Gradient

The Far Away Place

            The boy retreated without turning back towards the maelstrom of sound. His toes gripped the carpet and felt the pleasant crunch of unvacuumed grit. He was nearly up the stairs.

            “Get back here! Now! Now!” The woman’s voice rose higher and higher, a supercharged lightning bolt of anger.

            “You heard your mother. Do not test me.” The man’s voice rumbled.

            Howls from his mother and her man sought him, but the boy was nearly out of range. He knew they were too drunk to fetch him. When he was much younger, he would have returned because they said so. When he was a little bit younger, he would have returned to scream back and give them exactly what they wanted, but a childhood of lying about bruises at school had dulled his desire to enter the fray. At sixteen, the boy relied on retreat—from his family, from his childhood, from everything. He went to the bedroom he shared with his stepbrother. Normally, it was just as radioactive as the rest of the house, but his stepbrother was supposed to be out. Tonight, the boy would rest if he could just reach the chipped chrome handle just down the hall that would open to salvation.

            He focused, letting his vision narrow. He could barely hear their relentless assault on how he looked, talked, and thought. They waged their war on everything he was or would be, each salvo meant to draw him back into battle he could never win. His mother’s man was a hammer that didn’t bother with nails. He could crack the boy open so the boy’s mother could collect the boy’s fear, pain, and sadness—the ingredients she needed to make a temporary salve for her tilted life.

 

            The boy’s hand shook from exhaustion. He grabbed the handle, pulled open the cheap barrier, and flung himself into the familiar shadows of his space. He slammed the door behind him. The noise of his own creation was a chaotic relief. He sunk down against the door and let his head drop into his hands.

            “I told you not to slam my door,” called a harsh voice from the corner of the room where his stepbrother’s bed pressed against the wall. The boy pounded the back of his head into the door.

           

            Heavy footsteps pounded up the stairs. Heavy footsteps thudded across the shadowy room. The boy was surrounded and outgunned, so he did the only sensible thing he could think to do. He sunk deep into the sea of his mind until the violent world was a dim flicker on a surface so far away, he could barely see it.

 

            When he finally came up for air, hours had passed. He was alone and they had left him on the floor with a swollen-eye and bruised ribs. Such was the way of things in a world without love. The boy couldn’t stand it anymore. In the lonely darkness he hoped that something would save him. The boy summoned every ounce of his being. He projected a wish into the void of gods and spirits and magic to be taken to the farthest place from his house of torment, somewhere so far that his mother and her man and his stepbrother could never get him.

 

            He expected the wish to echo forever, unheard and ignored until the cosmos smashed it to bits against the stars. But the cosmos didn’t smash it to bits. The cosmos sent a fairy.

 

            It was dark and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. A ball of blue and white light appeared in the center of the room. The boy scrambled up from his belly and stared at the glowing orb of impossible beauty. A warm wind gusted from the light and swallowed up the sounds of cars and bugs and people outside his window. In the frantic blue silence, the boy did nothing. He didn’t want to break it. So, he watched and waited.

            A very small, very old man with tiny, feathered wings, a bald head, and a flowing white mustache floated out from the center of the light. The old man landed on the side table and was dwarfed by the boy’s dusty lamp. The fairy, clothed in a tattered workman uniform blotted with stains, looked nothing like the clichéd creatures of pink whimsy from the old videotapes of simpler time. The boy tried to speak but his voice disappeared into the wind.

            “Your wish was heard, and so it shall be granted if you desire it. Do you want to go to the Far Away Place?” The boy heard the question in his mind. He looked to the tiny old man. The fairy nodded his wrinkled head.

            The boy wanted to leave more than anything. The boy mouthed “yes”. He refused to miss his chance.

            “Follow me.”

            The old man stepped off the side table, his wings gave a powerful flick, and the fairy disappeared into light. Hope surged in the boy like the first warm dawn of spring. He took two steps, and the light swallowed him whole.

 

            The boy separated from the only realm of existence he ever knew. He felt his essence twist as the fairy’s magic folded him through endless galaxies. Explosions of fire mixed with infinite blackness. The boy was certain his brain would explode from sensation and drip out his nose as though it was blood responding to familiar knuckles. After a time, he began to forget the house. After thousands of galaxies and trillions of stars he began to forget his stepbrother and his mother’s man. Just before he arrived at the Far Away Place, a place beyond the farthest stars on the frontier of the expanding universe, he forgot his mother.

 

            And then, the fairy turned back to the boy.

            “We’re here,” the fairy grunted like a bus driver at the last stop at the end of his shift.

