This Song is My Love

a novella by Justin Lo

 

Contents


Chapter 1: Melody of Regret / 2

Chapter 2: Rest for the Weary and Jaded / 5

Chapter 3: The Three Hundred Thirty-Third Floor / 9

Chapter 4: Seeds in the Wilderness / 14

Chapter 5: Bathing / 16

Chapter 6: The Music Hall / 21

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1. Melody of Regret


This song is my love. It twists and tumbles about; it bounds left and right, off the wall, barking into my ears: it is a puppy. It runs wild in the wind, catching the bees and the flowers in courtship; it chirps when the clouds part and the brilliant blue sun illuminates the landscape: it is a child. And then it latches onto me, massages me and applies its mystical ointments to my heart that aches; it kisses me gently with ardor and just enough tension to arouse me from boredom: now it is my lover.

This song is what I wish I could be Ė so free to move and to talk and to be intimately connected to every pair of ears that I pour into Ė or merely tantalize, if I should be far away. The thought of spreading so far sends a small shiver through me. I rest my arm on my pillow, staring without focus at the floor lamp beside my bed. The song doesnít leave me; it lingers and hovers.

I feel as though the song cares about me. But then, doesnít it care about all others, too, in exactly the same way? Would any song ever be just mine, loyal to me?

I sit up and nudge my paper-thin Persobracelet lightly to open the blinds. Itís already mid-morning and the light spills forth. In the far, previously unlit corner of my room, I can see my backpack, a smaller neoplastic bag leaning lazily against the larger item. Last night, I must have prepared them Ė but I was in such a delirium, such a state of shock.

You see, yesterday, I was erased. The entirety of my foundation as a woman, as a human being, had been this conviction that I existed as an independent being. That I was, no matter how normal, still different, still somebody. That without my name, I could still be recognized and identified.

But yesterday was the last day of our honeymoon. The southern shores of the Sonosan Wa-wa Islands first saw us with our hands together, our symmetric rings glistening brightly, our breaths in perfect synchrony. In the ocean, we frolicked as though we were ignorant little children; the fish swam around us while the crabs scuttled away and then vanished into little tunnels that they must have imagined descended all the way to the center of the world.

We returned to the cabin, dried by the sun but still coated in salt. Smiling, we relaxed onto a hammock and swung back and forth. He suddenly stood up, his momentum felt as I recoiled in the other direction.

"I forgot something on the beach, Honey. Iíll be right back."

I nodded and waved my hand. I had no worries in the world. I dozed off with the strange aromas of the sea wafting through. My body relaxed into nothingness.

I awoke a surprisingly short time later, a voice telling me that something was amiss. I did not have time to tell if it was a demi-angel or an Aizifa or something of that sort, but I decided to trust that instinct. I slipped my slender, somewhat long feet into my sandals and scurried down the beach as best as I could Ė I had never been good at treading through sand, especially at high speeds. With embarrassing clumsiness unbefitting a person of my age, I tripped and fell several times, and when I finally stopped to catch my breath, I was coated thinly in sand that stuck to my sweat and sunscreen lotion.

I opted to jump into the water for a brief time, just to rinse myself off and cool down a bit. The life of a fish must be wonderful, I concluded, as I splashed the water all around. To never experience the cruel sunís searing attacks or the stasis of stagnant air would be enlightenment unto itself.

But the terrestrial world bumbled on; out of the corner of my field of vision, I spied some people walking from the ocean towards a small cabin. I dashed along the beach, landing behind some olive-colored yucca plants.

It took only a few seconds to recognize the man as my husband. And of course, it was obvious what the girl beside him intended to do. Strangely enough, although I certainly had the gut impulse to strangle them (which I thankfully did not heed), that expression of primitive rage was completely overshadowed by a much stronger, much more powerful wave of emotion and realization.

Looking at that girl, dressed in a bikini top and shorts, I suddenly saw myself. Her hair was wavy and smooth, and if I dyed mine blonde, it would look exactly the same. Her sunglasses were certainly not out of the ordinary, and I swore I had that same bathing suit, that same pair of shorts (except for some details on the back pockets). I was simultaneously in the bush and standing next to him: duplicated.

For a moment, I wondered if I had been cloned illegally through the black market. But I dispelled this rogue idea when I examined her more closely. There were some subtle differences Ė the wrist on which she wore her Persobracelet, for instance.

Yet as she began to chat with my husband, it seemed no different from the conversations I myself had had while we dated. The sentences that came out flowed one to another from the greetings Ė flowed in some universal way, as though I could predict what would be said Ė as though I were watching two android mannequins going through the rudimentary instructions before posing.

I watched as they entered a small cabin; continued watching through the window as they undressed one another and made love. And again, their motions were the same as mine; the places they touched, the order in which they touched them, even the sounds they made when they were touched in those particular places Ė they were all the same. I felt sick, my stomach convulsing. I gagged and gagged, over and over again.

I had always hoped, believed in what I was told as a child Ė that I was somehow special. But if I were special, I would be better than someone else. And if that were true, then how could I accept the schoolteachings that we were all equal? It would be a contradiction. Nevertheless, I believed that I was special out of self-absorption, not noticing all along that I used the same language in the same ways as everyone else; that I ate in the same cafeteria and liked the same foods as everyone else; and even though our grades differed, our knowledge did not. Everyone gets married at some point; everyone gets a job at some point; everyone is happy or sad at some point.

Could it be that everyone is interchangeable, too? Would it not be true that every young woman like this one Ė beautiful enough, certainly not an imbecile, either Ė could take my place at my husbandís side? She would share the same chores, do the same romantic motions with flowers and gifts or whatnot, have children as women have done in the same way for eons.

I stumbled back to our place, packed up my stuff, left without looking back at the ocean. I drove back alone, not exactly caring about transporting my little chou-fleur anywhere. That same voice from earlier begged me to go back and check on him, but I ignored it.

Had it only been cheating, perhaps I would have at least given myself the pleasure of interrogating him and exacting some retribution. But as it was, I felt jealous, not just against the woman but against all women in the world, all women who shared all my chromosomes and nearly all my genes. Because I was not special after all. I had no identity of my own.

One nightís restless sleep and a few cold showers later, I am alone in this apartment that I donít want to ever see again. My backpack beckons me like a child tugging at my skirt, asking for a piggyback ride. I sigh and smile. Underwear, a toothbrush, two shirts, my computer, two pants, a thousand Conodee-dollars, a skirt, and a towel. I like giving piggyback rides to thirty-pound children moreso than to sixty-pound children, I reason.

I leave the apartment with the door symbolically unlocked. After all, if I am the same as all the others, then certainly they have as much right to being in there as I ever would.

Out into the great bustling city I walk, wondering what answers I might find along the way.

 

 

 

Chapter 2. Rest for the Weary and Jaded


The city thrives perennially. Already, I have been walking for an hour, exploring streets that I had always bypassed before when I used the HSPR Ė the little family shops, a few of the smaller grocers, flower stands, soup diners, and the like. I wipe the sweat off my brow and nose with a handkerchief Ė the sweltering heat is really getting to me.

Despite the large-scale air current systems installed throughout the city, the heat continues to build up, especially in the Third Tier where I live. Feeling somewhat faint from the intensity of the sunshine, I duck into a small noodle restaurant, reasoning that its bustling business probably reflects its quality Ė or at the very least, its low prices, which, on my self-imposed budget, would be just as welcome.

A waitress in a black-and-gold minidress greets me with an apology.

"Iím very sorry, -Meina, but we are unable to accommodate you at this time," she says, bowing, though her hair is so tightly held by some sort of product that it stays unnaturally rigid throughout the motion.

"Oh well, how long would the wait be?" I inquire.

"Probably fifteen or twenty minutes," she says. "Would you be willing to wait?"

"Yes, I suppose itíd be alright as long as I get to stay in this air-conditioned foyer," I answer.

"Hey, -Meina!" comes a shout from somewhere on the right side of the restaurant. "We havenít ordered yet, so you can hop on over with us."

I see a young couple sitting at a four-person booth, both the boy and the girl waving at me with bright grins.

"Um, I wouldnít want to intrude, especially on a date."

