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The Stone Cavern

Dreams and Nightmares

I closed my eyes and tapped into the stone cavern. It was much as I remembered it: its obsidian walls smooth and glistening in the golden light of a banker’s lamp atop a large, mahogany desk. The waterfall that curtained the little studio from view cast shadows and flashes of sparkling light in waves on every surface as sunlight wove through the streams and rivulets cascading like thunder at the cave’s entrance. The overstuffed leather desk chair was a little softer from years of wear. I sat on it as if it were my own, and tucked a leg up under me. The huge globe still spun slowly in its hand-crafted, waxed, and polished stand, suspended in mid-air, as if by magic. If you peered closely, you could see movement – tiny dots darting across the textured surface like colorful veins. Deep fissures opened and closed constantly; tiny spots glowed red beneath a scorched and blackened crust. Curious, I reached out to touch the globe just as one of those spots became a flare, causing me to yelp in surprise and pull my burnt fingertip away. I rested it on a soothing polar ice cap, which was probably a grave mistake. Several small islands vanished under varnished blue waves.

Restless, I pushed myself away from the desk and wandered around the room. A fascinating array of tapestries hung from the back wall. I recognized some of them; others seemed familiar to me, though I could not say why. One depicted a waterfall atop a cliff, overlooking a narrow river that cut through the rainforest until it was swallowed from view by the dense, green canopy. Exotic birds rose like Icarus, testing their colorful plumage in the sun. Exquisite needlework, but I knew I had only to part the veil of water at the cave’s entrance to see it with my own two eyes.

Another depicted the sprawling city of Houston. I wondered when Kyliri had hung it there; I hadn’t seen the inside of this cave in years, not since long before I moved to Texas. Had our paths crossed without my knowing it? The thought sent a shiver down my spine.

One tapestry hung limp and faded, its threads decayed and brittle, likely to crumble under the lightest touch. It was further obscured by a light covering of dust motes – any attempts to “clean” it would surely destroy the last of it. It had not looked that bad last time I saw it, I was certain of that. A sob full of grief and emptiness caught in my chest. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, though they were bone dry. Even now, the great tree in the tapestry’s center stood tall and proud, crowned in foliage. All creatures, great and small, huddled in its shade, looking up to the tree expectantly. Abundant fruits of all kinds ripened overhead. Berries and herbs sprung up from between gnarled roots. Her branches bent to enfold them all, protectively. I held my breath so as not to disturb the threads with even the slightest movement of the air, and stepped closer. Locked within the weave were all manner of tiny insects. Closer, still, I could make out the single-celled organisms. It was a marvelous tapestry; it had been the first Kyliri had woven herself.

“Nothing lasts forever.”

I jumped at the sound of her voice and nearly crashed into the fragile cloth. “Some things should,” I said. Or thought. Disorienting as it was, I never actually needed to speak out loud around Kyliri.

“You’re getting sentimental with age.”

“I’m getting old.” I was only forty-nine, but in that moment I felt older than Methuselah.

“There’s a difference?”

“Can’t you fix it?” In my own mind, I looked like a five-year-old asking about a favorite toy, her tear-streaked face upturned and full of hope and faith.

“No.”

The finality and firmness of Kyliri’s “no” brought out my inner, tantrum-tossing two-year-old. “But you have to!” I cried, panic rising. I couldn’t breathe. That tapestry suddenly meant everything to me, because it was everything I’d ever known. “You can’t just let it die!”

Kyliri studied me carefully. “Why not?”

A great sense of outrage and searing anger rose in me. My head began to spin like that infernal globe, and that’s the last thing I remember before the crack of my skull against the stone floor.

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My cheeks were damp. I’d been crying in my sleep. My clothes were damp, too, though – with bits of dewy mist clinging to the fibers, as if I’d been lying near a sprinkler – or maybe a waterfall. Something heavy wrapped itself around my legs and arms, holding me down. As I came to, I fought and kicked at it, cursing – panic rising in my throat. I awoke beating at the air with my pillow, and tripped on the lifeless remains of my blanket as I leapt out of bed, breathless. I knew that I’d had the dream again, but I could never remember the details. I woke with only one thought in mind: “Kyliri must be stopped.”

