It had been a long and uneventful life, and when the daily drudgery of existence reached a level that threatened to drown her, Amber spent all the bitcoin she had amassed to book a ticket well in advance in order to give her family, friends, and employer ample notice of her departure.
Impatiently, she waited at a forest rail station, which was hidden from all transit maps and only locatable via the dark web, for the train that traveled the timeless roads from the birth of imagination to the apex of dreams.
She knew in her heart of hearts that she would not ever return to this reality in her lifetime.
The last meal? Declined. Told that I might dine on whatever foodstuffs my heart desired, I found myself wanting nothing that would possibly remind me of the pleasures of this existence. Starvation would be the repast I took to my grave.
Prepared to meet my maker? Not by a long chalk. Religion was a thing that never quite managed to find purchase upon the coral reef of my soul. Mine was a spirit never moved by any diety, higher or lower, so the only salvation available for me once I came face to face with my final fate was to let oblivion enfold me within her inky embrace.
My jailors were informed that I would seek no holy counsel from a curate, as I hoped to spend my last hours in solitude but that request was ignored and a visitor was announced—a woman whose face was unfamiliar to me was escorted into my cell.
She said nothing, this woman, as she sat on the far corner on my bedding, cradling a cup hewn from wood in her delicate hands. Smiling, she offered the cup to me and made a motion suggesting that I drink.
For the life of me—a peculiar turn of phrase considering my position—I could not explain why I accepted the cup or why at her urging I touched its brim to my lips but in my grasp this simple cup was not unlike the holy grail.
It was filled with a liquid that after one sip I somehow knew to be her tears. Tears shed from happiness and from grief, yet when those collected salt drops greeted my lips the flavor was replete with the surprising splendor of the sweet serenity of a loving quiet purpose.
I drank and drank until there was no more and was momentarily reluctant to release the cup. When she left, still proffering that unnaturally kind smile, I realized what she had done. That simple and bizarre act of sharing her fluid with me sparked an ember of faith within me that I had no inkling existed and in that moment I knew sorrow and regret for what I had done and for the life that could have been and for the reward that existed beyond this life whose gates would never be opened for one such as I.
They gather at my wake, my family and friends do, and I am surprised to find they are not alone. For in the crowd of mournful faces I spy the many acquaintances I have made along the way, long lost playmates from my childhood, as well as the beautiful women who I recognize immediately as the pretty girls I loved in my youth, each with children not much younger than we were when we courted.
Each of the assembled grievers tell a story, most of which I remember fondly and some I have forgotten with age, stories that make me laugh at how foolish I had been when I was at my most serious and some touching enough to make the eye water at the perceived kindnesses I bestowed upon others without even being aware.
And when the time for remembrances both affectionate and painful has past, my loved ones—and yes, even the acquaintances are loved now—raise a parting glass to wish me safe passage on my unearthly travels to where I do not know and as I feel myself being gently pulled away from this realm, I swim against the current of my final destiny and pass through each body gathered in this place to leave a personalized vivid memory in an effort to ensure I am not forgotten.
Sadder than any person I’ve ever seen, Madam Ostelinda greets me with a weak handshake before taking the seat across the table and begins to remove the cloth from her crystal ball.
“That won’t be necessary, “ I say. “Your sign out front says you’re a dream interpreter as well, is that right?”
“I am,” says the fortune teller and I’m surprised at how much her accent doesn’t match her garish Roma garb, as if she can’t be bothered putting on the full routine anymore. In fact, her office or workspace or inner sanctum or whatever you call the place a woman in her line of work plies their craft seems a bit underdone, like a cheap curio shop that isn’t ready to open for business because it’s not fully stocked.
“I’d like to tell you about this dream I’ve been having.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” she says, repositioning the deep velvet cloth over the glass orb and locking eyes but still not properly seeing me.
“Okay, so, I’m looking up at this crescent moon in a night sky filled with stars and it’s too big, the moon, like I can almost reach out and touch it, except my arms won’t move. Then I realize I can’t move my entire body because I’m tangled up in some sort of giant spiderweb which for some reason is at the mouth of a cave. And before I can make sense of it, I hear a noise, a scrabbling or scratching sound that’s getting closer and it’s clear that something is approaching behind me and because I’m immobilized I can’t see it but I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it’s the thing that made this web.
