And surely of all the stars that perished
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is –
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city…
- Rainer Maria Rilke, “Lamentations”
One night, as I lay by the glowing embers of our campfire, I looked at the sky. In the west I saw a star glimmering brighter and more distinctly than those around it. To this day I don’t know what it was that made me stand, but I did. Leaving my companions sleeping around the fire, I began walking towards that star. As if obeying some unspoken command, I headed in its direction, leaving behind my gear, my food, my friends.
The forest was dark, and at times I lost sight of the star. But when it disappeared behind the trees’ canopy, I always knew which way to go. It was as though the star weren’t in the sky at all, but shining somewhere within me. At the top of every hill, I would see it ahead of me in the distance, gleaming just where I had expected it to be.
In the darkness of the forest that night, I stubbed my toes against rocks, bruised my knees against fallen trunks, and felt my arms lashed by thorny branches and my face covered in spider webs. But I kept hiking forward. I didn’t even regret having forgotten to bring my flashlight, so single-minded was my desire to reach the place over which that star stood.
The forest has ever been my friend, its trees my brothers, their leaves my welcome shelter. Now, after everything that has happened, I wonder whether by hindering me that night the forest weren’t trying to protect me from what was to come.
* * * * *
When morning began to pale the sky, I found myself at the edge of a shallow stream. Its clear water ran softly over smooth stones, making a pleasant sound like the tinkle of bells or the sigh of the wind. Kneeling down, I filled my hands with water, and began to clean the webs from my face, and the blood from my arms.
Once my face and arms were clean, I looked up and saw a young woman watching me from where she knelt on the other side of the stream. She had red hair the color of a ripe strawberry and wore a summer dress made of white linen. As I rose to my feet, she stood as well, and when our eyes met she smiled.
“You followed the star?”
I reached back to scratch my neck.
Maybe it was that the sun hadn’t risen over the hills yet, and everything was cast in the soft half-light of dawn. But when I looked at her, her skin seemed to have just the slightest glow, pale and gentle like moonlight.
“You can always tell the ones who followed the star,” she said. “They appear in the mornings, ragged and dirty, looking like the forest had spent the whole night chewing on them and had just now spit them out.”
Perhaps it was that I hadn’t slept during the night, but there was something about her voice, some magic quality that made me listen intently every time she spoke. It was as though I had never heard a human voice before and so had never known of language nor its power until she had spoken to me.
“Come along, then,” she said, extending her hand.
“Where,” I asked.
She smiled again, a little smile that in spite of its diminutive size animated her entire face.
“To where the star was leading you.”
Again that feeling which had made me leave the others sleeping by the fire arose, and I began to walk towards her through the stream. It was a powerfully vast feeling which overcame my will. I felt insignificant in the face of it, and was surprised that I had never noticed it before, this great emotion. In what depth of my heart had it lain hidden, I wondered, waiting for just such a moment as this to awaken and carry me along with it?
The stream was so shallow that its water didn’t even soak my boots, only gathered around their soles before flowing on downstream. When I took her by the hand, again I was struck by her seemingly magical nature. There was nothing special about her hand; it was somewhat smaller than my own, with fingers somewhat more slender. But when I held it, I felt as though every other hand I’d ever held had only been in preparation for this moment.
“Where are we going,” I asked her again.
Again she smiled.
“To where the star was leading you, to the White City.”
* * * * *
We walked together, hand in hand, across a forested valley. Shafts of sunlight fell through the canopy, illuminating grassy clearings where little wildflowers grew. The air was cool and sweet with the scent of greenery.
At one point I noticed how filthy I was, that my shirt and shorts were smeared with dirt, and I became self-conscious. So, to keep her from thinking poorly of me, I began to tell her stories about myself, that I was a traveller from a faraway land, the son of a wealthy and powerful man, a young noble who had left his home in search of his own fame and fortune.
Which is to say that I told her only the most flattering parts of my personal history, to compensate for my ragged appearance. In response she told me stories about herself, that she too was the daughter of a noble family, as well as the most celebrated inhabitant of the White City. Yet, as I listened to her speak, I sensed in all of her tales the suggestion of tragedy.
It was as though she had brought me to the edge of a tranquil pond, beneath the surface of which lay a dead body. The only clue I had to this being the case was the faint scent of decomposition that rose from the water.
