When I opened my eyes, my first thought was whether I had fallen asleep on the plane, and if so, where had the plane gone? Perhaps I had only dreamed about riding on a plane. But I had been going on a long trip about something and I couldn’t remember what it was, only that Jenny had told me that if the pain got worse she would be staying at her sisters’ condo, and the key was under the doormat. But was that part of the dream? Like most dreams, it all slipped away the more I tried to remember it, so I shook it off and looked around me. I hadn’t the slightest clue where I was or how I had got there, but for some unfathomable reason, this didn’t trouble me in the least. Further off, I could see a woman dangling her bare feet in a lake, skipping rocks and making placid ripples across the glassy surface.
She didn’t seem to have noticed me, and seeing her peaceful, almost lazy expression that I had seen some people wear during those hot July afternoons; I chose not to disturb her and continued watching for some time. After a while I began getting the strangest feeling that I had always been there, as if I had done nothing in my whole existence but watch this woman skip rocks by the lake, and that she had done nothing else but skip them. I quickly learned afterwards that things always feel that way here.
I stooped down to take a drink, and found that I was incredibly thirsty. My ripples crawled across the still water until they interlocked with hers, which caused the woman to look up and meet eyes with me. She gave a cry of delight and clapped her hands like a child, and before I had much of a chance to respond, she dived into the lake and began swimming towards me. I could not understand why she had to swim when there were open meadows all around us, and perhaps this made me slightly uncomfortable in meeting her.
By now her feet had reached the shallows, and she was running towards me with her arms stretched open, embracing me and kissing me on the lips. If I had expected this to heighten my discomfort, I would have been surprised to find it momentarily relieved. But when the woman pulled back, pushing the wet hair away from her face, I became intensely uneasy. The actual physiognomy of her face was very plain and ordinary, but the expression it assumed was so beautiful and terrifying that I found myself falling to my knees. I was in the presence of a queen, or a goddess, or some other creature from beyond the world. Yet was there something familiar about it? How was this even possible, when I had never seen her before? I asked her, stumbling over my words and afraid to look her in the eye.
“You may call me Mother,” the woman answered, kissing me again on the forehead. “Everyone calls me Mother here. Now stand up and stop making a fool of yourself.”
I obeyed the first command, but I continued sputtering and gaping, grasping for words worthy of her ears, but she put her finger to my lips.
“Hush now,” she said, “they always talk too much at first. Why, your grandfather wouldn’t stop babbling about his two wives, but they’re both awake now, and they haven’t even run into each other yet. But I expect they’ll be delighted when they do.”
“My grandfather?” I gasped. “But he’s…”
“Don’t be silly,” said the woman, taking my hand and leading me across the meadow. “We have always been here.”
And then I heard what sounded like a thousand voices that rippled through the forest and sky. They tinkled in my ears the way fireflies tinkle before your eyes.
“We have always been here,” they said, echoing the words of the Mistress.
“Don’t you see?” I heard her asking.
“Well, sort of…I think so…” I began hesitantly. “I mean, I had this sort of feeling when I got here that…”
“Well, here, of course,” I said, gesturing around me, “In…in the…”I struggled for words. I didn’t ask her ‘where are we?’ for I somehow knew with absolute certainty where I was, but to my distress, I found I could not think of any name for it. I had a vague recollection of a place that I once talked and wrote about that my imagination had never described for me—perhaps this was that place? No, it couldn’t be: that place had a name. What was its name? It was all so long ago I was sure I had no hope in remembering.
Suddenly Mother laughed, making me turn very red, but in the end I laughed too, although I still didn’t understand. “You cannot think of the name,” she said, “because your mind is too young. You are still only an infant. You will learn to say its name—as well as your own.”
“My name?” I asked stupidly, because I had quite forgotten about myself for the past I don’t know how long. “But of course I know my…” I trailed off again.
“What is my name?” I asked.
“You don’t have one,” replied the Mistress. “Not yet, anyway. No, hush. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You are only a sapling, naked and raw from the womb of Otherworld, and there are still a thousand things you don’t know the words for. But don’t fret yourself; you’ve already made much improvement.”
“Of course. In fact, I think you already know who I am.”
“Well, that’s the thing, Mother, I feel like I know you, but I’ve never—”
“Look! Berries!” said Mother, pointing. “Let’s eat.”
