She turned her head around to see if I was still following her. I was gliding over the water right behind her. We were standing on long wooden boats, using paddles to make our way through the river. It was already evening, and the sun was long gone, but the river and greens of the forest around us were still clearly visible. The water had a dark green tone, filled with plants and small fish. On the sides of the river, small lanterns appeared. One after another, they seemed to push away the mist along the shoreline.
I had left everything behind when I got on the boat. There was nothing that I would need once we arrived. It would have been rude to bring anything. It would mean they could not give me what I need.
The young woman on the boat in front of me had long black hair and was wearing a short dark-yellow dress. It was old and dirty, but it served its purpose. She had not spoken to me since I had met her and would not speak to me until we arrived. She looked pure and at peace, something that did not belong in this world.
We followed the curved path of the river. The mist started to get thicker and reach our boats. Two huts came in sight. They were built on the water with bamboo and wooden planks. They were vacant. We continued our path, and slowly, more and more buildings started to appear; more vacant ones, then the first ones with lanterns and boats. They were on both sides of the river. More and more. They were floating above the water, the mist hiding the constructions that held them above it.
Then we saw the first beings. They were holding lanterns and followed us, walking along the buildings. The first bridge appeared, connecting both sides of the river. A few were standing on it, their faces barely visible in the dim light of the lanterns.
The forest next to the river was getting out of sight. Only the small huts, houses, and bridges that were standing on the river were left. Everything further to the sides was covered in mist and darkness.
They followed us for a while until we reached the end of the small village. They kept standing on the bridges looking at us until the mist had swallowed them and the dim light of their lanterns. Now it was dark. She turned on her lantern. I did as well.
The mist had embraced us. I could barely see past her boat. It had gotten quiet. The sounds of the forest, the birds, fish; they were gone, only our paddles dipping into the water and our slow breath. We glided into the unknown.
She slowed down, then jumped off her boat. She was standing in the water. It was barely deeper than our boats. I jumped off.
We took the boats and carried them onto the small beach. The sand was light blue and slightly glowing in the darkness. We had left the boats on the shore and continued on foot. The further we walked, the more the sand seemed to glow. It was a clear beach, no stones or trees in sight. Then the mist faded. We were standing in front of a large wooden hut, built around several palm trees. There was light shining out from the inside. We entered.
A smoky mist was greeting us once we opened the door. Potent herbs were filling the air. The hut was large and filled with all kinds of objects. Herbs were growing on the walls, books were filling the tables and chairs, and large containers filled with metal parts and pieces were standing all over the rooms.
A brittle old woman appeared. She held a small cup filled with a blue liquid in her hands. She hugged the young woman and put two fingers on her lips. Then she dipped them into the liquid and moved them horizontally over the woman’s forehead. She did the same to me and disappeared into another room.
I heard a noise. Loud and metallic, coming from the other side of the building. The woman had sat down and was drinking a dark tea. I looked at her, and she nodded. I walked towards the direction of the sound. I passed several rooms until I reached the origin. The rooms I passed were filled with preserved animals, living ones were in tubes and cages. Herbs and plants were growing all over them.
I walked through the curtain into the next room. The room was at least double as tall and deep as the previous ones combined. There were metal contraptions all over the place. They were from a mechanical nature. You could see them rotating and moving sporadically. Some resembled arms and legs of animals and men, some were large internal mechanics. I could not fathom what their use was. From the ceiling, there were hanging metal birds, flapping with their small wings in random intervals.
I moved around the room and looked at the wondrous creations until I saw him. He was standing next to a work-bench with his tools and was adjusting parts on it. He had a large metal-skeleton around his body. It was supporting his leg and arm movement and was fixated along his spine. He had made it himself after the nerves in his legs had given out. While it looked like I remembered, there were small changes that he had made all over it.
“I know why you are here, and I can’t help you. I won’t come back.”
I walked towards him until I was standing next to him. He was adjusting a small rotational device. He had his magnifying glasses on, and the arm of his skeleton was slowly making precise adjustments. I now saw the front of his head. He had several small patches taped to his forehead and behind his ears. He must have figured out how to control it with his mind. Had the disease taken the nerves in the rest of his body already?
“That’s not why I’m here.”
He was still concentrating on adjusting the small dials and did not respond.
“Back then, I did not understand why you left, but now I do. I left for the same reason.”
He flipped the piece around and placed it into a bigger, round contraption and fixated it with small screws.
“So nothing has changed?”
“Different people but the same structure. Nothing has changed.”
“I needed you when I started, but now it already feels so distant. I am not sure if it would help us anymore to work together.”
He had adjusted the last screw, took the gadget, and walked into another room. I followed him. A woman was lying naked on the desk in the middle of the room. Her face was weirdly facing a different direction. When I moved closer, I saw it. Her head was opened to the side, and inside were thousands of small metal pieces whirring, summing, and moving around. He placed the contraption into the open spot of the head.
“You completed it? How did you manage to…”
I touched the arm of the woman. She was warm, and the skin felt real. Her head had already closed again, and now she was looking at me. He was looking at her carefully, checking for small details in her face.
“She is not the first one.”
He talked to me while he was bringing the woman a brown dress to wear.
“The woman that brought you here was the first. But there were many before her. Maybe you’ve seen them on the way here.”
“That can’t be. How were you able to create so much in such a short time?”
“It is all in your mind.”
We walked back to the first room of the hut. The woman was following us and then sat down next to her sister. He sat down on the other table, and the brittle woman brought us steaming herbal tea. The sisters observed me. The first had her arm on her lap and her legs crossed, the other laid back in her chair. He took a sip of the tea and exhaled deeply.
“I remember them telling us what we can’t and could not do. They never told us what we could and would be able to achieve. They never saw our potential or passion. We were only slaves for them. Cogs in a machine.”
He took another sip, and so did I. The tea tasted earthy and calmed me down.
“You will never know the limits of your potential until you test it. But when you test it, you will find out that your potential is endless. You only trap yourself in the limitations you put on yourself. Prisons in your mind.”
He closed his eyes. I looked at him, then at the sisters. They were still observing me. One of them raised an eyebrow when I looked at her.
“Don’t you want to share this with the rest of the world? What you created is remarkable.”
He opened his eyes again and smiled.
“What makes you think that I haven’t?”
I was confused, and he noticed.
“The world is a lot bigger than they made us believe. There is a lot more out there that they have no idea about. Only because I am not present in their world does not mean that I’m not present in others.”
“But you are still here. It did not take long to find you. If they wanted to, they could too.”
“But they could not see. Even you can’t, but I don’t blame you. It only speaks for my skill.”
He smiled, then continued.
“What you have seen today is real, but at the same time, it is not. This place is not where you think it is. It does not exist on any map or image, any writing or tale. All of this is happening in your mind. It is real because you make it real, but it is also not at the same time. You have met me, but only in the way you wanted to.”
“Then, who are you? Are where am I?”
“I am the version of myself that you project onto me. That you find comfortable to interact with. That you remember. You are nowhere and everywhere. Once you entered the boat and left everything behind, you died. The person that you remember is gone. You have been reborn.”
“This place is not real either?”
“This is only the entrance.”
His smile got bigger, and he stood up. He walked towards a curtain in the back of the room and pulled it aside. There was a large door on the wall. He turned the handle and opened it slightly. Then he turned around and looked at me. Dim white light was coming out of the opened door, and mist was crawling over the ground. The sisters got up and took me by my hands, one on each side. They both smiled, and we slowly walked forward.
He stood at the half-opened door and smiled.
“You haven’t seen anything, my friend.”