She has a way of greeting every version of you at once, that first time you meet her. She smiles as she welcomes you into her house, receives you as you exit your mother’s womb, gives you her sober salutation on the morning of your death. For that first moment, on clasping her hand, you are at once the newborn child, the weary traveler, the decrepit elder grasping for life. And she remains, through all of your various forms, the stately patrician with youth tugging at the edges of her eyes, the welcoming diplomat ushering you into her uncrowded universe.
Sylvia lives in a broad house on a bald hill overlooking the sea. Her house is warm and intimate, though seemingly endless once inside. Her hill has a lunar quality at all hours of the day, as if the grass was dyed with moonlight. Her pocket of sea is calm and far below the tall cliff, but becomes tempestuous right before morning.
A dignitary, part of an ancient lineage that none have quite ascertained, everyone passing through Sylvia’s kingdom is drawn to her estate. Locals insist that the mountain paths at the borders of her country all wind their way down to it, that it is entirely unavoidable. Others maintain that the winds wrack sailors onto her shore, that storms ambush those wandering close by, forcing them to rush in for shelter. She is never surprised by her guests, she greets each with the same even nod. She has been expecting you.
Sylvia leads you to her sitting room and asks about your travels. Instead you find yourself recounting your entire life to her all at once, exorcising old demons, seeking contrition for sins you have never spoken, admitting to desires you were hardly conscious you had. Her nods are soothing, beat out a tender rhythm that invites you to continue until, after what seems hours, you find yourself completely purged, lighter, wondering if you are hovering centimeters above the ground.
Your retinue is being entertained in the other room by Sylvia’s staff. There is never a moment that they are without drink. It is some kind of nectar – Sylvia and her staff are coy about explaining its ingredients or origins, but you will seek it for the rest of your life. There is a sweetness in the center, but it is bordered by something more nuanced – some tinge of sadness or ancient regret.
The meal that follows is seventy-two courses, each one a new fruit or meat outdoing the last. It is held in a large dining room overlooking the hill that leads to the cliffs and the sea beyond it. The room is lit just dimly enough that shapes are noticeable in the distance. Some claim that they see elephants marching across the hill, and other exotic animals playing in the grass. There is talk of gargantuan whales that can be seen surfacing in the far distant sea. You eat to the edge of explosion.
After the expansive supper, Sylvia, her staff and her guests spill out onto the wide stone terrace. Small talk evolves into more profound conversations, and just as you notice the moon perfectly reflected on some leviathan’s skin at the surface of the ocean, you realize you’ve been having a long and fascinating discussion with Sylvia quite removed from the rest of the party. And this is when she floats her invitation.
Come, I would like you to meet the wolves.
Her request is a complete non-sequitur, but immediately feels inevitable – an invitation you’ve expected for generations. You give a pleasant, unsurprised nod, and she leads you, hand-in-hand down a long flight of stone stairs and across the great expanse of her property, tracing barely-visible paths to the far-away cliff’s edge. You spend a moment perched on the cliff face, staring down into the tenebrous waters, hypnotized momentarily before continuing down steps carved into the cliff by lightning.
A large door at the bottom leads into darkness. Sylvia lights a torch and you continue down a long, dark hall, its smell awakening an ancestral memory, nothing more than shapes and light. After the hall, a door, and once opened, an immense cavern. Here you stand perfectly still and silent, waiting patiently as padded footfalls become louder and more pronounced. Sylvia then takes a few steps back.
Two wolves the size of mastodons emerge out of the darkness. Gray-furred and clearly the sons of gods, they approach you slowly, circle you, gently smell the hairs on your skin, at times nuzzling your neck and arms with their snouts. The wolves then take turns, one continuing to circle while the other seems to whisper in Sylvia’s ear as she nods and sometimes replies quietly. You remain perfectly still.
Once the wolves have circled you for what seems a rapturous hour and taken you in with their eyes and snouts, they look to Sylvia and nod once, solemnly. You are then led silently out of the cave to the long hall and the cliff and across the vast hill back to the terrace where your company lingers.
Once your men have had their fill of drink and conversation they are led to their chambers, where Sylvia’s staff indulges them in exotic pleasures, sending them into deep, embryonic sleep. You remain alone in your room, and dream, and awaken. The next morning you depart with a satisfaction you have never known. But for all the joy and pleasure, none of you will find your way to Sylvia’s again, as often as you speak of it fondly and as honestly as you promise her you will return.
And you never speak of the wolves. They dissolve somewhere between the walk across the hill and the night of earthly pleasures. They are yours alone, to return as imprints on your eyelids in those moments before awakening, shaken off immediately once you rise to meet each day.
Illustration by Keith Pfeiffer