Harry Whittaker had hurt so much for so long. The pain was gone now, though. He stood up easily, no one helped him and he needed no crutches or walker. He stood firmly and strongly on his own feet. He moved his arms gently at first, extending them and gently rolling his shoulders, at any moment expecting his joints to painfully resist. Then he began to swing them, and still there was no pain. His shoulders rotated smoothly, with no roughness or grating to the joint. He gently lifted one leg, then another. They came up easily. He went down into a deep side lunge, going deeper than he had since he was in his twenties. There was a little pain with the stretch, but it was just the feeling of going into a deep stretch without warming up properly. His arms and legs were no longer flabby and atrophied; they were solid and well muscled again. His gut and chest were no longer drooping and wrinkled, they were firm and taut.
He looked around himself, he was in a small grassy clearing of a forest. He breathed deep the damp earthy scent that surrounded him, with a bit of spice he could not quite place. Lances of golden sunlight pierced the tree tops that arced over him and glittering insects flashed between them. It was so familiar, but also all so strange. He could hear the soothing sounds of running water; and the calls of birds, frogs, crickets, and cicadas.
He walked towards the sound of water. With each step he felt the rich loamy earth and soft undergrowth under his toes and feet. After a few dozen paces he came to a depression in the earth that a stream flowed through one side of, but on this side it was a nearly still pool. He looked down into the water, and more than the colorful fish flitting below the surface, what surprised him was his own reflection. It wouldn’t be right to say he looked young, but it wouldn’t be right to say he looked old either. He didn’t look middle aged though. Any given age you tried to put his face too would seem off, sometimes in both directions at once. The surprise wasn't from not recognizing his face either. It seemed that all through his life this was the face he should have seen and that the other face, ever changing as he grew up and then old, that he was used to seeing was just showing a distortion of it.
“This has to be a dream,” He spoke aloud, “Even in my dreams though I’ve felt my pains and aches for so long. I‘m not sure I ever want to wake up again. I could be happy just staying here, I think.”
“This is a dream, yes,” A breathy woman’s voice replied behind him, “But it is not your dream, and thus you do not appear just as you see yourself, but as you truly are. The pain you carried with you into your own dreams before was a remnant of how you perceive yourself and your life. You can not just stay here though, you have a journey to go on.”
“Who are you?” He asked, turning to see the speaker. She was a beautiful woman, about half a head shorter than Harry. Her hair was midnight black, and her skin was paper white. It wasn’t just pale. It wasn’t just not tan. Her skin was completely and totally white. There was no hint of blush, a tan, or even a freckle. Her skin was not a human coloration. Her face also defied any attempt to place an age to her. She was not young. She was not old. She just was.
“I’m your guide, I make sure you can find your destination.”
“So I’m dreaming you?”
“No. We are both in the land of dreams, but this is not your dream. This is not my dream. This is not any one persons dream. You are not dreaming me any more than I am dreaming you. Actually, unlike when you are in a dream that is your own you are not even dreaming yourself, thus why you are showing your true body instead of your interpretation of your factual body.” The woman in front of him ran her fingers through her hair to pull it out of her eyes, and then the woman was a cat cleaning her fur.
“Wait a second, you were a human just a moment ago, now you’re a cat! Or at least I thought you were, wait a minute you still are. Why did I think I saw a cat?”
“I am neither a human nor a cat and I am both and more. I am who and what I am just as you are who and what you are. I did not change, only the perspective of how you saw me changed. In the waking world it is facts you see most easily and you must look through them to find truth. In the world of dream truth is plain to see and you must look through it to find fact.” As he stopped trying to decide if she was a woman or a cat and just relaxed he was not sure if he saw a woman, a cat, some hybrid cat girl, or the hints of other things he felt opening up behind the other images. It was too much to take in at once, he held the image of her as he first saw her firmly in his mind and that was all he saw.
“You seem to learn quickly both to see what is and to control what you see,” she laughed, “It helps at first to see only part of what something or someone is. It is almost impossible to see anyone in their full truth at once, but as you grow more accustomed to seeing it will be less disorienting to view more of the truth of what you see. As you learn it is good to choose to see a partial image so that it is easier to process, but forgetting that what you are seeing is only part of the truth is dangerous. So, see only one or two aspects of someone or something if you must, but try to glimpse the other aspects when you can. When you first looked at the place we are sitting, what did you first see?”
“The pool of course!” Harry replied, but as he turned to gesture he was not sitting on the ground by a pool with little colorful fish in a forest. He was sitting in a chair in an empty hallway in a courthouse by a shiny metal water fountain where he could see his reflection. The fish were red, blue, yellow, and pink wads of chewing gum that had been left in the fountain. He and the woman who was his guide were wearing black business suits. Until that moment he had not realized that neither of them had been wearing anything a moment before.