Fear and Longing

I stumbled to the kitchen. Fresh, soul-restoring Sumatra gurgled from the yellowing plastic coffee maker. I reached into the cupboard for a mug. My fingers brushed against the black and white “RTFM” mug, paused momentarily at the caffeine molecule mug, hesitated briefly over the color-changing Descartes, who disappeared as hot coffee changed the words from “I think” to “I think not.” I finally settled on the green “42” and a little tea towel – I needed answers and I wanted to be prepared for them when they came to me.

I filled 42 with the strong, aromatic brew I thought of as “jet fuel.” Shake it off, I thought. It was just a dream. Truth be told, it had been years since the last one. I’d tried to go back there, once or twice, but thinking about the Stone Cave was as good as putting a wall between it and me. It was like looking at a star. You had to sneak up on it, or not think about it at all. When I was there, it felt as if I’d willed myself to be there; now, it seemed quite the opposite. I inhaled the steam rising from my mug. My fingers, tight and aching with cold and overuse, were suffused with warmth. I looked outside at a clear blue sky and realized it was going to be an amazing day. I tried not to think of that other sky, impossibly blue, shimmering with rainbows in misty clouds rising up from a roaring riverbed at the base of a waterfall. A shiver coursed down my spine. I didn’t need to ask who’d walked over my grave; I felt certain I’d done it myself.

Why, then, did I long to return?

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“You think it’s a real place?” asked Zoe, my therapist. She could always be counted on to cut to the chase.

“You think I’m crazy?” I asked.

“I’m not sure how to answer that, Kasi. If I tell you the truth, I lose out on $95 an hour and some pretty interesting conversations. If I say ‘yes,’ it’s a violation of professional ethics.”

Zoe wasn’t just my therapist. I’d known her since college. We’d been friends so long I sometimes forgot we didn’t share all the same experiences, and sometimes forgot we hadn’t known each other since we were kids. It was a weird feeling. “Pretty sure we’ve crossed that line already, Zoe.”

“Okay, then, you’re stark raving nuts. Want to grab some lunch?”

“Who’s buying?”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure I can afford it after you write me a check for the session.”

I sat up on her couch and threw a pillow at her. They were lovely throw pillows, after all.

We talked over lunch. Zoe ordered the Roasted Pear and Gorgonzola Salad with caramelized walnuts. I had the Ahi Tuna with Wasabi Aioli, Fresh Ginger, and Sprout Salad. The restaurant was decorated with an island motif and smelled faintly of Vanilla Orchids, Plumeria, and White Ginger. I inhaled, closed my eyes, and jumped at the sight of rainbows shimmering in the darkness. “You do hypnosis, right?”

“Why? You want to change a bad habit?”

“I want to know if the Stone Cave is a real place.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…I don’t know what I mean. I just—” I sought for a word that would convey the feeling. “I just feel like I’ve been there. Not just in a dream.”

“Déjà vu, huh?” Zoe raised an eyebrow. “In this life?” she asked.

“Huh? What other life?”

Zoe exhaled with relief. “Nothing. It’s just that I don’t do that new-age-y past life regression stuff. I don’t believe in it.”

“Oh, now you’re going to get all ethical on me?” I teased.

“If your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather is named Ankh Tsekani Astennu or something, yeah.”

“Everlasting life close to the full moon god?” I laughed. Zoe scribbled something in hieroglyphics; it’s how we used to pass notes in Humanities. I deciphered, Lunatic. “Gotcha.” I shook my head. “I don’t think so, Zoe. Nothing like that.” I didn’t mention that the words “alternative universe” had crossed my mind. I didn’t mention a lot of the things that crossed my mind. Like I said, I needed answers. Getting Zoe to send me to the Stone Cave might help me find them.

