They say that you can’t step in the same river twice.
But I would give anything just to swim back up the river to the world thirty minutes ago.
Last night, I fell asleep into a world full of infinite dreams, in which our impending, biggest-ever tour for which I’d yearned for the past fifteen years had already become reality. In forty-eight hours, we would become the most famous band in the country. All four of us would be household names.
But before the sun rose, one of us would become a household name only a little too soon.
The crowd was packed in like a rabid political rally, single-mindedly gathered from around the motherland for our cause. They did not know what we were about to play, but they were such devoted fans they would know whatever it is we did play. We cared very little that every album of ours was stored somewhere in the darkest corners of their homes, compared with how every note of ours was etched upon the deepest contours of their hearts.
And just as we were about to strike the first note, I heard a piercing yell escape my lips without my knowledge or consent. Inside my head, I shrugged it off as merely a blip, a rare moment of uncontrolled excitement at the euphoria of standing on the very stages at which we once spent many years’ worth of childhood allowance. But soon, two sets of clammy fingers rudely shook against my shoulders even as my three brothers in arms stood serenely still.
I realized all at once that I was no longer standing proudly on the stage, perched atop the summit of my life in a triumphant gaze down at the world below who gathered to listen reverently at the mountain’s base, but buried in my stony white bedsheets, locked for a moment-long eternity into the deathly pale gaze of my best friend’s wife.
And that the yell had been her voice, not mine.
Chapter 1: Where The River Flows
The sun had not yet risen in my bedroom when I heard that yell. As I searched in vain for a glimpse of the sun, I realized it was never coming out.
They told me it had happened overnight, quicker than falling asleep. His inner light that had never wavered once in forty years suddenly flickered unawares, once shining like the brightest of stars, and yet not exploding in a spectacular flourish like a supernova, but burning out as mundanely as flipping a power switch. But it was no mundane occurrence that his spirit had lit up the sky in my world for fifteen years, and then so suddenly disappeared into the eternal beyond to leave me in a seemingly eternal darkness.
I wondered if he even knew what had happened to him. And if he did, what he was feeling now. Was he sadder at being ripped away from doing what he loved, or watching a part of our hearts be ripped out, never being able to know he didn’t mean to leave so soon?
The melancholy chill of winter rain hung like a velvet blue pall over the mourning skies. Each droplet of rain that knocked on the windows came delivering the news of his departure. As they collected into a puddle of mist, everything ahead of me was now an endless fog of gloom and despair. And yet as the raindrops clattered in perfect rhythm, they began to quietly sound a beat that trickled like a beacon of water rippling through the vast sea.
I remembered the beat from our newest project as it played ever so faintly in my head, but we had never quite finished it yet. It was supposed to be completed today. Life had other plans. But so did I. Did whatever it was that had the power to spirit him away from this world, have a reason for it? If so, how could I possibly change its mind? Or was it all a perchance circumstance, and it had been granted to me the power to bring him back to me for only a moment, to make purpose and significance out of something seemingly meaningless?
I worked feverishly on the song for so long I cannot remember. Everything was such a haze of black that the only way I could tell time was when my body felt the cold embrace of sleep. But why would I want to go back to sleep when the last time I did, I awoke to a world without him? Why would I want to dream when I had forgotten what a dream without him in it looked like? Or, should I face him in my dreams, how could I tell him I had failed him?
Half of me stared at the guitar, wanting it to be not only the last time I saw a guitar, but the last sight I ever saw. The other half reached out to the neck of the guitar, grasping it with hushed reverence, like the lifeless body of a gallant soldier. He had such a gift for music that he would never have wanted any guitar to never make music. With every note on every guitar played, everyone around the world would soon be paying a fond tribute to his life. But it all started with me, here and now – whatever “now” was.
As my nervous fingers struck the strings, they reverberated with a frigid hollowness that frightened me at first. How could I ever have hoped to stand in the shoes of someone who made the guitar sing with such vibrant life? I almost swept it off the stand to fall into pieces on the cold wooden floor, until the electronic beat quickened gradually, and it instinctively felt wrong to just let it hang out in space, never to amount to anything. It was all his idea, so what greater affront to his legacy could I make than to let it follow him to the grave?
by the accumulation of its energy, my strokes of the guitar grew faster, more
fluid, and closer and closer to the way I had always envisioned them to be. The
minutes blurred by, one into the next, like gears whirring in frantic clockwork,
until my fingers grew numb and were unable to play anymore. The only instrument
I had left to use was my voice, which had been silent all day long.
Even so many hours later, words to express my grief and anguish simply refused to come. But even though words have been said so many times before, my grief and anguish are uniquely my own, never said before, and never to be said again the same way. I let them fill me and consume me, reducing my voice to a wordless trembling sob, as I captured this performance for an audience of none. Or, so I dimly hoped, one who was listening from the other side.
As the last note echoed from my lips into the blackened silence, I felt sleep overtake me at last in the inexorable shadowy embrace of its open arms. But this time, as it was the night before but, in a way, more so, I knew I would never be alone there. And that when I did awaken, I had created something that would be remembered along with him. That if it could be written into words, would adorn his tombstone. That would, one day, bring his spirit to peace wherever it was now, knowing his work on earth was done.
You can’t step in the same river twice. But you can carve the path where the river flows. And by so doing, although you will never change the past, you will change how the past changes your present and your future.
Chapter 2: Shine
My eyes were not yet ready to wake up. Yet they unconsciously fluttered open. Soon I knew why. They were attracted by the first glimpse of the sunlight.
