Another shortish chapter (maybe I’ll rewrite and consolidate?) but perhaps just enough for a cup of tea? Maybe jasmine tea – with a pinch of cardamom?
The starry midnight whispers,
As I muse before the fire
On the ashes of ambition
And the embers of desire,
Life has no other logic,
And time no other creed,
Than: ‘I for joy will follow.
Where thou for love dost lead!’
Bliss Carman The Starry Midnight Whispers
Sherman sat up in the middle of the night, his chest tight and heavy, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps – even as he pushed the wildest remnants of the dream from his mind. He felt his forehead and wiped away a little sweat as he reached for the bottle on his bedside table, and after he got the bottle open he slipped another nitroglycerin under his tongue and sighed. He checked the time on his watch and started the five minute countdown timer, then started to lay back on his cot – when he saw two people sitting on camp chairs just outside the tent. He put on his scrubs and pushed aside the flap and stepped outside into the cool night air, surprising William Taylor and – yet another woman?
“Ah, you’re up?” Taylor said, apparently a little surprised to see him. “How’re you feeling?”
“Okay, I think. There were two women here with me a while ago…”
“Angel and her friend, Dana. They ran up to the house an hour ago and Dana asked if we could stay here until they got back.”
“You look as pale as a ghost, Father. Should I call them?”
“No, no…I’ll just go and see if I can’t fall asleep again.”
“Well, okay, but just call out if you need a hand.”
“Will do,” Sherman sighed. “Thanks.”
“Say, I hate to ask, but did Gretchen’s lab work come back?”
“Gretchen Marlowe. The girl with me this morning? That I carried over to the clinic?”
“Ah. Yes, it did. Did you want to talk about all that just now?”
Taylor looked at his companion and then shook his head. “I’ll talk to you in the morning, okay?”
Sherman nodded and slipped back inside the tent and went back to his cot, his mind racing. ‘Who is that with him?’ he asked himself. ‘She looks so familiar, I know her, but from where? She’s like someone’s – what, daughter? Ah, that’s it, that’s where I remember her from. Debra Sorensen. Ted Sorensen’s daughter. She was working at Universal or Paramount, I think, but where is Ted these days? Or did I hear he’d retired…?’
But then Dana Goodman stepped into the tent, and there was a dog with her this time.
“You’re feeling better, I see,” she said as she came inside and sat in the folding camp chair by his cot. The dog came in too, and it came up and sniffed his hand, then licked his fingers.
He looked at the dog and smiled, scratched behind an ear. “I woke up a few minutes ago, took a nitro…”
“Another one? That’s three so far this evening. One more and it’s off to UCLA we go!”
He looked at her again, now feeling a little annoyed with her easy familiarity, then images from his last dream came back… “I had the strangest dream. We were in the ocean, then we were surrounded by a bunch of killer whales,” he said.
“We? As in you and I?”
“Should I be flattered, or maybe embarrassed?”
“Would you check my carotids, please?” he asked, watching her closely as she stood and came close again. She felt both sides of his neck and shrugged. The dog jumped up on the edge of the cot and sniffed his neck, too.
“They feel clear to me,” she said. “Did you feel something unusual?”
“Just curious, but what’s with the dog?”
“I’ve had her for a while; she joined me in Ethiopia.”
“Really? Now I bet that would make for an interesting story or two.”
“She’s a sweetheart,” Dana said, rubbing her friend’s back.
“She’s a Golden, I take it?”
“Yes. Name’s Bonnie.”
“Speaking of names, is that Debra Sorensen out there with Taylor?”
“Out there?” Dana said, pointing to the two people out front. “Gee, I’m sorry but I don’t know either of them. Angel will be here in a minute; maybe she’ll know?”
“Maybe,” he sighed. “Could I tell you a story?”
“You know Orion, the nebula?”
“The archer in the winter sky? Sure. Even the people I met in Africa knew him.”
Sherman nodded. “We see one version of him. With our eyes, through our telescopes, but we see something entirely different when we look at him in a different light.”
“A different light? What do you mean?”
“We see one spectrum of light, and we get used to seeing the world that way, but there are other spectra out there we can’t see. And we couldn’t until we invented new ways of seeing. And one of the first new ways was to isolate the Hydrogen Alpha line. One night my dad and I took pictures of Orion using a Hydrogen Alpha filter, and the results blew me away.”
“Oh? What was so different?”