“Okay. Come to my place tomorrow night. I don’t feel like putting this on the books. Besides, I’ve got a great bottle of wine and no one to share it with.”

“Thanks, Zoe.” I gave her a quick hug and let her get back to real work.

The First Time

“So, how old were you – your first time?” Zoe poured two large glasses of wine and we settled into her comfy, overstuffed, silver-and-burgundy brocade couch.

“Zoe!” I feigned shock. “If you’re off the clock, that’s far too personal.”

“What?” I’d thrown her off balance. As understanding dawned, her cheeks flushed. “Kasi, you’re incorrigible. I meant your first time at the Stone Cavern.”

“Of course you did.” I nodded and gave her a sly wink. Zoe tossed a velvet throw pillow at my head and it bounced off, nearly knocking my wine glass onto the floor. Searching memory for an answer, though, brought sobering thoughts. “I guess I was about fifteen?” I said, uncertainly.

“What do you remember?”

“I’d been dreaming of a hike through the woods. A rainforest, I think. I followed the river.”

“Where were you going? Did you know about the cave?”

“No. I don’t know. I was just…hiking.”

Zoe looked at me expectantly. “And?”

“I was hot. I took off my shoes and waded into the water. It was cold as ice, and crystal clear. There were fish. Lots of fish.” I drank deeply, letting the white wine wash over my tongue in a rolling tsunami.

“Close your eyes and think back to that moment. What kinds of fish did you see?”

“I don’t know – koi? They looked like koi, only they were every color imaginable – red, gold, even blue, and purple.”

“Feel the cool water rushing past your calves…”

“It wasn’t like that. It was cold. So cold it burned. I hadn’t expected that.”

“So what did you do next?”

“I followed the path. I saw footprints in the mud.” I laughed, then, at the memory. Carrying my shoes, so as not to get them wet or muddy, I had set my bare feet into the footprints. They were the same size as my feet. “I just followed.”

“How did you feel about finding footprints in the mud? Knowing someone else was there?”

“I don’t remember. I wanted to know who it was—” Or did I?

“You don’t sound so sure of that.”

“I was afraid of what I might find. Afraid I was trespassing, I guess.” Trespassing in my own dream. Was that even possible? “The footsteps led to a path up the side of the rocky cliff.”

“To the waterfall?”

“Yes.” The wine was beginning to have an effect on me. I settled into a mound of soft pillows and tried to remember the details of my first encounter with the cavern. The steady roar of the falls could be heard for a mile, but as I stepped out of the half-light of the dense forest and into the sunlight at the base of the falls, there was nothing to soften its thunder around the edges. Sunlight played at the lip of the falls, where the water bent for a peek at the river below before plummeting 800 feet to shatter into a billion misty droplets. The droplets were like the breath of God, rising in a dancing column of rainbows.

I climbed the rocks to get a better look. Awestruck, I didn’t realize that I was climbing ever-closer to the falls until my foot slipped on the damp stone. I grasped a small tree, growing sideways from a crack in the cliff face, to steady myself. Looking down, I estimated that I had climbed four or five stories. My chest grew tight at the thought of how close I’d come to adding my own blood to the rainbow mist that now clouded my view somewhat. Melded with the terror of that realization was a breathtakingly awful temptation.

My fingers curled around the trunk of the sideways cedar. I knew it was cedar, though I’d only seen it growing in the Louisiana swamps. As my nails dug deeper into the damp bark, the scent of an old hope chest surrounded me.

I hoped I had the strength not to jump.

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I pressed my back against the rock, closed my eyes, and willed the bizarre thought out of my head. When I jumped, it was at the unexpected touch of a human hand.

“Imagining what it would be like to have wings?” she asked, moving between me and the cliff’s edge. “Come on, let me show you something.” She pressed on, climbing upwards, disappearing behind the flowing veil of water. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but surely it wasn’t this warmly furnished room, roughly cut into the mountainside behind the waterfall. Surely it wasn’t the amber glow of a lamp placed atop an antique mahogany desk. And surely, whatever creatures dwelled in darkness, deep in the dank recesses of a cavern hidden behind a thunderous rush of water, it wasn’t this smiling woman dressed in loose-fitting crimson pants and tunic embroidered in gold thread. Her long hair, the color of polished brass, was pulled back in a careless braid. “You look…surprised.” She laughed. “What were you expecting to find?”