Suddenly, everything felt normal for the time being. Where once it felt like my heartbeat had been permanently paused, not dead but lying in stasis ever since, I could feel it pounding fervently inside my chest, drowning out the tumult of the past twenty-four hours. No amount of dissonance and chaos could disturb how gracefully it constantly kept time like a metronome. The one thing in my world that would remain the same.
I got myself ready for the day like any other day. Then I strolled downstairs and opened the front door wide, to see the sun cast a ray of hope down a face scarred by canyons carved by a river of tears. It was so early in the morning that I would not have seen the way down the sidewalk from my doorstep if today had been any other day. But walking down to the mailbox felt as easy as standing in place.
I had forgotten that it was earlier than it seemed, thus the mail had not arrived yet, and so there were not yet any letters from my friends expressing their deepest sorrow. But if I had seen any, they would not have weighed on my mind today. The cool, gentle wind kept me at peace as I surveyed the winter landscape. Though it was not even March yet, I felt the joyous breath drawn in unison by all the earth as the hungry frost that had laid claim to the land yesterday began to melt away. Every day, it quickened faster as everyone anticipated the final victory of spring.
I stared around in a blissful stupor, forgetting why I had even gone outside in the first place. I had never appreciated the beauty of the world around me so much before. But after having tasted grief and despair, even the most mundane of sights that I had known since I was a child were little victories that shone brightly in defiance against the darkness. Each second I survived to carry on was its own miracle.
Soon, the little victories grew so numerous that they all blended together and I forgot them all individually, and neglected the passage of time. I wished this miracle could have lasted forever. For even while I traveled through my innermost darkness, for a moment, I had found my way back to light.
Chapter 3: Rapid Eye Movement
Just like the previous night, I had no way of telling time until I felt pulled into the dreamworld. Last night, the sun would never come out, but this time, the sun would never go down.
Coming so rudely to an awareness of mortality had its bright side, that I knew even the days of winter were numbered, but still the icy wind faintly echoed through the sleeping streets of the city. As much as my heart wanted to savor the rejuvenating sunlight, the chill of the late hours eventually convinced my body, against all evidence on the outside, that it was time to sleep.
Although my eyes were shut, it felt like I could still see ahead, even clearer than when I was awake. Shapes of every size and color floated in a weightless vacuum before where my eyes would have been, passing by without rhyme or reason. For hours, I was so mesmerized by the collage of shapes that I may as well not have been asleep; I would not have fluttered just the same.
Until that one moment when I tried to open my eyes.
A current of shapes lurched suddenly upwards – if one could call it up. I had followed every contour of their paths ever since I had fallen asleep and not once had I seen this happen. Was it a pure happenstance – or could I replicate this phenomenon on purpose?
My body had fallen back into deep sleep as quickly as it had come out of it. I would have to wait for an amount of time that seemed so short, but would have felt like an eternity if I had been awake. Fortunately, I was not in the least concerned with time in this place. Otherwise I might have drawn such bated breath that I would pass out. For if I could truly control my dreams, could I bring him back?
Finally, as the next opportunity came by, I creaked my eyelids upwards in that seemingly vain thought, that wish too good to be true. A set of triangles obeyed my command for an ever so infinitesimal moment, drifting through the boundless aether like puffs of white smoke through clouds. They echoed back with the tiniest of whispers, so insubstantial as to be imperceptible to the eye. Except to me. For I knew what to look for.
The sound of a guitar, played by the only one who could make a guitar sound like that.
I was so familiar with that sound that it spoke to me louder than anything else in the world. I forced my eyelids into an upward creak, desperate to catch the trail before it disappeared completely even beyond my heightened senses. Every time I came within milliseconds of failing. Until one time, the sound seemed to grow in strength of its own volition, like its source was steadily approaching me from far away.
As it passed by them, the shapes began to twist and morph like a rainbow being sucked towards a black hole in slow motion. It commanded them with such authority that I could only sit back and watch in awe at the ease with which it ushered them into curves, rows and columns all at once. I realized that this dream had transcended all known dimensions. That things could happen here that could never happen in the known world.
There was a strange rhythm and flow to the waveforms surrounding me. If I had seen this in the known world, I would not have recognized it. But here, they collected together into patterns that looked suspiciously like the cadence of drums, bass and guitars. And yet they rippled with immeasurably more depth and color than I had ever been aware of before. Perhaps I knew it was there, but could never put my finger on it. But in this alternate dimension, I could. And once more, I had tapped into that something intangible that I had been chasing for my whole career.
The intangible fueled me as I mentally willed myself, as best I knew how without it in front of me, to pluck the strings of my instrument. After several attempts sputtered into silence, finally a cavernous note resonated through the weightless vacuum of space, slowly grounding it in a facsimile of gravity. Even as a disembodied synthesizer floated into nowhere, the steady drum beat kept its pulse on the ground. These disjointed sketches of musical ideas were quickly meshing together into a song playing inside my dream. It was like we were together again, jamming out a song out of pure improvisation. Words never occurred to us because we never needed any words to say to each other.
But as the song reached its climax, I knew that, like all my other ones, it would eventually have to end. I knew I was no longer dreaming when, contrary to the laws of this dimension as I comprehended them, I heard myself talk. The phrase spilled involuntary from my lips as I remembered the times I had fallen into this state while composing.
“Have I been here before?”
As I awakened, the rainbow of colors around me was compressed and distorted beyond recognition, as if being squashed into a tunnel a millimeter wide. I clutched tightly onto the memory of the song like a mother grasping the hand of her child drowning in a squally sea. For without all the happy memories of a life and a catalog of music that we shared together, I would be the one pulled overboard to drown.
