This story has been in the works for many months, now. It was a nascent story when I mentioned it here. I've thought about it often but it's been incredibly hard to finish because I began it on the night you almost suffocated. On the night I thought you were gone. I wanted to somehow capture all of the terrible things I felt that night, but also the joy of having known you for those short 6 weeks. I remember looking at you in your isolette after you'd turned all of those deathly shades. That little body, within which appeared only the tiniest spark of life. I felt like it could, and would, disappear at any moment. It felt like the final grains of sand in an hour glass were trickling out.
I remember how I searched my mind. Like if I thought hard enough, I could find some place outside of time where I could nestle those last moments with you. Like I could make or find some tiny space where that moment could live forever.
Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim
The moon was a tiny sliver in the night sky. The barrier between worlds grew weak. Elsa and Fredrick set off to the place where time itself was tattered. In search of the immortals.
“It’s only a story Elsa. A good story, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be taken seriously,” Fredrick said as they made their way from town. He kicked a rock free from the cobblestone road. Elsa looked back at the boy, still wobbly on his feet since she’d hauled him from his bed in the dead of night. She could have made the journey alone. She was the braver of the two, after all. And, well, if not braver, than at least more ambitious.
“It wasn’t just a tall tale. My grandpa believed it,” Elsa said, her voice lightly seasoned with resentment at her friend’s doubt. “He was an astronomer at Occitan! If anyone were to tell the truth about something like this, it would be him. He would have gone with us if he were still alive.”
“I’d like his stories to be true, too. No one enjoyed them more than me. But even if they were true, what would we do once we got there?”
Elsa rolled her eyes, “Oh, I don’t know, what would we do if we met an immortal? We wouldn’t ask him the secret of eternal life, would we?”
“Do you really think it would be that simple? That we’d march in, grab the secrets of eternal life, then be back in bed by sun up?”
Elsa threw up her hands.
“Who knows, Fredrick, but isn’t it worth trying? Think about it. Immortality. Imagine what you could do in a thousand lifetimes! We would be famous in all the world!”
At first, Fredrick didn’t reply. Instead, he stopped. Sat down. The light from the town’s streetlamps were pale in the distance. He looked up at the sky. At the planets. He compared them to the night before and the night before that and the night before that. He saw them, as though sped up a thousand times, looping about in slow motion epicycles.
He looked up at Elsa and wondered aloud: “Do you think that maybe one lifetime is enough to live?”
Elsa wrinkled her nose as though smelling something unpleasant, “What a silly thing to say, Fredrick. Of course it isn’t. Why wouldn’t you want more years to live?”
Fredrick rolled over to a smoother patch of grass.
“What are you doing?” Elsa asked. “Why are you laying there? You can’t be tired already.”
“I’m enjoying the moment. Admiring the stars,” he replied.
Elsa opened her mouth to admonish him again, but stopped short. Instead, she watched him. Admired him, perhaps, in the same way that he admired the stars. Something stirred in her and for a moment, it was so easy to imagine herself lying down beside him, both looking up; lying beside the boy that all the townsfolk joked she’d one day marry.
“So different you are, but so inseparable!” they would all say, and then Elsa would deny that any affection existed between the pair. But what did it mean that she always found herself hauling Fredrick out of bed in the dead of night to go on some adventure? Why was it that she always wanted to do everything with him? Her heart fluttered.
But then she saw the light of the moon, even smaller than before. She remembered their mission. They didn’t have time for these kinds of distractions. Soon, the moon would be swallowed entirely and they’d lose their chance. She shook her head at her companion’s delays.
“Oh Fredrick, you simpleton. Don’t you get it? Here you are sitting around admiring one moment while a hundred others pass you by.”
Elsa lit her lantern, smudging out the twinkling pin pricks of light up above.
“Come on,” she said. “Tonight, we’re going to meet the immortals. We’ll have plenty of time to look at the stars, then.”
Fredrick measured her words carefully, nodded, then stood up. They moved onward, the light from the lantern casting their long shadows out upon the road behind them. Eventually, the cobblestones came to an end. In the distance ahead of them was a field, and beyond, the silhouette of a tree line in the distance.
