The Onerous Journey
I had been peregrinating for four days through the western wilderness, and the weather remained unusually mild for this geographical location. This is a cleansing journey to wash away all remnants of my past and my miserable, innumerable failures. Literally everything I ever attempted to accomplish deteriorated—not just a tiny sample of personal inadequacies, but a total fiasco. I loathe every minute particle of my useless existence and abhorrent self, and have elected to stay clear of the human race for the remainder of my paltry quiddity.
How deeply do I despise who I am? For each breath of purified air I inhale, someone more worthy could be consuming. My demise could be hastened by a pack of wolves tearing the flesh from my putrescent bones, erasing all traces of my meritless circumstances. I would refuse to offer a defense against any hedonistic assault, but freely submit to my ultimate destruction.
I traipsed through the verdant countryside, awaiting destiny to catch up with me. Soft cumulus clouds drifted by in the sapphire firmament. A chorus of birds was gleefully chirping. Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks scurried willy-nilly about me. Deer and wild horses were grazing serenely in the undulating distance. Despite the splendiferous sights and cheerful sounds of nature, I felt as lifeless as a burned ember of torment.
As I grimly contemplated my fate, I perceived a tawny-feathered creature, dead ahead. Perched in the apex of an ancient oak tree, it possessed an ivory, heart-shaped face; its eyes were a portent of my future. I recognized it as a barn owl, a species not indigenous to this area.
So how did it get here? I questioned. What does it want?
It was staring at me.
Perhaps nothing. Merely a coincidence. Nothing profound.
I continued onward. It leapt off its perch and flew ahead of me.
“Very intriguing,” I thoughtfully muttered. “Does it want me to follow it? Apparently so.”
The owl alighted on the lower branch of a birch tree a short distance away and again stared at me.
“Okay, feathered friend, I’ll play this game. Your move.”
As I approached the birch tree, the bird once more flew off ahead of me and landed on the lower branch of a dead big-leaf maple tree not far away.
This cat-and-mouse pursuit continued for two whole days.
At precisely noon on the seventh day (according to my pocket clock), I arrived at a fork in the wilderness.
“What do I do now?” I said, rubbing my chin.
Thereon my avian friend whooshed low over my head, veered down the left path, landed on the ground a hundred or so feet distant, then turned around and flapped its wings.
“You obviously want me to follow you,” I vociferated. “But I’m the captain of my destiny, not you.”
When I strode down the right path, the owl remained still.
“Fine. Our camaraderie has ended,” I communicated through the connecting brush. “So be it. And I won’t miss you.”
When my way was impeded by a mammoth wall of jagged boulders, I leapt atop one of them to see what lay beyond. Upon perceiving a solid wall of rock drop down at least a thousand feet, I instantly wobbled with vertigo, almost toppled over the cliff, and jumped back onto the ground.
Clearly, this was not my intended tributary of travel. And it didn’t take a genius to conclude that the owl knew I’d be back. But…what if I didn’t return? Would it think I met my ultimate end in the canyon?
For one hour I sat with my back against a tree, then reversed down the path, to the fork. To my unassuming surprise, I saw that the owl hadn’t moved.
Cupping my hands around my mouth, I cheerily called, “I’m still alive.”
It stared at me a moment, then flitted its wings.
“And now I’m impelled to do it your way.”
Thereupon it flew down the left path, and I grudgingly followed.
Time slowly passed. I was tired and hungry. Where were we going and when would we arrive?
Every hundred or so feet the owl waited for me to catch up, then flew off.
How much farther? I wondered.
A slight distance on, as the chilly hands of evening caressed me, the last remnant of the colossal orange sun vanished below the horizon. Soon thereafter, I found my path completely blocked, this time by an ebony wall of slate.
I stopped walking, gazed up. “It must be two thousand feet high.”
The mysterious bird sat on a jagged piece of rock that jutted from the barrier, thirty feet from the base. Glowering at it, I sardonically said, “What now, genius?”