            The boy wasn’t sure whether his journey took seconds or eons. When he tried to focus on it and what came before, his head hurt. Ahead, over the fairy’s shoulder, was the only source of light in the world. A colossal blue flame pillared from the ground into a veil of sheer, breathtaking blackness unbroken by even the most distant starlight. The fire was surrounded by towering mounds of earth of varying heights and shapes.  

 

            “Welcome, son of Earth. As I give to all that I bring across the cosmos, I’ve trapped your sadness and locked it away in the hope that without its burden, you find your peace here. We shall not meet again, traveler. Good luck.”

 

            Questions bubbled in the boy’s mind like primordial ooze, but none fully formed fast enough. The fairy flicked his wings once more and was gone.

 

            The boy didn’t understand what the fairy meant about his sadness so he prodded the idea and found the more he tried to unwrap the whispers that protected it, the tighter they clung to their charge. Looking to where the fairy had been, he was thankful that whatever was in the box seemed destined to remain sealed. The boy was ready to take the first step toward the village of fire. To be sure, he glanced backwards into the Dark. Deep in his belly, he knew he didn’t belong there. He belonged near the blue flame. The boy gripped the loose sand with his toes. It steadied him with a familiarity he couldn’t place. Without delaying further, the boy started to walk and with every step, the box of sadness slipped further from his thoughts until it disappeared entirely.

 

            The wonky structures came into focus as complexes teeming with life. One tower rose higher than the rest. To the boy, it looked like the drip castle sitting at the tideline of the fire. Getting closer to the village, the boy could hear echoes of voices and laughter. With each step, the joyous signs of life multiplied. The boy worried it would be too hot and too bright, but the air remained perfectly cool and magnificent fire didn’t blind him. The fire mixed delicately with the darkness. Shadows refracted across the uneven structures that made up the village, creating a grotto of primal blue hues. The boy tried to remember other colors, but their essence fled from his reach. He happily let them go.

            Three figures approached the boy from the village. He stopped and watched their silhouettes transform from wraiths into smiling people. They wore linen tunics and airy pants with sandals. They looked to be about his age, but they had tired eyes.

            The first asked for the boy’s name. The boy started to answer but apologized when he realized he didn’t remember it. The second nodded as though forgetting a name was normal in this place.

            The boy asked them where they were going.

 

            “On our walk into the Dark,” they said together. The third explained that they had reached the end after a hundred and two years together. The boy didn’t understand, but he nodded as though he did.

            He could tell they wanted to go. Still, the boy had questions. He started with the easiest one. He asked where they were.

            “This is the Far Away Place,” said the first, her voice well-worn.

            The boy asked why they were walking into the Dark.

            “We have found our purpose. And you will too,” said the second as he took the others by the hand. Even to the boy who knew little of such things, it was obvious the three were one, bound by love.

            The boy thanked them as they continued on their way. Before they were too far, the boy asked where he should go.

            “Go to the Queen in the tallest tower. She helped us,” said the third over his shoulder, not stopping their progress towards the frontier of dying light. Once again, the boy was alone.

            The boy had already felt pulled to the tallest tower, so even though he was nervous to meet a queen, he continued his course towards it.  

            The boy passed under the gateway. Dozens of people were walking in both directions on the sand path ringing the fire. The tower was on the other side of the circle, so the boy joined the flow. Many people wore minimalist clothing, but some wore adventurous costumes. A group dressed as animals raced past, cawing and barking in glee. Of those that noticed the boy and his Earth clothes, many welcomed him to the village.

            The boy had been walking for half an hour when he saw the first creature from a different world. It walked on two legs but had eyes many times larger than his and arms bristling with quills. As he walked, he saw dozens of unfamiliar, sentient creatures existing in peace together. Even lost at the very end of the cosmos without half his memories, he couldn’t help but marvel in joy at the unexpected diversity of improbable life.

 

            At the Queen’s tower, the boy asked a fellow human traveler if he was in the right place. They had short hair like the boy but was slighter with a much quicker smile. They said yes. He looked down, nervous, and asked if there was any special ritual in meeting the Queen. They chuckled. The boy looked up and saw friendliness on their face.

            “Don’t be nervous. We just call her Queen because she’s been here longest. No one rules the Far Away Place.”

            The boy asked who they were.

            “I’ve been many things during my time here. But now, I’m finally on the right path,” they said with a wink. A silence settled between them. The boy didn’t know what to say.