“Nothing,” I whispered. “Who are you?”

“I have an awful lot of names, but you can call me Kyliri.”

“How many is an awful lot?”

“Six hundred thousand eighty three.”

“That is an awful lot.” No arguing with that one. That would imply that there were others here to call her all those names – an awful lot of others. That, or the woman had a serious multiple personality problem.

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Kyliri pulled two tall, slender glasses and a decanter from a niche in the cavern wall. It looked more like a beaker from science lab than a decanter, and she poured a carefully measured portion of a bright, chartreuse liquid into each glass. Wispy curlicues of something that looked like steam and sparkled like mica rose up from the center, forming a tiny vortex. She handed one of the glasses to me, and with a small salute and a nod, tipped the rim of the other to her own lips. I supposed it would be unforgivably rude to blurt out, “What the hell is this?” and so I just stood there, staring at it, one eyebrow raised.

“It’s not poison,” she said, laughing.

“What is it, then?”

“Something greenish and rather strong.” The woman had a knack for stating the obvious without directly answering a question.

I mustered whatever bravado led me up the side of the cliff and sipped. It was surprisingly refreshing. Green, indeed! It smelled of newly mown grass and tasted of the delicate sweetness of fresh melons, a hint of orchids, the sharp, sunny tang of lemon. It sneaked up my nostrils in a citrusy haze, drowned my tastebuds in an exotic mix of fruits and freshness, and packed the alcoholic kick of a headstrong mule. Before I realized what I’d done, I’d downed the whole concoction.

Kyliri smiled. “Come here – I wanted to show you something.” She led me over to a large, lazily spinning globe. It appeared to rotate on its axis, suspended in mid-air, blatantly defying gravity as if it were merely a suggestion, not a law. It floated, cock-eyed, around the desk.

“What the—”

“What else do you see?”

I saw something that looked like a golf ball. It wobbled around the desk lamp, as if studying the light. Just then, an apple bobbed by my hand—without thinking, I reached out, grabbed it, and started to take a bite.

“Stop! You can’t eat Venus.”

“Venus?”

“Bad enough you disturbed her orbit.”

The globe that represented earth tilted drunkenly. I opened my hand and let go of the apple. It quickly joined the other spheres.

“Okay, come here.” Kyliri held out a hand. “You wanted to know what it was like to fly?”

I started to shake my head, but she had already turned toward the thunderous roar of the falls. I barely felt a tug as she ran, dragging me along with her. When my feet could no longer feel the ground beneath them, I didn’t dare open my eyes.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she called out over the rush of air that whistled in my ears.

I opened my eyes. We were even higher than I could have imagined; in just seconds, we were caught between the glowing, swirled blue-and-white curve of earth and the blindingly brilliant stars. I opened my mouth, but couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe. As panic awakened and rose up inside me, I began to fall.

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“Kasi? Kasi!!” I woke to Zoe straddling my chest, pumping my sternum with the heel of her hands. “Come ON, Kasi, don’t you do this to me. Don’t you—“

“Do what? Stop! Ow!” I smacked her, hard, with my forearm. “Off me!” I felt bruised and a little woozy.

“The paramedics are on their way. Just—lay there. And don’t die on me.”

“Die? What the hell, Zoe?”

“You stopped breathing. I couldn’t feel a pulse.” Zoe was white as plaster.

“I was falling.”

“You were dying.”

“No—yes. Probably.” I focused on Zoe’s face. Her eyes didn’t lie; this was serious.

“You can’t go there again.”

“Okay.”

But I would go there again, sooner than either of us imagined.

Breathtaking

"Waterfall in Spring" by Holly Jahangiri. Acrylic on canvas.

