Three days after Isaac died, he was startled by the sound of
birds in the barren tree outside his bedroom window. Chirps,
caws, coos and cries echoed through his bungalow, jolting him out of his
post-mortem malaise. He rolled off his
unmade bed and stumbled to the window in three clumsy bounds, pulled up the
blinds with both hands, and pressed his face against the screen. The limbs and branches of the plum tree that
had not blossomed this year bowed and creaked under the weight of hundreds of
birds, no two alike. Dark shapes
descended in lazy spirals from a sky the color of dishwater to join the raucous
In the colorless days since Isaac’s death, the air had been
stale and stifling. The ceiling fan had
whirled dutifully through the starless nights without producing so much as a
gust. But as if stirred by the beating
of wings, a strange breeze began to blow across the yard, snatching up dead
leaves and pushing the scent of stone fruit and musk through the dusty
screen. Isaac sneezed once, rubbed his
eyes and leaned forward hard enough that the screen groaned under his
weight. Rather than startle away in
flight, the birds in the tree turned towards the sound almost as one and stared
at Isaac with bright, curious eyes. A portly raven hopped down to a low-hanging
branch, cocked his head and opened and closed his beak twice with an audible
Isaac bit the corner of his lip. “It’s almost as if you could talk to me.”
The raven cawed and ruffled his feathers. From his left him, a snowy owl shouted, “Of
course he can, ghost-boy. Get that
slack-jawed look off your face and come play with us.”
Behind the raven, an ortolan flapped her brilliant yellow
wings and cried, “Oh, say you will come! Some of us have forgotten and you
could tell us what has happened in the world of men.” Other birds echoed her sentiment in calls,
hoots and half-human pleas.
“I suppose nothing should surprise me anymore. I’m dead but I’m still breathing. Why shouldn’t
birds talk to me?” Isaac asked in a throaty whisper.
He ran his fingers through his mussed, black hair and smiled
crookedly at the bird. He inhaled twice
and pushed the screen with sudden violence.
Metal creaked, flakes of paint showered down, and the screen popped out
of its casing to tumble onto the ground below.
Isaac clambered through the open window, scratching his arm
beneath his elbow, and landed in the dirt and leaves on all fours. The raven spread his wings and bobbed his head
as if performing an elaborate bow and intoned ceremoniously, “Greetings, young
“Greetings, young Isaac.
I am known to all and sundry as William Raven, and my assembled,
marvelous cohorts—no two alike!—are collectively called the Celestrial
“Celestial?” Isaac asked.
“Indeed no!” William Raven clucked indignantly. “Do you have wool in your ears? Celestrial. With an r. Rolls off the tongue!
And it’s good to keep an active tongue, rather than become indecipherable and
dumb like some of the flock. By dumb, I mean speechless. I’m certain they have kept their wits about
them! Just not their silvered speech.”
Isaac stood and brushed the dirt off his jeans. “You all can’t talk?”
The Ortolan shook her head.
“Only five out of the whole group can talk anymore. The rest have forgotten how.”
The snowy owl said, “yeah, we jaw at each other to keep from
going crazy from all the tweeting and crap.
Be nice to have someone new to talk to. Bill and Leah just keep on about
the same old shit.”
The ortolan cocked her head.
“I’m Leah Ortolan. Pleased to
William Raven cawed sharply and clicked his beak. “If you two will please remain silent! There
is an order and ritual to these things, and I’m afraid our time is a good deal
shorter than I would like.”
The ortolan closed her bright eyes and the snowy owl
mumbled, “stuffy old blowhard.” But both
of them kept quiet while the raven continued.
“Young Isaac, for all occasions there is give and there is
take.” William Raven’s voice grew sonorous.
This was a speech he had given many times before. “We have much to offer you. We have come to rescue you from the
meaningless days that fade into nothingness.
We have come to prevent you from fading into a distant memory. We have come to invite you to join our merry
assemblage. And we will gladly take from
you. We will take your memories of the
world and share them with the flock. We
will hold onto our fading humanity with your stories and your songs. And we
will all share the enjoyment of companionship and a chance for redemption.”
Isaac furrowed his brow.
“How will I go with you? I can’t
fly.” He became unsure. “Can I?” Then
softly, “Why do I need to be redeemed?”
William Raven pecked at a spot in the earth. “Mrph.
Flying is possibly the easiest thing since dying once you learn the trick
of it. And I – I and my jovial
journeyers—shall show you the trick of it.”
He slurped noisily. Something wriggled at the edge of his beak and then
was gone. “And as far as redemption goes, well that’s easy. You are here, now. Not dancing across the stars as motes of
sparkling light. You died for
“Someone,” Isaac said.
The ortolan opened one eye and stared at Isaac for a
moment. “Yes,” she said sadly, I can
“You, young Isaac, are quite incorrigibly stubborn. You are, possibly, the most stubborn and
obstinate fellow I’ve come across since I shuffled off this proverbial mortal
coil!” William Raven exclaimed after three hours or so of attempting to teach
Isaac to transform.
Isaac bit his lip.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be stubborn. I really am trying. But every time my skin starts to prickle I
worry about what will happen if I go with you, and how I don’t want to forget.
And—“ Isaac’s tone became quiet and urgent.
“I don’t want to miss him if he should come back.”
William Raven puffed up, his feathers stood on end. “Is that what you’re worried about? One of the living returning to you? That’s
buttery nonsense! We haven’t much time, foolish boy!”
Leah Ortolan fluttered up onto Isaac’s shoulder. She whispered in his ear. “What he means that
even if your loved one returns, he won’t be able to see you. You won’t be able to talk to him. Here isn’t really here. Where you are is a shadowplace. If you stay,
you’ll fade into nothing and miss your chance.”
“My chance?” Isaac
asked, louder than he meant to.
William Raven’s tone was sharp. “Yes. The only chance you
have of seeing whoever you’re pining away for is in the City of Broken Pillars.
Not in this bit of nothing.” William
Raven turned his head suddenly to look behind him. “There isn’t time for serious
explanations. Either you choose to go
with us, or you stay here and crumble into dust and cobwebs.”
Isaac looked down at the palms of his hands. With one finger he traced a snaking green
vein down the length of his forearm. “Please.
Let’s try again.”
William Raven sighed.
“You have a body because you think you have one. You breathe because you always have. But your body is now food for the worms and full
of corruption. Or ash to be scattered on the wind. You need a form to hold onto, a form to pin
your consciousness to, but it needn’t be the one you’ve always worn. You can
take a form that means freedom, allows you to leave the prison of your
death. And what is more free than a
bird? This place, whatever you want to
call it, has a vast and endless sky with only shifting bits of land in between
the intangible clouds.”
Isaac closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He spread his arms out as if they were
wings. William Raven bobbed his head in
silent approval and continued. “Your
bones were heavy, clumsy things. They
will become light and hollow. Your feet
were inarticulate. Imagine them
sensitive, capable of grasping and holding. Your naked skin was
unprotected. You don’t need clothing.
Imagine the feathers bristling through the skin—“
Isaac gasped sharply.
“Becoming something else is always painful, my dear.” Leah Ortolan said.
Isaac shivered. He
felt his bones twisting. It felt as if
a giant hand was squeezing him. Needle sharp
pinfeathers jabbed through his skin. He
cried out, but instead of a scream the sound he made was a chirp.
Isaac opened his eyes.
The raven seemed to loom above him.
William cawed in delight. “At last. Welcome to the Carnival, Isaac Starling.”
Learning to fly was much easier than learning to become
something else. It was like remembering
something only half-forgotten. After a
few faltering starts and a fluttering,
soft fall or two Isaac felt the rhythm of it and was borne up into the
grey-pink sky on beats of his new wings that seemed in time with the pumping of
his heart. He circled his bungalow
twice, aghast at the nothingness beyond the edges of the property. Beneath the sod laid in its neat orderly
rows, loam crumbled and fell into a seemingly endless sky full of dark storm
clouds that towered into shapes like castles and anvils. A lark
flew up alongside him and then fell into an easy, gliding motion, keeping pace
with him effortlessly.
“It’s pretty awesome,
looking at your old digs just floating there,”
the lark said cheerfully. “I mean
you get all used to gravity as a law and not a helpful notion.”
Isaac asked, “Is this all that’s left?”
The lark curved and swooped beneath Isaac to fly on his left
side. “Is this all that’s left of
what? Your old life? Well, sorta.”