Now I see I should have been more cautious then, but my road had been a difficult one, and my weariness had weakened me.
I had been only too happy to leave behind my friends, to take her hand and walk with her here.
* * * * *
“What is the White City?”
It had already become a pattern of interaction between us. My hesitancy, overwhelmed by whatever passion had brought me to this point, would become a curiosity to know my fate. This would lead me to ask her a question. In turn, she would preface her answer with a smile, one tender, joyous, and loving, which I never failed to sense as somehow ominous.
“It’s a place where everyone is welcome.”
It was as if she knew everything I did not about my current situation.
It was as though she had known it all from the very beginning, perhaps even before I had appeared.
* * * * *
Leaving the forest, we came to the top of a small hill. Before us spread a wide field that ended at the walls of a city unlike any I had encountered.
The sun was fully risen now, so I could see this was no trick of the light. Neither could I attribute what I beheld to sleep deprivation, because I could tell by how her eyes lit up that she was seeing the same thing.
Pristine white walls built of seamless stone enclosed a small town of white buildings, each elegantly constructed with ornate windows and inviting balconies. It was like something only Antonin Gaudí could have imagined, and then only in his wildest dreams. As we approached, I saw the stone was semi-transparent in parts, and that within it glowed pulses of soft-pink-and-blue light.
She led me by the hand through the open gates and onto a narrow cobblestone street. A soothing breeze moved through the White City, carrying with it scents of newly baked bread, fresh produce, and an intoxicating mix of incense, spices, and dried herbs.
The people who passed were all wearing white, but their clothes were cut in contemporary styles. For a moment I became disoriented. Despite the dream-like nature of this experience, I suddenly felt I was in a rural village in southern Spain.
My timidity in front of such well-attired people vanished when I noticed the deference with which they greeted my companion, and how that deference extended to me in the form of small, knowing smiles.
She took me down a side street, and we stopped at the door of a white house. Once inside, I removed my boots in the hall. Then she led me within, past white rooms with big windows all well-lit by natural light, to the bathroom.
Sunken in the center of the floor was a large marble tub. It had two golden faucets, the handle of one of which she turned, causing steaming water to pour out. First she removed my clothes, and then she took off her own and led me into the water.
Perhaps it’s my sentimentality that distinguishes me from other men. Maybe at this point in the story they would tell you how she looked with her clothes off, how her naked body glistened in the water, still seeming to possess faintly that luminous quality I had first noticed by the stream.
Yet what caught my attention wasn’t her physical beauty, but how she touched me. In how gently she lowered me into the water, and in how tenderly she removed the dirt of the forest from my hair and skin, I sensed a boundless affection, nurturing and merciful, which I was only too happy to accept.
Here a man possessed of a more discerning spirit might have begun to wonder who this woman was, and why she had taken in a stranger in the fashion that she had with me. Such an astute mind would have doubtlessly gone on to consider whether he were the first to receive such treatment, and if not, then what had happened to those who had come before him.
But sentimentality is my weakness. When things feel right, when they feel good and seem to be going as they should, then, discarding reason, I stop questioning my circumstances.
Which is why, taking her in my arms, I laid her on the edge of the tub and made love to her.
* * * * *
The air of the White City was narcotic.
It flowed through the streets and over the rooftops, entering the second-floor window of her bedroom as a soft breeze.
We lay together on her bed, holding one another as we breathed deeply, having just made love for the second time. Already an image of the future was forming in my mind, one in which I stayed in this city, stayed with her. So enchanted was I by this vision that I ignored the thought of my friends, not even considering that they might be searching for me through the forest at that very moment.
We became hungry, and decided to walk to a nearby restaurant. She gave me a white shirt and a pair of trousers, which fit me very well, along with a pair of comfortable white shoes with soles made of cord.
As we walked down the street together, again hand in hand, I felt a bliss growing in me with every breath I took. It was as though my soul had become a reflection of the city, a joyous, semi-transparent white colored by bursts of passion and surges of contentment.
She took me to a café whose open windows looked onto the main plaza of the White City. The walls within were white, the furniture and furnishings built of white spruce. The tables were set with white table-clothes, porcelain bowls and plates, and cutlery of the palest steel.
