Family Reunion

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.

I know.”

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.”

#

They walked.

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—”

Yes?”

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.