They trudged through the grasslands and when they came to the edge of a forest, Fredrick hesitated.
“Elsa, if you think your grandfather was telling the truth about the immortals,” he began, “do you think he was also telling the truth about Fey?”
Elsa halted, one foot frozen in the air.
“Maybe,” she said simply, the confidence in her voice faltering. “Why does it matter?”
“The shadow creatures, Elsa,” Fredrick whispered. “He said that when Fey is close, light will attract them. We have to turn off the lantern.”
For the first time, fissures of worry and uncertainty formed on Elsa face. She turned her head so that Fredrick couldn’t see her expression. Elsa was always keen on the idea of the immortals, but not so much on the reason they existed... and all the frightening things which came with it. According to her grandfather’s story, a second world existed atop their own, occupying the same space but out of phase. A world he called Fey. And between their world and Fey was a peculiar place. A bubble between worlds that time skims around, like water around a boulder in a river. Immortals existed in this place, and to speak with them might be to learn the secrets of immortality. This place, her grandfather determined, was deep in the forest. Reaching it could only be done at just the right time when the two worlds were closest. When the moon and stars and planets were all close enough to weaken the barrier between worlds.
“You memorized the instructions from your grandfather’s story, didn’t you?” Fredrick asked. “We’ll have to turn the lantern off once we’re in the forest. It will be too dark to read them from paper.”
Elsa reached into her pocket. Rubbed a parchment between her fingers. It was all too common when they were younger for Elsa to bound away before her grandfather could finish his stories. But Fredrick? He always waited patiently for the tales to conclude, relishing each and every detail.
“Of… of course I do,” Elsa stuttered. “He was my grandfather, after all. But shouldn’t you know, too? You sat around the fire in the town square and listened just as often as I did.”
“I remember,” Fredrick said, giving Elsa a knowing grin. He then recited the instructions from memory. “Walk two thousand paces into the forest, no more, no less. Walk too far and you will enter the world of Fey and be lost. Fail to walk far enough, and the gateway will disappear by the time the moon is black. But beware if you should make the journey, for as readily as you might wander into Fey, the creatures of Fey may wander into our world as well. They will appear to you as shadows, darker than the night. Creatures, like moths, attracted to light.”
The lantern was stiff in Elsa’s hands. Could the creatures of Fey see them now, even if Elsa and Fredrick hadn’t entered the forest yet? The glow from the lantern flickered and licked at the trees. As it spawned shadows, Elsa’s eyes darted after them, wondering whether they were instead creatures of Fey. She wanted to douse the flame, but then imagined the two of them, standing alone on the darkest of nights.
“Are you sure you want to continue, Elsa?” Fredrick asked.
“I…” Elsa trailed off. “Well, I don’t want to make you do this. We can go back if you don’t want to go. If you are afraid.”
Fredrick reached out. Took her hand. Again, her heart fluttered. Perhaps from fear of what lie before them, perhaps from something else.
“I am. And I know you are, too. But that’s okay. I’ll go with you because I know this is important to you,” Fredrick said, then smiled at her in the lantern light. “Besides, I think that maybe the creatures of Fey might be just as afraid as us.”
He took the lantern from her hand and doused it. Then they took the first step forward. And then a second. And a third. Each step, they counted carefully. Keeping track was harder than she first thought. The limbs above them were dimly lit by the sliver of moon, but beneath the canopy was utter darkness. Vines and branches lashed at their faces and legs.
By one hundred steps, they were quickly swallowed by the sounds of the forest. Hooting owls. Chirping insects. Muffled movement in the underbrush. This didn’t frighten Elsa, for these were the sounds of their world.
But then there came a thing. Not a dashing or a sprinting thing. A slow, lumbering thing that moved in such a way that it could only be passing through the dense trees that surrounded them. That Elsa could see it in such darkness was a perversion of her senses. To see it was like seeing a hole. Like seeing a hole bored through color itself. And then it made a sound. A sound like a belch or a groan, but inverted, turned upside down. Hearing it felt like sound was leaving her ear instead of entering. To sense it at all was like having something… pulled from her.
