I wrote this in the four months immediately following the passing away of my godbrother, Ricardo Cota Jr. He was afflicted with lymphoma cancer and eventually was taken by the complications that arose as a result. This was my therapy, but it became something I enjoy quite a bit and I firmly believe it serves as a good metaphor for the journey one with a terminal illness at a young age undertakes.
Look forward to seeing this available at the end of August 2016.
The back matter:
A vigil awaits those who escape the light
Awakening from a strange dream, one man finds himself lost within a rampant forest. His memory is fragmented and he isn’t sure which pieces explain who he is and what he’s done in life, his own name a mystery to him.
Soon, he finds that he is not on Earth at all, but in a savage place. The very flora uproots itself and terrible beasts lurk within the belly of the land and behind the thick blanket of trees, all contending to take his life.
He seeks understanding to mend his broken mind but finds that keeping from the clutches of destruction is a near impossible thing. In a world designed with his end in mind, perhaps death is his angel.
Acceptance is the way back
One Last Vigil
By Keith Edward English
For Ricardo Cota Jr.
A great and wonderful light encompassed me. I folded into it until I was as infinitesimal as a grain of sand at the ocean floor. In the same moment, I expanded and dissolved until I was unable to separate myself from the luminescence.
Warmth covered and filled me.
Serenity captured me.
But only for a brief instant.
The light changed from something that consumed me to something of shape, gently pushing me free of its embrace so I could exist on my own. It was a spirit in the form of a man, his face lost in the brightness. No longer was I ethereal and abstract, for I now saw through my eyes that the spirit gripped my pale arm in its golden, shimmering fingers. He pulled and slid forward through this place of absolute darkness.
The comfort still held me, so I didn’t resist. Nothing else mattered beyond this feeling of calm. We grew closer to something. I couldn’t see it, but I felt it. It wanted us, asked that we come for it happily.
A disk of light exploded off in the darkness, motes and rays escaping the portal and swimming through the black. With its arrival there came a bolt of ice that struck through me then vanished. Despite the comfort the tunnel instilled in me, filling me with warmth once more, the surge of frost was enough to stall me. Part of me wanted to become lost in its embrace while something else within railed against its pull, vying that I turn and flee.
The spirit of light was no longer leading me for I was struggling against him with such intensity that we had come to a stop. I only wanted a moment of stillness to comprehend the beautiful terror that was the tunnel of light, but the spirit continued to resist me. My will bent as I tried to hold my ground and it was as though I was being ripped in half. I screamed out silently, urging my sense of self to stay intact.
Panic set in me like claws of lightning shredding all down my body. He was pulling both of us toward the light now, and I realized it was a final escape of sorts, an exit I’d never be able to traverse again once I had passed through. I made another attempt to burst away while keeping him with me, keeping myself intact. I felt my grip falter and was torn in two, leaving me reeling in pain and confusion.
The light was suddenly gone. I was no longer there, but I was no longer anywhere. The warmth left, but it wasn’t replaced by cold. The serenity left, but it wasn’t replaced by chaos. Everything was just gone.
I was falling through a black void. My body spun and twisted. I reached for a hold, but only found empty space. I wanted the blackness to leave, to see something, anything. I wanted to scream, but no noise would come from my mouth.
Where was I?
Who was I?
It all ended as colors blossomed before me.
I stood, surrounded by a forest, breathing terribly fast. My hands shook and my knees were so weak that I was certain I’d spill to the ground at any moment. My brief trip through the blackness and escape from the light was just as real as the air I sucked in. It had been something miraculous, but left me with a hole near my heart. I was hollow inside, an integral part of me lost.
Dancing lights drew my eyes upward. The spirit was there. I was connected to him and wished for our union once again only to find myself powerless. He floated between branches thick with leaves until I lost him, feet sliding out of view behind branches thick with leaves. I reached out to the light streaming from between the gaps in the foliage but he continued to escape me until he disappeared altogether.
Once he was gone I felt better. The ties that had connected us were severed and numbed. The hole in my being closed, if only to heal the exterior enough so that I’d no longer notice the absence of something I loved so dearly.
