Ornate chandeliers dangled from the high ceiling, their dim lights blanketing the massive room. The skylights imparted the drab weather outside, a monochrome exterior adding nothing but the pitter-patter of rain to the atmosphere. Everything felt damp. Attila nervously walked to the front of the room and stood behind the lectern, his papers awaiting him there. He looked out to the empty wooden tables and benches, row upon row of them, extending the width of the place and as far back as he could see. From floor to ceiling, enormous shelves of books circled the room, spiral staircases cropping up here and there like beanstalks reaching for the sky.
Attila cleared his throat, shuffling his papers and looking down. His voice boomed, “I am the being that I am by being.” He furrowed his brow and squinted at the words again. They weren’t right. Had someone messed with his manuscript? He turned a few pages. His heartbeat echoed loudly. “I am I that I am.” No, wrong again. A drop of sweat fell from his forehead and obscured the ink.
He gazed out to the empty crowd, imagining them all there, professors, scholars, authors, journalists, friends, family. He had spent too many years on this research for it to be lost amongst a clerical error. The words were in his bones now. He exuded them with every breath, every heartbeat, every blink of his eyes. He had bathed in it for a lifetime and it was now that he could share it with the rest of the world.
Attila ran a hand through his graying hair. He picked up the pages and tossed them into the air, watching them dance and fall like confetti. He stood tall, closed his eyes, and bellowed, “I am the I that I am because of I.” He gestured widely while his fingertips sprouted seedlings. “I am the light.” Bark rushed up his legs and onto his back. “I am here and now.” He opened his eyes as branches ripped out from beneath his shoulder blades. A gigantic tree sprouted on stage, carrying his body to the vaulted ceilings where he gazed down upon the room. Somewhere, a clock ticked monotonously.
In the distance, the doors creaked open. She walked into the room gingerly, in awe of the sheer size of the place. There was a moment before she noticed him, gawking from his perch. His face glowed. Hers was perplexed. She did not recognize the place.
“Ugh!” Kiran scoffed. “Again!? What is this some kind of sick joke?” She slapped herself hard until she woke. It was the fourth night in a row she dreamed of him, and yet she had never seen him before in waking life. Each time he had manifested in a tree, and each time she had been caught unaware, navigating the typical dreamscape nonsense until she was pushed or pulled into the same space he occupied.
“I’m blaming stress,” Kiran stated flatly.
Duri sipped her coffee quietly, observing Kiran from behind the edge of her cup. They sat in the commons of the university, stuffed awkwardly in oversized, brightly colored chairs while screens in every corner beamed scheduling information. The sun peaked over the horizon.
“I mean, finals are in a few weeks, right?” Kiran sighed. “It has to be finals. I’ve never had finals before. Finals seem so, I don’t know, final.”
Duri cautiously placed her cup of coffee onto the end table between them. They had only known each other for a few months, it being their first year and from opposite sides of the country, but she felt she had at least a semblance of a grasp on what made Kiran tick.
“Kiran,” Duri inhaled, “are you sure it wasn’t just a dream?”
Kiran scrunched up her face. “Of course it was just a dream.”
Duri picked up her coffee. “Okay, okay, of course it was just a dream, but dreams have never been so upsetting to you before.”
Kiran picked up her legs and rocked back and forth. ‘I know,” she admitted. “I know, but, you weren’t there. It was so real. He seemed like an actual person, you know?”
“An actual person?”
Kiran plopped her feet on the ground. “Okay, so you know how in most dreams that you remember, people fall into a few categories?” Kiran twirled her fingers in the air. “There are those that are familiar to you, like close friends and family. There are old friends you haven’t spoken to in years. There are strangers that seem familiar only while your dreaming...”
“Which one is he?” Duri interrupted, glancing at her device nervously. “Sorry, but class starts in a few.”
Kiran dismissed her concerns and shouted, “None! He’s none of those! He feels real, but doesn’t fade when I wake up. He still feels real, right now.”
Duri slammed the rest of her coffee and stood. “Then why don’t you talk to him?” she suggested. “Ask him what he wants.”
The question rang in Kiran’s head for the rest of the day. Finals prep, be damned. At lunch, she sat beside the wall of windows in the cafeteria, watching branches whip in the wind while rain pelted the side of the glass. She searched for rudimentary information on her school mandated device, but flinched every time it spoke or asked for further information. Had it been up to her, she would have never picked up the machine. She searched for patterns in the locations he had appeared: an abandoned beach, a nice restaurant, a mountaintop, and now this massive hall. “Tree + dream” yielded nothing but references to old mythos and she was forced to spend the rest of the day navigating ads for drug induced healing, as if the only wisdom those before us had to impart was that of pharmaceutical indoctrination.
She couldn’t sleep as the storm approached. Duri snored in the bottom bunk. Kiran watched the world dance outside of her window. His voice echoed through her head. “I am the I that I am because of I,” she muttered under her breath and chuckled. Dream nonsense.
The hallway was never ending, a dense fog forever out of reach. A bell rang throughout the space, its direction obscured by the echoes. A few times she heard children mumbling, sounds of intonations and languages unfamiliar spreading throughout the space. Kiran refrained from pinching herself awake and crept forward with bemused trepidation.
She opened a door at random. This room was smaller than the last and his tree accommodated the size of the place. He gazed down upon her and smirked.
Kiran trotted up to the base of the trunk and shouted upward, “Where the hell am I this time!?”
His leaves rustled and his voice transferred directly into her brain, “In the past. As were the others.”
Kiran kicked the tree and clenched her jaw, “And why the hell do you keep dragging me into it?”
His branches shook and scooped him up, lowering him to the ground where the tree detached, his skin frantically crawling along the open wounds to close. He walked a few paces forward and then turned toward the foliage.
“Do you believe in the gods?” he asked.
Kiran flinched, her arms at her sides. “What do you mean?”
Attila stared ahead. “Would you like to meet one?”
Kiran surged awake, a thunderclap riding toward her.
by Dan Diehn