I woke up from a dream a little too early this morning. I dreamt that I had died and gone to a cliché. That’s right, I was standing before the Pearly Gates…only they weren’t so pearly, and St. Peter wasn’t exactly nice.
I was standing on a grey field of cold clay that stretched endlessly around me, and I was in the midst of a muttering mob of grey people. In the distance I could see a high white wall girdling some kind of city, and standing before its gate was a monstrous creature, 30 feet tall at least, in the traditional white robes and carrying a colossal flaming sword. Its back bristled with an impractically large number of wings, and its head was ringed with eyes. It was nightmarishly biblical. And then it howled a bone-shaking roar, and I staggered back.
“Don’t worry,” said a grey man next to me, “it’s just asking a question.”
“What’s the question?”
“We don’t know,” he said, “apparently you have to be right at its feet to sort out the harmonics.”
“Why doesn’t someone go find out what it wants?”
And then I saw that people would pop into existence all over the plain, and some would see the city and the gates and the hideous angel and rush towards it.
“Those are the devout. They’re sure they know the answer that will get them into the city.”
We watched one person stride up to the angel, who looked down and howled his Godzilla howl, and yes, I could detect a querying note to it. The person replied — at his distance I couldn’t tell what they said — and then the flaming sword swooshed down, and the person turned into a faint cloud of smoky vapor and wafted into nothingness.
Others were hanging back, like the people I was with. “Whoa,” I said, “I can see why you’re afraid to go over there.”
“We’re not afraid. We’re philosophers. We’re going to think about it.”
I didn’t have to think. I’m an atheist. I wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place, so getting annihilated by a flaming sword seemed like a more grandiose exit than I’d ever considered. So I just walked up to the giant expecting prompt dissolution.
It looked down at me with all those eyes, and then hit me with a sonic assault — it had a voice of brass, for sure, and it also contained notes so deep I couldn’t hear them, but felt in my bones, if I’d had them, and squeals so high they’d have shattered my capillaries, if my ghost had those, and would have left me bleeding out in a jellied heap, if I’d been alive. It was a question, or layers of questions, all imbedded in one complex roar.
“WHAT DID YOU LEARN? WHAT WAS YOUR PURPOSE? WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?”
Oh, it was an easy question.
“dx/dt,” I replied.
“Excellent,” he said as he turned into Isaac Newton, “although I don’t approve of your notation, that’s the correct answer.” Then he took me by the elbow and led me through the gates, which in a feat of glorious geological transformation, rose rockily as the pillars of Hercules, and we walked on, not into a city, but out on the surface of a great ocean.
“So much to see, but every voyage has to begin at home,” said Newton, and suddenly we were knee deep in a gently flowing river, in what looked like the English countryside. “No, not here, not for you. Everyone has their own river.”
And then I was alone, in a different place, still knee-deep in a river. I felt a familiar silt beneath my toes, smelled the pleasant cleanness of a recent rain, saw the shadows of a salmon run flitting by and the ropy tangles of the blackberry bushes on the banks, and felt so at home. It was the Green. I knew exactly where I was. There by the side of the river was my bike.
I hadn’t thought of it in years. When I was a teenager, my father got a bike for me at a yard sale. It was cheap, because it was totally unsuitable for the terrain. It was an English Racer (it said so right on the frame: “ENGLISH RACER”), and it was tremendously stripped down. The tires were skinny little tubes, like rubber razors; the seat was like a narrow bit of railing covered with an unpadded scrap of leather. And no dérailleur, none of that fancy nonsense of changing gears. It had one gear, at a painfully high gear ratio, and you’d better like it.
I loved it. You didn’t want to begin pedaling from a cold stop — I’d usually get going by running alongside it, and then leaping on board — and the only way to deal with hills was to charge at them at maximum speed and hope momentum was enough to carry you over the top. But on the flats or going down the hills, it was like riding a freakin’ lightning bolt. If my parents had known about the breakneck way I drove that skinny scrap of tubing, they would have confiscated it. Best they didn’t know.
What else was I to do? I picked the bike up (it had no kickstand, another of its charms) and started running down the road. Then the familiar maneuver: in mid-stride, place the left foot on the pedal (Ah! That sharp, spiky cleat, like an old friend…), simultaneously swinging my right leg back and over to end up straddling that slender leather-clad seat. I’d kill myself if I tried to do that in real life now, but the muscle memory is still there, and it still works in my dreams, in which I was already dead anyhow.
So I pedaled. I felt the ache. My speed was rising. I pedaled harder. Trees whipped by in a blur. Sustained the effort. dx/dt. Constant acceleration. I was flying. Faster. I was light, I was a photon, I was motion and change. I was gone.
Then I woke up. Someday, I promise I won’t.