by Zane Reichert
“I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.” – Thomas Hobbes
To some, cicadas are a nuisance. To others, they are a lullaby. Their short moments on this earth are filled with the harsh cry to reach out to another and to be noticed. To find worth amid the din of their fellows, so alike in appearance as to be indistinguishable. In the thick summer twilight, the insects’ droning was a comfortable hypnotism to Jonah. Their buzz had a wholesome golden candor that matched the rich bronze patina of the sky. The hum of a fading day. Jonah also feared it was a death rattle.
Late summer was a drowsy time. A season’s weariness had started to set in and all were steeling themselves for the impending shift to autumn. The world around was resting itself in preparation for a new phase, a new spoke on the wheel of time. It was a liminal time, a time for crossing bridges and passing through thresholds into new expanses.
The vast tracts of cornfield played a different tune, with seemingly endless stretches of genetically identical homogeny. Walking between the rows was enough to trap the mind in a labyrinth of never-ending sameness. To the corn there was no beginning or end, simply a rest and an awakening, a new season of repetition that followed the last. Jonah felt awash this sea of agriculture. The sleepy Midwest landscape had gorged itself on the inhabitants during the warm days of summer and now prepared for its winter hibernation once more.
Jonah wanted out of this slumberland in earnest. After nearly two decades trapped by austere repetition his soul ached with atrophy. Obligation, though, can be a heavier chain than steel. As another season ended, Jonah held reverie once more on the decrepit porch of his family’s house. It was a modest building set back within a small glade on their five acre property. The peeling, white paint of the home had the appearance of a reptile shedding its skin. But, rather than rejuvenated body beneath, the flaking layer revealed rot. The white posts supporting the porch’s roof had the effect of a snarling cage of teeth, creating a square, sharp-edged beast grinning out into evening light.
The sun finally surrendered to the inevitable fall from the heavens and leapt into the waiting arms of the trees. They caught it and cradled it for a heartbeat before gently laying it down below the horizon. Jonah turned from this twilight realm and retreated into the beast’s throat with a slam of the door. Only one more season to outlive. Only one more debt to pay.
The little family home was Spartan. Nothing was without a function, except for the handful of framed family pictures that littered shelves and dressers. They scattered themselves as fallen leaves do around the small living room. The tree they had broken from was a collection of portraits on the back wall that captured a couple, a hard-featured man and his plain, large wife standing in front of the little white house. A child joined them in the portrait, a complete set of humanity.
Time illustrated itself with the subtle shifts of their bodies from one image to the next. The man started as a lean, taut figure, towering over his wife and nearly breaking out of the frame. He looked carved from a dark stone, then polished by wind and grit. Later on the pictorial timeline, the weather eroded him to a wisp. When he was no longer pictured it was apparent he must have been blown away completely. She was almost unchanged until her husband vanished. With him had left the joyful smile that had lasted for years. In its place was a resolute expression of brittle stubbornness. Where her husband had been stone, she was now crafted of cracked porcelain. Their child grew from a bundle held between the two, their combined joy, into a tall, handsome young man. While the son bloomed the father wilted. With the absence of his sire, the scion stood at somber attention next to his mother.
The house behind the family transformed with them. Its countenance had twisted since beginning as a fresh, smiling building. After the father’s death it had rotted and was patched together like a sutured ghoul. By the final photo it was a monster emerging from the woods to devour the surviving family.
Jonah passed over the frozen memories without a second glance. He had walked by the images of his parents so often they had faded from notice. The past was a tether that Jonah wished to cut as badly as he wished to escape his present. Each day swam into timelessness, a simple ritual of rising and falling. His numbed existence made the world a sleepy miasma and the expectations of the future a beacon on the coast of liberation. Jonah had to repeat his votaries this last season and the Midwest would spit him out before he was digested.
He threw himself onto his sagging bed, the day’s clock punched, the embrace of sleep waiting.
The antiquated rotary phone in the house rang, its clangor echoing through the house’s halls. Jonah was in no particular hurry. It was one of two callers, neither of which were a cause for expedience. It wasn’t the bill collector, the check had been mailed already this month. He didn’t need to be reminded how much his father, though dead, still owed.
