By Jeffery Ryan Long
We know you carry pain. Pain is what brings you to us. Your pain has made us great geniuses of the gradations of pain, from the sweet to the debilitating. For some of you, your pain is the visceral desire to be free from pain. For others, it is a tall stone obelisk, its foundation deep in the substance of you, monumental.
It your pain that brings you here. But the leaving is another matter.
Some arrive through the idle portal of a daydream, others through interstellar vessels composed of metals and minerals yet unnamed by you, from a time yet unimagined. Some find us through submersion in chemicals, others through elevation toward the infinite. Everyone that comes here, though, seeks to allay their pain, awakened in them in some feverish moment of creation. So it was for the trumpet player.
“Fantastic,” we heard him say, his head turning from the clear granules of the beach to the great wave, trembling in place as it hung over his head. The crystal sand has the clarity of a static pool of water; below, its silhouetted depths moved along with him. As his feet sank into the transparent sand, he walked first to the wall of the wave and plunged his hand into its chill, no doubt feeling the power of the rushing water that curled above us, suspended. Casually, he then moved to the cusp of the wave, feeling its foam bubble against his fingers.
For a few moments, we watched and allowed the trumpet player to acquaint himself.
We do not look like you. But a person likes to talk to a person—it is a uniquely human conceit—so I adopted a form that was similar enough to the trumpet player to seem familiar, but different enough as to not appear identical. I wore a coat and tie to align myself with the trumpet player’s expectation of respectability. He would assume I carried some sort of authority here.
“You’re looking for something,” I said as I approached him over the shore. Though the sands of the beach were transparent, its depths were dark, and the shadows under my feet swelled and dispersed in gaseous formations.
The trumpet player lifted his hands in front of him, as if he held something besides air. “I had her. I had her right there and she slipped away. I followed her here.”
I wanted him to know I understood. These seekers never fail to interest me, though the interest is fleeting. To you, it would be as interesting as a cloud breaking over a mountain ridge. Something inevitable, but in and of itself, miraculous.
“If you followed her here, you would find her here,” I said.
He looked over my head to the forest beyond the beach. “You’ve seen her, then? Which way?”
“She could be in the village, or she could be in the forest,” I told him. Here, what is sought after is either in the village or the forest. Those who go searching into the sea are swept into the wave, stilled indefinitely.
“How do you get to the village?”
Of course we know what you seek, and where to find it. But we are stewards of this place only—we neither control you nor what has been followed. I wanted the trumpet player to find what he was he was looking for, to take it with him. We always want that for visitors here.
“We may get there by the road,” I said, waving my hand to the once-vacant space behind him. The beach extended to a line of narrow trunks with furry, spider-leg limbs. Between two trees a broad, white road opened under a canopy of shadows.
The trumpet player stared at the road as the water whispered in place behind him. Here, there are forbidding elements because we need to know how much you desire, through what you are willing to travel. The suggestion of a nightmare is only to prepare you for what is to come.
“Will you show me the way?” he asked quietly, still watching the road.
“You have asked, and I acquiesce,” I said, and began stepping lightly over the twinkling sand.
I watched as the shadows from the tree cover draped over his face and slid away. Each time his face reappeared in the light it seemed a new face, fortified by purpose. His boldness made me—all of us—believe. He would, we were sure, take with him a memory of our land and its essence, sharing it with others.
“This begins to seem familiar,” he said, as the trees broke away from above us and the sky opened. Our sky is not like your sky. There is neither sun nor moon. The stars are so dense they make for a twilit illumination upon the skin of our earth. The sky appears to you as if the bright spirit behind all of creation has pierced, in great gaping tears, most of the thin film of dark outer space. The trumpet player looked for a moment, then focused his eyes forward to the road ahead of him.
“Some know what they are looking for,” I said, “and others only know what they seek when they’ve found it. You will know.”
The trumpet player strode ahead, more certain now. The brown fields on either side of him rang with the mantra of those insects and worms and reptiles, some from your world, staccato strokes high in tone against the drone of multitudes of miniature vibrating tongues and throats in time with the respiration uncountable sets of miniature lungs, each insignificant voice claiming its place, crying, I am here too! I am here too! And when their cry is multiplied by hundreds, hundreds of thousands, for you it is only a more comfortable substitute for silence. For not a one of you can endure silence—better to fill it with noises you believe are meaningless.
If only the trumpet player would have stopped a moment and listened. They were beseeching him. I am here, too! If he listened, he would have looked back, and if he looked back, he might have left. He might have been spared.
The village came into view shortly, each of the uniform stone cottages lit from inside.
“They will not hinder you,” I told the trumpet player, as he hesitated. I know what he saw, but not in the same way. Shreds of nightmares imparted with solid form, horned cephalopods oozing around corners, snakes gliding along upright on their tails, scaled human arms ending in six-fingered hands, an ebony claw at the terminus of each webbed digit. I was each monster he perceived. We were about our collective business: tending the furnaces, rearranging the corridors so they led the proper way.
The trumpet player swallowed. “I think I would like to leave,” he said.
