Chapter 2: The Mystical Forest

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After who knows how long, I sluggishly struggled out of the netherworld of unconsciousness. Though too dazed and deflated to bother opening my eyes, I knew I was somewhere else. Whatever I was lying on felt different; as did the air. All sound of celebration had vanished. Instead, I could hear the sounds of nature. I was not in a hospital and had no interest in finding out more.

My mind shot back to when I had sensed for the first time ever that I was somewhere unlike earth. As the shock replayed through my body, I recalled that what had gripped me before I even spied a terrifying alien was feeling as if I had never before seen anything that was truly clean. Everything gleamed as if polished and sanitized to otherworldly standards and rendered unnaturally pure. My inadequate attempts to describe it will leave you bewildered as to why it so profoundly impacted me.

Nevertheless, I guess it was cowardice that drove my mind to lock on to that memory. What totally eclipsed that shock was the last thing I could remember. Any attempt to avoid obsessing over it quickly disintegrated.

My mind flipped to the last things I could recall before blacking out. The moment I thought that alien world might actually be heaven and that I might deserve to be rewarded, I was booted out.

Every one of my senses had been subjected to such off-the-scale extremes that to have been shattered by some form of sensory meltdown made perfect sense. The timing of my undignified eviction, however, was disturbing. Despite longing to flee from the thought, I found myself unable to shake the worry that I am a spiritual failure who has been banished in disgrace from what, by the remotest of chances, might have been heaven. A sickening fear gripped me.

I again lost consciousness. Maybe this time I just fell asleep due to physical or emotional exhaustion. I cannot be sure.

The soothing sound of running water caressed my slowly forming consciousness. Eventually I figured I had heard that sound the first time I had come to, but on that occasion it had barely registered in my befuddled mind.

Where am I? I moaned to myself.

I might as well have been trying to lever up concrete slabs but I forced open my eyelids. Light of initially unwelcome intensity razored in. As my protesting eyes adjusted, I gradually realized I was sprawled out, face down, on grass.

I feel five hundred years old!

I panicked. Don’t be silly, I rebuked myself. That’s just a figure of speech. The truth, however, is I had no idea how long I had been there.

I was not just physically drained but emotionally desecrated by my ordeal. I guess I was in shock. I continued lying where I had found myself, oscillating between trying to convince myself I was no older, and wondering how I could tell how much time had elapsed since I being flung out of whatever that place was. I slowly fingered my beard, relieved to discover that it felt about its normal length. For one alarming moment I wondered about the possibility of suspended animation but the thought was too hot to hold. Normally, nothing so outlandish would ever enter my head. Nothing normal had happened for quite some time, however.

Trying to calm myself, I decided to revise my metaphor. I feel like I’ve walked a thousand miles. No, better make that ‘swam.’ Not just my legs but every muscle ached.

My mind flooded like a sinking ship. What kept pouring in, however, was not water but perplexing questions. Who were those aliens? What were they celebrating – some sort of thirtieth anniversary? Was it somehow associated with the disappearance of one of their planet’s suns? Why did they talk as if earth has some significance to them? Were they planning to invade? How and why did I leave earth – some type of alien abduction? Will I ever get back to my beloved planet? Have I forever blown it spiritually?

I looked up, groggily. It seemed through my barely functioning senses that the atmosphere, light and general feel of the place were too pristine for shabby earth. But my previous location was simply an astonishing sky and a seemingly endless floor that was so exquisite that it somehow had the feel of being an open palace. Now I was in a forest. In front of me was a huge, moss-covered tree that looked thousands of years old. It towered far too high for me to bother stretching to see its top. Brilliantly colored butterflies fluttered nearby. One landed on my arm and let me examine its markings, but my eyes were still blurry.

What is this place? How did I get here? Have I been hurtling through space for countless thousands – perhaps millions – of miles? Nah! My body would have exploded! Then I vaguely recalled having heard that is just an urban myth and that the human body can tolerate a vacuum. But how could I have breathed? And what am I doing here anyhow? I had no answers.

Eventually I tried to stagger to my feet. I was too woozy, however, and I flopped rather helplessly back on the ground. Then my eyes locked on to the most enormous spider I have ever encountered. It was chubby and at least three times bigger than my hand. What was particularly alarming was not merely that it was heading straight for me but that I had no desire to get out of its way.