My eyes jolted awake to be greeted by the gray morning clouds. Not quite white, not quite black. As doubtful about themselves as I was about everything that had happened for however many hours I had been asleep. It all felt as vividly real as everything I saw with my own two eyes at this very moment. Yet his presence now felt like a specter of itself when he was alive. Was it all just a dream, something I created with my seemingly limitless mental powers because I could not accept he was gone, or did I really feel him there?
My life felt like an endless tunnel down which this doubt had cast a pall of impenetrable darkness. Even though I cannot see the light anymore, I know it lies somewhere up ahead in the distance, and I shall willingly embrace the next oncoming night, if it means that on the other side I will find the truth.
Chapter 4: Night Session, Part 1
This cycle continued for many days afterwards, and each time I visited this dreamworld, the picture grew clearer. Every day I looked forward to the day the picture would be complete. And then one day, it all came together at once, into one giant canvas that left me trembling at the herculean task of translating this all into the language of our mundane world. Just when I thought my brain would shut down from sensory overload, my eyelids pried themselves wide open.
All the color was washed away in an instant. The sun had gone out for the night, leaving me deserted in an expanse of gray, lonely shadows with ghostly silhouettes only ever so faintly visible in the furthest corners of the room. I could hardly see my hand in front of my face, so thick was the blanket of darkness that draped the frosty air. But I still knew where I was from the silhouettes alone.
I basically lived inside the studio now. Whenever I wasn’t being visited by my friends paying their deepest respects and offering their condolences – or I just couldn’t bear to see another of their faces. The sound-proof walls had become my barrier against the pain and sorrow that besieged me every hour I remained awake. Here, I could create my own world where the only sounds I heard were those that he made, as if he was still inside there with me.
The night seemed to drag on endlessly as I put pen to paper and finger to knob inside the studio. My last dream sequence was filled with such creative energy that it impelled me to discharge it. Scattered fragments of ideas from many years of blood, sweat and tears shed together flashed through my mind like strobe lights painting a Jackson Pollock. I could not even begin to fathom putting them all together on my own. Because I never had to.
Here had been the place where we worked out all of our music together, one idea excited by the other’s to trigger a fusion reaction whose potential was without limit. But now I have to get used to composing alone. He always elevated all of my greatest ideas even further, and turned even my worst ideas into works of genius. Now, every note I write without him feels like a mistake. How will I ever know if I am anything apart from him?
I touched a single lit match to the very last wick in the house, watching its embers flare up into a lonely bulwark against the enveloping embrace of resignation that had already engulfed the rooms around me. It kept alive the memory of the hope for myself that I discovered inside these walls many evenings ago. I never gazed once down at any of the instruments I was playing, for I knew if I did, I would lose sight of the light of the candle, and with it, all of my hope.
I remembered a passage from one of our favorite songs. We called that part “Irretrievably Lost Imagination.” It stoked a fire of imagination within me, my fingers eager to add the experience of another thousand days of life into the passage. But, as I soon sensed, I could no longer play without subconsciously adding the experience of one day that seemed to overshadow all the others. Literally, in a sense, as it felt like everything I had imagined those thousand days had, in an instant, been irretrievably lost.
I kept composing without knowing why I was still even trying. What little I could see from the light of the candle was blurring, and at first I thought it was the smoke, until I realized that as my focus continued to wane, each note grew more distorted until the sound coagulated into a haze so thick that my senses were beginning to erode away. For the first time, I contemplated whether I was still sane – or whether this was the dream, and whenever I closed my eyes was when I lived in reality.
clock somewhere on the wall ticked away with a cold solemnity like the tolling
church bell on the morning of a hanging. Was this all about to end? Was I awake
or dreaming? If I was dreaming, would I wake up, or if I was awake, would I go
to sleep – and if I went to sleep, would I ever wake up again?
I felt the mysterious ticking noise grow weaker, and wondered if it was really coming to an end, or if it was just my senses failing completely. I still couldn’t tell as my head slowly inched downwards like a dying tree branch in the desert heat.
For one brief second, I heard absolutely nothing at all, and had no time to consider what it meant before everything went black.
Chapter 5: Night Session, Part 2
When next I awoke, I saw only the most momentary glimpse of the flame before it vanished from the corner of the room in one puff, like a spirit traveling at the speed of light away from earth and towards wherever. The last wisps of smoke slithered tantalizingly towards me, then dissipated into the vacant air before I could reach out to grasp them. For a moment, it felt like everything inside had died. But then I heard a sigh exhale from my weary lungs, and I knew I must be alive still, if only because I was still drawing breath.
I could no longer hear the clock. Perhaps its batteries had burnt out. Or maybe it had finished counting down to whatever, or whosever, final hour it was keeping vigil over.
I cared not enough to get up and check.
It felt like paralysis to sit there in the dark. My spirit floated in the void, as if stranded in outer space, with no one or no thing pushing or pulling it anywhere, and bereft of any anchor from which to propel itself. Terminal inertia.
The microphones were still running, but now they were recording the soundtrack of my fraying mental faculties. I found the sound of decay healing in a way. It put me in such a trance that I could forget about what lay in the real world. If I felt constant pain, I would eventually cease to notice it. At which point I would finally feel free.
But then there would be no more music to make. And at that point, I might be alive, but I would have nothing to live for.
Then I heard the hypnotic beat from the dreamworld, seducing me like a Siren song while I was cast adrift without a paddle. I had no power to resist. Nor, under its soporific charm, would I have wanted to. If I could have recorded the way that song sounded to my ears, I would have exceeded all my prior masterpieces, even the one I was trying to complete now. And the fact that I could seemingly never achieve that perfection would have torn me apart at the core, if I had not already gone numb. Even if I learned from whoever it was that made that music, I would need basically supernatural ability to convey it in our human language.
