The Simple Life
Vision 01: Home
Plip . . . plip . . .
Existence swayed pendulously between delirium and agony beyond words. The arcane, madness-tossed ocean of schizophrenic subconscious lapped at a shore of jagged, shattered, rocky anguish. Increasingly, the rush of disjointed memories and thoughts submerged the physical sensation which was screaming, screaming, screaming primally for attention.
With a twitch of the young woman's body, the sea of delirium rolled back briefly. She could hear a distant rush and a half-perceived plip . . . plip . . . plip in the vague darkness, interrupted by—
Just as quickly, delirium rolled over her again as the echo of her own sudden and pitiful cry faded into the black haze.
What happens, thought Jasmine, as clear thoughts of the present crumbled once more and scattered like grains of sand, reshuffled into meaningless chaos by the engulfing waves—what happens when the tide comes in?
Jasmine squinted at the fierce glare of the fiery sunset glimmering across the water. Buildings still stood out in the bay, some towering dozens of stories high; they stood like giant men who had risen to their feet to gaze expectantly westward across the ocean, and remained standing so long that trees took root on them and the sun bleached them a lifeless gray. She was six and a half years old—old enough to know they weren't really giant men waiting for giant ships to appear on the western horizon—but it was more exciting to imagine they were.
"I said, 'what happens when the tide comes in?'" Jasmine's mother watched the girl as she worked diligently to perfect her sand castle, and smiled to herself in the peaceful manner of a mother relishing the sight of her child at play.
Jasmine stared out at the water, working through the familiar image of the tide rolling in and smothering the beach almost up to the diminutive cliff; the cliff marked the erosion caused by hundreds of years of the storm tide rolling in from time to time. The usual high tide line was marked in turn by a change in the texture of the beach: beyond the reaches of the daily high tides, the beach was stones and pebbles and mussel shells long since pillaged by birds and dried seaweed clinging to rocks.
Her sand castle, however, was well within the region of soft, warm sand.
Jasmine gasped with realization. She had placed her castle too close to the water: it would be lost to the sea by the next morning! At once, she started work on a wall, a stout fortified barrier to keep back the ruinous tide.
The girl's mother knelt by her side, laughing as a mother does at her child's harmless folly. How is it, this motherly laughter seems to tenderly chide, that you worry when even I know with certainty that you face neither harm nor lasting sorrow?
"It's okay, Jasmine," she said, wrapping her arms shelteringly about her daughter. "I learned a long time ago that you can't save every castle built in the sand, and nothing lasts forever."
Jasmine stopped her work, looking at her masterpiece mournfully, silently resisting the inevitable doom which awaited it. "But I don't want to lose it."
Alita kissed the crown her daughter's head softly, holding her gently but securely. "I know, Jasmine," she answered. "I know. Sometimes you don't really have a choice."
She paused a moment, watching the sandcastle quietly.
"But I'll tell you a secret—how you can keep it with you forever."
Jasmine looked up at her mother, wide-eyed, her voice hushed reverently at the offer of such a profound mystery revealed. "Really? How?"
Alita smiled warmly and nodded, her own voice falling quiet. "Enjoy it while it lasts, and seal that joy away in your heart, where nothing can take it from you." She took her daughter's sand-encrusted hand and pressed it tenderly over the girl's heart.
"Everything you love will stay with you forever, right here."
Plip . . . plip . . . plip . . . plip . . .
Swirling delirium rolled away, leaving glistening, mind-wracking bodily agony. Jasmine felt as though impaled and lit afire by a bolt of lightning, and it was all she could do to cry out like a frightened infant—even breathing seemed to drag the ranging electric fire into her body where it coursed from her heart to the tips of her fingers and toes and then reverberated back up her nerves. Each twitch of her body hurled her from the swirling and smothering sea of dreams up onto the rocky, cuspate shore to be torn anew by blinding pain.
As the warm, misty ocean washed over her thoughts again, it gently lifted her from her body's suffering, wrapping her once more in disjointed memory. Tingles, chills, and fatigue whirled through her like recklessly swooping sea birds at battle. Her kinesthetic and vestibular senses swam like an image seen through turbulent waters, and the world spun directionlessly away from her.
Jasmine sat up, rubbing her head and promising herself not to cry. It wasn't serious, but it still hurt to land so roughly even on sand, and moreover, it was frustrating. At least she almost never got sand in her eyes, now. She stood and let out a deep breath like she had learned to do from her father, puffing away the wounds to her pride and inhaling strength and courage. She brushed sand from herself and focused, trying to will away the distracting funny bone feeling running back through her head from her sinuses; that was the worst part of all—it wasn't really pain, but somehow more unpleasant and nerve-grating, like fingernails on a chalk board.
She had been practicing the routine since the end of last year, not long before her ninth birthday. She wanted to be ready by Mother's Day, since it was Alita who taught her all the acrobatics and gymnastics she had picked up; the fighting part she also got from her father, Figure, but she supposed she could do something else for Father's Day. Maybe she'd catch the biggest fish she could. It was either that, or beat up one of the boys in the village, and while her father would surely be proud, she decided the fish was an all-around better idea.
The fish could wait. Jasmine had to concentrate on what she was doing for Mother's Day, now just two months away. She had the routine down in her head, but she needed to get it all smooth, especially that flip; she had the move down by itself, but it was never so easy to fit it in with others.
She began moving, pulling into her stance, exhaling slowly and deliberately; her arms slid into position in a patient, gliding motion made all the more serpentine by the hiss of her escaping breath. For a silent, timeless moment, she held her position perfectly still.
Then she sprang into action.
Since she could walk on her own, Jasmine had been learning gymnastics, tumbling, and acrobatics from her mother. She learned first to tumble and fall safely, progressed to roundoffs, and continued on to begin mastering full flips only a year ago. She still had to use her hands sometimes, but the more she practiced and worked her legs, the more she could trust herself.
As she leapt forward, the nimble pivot and sharp snap of her high kick were all her mother's style—dash, feign, and strike with precision: the tilt of her body to deliver the kick brought her outside her imaginary attacker's hypothetical strike. At the same time, her confidence in having the strength to challenge someone larger than her, she owed to her father. He insisted that without strength, all the flashy moves in the world were meaningless, and made certain that however lean and wiry, her muscles worked hard enough to outmatch most of the boys of the village.
With a fraction of a second spent motionless (carefully planned to display her balance), Jasmine swung her leg back through its trajectory, righting herself and pushing free of the ground to let the momentum carry her backward in a graceful flip; her other leg lagged as it swung upward, toes curled back, to catch the chin of a second hypothetical enemy with the ball of her foot. She pivoted as she landed—this time, with her leading foot placed soundly and with her balance intact—spun as her trailing foot touched down, and swept low and fast across the ground with her calf to knock loose the first fictional assailant's legs from under him.
She continued fluidly, pouncing forward and using the sand where her opponent's stomach would be as the anchor for a round-off, leaving a distinct impression from the pivoting action. She twisted in the air as she sprung off, and with another snap of her loose pant leg, launched a kick squarely into the face of her newly recovered second imaginary attacker. She could almost feel the impact and the give of his nose, and it sent a tingle through her; she didn't like the idea of hurting people, so much as knowing she was able to hurt bad people. That was the kind of power and motivation that made heroes, and she wanted more than anything to let Alita know that her daughter, too, could be a hero.
Plip . . . plip . . . plip . . .
The shifting edge of the sea of delirium washed against the brutally ragged shore, murky with the solute, particulate froth of a thousand splintered thoughts. Protrusions of jagged, flinty, neuralgic pain jutted asymmetric and fang-like from the surface, and agony screamed down Jasmine's nerves like bullet trains racing down their tracks through disaster-torn countrysides. Color flashed and flared kaleidoscopically in the darkness lingering before her right eye, and through whirling fear and pain thrust a potent, metallic scent; another, musky and stale, lay like a musty blanket over everything, but it was wan and mild in the company of the first.
The colors shifted and blurred as thoughts and perceptions submerged into the hazy shadows of delirium once more: red and blue smeared together into shades of purple, greens ran together with the reds and blended into a murky greyish purple-brown like a deep contusion or necrotic flesh.
Jasmine frowned at her palette and the ugly shade of gray. She had caught herself fidgeting with her paints, swirling together a dab of this with a dab of that. The color it produced was neither flattering nor pleasant. It reminded her of fish guts, which also weren't pleasant.
Sighing, she sat back against a tree growing from the high rooftop where she had set up easel and canvas, and looked out across the water. The sky was still light, but the sun had set. Her canvas held the surrealistic image of the sun in the midst of setting, half of its golden form lingering above the razor-sharp line of the horizon—below it, only the thousand glittering undulations of the water showed, and above, only sparse clouds aglow in shades of yellow and orange. The rest of the canvas was blank and untouched; there was no blue azure sky harboring the clouds, and there was no gray-green sea off of which the reflected sunlight shined.
She had planned to put them in, of course. She had tried more abstract and impressionist styles, but they didn't keep her interest. She read books her mother collected—some were about thing like ancient history and art—and wondered why anyone else had ever been interested in anything so far removed from reality that they were all but impossible to identify with.
Today, she had been experimenting with new approaches; in this case, her experiment was painting the brightest parts, first. She lost interest after she had finished the sun and its reflections, leaving nothing else but the pencil-line horizon. It was an hour later, now. She had spent the whole time staring either at her canvas or at her palette or out into the sky, and fidgeting with her paints.
She realized, then, that she was tired of painting sunsets over the ocean.
She still thought it was a tremendously beautiful and moving sight, but in twelve years of life, she had painted more sunsets than she could count—all of them, sunsets over the ocean—and while she had become much, much better at it, she had also become sick of it. She wanted to see and paint something new. The people of Alhambra, the coastal town where she lived with her parents, were just as familiar, and almost as prodigiously reproduced in pigment on canvas.
What I need to paint, Jasmine decided, is everything I've heard of but never seen. The Western Mountains, Steel City, the Tree of Life—all of those things.
Each night, as a child, her head swam with all the stories her mother told about the adventures she was in before she settled down in Alhambra. Kaos, an archaeologist and leader of the Steel City community who had been a friend of Alita—Jasmine, herself, was named after Kaos' childhood friend who had died during Alita's adventures—occasionally sent pictures along with books for her mother's collection, and Jasmine had memorized the faces of these epic characters to make her bedtime stories even more vivid. Now, she wanted to see them, and to see the places where all the action had taken place.
She also wanted to see the one person she had heard the most about, but never seen. Kaos had no pictures to send of Ido, the man who had been like a father to Jasmine's mother until he was killed. The last time Alita had seen him must have been more than twenty years ago, and he had lost his memory of her. Even if he didn't know any of them, Jasmine still wanted to meet the man who was almost her grandfather, and maybe bring home a painting of him.
Plip . . . plip . . . plip . . .
The rushing, whirling, tumbling maelstrom of confusion and vague fear created a sickening kind of emotional vertigo. Jasmine began to feel that the momentary shocks of abject agony were almost a welcome interruption, until they came upon her and she longed again for the numbness of delirium. Darkness, everywhere, except imagined colors dancing along her optic nerves to a deranged and just barely inaudible melody. Maybe, she thought, if I lie here long enough, I'll hear it, too.
Is this what death is like? she wondered, half-consciously, as reason began to slip away once more; it slipped from her hands in the same slow and inevitable way sand had always slipped from between her fingers underwater, when she was a child playing at the beach. Over the song of madness, she thought she could hear the ocean. In the darkness, the cool murmur of the sea rang in her ears.
The surf rolled, whispered, and hushed. The house, like the rest of the village, was close enough to the water that it could be heard at any time of the day, even through the walls. But it was so much easier to hear it in the middle of the night, when the birds were quiet and the village was asleep; when all the world seemed to be at rest but for the wind and the sea.
At least, most of the village was asleep.
Jasmine lay quietly in bed, working up the nerve to follow through with her plan. She had pretended to go to sleep three hours ago. She had most of what she needed packed up already. Her note was written and rewritten over the course of the last three weeks; she had wanted it to be perfect. There was nothing left to do but to make her move.
She swung quietly out of her bed and quickly rolled up the sleeping bag she used for bedding. From the dark corner of her closet, she retrieved the backpack she had filled with snacks to last her awhile—bread, cheese, and smoked fish—and the tools she'd learned to take with her when she traveled away from home. Quickly, she lashed the backpack and bedroll together and set them by her window. She pulled her note out from where she had hidden it in the backpack and read it over once more:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Sorry I have to say this in a note, but I know you'd never let
me go if you knew. I hope you won't still be angry at me when I
come back. It might be a long time, and I'll really miss home, and
I'll REALLY miss you both, but I promise I'll always write! I'll try
and send pictures, too!
I realized one day that I needed to see all the things you
always told me about. I guess it sounds crazy, and I guess I can't
ask you to understand. But I promise I'll be okay, and I promise I'll
come back home when I'm ready. It's just something I know I have
to do, I guess. Take care of Alhambra for me!
Jasmine's room didn't have a window that opened, so she had no choice but to make her way through the house. Fortunately, there was only the ground floor, so she didn't have to worry about the floor making noise. She got dressed as fast as she could, slung her pack over her shoulder, and slipped out of her room, carrying her shoes in her hand; she knew from experimenting that they made more noise than did socks. It didn't take long to get to the front door. She paused briefly in hesitation; if she continued, she realized, she had to follow through completely. She couldn't go out for a week or two and come back, or she'd just wind up grounded, and then she might never get herself to go.
She watched her hand gripping the knob of the door for a long moment, and she didn't breathe as she slowly and quietly turned it. She slipped outside again, closing the door as silently as she was able, keeping the knob turned until the door was shut to keep the latch from clicking. A glance around revealed nobody outside, just as she had expected. Alhambra was a quiet fishing village, and there wasn't much going on outside after dark, most days.
Jasmine had been practicing for this all through the last year, since she had realized she needed to get away. As she walked out to the edge of the town and looked back at houses dimly lit by a sliver of moon, she thought about her frequent camping trips instead of her home—if she thought about it too much when she was so close, she might turn back. She had to be brave, she told herself over and over again.
For a long time, she stood and watched Alhambra slumber.
Then, finally, she turned and began walking. She had to get some distance, or else she'd be caught in her sleep. There was a pretty long stretch of prairie and light woodland where she could forage before getting to the mountains. The Western Mountains, as they were called on the other side, would be the real tough part, but she had decided long ago to get as ready as she could and then worry about the mountains when she reached them.
I promise I'll come back someday, Alhambra!
I'll come back and show you the rest of the world!