My attention should have been riveted on that spider. Instead, it was hard to keep my thoughts from the awful way I had left that Palace place. What should I call that exit? Sadistic? Random? Merciful? Undeserved? To have suffered it felt somehow shameful – almost as if I had been angrily evicted for some kind of disgusting offence. But why? Everything had seemed to be going well. Why had I suddenly decided I was in heaven, let alone conclude I was about to receive my heavenly reward? I smiled to myself. I must have been delirious with pleasure. Then the worry returned with devastating force. Had I really been guilty of a grave offence back in that Palace – pride maybe?

My attention instantly reverted to that beast of a spider. Is my punishment creeping towards me?

If only I could say I was petrified. Instead, the closer this eight legged monster got, the more at ease I felt. Can you imagine a spider that seems to ooze compassion? Ridiculous, isn’t it! So you will understand this creepy-crawly no more than I did. Its colors and markings and its every movement were peculiarly soothing but I can give no adequate explanation as to why I felt so secure.

As it relentlessly crept closer I thought I could almost hear chirping, as if it were emitting reassuring sounds near upper fringe of my audible range. Was this how it mesmerized its prey? I struggled to convince myself of this disturbingly real possibility but instead I found myself feeling even more relaxed. My defenses were being sabotaged by the irrational feeling that I could trust this creature with my life. Alarmingly, that was exactly what I was doing.

The spider took another step towards me. And another. And another. As still I did not move. It was as though I were immersed in some sort of warm, hypnotic haze. The critter’s gentleness captivated me. Despite its size, it seemed vulnerable; as if it knew that at any moment I could squish it to instant death but that it was willing, if necessary, to die for my well-being. I was playing life-or-death with either the kindest or most malevolent creature I had ever encountered. I tried to stir myself but I felt mentally paralyzed; quite unable to convince myself of the danger. It inched still closer to my face.

I was staring at death and all I could think of was how beautifully delicate and gentle this monstrous octoped looked. How can anything with eight legs and too many eyes make me feel at ease? It had fangs, for crying out loud! It kept creeping nearer and nearer until it was on my ear. Then it bit me.

I yearned to feel devastatingly betrayed, but I couldn’t muster the emotion. Perhaps I was about to be eaten alive but it was a tiny prick that felt too wonderful for me to even consider flicking the spider away. The beautiful creature acted as if it were pumping venom into me – except that with every second I felt stronger and more mentally alert and invigorated.

When it had finished I leapt to my feet and shouted in sheer exhilaration, “If only earth’s spiders were like this!”

At least that was my intention. I was so startled by the sound of my voice that I abruptly stopped mid-sentence. I tentatively uttered a couple more syllables. Mystified, I uttered a couple more, and then some more; delighted at what I was hearing. My voice had a richness it had never had before. I guess I’m biased, but I was convinced that my new voice outclassed that of top radio broadcasters.

“What’s going on?” I said out loud, just so that I could enjoy what I was hearing, “Are the acoustics different here?” I clapped my hands. That sounded normal. Then I remembered that to avoid the bends, deep-sea divers sometimes breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen. To them it seems like normal air but it makes their voices squeaky. Was the air somehow different here? How could I confirm my theory? I breathed deeply. The atmosphere seemed charged with subtle and delightful aromas. On earth I had had a rather poor sense of smell. Had somehow my sense of smell altered or were these scents quite strong? Remembering my voice, I tried to hyperventilate for a while, then I spoke out loud. It seemed to make no difference to the sound of my voice.

Had my voice sounded like this in that Palace? I strained to remember if I had emitted any audible sounds when those ‘sparklers’ hit. I did not think so but so much was happening back then that I probably would not have noticed if my voice had sounded different.

The sound of running water re-entered my consciousness. I headed for what sounded like a stream. As I got closer, the trees parted a little and I could see more sky. The most amazing flock of birds flew overhead. Yes, they were brilliantly colored but I had seen gorgeous birds on earth. It was their flight that staggered me. What fascinated me even more than their individual aerial acrobatics was the way their movements were synchronized with each other. Had I not known better, I would have thought their aerial display had been choreographed. I watched wide-eyed, until they were out of sight.

I continued my walk to the stream; all the time scanning the exotic surrounds with seemingly inexhaustible fascination. It was too early to know whether even a stone or a leaf were like those of earth. The butterflies alone seemed enough to keep me intrigued for days. It was not just their breathtaking colors, nor their vast numbers; what clobbered my mind was that I never noticed two that were identical. The variety of shapes, sizes and spectacular colors was astounding.

