be. If he turned around now, he knew he would never try again, and then the crowd would swallow him in his hunger, and he would never know if he could have lived to tell the tale of his adventure beyond the crowd. He lifted his right foot and raised it upwards, moved it forwards, set it down, took another difficult step, and another—and in so doing, took a giant leap off the edge of the world he had known for too long.
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In between the two mountains was a wide valley, and in the middle of the valley was a vast field. In the middle of this field stood a single solitary tree, on which there were no leaves. Beneath this tree, sitting against it, lay a very old man, who appeared to be sleeping. His hands were folded across his chest and he was wearing a hat, which was tilted forward on his head so that it covered his eyes. The sun shone down upon him; which is why he had the hat covering his eyes. He was indeed sleeping. His lips, barely perceptible beneath the thick gray beard that crept down his chin and neck, pursed in and out from the flow of air through his lungs, which also caused his stomach, and his hands resting upon it, to rise slowly and then fall again every few moments.
He wasn’t breathing rapidly, of course, since he wasn’t doing much of anything. He was merely lying there beneath the tree, enjoying the warmth of the sun, breathing so as to stay alive, while some other part of himself was somewhere far away in dream-world. But, that dream-world reality isn’t of concern since, to the observer, there was just an old man lying there beneath a tree (speaking of which, that observer shall soon become apparent). Once, the old man reached up his hand—his left hand, since it was on top of the other one—from his stomach to his eyebrow, which he scratched twice. Then he put his hand back in the same position it had been before. He had scratched his eyebrow it because it itched. That was the usual way in which he worked—the usual cause and effect. Once, he had been very thirsty, so he drank some water. This was quite typical of his behavior. He also had a tendency to nap when he was tired, as you might have noticed.
The grass near the tree moved ever so subtly, because there was a slight breeze. This breeze was so slight that the old man didn’t even notice it. But even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have done anything about it, because this would have been against his nature. He did very few things he was not accustomed to doing, such as acting on the weather. The wind could blow if it wanted to, he figured. And he was quite right.
There were some very small bugs alighted on the grass, however, who did in fact notice the wind, and were trying their best to do something about it, since in their case the cause happened to be affecting them. Most of them simply flew from one leaf of grass to another, so as to find the best one possible for bracing against the wind. This was typical behavior for bugs, and most of them were quite typical. One slightly atypical bug, however, chose a different course of action. It decided, for unknown reasons, to fly above the grass and all of the other bugs over to the tree, to the old man beneath the tree, where it landed on his eyebrow. This is precisely the reason why the old man had scratched it.
The old man, because of his age—which was very great as far as humans were concerned (which they were)—had gray hair upon his head that was thinning, and this was why he wore a hat. His hat was small and round and black, and when he wore it, it covered up his gray hair. But with the hat tilted forward, some of his thinning gray hair—which was also slightly curly—could be seen. But he didn’t mind this, since he assumed that no one would be watching him as he napped. And he was correct, that no person was watching him. But really he was only partially correct, due to the simple fact that he was being watched.
The tree under which the old man was lying was a walnut tree. Although it had on it no leaves, it did have on it a few walnuts that hung sparsely from the bare branches, dried from the sun. And though these walnuts had lost their value as nourishment, they still did remain suitable as devices for awakening peculiar characters, who sat suspiciously under lonely trees in the middle of vacant valleys.
For atop this tree, unknown to the old man since he was fast asleep, sat a very small and yellow bird, who was eyeing the old man with intense curiosity. If the bird, who was a she, had translated her thoughts into human terms, they would have went something along the lines of: “Why in the world is there an old man lying beneath a walnut tree asleep in the middle of a valley, where there seems to be no apparent reason for his being?”
Her thoughts only appeared as images within her fragile mind, but the picture created was one of genuine confusion and curiosity at the quandary before her.
Now, if this little bird had been the old man, she probably would not have chosen to do anything at all about the situation, given the old man’s character. He would have just continued down the valley on his way, minding his own business (assuming that he actually had a way, or any business to mind).
But as it happened, she wasn’t the old man at all—instead she was a very small and yellow bird who was curious, and who wanted to know why this old man was lying beneath a lone tree in the middle of this forsaken valley.
She decided that she would try to find the answer to her question, having nothing else pressing to do in that moment. And being a fairly intelligent little bird, she reasoned that the first step in discovering an answer to this riddle would be to wake the old man up, so as to properly converse with him.
Quite conveniently—as was mentioned just a moment ago—there was upon this tree with no leaves many walnuts, that seemed almost perfectly designed to serve the purpose that the little yellow bird was willing to choose for them.
With swiftness and dexterity, she flew from her perch on a branch over to one of the walnuts, grabbed it with her beak, broke it off the branch in one precise motion, and then hovered over the old man, peering at him down through the branches until she had determined that her aim was accurate. Then, she dropped the walnut, and it hit the old man squarely on the head, where his gray hair showed.
The old man jumped suddenly from his place of resting into the air. For an old man, he was still quite agile. But in the process of jumping, he knocked off his hat, and gray hair could be seen growing all over the top of his head. He reached up and scratched the top of his head, since that was where the walnut had struck him. And then he bent over slowly to the ground, picked up his hat and put it back on his head.
The little yellow bird, having accomplished her mission of waking him up, watched the old man regain his balance and recover from the blow of the walnut. And then, when she assumed that he was listening, she leaned over ever so slightly, and said to him,
“Why, old man, are you1ying beneath a tree in the middle of a field in the middle of a valley where there seems to be no reason for your being here?”
The old man, however, did not hear. He was too busy straightening his hat and dusting off his clothes. The bird assumed then that he was either rude or stupid, so she asked him a second time,
“Old man, why are you lying beneath a tree in the middle of a field in the middle of a valley where there seems to be no reason for your being here?”
Again, the old man did not hear her. He was busy rubbing his eyes and trying to figure out where he was. He had just woken up from a long nap, and wasn’t exactly sure why he had been woken up, or even why exactly he had been woken up in the place that he presently was, given that it was so far away from the dream-world from which he had just come.
The bird, however, took him for being a fool who hadn’t understood a word she had said. She figured then, that the most effective way to deal with a fool was to try everything at least twice, if not more. So she flew over to a bundle of walnuts, broke off one with her beak, and then hovered over the old man and, with careful and deliberate aim at the part of his anatomy that stuck out from the rest of his face, she opened her beak, and let it go. The old man had just remembered why he was where he was, and was getting ready to announce it out loud so as to reassure himself and anyone else who happened to be listening, when he heard a rustling overhead, in the branches of the tree under which he stood.
He looked up in order to understand the cause of the rustling—and at that moment a walnut falling from the sky struck him squarely on the nose. He was so stunned that he fell backwards, landing abruptly in the dirt, bruising his butt and forgetting what it was that he was about to announce.
The yellow bird sitting in the tree, upon seeing the dramatic effect on the part of her actions once again, couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
The old man, upon hearing a strange noise coming from above, looked up from his seat on the ground, to see a very small and yellow bird clinging to a branch of the tree above him, chirping away like he had never seen a bird chirp before. To him, it appeared almost as if the bird were laughing at him, and he did not like this. He also realized, with a sudden stroke of insight, that the bird had probably been the cause for his awakening, as well as the bruise that was now forming at the very end of his nose. He became furious, and decided to tell the bird so. He lifted himself up from the ground, stood up straight and tall, fixed his hat, pulled up his pants with both hands, and then raised a feeble fist and exclaimed in a most ferocious and assertive tone,
“You blasted yellow bird, what do you think you are doing?”
