“I’m going to bring her back.”
Deka’s father looked up from his now-cold bowl of soup. It was the first time in over a moon that his father had truly looked at him. And Deka observed his father. His father’s face was striped by the tracks of dried tears. His eyes shot with blood from night after sleepless night.
His father’s gaze left his face and noted the pack over Deka’s shoulder, the waterskin by Deka’s hip, the hardy boots made for travel over rock and gravel, not the soft grass and dirt of their gentle homeland.
“Where are you going?” his father asked.
Deka smiled past his own grief. A smile of mercy for his poor father, who had lost the great love of his life to a careless accident. His poor father, who was wasting away day by day. Deka didn’t want to lose him too. Not so soon after he had lost his mother.
He explained to his bewildered father what he had been doing over the past many weeks. He had decided that he must travel to and through the afterworld, find his mother, and lead her back to the lands of the living, back to the mortal realm.
Deka had, like all children, heard stories of ancient heroes attempting to breach the afterworld, some succeeding and some failing. After his mother died, he found those stories again. He spoke to the elders of his village and the wise soothsayer who lived in the mountains. He found there were details in the stories that served as clues to any who paid heed. Details that revealed why some heroes succeeded and some failed. For one, the seeker must follow every instruction given by those who aid him. For another, there were only two ways that the still-living could travel into the afterworld: through dreams, which was common enough and usually harmless, or through the fabled Isle of Mist and Gloom, the wandering isle, Caligo. Finding the isle was the first obstacle. There was a risk of Deka spending all his youth and all his life searching and never finding it. But if he did, he would face more obstacles on the isle itself before reaching the gateway into the afterworld. And if he made it into the afterworld, there would be more challenges. Many knew of the challenges and even how to defeat them. But it was easier to know than to do.
At first, Deka thought he saw a glimmer of hope glinting through the haze of grief in his father’s eyes. But then he saw doubt and fear.
“It is folly to defy death,” his father said.
“It is folly to accept death, when it comes for the wrong person.”
“It may have seemed an accident to us, but her death was foretold as all our deaths are. It was written by fate. It could not have been stopped. It could not have been changed.”
“I don’t seek to change it, father. I seek to undo it.”
“You are not a hero in a story.”
Deka smiled and shook his head. “I am not. And mother is not. And that may be well for us. Who will notice her missing? Who will be harmed by her return? She is no queen that all her kingdom would know that she defied death. I will bring her back. And when I do, I will send word to you. We will have to sacrifice our lives here and settle in a new place where our story is not known. But we will have her back. And she will have her life back to live out with you and me. I only seek to restore what was stolen. My mother was stolen from me. Your wife from you. Her life from her.”
Doubt crossed his father’s features. “What if she is happy where she is?”
“How can she be happy without you, father?”
His father smiled. It was a weak smile, but a true one. “Or without you, for all the pains you gave her?”
“I’ll be the best son in all the lands if only I can have a second chance.”
His father frowned again. “No. No, they will want a trade, most like. What will come of it? I get my wife back only to lose my son? I forbid it. I forbid you to go.”
Deka took his father’s hands. “Then I must disobey. You are in no state to stop me, father. Do not fear. I will find a way. You will not lose a son. You will regain your wife. I will bring her back. And if I cannot, I will bring myself back at least.”
“You will fail.”
“Perhaps, I will. Perhaps, I won’t. But if I do not set out, I surely will.”
On the outskirts of the village, Deka met with the little soothsayer who had agreed to accompany and guide him on his journey. She was half his height and only the elder spirits knew how old she was. She wore a tunic and trousers of evergreen and necklaces of bone and branch carved into shapes of ancient symbols and letters. Around her waist was a belt of copper thread. Her silver-white hair was wrapped in a bun tied with a braid of corn silk. She had a pack the size of Deka’s on her back, which she refused to let him carry. And she scoffed when he offered to cut her a walking stick from a sturdy branch fallen from a nearby maple No one knew her name and out of respect (and perhaps fear of being cursed), most just called her Oma, a very old word meaning “grandmother.”
