A Timely Horizon
Karen Lord’s story this week asks what would we do if we could hear the echoes of all the choices we’ve made in other lives, but haven’t made in this one. ~ Julian and Fran, March 5, 2023
A Timely Horizon
Alina carried her seed in a locket around her neck for twenty years.
A precocious few were granted their seeds in their mid-twenties, but most got theirs around thirty years of age, with the brain close to the end of its maturing. Some planted their seeds right away, desperate for some confirmation of their lives’ purpose while there was yet time to course-correct. Others believed that each life should be fresh and free from outside influences, and so they waited to plant in their later years, or bequeathed the seed to an heir or executor for planting.
Alina could not explain why she kept the seed for so long. She felt no yearning to steer matters to a particular end. She was curious, but only intermittently so. Finally, at the age of fifty, with no direct descendants and a vague sense that it might be nice to know, she planted the seed in the family grove. For three years, she nurtured it as seedling and sapling, then she left it in the care of her relatives, put it out of her mind, and went about her travels.
Another twenty years would pass before she allowed herself to think about it. Four more went by before she acknowledged the truth. She was dying. It was happening too slowly for convenience but too quickly for pretense. An illness in childhood had weakened her heart, and although there were several options for replacement or repair, all options were temporary, or burdened with a level of restriction or dependency that pained her carefree soul.
But had she not done well in the time she had been given? Why not spend the last of her time as she pleased, enjoying life as much as she could and saying leisurely farewells to the people and the places she had loved?
So she decided. Another year served as a closing chapter. She gained the bittersweet satisfaction of knowing all preparations had been made, and all debts settled. She returned to the family compound with her strength ebbing, and her mind at peace. Her relatives gave her a loving welcome and made her comfortable. They visited her in the wide-open veranda that encircled the family grove, bringing tea and buttered toast in the mornings, and wine with lemon-rosemary cakes in the evenings.
The younger ones tried to get her to speak of her life, but she always directed the conversation back to their doings. Nostalgia seemed such a useless indulgence, she thought. One day, as if reading her mind, her second cousin Mari said:
“Have you seen how beautifully your tree is growing?”
Alina’s only reply was a stare, but Mari merely smiled and poured out more tea, untroubled by the absence of an answer. Alina sighed, settled back with hands cradling her warm cup, and wondered to herself. . . . After all this time, did she dare? Did she dare seek out her many selves both then and now, and confront the truth of her being? Had she done well, or not? Had she done anything of significance at all?
* * *
A deep mythology had developed around the family groves, the larger forests, and the seeds each individual carried, but there was a knowledge and a craft behind it all. Years, decades, centuries of science had imagined them, created them, and improved them. Neither magic nor mystery were responsible—and yet their existence and influence were both magic and mystery, the mundane elevated to the numinous.
Each seed grew a tree that was unique to each person, and small groves were connected to vast community forests. The entire ecosystem stored humanity’s thoughts, hypotheses, discoveries, and breakthroughs. Everything was kept in living, growing memory that could endure beyond the life span of a human body. Analysis of this stored data confirmed that there was indeed a kind of reincarnation. It was nothing so linear as birth, death, and rebirth, but more of a recurring echo throughout history, like the stamp of a singular soul working out familiar problems in new eras and environments.
The worlds of humanity were myriad, and the forests brought everything together into one shared reality. With your own tree as entry point, it was possible to see who you had been, and guess at who you were becoming. Seeing was as perilous as prophecy. When seeds were distributed at birth, people might grow up to be obsessed with comparing their potential paths to completed journeys. The mandated pause for maturing diminished that risk. Fewer people looked into the ecosystem for guidance; more resorted to it for validation.
But was not the search for validation also risky?
* * *
Alina confessed to herself that she was afraid to see her other lives. What if her cozy, unremarkable life in this place and time was shown to be a pale, weak effort? Would she really be at peace with that, or would it change everything? Instead of forcing herself to answer, she looked at Mari and asked, “Would you, if you were me?”
Mari did not answer right away. She sipped her tea and appeared pensive for a moment, but then she looked up and into Alina’s eyes. “You don’t talk about the life you’ve lived. Were you happy?”