The yellow bird, upon seeing the old man roar with such anger and ferocity, felt a very small amount of fear. But instead of flying off right away, she chose to stand her ground, since she found the old man to be quite a peculiar character, and she wished to discover a little more about him. Also, she was rather mesmerized by the strange effects of her actions on him, and she wondered if perhaps a third walnut would do something even more extraordinary. So she flew over to another walnut, grabbed it in her beak, broke it from the branch, and then, hovering over the old man, who was still shaking his fist and cursing, she dropped the walnut.
The old man, so involved in his ferocity, failed to notice the actions of the yellow bird until it was too late, and another walnut had struck him squarely in his left eye, causing him to go temporarily blind. He yowled, clutched his hands to his eye, jumped in the air, and ran in sporadic, hobbling circles in an effort to escape the pain. When the pain had subsided somewhat, he ceased his yowling, stopped hobbling in circles, and slowly took his hands away from his eyes. He looked up into the tree, to see a large dark splotch on the left, and a very small and yellow bird on the right, clutching a branch and chirping away hysterically.
At this he became undeniably enraged. Shaking his finger at the bird he muttered, “You just wait, I’ll get you for this.” And then he hobbled over to the trunk of the tree. After slight confusion between it and the large dark splotch, he lifted a foot to a bump on the trunk that acted as a foothold, reached up his hands to the branches, grabbed them and, putting all of his elderly strength into this one movement, he hoisted himself up into the tree—almost falling, but not quite. Within a few moments he was sitting on one of the branches, breathing heavily, clutching his left eye with one hand and his hat with the other.
The little yellow bird, as she sat on her branch laughing away at the ridiculous sight of the old man howling in pain, was quite surprised to see him so quickly bring himself from the safety of the ground below, up almost to her level, in such a short time. She abruptly ceased her laughing, and looked at the old man in a much different light. There he sat, huffing and puffing on a tree branch, much as she had been only a moment before, regaining her own breath from laughter. She eyed the old man with deep curiosity, for he was indeed a peculiar character. She wondered for a moment if perhaps he was a messenger from another world, who had come to tell her to join him in Paradise. She had heard of a place called Paradise, and it sounded like a very nice place. It occurred to her that maybe she should have been just a little bit more respectful towards this old man who slept in valleys and climbed into trees.
At that moment, the old man, who had now caught his breath, turned his head towards the little yellow bird and glared into her little eyes with great anger and intensity. The little bird was so surprised, that she jumped backwards from sheer fear, and landed on the branch behind her. At that she forgot completely her notion that he was a messenger from Paradise, and decided instead that he was a messenger from a place very unlike Paradise, where there were probably more people like himself, and that she should do her best to get as far away from him as possible. However, she was so filled with fear that she found that she couldn’t even move.
The old man looked up at the little yellow bird sitting only a few feet away from him, and he smiled. He had witnessed her hop from one branch to another. And so, in response to this, he ever so carefully shifted his position, stuck out an arm and a leg, and moved one branch closer to the yellow bird.
The yellow bird was so consumed with fear that still she couldn’t fly away. All she could do was hop. So she hopped up to another branch a little bit higher in the tree, which was at least better than staying in the same place.
The old man, not being quite as dexterous in the ways of maneuvering through tree branches, was able to move only one branch at a time as well despite his greater size, and so this is what he did. He reached up, grabbed the branch above him and pulled himself up, so that he was as close to the bird as he had been before.
The little yellow bird, seeing that the old man had managed to move closer, did her best to move away. But, still lacking the necessary composure to fly, all she could do was hop. So she hopped once again to the branch above her, widening the gap between her and the old man, if only a little bit.
The old man, seeking once again to close this gap, reached to the branch above him and pulled himself up. And again, they were no farther apart than they had been in the beginning. Then the bird hopped again, and the old man promptly climbed one branch higher. This event repeated itself, with the gap widening and then closing, a few more times. It appeared that nothing was being gained for either of them, since they were still as far apart, despite all their hopping and climbing, as they had been in the first place. However, at one point, the old man had just climbed up to match the little bird’s hop, and so the very small and yellow bird, still frozen in fear and unable to escape properly, did her best to hop one branch farther, since that was all she could do. But upon her hopping, she realized that there were no more branches to hop to—they had come to the very top of the tree—and so, she merely fluttered back to her original perch in dismay.
The old man, upon seeing the little bird fail to gain the usual distance, saw that his pesterer was now one step closer than expected. So, instead of making the same mistake that the bird had made, and losing a turn in the process, he instead leapt forward with all his might, arms outstretched to claim his prize.
The little yellow bird, with an abrupt awakening of her sensibilities, gained the necessary strength in her body and courage in her soul—just as she was about to be grasped by the old man—and she suddenly flapped her little yellow wings and flew away.
The old man, realizing that his prey had escaped him, and he was now alone, flying through the air far above the ground, thought very quickly during mid?flight. He grabbed the branch that the bird had been standing on—rather than the place where the bird had been standing, which now contained nothing but air. The branch that he grabbed, however, was not quite as strong as he would have liked. Upon the rest of his body falling downwards rapidly, following the arch of his arms, the branch suddenly snapped, and the stick he was now holding was of little use to him. He fell down through the branches of the tree in the same manner that the walnut had—that is, downwards, though not quite so swiftly. Fortunately for him, and perhaps as a rare stroke of luck in an otherwise unfortunate afternoon, the branches served the purpose of slowing his fall downwards, so that, though he landed eventually on the ground rather abruptly, he remained mostly intact. He came to rest at the base of the tree in the same spot where he had previously been napping, though now face down, with his arms outstretched, and his legs piled up on top of him. His hat fell down after him and planted itself around one if his feet, that was sticking up in the slight breeze. The grass moved ever so subtly, and the warm sun shone down upon the valley. The little yellow bird was soon far away. A small bug who had been standing on a leaf of grass was caught up in the wind, and it flew over to the old man and alighted on his gray hair.
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One cannot easily comprehend the surprise of finding a wooden chair stuffed inside a post box, until such a moment has already arisen. But you may well imagine my astonishment, being only an ordinary postman on his daily rounds, having emptied post boxes for nearly thirty years with hardly a complication—aside from the occasional garbage, and a few childish pranks, of course. I did come across a frightened tomcat once, trapped inside the large blue box, scratching and screaming frantically, most likely put there by the neighborhood children. But as soon as I opened the little door, the cat ran out and across the street and into the bushes on the other side, so that I had little time to think before it was gone. It brought me no prolonged trouble whatsoever—only a frightening surprise which made my heart jump, and then a chuckle throughout the rest of the day.
But the situation in which I now found myself was quite different. For one thing, it took a terrible struggle just to get the thing out. The chair had been wedged in somehow, so that it was crushing many of the letters and packages inside. How it might have gotten there was beyond me. Myself and the post-office manager—who was surely not the type of man to pull such a ridiculous stunt—were the only two people in the world with the correct keys. And the lock appeared not to have been tampered with. But there was no denying it—there was clearly a chair in there, as my aged but strong hands confirmed what my eyes could hardly believe.