"Oh, no no, it wouldnít be a bother at all. Weíd very much like it if youíd join us," the boy says while the girl pats the empty space beside her to emphasize the rationale behind their invitation.

I nod, walking over to their table.

"Thanks for joining us Ė itíd be terribly silly to make you wait over there when weíve got more space than we can shake a stick at over here. By the way, whatís your name, -Meina?" asks the girl, who is much shorter than I and also shockingly thin and frail-looking, despite the substance and sheer vivaciousness of her voice.

"Arianna, yours?"

"Iím Meketha and heís Regitos," she replies.

"Oh, are you from Est by any chance?" I guess based on the sound of their names.

"Yep! We moved here together after we got engaged, but weíre still not used to the weather in the South yet."

I shudder at the word Ďengaged,í but I try to cover it up by latching onto the second subject of her sentence instead. "Itís pretty hot this year, even for natives like me," I reassure her.

The boy pipes up, "Well, I was telling Meketha-me that she should get one of those new Wave dresses from Yortéya Department Store, but she wants to wait until theyíre on sale."

"Well, I tried one on before, but it feels really awkward because of all the tubing they use to handle the heat exchange, and plus the prices on the coolant are ridiculous during the summer demand. I personally think itíd be better to wait for the new Ice versions to come out. Itís just a thin, continuous layer so it feels like ordinary fabric."

"Oh, I hadnít heard about that one."

"Well, I actually work for the company that supplies Yortéya, so itís natural that Iíd have the inside scoop," I say with a bit of pride.

"Really?! Do you have a prototype lying around?"

"Sadly, no Ö they donít want the things out in public before they can secure the patent Ė you know how it is."

"Yeah," says Regitos.

The waitress comes by and we order our respective meals. I excuse myself to go use the restroom in the back. The walls are adorned with various vintage objects and old wallpaper, contrary to the solid-color or translucent-effect walls popular in more upscale settings. The narrow corridor in the back actually leads directly to the central column of this building, although the door is designated only as a fire escape. Without touching the door, I peer out the circular glass window and behold the enormous, sparkling chamber that, no matter how customary to modern skyscrapers, remains eternally awe-inspiring. I make a mental note to take a walk inside after lunch.

I quickly wash my hands and return to the table. Despite the amiable nature of those at the table, I still remain somewhat suspicious, or rather, confused Ė what would be the motive? If any of my assumptions were suspect, the most likely one would be that Meketha and Regitos were complete strangers. If they were from a rival company, or maybe from my own, or perhaps associated with my husband (though I hesitate to use that term any longer), then the motives would be crystal-clear. But until I could establish a concrete connection, I would be reluctant to indulge myself in any conspiracy theories. Theyíre more often than not wholly incorrect and more likely to land one in a mental ward than the honorary legion.

Meketha makes a gesture, pointing out the food that has now appeared on the table. The service is speedy, at least Ė although one would then wonder what sorts of mass-produced vats of food might be sitting within the kitchen. But no matter. Even if the food tasted bad, it would still be harmless to a fully boosted individual such as myself and every other citizen of this nation.

"That was pretty quick," I say, taking a seat.

"Yeah, weíre regulars so they can predict when weíll come in and have our favorite dishes ready by the time we order. Yours is coming in a few minutes."

They make no move to begin eating.

"Well, arenít you going to dig in?" I ask.

"Oh, no no, itíd be rude to start when your food hasnít arrived yet," they say. Itís certainly a kind gesture, but an irrational one in my opinion.

"Say," says Meketha, "I canít help but notice that you have a very lovely ring on."

I look at my hand and realize that I had never bothered to take off my rings. I shrug, deciding it would be too much effort to store them anywhere else for the time being.

"Yeah, itís my engagement ring. The smaller band below it is my wedding ring."

"Dang. Regitos, how come you couldnít get me a ring as pretty as hers when you proposed?"

"Well, thatís obvious," says Regitos matter-of-factly. "Her fiancé clearly got to it first, and it was not available by the time I got to the store."

Meketha chucks a wadded-up napkin at Regitos for his poor attempt at humor while I giggle lightly at their antics.

"You know," I say, more soberly, "Itís not the ring that really counts."

"Well, of course I know that," says Meketha, "but itíd still be nice, since you only get one in a lifetime."

"But if every ring were so lovely, would you find it so lovely any longer?" I ask.

"Are you saying that my ring should be cherished as being unique, because it is uniquely bland?" says Meketha.

"No, no, not at all. Itís not bland, besides."

"Isnít it though? There isnít a single gemstone or diamond on it!"

A waitress wearing a pink-and-black dress that matches the one I saw earlier arrives with my dish. "The diamond isnít on the ring because itís already somewhere else," she says before leaving, tapping the left side of her chest.

Meketha beams, and then begins to eat with voracious vigor. Regitos and I follow suit. We speak sparingly during the meal, instead simply savoring the rich flavors. I think back to the times when, as a child, I used to eat for eatingís sake, just like this time.

I wonder when it was, when suddenly meals became the vehicles of ulterior motives Ė lunches to get to know teachers; afternoon coffee for an interview; dinner dates to advance a romantic agenda. All I know is that food tastes just that much better when it is eaten with a pristine state of mind: food to satisfy hunger, the body, and the taste buds, nothing more.

I slurp up the last of my noodles and wash it down with the remaining water in my glass. The check arrives and each of us contributes our portion of the total.

"That was a wonderful meal Ė best Iíve had in ages," I say, hinting at but not explicitly explaining to the two why I would be eating out alone rather than with my spouse.

"Iím glad you liked it," they say.

"And thanks again for letting me sit at your booth."

"Oh, it was nothing," reassures Meketha. "We would have done it for anyone in need."

I smile and wave goodbye, exiting the restaurant and resuming my journey. Mekethaís last words linger in my mind because they remind me of the song, the song that also would care for me and everyone else.

This may sound jaded or indifferent, but I believe there is a difference between love and habit. Yes, goodness can be a daily occurrence; still, if one is merely following a protocol of kindness, how can that be any different from the android flower vender down the street who also follows such a protocol, and how may it measure up to the true, one and only affection that my mother showed me when I was a child?

The song isnít so sweet when it isnít a song for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3. The Three Hundred Thirty-Third Floor


I enter the building through the grandiose façade, admiring the tall pillars interpolated with aquamarine-tinted glass. The doors slide away diagonally to allow me passage below a pseudo-antique clock face. Inside is the welcoming atrium, lined with tiered terraces, each with its own set of four or five particular species of fruit trees. Small children romp about rambunctiously in the soft earth, a few braving the branches to try to reach the small fruits that are mostly unripe.

Following the flow of the moderate traffic, I float across an expansive bridge of tessellated stone blocks. The view through the tall but perforated railing reveals what seems to be a bottomless chasm, with another identical bridge and terrace far below, and another set even below that. Only the enormous numeral "3," lit from behind its opaque but reflective obsidian-like surface to form a glowing corona of an outline, distinguishes this entryway from those in the other tiers. Of course, the interiors have varying design following the whims and wishes of the sub-designers and individual shopkeepers, but these eternal bridges far outdate the ephemeral swings in trends and economy.

The traffic splits around the large median that contains the oversized "3," and I take to the right, walking up a gently spiraling staircase until it meets back with the other side in the large, cylindrical chamber I saw earlier. Every floor is a ring with a distinctive culture, and sophisticated elevators sparkle as they shoot up and down along the inner edge of the rings.

The central core remains wide open to this day, but powerful, controlled updrafts prevent people from experimenting with freefall by leaping off the railing in between the elevator shafts. Children with no memory of a time when the protective updrafts were not present in every buildingís core lean curiously over the railing, dazzled by the seeming endlessness of the segment patterns that resemble the concentric repetitions in an annelid or millipede.

I ride the "G" elevator up to the 333rd floor (actually, it is the 233rd floor, as the first floor of the first tier is deemed the 101st floor to align the hundredsí digits with the tier number). This floor is, in any Class-500 building, one of the many designated arboretums. The pedestrian ring, extending far outwards into the areas normally occupied by commercial interests, is filled with neatly organized radial sections that contain within them highly disorganized flora that grow roughly as they would in the wild, without sentient intervention.

