by Jennifer Platts-Fanning
The edges of angry teeth soften with time, Wilhelmina once told James. He hadn’t felt that softening yet, only grew angrier with each waning of the hidden moon. A mind full of closed boxes gathering dust, no light to cast illumination on old memories, old thoughts.
The portal to space once witnessed on earth most nights, was concealed behind a ruined atmosphere, which trapped all the airborne garbage humans could throw at it. The musty, dark-yellow haze of day and complete bleak darkness of night became normal, and humanity kept on – knowing something was missing. A dense, trapped feeling seeped into the collective consciousness, lived there, among the guilt, the desperation.
James scrambled, determined to be on time for once, skirting stacks of external boxes blocking his way, racing up to the front door of his underground dwelling, arms full with back pack, urn and helmet.
The thick air outside reminded him to tighten his smog mask. Abruptly, he stopped mid-stride just as his foot was about to crush a sleepy bumblebee struggling across the busy sidewalk. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a fuzzy, plump bee, and he knelt down to protect it from the oncoming pedestrian drove.
The creature stopped moving. James felt deep panic. He stroked its dense fur. Looking around, stopping himself from shouting for help, he spotted a lone dandelion. Gently picking up the warm bee, he placed it atop the flower, hoping it would gain strength from its nectar - knowing it wouldn’t.
Watching the bee curl up tighter, its yellow blending within the golden flower, he slowly walked away.
James rummaged through his backpack for earbuds and stuffed the urn down as far as it could go.
“Careful James. Don’t spill me out in your smelly backpack. Jesus, you’re always in a hurry. You need to get laid,” Wilhelmina stated dryly.
“It's going to stop working.”
“It's not going to stop working.”
“Use it or lose it, as you Americans say.”
“I’m not American and I’m not in the mood, Wil.”
“Well that’s the problem, isn’t it? You need to find yourself a sweet, warm tart to bite into. Get it working again.” Aggressively zipping the bag, top of the urn still sticking out, he inserted one earbud and turned up the news to ignore her taunts.
“Seekers are on the move again, as whispers of a sky opening are rumored. The government is warning the public to be on alert for fraudulent “Sky Guides”, asking for money to lead Seekers to sky clearings. Victims have been left in the wilderness and there have been accounts of injury and death. The government adds there are no known sky clearings.”
“Bullshit!” Wil shouted. “You should hire a Sky Guide.”
“And be left for dead in the dark?”
“You call how you’re living now being alive?”
James squeezed both earbuds in tightly and pedaled off to work.
“Deaths are on the rise due to poor air quality. The WHO says this year will see another record-breaking number of deaths related to air pollution. One in 5 people suffer from chronic lung issues…”
Wilhelmina almost joined the ranks of these fatal statistics only months ago. She’d avoided that fate by choosing to end her life early, before sickness overcame her lungs. Filled with resentment, James tried to balance his bike with no hands, to turn off the drone of dire warnings filtering into his brain. Distracted, he didn’t notice the flashing crosswalk lights.
A group of Seekers frolicked across the zebra-striped lines, presumably heading out of the city, dressed in flowing, cosmic patterns, laden with bulky backpacks. The “star lit children” filling the heavy air with patchouli and weed, as he tried to brake without flying off his bike.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Skidding to a stop using his sneakers, he bumped into the tell-tale Sky Guide with the embroidered patch on her pack stating, I’ve Seen the Light. She balanced his handlebars, stopping him, and his bike, from toppling over. A smile filled all the visible places on her face that weren’t concealed by her smog mask, a smile that reached her eyes so brightly.
“Sorry,” was all James could manage as he struggled to catch his breath. Her black eyes smiled wider and he couldn’t suppress blushing. A disgruntled driver honked and the Seekers frolicked on.