“I try calling out for help but my lips and my teeth have these hooks and hollows that have been locked together like a flesh and bone zipper. All seems lost when out of the corner of my eye I spot a pair of scissors stuck to the web near my right hand and if I can only reach it I can cut myself free…but try as I might my fingers just aren’t long enough and the creature is right behind me, and just when I sense it’s about to strike…I wake up.”
I study Madam Ostelinda’s face, who is clearly preoccupied with other matters, and I do not rush her interpretation so we sit in her shabby mystic lair in silence for a long moment until the time the impatience I attempt to tamp down forces a biological urge to clear my throat.
The faux gypsy returns from her woolgathering and asks, “How many times have you had this dream?”
“There have been at least eleven instances in the past two weeks,” I reply. “Any idea what it all means?”
It is now Madam Ostelinda’s turn to clear her throat as she leans forward on the table, lacing her fingers in an academic professorial manner, and explains, “Well, a crescent moon indicates cyclic changes, renewal, and possibly progressing smoothly toward a new life path. The web could either suggest that you’re being held back from fully expressing yourself or you feel trapped and don’t know what to do or where to go. The scissors could denote a need to become decisive and take control in the real world, or you need to cut things or people out of your life.”
“I suppose I can agree with some of that,” I nod. “Not to change the subject but you seemed a little distracted after I finished telling you my dream. What were you thinking about?”
“You noticed that, huh? My apologies. It just seemed familiar to me, that’s all, like I’ve heard something similar to it before.”
“From your daughter, perhaps?”
And there is the look I have been waiting for, the dawning
“Amy?” she says my name and I am triggered, losing my footing in the present and falling back through the calendar of my life to the days when my younger self delighted in having my mother’s undivided attention.
“Hi, Mom,” I say, smiling despite myself.
This woman, who looks nothing like I remembered; who looks nothing like me because I take after my father, struggles to find words and when she eventually does, all she can muster is, “How did you find me?”
“A private investigator. Dad told me it was a waste of money and time but sometimes I’m like a dog with a bone, a trait he says I get from you. It took the private eye a while to find you because you did one hell of a job changing your identity.”
And any satisfaction I thought I’d feel at finally confronting her is lost when ages-long regret strips away the gypsy mask to reveal the sad, small woman beneath.
“You must think I’m a horrible person,” she turns away as she says this as to hide the tears welling in her eyes.
“I did, for a long time,” I admit. “But now, all I want are answers.”
“You’re not going to understand.”
“Try me. And as for the scissors thing, I’m not trying to cut you out of my life,” I say and proceed to ask all the questions a parent who abandons their child dreads.
By the time you read this, this version of me will be dead, but your version will just have been born, but before you become dismayed, know that I have lived a long and prosperous life, just as you had. I realize how unbelievable this will seem to you in your present, but in my past and your future, time travel has/will become a reality. I wish I could tell you more, but although time has opened for humankind greatly, my own time is extremely limited.
There are many blessings to being a member of The Time Guild, but the most important to me has to be the ability to tell you the things I never had the opportunity to say while you were alive. I admire your ability to be both mother and father to me, as well as my best friend, and so I wanted to let you know a few things.
Encouraging me to be an outspoken independent thinker was the best thing you could have done for me. Thank you very much for that. The money that you hide in that ratty old sock in your sock drawer, take a portion of it and invest in a startup company called ReTempus. I know this will put a financial burden on us in the short run, but it will pay off when we need it most. Not to mention ReTempus will eventually become the Time Guild. Please be discreet in your investments as feeding you this information is a strict violation of the Guild’s bylaws, but it should be fine if you fly under the radar.
My final gift to you, embedded in this chronal parchment, is a holographic image. These are your grandchildren, born after you passed away. My daughter is named after you. I am sure I do not have to warn you to keep the letter and its contents hidden from everyone, including me. Just raise me to the best of your ability and time will sort out the rest.
It was there, hidden in plain sight amongst the stars, the cipher that contained the answer to the meaning of all existence, and after Nialla decoded it, she climbed to the roof of her house and breathed the solution to the riddle into the night air. Creation made itself visible to mortal eyes for the first time since the invention of vision and reached out with a stardust arm to greet her.
The touch of the cosmic hand tumbled the locks set in place to limit human perception and knowledge, and she was instantly gravid with omniscience. She stepped off the roof and sailed up past the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere, past the thermosphere, ionosphere, exosphere, and finally into space, where the tiny particles that made up solar wind swarmed around her now naked form.
