Science Fiction Poignant Alien Worlds Tesseracts

The Path of Souls

By Edward Willett
Mar 19, 2020 · 2,514 words · 10 minutes

Lights script

Photo by Carlos Irineu da Costa via Unsplash.

From the author: For several years, Globe Theatre, here in Regina, ran an event called Lanterns on the Lake, during which people paraded around Wascana Lake, in the heart of the city, carrying paper lanterns of every colour, size, and shape. The visual effect was ethereal and otherworldly...and inspired this story, published in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast, edited by Colleen Anderson and Steve Vernon.


HELLO, TRAVELER. HOW MAY I HELP YOU?

It’s true I am not Andillan. Nor are you, obviously. Not enough fur.

Ah, you’re curious. You are wondering what a human woman is doing on such a strange, remote world.

Are you a journalist, perhaps? An academic? No? Just a traveler?

I do not share my story, as a rule. Others have come, and asked the questions you ask, and always I have turned them away. But tonight...tonight, fortune smiles on you. Tonight, I am in the mood to answer questions. It is, after all, my final opportunity.

First, let me welcome you to the City of Light and Death. That is what the Andillan name means in this tongue you and I share, a tongue I use rarely these days.

The answer to your first question, why I am here, is simple. I tend the lanterns. I have tended them for twenty years. I suppose I should say, for twenty years, local, but I will never leave this world, so what use have I for the turnings of another planet about its sun?

Your pardon. Of course I understood your true intent. Not why I am here on this street, moving the lanterns from post to post in their long, long journey to the sea, but why I am here, on this planet, when I was once like you.

Oh, yes, young sir, more like you than you might think. I once wore a uniform not unlike yours, though from another ship...a ship that has never returned since the day I chose to remain here.

A drink? No...no. I do not drink alcohol. Not for twenty years. But a glass of water...thank you, sir.

The city is beautiful, is it not? The Andillans have toiled lovingly over it for centuries. They know that, in the end, they all come here.

See how the towers catch the sun as it sets into the sea? They might almost be on fire, so brightly do their windows gleam. And here below, the lamps are beginning to show their colours...so many colours, so many shades of blue and orange, of green and yellow, of violet and red. So many lamps, marching in rows on the grey weathered posts that line this street and many others, marching down to the sea, where tonight ten thousand will enter the waves...one lamp for every Andillan who died twenty years ago.

That is how long the journey takes, this final journey of this planet’s people. Twenty years, because that is how long it takes the Star of Life—that one, the bright one just above the horizon—to make its circuit through the constellations. It is not a star at all, of course, but a planet, swinging far out in the coldest reaches of this solar system, but the name goes back a long, long time, long before the Andillans dreamed of other worlds—or of strange creatures like you and me.

When the Star of Life is in the same constellation as it was the year an Andillan died, the soul-lantern of that Andillan reaches the sea. The waves will be aflame tonight. The lanterns will move out over the sea, taken by a current that curls against the shore at the bottom of the Path of Souls. You can see them for hours, growing smaller and dimmer...and when you can’t see them anymore, that’s when the miracle happens.

You don’t believe in miracles? Neither did I, when I first came here. Maybe I still don’t. But twenty years isn’t much of one’s life to give for the chance to witness one, is it?

I’m sorry. I’m not making sense. I can see it in your eyes, the way they shifted away just then. But I assure you, I am quite sane.

I’ll tell you the whole story. As I said, I’ve never done that before. But tonight...tonight the story comes to an end. Or maybe to a beginning.

Twenty years ago. A ship. A crew, much like your crew; men, women, each with his or her own reason for sailing the Dark between the stars. My reason? Nothing special; a love affair gone bad, a place I never wanted to see again, a planet suddenly too small...and a childhood spent looking at the stars and wondering what lay among them.

I thought I was running away from something; I never expected to run to something, but so I did. I met a man on the ship...Piotr. A man with his own reasons for sailing infinity, reasons I never heard. They didn’t matter to me, and my reasons didn’t matter to him.

We’d been together for six months of ship-time when we landed here. We completed each other, he and I. In my happiness, in my contentment, I thought I could see the future. I was wrong.

