Nillina never dreamed, aside from the one that was also a vision in the air, and that came only once at the start of a sojourn. Her sleep was always clean, pure, undisturbed even by pleasant images. But when the stranger from that other time arrived in the small cottage, she dreamed every night. And it was always the same dream. Nillina knew the dream had meaning, and she knew it held the key to all the questions she had asked and had not had answered, including the one of how to help the tall, gaunt, gangly youth who had arrived in the vehicle he called a car.
As she prepared for bed on his ninth night in the front room, she sighed. It was a deep and lusty sigh, full of frustration barely suppressed, annoyance barely restrained, impatience barely subsumed. This was proving to be by far her most challenging sojourn indeed. Nothing in all her past experiences could she draw on to guide her. The path was murky, and growing more so daily. And she felt an impending heaviness, an approaching darkness, like a weight on her mind, and in her heart. And that feeling had grown each time she dreamed.
Sliding beneath the bright red blanket that the Seer had given her, she settled her back against the bed and stared silently up at the ceiling. The full moon rode high in the midnight sky, and the forest's night time dwellers came out to forage and to play. She could hear their pips and squeaks and grunts. An owl flew by, its silhouette a ghostly thing across the fat face of the moon. She was restless, and found she had to change her position twice before she found a comfortable spot on her right side. Tucking her hands under her right cheek, she closed her eyes, and wished again for a dreamless sleep. The sound of soft snoring coming from the front room at once sharpened her nerves and soothed them. She relaxed her shoulders, and let herself slide into sleep.
From one moment to the next, she had moved from her bed to the deepest part of the woods. it was dusk, that oddly frightening time of day that poets like to call the "gloaming", when the night creatures are stirring, and the day creatures are slowing, when the sky has a darker kind of light, and the day surrenders itself to the night, like a submissive to her Dominant master. The darkness crept slowly over the arch of sky, lengthening the deep darkness close to the ground, setting the higher limbs of the trees in dark relief.
She was sitting cross-legged on the path that led from the woods to a paved road. No one else was around, yet she was not alone. She felt the eyes watching her, assessing her situation. She could almost hear the breathing. She closed her eyes, and breathed in deeply, She knew when it came. she could feel it breathe on her, a hot breath, making her shiver. She kept her seat, still, eyes closed, and waited. And then it spoke.
"I am the last," it said in that gravelly voice. "There will be no other. Learn from me or die!"
She opened her eyes then and the Wolf stared into them, a snarl curling its lips over its sharp incisors. And yet, it did not threaten her, not did she feel fear. It turned and walked away, and she followed it into the gloaming. It led her through the woods to the road, and she watched as the vehicle went past, saw it enter the woods and disappear. The next thing she saw was the young man's face, blanched, flat, almost as though he were asleep. But she knew he was not asleep.
Only this time, she knew how he died, and why. The Wolf appeared beside him, its eyes glowing red, the snarl as fierce as ever, and then it spoke.
"I am Lupus. I am the spirit of the Lost One. I hold the memory of a generation. This vessel was too weak to hold them with me. It falls to you, now, daughter of air. Can you succeed where he has failed?"
Nillina awoke with a start. This was new. It had not named itself before, nor told her what it wanted. The cottage was quiet, and the soft snoring from the front room had stopped. She sat up, her heart racing, her eyes flooded with sudden tears. How could she tell him? How could she tell the Seer? How could she tell anyone? She could no longer lie in bed. She needed to walk, to think, to process what she was learning...to prepare herself. Pulling on her heavy cloak, she let herself out of the cottage, and headed for the little pier where she had first landed.
The night was dark, and only the bright moon gave her company as she walked, head down, lost in thought. A sound ahead made her raise her eyes...and it was there, the Wolf of her dreams.
"Are you ready?" It spoke in her mind, only a snarl upon its lips.
"Yes, I am ready!"
It turned and walked away, and Nillina followed it...
Sunday, 7 March 2010
It had been three weeks. She knew her way around the seemingly endless woods as well as any of the dwellers there, courtesy of her hostess, the one the rest called the Seer, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. She still did not understand why the Seer lived in such a small dwelling, when it was clear that she had endless wealth available to her. And of all the things that the Seer could possibly want, the one thing she had asked for was the name of her visitor.
"I would call you Sojourner," she said, a small smile upon her face, "but that name has long been claimed. You have asked what I require of you. My answer is simple. I require nothing but your name."