All my toil had bled me out so completely that I had nothing left to give. Yet perhaps I could find something to receive.
It was about as faint a chance as if his body were to sit up, dig itself out of its coffin, and walk around again.
But it was my only chance.
Chapter 6: Sleepwalkers
Perhaps in the dreamworld, I could find the will to carry on with my life. For it was only through visiting there that I had found the only thing that felt like worth striving for anymore.
But when I arrived at my destination, I concluded that I had gone out of my mind completely. Wherever I was, the shapes and colors had disappeared from it. All that was left was an incessant clamor of flashing black and white lights that, to my knowledge, made absolutely no sense. Perhaps it was my final test, to ascend to another dimension beyond the mortal and find the meaning of it all.
I searched constantly for a pattern, but found no rhyme or reason in the randomness. No beautiful melody, no concordant rhythm. It was what I would have seen on the sheet music if all my compositions had been thrown haphazardly into a blender and pulverized into a billion fragments. I would be dead before I pieced any of this disorder back together.
Every single note I had written since then now felt like just one of those tiny fragments.
an instant, I had been stripped of not only everything I was working towards,
but everything I had worked for ever since. Why did I create so much, only to
lose it in vain pursuit of perfection? Now my worst enemy, insecurity, was
following me into the dreamworld, and I had nowhere left to hide. My fragile mental
state was no longer able to endure such torture, and so it gravitated to the
only other place it could go.
The real world.
I dreaded opening my eyes even more than I might have many weeks ago, if I had known what I would wake up to. But I could not control my eyelids as they creaked open of their own volition like a moth-eaten door falling off its hinges.
As quickly as my eyes opened up, my self-imposed shell was left exposed, and there was nothing to stop my heart from feeling the full weight of the grief that had been slowly eroding at my soul ever since waking up into a nightmare. It all collapsed onto me at once, as I throbbed in agony like half of a conjoined twin waking up in the middle of separation surgery. Everything around me went blurry and all my senses were numbing nearly past the point of functioning.
Not a single thing around me even registered inside my brain anymore, except the one passing thought clamoring above the excruciating din, that I was about to finally find escape from the darkness that was consuming my existence on this side of the veil, by passing through the veil just like him.
As it had been during my night sessions in the studio, unconsciousness was my solace, where pain was but a memory inside a waking dream. So even as I slipped under its spell, I no longer felt dead inside.
My body slumped without a bang or whimper to the floor, almost instantly falling still as the ground received it with a cold embrace, all the warmth left in it slowly rising upwards towards the sky. While I can no longer walk on my own two feet, I find as I fall into the endless sleep, I can walk more freely than ever.
Perhaps I will finally walk out of this never-ending maze of despair into a place full of light.
Chapter 7: Rainbow Trip
The cold floor upon which my body had fallen, fell away from me in turn as I ascended upwards to parts unknown. The colors around me begin to bleed together indiscriminately, like a warehouse full of paint washed away by a flood. I am lifted up onto a wave of color like a hospital stretcher, and am struck with awe as a million rainbows flashed before my eyes in less than a second. Everything seems to move at the speed of light, the rush of information occupying so much headspace that I can never spare a thought for what lay behind. It fills me with such exhilaration as to surpass all the years of performing on stage put together.
Eventually, I begin to slow down gradually to a comfortable coast, like a cruise ship passing by an island paradise. Only here, the mural of colors was far more vivid and vibrant. Even the colorful collage of shapes from the dreamworld felt drab and lifeless by comparison. I must now have transcended all known dimensions of the physical world. I thirst for adventure into this wondrous realm, where the storms that never ceased to rain on me have given way to a rainbow.
But slowly, the colors begin to fade into gray, and deep within my senses now register a constant throbbing. In the real world, it might have been my head throbbing from a concussion. In the back of my consciousness, I hear a siren. I wondered if I imagined it at first, until I took one last glimpse back at the world I knew while the colors still granted me sight, to see a troupe of paramedics kneeling over my limp body, praying against all hope they had not been too late.
But I hope that they had.
The siren stretched in the air like a piece of taffy being pulled thinner than paper, until it disappeared into a wisp of sound so insubstantial that it was imperceptible. The embrace of gray draped itself around the place where the sound vanished into nothingness, and along with it, extinguishing the last light.
Everything is eerily silent. This place seems so similar to the reality I had left behind. Though a cloak of white light shone far in the distance, it had become a dull gray when filtered through the vast black shroud of darkness that surrounds me. Even though I detached from reality, I am yet unable to escape it.
I had been on medication before that made me feel detached from any reality known to man. Every time I had been under its narcotic spell, I had experienced the exhilaration, but never the marvelous sense of freedom that I had experienced in the rainbow gateway that had led here. But now it has all been swept away from me like sandcastles crushed by a bursting dam. Now was no rainbow trip; it is real life.
Or is it real? Or is it life? Or maybe neither?
I lie suspended in a vacuum between one world and the next. Even though I have no sense of time, somehow I still feel an impatient yearning to be freed from being perpetually stuck here.
The gray disperses into hungry masses of white and black that swirl around me like vultures, each waiting to claim me as their own. If I could have screamed at the mass of white to forever enfold me in its soothing caress, I would. And yet my voice had left me.
I know the darkness knows my worst fears. It knows that I have yearned for release along my entire journey, and it promises to give it to me, by submerging me in the tides of oblivion. It whispers into my heart to convince me it has been telling the truth all along. But the tiniest spark of hope emanates from the last corner of my shipwrecked soul and casts a beacon of light out to pierce the veil of darkness.
I can do is form the words in my mind and pray that somehow, the source of the light
finally fading out of my reach cares enough about one solitary lost soul to hear
my call first.
