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A Life of the Mind
Kai thinks the human soul must be made of water.
The more the liquid pours from her eyes, the emptier she becomes. She sobs each night for the pain to stop, but instead, awakens with a hollow feeling lodged in her center. Sweat beads dot her skin like dewdrops sprinkled upon the sun-baked soil. If only the fever would break.
“Make the pain stop, Mama. Don’t let it steal my soul,” whispers Kai through chapped lips. A decrepit motor vehicle wheezes by the shack and rattles the door from its hinges, allowing dust from the road to permeate the room. Kai emits a deep cough, having been forced to inhale the soot like air.
“Shhh. You need rest. Close your eyes,” replies her mother in clipped English. She steps outside the room, unable to bear the sight of her daughter in the firm grasp of a pain that cannot be mitigated.
Kai closes her eyes, willing sleep to come, knowing it will not. She knows the body sleeps, although the mind never does. Her eyelids flutter downward like timid butterflies landing, then lock into position, transporting her to a place she has visited many times during her illness.
It is not a dreamland, but, rather, a life of the mind that captivates her with its provinces of the unknown. This is her escape.
Just as the cloak of darkness descends, it is pierced by chandeliers of spider webs that suddenly teem with a light so brilliant, a landscape is illuminated before her. She finds herself standing on the brink of a ruby maze; the walls and floors of this labyrinth are drenched with twirling rose vines, like serpents ready to strike at the ankles of each intruder. Curiosity beckons her to step into the outer edge of the maze and graze the floor with her bare foot. Too late she remembers that roses have hidden, sharp thorns.
Just as she expects a searing pain to penetrate her foot, she hears a voice, a mingling of lullaby and nightmare.
“There is no sense of touch here. You are safe from the thorns, from the pain.”
Kai swivels until she meets the source of the voice. It is an alabaster woman. Frigidity encases her like skin, making her body look frozen and statuesque. She looks like a queen of ice. Kai thinks that seeing the strange woman there, amid the roses, is like witnessing a merging of the seasons – spring punctuated by winter.
Kai turns to leave, but is halted by the Ice Queen’s voice.“Look at the roses beneath your feet, the ones you thought would puncture your skin only moments ago.”
Kai wonders how the lady knows the trail of her unvoiced thoughts, but her shocked silence encourages the Ice Queen to continue.
“You don’t need to escape, Kai. Besides, you can’t.”
The roses slither higher all of a sudden, like crimson prison bars emerging from the ground. Kai looks to the place where she entered the maze as an assurance of safe exit. It has vanished, and she is indeed trapped.
The Ice Queen moves to Kai’s side, and they begin walking through the maze.
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
“No,” Kai replies, failing to see the significance of this inquisition.
“Good.” And then an ebony haze engulfs Kai. Black bats fill every empty crevice imaginable.
“Stop! All this noise –I can’t think!” Kai shouts above the ruckus, as an idle bat lands near her ear to chew unrelentingly.
“This is the sound of my mind,” The Ice Queen says. “This is what it is like to hear the thoughts of everyone around you, all at once. This is the sound of intuition.”
At once, the noise ceases and Kai regains sight. “What do you think of the weather?” The Ice Queen asks. The sky is a tie-dyed pattern of blue and white.
“Pretty,” Kai responds.
“Really?” The sky rips open, furiously pouring snow that entraps Kai. “Watch the sleet strangle blades of grass, a silent noose that kills – much like illness.” Her words are cryptic. They fall like shards of ice from frozen lips that drip with chill, yet seemingly beg for warmth. But, after a few minutes of being immersed in this snow globe, Kai sees the wonderland of snow-crested malice melt and pool beneath the roses. She takes a step and slips on the unabsorbed moisture. Readying herself for the pain that will accompany her fall, she cringes.
“Kai, there’s no sense of touch here, remember? The absence of pain is a gift I can give you. Will you take it?”
Kai gives her a hopeful glance. Pain is all she’s known in the past few months of her illness. To be free from it entirely would be unimaginable.
The silence that ensues hangs between them like a whispered secret. Shivering, Kai says, “Silence is never good, you know.”
“That’s not true,” the Ice Queen says. “Silence can be a good thing.”
“No,” replies Kai with finality, her words escaping her mouth in white puffs of foreboding. “Silence is only a bad thing masquerading as something good.”
As if summoned by her words, a pack of snow-furred wolves fills the stillness with rancorous barking. A dense fog descends upon the landscape, and in a dash of unnatural alacrity, the wolves encroach upon the frazzled pair and encircle them, snarling and frothing at the mouth. The wolves possess a perturbed patience that suggests they are waiting for an important decision to be made.
“Listen to me, Kai. Close your eyes, but not your mind. Thwart your fear just as you’ve thwarted your pain all these months, and you will feel your fear melt like ice.”
Kai obeys the Ice Queen’s instructions and closes her eyes, allowing herself to ignore that the anxious barking of the wolves has doubled in volume and ferocity.
Just as abruptly as it started, the noise tapers off. The wolves must be gone, thinks Kai, as she opens her eyes for affirmation. A single strand of sunlight has pierced the murky gauze of sky and the Ice Queen is illuminated atop a mound of lilacs, her back turned towards Kai. After inhaling painfully, Kai realizes what has happened.
The Ice Queen, once beautiful and formidable, has melted.
The mysterious form spins slowly into frontward view and reveals a face Kai recognizes at once.
Her mother only stares blankly, wearing the acute yet detached sorrow of one who watches death transpire. Kai approaches her mother and rakes her fingers across the leather skin of her cheek, seeking to memorize with touch what she cannot discern with mere eyesight. Dewdrops evaporate from the petals of the lilacs and find a new dwelling place in Kai’s eyes. With blurry vision, she watches her mother fade in form, then morph into mere mirage.
But it’s all a mirage, thinks Kai. Just a series of illusions strung together by the mind. Sinking to the ground, she pensively threads lilacs through her loose braids. The trajectory of contemplation must be followed closely, she knows, because her next thought will inevitably determine her next reality.