Some people walk their dogs, some dogs walk their people. Titus is the latter. He’s a ninety-three-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback who can apply enough force to flay your hand if you make the mistake of tying the leash to your wrist. Luckily, Titus is well trained, and I had two hundred pounds on him at the time, though I was trying to reduce our weight gap.
Titus being a muscle-bound ball of energy combined with my renewed fitness goals were the reasons we were out walk-jogging through the city the night I saw the woman in the plaid pants. The woman shifting amidst a half-moon of sparkling light in that stony tunnel off Sandford Street. The woman who showed me things I never thought I’d see outside of a dream, or perhaps, a nightmare. Meeting her changed everything.
It was cold out, and our breaths puffed in little clouds of vapor around our heads as we increased our pace. At 8:45 p.m., the neighborhood was winding down: young couples were ushering their children into bed, and the elderly were already nestled under their quilts with books or the television’s glow reflecting off eyeglass lenses. A few cars puttered down the street while Titus and I owned the empty sidewalks. The other dogs were walked and back home by nightfall, and Titus had free rein to claim all the poles and corners he wished; he was the master of his domain, at least until morning.
After taking six blocks at a brisk walk, I felt warm and transitioned to a trot. That had been our routine for the past three weeks, and it was getting easier, my knees thanking me for the ten pounds I’d recently shed. Titus was eager, as always, and dragged me along with his graceful gallop while I thudded behind, my hot breath beginning to chug like a steam engine climbing a hill.
We’d made it a mile when we turned onto Sandford Street, and I was feeling good, limber, in a rhythm that could propel me for hours––in the zone. The street was preternaturally still and darker than usual; I realized the street lamps were out several blocks ahead and behind us. Titus got skittish as we dipped into the darkness, which is out of character for him. He began scanning his surroundings in a spastic fashion, his head jutting from one side to the next like an old sprinkler gone haywire. A block from the tunnel entrance, Titus starting chuffing, then mixing in a deep growl. Uff-Uff-Grrrrrrrr-Uff-Uff-Grrrrrrrr… He sounded like an outboard motor that wouldn’t start.
A shifting glow began to spill into the darkness, and as the tunnel’s mouth came into view, I saw the dancing form inside surrounded by streamers of sparkling light. The woman with the plaid pants was in the middle of some hypnotic dance, her limbs appearing doubled, tripled, quadrupled as they undulated through the cold air. It reminded me of the Hindu God, Shiva, in his Nataraja form, four arms aloft within the circle of creation, leg in some dancing ballet pose that could uncoil and destroy the universe. Titus began to bark with strident fury; he would’ve set off a car alarm if there was an equipped vehicle nearby.
The woman’s dark eyes shot to meet mine, her limbs lowered, and for a moment, she stood amongst the whorl of sparkling ribbons in silent repose. As she stilled, Titus went silent. We both looked upon her in awe. Then she spoke to me; I’m sure her mouth did not move, but her eyes drew me in as her sweet lilting voice rose in my mind: “Austin Morris Caldwell. Come to me. See with open eyes.”
Titus released a small whimper of acquiesence as if she had spoken to him too, and we both strode forward, crossed the road, and entered the tunnel. The scintillating streamers cycled and spun about her, filling the rocky cavern with warmth. She was beautiful. Her deep burgundy hair spooled out from beneath a dark cloche hat to frame a dusky diamond face and full lips. As the lambent light warmed my face, Titus sat on his haunches, then laid down, resting his nose upon his front paws. His marble eyes never left her. In a trance, I fell to my knees, my weight upon my heels. In some unspoken way, I knew she deserved my worship.
The woman in the plaid pants and bell-shaped hat resumed her dance, and as she did, the glimmering ribbons grew. Her arms rippled through the air, followed by a million tracers, echoes of the movement momentarily frozen in the air; her knees rose and shifted, a white-sneakered foot kicking out with a grace and fluidity that seemed inhuman. This time when I heard her voice, I could readily discern her unmoving lips.
“What do you wish for, my child?” The question was a song; seven words suffused with reverie, a catalyst for my awe-inspired wonder.
“Understanding,” I replied.
The vagueness of my response became my blessing. And my curse.
On her face grew a tight-lipped smile, and the circle of flowing light ribbons shot into position, forming a ring of shimmering, identical beams around her, perfectly uniform like the rays of a computer-generated sun. The woman’s flawless lips hinged open, and my vision faded into the blinding light that spilled from her mouth. All went black.
I’ll never be able to articulate all that happened next, and it could take a million lifetimes to write down everything I saw, to condense the flood of feelings and emotions into the boxy confines of words and sentences. But I did gain understanding all right, and my life has been irrevocably changed. Forever haunted.
From the sea of blackness emerged the vacuum of space—the collision of particles and the creation of matter—the first divine utterance of light and life. I watched the formation of all manners of flora and fauna, the terraforming effects of the elements in ways that were both violent and delicate. I witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations, the petty backroom dealings and injured egos that caused endless wars and unnecessary death. Still, life continued on.
Furtive whispers of angels into receptive minds created quantum leaps in our technological evolution. Other ethereal nudgings sent countless humans into the downward spiral of madness. And on and on… nightmares juxtaposed by beauty, life and death merely two strands of a double-helix, connected by the base pairs of the physical and spiritual, twisting towards infinity.
The tears poured as my soul expanded, enraptured by the visions, only to be ripped apart by the madness of it all, the cruelty, the pain. I understood the lamentations of the gods. I understood their anger. Yet, I saw the gossamer strand of compassion, too. The love, though invisible at times, weaving through it all.
I also found understanding of myself, where I’d fallen from the path. The cycle of pain caused by passing on my hurt, the times I’d been wronged, and then gone on to wrong others. My emotional childlessness causing an ebb and flow of bad habits and poor coping mechanisms. The resurgence of willpower and the desire to do more and be more when I sank too far toward the bottom of the well. By seeing the cycle, I learned how to break it. And I couldn’t help but feel good at those highlighted moments when a god-like empathy flowed out of me, and I witnessed the ripple effect of a simple act of kindness done when no one was looking. Brief flashes were woven throughout where life’s burdens lifted, suspended weightless in time, and I’d found utter bliss in the simplistic beauties all around me. How easy it was to forget those moments.
Whether Titus and I lay prostrate before the dancing woman for one second or one hour, I’ll never know. But I wept as my vision returned and the plaid-pantsed woman faded into the darkness. The luminous gyre closing and whisking her away to the plane of existence where she belonged––the one worthy of her.
This all happened on March 30th of the year 2013, and so much has changed since then. I reached my fitness goals. I achieved every aim I could ever imagine, yet I long for permanent rest; life is about much more than attaining one’s desires.
Titus is still with me, though gray has encroached upon his muzzle and flanks, and I can’t say as he barks anymore. I’ve watched everything change around me, as I did on the day the woman gave me my wish. Everyone I’d loved has gone, and I’ve found myself in a world I don’t belong in. Still, I understand.
Today is the anniversary of that destined meeting with Her, the dancing goddess surrounded by strings of fire. I hope one day I will see her again. She gave me so much, but I long to return her gift.
- Austin Morris Caldwell, March 30th, 2513