We didn’t come here for the Festival, of course. We came for cargo. I don’t know what it was; anonymous pressure containers bound for the next system along the Arm, where we’d exchange them for more anonymous containers bound back the other way. The loading went well and we were due shore leave...and so we left the ship and crossed the bridge and passed through the Gate—just as you did, on a night just like this—and were swept up in the crowds of Festival.

We came first to this very inn. It has been here much longer than twenty years. Many a mourner has drowned his sorrows within its walls. We had no sorrows, so we drank instead to our happiness. We drank...

You’re done? Then come. I will finish my story in the street. As I tell you what happened I will show you where it happened. What I cannot tell you is why.

This way...here. Through this archway. This is where we first emerged onto the Path of Souls. And turned this way and....

It is breathtaking, is it not? The long, straight sweep of the Path. The lanterns, so many lanterns, so many colours, gleaming off the mother-of-pearl pavement. A river of light, leading down, down to the sea.

Like you, we were enchanted. We began to walk, down the Path...this way...then to run, drunkenly, staggering. Down, down...

Here, Piotr began to weave from one side to the other, grabbing the lantern posts, swinging around one, hurtling across the road to grab another and swing around...

You’ve stopped. What do you see?

They’re caretakers, like myself. See how carefully they handle the lanterns, as though the globes are made of eggshell? They’re not, of course. Nor are they glass. They’re of a substance woven by tiny worms that feed on vines from the hot, sunny hillsides above this city. Like silk, I suppose, but also unlike, for woven into cloth, bound onto a wooden frame, and left to dry in the sun, it hardens into those beautiful shells.

They look fragile. They aren’t, really. They’re very difficult to break. Difficult...but not impossible.

Not impossible at all, when a heavy post gives way, and falls directly onto the shell.

Here. After twenty years, it’s beginning to look like all the others, but see how this post is slightly paler; weathered, but not quite as weathered as its neighbours?

Piotr, laughing, ran from that post—the one by the statue of the Unknown God—to this post, swung himself around it...I heard a crack, saw the post start to fall, screamed Piotr’s name...

The post missed him, but it did not miss the lantern. It shattered. The light went out. And something...escaped. Something swept through me, an emotion, or a sensation—both, or neither. The taste of twilight, the sound of salt, a silvery light that rang in my mind like a clear, distant bell...there are no words for it. In twenty years, I’ve never found the words.

Tears filled my eyes, spilled down my cheeks. I thought it was only a reaction to Piotr’s close call—the post would surely have shattered his skull as easily as it did the lantern, had it hit him—but now...I’m not so sure.

I ran to him. He hugged me tight, shaking but also laughing, telling me everything was all right, would always be all right...and then we heard running footsteps all around us and then...

I looked up to see caretakers surrounding us, their gold-flecked eyes fixed on Piotr.

Piotr stopped laughing. He held up his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said.

That was all he had time to say. Someone grabbed me, pulled me out of the circle. I screamed, struggled, but the Andillans are so strong, I couldn’t get away...

The circle closed around Piotr. I saw a six-fingered fur-covered hand come up, holding a long knife—the only weapon I’ve ever seen on Andilla. It flashed all the colours of the rainbow as it rose, reflecting the lights of the lanterns, then flashed again as it descended, and...

I’m sorry. Twenty years have not dimmed that memory.

Thank you. I’m all right now.

The circle moved back. Piotr lay still, eyes staring blankly at the stars, dark blood, almost black in the dim light, beginning to flow slowly down the glistening pavement toward the sea. I was screaming, screaming at the top of my lungs, but in my memory I can’t hear myself, I can’t hear anything...only the most dreadful silence...

A single caretaker remained over Piotr’s body. In one hand he held the still-dripping knife. In the other...

I thought it was a candle at first, as much as I could think anything. But he held it cradled in his hand more as if it were a butterfly, and though it looked like flame, flickering and guttering, it didn’t go out, and it didn’t seem to burn him. He looked up at me. I couldn’t read his face, I knew nothing about Andillan expressions then, but when those wide golden eyes met mine, I stopped screaming.

This is the way they took me then. This narrow side path, almost hidden. An altogether different kind of path. No lanterns, no gleaming pavement—just black, dull rock.

It was much darker then, for the sun had long set. The only light was that which spilled from the lead caretaker’s hand.

Here, at this corner, I looked back, and saw them lifting Piotr’s body. I never saw it again.

I suppose I was in shock. I walked this path numb and silent, not thinking, not feeling. It seemed endless, but as you can see, it wasn’t, for here is the end now...

A dead end? So I thought...the dead end of all my hopes and dreams. But I was wrong. There is a door here, hidden somehow, for we moved through this wall into a room...a chamber...

A round chamber, made of black stone. A single lantern burned high up, hung from the domed ceiling, casting little light. On shelves along the walls lay other lanterns, endless lanterns...all dark. In the centre of the room rose a pillar of black stone, waist-high, so smoothly polished it looked wet. Wet with blood, I thought when I saw it. Wet with Piotr’s blood. Atop the pillar rested another dark lantern, its door standing open.

The caretaker handed the knife to someone else, who took it away. No words were spoken; no words had been spoken since Piotr’s last. The caretaker held up the light in his hand. It had no source that I could see, and no form...it was only a diffuse ball, like a will-o-the-wisp, and still it flickered as though it would go out.

But suddenly the lantern under the dome waxed stronger. Every time the light in the caretaker’s hand guttered, a brighter flash came from the lantern far above, filling in the darkness. With each flash the light burned brighter and steadier, until at last it didn’t flicker at all.

Then the caretaker placed it into the lantern, and closed the door. The lantern came alight. He picked up the lantern...and gave it to me.

And then he told me what I had to do.

And so I have done it. For twenty years, I have cared for the lantern the Andillans believe contains the soul of the man I loved...and the soul of the Andillan whose lantern Piotr broke.

When a lantern is broken, the caretaker told me on that night, as I stood so cold and numb, the soul within it must find a body, or become a...ghost, I suppose is our closest word for it, a wandering, tormented spirit. Breaking a lantern is thus a terrible crime...but that was not the only reason they killed Piotr. They killed him because they believed that the soul from the lantern must have entered his body, mingled with his own. He had to die so that the soul from the lantern could complete its journey alongside his own.

I can’t blame you for that look. There is not much room on human worlds or in human spaceships for talk of souls. No doubt, you are thinking, the glowing sphere the caretaker placed into the lantern was only some naturally occurring luminescent mineral. No doubt the lantern in the ceiling, the mystical light the caretaker told me came to the shores of this city a hundred centuries ago, floating against the current that takes all other lanterns out to sea, flashed through some simple chemical process designed to awe the gullible.

No doubt.

But...

Piotr seemed unchanged, still drunk and laughing, in the few moments he lived after he broke the lantern. Whereas I felt...whatever it was that I felt.

I could not help thinking, on that shock- and grief-filled night, that the soul from the broken lantern entered me, not Piotr; that I should have died, not him.

I still cannot help thinking that.

And so I stayed and cared for his lantern for the debt I owed him, for the love I’d felt for him, and in memory of the life we might have had together.

And tonight...

Come. Let us walk to the sea.

Here it is. Piotr’s lantern. To you it may look the same as all the others, but to my eye it shines differently...a little brighter, a little more redly.

In an hour’s time, I will take Piotr’s lantern from this final post, and with all the other lanterns I and the other caretakers have shepherded down the Path of Souls, will send it out to sea. Somewhere, far out of sight of land, the lanterns will release the souls they carry...and tonight, the Andillans say, new stars will blossom across the universe.

The lanterns on the water are a glorious sight, traveler. A sight worth crossing the galaxy to see.

I have seen it twenty times, but tonight will be the last. Tonight Piotr’s journey ends.

Tomorrow, mine begins.

Thank you for hearing my tale. Take it with you...and on the next world you visit, look up at the stars, and think of Piotr, though you never knew him.

And in twenty years, traveler, if you still live, look up at the stars again...and think of me.

This story originally appeared in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast.


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Edward Willett

Edward Willett is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy for readers of all ages.