The paramedics didn’t stick around long. By the time they showed up, my heartbeat was strong and regular. I was upright, rubbing my bruised ribs with one hand, reaching for a glass of wine with the other. Jose shook his head and moved the wine out of reach. “No more of that for tonight, okay?” He finished taking my blood pressure for the third time, wrote something on his tablet PC, and smiled. All of my vital signs were amazingly…vital.

The other EMT, a woman, was earnestly explaining to Zoe the dangers of giving chest compressions on someone who had merely passed out from too much wine. If I’d told her about mixing it with “something greenish and rather strong” before attempting to fly off a cliff, I think one or both of us would have been getting a different lecture. It went on the record that I lost consciousness after drinking half a glass of Zinfandel, and that my shrink friend had a panic attack. The truth would have made for a longer night.

“You sure she didn’t crack one of my ribs? Puncture a lung?” I asked, pointing an accusing finger at Zoe. I was feeling the cocky attitude of one who has recently survived a near-death experience, and now wants to try it again.

“It’s quite possible to do that, ma’am, during CPR. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the ER for X-rays?” he asked. The paramedic was kind of cute, but lacked a sense of humor.

“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve had quite enough medical fun and games for one night.”

Zoe began to protest, but the EMT cut her off with a wave of his hand. “You’d probably be in a lot more pain,” he added, “if you’d sustained a cracked or broken rib.”

“I’m sure I would be.” I smiled.

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Zoe hovered and fussed. I surfed the Internet for “sleep disorders” on her laptop while she set me up in her guest room. “You’re not going to be alone tonight,” she said. I could hear her snapping open crisply folded sheets, smoothing them over the bed, plumping pillows for the invalid. I dared another sip of wine.

“Fine. Are you sleeping on the recliner? I love you, but I’m not sharing a twin bed with you.”

Zoe rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You’re hopeless. I’m the one who’s going to end up in the ER before the night’s out.”

I found something interesting on the weird part of the Internet. “Did you know that there was this Indian monk who meditated non-stop for five years, with nothing for entertainment but a wall, and when he finally got bored to death and fell asleep, he got so mad at himself that he sliced off his own eyelids and threw them to the ground? From the cast-off eyelids, a tea tree sprang up. What I want to know, is, if you saw a tree with thousands of eyelids fluttering from its branches, would your first thought be, ‘Oooh, let’s pick them, boil them, and drink the water’?”

“I’m never drinking tea again,” Zoe called.

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Somehow, we both slept. Zoe snored softly in the recliner next to my bed. Though that normally would have been enough to keep me awake all night, I was exhausted. I closed my eyes and instantly began a murky, terrifying dream in black and white, very film noir, in which I was being chased by buzz saws with eyes. I couldn’t run, because I was dressed in a slinky, black satin evening gown like Morticia Addams. One of the buzz saws took off my hand at the wrist, spraying bright red blood everywhere, and declared that we were married.

Suddenly, I found myself in a world infused and saturated with color. Kyliri sat next to me at the cliff’s edge, holding my wrist and my severed hand in her lap. She made the tiniest sutures I’d ever seen. “You want to tell me what this was all about?” she asked.

I opened my mouth to tell her how Zoe’s snoring had transmogrified into anthropomorphic buzz saws, but somehow it just didn’t sound credible at all, by this time. As I searched for another explanation for my lifeless hand – which, strangely, didn’t hurt at all – she made the final, precise knot and bit it off like a professional seamstress. I knew how a rag doll must feel.

“Wiggle your fingers,” she commanded.

I cringed a bit, tentatively willing my index finger to move slightly.

“Wiggle them, I said.”

I did, and amazingly, they all worked just fine.

“You took quite a fall,” said Kyliri, not sounding the least little bit alarmed.

“About that…”

She laughed. Her laughter was musical, and filled the valley like wind chimes and birdsong.

“I feel like Wendy in Neverland. You’re an evil little Tinkerbelle, aren’t you?” I smiled, but the mischief left Kyliri’s eyes and we dropped the bantering tone.