As they walked along, Deka realized that his little soothsayer grandmother was as spry and sturdy as he was. She hummed as they walked and when they reached a dale, she said she would take a break to rest her feet and quench her thirst. But Deka always had more regard for his elders than most folk his age. And that gave him the wisdom to see when elders made sacrifices for the sake of the young. He was the one who was growing tired and thirsty. And somewhat weary after several hours of walking in silence.
They settled for a lunch.
“Heed your Oma’s words,” the soothsayer said. And she began her lesson to him. Her story.
“For the dead it is a peaceful journey to the isle and through the gates of the afterworld. But for the living, there are obstacles that are meant to repel. For if any who still live were to pass through the gates, they would be trapped forever in the afterworld, neither living nor dead.
“Forget the tales of the heroes who fought their way with sword and whip. Heed instead the tale of a man who breached the gates and went into the afterworld. He went to the isle to recover his wife, who had died giving birth to their first and only child. He made it back, and he almost recovered his wife, but he made a mistake. He failed to follow the instruction that was given to him by the three soothsayers who had guided him through the journey. It was said the soothsayers only believed the man had a chance to succeed because he was a bard and a jester.”
Deka let impatience got the better of him. “What was the instruction he didn’t heed?”
Oma held up her hand and made a frustrated sound. She fell silent until Deka demonstrated that he had settled himself.
“The isle is a land covered in perpetual fog and mist. A solemn place. A holy place. Those who guarded it were in need of stories and songs and jests.”
Oma winked at him. Deka thought he understood. The dagger he carried by his side was for cutting fruit and perhaps defending himself from the odd bandit. He was no warrior. But the isle was strong against the attacks of warriors. It was strong against rage and despair and sadness and fear. Such feelings always accompanied death. The isle’s weakness was the moods it did not expect. The moods it rarely encountered. Joy. Humor. Calm.
“To assure you can return from the afterworld, you must take a piece of the isle with you,” Oma said. As she spoke, she produced from her sleeve a stone like obsidian, but darker and sparkling with starlight. She handed it to him. “Never let anyone or anything take that stone away from you, or you will be forever trapped in the afterworld.”
Deka took the stone. “But why give this to me now? Why not wait till we have reached the isle?”
Oma smiled at him. “Think. Can you not guess it?”
Deka frowned and thought, but he could not guess it.
Oma chuckled. “If you cannot hold onto that stone from now until the time we reach the isle, you will never succeed in keeping hold of it once you reach the isle and the realm beyond the gate.”
Deka nodded. He placed the stone in a pouch and hung the pouch about his neck. “I understand now. I will not fail to follow your instruction.”
“It is one of many instructions, my cub. You will have to remember them all. And you will have to mind them all.”
Oma gave those many instructions as they traveled. She gave him many lessons. She taught him songs and jokes. And Deka, for his part, had his own songs and jokes to tell. They encountered some adventures along the way, and there too Oma taught him. When he failed, she taught him to ask why and to think of different ways to do what he had done. When he feared, she taught him to calm himself and think. When he succeeded, she taught him to fortify himself with his success, and then to ask why he triumphed, and to think of how he might have failed. Oma taught him some spells and traps as well. His strength was a quick wit and cunning. His weakness was inexperience.
“And you are patient, especially for one so young. That too is a strength,” Oma said one day as they walked along a beach.
“We are here, Oma.”
Deka stopped as he looked out upon the waters that broiled beneath a cloudy sky. For the ultimate lesson he had learned was to be observant.
“I will go no further with you,” Oma said. “I will wait here until you return.”
Deka stood mesmerized at the shape of a land on the water just visible through a thick fog. “What if I am trapped? And I never return?”
“Then I will be waiting here till my own death.”
Deka felt a hardy slap on his back and he started. He looked down at the little old soothsayer.
“This beach may be pleasant, but I much prefer my cozy cave in the mountains and the blue skies above and green forests about.” She pointed a crooked but steady finger at him. “Don’t get trapped.”
Deka nodded. “Do I swim out to it, then?”
Oma gestured toward the water. A boat was approaching, floating peacefully and steadily toward shore, despite the turbulent waves.
