The night was a cool 61 degrees, much more comfortable than the 95 plus of the daytime. Liam was at his campsite in rural southeastern Utah, about 100 miles east of St. George. He started a campfire, cooked some corn, and then found himself in the comfort of his tent as he stares directly overhead to the stars above. Earlier that day, Liam hiked 3 miles up and back from the top of Angels Landing, a popular vista at Zion National park. There’s this achiness that one feels after a long strenuous day of hiking. Legs begin to give off this minuscule, subtle, vibration. Liam was at that point zipped up in his sleeping bag, the fire was already out and the red glow was almost completely faded from the coals. The stars felt closer, they felt as if you could almost see the tips of the flames fluttering outward, even through the fine mesh of the tent roof.
“This is such a starkly different way of experiencing the world.” Liam uttered to himself in a soft, whispery voice. “Out here, you can’t hear the constant hiss of the highway traffic off in the distance, the occasional hot rod ripping it down main street, you can’t see the orange glaze covering the blackness of the sky.”
The moon was in a new phase and that almost removed the last of the light pollution. The stars were bring enough that you could just barely make out the milky way. This silver smokey clouds swirling beyond the stars drove home a feeling of insignificance unlike any other. In almost any direction upward, those burning lights are trillions and trillions of miles away. As the milky way slowly rose over the side of the red canyon, now as black as the edges of a movie theater, Liam felt his reference point change. Instead of watching the stars rising, he felt as if he could feel the earth turning.
As a child, Liam often rode the UFO at the county fair where he grew up. The UFO was setup with seats all around in a circle, where you laid down on an incline of a large disk that everyone sat around and the disk spun fast enough to cause the riders to lose the feeling of gravity. There’s this confusion in the beginning as the body attempts to reconcile the visuals the eyes are seeing and the feeling the inner ear gives as the forces shift. Often times this is what causes seasickness, stationary surroundings with shifting directions of gravity. However, Liam was doing ok. Instead of standing against a wall with a pad, his brain quickly felt as if he was laying on his back. There were these moments in the ride when the light from the outside of the ride would would bleed in through cracks and would break the illusion. Liam could then make out the speed that they were spinning and then orient himself directionally. In that brief moment, Liam’s senses felt as if it were moving to a truer form of reality, one beyond the edges of his current enclosure. The only thing he could make out was direction, but it was enough to break the illusion of the ride. In the same way as a he spun on the UFO ride and as as if he was walking out of plato’s cave, Liam felt as if the stars in the sky were just enough to break the illusion of the ride, to give him the feeling that something was beyond his newer, more vast enclosure. The meetings on data retention policies, change management procedures, and risk data flow diagrams that bugged Liam in the previous week suddenly felt idiotically meaningless. This felt like the few and far between moments of gasping for air above water if you found yourself living your whole life below it.
A few weeks ago, Liam got the idea from camping in the desert from his father John. “You see…things in the desert.” John said, faintly suggesting in the supernatural sense. “Things visit you, and sometimes, you end up meeting yourself.” But it was never about seeing other things, it was enough to just experience more of just what was there. Little did Liam know that sometimes those things are sometimes both one and the same, but when you can’t tell, does it even matter?
It was in that moment that as Liam stared off through almost infinite distances to the twinkling fireballs beyond, that the twinkles of a couple stars looked less like fluttering, and more like jiggling. After a few moments of squinting, jiggling became a word not fit to describe them, swaying more now. Liam questioned if perhaps a slight breeze is pushing on the fine net at the top of his tent, partially distorting his view. Despite lowering temperatures, his sleeping bag kept him warm enough to sleep with the entire tent top off, except for the mosquito net and support rods. As his view adjusted to asses the entire sky, he quickly remembered that he was in the floor of a canyon, and the tips of the trees were as still as glass. The single star in question wasn’t the only thing swaying slowly in the sky. Now, most of the stars were swaying slowly back and forth. Enough to where Liam couldn’t orient the spinning of the world anymore. Like the tips of foam on each tiny break in the water to make up a giant wave sloshing back and forth, were the stars now almost all moving in unison back and forth, but not perfectly. Still giving each star a little variance to break any sort of uniformity.
The stars were now swaying in differing directions, up and down, back and forth, against each other and apart, taking up almost all of Liam’s field of view. Occasionally, a couple or a few would appear to be locked and moving in unison for a brief moment. This gave off the appearance of negative shapes or a plane, as if all the stars are just small reference points of a much larger picture or shape. Suddenly, the stars in the middle of the sky appeared to lock in place as the rest continued to move. The shape produced was a rectangle with a wider bottom than top. One by one more stars began to freeze and naturally grew the lines created by the frozen dots of light.