I sit down on a small stone bench, laying down my backpack beside me. I stare at the tall horsetails and Cono pines wavering in the artificial winds. A boy beside me suddenly shakes me out of my reverie; I hadnít noticed his presence until he opened his mouth and said, "Miei, why do you have a backpack in the mall?"

"Oh," I reply without hesitation, "I am on a journey."

"A journey to the mall?" he asks, incredulously.

"Well, not just to the mall," I counter.

He leans in closer and scrunches his forehead while pouting. "Well, what are you trying to do, then? Are you searching for lost treasure or something?"

"No, I donít know what Iím looking for," I say. "Nor do I know where I am going."

"I donít think thatís a journey," he concludes. "Youíre just moping around."

"Moping?!" I cry. "Thatís a harsh way to put it. I prefer to say that I am Ďwandering in the wind.í"

"Not at all. If you were wandering, youíd say you were not looking for anything, and not trying to go anywhere. You wouldnít say that you didnít know."

The boy is rather clever for his age. I want to poke him in the side to see if he is real or not, but I decide not to do so and risk injuring him.

"Have you ever been to a real forest?" he asks. "One of the forests outside the city."

I answer, "No, I havenít. But Iíve seen them before."

"Go to one," he says. "The trees there arenít like the ones here. Those trees talk to you. A moper like you might like some of their company."

"Well, arenít you the snotty little boy!" I exclaim.

"Youíre not much older than me, anyway," he says.

"How old are you?"

"Fourteen," he says.

"Then Iím definitely older than you by a lot!" I retort. Iím not quite at that age where it is a compliment to be deemed younger than I really am.

"Whatever you say, -Miei," he says, standing up to leave. "Iím off to the 366th. Later."

"Bye," I say. He is already in the A elevator, heading up to the next arboretum room. I canít help but wonder if he is taking a tour of all the pseudo-forests in the complex, and perhaps talking to a different version of me on each floor, gathering the whole lot of us into a secret base of operations outside the city. I wonder how many of me there are in this very building, along individual but parallel lifetimes. And to think that I would not meet them, while absolutely, the universe knows of all of our existences.

If there were two cities separated by an impenetrable wall, their citizens could be all clones of their other-city counterparts, and no one would ever know; in ignorance, it would be as though every person were an individual.

But up on the 366th, or the 433rd, or whatever Ė that could be my other-city; not an impenetrable wall, but just a wall of probability, a wall of expected logic; only because of routine do the openings that characterize our free net of movement and destinies solidify into walls. And yet my wall is shattered; I broke it when I took that exploratory walk in the beach; I broke it when I stared into that window instead of looking away. The whole-similarity of the entire world is only masked by the thin veils that we choose to wear over ourselves.

Distraught, I hoist my backpack over my shoulder and take the A elevator up when it returns to the dock. Up, up I go, to the 366th floor. I scan the concentric pathways for the boy, and I find him in the corner beside some large-leaf cycads, talking to another girl sitting there, maybe five or six years younger than me. She too has a backpack, but it is filled with comic books that are carelessly stuffed in, a few of the covers tattered or at least dog-eared. Perhaps within those books, she is on her own journey to find her self.

I leave the two to their devices, punching the call in for the cross-tier D elevator, the only one that has a significant wait time. It nevertheless arrives before the boy and the girl finish their brief meeting. I watch as the rings whiz by, quickly enough that it is as though I were surrounded by just one ring, wavering up and down.

At the 101st floor, I step out into the significantly dimmer world. The shadowy environment, combined with the thin remaining column of light in the center, reminds me of the undersea views in coastal aquariums. Very few people wander around Ė mostly adults, somewhat slow-moving. I cross the first tier bridge out onto the courtyard. I pause as my feet sink down into the spongy earth. I savor that sensation that I havenít felt for so long Ė that of grassy dirt and not the hard panes of the upper tiers. Much of the courtyard is left unpaved, and the parts that are paved are uneven and lumpy, relics of times when sentient life had to contour its designs to the shape of the land rather than its imagination.

The bases of all the huge complexes are found here, but interspersed are short, old-fashioned structures only one or two stories tall, fashioned from wood or brick. Descending through the tiers is like descending through time; as civilization outgrows itself, it travels upwards towards the stars, adding another tier and another, trusting that its foundation Ė literally and figuratively Ė will support it; seeing only above and along the horizon, not looking down. There is even talk of a sixth tier being added when the population of this city reaches three billion.

It is ironic that, in its effort to preserve Nature, human and cat-kind built these enormous, concentrated cities without possibility of urban sprawl. For within the city walls, one is hardly ever acquainted with the outer world that was determined to be worth protecting in the first place. Again, the walls limit the scope of thought. Is the mind really so feeble that it must be limited in its distractions, in its considerations of the more and the greater?

I hop onto the HSPR at the nearest station. The train is on one of the concentric rails: there are radial rails, concentric rails, and historic rails (which have unusual paths based on tourist or historical interest). I intend merely to ride the concentric rail until its next radial intersection, then switch onto that to take me out of the city. The ride is uneventful and the train is barely a quarter full. I take the opportunity to check over my e-mails and remind my coworkers that I am still on my "honeymoon break." When I arrive at the edge of the city, I shut down my computer, not expecting to use it for a good long while.

Just outside the city is lush, dense vegetation. The tube-highways shoot out overhead all around, and the shadow of the airport overhang leaves this region in the shade. Beside the road are a few trails. Arbitrarily, I select one and begin slowly up a hill, the path quickly narrowing and becoming infested with roots and stones.

Despite having shoes for the occasion, my feet are so used to treadmills and biking on the city streets that they seem to wobble about, confused by the sudden transplantation. I must look like a fool, walking so awkwardly on such a simple, pre-cleared path. Clenching my fists in resolve, I move more quickly and carefully.

The hilltop is ill-defined, more of a crescent-shaped flatland than anything else. The path dips down from this point onwards. I smile and whistle as I bound down the hill with the wings of gravity. The trees whiz by, and I arrive at the bottom beside a small creek. There are no fish in the water as far as I can tell Ė Iím probably too close to the city for that, assuming that the water is from a post-treatment drainage pipe somewhere in the first tier walls. At the very least, the direction of the water is consistent with my theory.

Using the rickety bridge, I cross the creek, continuing to move away from the city. I doubt I will ever lose sight of the enormous construct, since it towers over three kilometers in height and spans twenty times that length in diameter. Still, on the local scale, with my view obscured by hills and treetops, I would not be able to see it any longer.

The thought of escaping fills me with temporary happiness, even though I donít know what I will be doing tonight or how I intend to live from now on without the common amenities of the city. The forest becomes thicker and the trees grow taller as I continue my walk. The narrow pines and teardrop trees are asymmetrical and more top-heavy than the full-crowned trees in the city, with their designated personal spaces and ample, symmetric lighting.

An hour later, I, despite my reasonably good health, decide that it would be a good time to take a breather. I sit down on the somewhat moist ground at the foot of a sturdy-looking pine and pull out a few snacks to eat. The breeze is adequate, but I can still feel the heat very intimately. I fold in my sleeves, letting my shoulders breathe a little. I feel myself relax into the tree, the bark scraping lightly against the back of my shirt. I feel a prick as though a bug has moved onto the back of my neck, but I when I swipe at it, thereís nothing there at all Ė probably just a falling shard of bark.

Although I am so hot and sticky, and feeling utterly unfeminine, my hair in unusual disarray and my mouth hanging open as I pant for oxygen in the heavy air, I also feel a vital force in me. The creatures around me are soft and tender, the plush organic quality that makes the touch of another person so charming compared to the feel of a cold wall or the glassy tier-grounds.

Beside me, I spy a curious object: a small lump lying on the ground, looking like an abandoned toy of some sort. I pick it up with my bare hands, not suspecting that it would feel much more like a smooth mushroom, although it is certainly not a mushroom or puffball.

The object is strange and I nearly let it go because a few pearlescent fibers tickle my sensitive palm. I take a closer look at the object and realize that it is somewhat bear-shaped, with a spherical "head" with two small ear-like knobs, and another larger body with four more knobs. Each knob has a small bundle of the stalk-like strings that resemble optic fibers. Each is tipped with a small flower-like blossom.