Swiftly, he pedaled to the construction site where he helped low-income clients gain subsided subterranean housing. Humans were returning to burrows, no matter how luxurious they were, they were still just burrows. Scientists warned as earth warmed, humans needed to live underground. The wealthy could afford to inverse their homes, but not struggling families, especially those with young kids predisposed to lung disease. He wanted to make a difference, but was realizing the futility, as the air got blacker and big business made the dwellings unaffordable.
Looking up at the murky blanket hanging over the world, he pulled a folded note from his breast pocket. It’d been folded and refolded so many times the creases were beginning to separate, the edges tattered, written by his warm summer girl that once was, but chose to leave early. She’d worn sadness with a terrible beauty.
We’re living on borrowed energy, James, gleaned from the universe and death. Don’t waste it. Go! In the name of this love of ours, go.
With fob and urn out, James headed for his underground office, where his boss was nervously hovering.
“Uh-oh James, you’re in trouble,” Wil teased. He’d been told not to bring the urn to work anymore. It creeped out the already anxious clients. He ate with it, took it to the loo, met clients with it beside him on his desk. Wil had been a colleague, before a lover, so it seemed natural for him to keep her there. “Check out Bill’s tie today, he’s really going for it.” James snickered at the cascading images of Bill’s beloved dog filling his necktie.
“Hello James, I need to speak...,” Bill stammered.
“I’m sorry Bill, she’s with me today,” unlocking his door.
“It’s not that, James. I’ve bad news, as if anyone needed more. The investment money has dried up. Construction’s stopped. Might be several months before it gets running again.”
James sat down heavily with the urn cradled in his lap. Bill apprehensively placed a box on the cluttered desk, clumsily knocking things off the edge.
“We didn’t want any of Wil’s stuff to go missing once the site is boarded up. Those Seekers are always looking for places to squat, so we boxed everything up,” Bill paced around the door, then anxiously added, “Take this time for yourself, James. Bring Wil’s ashes to a spot she liked. It might help…”
James tuned Bill out. He didn’t want to move on. He knew where Wil wanted her ashes scattered and he wasn’t ready. Nor did he know how to get there. She’d wanted to go with the Seekers and see the sky, but he’d said no, citing that his work was too important. Head fallen into hands, James gruffly muttered, “I appreciate your concern, Bill.”
“Well…if you need anything, you know where I am. I’m sorry, James.”
Opening the box, he found her favourite mug with colourfully-animated dancing mushrooms, carefully wrapped in her burnt-orange sweater with the little thumb holes she’d sewn in herself, folded neatly atop a hunter-green leather journal.
It was just like Wil to keep a paper journal in this digital age. He remembered her books always lost in their bedsheets, rolling over and feeling the edge of a hardcover poking into his belly or waking up with a paperback crease on his face that had slipped from under her pillow.
Delicately, he opened the journal. On the first page she’d inscribed Seeking Sky, possible sky clearing first day of fall.
“Two days, James”
Flipping through he found drawings of constellations, notes on space, her scribbled poetry and possible directions to a sky opening site. Right in the middle where the journal entries stopped was a photo of them hugging one of the last giant trees in the city. On the back read, James, I know you’re going to be sad for a while, but there’s more out there and you have to go find it. I think I’ve found the way.
“Fuck you, Wil! I see what your doing.”
“What am I doing?”
“You decided to leave. Not me!”
“James, why do you think humans look up when speaking to their dead, even though we place them in the ground, even though their dust and bones settle in the earth and clay?”
He wasn’t in the mood for her philosophies. Roughly, he zipped her urn up in his backpack, raced out of the depths of his office and turned up the news as loud as he could to drown out his own thoughts.
“Scientists warn invented sunlight used to grow crops at indoor farms won’t produce the same nutritional value…..The Dark Sky Era has caused a mental health pandemic…..Flat Earthers gain popularity as members propose that space is a myth….. Nocturnal wildlife face disruption to their natural behaviour…”
James biked faster. He watched a small child struggle through a coughing fit, its mother too. He looked up - nothing – just yellow-air and the obscured spot of the sun. He recalled the last time he really looked at space with his naked eye. He and Wil were young, still in college. They’d driven to the country, away from any light pollution and watched stars fall from the sky.
