fiction stories

Two Birthdays, Two Dreams

A hammock is the best place to relax. This is what my wife told me when I opened her birthday present to me––a woven, technicolored hammock––complete with poles, since our tiny yard lacks the requisite pair of trees.

At first, I laughed at the gift, but now that I’m ensconced in thirteen feet of doze-inducing fabric, I’m inclined to agree: a hammock is a hell of a great place to relax. The way the breathable cotton hugs my body is nice, even better is the way it sways in the summer breeze. It’s peaceful. No doubt, the feeling harks back to babyhood, the hammock mimicking the arms of my adoring mother. It’s so much easier to relax when you are young. Nowadays, I can’t sit down for five minutes without being hounded by thoughts of all the things I ought to be getting done. The fact that I’m lying here now––call it a birthday gift to myself.

I am thirty-three years old today. The way my mother told it when I was a kid, this is one of a handful of magic birthdays I’ll celebrate in my lifetime. Magic birthdays are not the traditional milestones, like sweet sixteen or twenty-one; they are those with matching digits, starting with the most magical day of all: the day of birth. Double-zero.

When I was born, Mom held me for the first time and called me Sky, because, she says, Sky is a way of describing the uncertain. It’s a good name for the creative soul, and this is you. I knew it from the first time I saw you. Dad never liked the name. According to him, I was supposed to be a junior. It’s no wonder they divorced soon after.

On my eleventh birthday, Mom threw a Lord Of The Rings party. I dressed as Legolas the elf. My mother heartily approved, remarking, Nothing’s more magical than an elf. I was old enough then to be embarrassed about the neighbors seeing me play dress up, but I managed to overcome my inhibitions and became immersed in that old story of good versus evil. This was when I realized I wanted to write stories of my own.

In the years following birthday eleven, I’ve learned it’s much easier to want to write a story than it is to actually write one. No one ever told me that behind the appeal to Live Your Dream!, is the unmentioned necessity of a lot of hard work. No one likes to admit that creativity is often boring.

For my twenty-second birthday, I made my own magic by proposing to my girlfriend. She kept the magic alive by answering yes; now we’re married, with three kids, two lazy dogs, and a back-breaking mortgage.

And now, thirty-three. I feel like the magic sparked in me at birth is waning. Nothing new today. No fantastic stories, no expressions of love eternal. There is just me, my hammock, and the hypnotic chat of the backyard sprinkler.

My wife is in the kitchen, baking a cake––coconut with sweet cream frosting––my favorite. The kids hate coconut, but I don’t care. I might be running low on magic, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let birthday thirty-three slip by without indulging in a slice of my favorite cake.

The day is the right sort of warm––sunny, with a breeze that caresses my skin like a cool bedsheet. Makes me drowsy. Sometimes, when you’re nearly asleep, but not quite, you become aware of things you normally wouldn’t. The shallow parts of the brain prone to distraction go silent, allowing the deeper parts to surface. And the senses, those parts of the body capable of taking you to other places, come into tune.

I smell the grass and the dirt beneath the grass. I not only smell them, but hear them as well––water, gliding down emerald blades, dissolving into earth, nourishing life.

I drift, drawn by the water, by earth and breeze, to places beneath. To places old and new, places alive and dead and alive again. I drift into known and unknown, until the only sensation is that of my breath, rising and falling, as I sway and sway. I drift until my body is a distant anchor, tethered by a pale thin line, spanning plain, mountain and ocean…

Heat. It radiates from deep within.

Dust and blood. Dust in her nose, blood in her mouth. I taste them both. She bit her tongue when she stumbled, distracted as she was by my arrival. She straightens, her calloused hands wrestling two loops of rope meant to cross left and right beside each breast. The rope, skewed from the stumble, now presses on her jugular. I know things about this woman; I don’t why.

The rope digs divots in her flesh; a moan escapes her as the unwieldy burden settles home between her shoulder blades. Pain flares throughout her body. I feel it. In the same way a painful memory can haunt you for years, I feel the woman’s pain––her shoulders, her hands, knees and feet.

Do you know where you are? she asks me.

I scan the surroundings through eyes that aren’t mine. Gone is the green grass, the sprinkler, my hammock, scent of coconut––those comforts replaced by a fathomless realm of dirt and rock––a world unfriendly and hard. This is not my backyard.

I am in Africa. Or a piece of me is. How am I here?

Today is your birthday, yes? The woman labors just to walk. Her weary legs push forward, while the weight on her back wants to drag her the other direction. But she’s stubborn. She’s moving on, and she’s taking this burden with her. And me. By some strange magic, she carries me as well.