Then, in one fateful instant, I see white and black both rushing towards me at once.
Chapter 8: Heavenland
The expanse of black is suddenly washed away by an endless wave of pure white. I flail my arms in front of my face, in the thought that I was in zero gravity, and yet I see nothing. At least in zero gravity I would still see where I was going. And I would actually go somewhere. But here, no matter how hard I push, I move nowhere.
Am I alive or dead? I would not know what it is like to be dead. I have never died, after all. Yet if death was anything, was it not more like when I was jolted from my sleep by the news that killed me? I can only conclude that this is not oblivion, that I still exist, because I feel more alive than I ever have before.
I do not feel worry and anguish at the evident fact that I am completely lost in a realm separated from anything I have ever seen. Instead, I feel a boundless sense of peace and security. I would have no way of knowing if even the equivalent of one foot in front of me, there lay something dark and evil, ready to pounce upon me to put an unceremonious end to whatever existence I was in now. But not only do I know it is not there, I know that in this plane of existence, such a thing simply does not exist. Indeed, the concept of anything imperfect never registers with me.
I do not know how I can know what imperfection is when everything is perfect. I just know in a way I cannot explain I can.
Arriving into this place is like being born all over again. The naïve innocence of childhood feels like old age by comparison. But though I am innocent, I am no longer naïve. I feel ageless, wise beyond measure. My weak and fallen humanity is perfected, to an extent I could never have dared to even aspire to while I was on earth.
But if this is a perfect place, then surely it must have the one person I miss the most in it.
Though my limbs fail me, my thought carries me wherever I want to go. Soon I discover that I am approaching a lake. It is not blue like I am accustomed to, but the same brilliant shade of white that everything else was. I wondered if it had just been frozen over, until I see the snow-white horizon. Yet I was apparently now able to perceive shapes and forms that existed within what would appear to regular eyes as a monochromatic infinity, for I could discern the contours of the pure white horizon.
I realize this place looked just like the hometown we grew up in. Only one thing had actually changed here, but it was such a dramatic transformation that it was like I was in a different universe. The unapproachable light had extinguished all the darkness that ever was. It had granted me sight through its own eyes, to see the resplendent glory that left signs of its existence throughout the universe, but that I once could only dimly see through a glass darkly. Even the most radiant of colors was just a feeble shadow of the eternal source from whence it came.
I am so entranced by this epiphany that I lose track of where I am going, until I curiously peek ahead of me. I look incredulously at what would have been my foot, that is standing on the surface of the lake just like it was the ground. Encouraged by this discovery, I cross the lake as casually as taking a breath. On the other side lay a beach so well-trodden that the billions of feet that had walked it had smoothed it back out again.
Except for one set of footprints in the sand.
A lonely call flutters from my lips and into the vast expanse of white, vanishing so slowly that it seems to echo forever into its furthest reaches beyond my range of vision.
“Where have you gone?”
The blanket of white ripples like a howling wind, as if the color itself is making the sound. It resonated back the awareness that I am in a place that not only has even more dimensions than all the worlds that came before on my journey, but where all dimensions and all senses, all things exist as one, all at once. The howl of the wind is simultaneously the soothing ripple of the water. It gives me strength to move mountains and yet it calms me like the river flowing into the sea. Its unadulterated presence permeates every atom of matter in this place.
And it echoes a whisper back across the snow-white hills far in the distance to the perch of colorless sand upon which I stand.
I move slower than I had before, following the lead of this mysterious presence. Along the way, I hear faint voices of people I recognized on earth whispering to me. I feel loved in a way that was impossible to explain. Some part of me wanted to stay and listen to their serenade forever, to let the gift of singing that I gave to others on earth be given back to me.
I had never thought I would know what I would find when I died, or dared to believe such a place as this existed. But I know I must be there now. And that I can have more than just faith that, at the end, would be the person for whom I would travel here a thousand times.
I stopped involuntarily near a crystalline brook trickling through a lush garden. It was the place where we first met, so many years ago, where the dreams that we had realized since the beginning of the millennium first took root. Did I stop here only because I hoped he was here? Or was it nothing more than one of countless memories of a time gone by, and I was merely a traveler revisiting a museum full of them like a decaying photo album?
Then the wisp of sound resounded far louder than before, washing over me like the eyewall of a hurricane, eliminating anything else from my field of vision as it began forming itself into a shape before me. I do not recognize the shape by sight. And yet it makes the sweetest sound I will ever hear again in my life.
Because I know that sound is him.
If I had a heartbeat, it would be permanently stopped. Yet I never have any need for it here. If I could cry, I would be drowning in it. Yet there are no longer such things as tears.
His recognizable frame seemingly drew itself slowly in midair, carved into eternity by an ageless light so blinding that my eyes eventually must turn away. I knew on earth I would have instantly vaporized at its briefest touch, and yet here I can just barely bear its presence. As the light began to permeate my awareness so fully that there was nowhere left for my eyes to hide, they instinctively closed, but yet inside my head his image was forever engraved as a scar worn with pride. In this place, he had become the very manifestation of what he was meant for on earth. A serenade to be sung by every generation to come after him, more beautiful than anything he had ever yet even begun to envision. I cannot conceive of any more fitting of a repayment for the life he had lived.
A prayer of thanks ripples out from my heart of hearts and kisses the infinite circle of white light whose benevolence had blessed me with his existence. His entire legacy was all now encapsulated within a moment of infinity, where everything that had ever happened could happen again. That moment when we first met could exist once more, and would exist forever.
For though I cannot gaze upon his face, I know he is there. And though I do not hear his words, I hear within me an echo so faint it must not be heard with the ear, but only felt deep within the most hallowed recesses of my soul.
