“You know… one loves the sunset, when one is sad…”
“Were you so sad, then, on the day you saw forty-four sunsets?”
But the little prince made no reply.
What the little prince did not dare confess, was that he was sorry to leave this planet, because it was blest every day with 1440 sunsets!
—The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I had run away. It was something I had always wanted to do in high school; break away from the world as I knew it. All the same, I don’t know much about life; many of the grownups that know me would label me naïvely idealistic. I live every experience through my senses, so I suppose I am soul-oriented and follow my gut rather than my common sense. I was a person who read escapist literature because I was perpetually dissatisfied with my humdrum life. I was of some importance to certain people, but in general, I had nothing going for me.
This is what I should have said to her, if I had had more presence of mind.
The truth was, that I couldn’t explain anything that had happened to me after I went on a walk near my family’s cabin. I had tried going back the way I had come, but the road, the same goddamn road, led me to a dead-end. There had only been the road, no mysterious caves, no sudden turns, not even a whisper of wind. I expected to come across a car sometime in the near future, but I was disappointed even in that respect. Why was the world suddenly so still? I glowered at the neutrally blue sky and then sat down in the middle of the road, cross-legged and completely resigned.
And then she found me.
She was odd, this young woman. She wore lace-up leather sandals, loose leather pants and a matching sleeveless shirt the colour of rye. Tapering waves of ink were drawn onto her bare arms like veins, and a black gemstone necklace hung from her neck. The only article of clothing that could be called ordinary was the grey scarf wrapped around her throat. I wouldn’t have called her pretty – she was much too earthy and indelicate to deserve the word. She had a square, caramel face with simian cheekbones, coal-black eyes and a rough mane of black hair to her waist that was coiled into a braid.
She breathed heavily as she approached me, visibly tired of her walk. There was no hesitation in her eyes. No apology.
“I’m lost,” I smiled, feeling silly. A grown woman – so I’m told – who had lost her way on a straight road. How was I going to explain that?
“You’re not from my outpost,” she appraised me cursorily, as confused by my appearance as I was of hers.
“Outpost?” the word had thrown me off so much that I could think of nothing else to add.
“It doesn’t matter, you can come home with me. My outpost is a short walk from here, just across the bridge,” she shrugged, jerking her head in the direction of the dense forest. I wasn’t about to dive into some tick-infested bush, so I cemented my feet to the dirt road and scoffed.
She looked amused.
“The sun is going down,” she remarked, as if that were a foolproof argument.
“Are you one of my neighbours? Mr. Tam never mentioned you. There’s old Ms. Nancy in the cabin next to mine, Mr. Harvey, and Mrs. Tremblay. I was there this morning, retrieving my keys and picking up some fishing supplies. He would have mentioned a new neighbour. Especially…” I gave her a scrutinising gaze, lingering meaningfully on her clothes.
“I’ll help you find your way back to your cabin tomorrow morning,” she conceded, evidently more accustomed to problem solving than I was. “I’ve had a long day, so unless you intend on spending the night here… you’ll follow me to my outpost.”
“Why do you call it an outpost, where you live?” I inquired as we strode into the woodland and walked side by side at a brisk pace. Her movements were silent and supple, like a fox, and even the leaves barely crunched under her light step.
“Because that is its proper name.”
“I’m Jo – that’s my proper name.”
“My name is Lilia,” she glanced sideways at me.
“You look Native American,” I remarked bluntly.
“I am a native of this land, but otherwise I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
I kept quiet until we had reached – she hadn’t been kidding – a bridge. It was made of narrow wooden planks, and its rails were nothing but rope. I glanced down at the waters swirling beneath it, and felt a twinge of apprehension at crossing this ill-tempered river. Lilia’s footing was faultlessly assured as she made the crossing. I had no choice but to go for it. As we stood on the other side, both craggy and mossy, a black wolf trotted up to her and burrowed its snout in her hand. It accompanied us up a small hill and then down into a valley from where I could see smoke rising up from a chimney. The sky was already a deep shade of purple, and a sentiment of relief was welling up inside of my constricted chest.
The opaque evening shadows soothed me, and everything felt inexplicably balanced, as if the world had suddenly straightened itself out. It was just a feeling, mind you, and I thought nothing of it because feelings come and go as they please. The “outpost” was impressive. It was a Queen Anne style manor with two towers and stained glass windows, and a wraparound porch with several rocking chairs. It wasn’t in good shape, but it wasn’t falling apart either. There was a small group of kids igniting a campfire close by, and they were all of them dressed as eccentrically as Lilia.
She led me indoors, leaving the door ajar. I only thought people did that in the American South and in farm country. The wolf dog settled down at the threshold and let his tongue hang happily.
“This was once a family’s home, in past times,” she grinned, ushering me into the lounge. A plaid blanket overspread the wooden planks at the mouth of the burning fireplace, and it was laid out with bowls of food. There were all kinds of things, both raw and cooked, vegetables and what smelled like freshly baked goods. “Please, sit down and break bread with me,” she motioned towards the blanket, and to oblige her I sank down and took a helping of everything.
“What did you mean, in past times?” I asked as I savoured the earthy taste of a cooked carrot. Everything felt unprocessed, infused with the earth.
