I know that my brain works overtime, coming up with strange and atmospheric stories while I sleep. Maybe it’s meant to balance my waking laziness. I won’t ask! Here’s another one of those few from which I have awakened with a crystal clear memory. Not of its putative symbolism, of course, if you’re wanting to analyze my weirdness for dreaming surreal tales with death in them that are somehow not nightmares but simply strange and (literally) colorful, unexpected nocturnal in-head cinematic confabulations.
Dawn comes in fits and starts. Tatters of grey cloud hang diagonally across the bottom quarter of the pale sky ahead as I’m driving away from the warmth of home; as the road swings me southward, that ragged hem rises into an ever darker, flatter cloudbank and it seems I’m reversing time as I go. The world gets smokier looking with every mile.
Have I driven all day, already? It looks less like dawn, more like dusk, every minute. A ground fog is rising from the pavement, narrowing the gap with those shredded clouds in a slow, relentless re-closing of the curtains. Approaching the city, I watch the tops of the towers fade into the growing dark and finally disappear, enveloped.
The rain begins. It’s thin and dirty at first, but with every mile I drive, grows denser, heavier. The whole world around me turns to molten lead. I am driving, now, into a contracting twilit vortex that soon enough will pull me undersea, it seems. I’m grateful to be exiting the freeway, exhausted from gripping the wheel and blinded by the bleary flow of rain that has outpaced the windshield wipers’ meager strength.
The exit ramp swings in a slow, wet arc up and over the freeway to take me back in an east-northeast crawl, and suddenly it’s as though the rainstorm has been turned off and dawn restarted. The last miles to work see no more precipitation except for that being shrugged off of the trees, and daylight brightens at every intersection, with every car’s-length I drive, and then with every foot. The office building is sparkling like a freshly scrubbed, dazzling beacon, haloed by the rising sun.
And as I walk through that phalanx of security arches toward the windowless interior where my work awaits, I go from brilliant morning into the dim, unhealthy crepuscule of artificially lighted night.
Eternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.
One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.
Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.
When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.
It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.
This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.
Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had
been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.
He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.
A leather-covered volume with its pages edged in gilt
Slipped from the deck into the sea but, cradled in the silt
Where oxygen could not intrude, nor prying eyes descry
Its ancient glimmer in the mud, a century did lie;
One century—another—no, nine centuries of dark
It passed in sleeping silence after falling from that bark.
And then one day, a ray of light passed through the waves above
Just at the perfect moment for a mermaid, as she dove,
To catch a glimpse of gilded pages in that sea-deep sun
And swim down to investigate this treasure—only one
Quick sparkle of that golden edge brought her so close to look,
To brush aside the lazy silt and so, reveal the book.
Nine hundred years in darkness had it lain in quiet wait
For just this passing moment to wake up, illuminate,
And catch the passing fancy of an unsuspecting maid
Who’d bring it to her grotto in the deepest ocean’s shade.
In dappled dark, her opal eyes lit up the page, and next,
She read it, eager, mesmerized, the calligraphic text
Transforming, leaping from the book, becoming swiftly wild
And glorious, and telling tales that moved the mermaid child
To bend with sorrow, weep with joy; to palpitate with fear;
To live the story as her own; and, as the end drew near,
To grieve that such a magic fable had to end at all,
For it had seemed so rich and real, had held her in such thrall
That she’d begun to think it true, this tale of mythic men
And women wondrous wise and brave—she turned to read again—
Thrice through, in fact, she read the tome, and every time the more
Believed its great, compelling tale of life beyond her shore.
Full hearted, then, she closed the book, but never ceased to wish
That other mermaids, other seas, and other sorts of fish
Than those she knew in her own place were, as the story’s, real,
And though once happy, now she longed to see and hear and feel
What was beyond her native coast. One day she must return
To where she’d found that magic book, and see what she could learn.
One day, indeed, an older lass, but nonetheless enthralled
By the old book (she’d read again six times, if she recalled),
She caught the rolling afternoon’s most fearsome wave and rode
Under its lashing, crashing crest to where the book was stowed
Within its silken, silty bed so long, so long ago,
And knelt down on the ocean’s floor, and watched the water’s flow,
And saw the ripples up above, a thousand fathoms high,
And wished a little inward wish that something from the sky
Up higher still would pierce the waves, would light for her one ray
Of visionary hope the way it had upon that day.
Out of the darkness streaked with kelp, the passing sea life came
To look at her, this pearly lass, but swam off just the same,
For curious though she appeared, they’d naught to give or tell
That would assuage her longing or relieve her of her spell.
For days she hovered in that place, to gaze with fading hope
And heave a soft and bubbling sigh, and comb the gentle slope
To see if some small, overlooked companion to her find
Would rise to hand and help explain; but none was left behind.
At last she turned, quite woebegone, to drift for home, undone,
Her childhood fantasies all dashed—but wait! A ray of sun,
One faded spear, had pierced the deep; it beckoned her to draw
Back to the place her book had lain, and in its light she saw,
But faintly, now, another book, this one yet older still,
And as she took it in her hand, she felt a silent thrill
Race up her spine. She sailed for home as swift as mantas fly,
Gripping her treasure to her heart, this book dropped from the sky.
There in the grotto, as before, she read with trembling care
The prologue to her favored tale, the key unlocking there
The meaning of that history and mystery so grand,
The explication of her longed for never-ever-land.
Page One of this tremendous tome opened the secret wide
And startled her to drop the book, for there she saw inside
The preface to her deepest loved tale of that mystic place
Began with an engraving of her own familiar face!
Around her portrait, mirror-like, the title read, in part,
“The Story of Our Lady-Queen, the Owner of My Heart.”
Her own heart skipped a beat or two ere she once more to read
Took up the opus in her hand, to see where it might lead—
There in the shell-lined grotto sweet, she pored over the lines
Telling her life from this day forth, as writ by kingly hand:
Who authored this spoke of his love, and how she ruled his land
Long years to come, and how, in sum, her people throve as well,
And in the book, she met her love, who had such tales to tell,
And read them through with eager joy, to see what else she’d learn,
‘Til by the end-page she loved too, and had begun to yearn
To know this King and how it came that time had backward spun
So that these books of things yet dreamed fell from the present sun.
The end-page held, as she had hoped, engraved once more, two eyes
Whose gaze made her young, beating heart in recognition rise!
She dashed outside into the swell, and ne’er looked back again,
To find that place the boat was moored, to greet the sailing men,
To follow them to distant seas where they in their bark would roam,
When I opened my eyes, I saw a cedar boat ahead, a craft of sleek and patinated wood; I was ashore, looking, watching without knowing why, standing on the verge with the clear salt sea touching my feet and on its cold breath casting up an offering of tide-polished stones and shells moved into patterns like a prayer shawl.
The cedar boat drew near, and in the boat, a man whose solemn joy preceded him and made my thoughts lie still.
Only the scent of cedar broke the salty air. I waded out to catch the prow and saw the oarsman watching me, and I was humbled but not afraid. He said nothing. I didn’t think to say a word, myself, but caught the boat and slowly pulled it ashore.
The oarsman wore a long superlative braid that rose and fell on his breast; I made fast the boat to a spike of driftwood at the verge, tying the painter in a braid as like his own as I could make it.