The sun has a voice. But I hear it only at night, when Earth blocks the solar wind. It is the voice of God — and at last I understand worship. I understand where it is I was never going, and I am ready now to depart.
“This is all she left behind in her bedroom,” the tiny woman in the pink pantsuit said. The bouffant hair on her narrow head rose mauve as a thundercloud. “And she didn’t even leave it for me. It was just a scrap of paper lying there between her bed and the wall. She must have dropped it. You know, she’s written thousands of pages these last two years. I found them — boxes of them! — in her closet. But no goodbye letter. Not even a note. So I called the police. You know what they said? She left the country. The airlines have a record of her flight. She went to
Rio. Not a word to me. The police said there’s nothing
illegal about flying to Rio.”
“Mrs. Morganthal, I’m sorry.” Geoff inflected his voice with as much sincerity as he could muster. Even so, his bafflement eked out, and he had to add, “But what is it you want me to do?”
The purple eyeliner vanished as her brown eyes widened. “You’re her boyfriend. I want you to find her. I want you to bring her back.”
“Mrs. Rosenthal, Pia Rosa and I were friends ages ago. I haven’t seen her in over a year.”
“You were her only boyfriend.” She emphasized this by pressing a bony finger to his chest. “She loves you. I know it. How could I not know it? She told me everything.”
“Then you know, we broke up a year ago. She never returned any of my calls. When I went to see her, no one answered her door. She’s through with me. And I’ve gone on.”
“You have another girlfriend?”
“I’ve seen others.”
“You don’t have another, do you? You still love my granddaughter. I know it. I see it in your face.”
Geoff nodded. He did love Pia Rosa and had from the first time he had seen her, at night, with only starlight to limn her plaintive features. They had met at an amateur astronomers’ star party and had spent the whole night together under the trees, darkness blazing through the branches, talking about the pettiness of their lives.
In those days, she had been an actuary employed by an insurance firm and he an accounts manager of a packaging company. They had laughed and joked for hours about the smallness of life and the cosmic mystery of the night. The next day, when he saw her in brash daylight, her colors startled him — the brown-gold of her eyes, the violin-hues of her hair, and the paleness of her skin, almost blue as starshine.
“I’ve booked your flight to
Mrs. Morganthal told him. “And a connecting flight to Belém. That’s where she
was last seen. It took me two months to find her, hiding in a commune of
religious fanatics down there.” Caracas
Geoff shook his head. “I can’t go to
America, Mrs. M. C’mon, please
— let’s be realistic. I have a life to live here.”
Mrs. Morganthal, who had been standing in his doorway, looked past Geoff at the empty apartment lit by the glare of the evening news. She eyed last Sunday’s newspaper strewn on the sofa, and the meal she had interrupted cooling in its microwave carton. “We’ll talk.”
On the airplane, Geoff had plenty of time to regret letting the old woman talk him into pursuing a girlfriend he very much doubted loved him. “You want her to love you?” she had asked him. “Go. Go find her. Every woman wants a man to break the spell of her madness.”
That was the real distance he had to cross — madness.
For eight months, he and Pia Rosa had been lovers, meticulous caretakers of each other’s souls as well as sexual gymnasts. Their love had been empty of secrets: She knew all about his unmanly dread of competition, his soft ambition to paint landscapes and to think himself an artist — and he understood her madness.
She had been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, an excessive firing of neurons deep in her brain, a condition that had begun abruptly, a year before she had met him. A peculiar form of epilepsy, unlike grand-mal and petit-mal, her seizures were not disabling. In the grip of an attack, she heard voices that urged her to write down whatever they told her.
And what they told her encompassed much. Mrs. Morganthal had shown him boxes of typed pages. They described intelligent creatures of light, who lived far up in the sky, in the ionosphere. The worst part of her ailment, and her greatest secret, she believed the voices real and what they described real.
She had gone to numerous doctors, wanting a realistic explanation — news of a congenital deformity, tumor, viral attack, or trauma — anything to counter the conviction that clever beings of light spoke to her.
All that the doctors could say fit one word: idiopathic, cause unknown.
Belém sweltered, the air between the modern office buildings languid with sea dew. At an old, vine-scribbled manse surrounded by lion-headed willows, Geoff met the people who had known Pia Rosa when she lived there.
They had little more to tell him than what Mrs. Morganthal had learned from the detective she had sent ahead. For several months, Pia had lived in this ancient house, sharing what her voices told her about life in the upper sky. The scion of a financier, who had inherited extensive holdings in the Amazon, dedicated himself to her.
“She has found Atlantis,” the scion said. A portly man with silver, curly hair, he walked barefoot and wore a white djelleba. His large, sheep-like head bobbed with certitude when he caught the skeptical look on Geoff’s face. “We saw that place ourselves, in our shared trances, high up in the twilight.”