“Welcome home,” the Voice of All Voices whispered into her ever-expanding mind, which caused her heart to open like a flower.
Although air and breathing were no longer a necessity, she sighed a lifetime of relief and drifted peacefully into the arms of eternity.
My father died when I was young and I was the last person in the family to find out. Everyone thought they were protecting me, shielding me from the bad news and the sorrow and pain that would follow, but I knew something was wrong, even though I didn’t know what had happened. It’s like Nana Bettie used to say, I felt it in my waters.
When my mother finally broke the news to me, I didn’t cry, trying to prove that I was a big girl. I just shut down, and I think that scared my family more than if I had gone into hysterics. I didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, refused to go to school, and ignored every therapist that came to see me. The brilliance I had once appreciated in life began to fade, colors running together like a painting left out in the rain.
I was wasting away, and not just physically. My soul had begun to atrophy to the point where no one or no thing held interest for me anymore. And that was when my body finally gave out and I collapsed, finding myself falling, falling through stages of grief, which was actually like falling back through time, back to when my father initially sparked the kindling that would ignite the flame that would eventually become my passion.
I landed on a white beach with sand soft as clouds and an endless aquamarine ocean, and standing at the very edge of the shoreline was my father. The entire universe lay open before me.
“Is this heaven?” I asked.
My father laughed and said, “No, sweetheart. Paradise is much cooler than this.”
“Is that where you live?”
“Can I stay there with you? I promise I’ll be good.”
“You will one day, but not until you’re older, much older.”
“It’s not fair!”
“Life isn’t fair sometimes,” he shrugged. “But what if I make you a promise?”
“What kind of promise?”
My father held up his right hand. “Do you see this? It may not look like much to you, but I promise this hand is strong enough to protect you all the days of your life. So, while you may not be able to see me, you can trust that I’ll always be with you.”
And before I could plead my case to stay with him again, he leaned down and gently kissed my forehead, and I woke up in my bed, eyes filled with tears and surrounded by my family. I never told them what I saw because I didn’t want them to try to explain it away.
And whether you believe me or not, there have been times in my life where I survived circumstances that were impossible to bear because I felt I was in the grip of the protective hand of love.
The Universe expanded just wide enough to allow worlds to form. And those worlds were meant to spawn beings. And those beings were meant to learn the ways of the Apparatus Universi in order to keep the universe running, for The Universe was not a living thing, as most intelligent races postulated.
The Universe was a machine constructed by the Vetus Mundi Tinkerers, a race of cosmic free-thinkers and craftsbeings who, though long-lived, were not immortal, and eventually succumbed to the end fate that awaits us all, while waiting for their successors to arrive to remove the heavy burden from their weary shoulders and carry on in their stead.
But the changing of the guard never occurred. Somewhere down the line, the sacred knowledge meant to be handed down the generations until the various races sufficiently evolved to the point when they were ready to transition into tinkerers, had been mistold, mangled and eventually forgotten.
Now The Universe was winding down, beginning to fail because a piece was missing. Some small, yet vital part had somehow come loose during millennia of daily operation and was set adrift on the spaceways, with no one to find it, no one who even knew what to look for.
He really did try his damnedest to live his life in a productive manner, the only bit of advice he retained from his absentee father before he faded like the memory of a dream upon waking, but despite his efforts, it seemed as though he hadn’t made one definitive move in the right direction. There had been baby steps, to be sure, all down the vaunted paths less traveled, but for every baby step forward, life managed to push him two adult paces back, which racked up a ton of negative miles on his life odometer pushing his right direction destination so far forward it blinked out of existence on the horizon.
He heard that knowledge was power and he was very knowledgeable in the fact that life was what happened to you when you made other plans but of what use was that now? What was the answer? To grin and bear it? To roll with the punches? To play the hand he was dealt? Not exactly proactive, was it? And when he discovered knowledge did not necessarily mean answers, he was left with another riddle to heap upon the compost mound of riddles he accumulated over the course of his misbegotten life: When did the real answers come? Answers that counted for something?
Did they come in the middle of the night, when the pillow whispered his dreams back to him, or was the house creaking an Aramaic Morse code about his destiny as it settled each night? Or was everything realized the moment he awoke from a nightmare, in that flash second when he didn’t know where he was or what was real from what was illusion and the fear gripped him like a tangled, sweat-soaked bed sheet?
