Tread Softly

A short story by Tom Battey.

As I sail the sea of dreams, my mind wanders, as it is wont to do at times like this.  At these times it’s almost as if I can remember something from before, almost as if I remember the days when I, too, could dream.  Then that faint tremor of a lost past fades into the thick fog of my mind, and I am left alone, with my boat, my staff and my vessel, drifting through the silent sea.

I use the staff as both rudder and oar, careful not to let it slip from my fingers into the black depths.  I do not know the consequences of losing the staff to the sea but a fuzzy sort of terror leaves me with no inclination to find out, and keeps my grip tight around the carved wood.  I watch the dark water, down where the dreams swim, silvery slivers that slip beneath me as if alive.

If one of them catches my highly-trained eye, then I must use the staff for its true purpose.  Driving it down beneath the surface, I spear the desired dream.  Sometimes they dart away before I can capture it, and a few are so strong that they break away from my staff before I can pull them in, but usually I snare them cleanly and drag them aboard.  I am good at this; I have had a lot of practice.

I cannot say what it is that identifies particular dreams as those I require, other than my natural talent.  There is nothing to physically define these from the millions of others spiralling through the depths, but when I see them, I know.  To me they are somehow brighter, more vibrant, more vital.  These dreams I snare and bring into the boat with me, and feed gently into my vessel.  The vessel looks like a human skull with the top sliced off.  I do not know if it really is a human skull, or some creation of the Adjudicators.  It doesn’t matter much, as long as it serves its purpose.

When the Vessel is full of dreams, it appears to glow with an ethereal light, light which shines from those sockets that may or may not once have contained eyes.  Now, and only now, do I cast my own eyes toward the shore.  I do not know how much time has passed since I set out, nor do I even know if time passes at all in this place, but it does not matter, for here it is always twilight, and the peakless mountain is always visible however far I have sailed.  I use the staff to turn towards it, and begin to sail home.

 ***

The way back is arduous, as there is no wind in this place, nor does the silent sea have a tide.  Once, I can almost dimly recall, this surprised me; now it does not.  I must make my way back to shore using the staff as an oar.  When I first found myself here, the journey back would near kill me, such an amount of rowing is required.  The pain of it makes this memory linger longer than most.  Now, however, the journey is easy.  I am much stronger than I was as a result of the rowing, and besides, pain does not matter to me as much as it once did.  I am hardly out of breath when I reach the silver shore.

I drag the boat a short way up the beach and leave both it and the staff there.  There is no danger of either being taken, not by the water and not by a human being.  Both sea and people are benign in this place.  The Vessel, still shining with the light of the dreams I have gathered, is the only item I bring with me.  It is only a short walk across the silver dunes to the foot of the endless steps, the path I must now travel.

The endless steps are not in fact endless, although it may feel like they are if you allow yourself to be too present.  There are nine-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them.  The steps wind around the base of the peakless mountain, ending just before the rocky slope vanishes above the permanent ceiling of cloud.  We never travel above the clouds; such is the honour of the Adjudicators alone.  My journey ends at the top of the endless steps.

The Adjudicator is waiting before the timeless gate, as he always is.  I say ‘he’ only for ease of definition.  It is impossible to guess the sex of the Adjudicator.  His whole form is hidden beneath what I see as a cloak, but which could in fact be leather wings wrapped around the body.  His face is covered by a white mask with black eyeholes through which I cannot glimpse his eyes.  It is impossible to know what the Adjudicator is thinking behind that mask, but he takes the Vessel from me and turns away, which mean I have done my job well.  I turn away too, for I am not permitted to see beyond the timeless gate when it opens to admit him.  I hear it grinding open and then shut behind me, then I set off back down the endless steps.

 ***

When I reach the camp it feels like much time has passed, though it is impossible to tell.  I am told this feeling will fade, and knowing the ways this place has changed me, I believe it.  Already the passage of time, or rather the lack of it, feels natural.  I am sure that in time I will cease to notice it entirely.  Then I will be like the others.