Chapter 9: Return
I do not know why I turn my head to look upward. I do not know how I knew what upward was. But I spot, for one fleeting moment, a flash of blue sky, and my entire sense of security begins to crumble like autumn leaves shredded by a violent gale. Could it be that this was all just another wishful dream, my mind’s equal and opposite reaction to counteract the devastation wrought upon it by such emotional trauma? Or is this all really happening, in which case I was still leaving the most beautiful place that there could ever be – and leaving him once again? Could he ever forgive me for being the one to leave this time?
The sky begins bleeding from solid white to blue. I always thought a blue sky was the happiest sight in the world, but now it seems so empty. Every blue sky I would ever see again would remind me of this brief glimpse of the next world. But also that I was once there, and now am not. Never fully alive for as long as I inhabit this earthly existence.
A ray of black aether slices through the last cloud left in the sky, and all the light around it seems magnetically attracted by it. For no one could look at the canvas of white without seeing the ray of black and focusing on nothing else. And yet, it was the black that was nothingness. I was encouraged when the light around it remained unaffected, until I comprehended that if the blackness could not outshine the unapproachable light, then surely the light was letting me go on purpose, letting it come back to claim me like it almost did in the instant before I came here.
As the ray sucks me in past its event horizon, the perfect world around me distorts and fragments like a mirror being slowly crushed by a bulldozer. Yet every splintered shard of white feels that much more important to me to cling to, even if it should cut me with the excruciating pain of holding on, and now I begin to grasp the purpose of my journey here.
Gratefulness had not been something I had kept in mind enough while I was on earth. My visit here made me treasure every moment of it, knowing that it was near its end. It could not make me treasure every moment that I had spent with him, for I could not turn back time. But it could make me treasure the meaning and inspiration I drew from having known him.
It feels like reliving his death all over again as his presence begins to flicker like a fizzling radio on a downed fighter plane. The timeless note that had become him distorts into a dissonant echo of its former self. I cling to the fragmenting shards like a drowning man in the sea, no matter whether they cut and pierced me, hoping to cling to the last vestiges of light to shine against the oncoming darkness, and remain here even if I had to keep constant vigil over this spot forever to hinder its influx.
But as tightly as I grasp, it feels like trying to hold the wind. A wind that rapidly accelerates towards the force of a tornado, until I can no longer contend with it and am swept away into the void. I take one last gaze back towards the blue horizon as his form disappeared across it, wanting to rip my eyes out here just so that they could always be staring at his face.
But before I could, his eyes are ripped from my sight. And it feels like I have gone blind anyway.
Chapter 10: Aether
As the last ray of white shrinks into the world falling beyond my grasp, I am now suspended in a blackened void, far removed from the celestial ocean of white from which I came. None of the exhilaration of my trip over the rainbow, and none of the silhouette of white that offered the faintest hope after the rainbow had faded into gray.
The black had swallowed me completely, and yet I was still alive. I carried within me the precious memory of the world illuminated in white, like a tattoo etched permanently onto my soul, a divine gift from beyond that kept me alive where anyone else would have died in an instant.
It soon occurs to me that I am not breathing. I don’t even remember the last time I did. Since I was not dead, I must simply no longer need to breathe in this place. But even if I was not dead, was I really alive?
With all of my thought now failing to move me an inch, I tried with all my might to lift my arms and legs. But they felt so heavy with the weight of what I had seen that it was like trying to lift a mountain with my bare hands. I understand why I do not breathe. I simply cannot, under the tremendous pressure. But could I, if I had more strength, or is the force required simply beyond all human comprehension? Either way, I was helpless.
I hear a sound constantly throb inside my head, but the punishing gravity of this place was like a prism that refracted it into a sound so warped and distorted that it could easily have been the hungry thrum of Poe’s pendulum. Every so often, it would slice through the suffocating silence and, though it could not physically harm me, I felt its impact in a shivering tingle from head to toe, that would have sent my body into irreversible shock – except that it could not move.
I heard a mechanical thudding sound in the distance, gradually growing louder. Sound could not travel in such a place as this, so I must have already been approaching reality. Although I was about to breathe again, I would be doing so in the imperfect place he had left behind for something greater beyond the blue horizon.
The immense weight of eternal black was beginning to abate, and even as my limbs struggled to move without success, I could perceive the resistance gradually weakening. Yet my awakening to reality also rendered me vulnerable again to the travails of reality. Still without my consent, I steadily drifted towards a cacophony of mechanical noise. I still could not determine where I was going to land, but although I was relieved it was not where I had just been, it was equally distant from where I wanted to be.
The thudding gradually went silent, and I felt no more movement. By now, I had to have arrived at my destination – if one could call it that, for I had already passed through and left my destination. Had I just taken a wrong turn, or did I do something wrong? Either way, I had sent myself back here again. Or if I hadn’t, why would I have been brought there and sent back?
Would I wake up where I was left lying helpless? Had they forgotten me?
Or would I wake up physically unharmed, but emotionally entombed within a labyrinthine prison worthy of Daedalus?
I twitched nervously and found I could move, that the enormous force that had rooted me inexorably to the spot had completely vanished. But I was too nervous to open my eyes.
Until I heard the siren again, forcefully jolting my body awake.
Chapter 11: Machines
My eyes opened up to see black, and I thought for a moment that I had arrived in another echelon of the void, forever to fall deeper until I could never climb my way out. Instead, I found myself lying unceremoniously on an unkempt hospital bed.
As I turned my head in confusion, the shroud of oppressive blackness began to peel away from my eyelids to reveal bedsheets that were equally comfortingly white and hollowedly sterile. I quickly noticed that finally I could touch and feel again. But every time I reached out to touch anything, it radiated an artificial coldness that could not have been more alien to me. It was like I had come from another planet. And in a way, I had.