“Yes,” Alina replied instantly, almost shocked at such a question. “Of course I was.”
“Are you afraid of seeing yourself unhappy elsewhere?”
Alina blinked, taken aback again. “I . . . have never thought of it. I suppose it might be disconcerting. I only wonder . . .”
She wavered, then exhaled and firmly spoke her fear aloud. “I wonder if I might find that I missed my purpose in life.”
Mari nodded. “I planted my seed five years ago. I tried to get a few glimpses this year, but it’s still young, still a sapling. I’ve seen that this life has been a sheltered one for me, but it’s also shown me that a hard life won’t break me. That’s enough for my curiosity. I’ll wait another decade or more before I go back to see what the forests can teach me about myself.”
What can the forests teach me about myself?
Those were the words that stayed with Alina. She was still unsure, but she was also curious, and Mari had shown her that simple curiosity was not so bad a reason for looking at her lives. Perhaps a glimpse would satisfy her.
She made preparations to sleep in the family grove that night.
* * *
Alina knelt amid the blankets and cushions she’d placed on the ground, and touched her tree fondly with trembling fingertips. The bark was smooth and silvery in the starlight. She pressed her forehead against the cool, dew-damp trunk.
“I’m here,” she whispered.
Pinpoints of light showed gemlike through the silver as connections flashed beneath the bark, electricity tingled in her fingers, and her skull grew full and heavy with the weight of another awareness beyond her own. She slumped slowly against the cushions, careful not to move too far away and break the tenuous thread of consciousness.
The forests were not only vast; they were busy. Life and intelligence teemed through every conduit and intersection. The “heart of the multiverse,” they called it. That heart pulsed with the collected experiences and wisdom of generations of humans—making mistakes, creating legacies, rising to their greatest potential and falling to abyssal depths. Alina’s call, that simple “I’m here,” began a search for her match. Nothing so straightforward as genetic similarities would pass. A soul was more than biology; it was a blend of alchemy and algorithm.
Information began to filter back to her. She noted with awe how many times she had died young.
She saw herself in several worlds encountering accident, misfortune, and disaster in the usual ways, by being born into the wrong community, or by living in the wrong location. She was a sampling of mortality statistics, a collection of cautionary tales, and an object lesson of pity and regret many times over.
She was mourned, she was remembered, she was forgotten. Given enough time, she was always forgotten.
And yet, for all those deaths, there were far more times when she’d had the chance to grow. Immersed in her many childhoods, yet watching with an adult’s eye, Alina wondered if this was all it took to sate the curiosity that made some people have children: seeing a version of yourself encountering reality for the first time. Childhood was a liminal place, where every possible fork in the road could lead to tragedy or triumph, and back again. Such vulnerability, such resilience! She marveled at her own courage.
But no . . . she hadn’t been brave, only oblivious to both the pain and the privilege of her several upbringings. What mattered was the crowd of people around her. Were they suffering too? Were they restricted, oppressed, unable to find their true selves? Or did they, with all those shackles, still find joy? If they could, then joy was waiting for her as well, fleeting perhaps, but present. The promise of joy was hope, and hope made her brave.
In each world where she survived to grow up and grow old, that connection to others sustained her. She was, she now realized, very much like her own tree in its forest. She was one in the midst of many—grounded in the same earth, warmed by the same sunlight, washed in the same water, and sharing a cloud of mutual intake and exhalation.
As her sight turned outward to the souls around her lives, she became aware of . . . not quite a presence, but a resonance, like a string brushed with a fingertip sounding a note that hums another, untouched string to life. Without knowing why, she felt her lips begin to smile in recognition. In every iteration of her existence, someone had slipped wine into her cup. The intoxication was so familiar, she could recall it even in the absence of memory.
Absence. For all that she had no complaints, no regrets, she was sure she had never encountered this music in her present life. Only here, beside her tree, within the forest, did she know it for what it was.
She broke contact, breathing quickly, and returned to her body’s physical reality: the slow light of dawn, a mild breeze from the south, and the sweet, strong scent of the blossoms on her tree.
Mari came again—not that day, nor the day after, but before three days had passed. She came with tea and cake and her signature curiosity, wanting to know if her cousin’s communion with the forest had gone well.