I committed myself to trying every possible angle in which to pull the cumbersome thing out, and eventually succeeded, though not before unbuttoning my shirt to keep from sweating in the hot afternoon sun. When finally I had wrenched the object from its confinement, I set it down on the sidewalk and wiped my brow with relief; having just exerted myself to an extent not achieved since the last time I’d locked the front door of my house with the keys inside and been forced to climb through the side window, a few weeks earlier. For some reason I do that quite often. At the age of fifty-five I still retain some of my youthful immaturity—though of course now I’m not in quite the condition to take responsibility for my recklessness, as when I was in my prime.
The chair was a sort of dull burgundy red, quite worn and faded as if perhaps it had been sitting on someone’s front porch in the sunlight for many years. It appeared, however, that it had been a striking color at one time, a blazing red that would have captured one’s attention wherever it rested. It didn’t seem the sort of item that anyone in this small town would have bothered to purchase—at least no one that I had known in my half-century here. It was a perplexingly exotic antique, almost frightening in its mysterious aura. The chair was covered in thick velvet, and was quite small, which was why it had been able to fit into the post box at all. It had only three legs, which came out in a triangular formation from the center of the seat. The small seat-back was very straight and hard, so that I imagined whoever had made use of it regularly must have been quite stern and strict, and had something of a devilish disposition. I hadn’t seen such a piece of furniture as this in my entire life, and knew not at all what to make of it.
The longer I stood there on the sidewalk, my shirt unbuttoned, the hot sun blazing down on me, the more perplexed and disturbed I became. I simply stood there staring at the blasted thing for a good five or ten minutes, not knowing at all what to do with it, or in any way how to resolve the bizarre dilemma before me.
I couldn’t very well throw it out, as it was obviously a relic of some kind, maybe even worth something, either historically or monetarily. But neither did I have any desire to take it home with me. My wife would probably have thought I was crazy, especially once I explained the manner in which I had obtained it. And besides, it attracted too much attention to remain in any normal persons home. Any visitor who came by would likely find themselves in discomfort at the sight of this strange creation resting so imposingly in the corner.
I tried sitting in it. But as well as looking ridiculous there in the middle of the sidewalk on a sunny day, it was extremely uncomfortable, and made me want to jump up and get the hell away. It wasn’t any normal person’s chair, that was for sure, and I knew then that I wanted nothing to do with it, no matter what its value. I decided finally just to leave it right there, for whomever might happen upon it and take enough fancy to it to want to take it home with them. I was losing time in my indecision and needed to carry on with my route.
But as I was lifting it cautiously to the edge of the sidewalk, to set it beside a large Elm tree, I noticed something on the chair that I couldn’t readily ignore. A rectangular area on the back of one of the wooden legs had been indented, and something was apparently pasted, or carved, or written there.
I looked closer to clearly make it out, and saw one terrifying word plainly burned into the wood—‘Hell’. And just above that one word was a postage stamp, of the denomination six dollars and sixty?six cents—as if it actually had a destination and had been paid for, putting it in my responsibility.
I was so surprised and confused and frightened all at once, that I jumped backwards, tossing the chair away from me, so that it clattered onto the sidewalk on its side as I fell backwards onto the grass beside the sidewalk, staining my elbows.
I just lay there on my back for a few long moments, resting in the grass in a sort of inebriated stupor, staring at the chair as if it were a dying leper, contagious and writhing before me, begging me for something that I had no intention of giving it. But even as I found myself partly in shock, I also had a strong resolve welling within me. I had always enjoyed a good challenge. There was nothing like a good tussle to make you feel like you were alive.
It was as if I were suddenly faced with a battle against my own perceptions, that I knew I needed to win. I felt that I had to do something with this thing other than simply leave it sitting there, only to plague someone else. But neither did I want to get up right away, since that would have meant committing myself to action—so I just lay there thinking for a few long minutes, staring at the cursed thing, hoping that no one had seen me and my ridiculous display. When I considered it, six dollars and sixty?six cents was actually about right for something of that size and weight. But I wondered where the stamp had come from, for I was certain that the post?office hadn’t printed it—I knew all the current stamps, and there was none for that specific denomination.
Finally, I got up from my resting place on the grass, slowly and warily, and walked over to the chair, crouching to look at it carefully, as if at any moment it might jump up snarling and sink its teeth into my leg.
The stamped side was facing down. I kicked the chair so that the stamp was facing up, and studied it. The stamp was just above and to the right of the word ‘Hell’, and appeared to have been torn from a sheet, as the sides were ridged like any normal stamp. The picture was of a bull from behind, looking back with nostrils flaring, red, angry eyes and two menacing horns protruding from the sides of its head. Below that was printed $6.66, and the words United States Post Office. It appeared to be completely authentic.
As I was staring at the stamp, noticing the details in the background—flames shooting upwards, and the leaves of trees hanging down similar to the Elm behind me—the image of the bull suddenly threw its head upwards and down in one swift motion, and then was still again.
There I was, standing in the sun staring at a strange chair resting on the sidewalk, just as before—but I suddenly felt as if my spirit had been invaded, like my soul had been tampered with. I was leaning over the chair tentatively, forward a bit on my toes, and now with my mouth hanging open, my eyes wide in amazement, my body frozen stiff in fear. In one fleeting instant the intensity of the situation increased a thousand-fold.
For a brief moment I lost the ability to move. My muscles became frozen in fear—and then another moment later they were tense with anger and hatred, towards what I was not sure. I couldn’t believe what had just occurred before my eyes. I felt compelled to lash out at the object which seemed to be the cause of my anger. But I held back, and instead I crouched even closer to the chair to peer at the tiny postage stamp, trying to somehow make sense of what I thought I had just seen. I put my eye right up next to the image, scrutinizing it for any source of movement—a bug perhaps which had flapped its wings, or a speck of dust that had blown away. But there seemed to be nothing out of place—only the very real image of the bull staring back at me through the flames.
The image was quite still, as before, convincing me that the sudden movement I had seen must have been just an illusion, a trick played on my eyes in my old age, a little heat stroke in the midst of a long workday.
But then, even more unexpectedly than before, the bull suddenly threw back its devilish head, as a deep, bellowing laugh of pity came from the depths of its throat to invade my ears, sounding as if it were echoing all around me. And yet, this laugh was clearly directed at no one but myself. It sent chills through my bones, that rushed through my muscles and arrived at my fist, ready to strike. But the tail of the bull moved suddenly, quicker than I could have reacted even if I had anticipated it. Before I could even think, the tail of the beast came out from its little cage, getting rapidly larger and longer, until it struck me on the side of my face; leaving a clear, thin red line that went from my left eye to the comer of my mouth, and immediately began to bleed.
Once again I was thrown back, against the Elm tree in the grass behind me. But I instantly rebounded and lunged at the tiny image of the bull, which I could see now had turned to face me. I struck at the chair with my fist and sent it tumbling across the sidewalk. In so doing I scraped my hand across the knuckles, and it too began bleeding.
