Sunday, August 19, 2012
Short Fiction: CICADA SUMMER.
“I once had a dream
so I packed up
and split for the city
I soon found out that my
lonely life wasn’t so pretty.”
– “That’s Not Me”- Beach Boys.
Fifteen minutes left til 7:00 pm. He was virtually alone in the office at this late hour. It was his final day, and he made sure everything was in order. Now that the work was done, he walked to the window and gazed out at the modern world. On the 21st floor, his view was strictly mid-level in the architectural hierarchy. Over nine years he’d grown accustomed to the view as a mere backdrop or diversion, but it was now special again, as on the first day marked by anxiety and anticipation. It would soon be just a memory, a view reserved for someone else. More than any colleague or aspect of work, he would miss this view. Perhaps the fading rays of the evening sun unloosed his sentimental side. Then, before him was a face of a girl, vague but familiar, young yet faded. He shifted his glance but, as if chided by conscience, looked into the window again, only to be met by the reddening sky.
He knew his retreat from the career path was a kind of luxury, beyond the reach of most people his age. He’d saved enough for the reprieve, from which he hoped to recover what had been lost or discover what secretly lay hid to be found only by him. He’d looked forward to this moment — the end of his last day of work — for the past few years but, now that it was finally here, wasn’t quite sure of his emotions. The mythic future had arrived at last, and it turned out to be another moment in the ever mundane present and, with each ticking of the clock, receded into the past. And given the solitary aspect of his plan, it was like a graduation without fanfare, not that he wanted any for, after all, he was embarking on something he needed to do on his own.
Vacations over the years had ended as quickly as they’d begun, providing relief but not recovery. And more often than not, the fun and play packed into a few weeks resulted in as much labor as leisure. But, hadn’t it been a good life, the constant productive interaction with society? To have a niche in the world, to earn and spend, to save for the future? All true, and he might have been content if not for the peculiarities of his temperament. Not that he was particularly of a mystical bent, but he’d always wanted to attain, if only through a glimpse, a truth or meaning reserved for him alone.
Approaching thirty, he was still a young man. He missed not so much the energy but the promise of youth, the vision of the yet unspoken and unfulfilled future, the blank canvas before an artist, beholding an infinitude of possibilities, awaiting the first brush stroke. With each stroke, life’s drama is defiled as defined with the colors and textures of multitudes of ideas and emotions. Then comes the realization that the lines and colors are permanently etched and stained, with every stroke, however masterful or misguided, leaving one less area of freedom in the maze of being.
After graduation, he’d secured a good job and an amicable place in social circles, but the appearance of younger faces every year made him wonder if the pattern of his life would repeat itself week after week, month after month, until he was finally crowded out of the game like those who’d preceded him. Sometimes, everything felt static but the slippage of time, as if time flowed through him but not with him. In younger associates he saw himself a few yrs back, and in the older ones, a few years ahead. He’d grow older, but everything around him and about him would remain the same. Even so, he had little to complain about, and his retreat wasn’t conceived of as a protest but as a quest for something promising yet unknown. A new beginning, another job, perhaps in another city or away from the cities. But before any of that, he needed time to sort through his thoughts and feelings, to recast and polish the rudder of life.
Perhaps most of all, he wanted the coming year to serve as a kind of a totem, a signpost in time to be recalled with fondness and nostalgia as long as he lived. He remembered his childhood and school days, when every new phase had been marked by a rite of passage — birthday parties, first day of school, graduation, admission to college. If his youth had been a trek up along the great incline toward the peak known as the future, the future he found was a plateau stretching into a plain without peaks and valleys, where yesterdays and tomorrows eroded into the distance, leaving only the flatness of the here-and-now. There were fond memories from his nine years at work, to be sure, but days had blurred into months and months into years. Even his business trips to other places became repetitious, chores of the profession.
It was now 7 pm. He tidied up the desk, rechecked his briefcase, looked around one last time, and took the elevator down in what was then a mostly empty building. He felt like a bird leaving the cage, eyeing the world from the cage door one last time before taking flight. Out in the streets, beneath his calm exterior was a feeling of excitement, evinced by his brisk steps, sure smile, and alertness as if he was wandering through a new world than one familiar to his senses for the past decade. To others, waiting for the bus, hailing a taxi, or walking the same streets, he was just another person after working hours. But he knew himself to hold something all the more precious for being his alone.
Fridays had usually been for dining out, meeting with friends, half-hearted looking for love, movies and concerts. Now there was no urgency. Awaiting him beyond the weekend was an entire year, hazy but promising. He felt the cool ecstasy of freedom unburdened by agendas.
He’d made no plans to meet anyone on that first evening, and indeed there was nothing to declare or celebrate. He wanted to recover the lone self, a sense of reality unfiltered by demands of co-workers, friends, and family. What was this lone self? It could well remain beyond his grasp or was perhaps an illusory specter borne of nostalgia, and yet, something inside him urged faith in the possibility of its retrieval.
He would relearn to appreciate the moment, every grain in the hourglass, the simple pleasure of being. His life, having dimmed over the years like a piece of fool’s gold, could perhaps shine real once again. Was his time off selfish, even extravagant for someone his age? Maybe, but at the very least, he reassured himself, his retreat was something he’d earned for himself than a privilege granted to him. He felt pleasantly disoriented, a blend of lightness and melancholy, eagerness and calm, as if henceforth anything was possible. He wondered how he might feel about this moment a year from now. Would he by then have tired of his freedom? Would he wish for a little more? Would he have found the clues to what he was looking for? No use for such speculation on this joyous evening when sights and sounds seemed abuzz with the kind of energy that had greeted him on his first day of arrival in the city. A part of him entertained the notion of going by the lake and jumping in. More sensibly, he decided to walk the streets until something caught his fancy — faces, sounds, or displays that might draw him into a gallery, club, or restaurant, a place he hadn’t been to before. Or, he might just keep walking, staring at pretty women passing by, those in love or looking for love or in love with themselves. The neon lights, the noise of traffic, the clopping of women’s shoes, and the smell of beer from taverns and aromas from restaurants enlivened his senses. He passed a line outside the movie theater from which came the smell of popcorn, butter, and carpet. Young ladies walking by left trails of perfumes. All around were chit-chat, voices, loud and soft, of varying tones and temperaments.
He felt a raindrop graze his face and looked toward the sky. The summer sun hadn’t set, but the clouds were looming from the east, clumps of which tore off, like decayed flesh unraveling from a dead whale in the middle of an ocean. He remembered the weather report called for 40% chance of rain during the night. He thought it might be just a passing drizzle, but the raindrops multiplied exponentially, and people ran for cover. He stood by the doorway of a restaurant, and when the rain subsided, briskly hurried to the train station and found himself soaked in parts. There wasn’t much to do now but go home. Judging by the bulging clouds and distant thunder, heavy storms were brewing and sure to soak the city at night.
Darkness descended as the train sped to the suburbs, one step ahead of the expanding clouds over the city. Out the window, highway lights flicked on, birds flew over a distant cathedral, airplanes angled up toward the clouds. He’d wished to linger in the city late into the night, but now there was nothing left to do but make the best of a quiet evening at home. He had tomorrow, the day after, and many more. He gazed out the window as the last glow of the horizon was extinguished by the fingers of night. As the train shuttled along an elaborate skeletal edifice of tracks and posts woven with webs of light, all that remained visible in the distance were the glows of traffic and buildings.
Then a faint image of the young girl appeared on the window as the train passed a moonlit pond, and this time he didn’t turn away, but her face faded just the same, leaving him to stare into the darkness. He felt a warm trickle down his face and pulled out a handkerchief to pat his hair dry. He gathered his senses and willed himself back to cheerful normality. Finally at his stop, he ran to his car in the parking lot and drove home ahead of the gathering storm.
The rain hadn’t touched his area yet, but he saw and heard the distant lightning and thunder. But what really kindled his interest were the bejeweled, jade-like things along the lamp post. Once his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he saw them everywhere: crawling on the pavement and grass, climbing trees and shingles. Cicadas.
He remembered a news story a few days back about the seventeen year cicada cycle and how they would return in huge numbers this year. So here were these insects described as ‘ugly’ by the newswoman. Grotesque perhaps but strangely beautiful, he thought. Some has freshly crawled out of the ground and seemed groggy, having awoken from a long hibernation. Many were already fully formed and found their positions on branches, using trees as orchestral platforms for raspy, rattling symphonies. Seventeen years ago, he’d hardly noticed when they must have similarly appeared in great numbers. But then, he’d lived in another region of the country where the cyclical patterns of cicadas might have been different. Now, on this special night, the first of his year of freedom, he felt a weird sensation, as if the music of cicadas was unlocking pathways through which could be heard the distant echoes from another place. Thunder grew louder, and he heard the thudding of the first raindrops. The storm was soon to arrive. He went inside and greeted the cat.
Streaks of lightning fractured the dome of night whose gods, wounded and wailing, hurled rumbling boulders of rage across the sky. From the table he emptied and drank what remained in a dark bottle. He eased into the recliner and felt the tranquility of wine coursing through his veins. Music from the stereo turned low diffused throughout the room. Lightning struck nearby, unleashing a cataclysmic roar as if earth’s very backbone had been shattered. Yet the world was as quickly restored as it was destroyed, over and over, as the storm raged.
Everything remained constant in his living room. The dim lights, muted melodies, and humming of appliances were oblivious to the harsh winds and raindrops battered against the window, the thuds of fallen warriors from the great war among the storm chariots above. The purring of the cat soothed his pathway to sleep. With all the ruckus outside, he bobbed in and out of the lake of slumber, finally sinking beneath its restless waves. Lightning flashes and roars of thunder, transmuted through layers of sleep, charged his dreamworld with morphing phantoms glowing like fireflies and caught, one by one, in the acquisitive web of his psyche.
In the late morning hours he awoke into a restored world, beneath Apollo’s golden shield holding back the blue ocean of heaven. There wasn’t a speck of cloud in the sky. It was nearly 11 am.
Phantoms of his dream had vanished with the bright flicker of the new day. He recalled a few details. Monuments like bleached bones, woman and child, streams atop mountains...
These fragments meant little in and of themselves but had been a part of what he vaguely recalled as an epic journey, for which the price of admission was amnesia upon return. What was now lost to his eyes and ears lay buried in his psyche, a place he could perhaps revisit in another dream.
And yet, if one were to take a closer look... life so alive yet so deadly, creatures of warmth and light setting traps to devour one another in a never-ending revelry of the blood feast.
What a blessing to be human, part of a species removed from the nature’s unkind ritual of life and death. To eat but not be eaten except by worms six foot under ground. But could humans, divorced from the natural cycles of life, experience the fullness of life? Hikers seeking communion with nature walk along trails, the safe spaces between the self and the wild. How easier to know through one’s eyes than through one’s flesh, a lesson learned by every child when, in wonderment, he touches a bee or lizard, only to recoil in horror from its spiteful animus.
He passed a fisherman whose stillness reminded him of the kingfisher seen moments ago that quietly stalked the shallows for frogs and fry, standing meditative and immobile between sudden strikes that almost always yielded a catch. The sound of splashing water slapped the air, and he turned his head back toward the fisherman whose arching rod pulled from the waters a giant silvery bass. It floundered on the rocks, aware only of the strange new realm where all its efforts to flee were useless. Its body flapped as if to regain uprightness and swim away, but it remained on its side, one eye scraped by the rocks and the other pierced by the glaring sun. A great catch but also a treasure stolen from the pond.
He kept walking and, looking up, noticed mountains of clouds in the distance drifting across what had been a clear sky. Not storm clouds but majestic formations in victory procession marching off to join future battles over distant lands.
He lost track of time in what seemed like an endless day of sunlight, warmth, and greenery. Time drifted with his thoughts as he wound through a long trail in the forest. He took rests on dry logs, taking notice of all the puddles created during the night by the rain. The forest terrain appeared as though dotted with dozens of miniature ponds, and frogs sought refuge in some of them. Though usable, the trail was wet from the rain, and he picked up twigs to scrape mud off his shoes.
Upon arriving back at the clearing that led back to the pond he realized he’d left his watch at home. Judging by the position of the sun, he surmised it must be somewhere between 4 pm and 5 pm. He also noticed clusters of dark clouds moving toward him, perhaps the last remnants of the heavy storm clouds that passed through the night.
Unbeknownst to him was a female figure, dazed and lost, draped in white. She wore a golden helmet and held a lance. Disoriented and wet, her gaze darted about the world around her. Sighting a man beholden in thought, she moved towards him.
He noticed a figure slowly gaining form in the corner of his eye fixed in pensive gaze upon the pond. Turning his head, there was a woman of burnished complexion, brown eyes, silken golden hair flowing from beneath her helmet. Her face shone as if carved and sanded with tools unknown to man. She stood prim and proper but with signs of distress shown on her face. She gazed intently and sought contact, but he only stared back as if under a hypnotic spell. She spoke but was not heard. He saw but not knowing whom or what. The figure before him was near his height; slightly taller or shorter, he couldn’t tell.
She realized there was but one way to speak with a mortal. Her fingertips lightly tapped his forehead. Then, before him stood a beautiful woman with questions, and restored was his sense of normalcy as he heard her voice. Her words came to him in English, but he wasn’t sure it was English. The opaque wall between them had cleared and become transparent, but he discerned a faint yet unbreakable barrier between them just the same.
He led her inside the house and up to the upper floor where the living room and the balcony were. She hadn’t been inside a house since centuries ago, when she’d been stranded in the world of mortals as she was today. She distinctly remembered that house from long ago, its rough wooden frame and furniture, the darkness and dampness, and the simple foods of its inhabitants — a man, a woman, and a child. A house of hardy people surrounded by trees and brooks amidst hills and valleys.
This house was something different. Neat, spacious, and bright, with walls and high ceilings matched and joined seamlessly. Firm floors and large windows and open views of scenery along the walls. And all manner of fetching objects on tables and shelves. Some were warm and quaint, others cold and abstract, but all were fascinating to her. After a quick glance around the main room, she stood unsure of what to do or expect next.
He felt indecisive, even slightly awkward. Not only was there a stranger seeking sanctuary within his four walls but her beauty and manners seemed alien to his world. And what of her dress and spear? Did she lose direction going to or from a costume party or a movie set? But then, he felt a sense that her attire couldn’t have been purchased in a store or made by the hands of men no matter their skill and ingenuity, any more than a real flower, as opposed to one of plastic, could be created likewise.
He couldn’t help feeling lucky, even something approaching pride, like a child with an elusive dragonfly in a net or a rare fossil in a box of special things. She didn’t belong to him, any more than he belonged to her. She’d only found a place to reorient and rejuvenate herself, and it was his privilege of being her provider.
He asked if she would to like change into dry clothes. Her cape was soaked and lockets of her hair, coiled and wet below the helmet, flowed with droplets of rain. She understood the content but not so much the context of what he said. How was she to change her mode of existence from timelessness to presentness? She divined the norms of his world in dress, play, and protocol.
He led her to a room, opened a dresser, and left her to herself. The clothes had accumulated, sealed within the dresser, over the years from visits by his mother and sister and from a time shared with another, long departed. For some reason, they’d decided to leave certain items behind, to be discarded or perhaps worn in future visits. He’d kept them in the dresser and in the closet of this, the second, bedroom. Living alone, it was nice to know that clothes, once warmed and animated by the women in his life, lay dormant in a quiet room.
She was charmed by the clothes of various folds and colors. She leaned her lance against a wall to examine the apparel. She moved her fingers over the different textures of fabrics — smooth, soft, thick, and thin. She was acutely intuitive when her interest was piqued. One by one, she held them before her, gleaning their purpose and occasion. She had no need for anything besides a chiton, waist strap, cloak, helmet, and sandals — and of course adornments and her lance — , but these items caught her fancy. Unlike her own, they were made by the hands of man and would fade and wither in time. But they were woven with a poetic vanity and yearning, as if to accentuate and prolong what was most fragile in all living creatures: beauty. It was on this liquid mirror of futility that mortals rode a ripple of hope more touching than any known to her kind. The perennial tree sometimes envies the flower of the moment.
Intuitively, she slipped into a combination of dress seeming most suitable to her for the occasion. She was amused, then pleased, by her reflection in the mirror and felt like a different entity altogether. She then draped her own attire on a rack and placed her sandals on the window sill. Looking around the room one more time, she stepped into the hallway and appeared in the living room, where she stood composed but relaxed, as if she’d found her niche in the new element. Her hair from head to neck was dry, but wetness clung to the hair around her shoulders and back. He thought she could use a towel — and wondered why she hadn’t used one in the room — and thought to offer her one but was struck by the image of golden, silken strands cascading straight to her neckline, then winding into brassy, serpentine coils. It seemed only natural that they would dry of their own accord.
From the moment of their encounter, mesmerized by her appearance and presence — semblance of something at once invincible and fragile — , he thought she could almost be mistaken for an apparition. There was an aura about her, that of a visitor from a distant place faraway in ways more than one. Yet, he felt a vague notion that she’d always been a part of his being, a hidden card in the memory deck waiting to be shuffled into view. But he couldn’t locate the place from which this boding emanated and wondered if the feeling was really his or something he wanted to claim as his own?
As seconds ticked away, the impressions of her strangeness coalesced into a realization. When his mind relaxed in her presence, a corner of his psyche heard faint murmurs, intimations of fragmented melodies scattered by the winds of time, indecipherable and irrevocable except perhaps with the finest instruments stored inside a dream cabinet. These voices lulled him, as if promising the unity of elements sought by every soul. Something about her warned him against any notion of flirtation. He was reminded of the time he trudged knee-deep in a stony brook, only stirring up the water and losing sight of the trout. The less he strove the more he could see. His buried psyche intuitively realized that his mind, let alone his hands, could never hold her, and his eyes would fail in her realm, but respecting these conditions, the ripples between them could weave a shimmering fabric and, on occasion, even calm into clarity, offering a glimpse, however fleeting, of the secrets of her world.
She moved about the room, feeling cozier by the second; it was the place itself — spatial designs and arrangements — and also the hospitality of the man who’d let her in. He asked if she’d like to sit down, but she remembered the lance in the other room and went to retrieve it. She reappeared with the gold-tipped weapon that, held within her hands, conveyed little that was threatening. Emanating from its imposing form and talisman-like features was a sacredness that kindled reverence in his eyes. Yet, it seemed too vibrant and sturdy to be merely an archaic instrument of ancient rituals. She asked where the lance could be placed. The simplest solution would have been the garage or against any corner, but he pondered for a moment the magnificence of the thing. Everything had its place in the house: clothes in the dresser, tools in the garage, utensils in the kitchen, rings and lockets in the jewelry box. What place warranted the privilege of receiving this object?
Simple, even primitive, at first glance, it insinuated, upon closer observation, a story of having been created by forces other than man and machines. The staff, long and chestnut brown — lighter-colored near the blade and sliding darker toward the end — , was marked with notches, either carved by tools or scarred from the removal of adjoining offshoots. It was not entirely straight, and the slightly sinuous and supple curvature lent it an occult character. And along its surface, what had initially appeared as indentations took on the appearance of minutely detailed imagery and inscriptions, shifting and fluctuating ever so subtly, relating an ancient folklore as on the totem poles of bygone tribes.
The golden spearhead shone brightly, the blades of which sloped and converged at a pointed tip of sharpness barely discernible to the eye. He visualized a tree pierced with ease by the spearhead, and if its brittle tip were to break, he imagined a new one growing to take its place as the spear seemed more like an organic, living thing than a dead, inanimate object. So, what part of the house would be worthy of such a prize?
Instinctively, he sought an open place for the lance. Then, his eyes fixed on what they’d ignored all these years: two nails hammered into the wall high above the fireplace. He vaguely recalled removing two frames long ago but couldn’t remember the pictures held within them. Staring at the nails, he regretted having used ones so big and crude, as if made by a blacksmith. He noticed how ugly they were and wondered why he’d been oblivious to them for so long. But they would now serve his purpose, and so he climbed up on a chair and carefully perched the spear upon them. As crude and ugly as the nails were, they perfectly blended with the spear, which filled the room with simple grandeur, its elongated range from the golden tip to the dark end suggestive of the span of day from morning to night. The shaft, perhaps made of vanished trees lost to history, roused lurking memories of primeval forests, and golden spear tip the seances of the sun. She was pleased by his attention and care, gratified by his appreciation of the thing that defined her.
She took a seat on the sofa and found it too soft. She raised and moved her hips to readjust herself, like a child seeking balance on the first outing on a boat. He asked if she might like some refreshments and was met with a puzzled expression. Would she like something to eat or drink, he asked again. She asked for water. He decided to prepare an early dinner for two. As he dashed about the kitchen, she at last accustomed herself to the sofa and enjoyed the snug comfort.
One of the advantages of modern life is having the leisure, learning, and just enough expertise to acquire a set of skills and sensibilities, such as knack for interior design, taste for fine clothes and shoes, but, most of all, the ability to prepare a dozen or so quality dishes.
It just so happened that he knew a thing or two about fish, pasta, and lamb. He prepared something borderline fancy, rudimentary enough for casual dining yet elegant enough for a special occasion. He braised the lamb cutlets with onions and spices in the pan while potatoes roasted in the oven. Then he seasoned and sauteed the mushrooms to lay atop the meat. He swiftly worked on the salads while the meats and potatoes were nearing completion. Handling oils, spices, and vinegar like a warlock who knows the tricks, he worked fast but meticulously.
The table set and ready, she was invited to the dining room where a chair was drawn for her, a gesture that seemed odd yet evocative of something distant and forgotten in her past. The cat, which had eyed her with apprehension, mustered enough courage to approach the aromatic table. She was captivated by this creature possessed of natural grace. In its ancient transition from the wild to the world of man, it had given up nothing of nature’s ruthless beauty while having gained every facet of man’s civility. It differed from most wild animals exercising a brute mode of existence and from domesticated animals deformed beyond recognition from their natural design. The muscular wild boar had become the bloated swine, the headstrong bull a heaving mass of flesh. The domesticated sheep long ago lost the tenacity of the wild ram. Many dog breeds were caricatures of human folly. It was as if the elusive essence of the cat had escaped both the clutch of nature and the grasp of man. Lethal as an arrow, elusive as a moon shadow. In its sleek form and movement, keen senses and skills, it retained the structural marvel of the ideal predator. With its soft fur and soothing purr, it found its way into the heart of man. By some mistake or mischief of nature, the cat comported with an innate elegance and mien that put even the most refined nobleman to shame. The cat of the house stretched its body, stroked its tail like an artist’s brush, and dabbed the visitor with its moist arrow tip nose, deciding at last to hop onto her lap and snuggle. Its acceptance and affection gave her the first genuine intimation of being welcomed with an open heart, of being in the company of a kindred spirit.
Before her were a fork and a knife on a napkin next to a plate and empty glasses yet to be filled. He served her a portion of the meat and potatoes, placed a bowl of salad on the side, and then did the same for himself. He then asked what she’d prefer to drink. She chose what she knew, and he filled her glass from a pitcher of ice and water.
He sliced his meat and raised it to his mouth but noticed she didn’t touch her food. He inquired if something was wrong. She replied that as she was a goddess, all food prepared by man had to be ‘offered’ to her. Offered on an altar.
True, there was something special about her, the way she’d appeared and the mystic qualities of her objects, especially the lance. But a goddess? Was it in jest or was she a member of some cult? And why should he be so blessed as to be in the presence of a goddess? Should he smile, should he laugh? Should he ask a question? Or should he play along? What if the woman was delusional, borderline schizophrenic? Yet there was genuineness to her solemnity, and whatever the truth may be, there was no reason to doubt her sincerity.
With a straight face he asked if she could eat anything that was not ‘offered’ to her. Things of nature untouched by man, she said. Apples in forests, leaves green and yellow, honey in hives, resin from trees, insects of endless variety. Insects and resin? He gathered his thoughts.
She showed him her rings, two on each hand, her bracelet, and her necklace, and yes, there were patterns of cicadas engraved on their metallic surface, the composition of which he couldn’t be sure. At a certain remove, they appeared as silver and gold. But upon closer observation they beheld the shimmering essence of metals but without the hardness of substance — more a work of alchemy than metallurgy. They were almost transparent and faded at moments to reveal the parts of her fingers, wrist, and neck under them. Their glow vacillated between dimness and radiance by an axiom beyond anything he’d learned in school. Like designs on the lance, the array of cicada-like patterns on her ornaments were never entirely static. Fixing one’s gaze, one saw their transfiguration from inert to organic forms, as if her bracelet, for instance, was a band of cicadas drawing nutriments from her flesh or on the verge of taking flight. Stones like jade and opal, resembling eyes of cicadas, were embedded in the adornments. And though, varying in size and color, complete replicas of the odd-looking insect materialized along key points on the jewelry, the prevailing design was of dissected and interwoven textures of the cicadas. The highlight was the cicada amulet hanging from her necklace. Made of amber, its rounded transparency not only magnified the skin below but suggested a portal to her inner self. Her earrings had the fragile crystalline quality of cicada wings. Their stained glass colors altered according to movement, gaining near-clarity with only the faint suggestion of rainbows when veered from one’s angle of view.
He asked how food is offered to a goddess. She said it has to be placed upon an altar. As no such object was in his possession, he inquired if a makeshift altar would do. She replied she would know only after one was tried. He gave it some thought and then arranged several books, a small glass case, a wooden tea chest, and a few odd pieces to achieve an elevated area around half-foot off the table. He topped it with a spare ceramic tile and placed the dish upon it as an offering. She pondered the arrangement and then seemed at ease. She took the plate from the altar and placed it before her. Imitating his use of fork and knife, she began to taste the food. Though it had cooled, she was delighted and amazed by its flavor.
Man could have his abstract science and myriad machines, but his food was an inspired blend of plants and meats altered through an impulsive genius unique to his kind. Mortals, in lives all too swift and short, would naturally strive for pleasures through the senses, falling often to folly but stumbling on occasion upon that which is joyous and magical, worthy of preservation but fated to fade in a world not meant for the permanence of such things. Things to be enjoyed in the here and now, only to linger in remembrance til the day arrives when memory, as if to atone for its restless reminders and temptations, lies faithfully down with the body breathing its last.
Through the eons, mankind dreamt of the food of the gods, but it was the gods who desired the food of man. Man, growing more somber through the one true God and more sober through the light of science, had come to offer less and less to the gods of nature.
Having been given distinctions and forms but then abandoned and forgotten by very beings whose worship and reverence had once ennobled and personified them, the gods of the mist, mountains, and rivers returned to their natural realms and were sustained by the seasons, nourished on roots and rain, leaves and sunlight in cycles of bounties and scarcities. Some re-adapted to the habitats from which they’d sprung while others fell into mournful hibernation or met doom with the demise of their worlds wrought by restless man or erratic nature. But nature creates as it destroys, and new gods were born in their stead. And man, despite the armors of God and science, couldn’t help but hear in his dreams the other gods, those of nature, old and forgotten, new and forming. Nature could no more do without gods than life do without wind and rain. The gods were no less integral than the ants and worms to the vitality of soil and plants. It’s been the belief of certain cultures that all changes, including time itself, are but the byproduct of the gods consuming the world and the world consuming the gods.
Flavors of nature are infinitely varied in their wonders, and wildfires create new aromas for the gods. But the food of man, through deft preparation of sauces and spices, oils and vinegars, a choice array of ingredients, and artful presentation of cuts and blends, was perhaps where the fortunes of nature and the foresight of man converged most delightfully.
Nature gods have little interest in, even an antipathy toward, the distilled purity or clever synthesis of absolute artifice, a radical transformation of organic things into such things as chemicals and plastics. And nature gods are, of course, all too familiar with and accustomed to nature itself. What most enthralls them is the seemingly intangible border where elements of one realm spurn their limitations and turn, in combination with elements of the other, into something integral to yet distinct from both realms. On this particular altar of man’s creativity, the art of cookery, nature was enhanced, not erased.
Given the power of food to invigorate and intoxicate and in light of the process whereby life is extinguished but then resurrected through its flavors, every culture had devised a set of rules and taboos regulating this most natural and most peculiar of arts. What is more natural than to eat, more human than to eat well? Though initially unfamiliar with the knife and fork, she not only learned quickly from observing our hero but found herself vaguely reminded of archaic rules of etiquette from a long forgotten past.
And then there was the wine. She’d long forgotten the bittersweet blood drawn from the veins of time, and its vigor flowed through her, injecting her with visions of ruby luster. The tart pungency pricked her lost memory, bestirring dusty pollens from a wilted flower, alluding to ciphers on the verge of recognition alas too fickle and fleeting for retrieval. Her apparent absorption with the wine made him taste his own with finer attention, curious to know why she found it so captivating. Oblivious to his gaze and settled into a mood of calm elation, she gently swirled the dwindling pool of violet in her glass like a miner panning for gold.
She knew well the cool showers of spring, shaded pools of autumn, morning dew upon the fields; rivers and ponds bestirred of silt and twigs, moss and leaves, the living and the dead, each adding its unique flavor. There was, of course, the sweet allure of honey for which man and beast alike risked agony, even death. Bees mined for specks of nectar, forging them into bars of gold to be stored in their castle vaults. Bees, blessed with the Midas touch, were cursed as creatures whose products of unremitting labor were sought by all. Naturally then, the heist of their treasure would involve pain as well as pleasure.
But if bees, in their innocence, collect and consecrate the bright joys of life, there is in man a tragic compulsion to bottle and preserve the shadows of death. Despite nature’s rifeness with acrid fragrances of fermenting fruits, the crude byproduct of such disordered disintegration could never attain the poetry of wine. Wine had a power beyond the gods, unleashing, with sass and subtlety, a wide spectrum of moods ranging from bliss to sorrow, nostalgia to amnesia. In its morbid yet mellowing acerbity was a premonition of death, as if entombed within the bottle was the ritual purification of decay. How true of all things to awake and live, to die and fade. Yet man, by accident or design, had inspired himself to gather and store shadows more potent than light. Upon each sip, macabre cobwebs gave way to the aura of twilight.
Why was the art of wine-making lost to the gods? Myths tell of wine as gods’ gift to man. Religions share wine as the sacrificial blood of deities. Ancient memories, fractured and incomplete, often credited the gods for man’s own inventions. But given the accidental nature of all inventions, the gods had guided and desired the advancement of man, whose ideas and imagination completed the them and whose food and wine as offerings pleased them.
Everything has its dawn, peak, and dusk, followed by a long night. There had been a time when gods and men had existed in perfect balance.
At the dawn, when man was but an animal, the gods of nature were murky and formless. As man’s knowledge and imagination multiplied, so did the power and the beauty of the gods. In turn, the gods whispered through the dreams of man, and man heard the first stirring of wisdom. Man’s wisdom then ennobled the gods. This lost time, perhaps never to be regained or repeated, was the peak in the saga of gods and man.
Then came the unanswerable questions as man defined himself against nature and as gods mutated into an abstraction severed from the world of sight and sound. In striving for perfect security and pure sanctity, the new man and the mutated god forged a pact to expel and destroy the gods of nature. The destiny of man was to disdain the nature gods, and the fate of the nature gods was to return to earth, oceans, and stars. But having been molded and shaped by man’s dreams and visions, the nature gods could no more revert to their original forms than butterflies to their larval states. Far from peaceful, the twilight of the nature gods was rife with chaos, rupturing in crimson, flooding heaven and earth with the blood of gods and man. Man fought gods, man fought man, gods fought gods. In the end, it was not a battle the gods could win, and their blood flooded the horizon. As it dried and rusted, the gods in their defeat made their final retreat. In the hearts of man, the ecstasy of victory soon gave to the elegy of loss. Then came the long night through which man learned to light the cities by turning off the stars. The departure of the nature gods was an event long ago, lost in time, but it is retold every evening, through distant echoes and glimmers of twilight, from the oracle of the horizon, a parting gift to man from the gods even in the bitterness of their defeat.
In wine was the taste of man’s toil beneath the sun, dreams under the moon, and battles over land and honor. There was also an inkling of the blood of gods, given and drawn, from that terrible twilight long ago. Then, were the two figures in the dining room enemies? A man of modernity and a nature goddess? But across the vast music of time, sharp chords of strife had given way to fugues and dirges, with both men and gods, each in their own realm, eventually forgetting what the war had been about. And in dreams of a budding dawn were murmurs of fresh melodies innocent of old hatreds.
She asked for another glass and, sipping the wine, experienced anew its mysterious power. Its spell descended upon her like a veil but had no effect on her composure. When she requested a third glass, his glance evinced a flicker of anxiety. She was puzzled by the subtle change of mood. Perhaps the power of wine should be respected in this world of man. As it had been unbecoming of man to ask too much of the gods, perhaps the inverse was also true if not truer. She sought accordance with his expectations as the third glass was filled. She savored the final glass, immersed in a pool of wistful reverie. The tartness, laced with memories of faded sweetness, lingered after the wine was gone. As she gazed toward the window, the receding taste merged with the flavors of all that bloomed under the sun. She stood and moved to the window.
Our hero thought the entranced figure staring out the window was dazed from the wine. But when she turned and faced him, she appeared in full control of her senses. Then, he wondered if he was the one so affected — despite having had only one glass — when, glared by the light from her jewelry, faint music played in his ears, emitting purple tones that slid across the silver and porcelain objects on the table. It was as though the wine had transmuted into a song. Hers or his, he couldn’t tell, but what first sounded like a solo diverged and reunited as a duet.
They moved to the sofa, and he struck up a conversation about her ‘divine’ nature. Noting his sincere curiosity and goodwill, even the possibility of faith, she explained the situation in the simplest terms. That she was a goddess of cicadas. That only under certain conditions and combination of circumstances — momentary fractures between the realms — could she and her cohorts breach into the waking life of mortals. And only through rare accidents of time and space could they become stranded or lost in the world of matter. It was more likely for gods to slip through the fluid, osmotic walls of dream space.
Had she then visited his dream world? She could not say, for dream worlds are not only innumerable but have no names or faces. Some are penetrable, some are not, depending on the nature of the dreams and their dreamers and the nature of the gods.
He asked, what were the conditions, circumstances, and even reasons for the entry of gods into the world of man. He wondered to himself if humans could likewise enter the realm of the gods. Were gods such as her no more than rare individuals who’d slipped into the other world? Were such gods merely the lesser gods holding minor keys to but small snippets of the divine melody? Who then would be the master gods holding the keys with the power to unlock secrets of the full harmony? To his queries as to the nature of her arrival, she searched her memory of the night before: thunders fracturing the bridge of night, lightning bolts shattering the sky, the pounding of the sky ship, a momentary lapse and fall to ground. She wondered if she’d visited his dream on that night? She kept her recollection to herself and merely explained that so much was unknown and forbidden to goddesses like herself.
He wondered if she was ‘the’ or ‘a’ goddess of cicadas? And given the many species of cicadas, did each have its own god or goddess? He realized there was no end to the questions of this kind, and besides, he wasn’t all that interested in cicadas.
Perhaps her understanding and experience of ‘truth’ — on the assumption that she was what she claimed to be — were different from his. What if some could see, hear, and know the secrets of things without the crutch of theories and instruments? What if he could live, die, and be reborn as a cicada? He could only imagine it as a dream, so did that mean cicadas lived dream-lives, lives so real but never realized by those living them? He wondered if the reality of any organism could only be a dream to all other organisms. What was the reality known to man to a fish? Reality known to birds to a man?
His thoughts returned to the mass of reddish cicadas that had crawled from the soil the other night like so many hatchling turtles on a beach. He’d seen the first wave, to be followed by many more over the region in the weeks to come. He remembered their craggy legs, gemstone eyes,
and tender wings shone by street light. What he failed to recall was that, following the storm, the swarming cries of cicadas had filled the air, spiraling and boring into his psyche, carving patterns in his dream forest. He only vaguely recalled the weird logic of winding and unwinding, a creaking delirium, the mechanism of a strange clock.
Calmed by the dimming light and cries of cicadas, his heart could accept her claim of origin. It didn’t matter if the mirage was hers, his, or theirs together. His mood reflected her glow like a window the full moon of summer. Images from childhood, of crawling crayfish and darting dragonflies, glimmered through his mind. He felt his energy ebbing away, but his mind remained alert. He felt as if entering sleep while remaining awake, his eyes open to and from the dreamworld, his spirit freed from the body. He recalled having sensations like this as a child but had long dismissed them as tricks of faulty memory, but here they were again, challenging his notions of having outgrown the past.
She stood from the sofa and walked to the balcony. Figuring out the mechanics of the sliding door, she stepped into the night air and stared at the moon being swallowed by the two-headed cloud serpent, entering through the one head and emerging out of the other. Her gaze erased the distance between the clouds and her eyes, as if events in the sky were as much reflections of her eyes as pictures in her eyes were reflections of the sky.
She needs some night air, he thought, and a gust of wind from the door refreshed his senses as he took notice of her interest in stars. Then, as her gaze turned toward the trees, the chorus of cicadas swelled ever louder and then swirled into a vortex of hysteria, chanting a magic spell that conjured before his eyes a vision of the goddess in her original attire, lance in her hand, surrounded by cicadas glowing brilliantly as their cries reached a crescendo. Little did he know that she was signaling to her lost companions through the call of cicadas.
As the noise abated and his senses began to clear, he was restored to the woman wearing clothes from the dresser. “My friends will do fine here”, said she. The meaning of these words eluded our hero whose mind still pondered the receding vision. She returned to the sofa, and they resumed their conversation, in time exchanging glances amidst growing intervals of silence. He decided it was getting late and led the goddess to the room that was to be hers for the night.
Back in the living room, while tidying things, he wondered if goddesses slept. He caught himself for entertaining such fairytale notions. And yet, he was giving into her charm, as if a part of him was slipping the key of trust into her hand. There was no denying the specialness of her presence and possessions. Was she an expert somnambulist who’d cast a spell over his eyes, made easier by the flow of wine — though he remembered his single glass to her three? Or was she really a wanderer from another dimension, offering him a glimpse of the rarest of phenomena? Finally in his room, as the gears of night reconfigured the constellation, the riddles in his mind crawled into their holes as silence wound him in a web of sleep.
In her room the goddess did not sleep, not in this summer of cicadas. Some gods are almost always in hibernation, slumbering in darkness and having no use for dreams. Some never awaken but are active through the dreams of man and the bloom of flowers. Some have learned to braid their own dreams. Other gods, those of microcosms, always kinetically charged, have no understanding of sleep. Though least acknowledged, such gods are surmised to be the building blocks of all the gods, though it’s never been the inclination of gods to know the facts of their true nature. Our goddess induced herself in a trance, opening and closing her eyes for long spells. Dissolving the walls of the room, her senses steered across a boundless world of wheels and spindles that combined to form ever larger constructions, on and on, until in reverse process, disassembling to reveal ever tinier pairings, rotating and revolving, maintaining the mechanism of nature. Within her quiet meditation was the machinery of life as an endless array of looms, working, breaking, and mending.
Our hero awoke in the middle of night. The moon had departed, and all that remained were stars in the window and shadows on the wall. The aborted sleep left him feeling isolated as if in a strange world as its lone inhabitant. His thoughts turned to the goddess. Hearing nothing from the adjoining room, he assumed she was sound asleep. He went to the living room and turned on the TV with the volume set low. The movie was about a sailor, a lawyer, and a wife entangled in a deadly web of betrayal, so different, he thought, from the silken strands of faith woven by the goddess. He turned off the TV, and the room went dark. In the blackness, it was of no consequence whether his eyes were open or shut. Time passed with the ticking of an antique clock until he wasn’t sure if he was awake with eyes closed or asleep with eyes open. He made an effort to close and open his eyes, noting the subtle difference between seen and unseen darkness. He became sure of his conscious state, but upon closing and opening his eyes once again, the ceiling was transformed into a pool of teeming stars, so bright unlike the faint few visible from where he lived. He was in a dream looking up at the night sky of another time and place. His mind searched for that moment from long ago, and his eyes, grown blurry with starlight, closed to rest. His sealed eyes glowed into an image of dusk, and he found himself back in that special place as it awaited realignment with the time holding the secret to the stars.
He lay beneath the trees of twilight, falling into a blurred lake of sleep as the first specks of silver shimmered above. He awoke beneath the backbone of night, a fathomless expanse of webs and tendrils nursing eggs about to sprout and devour the universe. Gazing further, he let go of sinister conspiracies and threaded a vine among the stars. Silvery grapes bursting in joyful ripeness. His eyes could taste the sweetness. Shooting stars flared across the sky, trading fixed permanence for flashes of freedom. Then, barking of a dog, murmurs of the lake, a sudden gust of wind... He saw connected among the stars a face, of innocence and beauty, of life cut short. How fleeting are the shooting stars. Or are they weeping stars, shimmering from the face before him? His eyes could taste the bitterness.
His eyes were met with the glare of sunlight mirrored on the glass table. He checked his watch for the time and day. It was Sunday morning, and he remembered he’d awoken in the night, watched a little TV, and then must have fallen asleep on the recliner. The previous day was still fresh in his mind. Had it all been a dream in a prolonged sleep, fueled by the break from routine, sudden arrival of cicadas, effects of the storm, relief and exhaustion? But the mental pictures were so vivid. Did he wish it had all been a dream and feel restored of his sanity, or would he risk losing his mind for the veracity of an illusion? He looked about the living room. All seemed as usual, everything in its place. But looking up, he noticed a spear perched above the fireplace. Was she then still in the house? There were signs of life stirring in her room. He went over to the dining table and found an empty bottle and two glasses.
Soon thereafter she appeared from the hallway, not only beautiful but revitalized from the rest in her newfound sanctuary. In the blare of morning light, he began to doubt the odd occurrences of the previous night. She now looked all too real, special but of flesh and blood.
Nevertheless, each passing moment in her presence gently but irresistibly replenished the faith that had begun to sprout in his heart from the day before. She was like a song reconfirming and rejuvenating emotions one had assumed to have outgrown.
She said her friends might be arriving soon. He was taken aback but more puzzled than upset. Who might these guests be and why hadn’t she told him earlier? But there wasn’t the slightest hint of guile in her demeanor but rather an affecting naivete in tune with her claim of mythic origin. She sensed his perplexity and asked if it would be alright. He was eased by her smile and also curious as to the identities of her friends.
She explained there were two other goddesses stranded in his world, along with whom she was awaiting the repair of her ship by the gods of trees and metals. For the time being, they needed a place to stay. Would it be a problem? No, for some reason he felt as if destined to play the role of provider for lost goddesses in this all but impossible crossroad of incongruous realities.
When would they be arriving? Anytime, the goddess replied. Uncertainty fueled anxiety and expectation.
It was about an hour later, after a cool shower followed by streaks of sunlight piercing through thinning clouds, that two figures arrived under a clearing sky. As with the first goddess incarnated along the pond, the shoulders of the two goddesses were draped in cloaks. They stood outside the house, unclear as to what to do next. They circled the place like a couple of stray cats, seeking a place of entry. Sparrows excitedly flew around the house and the grass slithered with unseen creatures. Silky black hair flowed from the taller goddess, stopping just above her shoulders. Her most striking features were a pair of sly slanting eyes and a set of haughty cheekbones. Her small mouth was sealed with impish lips. She was tall and lean, stylish and striding in confidence bordering on conceit, as if she didn’t have to play by the rules in a world that was her oyster by right. Her air of superiority was suggestive of hawks or snakes than of spiny lizards of which she was a goddess. The displeasure was all the more troublesome as she was one of the few goddesses who’d changed domains. She had once represented flocks of beautiful birds, a migratory variety that flew across oceans. Her creatures were faced with extinction, their numbers dwindling, season after season, and she knew she was destined for oblivion. She apprehended the fate of being relegated to a goddess of fossils, of vanished and dead things, as had happened to innumerable gods. But there was a god who loved her, a god she didn’t love in return. Of a sad disposition, not least due to unrequited love, he offered her his domain in exchange for that of the ill-fated birds. His only request was that he be remembered by the goddess. The goddess, whom we shall call the Second Goddess, accepted his proposal and was relieved to remain linked to the living world. Yet, she didn’t care for the lizards that became her keep. Nor did she truly appreciate the noble deed of the god for she’d come into being as the goddess of birds whose feathers painted the sky with the vibrant colors. What he offered her could never please her, even though it was another chance at immortality. This the god understood and accepted in his twilight moment with the last bird on its final flight. As its wings faltered and eyes closed, the god held it in his arms as they fell into the ocean together, to vanish forever. But there was another world, the realm of vanished gods, and there he was eternally with the birds that sang of the goddess he loved.
Her helmet was impeccably crafted, with shingled layers of reptilian scales. Along the mid-section, sloping from the visor to the backside, was a lean mercurial rendition of an emerald-eyed lizard with forked tongue and elongated tail. Unlike most goddesses who donned simple attire, the Second Goddess insisted on a breast armor engraved with foot prints of various lizards. And from her belt hung a perverse talisman: a looped cord pierced through the mouths of three dried lizards. And though sandals were the staple of most goddesses, the Second Goddess opted for boots, especially scandalous for consisting of snake- than lizard-skin. Many goddesses resented her effrontery toward propriety and protocol — not least because so many gods were blind to or even allured by her impudence — , but some goddesses, especially the lesser ones, secretly admired her cool defiance.
The Third Goddess was compact in frame, smaller in stature than her companions yet full-bodied and no less beautiful. Rare for a goddess, she had an hourglass figure, and her ample physique, all too human, caught the attention of the other gods and goddesses as cause for both amusement and admiration. As the goddess of sparrows, she shared their nervous joviality.
Our hero only heard the voice of the first goddess as she spoke with her friends. He extended his hand out to them, and the two goddesses, puzzled by the gesture, looked at him and then one another. But the second goddess got the drift and extended her hand as well to be ‘shaken’. She then said something but conveyed nothing to our hero. The first goddess glanced knowingly at her, who then understood and casually tapped his forehead. Her beauty then came into sharper focus, and her voice could now be heard, a voice that, in manner and tone, couldn’t be more different from that of the first goddess. The diminutive third goddess, naturally shy, was nervy about the rites of initiation. Our hero, sensing the predicament, slightly bowed toward her in casual grace to ease the situation. After flitting her glance back and forth between the first goddess and our hero, she lightly tapped his forehead and spoke her greetings. Her cheerful voice filled his ears.
A busy moment followed upon the arrival of the new goddesses. Along the wall holding the spear of the first goddess were laid the saber of the second goddess and the shield of the third goddess. Our hero looked with fascination at the masterfully crafted weapons the purpose of which seemed mystical than functional. The dark scabbard had the texture of snake skin, that of a mamba, a creature that wasn’t a lizard, and therefore was yet another cause celebre in the god world, a matter that delighted than distressed the second goddess.
She decided to satisfy the curiosity of our hero. She grabbed the scabbard and steadily pulled out the blade halfway and held it before him. Upon close inspection, the blade, rather than being smoothly even, was marked with tiny jagged ridges of endless intricacy and frightful sharpness. And then, when the goddess drew out the entire saber to display its full magnificence, the air around him whirred with an eerie sound. As with the spear of the first goddess, the engravings — of lizards and their domain — on the blade seem to come alive when one’s gaze was fixed on them. Impressive as her saber was, the second goddess longed for the bow of her previous incarnation. How her arrows, fletched with the yellow and pink feathers of her beloved birds, had once soared through the sky.
Our hero had long held a fascination for such things: The armor and broadswords of the Medieval knights, the blades of the samurai, the sabers of the Polish dragoons found in museums and exhibitions or shown in magazines and books. Yet, never had he seen anything so unusual as the articles belonging to the goddesses. Though he’d have liked to study the second goddess’s saber more closely, his intuition told him he mustn’t see or know more than the goddess was willing to impart according to whatever enigmatic rules governed the world of such things.
The shield of the third goddess had a shell-like quality and lightness of feathers. Its surface was soft and smooth, but it had the resilience to withstand strong winds and rain. In her arms, it could almost be mistaken for an umbrella. It even had the appearance of an article of clothing, at times even a toy. Though possessing neither the regal authority of the first goddess’s lance nor the striking majesty of the second goddess’s saber, it was exceptional in its own way, promising safety and security under its cover.
Our hero repeated the procedures of the earlier day for the second and third goddesses, made all the easier for the first goddess taught the new arrivals the ‘house rules’. The second and third goddesses also slipped into human clothes, and the three of them could be mistaken for casual friends, though something of the first goddess’s poise and grace distinguished her from her companions. If the three goddesses had something in common, it was their partaking of the mortal world with equal degrees of curiosity, confusion, and condescension.
In the evening our hero and the three goddesses sat around in the living room. Neither doubting nor affirming their divinity, he settled into a state of calm elation without questions of truth. They were beautiful and different, and that’s all he needed to know for the time being. He was like a bee hovering about the lovely fragrance of three flowers but also like a flower offering sweet sustenance to three butterflies battered by the wind. They made no demands on him, and an easy rapport developed among them. And best of all, they accepted him for what he was.
The first goddess, always composed and serene, would ask our hero a question and then ponder the meaning of his answer before asking another. She inquired about people, objects and things, ideas and abstractions of his world. He answered her to the best of his knowledge, but when asked about her world, she seemed unwilling or incapable of divulging anything fully, leaving her partial answers shrouded in ambiguity. Yet, there wasn’t the slightest hint of insincerity or deceit in her replies but rather the sense that the words of man could never adequately impart the dynamics of her world, just like black and white, even with all the gradations of shades of grey, could never convey the truth of colors. Even her manner of expression lacked fullness, as if her mind was elsewhere even when she directly engaged with our hero or other goddesses. Her smiles were mere ripples, never waves crashing into laughter, and her gaze rarely met his, not because she was shy but because it was drawn to something only her eyes could see. He did, however, sense a murmur of anxiety, even whispers of amnesia, as though her deepest knowledge was hidden from herself.
The second goddess never lacked for style and eased into the new surrounding as though it belonged to her and it was the duty of others to see to her needs. If poise and balance were integral to the first goddess, a sly capriciousness animated the second goddess. Despite their differences, the two goddesses got along well as their varying manners of temperament and character complemented one another like the curved bow and a straight arrow. Their inner contrasts were manifested outwardly in form. The first goddess almost always stood or sat upright. The second goddess maintained a relaxed posture, reclining backwards or sideways when seated or leaning one way or the other when on her feet. Her head was often tilted, conveying nonchalance with everything around her, but her catlike grace and cool elegance dispelled any hint of slackness.
As through slits of blinders, the second goddess keenly observed the interaction between our hero and the first goddess. It was as if her eyes could needle out the truth from the false fabric of words. Her sidelong glances and slippery smiles hinted not so much aloofness as privileged access, as if she alone held the key to the room through the cracks of which the secrets of others could be spied on. However disenchanted she may have been with the spiny lizards, this quality of hers was amplified by the natural instincts of those creatures.
If ever a goddess could ever be a cynic, she was it, and had she not been a goddess herself, she would never have given the notion of divinity the time of day. Like a cynic who reduces all of human behavior to a set of primal instincts, she smirked at the aristocratic pretensions of the gods and goddesses, believing their true objectives to be power and pleasure. But being a goddess herself, she felt no reason to deny herself these powers and pleasures, the key difference being she was honest about what she wanted and didn’t justify them on higher grounds. Just the same, a part of her valued the delusional way of the gods for without their grandiose pageantry her world would be without the majesty and flowery veils necessary to satisfy her vanity.
And just as cynics who disbelieve in God or gods find themselves prone to strange superstitions — as protective charms against the absurd forces of randomness — , the second goddess was most anxious in her attention to clues and portents that might help or hurt her fortunes. She was like an investor who, while rejecting the modern god of economics, relied on astrological signs instead. While scoffing at the precious conceits of the gods and their dreams of the pantheon — the one destroyed or the one to be restored — , she was vexed by the dangers of misinterpreting signals around her. Yet, these anxieties also fed her vanity and kept her occupied; they were anxieties of play than of dread, like cosmetics to a narcissist or odds to an obsessive gambler. She was one of the few nature gods to maintain relations with the abstract gods, among whom was the god of disbelief, a pariah god whose divinity wasn’t recognized by other gods, indeed not even by himself. But a god who denied his own godliness was exactly the sort of god she found perversely interesting, which couldn’t be said of the nature gods, including her two companions. Unsurprisingly, her acquaintance with the god of disbelief was an open secret for she’d grown weary of the arduous task of stealth; besides, the god of disbelief didn’t care one way or another who knew or didn’t know what he didn’t believe in the first place. As far as the atheist god was concerned, all the gods and goddesses — himself included of course — were just figments of imagination in the minds of man. At any rate, the second goddess relished the element of scandal attached to her name.
Her other secret friend among the abstract gods was the god of conspiracy who maintained that man’s eventual disbelief in gods had been prescribed and ordained by a divine conspiracy, i.e. the mind of man had been rigged to eventually disbelieve in the gods. But it wasn’t a conspiracy involving all the gods but a cabal of gods whose identities were unknown to most gods and maybe even to the gods so involved: a dark conspiracy spun in the collective subconscious realm of the gods. The god of conspiracy was shunned as crazy or damaged by most gods, but he regarded his exile as just another pre-ordained outcome of the conspiracy. Yet, his belief in the conspiracy didn’t necessarily connote condemnation as gods had conspired with and against man since the beginning of time. Was there a hidden god among the gods, a god yet to be discovered and worshiped by the gods themselves? Was such a god, the god of the gods, the culprit or savior who’d planted conspiratorial seeds in the dreams of a handful of gods chosen as his agents? The second goddess didn’t care one way or the other if the theory of the god of conspiracy was true or untrue; what she valued was its implication of universal deception for lending credence to her own rebellious streak that flirted with irreverence, the cardinal sin among the gods. But she could never be fully irreverent for she expected to be revered by others, gods and humans like.
The third goddess, a bundle of cheerful kindness, had calmed considerably since the nervous entry upon her arrival and sat quietly among them, mindful of her manners and eager to show her best not only to the gentle host but to the first goddess whom she admired and whose approval she always sought.
It then dawned on our hero that the hypnotic beauty and the invocations of divinity by the first goddess must have cast such a spell on him that he hadn’t thought to ask for her name. Now, in the presence of the three goddesses, it seemed the most sensible thing to do. The first goddess fixed her stare and then explained that the names of gods and goddesses defied the phonetic system of mortals, that such sounds could only be approximated for human ears. The names could be as long as distances between stars or as small as spaces between grains of sand. Perplexed, our hero imagined the futility of performing a symphony with a single instrument. And even the languages of man neither transliterated nor translated well into other tongues.
The goddess said she would give the closest approximations of their names for human ears. She held him in a light trance wherein he saw and felt as well as heard the names. Strange and surreal they were, and regaining his senses, he was lost as to how human lips could do them justice. He remembered a J sound in the name of the first goddess and thought ‘Jenny’ would suit her. The name of the second goddess had a ‘sh’ sound, and ‘Shona’ came to mind. The third goddess had ‘q’ or ‘k’ in her name, and ‘Chloe’ echoed in his ears. He asked if he may henceforth refer to them by these names, and they agreed. He felt closer to them as they became Jenny, Shona, and Chloe to his eyes and ears.
But he wondered if he was now twice removed from the true essence of their being. Their manifestation in human form was already a compromise of their divine essence. Their communication through human voices was a further distortion, at once purifying and polluting the arias of another world. And now they were given human names. But then, would he have preferred a pathway to a deeper truth than the vision of Jenny, Shona, and Chloe sitting before him in the living room? He thought not.
As the hours passed the goddesses became more precious to him but without the covetousness of passion. Like the rain, wind, and clouds, they belonged neither to him nor to anyone else. He imagined strolling with them through parks and forests; and visiting galleries and museums where the goddesses’ fascination with arts and artifacts might be not unlike the responses of time travelers if time travel were real. He imagined them accompanying him to the library, walking through shelves upon shelves stored with human knowledge pressed into books that might impress or weary their divine sensibilities. He imagined Jenny wandering through the library, pondering the readers, the young and the old, the lively and the absorbed, poring through the pages as their lives drifted by. And if she were to hold a book and turn the pages, how would she relate its truths with the truths of her world? If she could learn more about his world, would she, if she could, relinquish her place in the god world to live in his? Would she then come to him or seek her own place and her own truth? In his idle fantasy, our hero saw himself explaining the value of knowledge, literature, science, and history to the goddesses. As a representative of the achievements of mankind, he felt special as their chosen guide and interpreter. He thought Jenny would empathize with human endeavor, understanding that knowledge didn’t come easily to mortals, who didn’t fit into the cosmic tapestry as naturally as the gods and animals did. Unlike bees, snakes, and owls, humans were born free of patterns, thereby having to weave their own quilt of truth to be passed down through the ages.
The following day, our hero and the goddesses visited a nearby park. It was unseasonably hot, and our hero rested on a shaded bench under a willow tree. The park, with its small lake and nicely tended garden, was all very familiar to him, but its blend of natural and artificial elements caught the fancy of the goddesses who also appeared unperturbed by the temperature. Though he often enjoyed the park, it held no more surprises for him. Nevertheless, being there with the goddesses and noticing their enthusiasm made him experience the place with new eyes.
From the dappled bench, he watched the goddesses walk away, growing ever smaller, and wondered if they were leaving him now, but then he remembered their prized possessions still at his place. And would they leave him without a farewell? He realized they were headed towards the lake, at the edge of which they stood and stared out over the waves. Though the goddesses were now figures in the distance, he thought he could make out Jenny slightly thrusting herself forward as if to call out to the waters. Though our hero couldn’t discern exactly what then transpired from where he sat, a colossal stone head of a goddess arose from the lake and loomed before the three goddesses. The goddesses appeared to communicate clairvoyantly with the immense object through thoughts, glances, and subtle gestures. Its stony eyes appeared blank, seeing everything and nothing, yet at times filled with radiant discs focused intently on the wayward goddesses. Then the head descended back into the water, with only the tip of its crown protruding above the lake. It remained, and to those who hadn’t seen the stone head, it could be mistaken for anything: a turtle, floating wood, dead fish. Could he have been the only person who saw the stone idol upon the lake? He looked around and noticed everyone going about his or her business undisturbed. Was he then also the only person who saw the goddesses, even as they were clothed in human dress? What would be the significance of others seeing or not seeing the goddesses? When our hero’s gaze returned to the lake, the last trace of his secret knowledge was gone, and all that remained were the shimmering scales of sunlight upon the waves.
In a forested area, he walked with the three goddesses, their beauty and charm drifting about him like flakes of dandelion seeds. At one particular site — with a replica of a castle ruin covered with moss and ivy — found to be especially enchanting to Jenny, the goddesses, immersed in colors and blooms of various flowers, could almost be mistaken for sea creatures of the corals. And then a ravishing moment as the fierce rays of the sun descended through breaks in the greenery as luminous pillars, trees of light with roots embedded in the heavens. Leaves above, kindled by the sun and cooled by the breeze, shivered like ripples upon a lake, and for a moment the forest was an underwater world of lost treasures.
In the afternoon, our hero asked of the goddesses, aren’t the things of nature constantly at war? Shouldn’t Jenny, Shona, and Chloe then be enemies? Jenny explained that she was the goddess of cicadas, not a cicada. A lizard, a sparrow, and a cicada may not see eye to eye, but they were all part of the larger fabric woven by goddesses like Shona, Chloe, and herself. Sometimes, their fingers may become entwined and their threads enmeshed, but the panoply of nature could not be sewn by the hands of a single goddess. Was she the only goddess of cicadas? Possibly. Were there other goddesses of cicadas? Possibly. Was there a goddess for every cicada? Possibly. Like all gods and goddesses, of certain things she knew everything, of other things nothing.
And Chloe was not a sparrow. She was a goddess of sparrows. Were there other goddesses for different kinds of sparrows? Possibly.
He began to sense that a nature goddess doesn’t rule over or represent the creatures of her domain in the manner of a queen in relation to her human subjects. A nature goddess represents no interest in the political sense. She is as guided by the creatures she guides in turn. Even if cicadas were to exist without her, she could not exist without them, at least not as a living goddess. As long as cicadas are born, take flight, sing songs, find love, and then die; as long as other living creatures appreciate them as food, rivals, music, or jewels of nature, then she is content being their goddess. Our hero mentioned myriad gods recorded in the mythologies of various cultures — Egyptian, Greek, Indian. Jenny said she could only tell him what she knew, and those gods and goddesses were unknown to her. Her knowledge was limited; she was not the goddess of all things.
Their conversations grew easier and more varied by the hour. And when he introduced them to his favorite music, they listened with fascination and pleasure. As evening approached he opened a bottle of wine. Its dark beautiful scent filled the air. Our hero fell into a twilight mood as they shared the wine. Time dissolved as if this happy moment would never cease to be.
They were all around him but also in him, in his eyes, as his eyes, in his mind, as his mind. He looked at his hands, and the palm prints had the patterns of cicada wings. His nails appeared as cicada heads. Though bewildered, he felt fascination than panic. It was as though his whole being was made of cicadas. He sensed cicadas in his heart, some so deeply buried that they would never see the light of day. A part of him wanted to draw them out, but the part that resisted prevailed. So, they would remain in the dark, alive but without light, like creatures of the cave. But then, he felt a touch inside him, and his heart recoiled in panic, like a fearful dog from a stranger’s hand. The cicadas dug in deeper. But the hand remained, neither insistent nor yielding, patiently waiting for his heart to calm. He felt the touch again, gentle as before, and his panic subsided. His heart slowly accepted the touch like an anemone a bee or butterfly. Then he felt a piercing stab, and his heart recoiled again, but the hand had already penetrated the heart. The fingers searched for the buried cicadas, discovering not one but several, alarmed and shrill in their cries. One was grasped and drawn out, and the walls of the heart closed again, restoring darkness to the remaining cicadas growing quiet again and returning to hibernation. The hand revealed the crying cicada, small and sickly like a deformed child, before his eyes. Too young for death, too damaged for life, it was trapped in a limbo of mummified infancy. It was stained and saturated with darkness. Should it be returned to the heart? Should the others also be drawn out? What if, even in their decrepitude, his heart had a need for them and they the dark walls of his heart? The cicada grew tired upon the mysterious hand. Its wings fluttered but had no capacity for flight. His eyes pondered what should be done with this wretched creature. The hand closed over the cicada and then slowly reopened to reveal before his eyes a petrified replica, a jewel for a goddess. It was simpler than the adornments of the first goddess, almost clear in substance, light shining through its frozen body.
Our hero heard the clinking of wine glasses, and nothing seemed unusual in the room except, of course, the presence of the goddesses. He assumed he’d drifted off for an hour, but looking at the clock, hardly a minute had passed. Out on the balcony stood Jenny, Shona, and Chloe like ordinary friends sharing wine and conversation. Were they aware of what he’d seen and experienced? Had they cast a spell to induce him into a trance, all the while conspiring not to betray their hold over him? Or was it an unusual daydream wrought by the cacophony of summer, regeneration of wearied senses, renewed flowing of wine? Looking at his glass, he noticed it was the one Jenny had used earlier. Could he have imbibed a trace of her essence impressed upon the rim by her lips? As the cicadas’ raspy incantations grew to fever pitch, he noticed the space around him being altered by the staccato sounds. Jenny, Shona, and Chloe, still out on the balcony, transfigured before his eyes from three women casually outfitted for a summer day to a vision of goddesses in divine dress standing along what appeared like a branch of the World Tree of ancient legend.
Time passed, and the clear night sky was illuminated by a full moon. Hours after dinner, our hero decided to call it a night. As he was cleaning up, Shona and Chloe went to the room while Jenny remained by the balcony staring at the moon. He joined her and remarked how beautiful it was. Jenny agreed, but there was a wistful quality to her voice, as though the moon held from her a secret she’d long forgotten, a lost memory that was nevertheless yearned by a ghost hiding inside her. She brushed her hand across her face and then held his hand. She thanked him and then walked away to her room. He turned off the lamp and stood in darkness but for the light of the moon. The moon appeared to him as a bleached shell, a purified remnant of something that had once been alive, whose bright flesh had sustained Jenny in another time and place, in another kind of existence.
Later in his room he fell into deep sleep. The constellation of that very night was replicated across the ceiling of his dream. An obsidian sky embedded with diamonds and an ivory disc.
His sight and sound traveled freely, unmoored from the body lying asleep and awaiting the return of its senses to regain an animate life. Below him was the world and behind him the moon, whispering an ancient language at first unintelligible but slowly deciphered through the winding, cryptographic pathways of his dream-coiled cochleas.
Did he know, the voice asked, of a time when the world below stared at the moon through the night, seeking solace, dreaming of beauty, longing for love? There were in these lunar whispers intimations of pity and sympathy but also of coolness and contempt; and however faint, even a hint of gratitude, for without prayers from below, what was the moon but a solitary sojourner evicted by the sun and shunned by the stars. No, he did not know of a time when the moon was the core of night for the dwellers below. The world below was a glaring city of lights, brighter than the stars. What need for the moon or the stars when the world below had created and controlled its own lights?
After a momentary lapse, the whisper returned in a different tone. Cities were suddenly without light, and darkness covered the vast expanse below. He felt a surge of eons rushing through him and found himself hovering over another world, a time and place deep in the past when the night belonged to the stars and the moon. And within this ominous domain, the light and the whispers of the moon directed him towards a dark dense forest, whereupon he found himself close to the ground, gazing at the moon through columns of trees. Slowly, he began to discern three things. Flushes of fading embers, a woman’s face faintly aglow, and creatures crawling on the ground. As his vision grew accustomed to the dark, he made out the simple but beautiful dress of the woman. A glimmer of tears shone on her face as she turned towards the moon. She stared deeply, as if for the last time, beseeching to be taken away from this world. But the world remained, and from its innards crawled out more of these creatures. Most remained unseen, but the scraggy sounds of their movements were everywhere. They spread about the ground, feeling for trees to climb, and their slow ascent could be sensed all around. Some began to cry, their cries were answered by others cries, until the forest was filled with their shrillness. Were they mocking her on this desolate night?
Around the smoldering embers, some of these creatures lay dead, scorched by the earlier flames. For what glory had they reached for the fire? In the gaze of moonlight lay one, still alive but fatally injured. She held it in her hand as it writhed in agony, like a fallen warrior, life draining away, never to return to his beloved. No, the cicadas were not mocking her. They were singing the song of love, calling out to one another. And in a manner, calling out to her too.
Then his gaze drew away from this forest, and he was with the moon again who told him more secrets the significance of which he could sense but not decipher.
Then, through the tunnel of time, he found himself back in his room on the morning of a new day. The dream remained vivid when he awoke. He remembered the moon and the cities, the journey through time; but most of all, the woman of that ancient forest. She’d been barely visible in the glow of embers and moonlight, but he couldn’t help thinking that the forlorn figure, alone with the cicadas, waiting for her beloved who would never return, was Jenny.
Later that day, a man appeared at the door. He was tall and massive in frame. Shona went and opened the door, and communed with the magnificent god. He walked away from the door and waited in the yard while Shona ran up the stairs to tell Jenny and Chloe that the sky ship was restored and ready.
Our hero inquired as to the sky ship, and Jenny told him it is a vessel that would take them through the clouds, through time, through dimensions where the gods belong. So, it was time for them to depart. She would only ask to take a bottle of wine and four glasses. Shona said she would like to keep the sunglasses. And Chloe would like one of his homemade breads.
The three figures returned the clothes of mortals to the wooden chest and donned their divine dresses. Chloe carried the shield, Shona wore the helmet and strapped the sword across her back, and Jenny’s hand held once again the great lance. They were no longer three lovely ladies but three majestic goddesses. And no longer stranded and lost, in need of help, but the masters of nature ready to return to realms awaiting them.
Jenny then walked over to the dining table where she had first tasted his wine. She took off one of her rings and placed it on the table. She also took a piece from her helmet, a newly attained adornment, a clear cicada gemstone, and placed it next to the ring.
He asked Jenny if they might meet again. She said she’ll always be there in the cicadas of summer. Just as Chloe will always be there in the sparrows. But, will she ever return to him in present form. It was not for her to say, but it would be most unlikely. Rarely does a goddess become stranded in the world of mortals. That’s how it would be, beyond his and her powers.
Then she told him that he would fall asleep one day, not far from now, and awake without remembering her visit. He asked if he would be allowed to remember at least the first day — if not the full day, then the first hour or the first minute when she appeared.
Jenny told him that too was beyond her powers. There was no guarantee she would be allowed to remember him either. She was also at the mercy of forces beyond her. It is possible that she will remember him forever if fate allows it, and she would hope for such a fate. And yes, she will try to remember him for as long as possible.
The divine figures, the great god and the goddesses, reunited and walked away from the house. Before they disappeared into the woods, Jenny turned back for one last gaze at our hero.
In the distance, he saw a vessel of wood, metals, and sails lift into the air and head toward the mountainous clouds, an avalanche of frozen whiteness pushed by herculean winds. After awhile, the ship was but a speck in the sky and could be mistaken for anything.
Now alone, he thought of all that had happened since the day he left work. If, as Jenny said, he would forget everything, like the fading of a dream upon waking, perhaps he should write it all down. But the sounds and images of the visitation became weaker the harder he tried to remember yet grew clearer and nearer the more he let go. There were the cries of cicadas, sometimes soothing, sometimes remindful of how he missed Jenny. If cicada cries are love songs, why do they sound so sad?
Every night, he felt trepidation about the approaching sleep for it could be the one to erase Jenny from his memory. And Shona and Chloe. He would forget the summer idyll they shared together, when time stood still within a secret womb shielded from the troubles of the world.
One night, a series of images appeared in the middle of his sleep. Before him was Chloe, like a mosaic image embedded with gold and silver, her eyes winging open and shut according to some strange mechanism. And flying all around were sparrows, multiplying each time his eyes blinked, and then she was gone. Then there appeared a stark figure of Shona, as if in a black-and-white film. She sat at a wooden table and examined oddly beautiful objects with an intense curiosity uncharacteristic of her. Lizards approaching the objects were brushed away by her hand. Then the film faded. And then he saw Jenny. She was standing in a green field with her creatures clinging to her helmet and her cape, with a cicada on her finger which she held up to her gaze. Then, she lay among the reeds and appeared to fall asleep, and cicadas covered her body and sang their lullaby, waiting for the night to fall and soothe their weariness with the cool balm of moonlight. And next to her was a small fire, aglow with that thing called hope, keeping her warm through the night until it smoldered into embers and ashes.
In the morning, he awoke afresh and looked forward to his year of freedom. After finishing his breakfast, he pondered the odd pieces of jewelry on the table.
Where are our goddesses? Imagine yourself far above, in the realm of clouds. Cast your gaze down upon the floating vessel sailing through wind streams of the sky. Sweep your eyes across the deck and you will see “Jenny”, “Shona” and “Chloe”. Shona with her pair of shades. And in the back of vessel the great god prepares the wine in the glasses. And as Jenny sips the wine, she remembers the young man who re-introduced her to the taste of something beautifully bitter and sweet. From the wine she understands something about humans and life itself, that there is no joy without sadness, no triumph without tragedy. The drudgery and dreams, the wisdom and folly, and all the other polarities and dualities were there in the wine.
Over the summer, he enjoyed his newfound freedom. He met with friends, attended theater and art galleries, hiked through woods, swam in lakes, watched girls on the beach, and made time for summer reading.
When he heard cicadas, he felt a strange stirring inside. And he felt oddly offended when a friend said he couldn’t stand their noise. As summer faded, the cries of cicadas dwindled in frequency, until he heard the cry from only one tree. Everyday, he walked by that tree to hear the last cicada. How foolish, a late arrival whose mating call was heard by no other.
One day, that tree fell silent also. On the grass was a fallen cicada. Dead as a doorknob. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, he decided to take it home.
He was reminded of the strange jewels he found on the dining table few months back. He recalled the gemstone was in the shape of a cicada and inspected it again. Light penetrated the gemstone and met his eye. He saw the face of a young girl, as it had been seventeen yrs ago. The pain remained, but he finally felt a measure of peace as he remembered his sister, who one day disappeared from this world, never to return.
Our hero eventually re-enters the work force. He finds new friends, satisfaction in work, enjoys the Friday nights, and saves something for the future. He meets girls and even thinks he should settle down with one.
Once he had a dream in which he caught but then lost a miniature mermaid in a net. Upon waking, tangled within his Indian dream catcher was a cicada. He took it in his hand and wondered how it had gotten there or why it was even alive when the cicada season had passed? He opened the window, but it wouldn’t fly away. Instead, it disappeared into some corner of the room. And when he approached sleep on lonely nights, when he doubted everything, even his life and his dreams, he heard the cicada cry and was lulled to sleep, leaving his worldly memories behind as he gained a glimpse of the green fields where awaited the one his forgotten soul yearned for.