She had been the brightest one.
James realized he’d spent all his time looking down, while she was looking up.
He looked ahead. Left the city.
He should’ve packed water. He biked until he couldn’t bike anymore. His butt numb from the seat. Skidding to a stop, he mostly fell off his bike for a rest. He longed to take off the restricting smog mask, but didn’t want to have a coughing fit. He unzipped his pack and took out the urn and journal.
“Alright Wil, where do I go?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m just your imagination.”
James leafed through the mess of possible coordinates. Seekers left clues around the city only decipherable by other Seekers. They didn’t want the government finding their clearings, knowing they’d be cordoned off. Wil joined a few Seeker Circles and had picked up on some lingo.
She’d glued in a campground car pass on a dog-eared page, a large N penciled in over it. He remembered they’d gone camping there years ago, trying to escape the bad city air, back when the smog would come and go. It was too far north to make the trip by bike.
“Damn, Wil. How will I get there in time?”
“How about you climb in with them?” A Volkswagen van painted with the big dipper full of mushrooms and modified with an electric engine, silently rolled to a stop beside him.
“Hey moonflower, need a lift?” said the bearded driver. “I can show you the light, for only two hundred beans.” James gave the Sky Guide what he wanted, bungee roped his bike on the roof, hoped he wouldn’t be left for dead somewhere and hopped in the back.
“Hello Seeker,” a bohemian star-lit child said in a comforting hypnotic voice, as she took off his mask and rubbed the creases on his face. “Aren’t you beautiful.” Her hands were so soft. “What sent you out here to the wild?” Then her eyes fell on the urn. “I see. You’ve come to set someone free. You look like you could use some freedom as well,” and she took a long inhale from a flower roll and blew a swirling mass of smoke into his mouth.” He coughed instantly as the smoke reached his throat.
“Oh, I like this one, James,” Wil chuckled. “She has the virgin Virgo crocheted on her crotch.” He lay down with the star-lit child and they gazed at the constellations painted on the van ceiling as if stargazing. “That’s the Hunter and there’s the Bull. That’s Virgo. She’s my guiding light. I hope to see her for real someday.” She and James lay close together, fingers entwined as the van drove on.
Arriving at the campground, they stumbled out of the van enveloped in an indica cloud and into a Seeker tent city, immersed in an unbridled rave. It was dark, but still, space wasn’t there. Crushingly, he realized these Seekers didn’t know the way.
“This isn’t your last stop, James,” Wil’s voice rose from the urn. Flipping through the journal, he found a photo she’s taken of a spray-painted space-themed W on the side of a coffee shop.
“Do you remember, James?” She’d told him the myth of Cassiopeia the night they watched the meteor shower so many years ago. Cassiopeia was placed in the northern sky as punishment for her vanity. He could never remember the names of the constellation, like Wil could. He told her as a kid he always called it the Big W, the big dippers friend. She’d teased, “You’re a strange boy”.
He had to keep going. Releasing the bungee cords holding his bike onto the roof of the van, he used them to strap his cell phone flashlight to his forehead and pedaled north.
Paved roads led to gravel roads, gravel roads to dirt roads, dirt roads to trails, a trail led to a dead-end, and as rain started to fall, he took shelter under a tree and took out the urn to sit beside him.
“Why am I here, Wilhelmina?”
“To feast, fornicate and fill your belly with beer and wine.”
“Ugh, no Wilhelmina! Why am I here?” and he lifted her urn up and gave it a little shake to encourage her to look at how lost he was.
“You’re here, James to seek, much like other lost souls.”
“Sounds like work,” he said in a muffled voice under his mask.
“Only if you don’t have some fun along the way.”
“I don’t have time for seeking. I have a six-story-deep construction dwelling that has to…”
“James, you really know how to dry out a ladies ashes. Your work is important. It may even save some lives, but…”
“It didn’t save yours.”