I ran again at the chair to kick it and send it flying into the street, where hopefully it would be shattered on impact, or crushed by an oncoming car. But as I was running towards it, certain of victory, I suddenly heard the sounds of the bull snorting and pounding its hooves, scraping up clouds of dust to charge and trample me. I feared it might escape from its tiny stamp of a cage and kill me if I didn’t act quickly enough. I grabbed the wooden chair, as the sounds of snorting and pounding of hooves echoed violently in my ears, my face and hands sweating profusely. It seemed to be coming alive as my arms grasped it.
I stood and lifted the object in the air. I could feel it quickly becoming heavy, as heavy as the beast that seemed intent to kill me. It seemed to be transforming. I held the object high above my head, and ran towards my mail truck parked alongside the curb, my legs almost crumbling beneath me from its sudden tremendous weight. And then I hurled it into the side window. The window shattered as the bull struck the side of the truck, and the many shards of glass became flame which leapt out and penetrated my body; and sent my reeling backwards and then crashing backwards down onto the sidewalk.
I regained consciousness—what felt like days later, but was probably only a matter of minutes—to find someone lifting me upwards and screaming in my ear,
“Sir, sir, are you okay? Wake up! Wake up!” “What?” I said. I was wholly confused, as can be imagined. “Hey, what are you doing? What’s going on?”
I jumped to my feet, staggering to stay upright, clutching my ears. A young boy was standing on the sidewalk beside me, looking up at me with curiosity and fright.
“What happened to you?” he said. “Your face is bleeding.”
I could barely see from the blood caking my face, holding my eyelashes together like the bars of a cage across my eye. I put my hand on the boy’s shoulder to hold myself steady.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, which was all I could think to say upon the sight of my mail truck mangled from the impact of a large object (which apparently no longer existed) and glass and blood scattering the sidewalk. The bull, nor the chair, were anywhere to be seen. The driver side of my truck, facing the sidewalk, was caved in, but there was no remaining evidence of what might have caused it. Tiny shards of glass were stuck to my pants, as well as my skin. My left arm was bleeding profusely from glass cuts; which would have likely rendered me blind if I hadn’t raised my arm to protect my eyes.
“Jesus,” I said again. “Did you see what happened?” I said to the boy. “No, sir. All I saw was you lying here like you were dead. I just finished school and was walking home. Are you the mailman?” “Well, yes, I sure am—as of now, at least. I’ll see if I still have a job when my boss gets a hold of this truck.”
I raised my hand to my forehead. “Jesus Holy Christ. What the hell happened to me? I feel like I just fended off the devil himself.” The sun was shining down, as before, and a few people drove by and stared.
“Well, sir, all I know is, I gotta get home, ‘cause my mom is waiting for me. You better go see a doctor right away, you look scary.”
The boy ran off, leaving me standing there alone. I wasn’t sure whether I should report the incident immediately to the police, or simply run to the nearest mental institution to admit myself. I slapped myself a couple of times to make sure that I was awake, but it just hurt my already bruised cheeks. Finally I decided just to walk home, and allow my wife to attend to my wounds, and fix me a hot cup of coffee, despite the weather. Whatever it was I had just battled against, at least it appeared that I had won.
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‘I am standing on a hill that overlooks a meadow, and I am thinking. About absolutely nothing. This nothing—this nothing which I ponder constantly—it is everything. It is the nothing which is everything, and thus I ponder long and hard about everything. My life is everything and yet it is nothing. This hill that I stand upon—this hill which overlooks a meadow—it is very important to me. It is no ordinary hill. It is the hill upon which I stand. It is my hill. I alone stand upon it. I alone occupy the space of this hill. I occupy it, as I exist in unison with it. If it were to cease to exist, I also would cease to exist.
‘This dog which stands beside me, it is very important to me. It is my dog. This dog exists within me, for I exist in its company. It barks at the meadow it overlooks, as it stands on the hill beside me, and I hear. I hear my dog bark, and that bark is mine. But it is not mine. It is his. It is not his. It is the world’s. It exists within the air, and so it belongs to the air. This dog which stands beside me is not my dog. If I were dead, it would be alive. Very much alive. And I would be dead. The hill would still stand under the feet of this dog and my dead body, and his bark would echo across the valley, undisturbed by my death. His bark would belong to the hill, the air, the meadow. And I would be dead—nothing, as I am nothing.’
And with that, Sidney X. Maxwell closed the book and set down his pen. He was not standing on a hill, nor was he overlooking a meadow. His dog was not standing faithfully beside him, but asleep at his feet—those feet connected to the legs which lead to the body, that was at rest in a wooden chair rocking back and forth beside the fire.
The fire was burning very capably, quite proud of itself. Both the man and the dog sensed this, and so were quite happy and content in its company. The smoke from the fire was escaping upwards through the chimney, through a hole in the roof of the house. Outside were clouds that covered the sky with a bleak, gray mass. These clouds hovered above the small house, which indeed stood alone on a hill overlooking a meadow. The meadow had other houses on it, some with smoke escaping from their roofs, some without, and they were all connected by a narrow dirt road with a fence alongside it, which ran from the top of the hill down through the meadow, all the way into town a mile or so below.
The dirt road had been there for a long time—since before even the first of the houses was built—and had been used as an access route for miners to the caves, which were just beyond the last house at the top of the hill (where sat the man and his dog). The caves had been mined for many years and had made money for many people, until finally there was nothing left to mine. And so the caves were shut down and closed off. The people who closed off the caves, however, had been somewhat careless in barricading them, and so there were cracks here and there, which lead deep into the earth and offered excellent exploring for anyone who wished to do so.
The house that stood at the top of the hill, with the clouds overhead casting gray across the land and the fire inside which warmed the bodies of the two beings sitting beside it, was owned by the same man who sat in the wooden chair, rocking back and forth. He had inherited the house thirteen years before from his grandfather. His grandfather had owned the house because he had been one of the miner’s who had helped to create the caves. He’d bought the house a few years after the mines were closed down, as a vacation home to get away from the bustling city in which they had then lived.
It was at this present moment, as the man and his dog sat peacefully beside the warm fire, that the mystery of reality was being noticed very deeply by Sydney. He had lost his job the day before, on Tuesday, and it was now Wednesday, in the early afternoon. He had worked for a small mill in the nearby town, where he had worked for all of the thirteen years he had lived there in that house. He had been fired for a disagreement with the boss of the mill, whom he had never liked.
The day before, the boss—who disliked Sydney as well—had told him that he wasn’t working hard enough, he was slacking off, not taking the job seriously enough, taking advantage of the company. Sydney, although he knew this to be true, had gotten angry and yelled back at him. He told the boss that he was a pawn, that he was a slave to society, that he would never be the man he thought he was, that he would always be the weakling boss of the failing company who nobody liked or respected, who everybody secretly laughed at, whom no one took so seriously as he did himself.
The boss, of course, had not taken Sydney’s criticism with a light heart. He had taken it straight to the core of his withered old soul, that place where all the things which Sydney had said were true and real—which he had been trying so hard to conceal for so many years, but which had now been exposed in front of all the people whose respect he had been trying to gain since he had achieved his position of relative authority.