Her Guide had told her this day would come, when she would need to open her heart to the one who needed her, and she knew the request was not for the name by which all the others she had helped had come to know her. To them, she had been Sasha. But now she was being asked her real name, the one that told of who and what she was, of her essence and of her soul.
"I am Nillina," she told her hostess, and was not surprised when she immediately understood.
"Ah," the Seer said, "of the air, no?"
"Yes," Nillina replied. "It is my heritage, my destiny." She waited only a heartbeat before asking, in her turn, "And what is your name, if I may ask?"
The Seer smiled again. "You may ask, of course, but I may not answer until you are ready to hear."
Nillina, who was well-versed in the art of the poker face, kept her frown of disappointment well hidden. She should have known by now that answers to the really important questions never came just for the asking. She smoothed the lines of her face to show a placid acceptance of an answer she now found herself desperate to know, and went back to the stew she had been making for dinner.
"He will come soon," the Seer said, in what appeared to be a random shift of focus.
Nillina had grown used to these shifts in conversation over the last three weeks - indeed, she had learned the most at those moments - and so she simply waited, tasting the delicate flavors of the gravy she had tipped into her palm with the wooden spoon. A little more garlic, some paprika, and one of those hot peppers, put in whole for two minutes, and all should be ready.
"I know you have never been to the place from which he comes to us, Nillina," she continued, "but I want you to meet him with courage. He is a hard man, weathered and beaten by his own travels through time. He is still learning the art of patience, and you will be his best teacher."
She was pacing the floor before the window in the small sitting area at the front of the little cottage, much as she had been doing the evening Nillina had first arrived, but now she stopped, and faced her.
"I will show you the way he will take. You will see more clearly what you will be up against when he arrives."
Nillina removed the hot pepper from the pot, and put the spoon back on its little rest on the stove top, before approaching the other woman, stopping before her and waiting quietly.
"Look into my eyes, and tell me what you see."
The vista that appeared before Nillina's delighted gaze showed a broad river, bounded by mountains, fed by a thundering waterfall. And there was a road, marked in an odd way that she had never seen before and what could only be a vehicle of some kind with beaming eyes, crimson-hued, moving on the shadowed side. the air was bright and quiet above the scene, but the shadow on the vehicle seemed to speak of darker things, of danger, foreboding pain and loss.
Nillina wondered who would suffer pain because of this stranger she was to teach patience as she recited what she saw to her teacher. She fervently prayed that she would be spared this time around, though even as she did, she knew no lessons she had learned would have been long-lasting without the pain she had borne.
"And what of the darkness?" her teacher asked quietly.
"It does not bode well for one of us," Nillina replied without subterfuge. She had long since suspected that the Seer was clairvoyant, and able to read one's thoughts as well.
"He chose well, your Guide!" the Seer said with a pleased smile. "I am confident you will win this new challenge, and pass this final test."
Nillina blinked, breaking the connection, and echoed the Seer's last words.
"This final test?" She could not stop the confusion from spilling over with the question in the words.
"All your journeys have been a test, Nillina," the Seer said, "and so far you have done well. Here is your chance to bring an end to them, and to find what you seek in your secret heart."
Nillina walked slowly back into the kitchen and sat on the hard chair at the table. She felt the weight of her years, of her travels, of her knowledge, pressing down on her, warming as it weighted her, calming as it energized her.
This was her final sojourn. She would pass the test...
It had been hours since she had seen a house, or even a sign of life. No one walked with her, no rider came by, no carriage. All was still around her, and the sun was high in the sky. She kept on her course, knowing the end of the journey was near. When she rounded the wide curve in the road and saw the lake, her heart thudded wildly in her chest. This was it.
She looked around her at the seemingly empty scene. The trees on her side were bare, as though it had been winter there for too long, and they had not been able to wake again from their long sleep. Across from her, though, the trees grew lush and green, and right to the water's edge. The dwelling she would make her sojourn in was there, within the cooling confines of those trees.
How to get there was now her greatest concern. Her work lay ahead, and many would be the challenges. This was but the first and, she suspected, the easiest of them. This was the gateway to her sojourn. She looked around her again, wishing she had the power of the Man-who-walked-on-water, or, at the very least, a bathing costume so she could swim across. She smiled at her thoughts, and rested the backpack against a dry tree. Maybe she could wash her hands and face while she figured out a way to get across.
A little breeze sprang up, kicking up her skirts as she walked toward the water's edge. It brought immense relief from the heat, and for reasons she could not have explained, she sat on the fallen trunk instead of kneeling, as she had planned, to wash her face and hands. A pair of beady black eyes appeared, watching her from the still water, and she shivered as she realized what the breeze had spared her.