It screeched, and I knew it was communicating with me. It then jumped into the air; audibly flapped its sizeable wings; alighted on some stiff brown brush in front of the impediment; and turned around and screeched again.
“I take it you want me to clear away the brush?”
This time it hooted.
When I eliminated the brush (it took only a few minutes), an uneven crevice (large enough for a human to crawl through) was revealed, and the owl promptly flew into it.
“Goodbye, my temporary comrade. Ostensibly this is where we part ways.”
The thing was, why would it beckon me to follow it to a dead end?
“Perhaps I can follow it,” I reconsidered. But after a brief, thoughtful pause, I said, “Could the bird be leading me to my death? Might I fall into the abyss of a bottomless chasm of doom?” I weakly shrugged. “Oh well, if my ineffectual life ends, and my self-castigation with it, so be it.”
Nonetheless I challenged my fear, and, crawling through the opening, was amazed to discover that the interior passageway was sufficiently tall and wide for me to comfortably traverse.
I thoughtfully folded my arms. Was this pathway designed expressly for me? It certainly seemed like it.
This perfectly square, perfectly straight corridor was aglow with a strange greenish-blue phosphorescence. The overall effect was eerie, yet captivating and calming.
I took a breath, continued along the tunnel a couple hundred long strides, and stepped into a commodious, square, room-shaped cavern. It, too, was aglow with the same strange, subdued light. At the opposite end of the cave, the same uniform pathway continued. And there sat my avian cicerone on the ledge of a basin of stone that had been carved into the wall. Its back was to me, and it was raptly looking down at something.
Naturally, my curiosity was invoked; I promptly joined it.
To my great surprise, I perceived a woman lying supinely in the basin in a glowing pool of a viscous, translucent liquid. She was enswathed in a sheer, iridescent covering. She was about five-five, 120 pounds, with a full bosom, small waist, and muscular legs. Her angelic, heart-shaped face was framed with soft titian tresses that were freely floating in the aqueous fluid. The rubylike color of her wondrous lips was clearly visible. Her lips were full, wide, and symmetrically equal—a quintessential example of a vermillion-shaded, kissable mouth. Never have my eyes beheld such sensuous perfection! Long lashes highlighted her closed eyes, so that she appeared to be asleep, or dead.
Suddenly, an overwhelming sense of familiarity enveloped me, a memory of a time long past when she and I were romantically entwined. Was this just an inherited genetic memory, or something else?
I turned to the owl. It, too, was intently focused on the enigmatic figure, as though they were inexplicably connected.
“What is she to you?” I inquired.
It hooted without regarding me, then dipped its beak in the liquid, near her feet. Whereafter her eyes instantly opened. She shuddered once. Was still. Then, she slowly rose up out of the life-preserving substance, descended three steps, and we stood eye to eye.
“Hello Connor,” she breathily said. “At last we meet again.”
I gaped at her. Deeply inhaled. Swallowed. And gasped, “Ashlyn!”
She gently nodded.
“But how? Why?” I pressed.
“That’s not important at this juncture.”
“You must tell me!” I demanded.
Calmly, she said, “In time you shall have all your answers.”
I dropped my head, heavily sighed. Ashlyn then grasped my hand and led me down the opposite passage—we spoke nary a word—and, eventually, this corridor fed into a vista of incomparable beauty that appeared to extend forever. Lush, cerulean vegetation abounded. The firmament was composed of a fluffy pink substance which seemed gratuitously edible. There was no clear distinction between sky and land. Spongy, small yellow balls dotted the near and far landscape. (They were quite delectable, as I later discovered.) A gently rippling, glimmering scarlet river coursed through the midst of the grassland. On the surface of the river floated untold numbers of those same small yellow balls. Here and there tiny, spiky black fish surged out of the peculiar-looking water, ostensibly feeding on them.
