I knew that she knew that I was stalling. Maybe she could help me with why. I filled my lungs, bottom to top, yoga-style, arose and left the diner. She sat on a bench across the street, shaded by the shifting canopy of enormous honey locusts, elbows on knees, peering intently over the top of her sunglasses as a slightly disheveled and distracted man approached her.
"Hi. Tom Cunningham, faerie expert."
She smiled. One of those smiles that leaves no mystery as to what her skull must look like. At least to me. Black hair cascaded away from her face in a vaguely feline motion.
"Jasmine." Her hand slid sinuously into my outstretched one, then clamped down like a snake.
"I'm not here to see you about elves," she said. "Although who knows, I guess I can't count them out. I've experienced something extraordinary, Dr. Cunningham, and I think it may be related to your work."
I sat down beside her, trying not to be cynical. An intense edge in her voice came through a facade of deliberate calm. This both disturbed and intrigued me. The Tao of the scientist is to doubt and wonder simultaneously.
"Ah, you mean my thoroughly discredited, utterly ridiculed, hopelessly misunderstood theories on the 'Elder Race'? Pardon me if I misjudge you, but I have been a homing beacon for crackpots ever since that story got out.
"It's up to you to say if I'm a crackpot," she said. "That's not something a real crackpot would even know would she?" A valid point. "I'm just asking you to hear me out. And I won't keep you long."
I wasn't due back at my job at the mortuary until early evening, the day was nice, and I liked the sound of her voice. The dead are excellent listeners but one must have balance you know. Fine, I said, carry on.
Nearly a year ago, Jasmine had returned to the place of her childhood, the ancestral abode of her family, for the funeral of a young female relative who tragically drowned while swimming in a nearby river. A cloudburst upstream had swept her beneath a sudden surge. She would not have come had it not been at the direct request of her great-uncle, one of the few relations with whom she had kept in touch over the years. The owlish old man kindly insisted that she stay with him for a few days after the funeral. Jasmine was something of an outsider to her clan, having left for other climes years after the deaths of her parents. Her life was a steady glide over the troughs and crests of experience; she had always felt a detachment, a sense of being out of place, that others often took as a philosophical bent, although within her family this was not an uncommon disposition.
There was the spare and somber church; the jarring sight of a young girl arrayed in death; soft consolations and small talk; clouds scudding over the family graveyard bordered by beans fields and a line of gnarled hedge apple trees; potato salad and fried chicken in a wood-paneled hall, the smell of pines wafting in through windows overlooking the river returned now to its customary placidity.
The day after the funeral she arose early, ate pancakes with the old man, packed a lunch and set off, intending to wander about the sadly estranged places of her beginnings. The proximity of death brought things in her spirit to ripeness, ready to be plucked and digested by heart and mind, and a walking mediation seemed just the thing.
In the hot late afternoon, after a day that included a visit to the site of her childhood home, long since sold as a summer home for wealthy out-of-towners, she made her way back. The route she took skirted Surtur's Knoll, a familiar landmark in the region, then through a narrow meadow tumbling into a little fen, then along a two-lane highway off which her great-uncle's house stood.
It was in the midst of the fen, on a spongy path overhung by fronds and bordered by sedges, that she stopped suddenly, seemingly not of her own accord. Cicada song electrified the air. Chill sweat ran between her shoulders. She felt certain that eyes were regarding her from behind. Catching her breath, she wheeled around quickly. Light exploded in her head.
It was darkening when she regained her wits. The cicadas where gone, replaced by the sound of the wind hissing above her, through high grass encircling a shallow depression in which she lay. A few stars were already visible in the cloudless sky. She sat up on one elbow, using her other hand to probe her head for injuries. Immediately her sight was drawn across the rocky floor of the bowl, to a gray slab of stone impaled in the ground. Not knowing whether she was dreaming or hallucinating, she arose and approached what now occurred to her might be a tombstone. A shallow urn or basin sat at its base.
The dying light played across its smooth surface, revealing odd runes embossed into it. Curiosity seized her, and hurriedly she slipped off her pack, riffled through its contents, and produced several sheets of paper. In the dim light she copied with surprising ease the characters written on the slab. That done, the wonderment of her predicament crept into her conscious mind. Where was she? How had she gotten here? Had she wandered in a daze into some remote and forgotten corner of a graveyard?
