Generator: The theme of this story: tragic mystery. The main characters: confused cab driver and pious rogue. The start of the story: dream. The end of the story: discovery.
“I don’t get it,” said Sammy. Mist rolled away from him in all directions, pale and formless.
“There’s nothing to get,” the woman said. “Please, I need silence.” She knelt, her body taking on a perfect stillness, the breathless waiting of a stone being worn away by the sea. The mist climbed her body like a thing alive, tendrils coiling snakelike across her shoulders, her back, the tattooed nape of her neck. Sammy felt a scream crawling up his throat, watching the only other person in this dreamscape being eaten by fog, like something out of a horror movie.
He swallowed, hard, and looked away, his gaze searching for a horizon that wasn’t there. Grey sky, grey mist, and it all met at the vanishing point, a roiling nothingness that had overwhelmed sense and knowledge.
This is a dream, he told himself. This is a dream, and I can wake up anytime I want—
Only he couldn’t. The formless scream was clawing its way back up his throat. With an effort that was enough to put sweat on his brow, he forced it back down.
When the woman touched his shoulder, her finger icy cold even through his shirt and undershirt, he did scream.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He glared at her, daring her to laugh, to smirk, to crack a smile. She didn’t. Her eyes were large, brown, and very serious.
“Look,” he said. “I don’t know what this is. Do you?”
“It’s the dream land,” she said.
“Are you my guide?”
“No,” she said. She didn’t blink much, he’d come to notice. Maybe twice since he’d met up with her, here in the formlessness.
“What’s your name?”
“Abigail,” she said.
“I’m Sammy,” he said.
So. “Not much of a dreamland,” he said.
“This is the void,” she said. “The world before the world. The men of the north knew it as Ginungagap.”
“What are we doing here?”
“That’s for us to find out, I believe.”
“How do we do that?”
“We walk,” she said. “It’s a pilgrimmage.”
He made a slow circle, peering to the no-horizon in all directions. “Which way?”
She said, “It doesn’t matter.”
The mist flowed all around them, swirling and dancing in eddies and whorls, parting before them, recombining in their wake.
His legs didn’t get tired. That was how he knew this was a dream: in the real world, all that sitting on his duff, ferrying businessmen and drunk kids from point A to point B had given him varicose veins. Walking any distance these days was a constant dull ache.
They were walking in circles, Sammy was sure of it. But maybe they weren’t, and how would he know? The universe was misty ground and dull sky and sourceless grey light.
After some hours Abigail called a halt and knelt again, her eyes closed, the mist climbing the still statue of her body, curling across her eyelids, snagging on the sharp points of her short dark hairstyle—
He was watching her when she opened her eyes. Something about her face in repose was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.
They walked on through swirls of mist.
A bird was singing, and had been, Sammy realized, for some time. Its song rose and fell, a trill and a chirrup, and he didn’t know his bird songs well enough to identify it.
It was getting louder, too, which meant that maybe they were on the right path. If he looked down he could see green where the breeze of their footfalls had chased the mist away. Grass?
After a time, and another moment of Abigail’s odd, seemingly aperiodic prayer, he noticed that the birdsong had split into the songs of many birds, flocks of birds, and different creatures were singing too: there was the croak of frogs, and the shivery chitter of insects, and once, only once, the mournful howl of a coyote.
In the moment between one breath and the next, the mist faded away, the sky went blue, and they were striding across a meadow of knee-high grass under a summer-like sun toward a stand of white trees quite unlike anything he’d ever seen before.
“What—” he said.
“Shhh,” she said. “We approach on foot to the place of the dream’s revelation.”
The trees were further away than Sammy had thought. Either that, or they were receding from them. In the framework of dream-logic, it even made sense.
“I need to pray,” she said.
“All right,” he said. “But first—”
“What do I need to do? To get to the trees?”
“The trees?” she said.
He pointed at the white bluff. She followed the line of his finger. Now that he squinted, maybe they weren’t trees. But then what were they?
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what you need to do.” She blinked, once. “But I need to pray.”
“Of course,” he said. She knelt amid the nodding grasses, in the smell of wildflowers, and went still. He wasn’t even sure if she breathed while she was in her fugue.
He couldn’t feel a breeze, but the grasses swayed in it like hula girls, whispering ancient secrets in an unknown language as blade rubbed on blade.
He stared off at the white spines reaching for the sky. He couldn’t tell if they had leaves or not.
After a moment, he knelt beside Abigail, closed his eyes, listened to the whisper of the grass, tried to clear his mind—
Closer now. He could still feel the pressure on his knees, the weight of his body, of all those years, but they were walking again and he couldn’t remember getting up, couldn’t remember the thoughts that had flitted through his mind. He could remember the sensation, though, that he wasn’t the originator of those thoughts, that someone else had been planting thoughts in his mind—
His skin crawled to think of it.
The trees-that-weren’t-trees rose smooth and white and leafless against the blue sky, and there was something wrong, something alien, about them.
This is just a dream, he thought. But he was no longer sure it was his dream.
Prayer again: blank mind, still body, breath slowed till he could barely tell if his heart was beating or not. And walking, no transition, the un-trees nearer than ever, jointed and articulated in a way beyond anything he’d ever seen growing out of the ground.
The birdsong was behind them, the croaking and the whispering language of insects, and all that remained, as they crossed what he had come to believe was the last mile, was the rustle of their passage through the meadowgrass.
They were bones, he realized. Bones trapped in the earth, bones yearning for the sky, bones the color of polished ivory.
Even the grass was gone, here, afraid to grow too close to the bone forest, and they walked the final furlong across a scree of shattered rock patched here and there with lichens in Hallowe’en colours. They knelt on tumbledown stone and grit at the threshold of the bluff for one final prayer, and then Abigail led him into the center of the bones, their footsteps clacking on the polished white floor.
We are here, she said without words. He didn’t have to ask her anything. Here at the calcified heart of the dream, the stony knot of someone else’s dream, he would find the truth he sought.
He was sure of it.
There were two women now. He wasn’t sure if Abigail had fissioned, or if the other woman had appeared while he wasn’t watching, or if she’d been there since before they’d entered the forest of naked bone.
“Hello, Samuel,” said the new woman. She was dressed in a simple white dress, the kind of thing you’d see in films about ancient Greece. Her hair was dark, longer than Abigail’s, and her eyes were large, dark, liquid, expressive. She blinked quite a bit more than Abigail.
“Hello,” he said. There was a long moment of silence. The new woman seemed to be expecting something. Finally Sammy said, “Should I know you?”
She smiled. “My name is Joanne,” she said. “And I doubt you’d remember me. It was a long time ago, and surely there have been many other women since.”
Joanne. The name tickled a memory—
“Oh,” he said. He felt the memory settle into his body, squeezing his heart, crushing his mind under the weight of it. “Oh.”
She’d been nineteen, and he’d been eighteen, and it was his first time, and she was lovely, and naked, and willing, drug fog in the air and triphammering heart in his chest, dry mouth and sweat coursing down his ribcage and—
“Joanne,” he said, her name a jewel, an emerald cut with perfect facets, winking light back at him.
—it was over so soon, she was laughing, but not in a cruel way, a gentle, kind laugh, the room awhirl and he was so full of peyote that he didn’t know if it was all really happening or not—
“That was— God, that was forty years ago. I was, I was a stupid kid—”
“We all were,” she said. “Trust me, Samuel. Know this: I no longer blame you.”
“Blame— Blame me? For what?”
“My life as I had known it ended that night,” Joanne said. She smiled: “I woke up pregnant.”
“Oh—” He looked at Abigail. “Oh!”
Abigail turned a pretty pirouette, then winked at him. There was a smile on her face. How long had it been there?
“I— She’s my— My daughter?”
“Yes,” said Joanne. “In a manner of speaking.” She smiled, too, now. “Dear Samuel. I was your first?”
In the real world he’d have flushed bright pink from chest to brow. Here he just said, “Yes. You were.”
“Did you love me?”
He looked her in the eye. The truth. “Joanne, I didn’t even know you. Someone told me your name the next day, but I could never find you—”
“My parents made me drop out of college,” she said. “Said I’d fallen in with the wrong bunch.” She laughed. “I think they might have been right.”
“A daughter,” he said. “Abigail. How old—?”
“Samuel, do you know why you’re here?”
“No. Not a clue.”
“Samuel, I am dying.” She raised a hand, palm out, to forestall his reaction. “It’s cancer. It’s been going for quite some time, and I will soon go on to whatever it is that comes next.”
“Is there anything I can—?”
“No,” she said. “It was, perhaps, a cruel thing, my bringing you here. I haven’t seen you in forty years, but something in me wanted to reach out, to find you. To find the father of my very first child.”
“Abigail. Where does she live? Is she with you?”
“Abigail died stillborn,” said Joanne. She looked away from Sammy, at their daughter. “Do you know, I haven’t seen her face since the doctors took her away?”
The smile on her face—on both their faces—was bright with unknowable joy. In the midst of death we are in life—
Sammy snapped awake, sobbing into a pillow already damp with tears. In her sleep, his wife put her arm around him, cooing soothing noises, but for a long time he couldn’t stop crying.
When she asked him in the morning what he’d been dreaming about, he told her he couldn’t remember.