A rehabilitated drug addict undertakes a spiritual quest to heal her terminally ill daughter; by Tara Wine-Queen.
She closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep in the cramped hospital bed, willed herself to the wild and verdant landscape of the dream she had been chasing all summer. She knew where it would begin: deep within the forest, the sounds and smells of the earth and its creatures filling her senses, the air so heavy and wet it was almost intoxicating in its oppression. Sometimes it varied in small ways, a different grove of trees or an unexpected companion. But always she would hike through the forest, following the footpath of former fellow seekers, and make her way to the boat where the man would be waiting, and always they would go together down the river.
"Joy?" She opened her eyes in the dream and turned to see her brother standing beside her, looking confused. He was sweating already in the heat of the forest; the moisture had patterned his t-shirt and his brown hair was curling, damp against his face. "Where are we?"
"I don't know what it's called. It's some kind of rainforest." Her mind measured how much might be necessary to explain to Sydney to get him to accompany her without delay. Probably not much. "Come on. We have to go meet a man."
Dream Sydney followed obediently as real-life Sydney would have; he was a good brother, loyal and soft-hearted. She led him down the path which had already been worn the first time she stepped onto it, and they moved in companionable silence, touching when support was helpful to get through a particularly thick patch of flora or when crossing one of the many tiny rivulets that ran between the trees. Once, he nearly fell when he tripped over a root casually breaking its way through the rich earth, but Joy grabbed him with both hands and kept him from collapse and crash, and they laughed together over his inherent clumsiness. Joy kept them moving forward until finally she could hear the waters of the river of her destiny flowing just ahead.
"Listen, Syd," she turned and pointed toward the sound of the rushing water, "I have to go and meet this man at the river, and I have to do it alone. He won't let anyone else on the boat with him, only me."
"What are you getting from him?" Sydney looked at her curiously, his brown eyes wary. "Is it drugs, Joy?" Disappointment flickered over his gaze. "Have you relapsed?"
"No, no, it's nothing like that," she said dismissively, painfully aware of his latent disbelief and also of his enduring love for her which would not allow him to give up on her, which had carried her through rehab years ago. "He has... answers for me, he has information that I need, but I can't explain it to you now, there's not time." She looked at him kindly. "You can wait here if you like."
"Will it be long?"
He sounded so like a child then, she couldn't help but pause a moment to look him over, take in how young he still was. For all his twenty-two years, he had never lost that bit of roundness of cheek, that glow to his skin which indicated true, unsoiled youth.
"It will," she admitted, and she moved toward him. Though he was taller than her by half a foot, she pulled him down into her arms and rested her head against his, forehead to damp forehead, as they had since they were children. "I love you, brother. I'll be okay."
She didn't say, But you won't. A different dream and she would've luxuriated in the presence of her beloved and long-deceased little brother, would've cradled him in her arms and spun stories of their shared upbringing for hours on end, eyes feasting greedily on what had once been her favorite face.
Instead, she turned from him and continued down toward the small dock made of earth and sun-bleached wood. The boat there waited patiently, the water dark and still as death around it as the rest of the river churned on.
And at the front of the boat sat the man she had come to see, who had been waiting for her here throughout time. His black cotton kaftan covered his body, but his sun-browned hands remained exposed and folded in his lap, the palms and pads of his fingers hidden from view. It was these hands which were the mecca of her quest; it was the black words burned into them which she required, and which hitherto he had not shared with her.
She came before him and bowed deeply, her sweat-matted hair falling across her shoulders as she did so. The man rose and returned the bow, eyeing her openly the entire time. He indicated that she should sit in the same spot she had sat dozens of times now, and she took her place beside him in the boat, determined not to fail yet again.
As the boat began its journey, otherwise unmanned but moving purposefully just the same, Joy addressed the man. "You know what I seek from you. What can I offer in return?"
His eyes crinkled in a smile that just barely reached his lips. He liked her, she thought, but that affection had not been enough to persuade him to acquiesce to her request. "I have told you before," he said gently, "I cannot tell you. It does not work like that."
Her frustration fueled her forward to what she had determined must be the answer. "My life, then," she said simply, and met his eyes with all of the dignity she could muster. "I offer it up to you or god or whatever force is orchestrating all of this in exchange for what I need. Please take it. I don't need it if she can't... just please take it if that's what is necessary."
Her strongest move made, she folded her hands in her lap and waited, painfully aware of how small a thing her life must seem to a being such as this. Still, it was all she had. It was not small to her.
As she had spoken, the remnants of his smile had disappeared; it was now replaced by a grievous sadness. "My child," his ancient eyes searching hers, "that is a noble thing which you suggest, and I grant you that it is what I have needed to hear from you these many trips we have taken down the river. But now I am afraid that I must disappoint you again, though perhaps more deeply than the previous times you have sought the cure to your daughter's disease."
"What? What do you mean?" She blinked tears from her eyes.
"For many nights now, you have ridden along the river with me, you have longed for the revelation of these black runes on my hands as single-mindedly as anyone I have ever encountered. And you are correct, Joy, that I have grown to admire you and your brilliant struggle. But you are wrong to believe that what my hands contain would heal her of her disease. Rather the opposite; there is no timeline in which she does not come to you at four years old, her head aching unbearably, only to discover disturbances within which the medicines of your age are incapable of touching, and which will inevitably rob you of her before she ever blossoms into a young woman.
"If I open my hands to you, if you look into the runes and you place your own hands in mine, you will be born again, and these things will unfold precisely as they have in every timeline in which you exist, only in that timeline, you will be aware of the inescapable future you are moving toward with every breath you take. You will still become addicted to drugs; you will still meet her father in your last stay in rehab; your brother will still die mere months after your daughter has been born. In some ways, it will be unbearable, but you may bear it if you so choose, and your life and your daughter's life will change not from the resolution of her disease but from the fruit of your knowledge."
