An insomniac for months one numb winter, I began spending more time in the world between wakefulness and dream. Dwell in the hypnagogic realm for long enough and you realize it is completely separate from both other worlds. The logic is neither dream logic or our own, the language only half-decipherable and the mishmash of characters plucked from pasts we’re not entirely sure we lived. Colors are expressed messily, gravity is slightly miscalibrated and there lingers the consistent sty of frustration, of things left unsaid or undone.
After weeks of wandering, I came to the country where the clouds are so dense you can walk on them. Leaping from a mountain top, I landed on a low one and made my gradual way across the horizon, waiting sometimes for hours until a new cloud intersected the one I was on. The geography below shifted and soon gave way to the sea, at which point I lost track of my progress, the day/night cycle unstable. I traced a seemingly endless isthmus below, a narrow scar of land that shot past the horizon.
Traversing the sky in the opposite direction, or else intent on finding me, Phaedra met me on a fleshy cumulonimbus. Stout, gruff and barely gendered, she bade me follow her down to the isthmus. In two steps we appeared there and began our path down the tiny strip, bottomless ocean to either side, shadows of gargantuan beasts moving below. She spoke little at first, nodding sharply with every word when she did, most of it unintelligible to me.
She reigned over this realm – that much had been apparent since I gained full consciousness in the world weeks before. Her fingerprints were on every semi-tangible object, her breath the stuttering atmosphere. But the contours of the kingdom and its purpose took much longer to draw out from her.
There is one vast problem that all sentient species must solve, and every one of us dedicate our lives to playing a part in excavating its solution. Our waking selves could never do it. Between our mutual distrust, distractibility and ego, we wouldn’t have a chance. And dreams are not a realm that the universe governs. Instead, somewhere near the beginning, this world was birthed, and Phaedra was made sovereign.
Our meeting was ended abruptly as a noise shot me awake, the contours of that world evaporating instantly. We have all been reawakened from half-sleep, and caught a trace of that other realm. It dissolves quickly because we have no language to describe it. The conversations we remember fade immediately because they lack our waking logic. The task we have been assigned is so far beyond grasping, we have no recollection of it at all.
For weeks I drifted back to that realm and searched to no avail along that endless isthmus. Those that knew her spoke to me at length, answered the questions that could be answered, taught me the art of remembering my experiences in that half-world. Suddenly I acquired a second lifetime’s worth of memories. And I recalled my many encounters with Phaedra year after year.
Her role became clear. Only Phaedra understands the universe’s challenge, and only Phaedra orchestrates the galactic attempt to solve it. But we are all playing some part. In that middle realm our lovers, our enemies and our families labor side-by-side peacefully. The sense of purpose is deep. The roots are endless. The wafting of some future possibility of fulfillment is palpable.
Like us, Phaedra exists in both realms. Her waking self is unaware of the part she plays in the other world. Here with us, she leads a string of relatively uneventful lives that seem as devoid of purpose as many of our own.
The only constant, life to life, is the construction of a sentence. She has labored at it since the beginning. It isn’t a complex one – in fact, she knows it needs to be crafted simply. She toys at it idly when nothing else is pulling at her mind. She doesn’t realize she is building the bridge between worlds. When our attempts all inevitably fail in the other world, she will need reinforcements. The solution will come from our own.
Illustration by Ximena Arias