“There are many different aspects to the truth of this place as well. It can take on many appearances to you. There are some facts you will glean from observing it’s many truths. One is that it is not an unpleasant place; it is reasonably comfortable, it is relatively safe, and it has what you need for now. Another is that it is a good place to gather yourself for the next step. One more fact shown by the truths of this place is that it is a good place to meet someone. There are also the facts that it is not far from danger, and that it will likely become unpleasant if you stay too long. It is a good place to rest, meet me, ask questions, and then move on from to your destination.”
“What is my destination and why do I have to go there?
“You already know both of those answers, the inability to see them just means you are not yet ready to accept them. Luckily, since you have a guide, you do not need to know the destination or reason. You just have to go.” She smiled her catlike grin. Looking again, she was a cat grinning in a manner that was almost human. Looking again in the same way at his surroundings; it was a forest, it was a courthouse, it was a pool, it was a water fountain, and it was also a city park at sunset. It was more places. Some were easier to see than others. Some he liked seeing less than others. Many of the ones he liked the least were the ones that showed him most clearly that he would need to leave soon and the path he should follow.
“If you don’t have any more questions that cannot be asked while we travel,” she gently suggested, “It would be best if we left. You can stay a little while longer, but the quicker we get on our way the better it will be for you.”
“Well, I suppose since it is a dream I will wake up eventually and I guess I would like to see where I was going before that happens,” He nodded his head as he decided, “Let’s go.”
As they walked he chose to primarily keep the aspect of the truth of his surroundings that was a forest in his mind. He liked it best. He couldn’t see his path as clearly as with many of the others, and maybe that was part of its charm. All of the aspects grew darker as they went though. The forest literally grew darker and there were occasional thorns on the trees he passed and on the ground he walked over. In the courthouse they had moved into the courtroom and the prosecution was presenting its case against him. He had left the park and was now walking through a bad neighborhood of a large city.
In every facet of his journey he could see, his guide helped him and supported him on his journey. She gave him a machete and helped him hack through the jungle they were traversing. She helped argue in his defense regarding every crime he was accused of. She helped him search for an ostrich feather large enough it would outweigh his heart. Together they poured through an ancient tome to find his name. She used a pole to push their boat to the far side of the river.
There were times when it was hard or frightening. They were chased by a pack of dogs. They delved caves into the darkest depths of the earth. They scaled a mountain that stretched to the stars. They climbed a tree that held the entire world in which he had lived in one of its branches, and he wasn’t even sure whether they were climbing up or down. They flew past stars, then out of time and space.
Through it all his guide stayed with him. She encouraged him when he could do it on his own. She made sure he had what help he needed when he fell a little short. She helped him back up when he fell. Whenever he doubted he could continue she was there with a smile and he had the strength to go a bit further. After a few hours, perhaps days, perhaps years, perhaps eons, perhaps seconds; they were finally there.
“Do you know where you are now?” She asked carefully. For some this was the hardest part of the journey and could take the longest. She had grown to know him well in their sojourn, and did not wish him pain.
“I think I do.” He responded softly, different truths of what he was seeing flashing through his minds eye. He had learned much on this journey, not the least of which was how much he had yet to learn. Seeing himself in his true form that was an eagle, he preened his feathers thoughtfully before continuing, once again seeing the truth of himself as a man. “I have passed from the waking world into the land of dream. I have now passed through the land of dream and stand at the gateway to the land on the other side of dream. We began where the waking world borders on the world of dream, we now are where the world of dream borders on the world of the dead.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. She had grown to know how well he could see and how insightful he could be about the facts and the truths he saw represented, but even those with the keenest sight and minds could not see what they were not willing to believe. “I know this next question may sound silly after the answer you just gave, but I must make certain that you understand fully. Why did you have to come here?”
“Don’t be. I lived a good life.”
“What does that mean, to live a good life?”
“I don’t really know, but I think I did it.” He chuckled dryly, then looked worried, “If I go there, will I be able to come back here? It wasn’t always pleasant, but I liked it. I liked being with you.”
“Not everyone who goes through ever comes back here, but many do. I don’t know if those who don’t can’t or have reasons for not coming. Just as seeing dream for what it is has allowed you to open your eyes and grow if you let yourself, seeing death for what it is may allow you to open your eyes even further and grow even more if you allow it. Those who come back can only tell us about what they saw as much as you could tell someone in the waking world about what you have seen here. You could get across basic ideas, but it would be incomplete and surreal. The world of dreams; however, links all existences I know of. Perhaps there are worlds on the other side of death. Perhaps there are worlds on the other side of any of the other worlds dream runs to. I don’t know.”
“I know I didn’t actually state the second part of that question as such, but I think you saw it. Will I be able to see you again?”