I put the odd thing down beside me, unsure of what it is. Closing my eyes, I drift off into a short nap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4. Seeds in the Wilderness


I awake to the sound of thunderous footsteps. I quickly stand up and turn around, but it is too late: I stood face to face with a bear a head taller than me and at least four times my girth.

"Hi. Iím a bear," declares the black-furred creature in heavily accented Cat Language.

"Oh, hi," I reply. "Do you live around here?"
"Yes, we have lived here for a long, long time. My family of bears, that is."

"Sorry, am I intruding?"

"Not unless you are eating our berries."

"Nope, I brought my own food. I was only passing through," I say, gesturing at my backpack and my cargo pockets filled with travel snacks.

The bear asks, "Are you from the city?"

"Yes, I am," I say.

"Do you have one of those berry granola bars on you, by any chance?"

I nod, reaching into my right pocket to pull out a small package. I tap the seal, letting it disintegrate away, and hand the bar to the bear.

"Itís not very large," I say.

The bear munches it down quickly. "Ah, itís still delicious, though. Berries and honey syrup really hit the right spot."

He takes a seat at the bottom of a nearby trunk.

"I see that you have a male gametophyte next to you."

"A what?" I ask, dumbfounded.

"The white lumpy thing next to you that looks like a bear."

"Oh, you know what this is?" I ask, picking it up.

"Leave it on the ground," he orders. "Itís a tree. Just watch: itís almost time."

I watch the lump, but it remains motionless. I made a look of doubt, but the bear just stares at the lump intently. Suddenly, a very loud screeching sound from a flock of birds nearby courses through the forest and the lump flushes a deep pink, the flower-like tips of the fibers suddenly waving about wildly and opening up to reveal thousands of small insectoid critters that scatter onto the forest floor.

"Woah!" I cry in shock.

"Donít worry, they canít hurt you," says the bear. "Those are the sperm of the tree."

"The sperm?!" I comment, still in shock. The critters run quickly, nearly in a straight line, until the reach another lump far away that has broad purple and red trumpet-like apparatuses sticking out from its knobs. The critters climb in and the trumpets close in on themselves. Within a few minutes, all activity halts completely.

"That lump will become a new spruce within a few days," the bear says. "The bear spruceís haploid generation is something to be reckoned with. The spores spread everywhere and grow into these small lumps that are mobile and very hardy. Itís easy to accidentally step on them, but they are so fluid that they only temporarily deform. And when theyíre mature, they sprout these sexual organs that then perform this ritual to reform the sporophyte within the female body."

I stare at the lump at my feet. To think that such a creature existed all this time just a few kilometers away and below my home. To live a dual-life like this: to be reborn as another creature before returning to oneís own type; for two completely different forms to arise from a single set of DNA.

"Do you watch this every year?"

"Without fail," says the bear. "After all, the lumps look like us. Sort of."

"The resemblance isnít quite what Iíd call uncanny," I admit.

"They only do it in the wild. My wife lives in the city, and she says that the ones she brought in died almost immediately. Thereís a magic out here. You should stay as long as you like Ė I think youíll find that life is no less rewarding even without high technology."

"So is this what they wanted to preserve when they halted the cityís growth?"

"Not this tree in particular, but my ancestors have passed on the story, and I do know that the city is not meant to protect the people from the wild, but the wild from the people. So few people experience this sacred place, but because of it, there are no buildings or factories around here."

"Well, thank you for your tour and hospitality. I think I must be moving on."

"What are you looking for?"

"Iím a wanderer," I say. "Iím not looking for anything in particular." I feel a wave of relief after paraphrasing the boy, as though by declaring my purpose to be the lack of one, I have somehow completed an important task and removed the burden of reason from my shoulders.

"Ah, that is wise of you. But I think you will find, ahead, that wandering may only last so long, before something else begins whether you like it or not."

"I suppose so," I say without agreeing or disagreeing Ė I honestly have no idea what will become of me. Even death, I think, would not be such a bad endpoint. I unconsciously finger my pair of rings and wonder what my husband is doing at this time. I need to get a divorce at some point, I remind myself, but I decide that such trivial matters could wait for later. The intoxicating allure of the forest fills my mind only with the present, the richness of the now and my existence.

 

Chapter 5. Bathing


The sun is setting and the world begins to fade from view. The scene playing out before me reminds me of those old songs with endless refrains, slowly diminishing in volume until that moment of silence arrives. I have to find somewhere to stay for the night Ė or not, perhaps. I would not object to sleeping outdoors, except that I fear that some wild creature might find me particularly tasty.

The sense of fear and anticipation is artificial. In this world of instantaneous communication and near-instantaneous transportation, the very spending of time is leisure itself: where once one might be excused for using time to walk from here to there, or perhaps being late due to a traffic jam, now it is assumed that all such time is voluntarily spent. One might even say that the use of oneís legs is a recreation; one could ostensibly live an entire productive, dynamic life without ever taking a step.

But precisely for those reasons, I choose not to call a taxi or the police or a hotel. I choose not to use a car or an airship or a train. Setting myself up like this, I donít know what I am aiming for, yet I know full well that I am doing for my soul what working out in a gym does for your legs.

In the distance, on a small hill, I see a modest house with a stone-like finish. I walk towards it, intending to inquire about the nearest motel or such. At the front door, I knock three times and I hear footsteps approaching. The door swings open and reveals a young-looking man with soft, smooth features and a simple stride.

"Who the hell are you?" he asks.

"I was happening around this place, and I was wondering if you knew of a good place where I might spend the night," I say.

"No, I donít, now get off my land before I call the police on you!" he replies harshly, shutting the door and locking it audibly.

I sigh, walking away grudgingly. Nearby, I see another house, nearly identical to the one I have just seen. My first thought is that I have simply traced a circle in my scatterminded walking. But indeed, the first house remains safely behind me when I glance over my shoulder. My second thought is to avoid this house as well: for what would be worse than showing my face to someone who might really call the police on me?

But I give it a shot anyway Ė thereís not much to lose, in any case. I knock gently on the door, which, up close, I realize is the same as the one I had just knocked a few minutes ago. Again, hear footsteps approaching. The door swings open and I feel myself suddenly hold my breath, my body tightening in anticipation. First there is shadow, then the hint of a form Ė a left hand; the body emerges as if reborn from the darkness anew. And before me stands the same man as before, as though he could vanish into the shadow and arise from it again, anywhere shadows might reside.

"How may I help you, young ĖMeina?" asks the man.

"I was happening around this place, and I was wondering if you knew of a good place where I might spend the night," I say.

"The nearest hotel is far unless you call a cab to pick you up here. But you may consider staying here instead, in my humble inn."

"This is an inn?" I ask.

The man disappears again into the house and re-appears with a sign affixed to two metal hooks. He thrusts it over a long pole and the hooks snap shut around it.

"Well, now it is," he says with a smile. "Come on in, -Meina."

The entire episode has a surreal feel to it beyond the divergent déjà vu experience. The whole house, or inn as it might be now, has an ageless quality to it. The walls are smooth and uneventful, although I feel as though there are small ripples traveling through them like the glowing crests of the aftershocks as a leaf plunges into a moonlit lake.

"Here we are," he says, bringing me to a single room at the end of the hall. Behind an old door falling off its hinges is a spacious room with many plants on the far side, facing full-panel glass windows.

"Wow! How much will it be?"

"I think two dollars should suffice."

"Two?!" I ask incredulously. "Do you mean two thousand?"

"No, just two," he reiterates with a cool and confident air. "Itís how much this place has always cost."

I pay him the money after searching hard for my few stray one-dollar coins.

"Thank you, and I hope you enjoy your stay."

"Oh no, Iím very grateful for your generosity. But I was wondering, who is the person living over in the house on that hill?" I ask, pointing in the general direction. "Is he your twin?"

"I suppose you might say that," the man says. "More precisely, we are the same, moreso than any twins would ever be. Twins were last identical as single eggs. But we have been identical since having our full bodies and minds. We are just two of many androids and gynoids produced in the last century."

"Which series?" I ask.

"The is-1. Interplanetary intelligence, for the government. But we retired long ago and we live here now."

"If you are the same, why do you act so differently?"

"Well, suppose you have a marble on top of a pin. It is perfectly balanced. If you put it in exactly the same spot twice, would it fall in the exact same way twice?"

"I would think so," I say. "After all, itís exactly the same setup."

"But what proof do you have of that?" the robot asks. "Have you ever performed this experiment?"

"No," I say as if it were obvious.

"And why not?" he presses on.

"Because itís impossible to exactly replicate an experiment," I say.

"Precisely. And just like that, I am one marble atop a pin; he is another marble atop a pin. It so happens that we did not fall the same way."

I sit down on the downy bed to ponder the meanings of his statement. It is a simple enough idea, but it is based only on assumption Ė something that I would never have expected a robot to do.

The line between separate identities is very blurred. It is not just a matter of pinheads and marbles. Once, a man fell in love with an re-2 gynoid working in the same research lab as he did. They married and were very happy together. But one day, the gynoid had an identity crisis and decided to test her husband. In desperation, she stole another re-2 shell and copied herself into the body without leaving any physical or signal-based connections. And then she watched as her husband greeted the new clone. Life went on and the wife could not take it anymore, deleting herself and leaving her body in place of the stolen shell.

Of course, because of the incident, all sentient robotsí shells have been made with unique parameters, but the first time was enough to remind everyone that life, which began with perfection, would soon reapproach it. It is said in the Aizuna that the first bacterium that climbed out of the Tree was expected to split exactly in two. Perfectly, in harmony, without error. That life was meant to be that way Ė the ideal merging of the Heavens and the Underworlds.

But U and Marisa had not counted on one little thing: the wind. The wind blew north. And the split was uneven, jagged, imperfect. And so out of the instability, life flourished.

One hundred fifty million Catleyan years later, it comes down to this, the possibility that the original error might be reversed. Like the individual cells of the primitive slime mold that coalesce into a single beast, us sentient beings gather together, united by language, government, and belief.

And just like that, I am no longer me. I am everybody, and everybody is me.

"-Meina," says the robot, returning after what I assume was some good chunk of time.

"Call me Arianna or Aria, whichever you like," I say.

"Aria-meina, I just wanted to let you know that we have a bath if you simply go out that glass door next to the cycad and then take a right."

"Thank you," I reply.

I take my nightslip and a towel with me and head outside. The weather has calmed down considerably since nightfall, and I watch as the dazzling stars dot the sky. There are no stars in the city.

The bath is an oddly shaped wooden basin of sorts. I am not even convinced that it can hold water. Still willing to try, I open the water and it pours in generously. Noticing that it seems to be watertight, I glance around to make sure no one is watching and then slowly undress, my heart pounding a little because I feel sexy as I feel my shorts slide down to my ankles and then my stomach feeling the breeze for the first time since my honeymoon. The sensuality ends once my undergarments come off and I feel a slight chill. Holding myself to keep in the warmth, I hop right into the bath like a small child, splashing the hot water over the rim.

The water is immensely pleasant and satisfying. I scrub and rub a little bit, but then I give up. It stops mattering to me whether there is dirt or sweat on me or not. The bath serves a different purpose: one of gentle communion with the spirit in the water.

"Arianna Ö," I murmur. "Thatís my name, right?"

The water flops around me like a dog tumbling about on the rug. I roll and twirl, occasionally standing up to feel the freedom of the cool summer nightís breeze lifting away the water and my troubles.

Clouds drift by to the East, their outlines only faintly suggested by the shimmer of their light-violet edges facing the moon. I run my fingers along my body to remind myself that I remain corporeal; that outside this crystal, real things continue to happen. I trace an even path; some parts feel soothed, some parts feel sore; some parts are bruised, some parts ache in desire.

Insects all around chirp loudly, maybe more loudly than before, as I finally climb out of the bath and dry myself off, letting the red-violet nightslip cascade down my naked body. I let the water pour out of the bath and grab my unfolded clothes and towel in a heap, heading back to my room barefoot.

The room is the same way I left it. I settle down onto the bed, pushing the sheets and covers aside for the time being. To pass the time as my long hair slowly dries, I pull up a book on my computer and delve into it, immersing myself in its lyrical, entrancing words and slowly drifting off to sleep, my body a crumpled lump on the bed, the sheets still on the opposing side, the computer backlight still illuminating my cheek and my fingertips, my nearly-uncovered body tingling with the sensation of the fresh country air.

The next morning, I awake to the sound of birds chirping out a tune I have never heard before. To be honest, these birdsí song, if indeed it could be called a song, is one part melody and thirty parts noise: raucous, stirring sound rather than a lyrical aria in the same way gunfire in battle is to an orchestral concert.

Still, the end effect is the same: my sleep comes to an end and I roll off the bed onto the ground. Grunting, I stand up and walk over to the bathroom to brush my teeth and refresh my face. The mirror has a slight crack in it diagonally crossing eye level, but I pay it no mind.

Strolling out into the hallway, I meet the innkeeper, who signals for me to have a seat at the dining table.

"Breakfast will be served shortly," he announces. I can already smell the homegrown scents of eggs and fried potatoes ducking in through the doorway and tickling my nose.

I wait patiently, twiddling my fingers a little and tilting my head from side to side until I get a little dizzy from the motion. The android reappears a few moments later carrying a plate of food with steam still rising in mild disarray like a school of fish frantically darting away from a childís failed attempt at skipping stones.

"Here, try some. I think youíll like it." He sets the plate before me. "The toast will be ready shortly." As if on cue, that signature popping sound of the toaster sounds lightly in the distance, interrupting the steady tick-tock of the grandfather clock. The clock strikes its gong three times: a carillonneurís mark of the hour, or a conductorís chastisement for coming in before the beat?

Impatiently and with ravenous appetite, I plunge into the potatoes with my right hand while salting and peppering the eggs with my left. The infinitessimally thin crust encasing the potatoes shatters with a brittle snap, and then the hearty, warm vegetable-flesh fills my palate. I can feel my saliva oozing out from all directions Ė it is just so delicious Ė the waves gushing in like rabid fans at a rock concert.

The eggs, too, are just the right firmness, with little onions and radish-pickles to vary the consistency. By the time the android returns with the toast and a basket of fresh-made jam, Iíve nearly cleaned off the plate; only the shiny oil-smears tracing arcs across the plate betray that food once lived in this now-ravaged habitat.

"Arianna-meina has quite the healthy appetite!" he remarks, bobbing once out of mechanical excitement.

"So I hear," I reply, "so I hear." Some women learn how to cook to impress their boyfriends or to be bathed in praise at the next big neighborhood party. But not me. I was on a mission, a very righteous one at that Ė my parents never cooked enough (in my brother and Iís opinion), so we would take turns cooking at midnight to satisfy our endless cravings.

"Would you like more to eat?" he asks.

"I think Iíll pass," I say with a smile. It took me all four years of college to attain my present figure; all those midnight snacks had made me look like the glutton I was, after all. "Thank you very much."
"Oh, it was nothing at all!" he says. "Will you be on your way, or staying another night?"

"I would love to repose here again, but I know there are places for me to be."

He nods, carrying the empty plate over to the kitchen. I return to my room and gather up my scarce belongings, returning to the kitchen all geared up to go. But the day cannot begin until the morning has been resolved, so I pass through the dining room and find the android in the kitchen, washing some pots and pans. I walk up beside him and pick up a black pan with little speckles of dried egg on it, scrubbing it down like I would at home.

I felt sturdy but gentle hands on my shoulders pulling me away from the sink.

"The guest mustnít, mustnít do the dishes!" he mumbles.

"Oh, please," I say, finishing the pan and drying it off with a faded rag sporting a few patched-up holes.

"Itís a violation of contract!" he cries.

"Then how about this being a separate Ďcontract,í a favor for a favor? I want to get to the nearest village, so if you give me directions there, thatíll be just repayment."

"Lenwusiyn," he says. "Itís quite close as long as you take the dirt path marked by a large boulder. Most of the paint has chipped away, but you can still see the suggestion of an arrow that will point you to town."

"Splendid," I say in a satisfied tone. "I will be on my way, then!"