Of course, I must be dreaming. When one moment you’re lazing on your hammock, and the next stowing away in the mind of an African woman, there is no explanation other than I’m dreaming. So I do the only thing a person can do in a dream: I keep dreaming.

Yes, it’s my birthday. My thirty-third. I’m Sky. Who are you?

I am Winta. It is my birthday as well. Today we are thirty-three together.

Happy birthday, I say to her, and I immediately feel foolish for doing so. The woman’s circumstances hardly seem to warrant such a well-wish. I might as well have complimented a paraplegic on her choice of footwear.

Unsure of what else to say, I ask, Where are you going with this heavy thing on your back, Winta?

Home. Always, I am going one of two places––to source or home. Now, I go home. She sighs, fiddles with the ropes, coaxing her cargo to a better resting spot, then continues. But you ask the wrong question.

And what’s the right question?

The right question is a good one. It isn’t Who or How or even Where.

The question is Why. I finish her thought. I’d love to hear the answer to that one. Why am I here, Winta?

Very good! You are here because I wished for you. You are my thirty-third birthday wish. I am a storyteller, and you are here for my story. I wished for you, Sky, because you are a storyteller as well.

This is impossible.

What is impossible? Life is impossible. The world is impossible, yet the substance of earth is the substance of you and me, and this is impossible, but even so we are here. We walk this world thirty-three years now, and for a short time, we walk it together. We connect through our dreams. Yours is a sleeping dream.

But you are not asleep. How are you dreaming?

Mine is a waking dream. Such dreams are common here on the path from source. She strains her neck against the pinch of the ropes. Hear me now. The water is heavy, and I need my strength to tell this story.

She continues, Even for the strong, this walk takes many hours. I was strong once, but now I have little ones, and my strength passes to them. Each day grows longer and lonelier. It is the stories inside, you understand? Nothing is so lonely as a story lacking ears to hear it. My stories grow lonely inside me.

There are other questions I might ask, but I don’t need to. I’ve heard of women like Winta. No doubt, she’s spent nearly half her life on this very path, carrying water for her family. I’ve donated money to charities so fewer women are cursed with this task. Apparently, none of that money made it to Winta’s house. But she’s not asking for money; she’s asking for ears. She’s a storyteller with a story. I’m here to listen.

Tell me, Winta. What’s your story about?

She begins. It is the story of The Wide.

The space between home and source is long, as every girl knows, but even more it is wide. Few know much of The Wide, what abides in those parts, but I know. I have seen it in dreams. This story is about another who has seen.

There was a city dweller, a man who walked about the city each day and drew pictures of what he saw. The people named him Seeker, for always he was seeking sights to capture with his pencil––people and animals and vehicles and all the city buildings. For many years, the city inspired Seeker. He sold his drawings in his shop, but as he grew older, the city began to feel small, the scenes appearing thin to him, like withered grass. His artist’s hand grew tired, and while people still purchased his drawings, it pained him to create with no inspiration to do so. He needed new sights to draw, or his passion would soon die away.

Seeker recalled, in the village where he grew up, the women walked very far to source each day for water. It came to him that he should go to his old village and follow the women into the wilderness, where Space is bountiful. There he hoped to find something worthy of drawing.

It was here, on the road between home and source, where Seeker met me. My steps were light, for it was early in the day, and my jug was not yet filled. Seeker carried his book and pencil. And sadness. He carried sadness as well.

“What compels you to come here?” I asked him.

“I come for inspiration, for my drawings.”

I laughed. “You choose an odd place for inspiration, sir.”

“I know this,” he said, “but all my drawings are from the city, and that place has grown small to me. I come here hoping for Space.”

When he used this word––Space––I knew it was The Wide that had called him.

I pointed eastward, toward land that stretches until vision is nothing but that which a person imagines. “Out there you may find what you are looking for.”

“What is out there?” he asked.

“Space.”

He said nothing more. He trekked east into The Wide, book and pencil in hand.

I called after him. “You should bring water! The path to Space may be longer than you think.”

“Yes, it may!” he answered. But he did not stop.

One full day walking in The Wide, Seeker spotted a magnificent creature in the sky––a bird of great beauty, with wings so strong, the ground below shifted in its wake. Seeker’s heart surged at the sight of the bird. He determined to follow until it landed someplace, so he could view it and sketch its likeness. He pursued the bird until sunset, when the creature finally touched down and began to sing. Seeker wept when he heard the bird’s song, for its voice was like a key to his secret heart. And then his tears gave way to laughter, and he thought, Now I see! I see how beautiful and absurd this life is!