Even though I had only spent a brief time in the most perfect place conceivable, it had become my home, and now the constant whir of machines seemed so hollow. So unnecessary. Mere shells of human existence. That needing them to survive was a sign that part of us has already died.
My heartbeat thumped joyfully inside my chest, a reminder of my own survival. A machine could replicate the steady rhythm, but never the smooth melody. Never the feeling of knowing I was alive. That I belonged to something much bigger than a machine-like existence. Fueled by food, water and media. Garbage in, garbage out.
I belonged to a place where none of these mattered. But for now, I had to learn to live with them all over again.
Behind the black curtains surrounding my bed, I heard the commotion of doctors rushing from place to place, and every so often caught a glance of another bed just like mine being wheeled frantically into some corner of the building beyond the reach of any human perception. Were they coming, or were they going? About to enter the waiting room, or leaving it? And were they leaving just to return to their temporary home, no more than a hundred kilometers away, until eventually they returned here again anyway? Or were they returning to their real home in a dimension far beyond?
My decision had been made – for me. I envied those who had left the waiting room for the last time, for I had left and yet had been sent back in, and knew what lay waiting for them. Yet I also felt a certain mysterious closure in staying here for the time being. For I would have far more of the only thing I could take with me to take with me, far more chances to share my wisdom with those still waiting along with me.
How long might I have to wait? I had no idea. So I had to pretend I would be called back in any moment, and live the most wonderful life I could. To transcend the machine I now inhabited and arise into the glorious fullness of my human potential.
Chapter 12: Promise
I had been sent home from the hospital, as no one could find anything physically wrong with me. No one could understand the profundity of what I had suffered, and thus they could not conclude that I was sick at all. And yet I was comforted that no one could understand how I had survived, that perhaps I had been meant to survive. This redoubled my concern that no one could understand what hope I found. But in the remaining days, weeks, months, years, or however long I had left on this side of existence, I was determined to leave behind as much hope as I could.
I had been in the coma for weeks, during which time his house had been sold, his wife unable to cope with the memories that haunted every corridor so much that she could no longer turn a corner without staring his ghost in the face. In just a few short hours, everything inside would be cleared out, some of it taken with her, some donated to charity in his honor, and some remaining with me. I had come under the cover of dark to inspect the house, to bid my last goodbyes to it – and to him.
Inside the attic, I had found a collection of dusty black-and-white photographs. I had erected them on top of the ancient bedpiece that had been passed down through his family for many generations, and made a makeshift studio inside his bedroom. I had never been inside here since he vacated it for the last time. I had been terrified of breathing the same oxygen that he drew his last breath from. But now, as much as I trembled with fear of rekindling those last painful memories, I willed my fingers to move.
In my hands, I cradled his very own acoustic guitar, that he must have only played a month ago. It was only fitting that making this song was the last thing that happened in this house. That it now sung a song of eternal gratitude back to the one who gave it its voice, a purpose for existing.
The acoustic guitar is a paradox to me: soft as a downy pillow, beautiful as a maiden’s smile, and yet with a strength of intense emotion no other instrument can quite approximate. Every time I played even one note with it, it brought me back to my childhood, an innocent time before I knew what grief was. I always believed there was not a sound that the instrument could make that wasn’t beautiful. And even today, after the shattering of my naïve illusion that the skies would always be blue, it made all the more beautiful music. Not just in spite of it all, but because of it.t.
I stared transfixed by him smiling as he held his wife’s arm at their wedding. Just below them were scrawled their vows, intertwined inseparably in red and blue ink. How they were completed much too soon.
felt one of the strings nearly crack, as if it was crying of its own volition.
Many times had instruments faltered, and every time I discarded them as ugly
blotches on a spotless masterpiece, but I had never captured a more beautiful
sound on record like this before.
Without thinking, I let the sound guide me to transpose the piece into a different melody. I felt my heart break with the string whose sound cried out from the empty, hollow heart of the guitar. Without someone to play it, it had become just a piece of wood with six strings, like an orator with its throat cut. Though its voice had been restored temporarily, its tones still trembled with all of the pain seeping through that open wound. And yet, though singing caused it so much pain, it bled the wounds out until they could begin to heal.
And I found that the more I played it, the more I began to approach a closure of my own. Like, by easing some of the pain his absence left somewhere in the world, I could begin to restore normalcy to it.
even as I struck one final note, something felt incomplete. Then my eyes
drifted to an empty space below the words etched into the picture frame. No one
ever thought it would matter. But the empty space hung in the air like the
pregnant pause after asking a question that has no answer.
And it was then, in that moment, that I discovered my purpose. I had been sent back across the river with the knowledge to answer the unanswerable question. The ballpoint pen nestled in my pocket had been haphazardly stowed there many weeks ago, no one ever giving a passing thought to how important it was going to be. But now I cradled in between my callused fingers the power to, as it were, rewrite his history. To punctuate his life with not a period, but an ellipsis.
The words came unconsciously, like my soul was dictating them into my body. I knew not what I was writing until I had finished engraving the ink underneath the picture frame. But when I stared at the completed work, I realized that these were the words which I had sought for so long. The words of this song that I could not find the words for. And the words that healed the wounds of his absence.
Chapter 13: Eye of the Soundscape
After I disassembled the recording studio, I remained hidden inside the attic while the movers came to clear out the house. I could faintly hear the clatter and chatter through the knotted woodwork.