            “Ha! Silent, brooding type, eh? That’s perfect because I’ve been told I like to talk. I’m a scientist now, by the way. I’m trying to figure out how it all works.”

            He listened to them a little longer. The boy had no idea what they were saying, but they were nice to the boy, and in an unfamiliar place, that made all the difference. Midway through a lengthy explanation of something or other, the scientist sparked into commotion. They were apparently late for an experiment.

            Before turning to go, the scientist grabbed him by the shoulders, and looked the boy in the eyes. “We’re going to be friends, you and me. I can feel it. And feelings like that are never wrong in the Far Away Place. Come by for tea tomorrow, and let’s talk more,” they said. “Oh, and really, everything is going to be ok. It’s a lot. But it’s marvelous!”

            They left him standing in front of the cavernous entrance to the tower. It was an avoided place.

            Inside, the boy found a windowless stairway where stone steps led away from the sandy floor into total darkness. He didn’t hesitate. The boy climbed. After a hundred steps, he could barely see the blue light from the bottom floor. After a hundred more, he was in total blackness and his feet were cold from the cool stone. After a hundred more as the boy rounded another bend, guiding himself through touch, he walked into a stone wall. The end. The boy knew there was a room at the top. He had seen the window from the ground and knew he had taken the only stairs. He called out, hoping someone would hear him from beyond a door he couldn’t see.

            The boy expected to wait, but after his first shout, the wall slid open. He was blinded by the shock of light. Shielding his eyes, the boy saw her. She was the most beautiful human creature he had ever seen. Her braided black hair fell nearly to her waist. Her dark skin reflected the fire like an ocean dancing with a cloudless moon. They were the same height and stared into each other’s eyes as the essence of her soul pierced his sense of self, beginning an unstoppable merger of their hearts. The boy didn’t know if she felt the same way, but he was instantly and hopelessly in love from the very first sight.

            Deep inside the Far Away Place, the essence of the planet sighed in relief. It has always provided young travelers with what they needed to complete the purpose stamped on their spirit. But for all its magic, not even the Far Away Place can conjure love. Until now, it had failed to bring a perfect match for the one who became known as the Queen. The first potential match died before she was old enough to come. Over many centuries, the next two, one boy and one girl, had each declined their fairy’s offer. Travelers always had a choice. Finally, in this boy, a perfect match had said yes, and the Far Away Place was happy.

            “Isaac,” the Queen pronounced.

            The boy furrowed his brow as the memory of his name rose slowly like captured mercury on an autumn morning.

            “My name is Isaac,” Isaac said, declaring his name in a humble eureka. “How did you know?”

            “I can see past the fairy magic. It’s part of my purpose. This place seems to always give us what we need,” she stood looking at him, resplendent in ancient confidence.

            Isaac nodded. His tongue was paralyzed by his swollen heart.

            “Come in. I think…I think I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time,” said the Queen. “I am Ka.” She put out her hand and Isaac took it, allowing himself to be led into her spartan room. In the corner, a large book sat on a stone desk carved into the wall of the structure. To the left was a small mattress with a single pillow. Even the awkwardness of moving through a stranger’s place didn’t bother him. He asked her about the book.

            “It took me hundreds of years to learn my journey, to realize why I was the only one who could still feel the pain of my past and see the troubles that brought all others to the Far Away Place,” she began before pausing in surprise at her own openness with a stranger. “Why am I telling you this?”

            “You can trust me.” Isaac meant it with a conviction he had never felt before. She squinted at him but continued.

            “For thousands of years, I have learned stories from every sentient form of life in the galaxies, all so I could complete the story raging in my heart. I know it is meant to be the greatest tale ever told. To be called into the Dark, I must unlock my heart so I can finish it.”

           

            “Then I will help you,” said Isaac proudly, taking her hand again. He didn’t know her. It didn’t matter what she meant by purpose or journey or magic. Isaac knew only one thing and it radiated from his core in uncontainable bursts—he was meant to love her.

            Ka looked at the determined boy in front of her. “Perhaps you will,” she said with cautious hope. For the first time in centuries, Ka allowed herself to be kissed. Isaac wanted to coronate their cosmic connection through physical exploration. They were both sixteen in body, as all those from Earth seemed to be, but Ka had lived longer. Much longer. Because she had felt time pass, she knew its value. When she gently created distance between them, Isaac trusted Ka, and so they began their journey together as friends.

            Ka taught Isaac to cook from the endless pantry stocked by the Far Away Place’s magic. Isaac showed her new games, and she beat him in every one of them. She read him her story and debated with herself what it was missing. He introduced her to his friend the scientist and the three of them debated the membrane of existence. They went for walks around the village and watched fighters chasing perfect form and sculptors erecting masterpieces. They sat with monks meditating to connect with the divine.

            As their bond strengthened, the tower changed for them. The first time they left the room, openings appeared in the stairway passage, allowing light to illuminate the way. The tenth time, the tower got shorter for him. The Queen’s room was becoming Ka and Isaac’s home. After a decade, it was finally flat on the ground. On that day, Isaac’s friend the scientist was called to the Dark. Isaac was sad to see them go, but they assured him it was the right time. A tear of happiness streaked through their dusty face as they told Isaac how they finally understood the magic of the universe—that everything happened for a reason. That night when Ka comforted Isaac, friends finally became lovers.

            As their relationship progressed, Ka started to see what had been missing in her story. She worked hard, spending countless days on the floor at the center of a minefield of loose pages, but she always made time for him and their expanding life together. During these peaceful days, Isaac thought he came to understand his purpose: he was meant to love Ka and to help her complete her journey. It brought happiness for a long time.

            Years later, Ka’s progress started to slow. Isaac became worried. Shaken from his simple routine, he searched his mind for anything that could be wrong. At first it barely registered, but after a few passes, Isaac started to focus on on what Ka had said when they met but they had not discussed since—that she could see past the fairy magic. His past had never been important to him, but the more he thought about it, the more certain he became that she lived on one side of a fence, and he lived on the other. He worried he might be holding her back by sitting in his sunny vale.

            At home, he told her that he wanted to know his history. She recoiled. Ka did not want to discuss giving him his pain back. He pleaded with her, but she denied him until they laid down and their hearts settled into a rhythm together. Isaac asked her once more to tell him his history.

            “Your sadness is gone. Why would you reopen the pain?”

 

            “For you,” Isaac told her. He would do anything for her.

            So, reluctantly, with his permission, she finally looked fully past the fairy’s magic. Ka told him about his family and his pain and his self-loathing. Even his name had been pain. He drowned in truth and wept all the way to the bottom of the sea he used to hide in.

            The weight of the pain rushed to resettle above his heart. His family roared back as an unforgiveable specter of trauma. Scar tissue in his left shoulder reknitted in knots of discomfort. His right leg ached where it had once broken. But through it all, he pulled Ka closer. She cried too. She comforted him, and he comforted her. After a time, she told him about her before-life. Ka shared all the ways she had been abused in a place before the societies Isaac knew of were even a dream. When they couldn’t lay anymore, they walked. Eventually, despite themselves, they danced around the fire to a traveler’s ballad. In every awkward movement, the music, the fire, and their love cleansed their pain in a way no fairy magic ever could. That night, they returned home and inched closer to a true union.

            Over many years, their love matured. He made her biscuits every seventh day. She cut his hair and cleaned the sand from under his toes. Instead of children, they adopted travelers. They helped dozens of new people find their journey’s path and saw them through completing it. Every morning, Ka kept working on her story. She armored the contours of its action with the love she now understood. Twice they fought over things Isaac wouldn’t remember even weeks later. Both times it wasn’t the fights that worried him. He feared they would turn into his mother and her man. But even at the height of their frustration, they always found their way back to harmony.

            On Isaac’s one-hundredth birthday, she woke him earlier than usual. Ka told her soulmate something she thought she’d never get to say. The book was finished. Isaac hugged her. He had been ready to go into the Dark for years, but he would never leave her behind. He raced out the door and told their friends that she would share her story that very night. Everyone gathered in the great circle. Ka stood on a balcony dressed in glittering silk that made her appear to be an ember of the great fire. She leaned into the podium. Her stack of paper was as tall as she was. When it was silent, she began to read. For many days, she spoke without rest while the village listened. It was the greatest story ever told. Even the fire flared when she finished. Ka looked out into the applauding crowd with a profound relief. She saw Isaac in the front row, and she silently thanked whatever had brought him to her. He had completed her. Their perfect love had unlocked her heart and allowed it to sing.

            Her journey was over. After many millennia, Ka could feel the call of the Dark.

            When the crowd dispersed, she found Isaac in their little home. She told him. Isaac didn’t understand. He didn’t feel the call. He was sure he must be missing it. Ka hugged her partner and kissed him once more, giving all her remaining strength to it.

 

            “It is my time. Walk with me.”