She clambered up the rough low wall of the depression, and as her head emerged over the rim, she found herself gazing over a vista which baffled her only momentarily: she was standing atop the knoll she had passed on her way home! Fearing now that either she had been brought up from the fen by some unknown person - there was that feeling of being watched - or worse that she had climbed up after suffering a serious concussion, she found herself desperately making her way down the rocky, bramble-choked hillside in the dark, a dangerous undertaking in itself.
Arriving at her great-uncle's, she did her best to excuse the late hour of her return, apologizing from the other side of the bathroom door as she drew herself a much-needed hot bath.
Weeks later the events of that evening had faded into an almost surreal state. Her efforts in following days to find the stone again had proved futile, inclining her to believe she had hallucinated the entire event, concocting the script in her imagination. Yet again and again she took out the papers and pored over them. Library research and communications with linguists proved fruitless. Then she shocked herself during one telephone conversation by effortlessly pronouncing the names of several of the characters in a melodious tongue. A powerful "tip of the tongue" sensation blossomed in her mind as she did so, yet which proved beyond grasping. After that, she knew that the source of this experience was real and not caused by any mental or physical affliction.
Nearly a year later, the Internet, with its literal sense of association, put her onto me. One of the characters bore a similarity to the ancient Greek letter psi, a fact which I had noted in a paper attempting to analyze those very symbols.
Old jawbones and the languages they uttered. That had been my calling until a few years ago, when an unhappy alignment of misfortunes remanded me to my current situation as an undertaker, where my skill in rendering lifelike verisimilitude to cadavers ravaged by age, disease, and calamity affords me a modestly comfortable existence. Until I entertained the persistent entreaties of Jasmine, I thought I had filed that unpleasant period of my past away for good.
It started at a dig in a remote region of western China several years ago. An outbreak of a potent strain of influenza had caused the evacuation of the other expedition members, leaving me alone for a time, weakened and fragile after a moderate bout of fever. I spent days below ground in ancient vaults, the desert wind seething over the barren landscape above me, poring over inscriptions on artifacts and the walls therein.
I still maintain that I was not wrong in my interpretations of those writings, only unfounded. There was a self-consistency that called to me for cognizance, strong enough to pierce my flu-induced miasma. The character set was astonishingly reminiscent of both Sumerian and Egyptian hieroglyphics, but also possessed grammatical characteristics of Indo-European and ancient Chinese. I was convinced that I was looking at a progenitor of several major languages of antiquity.
When I returned, I rushed to publish my theory, despite the skepticism of most of my colleagues. However, one solicitous senior faculty member was eager to clear the way for me, working discreetly, calling in favors, and subsequently the paper appeared within months in a prominent archeological journal. Shortly thereafter, trouble began. I remember receiving a call from a journalist, asking for an interview concerning my findings. Flattered that my work, usually of an esoteric nature, might be of popular interest, and being ingenuous to the perils of talking to the media, I agreed. I know now that my faculty "benefactor" was behind this ploy to be rid of the competition that I apparently posed to her, resulting in my abject discreditation. For the article appeared, grossly exaggerated, on the front page of a national tabloid newspaper, gracing newsstands and supermarket checkout lines across the country. Evidence of the Elves of Tolkien's great literary mythos, elders and benefactors of humanity, had been discovered. My fall was precipitous.
I noticed that my leg was bobbing up and down as I sat. A remnant of childhood attention deficit disorder, it is said. Curiosity, piqued by glimpses of Jasmine's letters, had overborne malaise. She had played me as if she knew me to the core, expertly landing me next to her on the park bench. From their tattered and worn appearance, I knew now that she was holding the very papers that she had transcribed on that momentous night months ago.
"Can I see the papers?" I said.
"That's why I'm here."
She handed them to me. Like a child savoring a long-sought prize, I hesitated to look at them right away.
We arranged to get in touch the following week and parted. I worked that evening as usual, then went home and slept until late the next morning. Early afternoon found me perched at my favorite coffeehouse haunt, thoroughly immersed, coffee rapidly approaching room temperature.