 

Chapter 6. The Music Hall


I bid the android farewell, and he waves back at me from the porch, still holding a blue-striped dish rag in his right hand. I quickly find the dirt path that he had mentioned and begin towards Lenwusiyn.

I hum a little waltz that I learned on the piano as a child. My parents had hoped that I would become a decent pianist, but I never practiced enough to make them proud, and I dropped the instrument altogether by the time I was seventeen. Still, songs from long ago remain entrenched in my memories, revealing themselves only at their pleasure and discretion, not bound by my will.

The songs are free entities within me, parts of me I can neither seal away nor forget. There are other memories like that: the ones that like to fester, the ones that tease and tug, the ones that dominate. These small rebellions remind me that I am not some transcendental being, but rather just another creature bound by the yearnings of Natureís heart.

A few hours later, I arrive at the top of a meadowy hill, where the forest tapers off into shrubbery and suddenly I am the tallest life form in my vicinity. The hilltop overlooks a small, old-fashioned town that lies in the river valley. I soak in the panorama and heave a few deep breaths before racing down the path that brings me to a welcoming arch. Overhead, several highways make exits onto the local roads.

Turning my head from left to right and back again on the dusty ground-roads no longer used for vehicular traffic, I see many mini-communities and a few shops here and there. The larger buildings pick up as I enter what I presume to be downtown. The town is colorful, each store with its own awning and flower boxes surrounded its entrance.

"Arianna," I hear.

I turn around, having difficulty properly resolving all the people I can see because of the strong sunlight and the reflectiveness of the sandy dirt all around. Still, I can vaguely make out the figure waving to me.

"Yes?" I ask.

The figure approaches me, and when the sun finally retracts its blinding spotlight, I see that it is none other than my dearest Caleb, who has, I note sourly, traced my location through the minichip in my wedding ring.

"Well, well, well," I say with a sinister glare. "I think we have to Ö talk."

"I figured as much," he replies. "You look lovely today, by the way."

"Hmm, I donít think these clothes really match, but I suppose that was still a nice thing to say."

"Should we move somewhere else that is not in the middle of the road?" he asks.

"I say we go into this café. You see, I think it would be best for both of us to have other sane people around to keep things under control," I suggest, not waiting for a reply. I am already seated at a tall table by the time he opens the door, making the small windchimes dangling from it twinkle above the murmur of conversation.

He buys two iced teas and brings them to the table.

"Oh, what a gentleman," I say, not particularly sarcastically. "So, you know what Iím going to ask."

"Well, do I? Then you know how Iíll respond. But then why are we meeting here at all?"

"Eh." I think about the proposition for a bit and decide that the guessing game might not be such a reliable source in this case. "Well, I just wanted to know Ö first and foremost, why you did it. I mean, itís not as though I was depriving you." ĎOr if I was, you better not say so!í I think to myself.

"Thatís what I expected you to ask. And the answer is that I was following my heart, my gut instincts."

I sigh audibly. "Yeah, thatís what I thought youíd say."

"You know, back when we were lovey-dovey in high school, you gave me a fold-out card for our one-year anniversary. Do you remember what you said you loved the most about me?"

"Yes Ė that you always would follow what your heart said and not what anyone else would order you to do. It was cute and romantic back then."

"Itís still cute and romantic, now," he says. "You just forgot one little stipulation. That you liked it when I would follow my heart as long as following my heart would lead me to you."

"No, thatís dumb!" I counter. "I wanted you to follow your heart like a boy in love, not like some sort of reptile. A reptile always follows its heart, but it does so only selfishly, just going here and there to fulfill its needs and desires, methodically making itself a slave to its instinct. But humans are different because their hearts arenít rational, so they are not always slaves to their instinct. I just wanted you to keep on doing what you felt was Ö most natural."

"What is natural or unnatural is unclear. If youíre talking only about evolution, then every creature wants a harem for him or herself. Loyalty of the others to the self, but not the same loyalty the other way around. Isnít that the most Ďnaturalí state of mind?"

"I donít think so," I say, shaking my head. "We are of a different nature. In my nature, in my heart, I have a predisposition for monogamy. And the reason is not because it would make me happier. Itís because it would make my lover happier. Following your lust is one thing. Following your heart is another. For a human being, following oneís heart means not only seeing oneself, but the hearts of others, too!"

Caleb smiles, taking a sip of his tea. "I suppose youíre right. In any case, I didnít follow you here to talk about philosophy. I wanted to apologize and get the forms done so that you wouldnít waste any more time wandering about. All the people at your work are starting to get worried, wondering if you were eaten by a shark on your honeymoon."

"They called our apartment?"

"They went inside and surprised me when I finally got back, after searching for an entire day for you. ĎThe door was unlocked,í they said." He seems moderately displeased.

"Hmph! Let me guess Ė you got that little random slut to help you search, too?"

"Wait, you didnít recognize her?" Caleb asks, genuinely surprised.

"Should I have?" I reply.

"Do you remember, way way back, when we were not even dating?"

"I guess so," I say. "You mean back at the end of middle school?"

"Yeah, then. You tried to hook me up with this girl. And you succeeded, to a very nice degree. She and I dated for a few months, right?"

"Yeah, until she transferred far away and then stopped talking to you for whatever reason. You were pretty depressed for a month. And then you started hitting on me, stupid playboy."

"Yes yes, anyway, we still had a promise that we made on the last day we were together Ė that one day we would overcome the odds and get married on the beach. Obviously, we couldnít get married, but when I found her there, suddenly both of our hearts wanted to fulfill the promise, even if it were just for one day. So yes, she helped me search for you, and she also reminded me that our wedding rings were actually linked tracking devices. And now sheís off wherever she will be."

"Aww," I say. "Thatís a pretty sweet story. If I were anyone else besides your wife, I might even say I sympathize with you."

"Doesnít it ever strike you as odd, though? That we make ridiculous promises to every person we date, knowing full well from the start that all but one will be broken?"

"Yes, well, itís common sense that you donít keep your promises that you made to your ex."

"But that isnít much a promise now, is it?" he asks.

"I guess not. By the way, which one of your promises isnít broken? You still broke the promise with her, and to my knowledge, youíve broken your promise to me. Personally, I think you slipped up."

"Yeah, well, I wasnít trying to be that technical. I just meant that at most one will survive unscathed."

"But why didnít your marriage vow to me mean more than your silly middle school promise to her? Weíve been together for nine years, and you knew her for what, seven months?"

"Iím sorry, but I donít think that way Ė I donít think about calculations or weighing this or that. It was just what happened. If I were the calculating type, I would have gone to a faraway hotel, not to that cabin. In a way, my heart told me that I had to let you find me. Because of all our vows, the one that still means the most to me is that we have to be truthful to one another. Thatís why Iím here now, too."

"I think Ö that means the most to me, too."

The moment is somewhat tender. I feel like our hearts are really out on the table now. It is obvious that half of the café has heard bits and pieces of our conversation by now, and itís as though they are watching us as they would watch a television, eagerly trying to find out the ending for their characters.

"Dear," I say, extending my hand and clasping his.

"Yes?" he asks with anticipation.

I reach down into my backpack and pull out my computer. "Letís fill out these forms and get them over with!" I chirp.

"Wait, what?" he asks with genuine confusion.

I pull up the forms that are already mostly filled out. The process has been simplified to such a degree that, ironically, it has helped to curtail its use .

"Look, your story was very sweet and I still like being with you, but if marriage were contingent on just enjoyment of company, each person on this planet would be married to a billion others. Sign here with your stylus, okay, Honey?"

"Arianna, youíre sending mixed messages here."

"How so, Dear?" I ask, blinking at him.

"I love you," he says, grinning like an idiot.

"I love you, too, now sign here!" I reply. I feel a poke on my shoulder, so I turn around. "What do you need?"

The woman at the table next to me cups her hand around my ear and whispers, "You might want to be a bit less Ö sweet about it. It kind of confuses people, especially men."

"Oh, sorry," I whisper in response. "I just didnít want it to hurt too much for him."

The woman smacks her head with her palm and returns to her pastries.

"Have you signed yet?" I ask.

"No," he answers.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Donít you want your freedom back?"