The effect was somewhat disturbing, but the blue sky outside, and the golden sunlight that warmed the plaza, helped to ground me in the reality of my situation. I did nothing more than glance at the park in the plaza’s center, whose grasses, ferns, and trees were at best just barely pale-green.
As we ate, I had a chance to become better acquainted with the White City’s inhabitants. They sat around us, fashionably dressed in their white clothing, and conversed in low voices as they ate. From what I could overhear, their talk ranged from domestic matters to questions of social justice, moving from one end of this spectrum to the other with remarkable grace.
But deeper than this no conversation went.
And, I noticed while watching a young couple soothe a crying child, their universal response to stress was to address it with a nurturing consideration, one without a trace of severity.
As I observed these parents caressing their unhappy child, I realized the toddler’s cries were entirely plaintive, lacking even a droplet of that indignation I had grown used to hearing in children of this age, who, having come to see their parents as some sort of gods, blame them for every unpleasant occurrence not under their child’s own limited control.
Strangely, my conversation with my companion followed the same lines as those that were happening around me. She told me about the White City, how all those who appeared at its gates were welcome to enter and make their lives here. My heart swelled at this; something in the way she looked at me as she spoke led me to believe she was suggesting I could do the same.
It was an easy place to live, she went on, where people were free to do as they pleased, and where any snag in the social fabric was smoothed with what seemed to me like the elements of an ideal method for conflict resolution: love, understanding, and good will.
* * * * *
There was a moment when I leaned back in my chair, setting my fork on my plate and lowering my eyes. I had found my home, I decided, taking a long breath.
For so many years my friends and I had travelled, each of us searching for a place to call his own.
But today I had finally found mine.
In my heart a great whirl of emotion was occurring as the passions within me created a huge edifice. It was a soaring structure made of shimmering rooms, each of which contained one of my now-rosy future’s many enchanting possibilities.
Which is to say that I was doing what’s known colloquially as “building castles in the clouds.”
Taking her hand, I left the café with my companion and walked along the streets of the White City. As we went, she told me the names of the little businesses we passed, which were usually found on the first floor of a two-story home.
She would also, as we walked, entertain me with brief episodes from the lives of the storeowners. Although each story centered around the somewhat scandalous character of the proprietor in question, her tone was never reproving. In fact, she seemed to find these little tales of bad behavior charming, like one may view the actions of mischievous children.
She took me up a stairway that rose along a small hill near the northern end of the city. Atop it sat the building that housed the White City’s administration, a low, one-story structure with broad windows, dark as though no one were inside at this late afternoon hour.
But it was not this building that caught my eye. Rather, it was the giant tree that grew from the top of the hill, towering before my companion and I, and hiding from my view most of the White City’s house of government.
It was a great tree, unlike any I had ever seen. Its thick trunk rose forty feet in the air before separating into a tangle of slender, leafless branches. As we walked around the tree, I marveled at its white color, much like a sycamore or aspen’s, but without the imperfections that mar the bark of those trees. Many of its roots were above ground, forming a winding maze that we had to be careful to step over to avoid tripping. I climbed over a few of the larger roots, and then waited on the other side for my companion to stroll around them.
When we had walked full circle around the tree, we came to a stop, and she pointed out a strange growth on the bark of its trunk. The formation was large and round, and as I looked at it, I saw it appeared to be some sort of sculpture.
The living trunk of the tree, I realized, had somehow been shaped into the circular image of two lovers entwined in one another’s arms. Observing it closely, I noticed their faces almost seemed to merge as they kissed.
The ghost of a memory arose in my mind, recalling that I had seen just such an image many years before, when as a teenager I had poured over ancient alchemical texts in search of esoteric wisdom. But as quickly as it had come, this memory was gone.
I stood there looking at the image of the couple, uncaring of what insight the fleeting memory might have brought me. Something about the strange growth on the white bark of this great tree resonated deeply within me, causing a squirming in my abdomen and a faint tingling throughout my body.
* * * * *
While I stood before the tree, as though hypnotized by the image upon it, a clangor of bells resounded in the air, appearing to originate from the city’s gate in the south.
My companion squeezed my hand, causing me to look at her momentarily.
“A new visitor has arrived,” she told me, her voice happy and excited.
Feeling dazed, I turned back to look at the image of the couple.
“Will you come with me to greet him?”
I shook my head.
