Once again this night, I have walked the starry bridge, crossing over nebulae and ancient, distant suns and worlds whirling through time, to emerge in the luminous forest.
It is the same forest I visited before, I realize. The song is the same, resonant harmonies weaving together and rippling through the starlight-infused branches and silvery leaves. I can hear, somewhere in the distance, the rolling accompaniment of the ocean waves.
I walk. I don’t know how long I walk, how far. Time seems immaterial in this place, as though a thousand years are the exact same length as a single second. All around, the trees drape their shimmering branches to surround me as I walk, and leaves slip loose to settle in my hair, a gleaming crown. I am half oblivious to it all, but only because it feels right.
A hut appears in front of me. I do not mean to say that it popped into existence before my eyes. It had always existed there, though it also, just as truthfully, had not. My eyes, and my mind, merely shifted from one potentiality to another. A curling wisp of smoke wafts from a squat chimney atop the thatched roof, and I can see a warm golden glow emanating from the single window.
In much the same way that the hut appeared, so too does an old woman appear, in the doorway, gazing at me with jewel-like eyes in a wizened face. She is drying her hands on her apron. She smiles at me as I approach.
“There you are,” she says. “I expected you ages ago. When have you been?”
I tilt my head in a vaguely cat-like gesture. “Don’t you mean where have I been?”
“That too,” she says. “Come, come. Inside. I have cookies baking.”
I follow her through the open doorway. Inside, the hut is expansive. It seems, somehow, to be simultaneously inside and outside. There are great, looming ceiling-skies with glittering chandeliers and constellations and colorful Aurora-ribbons, soaring archways and stately pillars and ancient trees, flowers in full wild bloom and comfortable modern furniture, and a forest of bookshelves and a TV stand that holds an ancient black-and-white set. The television is showing The Addams Family reruns, only I’m not entirely certain that they are reruns on this particular television.
The woman has disappeared through a particularly grand archway. I catch the scent of scorched chocolate, and hear her tutting. I step through the archway and find myself in a cozy little kitchen.
She is holding a pan filled with what appears to be multiple discs of charcoal. “I was never any good at baking,” she says, and tilts the pan so the ruined cookies fall into a trash bin lined with a white plastic bag. “Never stopped me from trying, though. It’s become a bit of an obsession. But then, maybe the obsession is with burning them, rather than baking them. That could be my dilemma.”
“Um,” I say, because eloquence is my gift. I am a terrible cook, so have no advice to offer.
“Why are you here?” she asks me.
I consider this. “Because I am. Why were you expecting me?”
She smiles. Her hair, gathered in a loose bun at the back of her head, has a faint silvery shimmer, like moonlight. “Because you are here. But do you not make choices? Does someone else direct your path?”
“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “I Travel like this nightly. It simply is. I don’t really choose it.”
“Don’t you? Perhaps you don’t know your own mind as well as you think. Perhaps you think with more of your mind than you believe. Perhaps you choose with more of your mind than you know. And perhaps that part of your mind rages against those who would seek to steer your course for you. Is this why you are here?”
I ponder that. “I think it may be,” I say.
“Come with me,” she commands, and I follow because the command originates from within myself. She guides me through winding, labyrinthine corridors until we come upon an enormous antechamber. The space within is filled with mirrors– small mirrors, tall mirrors, compact mirrors, wall mirrors, oval mirrors, square mirrors, mirrors with gilt frames and mirrors with wooden frames and mirrors with ornate frames and mirrors with plain frames and mirrors with no frames. Each and every mirror hovers at various heights in the air, and as I look at each, I see that their surfaces are like serene lakes, and beneath the still waters I see thousands of different places, peoples, events– wars and times of peace, storms and sunshine, books written and music composed and paintings painted, friendships grown and enemies forged, love and betrayal and passion and terror and light and darkness. Through each image is cut a path, curving like a ribbon into the distance. I take a step back as I feel my breath catch in my throat.
The old woman with the silver hair and the eyes like amethyst gazes at me. “Which path will you choose?” she asks.
“There are so many,” I whisper. “And they’re terrible.”
“Is that all you see? The terrible things?”
I look again. “No,” I say. “They are… wonderful too. Wonderful, and terrible.”
“And which path will you choose?” she asks again.
I close my eyes and draw in a deep breath. When I open my eyes again, I can see a distant, crystalline city glinting in a distant valley, nestled in ancient, luminous forest. The path, surrounded by trees, begins at the base of the mirror-image.
I step into the mirror.