It was his mother. Her thin, soft voice carried as a breeze through the phone line. She had been institutionalized after the death of Jonah’s father and the debt had piled up. Where his body had failed, her mind had snapped under the weight of tragedy and responsibilities. Jonah had been 19 at the time, working to earn his bachelor’s in chemical engineering. Without her son or spouse, alone in a home that slowly ate away at everyone within it, her nerves snapped. Jonah’s dreams of becoming a modern Nicholas Flamel were put on hold and he returned home. His only inheritance from his parents was his father’s legacy of poor finance and ghostly whispers of loneliness from his mother half a state away. Surrounded by his family’s sorrow, sitting on the phone as confidant to his haunted mother, Jonah could feel this place trying to break him as well.
“Peter!? Is that you?”
“No, Ma, it’s Jonah.”
“Jonah, hi, baby. I’m sorry, you sounded just like your daddy.”
“I know, it’s OK, everyone says that. Even the bill collectors,” Jonah chuckled a little, making light for his own sake.
Her voice rose in worry, “They still bothering you? Didn’t you make the last payment?”
“It’s next month. Don’t worry, I got it. Once it’s paid I can sell and get back to school. Things are finally working out.” Jonah tapped on the table top half-consciously.
“I’m glad, sugar. I won’t miss that place. Too many memories. Good ones, but too many. It was a heavy place to be, you know?” His mother’s voice start to become strained, drawn. She was audibly on the verge of tears.
“Yeah, I’m pretty done with it.” Jonah needed to change the subject, fast. When she got going her outburst were difficult, at best, to manage. It usually ended with her losing her phone privileges for several weeks and immediate medication until she calmed down again. “I’m ready to get back to school and make something of myself. This place is just too small anymore. Everything all right in Eden?”
Jonah’s mother was a resident in West Gardens Clinic for the Mentally Unstable. While not the worst, you just got your money’s worth out of it. The only humor Jonah could maintain with his mother was the irony of calling the place a biblical paradise. She was too high-strung for much else.
“Oh, honey, these people are crazy. That Simon character started going on again about the aphids all over his body and some nonsense about blue flowers. Heaven above, if I didn’t call you at least once a day I don’t know what I would do. It’s just nice to hear someone normal for a change.”
She only called once a week. Any more than that caused her a great deal of anxiety. The medication she was prescribed caused her to lose a sense of linear time. Until she was stable, the doctors had said, she would have to remain in a state of limbo. None of those doctors could answer when she would be stable, though.
After his mother was taken off the phone (she didn’t have phone privileges past 8:30), Jonah finally settled down for sleep. His well-worn bed heaved under his weight. It was past its prime, but suited his needs. It only needed to last another month. One more month.
His dreams where a nice little place to visit. They helped to break up the monotony of his daily drudgery, fueled by the handful of history books and dusty pulps his father had left behind. To Jonah, his dreams were a passing fancy, something to occupy the mind while the body rested and no more. Though vivid and often lucid, they were still only a time of rest before the start of the next day.
At some indeterminable time, Jonah knew he was asleep. He knew the world around him was of mind and not substance. This night’s dream world was a neon gunslinger mash-up, his opponents had taken something of value from him, of which he would determine later, and he was already in the middle of the action. Within his dreams Jonah had discovered physical action rarely worked as it does in the real world. One had to imagine the outcome of an action to accomplish it rather than try to work his body. He knew that his physical self, clad in a neon hybrid of the dusty Wild West and the electric future, was as much a figment of his imagination as the dream, so it operated on similar rules.
His enemies, lean banditos wearing crimson scarves and surrounded by a violet light, sat gathered at a small table within an electric cantina. The entire room was blackness except for the pointed areas illuminated by tinted lights. Green, red, and violet dominated Jonah’s vision. The banditos stepped in between the lights with a swaggering gait that distorted their bodies. They appeared as shadows that ran along an irregular surface.
They had not finished their bizarre march from the table when they had surrounded Jonah, their number indeterminable. Jonah drew his weapon, gleaming blue steel that ignored the psychedelic surroundings. It was sharp, clear, and concrete, a hard bolt of reason. Jonah’s dream-fighting technique came into play, and he spun in a deadly arc. His arms almost appeared to leave trace images of themselves to his eye, the gun multiplying to match each opponent. He visualized the bullet impact and the strike’s effect. To keep his concentration on the strikes Jonah instinctively leapt away from the grasping hands of the banditos. If they got a hold of him it would require considerable effort to escape. Whenever action shifted in the dream a new action focus had to be determined. It was similar to when a runner goes for miles without respite; the heightened concentration does not lend itself well to shifting gears.