            Isaac walked with Ka to the very edge of the light. His hand shook and even her grip couldn’t steady it. He cried. He couldn’t face the love of his life going on without him. They had been together for eighty-three years. A departure couldn’t be this sudden. They deserved warning. They had done so much for this place. He couldn’t accept the Dark would take her without him. As he worried, she kept walking. It was getting very dark. He needed to be there with her for what ever was next. He struggled to hold onto her hand as she moved faster and faster. He couldn’t lift his feet for another step. The Dark wouldn’t accept him. She turned back almost entirely wrapped in the Dark and promised to wait for him.

            And then she disappeared, and Isaac was alone.

            He waited a long time. Isaac was certain she would come back. She never did. With a mighty roar, he screamed into the Dark, demanding Ka be returned to him. The Dark did not answer. Paranoia painted his mind with manic conspiracies that she had pretended to love him like his mother and wanted to hurt him like his stepbrother. For the first time since the beginning, Isaac worried he didn’t know his purpose. Crippled by sadness, he hobbled back to the village.

            As he passed under the stone gateway, he could barely remember the boy that had first come to the village, a boy cleansed of pain. He was envious of that boy, wishing he could go back to the beginning. He still had the same body. He wished in his mind for the magic that had once saved him from a dangerous house to mend him again. This time, no fairies came. In desperation, he ran back to the edge of the light and tried to get the Dark to send Ka back. He offered his soul for hers, but the Dark wasn’t interested. It didn’t trade for things it would soon have. Exhausted, he returned home and collapsed in their—now just his—bed.

            Through his sadness, he read her book over and over, letting the echoes of her presence sooth him. Isaac understood that her purpose had been to tell her story and that to complete it, she had needed love—his perfect, unlikely love. He had thought his purpose was to find the rarest, truest love and to care for it until the end.

            In frustration, Isaac flipped the table, and it unexpectedly shattered against the wall. It was the loudest sound he had heard since he had gripped the chipped handle of his gloomy room at his mother’s house and slammed the door. That bang had always been a pleasant note in a melody of dread. Isaac felt the same about the table breaking, and it only took him a moment to remember what the scientist had taught him: nothing happens in the Far Away Place unless it is supposed to. The table needed to break because Isaac needed to grieve. He needed to grieve because there was more to love than loving.

 

            Over weeks, Isaac’s frustration melted. First, he forgave his family, the originators of his sadness. Then he forgave himself. With his earned clarity, finally, he forgave Ka for going on ahead of him and for having a different purpose than him. With the weight off his shoulder, he unlocked the final element on his journey of love.

            Isaac had to mourn his soulmate and truly let her go.

            He resolved to reprint her brilliance. For months, he wrote by hand. By honoring her, he mourned. In the pages, he saw echoes of their love bursting in invisible firework and animating the glory of her story. Slowly, his happiness regrew. One day, he finished. He had enough copies that each of the great buildings around the flame could have one. When he delivered them, travelers promised to treat the tomes of Ka’s story with care.

            Back at home, Isaac was exhausted and sat alone in their room. He had cared for the spirit of their connection as reverently as he had cared for their physical bond. She lived, and would always live, in a precious, untouchable chamber of his heart.

            In that moment, he felt the first tug of the Dark. He dismissed it. But every second in the blue light, the call of the Dark grew exponentially louder. He walked outside and moved toward the stone gate. The tension eased. He tried another step, and it was as though he was walking on air. He didn’t hurry, but he kept moving. Isaac smiled to old friends as he moved through the village towards his exit. Travelers recognized where he was going and congratulated him.

            Outside the village, on the way to the Dark, Isaac saw a flash of light and a wisp of white hair in the distance. Moments later, he saw a girl stumbling across the sand towards him.

 

            “What am I doing here? Where am I?”

            Isaac remembered the three travelers he had met on his first day and tried to offer her the same kindness he had received. He told her only what she needed to know. Everything else, she would learn on her own path in her own way. They were ships passing in the night meant for different harbors, and after a short time, he wished her well.

            At the very edge, where blue met black, where his fairy had left him all those years ago, Isaac stopped and felt the grit of the sand under his feet. He gripped it with curled toes one last time. And then, he let it go. Isaac would never know that in that moment, the books faded away.

            Deep in the impenetrable Dark, Isaac thought he saw Ka. She was there waiting for him. Isaac was so tired. He wanted to be with her again so badly. He looked back to the village of fire and felt gratitude for the life he had lived in such a wondrous place. He was at peace with his past, with himself, and his future—a future in the unknown Dark with Ka. Wrapped in love, the boy took one more step and was gone.

Published by The Plentitudes.  January 2021.