Erlon dreamed again that night of the Carolina bay. It was golden hour in the dream but the glow was fading, almost to gloaming now. Overhead a shooting star caught his eye, flying away north as if bound for the earth. The place felt different now. As if something had subtly, yet irrevocably, changed.
It was a while before he realized what it was. Gazing over the water at the three trees, he noticed how the first two, the cypress and pine, were tall and straight, canopies mingling into each other. But the oak, which rose parallel with them for a bit, gradually bent and stretched its sprawling, seeking branches away from the others rather than join with them.
That was when he realized the change: the pine and the cypress had gone silent. The sense he had always had in this place, of life brimming up from every depth and falling from every height, had diminished. It still came from all around him—except from the pine and cypress. Now, in their silence, the oak seemed twice as filled with an energy that hummed in a nearly audible way.
It seemed to be watching him, waiting on him, so Erlon spoke. “I found it,” he said, voice hoarse at first. He swallowed. “I found the place you said—the place where waters burn. I found it. There…There wasn’t any answer there. No missing part of myself. I…I didn’t find anything.”
The oak focused its attention on him. He wasn’t sure how he could tell, but he could. IS THAT TRUE? it asked at last. DID YOU FIND NOTHING?
His hand involuntarily reached to his pocket, and he felt it there: the little acorn he had taken from the threshold of Tannile’s house. He brought it out. Let it roll in his palm, showing its dark smooth gloss. On one side some insect had bored a tiny hole the size of a pinprick.
“What was the point?” Erlon begged. “Why send me there at all? That place—that was about Tannile, not me.”
He closed his mouth in shock, only now realizing it was true. All he had lost when he’d lost her, all that had gone dark in his life then…all of that was her missing. Not him.
IT WAS THE ONLY QUESTION YOU HAD WITH AN ANSWER, the tree spoke in a slow, moaning croak. WERE YOU NOT TOLD IT IS UNWISE TO SEEK WHAT IS MISSING? THERE IS NO ANSWER TO THAT. DO YOU NOT KNOW? ALL THINGS RESONATE WITH ALL THINGS. EVERYTHING THAT IS A THING SHARES THIS WITH EVERY OTHER THING. WE WHO SPEAK NOW—WE RECEIVE THE SUN, CHANGE ITS WAMRTH AND LIGHT INTO LIFE THAT SUSTAINS OUR BEING. CAN YOU NOT DO THIS IN YOUR OWN WAY?
“No,” said Erlon miserably. “I can’t. You’re a tree. I’m—only plants can do that.”
The oak hummed again. Its leaves wavered in a breeze Erlon could not feel.
THERE IS WITHIN YOU THE TENDENCY TO BECOME ALL THAT YOU ARE. THE SOUL AND SEED OF EVERYTHING. NOTHING IS MISSING. NOTHING EVER COULD BE.
The breeze rose and now Erlon could feel it. The oak seemed to sigh in its embrace, as if fulfilling the secret heart of whatever it was that its words meant. The tree did not speak again, but he could feel its living energy vibrate in the very air. It seemed to hold him.
He gave an empty laugh. The oak’s answer did not satisfy him—not at all. He turned his back to the round lake and scanned his surroundings. Amid the tangled vines to his left the web of a banana spider glimmered in the gold light, its silk so fine a work that he stood staring, though without emotion.
He turned again. He looked at the pine and the cypress, remembering their voices. Sorrow flooded him now, feeling their death, their lack. It felt as if he were somehow responsible. A tear ran down his cheek.
But…no. They weren’t gone. All that they were, all they had ever been…was still here. He knelt at the water’s edge. The emptiness inside his chest felt sharper than ever, as if the absence were stabbing outward, widening from within.
The dream changed. He was still on his knees, but the Carolina bay was gone. All was dark around him, though not so dark that he couldn’t see a blackness darker still. The gap in his soul. It had taken on visible form now, an outer reality, though pinprick-thin. He gaped—shuddered—his bones locked, body rigid. Part of him, though, was not surprised. It felt sadly inevitable.
Death was coming; death had already arrived. It was only waiting now—inside that hole. Heart pounding, chest crushed by the implacable weight of horror, he entered.
Erlon hugged his arms. He couldn’t just see the dark now: he could feel it, hear it, taste it. Every inch of his skin trembled, simmering with energy. He tripped, fell again. He clutched his knees beneath folded arms, drawing them to his chest. His body wracked as if sobbing, but he made no sound. His fear left no room for tears. The moment was endless, as if his doom were a single instant stretched and stretched out, drawn across infinite time.
* * *
Time passed. Just how much of it, Erlon never knew. He had fallen into a fog at some point, unable to endure that trauma any longer. It had been a mercy: unknowing, unfeeling oblivion.
He wasn’t dead, though. At last he returned to himself, drawn into awareness by the gravity of his being. He felt strange. Transformed in some way: himself, but not quite the same.
The fear was gone. He was still inside the horrible gap, that endless darkness—but no, darkness was the wrong word. Dark meant the absence of light, but that was irrelevant. There could never be light here, because here there could never be anything.
And yet he was here. He was not nothing. Was he? Erlon didn’t think so, but his understanding had fallen away, replaced by a sort of innocence. Here he could cling to no thought: only that which he knew merely by being. And he was.
There was no light here, no thing here at all, not even himself. Yet he was. And in a place where there is no thing, he could never be separate from any thing. In that wholeness there was no fear—there never could be.
Erlon stood. On what he had no idea, for there was nothing to stand on. But he stood, and breathed, though there was no air to fill his lungs. Still, he breathed.
He was free.
It was just as Anette had said. He was no less full a person than he’d ever been, no more separated from the rest of the world than the world was separate from itself. At the time he had thought her answer glib. But maybe sometimes, he thought, maybe we are so lost at sea we can’t see the shore for the fog of our own thoughts, can’t tell which way leads to safety and which to the cold thrill of open ocean. Can’t tell shallows from endless deep.
Erlon laughed. This time there was joy in it, and he laughed again for the sheer pleasure.
After a while—he couldn’t say how long—he pushed out of that place again, into the painful light of the world. The bay looked the same as before, though only mere minutes had passed, the light faded only slightly further toward dusk. Or maybe that was wrong. Maybe many months, many ages had passed, and the evening he emerged to was simply another in the long age of the bay and its endless, quiet years.
He could smell the earth again, and the greenery around him, the sandy shore beneath his feet. And the water. He could smell the water.
Erlon didn’t hesitate now. It was time. One step forward and he was in it, wading first to his ankles, then knees, then finally waist-deep. It didn’t go deeper than that. But the water was cold, shockingly cold. He’d expected a cool, refreshing temperature, but it felt frigid in the heat of the Lowcountry summer.
He let himself fall backward, floating on the surface. He couldn’t merge with the water, not as he wished—it was shockingly different, inescapably other. But he didn’t have to. The bay was separate, and yet separation felt meaningless, a mere idea holding nothing real or of value to him or anyone.
* * *
Erlon had been lying in bed for a long time, awake, before he realized it. I’m back, he thought. Did any of that really happen?
He knew the answer, of course. It was just a dream.
The memory of it would stay with him, though. He could tell that much. It had been a dream, but it had been real.
By sunrise it had left him already: the oneness, the wholeness he had felt while swimming in the bay. As he sat at the table with Anette and drank his coffee, he found himself yearning for it. Disappointed in himself, that he couldn’t sustain it for longer, even if he knew it could never have been permanent.
A part of him was all right with it, though. He didn’t have to sustain anything. He knew what he knew now—not a knowledge in his head, but something like a sensation. A solidity deep in his skin.
“Good morning,” Anette greeted him when she rose. He reached for her, cupping the back of her neck with his palm. Erlon smiled and passed her the other mug of coffee he’d made.
Later, arriving at work that day, Erlon emerged from his car into the muggy morning and slipped his keys into his pocket. His fingers brushed something as he did, and he fished it out: the acorn from Tannile’s house.
He stopped in his tracks, considering it. It hadn’t changed. It still seemed the same plain, ordinary acorn, but it was more than that.
Erlon smiled. He tilted his hand till the acorn fell to the pavement, rolled a little, and rested in the sandy gravel.