Then he began to suspect the answer didn’t exist within us, not singularly, anyway. What if each and every human being contained some small piece of a larger puzzle and all it took was the connection of communication to fit the pieces together? There was a saying acquired from a passing acquaintance that went, “You were never more than five minutes driving distance from an absolute stranger that had the ability to care for you, perhaps they could not offer love unconditionally, but they honestly cared about what happened to you.”
But he destroyed that somewhere along the way. He made strangers out of relatives and friends and instead of concentrating on what made people alike, he focused on what made them different. And there really wasn’t a great love for people who were different from the vision he had of himself.
He wasn’t what anyone would call a spiritual being, nor did he reside anywhere in that neighborhood, but he knew that there was a tremendous energy that existed in this moment. Right here. Right now. He just couldn’t seem to tap into it. He was far too busy shrugging off the past and contemplating the future to focus on how he was feeling in the moment, or alarmed at the lack of what he was feeling at present. And perhaps that was the real issue. Perhaps he overthought his existence instead of simply existing.
But who wanted to merely exist? To live life on cruise control? He wanted to be consumed in a fiery passion of–of…well, therein lay the problem. He didn’t know what he should have been passionate about anymore. It was like someone or something blew out the pilot light of his passion so that even the things that used to fascinate him barely held his interest anymore. It was like he outgrew his old life and emerged into a void. Waves of ennui assaulted him daily and though he realized that he must accept thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations as they came (accept, surrender, observe, and then, let go)…this didn’t change the fact that this existence, in this incarnation, had grown tiresome.
The ennui of this moment was overwhelming. He had the urge to deaden his senses with the mindless distraction of television, but instead, sat silently and surrendered. He submitted to what was. He allowed himself to feel himself; to truly experience the exactness of this infinite moment without judgment or ridicule. The difficulty of this task reminded him of a college professor’s eloquent analogy of The Tao:
“The current in a river carries you. If you try to swim upstream, you break the flow, you struggle. If you see a rock and you attempt to hold tightly onto it, the water will shove, thrust, push against you until your arms weaken and your body aches. Work with the current and the current works with you; work against the current and the current works against you. The only way to avoid the struggle is to simply flow; allow the river to carry you, surrender to all that is, and your course – even when rough – will be tranquil.”
He needed to learn to give up the struggle. Or rather, he knew to give up the struggle, now he needed to practice doing so. Upset by what was, angered by what wasn’t, worried about what would be, and anxious of what strife may come, he couldn’t even see the now, let alone feel it, taste it, touch it and live in it.
He couldn’t just flow. He couldn’t stop swimming upstream, or clutching to all that was inconsequential.
At first, his world was consumed by the sounds of the sea. Rolling waves smashing against rocks. The shrill caw of seagulls from somewhere high above. Then a noise. A song? Four repetitious notes that began on the lowest frequency sound perceptible to the human ear that rose to an ear-splitting wail. Roland was pulled into consciousness sometime around dawn. His eyes fluttered open and he thought he was blind for a moment, his vision refusing to cooperate, but as sight gradually returned, for an instant he wished for darkness again. Emerging from the haze of blurry blobs and shapes were the after effects of a shipwreck, thrust upon the shore by the relentless crash of waves.
He pushed the wreckage of broken wood and fabrics off of himself and stood unsteadily in the scattered aftermath that was once a vessel. The morning mist began to burn off and Roland could see for miles in the sunlight reflecting off the sea. The beach was quiet and uninhabited, polluted with ownerless possessions, jagged spires of twisted metal and wood pointing at odd angles towards the sky.
Combing through the debris for other survivors, all he uncovered were bloated bodies clustered in puddles of black blood. It felt like a long, sharp blade slowly being driven into his heart. A great weight of hopelessness settled on him, getting heavier and heavier. Although he was the only living thing on this deserted strip of an uncharted island, he felt like he was dead. No, it felt like he was dying, over and over again. Unliving forever.
He was lost. Roland wasn’t a mariner, the furthest thing from it, stranded without a map, without the slightest idea where the waters had washed him, without a means of communicating to another living soul. He was surrounded by gritty sand that irritated his already raw skin, a few trees that bore no fruit, and a great body of water that uttered waves of mocking laughter at his uncertainty of it being safe to drink. At first, he collected containers of seawater and strained it through fabric, but he soon acknowledged he didn’t know what he was doing and truth be told it was too time-consuming and he had always been an impatient man, even with so much time on his hands. If it was saltwater, so be it. Better than dying of thirst.