He had reacted with barely controlled anger to Sydney’s insinuations. His eyes narrowed, his thinning gray hair fell before his eyes as he lowered his head, his fists clenched tightly as they hung beside his bulging waist, and he seemed to steam as he struggled for composition and a response. Finally he had raised one feeble arm, heavy with anger, the rest of the workers looking on in anticipation, and pointed straight?armed at the door and said, “You may leave. You may leave forever, Mr. Sydney Maxwell. I am done with you. May you never enter through that door again.”
Sydney strode haughtily past him, grabbed his coat and hat, and walked out the door. He could have dragged the confrontation on longer, but suddenly he didn’t care. He just wanted to leave that wretched, suffocating place. There was no point in hanging on to a life that he had hated—and so he had let go with his eyes closed, and no idea how far to the bottom. That was the previous day, and now here he was still sitting in contemplation beside the fire, as he had been for the last twenty-four hours. The writings in his journal reflected accurately the scrambled thoughts within his mind. He was now free. He was no longer tied to the ground, but hovering above his choices, his possibilities, his directions. He had nothing to ground him now. He was standing on a hill overlooking the meadow of life, but it felt so far away. He wanted to fly. He wanted to fly far away.
He sat in his chair, waiting for wings to sprout and carry him to a beauty he had envisioned in his dreams, but which had never touched or even allowed himself to reach for. He was waiting for something to happen, but he had no idea what it was that could possibly happen, given his miserable predicament. He was standing above the meadow, but it refused to come towards him. He was hovering over the hill, but his legs were too short to reach the ground. He was flying across the surface of the earth, and it was so huge, so round, so close, yet so far away. He was somewhere on the other side of the universe, and the earth was a tiny speck of sand which he could not lift with all the mighty strength of his imagination. If the world were at his feet, he would have reached down and embraced it. If the world was within his grasp, he would have held it in the palm of his hand and caressed it. But he was not strong enough. The world he had dreamed of was right there in front of him, flickering in the flames of the fire, but he couldn’t see it. And he wouldn’t have known what to do with it if he had.
It was two days later that Sydney finally left his house. He had sat beside the fire contemplating for three entire days, eating only when his stomach began to gnaw at him, forcing him to get up and explore his almost bare cupboards. He had written a few more times in his journal, but they were even less cohesive than the first time. Pure nonsense. His thoughts flowed through the pen and scattered themselves across the paper—but they had apparently bypassed his brain. It was the dream-world moving his pen. He didn’t understand any of it.
He had read the journal aloud to his dog Abram, hoping this might somehow bring some sense to his life. But Abram understood the sounds no more than did Sydney, although the dog which lay at his feet knew his master to be speaking to him, and so pricked up his ears now and then so as to catch the utterance of any phrases such as “so are you hungry there, Abram?” or “maybe we should make a little music”—in which case Abram would prepare to howl and Sydney would get his guitar out from the closet—or else “let’s go for a walk there, boy, my legs could use some exercise.” But Sydney merely sat there in an incoherent trance, the words rolling off his tongue like water through a broken dam. The pile of firewood dwindled as he depleted it over three days of warm numbness, trapped in a wooden rocking chair in heavy silence, or else mumbling incoherently.
Finally, as Abram was beginning to drift off once again into sleep, and the wood inside the stove had turned to coals which glowed faintly red, begging for nourishment, Sydney got up from his chair, threw off the blanket which had been draped over his shoulders, and stretched his arms and body upwards. Something needed to change, and he knew the time was now.
“Abram, let’s go for a walk,” he said.
He plucked his jacket from beside the door, then walked to the kitchen, grabbed a cup from the cupboard and placed it under the faucet, gazing out the wood?framed windows at the meadow outside as the water slowly filled the glass. He then drank half, and let Abram lick at the other half until water was all over his hand and the floor and Abram’s nose. Then Sydney searched again through the wooden cupboards, finally producing an ancient smoked?glass bottle of hard?alcohol, unopened, which he had been saving for sufficient cause for celebration.
He pulled on a pair of rubber boots and grabbed a pack of matches from the kitchen table. He stood facing the fire for a moment, scratching his stubbly chin and staring into the glowing coals. Abram whined and broke Sydney’s gaze, and he looked around the room, searching. He looked back to the coals, and then behind him. Something seemed to be tugging at him. But there was nothing there.
Finally he buttoned his jacket, removed a wool hat from the pocket and pulled it over his head, checked the other pocket for his flashlight, then reached down and scratched Abram behind the ears, who trotted to the door and stood with his nose against it, until Sydney finally opened it, and the two stepped outside.
The caves were just a short walk away, and he visited them often. They were an easy place in which to escape. Or else, in Sydney’s case, to see what truths might care to reveal themselves—hopefully all those visions which had failed to reveal themselves the past three days, as he’d sat alone with his dog in the confinements of his wooden home. The visions inside his mind were tickling him, teasing him, bothering him. He knew he had to either get away from them once and for all—or else leap right into them, and make them into reality. The outside air was cool and chilled him to wakefulness. Abram ran in circles, jumping into the air, chasing leaves, sniffing at bushes and pissing on them. Sydney walked first to the tree which grew on the hill beside his house.
The sky above was much as it had been three days before. The clouds hung overhead in endless melancholy, a filter of gray which covered everything. Sydney stood above the hill for a few long moments, the bottle of alcohol hanging loosely from his hand at his side, Abram standing beside him overlooking the meadow—just as he had prophesied in his journal. It was not a difficult vision for him to manifest. He did this often, watching the valley below, the smoke rising from the other houses and the faint, stale activity of the town below. Abram barked, and the noise echoed across the valley, returning to him, answering him, and he yowled again in answer to his own message. He was happy to be outside in the cool afternoon air, free from the barriers of the wooden house and the dull heat of the coals. He jumped in the air and ran down the slope of the meadow, but Sydney whistled at him and yelled, “C’mon, Abram!” and then turned to walk the other way.
They walked along a path that led through the trees and up another hill, all the while playing and wrestling with each other. Sydney tossed sticks for Abram to find in the bushes, or he would steal them as they hung loosely in his hand, only to run back and drop it at his master’s feet. Finally they came to the first of the caves—a small tunnel, partially buried, that led deep into the darkness—which Sydney passed. He walked on, alongside a steep cliff and up a ravine, away from the path. At a growth of large bushes which stuck out from beneath the base of a cliff, Sydney stopped to investigate, looking closely at the leaves to make sure no one had been there recently. Then he pulled back a clump of branches and ducked down into a small tunnel in the ground—just tall enough to walk into, stooping over—with Abram following close behind. Soon it was completely dark. Sydney reached inside his large coat pocket and pulled out the flashlight. After fumbling with it for a few seconds he turned it on, pointing it down the corridor. Abram was just ahead of him in the tunnel, standing still and staring back at him as the light shone in his eyes.
They walked onwards for a few minutes, slightly downhill, following the tunnel until it opened into a large earthen room. Sydney swung the light of the flashlight across the room, to make sure nothing had changed. In the middle of the dusty floor were the remnants of a campfire, and at the edge of the room against the wall was a small stack of firewood. The fire had been built by Sydney a few weeks earlier, and the firewood had been brought there by him. On the far side of the fire-pit, between it and the wall, was a bed made from old clothes, and a dirty pillow crumpled in a pile.
