It lives in the dust. It lives in the remnants.
They say the city that sits on the horizon at sunset is nothing but cosmic dust. I say otherwise. I’ve been there. For some reason I left. I can’t remember the reason. I can’t remember anything about it. I seek answer. I have to return. So last night, or maybe it was five days ago, I set out to find it. I’m on the right path, one of many I think, each of them hidden and easy to fall from.
According to science, what I’m moving toward is something called the zodiacal light. In the west, just after sunset, they appear sometimes during the spring. Or in the east, before an autumn dawn. It looks like the lights of a city just beyond the horizon, but there is no real city. Only, I think there is. I think I’ve been there before.
They told me its name when I was there, but I can’t remember. It’s probably in my mind somewhere, along with so much other information both precious and pointless, but I can’t seem to get to it. I know I met people there, spoke with them, laughed with them, ate meals with them, but I can’t remember details. Did I chose to leave or was I made to go?
I do have a streak of absent-mindedness in me. But this is a different. This isn’t forgetfulness. It’s amnesia. Because I can’t remember, most everyone I’ve told thinks my experience was nothing but a dream, a dream so vivid that it’s left its mark on me. It’s not so strange for people to be marked by things that aren’t real. This happens with movies, books, and games. Fictional experiences. Real effects.
This all started because of something I read. A story about a place that didn’t really exist. A place I suddenly felt the urge to find and to visit.
When I was very young, I had a touch of the wanderlust, as many young people do, I suppose. I wanted to visit places. I wanted to experience nightlife, street life, nature, and culture. But as I got older, that urge began to fade. Too many disappointments, I suppose, in the trips I did take. Not enough magical experiences. Too much fear and reluctance. And no one but myself to push me. Travel costs money too. And time. All the known places were too crowded. All the unknown places were frightening. And the places in between…well, who knew how to find those?
Something about the story, which I read in a magazine article, struck me. It was an explanation of the zodiacal lights and how they appeared to be the lights of a distant city, a city beyond the horizon. But that’s not what they were. They were cosmic dust. And that was wondrous enough. So at first, I just wanted to see them. Maybe I already had and didn’t realize it. I wanted to see them on purpose, and to know what I was seeing.
As a kid, during vacations, I’d wake early to see the sun rise. And watch the time in the evening, so I could see the sun set. It wasn’t always possible to see that in the city, even from the roof. My dad would climb up there, to the roof of our house, and help me up and we’d watch. Just before breakfast. Or just after dinner. Dawn made me feel hopeful. Sunset made me feel peaceful.
I hadn’t truly felt either in a while. That’s all I was looking for at first. All I saw from the roof of my three-story apartment complex was a few sunrises and sunsets, beautiful ones, but I’m not sure if those even counted. I couldn’t see the horizon. I was heartened to find that I still felt hope at sunrise and peace at sunset, despite whatever madness of daily life sat between.
But the urge to see the zodiacal lights gnawed at me. So I actually took a few days off work and asked my sister if I could stay at her place for a few nights. Her house lay west of me, and west of her house was an affluent neighborhood in the hills, then the shore and the sea. I would be able to see the western horizon from her roof.
She was game, and it would just be me and her. My niece and nephew were off on a father-kids camping trip with their dad. My sister and brother-in-law had agreed upon a friendly competition of introducing their kids to various new activities as their parental resolution for the year. She wasn’t too competitive, but my quest intrigued her as a possible idea for her next activity with her children.
That very first night, bundled against a chilly spring evening, we were both up on the roof. We saw it. Eerie, soft light, rising from the earth and reaching up into the indigo night sky.
“Cosmic majesty” is how my sister described it. Not satisfied to take a quick video on her phone, she scrambled down from the roof to go get her dedicated video recorder. I sat and gazed, mesmerized, hypnotized, and curious. I’d seen pictures of zodiacal lights that looked faint and hazy. But in other pictures, there seemed to be an almost solid spear of light piercing the heavens.
This light did look cosmic and majestic, but it also looked familiar. A few times in recent memory, I’d been on some long drives and on the way back into the city, noted how I could see the city at night, not the buildings, just a patch of earthly light glowing against the surrounding darkness.
This light looked just like that. It really did look just like the lights of a distant city.
I don’t know what compelled me to climb down and go to it. I remember calling out to my sister that I was going to drive out. I didn’t stop and ask if she wanted to join me. I knew she wouldn’t. There were wild peafowl roaming the hills. She was always worried she’d encounter an angry peacock and get slashed.
I feared she might talk me out of going, and try to convince me to stay inside and watch a movie or play a tabletop game. To me, there were few finer things in life than watching a movie or playing a tabletop game with someone I love. But I didn’t want to do that just then. I had to follow the lights. I knew there was no city, just as I know there is no pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But I just had to see.
I remember getting into my car, driving, watching the lights, and smiling at their magnificence as I followed. Almost twenty miles I’d gone. I remember stopping at the side of the road and walking out into the grassy, shrubby, cactus-filled hills. I even remember glancing around to look for peacocks or other critters and making sure the compass app on my phone was working, just in case, though I wasn’t really worried. The city was just there, just over the hill. I couldn’t have been more than a hundred yards from where I’d stopped my car.
The way was illuminated with light from the highway on one side and the city on the other. There was no danger. I walked onward. I thought about turning on my phone’s video camera, or at least the voice recorder, but I didn’t want to use up battery. And more importantly, I didn’t want to miss out on having the experience because I was too busy recording the experience.
On hindsight, I should have turned on the voice recorder.
Because the very next thing I remember was walking back to my car and being stopped by a deputy. I showed her my identification and asked what was going on. She called for her partner. They made more calls. They draped a blanket over me. Soon there was an ambulance. My sister arrived. The whole time I was trying to figure out what was going on with the rest of the world, I was also trying to remember what was going on with me. It was the middle of the night, but I didn’t remember where I’d been. The lights were gone. The zodiacal lights. I didn’t realize until my sister told me that I hadn’t just been gone for hours. It had been much longer.
Five days. I’d been gone for five days. I had lost five days. I’d lost my phone too. That’s why they couldn’t track me.
I wasn’t cold. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t even hungry.
I was just dazed.
In the days that followed, I had a lot to answer for at home with family and friends, and at work with my boss and colleagues. The authorities were far more forgiving, being as how I seemed to be just fine and there was no other evidence of a crime. Someone mentioned something about fugue states. I looked it up. It’s when someone suddenly travels away from home and has amnesia about where he or she has been and what he or she has been up to.
That did sound like what had happened to me. I wanted to remember what happened. I tried hypnosis and therapy to recover my memories and find out what might have triggered this fugue thing if that’s what happened. I tried to remember on my own.
I couldn’t uncover specific details, like objects, buildings, people, events, or even feelings. I only remembered…impressions. I admit, it was like trying to remember a dream. In a lot of dreams, some things are clear and vibrant, others are hazy. I couldn’t remember names or categories. But I did uncover some details. I remembered one specific person, a woman, with a short blunt haircut, and a cool-looking coat. What made it look cool? I couldn’t remember.
I remembered a soaking, drenching rain. A cool rain. I remembered eating something amazing. But I couldn’t remember what.
I visited the area around my sister’s house, restaurants, stores, hospitals and clinics. I even knocked on a few residential doors that I thought looked familiar. No one remembered ever seeing or meeting me.
My sister was glad to have me back and wanted to know why I had scared her half to death. She was almost as keen as I was to find out what had happened.
When autumn came, I saw the zodiacal light again, in the east, before dawn. I watched the beautiful lights carefully. But I felt nothing. I remembered nothing. I put it out of my mind for many weeks.
One morning, I remembered something I thought was significant. Two sentences that came to me in the shower (naturally).
It lives in the dust. It lives in the remnants.
I didn’t know what the sentences meant. I didn’t know if they were my own thoughts or something someone had said to me. I did assume “it” referred to the city and “dust” to the cosmic dust that the sun shines on to produce the zodiacal lights. It was a weekend, so I went over to my sister’s to tell her about it. I kept repeating the sentences over and over out loud, hoping to extract some meaning between the lines.
It lives in the dust. It lives in the remnants.
I creeped out my sister, who told me I sounded “culty.” She was worried that if there was something to this city in the dust lights thing, then it might not be as benevolent as I presented it as being based on the few memories and impressions I had recovered. She believed I had entered a fugue state. But barring that, she thought that maybe I escaped from something, and now I was being drawn back by some engineered and purposeful means, like brainwashing or a drug.
For what other reason than a sinister one could I not remember anything?
She didn’t think the fact of my seeming to be unharmed was proof that I hadn’t come to some kind of harm. Psychological harm instead of physical. But I’m sure that’s not what happened. I don’t just have warm and fuzzy feelings about the city. If I did, then I’d be suspicious too. I have a feeling, an urge, about the city. It feels like unfinished business. I sometimes feel a wave of…I think it’s guilt. There’s this feeling in the pit of my stomach, which sometimes lurches with a memory that my mind can’t recall. How does my gut remember? What does my gut remember?
When I started talking about going back into the lights, my sister insisted I do some further research, and try to find some other people who think they might have found something else in the cosmic glow. As much as it troubled her to think I might have had an episode of dissociative fugue, she was more worried that I didn’t believe that’s what happened at all. She was more worried that I believed I had found a mysterious city and spent the equivalent of five days there, not knowing how quickly the time was passing.
She went as far as to trick me into driving out to where I’d gotten lost, during the middle of a bright and sunny day. She walked out with me. Her aim was to prove that there was no city.
Instead, the trek only triggered more impressions. I was on the right path, but the path had changed, had moved. It wasn’t there anymore.
My sister pointed to an empty plains full of scrub and cacti, and beyond that, the shore, and the sea. There was no city. Of course. I knew that. The city sits inside of the zodiacal lights. When the lights vanish, so does the city.
The city isn’t visible in daylight. It isn’t…tangible in daylight.
I could be patient. My sister’s advice seemed reasonable, and the question of whether or not anyone else had been to the city tickled my curiosity as much as trying to return to it again. Maybe someone else could help me. Maybe someone else could verify my story and validate my experience.
There was also the other thing. As much as I wanted to find the city again, as much as the thought was exciting to me, I was also overwhelmed by it. I also felt somewhat uneasy by it. It was the unease of “what have I got myself into?” It was the unease of “can I handle this?”
But there was also the unease of venturing past the borders of the known world, even if I was sure I’d already done it once.
I hatched a small plot. I went online and found several people who claimed to have some unusual encounters with the zodiacal lighs. Over the course of the next few months, I met up with a number of them, some of them one-on-one, and some as a small group. I wanted to get some objectivity. So I told them I was a researcher who had stumbled upon the subject of the zodiacal lights and was fascinated by them. I wanted to dive deeper into the subject and as such, wanted to interview them for an article, or maybe a book. It was mostly the truth, even the part about writing a piece. I had already filled a composition book with notes. There was probably enough information there already to fill an article.
Some people said yes right away and were excited at the prospect of having their names in an article or book. Most of those didn’t seem to have any useful information with the exception of one elderly woman who reported that she’d found the city as a girl when she wandered off just as I had.
By the time I sat down with her, I was already fatigued from the three other interviews I’d had that day, all of them fruitless. I was ready to dismiss her as another false prospect, but I had enough decency left in me for the day to listen to her story. After all, the woman had invited me into her home and offered me a hot coffee against a chill autumn day.
She described what seemed at first to be a negative (and familiar) situation, because her folks had gotten scared that she was lost in the woods and a search party was called. They found her three days later. It was when she began to recall the state in which they’d found her that her mood changed. She perked up.
She wasn’t cold or starving or sick as they’d expected. She didn’t have a scratch on her, from twig or thorn. No insect bites. No tears or damage to her clothing or shoes. She did have an extra pair of socks on that were unfamiliar. And a shawl to keep her warm.
The area around where she was found was searched. Searchers wondered if some benevolent neighbors had found the girl, fed her and kept her safe. Maybe they hadn’t called the authorities because they were people who were living off the grid. If that’s what had happened, the police wanted to find and questions those folks. Being as how the girl appeared unhurt and un-traumatized, the family was more interested in thanking whoever had found her and rewarding them. But no one was ever found who lived within a reasonable distance for the girl to have wandered.
The girl herself told a peculiar story about wandering into a city, which she remembered and described as being like any typical city. She claimed to have been found by a couple of police officers who took her back to their precinct and sat her down on a comfortable couch until they could call around and find out where her parents were. She told them her name and they told her to wait while they made some calls. She remembered one of them looking pale when he came back into the room to give her a mug of hot cocoa and a pair of fresh socks to replace the ones that had gotten wet during her trek through the woods.
The officers asked her lots of questions about where she’d come from and how she’d come to be where they had found her. They had summoned their boss, the police captain, who had then called someone else. The girl had a moment of fright when she wondered if they couldn’t find her parents, or if her parents were so angry with her that they didn’t want the police to bring her back. She started asking for the officers to take her back.
She didn’t think she could have been gone for more than half a day, but she remembered overhearing the police captain asking one of the officers who’d found her how many days he thought had passed. The officers consulted a device that looked much like a sextant. They used a word she didn’t understand back when she was girl, but later remembered. Calibrate.
One of the officers came in and gave her a shawl. He told her that they needed to take her back to her parents, and that because they weren’t in charge of the area where she’d wandered off, they would take her as far as they could and she would have to wait a few moments before the police of her area found her.
As she reminisced, the elderly woman explained some of the realizations she came to later when she was much older. She had been following the strange and pretty lights on the horizon until she found the very city she expected to find. What those officers were trying to tell her is that she was out of their jurisdiction. She didn’t find it strange at the time that they didn’t call the police in her jurisdiction and simply ask them to pick her up or bring her parents by. She didn’t question that she would instead be returned to the forest. Part of why she didn’t question it was that she was just a girl and accustomed to mostly obeying the instructions of grown-ups and mostly taking what they said at face value. But another part was that she somehow instinctively knew that she was elsewhere. That she was somewhere she wasn’t quite supposed to be but that wasn’t unwelcome to her.
She remembered telling the two officers that she liked them very much and wondered if she could come visit them again, maybe with her parents, who would surely like to thank them for finding her before she got lost in the forest.
“If you really want to return, and you remember that you do, then you will. Someday, but not for a long while, I think. At least I hope not,” one of the officers said.
“Why not? Don’t you want me to visit?”
“Of course,” the other officer said. “We like you as much as you like us. It’s just that you’ll have so much to do when you get back, and we want you to get to all of that, and not worry about visiting your old pals at the precinct until you’ve got everything settled the way you want.”
The woman sighed and sipped at her coffee. “Before I got married and had kids, I used to think about that incident off and on. Mull it over. Ask myself if it was real. My rescuers thought I dreamed the officers. They knew I’d been helped, because of the socks and shawl. Because I was warm when they found me. I was never cold after I left the precinct. I’ve wondered if I wandered into the afterlife, you know? Because of what the one officer said about my having so much to do before I visit them again.”
She leaned back in her chair, and I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye as she continued.
“You know, I think those officers might have been angels. But the thought brings chills to my skin, because it’s wonderful, but it’s also, well, it’s also weird. I feel guilty because I’m not devout. I believe in being spiritual. But I don’t believe in any particular religion. I was raised to, of course, but…” She shrugged.
There were a few people I interviewed who believed the lights were the lights of an alien ship and that they were being drawn to it with some infrasensory device that either targeted individuals based on their genetic make-up, or based or some set of characteristics that the aliens wanted to study. Others believed they had entered an alternate reality or another dimension. Not all of the accounts were positive ones.
“It used to give me hope to know that there were other worlds out there,” one man said before he shuddered and told me, with no further explanation, that he’d rather we end the interview. I obliged.
But not all of the accounts were negative either. There were some who believed they had entered a mystical realm, like fairyland, filled with beings older than humans, who had once inhabited the earth and had longed abandoned it, but sometimes revisited out of nostalgia, curiosity, or simply mischief.
There was one man who claimed to remember walking into a city where the buildings were made of giant mushrooms. Or perhaps the mushrooms were normal sized and he had been shrunk.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I’m a microbiologist not a mycologist. How big can mushrooms get anyway?”
I didn’t know, and I didn’t really believe his story. But I appreciated its whimsy and good humor.
Fairies, aliens, and angels. I suppose those were the usual suspects in cases like these.
After dozens of interviews, I was left wondering if I was searching for my own doom, even if the lights were benevolent. If I found them, would I be finding the afterlife? Is that why I left even though I have an impression of being happy there? Was I on the road to what some would call heaven? Was I sent back because I wasn’t actually dead yet?
Or was the reality something else, something disturbing, like an alien abduction followed by the implantation of false and hazy, but mostly pleasant, memories? Was that my small reward at the end of an experimental session, the way a monkey is rewarded with a grape or a slice of banana after performing some task?
I seriously considered finding some way to get myself x-rayed from head to foot to make sure I didn’t have any alien implants. I was being too influenced by the stories of others, so I stopped the interviews and tried to turn inward again, to try and remember what my own experience was.
I tried lucid dreaming. I tried to get hypnotized again. I tried guided meditation. I went to a palm reader who told me there was a profound journey ahead of me. It was a generic forecast, but I felt the most satisfied with that palm reader.
You want to know what happened? I asked myself. Go back there and ask someone.
I decided it was time to return. Many months had passed. It was now spring and the zodiacal lights would return. And I would be prepared. I would make arrangements and leave behind notes. I would do even better by my sister and tell her I was going this time. She offered to come with me, a sincere offer despite the fact that she was about to go off on a family vacation in a few days since the kids were on break. When I refused her offer, she asked me to wait until she returned. I told her to think of my venture as my own spring break. She’d been afraid of something like that, my wanting to go on some “vision quest” on my own. So she gave me a GPS watch and a warning. If I didn’t check in with her at least once a day, she was going to call up some friends and have them hunt me down.
So it was that I came to be walking down a hiking trail, straight toward the lights of an ethereal city. I had bought a voice recorder that had enough space for almost a week’s worth of continuous recording. I occasionally narrated my trek, but it started sounding boring. It was a beautiful night. A bit cool but otherwise mild. I passed by other people, dog-walkers, evening joggers. A couple stopped to note the beauty of the zodiacal lights, of the false dusk. I thought about telling them I was heading into the lights, but their moment with the lights was different from mine. I passed them by.
Soon I was alone on the path. Soon I left the path. I felt as if I’d been walking for days, even though my feet didn’t hurt much yet, and the sky hadn’t brightened. I started getting winded and though I wasn’t in the best of shape, it soon occurred to me that my breathlessness was being caused by something more than the exertion of a brisk walk. There was a hill not too far from me, and beyond it, I was sure, lay the city. I took a step up.
The air felt thin. Crisp. I was still having trouble breathing, but I calmed myself and forced myself to take longer deeper breaths.
A memory flashed through my mind. A question asked in my voice.
“I’m here? In the city?”
I remember a young woman’s voice next, her words, answering mine.
“Yes, but then, you’ve always been here, just like every other person.”
The voice recorder was in my pocket, attached to one of my belt loops, so it wouldn’t get lost. I tried to catch my breath so I could record the memory.
“Difficult…to breath” was all I managed to say. My chest began to hurt. I squeezed my eyes shut, but not seeing anything made me feel worse, nauseated. I opened my eyes and tried to hold panic at bay.
Did this happen last time? Is that why I blacked out? I couldn’t breathe? Was the air thinner in the city? I must have become accustomed to it somehow. It would be okay. Wouldn’t it?
I struggled to breathe. It was right there. The air was vibrant and yet calm all at once. There just didn’t seem to be enough oxygen in it. I started to back away. My limbs began to shake. I clutched at my chest. I glanced up at the lights just ahead. I thought I had enough breath to call out for help. But that might be the last of my breath. I shook my head.
All or nothing.
I prayed that reckless thought would not be my last. I took a final pained breath and I ran headlong up the hill toward the lights of the city, full of desperate hope.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel