I’ve had this idea for a book kicking around my grey cells for a few years. Recently, a short story competition came up, and I decided to write this stand-alone scene to fit the brief, which fits within the larger world of my story. I hope you enjoy the interesting world and the question it poses.
Without further ado:
A bruise-colored mist cloys at my skin, smelling like the hearts of rotting trees. I look down at my clothes, my arms. They are filthy, as though I crawled out of the earth. My breaths come quickly. Where am I? How did I get here? My brain is as foggy as the air. There is nothing around me save the shadowy silhouettes of naked trees. No, wait. Something moves in the mist. I call out before danger crosses my mind.
But whoever, whatever, it is doesn’t react, dwindling again into the fog. The wall of mist on my left breathes out another figure. It is a woman with wispy hair and draping clothes.
I scramble toward her, “Hello?”
She doesn’t react until I’m a few arm lengths away. When her glassy eyes find me, I stumble to a halt. She, too, is smeared with dirt, her hair a rat’s nest. But those eyes, they look through me.
Unnerved, I retreat a step and trip on a root. My surprised yell alerts three more sets of eyes that find me through the gloom. Panic squeezes my ribs, and I run.
Tree bark scrapes my palms as I tear through the dead forest. Phantom people emerge everywhere, staggering like zombies with vacant, drug-addled eyes. But then, I spot a shadow dart through the maze trees on my right, its movements crisp with purpose.
Hopeful, I hail the entity but am ignored. Instinct hastens me to follow, and I awkwardly jump fallen logs, trudge through slimy creek beds, striving to keep pace. It is quicker and more agile than I, as though it knows the forest.
The figure goes straight toward an enormous tree materializing out of the fog. And disappears.
I approach it, panting. Though leafless, this tree isn’t dead like its brothers. Its bark is warm and grey instead of chalky black. When I touch it, the trunk splits, forming two trees, and between them a vertical pool forms like indigo ink. This has to be where the figure vanished.
But this is crazy! Some hellish trap! Still, I cannot stay here, surrounded by haunted eyes. I swallow my fears and questions and step through.
The liquid portal feels like gelatin, and then, snap, I’m out the other side. Here the sky is dim with spring twilight. Green buds sprout on the trees and bright moss carpets the forest. Yards ahead, the figure I followed here jogs away from me. It’s a boy with black hair and dark skin. He glances over his shoulder at me and winks.
I suddenly realize I can’t remember my name. The clouds in my head are dissipating, but there is nothing in their absence. The youth waves for me to follow. And I do. He’s my only lifeline in this surreal place.
He approaches another split tree, this one has a cloud of yellow pollen filling the gap. He steps through, and I trail seconds behind.
A summer sun blinds me, softening into a sea of color and movement. I’m in a market square with singing vendors and laughing crowds. Children chase a fire-breathing salamander down the cobble-stone street amid the sea of frills and trills, while a mage levitates a constellation of marbles, making them dance around her head. My eyes twitch to take it all in, an introvert in the center of a three-ring circus.
My attention falls back on the black-haired boy, waiting at my elbow with a pocketful of secrets.
“First time?” He asks.
A woman runs past, trailing a rainbow of ribbons while a man tooting a panpipe skips the other way.
I spin to watch him go by. “Where the heck am I?”
The youth laughs, “I take that as a yes. This,” he flourishes, “is the dreamworld, and I am Anansi.”
“What? How can this be a dream? I mean, I can smell the lilies in that flower stall, and feel a pebble in my shoe, and the song that man was playing, I’ve never heard it before. My dreams aren’t like this; they are blurry and mush into each other.”
“Like in the outer ring?”
“Listen, here.” Anansi takes my hands like a playful grandfather, speaking in an accent I can’t place. “The regular rhythms of sleep, Delta, REM, and so on, are not deep enough for one to be cognitive here. Only with cognition can one find their way through the portals into this place.”
“The people in the forest, they were… sleeping?”
“In the home world, yes. Hallucinating in this one, I’m afraid. But you and I, and these others—Good day, Mr. Mossback,” Anansi bows to a gentleman in a Veridian top hat. “We are in deeper.”
“Different reasons. Some of us are unconscious from an accident, others are in a medical coma, a few are having near-death experiences.” He states casually, as though discussing the economy. “Over time, I deciphered that I suffer from narcolepsy. I’m here so often I’ve learned tricks to find my way to the city more quickly.”
My mind swirls, “What brought me here?”
“One cannot tell from the outside, old duck.” Noticing my anxiety, he adds, “Don’t fret! It’s not so bad. I’ve come to enjoy myself here.” He watches a cloaked figure shift past before continuing. “The fascinating thing about this world is your insides color your outsides.”
“What does that mean?”
“Who your soul truly is affects the way you look, the way you are, even your name. Take me, for example. I don’t look like this in the real world.” He pats his handsome cheek and gestures to his trousers and vest. “I don’t recall my other name, either. But it doesn’t matter. Here I am clever Anansi, adventurer and storyteller extraordinaire.” Anansi bows and offers his hand. I shake it reflexively.
“There’s a mirror in the hat shop yonder,” he says. “Come, are you ready to meet yourself?”
What would you see if you looked in that mirror?