Something moved to my right. My eyes flicked that way and I saw movement in the long grass there. Nothing stalking along the forest floor revealed itself, however. All that was before and around me was an abundance of plant life.
Grass reached up to my waist, trees clad in bark ranging from deep brown to white crowded me, flowers of all colors and all shapes stretched to the sky, vines of varying thickness draped from the canopy. There was this and much more, making it so thick that I felt a sudden sense of claustrophobia.
Fragmented memories came to my mind and I winced as I tried to piece them together. Names were dredged up from deep within: Yosemite, Mendocino, Sequoia. Each one was accompanied by pictures although not a single one seemed more suited to a name than another. It was a scramble of shapes that just wouldn’t create a whole picture regardless of how desperately I wanted them to.
This place seemed as though it had just too much in it. Like a hundred forests had been dumped on top of each other, then a hundred jungles on top of that.
The branches of a tree suddenly jerked. Certainly there was a creature there, perched on the limb, ready to pounce. I stared long and hard, searching for another movement, a paw, an eye partially hidden behind leaves. Nothing.
Only scant holes in the canopy overhead provided glimpses of a clear blue sky, points of light blazing in the aqua-colored spread. Had I been here before? I couldn’t recall how I ended up in this place. I could barely remember a thing that made sense. There were so many jumbled thoughts and pictures in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t trust a single one.
“My name,” I suddenly whispered. “My name is …” My brow furrowed as I sorted through hundreds without a single one feeling as though it belonged to me. “What is my name? Who am I?”
Why was I this way? How did I possess pieces of a life lived before without a full picture of my past? It made such little sense. My heart began to thump against my chest and my hands grew clammy. Loneliness set in me and I whispered, “Hello? Someone.”
Silence reigned in reply. I held my arms up and saw peach-colored limbs and hands I didn’t recognize. Had they been mine, I wouldn’t have been so perplexed by them. At least that’s what I told myself. I felt my chest and stomach, found a frame emaciated and fragile. An odd shirt clung to my torso, seamed at an angle from the V-neck and down to my right hip, a lively blue color, like the sky. The pants covering my legs were a rough material, thick and black. A sash of braided, red rope spun through loops along my pants and cinched them tight to me. Boots of brown leather protected my feet. I still didn’t recognize any of it.
All at once the forest swayed, but there hadn’t been any wind. I had seen the grass near my feet leap to the side as if a gust had suddenly galloped by. I looked up and saw that the whole forest had lurched one way and was now relaxing. Had it been another creature moving through the brush that I just mistook as branches and grass being moved by wind?
All that was around me seemed to be leaning toward me, as if I was a magnet for foliage. What was this place?
The grass suddenly uprooted itself, green giving way to thin tendrils of white root, and I reeled back a step. Trees followed suit, ripping their long, thick roots from the ground, and vines dropped to the ground and writhed like snakes. I was stuck in place, dazzled by the animated forest.
Fear dulled to curiosity, compelling me to understand this place. I shuffled half a step forward and the world lurched after me. Grass tangled my feet. Vines wrapped up my legs to twist around my arms and neck. Trees crowded in and smothered me. A branch smashed into my forehead, causing a sunburst of white to cloud my vision. The light fled as quickly as it had blossomed and pain replaced it. I cried out in desperation as the forest began suffocating me.
I found a will to live, spun into the fabric of my soul, and began fighting back. I thrashed until my arms and legs ripped through vines and grass. The trees continued closing in, their trunks nearly touching, walling me into a deathly embrace. I ripped at my attackers, defying their onslaught with my own. Vines twisted up my neck and prodded my face, nearly shattering my teeth and gouging my eyes. Branches stretched for me but I tore my head to the side. I gripped the vines assaulting me in two hands then ripped them in half, thick tendrils going limp and falling to the ground, dead.
A branch hit me in the back and pressed me up against the rigid bark of a tree. I felt things crawling up my back, taking away my freedom, seeking an end to my life. I pushed off the tree but found the branch still held me fast. I spun in a tight circle, ripping grass and vines as I did. I reached up and grabbed two separate branches of the tree I was against and pulled. The foliage resisted, trying to keep me in this place to kill me. With a final surge and cry of defiance, I broke free and lifted myself up into the tree.
Before I could find my footing on the branches, it moved as though the earth beneath it had begun to rip open. I slipped to the ground, expecting to find a net of suffocating foliage. But the earth there was barren, the soil loosened from the grass uprooting itself. I hit the earth and rolled to my feet, the ground shaking and vibrating as trees pounded behind me and other things slid or twisted after me. I ran and found myself coming upon more trees and foliage.
It was too late to stop or to try to find another exit; every direction held the same thing as far as I could tell. I hollered as the trees before me ripped free of the ground, their branches swaying to meet me. A branch pulled back in anticipation of smashing into me. I ran toward it then leapt as it arced for me. It cut through the air just beneath my feet and I found myself coming down. Only, the ground was not flat. I was falling down onto a steep hillside populated by brush and other vegetation that seemed to reach up for me in anticipation of imprisoning me.
I crashed down onto grass that tried to keep me. I ripped free of it and began tumbling down the hill, bouncing and rolling. I slammed into a tree and my descent stopped for a brief moment. In that space of stillness, I felt a dozen bones in my back burst and dig their way into muscle and grind against one another. The mind-numbing pain consumed me and I forgot that I was spilling down the steep hill.
I suddenly realized that I had stopped rolling as something crawled over my face. Vegetation covered me as I lay still, immobile at the bottom of the hill. I couldn’t turn my head. I could barely breathe. Nothing responded to my urges, not even a finger. The hill was too high for me to glimpse its top and I had fallen down the entire thing in what felt like just a few seconds.
No longer could I see, as grass had covered my head completely. Blackness began to settle in as I lost the ability to breathe. I couldn’t feel much but knew that more and more weight was covering my body, engulfing me. I would die here then, not knowing who I was or why I was here or what I had done in life or what the hell here was.
A sound I understood came for me, broke through the blanket of vegetation. The grass wrapped around my body loosened its grip and fled. I began to breathe again, albeit as though a lump of cotton filled my throat. The blackness faded somewhat. I could see through the little vegetation still covering me and saw flickering shadows. An orange light blazed before my eyes, setting my scalp to tingling.
A man held a flame in his hand somehow. He spewed it at the foliage and it retreated, charred and smoking, leaving a wide swath of unpopulated dirt. I saw a face behind the fire, one with pink, purple, and red rings around two eyes that were perfect circles of black. I saw a nose with two wide nostrils that pointed straight out of the face, holes into the head. I saw a grin that undulated like a moving worm, several large, sharp teeth pointing either up or down. I saw large cheek bones, a wrinkled forehead, a round head.
Then, the pain in my back suddenly flared and everything turned black again.
Awakening this time was disorienting, much in the same way it had been previously. There was one significant difference to separate the two events, however. I pushed through the darkness and beheld color. I found a brown canvas over me, sticks that held it aloft, small windows to the sky above through little tears in the fabric.
But mostly, I found pain. A deplorably massive bounty of it.
I wanted to move, but knew that I wouldn’t be able to. I had broken my back falling down that mountain, I recalled.
My legs responded though, knees bending and feet rotating. I immediately stopped because of the pain it brought, gasping aloud with spittle flying from between my lips with each pained exhale.
I lay there for a long while, tears streaming from my eyes, breathing raggedly, hoping that the pain would leave. Apparently my thoughts had some sort of power because the pain did in fact dull and then vanish. I ground my teeth together until I was sure they’d shatter, then rolled to my right side.
My back audibly popped as bones shifted. Terrible agony shredded down my spine and I nearly went into the black again. I couldn’t stem my outburst this time and wailed, despite the waves of fresh pain each brought.
As before though, with enough time and enough wishing, the numbness set in and my screams turned to sobs. I could better handle those. Despite my limited mobility, my spine was certainly shattered. Perhaps I’d walk again if I didn’t expire here beneath a ramshackle tent first.
The sound of someone approaching came from behind me, and a bit down on my lip hard to keep my mouth shut and feign sleep. I didn’t dare move, I didn’t need any more pain. The shuffling feet came close and I heard a voice.
“Should have tied you down. Rolling around like that, moving the bones around. I may be good, but damn … making my life that much harder. This will wake you up for sure.”
Something stabbed me in the back and each individual vertebrae exploded as though tiny grenades had been placed beneath each one then all simultaneously set off. I convulsed. I suddenly couldn’t move anymore but I was still able to scream, and scream I did, like a banshee in a microphone streaking out of the depths of hell. Something held me fast.
I heard the voice again, this time only barely though, “Better that you’re asleep.”
The same thing that had rearranged my spine poked me in the head. Compared to the agony in my back, it felt like a butterfly’s kiss but then it seemed to lance through my skull and into my brain. A loud zap sounded.
When I woke up next, I was momentarily afflicted by amnesia. I shook my head as though mixing up the stuff inside would put it back into a working order. The horrific event that had befallen me snapped back and I remembered the spirit of light, rolling down the hill, the bolt of lightning through my head that put me under. “Who the fuck did I piss off to deserve this?” I whispered.
I was now inside a house, or a hut, dried bamboo walls leaning toward me. It was hot inside, the source a small blaze burning in a cage of hardened clay or old metal a half dozen feet away.
Sweat leaked from my pores, spilling down my temples and pooling on the hard dirt floor beneath me. The discomfort prompted me to sit up and a small twinge of pain made me gasp and freeze. I reached back with one hand and ran my fingers gingerly across my back. I felt scars and even thought that my spine felt odd, like the vertebrae didn’t match up exactly right.
I made to stand, and was halfway to my feet when a man appeared at the door, startling me back to the ground. I hissed as I hit the earth and he raised his hands as if to calm me. His face was so very odd, the same face I had seen when he had saved me from an early grave.
He spoke, although his wavering, fanged mouth didn’t move. “Don’t go and screw up that back again. I don’t look forward to fixing it no more.”
I didn’t know when I had last spoken loudly. It must have been eons ago. My throat felt like it had been used as a furnace when I said, “You fixed my back? It was broken, wasn’t it?” Oh yeah, that hurt. I swallowed what little spit I had to wet my throat.
“Shattered to pieces. That’s the kind of shit that happens to people who roll down big hills.”
“How did you fix it? And what is wrong with your face?”
I sat up and felt my back again. Those bones weren’t right.
“Nothing is wrong with it. See.” He grabbed his face and peeled it away. Only then did I realize that he had been wearing a decorative mask. “And I didn’t do too much. I put the bones back where they should have been, then stitched you back up.”
His skin was dark, long grey hair twisting from his scalp and brow. His eyes were set deep in his head and riddled with red veins, wizened pools that spoke of countless years of experience. A scraggly beard sprouted from his face adding to him an air of wildness.
“Are there others here who helped performed the surgery to fix me? I’m not sure how I ended up on top of that hill in the forest, or even where here is. Maybe they know, or you even? I just … something is wrong with me.”
“Just me and I don’t know nothing. You made one hell of a ruckus and I came to check it out. Found you floundering for air beneath the forest. Figured I’d help you out.”
Thoughts, unbidden flooded my mind. I saw white halls lit by florescent lights, clear and sterile. My vision slid through them until I was tucked away in a room with a bed and little else that stood out beside some brightly colored cards on a stand and flowers on the sill of the window. There was a man lying in the bed in obvious disrepair, but then there were others coming and going. I wasn’t sure which one I was, nor was I allowed the time to comprehend it all. The images flitted away and I was silent for a moment, staring at the strange dark man before me, frustrated at my inability to understand what my memories meant.
“Is this a hospital?” I raised my arms and inspected them. “I don’t see any IVs or nurses. How did you keep me alive this whole time? I broke my back and it’s healed now; that must have taken weeks. I’ve been asleep for that long!”
A blank stare greeted me. “What are you blathering about? Bunch of nonsense.”
“I have these memories. Some of this feels familiar. I’m just trying to make connections. To make this make sense to me somehow. To figure who the hell I am and what I’m doing here.”
The man waved his hand and said, “Come on. You’re making me feel senile.” He ducked out of the hut, dismissing my investigation. Apparently he knew that I hadn’t started getting up yet since he yelled, “Come on!”
I scrambled up to my feet, using the rickety bamboo walls as support. I took a step and found that my back pinched, causing me to hitch the side, nearly tripping me. Certainly there’d be a surgeon to explain this all to me, and others to rehabilitate me further. Somehow I was sure I had dealt with a situation similar to this, and the next steps in the process I already knew. Broken memories lay at the edge of my mind, stuck in a brainfog that I couldn’t pierce no matter how hard I tried, providing me with only enough information to get by. I stumbled from the hut and ended up outside in a terribly bright place.
I shielded my eyes and squinted at what I thought was the black man. His voice came from my side though and I realized I was staring at a tree. I shambled away from it in horror, sure that it was going to try taking my head off.
“Bright, bright, bright. All those stars out and the suns being so big. Can’t see a damn thing sometimes. Here.” Hands stopped me and he said, “Stop your dancing. It can’t get you here.”
A shawl covered me, draping from my head and blocking most of the light. The scratchy fabric smelled musty and old, as though it had been tossed into the corner of a closet and left to stand guard over the dust bunnies and mites that passed through for a century. I was able to make so many connections without recalling with clarity my experiences in life. Some malady certainly ailed me. I only hoped that something would provide me with a cure soon.
The light spearing into my eyes dimmed enough so that I could find the man who’d save me and asked, “So what is this place?”
The black man, now behind his mask, said, “Kid, I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Again, I just saved you, that’s it. How about you try to ask questions that make sense?”
“I don’t know how to! I have these broken memories that don’t tell me who I am. I was just in that forest all of a sudden. There was a light that I was going toward but then it left. The trees and grass attacked me. I rolled down the hill. Then you found me. I don’t know my name, how old I am, where I was before, and I don’t understand why! That’s why I can’t make any sense; none of this makes any sense to me.”
He was silent for a while, the mask staring at me somehow making me feel as though I was insane. Finally, he said, “Well, crazier things have happened I guess. Maybe you aren’t even from here. Your clothes look normal, though. To me at least. I’ve been here longer than I can remember.”
How could he be so uninterested in my not having a memory? Of me just appearing in that terrible forest?
“What do I do?”
“How am I supposed to know that?”
I sure as hell didn’t know. Someone should have known. Why not this man? Why not me?
“You fixed my back. How?”
“You really don’t know anything about this place? You must have hit one of those trees a lot harder than I thought.”
“No. I’m telling you, I remember all that. I was in the forest, no idea who I was or how I got there.”
“This world used to be a little different. The trees and grass and bushes didn’t attack everything like they do now. I was young then. Anyhow, there used to be something called night. We don’t have that anymore. Night is when the skies get dark and –”
“I know what night is. The Earth spins and is half in the sun and the other half under the moon. I got it. Is this Earth?”
Again, he was silent, just staring at me, accusations in his thoughts, I think. “Stop interrupting with that nonsense. I don’t know what Earth is.”
Maps of a globe formed in my head, half complete. Text slithered across the green and blue flashes in my head, nothing sticking or ringing any bells. I nearly screamed out in frustration.
He continued, “Anyway, one of the suns is always out. There’s a bunch of stars up there too that shine real bright. And … Yeah.” He popped his shoulders up, signifying that there was nothing more to say.
Earth I felt a connection with. That name had unlocked a fragment. It was obvious that I was not there but rather on a completely separate planet.
“Don’t you have more to tell me? You still haven’t explained how you healed me.”
“Oh right. With this.” He turned, marched toward the hut, then scooped a metal rod from the ground. Now that my eyes had adjusted and I could see a little farther without having to squint, I saw that we were on a flat of land without any vegetation. Dirt, red and sometimes in clumps, extended in all directions for at least fifty feet. Beyond that though, that living forest stood, crowding the edges of the empty patch, creating an almost impenetrable wall.
He pointed the rod to the sky and a blue jet came from its top. The blue stream was odd. It didn’t look like fire, but what else could it be? There must be a fuel source inside that combusted and caused blue fire to come from it. Indifferently, he slid his hand through it and seemed fine. The blue stopped. Then he walked to edge of the clearing.
The trees and grass seemed to lean toward him, but they wouldn’t cross over to the clearing. He pointed the rod at the trees and fire leapt from it. It wasn’t the smooth, blue jet, but instead a wide gout of crackling, orange fire. The vegetation scurried away, a loud racket coming from the ripping and shuffling roots.
The flame was a cone only five feet wide, but the clearing it created was twenty feet around.
He turned back to me as if all my questions should now be answered. He held the rod out toward me to show it off.
“That fixed my back?”
“It restores the order of things.”
“What does that mean?”
“Exactly what I said. That’s all I know about it. It just does that. It fixed your back. It pushes the things that try to kill us away.”
“Why won’t the trees come after us? They make a perfect circle around here.” The trees and grass had begun inching back to their place.
“This is sacred ground. That’s why your back healed so quickly and the gash on your forehead isn’t there any longer. The rod put everything back. You wouldn’t be standing so soon, or maybe even at all, if not for this place. It isn’t done quite yet, but even if you leave now it will continue to heal until your back is good as new.”
“Sacred to who?”
I knew that word. Visions of crosses and men with comforting, albeit sad, smiles came to mind.
“If you were me, what would you do?” I felt lost and scared, partially because I feared the answer that would come from him.
“You don’t belong here, kid. I’ve done all I can to help. I believe you’d do best to go to God. I’ll give you this stick.” I expected the rod, but he scooped a piece of bamboo from the ground and handed that to me. It was sturdy and I could lean on it. “And this.” He fumbled with a pouch at his hip and came back with an orange flake.
The material was thin and papery. I took it gently for fear that even the slightest pinch would crumble it. “Thank you, I guess. So, what do I do with this?”
“Eat it. It’s a piece of a star.”
I began to retort but stopped when I realized that I would probably be asking questions that would only irritate him. I popped the flake into my mouth and it fizzled on my tongue. I swallowed it and a small explosion happened inside me. The flake combusted within me causing a flash of heat to extend from my throat and to the tips of my limbs instantly. The heat disappeared and everything around me wavered as if the air before my eyes rippled as it might on a scorching day.
“What does this do exactly?” I asked.
“To others, you’ll feel warm to the touch. To the forest, it’ll be like you lit yourself on fire. For whatever reason, the stardust tricks it into leaving us alone, but only for a time.”
Remnants of what it meant to show gratitude for what one received was the only blockade between me nodding silently and begging him for more. Hell, had he been holding a chunk of this stuff I can’t say I wouldn’t have tried to take it by force. It wasn’t just me in this mess though. Perhaps there would be others who would need his help and the stardust he offered. I simply dipped my head in acknowledgement.
“You should go. There are things out there that might help. People and whatnot that could help you figure out who you are. Follow the path. It’ll take you for a long journey. At its end is God.”
“What path?” I asked.
But the man used his rod to jab my side, causing me to hop away and stumble a few steps. The bamboo kept me up and I eventually found my balance. I heard roots tearing and stomping. I looked around and saw that I was standing amidst the forest, now receded to thirty feet from me. I looked down and saw a path of old stones, about as wide as my foot lengthwise.
“I don’t know what I’m doing. Or where I’m going.”
“I told you that already. If you reach the end of the path, you’ll meet a friend of mine. She’ll help. If you make it that far, God will be within reach. It’ll be up to you what to do from there. I don’t see another option for you.”
“So I’m just supposed to leave?”
“Well staying here isn’t going to do you any good. We can pussyfoot around all you want and you still won’t have a wink of an idea who you are. I believe everything you’re saying. You don’t seem like a nut. Maybe you are from some other place. You have a journey to go on. Better start now. Especially since that stardust won’t last forever.”
I looked to the flora around me. It wasn’t getting any closer at this moment. The thought that it would start inching in on me was terrifying. I had to get through this journey before that happened.
“Before I go, what is your name?”
The black man removed his mask and said, “Morissette. Once that stardust runs out, you better find yourself some fire. And don’t think that’s the only thing you have to worry about. You’re going to run into a lot of shit after this.”
I thanked Morissette. That kind of blunt truth was welcome. I understood that and it gave me a clear goal. I turned and began my journey along this terribly narrow path.