Scanning the impossible surroundings, I remarked, “I feel like I’m in another world.”
“You are,” Ashlyn replied.
“Your world?” I said.
“Our world,” she said. “It’s what awaits you if you stay with me.”
“For how long?”
My eyes instantly welled with tears.
“But you must make a choice,” Ashlyn added. “You can have me in this idyllic place”—she opened her arms and glanced about—“or that,” she said, gesturing with her eyes behind me.
I turned about. A body length from me, a massive golden chest rested atop a stone pedestal at the edge of the passageway we’d just exited.
“Why didn’t I see that?” I quizzically asked. “It wholly blocked our path.”
She moved up beside me. “Everything is multidimensional.”
I looked over at her. “In what way?”
Catching my eye, she replied, “There is no true semblance of time, space, or actuality. What appears to be real is merely an illusion. What seems fake is reality.”
“What about you, Ashlyn? Are you real?”
“Well?” she said.
“You feel real,” I replied. “But…are you?”
“Do I seem real to you?”
I vigorously nodded.
“Then I am.”
I thoughtfully regarded her. She subtly smiled, looked back at the chest. As did I.
“Behold,” she said.
The lid slowly opened, and my orbs widened. Inside were sapphires, rubies, diamonds, amethysts, and other glistening precious stones, the value of which I could not possibly fathom.
“All that’s yours, or you can choose me. But you can’t possess both.”
Turning to her, I asked, “What do you offer me?”
She cupped my cheeks, warmly kissed me; a romantic flame that had long been extinguished, was instantly rekindled. “Everlasting, all-encompassing, visceral love that will sustain you till the end of time.”
As I previously explained, my loyal readers, I was destitute my entire life of forty years. I wore rags. Begged for food every day. Sought shelter every night. Every menial job I held, I swiftly lost. Society viewed me as a maggot, a leech, a bottom-feeder. Consequently, I lusted for money more than anything in the universe. It was all I thought of, desired, dreamed about. I would have done nearly anything to obtain it.
It was during this woesome period of time that Ashlyn had miraculously appeared, but in those brief few months she bestowed upon me undefinable love. And then…she was gone.
I grasped her soft delicate hands, peered into her quintessence. “Is there not a way to have love and wealth untold? You know how impoverished I was.”
She mournfully nodded.
“Then how can you expect me to make this unprecedented choice? I love you so incredibly much.”
“And money,” she subjoined.
I lowered my head. “Why are you shaming me like this?”
“Because this is a cleansing journey, my love, and nothing must remain hidden.”
I meekly looked up.
“I can’t change the rules, whether you choose me or money; but we shall spend three emotionally charged days together, which should assist you in your decision.”
“Right now,” she answered, taking my hand and leading me off into the alluring landscape.
An hour into our trek, she asked me while clutching my hand, “Describe your love for me, my sweet Connor.”
Promptly, I replied, “I feel an overriding, overwhelming desire to be in your presence. I can’t bear to be away from you even a few moments. When we’re intimate, I feel conjoined as one entity. Your visage is permanently emblazoned in my brain. Even the minutest thought of losing you causes unspeakable anguish. You are without question the quintessential sustenance for incarnation to exist.”
Two hours into our trek, she asked me, “What’s your definition of betrayal?”
I swallowed. “Why do you ask this?”
“Why not?” she quipped.
At length I answered, while we were walking, “A violation of trust. An act of disloyalty.”
To which she had nothing to say.
Three hours into our trek, while we were resting in the soft blue grass, facing one another, she asked, “Have you ever been grievously hurt by someone you profoundly cared for?”
I picked up one of the spongy yellow balls and rapaciously consumed it. (By this time my belly was full of them; they were inordinately delicious.) “I suppose everyone has.”
“You’re dodging my question.”
I looked stolidly away, then eyed her and tersely answered, “Yes.”
“A woman I was involved with right before you.”
“How long was the relationship?”
“Why did it end?”
“She left me for another man.”
She seemed satisfied with my answer. Then, she lay back in the blue grass and closed her eyes. I rested closely beside her and laced my hands behind my head. The large green sun was directly overhead, and though it was very bright, it didn’t hurt my eyes.
We slept in each other’s arms that “night.” (The sun had not moved from the zenith.)
The next “morning,” the first words out of Ashlyn’s mouth were: “Do you know what hate feels like, my love?”
I told her I did. And when she pressed me to elaborate, I said, “It’s an intractable, negative emotion that compels me to destroy the object of my ire.”
“Anyone in particular?”
“My sixth-grade teacher, my mother, and that woman I mentioned.” I asked her the same question.
To which she replied: “An all-consuming, necrotizing, implacable emotion.”
“Whew!” I exclaimed, shaking my head. “What a haunting description!”
A bit later, as we traversed a picturesque glade, Ashlyn stopped walking and picked up a flower with gorgeous, purple-speckled petals. When she put it under my nostrils, its aroma titillated my recessed senses.
“This species is grammatophyllum speciosum,” she imparted.
“Beautiful in every way…like you,” I returned.
She broke into a delicate smile, and gently kissed me.
The next afternoon, while relaxing on the riverbank, we soaked our bare feet in the soothing red water. (Ashlyn had the cutest feet I ever beheld.) A small cluster of those spongy yellow balls slowly drifted past, and I quickly ate them.
“Why don’t you eat any of the balls?” I questioned.
“They’re for you, and you alone.”
“You don’t get hungry?”
She shook her head, then said, “Our time grows very short.”
“I know,” I lamented.
“And I have one final question for you before you make your decision.”
“Ask away,” I lightsomely rejoined.
“Did you ever harbor negative feelings that can’t be extinguished?”
I deeply sighed. “Ashlyn, for three days I openly declared my love and devotion to you, yet, all the while, I felt like I was under emotional investigation. Why did you do this?”
“What do you feel for me now?” she asked.
“The same thing I felt when we were in a relationship: I love you more than life itself.”
She closed her eyes, gave a slow, satisfied nod.
Suddenly I was standing before the treasure chest, Ashlyn’s hand clasped in mine. The barn owl had returned and was inexplicably suspended in the air. It regarded the chest, then Ashlyn, then me.
“You seem to be a conduit between this dimension and the next,” I reasoned. “O Wise Owl, please tell me what to do.”
“He can’t help you,” Ashlyn interposed. “The choice is yours and yours alone.”
I dolefully looked up, drew a protracted, profound breath, then gazed at Ashlyn and verbalized my ultimate decision.
Thereon the owl took flight and vanished into the pink ether.
Ashlyn pensively regarded me, and susurrated, “I’m exceedingly pleased that you’ve chosen me over money.”
I fondly smiled.
“But not for the same reason as you,” she coldly uttered.
I puzzledly regarded her.
Narrowing her eyes, she said, “You wholly forgot what you did to me, how savagely you hurt me. Pain is not erased, merely encased in a new form, waiting to be reborn; in this, case your comeuppance.”
I repeatedly blinked.
“Oh, and would you like to know the real reason why I didn’t eat any of those yellow balls?”
My heart was pounding, now.
“Because they’re insidiously harmful,” she related, “yet, at the same time, life-extending—no less than fifty years, as a matter of fact.”
I desperately reached for her, but she stepped back.
“The substance you consumed will also intensify all your senses and magnify your psychic and physical pain. You’ll be psychologically tormented day and night, feel like your entire body is being pierced by red-hot nails.”
I shrieked, entreated her to forgive me.
“Forgiveness is not an option,” she said in an icy undertone. “Let now your punishment, and pain, begin.”
And as a result of my past malevolent indiscretions aimed at Ashlyn, the love of my life departed from me, and I was immediately thrust into the miserable, wicked world whence I had come.