“There is only one way, now,” I told him. “You must find what you seek, or you will be released unto them.” He turned behind him, surprised that he saw not the road we had walked but an endless village in which he stood in the middle, spread out around him on grassy, rolling hills all the way to the star-inflamed horizon, each stone cottage identical, lit from within.
“How can I—” he began.
“Close your eyes. Breathe. Look again.”
Glancing at me, he breathed once, deeply, and closed his eyes. “There,” he said, when he looked once more.
I saw what he saw: the identical stone cottages now darkened save one, off in the distance. We arrange the corridors so they’re lined up the proper way.
“There,” I repeated back to him. “There you will find what you came for.”
Rushing now, shifting his body to avoid brushing against slick quadrupeds with pallid maggot flesh and rustling mounds of dense clumps of human hair coated in soap scum and dried human skin, the trumpet player at last arrived at the entrance to the cottage. Immediately he placed his hand on the doorknob but stopped as he faced the small window next to the door.
In the window, hanging from the ledge of the upper sill, was a Halloween costume, a thin plastic coverall decorated in bones arranged as a skeleton. At the hook of the hanger, a papier-mache skull mask dangled from a rubber band.
“That’s—that’s not it,” the trumpet player said. It would have been interesting to see him sweat, but no person may sweat here.
“What is it?” I asked, withholding my eagerness, portraying it as concern. His hesitation at the costume interested me; it interested me as if a sea was parted, or if an angel emerged from the cracked egg of the moon.
“It’s just some stupid trick-or-treat thing. When your parents don’t have the time to make a costume.” He was breathing heavily now, watching the costume hung from the interior windowsill shift in a breeze neither of us, none of us, felt. “When I was young, I could hardly stand to look at these in the stores at Halloween time. I would close my eyes, just wanting to get away.”
“Ah,” I said. I knew, but it is the hearing that interests us most. “It is a vestige. Enter. You will find what you seek inside.”
As if steeling himself, the trumpet player braced his body against the door and pushed it open.
Inside, the shape of a woman, emanating a vague, blue luminescence provided the sole source of light in the otherwise empty cottage. The image of her wavered as if kept in place by a string of repeated notes the trumpet player heard, one note turning into another tremulously, hesitant, the notes in sequence undeniably music, providing the woman her shape.
“Who is she?” the trumpet player asked, though he undoubtedly understood the melody that had composed her.
Its face is always different; in many cases, it is indeed a woman. We suppose that is how you define your desires. In some cases, it is a mountain, or the gated entrance to a park, or an iron maiden, or a planet. It is interesting how these forms manifest. As interesting as the bridge of light the moon lays over the anxious ocean, enjoining one world to the other.
“I know her as Linda,” I told him.
“My sister’s name,” he said.
“You must claim her now,” I said—loudly, because it is the only way you can listen. “Claim her and depart.”
He stared at Linda and cocked his head slightly, as if listening to the soft melody emanating from her. The melody grew more assured, and I could begin to see the fabric of her gown. Sometimes your pain is a visceral desire to be free from your pain. And sometimes—all the time—it is something else, ever unto eternity. It does not stop.
“Claim her,” I demanded.
“If I only had my instrument,” he said.
“It is only ever you,” I told him.
He drew himself into something larger than he might have imagined. Standing straight, he stepped toward Linda. “I—” he began.
Linda’s form became less precise, the melody softer—a false note then rang like a gong and she was gone.
As often as not, you lose what you seek. When Linda vanished, I told the trumpet player that he might perhaps find her in the forest. It was merely a gesture to allow him a few more moments of hope.
When we arrived back on the beach, the trumpet player, who had been silent, spoke at last.
“It’s like the myth. Orpheus. I have to return without her.”
I looked at him a moment. Orpheus? The trumpet player thought highly of himself. But I wanted him to know I understood.
“In a way, like Orpheus, yes. But in this case, Linda has departed, and you will remain here.”
The trumpet player looked around and, by the distortion his face, I knew that he had lost all familiarity with his surroundings. He raised his arm as if it would protect him from the wave poised above his head. Staring at it wonderingly, he lowered it, and faced me. “What is this place?”
“You have been found insufficient,” I said. We have allowed men to leave with their women, women to leave with their men, women with their women. We have allowed a man to return to your world with a mountain across his shoulders, another at the helm of a flaming ship. You may leave no other way.
The trumpet player stepped toward me, as if to lay hands on us.
Try not to think of it as quicksand. It is much faster. Instead of the prolonged needle of panic plunged by the trap, you are embraced by the warmth of forgetfulness. The trumpet player sank, not all that deeply, into the transparent sand. I saw the shape of his silhouette at rest as I trod over it to the perpetually risen wave that overhung our world.
How many of you had I witnessed, poets and panting maggot men, stand before the wall of water rushing in place and, with all the adrenaline of swift madness, shout when will the wave, at last, crash? Even if it should smite them.
Jeffery Ryan Long is currently working on his dissertation in the English department of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. His fiction has appeared in BambooRidge, Hawai'i Review, Vice-Versa, Euphemism, The Spectacle, and Midway. His collection of short stories, University and King, was published by Aignos Press in 2014.