He had not come there after hours of wandering, as he sometimes did in dreams, through the city or the woods, or through less familiar landscapes. It was not that kind of a place. As soon as awareness came to him, he was simply there. He was lucid as well. He knew it was a dream, knew he had control of his thoughts, actions, words. That had never happened before.
Erlon squinted. The sun flashed in his eyes and he raised his hand to shield them. The light winked, filtered by the trees overhead. He felt a tingle at the back of his neck: he was not alone.
He blinked as his eyes grew used to that powerful light. No, power was the wrong word—vitality. The light seemed alive, active, immersed in concerns of its own he knew nothing of. But he could see now in spite of it, the landscape clearing in his vision.
What he noticed first was the water. Still, cool, clear, though bright and gleaming. Calm as glass, though it reflected nothing but the sky above.
He was struck by the lake’s shape, perfectly ovaline. Or…pond? He wasn’t sure. It seemed too big to be a pond, too small for a lake. Yellow butterflies flit around the shore’s edges. In the shallows before him tiny fish were schooling.
But what most drew his eyes were the trees. Three of them. Equally spaced, growing straight up from the water less than a meter from the crescent of sand where he stood.
They hummed with a strange energy. He couldn’t hear it exactly, but he could almost feel it. Something about the place felt holy.
Erlon stepped closer. Before he could take another step, the voice stopped him.
DO NOT TOUCH THE WATER, it said. YOU ARE NOT READY FOR THAT. NOT YET.
His eyes darted left and right, finally settling on the trees themselves. No…that was ridiculous. Had the voice come from one of them?
WE KNOW WHY YOU ARE HERE, it went on after a while.
It was true. It couldn’t be true, but it was. The tree had spoken.
It should have felt strange. Alarming, terrifying. But it didn’t. To hear the voice of a tree—deep and creaking, so unbearably low he thought his ears would split if it spoke too long—felt utterly mundane.
The tree remained utterly still. Just when Erlon wondered if it had really happened, it spoke again.
YOU HAVE FOUND AN EMPTY PLACE, it said. YOU WILL NOT REST TILL YOU FIND WHAT YOU THINK SHOULD BE IN IT.
He jumped, struggled to think. He had trouble speaking. But then the words jarred something in him.
“A—an empty place?” he stammered. “You mean…the missing pixel? The clear spot in Devin’s photos?”
IT IS UNWISE, the tree said, TO LOOK FOR WHAT IS MISSING. BUT YO UWILL NOT LET IT GO. SO WE WILL HELP YOU.
“Help?” A blade of light shot through the trees around the lake. Erlon blinked.
IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?
“Uh…um…” Erlon licked his lips. He thought of the empty place in the photos, the sense of a chasm opening up deep inside his being, from some dark unknowable place in his chest.
He thought of Anette, the way she’d regarded him, the question she hadn’t asked. He had been glad of that. How could he have answered it? How could he make her understand? He didn’t understand it himself.
Yet now he was talking to a tree, a tree that did seem to understand.
The tree awaited his answer, brimming over with a sense of expectancy. It did not ask the question again.
Erlon couldn’t speak. His thoughts were muddled, as if weighted by blankets gathering and tightening around him. If only he could break free. Perhaps he could breathe then, and maybe think straight—make some sense of what was happening—
He stepped forward. Another step. He was too near the water, felt his toes dip into it.
As soon as its cold seeped through the shoe and touched skin, it all went black.
* * *
He bolted up in bed, gave a loud, involuntary yell. “Huh!”
His back stabbed with sudden pain. He was covered in sweat. Blankets tangled round his arms and legs and he fought them, struggled for air. His heart pounded.
Somehow Anette still slept beside him. Erlon wiggled his toe. It felt utterly cold. Somewhere in the room he could smell the dark, clinging smell of water.
His breathing was too loud. His mind, deep in the shock of waking, was gracefully empty. Erlon sat in bed for what felt like hours, looking around the room, though in truth only a minute or two had passed.
Time stretched itself out. His breathing settled and his mind moved again. It was a dream—of course. The heartbeat still pulsed in his ears.
Erlon rose. He left the bedroom, wandered outside to stand on the back deck. It was deep night. Only the clouds were moving; all else was still. The light felt thin, silvery, though he couldn’t see the moon or stars. It didn’t feel real.
Parts of the dream rose in his memory and he observed them, let them drift away, watched as new things floated to the surface. His mind was returning. He broke all of it down, all he could remember, questioned all of it.
The missing pixel. The empty grain. The tree had seen it in him, confirmed it, acknowledged its reality. And then had offered him help.
He shook his head. It was nonsense, trees talking. A piece of his soul missing. Erlon couldn’t believe it.
Yet some part of him did. Something felt in his core that inner gap, as deeply as he felt the night’s silence. The owls that haunted his trees were gone, the drainage creek frogs didn’t sing. He felt a million miles from home, even though he was in it.
If it’s true, he asked himself, how could I lose a piece of myself?
What does it mean—about me? about my life? this world I live in? What do I do?
Can I do a damned thing?
His throat was dry. Erlon longed for a glass of water but did not go inside. Where, he wondered, where, where was I? In the dream—was it a real place? It felt familiar, as if I knew it from some memory. From years ago, or decades maybe.
Erlon laughed drily. No…it’s symbolic. Damn, son, of course it’s symbolic. How could I have thought otherwise?
Then what is the symbol and what does it mean? What is the sign, and what does it signify?
He shivered. he was waking up now, really waking, feeling his normal self for the first time tonight. Attending to things around him, rather than things solely in his mind.
He clutched his arms to his chest to hold in warmth. His elbows felt ashy. He thought to go in and put on lotion, but feared to wake Anette. Anette…she would ask what was the matter, why he was up, and how could he answer? He felt alone, adrift on a river whose shores he could not chart, a geography no one could understand.
* * *
Finally, around 7, a half hour before Anette’s alarm went off, Erlon went inside. When she rose he greeted her warmly, if absently. “How did you sleep?”
“Fine,” her voice half groaned. The bed creaked. “Fine. How about you?”
He didn’t answer. Erlon studied her face, barely lined at all by all the years they’d spent together. He knew all of it, though, the characters of her brows, lashes, the dark line of her lips, the round tip of her nose. The things others saw in quick impressions, too brief to commit to memory. It all took years to map them in the mind. He knew them all.
Erlon brushed the curve of her cheek with two fingers. “You look beautiful.”
“That kind of talk,” she intoned as she straightened her hair wrap, hiding her smile, “will get you everywhere.”
He breathed heavy as she sauntered to the bathroom. Erlon went to the kitchen to make the morning coffee and stuck two slices of bread into the toaster. By the time they came up he had forgotten them.
Anette took her mug, sipped, gave a decided “Mmm.” She sat beside him at the table. “You got anything special planned today?”
“No,” he said. “The usual. Work.”
“Mm,” she said again. “Well, maybe I’ve got something special planned tonight. Let’s go out for Indian.”
He smiled, tilting his head. “Sounds great.”
By the time Erlon had made it to work the dream had slipped out of mind, and he looked forward to the evening with Anette with relish.
Elsewhere, the first of three trees rocked in a spring wind, pine needles sighing.