Elsa panicked. She released Fredrick’s hand and covered her ears. Closed her eyes. Squatted on the ground. Waited for the thing to attack her. To haul her back to Fey and be surrounded by such shadows. Yet nothing happened. She wanted to call out Fredrick’s name, but feared that the creatures might hear her. She wanted to reach for his hand, but feared that she might instead grasp one of them.
Was Fredrick trying to call for her, while her ears were covered? Or had he fled the forest in fright? Or was he simply cowering like her?
Once Elsa finally discovered the courage to stand, a hand touched her shoulder. Her hand found Fredrick’s again. At first, their grip was loose. Part of Elsa hoped that Fredrick’s hand would pull her away. Back to the forest’s edge and back to town. Instead, it clenched around hers. Pulled her forward. They continued on.
As they went further--- as 100 steps became 200 and then 500 and then 1000--- more of the creatures began to appear. A dozen holes in Elsa’s senses. The creatures hovered around them. Moved in closer when their backs were turned, only to flee when Elsa looked over her shoulder in the darkness. She began to look behind herself so often that when they had one more pace to go, she barely noticed the vast wall of emptiness that lay ahead of them. A vast pit in existence.
“One last step,” Fredrick whispered. He tried to pull Elsa forward but she resisted. “The moon is almost gone. We don’t have any more time. Elsa, if the Fey creatures exist then the immortals must as well. We’ll go in, ask of their secrets, and then we can go home.”
“We don’t know for sure what’s in there. Maybe my grandfather was wrong. Maybe there are no immortals,” Elsa said, her voice hushed and quivering. “You said that one life was good enough, so why are you pushing me on?”
Fredrick didn’t speak. They stood before the wall of shadow, darker than darkness. Their arms were taught now, caught between Elsa’s dug-in heels and Fredrick’s weight, leaning forward.
Elsa couldn’t see Fredrick, but for a moment his grip loosened, his fingers tenderly wrapped around hers.
“What do you think it will be like for us,” Fredrick said softly, “to be with each other as immortals, forever?”
Elsa’s legs buckled, surprised at hearing his words. His weight pulled them both forward.
Before them, the wall of darkness was no more. Behind them, their own world was gone. They stood amid a glade, surrounded by pines. Above them, the moon was full. Around them, everything shimmered. Danced, almost, like light in the ripples of a pond. The stars twinkled at a strange beat, quickly, then slowly, quickly, then slowly. The full moon did little to drown out their glow. Elsa and Fredrick stood still and silent for a long while, trying hard to comprehend the strangeness of this place. To Elsa, it felt as though she were looking out upon the world from a dream.
The boy and the girl finally turned to face one another. Their cheeks and foreheads were cut and bleeding from their trek through the woods.
“We’re here, we must be. The place between worlds. The place without time.” Elsa said, her expression of daze and disbelief finally melting. Then she looked in her companion’s eyes. Into the eyes of the boy that was made happy by her happiness.
They stood for a moment at the center of the glade, amid a field of flowing grass. Though there was no wind, the blades swayed as though pulled by some current. Even though neither of them knew how much time they had, Elsa took a deep breath. Ran her hand through the grass.
She looked to Fredrick and whispered, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Fredrick smiled. He did the same, then said, “This close to immortality and you’ve stopped to enjoy the moment?”
Elsa smiled back, but her expression turned to alarm as something flitted past them in the grass. It looked like a small animal, only the size of a hare, but its entire body was luminous and blinking. Light, then dark. Light, then dark. It moved like a ribbon blown in the wind. Each time it changed course, it changed color as well. It stopped a few paces ahead of them. Waited for them.
“Is it one of the immortals?” Elsa whispered, not knowing whether she was speaking to Fredrick or the creature.
Neither of them replied.
Elsa took a step toward it. It flitted ahead, further.
Elsa and Fredrick followed.