“A bridge.” Liam confusedly uttered under his breath. “A city? A bridge toward a city!” Liam gasped as he could finally make out the image.
The stars were all frozen in place and in the negative space was a bridge starting at him ending directly straight up in the sky toward a city. Liam was on his back, but the picture in the stars made him feel as if he was standing upright. As his eyes wandered, he could make out the large spires, buildings it seems. The twinkle of their edges were all made up of stars. The buildings didn’t look futuristic or ridged, but as if they were natural crystalline formations giving off an ambient jade green light. All building from the outward in, grow in height sporadically to a central point at the center of a city. The white stars somehow made it seems like the city was a mountain of intricate green glass. One that was overwhelmingly busy, teeming with life.
Liam was able to make out the railings of the bridge, accented swirls of metal around each intersection. Borderline elvishly Tolkien in its aesthetic going on for a few miles directly toward the city. Just as he pondered if he could step out on the bridge, the stars instantly all broke apart, completely dissolving the image of the city. As if the stars were a school of fish suddenly spooked by a predator, suddenly shifting and swirling around in the sky in a uniform contour.
Before he even had the time to ask himself what he just saw, Liam began to watch the swirling stars and felt an odd, but deep connection to them. As if they were a hive mind of fireflies connected to some much larger, sentient being. A being that is reaching outward from itself down deep into Liam. He could feel as if a new plane of communication opened up that made his voice and ears obsolete. It was similar to still having a landline, but all communication is done over the internet, Liam felt like he could communicate over feelings. Nothing lost in translation, completely perfect 1:1 transportation of thought.
“God?” Liam asks in his head, “Is that you?”
Liam has been disillusioned by religion over the past few years, but at the very core of his being, there was still something there. Spiritually, he felt like a political refugee, unable to go back and unable to go anywhere else. The continuous waves crashing against the ship of his own spirituality over the distance he’s traveled has made him feel far more mentally exhausted rather than spiritually rewarded. It wasn’t till about a year ago that he let everything go completely, only to wait and see if something ever returned to him, but nothing ever did.
It felt to Liam as though the stars responded to his silent call, bouncing from their movement into a new and different direction. Aligning to slowly create the shape of a triangle, then slowly clarifying, but also complicating and expounding the shape into a face. Lips, eyebrows, cheeks, all coming into view. No irises or pupils in the eyes, all empty space filled with only the furthest, faintest background of the smokey universe.
The face was feminine, the angled cheeks combined with the eyes and lips were all giving the face features of an African woman. The stars above the face were either braids of hair or a doek or duku, a traditional African headscarf many women wear. Liam stared upwards in silent awe as his entire field of view was filled with this giant face.
“Is it you?” Liam felt.
Suddenly, the stars giving the contours of the lips started to move and stretch, the face now was smiling, but still completely silent. Liam felt like an infant, swaddled in a crib with his mothe, god’s warm love emanating downward. Everything that Liam saw before him, what he felt, was a fly in the eye of everything he thought he knew, but only a foolish man would stand in the rain and claim that he read somewhere that it wasn’t.
The face was gone, the stars were now swirling in a symmetrical, kaleidoscopic pattern. The stars slowly morphed into small, wiggling, bioluminescent fish. They were swimming around in symmetrical patterns as bigger fish followed each one individually, swallowing each one up, one by one. The even bigger fish appeared, followed, and swallowed the next fish so on and so forth. Liam felt a little dizzy, his eyes were following so many things morphing so fast that his mind didn’t have the opportunity to catch up. So he turned his head and looked to the left, out of his tent when his eyes spot a tree only a few feet from the side of his tent.
The tree next to his tent was a single-leaf pinyon, a type of pine tree, but it didn’t resemble a tighter pine that many are more familiar with at Christmas time. This pine had more traditional tree branches that spread much wider at its base and reached upward, making the shape of a tree almost like a wide egg. The tree wasn’t densely packed either, you could easily see through the tree if one was so inclined. However, this tree was odd because scattered throughout, from the top to the bottom were all various types of human faces. Liam immediately recognized that these faces all belonged to people who are dead.
Men, women, children, of all various expressions, each as distinct as a personality. Liam didn’t recognize the people, but he could tell what most of them were. Some faces, however were disfigured, bloodied, and a some even had torturous expressions that conveyed excruciating pain. Not only from their appearance, but over feeling, Liam could feel them all as dead, but nonetheless all staring at him as if they were all standing next to his tent.
Liam immediately closed his eyes as he felt as if Ice water coursed through his veins. His mind thought about jumping out of his sleeping bag and running as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but some odd feeling kept him right there. His heart felt like it was was beating a hundred miles an hour as he opened his eyes back to the faces in silence. Breathing heavily, his eyes wandered to each one, examining them all a little closer. He was disturbed when he came across one that appeared to be completely missing skin. He wondered if these faces are how they all appeared when all these people died. If so, then this face was a person who was tortured to death.
People die, painful and excruciating deaths all the time, but rarely do any of us ever find ourselves in the situation of staring at it in the eyes. The fear that Liam had began to be replaced by sorrow.
“There is so much unknown pain.” Liam spoke verbally in a soft tone to all of the faces on the tree. “So many people die, die painful deaths and their voice is nothing more than a distant echo. Their suffering, their story is nothing but a drop in an ocean, rippling off to nothing. So many people are forgotten.”
Based on his statement, some of the faces changed their expression. Some of the more sad or angry faces shifted into a more pleased ones.
“Sometimes, the only thing people seek is just a little acknowledgment. A glace, a wave, a nod, I’m here, and so are you.” Liam uttered. “You’re here all the time.”
Liam felt like the world peeled back and there was only a film of saran wrap separating the himself from what was beyond. This felt like a grandiose version of placing your hand against a glass pane and letting someone align their hands with yours. Seeing all the subtle differences between each other, this is my hand, and that is yours. The faces never spoke, but Liam could feel them, and right now he could feel that these faces and so many others are always present, but in a different way. This caused him to think of something a little humorous.
“So does everyone see me when I’m in the shower or umm pleasuring myself?” Liam asked with an awkward haphazard grin. “It’s an honest question.”
Many of the faces turned to smile and what appears to be laughter as Liam could feel their response. It doesn’t exactly work like surveillance, but the present nature of the dead was one more along the lines of solidarity of being. Like when you’re driving in a snowstorm when there’s snow fully covering the road and you see you’re following another single set of tracks. Or when you walk into a room that someone just left and you can just barely feel the warmth their body heat brought to the room. Like hearing coyotes howl to the moon in the distance, you then know that something else is here, and something else is there. This caused Liam to think of another question.
“Am I doing what’s right? Liam pleaded “I’m always worried that I’m headed into the completely wrong direction in life. I’m scared i’m not living up to my potential. I’m a dud when everyone else is exploding beautifully.”
Everything is fine, Liam felt as a mental weight falls off of his shoulders. He was always worried that there was a moment earlier in his life where the universe fell off kilter and he was like an astronaut thrown from a ship in deep space. Hurling aimlessly, helplessly into the dark, never being able to get back to the ship. Everything he thought, didn’t match up with how he felt, because felt good. He felt like he was being told, everything is ok.
With tears in his eyes Liam asks, “I’m talking to this girl.” As he cracks a smile. “Should I move forward with her or take a hike?”
Liam was honest and did what he felt anyone would do if given the opportunity to consult omnipresent wisdom, indulge a little. There was a face that caught his eye, one accented by wrinkles. It looks like it’s an older woman, 70s or 80s perhaps. For a minute Liam felt like it could have been his late grandmother, but it wasn’t. Although based on her face, he felt as if she were equally as warm. Liam missed his grandmother, she and many grandmothers have this unique warmth about them. It’s a feeling easy to miss until they’re gone. A baking brownies on a summer day and her letting you lick the spoon kind of feeling. Like the hugs that felt like nothing could ever bad happen kind of feeling. The times she calls you sugar kind of feeling. A reminder that the story you are a part of goes back a lot further than you remember kind of feeling. Liam hasn’t felt it since, but he feels it now. Her face changed, it was in response to his question.
She gave him this big warm smile, but the feeling. The feeling was one of a thousand words and a million moments of possibilities swirled into a vortex and fired out of a fire hose. If emotions all have a temperature equivalent ranging from hot to cold, this felt more like a texture. Something completely different, smooth, course, fluffy, or even sticky. So much more information condensed into a flash of light. Like experiencing an infinite number of lifetimes in a single moment.
“Thank you…For everything.” Liam says.
Liam didn’t realize that it’s been a few hours and it won’t be long now until the sun comes up. With one final nod that’s returned by many in the tree of 100 dead faces, Liam rolls over and begins to drift off asleep knowing full well who’s always there, and in some unique way, that kept him feeling comforted.