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 flock.      

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 click.

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 uh—“


“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 Carnival!”

“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 meet you.”

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 something.”

“Someone,” Isaac said.

The ortolan opened one eye and stared at Isaac for a moment.  “Yes,” she said sadly, “I can see it.”



“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.  “It hurts!”

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 house.  

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 your shell!”

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 wing again.  

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 Antoine—“

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 like.”

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 together!”

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 them now!”

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 city.”

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.”

Antoine bristled.  “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 have before.”

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 goal.”

“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 be!”

 William Raven 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 abandoned playground?”

The Peregrine laughed.  “Just look!”

“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’ surfaces.   

“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 happening.”

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?”

Elisa smiled.  “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.  Isaac thought.

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 drinks. 

This.  Isaac thought dully, a slow sense of dread mounting.

  He heard footsteps behind him.  A hand placed on his shoulder perhaps a little more heavily than was meant.  He was swung around.

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 stomach.

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 hear?”

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 loved me.”

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 of all.”

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 know.”

The bubble splashed back into the pool and the golden light was gone.


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 one unique.

Isaac stepped through the doorway and vanished.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.