Geoff had to speak through an interpreter, one of the American youths who lived in the manse, and what he heard next, though he understood it, he had the large man repeat. “The world is a slow dream. And those who are dreaming us live above. Sometimes they come down. But our bodies are too small. We can hold only part of them and even then not for very long. They need bigger minds. Pia
Rosa has gone into the forest to find such a big mind.”
Back at the airport, Geoff stood for a long time in the restroom, staring at himself in the mirror. He wanted to go home, to face down Mrs. Morganthal and forget about Pia Rosa.
The pale eyes that stared back from his pink face tapered another determination. He ran a hand over his balding pate, then trailed fingers across his broad brow and thick nose. He let his hand cover his mouth and a hint of harelip that made him look bellicose, and he met a frightened man.
His stare buzzed with fear — frightened to go back empty-handed to the small life that awaited him.
Geoff knew well what the voices said to Pia Rosa. At the height of their affair, he had listened to her for hours and had read much of what she had written. On the boat ride up the Amazon, he reviewed, hoping to anticipate Pia Rosa’s madness when he found her.
The ionosphere is vaster than the ocean, she had told him once. Fifty miles above our heads, the atmosphere basks in ultraviolet rays from the sun. Those rays break off electrons from the gas molecules there and create ions, positively charged particles. The free electrons swirl among the ions in eddies and currents, crests and tides a hundred and fifty miles deep. It is that ocean of electricity far above our heads that high-frequency radio signals bounce off. And it is there that the ul udi live, beings of light that have evolved in that sea much as we once evolved out of the primordial sea of Earth.
Geoff removed the snap-brim hat he had purchased in Belém and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. The blonde river, wide and placid this close to the sea, let flat-bottomed boats drift by, laded with their booty of timber from upriver.
On either shore, the huddle of villages, smudged in river haze, appeared like shipwrecks: a repetitious litter of shanties and splintery piers heaped on banks contoured for rain. Sleek, modern landing docks jutted into the water at odd intervals. Warehouses big as hangars watched over the river, and, interspersed among them, trees stood like talismans.
A party of European Friends, Quakers, who wanted to see for themselves the notorious deforestation of the Amazon had chartered the boat taking Geoff to the far village where Pia Rosa had written about going.
Quiet and self-possessed, the group had left him alone once he had identified himself as a tourist. In the hour of traces, when everyone gathered at the rail to watch day’s end, he alone stood without a camera, gazing up through solar-feathered clouds, wondering what invisible energies ranged between him and the jawbone of the moon.
Mrs. Morganthal’s whiskey-colored eyes had reminded Geoff of her granddaughter’s. And, in the end, that’s what really had prompted him to accept her challenge. The lever she used to move him: a story of her time as a young mother in a German death camp. “We waited for death quietly,” she had said. “Memories like this — who needs them? I am only telling you now because you will need to know about this when you find our Pia Rosa.”
Geoff had suppressed the cynical smile that twisted in him at the sound of that shared possessive, that manipulative our. He had stared boldly, unmoved, at the old woman’s smile of sullen grief and into the caverns of her eyes.
Rosa grew up on these stories,” Mrs. Morganthal had
continued. “She knows that those who survived waited quietly. The ones who
despaired, the ones who became brutes like the Nazis, who gave up their faith
and pummeled us quiet ones with their rage — they died. They died by their own
hands, most of them. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ means ‘Thou shalt care for life.’
I’ve always told Pia Rosa this. Care for life, no matter the suffering. Care
for life, because fear of death makes life worthless. We waited quietly. Sure,
afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid? But we loved life more than fear. We held to
our faith. And that gave us strength to face death. Many of us, too many of us,
went quietly to death. The survivors strong enough to face death quietly, they
had the strength then to face life. Remember this. And when you find Pia Rosa,
Pia Rosa and he had first met under the stars, laughing at the smallness of life. “How can anything this small matter?” she had asked him then, and he had somberly agreed.
That had been before they had kissed, before their mouths, which had slandered life, had joined and he had come away with a taste like rain. That day that he had tasted her, that very same day that he had been startled by the vividness of her colors — her hair the shade of fallen leaves, her cinnamon eyes, skin like moonlight, like milk — he had told her he loved her.
Her stare had been harsh and bright, and a fume of laughter escaped. After that, he never spoke to her of love again.
Yet, he did love her. At dawn on the river, staring into the broad rays of sunlight that led back the way he had come, he remembered what loving her had meant. Always a fool when her caramel eyes sweetly praised him in bed or afterward while listening to her stories of demons and angels in the upper air, he had never had to say he would follow her anywhere — yet, sure enough, here he was.