The banditos lay in ruin about his feet, the iron in his hand balancing the equation they had presented. Now, for the prize. Jonah could feel the call and allowed himself to flow along its trail. Such were often the direct simplicity of his dreams; an imagined obstacle to overcome and pleasurable reward at the end. This night was no different.
His dream woman sat at the table where the banditos had been moments before. She wasn’t so much a woman as a Minimalist impression of one, the correct line and implied form to conjure the image of ‘woman’ within a man’s mind. The only part that was definite was her face, the rest periphery. If Jonah could remember his thoughts at the time, he would have thought something along the lines of, so it’s one of those dreams tonight.
Her face was not strikingly beautiful, but she was to Jonah. To him, she seemed a reality and not an idealized illusion. Of course, this wasn’t true. Yes, her face had belonged to a real person, cropped and pasted onto this metaphysical simulacrum. But, the face’s owner hadn’t been the woman Jonah remembered for years. The memory of her that Jonah clung to was as much an idealized falsehood as a Playboy Bunny.
He went to sit at the table. She was drinking what looked like a martini-shaped neon sign. The curve of her body crossed its leg, her silhouette a demure invitation that somehow projected a confident mastery over the man who had come to share a drink with her. Her gray-blue eyes worked him over with wariness, but her smile was always soft, sad. When she looked at him it seemed that she mourned a man already dead.
All the things to say. But none with any bearing. Whenever Jonah saw this phantom of the woman he had loved he was first struck with melancholy, then longing, regret, pangs of ‘could-have’s and ‘why-didn’t-I’s. After his emotions had run their course, he was content to let the scene play out, to give her the illusion of autonomy within the dream. The shade would act and answer as she had, or how he thought she would. A fiction, self-indulgent. Jonah knew it was wrong, cowardly, to dwell for so long on her, but he had yet to get past her leaving.
“You know, Jonah, part of forgiveness is realizing the present has no bearing upon the past.”
It was as if whoever had spoken had hit the ‘pause’ button within the dream. Even while at rest everything had a rhythmic pulsing. Now, everything was frozen in an unnatural stillness. The shade looked at Jonah still, a portrait of subliminal mourning. Jonah looked to find the source, the intruder in his dream. He stood, pulling away from the table, gun drawn.
The black around the table that created the appearance of a darkly lit dive was banished, as though flood lights had been flipped on. It was an empty white expanse, Jonah alone with the small table and the woman’s shade. Wires and neon signs hung like veins, decorating walls that didn’t exist. Jonah stared off into the distance, vainly attempting to find something across where the horizon should be.
The voice was deep, resonant, and mildly amused. It seemed to draw some pleasure from Jonah’s confusion. Jonah turned and, to his surprise, saw the dream-woman, now fully formed in flesh, wearing a red dress and stilettos. She stared at him with an intense, hungry lust, a look that had been absent from her face for so long Jonah had forgotten it even existed. She had perched herself on the table, body stretched like a jungle cat. Primal. Intent. She was at his ear, her lips barely grazing his skin.
And, in a deep, resonating, and distinctly male voice, she whispered, “Is this how you like it, cowboy?”
Jonah leapt back instantly, shaking her off of him. “What the Hell?!”
She leaned against the table, laughing maniacally in a low bass. The glee sharply written across her features twisted her face into an ugly mask. It appeared as if the face was simply worn and not part of her head at all.
“Oh, don’t be like that, Jonah! You want me, I know it.” She ran her hands along her body, pressing into her flesh. A normally erotic gesture turned into something horrific as the portions of her body that were under her hands squeezed like a tube of toothpaste, forcing her mass into odd extremities. Her lips pressed into a cartoonish duck-face and she seemed to inflate.
Jonah continued to back away. “I think I’m going to… Look, I have some things to do…”
“You aren’t going anywhere, cowboy!” she bellowed. Now the size of a gorilla, the terrifyingly proportioned dream-woman went on all fours. Her mouth became gaping, slavering with a black drool. Golden blonde curls hung over tiny beetle eyes.
With a sound of trumpets she launched herself at Jonah. Instinctively he jerked up his pistol and imagined the bullet hitting the monstrosity’s flesh. The result on impact was not quite what he had envisioned. Rather than a simple hole blown through her bulk, she popped like a wet balloon. Her disembodied cackling filled Jonah’s ears. Her scattered parts rained down about him. And on him. Wiping the ichor from his eyes, Jonah saw the meat on the floor move, forming itself on the floor into a design. It was a mouth. The mouth moved in synch with the laughter that hung in the air. Eventually, it spoke to Jonah, animated like a stop-motion film.
“Ah, you should have seen the look your face made! Priceless! Dreamers are so funny looking when they get surprised. All in all, very good! For someone without any proper learning you figured out the dream basics quite well. Most can hardly understand how to affect their dreams, let alone cause directed action. You changed lights, moved objects, and maintain consciousness… to a degree.” The meat-mouth began murmuring to itself. It seemed more like someone speaking through a phone and leaning away to address someone next them.
“…onscious, but po… oor… tell hi… Well?”
The meat-mouth crawled up a wall that hadn’t been there before, but in the white expense only the table and Jonah really seemed to have any dimension. When it was head level with Jonah it began to speak to him again.
“Jonah, I am going to tell you some things about the world that are going to genuinely mess you up. You don’t really have a choice in the matter, heh, so I guess it was supposed to work out this way. Maybe I’m fixing you. I digress. I’m going to open a doorway. You are going to walk through my meat-mouth. Heh. Step in to my meat.”
The fleshy orifice drew itself up, elongating into the shape of a doorway. A vortex of torn bits spiraled within and created a hallway with no visible end.
“What if I don’t go in?” Jonah called into the hall.
“Then you don’t wake up.”
The meat was moist, pliant under Jonah’s boots. He was still dressed as a cyber-punk neon gunslinger, the LEDs on his suit lighting the path with a phosphorescent glow like a cowboy lightning-bug. The deep voice from before crackled over a hidden intercom system as Jonah continued down the hall.
“Welcome, young dreamer,” it boomed, “to your second birth! I’m am your trusty guide, the Levanaut, the rising voyager, here to take you on the trip to pry open that third eye. Psychedelics not included, but highly recommended. Heh. For your safety, do not eat any of the world around you and keep all psychic extensions of self within the hallway at all times. And don’t touch the walls, they are sensitive. Heh. Thank you!
“Our first stop is a wonderful little informative about the next plane of dreaming you are about to ascend to, the Fulcrum. Let’s watch!”
Projected from the wall on Jonah’s right was a small stage built at one-sixth scale. A little, wind-up priest riding a go-cart buzzed out onto the stage. A tinkling bell chimed. the priest raised his arm and opened a clockwork mouth that was most of his whole body:
“A reading from the Gospel according to the Demiurge. ‘And lo, the Leviathan, that writhing and wicked wife of Chaos, was cast below into the Abyss. The Godhead, Slayer of Chaos, planted over the Abyss the seed of the Cosmic Tree, of which substance is knowledge and life in focus. Great Wötan, second in power to only the Godhead, took the ruin of Chaos and made the stuff of matter with his foe. Wötan cast the corpse of Chaos into the branches of the Cosmic Tree and from this flesh the Fulcrum was made. ‘This,’ said Wötan, ‘Shall be the lodestone of my creation, the joiner, the nexus, and the True North of Heaven.’
“Wötan stood upon the Fulcrum, his greaves furrowing the flesh. His footsteps were the birth of the seas, which filled with the Blood of Chaos. Upon a stone he smote the head of Chaos. Taking up the pulp of his foe’s brain, Wötan became the Demiurge in Action. He took a part in each hand. He placed together his hands, for no favor was given under the kind eye of the Demiurge, right or left. On his open palm stood the splinters of Chaos’ mind, man and woman.
“The Godhead did then speak unto Wötan, ‘Demiurge, take these, the children of thine enemy’s mind and thy own hand, and give them life outside the Fulcrum. Still they are too unformed, too much creatures of Chaos, to not cause strife in this place. Let them gestate until matured and can rejoin us. Until then, they shall be blind, deaf, and dumb.”
“So Wötan made pots of clay and placed the children of his hands inside. He placed them in the bosom of his sister-wife Gaea, who serves as both cradle and nursemaid. The children wait within the clay for the time of their full awakening, for now content with the childish fancies of the nursery.”
Jonas had the awful realization he didn’t have his gun to shoot himself with.
Once his oration was finished, the wind-up priest’s arm lowered in a second-hand staccato back to his side. A winding buzz rose from within his throat. When the buzz reached a fever-pitch he threw his toy car into gear. The car and its driver vibrated together in a high, insectile drone as the tiny contraption shot across the miniature stage. At the lip a ramp rose to meet the speedster. He catapulted off the edge, zipping on down the dark hall. Jonah stood at the empty stage, confused as to what to expect next.
“Do I follow it?” he asked out to his unseen companion.
The Levanaut’s voice rumbled down the walls that pulsed with his words, “Do keep up with him. Pontificus hates to repeat himself. Odd for one who enjoys his own voice so much, heh.”
“… Right.” He walked on after the zipping priest once the floor had settled.
He caught up with the toy car and the radio MC voices crackled out from the disproportionately large mouth. As they made their way along the hall a fleshy bas-relief mural etched its way along the left-hand wall. Images of trees, dragons, and gods wove across the surface, throbbing with unnatural, muscled animation.
“Ages have passed,” declared Pontificus,”as humanity has slept in unconscious toil, working in the phenomenal world the will of the divine. They know not their true masters or the grand design of which they are a complex instrument. Complex, but an instrument, nonetheless. As the clay shell of the physical sleeps, the metaphysical, that part made by Wötan from Chaos’ carcass, reaches out into the invisible.”
The mural shaped into a globe, its surface dotted by raised figures. As Pontificus spoke a sun circled overhead and sank, replaced by a crescent moon. The figures over the globe lay down and tendrils sprouted out from their heads. Branches of cilia now covered the globe.
“This portion returns to the Fulcrum of Dream where it resides inside a womb to gestate, growing in complexity and understanding with each reincarnation. The seed of every human mind incubates within the dream cells where it can begin to test the latent powers of creation within. Wötan Dream-Speaker directs humanity in secret with thoughts of imagination and ambition. They return to the waking world along their umbilical tether, manufacturing the divine blueprint on the face of Gaea.”
The multitude of cilia over the globe waved as though a breeze were passing through them. A great bearded man clad in armor manifested overhead grasping a spear. His chest swelled as though to take in a great breath and he exhaled. Wind seemed to flowed through the cilia, dashing them about in its wake. They twisted into the shapes of towers and bridges, works of great architecture strobing within the tendrils. Jonah could see the distinct image of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pyramids of Giza.
“Through feats of cooperation and engineering, humanity was awakening itself to the Cosmos. Order manifested itself in the phenomenal and the children of Chaos seemed to have overcome their nature. With their works made physical they drew themselves closer and closer to unity within the Fulcrum once more. But, the Leviathan, she lay sleeping still at the root of the Cosmic Tree. Dark dreams, fragmented forms seeped into Yggdrasil. The Terror of Sleep rose against Wötan’s works as the tide lays ruin to a house of sand.”
The globe was raised to the ceiling by a tree that sprouted up beneath it, suspended in its branches. The bearded man reclined amongst the branches next to his charges. Beneath the tree a serpentine form twined amongst the roots. It thrashed and writhed so no coherent shape could be defined. It was only a ghastly impression. War and fire danced across the surface of the globe.
“Wötan cried out to the Godhead, “O, miserable fate! To witness the end of my works, for Chaos to reign over all! For what can be done against ruin within?” The Godhead spoke unto Wötan Dream-Father and said, “Do not despair, Brother-Son. Theirs is a temperament borne from the ignorance and impulse of children. The Chaos within must be overcome for our sibling to return.”
“Wötan answered, “How can I aid the children of my mind? What can I give to them that would bring them closer to ascendancy?”
“‘Grant them your flesh, the far sight of your right eye. It shall be the beacon of illumination to light their path towards us.”
“So great Wötan plucked his eye from its socket and delivered it to humanity. To them he gave the gift of inner sight and understanding, that they may know the world beyond which is within. The Gift of the Gray God’s Eye was humanity’s salvation.”
From the branches of the tree the bearded man pulled his right eye out and placed it into the center of the globe. The lidless eye gazed out towards Jonah. On the globe’s surface a small number of new cilia grew from the prone figures and reached down, connecting with the eye.
“To know the greater connection, the Cosmic Order, too often spells the destruction of the dreamer as a singular. Only the select few shall retain themselves, to act as the intermediaries between humanity and the cosmos.”
Jonah stopped. The figures connected to the eye were sucked through the surface and into the eye as though consumed. Only two remained on the separate.
“Hold on, ‘select few?’ What does that mean?”
Pontificus spun around, dropping his preacher’s tenor. “Those chosen. They are called heroes, Bodhisattva, prophets… those sort. Their duty is to exist within both worlds, specialized organs within the universe that operate to guide others towards the Cosmic whole.” He glanced upward. “Some of them, anyway.”
The hallway rippled with the Levanaut’s voice, “Hey, I’m guiding, wise-guy! Who do you think made all the pictures? I am rather proud of those, heh. Look, I even made a little one of you.” An unflattering caricature of the wind-up man appeared on the bas-relief.
“Most of the selected, when awakened inside the dreaming,” continued Pontificus, unperturbed, “return to the waking world to educate others of their experience in teaching, practice, and example. Some,” he looked up again, “use their transcendence to become a complete nuisance. You know the stories of Anansi, Loki, and Coyote? That lot is a line of incarnations that are a ceaseless bother. Mostly because there always is one. The Levanaut here is the latest of the Tricksters and by far the most obnoxious of the bunch.”
“I resent that. Loki was way worse than I am! Hah.”
“Give it time,” the wind-up priest grumbled to himself. “Anyway, while I’m on the subject, there is always a Trickster. To counter that bunch there is also always a Thunderer. They maintain the balance, raising the alarm whenever the Tricksters are causing trouble. The worse the Trickster, the more often the Thunderer shows up. It’s why humanity remembers Thor so well. The actions of the two resonate throughout the connective web, the communal dream, of humanity as a legend.”
“Who is the Thunderer now?” Jonah asked.
“Oh, you’ll meet him soon. And I’m sure he’ll have something to say about that prank with the exploding woman, too.”
Pontificus started up his car again and returned to his narration. The bas-reliefs behind him started to make rude faces in his direction. The image on the wall of the little storyteller placed a very large part of a bull’s anatomy in its mouth. Jonah stifled a laugh trying not to spoil the joke.
“Are you wondering what your role is in all this, Jonah?”
“It had crossed my mind.”
“Humanity has reached a crossroads. They are becoming highly receptive to the influence of the Fulcrum. Wötan has sensed it. There are more out there like you, cognizant, lucid within their dreams. The time is quickly approaching for humanity as a whole to cross over. You will be among the first to fully cross this threshold and then return to speak of what you have experienced.”
“You mean stay in their dreams? Permanently?” The idea of never waking was not an altogether pleasant one to Jonah. Engineering lost its luster when there is nothing to build.
“In a sense. The physical world will no longer be a necessity. Human life will evolve into a new organism within the universe, one that is part and parcel to the stuff of the cosmos. You will all recognize what you actually are without the crutch of material existence. Everything gets easier when you understand that.”
Jonah was starting to get a little twisted around. He could understand how some people lost themselves to the dream. “Then what does that make you?”
“The same as you, technically,” responded Pontificus. “We are all the same, You just don’t know it yet. I am a way for your particular material-calibrated brain to cope with a cosmic concept. I am an anthropomorphization of Story.”
“Then did my perceiving you create your personality?”
The Levanaut chimed in, “No, he’s always like this. Always a know-it-all.”
Pontificus ignored the Trickster. “My personality is maintained and given continuity by the collective mind of humanity. While somewhat tailored to your specific mind, my baseline manifestation is a composite of the entire world’s ideation of the story-teller.”
Jonah thought for a moment, “Makes sense, but why a wind-up priest?”
“Apparently you never liked priests, but listened to them anyway.”