The boat was not for Deka. He watched as an old woman approached the boat. And he ran toward her. She presented a coin to the boatman, a gray-hooded figure, who received the coin and helped her aboard. Deka secured his pack about himself. It was full of the tools and tricks he would need. He secured the stone in his pouch. He tried to board the boat, but the boatman held out a bony hand to stop him. Deka presented a coin, but as he suspected, the boatman would not accept it. Deka held onto the bow of the boat as it began to move back out toward the water. The boatman did not stop him from doing this.
The boat came ashore on a beach that looked much like the one that Deka had just left. He was soaked and chilled, but he had made it past two obstacles, finding the isle and reaching the isle. He looked out to the distant shore of the mainland, but he couldn’t see past the shield of fog. He waved anyway to Oma, whom he hoped not to keep waiting too long.
The plants and beasts of the isle were no stranger than many he had seen along his journey in the mortal realm. There were squirrels who could fly, a serpent who seemed to vanish but was only changing its coloring to match its surroundings, a beetle that had the face of a babe and made a sound to match. There were vines that would have entangled him if he had stepped in their midst and trees with thorns thicker than his arms.
He tread carefully and observantly past all these, walking deeper into the dark forest. He did not follow the old woman whose boat he had stolen a ride upon. Oma had warned him not to follow the dead. They went directly to the gate, but they were guarded from the obstacles that would daunt the living. Their path would be clear and comfortable. For the isle welcomed the dead. But it rejected the living. It was meant to cast the living out and back into the mortal realm. Deka was in no danger of dying on the isle. The danger was in pain and suffering.
After walking for quite some time and being ever-vigilant, Deka began to tire. Oma had warned him not to fall asleep on the isle and not to eat or drink anything that he had not brought with him. He found a bubbling spring and though he knew not to drink from it, he thought it would do no harm to splash some water on his face to refresh and waken himself. He had already dipped his hands in the waters when he realized his folly. He pulled his hands out with a jerk as if recoiling from a fire and dried his hands on his trousers. For he remembered a time he had drowsily splashed some river water on his face once and licked at the water as it trickled down to his lips. He could not risk some of the spring water seeping into his body somehow. But he could not waste the water he had in his skin on washing. He took a sip and carried on.
Oma said that he would continue to feel hunger and thirst in the afterworld, but he would not need to sleep. So Deka pushed onward and onward, trying to reach the heart of the isle. The sky overhead was no longer cloudy. This too was in the legends of the isle. Covered in mist and fog it might be, but the skies above were always clear. So he used the stars to guide himself.
But after a few more hours, Deka was so tired and his feet burned and ached so much that he stopped and sat upon the hardest most uncomfortable rock he could find, just to rest his feet.
Somehow, he fell asleep.
When Deka woke, he was lying on the hard ground, his skin chilled by fog, his muscles and bones stiffened and sore. He sat up and saw a curious sight. He was lying in a circle of mushrooms with brightly colored caps. Some were orange with pink spots. Some were purple with blue stripes. Or blue with purple stripes. He felt a bit heartened to see color in such a dreary place, though he didn’t remember seeing them before. He rose and stretched and shook the remnants of sleep away. He had failed in one of his instructions already. He looked about himself, wondering what consequence awaited his failure. He raised a foot and gently tried to step over the mushrooms, holding his breath in anticipation of some attack. None came, but his foot struck some obstacle that he could not see. He tried to push past it, but he could not. He set his foot down and knelt. He tried to crawl over the mushrooms but could not. Some invisible barrier stretched about him. The mushrooms seemed to be the cause of it. He removed a small shovel he had in his pack. Sweat dripped from his brow. He did not know what would happen should he destroy those mushrooms, but it was the only way he could think of to try. He stabbed his shovel into the dirt beside one of the mushrooms. He wiggled it forth so it lay under the mushroom and he levered the shovel up. The mushroom tipped over and he pulled it up and ripped it away from its roots, only to see another mushroom grow up in its place right before his eyes.
“I see,” Deka said.
He shoveled again, faster this time, and he removed three mushrooms, but three more grew in their place. He tried for a few more minutes to be faster than the mushrooms and he succeeded in get his hand out of the invisible prison, but the mushrooms grew back faster and faster. It was not natural. It was magical.