The eyes kept watching her, and she sat perfectly still, waiting. There was nothing else for her to do. When it was time, she would receive the sign to do whatever it was she must do to get to where she belonged for now. The breeze kept up its cooling swirls, and when she looked again, the beady eyes were disappearing in a huff of bubbles. Another smile creased her cheeks. She felt lighthearted, although the day was growing older, and there was still no sign of help.
Perhaps she should eat the last of her meal, and try to rest her eyes. In the past, her eyes had been the first to weaken. Now seemed as good a time as any to give them some respite against the work ahead. Settling her back as best she could against the trunk of the other tree that made an L with the one she sat on, she closed her eyes, and let her thoughts flow free.
A whisper of sound did not disturb her rest. She felt safe, although she wondered who was moving around her. Perhaps, if she opened her eyes...
"Do not open your eyes, milady!" The whispered instruction teased its way into her ear. "We will take care of you!"
We? The whisper was numberless and genderless, and she could perceive no threat to her person or belongings. She kept her eyes closed, and though she felt as though she were being moved, she was not being allowed to see how or by whom. In her mind's eye, she saw again the lake, the trees, the brilliant light of midday. But she knew it was no longer bright outside the shutters of her eyelids. She felt the darkness, and the chirping of crickets, the whistling of a tree frog, and the singing of the stars, told her it was dark.
"We have arrived, milady!" the whisper said, as though she and it had been carrying on a conversation for hours. "Please open your eyes, and watch your step!"
She was not at all surprised to see that she was standing on a wooden landing, covered over by trees, and that on the other side, the dried-up trees stood lonely in the starlight. She had crossed over. A sound made her turn her head, and there it was, the little house she had known would be there. It stood back from the path, and a small light shone from its front window. And someone was moving away from it as she watched. Someone who needed her. Hoisting her backpack, she walked towards it, feeling the kick of anticipation in her heart. Her sojourn was beginning...
As usual, her rest was interrupted by the dream/vision. It was always the same, clear, and yet obscure in meaning. What it presaged she did not know, but she accepted its presence in her subconscious, the same way she accepted that her heart pumped blood through her. She let it run its course, not doing anything to impede its steady march across her inner eye.
She was walking on a boardwalk that drifted aloft among the clouds. She could not see where it ended, nor did she know where it began. She only knew that the woman she saw on it was herself. Eventually, she stopped walking, and merely stood watching the path ahead of her, waiting for something. Or someone.
This was one of the mysteries of this dream/vision. One of the things she did not understand. Was she awaiting another ship to another destination? Was she awaiting her guide? Was there some other purpose for her stillness, her waiting? She asked the questions in her mind, but no sound issued from her lips. She only stood.
The clouds around her roiled and fluffed, and thinned where the sun broke through them. She could hear the whisper of thunder in their shifting round her, feel the sting of lightning. And yet she knew she was in no danger as long as she stayed on the path. It was prescribed, and it would take her where she needed to go.
The sound of the morning birds impinged upon her mind, and the dream/vision ended, as abruptly as it had begun. It was dark when she looked out the window, and as she rose from the cot she had slept on, she heard the sounds of movement below stairs. Someone else was up and about, probably the innkeeper, getting ready for his day. She would need to be long gone by the time the first of his clients went down for breakfast, or travelers found his establishment.
Her preparations were even simpler this time. The knapsack contained a change of clothing She donned them slowly, after washing herself with the water that had been left for her. She made the bed, and left a small tip for the one who would come to check her room when she was gone. A last look, and she stepped into the dim hallway.
This time, for the first time, she felt as though that hallway was the boardwalk in the sky, and what she was about to do was the beginning of a different, a higher adventure. Her skin tingled with pinpricks of excitement, and she could feel her heart beat quicken. This was unusual - never before had she felt such anticipation at the start of a new sojourn. There had only ever been dread...until now. Now, dread was replaced by a disturbing mixture of fear and anticipation, as though her heart knew something her head could not yet see.
She walked down the stairs quietly, and went directly to the door where she knew her guide was waiting. He would pay her way, and give her final instructions.
"It is a new day," he said without preamble, and she knew he was not talking about the day which was beginning.
"Yes," she agreed.
"You will walk till noon, and then you will be there. Take this," he pressed a small package into her hands. "It contains food and water. It will only last till noon."