"Iím not going to sign this until you give me a good reason for why we canít just start over again. Since you just said that you still loved me."
"If I have to choose between saying that I love you or that I hate you, why should I choose the second? That I love you is true, that I hate you is true, but I canít act on love or hate, which exist only as shadows in this world. I act on the thought instead that you would be happier without the shackles that wonít yield to your heart, and the feeling that I would rather regret your face than see it before me."

I fall silent after that last remark that I know will puncture deeply like a barbed harpoon, wedging itself in his memory. Even if I try to retract it now Ė pull it out Ė a gaping wound would remain.

He signs his name in silence as tears well up in his eyes. The water does not dribble down at all, but his lashes always shimmer in that way as he closes his eyes slightly, tilts his head forward slightly, trying to mask his weakness. I instinctively take him into my arms and he tumbles forward like a stack of cans suddenly jolted helter-skelter into my bosom.

"The ending is always the worst," he says, his voice muffled a bit.

"But this is only the middle," I reply. "As long as you still have a voice, it is always the middle. The expanse of the ocean compared to its shoreline boundaries is the middle playground of your life compared to your birth and inevitable death." This is a paraphrase of a lullaby my mother used to sing to me when I was young. Her life was short and bittersweet; her ocean was more like a pond. Yet on her deathbed she recounted to me her memories one by one, and they were so spacious that I knew that she had swum across her ocean the longest way she could, and when finally the Natu-aizifs came to coax her soul to split itself, she waited until the last possible moment to climb upon the sands and bask in the eternal sunlight of the other Planes.

"The middle, hmm?" Caleb says, slithering out of my passive embrace. "Iíll try to keep that in mind," he answers to himself.

I hand him his belongings in one big scoop, and a minute later, he is out of the door. Sighing, I rest my head onto my palm, pulling a brush out of my backpack with my free hand. Absentmindedly, I begin to brush my long hair in patient, steady strokes. It is a form of automaton escapism for me.

The woman who commented earlier invites herself to take a seat where Caleb had just been; the seat was probably still warm.

"Do you miss him?" she asks.

I just keep brushing my hair. She glares angrily and snatches the brush out of my hand.

"Do you miss him?" she repeats.

"Whatís it to you?" I reply, standing up and slinging the bag over my back without even sealing the zipper. On the way out, I am suddenly struck in the back of the head with a hard object, and it clatters to the ground with a harsh smack.

I turn around and see my brush at the foot of the nearest table and the woman standing there, still staring at me.

"Are you trying to pick a fight with me or something?!" I cry, exasperated.

"In fact, I am! I canít stand people like you who live your lives in regret of things that are in your control."

"Donít you dare judge me like that. You donít have the slightest clue what he did to me."

The woman answers, "Uneros stole twenty thousand dollars from me one day, to pay off a loan that he didnít tell me he took. The next time I saw him, he tried to explain something, but I just pushed him, hard. He had stumbled midway across the road by the time he regained his balance. And instead of jumping back onto the sidewalk, he jumped into the path of a car that was automatically dodging him. It was ruled a suicide.

"I miss him every day, but he isnít coming back. But your husband, he can still come back, if only you call him to you."

"I understand your feelings," I begin, "but you still wanted him back. I donít want Caleb back, not now, not ever. And thatís the difference. It is not my regret you are worried about. Itís your own."

I squat down and pick up the brush, replacing it in my backpack. I wander out into the warm street, ruffling my clothes slightly to fan away some of the heat. The people around seem simplistic; they dress in solid hues, blinking in near-unison, shifting soundlessly down the sidewalks like phantoms.

At the end of the road is a small multi-colored brick building. I do not intend to stop and I walk right past it, but as I eclipse the front entrance, I feel a gust of cool wind passing out from between the two slightly misaligned doors. Already missing the indoor climate control, I turn back and approach the strange building, noting the sign hanging down that reads, in gilded embossed letters, "The Music Hall." I open the door, the strong gust blowing strongly against me. I quickly hold down my skirt to avoid an embarrassing moment as I pass into a wooden rotunda. The place seems empty but not unwelcoming; all the doors are propped open already and the lights planted in pseudo-torches and chandeliers shine brightly enough to cast strong shadows onto the wall-edges of the paneled flooring.

I step forward through the rotunda into the main auditorium. The seats are arranged in wide concentric arcs, as usual, with balconies hanging over all but the central orchestra seating. Everything seems meticulously placed, exceedingly ordinary, except for one thing: there is no stage. Indeed, all the seats face towards a singular point on a solid brick wall that has a few windows in it, the black curtains drawn to the side and tied off with elaborately-tassled ropes of the same hue.

The music hall with no stage Ö my mind ponders the strange arrangement, almost denying the existence of the far brick wall entirely. The front row of seats perfectly defines how the stage should be shaped; the length of the chamber suggests the depth. But had anyone sitting in these seats ever heard a single note of music resonate through the otherwise perfect chamber?

I took the nearest seat to ponder in greater comfort, but no sooner had I pushed down the plush cushion did I hear a soft clicking sound. A swirl of blue light descended before me in a column growing fainter and fainter still until only a small hovering object remained. It was a stringed instrument like I had never seen before: it had a hundred strings arranged to form the spokes of a spiral, mounted on a giant nautilus shell. I cautiously reached out and took a hold of the instrument, stroking it with a gentle swish of the hand.

A soft, private host of tones sprung out in high register, and the room suddenly began to ripple; the walls collapsed; chairs rearranged; in the blink of an eye, I was in a compact room, with only the chair and the bricks in common. Again I strummed the stringed nautilus, but now with greater projection, I could hear a subtlety above the notes, the harmonics twinkling above as the strings began to listen to one another.

I immediately noticed that the strings were in fact not arranged in ascending order, but in groups of four strings that then did ascend; each group would be arranged with the intervals of C-E-F#-A#, with the next group being a half-step above, so that without using the selective muting apparatus, the full swirl would create a most haunting sequence of notes, each with its harmonics atop it, ringing out more like a bellís toll than a harp or lyreís plucking.

I feel a brisk shiver as I complete a full spiral, and I sit back to try to regain my figurative footing. But my repose is cut woefully short as I feel the room shifting again, landing me face-to-face with a cat in a chair just opposite of me. Before the cat is an enormous drum twice his size. With measured grace and a focus that either renders him completely ignorant or completely cognizant of me, he extends a paw and raps the drum on the edge. Then, after a pause, he gives another tap, farther in. Again and again, faster and faster, he closes in on the center. I watch, mesmerized, so encompassed by the energetic rhythms as he introduces his other paw that I shriek when he suddenly stops and speaks to me in a low, even growl.

"-Meina, this room was made for two instruments, so either play or leave. I cannot stand the sound of this drum right now."

"O-oh, Iím sorry," I say, flustered, picking up the shell anew.

"No, thatís not how you play the Miyohuenm," he says, pulling my left hand off the bottom of the shell. I fear that it will fall, but it does not Ė it just floats there. "These are enchanted instruments, -Meina. You must not disgrace them by treating them like worldly objects."

With greater patience than before, he moves my left hand into a strange position, as though I were casting a spell. "Feel for the tendrils," he instructs. My fingertips race around in space.

"Youíll never find them that way. Keep your fingers in place. You donít need to move them: the tendrils will naturally draw towards your claws if you just feel for them."

I wait and suddenly I feel something breathy, gooey but without substance, trickling on my fingertips. I bristle at the sensation, and suddenly it is lost.

"Calm yourself."

I try once more, and third timeís the charm. My fingers are encompassed by the tendrils as though I were now in control of a quintet of puppet-strings.

"Good, now play, and move your left hand according to what you wish to hear."

I begin with a few strings at a time, seeing what my left hand changes; to my surprise, it changes the relative tuning of the strings to one another, and when I line up my fingers, the notes are in perfect eighth-tone tunings. The resulting scale is so smooth that it is less like a spiral staircase and more like smooth ramp Ė to what?

"This instrument was found in front of what used to be a stone-godís dwelling. Those seeking his wisdom had to align it just as you had, and the jagged rocks would turn into a staircase. But he has since moved on, leaving behind only this. Now, let us play. Tune it however you wish Ė but listen carefully to my drum and match the evokations."