“Is that what you think?” she asked. “I didn’t hold you here against your will. I didn’t even bring you here, Kasi. Why do you keep coming back?”

I looked out over the world of my dream, this world of rainbow mist and rushing waters, where everything smelled of earth and sea and sun and felt like home. Each time I came back, the “real world” felt less real. Each time I returned to it, the colors seemed more drab. The question wasn’t, “Why do I keep coming back?” The question was, “Why do I keep leaving?”

A New Beginning

I’d read somewhere that it’s not true, the old urban legend that says, “If you die in your dream, you die for real.” I wasn’t sure; I’d always managed to wake up just before that final, fateful moment. Others assured me they’d died hundreds of times – “Every night, a thousand different ways!” claimed one of my college friends. His tone was just a little too chipper and he couldn’t sleep until he’d exhausted himself through study, partying, or driving endless circles around town. I’ll admit that I was curious – but still fearful enough that I always managed to thwart the dream, to pull back, to turn it “lucid” at the last minute. This must be what it felt like to hover at the edge of death, even if you knew that the next few seconds couldn’t really hurt you and you absolutely believed there was something better on the other side.

Kyliri sat at her desk, sketching something. I wandered around the cavern, gazing at the tapestries. When I was tired, the designs seemed to move. Of course, it was only a trick of the light – but it added a dimension I found mesmerizing. “Why don’t you restore this one?” I asked.

“Why are you so attached to it?” Kyliri’s habit of answering questions with questions made me groan and wonder why I bothered asking.

“I…” I didn’t know. But the crumbling threads made me want to cry. “It seems like something that shouldn’t die.”

“Interesting. You think the tapestry is alive?” Kyliri put down her pencil. “Why that one?”

The others, though they were in better shape, did not hold the breath of life itself. They seemed to be doorways and windows, glimpses of another place. The tapestry in front of me, though it was rotting in front of my eyes, seemed the embodiment of everything. The weaver had worked each thread with care and skill, infusing it with the essence of all that was. Yet it seemed neglected, worn out, used up. I sensed that Kyliri could fix it, but she merely shrugged.

“You fix it,” she said.

I laughed bitterly. “I can’t even sew a button on.”

“It’s not hard. Learn. Do it.” She stood beside me, peering at the tapestry. “What do you see?”

“I can’t. It’s hopeless.”

“Then that is exactly what it is,” she said, and began to walk away.

“What do you want me to do?” My voice sounded whiny, even to me.

“I told you. Fix it. If you really care about it. Not many do.” Kyliri pointed to the waterfall. “You see that?”

I nodded.

“It’s time to go,” she said, leading me to the curtain of dancing light. Now and then, I caught a glimpse of the brilliance of stars through a break in the water.

“I am not leaping off that cliff again!” I protested.

“Okay,” she said, shoving me through the break.

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Zoe wasn’t going to be happy about this.

I raised my arms to fend off the assault, but there was no assault. I was gently lifted up by a huge pair of hands and peered at by gargantuan faces full of curiosity.

Squinting my eyes against a painful white light, I moved my legs and arms and attempted to follow it, but the hands held me back from it – only a few frustrating inches – while I squirmed.

When I realized I was naked, I began to yell.

One of the giants spoke. “Congratulations! You have a beautiful daughter, Zoe. Nine pounds, three ounces. APGAR score, 8.”

If these vocal cords had been more than an hour old, I’d have demonstrated a vocabulary no newborn ought to hear, let alone know. I heard Kyliri’s voice, a soft breeze tickling my ear. “Wiggle your fingers.” I wiggled everything. And I counted along with Zoe. I had all ten fingers, all ten toes. I could barely remember how I got here, and what wisps of memory still clung to my brain were fading like second-hand smoke. “Fix it,” Kyliri whispered, raising goosebumps on my neck. I still had no idea how to do that, but I had a lifetime to figure it out.


Ed. Note: Originally published in serial format on “The Race to the Hugo Awards.” The last installment was posted on 5/20/2012.

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