I found myself on the bank of the river Styx again, unable, as usual, to remember whether I was on the side of the living or the dead, not even certain that there were opposite sides in that regard. Maybe it wasn’t the side that mattered so much as the perspective.
I was near the river’s terminus into a vast and wild ocean and could hear the breakers on rocks beyond the lighthouse jetty, the mammoth lighthouse tall and white, flashing its light on me in slow beats.
Despite the extent of the shallows and the tall pinnacles of rock that lined the shore, I’m not sure why there was a lighthouse. The sky was never really dark here. It was opalescent and studded so thickly with multi-colored stars they were like great swathes of glitter sparkling mid the vibrant, pulsing, veils of dancing auroras.
It occured to me only that maybe my eyes are different here, cat-like, that it’s really dark here to the eyes of others.
On both sides of the river was deep forest, though it was slightly lighter here where I stood and the land very flat. A dirt road ran beside this side of the river and there were cars parked along it, people milling about them, some inside the vehicles, some packing things in, others talking amongst themselves as if killing time while waiting for someone else to join them.
As I looked them over, I met two sets of eyes looking me over in turn: an impossibly handsome set of Asian twins that I guessed to be Chinese and thought rather familiar looking. They met my eyes, smiled, and waved.
I smiled and waved back, sure I knew them, embarrassed because I couldn’t remember their names.
“Get in!” they called over to me, motioning toward their car.
I shook my head. “I have to go somewhere.” I really didn’t want to admit to them that, familiar or not, I thought they were strangers and that it would be stupid of me to hop in the car of strangers.
“We’re going where you’re going,” one informed me.
“How would you know?” I laughed, arching a brow at him.
“We’re going to the same family get-together,” the other answered in his stead and his brother added, “We received the same summons you did.”
“That’s okay,” I said, wary now. “I want to hike there. I want to see the forest again.”
I may as well have been talking to one person as two; the spoke so fluidly together with no difference at all in either faces or voices. It was disconcerting.
The idea that they might be my relatives was simply puzzling. I’ve dug into my family tree and found not a single Asian in it to liven things up. My immediate ancestors were of many nations, but all of Northern European stock… with the exception of my Iranian son. I supposed that maybe the twins were related only through marriage, but that felt wrong too. They were very attractive, but didn’t look at all like the marrying sort. Not that I could pinpoint any particular reason why.
I waved and smiled again at them, this time in farewell, and then turned to wade across the river, an easy crossing.
“Wait!” they called.
Ignoring that, I sized up the mountain before me, hands on hips, then plunged into the forest, beginning almost immediately to climb a soft mossy slope held tenuously together by tree roots and rocks.
Deep woods notwithstanding, I could still hear the twins calling after me, now sounding even closer than they were before: “You can’t go up there alone!”
“Watch me!” I called back, laughing, my mind already leaving them behind as I thought, ‘The mountain, the mountain… what is it about the mountain that calls me?’
The climb was steep but the higher I climbed, the more full of energy I was, like I haven’t felt in a long time. Eventually, I almost felt I was flying upwards, leaping, gliding, levitating. The trees were a moss curtained blur sliding past me.
I came abruptly to a wide flat clearing carved out just beneath the snowy peak, had a sense that this would be a meeting place, and suddenly knew why the mountain: just as the twins had said, we’d all been summoned somehow to a family get together.
There was no one visible here yet, but there was a large camp fire hot, bright, and crackling in welcome. I slid a backpack off my back that I hadn’t noticed until that very moment and sat beside the fire on a smooth warm boulder to await the others.
I could hear their vehicles coming up the mountain so I knew it wouldn’t be long. But back the way I’d come was something noisier, like a pair of grizzly bears crashing through the forest. On second thought, maybe they were Kodiaks, knocking down trees and clearing brush by way of marking territory…? I wondered if I should be afraid but sat still anyway, thinking it would be too much effort and probably pointless to try making a run of it.
As I watched, the twins came bursting through the tree line, grinning at me. “See? We told you you couldn’t come up here alone!”
Of course not! Not with them chasing after me. Geeze, how much forest did they bulldoze through to get here? They obviously didn’t take care to set carefully around the foliage as I was in the habit of doing. I rolled my eyes, but I was glad to see them all the same. Damn they were cute, sunny grins like ageless children, despite their perfectly mature bodies.
Cars were driving in and camping gear being unpacked from them, a flurry of happy voices and hugs around me. I saw dozens of familiar faces, representing far more nationalities and races than I’d ever imagined (or found) possible, yet I couldn’t name a single one of them. I rose and ran the gauntlet of hugs and greetings anyhow. They did indeed all feel like family members. But I was not alone in not having names for everyone. No one else did either. Names didn’t even seem important here. I may have been alone in thinking they should be important.