Deka stopped digging and sat where he was. He observed and he thought. He remembered that in the old stories when the faire folk danced at night, a circle of mushrooms would grow where they danced. But he couldn’t remember any stories about people getting trapped in the circles. Here was an obstacle he had not prepared for. Neither had Oma foreseen it. The isle was a gloomy place, so it was said. A place where he had not expected song and dance. If the isle was employing the faire folk to keep the living occupied, it was relying on a most unreliable deterrent. The faire folk were said to be fickle and capricious. If only Deka could speak with them, he might convince them to let him go free. He called out to the faire folk, trying spells of summoning, trying songs. When those failed, he sat and thought and observed and shook his head at himself when he realized what he must do.
Deka rose and within the circle of brightly colored mushrooms, he began to dance. He clapped his hands and hopped and swirled about. And fearing he would feel despair if this, his last plan, did not work, he closed his eyes and pretended he was in his village. He pretended he could hear the music of his favorite festival, the Nevereve’s festival, when evening never came, for fires and light burned through the night. It was only when he heard a different kind of music that he opened his eyes and saw he was no longer alone. Dancing around him were a group of faire folk. And they were fair indeed, for they came in the same colors as the mushrooms. Deka did not stop dancing. He changed his dance to match the music the faire folk made. When the music stopped, he stopped and bowed to them.
They in their turn bowed to him. Deka noted that another circle of mushrooms had grown outside the first.
“May I ask a favor, good fairies?” Deka said.
“For your excellent dancing, you may,” one fairy answered.
“Though we may not grant it,” another added. And the whole company laughed as if he were one of their number and they were merely teasing him. Deka’s heart was beating meanwhile, more from the fear of being forever trapped than from the exertion of dancing.
“Unbind me, I pray, from these good and lovely circles.”
The first fairy to answer him laughed. “We cannot do you this favor,” she said. And before Deka’s heart could sink, she added, “You are already free of them.”
“Walking feet may not walk free, but dancing feet, we must let be,” the second fairy said.
Deka understood. He danced his way past the first and second circles. Then he saw what lay beyond the circle of faire folk. Shapes slithered and skulked in the forest.
He turned to them. “The circle was guarding me, while I slept,” he said, his eyes wide with new understanding.
The company merely bowed to him and danced away in the other direction. The first fairy to speak was the last to leave. She grinned at him merrily and tossed something at him.
“We did not grant you a favor, but we will grant you a parting gift.”
Deka caught her gift. It was a little blue flute. He looked up to thank her, but she had already gone. He placed the flute deep in his pack. He was grateful for the kindness, but he would be wary of any gift he would receive on the isle or in the afterworld.
Deka found a path through the forest. No dead walked the path, but he remained alert, walking along the left side, ready to dive into the forest should he see anyone come by. He drew closer to a chain of mountains. These mountains, according to Oma, encircled the inner part of the isle. He would have no choice but to follow some path through them. And each such path would have its own challenge to face.
When he reached the mountains, he came across his next obstacle. A great petrified tree trunk blocked the path leading into the mountains. There was no space above it for him to crawl through. He would have to make a space. He had a small axe in his pack. As he unpacked it, he observed the trunk. It was crusted and scaly. He would have to mind his step, but he could climb it. More than likely there would be creatures hiding within it, ready to attack him. Taking a few deep breaths, Deka began to carefully climb atop the tree trunk. Suddenly, he felt the earth tremble and the trunk seemed to slip from under his feet. He scrambled down as fast as he could and ran clear.
He watched in stunned horror as the right side of the trunk rose up into the air and revealed itself. It was no tree trunk that lay across the path. It was a great hooded snake. The snake fanned open its hood and reared its head at him. Its movement left a small slit open in the pass through which he could fit. The snake’s body, while thick as a tree trunk, was still small enough to fit through the mountain pass if Deka somehow made it past the snake and if it decided to pursue him. But this was one obstacle that Oma had prepared him for. He pulled a flute from his pack, his own flute made of bamboo reed. And he began to play a tune. Almost at once, the creature was mesmerized. Its head swayed to and fro. And as Deka played on, its hood began to slowly collapse. The head lowered and the snake’s eyes flicked away from Deka. At last, the great head fell. Deka continued to play as he tread carefully toward the opening in the mountains. The snake’s eyes did not follow him. He slipped past the sleeping snake and stopped playing. The cavern was dark. He brought out his flint and some oil, and he lit a torch. He moved quickly through the cavern, glancing about him, his torch in one hand, and his dagger in the other.
When he reached the other side of the mountains, after what seemed like several breathless hours, he thought he heard the echo of an angry hiss behind him. He caught his breath again and hurried forth.
He watched each step and soon saw what he hoped to see, a great gateway in the distance. He must be even more patient now that the gate was in sight. Oma had given him a window-glass through which he could see past illusions. He looked at the gateway through the glass. It was true. He aimed his footsteps toward it and as he drew closer, he began to hear the sounds of voices. Not the voices of the dead, but the voices of their loved ones, wishing their loved ones well on their journeys. The messages were meant for strangers, but the voices of the living gave Deka some measure of comfort.
The gateway was a great arch made of the same black sparkling stone that Oma had given him to use as a talisman in the afterworld. He grasped his pouch and watched. The arch stood in a circle of soft grass, lined by a ring of red bricks that reached up to Deka’s waist. There were three openings in the wall of bricks. The dead entered through the openings. Oma had instructed Deka not to go through the openings, but to climb over the red brick wall. She also told him to watch for the opportune time. Sometimes a great number of the dead gathered about the gateway and were welcomed in by a woman in green robes. Sometimes the gateway lay open and unguarded, for the green-robed woman would walk away into the forest if no dead were present. There were no other guards or sentries or protections that he could perceive. Oma had told him to expect as much. All the obstacles and challenges lay outside the gate circle. Within it was only a welcome for all into the afterworld. Perhaps even the green-robed woman would not stop him, but he would take no chances.
Deka knelt behind the wall and watched for a few hours. He had discerned no pattern, but had decided he would just run toward the gateway the next time the green-robed guardian departed. He was waiting for just such a moment when he heard a fierce whispering calling to him from the surrounding forest.
“You there!” it said.
Deka turned and keeping his back to the wall he peered into the forest. He saw a hand waving toward him, beckoning him. When he did not move, the owner of the hand stepped forward, kneeling and glancing toward the gate. It was a young woman in a light brown traveling dress. She had a pack slung about her waste and a bewildered look on her face. She beckoned him again. Deka pulled his dagger from his side and moved toward her.
She held out both hands when they were behind the screen of the forest.
“Peace!” she said. “Don’t hurt me.”
“I mean you no harm if you mean me no harm,” Deka said, keeping a grip on his dagger.
“I watched you for quite a while before I realized you were not an obstacle.”
Deka examined her face. “You are…are you alive?”
“Listen to me. You’re right to wait for the green lady to leave. I tried to pretend to be the dead. I went through the opening so I could walk through the gate without everyone else.”
Deka shook his head. “It didn’t work, did it? I was told you must climb over the wall.”
The young woman nodded. “I was not given such guidance. I tried that after I was turned back by the green lady. But the wall seems to know me now, like a dog whose got your scent. I tried to climb over, but it repelled me somehow. I know what you’re here to do. For I am here for the same reason. You seek to find someone you’ve lost on the other side of that gate.”
Deka hesitated to speak. This could be another trick. He dropped his free hand to his side, to let her see he was more relaxed, as he tried to slip his hand into his pocket and draw out Oma’s magic window-glass.
“I came here to catch my love, before he passed through the gate, but I was too late. He had already passed. And now I cannot go after him. I beg you. Will you find him? Will you bring him back through the gate?”
“What is his name?” Deka asked, and he found the glass in his pocket.
“And what is your name, miss?” He pulled the glass out, looked through it, and gasped.
“Willow,” she said.
Deka backed away and she moved toward him and grabbed his hand.
“Ah, you already saw my name.” And with that, the illusion fell away, and he saw with his own eyes what he had seen in the glass. The young woman was no woman but a tree. She transformed and her roots punctured the ground before Deka and rose back up through the ground behind him. He stumbled back and the willow’s roots wrapped around his arms, pinning them to his side, and they tangled around his feet and legs. Deka reached into his pack for the only weapon he could think of, his axe, but his arms were secured too tightly. Then he strained to reach his belt, for his flint was fastened there, and though he could not reach his oil, he had the hope that he might start a spark that would catch. Alas, his flint was too far away. He had dropped his knife as well.
He cursed himself for a fool as he watched a face form in the trunk of the willow and the weeping branches make what appeared to be a head of hair.
“Take me back,” a creaking voice said.
Deka tried to calm himself and he observed and he thought. That was when he noticed all the growths on the willow tree. Red-orange boils all along the trunk and branches. He had seen the like before. Sometimes it could be stopped. But sometimes…
“You’re dead,” he said.
“And you are not,” the willow said. “You can take me back.”
“Are you one of the faire folk?” Deka asked. “Your spirit can inhabit a tree. But your tree died. Can you not inhabit another?”
He understood her meaning. “No. Then you died with your tree.”
“Yes, and you are here to take someone back.”
“Yes, let me go and find her. Then I’ll take you both back.”
“She is beyond the gate?”
Deka hesitated, but the willow was clever enough to not need his answer.
“Yes, she is already beyond the gate,” the willow said. “Then she is beyond saving. I had hoped you were waiting for her to pass. That you would snatch her away before she did. I cannot let you pass through the gate.”
“You need not worry, I have no intention of staying on the other side. I’ll find my mother. Then I’ll return. All you need do is wait—“
Deka felt the roots around his arms tighten. His pack shifted and he tried to reach into it for anything he might use. He pulled something out, something long and thin. His flute. He had charmed one beast with it. Perhaps he could charm another. But he couldn’t bend his arm or even see the flute.
“You will take me back, now,” the willow said.
Oma had warned him about making false promises. It was done all the time in the mortal realm, sometimes with little to no consequence. But if he made a promise on the isle or in the afterworld, he would be bound to keep it by forces beyond his knowledge or control.
How then, could he trick this willow into letting him free, so he could escape her, or at least try to fight her, without promising something he could not do?
“Have you tried yourself?” Deka asked. “I can tell you how to hitch a ride on the ferry boat.”
“The isle will not let me pass back into the ocean. But it will let you pass. It will gladly let you leave, and whoever clings to you, be they dead or alive.”
She was right, of course.
“If you hold me fast, how can I help you?”
“Then you agree? You promise?”
“I cannot promise. I may fail.”
“Promise to try?”
Deka took a gamble then. The isle would not let him die. That was the one and only protection he had. It would let him break his bones and lose sleep and get bitten by venomous animals. But it would not let anything kill him. For he was living, and living he must remain until he returned to the mortal realm.
“No,” he answered, “you don’t deserve to come back. You seem a cruel and petty creature. Not worthy of life.”
He heard a terrible sound then, like the grating of bark against earth, the screaming of a tree. The roots holding him squeezed harder and the flute slipped from his grasp as panic tore through his gut and he realized he had made a terrible mistake.
Then something floated before him. Through the pain of being squeezed to death, he saw it was a flute. Not his flute. The blue flute of the fairy. It floated toward his lips. He cried out in pain. And he took as deep as breath as he could and blew a single note on the flute.
Suddenly, the squeezing stopped. The face on the willow peered at him and he heard the crackling of her laughter.
“I am no dumb beast to be cowed by mortal music.”
It’s not mortal music, Deka thought. He took a deeper breath than before and blew again. Again it was only a single note, but something must have happened, for the willow’s face grew long with terror. And the roots about Deka loosened enough for him to pull one arm free. He would need two hands to truly play, but one was enough for him to try a tune.
And as he played he heard the willow cry, “Stop!”
Mushrooms began to sprout all along her trunk and branches. They burst through the angry red gall tumors that already pocked her diseased trunk. Brightly colored fans of fungus. Deka freed his other hand and began to play the same pretty tune he had played for his friend the great hooded snake. Frills of brightly colored mushrooms cut through branches. Deka kicked free of the roots and kept playing as he backed away from the wailing willow.
They had made such a tumult that he was sure he would be grabbed by a pair of sentries and dragged before the green-robed guardian of the gate. But as he moved away from the pained moans of the treacherous willow, leaving a trail of mushrooms where he stepped, he glanced toward the gate and saw that it was clear. No dead passed through at that moment. And no guardian stood watch.
He stopped playing and hopped over the red brick wall, certain the willow would not follow him. And she did not. He took lithe steps toward the gate, holding his flute as he had once held his dagger. He hesitated for only a breath, standing before the gate through which he could only see the other side of the grassy circle.
Then he stepped through into the afterworld.
There he found a place of misery and punishment. Stone and hard earth. Nothing grew. No light shined but a dim and hazy fire. Smoke choked the stale air. He heard the snapping of whips, the moans of the punished, the rusty cranking of machines. He kept his eyes roving, searching everywhere for his mother, ignoring all else. If this was the afterworld, he was all the more determined to get her out of the horrible eternal torment. He searched and searched in dread of the fate that awaited him and his father and all who lived, good or evil. But he didn’t find his mother anywhere. What he found was hope when hope was needed. He had clothed himself in the rags of the realm when he first stepped through, but some could still see and smell the life in him. In that dark place, he seemed to be glowing with some inner light. And one of the tormented begged him to take him away. Remembering the willow, Deka shied away, until the man spoke of the other realms. Deka was but in a portion of the afterworld. There were other gateways, leading to other realms, and one of them contained his mother.
He was yet living and thus unjudged. It was not hard for Deka to observe and find the gateway with the guidance of the stone he carried in the pouch about his neck. Another arch leading into another realm.
In this way, he passed through many different realms, none as horrible as the first, but all strange. One of them was an ocean land, where all lived on ships. There was merriment. There were quarrels. Deka felt as if he were merely in another land in the mortal realm. Only when the folk of that world quarreled and wounded each other, they did not die, for they were already dead.
He came to another realm, made of strange machines that operated not by levers and gears, but through the power of lightning. It was a cacophonous and hectic realm. But so it followed, for thunder followed lightning.
And still another realm was a realm where all the beings were like animals. And they lived in glittering clouds in a sky where it was always night. It was a beautiful realm, but the strangest he saw.
Nowhere could he find his mother. He realized that there were countless realms to search. He tried to narrow his search by asking the residents of each realm, whomever seemed friendly or at least charitable, about his mother. But most of the dead seemed to be unaware of other realms. And the rare ones who knew about the gateways and other realms did not know where his mother was. Or seemed as desperate and dangerous as that first tormented man.
He had long ignored the hunger and thirst that had set itself upon him for the hours, days, weeks, or months he had been searching. He had never kept track of the time, for Oma had warned him that time was different in the afterworld. He thought of Oma as he entered the tavern in the next realm he visited. She would warn him against what he was set to do, but he was weary and hungry. He had failed. The tavern had tomato soup. And in that moment, he did not care if he became trapped in the afterworld. The realm he was in was not so bad. It was much like the mortal realm. There were taverns and rivers and birds and songs.
There were also terrible slavering beasts with teeth the size of swords roaming the countryside, but then there were dangerous beasts in the mortal realm as well.
Deka sat down, his mind and heart empty.
Someone, a server perhaps, approached him.
“I knew it. You’re alive,” the server said. He pulled out a chair and sat before Deka. “How are you here? Did someone trap you?”
Deka said nothing.
“You came to get someone, didn’t you?”
Deka glanced at the man. He was not a server. He wore a long white coat and a scarf to match. He had the face of a frog, but Deka was used to such things by then, as he was used to everyone seeming to speak the same language.
The man leaned in and whispered. “If you came through the gateway alive, you must have a piece of it with you. Who are you looking for? I can find them for you if you give me the stone.”
Deka sighed, considering the offer. He had nothing to lose but his own freedom. He wasn’t certain he wanted to return to the mortal realm after all he had seen. For he would one day inhabit one the strange realms in the afterworld anyway. Why should he not start now? And why should he not give his mother a chance for happiness?
Thinking of his mother reminded him of his father. He had failed, and his father would suffer worse if he lost his son as well as his wife. And how could Deka be sure that the white-coated man before him was honest? And even if he was, he asked the one price that Deka had been warned not to pay.
“My quest is ended,” Deka said, rising. “I have failed. And I must return.”
The man rose and seemed ready to persuade Deka more forcefully. But he backed away in fear when he saw what Deka held in his hand. The blue flute.
Music, Deka had discovered, was a formidable weapon in the afterworld.
Deka walked out of the tavern and toward the gateway. His piece of stone could always guide him to the gateway in each realm. He remembered the path he had taken. He needed only pass through each gate from the opposite side to travel back the way he came.
That is what he thought. But when he passed through the gate, he found himself in a circle of grass. There was a red brick wall surrounding the circle. Above was a starry night sky.
He was back on Caligo. Back on the Isle of Mist and Gloom.
A figure approached him, dressed in green garb. The guardian of the gate. She smiled serenely at him.
“You are alive,” she said shaking a finger at him. “You must leave the isle. You do not belong here. Not yet.”
Still dejected, Deka found no reason not to tell her the truth about his reasons for coming. The woman listened patiently to the tale of his adventures.
She produced a glass orb half the size of her head. “Many of the living visit the isle,” she said, “but passing through the gateway is a transgression that cannot be forgiven.” Colors like clouds of ink in water began to swirl in the glass orb. “Some of the realms you saw were real. Some were illusion. Your punishment in life will be to remember them all. And your punishment after life will be to spend some of your time in the realms you saw.” She took a deep breath and focused her gaze on the orb. “But for your honesty and for your resolve and strength in not surrendering the precious stone of the isle to the afterworld realm, your reward will be that you will see where your mother is.” She looked up at him and smiled again.
Deka gaped at her. He felt a swell of hope in his heart such as he had not felt in what seemed like years. And he wondered how long he had truly been wandering through the afterworld. The guardian raised the orb toward him and he looked into it.
The orb showed him a realm he never found in his wandering. With his eyes, he saw it was beautiful, ever-changing, sometimes a forest under a starry night, sometimes a lush chamber in a grand palace, sometimes a picnic on the shores of a beach. With his heart, he knew it was well-protected in ways that no unworthy being could breach.
His mother resided there in happiness and health.
Tears filled Deka’s eyes. “Is this real?”
Perhaps it was the truth. Perhaps it was not. The only certainty was that it was a kindness for the green guardian to show him what she did.
His tears blurred his vision. Deka wiped them away with his sleeve and when he next opened his eyes, he was standing upon the shore before an empty boat. The boatman beckoned him forth, but held up his hand when Deka tried to board. Deka understood. The boatman wanted payment. Deka reached into his pocket and smiled when he felt the stone there.
He placed the glittering black stone into the boatman’s thin-fingered hand.
Oma was as good as her word. She was just approaching the shore when Deka began to walk toward what he thought was the nearest town. She told him that he had been gone for more than a year. The first thing she did was to make sure he was fed and bathed and then left alone as he slept in a real bed, blessed with dreamless sleep from a draught she gave him.
When he returned home, Deka found his father a changed man. Oma had sent letters to him often, urging him not to lose hope for his son, assuring him that she waited still. His father wanted to make sure that his son returned to a cheerful and prosperous home. With the help of friends, he faced his grief about his wife and his fear for his son, and he became strong enough to live and carry on.
Oma had sent word ahead of the happy news of Deka’s return. His father had planned a great welcome home for the two travelers. Never had Deka noticed how vibrant and merry the mortal realm was. How dear his home was. In the evening when most had quieted and some still made merry, Deka and his father sat outside their house looking up at the half moon and the stars.
Deka told the tale of his adventures to his father, and some of what he had seen in the afterworld, and all of what he had seen in the glass orb. He was afraid his father would be disappointed at his failure. After a long silence, his father told him he had done right in trying to recover his mother and give her back the time in life that was robbed from her by a fluke accident. But he was also right to leave and return to life himself when he failed. For his father needed him.
His father kissed his forehead. “I hope that you and I will someday be admitted to that happy realm where your mother resides, to be reunited again, to laugh and abide together in a different home.”
For all his travels and after all he had seen, Deka did not know how any being could reach the happy realm. The guardian of the gate had not told him if the living could earn a place in the realm by their actions, or by their character, or by both, or by some other means. He could not be certain that he would be worthy of the happy realm and of reuniting with his mother. But if he remembered and lived by all that his mother taught him, and all the good he learned from others in his life, he could be certain that she would be proud of him. He could be certain that he was worthy of her.
That would be his happy realm.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.