“I wanted to stay by your side, James, but my lungs were failing me. I didn’t want you to have to watch me get sicker and sicker just to eventually die.”
“You gave up,” he said tiredly, barely able to keep his eyes open.
Gently, Wil whispered, “James, take off your mask. You can breathe the air for a while”. Sitting in a cold haze under an apple tree, he breathed in air that for once didn’t make him cough and dozed off.
The wind shook an apple from its branch and it thumped James awake. “Shit! How long was I out?” Rain poured. The urn toppled over. He scrambled to put Wil back in his bag and then opened the soaked journal, pages clung to each other, ink blurred. He flipped to a thick page with the book cover of The Giving Tree glued on. That Silverstein book always made her cry. The selfless apple tree in the story gives everything, its time, love, fruit, branches, trunk, even its stump, to a boy who continually takes from the tree. Under the cover, Wil wrote, I will always be there for you, even though you feel like you're alone. Follow the Giving Trees.
The desperation to get Wil to the sky opening overwhelmed him. He frantically looked around, eyes falling on a path of apple trees leading into the woods. A woods too thick for his bike. He gathered everything up, and hoped there was enough power on his phone for the flashlight and found it sitting in a puddle.
He hadn’t needed a crooked Sky Guide to lead him to his death – he did it all on his own.
The rain died away. Night closed in. James let out a mournful howl. A moment later, coyotes howled back. Wil had done all this for him. These “clues” were designed for him. She knew she was going to die, had made peace with it. It was he who wasn’t fine with living. He couldn’t let her down.
He rushed through the apple trees tripping over deadfall as the night turned to pitch.
Standing in the middle of an unknown forest, he realized he was breathing fresh air. It was silky and smooth. He turned his backpack around and hugged the urn inside tightly as he stood for a moment absorbing the exotic fresh air into his beat up body. A small orange glow radiated up ahead and he wandered slowly towards it.
Stumbling out of the woods with torn clothes, sap hardened hair, bug bites, bloody scratches, face cut from being whipped with branches, clutching his backpack tightly, he found himself on the grounds of a commune.
There were small log cabins and huts, a huge bonfire and hundreds of Seekers. No one seemed shocked to see a haggard man stumble out of the dark woods. It was a sight they’d seen over and over again. For James, it was like he’d stumbled into another world.
He wandered closer to the bonfire, hoping to get dry. Then he noticed her. The Sky Guide he’d nearly run over at the crosswalk. Destiny approached him with a knowing, unveiled smile and wrapped a cosmic shawl around him. She led him to a stump circling the fire and handed him a steaming cup.
“You’re just in time. Here, drink this”
James thirst was immense and he drank deeply. “What is it?”
“Steeped moon milk tea, laced with lavender, ashwagandha and Golden Teacher,” Destiny said. “It will help you open up.”
James felt out of place in his wrinkled, sodden suit among the other travellers who’d made the journey, until he looked around and took in all the diverse faces and wondered what brought each of them here. “Why is seeing space so important?”
Destiny placed more wood on the fire. It crackled warmly and sparks drifted upwards. The new eyes around the fire watched the sparks rise, heads tilting slowly towards the sky. “Earth doesn’t feel so small, so alone and isolated when we can see out there”. All listened intently to Destiny’s gently spoken words, “Space gives us hope – for life, for transcendence. It gives us space to breathe. We are all lost without it. The moon still pulls the tide, but there is no light to sail by.”
James took Wilhelmina out of his backpack and watched the roaring fire.
As the magic of the psilocybin oiled his rusted brain cells, and his broken connection to nature began its repair, James felt soft grass cling to him, like little green hugging arms. He sunk into the buzz of insect life moving around his body, feeling heated symbiosis flood over him. Earth invited him into her connective embrace.
“How much time has passed?” he asked, but heard his voice double back, and the words took on new meaning. His mind opening, like a cracked egg.