“Well, Orion wasn’t alone up there. He was surrounded by hundreds of other structures, not just alone in the darkness. Then we took more images, we increased our exposure times to hours, not minutes, and we resolved all those structures surrounding Orion.”
“And what did you find?”
“Flames. Red flames. Orion is up there awash in a sea of red flames. Alone, making his stand against the flames of Hell. Forever.”
She looked in his eyes, looked at the lost, helpless man making his last stand and she understood.“Sit back. I want to hook up the leads and run another strip.”
Sherman nodded and leaned back, closing his eyes to the lingering flames, then he felt this stranger hooking up leads and running another EKG, holding the paper up to the light in silence. “I think you may just be going into heart failure, Doctor Sherman.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” he sighed as he recalled images of Orion and the memory of falling through the sky to the sea below.
She sat back beside his cot and took his hand, then she looked him in the eye as she started to speak: “It would surprise me. Are you really so resigned to death?”
Sherman lifted his head a little and grinned: “Me? Resigned? Hell, darlin’, I’ve been cheating death my whole life. He was bound to catch up to me one day.”
“But…are you ready?”
“What? To die? Hell, no, I’m not ready to die! I’ve got a To Do list about three and a half miles long and it’s getting longer every day, so no, I’m far from ready, but that’s not really the point, is it?”
“What’s the point, Gene?”
“And you know my name – how?”
“Angel told me, and nice try but I’m not so easy to distract. So tell me, what’s the point?”
“We all have to contend with fate, Dana, with our destiny – whatever that may be.”
“Meaning what? That you’ll pass away when some benign deity up there in the sky says you’re ready, that it’s your time?”
“That’s one way of looking at it, yes,” Sherman sighed.
“You know, when I was in Sudan I probably held a couple hundred kids in my hands as they passed – usually from starvation. Was that their destiny, Gene? Was all that death a part of God’s divine plan?”
“I think you’re missing another point, perhaps an even bigger one, Dana,” Sherman said, sitting in the stillness and rubbing his burning eyes.
“And that point is?”
“That there’s a war playing out in real time, playing out all around us, and it has been since the beginning of time. You could call it a war between Good and Evil.”
“Between God and Satan, you mean?”
“Oh, of that I’m far less certain,” Sherman sighed, his voice trailing off to a faint whisper…
Then he felt a stethoscope on his chest, heard the faint whirring sound of the EKG spitting out another strip, then he heard more voices – faraway and insistent, as the pressure returned…
…but by then he was falling again, down to his sunless sea – now so full of rising stars.
He felt convulsive-shaking movements, then his body sinking in warm water. An eye, huge and full of stars, surrounded him, and he reached out to touch a pulsing super nova in the center before he realized he was flat on his back. Lying on sand, warm sand. No pressure. No pain from his prosthetic left leg. He was suffused with absent external sensations – like existing within pure nothingness, and he was terrified.
Then he realized he was spread out on sand, now motionless and still utterly terrified. His eyes were clinched tight, closed off from whatever was happening around him now, and to make matters worse he could hear absolutely nothing in this stillness.
“Is this death?” he asked the void. “Are you here now?”
But no. That wasn’t quite right, either. “I hear the wind. Faraway, like the wind in swaying pines.”
He sniffed tentatively, thought he smelled pines and he turned to face them.
Then he opened his eyes.
The atmosphere here, the sky was reddish blue, and there was a huge ringed gas giant overhead, almost like another Jupiter-sized world but with a methane saturated atmosphere, like Neptune’s. And rings like Saturn’s. Huge, omnipresent.
He lifted his head and saw a globular cluster – only this cluster was closer than close. He could see hundreds of individual stars within the cluster with his naked eye, and that just wasn’t possible, was it? But nothing he saw in this sky made the slightest sense, either. He saw not one familiar constellation and so this most basic part of his knowledge was unmoored, lost…and he felt adrift again.
He sat up, saw that he was sitting in a white sandy track, almost like a road made by primitive two-wheeled carts, like something used in ancient times…but even the Romans had paved their roads. But not here. Why?
Always why? Always analyze? Is that all that I am?
Then a passing shadow crossed the fields to his left. Not cultivated with crops – yet he saw what he assumed might be edible plants, and a lot of them, too. Enough to feed…?
His eye followed the shadow to his left and he saw the forest he’d heard and smelled in his darkness; but then he noted this forest was off in peculiar ways – like the color was all wrong. Conifers were cobalt blue, leafy deciduous trees looked like a patchwork of blues and greens, but then deep inside the forest he saw what had to be a blindingly powerful white light, and there was something flying in the air near the light source. More than one, actually. But what had made the shadow that passed overhead? And what was the light? A forge, perhaps?
He was, he realized, analyzing this new environment using the intellectual toolkit he’d carried here with him. Some of his tools might work here, some might not without first finding their proper context, but then it hit him, and hard. He felt both excited and scared and now, for the first time in his life, he felt alone. Alone, with his intellect.
“Well pardon the fuck out of me, but we ain’t in Kansas anymore, are we?”
He turned a bit and saw a fairly large mountain range. Snow covered, maybe fifty or so miles away. Sky color more red in that direction, but purplish-red closer to the horizon over that sea – and he didn’t see any clouds, anywhere. So maybe blue light from the gas giant refracted in the upper atmosphere here? But why no clouds? No evaporation? Then where did these plants find their water?
He tried to stand and in an instant realized his left leg was intact, like it had never been amputated, yet he still felt the muscle memory of climbing the Matterhorn with a metal leg. “Okay. I can get into this,” he sighed, smiling as he pushed all his toes into the sandy loam of the cart track. He held up his hands and looked at the skin he felt there – no age spots, no wrinkles. And no goddamn arthritis!
“Okay, whatever this place is, it ain’t Heaven, but it sure ain’t Hell,” he said as he turned his face into the wind. He looked down the road into the distance and thought he could just make out a house way down by the sea. Like a Greek house. White stucco, flat roof. What does that tell me? Rain catchment? Salt water in the seas? So, this is an earth-like planet. Okay, so how’d I get here? It felt like I was awake during the entire transit so it couldn’t have been all that far away? So…what happened? Trans-dimensional movement? Or…is this Earth in another time? But am I still on earth? Because if this Earth, even in another time, the gas giant and the stars patterns are crazy wrong…?”
Then the shadow was passing overhead again and someone was calling his name.
Warmth, warm darkness, then the cold pinpricks of rebirth.
Back in the tent. On the beach.
But what beach? Venice? Or…there, on the planet with the blue gas giant overhead?
Then he was anchored to the sound of two voices just outside the tent. Two men. Two angry men, one subordinate. Pleas and threats. Implored logic, the pain of love too long denied. An oath broken, promised retribution coming. Bargains made, bargains pushed aside.
He recognized William Taylor’s voice. Heard his anguish, felt his desperation.
The other man had to be Ted Sorensen. Sherman could feel the other man’s power – even laying here in this darkened tent, safely isolated and well away from the caustic fury burning in other men’s souls.
Taylor had promised something. Something about hurting Sorensen’s daughter. He’d hurt her and had to stay away from her, let her go. With assurances made Sorensen had helped Taylor, mentored him, but now, tonight, Taylor had betrayed his oath. Taylor begged then he threatened, his position too weak for anything else because he’d betrayed his own love. Sorensen left Taylor sputtering by a pit full of glowing embers, his anger spent, their path ahead now painfully clear once again.
Sherman could just make out Taylor’s fading silhouette through the tent’s heavy fabric, but even so he could feel the other man’s pain. Trapped by events beyond his control he’d reached out to the only thing left that mattered. His love, the love he’d bargained away during a danger-filled afternoon a long, long time ago. Then love was tantalizingly close once again, but like Icarus he’d reached for his sun-drenched love far too late. Or…was it too soon?
And Sherman knew the poor man would never know. That poor men who bargained away their love would never know.
A few minutes later Taylor stood and walked away and Sherman lay there in the darkness, lost in the wonder of the moment.
“But I never even reached for the sun, did I?”
He thought of Betty Cohen chasing him up that mountain. In their enveloping darkness.
“Because I never reached out to the one person whose love for me was as pure as the love I felt for her,” he sighed as he remembered the love he’d felt for Beth as he watched her on the Ice Field, making that tortured final ascent to the summit. To St. Bernard, wasn’t it? Where we last touched hands?
So pure. Denied. “How am I a better man than William Taylor?”
And then the wind, lifting her, carrying her away. From me. Forever.
And then the falling, but always down to my tainted sea – surrounded by life’s flaming wreckage.
“All because I failed to see the wind…”
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