I came upon them when I started up the hill. The trees were denuded, standing bare against the hill. Had some fire passed? A blight of some sort? It was a place of sickness, a bleak and desolate landscape, but it was there. I decided to pass through on my way to the top of the hill. I stepped foot in it, and was hit with a maelstrom of noise and of sights—I closed my eyes, but my head was spinning so hard that I had to open them again.
The effect was incalculable—I saw faces with no bodies, bodies with no face. Triangles and rectangles became ovals and circles. The ground itself heaved, and graves gaped, and cadavers sprang to life. I was at once in the tops of the trees and several feet under the earth; I was slapped, pummeled and then caressed. Nothing lasted more than a secon; there was no permanency. No sooner had I struggled to adjust to one sound, one sight, than everything changed.
“This is the world as it is,” said a voice. “Here, you meet reality without the blinders you wore in the rest of the world. Here, you experience everything as it is, and as it is coming to you. And as it is going away from you.”
“But it is madness,” I told the voice. “And where are you? And who?”
“I really have no idea,” said the voice. “I too am changing at every moment. I am man and woman, young and old, healthy and infirm. There is nothing that stays with me, or rather, everything stays with me. I am every hero known to man, and every villain. I am the rake and the virgin, both. I exist and I die, and really, very little matters to me….”
It was simultaneously blindingly bright and utterly dark. All the notes in the world were roaring at the very same time that the silence of the universe rang throughout the woods. Shapes appeared, spun wildly around, and remained rooted as the stone. A blast oven melted with the glacier.
“What must I do to leave this place?” I asked the man.
“You must desire to be here,” he replied. “For here you meet reality, as it was all along for you in the other world. You must linger here, luxuriate here, and come, finally, to take your solace here. For here, there is everything, as there was always before. Here, you meet the world as it is.”
“I will go mad,” I told the man.
“But how will I survive it?”
“You will also go sane,” he said. “You will be both. And is it so bad to be mad? Or so good to be sane? There is as much of a landscape in the land of the sick as there is in the land of the healthy….”
“I’d rather be sane,” I said.
“Of course,” he said, “but do you have that choice? And if you did, how do you know that you would choose the right one? For really, the world of the mad is so much more interesting. Though difficult, of course….”
“I’ll say,” I told him, “my head is spinning, my world is spinning, everything is spinning. Make it stop!”
Abruptly, it stopped, and I was flung ten feet in the air. I landed on a rocky bank, but felt no pain. Rather, there was a curious sense of peace in my body.
“Am I dead?” I asked.
“Partially,” said the voice, “as well as alive. Blessedly, we are dying at every moment of our life. And never more alive than when we are dying. You must work hard, as you lie there in repose….”
“Anyone can talk in riddles,” I told him. “It’s a fool’s game. You tell me that up is down, and that dry is wet.”
“Well, the trick is not to talk a fool’s game—the trick is to live it, and then, having played it, leave it. Not as easy as it seems…”
“When will this end?” I asked.
“When we come to the beginning.”
“I must leave here.”
“Do you know the way out?”
“Yes—but only for myself.”
“Then you’ll not tell me?”
“It would be better if I didn’t,” he said. “You have had people telling you things all your life, and well rewarded were you when you did as you were told. There is a way out, but it will almost certainly not be my way out.”
“Then must I stumble through this mad forest until I find the way out?”
“That may or may not be the key. Have you considered that you might better remain completely still, focus your thoughts, and wait until you’ve found the right way out? And how do you know, by the way, that it is a physical exit you seek? There are moral, or psychological, or ethical or philosophical exists, you know.”
At once, I was filled with despair. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this challenge. I was bombarded with every sound in the universe, every emotion ever felt or imagined, my mind raced with brilliant insights, and stalled at the simplest concept. My body felt both alive and dead. I was weary and savagely alive.
“It may be enough to seek,” said the voice. “And how much seeking is waiting? Curious how many, many forms of waiting there are, though none of us pays much mind. Perhaps you should make your waiting a prayer. Or perhaps your prayer should be waiting…”
And then I knew he was gone.