All of Seeker’s wanting was resolved by the creature’s song. After much crying and laughter, he became so drowsy he could not stand. He lay down and fell asleep.

When he awoke, he was unable to perceive how many hours had passed, for time behaves differently in The Wide. The bird was gone. In its place stood a mighty tree. Seeker was disappointed at the loss of the bird, but he was awestruck at the sight of the tree, which had roots like the fingers of God, gripping the skin of the world, and its branches reached into the mists of heaven.

Seeker thought, I must have slept a hundred years, for such a large tree to have grown where there was nothing but barren soil before. He desired to sketch the tree, so he retrieved his pencil and began to draw.

Seeker sketched the tree’s roots, which were so large, they overwhelmed the page. He sketched the trunk, and here, realizing a single page would not do, he tore several more from his book and placed them beside one another to create enough surface for the tree’s image. He drew the branches, introducing new pages as necessary, finding them innumerable, nearly impossible to recreate on paper. But Seeker had been recreating his entire life, and he was good at it. He took care to reproduce each leaf as accurately as possible, counting every limb, just as a mother counts the fingers of her newborn child.

It took Seeker many hours to complete those parts he could make out from the ground, but the tree grew much higher than he could see, so he climbed. He climbed for days. Among the leaves, fruit grew, and when Seeker became hungry, he would pick and eat. The tree was so large it worked as shelter, and when he grew tired, he slept among the branches. It was in these moments, when he teetered on the edge of slumber, that he heard the song.

It is that magnificent bird, he thought. Its nest is somewhere in this tree. I will keep climbing until I find it.

Seeker climbed so long, he lost count of the days, and each night as he drifted to sleep, the song. One night, the bird approached him in his dream. The creature placed him on its back and carried him into the heavens, so high that he could not distinguish up from down. For just as time, Space is perceived differently in The Wide.

When he awoke from the dream, he was on the ground, and the tree was gone. Seeker thought he must have slept another hundred years for such a large tree to have withered and disappeared.

He said to himself, “When I return home, people will ask what I’ve been doing all this time. How will I explain what I’ve experienced here?”

Before leaving that place, while the image of the bird was fresh in his mind’s eye, he made pictures, and even as his pencil moved across the page, Seeker knew he had never created anything so significant as these visions in The Wide.

When he returned home, Seeker was amazed to find, though his journey had seemed to him as more than a lifetime, for those in the city, only a few days had passed. Still, his friends perceived that Seeker was different from the man who had left them, that he was wiser in some way, the knower of secret things.

They were entranced by his telling of The Wide, and they praised him for his skill with the pencil, the way he represented the bird and tree on the page.

“Seeker has created good work before,” they said, “but none so great as the images he created in the wilderness.”

Demand for his work increased. It seemed everyone wanted his newest drawings. He spent much time in his shop, creating the same images over and over, and those who watched him as he worked could see his face was wet with tears. Often, the people became moved at the sight of him, and they wept too. In all the city, no artist’s work was more coveted than that of Seeker.

Yet, in the quiet times, when he was alone, a shadow loomed in Seeker’s mind. His drawings began to appear to him as little more than lines on a page. The magic he strived to capture and convey to others through his pictures was difficult to see. He feared the people were missing the true essence of The Wide.

He thought, They cannot understand what I have seen. All they see are clever drawings. To them, these are nothing but the fancies of a dreamer.

In those lonely times, Seeker wondered if he’d only imagined The Wide.

One night, while the city slept, he wandered back to the wilderness. He left his pencil behind this time, carrying only his questions. He found the place on the path, halfway between source and home––that place he first met me––and turned east, toward an early sun that appeared like a capsized boat atop an endless, petrified sea.

One full day walking, he expected to see the great bird soaring above, but there was no bird, and as the sun began to set, he began to worry he was lost. Or perhaps there never was a bird. Perhaps his experience truly had been but a dream, the delusion of a tired artist whose eyes had grown dim, so he could no longer see those hidden treasures an artist is tasked by his own spirit to reveal.

“My usefulness has come to an end,” he said, and collapsed, not from exhaustion, but despair. He slept.

He awoke to daylight, hoping he might see something different––the great tree, perhaps––but there was only wilderness, a desolate world.

He cried, “I knew it! There is nothing out here, only empty land, cold and unfeeling. I knew it all along!”