Abram settled himself in the dirt next to the fire, his head resting on one paw, eyes intent on the movements of his master. Sydney began gathering sticks together, arranging them over the lifeless, black ashes from the fire before, the flashlight hanging from his mouth. All was silent, except for the rustle of his feet. They were far away from the blowing wind and shivering trees outside. The silence permeated everything. Abram whined just to hear himself. The noise echoed against the cave walls.
“How ya doing there, Abe?”
Sydney touched the lighted match to a paper bag crumpled beneath the kindling.
“Huh? Don’t look so worried. I know it’s dark. It’ll be light in a minute or two. We’ll go home soon. We’re just here to think. I am, that is. You don’t have to. Go to sleep if you like. We’ve got plenty of time. I’ll wake you up before I leave, don’t worry.”
He tossed the match into the fire as it started to blaze, casting the walls of the cave in a warm glow—a glow which grew and intensified and brightened until the room was happy and dancing with flames. Sydney turned off the flashlight and tossed it on the pillow, removed his coat and hat, took the bottle from the coat pocket and placed it next to the makeshift bed. He scratched Abram behind the ears with both hands, caressed him under the chin and petted his black shiny fur until it glowed. Abram lay back and relaxed, contented to listen to the sounds of the fire crackling before him. Soon he drifted into a deep sleep of dreams, where green meadows were populated by slow?moving rabbits and low?flying butterflies, and streams never got too deep for the fish to swim beyond his reach.
Sydney settled himself down on the bed of clothing, as the fire quickly warmed the small cave. Abram’s head rested on the ground, eyes closed, his mind in dreamland. The smoke drifted away through the upward-sloping tunnel to the outside. Sydney grabbed the bottle and, after a slight struggle, opened it to take a greedy swig, wincing slightly. It was strong stuff. It was aged well, tasted wonderful, felt good going down—but caught one’s attention at first. He had bought it from a friend from work a few months before.
All at once he remembered the shop like a flood through his mind, and all his friends whom he had somehow managed to forget these past few days. He had been looking ahead so intently, he had forgotten to look back. He wondered what his friends had thought, as he walked so casually out the door without turning his head to wave goodbye.
He drank again from the bottle, and then again, and again. Soon he felt as if the liquid were seeping down his legs and into his toes, filling his body, his mind, his soul. He contemplated the incident with his boss, the way he had looked when he’d raised his finger towards the door, the expression on the faces of the statues of his friends and fellow workers as they had stood watching, too scared to speak a word in his defense. He had known they wouldn’t, and he knew that he hadn’t wanted them to. He wanted only to leave. He was unsure as to where he would go, but he’d known that he had to leave.
And here he was. He had gone somewhere, but not very far. He had walked backwards, deeper into the cave. He knew he would leave eventually—he couldn’t stay here forever. But he wanted to experience the cave one last time, before he left for good. He had a mission—he had a goal of some kind, though he couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
He had to fly somewhere, somewhere he had never been before. He had to get away from this awful town, this awful cave that was swallowing him whole, draining his strength and very life. He had been here far too long. The suffocation of life he’d left behind for a while had followed him, tracked him down finally to this stink-hole of a village. It had enveloped him again, so that he could think of nothing else but getting rid of it. He could feel the nothingness of being taking over him now as the alcohol penetrated his mind and body. He continued drinking, raising the bottle to his mouth and swallowing even after the rest of his body was beyond numb. Only the muscles in his left arm and the inside of his throat seemed to work. Soon the darkness had taken over even his mind, as he finished off the last drop of liquid and swallowed, and then let the bottle fall slowly to the floor of the cave, scattering dust lightly into the air which his open eyes—entranced by the dancing flames of the fire—failed to notice.
Sydney awoke sometime later, to find himself experiencing a freedom which he had never before conceived possible. He assumed that he was dead, drunk himself into oblivion, like part of him had wanted. His face was pressed into the dirt only a few inches from the fire. His legs were stretched out behind him, his toes pressed up against the dirty wall of the cave. His back was warm from the glow of the coals. He had somehow turned around in his unconsciousness, in an attempt to get closer to the flame, though he was facing away from the flames. He remembered no dreams. There was a darkness inside his brain, that felt like the worst hangover he could have imagined.
But there was also a freedom within his soul which he could not understand. It stretched down the length of his body to the end of his limbs, freeing his fingers like they had never been free before. It was as if a rope tying him down all his life had been cut loose, and he didn’t know which way to move. He didn’t know quite how to move with this newfound freedom, for he had never before felt such freedom in his entire pathetic existence.
He quickly sat up so that he was facing the wall, the fire blazing behind him. He was confused. The fire seemed to be shining from within his own mind somehow—and it was growing brighter. He could feel a weight missing inside him, which had previously been holding him down. Something had disappeared, leaving him feeling lighter than he had ever been. He tried to think, but his thoughts just floated away.
Whatever he was experiencing was too much to comprehend. He had barely moved just now—he had only sat up. But it felt like more movement than he had ever before experienced. It was so easy, so little, and yet it was the movement of a lifetime. His body seemed to be in another dimension of existence. His soul was a leaf floating in the breeze. His body lay lifeless on the cave floor. His soul was outside the universe. He raised his hand to look at it. It was his hand—as it always had been—but he had never really seen it before. It had been tied behind his back all his life. The world had been inside the palm of his hand, but his hand had been behind his back, unable to move.
The light was growing brighter, and he wondered what it was that lay behind him. He realized that the light had in fact always been there, though he had never really seen it. He had only seen the light of the fire coming over his shoulder. He had never looked directly into it. He had never looked deep into the fire, and then gone beyond. He could feel the fire glowing steadily behind him, and it was a presence which controlled everything. It controlled everything that he had ever known—but it was only a grain of sand embedded in a mountain of reality. He had thought the world was all in front of him—he had thought that reality was only directly before his eyes, shadows on the cave wall. But there was so much more right behind his eyes, deep inside his mind, waiting to be seen, waiting to blind him.
He looked backwards inside his mind. He turned his head suddenly, but slowly, slowly, slowly, and it took a thousand years for his head to swivel in its socket, and bask in the glory of a light which he had never before acknowledged, though he knew it had always been there. The light grew brighter as his head turned slowly backwards to look deep within his mind—and for the first time, he saw the source of the light which had created the dancing shadows, that he had always thought to be reality. It was right behind him, directly inside him and had always been, but he had been tied down and too afraid to confront the flickering flames of the fire directly.
It was too much. The fire was suddenly right in front of him, surrounding him, the flames leaping forth to grab at his ankles and pull him into its abyss. The light was so bright it seemed to be coming from everywhere all at once. He felt it reaching inside his mind to fry his brain with its brilliance, and he suddenly leapt upwards from his crouched position in the dirt, beyond the fire, into a world so real that he could never before have conceived of it. He heard a noise coming from somewhere. Something—someone—was calling him. He turned around quickly, and Abram was still there on the other side of the fire, barking at the cave wall hysterically. Abram couldn’t turn around. He was screaming frantically, scratching at the stone, unable to face the fire.
