I arrived in this Universe a while back.
Initially, you understand, just to sightsee. You know, glide around a little, take in the milky ways and the dusty swirls, all these stars large and small, all these planets green and brown and blue, some with purple plains and sandy deserts, some with gray black mountains draped in trees some and capped in white others, some neither. Many frantic oceans, too, and many placid seas. All very varied and quite pleasing, I must say. Sightseeing.
Drifting in for a closer look at some of these planets, I saw roads and wagons and gates and guards and many people, he called them.
Drifting in closer still, I saw steady hands under furrowed brows brighten white canvas with color and warmth to capture trees and mountains, painting he called it.
I heard symmetry of sound from throats and hands on strings, music he called it.
And I saw many feet move in delicate delicious rhythm, dance he called it, and they seemed to enjoy it, these what he called people.
And drifting closer still, I heard laments by lovers wronged, I saw seductions soft, and stark betrayals, brutal slayings and happy resurrections.
I saw brother helping brother, sister leaving sister, son trusting father, daughter hating mother, or at least that is how he explained these odd happenings to me, my escort. Though, to be honest, I could not see the truth of these events for they had no pattern to them, not like those of their music or dance, he called them.
So I turned to him and I asked, “What’s the point, then? Without a pattern?”
“It’s hard to explain,” he answered. “And almost impossible to understand without one of those,” indicating a long display of sparkling shapes that looked just like what he called people but that didn’t move. He brought me down and closer.
“What are they?” I asked.
“They are called bodies,” he said. “You should try one.”
We slowly drifted down the line of these shapely shapes all in glistening skin (still drying and cooling, he told me), until we came to the very end of the display where hung a firm and strong male, he called it, cooled and comely in his long white robe. “Touch it,” he suggested.
I looked at him. A question. I once heard of these things. I heard there can be danger.
“Trust me,” he said.
So, perhaps unwisely, I trusted him, and I brushed against the bare, strong arm.
On contact there was a shock a jolt a rush and then a screaming wind furiously inhaling and then a brief blackness and then I found myself inside this what he called a male and many things happened all at the same time, too fast, too many, too soon:
Every one thing I saw, every blade of grass, every bird, every tree, every pebble—until then simply small pattern-less somethings to me—was absorbed by this body and once inside it each of these almost countless things spawned a response—a sea of responses. Each and every thing. I felt like a weather system. Storm everywhere.
And loudest of all these many things were my feet, he had called them. Just standing on them, walking on them—my escort nowhere in sight now, by the way—sparked instant and constant conversation: They talked and talked about weight, about street, about its coarseness, its temperature, its stone or not and about smoothness of marble, about ticklishness of grass, about slippery cool of water splashing, about heat of sand. Talked and talked and did not for a moment not talk about watch out for the curb and careful where you step. It was not an easy task but I did my very best to listen to my feet and to my feet alone—through and ignoring the din of thousands, perhaps millions, of other voices, those of hands and elbows and fingers and knees, of thighs and ears, of eyelids and lungs, all clamoring for my attention, each wanting me to know their response to all things surrounding, what they perceived—the better to hear what my feet had to tell me.
And tell me they did, about warm brick, about cold brick, about just right brick, about this brick is getting too hot, you need shoes, about sand hotter still, you need shoes, about sharp rocks, you do need shoes, about what a relief a balm would be, if I’d only listen. Then, once I did listen and found a place that sold shoes and bought these feet a pair of them, they would not cease talking of shoes that were too tight, too loose, too wide, too narrow, too hot, too airy, too soft, on and on and on about these shoes. Nothing but shoes. After a while I had had enough of this and I threw the shoes away to shut my feet up about them.
But by now I had grown a pretty good listener to feet. I was getting to know them. They began to feel like mine although I knew they were only on loan (and again I wondered what could have happened to my escort).
I still heard too, but ignored as best as I could (so I could concentrate on and listen to my feet) the myriad other voices, the other thousands, perhaps millions of them chattering away like tiny mines exploding inside me constantly, sparked by everything.
I heard, and couldn’t really ignore altogether, from my hands about textures, from my nose about smells, from my knees about pain, from my tongue about salt, from my ears about what these reefs and reefs of vibration surrounding meant, from my eyes about light, and light reflecting and mixing, and re-reflecting. Through all this, I still listened, as best as I could, to my feet, who now said, none to gently, that they hurt, that they really really hurt, and would I please for the love of life please get off of them and sit down for a while, perhaps on that bench made of white stone over there, by the side of this grand marble avenue, by the many, many feet rushing about in many directions.
And so, in the end, I sat down on the white stone bench, and my feet were very pleased, they said. And they thanked me.
I sat on this bench for I don’t know how long. After a while, my feet finally grew quiet. Maybe they were resting just like me, saying nothing, maybe they had fallen asleep, I don’t know, so I listened elsewhere: to my ears and the many throats of birds, growing louder as they approached and swooped near and fading as they rose again, telling each other who knows what in their bird tongue, and constantly. And I listened to the wind among them, to the air caressing feathers and singing as wings wave to gain altitude or distance.
I listened to the sandy shuffle of sandals on marble worn to a polish, of hundreds of feet, two per person, barely visible from under the many blue robes and occasional white ones belonging to these many heads solemnly proceeding this way and that. Each foot as it touched down made its own little sound and then a different sound leaving again the whitish stone, but my ears much preferred to mix these many steps into a susurrus breeze which was very soothing and which lulled me into wondering again just what could have happened to my escort.
I have eyelids. They fell of their own accord and then I didn’t see. But I found their muscles and found that I can use them and the lids opened again. Light strikes everything around me and from these everythings there are reflections and they enter these eyes as long as I don’t shut these eyelid doors.
I saw the shifting blue of the sea of robes rustling by, shifting as the light fell differently from crease to moving crease in a symphony of blue with only the occasional white-robed frown parting the blue sea ahead of him like an irritated prow. And I saw the birds again, seeing me seeing them darting to greet me as if I were an acquaintance, which maybe I was, I don’t really remember.
But most of all, now that my feet remained content and quiet, I listened to another sea, this ocean, this vast water—that is how I thought of it though it had another name, this vast inside water, which I don’t recall—sounding again and again and again in response to every little voice by ear and eye and hand and tongue responding to every little thing they perceived, and now I knew what my escort (wherever he had gone to) had meant, for I came to realize that this water, this ocean—I could find no better name for it—was the heart of it all, was at the very center, was the marvel of these bodies. This ocean was the thing he had wanted to show me, this alive thing that spawned these myriad impressions into as many reactions and then into all-important patterns.
Still on my bench, I watched a man and his child sitting on a bench similar to mine but across the marble avenue from me. They sat too far away for my ears to hear, but not for my eyes to see. The man sat tall and erect in a robe blue like sky, his hair was white and long and his face furrowed, like a mountain side from far away. He had slender hands with long fingers which sought each other’s comfort as he sat there. The child, she was a girl, was dressed in a robe of the same blue, not of body length though, no, more like a tunic, a little dress, with a white ribbon around her waist. Her pale knees were breathing and her hair was the color of straw, sparkling in the yellow sun.
They were talking. The man looked stern and spoke loudly, now and then facing her while emphasizing meaning with his hands. The girl’s face, restful at first, grew more and more animated and she too began to gesture as she talked back. Suddenly, the man’s slender hand leaped, like the tail of a reptile, and whipped across the girl’s face. She stopped talking and stared a breath or two with large eyes at the man, at the hand. Her eyes were very blue and began to glisten as with water. The man looked away. Not to see, but to stop seeing. I saw all this clearly and every movement, as voiced by my eyes, was again reflected and voiced by my ocean, and when the hand struck it jolted me so hard from below that I almost rushed across the busy marble avenue to strike the man in turn, for I knew the child would not.
Though the man had not struck me, this vast water within responded and demanded I act, like a rising, like a surge. It was a marvelous thing, this ocean.
Then, as I saw the girl’s eyes fill with moisture, and as I saw the first large tear leave and set out down her cheek, my ocean sang again: Rise, it sang, rise and cross the avenue. Go to her and embrace her, it sang, comfort her, take her away from him who would hurt her. And I did rise, not really of my own volition, more by this urging, and I took several steps across the avenue toward them when I collided with someone almost my size, stern, and also wearing a white robe. I stopped and he looked at me as if I had intended to slap him and not the father in blue.
Then without a word he continued. I stepped back, brought to my senses by the collision, and returned to my bench. Sitting down again I watched the back of the white robe hurrying down the avenue, the sea of blue parting to let him through untouched.
I looked across to the man and the girl again. They had both observed my encounter and now looked at me, a little curious, a little startled perhaps, but before long her eyes left me for him, still pleading for an answer. He remained frozen and erect, again seeing nothing, I think. My ocean still sang within, though not so intensely now. I was no longer compelled to rush for her, that wave had crested and was now crashing to foam upon my awareness of it. Though I still wanted, very much, to comfort her. That was the song of the vast water.
But I found that I could tell the difference between these waters and their compelling voices, on the one hand, and me, my own awareness, on the other, and I found that I could still them by looking away and up, by not seeing her and her heavy tear, by seeing instead the yellow and brown building soaring straight into the sky only a few steps beyond their bench, where she remained, crying. Where he remained, frozen.
I looked straight up, at perhaps two thousand stories, perhaps twice that. They build them very tall in these parts, so my (seemingly vanished) escort had told me. To silence my ocean, I began to count the rows of windows but lost count after seven hundred and a few. The father and daughter had left when my gaze returned to the ground, to start my counting again from one.
A bird fell out of the sky and swept by very close to me, I could feel the air move on my face. At this my ocean began another song. This time about large white birds. I had first seen them counting my way up the yellow side of the tower. Huge white birds sailing darkly against the sparkling of windows, crossing my vision, almost distracting me at three hundred sixteen, three hundred seventeen, three hundred eighteen, gone again by three hundred nineteen. But here they were again, sung by the ocean, at three hundred sixteen, three hundred seventeen, three hundred eighteen though I was no longer counting, only thinking about counting. This then must be what he had called memory. This curious ocean.
Yes, I could see them, as by some internal eye, as shadow first against the glass then as bright wings flashing in the sun. And these were not the gray and brown birds singing, swooping to greet me as I arrived, no these were large and white and mute from altitude, the very birds I had seen while counting stories, bright now and winging again across my ocean. It was a marvel and I simply had to listen, to this ocean, to this song. And again I marveled for here they winged anew. So this was memory. A truly amazing song. I would have to tell my escort about this (but first I would have to find him).
By this time my feet stirred from their slumber and mumbled about moving on. Softly at first, just a thought, a suggestion, then louder, then a demand: Listen you. And so I took their advice, stood up and we were off again. But after a while I discovered that I could, if I wanted to, ignore them. I found that I could let them mutter on as they pleased while I listened elsewhere. To my eyes now, to their voices and in turn to their echoes within and from my ocean. Birds again, mostly gray and black against the sky, swirling in unison like a cloud, many, many, and screeching softly with many throats above me, then behind me, then almost by my side before they soared again even higher, and I thought of patterns but saw none. No patterns, no, but something else, I found something warmer than that. A fusion of glad and sad rose from the surface of my ocean and filled my eyes with gladness to see the dancing cloud—a gladness despite the lack of pattern. But there was sadness, too, because of that lack of pattern. But mostly gladness, because my ocean willed it. What a wonderful thing, these vast waters, which seem to give such intimate meaning to everything.
I came now to the end of the marble avenue with the towering buildings at my back. As I stepped off the solid pavement and down into dust my feet objected (since I had thrown away their shoes), but not too loudly. I kept walking, following a single stray bird, separated from its galaxy still dancing among the rising stories somewhere behind me, following it as it darted left, then right, then up as if to say: Come. But always away, engendering new reflections, new murmurs in my ocean, a yearning to see where to, which was more than curiosity—curiosity I knew, this was more than that, it had color and temperature this curiosity—it was a yearning. So I left the city behind and set out on the now dusty road after this single bird.
A thicket among thickets almost too far away to own color received it and it was gone. I stopped and turned around. The two thousand, or perhaps twice that, story towers sparkled in the sun, now sliding down the northern sky, but slowly. I turned and looked again for the thicket but could not make out the single one among the small forest of thickets so far away. I thought then of returning to the avenue of marble, but I did not. Perhaps I would find the bird again, the color of yearning remained alive within, prompting me. So I walked in its direction.
I never did find the bird, I could never decide which thicket might hide him, and in the end I stopped looking for him.
But the road led on and with the setting sun the day grew cooler and I enjoyed the surrounding land. I walked the rest of the day and the starry night, and almost yet another full day when my feet finally, toward evening, complained again, this time with certainty and emphasis, so I heeded them and looked around for a place to rest. There were no benches here, nothing. Only dusty road leading on into darkening and now misty distance.
Turning and looking back the way I had come not even the tallest of the towers was visible above the horizon. Ahead, I saw only dust and grass and rock to either side of the road and behind I saw more of the same the road curled its way back to the city.
I continued away from marble and towers. Deeper into dusk—promising my feet: soon, soon—I saw a house, dark and small against the hills farther down the road. I told my feet to be patient, please, I would rest soon, very soon now, and we walked on, my feet and I.
Approaching the house, I could make out smoke gently rising from what served as a chimney. People then. My feet seemed to agree. But would I please be quick about it, they added.
The house was farther off than it had appeared, but with the fading light I came at last to a wooden door, dark, oak, worn smooth in places by many hands.
It was closed, and I knocked. I heard feet move inside and someone came to the door. A lock turned and it opened. There stood a tall young woman (he had called them), about my height, robed in blue like the many men and women I had seen in the city, with a white belt gathering the cloth at the waist. It was obviously not the young girl that the stiff man had struck on the city bench, I knew that, but my ocean sang a brief song of her nonetheless—the same tunic, the same belt. Perhaps it was the belt, perhaps the mouth, the song of recent memory did not say.
This young woman’s hair was black and ran straight back into a horse’s tail which I could see stretched half way down her back. Her eyes were dark and set deeply in a nearly brown face. Her nose was stately and straight above a large mouth, lips partly opened to let the white of clean teeth shine through. She looked at me, but said nothing. Something moved behind her. Something small. A dog perhaps, no, a child. Maybe two. Nothing else.
Still she said nothing. She scrutinized me. Her eyes did not blink. She looked at my face, at my robe, at my feet, at my face. Still she said nothing.
She held the door open and shifted her weight from one leg to the other, and still she said nothing.
“Good evening,” I said. “I am new here. I have walked two days and a night and my feet are tired.” I looked down at them to make sure she knew that I was speaking of them. I looked back up her.
“They are complaining,” I said.
She heard what I said, looked down at my feet, and then back at me. She shifted her weight again from one foot to the other, then turned around and whispered something I could not hear to the one or two children inside, which now, as they moved again, I could tell for certain they were two—one with light hair, one with darker, both in blue little tunics—that soon slipped away and into shadow.
Back to me. “New?” she said finally, as if she didn’t mean it. “How come you wear white then?”
I looked down at the cloth and I found it white again. “I don’t know,” I answered.
She didn’t reply and we stood facing each other some more without talking. I noticed how loosely the blue of her tunic hung on her long body, and how her breasts were almost visible. Upon hearing of this from my eyes my ocean began to sing again.
To sing, yes, but it was less song than storm.
I looked again, without appearing to, or so I hoped, at her breasts, or rather at their beginnings, which held curious and strong promise. With this new glance, however, the ocean rushed fully alive and almost in an instant swelled throughout. Warmth rushed to my head and to my loins and into a limb I had not known I possessed which in response rose up and out, bringing with it my white tunic into a little, or not so little, tent. Which she noticed.
Her eyes widened and her lips parted for what should probably have been a scream, had she been alone, then I saw blood rush to her cheeks and I knew she thought of her children as she instead drew a quick breath and took one step back into the dark room behind her.
“I am new here,” I repeated, looking down on the rising, wondering, and licking my lips for they had gone very dry despite all that internal water. “This has never happened to me before,” I said. “I’m not even sure what it is, this, this.”
It was evident that she didn’t believe a word of this and instead she took a second step back into the dark interior and slammed the door shut. I heard the lock turn, then a latch slide into place, as if to twice underscore the slamming. A dry silence arrived. I heard no feet inside, as if she too stood still, listening for me to move as I for her.
I looked down again. At the not so little tent. This newly acquired limb of mine had now risen to fully erect and I knew—it knew—where it wanted to go. It was all the ocean sang about. But she had closed, and twice locked, the door. I looked around for somewhere to sit down, but could see no such place. The ocean kept up its swelling and I almost fainted with the need to place this thing into somewhere that I knew, don’t ask me how, the woman possessed. I touched the tent. It jolted with electricity, and I nearly fainted again.
So utterly strange.
I thought of walking farther, but my feet would have none of it. This was what I have since come to know as a dilemma. Little by very little the tent subsided and the ocean at long last began to recede, tiny by tiny bit. I knocked on the door again. Startlingly loud into the quiet all around.
“Go away,” she said from just inside the door.
“Look,” I said. “I only borrowed this thing. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know why this happened,” I said. Truthfully, though quite amazed that it had.
“Go a-way,” she said.
“My feet want to go no farther,” I said. “I will try to make it not happen again.”
“Go a-way,” she said again.
“I promise,” I said. “I will try to control it.”
“Look,” she said, “I don’t care if you wear white. I’m not opening this door.”
“Please,” I said.
“What?” she said, “What did you say?”
“Please,” I said again.
Then I heard nothing at all for so long that I though she must have left quietly for the interior to join her children. I thought of disobeying my feet and leave this place when, to my surprise, I heard the latch slide back and the lock turn. The door opened a crack, then a little wider. I looked at her and then at what she held in her hand which was of blue metal and pointed right at my ex-tent.
“You cannot be a White,” she said, with curious emphasis.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “But I know I am not a white, as you say, because this is not really mine at all. I’m just trying in out. I’ve borrowed it from my escort, of whom, by the way, I’ve lost all track. You haven’t by any chance…?”
“You’ve stolen a white tunic?” she interrupted, eyes wide again.
“No, no. This whole thing. This,” I said and lifted both of my arms and then pointed them at my legs to indicate the whole of the body.
“Have you eaten fertilizer?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
She took a long, hard look into my eyes and said, “Guess not.”
My ocean started to stir again and I began re-counting storied windows to distract myself. Looking for white birds, three hundred sixteen, three hundred seventeen, three hundred eighteen. I smiled at her, my very best I-am-completely-harmless smile. “Please,” I said again. “My feet cannot face another step.”