“I don’t know what I thought dying was going to be
like. But I expected more old men with
long beards and harps.” Isaac said as he tried to roll and bank around the
The Lark laughed. “I
haven’t seen any pearly gates yet. And I
wasn’t that great of a guy. Honestly,
I’m glad no red dudes have come after me with a pitchfork. But the Carnival isn’t so bad. Just think of that house like an egg. And Isaac Starling, have you ever come out of
Leah Ortolan swooped down towards the pair. She said, “Isaac you’re doing beautifully. Andrew Lark, William Raven asked,” she cleared her throat and took
on a more pompous tone, “’If you have received sufficient rest and respite and
are ready to resume our hejira.’”
The lark chuckled.
“Do I ever love you, Leah? Yes I
do. Tell the officious old turkey that
we’re ready for take-off.”
Leah made a high, fluting call towards the dead plum
tree. The flock lifted off from the
trees almost in unison. The song of wings drowned out the excited chattering
and cries from the Celestrial Carnival. Light glinted off of reds, greens, golds and perlescent black feathers as they
took to the air and fell in around Isaac, Leah, and Andrew. William Raven clicked his beak and cried
out, “We are closer than ever my steadfast companions. I feel it in my hollow bones.”
“You always say that.” The snowy owl pointed out sourly.
“Indeed, I do Antoine. Indeed, I do. Because each time I say it, it is true.
And it has never been more true than now!”
Isaac turned his head to look behind him. His bungalow was now a small yellow spot
standing in relief against an expanse of purple cloud. He felt a small twinge of regret and then
turned his head to look ahead.
Isaac was weary. It had seemed that the Carnival had been
flying for days without much rest. Every
now and then they would spot a withered tree or a broken picket fence, and they
would land, preen and chat for a brief while.
But it seemed that no sooner had Isaac tucked his head beneath his wing
and dozed off into dark, dreamless slumber than William Raven’s strident caws
had jolted him into uneasy wakefulness and it was time for the Carnival to take
After a particularly brief stint on a cracked and useless
sun dial, Leah Ortolan called out to William Raven Her voice was uneven and
cracking. “William Raven, I understand
fully the necessity of keeping in motion, but I am tired. And I am sure the
younger ones, Lark and Starling could use a bit more rest. Can we stay here just a bit longer.”
“My dear, sweet Leah, I do not think you do fully understand
the necessity of keeping in motion. Do
you see these clouds?” William Raven
pointed with his beak towards a bank of clouds not far ahead streaked through
with red and yellow flashes of lightning.
They were the ugly eggplant color of a bruise. “ You know what can lurk in those clouds. It would not do us well to rest longer and
have them catch scent of us.”
The peregrine falcon spoke for the first time. “I remember the songs.” His voice was tinged with terror and a lonely
sort of wistfulness.
Leah closed her eyes.
“You are the leader, William Raven, and perhaps you are right. But we are all bone-weary.”
William Raven did not respond, but spread his wings and and
dove off the edge off the sundial, caught a rare, strong gust of wind and
glided along with it. The rest of the
Carnvial followed suit. Isaac turned to
Andrew Lark who flew on his right and asked, “What are they talking about? What lives in those clouds?”
Andrew Lark’s normally loud tone dropped to barely above a
whisper. “I don’t actually know. Never seen ‘em myself, but I heard from
Leah Ortolan flew up swiftly on Isaac’s left and
interrupted. “Isaac Starling, I have not heard the story of your death. If you would share it, I’d be pleased.”
Antoine Snowy Owl flew in behind Isaac. “Yeah, Starling. How’d you croak? Did you get capped in a drive-by? Or get shot in a daring prison escape?”
Isaac attempted to twist his beak in a smile. It didn’t work, but his eyes sparkled. “Nothing that interesting, I’m afraid.”
Andrew clucked dismissively. “You don’t seem the type to
have died in a blaze of bullets.”
“I’m not that type, no.”
Leah pressed on. “How did you die? It helps us to remember what being alive was
Isaac sighed. “It’s a
long story. I guess it really begins
because I fell in love with a boy—“
Antoine crowed, “You’re a fag?! I knew it. I could tell by the jeans you was wearing!”