Sydney yelled at him, “Abram, Abram, come here! You must come with me! Follow me!! Follow me down the tunnel!!” He could see a gaping hole behind him, so dark it was nothing. It was pure nothing, but it lead to everything. The barking was stinging his ears. Abram was frantic. He was yearning with all his might to join his master, but he couldn’t find him. He didn’t know where he had gone. He was right behind him, just beyond the fire, but he couldn’t see the fire. The fire was directly behind him, but all he could do was lunge forwards, into the only reality he was able to comprehend.
But there was no master there. His master was behind him, and all he could do was bark and whine and scratch at the walls, tearing at his toes and wearing away his claws on the hard dirt of the cave wall. He heard his master call again, “Abram! Abram!! Behind you! Run, run like the wind!” They were only sounds, but they were everything. He understood like a dog had never understood his master before, but still he was unable to follow. Finally, Sydney jumped across the fire, the flames licking at his naked flesh, and he grabbed at Abram’s collar to pull him away and bring him with him. But his fingers slipped beyond—he was farther away than he had realized he could be—and Abram’s head, for one flashing instant, reached backwards to face his master, a glimmer of hope inside him, a searing moment when he was able to step outside his world and face the fire… only to bite the hand, that hand which was reaching for him, and then turn away, barking hysterically at the cave wall, fighting to be with him, but somehow still not knowing how.
Sydney’s blood dripped into the fire as the flames licked at his heels. He stood confused for only an instant, an instant of eternity which opened up and then closed again as everything was nothing and then made sense, and then he turned and fled—fled into the darkness of the tunnel, the nothing that lead to something, into a beyond, a chasm, a gaping reality which swallowed him as he stumbled on and on and on, and then into the outside—an outside which he could never before have conceived of with his narrowed human eyes…
Behind every rock was a rock as huge as a mountain. Behind every tree was another tree, more green and more alive than he could ever have believed possible. The sun was now shining, and it was so bright it made everything a rainbow. The rabbits moved like lightning. The butterflies flew through the grass, high above the skies. The fish within the shallow mountain streams were invisible, and swam in waters deeper than the moon. Each pebble was a universe. Every drop of water was a tunnel to reality. Each blade of grass was a knife which cut his feet and caused him unending pleasure.
The world around him was a vision from the heavens, and he had just fled from hell. Everything in his world until now had been merely a shadow. Now it was real. And it was beautiful. He had no idea where he was going. He had never been here before. It was all new to him. It was a new world. It was a world of beauty, which complemented the chaos inside him and made everything finally balanced. He was in tune with the universe. The universe was inside him. The universe was so small, it filled the whole world. The sand beneath his feet was so huge, it was bigger than an ocean, and smaller than the atoms of the atoms. He floated through this new world, skipping along like he had never skipped. His skipping was a dance which surpassed the dances of the planets and the comets and stars. The universe was his dance, and it was all a smile. His smile came from deep within his mind. His smile filled his whole body. His body filled the sky. The sky was more blue than blue could be.
He didn’t understand—but he didn’t want to. He was finally alive. He was finally free. He only wanted to be. He wanted to remain in this place forever. He wanted to climb the trees and jump from their many limbs. He wanted to dig through the mountains and leap from the peaks, and swim through the lakes to the depths of the ocean. He knew he couldn’t die. He could do anything. He could die, and he would still be alive. He could die, and death would be wonderful. He was dead now, but he was finally alive. He was everything, and he was no longer the nothing that he had been for so long. He walked inside the flames and shook hands with the devil, but it was all perfect. He walked beyond the gates and was filled with light, and the light was goodness, and he would never leave, ever again. And then he met God, and he remembered.
He remembered his friends, and his most faithful companion, who were still tied down in that shadow world inside the darkness. They were still trapped inside the cave. Here he was in the real world they had never known—and it wasn’t fair that they not know that it existed. He thought long and hard. He sat among the clouds and pondered everything, and finally, confidently, decided. He had to do something. He had to go back and tell them all about the reality he had found, and then help lead them to it. He would untie them from their posts and unchain their minds from the dark shadows, and bring them here, so that they could all experience life finally and forever. He hated to think of them squirming miserably in the dirt of the cave, staring blankly at the shadows on the wall, tied to the posts and unable to move. He had to free them. He had to show them the truth.
Yes. He would go back. He would go back and untie them and bring them here. Finally they would all be happy together, once and for all, friend and friend hand in hand, dog and brother all one and the same, all filled with the truth of the beauty of the universe—no longer trapped inside a lie.
He got up from his seat in the clouds and walked back, beyond the pearly gates, past the trees and the rushing streams and the rocks which stood so tall and the butterflies which flew high above the clouds. When he got to the entrance of the cave, he stood strong for a moment, assuring himself of his resolution. And then he stepped inside.
Sydney awoke in a daze. He was still inside the cave, toes against the wall, his face pressed against the dirt beside the fire. The coals were still warm, but slowly losing their vitality. He had been lying there for many hours, he was sure. He realized his face was wet. He opened his eyes without moving his body, and Abram was standing beside him, licking his face. His tongue was like sandpaper.
He reached up with one weak arm and petted him feebly on the head. It was difficult for him to move. Everything was so heavy. His eyelids were anchors weighing down upon his face. The cave was barely lit, and it felt like death, the kind of death he wished to avoid. Only the presence of Abram offered him strength—the certainty of his being was a glimmer of truth, the only real beauty he could envision in this world. But Abram’s body was a wreck. His toenails were worn to the skin, and his fur was torn in clumps from his ragged body. His nose was raw and bleeding, and his plaintiff whine seemed about to give out. But he seemed not to be aware of it, for he was jumping with joy at the sight of his master alive and well.
As Sydney pulled his body upwards to stand, he looked into the coals—and the remembrance of his purpose came rushing back to him like an electric shock. It was time now to act, to fulfill that purpose he had chosen for himself. But he had the worst hangover of his life. He felt as if he’d been dragged off a cliff and then pulled backwards in time to where he was now. His entire being ached with the pain of both life and. But he had to muster the strength stumble onwards. He had to show the faces of the statues the light of life, and bring them with him into the new world.
He stumbled to his feet, and grabbed his jacket.
“C’mon there, boy. Let’s go find the others.” Abram was jumping with delight as Sydney pulled on his shoes, not bothering to tie them. He glanced briefly around the cave, to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, scanning the dirt floor. Just as he was turning away, he looked into the fire, the red coals slowly losing their color. His mind jumped backwards, and then forwards, and he was suddenly filled with energy. He quickly turned away to run down the tunnel, Abram close at his heels, both of them breathing deep, their tongues hanging from their mouths.
It was early morning outside. But it was morning only because there was light. There was no sun shining down to greet them. Through Sydney’s eyes the world was completely void of contrast. The clouds above hung thick overhead, casting gray across the land, showering everything with dullness, draining away the life of the world. The trees blew deathly in the breeze, phantoms of another world, mere shadows of reality. Sydney and Abram ran onwards, down the ravine which led to the path—past the trees which they had so recently hid behind in play as they had walked to the cave, but which were now thin and meaningless.
They ran together through the gray, past the wooden house which stood alone atop the hill overlooking the meadow. They continued down the narrow dirt road, running together beside the fence, stumbling onwards in a daze. They ran all the way down the hill, past the houses that stood silent every few hundred feet, until the road led them into town, and finally to the shop which Sydney found so familiar, yet so strange. When they finally reached the shop—that same place where Sydney himself had once been trapped, caught inside death and unable to move—they both paused for a moment, their lungs bursting inside them.