‘I knew it all along.’ These are the words of the disappointed human soul, the words of one who has given up on his own story. In the story of The Wide, they are words of abandonment. What Seeker would tell you now is this: sometimes, abandonment is not the end of the journey, but the start.

Giving up, the man trudged west toward home, crestfallen, his skilled hands numb and dangling at his sides. His progress was slow, steps labored. There was a great wind, you see. The wind, gentle at first, but gathering quickly, blew toward the east, but Seeker did not feel its force before him; rather, it pulled at his back, as if the wilderness itself had come alive and grown lungs, and it was pulling him in.

And the sound. The sound of the wind came to him much like that of the city at the peak of day, when the streets teem with people, all of them chattering as they go to the market, to school, to church.

Amidst the chattering of that strange wind, a single voice found his ear, a whisper. “Stay, Seeker. Stay with me.”

Looking around, finding no one, Seeker asked, “Who are you?”

“I am what you have come here to meet.”

Seeker stood motionless, a man in the center of nowhere, speaking to the invisible. “Why can’t I see you?”

“It is not in your nature to see me. You are a maker of pictures, so your eye works differently than most, but even the artist’s eye cannot see the likes of me. You can only interpret.”

“Interpret how?”

“You translate the unseen into something people can see. Like the singing bird or the great tree.”

“That was you? You were the bird and the tree, both?”

“I was both, and I am neither. Those are merely images. They are ways of seeing what cannot be seen.”

Seeker pondered this for some time. “But why those images? There must be a reason you would choose to show yourself that way.”

The voice of the wind then became like a melody. “The bird is a musical creature. I am like music. Tell me, what does music look like?”

Seeker had seen music written down before. There were lines, and between the lines, dots with sticks attached to them.

The wind said, “The symbols you see written on a page, this is not music. It only helps the musician to find the music. In the same way, the pictures you created of the bird are not themselves the bird. They are symbols, reminders of what you experienced. You long for them to be more, I know. Symbols are necessary, but it is folly to cling to them too tightly, to mistake them for truth. To do so leads to disillusionment, or worse––certitude.”

“So, what of the tree then? What does the tree symbolize?”

“The tree is a living personification of The Wide. It is part of the earth, grows from the earth, but it is much older than this or any other world.”

“How old? A million years?”

“Too old to fathom. And it is too large for any artist to capture. One could climb its heights for a millennia and never reach its top. It is ever growing. It is ever changing, because your view of it is ever changing. If you were to sketch its likeness again today, your picture would appear different.”

This disturbed Seeker. He had taken great care with his drawing of the tree, studying its every detail so he could represent it accurately. “Then my pictures are irrelevant,” he said, and he thought at that moment that his years as an artist were wasted.

“Not irrelevant. Incomplete.” The strength of the wind had begun to diminish, its voice fading.

Seeker cried, “Don’t go! I don’t understand. Why bring me to this place only to leave me with more questions?”

Silence, save that solitary voice, which spoke so softly, Seeker had to strain to hear. “Some questions are meant only to draw you in.”

“Draw me to where?”

“Here, to me.”

“Who are you?”

“One who cannot be counted or quantified. One too large to be captured or described.”

Now the voice was so faint, Seeker could not be sure if heard the next words, or he only imagined them.

“I am one who cannot be known. Only experienced.”

The wind went away, leaving Seeker alone in a silence so dense, he thought the world itself had fallen into slumber.

In the moments that followed, which might have been hours, even days, Seeker’s thoughts were of his art, how his heart burned to recreate this moment on a page. His pencil called to him from home. How would he represent this experience? He pondered the question while his feet took him westward.

The journey home passed quickly, so entranced was he by thoughts of one who ‘cannot be known, only experienced’. When he neared his shop, he kept his face hidden from the people, for he did not want the distraction of human contact to dull his vision. Once home, he retrieved a page and laid it on his work table. Pencil in hand, he stared into the blankness, awaiting his inner eye to tell him what he should draw. Bustling city sounds crept in––friends together on their way to morning coffee, mothers with small children, a musician plucking notes on a single string, singing a song about the kindest woman he ever knew––but to Seeker, these sounds barely registered, as subtle as the sound of his own breath.

How long Seeker stood there, lost in the blankness of the page, no one knows. But I can tell you that the page remains blank to this day. His passion for drawing remains strong as it ever was, he has transformed many blank pages in the years since, but not that one. This I know, because it hangs on the wall of his shop, unblemished. It is given a place of prominence among his greatest works. People often ask, “Why do you display this page with nothing on it? Why don’t you draw something there?”