“No, I’ll wait for you here.”
She turned away from me, letting go of my hand. Then she began to walk quickly towards the southern gate, towards the ringing of the bells.
* * * * *
I remained where I was, unmoving but for the rise and fall of my chest as I breathed. Within me though was a frenzy of activity.
My abdomen seemed to twitch as I stared at the tree trunk, like every neuron in my enteric nervous system were firing off at once. An airiness filled my chest, making my torso feel broad and expansive, as my heart swelled with emotion.
Yet my mind was entirely blank, appearing to have emptied itself so the figures on the tree could inhabit it completely.
The image of the lovers was surely profound, but as I looked at it, instead of contemplating its profundity, I couldn’t help but overlay on the couple depicted there the images of my companion and I.
In my imagination our figures underwent a series of permutations. First I saw us walking hand-in-hand through the streets of the White City. Then we were spending our afternoons together at the park in the plaza’s center.
A flurry of visions portraying domestic bliss followed, ending in the birth of my first child.
At this point I snapped out of my trance. Looking around, I seemed to notice for the first time that my companion had left. I turned back to the tree, but the image of the lovers no longer had any effect on me.
* * * * *
The sun was setting in the west, turning the walls of the city tangerine.
“… to greet him,” I murmured, immediately recalling everything she’d said to me before leaving.
Suddenly I felt as though the organs in my abdomen were sinking, and that all of the blood in my body was spilling into my legs and pooling at my feet.
Just as quickly as I had seen the chance of a future here flash through my mind, now I envisioned the possibility of it all coming to an end. I saw her going to the gate to greet another traveller and taking the same care with him that she had with me, giving all of herself to him.
My shoulders began to slouch and my head to hang as my body slumped forward. But at the very same moment that I felt myself falling towards the ground, desperation awoke in me.
Seeing everything I’d dreamed of having here suddenly threatened by this newcomer, this stranger, this unwelcome man, I felt myself become savage. Fury surged within me, filling my mind with violent fantasies.
I heaved myself upward, away from the ground, and twisted toward the gate.
But when I tried to move my feet in the gate’s direction, I found they were stuck in the ground. Looking down, I saw the roots of the tree had wrapped themselves around my ankles. I knelt and tried to pull them off, with both hands fumbling as they attempted to grip the roots. But the roots were strong and solid, and seemed unwilling to let me go.
I threw myself upwards, trying desperately to rip myself free. But the roots held firm; all my lunging managed to do was cause a sharp pain in my knees. I sat back, resting my head in my hands, and pressing my eyes into them to block out the images that were dancing through my mind. I saw her taking him by the hand and leading him through the gates of the city, down its streets, to her home.
I grit my teeth, wincing as agony tightened my abdomen.
* * * * *
There was a point when the agony lessened that I opened my eyes and looked around.
“But why should I care so much about someone I’ve only just met?” I thought.
I knew the freedom from suffering this question granted would be temporary, that soon my emotions would provide an answer to legitimate their torment. But I accepted the respite it offered, knowing even a few moments of clarity might go a long way.
What I saw when I looked around shocked me so completely that I forgot my agony entirely. The city was turning black.
At first I thought it was an effect of the fading light, that the sun had set and now the evening’s shadows were darkening the city. But its street lamps showed me I was wrong.
Darkness was spreading through the White City – not upon it, but inside the very stones of its buildings.
The blue and pink undertones that had once glowed within the walls had now become vibrant green and yellow. They cast the city in their eerie light, outshining the street lamps, and giving the people I saw a ghoulish pallor.
I watched the inhabitants of the White City with horror. They were no longer the mischievous children my companion had described.
Now the vintner, known by all to slightly water down his wine, was flinging buckets of sewage from his second-floor window onto those passing below. The grocer, alleged to charge a few cents over the fair price of produce, had taken to robbing his customers outright by holding a knife to their throats and demanding their money. And the seamstress, famous for starting arguments with her husband over nothing, had chased this unfortunate man into the street, where he cowered while she beat him over the head with a wooden spindle.
As the darkness moved towards the outer walls of the city, the night air filled with cries, howls, and screams. Watching it spread, I began to wonder where it had come from.
I followed the darkness as it deepened, until my eyes came to rest on the tree before me. Its trunk and branches were midnight black, illuminated by writhing strands of green and yellow light.
As a peal of maniacal laughter rose from the city below, my insides trembled, and I sank to the ground. Feeling trapped, vulnerable, and frightened by the city’s sudden transformation, I took my head in my hands. Waves of stress began to ripple through me, and as I looked down at the ground, I felt my hold on reality weakening.
It was at this moment I realized the roots around my feet were darker than any other part of the city, so dark they seemed to embody the absence of light itself. The darkness, then, was coming from me.
I stood to my feet, growing more disoriented as my mind tried to comprehend my situation.
Around me I heard the groans of the city’s inhabitants.
To the west, it seemed a house had been set on fire. Its flames coiled high into the night air.
* * * * *
At the sound of a quick, decisive step, I turned to the stairs and saw my companion walking towards me. Except now her hair wasn’t short and red. Now it was black and flowing, and her summer dress had become a long white robe. In keeping with this startling transformation, her skin was no longer faintly luminous. Now it was a radiant white, deathly pale like the moon.
She looked into my eyes as she approached me, her gaze hard and her face grim. Her fists were clenched at either side of her hips, and in one of them I saw a knife.
Holding out my left hand to stop her advance, I placed the other on my forehead, trying to calm the growing stress I felt destabilizing my mind. The knife she held looked so familiar. Was it mine, I wondered. Did I bring it with me here? Did I even own one?
As I watched her draw nearer, my eyes fixated on the knife, entranced by it. The blade was solid steel, perfectly shaped and very sharp.
Even though I knew she was coming to cut me with it, to kill me and so stop the darkness that was poisoning her city, a part of me wanted to be stabbed. As though the knife were a missing piece of my being, a part of me wanted her to ram its blade into me, returning it to its proper place.
But when she was only a few steps away, and I could see clearly the white light crackling around her and the flatness of her dark eyes as they glared at me, another part of my being awoke. This more animal part tossed aside my mystical fascination with the knife and filled me with a primal terror.
I was about to die.
A tremendous fear of death, working alongside a desperate desire to live, animated my entire body.
I lunged forward one more time and felt my feet break free of the roots. My companion slashed at me with the knife, but I stumbled out of its way and then went running down the stairs.
* * * * *
I ran until the cries of the city were far behind me. I ran until my lungs burned and my legs ached. When I reached the stream, I fell to my knees and trembled at its edge. Already the memories of what I had seen in the White City haunted me.
But below these horrible images lurked a deeper trauma. I had loved someone, and she had betrayed me. I had found a life of my own, and it had been taken from me.
My body began to shudder. I curled into a ball, gritting my teeth to prevent the moans that were rising up my throat from escaping through my mouth.
Now fantasies began to appear in my mind, each offering a way out of my current misery. I could find a deep part of the stream and drown myself in it. I could hang myself from a tree using either my shirt or my pants. At this thought I tore the clothes that she had given me from my body and threw them downstream.
Then I stood there, naked at the edge of the water, and groaned as the memories of the city and the facts of my betrayal came back to me. Exhausted and sick with stress, I began to pick through the stones at my feet, looking for a rock sharp enough to cut the veins of my wrists.
Finding one, I took it in my hand, extending my other wrist before its sharp edge.
I no longer knew why I was trembling. It could have been the stress, or it might have been the night’s cold. But as I stood before the water’s edge, ready to spill my own blood and end this long series of torments I had come to call my life, my body stilled, and my mind emptied of all thoughts.
Walking towards me through the air several feet above the stream, I saw my mother. Or at least I thought it was my mother. The figure approaching me had her gentle smile, her loving gestures, and her maternal grace. But my mother could not fly through the air; and she was a woman of flesh and blood, not, like this creature, made of some fine golden netting that emitted a sunny haze.
It descended to where I stood and took my face in its hands. With a tenderness I could not remember ever having experienced, it tilted my head so my eyes stared up into its own. Except now when I try to remember what it looked like, all I recall is a featureless face shining like the sun.
It spoke to me as it held me there, telling me to let go of my vain hopes and move beyond my grim fatalism. Its words lifted me up, momentarily freeing me from both my overly merciful expectations and my excessively severe fantasies – while giving me a glimpse of something more, of something far beyond them.
“It does not matter,” it told me gently, its voice soft and calm, seeming to come from somewhere outside of time, “if the present is free of the suffering that came before it, or if it follows perfectly the patterns of torment that animate your past. All that matters is that you stay true to how you feel.”
The figure let go of my face. As it did, I felt the images of what I had seen in the city lose their horror, and the memories of my betrayal shed their agony, while the thoughts of suicide faded from my mind.
The stress was still there, trembling throughout me, but I knew it would no longer grow, and that soon it would be gone.
I was a broken man, sick from everything I had experienced, but the threat of what I had been through was now diminished.
* * * * *
Holding my head in both hands, I blindly stumbled across the gravelly streambed. I clawed myself up the muddy bank on the other side, and then entered the dark forest.
Behind me the stream’s opposite shore was empty, the golden figure having vanished. Ahead, somewhere among the tree-covered hills, my friends were waiting for me around our campfire.
Or at least I hoped they were.
I made my way through the forest, holding my hands before me now to avoid walking into a tree or a bush. Several times thorny branches lashed my skin. Twice I fell, my feet slipping on the muddy leaves of the forest floor.
But I continued onward, hiking deeper into the hills, even though this time no passion guided my steps. One half of me was pushed forward by the fear that my former companion might be following my trail, knife in hand to finish the job she had started in the White City. The other half had wildly placed its faith in sheer luck to bring me back to my friends.
It was a few hours after midnight when I saw our fire glowing dimly ahead of me through the trees. As I stepped into the clearing where we had made camp, I saw my friends laid out around the fire, asleep in their sleeping bags.
My approach woke Charlie, who sat up and cried out when he saw me, waking the others. At the sight of my naked, dirty, bleeding body, Hank started cussing. Steve let out a surprised laugh, which a look from Charlie cut short.
The first thing they did was have me stand below the solar shower and clean myself off. It was a large rubber bag filled with water from a nearby spring and hung from the branch of a tree, which was supposed to heat in the sun and provide a hot shower.
But the sun had been down for several hours now, so the water that fell on me was freezing cold.
When I finished, Charlie gave me a towel and some clothes from my pack. I put them on and then wrapped my sleeping bag around myself to stop my shivering.
* * * * *
“What happened,” Steve asked as he handed me a cup of tea. Its water was steaming, the kettle having been placed on the fire shortly after I appeared.
As we sat around the campfire, each of my friends looked at me with the same expression. On the surface they were concerned, but underneath this they were troubled. I held the cup to my mouth, though my tea was still too hot to drink, in an attempt to shield myself from their scrutiny.
But suddenly the memories of what I’d lived through over the past twenty-four hours flooded my mind. I began to tell them everything, from the star I had seen last night, to the golden figure at the stream. I told them about the White City, and how it had turned black; I told them about my companion and how she had betrayed me.
Then, setting aside my cup of tea, and in front of all my closest friends, I began to cry.
As I did, I could feel my friends watching me, and guessed their thoughts. The story was too fantastic to have actually happened. Charlie especially, who worked as an aide in a psychiatric hospital, would recognize it as a psychotic episode.
Out of all of us I was known as the least stable personality. But none of us would’ve expected me to do something like this.
I asked Hank for a cigarette, and Charlie and Steve shared a look. We had come on this trip to get clean, thinking two weeks in nature would give us the distance we needed from drugs and alcohol to be able to quit them.
But Hank had made things difficult by bringing along a carton of cigarettes. And now I had run off in the middle of the night, returning naked, dirty, and bleeding.
Hank gave me an entire pack. I immediately pulled a cigarette out and lit it.
My hands trembled as I took a drag, the residual stress from my experience permeating me.
I knew what my friends were thinking. The withdrawal had been too much for me, and had made me flip out. And, this thought had crossed their minds, I was sure, the content of my hallucination was probably a product of past traumas that I still hadn’t found the strength to deal with.
* * * * *
Once I had assured them I wouldn’t be running off again, my friends began to go to sleep. First Steve laid his head down, and then Charlie. Hank tried to join me for a cigarette, but he fell asleep before finishing it.
It dropped from his hand and landed on the ground, where the coal at its tip slowly dimmed.
As I watched its light fade, I remembered the White City, and looked up into the sky above me. My eyes scanned the stars, but they couldn’t find one shining brighter than the others.
So I put out my cigarette, and laid down to rest.