“James, it’s time for you to look up.” Destiny whispered. He looked into the abyss in her eyes, seeing what he thought was space. “The sky is opening”. She tipped his head from her eyes, he never blinked. The night sky radiated with illumination. He felt his pupils dilate to eat the light. Something in the wind currents cleared the haze, creating a growing, circular window into space, the edges aglow with moon light.
“Open gateways in your mind to the warrior Orion. Let him lead you down the milky way”. Destiny laid James on his back on the ground and he gazed up with eyes devouring each revealed star, each pin prick of illumination – as if a cloth were being poked on the other side by infinite pins, openings to other dimensions.
The moon rose from out of the corner of this clear-sky window and slowly revealed herself to earth. It seemed to James that it was too close. The white of the satellite pulsed as if she was breathing life back into him. Lunar resuscitation.
His hands moved over her mountains, valleys, craters. He’d viewed the moon for so long as just a mirage in the night. Now he could see her in all her naked divine glory.
Space magnified, calling him to explore. Red planets, twinkling constellations, symbolic imagery, and then, doors of all infinite designs appeared. Each star connecting with its brethren to form a geometric pathway. Some with knockers of eight-legged sea monsters and horned beasts. Arched castle fortress gates and door-less corridors.
The doors opened at different intervals. His eyes drank in all the wonders on the other side of the moving combinations. Infinite shifting shapes and colours clicking in place, and then the gears of space morphing into other configurations, aligned on other stars. Each offering another path, another reality, another way of being. Ever changing. Ever offering another possibility.
He decided he would find his door. The doors of perception open to him for the first time since childhood, when a tree could be anything, in his mind; when space held all possibilities, only limited by his limitless imagination.
Behind each entrance he glimpsed something he craved. Something forgotten. Something longed for. Something he only need walk through to reach.
All the doors housing doubt, inhibition, regret and resentment remained firmly locked.
He heard the gears of space, click, click, click, like seconds ticked off on a clock, as each new gateway was created.
“It’s time to set me free, James,” Wilhelmina’s voice echoed. He felt all the doors now shift for her. Like a radio dial, they tuned into Wilhelmina’s frequency.
“That one, James,” He opened the urn. Her ashes flew free. Each particle moving in unison. Once at the threshold, the shape of a youthful woman formed and walked through. As the door closed, the universe shifted again, and now James’s gears were turning it.
Click. Click. Click.
Standing, arms opened wide to the sky, he closed his eyes. The imprint of space on the inside, behind his lids. He found it, reached out, turned the smooth, simple black knob on the cosmic door and as it opened, he opened his eyes wide to meet Destiny’s dark eyes, his face cradled in her hands. She, steadying him, just as she had when he nearly ran her over with his bike.
“Walk through, James.”
As night faded away, and daylight bloomed behind the haze-covered sky, James could hear buzzing. A plump bumblebee landed on Wilhelmina’s empty, flower-patterned urn. The fuzzy broad bands of yellow and black glowed with energy and he knew this bee didn’t need his help. It zipped off to visit the countless wildflowers in the open space already crowned with other insects. A chorus of life filled the air.
Between softened teeth, James breathed with relief, “We need the wild - the wild does not need us”.
About the Author
Jennifer Platts-Fanning writes poetry, short stories and plays, and is a recipient of a 2020 Island Literary Award for her short story, "Four Thieves Vinegar" and the 2022 Battle Tales VII winner for her poetic creation myth, "The Book of Threads". Her poetry collection “sanctuary drift” was selected for publication in The Write Launch literary magazine’s June 2022 edition. Her work has found its way onto various theatrical stages, including, "Held to the Fire" chosen for Watermark Theatre's 2018 Play Reading Series, "An Answer to the Question on Death" staged at Fridays with Fringe in 2019 and her dystopian fable, "Apple Bones" performed at the 2021 PEI Community Theatre Festival. She belongs to the highly creative Prince Edward Island GIFted Genre Writing Group, where her writing is published in the annually released GIFt Horse anthology.