The water had begun to roil as they came closer to the river's breaking, closer to the falls.
"My palms do not mean healing. My palms mean rebirth into a terrible but beautiful wisdom, and it is yours to choose whether you will grasp them when we arrive to the waterfall. For the laying down of your life, you have been given choice."
Joy's tears flowed freely now, tiny rivers of anguish mapping skin.
"You must choose now, Joy," the man said kindly, and he opened his hands to her as the waterfall pulled them to its birth.
Moonlight caressed the sleeping form of her daughter, and she brushed the little girl's pale hair tenderly to the side. For the past three years, Joy had from time to time allowed herself to pretend she didn't know what was waiting for them, to indulge in minutes of precious normalcy, but no more; tonight was the last time her daughter would go to sleep as a three-year-old. Joy would never sleep peacefully again, anticipating what she knew she could not prevent, when the soft padding of her daughter's feet would announce her entrance into her mother's bedroom, and a complaint of a headache would be the beginning of the end.
She thought often of the man in the boat, wondered who and what he had been. But no night held within it a trip to the rainforest, to that river of destiny, and she eventually gave up hope that she would see him again, at least not in this lifetime. She had never spoke of him to anyone, and if anyone else had traveled the path that she had, they never made it known to her.
Still, the man in the boat had been right: the knowledge he had gifted her with was terrible, but it was beautiful, as well. Because of it, she had more patience, she had grown kinder, and her relationship to gratitude had been intrinsically altered. An immutably finite number of days were to be shared with her daughter, and as she made what peace she could with the smallness of that number, she began to grow her gratefulness for what time she did have. She played more games with her daughter than she had before; she read her more fairy tales, took more pictures of them together and apart, let her sleep in bed with her whenever she pleased, breathed in the honey-doughy smell of her hair every chance that she got. The giving of herself to the cause of loving her child became her new addiction; the more moments she devoted to the tiny creature she had born, the more joy she witnessed sketched across the sweet face of her daughter, the more she desired to fill every moment of her brief life with such love. And these things and a hundred others added up to an existence more infused with tenderness and less colored by pain, even when the rawest of pains eventually came.
Her daughter had been dead for three years when she started to use again; there was only so much pain the memory of profound love and gratitude could forestall. It had begun with an altogether minor car accident which had resulted in her receiving a mostly unnecessary prescription for pain meds. The pills alleviated pains more emotional than physical, and even habits long abandoned are easily slipped back into under a little pressure. At first, she was deeply ashamed of her dependence upon the pills, but the more she took, the less she had to feel of anything at all.
The powder that came after the pills did more than alleviate the pain; it allowed her to swim in the warm waters of pleasurable nothingness. It was in the course of one of these swims that she found herself floundering in a great river, the waters pouring over her head and pushing her downward again and again. She was drowning, she realized numbly, and she had just begun to surrender to it when she felt hands - sun-browned hands which burned the skin they touched - pull her roughly out of the water and onto a wooden craft.
It took her a few minutes to rid herself of water, to gather her wits and sight. When finally she did, she saw it was as it had seemed: she was once more on the boat of her long-ago dreams, and the burning hands which had pulled her out of the waters were those of the man in the black kaftan. She wondered vaguely if he still held any affection for her.
"Hello, Joy," he said quietly. "It has been a long time."
She didn't know how to respond, so she just sat quietly waiting for his disappointment. All of the beauty and terror of the knowledge he had given to her the last time had sustained her through the life and death of her daughter, but still she had succumbed to her basest instincts, her ugliest truth. Whatever he had seen in her before that had caused his smile to reach his eyes had long been lost, and she wished that he had simply left her drowning in the river instead of pulling her out and exposing her to his judgment; she had thought there was no one left in life to disappoint.
"Joy," he said softly, "We are heading for the waterfall again. The last time that you were heading toward it, you were searching for answers, and while I ultimately gave you what was mine to give, I understand it was not what you wanted, and that it brought you great pain.
"I also know that through that knowledge you grew in empathy; you became the best version of yourself while your daughter lived, and your weaknesses fell away for a time. Because those weaknesses have risen to the top in the aftermath of her death, you now feel ashamed in front of me. Is this correct?"
Joy nodded once, not yet braving eye contact.
"I want you to listen to me now. To really listen. What you have gone through in your relatively short lifetime has plumbed the darkest depths of human experience. People weren't crafted to make it through those sorts of things unscathed. What you see as an inexcusable recurrence may seem unforgivable to yourself, but it is not so to me. The tenderness with which you raised your daughter the years that you had her was miraculous, Joy. She was so very loved, and she knew it. Do you know how rare that is? That is invaluable, in the end.
"Your weaknesses, which may seem an impenetrable prison now are in truth nothing more than a room with a door you may open and let yourself out of at any time."
At this, Joy raised her face to him.
"You and I are going to go over the waterfall again, Joy. I'm going to open my hands to you, and this time when you grab them, the knowledge you will be given is self-knowledge. You will know your own goodness, as I have known it, and you will forgive yourself. As your daughter who knew nothing but love from you would. We will open the door together. Okay?"
He raised his palms to her, the black runes burned into them beckoning to her in the sunlight with the promise of redemption, and the waterfall came into view.
She stared out over it, into the horizon which sprawled out before her, a universe of possibility unfurling its unyielding beauty and complexity.
Joy looked back at him, eyes aching with hope, and with one swift movement, she took his hands in hers.
"Yes, okay." His hands burned hers and she held them even tighter. "Yes, please."
And over the falls they went together, hand in forgivable hand.