The shop door was right in front of Sydney now. All he had to do was open it, and the others would follow him into the new world, the true reality. All he had to do was open the door. They were inside, working away, statues inside a shadow, death hanging over their every move as they shuffled silently through the dirt, banging their heads against the wall. All Sydney had to do was open the door and they would finally be free. He reached up his hand to the doorknob, grasped it tightly, turned it with all his might, flung the door open and stepped inside, Abram at his heels.
“Men, I’ve come to save you!” he said as he stood just inside the doorway. “Follow me, please. I am here to show you the way. This world you’re living in is not real—it is death!!” He couldn’t have been more there. He couldn’t have been farther away.
The entire building, with one swift motion, suddenly turned and focused all its energy on the man at the doorway announcing his unwelcome entrance. He was a boulder falling into a dark and windless lake. His entrance, so simple an act, was an explosion here, a blizzard. It came from nowhere, could not happen, was not supposed to happen. It was an unwanted birth.
The teeth of the faces of the men standing at their workplaces were clenched hard inside their mouths. Their heads had swiveled in unison, and were all focused now on one unwanted being. They had not heard from this man in four days. He was no longer a part of their world. They thought he had left for good, though he had not completely left their minds. They were jealous of his freedom. They were suspicious of his sanity. His posture as he stood at the doorway, his faithful hound beside him, was one which told them all that he knew something they did not. They didn’t want to hear what he had to say. He was too calm. He was too brilliant. He was much too alive for a human being. They had been working too long, and were tired. They wanted him to leave.
“Please, you must join me!” Sydney yelled above the noise of the shop. The machines were all running at full speed, and his voice barely carried to their closed minds as he continued. “I’ve found the answer. You don’t have to stay inside this cave. You’re wasting your lives here! These are all shadows around you. You’re trapped, but you don’t know it. I’m here to free you all. I’ve been sent by God. He wants me to bring you with me and show you the light. You mustn’t stay trapped inside this darkness any longer. Set down your tools and follow me. Unleash your chains. I know the way home. I promise you’ll soon thank me. I promise! Please! Is anybody listening? Is anybody here alive?”
They all stared at him blankly. Statues. Ghosts in a cave. Suddenly they all looked the same. He could barely tell them apart. Finally, he recognized a face—Roger Mortis, one of his best friends. Sydney called to him, “Roger! Are you going to join me? I promise I’m not crazy. What I speak of is real, it’s true—I’ve seen another world, and it’s beautiful!” “Yes, you are crazy, Sydney. You’re out of your mind. You’ve gone mad. I knew you had left us long ago, but I didn’t realize you would go this far. You’ve been riding on the edge for too long, and it looks like now you’ve finally gone over. You’ve finally fallen prey to your own deluded mind, it appears. I don’t know what else to say. I think you had better leave, before something unpleasant happens.”
“But, Roger.” Sydney was becoming anxious, as they all refused to respond to his invitation as he had anticipated. He had thought they would be happy at the prospect of something other than this horrible existence they were living. He had thought they would follow him eagerly, lay down their tools, cut their chains and leave the shadows behind. But this was not so. If only they would trust him, just this once—at least try to see what he wanted to show them. If only they would look behind themselves to see the fire, for just an instant, and the tunnel which lead to the world of which he spoke, then it would all be good.
“You’ve got to believe me! You have to. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. I can’t even explain, but it’s wonderful. It’s heaven! It’s life like you’ve never known it. You’ll thank me, I promise!”
But there was no moving them. They were tied to their posts inside the cave, and didn’t want to know it. They weren’t even listening.
“Sydney, you had better leave, now.” The boss, with his thinning gray hair and bulging stomach, was standing in the doorway of his office. “I told you already that you weren’t welcome around here. You’re trouble, boy. You make everything crazy. You’re crazy. You’d better get the hell out of here, or I’ll have to throw you out myself.”
“But please! I’m sorry for what I did before. I was wrong to insult you, but I’m right this time!”
Sydney suddenly had a thought—that if he could just convince the boss to join him, then everyone else would follow. They would see what he was talking about, and they would love him for it, as he loved them.
He rushed towards the man who was telling him gruffly to leave. He wanted to embrace him. He wanted to show him his love and the world he had witnessed. He wanted to pour out his soul to him so that they would all see his honesty, his sincerity, and change their minds to join him and finally be together in a place of joy and light.
But all the man did was laugh. He threw back his head as Sydney ran towards him, his large belly rumbling with pity and disgust. And then, as Sydney neared him, his body rushing forward to close the chasm that stretched so far between them, the fat man’s expression suddenly changed into a look of anger and hatred, his eyes black dots which focused on his target. He raised his fist as Sydney approached him, the madman’s arms outstretched towards him in love. The fist was nothing as it went back, but suddenly became the world as it flew towards him, encompassing everything, all that he could see. And then, once again, there was nothing.
All was dark for an eternity. But then Sydney saw a light behind him, way off in the distance. It was at the end of the tunnel. Light at the end of the tunnel. He recognized that light. It was waiting for him. He had been there before. It was time to go back. He knew it. He had to make a choice, but he had no choice. The light was calling to him. It was asking him to dance. He had to choose between darkness or light, death or life. He moved towards it until it was inside him, and he was inside everything.
Sydney’s body lay lifeless on the floor, as Abram stood over him, weeping in his dog-like way. And soon Abram could feel the light beckoning him as well. Thirteen years he had been alive on this earth, and now here he was, bleeding through the nose, his shiny black coat ripped and torn and dirty. His master was gone. Abram sniffed at the torn sleeve of his coat, and then nudged the hand inside with his bleeding nose. But it refused to respond. The other men were surrounding the lifeless body, staring down in bewilderment and shock. The boss had not meant to kill him. He was dumbfounded. He was suddenly filled with guilt. He wanted to reverse his actions—to hug him instead of kill him. But it was too late.
As the light inside him grew stronger, Abram felt the muscles inside his legs weaken. He wanted to lie down. He could barely stand. He wanted to sleep. He lay down beside his master, his head resting on his stomach, and let the light fill him completely. All at once, the pain within his frail body was replaced by light, by goodness, by the master beside him, and he drifted off pleasantly into a deep, unending sleep, a barely noticeable smile turning upwards the corners of his mouth.
Once the man and his dog had passed through the tunnel, through the depths of the darkness, they came to the light and were surrounded by it, and everything was as it should be. Behind every rock was a mountain, and surrounding every tree was another tree, and another sun, and a blade of grass and a flower and a river, and a piece of sand floating calmly on the water. Within everything was everything else, and there was no nothing. Everything was meaningful and filled with life. Inside the minds of the man and dog were their dreams, which were real, which they were within, which were alive inside them. And there were countless deep green meadows populated with slow-moving rabbits and low-flying butterflies, and streams which never got too deep for the fish to swim beyond their reach. They shook hands with the devil and filled themselves with the flames, and the blades of grass cut their feet pleasurably. They walked together through the gates and into forever, into the infinity of nothing, where they conversed with God, and he told them everything they had ever wanted to know.
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