I nod.

He begins to play the drum again, and I begin hesistantly, just a pair or trio of notes at a time until I begin to understand the relationship between his rhythm and my tunings. I loosen my taut muscles, falling, swirling into the music, the whistle of the glittering harmonics stippling the aural landscape.

Our duet comes to a close, ending without coming back to anything. The sound just halts, and silence takes over. We return our instruments and the room shuffles back into its original configuration.

 

Chapter ??: Heavenly Delights

The elevator sparkles as it begins to rise. Already, I am adjusting to the completely new field of view, the world that the angels see. No longer is the world just a landscape, but its transcendental onion-peel layers slide back and forth; there is no sensation of moving upwards even as the axis shifts itself and time modulates and changes.

The sea of black changes into an aether of a nameless color Ė a color that I would say feels like blue, but has a resonance with something deeper. Soon, I begin to see angels moving about, sliding through the different times as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Then the buildings appear, an assortment of habitations constructed so that they have their floors in different timelines.

At least we reach what is arbitrarily the ground floor. The other visitors and I part ways as we step off the elevator. I expect some sort of floor and feel completely disoriented when I realize that there isnít any. There are only wispy segments of cloud-like objects, and even those one can pass through with ease.

I slowly begin to navigate, flying along one plane with a wavering motion, still unused to my temporary wings. From the corner of my eye, I see an angel approaching me, probably recognizing that I am a tourist from my unwillingness to glide through time.

"Hello, Arianna," she says, bowing gently to me and then moving very close to me. I suddenly freeze in fear as she holds me gently and kisses me on the lips. "How are you doing today?"

"K-kiss Ö," I manage, flushing deeply.

"Thatís just a regular greeting here!" she says with a giggle. "Between anyone," she adds.

"So, um, whatís there to see?" I ask.

"Well," she says, tossing her long wavy hair with her hand, "You can go and visit any of the angelsí homes. You might chance to see an Urimentian around if you look hard enough, although we certainly outnumber them by quite a bit. Nothingís holding you in this small town, though."

"What sort of town is this?"

She puts her fingers on her cheek and rubs a little bit. I notice for the first time how gorgeous her deeply-colored skin is, and the way it interplays with her ivory-lavender tunic and pants that seem to almost float around her body without any points of contact. Her hand moves back down to her side and she says, "Itís a town for the newlings. We are here in punishment."

"Punishment? Isnít that only in Hell?"

"No, of course not!" she says, giggling again despite the topic at hand. "Both your light and dark halves sin, and so there is punishment in both Heaven and Hell. The only difference is what you must do to fulfill your promise."

"And that being?"

"Well, we do various things Ė driving transport vehicles, cleaning the sewage system, maintaining the gardens, constructing buildings, things like that. I dare say I really enjoy it, and many angels stay in service long after they have completed their dues."

"Oh, so thatís all you meant by Ďpunishment,í" I say.

"Indeed. What, did you think that we would be beaten and tortured or something? That would never change a personís heart for the better. Only by doing good can one become good."

"Thatís true, I suppose," I say.

"Well, I have to return to my work, but why donít you come over to my house? Itís almost lunchtime, in any event," the angel says.

I accept the invitation and she grabs my hand, yanking me out of the plane with her. We soar in a curly line until we arrive at a small complex. I can see most of the other complexes from here, and they are arranged in a perfect circle around nothingness.

"Thereís no town hall or mayorís house anything in the center?" I ask.

The angel shakes her head. "That is where we might talk and such, but nobody actually lives there. We are all equals, and we remind ourselves of that as we all live on the rim together. The towns, too, form the Heavenly Ring."

"Then where does Nisuna live?"

"The short answer is that Nisuna lives everywhere and nowhere. She has no home at all," says the angel. "Alright, follow me."

I enter the house from one of its many entrances, and the two of us arrive in a large spherical atrium in the center. Objects are orderly but certainly not all parallel, so the scene confuses me slightly.

"This is my houseís meeting room. The kitchen is right below, so letís go make lunch there."

The angel abruptly drops down through a window in the ground, and I follow her. We arrive in a chamber with many shelves and a small warm sphere in the center.

"Here, if you would, just help me cut and peel these potatoes."

She hands me three potatoes and then sets about her business.

"Um," I say with embarrassment, "Where are the knives and peelers?"

"The whats?" she asks, confused. Leaving the potato in midair, her hands glow and then the peels lift off and travel into the trash; as she looks towards me, the potato falls into many small cubes and gather into a small pot of water.

"N-nothing," I say. I place a potato in the air in front of me and then try to concentrate. Nothing happens Ė no glow, no miraculous peeling. I try again and again, but it never succeeds.

I suddenly feel a hand on my shoulder. "Connect with the potato first. Join the potato. Join your soul to its soul," the angel says.

I reach out from my core and try to find the potato, but the field of view is so different; there are only regions of intensity and nothingness. I probe around, searching and searching, until finally I find the potato in the far corner where I donít expect it to be. The moment of connection is like a jolt, and I quickly spring into action. I find the peel and then I find the connections of the inner fibers.

When I open my eyes again, the potato is peeled and diced in front of me, and the angel is beaming.

"Thatís not bad for a first try," she compliments.

I finish the other two potatoes and then I watch as the angel takes care of the rest of business. Many ingredients fall into the stew and then she cooks it all in the small sphere. The beautiful aromas waft through the kitchen chamber.

"Oh wow, I can almost taste it now!" I say, salivating heavily.

"Itís almost done!" she announces.

Taking a mitten off the wall, she lifts the pot out of the sphere and lets it fade out.

"Alright, here we go." She moves up out of the kitchen and I cannot wait to taste the food. But then she exits the building.

"Wait, where are we going?" I ask. "Do we eat somewhere else?"

"No no, we eat right here. But weíre going to Katherineís today, according to my schedule."

I follow the angel as we soar across town to another house. She rings the bell hanging outside the door and another angel, this one with short black hair, opens the door with a pot in her hand. The kiss briefly, shifting their pots out of the way, then stepping back to their original positions again.

"Iím afraid you have me beat today, Lyra!" Katherine exclaims. "Iím sorry I wasnít ready sooner."

"Oh, not a problem at all, Kat. I had an assistant today."

"Oh my! Yes, you do! Hello there, Arianna. How is your visit so far?"

"Itís been really fun," I say.

"Iím glad," says Katherine. "Alright, here you go."

The two simultaneously toss their pots at each other. After catching Katherineís pot, Lyra beckons to me that we should go.

"Thank you," says Lyra.

"Thank you as well," replies Katherine.

We fly back over to our house and settle down at the table. Lyra removes the lid, revealing a stew that looks a suspicious lot like ours.

"Um, didnít we just cook something like this?"

"Yes, we did indeed," says Lyra, pulling two bowls out of the cupboard and pouring the stew into each.

"But then, why did we have to go over to Katherineís house to get hers instead?"

"In Heaven, dear Arianna, you never cook for yourself."

"Oh?" I ask, taking a bite of the stew. I wiggle in delight as the luscious tastes enter my mouth.

"Yes, we always cook for someone else and then exchange. Itís all previously decided what order we do it in, and what dishes we are to prepare."

"But donít some of you have specialties?"

"Of course, of course. Not everyone is equally skilled with every dish. I personally think I do the best job with olive salads."

"Then isnít it unfair that you never get to eat your own olive salad, if itís the best?"

"Hmm? If itís unfair at all, itís that others might not be able to give such an olive salad, not that I never get to eat it," Lyra says. "But we donít worry about those kinds of trivial matters."

"Is everyone in Heaven as kind as you are?" I ask.

"I would suppose so, why?" she asks.

"I just wonder if anyone is .. different."

"Of course we are all different!" she exclaims, spitting out a little bit of the soup that was in her mouth. She chews and swallows before continuing. "We do different jobs and enjoy different things; we love different people and we say different things."

"But arenít there so many rules as to how you have to act and behave?" I inquire.

"That may be true," she says, "But we are independent in the most fundamental sense. We are only a single existence, and my existence is my own and no one elseís. Thatís how I know I am me and not anyone else, and how I know nobody else can be me."

I nod, finishing my stew.