As weeks passed I discovered that I could consult Jasmine in the translation work; she was a remarkably insightful person. But clever enough to invent a hoax of this magnitude? It eventually became clear to both of us that we were in possession of an incantation that enabled "the lost" or "the exiles" to rejoin their folk: "the people of the starlight". So if Jasmine's stone really existed atop that hill, it might have been set there as a message to disbursed members of a group that had vacated the area: we have departed, but this magic will help you find us. A search of newspaper records in the area revealed no mention of the stone; the only mysterious events were a number of unexplained disappearances over the years. The thing simply did not belong where Jasmine found it.
The incantation prescribed that it must be read from the stone on a specific day of the year. Given that the stone mysteriously could not be found the next day, did that mean that it appeared only at certain times? If you grant the possibility of supernatural disappearances, it did.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"No", I groaned.
"It happened a year ago next week."
We camped out atop the knoll, bringing enough supplies to last us for several days before and after the anniversary of the stone's appearance. We kept watch day and night, taking shifts patrolling the craggy scrub covered plateau, an area approximately the size of two football fields. The countryside undulated toward the horizon below our stony island: fields, meadows and woods. We rehearsed what to do should the big event actually happen. The anniversary itself we decided to both stay awake all night.
Late in that afternoon, she returned and found me sitting with my back against a wind-breaking rock, reading an H. P. Lovecraft short story.
"Getting into the mood?" she said, grinning.
Day faded. Evening. Night. Nothing.
I stood up and summoned Cthulu in a loud voice. She threw her flashlight at me, not hard, and missed. It rolled over the edge. We heard it clattering on the rocks as it fell to the floor far below.
"Buggers!" she growled.
"Had you struck me, Cthulu would be angry."
"Lend me your light, I have to get a spare out of the tent."
"I think not", I smirked.
So off she went, mock grousing becoming genuine as she stumbled in the dark toward the faintly phosphorescent dome tent. I heard the hissing sound of the tent flap opening, then a soft "whuff" sound.
I was more disoriented than shocked to pull aside the flap and find Jasmine sitting before the stone at the bottom of a depression much too large for the tent to encompass. As she heard my feet crunching over the gravel, she turned her face to me and held out her hand. It slid with sinuous familiarity into mine.
I sat and regarded the slab, awestruck. It did indeed appear to be piercing the ground. Worked into it, with beautiful precision, was the incantation. A low empty basin sat at its base.
"I can do this, Tom. I'm ready."
"I know", I replied, realizing now that I too could perform the ritual.
She began softly, slowly, and I joined her, the words sonorously rolling off of our tongues as though exquisitely designed for our vocal apparatus. We intoned the entire incantation, then waited silently.
Then we stood together and raised our faces to the starlight welling in the vault of the night. I pulled sweet fragrant air into my lungs and remembered the long ages of my life, the sad and beautiful gift of immortality in a mortal world. I beheld my preternatural companion, and her bright Elven eyes met mine. We stood on a path leading down into a valley, from which the sounds of singing could be heard, ineffable songs that drew us, carried us, toward the people who sung them, our people.
The heat of the growing day roused me. I sat up slowly, shielding my eyes against the glare. A dull pain throbbed in my ribs from lying on hard ground. Jasmine was sitting up with her back toward me, eating a donut from a paper bag. A cracked toilet lay in the center of a bare dusty circular impression. Plastic bags and fast food wrappers festooned the field of ragweed surrounding us. A diesel truck was idling a short distance away, backed up to the loading dock of a large gray building. The smell of diesel exhaust carried out to us.
I took one, meeting her smiling eyes.
"We're free, can't you feel it?" she asked.
I rolled my eyes up and to the side, aware that a huge burden had been lifted from me. Jasmine slid a gritty hand into mine.
"Isn't it wonderful?"
We walked through the field into a nearby supermarket parking lot. A fat kid was being strapped into the back of a car by his flushed and chubby mother. His ice cream cone dripped on the vinyl seat. It was a gorgeous sight. I felt a new kinship with the world, as though a barrier had been removed and now it could weave itself throughout me.
We were home at last.