“You know, decades ago, when things were so tangled and mangled that everybody was having panic attacks. My grandmother told me about those people, who lived in a self-perpetuating limbo of dissatisfaction. She told me about the way they would rush to and from work like brain-dead animals. They had to amass a great deal of goods, you see, something called money, and to unwind they would ‘get away’ to all kinds of places scattered across the globe. Grandmother told me that many of them killed themselves, either from profound sadness or inescapable numbness. It was too difficult to live.”
Her face fell when she finished saying this, and for a moment she forgot to chew. She was a creature of impeccable presence, but just then I lost her to a memory.
“Did your grandmother pass away recently?” I guessed, feeling instinctively concerned for her in a sisterly way.
“A month ago,” she nodded, swallowing with difficulty.
If it hadn’t been for that, I would have incited her to offer me more information. Peaceful as I felt, I thought I had stumbled into a place that had never had contact with the modern world. There was nothing wrong with where I was; yet I felt out of place. I was not disturbed enough by my new situation, however, to linger on the idea.
“How small the world has become,” she said in a low tenor of voice, lifting her eyes to me. I blushed at being beheld so fully.
“Yes,” I nodded, feeling a chill in my heart.
I chose the bedroom in the north tower, because it was the only one with a bed. Everybody else slept in hammocks, or on feather mattresses with fur coverings. There were many children, and few adults. Most of them weren’t related to each other, but they lived with the communal spirit of a charity home. I didn’t find out anything more about Lilia until I had had a good night’s sleep, my face turned upwards to the skylight that opened to a ceiling of stars.
I was never a morning lark, but the next day I rose at eight, according to my wristwatch. I slid my feet into my flats and crept down to the lounge. Nobody in sight. I went through the open front door and sat down in one of the rocking chairs. It had never been easier to unwind as I rocked back and forth, lulling myself.
My eyes strayed down to the forest floor and hooked onto Lilia and her furry companion, returning from a morning stroll. Her hair was down and it suited her well.
“Would you like to eat, or should we walk you back now?” she asked, climbing up to the porch. In the cold morning light her warm skin tone looked faded, yet frosty roses bloomed in her cheeks and her eyes shone with renewed spirit. I began to wonder if I had caught her at a bad moment the other day.
“I’d like to hit home base,” I nodded, letting the wolf sniff my hand.
“As you wish,” she exclaimed, before ducking inside and re-emerging with a satchel of fruit. “Now we’re ready.”
“You should come over for dinner and wine sometime,” I said as our feet landed on the dirt road that ran parallel to my grounds. “You’re legal, right?” I asked jokingly.
“Once in a while, you use words I don’t understand,” she said with a coy smile, sweeping the hair out of her face. “Is your cabin on the edge of the lake?”
“Yeah, but I can’t remember which path to take.”
“Come on,” she dived into the bushes with a carefree smile and to my surprise wove her fingers into mine. She knew exactly where we were going, and soon enough we were standing on the lakeshore. After half an hour of fruitless searching I began to feel a mounting sense of panic. I had come here to relax, to unwind, and now I couldn’t find my house. I bound up the hill to where I was sure it must be, but in its place stood a hillock piled with twigs and animal droppings.
“My stuff!” I blurted out, shaking all over. Lilia positioned herself beside me and scrutinised me with that bright look of consciousness she had. Would she put it together, would she make sense of it before I did? “I had over a hundred dollars of makeup in there, groceries for two weeks, and all those books! Oh no, the books,” my hands flew to my face and I sank my nails into my cheeks. That was the most horrifying part, by far.
“I have books,” she said calmly, her hand falling onto my shoulder. “You know, I don’t remember any outposts being here. Are you sure this is where you came from?”
The question produced an odd effect on me. I felt a wave of hysteria rippling through me, and the need to rationalise myself gripped me.
“I’m from a big city. It has skyscrapers and mile-long concrete roads and glass boutiques and shawarma places where they give me extra hot sauce whenever I want it. I buy my coffee at a local café, I have brunch at diners with my friends, and I have a gym membership at the Y. Yes, it can be overwhelming, but I can’t think of a more reassuring place to be right now.”
Lilia beheld me with uplifted eyebrows. Is she done now? Her look evinced.
“Come here,” she pulled me down to the ground and settled down beside me. She circled my shoulders with her arm and squeezed. “I am going to ask you a few questions now, to establish a few truths.”
“Shoot…” I mumbled.
“When was the last time you were in your big city?”
“I left city limits at ten o’clock, give or take a few minutes.”
She drew me even closer. The gesture was gentle and childlike, and pleased me immensely, as affection never fails to put me at my ease.
“The outpost is a safe haven, for whoever is left. It’s a small existence, because the world has shrunken so much since you left it.”
“What happened to me?”
“Time is fluid. You may have fallen through a different current, and it brought you all the way here. To this particular place.”
“An outpost called: the Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling stated bluntly in my mind.
Tears fell in abundance down my cheeks and dribbled off the edge of my chin as we made our way back to the outpost. I was wrestling with clashing feelings of relief and horror. It was a powerful tug-o-war for someone who felt relieved at being in the forest, torn away from her former worries, but terrified of living without the people that had once been so important to her. Nothing had prepared me for this loss. I had woken up to nothing, and Lilia, I realised, was the best person to be around, for she too had experienced a great loss. Both of us had to relearn the world, to reshape ourselves with the new feelings that weighed us down, so that the world wouldn’t leave us behind. I was reminded of how slippery we are, and how fast changes can take effect in our lives.“Here I am,” I mumbled as we found our way back to the great old house, which I was now to understand a survivors’ asylum.