“Very well,” Alina replied.
Mari grudgingly accepted the answer Alina had given her. No one was entitled to know the lives of another. Her vexation soon faded, and she ruefully admitted overstepping. She also noted that Alina’s pleased, calm demeanor was the best answer possible—whatever Alina had seen and experienced had not been distressing, but affirming.
Alina let Mari believe what she wanted to believe. She did not want to share her discovery of the music that made her soul sing. And, as much as she enjoyed company, she welcomed the return of solitude when Mari finally left at sunset. She wanted to daydream by herself a little while, and feel the anticipation and yearning of a love as yet unconsummated.
The resonance grew stronger, thrilling her nerves with a steady vibration. Something was drawing near. The significance of the wind’s caress deepened, carrying the alto of flower fragrance mellowed with the baritone of petrichor. A playful gust puffed the evening drizzle under the veranda roof and into Alina’s face, splattering rainbows into her eyelashes and tickling her nose with freshness.
“Wait,” Alina said softly.
What did she mean by that? Was she not ready for the visitor’s arrival, or was she trying to delay the visitor’s departure? Would she rather sit in safety and separation with only her desire . . . with her lip on the cup, and the wine within teasing her with its bouquet? Or was she willing to open her mouth and drink the wine down?
Was she ready for the cup to be empty?
With that “wait” still on the tip of her tongue, Alina returned semi-reluctantly to living. She took drives through the country to enjoy the quiet places of nature, ever-changing with season and weather and light. She visited museums of past and future, and galleries of art and craft, to let herself be pierced by the beauty they contained. She permitted dissatisfaction into her life again, and confessed the frustration of a child who knows that the party will end before they have eaten and played to their heart’s content.
She knew now what she meant by “wait.” She wanted the weight of the untasted cup, and the winekiss on her mouth. She wanted the warmth of the wine in her belly, and the lightness of an empty cup. She wanted the pause and the exhalation and the cup refilled. But the cup that held the last, the very last of the wine . . . that she did not want, not yet.
During a visit to a hall of science—part museum, part gallery—she went to a room of antique drawings on the theme of mysticism and the cosmos. One particular engraving caught her attention. She took the time to sit on a bench opposite and gaze upon it for long minutes, wondering why it gave her such a strange feeling of both familiarity and uncertainty. She could only compare it to the sense of seeing a door that she had often passed but never gone through.
She had seen versions in color before, but this original, in stark lines of black on white, was still her favorite. Three-quarters of the picture showed a world: blazing sun, serene moon, star-ceilinged landscape, flowers in the foreground, buildings in the distance, and a tree that reached to the heavens. At one corner, a man knelt by the horizon where the vault of heaven met the foundation of earth. His hand, head, and shoulders pushed through the star-studded veil into a Beyond that filled the final quarter of the picture. Wheels whirled within wheels, clouds ranged in levels ascending and descending, and suns illuminated all with a brightness that seemed to overwhelm mortal sight.
Below the frame, the original caption was printed without translation in a bold, modern font:
Un missionnaire du moyen âge raconte qu’il avait trouvé le point où le ciel et la Terre se touchent. . . .
Alina breathed deeply, feeling the mystery that the image gave to her, and heard a second sigh beside her. She turned her head, startled. Someone was seated on her right, also giving his full attention to the art.
“You’ve always loved this engraving,” he said.
“Oh?” she replied faintly. She would not waste time with trite questions like “How would you know?” or “Who are you?” when the answer was already clear from the singing in her soul, the hum of resonance in her spirit. But without trite questions, she could only be silent, because she was still not sure what to ask.
He continued to examine the artwork. “You had a poster on your wall at university, in that life when we studied philosophy together and went our separate ways after graduation.”
Alina stared at his profile as she said, “You were very ambitious, no time for anything but your career.” A small pang of regret tapped her heart and quickly faded. It had, after all, been another life, not the one she had here and now.
At last he faced her. “Another time, I gave you a framed copy for your office. You were so pleased with it, you forgave me for forgetting our anniversary.”
“I never blamed you,” she said honestly. “Your random gifts and celebrations were always better than birthdays and anniversaries. In many lifetimes.”
He laughed softly. Alina smiled shyly and looked down.
She thought of a question. “Why weren’t you with me in this life? Not even briefly, not even a glance?”
He pretended to be injured. “This doesn’t count?”
“I’m not even sure you’re really here,” she confessed.
She must have said something right. His eyes sparkled with humor. “In a way, I’m not, but in a way I’m more here than I ever was in any life. Besides, admit it.” He leaned toward her slightly. “You didn’t miss me in this life, did you? You wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t heard the echo of me in the forest.”
“I noticed who wasn’t you,” she said with certainty.
She had no need for a soul mate to fill a supposed lack. She had always known she was enough. The man beside her, the man she had known for most of her lives, was no puzzle piece or fragment. He was whole, as she was whole, and his appearance did not mean a conclusion, but a greater beginning.
He shifted his body closer to her and took hold of her hand. His grasp was warm, solid, and real. “Did you know that this world, this life, is the place where the heavens and the earth touch?”
She looked at the engraving again, seeing it clearly for what it was: a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional myth of a multidimensional possibility.
“Because of the forest?” she guessed.
“Because of the forest,” he agreed. “Because this is the world and the time in which humanity has learned how to view all the lives that have been given to us. This is where we can see both who and where we are, have been, and will be. Some people use that knowledge to make their lives much the same, or completely different. But others . . .”
“Others look further?” she prompted.
“Others go further,” he said.
She dropped her gaze to their clasped hands. “And how do I find the horizon? How do I break through the veil of stars?”
“However you want, and whenever you wish.” There was a smile in his voice, and she knew exactly what that smile looked like, but she still raised her head to see it. And with that glimpse . . .
. . . there was the press of his hand on hers and a thrill at the sight of that half-shy, half-sly smile . . .
. . . but she also saw that there was no one sitting beside her, no hand resting in her hand. It was just herself, alone.
She told no one, of course. How could she describe a moment that sounded almost tragic, definitely delusional, and yet was entirely the opposite? How could she explain that the moment was not, in fact, a moment, but a lingering experience that was now permanently set in her mind? This was not memory, but presence. She did not recall it with a conscious dwelling and a desperate clutch at fading senses and feelings. She knew it more and more with each second that went by.
She had the full cup and the winekiss, the emptied cup and the promise of the cup overflowing. She was holding them all together in her being, in an instant.
The new skill was both frightening and exhilarating. Now, when she looked at the family grove, she could see the beginning and ending of each living branch, and everything in between. Her tree was still a seed, and her seed had always been a tree. Roots drew up from soil and leaves drew down from air. All things moved, like wheels within wheels and cycles within cycles, contained within themselves and bounded by time, yet never-ending in their dance.
The faces of her relatives and friends grew even more beautiful and dear to her, the everyday fondness intensified by a deeper knowledge, and a fuller encounter with who they were, who they had been, and who they would become. There would never be any farewells with them—she understood that now. She was not leaving.
The starry veil was opening and she was unfolding herself from her kneeling crouch to stand tall in a place where words like wait had no meaning. The world folded up behind her, furling its few dimensions to the size of a tiny seed, and it nestled safely in her heart.
* * *
“You’re here,” he says. A simple statement, but not a trite one. The spoken word is both truth and being in this place.
“You guided me,” she replies. She looks all around her, and she marvels.
“We are children here,” he reassures her. “But time is not the guardian of our growth. Listen!”
She does so. “The music,” she says . . . but no, she does not say music, because the hum and harmony is more than sound, and more complex than any counterpoint.
She says instead, “The now . . .”
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Barbadian writer Karen Lord is the award-winning author of Redemption in Indigo, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and The Galaxy Game, and the editor of the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean. Her latest book, The Blue, Beautiful World, will be published in August 2023. You can find her online at: Twitter - @drkarenlord; karenlord.wordpress.com; and Instagram: @drkarenlord
“A Timely Horizon,” © Karen Lord, 2023.
The Sunday Morning Transport is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our authors’ work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I love this - it's so utterly gorgeous and full of hopefulness. I am definitely moved by it.💙
I enjoyed this so much. Thank you for sharing.