He was lonely. Over the course of several days, remnants of the ship washed ashore. He tried to occupy his mind by building a makeshift camp from flotsam and foliage. He also created signal fires from bits of wood he placed in the sun to dry and spelled out giant SOS messages in stones on the sand, but none of this was enough to dull the ache for companionship that swelled within him and nearly outweighed his ever-increasing hunger.
During the early mornings before the sun set itself at the hottest point in the sky, forcing him to find shade, Roland explored the shoreline and picked through the mostly useless debris. It was a futile effort and he wasn’t sure why he kept at it. Most of the litter had been committed to memory, but on the morning he swore to himself that he wouldn’t explore any longer—
Roland came upon an enormous whale beached on the surf.
Elated that his food worries were over, he scrounged around and found a bit of metal with a sharp enough edge to be used as a knife and wrapped a length of cloth around the other end, fashioning a handle that ensured he wouldn’t cut himself in the process. But before Roland drove his blade into the beast, the whale regarded him with its great eye, and something in that momentary exchange of glances struck a strange sort of empathy in the man’s heart. It turned out his need for a companion outweighed his need for sustenance.
Roland gathered up all the cloth he could lay his hands on, dipped the fabrics into the sea and draped them over the cetacean. He then dismantled his shelter and rebuilt it nearer to his new island mate. It was the hardest relationship he ever had to maintain, constantly gathering water in containers to keep his friend wet and spearing fish to feed it, most of which he was forced to eat when his friend declined. But it was worth the price of not being alone. Of having someone to talk to, even if the conversations were all one-sided.
The following day Roland heard a sound. A vocalization of four notes that registered on the borders of his perception. He wasn’t sure if it was whalesong, wasn’t sure that whales possessed the ability to speak out of water, but whatever it was, it was a sound. And the whale made it.
Among the many things he knew nothing about, whalesong ranked high, but somehow he understood what the whale attempted to communicate. It had said to him:
let me die
Saddened by the prospect of being alone again, Roland argued with the whale, tried to reason with it, pleaded his case. The whale did not respond, apparently resolute in its decision. He had no choice but to abide by his friend’s wishes and formed a pact with the massive marine mammal not to leave its side, not to eat until the whale died.
For two days the man recounted the story of his life. He spoke of accomplishments and regrets in equal measure and tried to calculate the good he had done in the world and the legacy, if any, he would have left behind. And at the end of the second day, when all the stories worth telling had been told, the whale, skin dried and cracked rattled the notes for:
Roland mourned the passing of his friend and tried to no avail to commit the whale’s body back to the sea. His appetite never returned.
One morning, a week or so later, he spotted a ship on the horizon. He dragged his weakened frame across the sand over to the kindling of the signal fire and set about to light it but paused instead and looked over his shoulder at the decaying whale.
“Don’t think they’d be anxious to take you along, would they?” he sighed. “No. I guess they wouldn’t.” Roland turned his back on the ship and returned to his shelter.
He released his grip on life that very same evening.
A commercial fishing trawler, more rust than boat, bobbed across the heavy chops of the sea. The hard, beaten-faced crew hoisted up nets filled with their catch. A shadow suddenly fell over the deck and the fishermen looked to the vast spill of stars in the night sky and for the briefest of moments spotted the silhouette of a man riding on the back of a whale against the waning moon.
About Beached: Growing up I created my own characters for my favorite TV shows and fantasized about how I could make the story different and in some cases better. When I returned to reality, the characters and plots were radically different from where I had begun.
There was a teacher I had a crush on, I didn’t have her in any of my classes and I can’t recall how we became acquainted but she always made time for me between classes. Anyway, she once told me there hadn’t been a new plot created in over two thousand years, but it’s the way the writer perceived the plot and created the characters that made the story unique.
Most of my work is inspired by the wisps of dreams and despite keeping a dream journal—that I don’t update quite often as I should—I don’t remember the precise details surrounding how I’m immersed in the story I wind up writing about. If I’m able to remember anything at all it’s usually only one aspect or detail that vividly sticks in my mind.
This single aspect becomes a what-if question that I strive to answer—the what-ifs of life are the basis of the best stories ever told.
So, I do with my dreams the same as I did with the TV shows, in this case, I took a dream about being stranded on a strip of sand out in the middle of nowhere and this is what it became.