Here we stopped by a berry bush, picking the blueberries and popping them into our mouths. Again I experienced the terrifying and momentous sensation of having done nothing else my entire life, as if the pleasure of eating berries was so full that it engulfed all of time and space, and no past or future occupation ever existed. I became ravenously hungry and began eating them by the mouthful.
“Slow down, silly, you’ll make yourself sick,” I heard Mother giggling.
One eternal moment transitioned to the next when I looked past the bush and saw a man I did not recognize in a deep sleep just by the riverside. He was breathing heavily, and every now and then he appeared to be muttering something, but I couldn’t make out the words.
“Who is he?” I asked, pointing.
“Who?” said Mother, licking her fingers.
“The man over there by the river. Do you know him?”
Mother peered over in the direction I was pointing. “No,” she said cheerfully. “The Master knows, though. I’ll ask him,” Before I could ask any more questions, she took my hand again.
“Come, child,” she said, “We have much to see.”
As we passed through the mountains and valleys, I saw many more Sleepers, but they were all alone, and very few and far apart. Many of them I didn't recognize, but some of them evoked the oddest memories of faces I had seen before. One of them looked strikingly like a girl I once dated, but this one frowned less and had no piercings. Another one I was sure was someone I used to go fishing with, but he moved away a long time ago and he certainly looked older here. On second glance, maybe he looked younger. In the end I decided that none of the faces possessed any particular age. Many of them were talking in their sleep, like the man by the river, some so quietly that I could barely make out the words, others so loudly I could still hear them even after we were miles away.
“What are the sleeping people doing?” I asked Mother.
“They are talking to the Master,” she replied.
“Who is the Master?”
“Come. Listen,” said Mother, beckoning me to come closer to a sleeping girl among a field of wildflowers. “Be very quiet,” she warned. “They’re fragile things. They wake easily.”
The girl was speaking very quietly, but as we kneeled down beside her, I could hear her tiny voice.
“Please, God,” she whispered, “I hope it isn’t too much to ask…but what I really want for Christmas is a puppy.”
I looked at Mother in wonder. She reached down, caressing her cheek. “Poor thing,” she said. “Her family is poor. She’s been getting nothing but socks from her aunt for the past eight years.”
“You know this one?” I asked.
“Shhh,” whispered Mother, getting up and gesturing me to follow. “Yes, I like to take walks through this meadow. She sleeps here. I often hear her talking about her four older sisters and that awful smell that won’t come out of the carpet. About how everything seems to be her fault and nobody listens.” Here she sighed. “I know how that feels,” she said wistfully, and I thought she was talking more to herself about this.
“But the Master…he listens?”
“He always listens,” said Mother. Again I heard the millions of voices ringing through the air.
“He always listens,” they said.
“They tell Him everything,” continued Mother, “They tell Him about their jobs and their football games and their lost dogs, and thank Him for their food and for the trees and skies, and curse His name and beg for His forgiveness, and talk about tomorrow like they hold destiny in the palm of their hand. And He hears them all, be it ridiculous or sublime. His mercies are new every morning.”
“His mercies are new every morning,” said the Voices.
“Does everyone sleep here?” I asked.
“Of course not,” said Mother. “We’re awake, aren’t we?”
“Yes, of course,” I stumbled, “but...well...it’s so…” I was going to say ‘empty’ but the world was anything but empty. I could feel living things in the air, and those millions of Voices that seemed to come from every direction made it hard to believe I was alone. I tried again.
“What I mean is, back home there were more people.”
“Home?” said Mother. “What home?”
“I’m on a business trip,” I blurted out, not having the slightest idea what that meant. “I had a five o'clock flight across the border and I’m supposed to be back by Sunday. I think I fell asleep on the plane...and then...I was here.” Suddenly an unsettling thought occurred to me. “How long have we been walking? I feel like it’s been a long time.”
Mother looked at me with a patient expression on her face. “In Otherworld,” she said, “the place you are speaking of as ‘home’, it has been nearly a year.”
“A year?” I exploded, and for the first time in that place I felt a sense of fear. “I have to get back! I’m sorry, but I had no idea! My wife—and I haven’t even called her! She’s not in good health…”
“Child,” began Mother, but then I looked across a spring spotted a young woman nestled among the moss and foliage. She was sleeping, but her dreams must have been restless, for she was panting and moaning and beads of sweat were trickling down her cheek.