He had been on this river a week, recalling everything he could about her madness. He had one more day before he would arrive at the
Jurua, where her friends in Belém had said she had come to find a mind big
enough to carry the ul udi.
Over the last four nights, under stars thistly as weeds, he had come to think of the ul udi as real. They existed for Pia Rosa, and he had tried to imagine what they would want.
Childish stories had occurred to him of the ul udi’s anger at the destruction of the rain forest. Out here on the bronzed water, inching past colossal walls of jungle, where monkeys screamed and panthers coughed, no way showed of anything but primal, timeless direction.
Sunken trees bumped the hull, and the boat crept slowly enough for him to gaze deeply into chasms of dark trees. A harpy eagle stood regally on a bough, a twitching monkey under its talons, a red string of gut hanging from the raptor’s mad visage.
The boat of Friends ended its upriver journey at a village of ragged woodcutters. Low thatched huts squatted in a semicircle facing the river. Scrawny chickens and dwarf pigs wandered through the mud clearing and in and out of the huts.
Behind them towered the verdant trees, the spaces between them jammed with rank weeds and thick lianas.
At a shoddy wharf of lashed logs, the inhabitants had gathered to greet the boat.
Geoff, who stood well back among the Friends, searched eagerly among the small crowd for Pia Rosa. He observed a few Indians with bowl-cut hair slick with nut-paste, two soldiers leaning on their rifles with exhausted expressions, a Lebanese trader grinning lavishly, and the woodcutters, narrow men in limp rags, their dolorous wives standing behind, their children splashing in the shallows.
The Lebanese, who spoke English, told Geoff that Pia Rosa had indeed visited the village some weeks earlier and had gone into the jungle and not returned.
Geoff’s breath went damp in his lungs as he stood before the forest and gazed at the dark interior. He swiped away mosquitoes and biting flies. Then, he turned, sat down heavily on the wharf, and listened to the timbers cricketing.
The Lebanese said that, for a price, he would arrange for the Indians to guide Geoff into the jungle, to where Pia Rosa had last been seen, two weeks earlier.
The Friends, going with woodcutters in the opposite direction to witness rancheros downriver clearing forest for their cattle, tried to dissuade Geoff from traveling alone with the Indians. He felt better knowing that the Friends knew of his plans, and he agreed to return in three days.
The two Indians, whom the Lebanese had selected to lead Geoff, wore cutoff denims with rope belts and T-shirts, one emblazoned with a large photo of Sting, the other with a ballerina from the Joffrey. They carried machetes and spoke no English.
From the trader, Geoff acquired enough beef jerky and granola to sustain him for several days, and he also bought a machete and a gun, an old thirty-eight caliber revolver, with a box of thirty rounds.
Early the next morning, after a fitful night on the boat, Geoff met his Indian guides in the slick clearing. They informed him through the Lebanese that they would take him to a bend in the nearest tributary, where hunters from their tribe had seen the white woman.
The Friends waved him off, and, with his revolver strapped to his backpack and his machete in hand, he strode into the jungle with the Indians and into a light torn like rain.
The hike through the forest to the river bend took the better part of the day. They arrived at a stagnant, miasmal pool as the sun flared red through the canopy.
The Indians indicated a spot where a campfire had burned meagerly. He would not have noticed it if they had not pointed it out. The jungle had already covered the burn with leaf duff. In the black mud he spied a boot print that could have been a woman’s.
The wild sun glistered on the water, where the canopy was rent. One of the Indians bent over the pool and thwacked the water with the flat of his blade. A bend of rainbow rose to the surface, and he lifted out a stunned fish. Over a twig fire, they seared the fish, and the Indians shared that and the manioc bread they carried in their hip pouches but refused to partake of Geoff’s jerky or granola.
The ribbons of birdsong that had fluttered above them all day diminished, and darkness descended in a chamber of a cold air.
The Indians curled up against the buttressed root of a great tree and slept. Geoff sat beside them, alert as dandelion fluff. In the course of the day, he had seen scorpions and red spiders big as his outstretched hand.
Overhead, through the torn darkness of the canopy, bats whirred against the flaws of the moon. Mosquitoes whined, and somewhere the cold coils of a bushmaster sensed his warmth.
“Don’t be afraid, Geoff.”
Geoff jerked toward the voice, and his heart shuddered like a window.
Rosa stood by the black pool, gray in the cinereous
light. She wore her hiking boots, and, even in the dark, he could see her dirty
and torn garments. Her face clear and open smiled.
He rose and went to her. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” he spoke in a rush.
“Then why did you come?”
He stepped close enough to smell the hot spice of her breath, and then he touched her. She felt solid, cool, bright to the touch.
“I’m real,” she said.
He squeezed both of her arms, then pulled her to him and pressed his weight against her. “God, Pia — I’ve been crazy with worry. Your grandmother, too. She’s been sending detectives after you! Why did you leave?”
“I didn’t want to, Geoff. The ul udi, they called me. I had to go.”
Apprehension tightened across his ribs, and qualm claimed him for his own shameful part in encouraging her delusion. “The ul udi — ” He pulled away, enough to look into her face. Her eyes shone tiger bright. “Are they real then? Have you seen them?”
“Oh, yes, they’re real. I’m not mad, Geoff. I had to find that out. I had to know I wasn’t crazy.”
He tried to keep his expression neutral, though inside he trembled. All at once, he recognized that her sickness went deeper than he had wanted to believe. One of the damned, she dared to face him here in the jungle in the middle of the night remorseless, undaunted in her absurd belief. “Then where are they?” he asked, allowing a chill of incredulity to enter his voice.
“Where they always were,” she answered matter-of-factly, looking up at bursts of stars in the torn canopy of the jungle. “And we are always hearing them — some of us more clearly than others. It’s like we’re antennas, Geoff. Our bodies are like receivers tuned into them. Their thoughts are in the air all around us, like radio and TV signals — and we can’t help but pick them up.”
A shout pulled Geoff around, and he spotted the Indians sitting up by the buttress roots, where they had been sleeping. They waved at him in alarm and jumped to their feet. Geoff smiled at them to allay their fear. “It’s Pia Rosa — the woman I’ve been looking for!”
He turned his smile to Pia Rosa, and his grin slipped from his face. She had vanished. A crystal mist breathed in the darkness over the pool.
One of the Indians seized him by his arm and yanked him away from the water’s edge.
The crayoned shadows writhed. A saurian face lifted into view. A pallid caiman, a six foot long crocodilian, jaws agape, rose to the mud’s lip on stubby legs. It snapped at the shadow where Geoff had been standing and twisted about, plunging out of sight with a thrash of its armored tail.
Geoff threw a cry into the night. His stare bulged like a mare’s, trying to see through the shadows to where Pia Rosa had gone.
Had one of the beasts pulled her into the water? So silently! He shouted her name, and the Indian holding him jumped away.
Over the slow water, a welt of ripples carried moonlight into the darkness.
Before first light, the Indians started back to the village, not bothering to wake the lunatic white man. They left him still muttering deliriously in his sleep.
When Geoff woke with a start to the clangor of morning birdsongs, he found no sign of his guides. At first, he thought they hunted breakfast, but after emptying his bladder and shouting into the morning mist and getting no reply but a momentary silence among the raucous birds, he realized they had abandoned him.
He knelt at the edge of the onyx pool and studied the caiman spoor, his own boot marks, and the Indian’s splay-toed footprints. He found no sign that Pia Rosa had ever stood there with him.
She was not necessarily dead. She had not even been there. Had he dreamed the whole thing? The conviction that he had actually held Pia Rosa in his arms, had smelled her breath and talked with her, persisted. Despite the lack of all physical evidence, he sensed that she waited nearby.
He gazed over the black water to where hulks of half-submerged trees pared to mist.
How could he hope to find his own way in this hostile forest, let alone find her? Fear whirled up in him. He grabbed his backpack and hurried in the direction he remembered having come with the Indians.
Birds fretted and screeched on all sides, out of sight. An opossum spurted from the fungus garden of a fallen tree, and a peccary, hackles bristling, raised its tusks from where it rooted. He fell backward in fright, swam to his feet, and hurried away from the annoyed creature, leaving his hat behind.
Soon, Geoff realized he had lost his bearings. Subhuman cries from the sun-shot galleries taunted his every move. Finally, he stood among the pale trees and shouted for help.
The Indians, if they heard him, did not respond. No doubt, they thought him mad. His wild behavior had endangered their lives. He quieted himself and tried to get oriented by the sun, though he was not sure in which direction the village lay.
From his back, he took a handful of granola and chewed it morosely. He had food and water for two more days, more if he paced himself. The Friends would not abandon him. When the Indians got back to the village today, the Lebanese would know he was out here alone. Someone would come for him.
He laughed at himself, and the springs of his laughter sounded rusty.
Rain battered the forest. Geoff hunched up in the cove of a ghostly tree bole and peered out at ranks of trunks dimming in the rain-smoke. Hours swung by. At day’s end, the storm cleared, birds clicked and whistled again, and a sunset brown as wine shone through the canopy.
A foam of voices swelled from the distance.
Geoff squeezed out of his covert and rushed in that direction. Under a skinny tree, he found Pia Rosa, her smile sad as a wish. Her fatigues, mud-stained and torn, looked bedraggled; yet, her hair was dry, strewn with leaf debris. He stopped where he was and, with trembling fingers, wiped back the thin strands of wet hair that cobwebbed his forehead.
Rosa held out her hand. She held his hat. “You dropped
this when the pig scared you.”
He almost reeled and put a hand to a tree to steady himself. “Who are you?” he asked, and his voice came out in a frightened whisper.
“It’s me, Geoff. I’m not really changed — but I am different. You can be, too, if you’ll come with me.”
The shrill fury of a macaw clanged from the high galleries. Geoff looked up and spotted a disc of lustrous blue fire hovering above the trees. He cowered.
“Don’t be frightened,” Pia said, stepping closer. “It’s the ul udi. They can come down here sometimes, when they want. People think they’re UFOs. But they’re electrical. This one will lead you to where you can be like me.”
Geoff pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became hard points. Pia
Rosa came up to him and placed his hat on his head. “When
you’re like me, you won’t need this. But it may storm some more tonight.
This’ll keep the rain out of your eyes.”
He reached out and touched her face. She felt solid but chilled, bright as an electrical current beneath his fingertips. “What’s happened to you?”
“I’ve become like the ul udi.”
His fingers traced her plaintive smile. “Is that good?”
She shrugged. “At least I know I’m not crazy.”
“Oh, Pia,” he said, looking at her piteously.
“I’m not crazy,” she insisted.
He turned away from her and cast a despairing look at the mysterious blue fire whirling soundlessly above them. “Then why do you look so sad?”
“There’s danger. The ul udi are very strange. And not all of them are good. It’s like I told you, Geoff — some are demons, and they talk to me, too. They want to tear our flesh, to feel our pain, because they don’t feel anything like that up there. It’s a kick for them to feel us suffer. They sent the croc after you last night. They’ll try to hurt you again. But I’m here with one of the good ones to lead you away.”
A stark, relentless terror gripped Geoff, and he struggled to work his voice. “Lead me where?”
“To the Old Man of the
“I can’t tell you now. The more we talk, the closer the evil ones get. I’ll explain as we go. We must hurry now. The ul udi are strongest at night, when the planet turns away from the sun. The solar wind sedates their electric bodies. They’re active at night.”
Rosa stepped back and lost shape. Where she had been, the
air glossed a moment with a lamina of energy — then nothing, only the licorice
green of dusk.
Geoff looked up for the ul udi. That, too, had disappeared.
Fear, a boundless, metaphysical fear, drained him of all power and reason. Had he become crazy? He put his hands to his hat, and his fingertips came away icy. He stood immobile, more isolated by this horror than by the night-held jungle.
A jangling wind splattered him with rain shaken from the trees. Lightning winced in the distance, and, after many aching heartbeats, thunder throbbed.
Among the trees, a blue light shone, winking as it flitted through the pillared darkness. Mosquitoes burned his hands and cheeks. He snapped alert and shambled toward the unearthly radiance.
Rosa’s voice laved Geoff’s numbed brain with coolness:
It’s really dangerous for me to talk with you too long. Talking attracts the wrong kind of ul udi. And that’s the last thing we want, Geoff. You see, flesh is a kind of toy to them. Biology’s something they play with whenever they can. We’re lucky, because our brains are too small for them. I mean, usually we’re lucky. I wasn’t. Somehow the wiring in my brain started picking them up. But I didn’t receive them that clearly, and so, they couldn’t hurt me — or help me. It was just words. But the Old Man of the
Forest, his brain
is big, larger than our own. He has the neural hardware to receive the ul udi
loud and clear. There aren’t too many of the Old Ones left, though. Not
anymore. The ul udi — the bad ones — abused them, played with their pain too
much. So now they’re almost extinct. Yeti, Bigfoot, Sasquatch. Science named
them Neanderthal. They have bigger brains than we do. They’re not human, you
The night jungle floated by, and Geoff got so absorbed by the voice in his skull, he tripped over a root and sprawled with a soft clamor into a slum of figwort. A low, dismal growl wrenched him about to face the twin sparks of bestial eyes. A sour cry spilled from him.
The heavy and sharp collision with death never came. Instead, the air flushed brilliant blue, and whatever beast he had stumbled into slipped swiftly away.
The ul udi had descended below the canopy, and the whole forest ignited with spectral fire. The glare torched his vision. Squinting, he watched a sphere of azure voltage split into a dozen tiny globes that whirled off among the trees.
Frogs sobbed, and mosquitoes burned.
He unstrapped his pack, heaved to his feet free of its burden, and pursued the ghost lights.
The silence of an understanding touched Geoff, and he stopped. He had been loping through the jungle most of the night, following the ever-retreating blue jinn. Rain had flashed during his run, refreshing him, adding to his feral stamina. Now the storm thinned away entirely, leaving several huge stars rustling in the sky-holes of the canopy. He looked around for wraith lights, and they had gone. A greasy odor weighted the air.
Among the traumatic shadows, a smudge of movement fixed his attention. He stepped back a pace. Something large approached through the trees, human-shaped and vigilant.
He shrank like a vapor, and his eyes flared white to see it.
From the syrupy darkness, a massive, shaggy man appeared, pike-jawed and block-browed. The giant stood, broad as a cedar, snug in his poise, watching Geoff cringe.
Mosquitoes whined loudly in the plump stillness.
Steady now, Pia
Rosa’s voice opened in Geoff.
The mosquitoes vanished. The air began to hum.
Geoff’s fright took the shape of the hulking figure. Fear burst through him like sprung clockwork running from itself, and he wanted to flee.
Don’t move. The evil ones want you to run so they can kill you in the jungle. Stay still. There is no place to go now — except up.
Geoff’s legs jellied, and he knelt before the Old Man of the
Forest. In the vibrant air, the greasy stink of the giant swelled like heat.
The giant, too, seemed unhappy. His visage glared, a wild mask, rigid yet shimmering with alertness, knowing full well what would come next. His robust arms lifted above his head as if in a rage, and the hairs all along his body stood straight out.
Tongues of green flame appeared at the tips of the yeti’s fingers, and his static-strung hair sparkled. Like a human-shaped Christmas tree, the giant flickered green and blue. Clots of energy spun off him and wisped away in the hot, dead-still air. A vile cry lashed from the being, and Geoff realized that the creature suffered, electrocuted by the shining air.
The next instant, a bolt of lightning struck the spark-stressed space above the yeti and forked into lines of force that tore Geoff’s sight almost blind. Snakes of power twined in the silver air between them. One of the snakes lashed at Geoff.
An enormous chill sluiced through him, a glacial wind that hoisted him up and off his feet and flung him headlong out of himself. Shorn of gravity, he soared.
Vision swung wide. Sun-thumbed colors dispelled the night, and a chromatic panorama of the jungle rotated below.
At its luminous center stood the yeti, slumping exhausted. Thermal smoke, iridescent and curling, scrolled away from his sagging shape. And where Geoff himself had knelt, bright, billowy particles, fiery atoms, danced in a pointillist contour of his body.
He rocketed up and away from that surreal view, and the night opened its web of stars to receive him.
The world is a slow dream. And those who are dreaming us live here. Clear light, a melodious flow of energy, enwombed Geoff and Pia Rosa as if in a warm sea, amniotic, futureless and free. Outward loomed the moon — enormous and flawed — and inward, Earth, larger yet, marbled blue. Sere land masses drifted by, the sea cobalt beneath fleecy clouds.
Where are the ul udi? Geoff asked. All fear had dropped away, replaced by imperturbable repose. Even amazement faded. Instead, he felt something like benediction, peaceful as Brahma.
He could see Pia Rosa just as he had on Earth, only brighter, clearer, shot with champagne light. And the harder he looked, the deeper and keener he felt her, until, in complete collapse of distance, her being poured into him like light.
They’re here, Pia
Rosa answered from inside him. But they sleep in the day. The solar wind — the honey wind we feel —
drowses them. Only with great effort do they wake in the day.
The balmy expanse of daylight extended to the curved rim of the planet, where the edge of night appeared in ruffled curtains of auroras.
I went all the way into the night only once, Pia
Rosa said. It was
horrible. A flurry of panic swept through her to Geoff, and the serenity
embracing him loosened before the fright in her staring eyes. The good ul udi live in the upper limits of
the ionosphere. They commune there in reverie. I’ve heard them singing. But the
demon ul udi are full of insane fury. They lurk on the bottom of the electric
sea, close to Earth. They pulled me down when I went into the night. They hurt
me, Geoff. They tore at me with their minds. I never felt anything so horrible,
so cruel and furious. They hurt me bad, burned me and froze me and cut me again
and again. I suffered until dawn. Since then, I’ve stayed on the dayside of the
Pia scowled at him as if enraged. I’ve tried to get away, to get back to Earth. We can go under the night and go back down, the way I did when I found you. But we can’t stay there. The sky pulls us back up. The good ul udi tried to help me. They saw what the others did to me in the night. They tried to help me get back. But the insane ul udi interfere with them. The yeti was my anchor. I was really surprised to find you there, Geoff.