As I neared the stream, a fish leaped out, playfully turned a double somersault and splashed back into the sparkling waters. Encouraged by the clarity of the water and that fish could survive in it, I dipped my finger into the inviting waters and cautiously licked my dampened finger. In shock I spat it out and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. This was not water. Tentatively, I tasted it again. It was flavored! Surely not! I had a little sip. It was flavored, all right, but with a subtlety and intricacy that make fruit juice seem like an amateurish, gaudy splash of color alongside a flawless work of art.

For some reason – the spider venom, perhaps? – I was unusually thirsty. Throwing caution aside, I lay on my stomach lapping up the water – or whatever it was. I was savoring the experience when I was sure someone kissed my cheek. Rather than being startled, I melted in love. I turned and saw the cutest little animal I had ever seen. Warm honey seemed to ooze into my chest where once only granite resided. I have never been a pet freak. I had kept some reptiles when I was a kid and that was it. Appalled at how my survival instincts kept turning to mush, I told myself, I’ll have to pull myself together. Could the ‘water’ be intoxicating? Was it the lingering effect of the spider bite? I’d better keep my mind active. It was then that I realized the obvious: just because an animal looks a harmless vegetarian does not prove it is non-venomous or has some other insidious means of killing, or inflicting pain. What if in this world, the more innocent something looks, the more dangerous it is?

Nevertheless, other animals came up to me, sniffing me, and despite the danger, I stupidly found myself unable to resist their charm. One nestled into me. Earth has so many different animals that I could not be certain that they are not found there, but I cannot recall seeing any of these in zoos or books or videos. Certainly the colors did not seem at all earthlike. The one snuggling me was sky blue with silver stripes.

As I patted a pink and gray squirrel-like animal, it made an endearing sound. It seemed to be expressing utter contentment, as if its idea of heaven was to spend eternity enjoying my company. Never had I felt such ‘affection’ coming from an animal. And what I was touching made mink fur seem as coarse as straw. I do not get attached to anything subhuman, but this creature was really getting to me.

Though still perplexed and a little shaken by the nature of my expulsion from those celebrations, I was now less disturbed. Even what I now presumed was a long sleep might have helped a little but that spider bite had revived my spirits profoundly. Particularly reassuring was that wherever I was now, it was certainly not hell. This place was not merely pleasant; it seemed – at least so far – more paradisiacal than anywhere I had ever heard of on earth.

Maybe I had been wrong to have prided myself on my devotion to God and on the minor sufferings I had endured for him, but if God had completely given up on me, would I be in this delightful place?

A fluffy, wide-eyed creature with gorgeous colors appeared. Such colors suggest these animals do not need camouflage, I thought. Never had I ever imagined such an adorable creature. Here I was, a grown man feeling almost compelled to pick it up and snuggle into it. I could hardly believe myself being so tender to a mere animal.

Then it happened. Two more species of what seemed like mammals appeared. Their ridiculously beautiful colors unnerved me. One was even rainbow-colored. You might think my reaction peculiar, but I found this harder to come to terms with than anything I had so far experienced. Fur does not come in these colors! I argued with my eyes. The rainbow-colored one looked a little like a skunk. It skipped right up to me. I carefully fingered its fur, half expecting to find evidence that the fur had been dyed, or even that the creature was a stuffed toy made to look real.

Am I hallucinating? I worried. Next I’ll be seeing Daffy Duck! And yet the animals were so affectionate and playful that I slowly relaxed and began to accept them.

I tried to reassure myself, Maybe, just maybe, the problem is simply that all my earthly experience has been limited to seeing fauna that need camouflage, either to prey or to avoid predators. Could I be seeing what can happen to animal colors on a planet that has no predators? Then yet another ridiculously colored animal appeared. It was predominately silver gray with a cobalt blue band down its forehead and around its neck. It had a white belly and a pink fluffy tail that could almost be mistaken for cotton candy. I’m on the brink of blurting out it had the most adorable eyes but that’s getting way too mushy.

I looked down at the animal I had been patting. Just moments before, it had seemed the most wonderful creature in the universe. Now it had a rival. “Sorry, little fella,” I said, scratching its chin.

I almost felt unfaithful as I left it behind to head for this new creature that – I’m ashamed to admit – I found myself aching to hold. It seemed tame, but as I moved closer it pranced down a path in a manner a little reminiscent of a gamboling lamb. Every now and then it would stop and look back at me with those big eyes as if it wanted me to follow. So, perhaps foolishly, I did.

Continued




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