It took them to a small stream. When it crossed, the creature traveled through the air in small arcs, landing on flat stones, barely above the water line. Elsa and Fredrick retraced its steps, stopping briefly in the middle of the stream to dip their hands in the water and wash their cuts. As the blood left their hands, it swirled about in tiny eddies, hardened, turned to glitter, then flashed: Light, then dark, light, then dark.
The creature took them up a hill to a grove of towering pines, taller than any that Elsa or Fredrick had seen in their own world. Their limbs were broad and twisted; their bark, thick and gnarled like a fingernail that had never been trimmed. Were the trees here immortal as well? When Elsa and Fredrick arrived at the center of the grove, they encountered other creatures waiting for them, their shape in the guise of men and women. They twinkled as well. Light, then dark. Light, then dark.
Fredrick and Elsa looked to one another, unsure of what to say. Amid their silence, one of the creatures spoke in a language they seemed to understand. It twinkled with each syllable.
“You came… from the higher world. The world… of light,” it said. “Some of us… have come from the world of light, also. Some… from the world of dark. In this place, we have all become the same now. Light… and dark. I, like you, once came from light. I am the youngest here... Young enough to remember swift words. Young enough, even… to remember my name from before my crossing… LyreLein… It is easy to forget swift words and one’s name as the ages drift past you... The other immortals speak… but to finish a sentence would take a hundred years.”
Fredrick and Elsa exchanged excited expressions.
“Hello LyreLein,” Elsa said, her tone, reverent. “You must be the immortals. We have come looking for you.”
“Looking… for us?” LyreLein asked. “No one has yet come looking for us. Those you see here… we were all lost when we found this place. Many beings come here by accident. Most must leave… but some stay. What brought you?”
“We have come to learn the secrets,” Elsa said. “We wanted you to teach us the secrets of immortality. We want to become immortal, like you, so that we can be important people when we return to the world of light.”
LyreLein hovered silently. Motionless. He remained that way for minutes. And then, perhaps, for hours. On a number of occasions, Elsa stirred and made a motion as though to address him again, but each time Fredrick gripped her wrist or shoulder gently and put his finger in front of his lips: “Shhhh…” Elsa eventually sat down. The full moon began to dip down in the sky. On the eastern horizon, the sky began turning brighter hues. Would Elsa and Fredrick be cast from this place upon sunrise? Or trapped?
It was impossible to discern LyreLein’s thoughts, to discern an expression from the wreath of light where his face was supposed to be. Still, it seemed as though he was weighing her words, all the while.
“Yes,” LyreLein said at last. “We can show you such secrets… but be warned, it is not a thing for everyone...”
Elsa jumped to her feet and replied, “Right for us? How will you determine whether it is right for us? A test?”
“Just questions,” LyreLein said. “Just three… simple… questions. For both of you...”
“Yes, we’ll do whatever you ask,” Elsa said hurriedly.
LyreLein was quiet for a moment. They could not see that he had any eyes, but it felt almost as though he were shifting his gaze between the two of them. First to the girl that was quick to speak. Then to the boy: the quiet observer.
“I will ask the first question now,” LyreLein said, “…and girl, you will be the first to answer.”
“Look about you, girl… at the ancient pines. There is Yargel at the fore… and Yenyaou not far behind… Rantalou at the edge of the grove, who’s limbs reach all the way to the stream… When you look at them, what do you see?”
Elsa put her finger to her chin as she gazed up at the canopy.
”I see sentinels, mighty and majestic. Born in a time that few can remember.”
LyreLein twinkled, as though nodding. He turned to Fredrick.
“And you boy... When you look upon their trunks, what do you see?”
Fredrick gazed up at the canopy as well. Put his hand to the bark of Yenyaou, then squinted past them and into the distance.
“I see children. Grandchildren,” Fredrick said at last, sweeping his hand around him and then pointing to a colossal stump near the stream. “The grandchildren of that ancient pine, who returned to the earth so long ago. Perhaps she perished before this place ever budded away from the worlds of light and dark. She remains there still as rotting wood, for sometimes the death of a tree can last even longer than its life.”
LyreLein did not acknowledge their answers. He said simply: “Follow me…”
They left the grove and came again to the stream. He brought them to the middle--- to the widest section--- and asked his second question: “Girl, look upon these waters… Tell me what you see...”