In response, he says, eyes gleaming, “That piece is my favorite. I would hate to ruin it.”

Here, Winta stops and lets loose a disturbing wail. A streak of fur resembling an oversized guinea pig bolts from a crevice in the nearby rocks, some native critter disturbed by the woman’s cry. It is a cry spoken from a place more elemental than flesh or bone.

‘My stories grow lonely inside me’––that’s what she said earlier. Some people think that stories come from a mysterious place inside, through a passageway of sorts, between material reality and the unseen realm that gives reality purpose. Storytellers like Winta possess a rare sort of sight, a secret eye, by which they see and interpret the stories that emerge through this passageway. I believe her cry comes from that mysterious place inside her. It is the cry of labor and release. The cry of storyteller, birthing story.

Winta? You okay?

She responds with a cough that conjures something foul from her lungs. This grueling daily tour across the wilderness is stealing the life from her, and she knows it. That’s why I’m here. Her stories are all that keep her going, and she needed me to hear the story of The Wide. She needs me to pass it on.

Yes, Sky. I’m okay. I will rest just a moment.

Seating herself upon a large rock, wincing at stony jabs to her backside, she flicks the ropes from her shoulders, a practiced motion. The water jug sags from her back, the relief exquisite. I imagine she stops here often to rest, perhaps every day.

Twin streams descend Winta’s sun baked cheeks, reaching her lips, depositing a salty kiss. She thirsts. I feel in her a thirst more intense than any I’ve experienced in my life. Beside her, five gallons of water whisper relief. Likely, the water is dirty and would taste foul to my western tongue. But I long for it. I long for a swallow of that filthy water to wash down the throat of this beautiful storyteller.

She speaks, her voice in my mind like a song beneath the din of weariness and thirst. Tell me, Sky, do you ever think about time?

I laugh.

Did I make a joke?

No, Winta, sorry. It’s just, where I’m from, people are obsessed with time.

Yes, I have heard this about you. In America, everybody is afraid of missing something, so they carry their cameras everywhere, in case they need to take a picture, to hold that moment forever. But you know what? I think a moment cannot be held, just like Seeker could not hold on to his experience in The Wide by making a drawing. I think the only way you can hold an experience is to make it part of you, to let it change you.

She’s right, of course. I know she’s right, just as I know that, despite her wisdom, I’ll eventually wake from this curious dream, and I’ll continue living a life leashed to technology, attempting to hold on to that which cannot be held.

She rises. The rope becomes taut again, fiber and flesh straining against the persistent aquatic curse. I feel her knees pop. But the feeling is distant, dull in a way it wasn’t before. The magic that’s linked us through space and time is fading. If this is a dream, at least one of us appears to be waking. I’m being pulled away, Winta’s world peeling back, giving way to the warm fog of in-between. An urgent question rises in me. I can’t leave before asking, Winta! That page! Why did Seeker leave it blank?

Through the void, her voice calls in response. I believe there are no blank pages. Not really.

I’ve never been a quick riser. The space between sleep and awake is so nebulous, I’m prone to confuse my thoughts in dreams with those of the waking world. Not so today. I am awake, eyes open, and I don’t remember opening them. My phone is in my pocket, buzzing. Likely it’s someone sending a happy birthday text, or perhaps one of a couple hundred birthday blessings, courtesy of The Social Network. I plunge my hand into my pocket, shut it down.

With the distraction removed, my mind is clear to hear Winta’s cry, still echoing in my mind. My stories grow lonely inside me. It is clear to me now. It’s not only her stories that are lonely; it’s all our stories. She’s just more aware than most, perhaps her reward for all those hours of hiking from home to Source and back each day. While we drown our lonely stories in the resplendent glow of LED screens, she creates them while carrying water for her family. She writes stories in her head that no one will every hear. Until today.

Rising, I catch the intoxicating aroma of coconut wafting through the screen door. My wife sings to herself casually while frosting my birthday cake––The Beatles, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. Her voice is like a warm embrace to my ear. It strikes me more deeply now than it has in the past. I’d forgotten how beautiful her song is.

Accompanying the sweet melody, the sprinkler chats percussively, and another sound––the echo of water, escaping down the alley storm drain.

My stories grow lonely.

I go to the faucet, cut the extravagant flow.

The day is both eternal and fleeting. I breathe deeply the summer air, savoring the sweetness of grass, tree, and flower. It’s a good day. And I have work to do.

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