“For a little while,” she said after a brief silence. “To rest your feet. And don’t forget this,” she added, meaning the metal thing in her hands, a weapon.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You are definitely not a white,” she said.
“I know that,” I said. “But what makes you so sure?”
“Please,” she said. “You said please. And thank you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those words would never cross their lips.”
“Because they are arrogant bastards,” she said.
“Those who wear white?” I said, remembering the marble avenue, the blue parting to give them room, understanding now.
“They are arrogant.” Not quite a question.
“And you. Blue?”
“Freeholders,” she said.
She looked at me as if I had just fallen out of the sky, which of course wasn’t too far from the truth.
“You really don’t know?”
“Yes, freeholders. Blue robes. Green for serfs. Blacks are rulers. White robes for the aristocrats, the real bastards. I’ve never seen a Black.”
“My escort wore gray,” I said.
“He showed me this place, gave me this, this thing, this body.”
“You are joking, right?”
“No,” I said, again truthfully, “I am not. I’m telling you the truth.”
She examined my eyes again. Quite thoroughly. She thought something was wrong with me and motioned towards shutting the door again. “The body he lent me already wore this tunic,” I added, and saw her relax a fraction, although the weapon remained still and alert and pointed at me.
Then she stepped aside. “For a little while,” she said again.
I stepped inside. At first I could make little out, for while it was darkening outside, it was darker still within. Then as my eyes adjusted I saw a table, two benches, a stove, an oven, a large kitchen. There were no signs of the children. They were probably hiding somewhere else in the house. There was a closed door to my right behind which I thought I heard restless feet.
I walked up to the nearest bench and sat down. My feet sighed and I with along them.
“Better?” she asked.
“Much,” I answered.
Then neither of us said anything for some time. She remained standing with the weapon trained on me. Now I heard the children quite clearly, moving about behind that door, which was green, I noticed. I heard one them ask from behind it, “Has he gone?”
“No,” said the woman. “Be quiet.”
What spoke next was my nose. And it spoke directly to my stomach and from there to the ocean within. Or perhaps it spoke to the ocean first who then spoke to my stomach: Something was cooking on the stove and my stomach suddenly burned for what the nose could smell. The ocean moved about and fanned the flame and finally, over the objections of my feet, I had to stand up and walk over to see and smell this thing from closer up.
In a big pot simmered a stew of vegetables and meats. The aroma rising into my nostrils and down into my stomach was almost as vibrant as the tent had been. It demanded not only a feeling but an action from me. I had to bring this stew into my mouth and I had to swallow.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“If that’s what you call it,” I said.
“Call what?” she asked.
“The stomach fire.”
“Stomach fire?” She laughed. “Nicely put,” she added.
I could see her relax a little as she laughed, but not so much as to put the weapon away. “I guess you would like some stew?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
I saw on her face that she wondered whether to risk it. I was not safe, not yet. She decided in my favor. “Very well,” she said.
She called to the two children behind the door. She told me their names were Lint and Freckle. They entered the large kitchen cautiously. It was easy to see how they had gotten their names. Lint was a girl with the same color hair as the little girl across the avenue, like straw, shining almost of its own. This was the hair I had seen in the dark from the outside. Freckle, a boy a year or two older than his sister, was all freckles and red, bushy hair.
“What’s your name,” said the woman, looking at me.
“Leaf,” I said, and that really was my name.
“Leaf? How come?” she asked.
“You don’t look like a leaf,” said Lint.
Freckle, curious too for my reply, seemed to agree.
“Where I come from,” I began, still truthfully, “names are more like patterns than things. Besides,” I added, “our leaves are sure to be quite different than yours.”
“How different?” asked Lint.
“Well, for one they are much larger.”
“The leaf I made to find my name could swallow a moon.”
The woman looked at me closely with her steady eyes and could tell I was not lying. She put her weapon down. Then she sat herself on a stool by the end of the table and looked at me again. For quite a while. “You are not from here, are you?” she said finally.
“No,” I said.
“It’s true then?”
“There are other places.”
“Oh, Yes,” I said. “That is true. There are other places.”
Her eyes held mine, but she did not answer. Which was when my tent began to resurrect. I shifted a little to my right and moved my legs to conceal it, and to stop my curious ocean from invading again, I made a determined effort to focus on the smell, the smell, the smell, now quite filling the room. “My stomach is still burning,” I said.
“Oh. Yes,” she said, as if stirred from thought. “Lint?”
Lint, who seemed to know exactly what to do, ran over to a cupboard that held plates and cups. “Is he staying?” she asked.
“For supper, yes,” said the woman.
Lint handed four deep plates to Freckle who, also knowing what to do, began to set the table. This simple, but beautiful process—it was almost a pattern, a dance—was repeated with cups and then with spoons which Lint brought from a drawer. The woman then rose, walked across to the stove, and ladled much of the stew from the pot into a large earthenware bowl which she placed on the table. Her two children looked at her expectantly. “Our guest first,” she said, and indicated for me to help myself.