Geoff gazed with desperate helplessness. Then he looked away from her hurt stare and faced the diamond-chip sky, the moon like a big, bruised mushroom, and the sun, round and fierce, a white hole in the blackness. The ethereal calm he had known before returned. Lyric gentleness muted the harsh truth that there was no way back. Now I understand the sadness I saw on your face.
I would have sent you away, if I could, Geoff. But the dark ones — they would have killed you.
I wouldn’t have gone back even if I could have, Pia
I know, Geoff. She felt his love, recognized it in his wide, quiet stare. And that love backwashed in her with depths of caring she had not expected from herself. I was wrong to walk away from you the way I did. But I didn’t know if I was mad. I really thought I had to be. I still can hardly believe this is real.
We’re together now. We don’t have to wonder anymore about what’s real.
Tthere’s something else you have to know, Geoff. We’re dying.
The truth of that needed no explaining, for it flowed into him with the energy of their sharing, and he understood what she did. Those who had been carried up into the sky slowly dissipated. The solar wind and electric currents in the ionosphere wore away their plasma shapes. That was why there were no others like themselves. The longer we stay on the dayside, he said, the more swiftly we’ll dissolve. We have to enter the night.
Geoff and Pia Rosa allowed the ionospheric currents to carry them toward the brush lights of twilight. They willed themselves high, urging their plasma bodies to loft into the upper reaches, where the angelic ul udi dwelled. But the currents had a natural undertow that swept them down. Even as they strained for the heights, the voices of the depths began to rage.
The crazed ul udi howled and yammered, and their storm-torn screams rose like a siren through the fluttering auroras. A demented dreamtime began. Images of blown-off limbs, ripped-free jawbones, and unraveled viscera swarmed among the leering noises.
Geoff and Pia, fused by their fright, pushed themselves higher even as darkness clamped about them and the hellish images congealed to pain. Hurt split like lightning in them, abrupt and cutting, flinging them apart. Molten laughter filled the space between, and they were alone, each in their own hell.
Filthy pain twisted its cancers in Geoff —and the worst of it was hearing the mutilated cries of Pia Rosa as the demons hacked her with every torment of their black imagining. No hope of unconsciousness here, only more pain, endlessly renewed suffering.
And in the slithery midst of it, with the acid cruelty burning cold through every fiber of his being, Geoff remembered Mrs. Morganthal — and the mocking demons jabbered louder. Yet, through the screech of torn sinews, her voice remembered him: We waited for death quietly.
That memory fit snugly into his agony. It had been made for pain in the very home of the nightmare, and he clung to it. The words moiled in him like a dumb mantrum, a ghoul-cry. And he calmed down. He calmed down and let the pain eat him.
Care for life, no matter the suffering.
Rosa heard him. And where there had been a glare of
burning screams, silence opened. The quiet gentled her. The ache of the demons
razored sharper, and she stayed still and let them cut her.
The demons tried weeping and terror. But already the plasma bodies had loosed the ul udi’s taloned grip and, with a last tremulous spasm of nausea, whirled free.
Pia Rosa and Geoff merged and hurtled into an updraft that launched them away from the mangling voices and out into the huge chill grace of night.
The sun has a voice, the seraphs spoke. When the solar wind is blocked by the Earth, we come up here and listen to it. It is the voice of God.
Amber jellies of twilight gleamed along the curve of the planet, and the solar wind buffeted against the edge of the ionosphere, blowing the planet’s magnetic field deep into space.
Pia Rosa and Geoff hovered there in the musical presence of the angelic ul udi. Energy patterns that appeared to the humans like living stained glass shifted around and through each other in fugal harmonies.
A teeming rapture exalted the humans as they entered the company of angels. Their journey ended here among the creatures of light, the chromatic beings, whose dazzle inspired serene, imperishable euphoria.
Below, the fallen world loomed in an immensity of darkness — and, above, tingling stars massed like majestic clouds.
Pia Rosa and Geoff gazed into each other, incredulous, elated. Their joy punctured the last illusion that they would ever return to their lives on Earth. Their flesh could not regenerate out of the lightning that had freed them. They understood this with the shared-knowing imparted by the angelic ul udi.
You are of us now, the seraphs explained. You will live with us a hundred orbits around our star or more, until your bodies of light merge with the dreamless wavefront of energy from the sun — and there, like the best of us, become one with the voice of God.
In the beautiful, unearthly light of the ul udi, Pia Rosa noticed Geoff’s watchfulness dim, and he recognized the abrupt blankness in her face. Simultaneously, they remembered their nights together on Earth watching the wheel of stars turn, sharing their faithlessness in anything but the smallness of their lives. God? they asked, astounded. After the suffering that they had endured among the demonic ul udi, they could hardly believe these others believed in anything divine.