People around me were telling stories of where they’d come from, all the things they’d done, their adventures in getting here but I, the consummate story teller, was for once drawing a complete blank and kept pretty much quiet. This was okay though. I love listening to stories and just because not all of us had stories to share didn’t mean there was any shortage of them.
The twins had settled companionably to either side of me, so I asked them where they’d come from. It was like unleashing a damn, they began talking so fast and fluidly, smoothly finishing one another’s sentences topped with theatrical facial expression and wild gesticulations talking of adventures that sounded like something out of a Space Opera.
It was a total riot just to watch them go, but I had trouble following not only because they talked so fast but because some of what they said just didn’t fit in any of my paradigms. And yes, I know, I should have left my paradigms behind, but it’s really not that easy. When they suddenly explained (and I use this term loosely) “We came here from the Solar Station,” I was at a loss.
Solar Station? Did they mean the sun? How could they be from the sun? How could any living thing be from there?
“All living things come from suns,” they asserted as if hearing these thoughts. “You should know this.”
I didn’t. Smiled and shook my head with a half-hearted shrug. “Okay if you say so,” I allowed. “So tell me about the Solar Station. What was it like?”
They glanced across me at one another and then one took my hand and pressed the back of his other hand to my cheek while his brother laid a palm on my forehead while grasping my shoulder. The images came at me in a rush before I could even think to protest the weird familiarity of their touching me like that:
Opaque glassy bright orange walls curving up around me like the inside of a huge pipe, transparent and colorless at the top so that I could see the black velvety star-studded heavens without and the dark side of our moon with the earth directly beyond it. From earth, I knew, it would be a full solar eclipse.
At my feet was a level pathway of smoothly polished flat black stones. They were so hot that after one stunned moment, the feeling transitioned to that of exhilarating coldness… in a good way somehow. I realize the real heat of the sun is well beyond this, but I was somehow adapted to it so that it felt comfortable; good even. I liked it. It made me feel light and easy, purged of all dross like metal being purified in a vast furnace.
I followed the path, taking turns every so often as other tunnels branched into it. As I went, the tunnels grew wider and strange forms appeared within them. They were of many brightly glowing colors and reminded me of sea life like anemones, jelly fish, algae, trilobites, and crustaceans to name of a few of the similitudes. I thought of the thermophiles I’d seen in the boiling hot pools and streams of Yellowstone, but these were far more interesting and complex. Also, there were ones like human shaped flames decked in floating veils moving past me as did their glowing gazes and sunny smiles.
It wasn’t silent in there. There was an overall sound like stellar music that came from everywhere at once but nothing specifically; nothing I could call definite vocalizations.
Eventually, I entered a huge round room with another wide tunnel going straight down from its center. I stopped there on the edge, looking down into the shaft that seemed to go all the way into the heart of the sun. It was even fuller of strange lifeforms than I’d seen previously and deep in there was so much and it was so nebulous it looked like a glowing stellar nursery. Probably was as a matter of fact.
Despite being very intrigued by this, I didn’t dare go any further. It would have been too much like leaping off a cliff. It was straight down after all and I wasn’t feeling suicidal.
All at once, the heat suddenly got to me. I was so hot that the sweat… er… radiance was pouring off me in buckets.
The Solar Station shrank to a pin point in my vision and abruptly disappeared. I was glancing back and forth between the twins again. I squirmed with the heat then and they immediately dropped their hands.
“We came here for you,” said the one on my right.
“What do you mean?”
“We wished on you an interesting life” answered the other.
Oh great. I’ve heard that one before. “Isn’t that a traditional Chinese curse?” I asked.
Again with the sunny smiles.
“Yes it is,” said one.
“But it’s good for you,” said the other.
“You need it.”
“You asked us for this blessing.”
I gave them each my very best glare. This wasn’t easy because they were so damned likable anyway. “I thought you said it was a curse.”
“It all depends on your perspective.”
“You said you wanted an adventure this time.”
“So we allowed that…”
“…but came along to protect you from the worst of it.”
“You should really be careful what you wish for.”
“I get that,” I sighed, laughing a little. This did sound exactly like what I’d wish for. “But if you came along with me, why haven’t I seen you before?”
“Oh but you have.”
“That’s why we’re familiar to you.”
“But every time you noticed, we made you forget it so as not to be obtrusive.”
I nodded, accepting this. It felt right.
I was still too hot. I wanted them to move away because, like them or not, I was sure the heat was roiling off them, these sons of the Sun. I longed for a cool mountain breeze.
The longing woke me up. I looked around my dark bedroom, pushed the blankets off, and got my cooling breeze.
I’d been sick, you see. I think this was my fever finally breaking.