“Jenny!” I cried. I leaped out toward her, but Mother grabbed my arm.
“Child, quiet!” she whispered in a reproving voice, and I saw Jenny reaching up her hand.
“Mark?” she gasped. “Mark, is that you?”
“Jenny!” I said again, and struggled to reach her, but Mother held me fast.
“Child,” she said, “Look at me. You did not fall asleep on the plane. You woke up.”
“You woke up for the first time in your life. There was an engine failure. You and everyone else on that plane are dead in the Otherworld.”
I heard Jenny crying out behind me. “God, please! Oh Lord, please help me!”
“She’s in labor,” said Mother. “She learned she was pregnant shortly after you left Otherworld.”
“In labor?” I asked in shock. “The doctors told us we would never have children.”
Mother only smiled. “Funny how that works, isn’t it?” she said whimsically. But she quickly grew sober again.
“She is in great pain, child. She needs you more than ever right now. Go to her. Speak to her soul which now resides in Otherworld. Pull yourself together. If you aren’t careful you will wake her before her time. Don’t ask questions. Do as I say.”
I obeyed. I waded across the spring as quietly as I could and knelt down beside Jenny. Her eyes were fluttering and her brow was knit together intensely. I wanted to shake her, to pull her away from the nightmare that now haunted her mind, but I dared not. Instead, I took her hand and stroked her moist forehead and gently as I could.
“Mark…” I heard her say between broken breaths.
“I’m here.” I whispered. Jenny’s glazed eyes barely opened to slits, but I could see her pupils dilate and her breathing became steadier. She reached up and put her hand to my cheek.
“I’m dead,” she mumbled. “I must be.”
“No,” I replied. “Not yet. You still have our baby to raise.”
Jenny groaned. “Oh Mark, I can’t do it. Not without you. I can’t, I can’t.”
“Shh,” I said, the way Mother had done to me. “Be strong for me. Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Boy, boy,” she said, laughing weakly.
“Beautiful,” I said earnestly. I had to distract her from the pain. “Then you will feed and clothe him like a king. You’ll take him on picnics and let him feel the sun on his face. And when he gets older you’ll play Scrabble with him and spank him when he’s bad and make him strawberry cheesecake for his birthday. You’ll scold him for leaving his clothes all over the floor and teach him how to drive the pickup, if that tin can hasn’t turned into dust and ashes by then. And you’ll tell him at his graduation that his father would be proud, and at his wedding you can tell him the story about how we danced until midnight jumped in the lake in all our nice clothes...and then you’ll watch his children grow up and it will all happen again...and again...and again…and again…”
“Stop, stop,” cried Jenny, and tears spilled over the ridge of her eyes. “It’s too beautiful. It’s too beautiful to bear.”
I wiped the tears away and kissed her forehead. “The time has come. You must go back now.”
Jenny smiled dreamily. “Don’t make me go back. Please. I want to stay here with you.”
I knew that all I had to do was shake her by the shoulders and she would be here with me, awake and standing by my side. I felt the temptation rising in me, but I looked over my shoulder and saw Mother looking at me. Her expression was unreadable yet horribly attentive, as if she was waiting for my decision. Between us I understood perfectly well what I was meant to do.
“No,” I said to Jenny. “Go back to Otherworld and raise our son. You will see me again, Jennifer. I promise.”
Jenny’s eyes were already growing heavy. “No Mark, don’t go. No God, please don’t let him go. Oh God, I can’t breathe. Come back, come back…” but before she could say anything else, I reached up to her eyelids and gently shut them. Then I set her head down upon the heather and decorated her hair with flowers.
“May the wind be always at your back,” I said. “And may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.”
I stood up and walked back to Mother, who was smiling at me and looking proud.
“You did well, Child,” she said.
It was growing dark. Mother led me up a great hill on a staircase hewn out of rock. By the time we reached the top it was well past sunset and the air was chilly, but there was a summer breeze lapping at my feet like foam upon the shore and my body was warm. There I saw the Heavens, the deep blue and purple and emerald nebulas and double-ringed planets and fiery comets shaking off metallic shards of dust as they raced to their deaths, galaxies swirling around each other like great clouds of light, and a thousand other things that I had not yet learned the names for. But Mother lifted my arm and pointed my finger to the most inconspicuous star of them all.
“Watch that star,” she told me.
As I watched—for I had done nothing else my whole life but watch—the image of the star began to get sharper and clearer. It was nothing like looking through a telescope, for the star itself did not get any bigger or closer, but rather I merely found my eyes focusing and seeing more and more detail until I realized that it wasn’t a star at all but a galaxy, a galaxy referred to in Otherworld as the Milky Way. I laughed in delight, but Mother insisted that I look deeper, and I began to see the individual stars that inhabited it, as well as the planets that those stars hosted. As my eyes grew sharper they fell on one single star that I at first thought was a half-moon. But when my eyes grew sharper still I saw that I was not looking at the Moon but the Earth, the Otherworld I had once held so dear.
“Look upon the crest of the shadow,” instructed Mother. I did, and began to make out the border of South America and some of the West Coast, which I didn’t recognize at first because it was upside-down by the standards of the Earthly maps that I was accustomed to. And then I saw the mountain ranges and a deer poking its nose around in the bushes, and farther down I saw buildings and cars driving on the freeway. It was just about the time of the day when only the brightest stars are visible, and only the occasional car had its headlights on.
Mother directed my attention to a small suburban neighborhood where I saw a good number of cars parked along the side of the street. There was some kind of gathering going on at a small grey house, and I saw a little girl playing ping-pong with someone in the backyard. A chill ran down my spine when it struck me that it was my backyard, and the girl playing ping-pong was my niece, because I recognized her brown hair and the yellow headband that she was fond of wearing. At this point the infinitesimal detail became overwhelming, for when I looked harder I began to see the atoms and molecules that made up the ping-pong ball as it bounced back and forth across the table, and the little electrons and neutrons orbiting around each other like a universe within a universe. This made me terribly dizzy and I would have fallen over if Mother hadn’t caught me.
“Don’t look too hard,” she laughed. “There’s far more to see than you can take.”
I regained my composure and refocused my eyes on my backyard. There was someone running a barbecue and a couple of people roasting hot dogs over a campfire. Some women were relaxing on reclining chairs and chatting. Then the sliding screen door of my house opened and a woman walked out carrying a newborn baby. She talked with the women for some time, and as the planet became more deeply engulfed in shadow, she walked out into the yard and looked up at the sky. It was Jenny, an older, less feisty Jenny than I had known, with lines on her forehead and pair of tired grey eyes. She pointed up at the sky and said something to the infant in her arms, who only reached for her face and drooled. Even through his undeveloped, pudgy face I could see that he took after me, but his eyes were grey like his mother’s. Jenny looked back up at the sky and sighed happily, and suddenly—for one tiny, eternal and everlasting tenth of a second; I could have sworn she looked right at me. Then someone called her and she went back inside.
“It is farther away now,” I heard Mother say. I looked back down at her. I had forgotten where I was. “The distance between us grows every day. This star was much closer to Otherworld when it shone upon Bethlehem.”
“What will happen to them?” I asked.
“One day it will be blown away entirely,” said Mother. “Some will awaken here. But some"--I detected a tinge of sorrow in her voice--"some will never wake. They will be cast into the place of everlasting slumber." The Voices tingled in the air.
“They will be cast into the place of everlasting slumber.”
I looked at Mother's eyes, which likened to the eye of a storm: calm, yet brooding and unsettled.
“Woe to those who are pregnant and nursing babies in those days,” she said, shaking her head. We were silent for some time, and then Mother smiled thoughtfully.
“I was the same age as Jenny when I looked up at the star you are now standing on, not knowing what I was seeing, and wondering, like her, whether I would live to see my boy walk. And I did, my child. I lived to see him do more than walk. I lived to see Him walk on water.”
I shot a glance at her and gasped. For now I realized why that plain, majestic face looked so familiar, and my body began to tremble in awe and wonder.
“You…” I whispered, nearly choking on my words. “You are Mary! Saint Mary!”
Mary laughed spontaneously and embraced me. “Mother Mary!” she said joyously. “My name is Mother Mary! And I told you that you knew me!”
And the heavenly hosts began singing.