Sometimes he dreams of walking down long, narrow black hallways, where hands stretch from the walls and pluck at his hair and clothes. He walks to the echo of his footsteps and a low, almost subliminal sound. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to recognize it as a heartbeat.
He walks and he sees there are doors, stained and faded, appearing out of the woodwork like short bright stabs at something undefined. The first one he tries opens to a small vegetable garden. He listens to the woman singing to herself and turns away before her sons come running up, eager to show off their latest achievements.
At the second, crystal walls flash and wink at him; he is mirrored in a thousand scarlet faces. This is the only place he hears voices: they rise and fall here, blending together into an indistinct cacophony. On the floor there are black spiraling patterns that stretch out into red depths and vanish. He takes one step in and feels pain shoot up his legs; there is a barrier here he cannot yet cross.
The third door shows him a wind-blasted desert.
The third time he finds it, he goes in.
ii. fools and kings
The tea is bitter and a little spicy on his tongue. He drinks it slowly, and doesn’t actually look around.
This way lies madness, and really, the waking world is strange enough.
“It’s dangerous, coming here,” says his host. “Alchemists truly are foolish.”
He shrugs. “You’re just a figment of my imagination,” he says. “I’m dreaming this. You’re not real, but since you’re here, maybe I’ll be able to get some answers if I ask you.”
“You presume a great deal.” His host sits back, solemn and still. His entire body might have been carved by wind and sand from rock, but for the hard brightness of his red eyes. “The answers you seek aren’t here.”
“I want to go home,” he says. “This other world, it’s — there are some fascinating things here. But it isn’t home.”
His host says nothing.
“There has to be a way,” he says. “The Gate, or some other way–”
“Things are laid out according to their proper place.” His teacup is taken from him, and between one moment and the next, it vanishes. “You’ve upset the balances far too many times.”
“I know,” he says, “but it’s not like I can stop just yet.”
iii. to one who lives there
He’s read before about sex being like rebirth, and that just maybe the secrets of all existence lie here, in the heated movement of two bodies locked together. There are books in his father’s library that mention this in veiled metaphor, and maybe he’ll learn something from this sacred act.
But really, it’s just uncomfortable. There’s sand in his mouth and sourness on his tongue. His entire body feels stretched and broken; he does not think he was meant to move like this. Every breath makes his throat burn, like he’s swallowing the desert heat. There are vast empty spaces between the gaps of two bodies, but somehow, impossibly, he reaches out and manages to cross them.
All is one, one is all. He recites this in his head until the individual words no longer make sense.
After, he stares blankly upwards and draws patterns in the sand with one finger. His host says nothing, replacing his clothes with solemn dignity.
“This solves nothing,” he says, and his voice blends with the rising wind. “You learn nothing from this.”
He traces the symbol of his brother’s life, and then smoothes it away with his palm.
“Actually, I think I did.”
Sometimes he dreams of walking down long, narrow black hallways, where hands stretch from the walls and pluck at his hair and clothes. He walks to the sound of his own footsteps, and an overwhelming heartbeat.
But then he wakes.
He sits at his desk and ignores the food his father leaves; he has a thousand plans and discarded theories, and he will see one of them through. Inspiration flowers and fades and is reborn within him.
He sketches out what he can remember of the hallways, the crystalline room, the desert, and writes phrases from holy texts across his own penned lines. Moving too fast makes his stomach ache, and even if everything was a dream, it was real enough for its duration.
This solves nothing. You’ve learned nothing.
One hint would be enough, he always thought, and he thinks he has found it, at last. Even the greatest distance can be crossed: life and death are fragile as paper, so why not distance, why not reality?
Before he leaves, he burns those notes. The heat of the fire is more intense, less pervasive, than the desert.
Nothing looks back from the flames: just ash, and that soon fades.