The air is chilly, clear blue, a winter's day. Somewhere there is a robin, although I know this without seeing the red breast, without hearing its song. There is a void in the landscape just exactly the right space for a robin, and so there must be one. The shadow of a fir tree stretches over me, across the park, over the snow. I only know there is snow as my feet crunched, they are bare, the toes are cold, and I only know the fir tree as the air is filled with the scent of pinecones.
When I open my eyes, I can see none of these things. I see only a hallway, it is nighttime, the only illumination is the beam of light from under the doorways that line the hall. I do not move. I close my eyes, it is winter, outdoors, my hands cradle the nothingness of the world. I open my eyes. The darkened hallway extends in both directions. Neither fate welcomes me onward; both have a gap just for me, but neither is where I belong. My eyes are open. I move forward down the hallway, carefully counting my steps. I reach a doorway, light spills onto my feet, although I still stand in shadow. I close my eyes. It is winter. With my eyes closed, I reach for the door in the hallway, but there is nothing there. Just winter, just cold space.
My eyes open, my hand has grasped the doorknob, I open it, and without knowing that I moved, I am inside the room. The room is expanding away from me, the walls receding as I watch, the furnishings assuming new forms. A lamp becomes a butterfly; an end table, a small boy in livery; an oil painting of a vase of flowers, an apple, becomes a family greeting one another, the apple a horse-drawn carriage. It is impossible to tell whether the lamp is pretending to be a butterfly or whether the butterfly was pretending to be a lamp. It does not matter, for now the man, an old man, leaning upon his cane, turns away and leads his guests inside. The apple / horse drawn carriage pulls off towards the stables. The liveried boy looks in both directions, sees he is not observed, and goes around to the back entrance to ask Cook for a cherry tart.
The butterfly lands on my nose. I am startled; a butterfly has never alighted upon me before, I am uncertain how to react. I cannot move, and glance down. It is very, very difficult to look in any new direction, but slowly, infinitely slowly, my feet come into view. They have claws, they are stone; I realize that I am a stone lion in this place, just as the butterfly had been a lamp during the moment I opened the door. Slowly I bring my gaze back up. There is another stone lion across from me, flanking the front door. There may be other lions quite nearby, but my peripheral vision is tight, limited; I wonder who or what the other stone lion is in its other reality.
I close my eyes; it is difficult to close my eyes, as my eyes and eyelids are stone, they grate upon one another without tears to lubricate their movement. It begins to rain. I close my eyes. It is still winter, there is the bird and the fir tree, my hands cup all the memories of the world, but my hands are empty. The wind blows over my cupped palms and an echoing nothingness rings out. Snow falls. I open my eyes.
The butterfly has moved to the lion across the way, perched in a sunbeam that crosses the stone cat's back. The drive is made of white pebbles, perfectly round, perfectly smooth, perfectly white. It is no longer raining but the pebbles glow and shine in the light, and as I stare at them for minutes and months, I realize the stones are moving among themselves, to a careful pattern, with a sense of purpose. I choose one pebble, it glows more brightly than the others; at night it is a beacon in the moonlight, at dawn it catches the first glow of sunrise, and even at dusk it retains the remnants of light from the day.
Many, many hours ago, or weeks, or centuries, this rock stood near the gates at the end of the drive. It crossed in front, directly in front, of my paws, and I longed to pick it up, but stood immobile in stone. The pebble has worked its way all the way to the base of the other lion; I do not know what I expect to see. The butterfly leaves the other lion and lands on the pebble, and the very moment the butterfly lands, I am back in the hallway again. I am myself.
It is night. Beams of light come from underneath the doors that line the hallway. I close my eyes. Winter has ended. My feet are wet, but it is not the cold frozen slush of snow, it is the squishy wet of fresh mud. I inhale deeply, bring in the thaw, the sap rising, the earliest blossoms. Not being able to see spring is heartbreaking, left out of the light filled with the promise of summer, but I focus, focus on feeling and smelling the everything of the world. My hands are cupped, they have filled with water from a recent rain, something so light and delicate it can only be a sparrow has perched on my thumb, is drinking the water held in my hands. I want to laugh and cry and in the joy of the moment I forget and open my eyes, and I have turned a doorknob in the hallway and I am dead.
Not recently dead, nothing gruesome, full of illness or blood or mourning. I am in the world of the dead, and I am one of them. There is no light, only the half-light of twilight in the shadows and my physical form is elastic, unbound by gravity or atomic forces. I drift. It is impossible to stop: when one of the other spirits sighs, or turns its head, or waves a hand, I blow on the eddy of air. It seems impossible to guide my movement, much less to set down an anchor and have the leisure to study those around me. The air is too full of infinitesimal movements; not until I am blown into a whirlpool can I gather my balance, right myself, bring my parts into order.
The other spirits are tethered in place by their memories. They navigate among one another and through space by reliving a particular moment that has come before. I close my eyes, to empty my mind in search of a memory, but once again it is spring and my feet are encased in mud and a tiny bird perches on my thumb, my palms filled with rainwater. I open my eyes. Caught in the whirlpool in the realm of the spirits, I search for a memory. My palms held my memories, but they were empty, they were filled with rain. Here in the world of the dead, I bring my palms up close to my face, I look for my life line, I look for my fate line. My palms are smooth, unlined. I have neither past nor future. The sparrow perched on my thumb is not a memory, for it is there now: it is the present.
The snow, my feet cold, damp, is a memory, and with it I carefully draw out of the whirlpool, anchor myself with the thinnest strand. My memory of snow is not strong enough to hold me fixed in place, it is not vibrant enough to be used as a rudder, but it holds me close enough to myself that I can look around.
At first, I thought all the spirits were identical; they were as much alike as pine needles or the play of light on a lake. As I bobbed and swayed in the currents of their movement and watched closely, I saw that their anchors, tentacles of memory, changed color, grew thick and then faint. I began a taxonomy of memories, good memories and bad; memories of people or of places or of facts; remembered fears or remembered pleasures. I had only my one memory, it was neither a fear nor a joy, but pure experience, but the other spirits were gathering around me with anchors mirroring my own. One had an experience of swimming, as it grew nearer I felt the ocean, cold, salty, wash over me; felt the moment when the heat of sun on the skin was replaced by the chill plunge into waves, although I had never seen an ocean, never swam.
Another spirit grew near, and with it a strong wind blew, desert air, dry, filled with sand. The wind blew and blew and I sensed desperation, the driving horrible thirst for water, blistering heat all around. I closed my eyes. The sparrow had left and it was summer, the ground dry beneath my feet. The sun warmed my back, crickets chirped lazily in the shade of the pine tree. I missed the sparrow, opened my eyes to look for it, and was back in the hallway.
Dawn was seeping into the corridor, there were no longer beams of light spilling outward. I touched one door, then another. They were cool and inert. As the sun rose, the doors disappeared, became smooth, cold walls. I closed my eyes. The sun was setting, the song of the crickets growing magnified. Although I could only sense its shape, I knew the Big Dipper was directly overhead, dropping stars into my open palms.