This I did and then for some time I am overcome with eating, they called it. Spoonful after quick, dripping spoonful found my mouth, and I barely had time to chew before I simply had to swallow. It was wonderful. I must have refilled my bowl at least twice while they were still—watching me, and exchanging wondering glances I noticed as I again and again scooped more and more stew into my mouth—working on their first. The woman was too polite and the children too well behaved to comment.
Once I had finished what I believe was my third bowl, or fifth, of that wonderful food, the woman made an aromatic tea which she poured into our cups. It was rich and hot, and I felt it fill me not unlike the ocean, only more gently.
“So,” said the woman once she had asked her children to clear the table (and the children’s beautiful dance was reversed). “Where exactly do you come from, then?”
I took another sip of the dark tea, felt the cup warm my hands. I looked at it for some time before answering. Truly, I wasn’t sure how to explain.
“I’m not from here,” I began.
“Yes, we’ve established that,” she answered, and took another sip of her own tea, which she also seemed to savor. The children had stopped what they were doing and were both looking at me, intent on my answer.
“I’m not really from any-where,” I tried.
She didn’t answer. Nor did she understand.
“My home is not really a place,” I said. “It’s more of a how.”
She still did not understand. Neither did the two pairs of large eyes that now represented the children.
“I’m a visitor here,” I said, which I knew was a step back.
She shook her head. “Look, you don’t have to tell me, it’s fine,” she said, misinterpreting my hesitation. “Tell me instead what you’re doing here.”
“Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I am visiting. My escort brought me.”
“Yes, my guide. He knows of many places. Introduces you to them.” For a fee, but I didn’t say that.
“So, you’re on vacation?”
“I am on a visit,” I said. Just looking around.” Which was the truth.
“Where were you born?”
Well, that’s just it. I wasn’t.
“Nowhere,” I said.
“I can see your reluctance,” she said. “It’s none of my business, really. I am sorry I pried.”
“No, no, that’s not it. No.” Then I added a little lie, “In a city.”
“In Wealth?” It was Freckle who just had to ask.
“Yes. No. Not in Wealth,” which must be the city I had left two days ago. “In another city.”
Lint laughed at that. “What other city? There is only the one.” That earned her a chiding glance from the woman.
I looked at Lint. “No, there are other places, other cities.” Then back at the woman, whom I still had no name for, I realized. “You are right.”
“Where?” she wanted to know.
“In the desert?” She looked a little incredulous, as did the children.
“Yes,” I lied again.
“There are no cities in the desert.”
“Yes there are,” I said. “At least where I come from.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
“It’s not really a place,” I said again.
“You said it was a city.”
“Not as you know it,” I said.
“More as one that you carry.”
She shook her head again, and smiled. Her long hair was working its way out of the horse’s tail and my tent stirred again. She was a very beautiful woman. “You’re telling tales,” she said.
“Not really,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Would you like some more tea?” she asked and stood up.
She smiled again, not used to “please” coming from someone wearing a white robe, I guess. She sailed more than walked to fetch the pot with tea and my tent rushed back into full erection. I began counting those stories again. The swelling of the sea was everywhere and she was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen. If only she would like to receive the tent, or the thing it held.
She stooped a little to pour the tea and I noticed her breasts again, loose within the blue folds. I smelled her skin and her hair and her breath and the air was so full of her that I had to close my eyes to endure. I knew I must not act, not unless invited to, no matter what the ocean sang. No matter how proud the tent, which fortunately was hidden under the table.
She sat down. “You’re wondering what I’m doing here alone with two children,” she stated as if this was the thing on my mind.
“No,” I said, truthfully. “I was wondering what your name is.”
I don’t know whether she didn’t hear me or chose to disregard what I said. “I was married once,” she said. “But he chose the white robe instead.”
She could tell I did not quite follow.
“He was offered the white robe in the city. You’ve noticed I wear blue.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, as you may or may not know, white cannot marry, or stay married to, blue.”
She cast me a glance. “Why not? It’s the law, that’s why not.”
“So, he left. Two years ago soon.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I asked, “What is your name?”
This seemed to surprise her a little. Whether it was at my asking or at her not having told me before I don’t know. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “My name is Agate. When I was a girl I had cloudy irises, like marble. You can still make it out, but they are much darker now, of course.”
I leaned towards her across the table and looking closely I could make out the swirl of color within the dark of her eyes. You had to really look though, but it was beautiful.
“That is very beautiful,” I said. Again truthfully.
She didn’t answer. Instead continued, “So he left, just like that. We have not heard from him since.”
“That’s a pretty dumb law,” I said.
She looked at me with alarm. “You mustn’t say that,” and she motioned with her eyes back over her shoulder towards the children.
“Ah,” I said.
“And your robe,” she added, almost under her breath. “If what you say is true, you must return it as soon as you can. If they find you with it on, and it’s not yours…” She didn’t go on, but I got a good notion both as to who they were and what would happen if they found me. Again, I also wondered what could have happened to my escort.
My tent had subsided again and I felt I could rise with impunity, and be on my way. I really should find him and be on my way back. I swung around and stood up. And sat down almost immediately from the pain, the shout really, issued by my feet. I winced and grunted.
“What’s the matter?” Agate asked.
“My feet,” I said.
“Let me have a look,” she said and came around. I looked down at them with her, at the dusty toes, discolored. She kneeled to take a better look, and again I saw her breasts, quite clearly. The tent stirred again, or threatened to, but with the help of my painful feet and very clear pictures of the road I had walked to come here, I managed to distract it and keep it dormant. Agate lifted my left foot to look at the sole. I winced again and she whistled softly. “Not much used to walking,” she said.
“No,” I answered.
“Is it bad?” I asked after a while when she did not reply.
“Cracked, and some blood,” she answered, still scrutinizing. “I really should wash them clean. I have some balm that will help, too.”
I didn’t, couldn’t answer, for now that they got all the attention they apparently craved, they were all pain.
She gently replaced my foot on the floor, and took a good look at the other. Then said, “I doubt that you can walk any farther tonight. You can stay here.”
“Really,” I said. “I should get going. I need to find my escort. I had expected him to follow me, but I haven’t seen him since he asked me to touch this body.”
“As you wish,” she said. “But let me clean them first. And perhaps I can find you some shoes.”
And clean them she did, with warm, soapy water. Then she dried them with a soft terry towel. Her balm was green and smelled of pine. It was very cool and my feet drank it with delight. I battled the tent twice more while this was going on, her breasts far, far too inviting to ignore, like little mountains to nestle down in between.
“Like new,” she said and stood back to admire her ministration. “See if you can stand now.”
I did, and could, but not unpunished. My feet did not want to go anywhere tonight. I sat down again, again with a groan.
“Bad, huh?” she asked.
“Not good,” I said. “But much better,” I hastened to add.
“I still say you should stay the night. I’ll make a bed for you on the floor. You’ll be better in the morning. Your escort will just have to wait.” She poked fun at the word escort, as if she did not believe my story.
“I guess,” I said. Still wondering what could have happened to him.
She cleared the table of the bowl that the children had left, and of our cups and the table cloth and climbed a short ladder to the attic, visible from below. I followed her progress and saw strong, brown legs under her robe. I looked away lest I drown again in that ocean.
“Hey,” she said from atop the ladder, “give me a hand with this.” She was battling with an unwieldy mattress, half visible over the attic edge. I stood up, winced again, but bit down the groan. I reached for and received the awkward thing. It came down on top of me and I went down with it, smothered.
“It goes underneath,” she said, her voice smiling. I fought my way out from under it and said, “I see.” She smiled again.
She found a blue sheet and a blanket along with a green pillow. “There, this should hold you.”
The makeshift bed looked absolutely inviting and I was of a sudden overcome with sheer fatigue, with the need to sleep (I have since learned is its name). Of course, I had not slept since I arrived, had in fact not even heard of sleep before.
Now, though, it came upon me with a vengeance, and suddenly I seemed to know all about it. Again, it originated with that vast internal water. My eyelids drooped and my vision blurred. I sat down, first on the bench, then on the mattress. The last thing I saw of Agate was her moving into her room, weapon in hand. She turned at the door and said, holding it in plain view, “Just in case you get any ideas.” She didn’t quite smile.
I didn’t quite smile back, then lay down on the mattress, head heavy on the pillow, and for all intents and purposes simply ceased, which, of course, again, was a very strange thing, this bottomless curious ocean swallowing me whole like that.
I slept for a good part of the night before I began to dream, and the dream was all ocean: tall buildings and white birds climbing the sky and many Agates walking up and down the marble boulevard with her two children, hand in hand in hand. And all Agates had breasts. Beautiful, inviting, promising, mountainous, warm, cloudy breasts. And legs, strong, fine, poetic, dancing, singing, legs. And I knew, could tell although I was dreaming, that the tent was rising again, free now and full of ocean and so needy that I could even smell her near me through it all, so hungry that I could feel her fingers finding that strange, proud, upright limb and holding it warmly in her hand.
I opened my eyes and looked directly into hers. “We must be very quiet,” she said.
It knew exactly what to do, I was only along for the ride and hung on for dear life. When it happened, when the explosion took place, I thought something was seriously, wonderfully the matter with me, and I rolled back in amazement, no, shock was more like it. My breath came deeply and often and I pearled with sweat. So was Agate who smiled very nicely and ate a piece of my ear. Then we were off again.
It happened twice more, each explosion was pure ocean. It was miraculous, the most amazing invention ever. I would have to thank my escort; he was absolutely right about these things. I looked into Agate’s eyes again and saw within them her ocean, now receding same as mine. She was breathing quickly too, smiling still. “That,” she said, “was wonderful.”
“Yes,” I said. It was all I could muster. I had to tell the escort about this. He would already know, of course, or would he? Also, I would have to tell, well, the others.
Then she slipped away and back into her room and through the window I could see the pink of early dawn. I fell asleep again and did not wake up until Freckle poked me with a stick and Agate told him to stop.
I stayed seven more days and seven more nights at Agate’s house, waiting for my escort to find me, wishing at the same time he wouldn’t, for each night was an amazement. This part of the ocean had no bottom, had no shores, or rather, renewed itself so quickly that it returned even as it receded. This was called making love, I deduced from her whisperings.
Each night was also sleep, this strange nothing that swallowed you whole and did not let go until the dawn came knocking on the panes. That strange thing that obliterated but did not eradicate. One moment you are there, the next you’re swallowed. The dark part of the ocean, I thought. I still think so, although I’m no longer altogether sure.
On the morning of the ninth day I told Agate I had to go. She asked, was I sure, I was welcome to stay. I said I knew that, and that I really wanted to, that I really liked Lint and Freckle too and would miss them as well as her, but I had to find my escort who by now should be quite worried about me.
“Who exactly is he?” she asked, not for the first time.
“It was he who brought me here,” I said, indicating the sky and the earth with a sweep of my arm.
“Did you tell him you were coming here?”
“I haven’t spoken to him since I arrived. Well, not since he asked me to touch this body.”
“How will you know where to find him, then?”
“I don’t know where to find him,” I answered. “But he must be in the city. That’s where he took me.”
She looked sad, I could sense her ocean rising to fill her, and with that rising my own rose too and I already longed for her, even before I had left.
“If you don’t find him,” she said. “Please come back.”
“I will,” I lied. Well it wasn’t a lie, but I didn’t know that then. “I will.”
She found me a pair of shoes and handed them to me. They were old, but felt good. My feet approved. I said goodbye to Lint, who cried a little too, and to Freckle who was a man about the whole thing. His ocean was filling him too though, I could tell.
I looked back twice, and both times I saw her, the first time with Lint and Freckle, the second time only with Lint, looking back at me making my way away from them toward the city in my new-old shoes. Then I rounded a small hill and there was no looking back. Neither was there any sign of my escort.
I saw the city from afar early on the second day after leaving. It glistened in the distance, covered by a transparent dome, in lieu of gates, which now began to withdraw into the earth. It was a beautiful spectacle. Still no escort though. I retraced my steps and left the dust for the smooth marble and entered the city. I even found the bench I had initially rested on. But no escort. Neither was he to be found in any of the many cafés and restaurants I entered, men and women in blue robes stepping aside to let me through. I entered the tall buildings and looked at the thousands of people milling around, mostly blues, one or two whites. No escort.
I would have to leave without him, then. It was not what the agreement stated, we were to enter together and leave together, after all, this was not my Universe. But I’ve entered and left Universes before, unaided, so deciding that I had now performed whatever due diligence was called for by the contract, I let go.
But nothing happened. No windy reversal, no upward chute, no exit into colorless cool. I was still here, inside, and dressed in a white robe. I tried again, and let go completely. Again, nothing happened.
Then I pushed, but it pushed right back, and harder, and my head began to hurt a little when I pushed harder still, willing now to split the skull to get out, but it only returned the favor with lots of interest, and I thought the pain alone would drive me out. But it didn’t. I was in a vice, made harder by my own efforts. I tried to let go again, to really, really let go this time, to relinquish completely, to simply: Let. Go.
But nothing happened.
And that was many, many days ago. Years, Agate calls them. I made it back to her house as I had promised but not intended, and for each turning of the world I am less and less sure how I actually came to arrive here, as if I have started to disbelieve my own story.
Lint is a young lady now, beautiful and fresh and Freckle a strong young man. Me, I don’t seem to age much, but Agate has a wrinkle or two where before there were none. We still have some amazing nights when our oceans merge.
Now and then I try again, to let go. But nothing happens. I’ve even asked Agate once or twice if she remembers how she got here, but she just looks at me strangely and I do the right thing and drop the subject. At times I am very homesick, but I realize there is nothing I can do about that from here.
For some while I expected him to return, my escort, to take me back, to honor his part of the deal, but I’ve never seen him again. I’m no longer even sure I would know him if I did.
And now, days and days later (years Agate calls them) to be honest, I’m not sure there ever was an escort.