The wavering auras of the ul udi shimmered brightly as they reached into the minds of the humans, pondering the earthly thoughts and memories they found there.
At last, something like a laugh came from the blaze of meshing colors. Pia Rosa and Geoff dangled glittering against the dusty stars, sharing that laughter, not knowing why they laughed.
The god of perfection and wholeness is reality, the ul udi answered, but not in this universe — and not at all as you have thought of God. Not a He. The laughter glistened. Not even a sentience, for all sentience is timebound. God exists as the higher dimensions compacted within each single point of our reality. We see from your memories that your scientists already suspect these dimensions. They are aware that spacetime has closed off these points at a very small diameter, what they call the Planck distance — smaller than 10-33 centimeter. Within that distance is a realm of pure symmetry — of perfection. The crystalline music of the ul udi heightened. We are here. God is there, separated from us by the closure of spacetime at the Planck distance.
We’re here, all right, Pia Rosa and Geoff acknowledged. But we don’t really understand. We don’t even know how we see each other. We don’t have bodies — but it looks to us like we have faces, arms, legs...
They gawked at each other anew. Their amazement steepened the more they reflected on their predicament. Looking closely, Geoff observed that Pia Rosa’s hair actually wove a crux of rays, her pale flesh textured light, her eyes gleamed as embers from the last moment of twilight. To Pia Rosa, too, Geoff’s familiar countenance appeared as jellies of light shaped to solid flesh.
All life is electrical, the ul udi said. And their music made that seem plausible and sufficient. We will teach you what we know of these mysteries. You will live among us.
So we really can’t go back? Geoff asked.
I found a way under the night, Pia
Rosa said. That’s
how I found Geoff. You helped me, remember?
And I touched her, Geoff added. She felt solid.
All feeling is electrical, the ul udi replied. All sensation is electrical. You can return to Earth as bodies of electric plasma but only at night and never for very long. And each time you trespass the planet, you risk falling into the clutches of those ul udi who live below, who delight in tormenting the life that has risen from the mud. Do you truly wish to return?
No, they answered as one, luminous among the aisles of stars. They perched at the very point of love, where every other direction led to less. We’re happy here with you. But there’s one other —
They remembered her together, the old woman, who had told them how to face their pain quietly and find their way here. Will you help us get back to her, to let her know we’re all right?
The sliding colors swelled closer, brighter. Why go back at all? Life is electric. Let life speak for itself.
The beings of light, full of power and presence, seething with joy, swelled closer and took the humans in.
Mrs. Morganthal put down her pen and rubbed her aching eyes. Seething with joy — that sounded too precious. She picked up her pen and crossed it out. “But that’s how it would be for them,” she said aloud. “What is heaven without joy? But really — seething?” She blew an exasperated sigh and sat listening to her heart trip.
Night stood in the window above her desk. She began sorting the pages she had written. A year had passed since the letter she had received from the Friends, who had found Geoff’s hat and backpack in the jungle.
For a while, she had lived quietly with that knowledge, expecting his body would be found. Yet, like her granddaughter, he, too, had vanished.
Shortly after the letter, she had begun reading the many pages of Pia Rosa’s compulsive writing. And in the midst of it, the idea had come to her — right out of the blue — to take pen in hand and write.
She had never written anything but letters before. Nevertheless, the writing came smoothly, inspired by the ideas in Pia’s pages. What she did not know, she looked up. The part about God she had put in, because the doctor who had treated Pia Rosa identified hyper-religiosity as one of the traits of her granddaughter’s mental illness.
Mrs. Morganthal thumbed the pinched flesh between her tired eyes, then flipped through one of the three astronomy books open on her desk. With her left hand, she touched the relevant passage, and with her right she turned the page of her notebook and wrote:
You say that you hear the voice of God, Pia
Rosa said to the ul udi. But how can you hear God in the sun?
The music of the ul udi chimed, To understand that, you must know something about our star. The sun is shot through with effervescence, like an immense sphere of champagne. When gas bubbles reach the surface, they are each over a thousand kilometers wide, and the sound of their popping is so loud that it heats the sun’s atmosphere from a mere five thousand degrees Celsius to a million degrees. That sound is what gives the sun the energy to blow the solar wind. Up here, we listen to the random patterns of that sound carried by the sun’s wind as it beats against the magnetosphere. And in the sound’s randomness is the voice of God. For that is how higher dimensions, separated by the closure of spacetime at the Planck distance, connect with our causal reality — through the acausal. What you call chance and accident is the voice of God.
Mrs. Morganthal read what she had written, and she smiled. This was all beginning to make sense. She put down her pen and turned off her desklight.
Night swept in through the window, her eyes relaxed, and she gazed out at the darkness and the gratitude of stars.