She was only eleven or twelve years old when she first discovered this – when her spirit first unfurled from around her, opened up great wings barred in midnight blue and bone-white moonlight silver, and left her physical body behind. She could hover high up in the corner of her room and look down, and watch herself lying in her bed, her coltish limbs tangled up in her bedclothes, lying very still – she could float there up on the ceiling, flit from room to room if she wished but mostly she would just hang there, those bright-dark wings unfurled, a tenuous invisible thread between body and spirit keeping her anchored there in the room. It was freedom filled with curiosity and wonder, gazing upon the still form below, thinking, “That is me…” and knowing all the while that up above that winged form was her, too. They were both her. Both parts of a greater whole. Separate, but bonded. Winged, and grounded. A different kind of life belonged to each – the one below, in whom a heart beat with a steady rhythm, her skin warm, her breathing gentle, the electrical impulses which governed movement and will and deliberate decisions at rest – the one above, released, without physical presence or breath or blood flowing in its veins or even veins, just there, vividly alive and itself but also a part of everything else, part of the world, part of the night, part of the rest of the life in the sleeping household, aware of every living thing and of every shape and shadow, its spirit senses sharper and more focused than the ones in the physical shape could ever be.
She remembers the flying. She remembers… the middle of it. She does not quite recall how or why it began, there is no memory of the “first” time. Somehow it just… happened, occurred once probably almost by accident, and then practiced, because it was exhilarating, because it was special.
She remembers how it all ended, though.
She had never, in all the years that she could do this thing, set that winged spirit free outside of the house – outside of a roof above its head, walls about its sides. It was a safe thing to do, really – it was like having an indoor cat, or a bird which did not live in a cage but had the run of the rest of the house and could fly where it pleased and perch where it wanted. But then one night, when the girl was 19 years old or so, that winged spirit did something it had never done before. It fluttered against the windowpane.
And it discovered it was no barrier to its passage at all.
And suddenly she was out, outside, under a sky shimmering with stars, with nothing to tie her down and constrain her. And she thought to herself, If I wanted to, I could fly away from here. I could fly straight up, straight into that star-spangled darkness, and play out there amongst the stars.
And a moment after that thought, she knew – knew beyond any doubt at all – that if she allowed herself to do this thing that she – her consciousness – everything that made her herself – would NEVER come back. Never return to that body waiting in the bed inside the bedroom inside the house. In time, she would dissipate out there without that anchor, and shred, and vanish.
Oh, what an existence it could be – for a little while. And then it would be over. Truly, completely, without recourse, over. Ended. Forever.
It was the first time in her life that the girl experience what might have been a touch of true agoraphobia – a sudden, tangible, terrifying horror of the endless space above.
She fled that enticing night, fled back inside into safety through that glass windowpane which offered no resistance, fled back into the body that still lay in the bed, and cowered there, shivering, terrified.
And never left that safe haven again.
She never allowed body and spirit to separate like that again. Never flew again.
The stars that she had always believed in, yearned for, wanted, scared her home. She was not ready for this yet. It could be that she would never be ready for something like this. At least she was wise enough to know it.
Yes, she was me. There was a time… I could fly.
I remember the feeling, that feeling of being out of my element and beyond some final Veil that divided me from a world which I could not begin to understand, when I found myself, some years later, in a very different environment.
Back when I was still living in New Zealand, I figured that I was as close as I would ever be to some of the wonders of the Pacific Islands – and I took the opportunity to visit a number of them. My first foray, to Fiji, was full of fabulous moments – but let me concentrate, here, on one single experience.
Let me tell you, I was not a natural at this. It took me a little while before I figured out how to breathe under water without trying to suffocate myself, or else attempting to swallow half the blessed ocean if I happened to try and obey my natural instincts and breathe through the wrong orifice. But eventually I managed to overcome this hurdle, and there I was, floating face down in the water over the wonders of a coral reef.
And oh, it was a wonder.
Bright blue starfish splayed on intricate corals, tropical fish darted in and out of anemones, entire schools of tiny blue fish parted before me as I swam towards them and then closed up behind me as though I was something that they had just swallowed whole. Larger fish darted into gaps between corals which didn’t look remotely big enough to contain them – but if I swam directly over them I could see that they were deep cracks, deeper than they looked, sometimes going down precipitously all the way down to blue infinity and I could not see their roots.
I very quickly learned to have a deep and honest respect for the corals. I’ve never met a sharper edge on anything else I’ve ever known, living or dead. The merest brush of skin against coral was enough to slice me surgically apart – and trust me, I found this out the hard way. And yet, even with this knowledge, even knowing that the merest touch could be a bloody and dangerous encounter – there is something about corals that leaves me completely breathless. On a different trip, later, when my snorkeling abilities were a little further advanced, I allowed a strong current flowing between two tiny atolls to carry me down this channel – twisting and turning like a desperate sea snake, trying to avoid touching any part of coral with any part of my own anatomy – and yet even while acutely aware of this being utterly unable to take my eyes off the sunken city that lay before me, delicate spires of coral both those bleached a dead white and those still living, twisting and gnarling from the channel bed up towards the surface of the water, looking for all the world like this was precisely the sort of place that mermaids lived in, and that one of them would peer out from some arched coral window any moment now and smile at me. The illusion was helped and made into a most uncanny version of reality by the quality of the light that surrounded me, an almost tangible blue overlay, a colour and presence that it is utterly impossible to even imagine unless one has opened one’s eyes under water upon the surface of which the sun is shining. Nothing, in this light, seems real; everything seems far more real than anything up there in the surface world could ever be or ever was. There is a danger of simply forgetting that you did not belong to this blueness, that you were a guest here, and that you would not survive long without that little tube that stuck out above you into the air, the air which you could barely believe in down here but without which you were doomed to drown in this dangerous and beautiful blueness that surrounded you.
Back in Fiji, that first time I did this thing, I remember floating idyllically above that coral reef – and I was reassured by the fact that, despite the fact that I would have to exercise a modicum of care where I put my feet if I didn’t want any part of me to be sliced into bloody ribbons by the coral, I still had the option, at any moment, to actually straighten up and put my feet down on something solid and stand up – and the water would still probably reach, at worst, my chest.
But then… then I did something else altogether. I swam through the Veil between the Worlds.
I swam… off the reef.
All of a sudden, everything changed. Everything was different. The “solid” thing that I could have stood upright on only a moment before now plunged away from me, down, down, down, down, deep into a deeper and deeper blue – all the way down to a sandy ocean floor, a long way below me. And as I looked, the ocean floor stirred and came alive… and two great manta rays that had been lying concealed underneath a layer of sand lifted their “wings”, shook off the sand, and took off, undulating with a sense of elegance and power that took my breath away, literally “flying” through this solid blue water – somewhere else, deeper into the blue, away from me, away from the great wall of the reef.
And I felt a little bit like I had felt back when I was nineteen years old and the stars beckoned and lured.
Back. I had to get BACK. Back to solid ground, to solid flesh, to my own world, to the place I belonged – because THIS WAS NOT SUCH A PLACE. This blue and beautiful ocean had suddenly turned around and smiled at me, and the smile was full of wicked sharp teeth, and it was going to eat me alive, eat me whole, swallow me like that school of fish had made the illusion of doing up on the reef, and there would be nothing left of me, nothing at all, just a memory adrift in the blue.
I know about the Veil, because I’ve been through it. And what lies beyond it… is beautiful beyond belief. And utterly deadly.
Like any dream.
Like any reality worth its salt.