She put the package in her knapsack, and turned away, as usual. He did not want her thanks. Once she had given it to him, and he had admonished her, saying that it was he who should be thanking her. And so she prepared to leave, when his voice made her turn and look at him. His trunk-like neck seemed to glow in the dim light of pre-dawn.
"This time will be different," he said. "I know you have felt it." He spoke with certainty. she had no need to respond. "Follow the path," he said.
"How will I know?" she asked him simply.
"You will know, as you have known in the past when it was time to leave. Stay on the path and your sojourn will go well!"
She smiled at him then, again understanding the other message, and turned away. She did not understand, but she knew she would be safe. She opened the door and felt the cool morning air upon her cheeks. Closing the door behind her, she stepped into the street, and turned east, toward the rising sun...
She walked down the gangplank onto the slowly gliding walkway that would take her to the center of town. She did not know where she would live, or how. All she knew was that he was there - her guide. Like he had always been before. She did not know when he would come, but she knew he would find her. She jerked the backpack over her shoulder, and set off with purposeful stride, stepping off the path and striking out across the wide yard with its containers and passengers, the sound of gulls shrieking overhead cracking against the hard silence of the sky.
It struck her that, for the first time in all her travels, she had actually been let off in a port, for a change, and not outside some hovel or grand mansion. This was going to be a harder sojourn for her than any of the others so far had been. She paused to wish it would be her last, then shrugged heavily as the thought came, unbidden, that she had always wished for that and had yet to be granted her desires. Shaking her head, as much to clear it of the unsettling thoughts as to bring herself back to the moment, she walked between the warehouses and out onto a wide road, filled with traffic and people.
She paused to get her bearings, looking around her for any sign that would speak to her of what her next move should be. And when she saw it outside the little tea shop, she smiled. Another first - she had not had to wait a day or two to find out what her next task would be. Perhaps there was a Higher One, after all, she mused as she waited for the traffic to thin so she could cross the road.
On the other side, she stopped to appraise the sign. it was wide rather than high, the name of the establishment emblazoned on it in red and gold. "Three Ways" it was called, with a sign that pointed forward and to east and west - no arrow went behind. She could surmise that it meant there was no looking back, only spreading out or going forward. Like her guide's face...
Two minutes brought her to its front door, and she pushed in without even looking to see if the place was open for business. A warm smell of cinnamon and honey assailed her, and she realized that she was hungry. Starving, in fact. Her last meal, which she had eaten alone, as usual, had been two days ago.
A wraith-like creature with jet black hair and sunken eyes appeared at her side, inviting her to sit at a small table for two by the window. She smiled her assent ad let herself be led to the place where she knew instinctively she would meet her guide. After ordering the house special tea and two cinnamon buns, she sat with her hands crossed before her, looking out the window to the street.
She closed her eyes, feeling the weight of her years, of her experiences, of her journeys, seeping into her pores, crowding in beside the hurts, the sadness, the disappointments, the utter exhaustion. She let it all wash over her. She would be no use to anyone if she were too tired to function. She felt as though she could sleep right there, her feet propped on the little bar across the legs of the table, her arms crossed over her chest, inhaling the home scents of the dining room.
"Your breakfast, ma'am!"
The whisper-thin voice snapped her eyes open and she looked up to see him standing there, his bald head bare, his eyes boring into her.
"You have come," she said simply, gesturing to the chair across from her.
One thing she could say about him was that he was courteous to a fault, and would not sit till she invited him to do so.
"When have I not?" he asked simply, seating himself without breaking eye contact. "You are my ambassador." He paused, looking over her head to the street beyond the glass widow. "And you are my friend."
She raised her eyes from cutting one of the two buns to look at him, She had heard that he was changing, growing, and she wondered if, in his new, more powerful position, he would still pause to take tea with her.
"Yes, she replied as simply. "You have been a faithful friend and guide, I know!"
He watched her eat, and wondered again how such a delicate creature could hold such strength of will, of mind, of body, and how she had managed to void being changed by her changing situations. And he wondered how she did not know who she truly was, and how he really felt.
He permitted himself a small curl of one side of his mouth, realizing that she was still caught in her dream of physical beauty, and only saw him for his usefulness and kindness to her. He was not the three-faced, four-eyed, skeletal creature she had accepted that he was. His wizardry allowed him to take any form he pleased, and for her, till she came to know herself truly, and to see the world in all its variegated hues, this hideous form would have to do. He was glad that at least she was not repulsed by him. Small steps, he thought, and then brought those thoughts back to the moment.
"There is a house here where someone is needed to bring peace, and a heart that needs to be opened to love."
He watched her as he spoke, knowing what thoughts roiled in her head. He wished he could be plainer, but part of what made her so effective was her lack of knowledge of anything but the need to heal the world. He wished he had more like her, and thanked the Higher One for sending her to him. Some day, he knew, if she did not awaken to what was left between them, that neither he nor she had ever spoken of, she would leave, and he would lose her. He could only trust that as she brought wisdom and insight to bear on the lives of those she touched, so too she would see herself, and so him.
He gave a mental shrug. No time for such musings now, here, where she might stop to wonder why he took so long to send her on her way.
"They are expecting a visitor at breakfast time. If you follow the path beyond this road, that leads into the woods, you will come upon their home by and by."
He felt her stare wash over his bald head, and staring eyes. He sat coolly, watching as she took in the blood-stained coils that twisted together like a gnarled tree trunk to form his neck. Her gaze warmed him. Perhaps some day she would see past this gruesome facade to the creature within who cared for her more than she would ever know.
"You have had no tea," she said, and poured him a cup. "Please, drink with me! I have had a long journey, and it seems this is to be my only respite."
She smiled at him, and his inner eyes saw the future. He picked up his teacup and sipped. She would rest here, renew herself, and then set off on this next sojourn...
Miles of it...everywhere she looked, there were miles of it. It looked like sand, and yet, she knew that was a sailing ship. Sails unfurled before a brisk wind she could feel, even from her vantage point high atop the ridge that ordered the sleepy desert village. And behind it, the darkness. Every now and again, the black sky was split by a sharp incisor of light, jagged, threatening, fearful, ripping it from top to bottom, an angry reminder of man's powerlessness in the face of Mother Nature.
She folded her arms inside the cavernous sleeves of her scarlet robe. She knew this day would come. She had always known. And she knew what she must do. She turned her back on the ship and the menacing storm that blew it toward her. She must prepare, and the time was short.
The walk back to her tiny cottage took half the time she knew she had. And yet, she did not hurry. If it left without her, she would die. If she went with the other passengers, she would die. There was no need to hurry. She opened the door, and the aroma of her evening meal hit her, at the same time the first sharp pangs of a deep sorrow struck her at the heart. She gasped, and had to brace herself against the door frame for the moments it took her to bury the pains, to cover the gaping wounds in her soul.
Finally, she could move. She closed the door, and went immediately to the stove. She would eat before she left. Her last meal here. She would savor every morsel, and steep her mind in the memory. It would be her last one here. She didn't know when she would ever again be as happy as she had been here. Not that her happiness had not been deeply scarred by awful sadness, by dreadful hurt, by anger, by despair. And yet, she had been more fulfilled, more secure, more content here than anywhere before.
She spooned the simmering meat stew into a bowl, carefully removed a crusty roll form the bread box, glad she had made a fresh batch this morning. She knew the others would come for dinner, as they did every evening, and she was happy sh could leave them a last meal. She wished she could have shared t with them, but she was content to leave them with the memory of her deep love for each of them - including him, the one she would not leave, but had to.
The stew was spicy, filled with the flavors of her life - garlic, onions, hot peppers - and hearty, like she was, like her love was. She ate slowly, feeling the ship draw closer. She saw it now from her window. It glowed against the threatening dark, lighting up like a Christmas tree before the angry lightning that seemed to stalk it like a raging beast. The black sky was over the village now. She must change. Scarlet clothing would give her away as a newcomer, and since she did not know where she would end up next, she wanted to blend in as much as possible.
She washed her bowl, tidied the kitchen, and left a brief note for her friends.
"I have been called away, dear ones. I don't know if I can return. But I have left you dinner, and my love. K"
She went to dress, choosing the pale blue robe, and packing the scarlet one in with the rest of her meager belongings. She straightened her bed, opened the curtains to let in the dying light, and walked back to the door, prepared to leave this place she had called home for the last four years. Her backpack was just heavy enough to remind her of this sojourn, the longest and best of her journey.
With a suddenness that she had come to expect, over the years and the journeys, the ship was there. She stepped out, closed her door, and watched as the gangplank was lowered for her to ascend. The golden "sea" at her feet looked like molten sand crystals, glittering in the darkening evening. She walked towards the ship, feeling the tears fall, wishing she could ease this tearing ache in her heart.
Wishing she could stop sailing...