Isaac continued, “I fell in love with a boy. And he was wonderful and brilliant and
beautiful. And every moment I spent with
him—well it was like nothing else mattered when I was with him.”
Andrew said, “I never really knew that kind of love.”
Leah said, “I don’t think most people really do. And I think even fewer ever understand what
it means and how terrible it can be.”
Isaac nodded. “I
loved him and I was his, but he was never really mine. It was like this: One of my favorite poems has this line, ‘When
a life is over, where do you go?’ and I didn’t really have the answer to that
question when he told me that he couldn’t see me anymore. “
“You killed yourself?” Leah asked softly.
“No. It wasn’t on purpose.
I mean, I called out from work for a few days. I didn’t
change clothes. Sat around the house crying and listening to sappy
R&B like Drowning in the Sea of love. I got really drunk. Finished off a whole bottle of bourbon by
myself. Kept thinking that maybe if I were beautiful he would have stayed. Or maybe if I’d given him something more.” Isaac’s voice began to break. “The
last night, I guess I decided to take a
hot bath. Drunk as a sailor on leave and
twice and clumsy. I remember sinking
into the hot water and how nice it felt.
I remember it splashing over the side and onto the floor and not
caring. I remember sliding down into the
water, feeling it against my lips and thinking how nice it was.”
“I used to love hot tubs and hot springs!” Andrew cried.
“It was like an
embrace. Like a lingering hug from
someone who always wanted me around. I
must have hit my head or something.
Because the next thing I remember is that I wasn’t drunk. I was standing over my body. The floor was soaking wet, and the water wasn’t
clear, it was pink and murky. My lips
were dark purple and my fingers were all webbed from being under the water. “
“That’ll happen when you’re dead,” Antoine interjected.
“For a while I just stood there trying to figure out how I
could be outside my body. I couldn’t see
myself in the mirror, but I could feel my own body, and I looked down there I
was clothed and warm and dry. After a
while, shadowy figures came into the room and took my body. Policemen, I
think. Other shadows came in and out of the
house, but I never made them out until—“
“You could see him, couldn’t
you dear?” Leah asked.
“Yes. Where everyone
else was made of shadows, he blazed with light and fire. It was like he was more real than
everything. I ran towards him, I wanted
to hug him, but I went right through. He
looked up for a moment, like he had hear his name whispered from a long way
away. But he never saw me. I thought if he came back I could-- well, that’s where you found me. Waiting.”
“Ugh, you’re a sap.
If he didn’t want you no more, you should have found another piece.”
“That’s quite enough,
Antoine Snowy Owl!” Leah’s voice was sharp. “I remember enough of your death to know that you have no cause to mock another’s.”
“Maybe. I just don’t know what to—“
Isaac’s statement was cut short by a sudden worldless cry
from the Peregrine Falcon. There was a moment’s hushed silence as the flock
turned as one to look in the direction the falcon was staring. Ahead of them loomed a massive, purple
thunderhead whose size seemed to increase by the moment as it thundered towards
them. William Raven shouted, “Before us is a storm of ash and embers! There is no going around. Keep steadfast, my cohorts, and keep
Before William Raven had finished his sentence, a gritty, acrid wind whipped through the Carnival. Isaac
had once been to a working crematorium to pick up the remains of his
grandmother; the smell of the wind was almost exactly the same. It was the sweet-sour smell of burning
things. It carried memories of loss and
regret and of fear.
The smaller birds in the carnival, Isaac among them,
struggled to keep pace against the hot, dry wind. The wind pelted them with smoking
embers. Isaac smelled the stench of his
own singed feathers. His wings labored
under a coating of white ash.
“Stay together! Stronger fliers, get before the small
ones!” William Raven cried.
Isaac flew in the
wake of a heron. The strong beat of her
wings provided him with a steady draft, and he stopped struggling against the
hot wind. For a moment they were pelted with
ash falling swiftly as rain, and then as suddenly as it began, the sky stopped
its smoldering and was clear of all but the heavy dark clouds. The wind grew slow and even.
“It looks like the worst is over!” Andrew cried.
Isaac could hear what sounded like human voices raised in
song from the distance. It reminded
him of church choirs at Christmas Mass,
both solemn and joyous at the same time.
He could not make out the words. He wanted to answer their song with a
song of their own.
“The songs. They come.”
The Peregrine said. There was
terror in his voice, and something like relief.
“No! Not again. Not
again!” William Raven rolled in the air, then began shouting orders. “Take
evasive action! Spread out! Spread out! Any tricks you’ve learned flying, use
The surface of the purple black cloud roiled and out came a
white amorphous smoky shape. It was long
and coiled like a snake. The front was
pointed like a beak. The beak opened and
sharp, pointed teeth gleam in the light.
Its eyes were like flame. Four wings erupted from its back, and tendrils
of smoke from its body shaped themselves into talons. It opened its terrible beak again and the
choir song with nonsense words
crescendoed. That thing is singing,
Isaac thought. It stared at the carnival
with its flaming eyes, and a Soprano voice hit a high F. The smoke bird plummeted and dove towards
them, its beak opened wide. It missed the
Peregrine by less than a foot, and its terrible jaws snapped shut on empty air,
muffling the song.
Five more shapes erupted from the storm cloud. The shapes had little in common except being
made out of the same white smoke stuff as the first, having the same terrible
teeth and fiery eyes and singing the same beautiful song. One assumed the shape of a magnificent bird
and dove down, its fiery eyes focused on Isaac.
He banked and rolled, but barely enough; a tendril snaked from a smoky
wing and floated just past his head. The
smoke bird smelled like incense and sweaty gym socks. To his right, there was a horrible crunch as
another of the things closed its jaws on a kestrel. Behind him he heard the terrified squawks of
a grey dove.
Isaac banked and turned to see if he could help the
dove. He felt a sickness in the pit of
his stomach as he saw a smokey, winged octopus suck up the dove’s tiny leg
through its teeth. From behind him, he
heard Leah cry, “No!” And a feather form
barreled into his side, knocking him through the air. When he regained his bearing he saw one of
the smoke things flying away from the
place where he had been. Its teeth covered in blood. A single brilliant yellow feather floated
down from its beak.
Full of fury, Isaac
flew towards the smoke beast, his tiny talons stretched out as if to claw. Already, the smoke things were flying away
from the Carnival, their nonsense song wafting on the wind. Isaac caught an updraft and screamed with rage. “You killed my friend! You monster.”
He beat his wings in a vain effort to catch the thing, when
he felt talons close painlessly around his belly. The Peregrine had caught him and was
clutching him to its breast. “Starling,
the Ortolan died for you. Do not make
her death pointless. You must reach the
Isaac beat his wings fruitlessly against the Peregrine and
then lay still.
“Rest.” Said the Peregrine.
They flew through the storm, tossed and tired from the hot
wind that sprang up from nowhere and just as quickly vanished. They did not see the smoke birds again. From time to time, the heard snatches of a
distant choir with nonsense words through the thunder and blustery wind, but
the beasts seemed sated and did not come again for the Carnival.
Two days after the attack they stopped to rest on a peach
tree. Its branches were heavy with
fruit and roots worked their way through the small bit of floating ground it
stood over. Isaac drew symbols in the
dirt beneath the shade of the tree.
Antoine fluttered over to him.
“Look, I know you been down ‘cause of Leah. And she—she was a good egg.” Antoine’s large eyes rolled in his head.
“I don’t want to talk to you about it.” Isaac said and
continued scratching in the earth.
“I know we ain’t got off on the right foot or anything but—“
“We don’t have a right foot to get on. I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Look, maybe you think I’m a dick, and maybe you’re right, but I’m gonna
tell you something about Leah whether you like it or not, ‘cause she would have
wanted you to know.”
Isaac stared at Antoine then bowed his head. Antoine’s voice softened. “Leah didn’t die in vain. She tried an’ took care of you ‘cause she had
a kid. He was a fa—he was a homosexual
like you. An’ she didn’t react so
good. They had a fight. He left the house in her car. Got into a car
accident. Turned into a vegetable. Sucked up her savings with medical bills and
died. She always blamed herself.”
“I am not her son.”
“I know you ain’t.
But Leah took a shine to you. I
think you reminded her a little of him.
And I think she thought by savin’ you, it would make it up to Mikey
somehow. I mean, she didn’t even have
anyone she wanted to see at the City of Broken Pillars. She looked after us—and I mean all of us, not
just you—‘cause she wanted to be a better mother. I think that gave her something she didn’t
Antoine fluttered away.
Isaac stared after him for a moment then flew up to rejoin the rest of
the flock. William Raven was in the
middle of a speech. “It is not without
sorrow that we continue our path onwards to the City of Broken Pillars. Seven of us are no more. But as the dead, what are we really but
memories? As long as we remember our fallen,
they are not truly gone. The love and
care we have taken from them will nurture us as we make our way to our ultimate
“Amen!” shouted Andrew.
The flock took to the air again.
Four days after they had been attacked by the smoke things,
the storm clouds broke and diminished and the sky took on the color of
burnished bronze. A new wind, with a
smell like the sea, cleared away the smell of burning things. The cool, bracing breeze soothed them, and
for the first time in a long time, Isaac’s heart felt light.
The Pergrine cried out.
“Look ahead! On the horizon! See where the light sparkles and
dances? It must be the city! It must
responded, “My eyes are not so good as yours, friend. Are you certain that it is not a pond, or a dung heap, or an
The Peregrine laughed.
“He’s right!” Andrew shouted. “My God, he’s right! What else can it be?”
Isaac looked toward the horizon and saw something conical
and white in the distance. The light played about it. It was far off, and Isaac realized that it
must be massive. The size of a mountain
at least. While they had seen clouds
that could easily dwarf the structure,
they had seen nothing solid that approached the size of the white cone.
William Raven harrumphed.
“I just don’t want any of you to get overly excited and then
disappointed when it’s something ordinarly like a dump truck.”
Isaac said. “No.
Whatever it is, it’s something wonderful.”
As the cone in the sky grew larger, the flock could see that
it was not all one structure. It had white,
tan and grey columns of various sizes that spread out of the center in wild
profusion, like the branches of an ancient tree, and beneath the pillars
something multicolor sparkled, like jewels.
A stream of bright water was visible falling from the lip of the city as
a dancing, sparkling ribbon reflecting the light in an endless spiral through
the sky below.
The columns were broken, all of them. Ornate Corinthian capitals the size of cars
lay on the multi-color ground, half covered by purple, green and red shards
that twinkled. Headless Cataryids
flanked what seemed to be a winding boulevard up to the cone’s peak, their fingerless
hands held out in frozen salutes. The
flock could see houses constructed out of ancient Ionic bases, or teepees
assembled from plain basalt pillars.
The Carnival circled over the edge where the water
fell. Beneath them a crowd of people jumped
and waved and cheered. William Raven commented wryly, “I suppose you
were correct, good Falcon.”
As they neared the ground Isaac could see that the bright,
colorful shards were broken glass. The
streets were paved with the larger pieces, and smaller pieces had been crushed
into what looked like sand. The glass
was as colorful as the people, who were of all races and wore clothes that
varied from red and gold monkish robes, to pink miniskirts, to bright blue
sarongs to grey-green doublets with violet
patches. Most of the flock landed on
pillars leaning over the crow, but Isaac landed just beyond them on the
shattered glass sand. He closed his eyes
and willed himself back into his old
body. He remembered the scar just above
his left eyebrow, the slightly fleshy lips that could make him look
either cherubic or sinister, his narrow
eyes with their unremarkable color, his
feet that he always thought were too big.
He felt himself sprouting, bursting outward, filling and stretching like
a balloon. Crouched naked in the glass,
he felt his old familiar body with all its flaws. This
is me, he thought. The crowd around
him cheered and cried, “Welcome home!”
From behind him he heard a joyful whoop. Andrew Lark shot out of his avian body with
surprising speed. In its place was a
tall, thin blond man with a crooked,
bashful smile. Antoine transformed
into a short, swarthy man with greasy black hair and a five-o’clock
shadow. The Peregrine became a middle
aged man with graying hair and a faraway look.
Some of the Carnival who had stopped talking also turned into humans,
although with less distinct features than Isaac or any of the talkers. They had
two arms, two legs, two eyes and all the usual body parts, but they seemed as
generic as mannequins. Forgetful, perhaps of what had made them different. Others remained birds. William Raven did not transform. Isaac looked at the black bird who seemed to
shrug. “I liked being a raven much more than I ever liked being a man.”
A man in gold and red
robes stepped out from the crowd. He had
long salt-and-pepper mustaches that framed a trembling mouth and kindly eyes.
He stretched out his arms wide, as if to embrace Isaac and said, “Welcome home,
brothers and sisters. Welcome home! You must be tired after your journey. We can
procure clothing and food and drink. And
will provide space for you to rest and—“
“Please sir,” interjected Isaac, “I thank you for your
hospitality. But the reason I have come
all this way is because there is someone I need to see. I don’t want to rest before that.”
The man in gold and
red pulled at his mustaches. “I realize you are not familiar with our customs,
and that you have a difficult journey.
But the pool of dreams is not for anyone to gaze into. You must be trained. And the training is difficult. Or you must be sponsored—“
“I’ll sponsor him.” A
blonde girl in pigtails wearing cowboy boots and a teal empire waist dress with
a ragged hymn shouted.
The man in red and gold scowled, “Elisa, this is not the
best idea. What if he’s not ready?”
Elisa shrugged and tossed her pigtails over her shoulder.
“He’s dead, Japeth. I don’t think you
get more ready. I can explain what he
needs to know. I take responsibility.”
Japeth scowled. “I
think you were not ready. Very well, you
take him. I shall provide hospitality
and clothing to the rest.”
Elisa took Isaac’s hand.
Her hand was dry and cool and reminded him, not unpleasantly, of fall
leaves. She led him through the crowd.
He was slapped on the back, and kissed on the cheek by enthusiastic
greeters. Over his shoulder he heard
Andrew shout, “Good luck!”
Isaac turned and waved at the members of the Carnival, who
shouted and smiled at him, even Antoine.
Then Elisa pulled him along the glass-paved boulevard.
As they climbed up the hill to the structure at the top of
the City of Broken Pillars, Elisa explained certain things to Isaac in a
breathless voice. “Most people never
look in the pool once they get here.
Even if that’s what lured them here in the first place.”
“Well, it’s tricky.
It can be dangerous. And a lot of
people end up happy here living under the columns like they lived in the old
world.” Elisa pointed out a butcher
stringing sausages on a rope between two peeling Egyptian columns,fading
painting hieroglyphs flaked paint as the rope sagged and chafed the pillars’
“We usually have people who want to look go under training
first. The training is really designed
to scare them from looking and get them to see how life here could be good. But
every now and then we get someone who has a look. A look like yours. And you know nothin’s really gonna stop them
from wanting to see whoever.”
“I—I don’t think I have any other purpose.”
Elisa nodded. “I was
like that too. I got sponsored. I talked with my person, and then decided to
live here after. A lot of people don’t make
it through the ordeal, though.”
“Before you can talk to whoever, you need to relive two
memories from your life. One’s a bad
one, one’s good. I’ve seen either one
shatter people. Some people can’t take it happening all over again, but not really
Isaac gulped. “I
think I can take it.”
Elisa smiled. “I think you can, too. I wouldn’t have
sponsored you, otherwise. Anyway, you
only get one shot at this. Which is why
we have the training. If you leave the
shrine, you can’t come back.”
“So, I have to take it.”
“After you talk to your person you get three choices.” Elisa’s voice was raised. They were close to the top of the city, and
water poured down the hill in noisy rivulets.
“What are they?”
“Telling’s cheating. You’ll see.
Anyway, we’re here.”
They stood at the summit before a humble square building
made of the capitals of columns. It was
windowless and barely taller than ten feet.
From holes on each of its sides water flowed in ceaseless, bright
streams. There was an opening, but no
door. A curtain made of a faded tapestry
covered the entry. In gilt letters
above the doorway was a sign that read,
“Enter, who seek answers.” This
sign was repeated in many different languages.
Isaac put a hand on the tapestry and turned to Elisa. “Anything else I need to know?”
She smiled. “Just be brave.”
Isaac walked into the dark opening.
Isaac was sitting in a dark bar. Slow, electronic music was playing. The bar was mostly empty. He sat against a red vinyl covered bench and
looked across the table. Louis was
sitting there, leaned back in his chair.
His army green hoody was half-zippered up. His glasses perched on the end of his
aristocratic nose. He sipped a
yellow-green cocktail from a martini glass. A lime
bobbed up down in time with his Adam’s apple.
I remember this. Every moment.
Louis reached across the table and brushed Isaac’s hand with
elegant fingers. Isaac’s hand began to sweat.
He could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears like the beat of
the electronic music.
His eyes are green in
this light. Like chartreuse, or lake
water. He’s going to say it. Isn’t
he? He’s going to tell me—
Louis’ features took on a boyish, earnest cast. “What I was going to say is that—well, I’m
madly in love with you too.”
Tears filled Isaac’s eyes as the bar and the music and Louis
dissolved into darkness.
Isaac was standing on top of a hill. The air was
chilly. Before him the lights in the
downtown skyscrapers twinkled coldly. His
breath came out in white puffs. His
body was suffused with the warm sensation of having had one too many
This. Isaac thought dully, a slow sense of
He heard footsteps behind him. A hand placed on his shoulder perhaps a little
more heavily than was meant. He was
Louis’ face looked cruel.
His mouth was drawn into a thin line.
“I have something to tell you, Isaac.”
“You do?” Isaac asked,
despite knowing what comes next. Despite the sinking feeling in his
A tear trickled down Louis’ face. He sniffled.
“You know what? I hate you.”
Isaac felt hot tears rise up. He put his head in his hands. He tried to
stifle a sob.
“I hate you more than anyone. More than anyone I’ve ever
met.” Louis’ voice was steady.
“Why?” Isaac choked out. Then doubled over as if someone had
punched him in the gut.
“Because, fuck you, I love you. You make me feel things. But we can’t ever be together.”
Louis kissed Isaac’s eyelids as Isaac collapsed in a heap on
the wet grass.
The grass dissolved into darkness.
Isaac knelt on a pile of broken glass in a small room before
a softly glowing pool of water. There
were three covered doorways in the sides of the walls flanking the pool. Carved
above them were the words “Next, ” “Here,” and “Nothing” respectively. He turned his head to peer into the silvery
pool. At first, he saw only his own face
mirrored back at him, distorted by ripples and made argent by the water’s
color. But lights danced across the
water’s surface and his reflection twisted, buckled and was gone. The water bubbled and danced and strange
shapes formed on its surface.
The shapes coalesced and grew until a man sized, golden bubble floated above the
pool. It took on a familiar form. Aristocratic nose, slightly curly hair, eyes that turn friendly
or cruel in a heartbeat.
“Louis? Can you
The Bubble turned its head.
“Isaac? I must be dreaming.”
“No, Louis. It’s me.
I’ve come to talk to you one last time.”
“Oh Isaac. I’m so sorry—when I heard—I didn’t know what to
do. Look, I miss you so much. And even
if you’re just a stupid dream, I—“
“Louis. I have a question.” Isaac reached out and took one
Louis’ watery hands. He could almost feel warmth. It was almost like the real thing. “ Did you ever love me?”
“Isaac? Of course I
loved you. I always loved you. I still love you. Just—just not enough. Not ever as much as you
Isaac smiled. “Then
I am happy. I—have one last thing to
give you before I go.”
Louis wiped a tear from his face. “You’ve given me
enough. More than that.”
Isaac shook his head. “This last thing is the most important
Isaac reached down and plunged his fingers into his
chest. He felt them tear open skin. He pushed and cracked through bone. It hurt, but not with the same pain that it
would have if he were living. He pried
his chest open from the center. A golden
light spilled out and filled the room with brightness. Isaac reached in and pulled out the source. It was a human heart rendered in golden fire. The flames flickered and danced and grew
bright as Isaac pulled it from him and offered it to Louis.
“This is my love for you.
It burned so brightly through my life, and kept burning throughout my
death. I need to go on from this, and so
do you. But I want you to keep this,
because part of me will always remain with you.”
Louis clasped the burning heart with both hands and for a
moment glowed as brightly as the sun.
Then the brightness subsided, but he glowed throughout with the colors
of golden fire.
Louis touched Isaac’s hand.
“I love you.”
Isaac smiled. “I
The bubble splashed back into the pool and the golden light
Isaac turned towards the doorway marked “Next” empty and at
peace. He pulled back the curtain. It opened onto a dark blue sky filled with
falling stars. Each one brilliant. Each
Isaac stepped through the doorway and vanished.