Elsa turned her head to the left and to the right, upstream and down.
“I see water rushing toward the ocean. I see a basin for weary travelers. I see the home of water creatures that live and thrive and breed.”
“And you, boy?...” LyreLein asked. “What do you see?”
Fredrick looked long and hard. He hopped upstream, from rock to rock, until he had a broad view of the stream running through the glade. Once he’d returned to where LyreLein and Elsa stood, he spoke: “I see a vast snake slithering across the landscape. A snake that whips and cuts through the hills and prairies, each flick of its tail taking an eon. Hungry is this snake. As hungry as it is patient. With enough time it will even swallow mountains: earth, metal, and all.
Again, LyreLein did not acknowledge their answers. He said simply: “Follow me…”
LyreLein led them toward the grassland. Elsa and Fredrick trailed behind a short distance. Elsa peeked at Fredrick through the corner of her eye. He seemed so focused now. Determined even. And his answers were far different than hers. Between the two of them, surely, the immortals would tell them their secrets. But there was still a thing that Elsa didn’t understand.
“Fredrick,” Elsa said, nibbling at her lower lip. “I was wondering about something. About what you said when we took the last step into this place. About… the two of us, being together as immortals.”
Fredrick glanced at her bashfully, but didn’t say anything.
“Please Fredrick...” Elsa said, pressing for an answer.
“Well, we’ve always done everything together since we were both very little. Everyone in town always said that it would just keep going on that way until the day we died. They said that we’d be married one day. I know that maybe you didn’t believe it, but… I always did.”
Elsa blushed as though it were some novel thought, even though some part of her knew it as well. She realized, then, that whenever she imagined her future, Fredrick was there, right in the middle of all the things to come.
“At first, I was reluctant to come along,” Fredrick said, looking down at the long grass. “I wouldn’t have gone if it had been with anyone but you. I didn’t think there were any immortals and even if there were, immortality wasn’t something that I wanted. But when we were on the road from town, I had a thought. It was when I was looking up at the stars and the planets. If your grandfather’s stories about immortality were true and we could both live forever, then there would never be a reason to rush anywhere. You would never have to worry about the moments that were passing you by because there would always be time in the future to catch back up with them, again. You could sit in the grass with me and watch the stars until we had seen all there was to see of them. Together. To me, life was never about stuffing experiences into it. It was about timeless moments. With you.”
Elsa’s eyes stung.
“Fredrick, I…” Elsa said, trailing off. She reached out for his hand. Touched his palm gently with her fingers and pressed her thumb into his knuckles. She tried to swallow her pride, to say that she was sorry for all the cruel things she’d ever said to him, but with a thousand lifetimes, wouldn’t they have plenty of time to make such things right, later?
“We are here,” LyreLein said. The three of them stood amid the field, “I have your final question. Girl… look up. Look upon the denizens of the sky. What do you see?”
Elsa stared skyward. Her mind was blank. She thought of all the times she had seen Fredrick at night. All of the times his head was turned up. All of the times she should have been beside him, looking up as well. What might she see, what might she say, if she had joined him?
“I… I don’t know,” Elsa uttered. “A million points of light. A million mysteries, waiting to be seen by those with the patience to see them.”
LyreLein watched her. Weighed her. Judged her.
“And boy?...” he spoke. “What do you see?”
Fredrick was hesitant. He looked to Elsa, his eyes betraying some concern that Elsa didn’t understand.
“Uhm,” Fredrick muttered, glancing up. “Just… just stars. That’s all I see.”
For the first time, LyreLein sounded displeased: “That is not in keeping… with what you have spoken, before. It is not in keeping… with the content of your soul. I would implore you to answer honestly. Or you will fail to understand.”
Fredrick gritted his teeth. He glared at LyreLein, “But sir immortal, you haven’t been honest with us, have you?”
There was silence. The three stared at one another.
“There are no immortals walking the world of light,” Fredrick said. “I have never seen them, never heard of them. And there are probably no immortals walking the world of Fey, either. There never have been. There are only immortals here. There can only be immortals here.”