I was sure they had moved a dead person’s possessions out of a house before, but never had the person meant anything to them. They could not know the meaning of what they were doing, unless they had known him. To them, this was just their day job. But to me, it was the final step in realizing once and for all, that he was gone.
Everything that bore his name was being packed into boxes and bags, as if he was preparing to stuff it all on a plane and depart somewhere far away, never to come back. He could never take anything he had owned in this world with him across the veil. But he could take with him the works that bore his name, that were the sum of his life on earth, and return them to his maker, never to be destroyed by moth and rust, but to live on forever.
With each time the door shut, the house felt emptier, as the last physical remembrances of him were vanishing like dust into the wind. Eventually, I heard the door slam with a chilling thud. It had always opened up again before, but as the minutes drew on, I never heard it again.
Even after he had said a silent goodbye, I convinced myself I would be saying hello again every time I opened the door to our studio. He was just running late, I told myself. But after I had searched through every corner to find no trace of him, I had slammed the door in despair.
sound of the slamming door brought everything rushing back at once. It shook my
fragile matter like an earthquake rattling a rickety building. It rocked me
down to the deepest foundations. It forcibly shook away every last façade of my
denial, to expose the naked truth.
He was gone.
And yet I stood steadfast, battered by the quake and yet not destroyed.
The time for grief never completely ends. But the time for acceptance was just beginning.
I gingerly pried open the gate to the attic to view what remained of his bedroom. It was stripped bare, as if no trace of him was left behind. It felt hollow and incomplete. Even emptier than if there had been no one there in the first place. Until I ventured a brave peek around the shelter of wood and saw that the walls were now the purest white.
The ladder tumbled out of my fingers down towards the floor, my entire body paralyzed by shock and awe. How could that have happened? In all the times I had set foot in this house, I had never seen a white wall. And now the room was bathed in the white glow. It seemed a complete impossibility.
And perhaps it was. But so many impossible things had happened to me over the last few weeks that I could no longer just blindly have faith that life was unfolding miracles before me. I had acclimated to the impossible being possible. Yet, this was so much more impossible that I had no rational choice but to believe this was all real.
I climbed down the ladder, I invited the white glow to engulf my awareness
until I could visualize myself in that perfect place once again. Someone had
passed through the veil, crossed the river, from this very place, and left the
door slightly creaked open for anyone who would knock. Through the tiny slit
shone a minute glimpse of that blinding white light that emanated its
everlasting call to me. It had cast a beacon out into the raging storm of my
grief and doubt that had nearly drowned me. It gave me the inspiration to
continue to create in the midst of the storm. To refuse to consign my life to the
silence, but to emerge from it with the sound of a new song.
My life is the greatest composition I will ever write. The storm has not yet passed, but even as I approach the darkness fraught with wind and storm, I shall remain unwavering in my focus on the light ahead and never cease to make music, until the day I pass through the wall of the storm into the eye of the soundscape.
As difficult as it was to walk away from that beacon of light for even one moment, I knew that the light lived within me now, that I was myself a beacon, and I could no longer hide it under a basket, but let it shine for the world to see.
Inside my home studio, the scent of morning dew greeted the most beautiful morning since the day the sun never went down. Spring had come abnormally late to this part of the country, the latest in over four decades. But now nature was finally awakening from its mournful slumber to celebrate the flowering of life anew. My voice joined in with the dawn chorus in jubilation. I had so little worth singing about for so long that I let out weeks of silence all morning with reckless abandon.
I may have lost my voice. But if I had not been lost, I could not have been found again.
And I would have nothing to show for it, for none of the music I had made along the way would exist.
Everything that had happened over the last few weeks had left me an empty shell, and yet only then could I be refilled with newfound joy and purpose. A part of me had died with him and I would never be who I once was again. And yet there was a part of me that had lain dormant until then, that was now awakened by the light that shone inside me, nevermore to slumber.
I could now sense a warm presence within my heart, wordlessly urging me to compile everything that had happened into a musical diary of my journey. To pay tribute to my past, but also to embrace my future. To pay tribute to his short life in this dimension of existence, while also celebrating his passage into the realms beyond.
I played back the tape in preparation to transfer what I could onto my computer, and to make plans to write the rest. An auditory portrait of my life flashed before my eyes. I immersed myself in the gentle flow of the river, basked in the comforting sunshine, and then relived my dreams, from the silence of my angst to the solace in our music.
But the sound never stopped when I expected it to. I was briefly shocked as I felt the sting of grief again, and was briefly beset by fear as it rendered me numb, but now that I knew what lay on the other side, fear was merely a phantom illusion. The amazement of my rainbow trip would not diminish even as I passed into the great divide in between, and I treasured every moment I spent bathed in the endless white, its sustenance keeping hope alive even as I returned through the aether into the cold, mechanical world of the hospital. I felt his promise alive within me, in unison with every beat of my heart and breath of my lungs counting down the days of my journey towards the eye of the soundscape. The blood that would always keep my heart pumping. The air that would always keep my lungs breathing.
Somehow, all along, this studio had been recording the sounds of everything. The album had been completely recorded all on its own. This so defied my already radically broadened expectations of what was possible that I was thankful I couldn’t upend the recording stand out of sheer astonishment. I scoured the entire studio for physical signs of someone’s presence, and found none.
Then my eyes caught a glance of the picture I had guarded like my own child. In one moment, I understood everything with perfectly vivid clarity. I knew not how my soul was able to contain such enormous emotion, as it flooded over me with such engulfing fullness that it would have overcome my towering grief like a mighty tsunami swallowing a wicket house.
Though I felt like I could cry a river, my eyes could still clearly see as they remained transfixed by the peculiar way his face stared at me.
Was I imagining it, or did I really see his mouth curling upwards to smile at me?
I believe I did.