They have been here longer than I, and as such they remember nothing of the lives they had before.  They cannot picture a time when they did not live in this place.  At times I think I still can, but in truth my memories faded long ago.  All I know is the abstract concept that once, before, I was apart from this place.  I am from a place where time flows with linear certainty and the seas rise and fall.  I cannot remember how I know this but I do.  I also know I will forget all of it eventually.  I can only assume it was the same for the others.

I sit down in front of the fire.  The Fire Keeper looks up at me briefly, then looks back at the flames.  She is a woman, she looks young, in the sense that her face in unlined, and she has a fine features and light brown hair.  It is her job to keep the fire burning.  No one knows why we must have the fire, for it generates no heat, but it must be maintained nonetheless.  So she sits and stares into the flames, and sometimes pokes the embers with her staff and sometimes adds another log from the pile next to her.

After a while the Woodcutter arrives with a sack full of freshly chopped wood.  He is a man, he is tall with dark eyes and a coarse beard.  His job is to go into the wood over the ridges to collect firewood.  The rest of us do not go near the wood.  The wood holds nothing for us but a slow fear.  He nods to me as he sets the logs down.  I nod back.  What words we had to say to one another were said many journeys ago.  He turns and walks back over the ridge, toward the wood.

One of the Cloud Gazers joins me by the fire.  There are two Cloud Gazers, and one works while the other rests, for staring at the sky hurts their eyes.  This Cloud Gazer is a woman, she is older than the Fire Keeper in that there are lines around her eyes and mouth and her dark hair is greying at the sides.  Her eyes are red and watery from staring at the sky for so long, and she closes them as she sits down.  Her job, and that of the other Cloud Gazer, is to watch the sky for a break in the clouds.  There has never been a break in the clouds.

I watch the fire until the Fisherman arrives.  He is more of a boy than a man, in that he is shorter than most and thin and young-seeming.  He has dark skin and no hair at all.  His job is to catch the fish from the pool near the woods, for the people in camp to eat.  These days I am the only one here who still needs to eat, and so it could be said that the Fisherman and I get on well.  I asked him once what would happen to him once I no longer have need of the fish he catches, and he looked at me strangely and said he was sure that someone else would come here one day who would need fish again.

As usual he offers his catch to everyone around the fire.  The Cloud Gazer shakes her head without opening her eyes, and the Fire Keeper doesn’t look up from the fire at all.  He comes to me last, and I take a piece of fish, though I am not all that hungry.  I eat about half of it before the desire is gone entirely, and I throw the rest into the fire where it quickly disappears.

Others arrive from around the island, also gathering around the fire.  The Water Bringer comes, as do the three Sea Gazers.  With everyone sat as they are, this is our full retinue.  Some of us cannot sit by the fire; the Woodcutter must always be cutting wood to maintain the fire, and one of the Cloud Gazers must always watch the sky.  The Sea Gazers do not always have to be watching the sea, only when I am out sailing.

I sip some water from a shell the Water Bringer gave me, though I am not very thirsty either, and I watch the fire and the people around it.  Had I not the last vestiges of my old memories, I could not have guessed that these people were all once from the same place, so different does each appear from the others.  But I know still that they all once had lives away from here, lives of light and dark and time and dreams.

We all dreamed once.  Once, one of those silvery dreams that streak through the silent sea, or one of those I spear with my staff, could have been born from one of us.  But we do not dream any longer, and I am the only one that recalls that we ever did.  Soon I will not remember this.  It will not matter when I do not.  We will still gather here, around the fire, to stare at the flames.

I do not sleep as I watch the fire.  Instead I fade out, letting myself become less distinct, less present.  Any tiredness I felt from my time at sea or my journey up and down the endless steps disappears.  Those last few vestiges of memory disappear too, growing ever further from my consciousness.  I no longer worry about how much I will recall when I come back.

I fade back in at my appointed time.  The others are already gone, attending to their own tasks.  Only the Fire Keeper remains ever-present by the fire.  I stand up and make my way down the dunes of the silver beach to where I left my boat and my staff.  As always, an empty vessel rests in the prow of the boat.  I pick it up and drag the boat down to the water’s edge.  Time to sail the sea of dreams once again.

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