LyreLein didn’t respond. Elsa grew worried. As Fredrick spoke, she began to understand.
“LyreLein, you immortals don’t get to choose who goes and who stays either, do you? You don’t have any secrets to give us. It’s this place. It decides. And those it chooses it also keeps.”
“What?” Elsa blinked. “Is this true, LyreLein?”
His silence answered for him.
“Then why?” she wondered. “Why ask us these questions?”
“Because…” LyreLein began, speaking ever more slowly and deliberately, “the answers you give… reveal to you the way that you are. Your nature. Your essence. How your mind perceives time. It also determines… whether you go and whether you stay. When the time comes, you and the boy will be torn from each other. It will be soon, and I want you both to understand… Girl, I want you to understand why you will go home as a mortal… and he will stay here, as an immortal.”
“No!” Elsa shrieked, snatching up Fredrick’s hand. “You can’t do this! I can’t leave him! I don’t care about your immortality! I’ll die here, that’s fine, just don’t send me back!”
“It’s not a decision… we can make. We are just… spectators. This place… decides. It keeps those who see far enough and long enough. Those with patience. Those who are not of this nature? They are returned to where they came from. Only the far seeing mind can endure the ages… Minds like yours, girl? They are tuned to the world of light and the world of dark. To dwell in this place for even the first hundred years… would drive you mad. This, I think, is why it will reject you… and why it will accept him. I’m sorry. I don’t know how much time you have together still… but it is surely growing short.”
“There must be a way back for me. To forfeit immortality if I so choose,” Fredrick said. “I don’t need it. I never wanted it. Not unless it was with her.”
“There is no choice…” LyreLein said. “I was like you once. I had no desire for immortality. I was kept unwillingly… I’m sorry.”
“No,” Elsa whispered, tears pooling in her eyes. She turned her head to the ground. Not knowing whether their last moment together would end suddenly, words began to sputter out. “Fredrick, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I brought us here. I’m sorry for the times I’ve been impatient with you. The times where I was cruel. I’m sorry I never savored all of our moments together. I just always thought that we’d have more time.”
Fredrick raised her head with his hands. Looked into her eyes, his moist as well.
“I lied,” he said. “After we left town I told you that one life seemed like it should be enough. But that’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that one life with you seemed like it should be enough.”
Elsa threw herself against him, tears spilling down her cheeks.
“The life you have left together perhaps is long enough,” LyreLein said. “Look at us, the immortals. Ours lives will burn longer than the stars. Aren’t the lives of mortals… just seconds in comparison to our own? A mortal’s life will always end. A second or a minute or an hour are all tiny when compared to the lifetime of the cosmos. You have a now, children... perhaps that is enough.”
At that, Fredrick took both of Elsa’s hands. Without speaking, they danced together. Swayed with the grass, as though pulled by the same eternal tide that pulled it as well. It became hard to tell how long they danced. Elsa stopped thinking of how much time they had left. She forgot of the things they would never do, together.
With her head on his shoulder, she gazed up at the sky. She whispered, slowly, patiently, of what she saw. Answered the final question.
“Look at the planets, Fredrick. As days and months and years pass by, they dance like us. Dance and swirl in looping circles amid billions of tiny lanterns. And were we to watch long enough? Watch for a million years? The stars themselves would waltz across the sky.”
And so Elsa didn’t notice when eddies of blinking color enveloped Fredrick’s arms and legs. She didn’t notice the pulse of his body. Light, then dark. Light, then dark. She didn’t notice when time skimmed around him like water around a boulder in a river. She didn’t notice as the sun began to rise and the moon began to set, like the final grain of sand trickling from an hour glass. It didn’t matter. One life, one day, one second with Fredrick was enough to live.
As she savored that simple moment with him, her mind could assign it no span of time. Untethered from a “before” or an “after,” the moment drifted away freely. And so long after Elsa found herself standing alone in the forest, long after she returned to the town, long after she lived a long and fruitful life, long after she had died and her deeds were forgotten, that moment lived on in some immortal place.
Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim