THE BRIGHT HEART OF ETERNITY
By John Allen Small
(Originally published in the program for FarmerCon IV [a.k.a. The Philip José Farmer Memorial Gathering], held in Peoria, Illinois, on June 6, 2009)
Holding up a hand to block the sunlight, he slowly opened his eyes again and waited for his vision to adjust itself to his surroundings. After a moment he rose from the waist up, put his arms behind him to prop himself up, and looked around. He was lying in the middle of a vast meadow, the unshorn grass and bright yellow and purple flowers swaying to the caress of a warm, gentle breeze. The sky was cloudless, a great azure sea that seemed to stretch out forever.
"Now how the hell did I get here?" he asked aloud. "Come to think of it, where is here?" The sound of his own voice took him by surprise; there was a renewed strength and youthful resonance it had not earlier possessed.
And then he noticed something else – that warm, gentle breeze that caressed the grass and flowers was also caressing his body in a fashion he had not felt for more years than he remembered. Glancing down at himself, he realized with a start that he was as naked as the day he was born. No, he was more than simply naked; he was transformed. Where before he would have seen the frail, wizened shell of a man in his 90s, there now sat a strapping, robust, much younger fellow whom he could not remember ever having been.
He leapt to his feet with a vigor that almost scared him. He held his hands and arms before his eyes, amazed at the power and vitality they now seemed to possess. He rubbed his palms over his face and realized that the wrinkles that had once lined his visage had disappeared. Hell, he even had a full head of hair!
He tried to think of something to say, but for one of the few times he could remember words failed him. The first thing that came to mind - "Holy shit!" - just didn't seem appropriate somehow. So instead he just laughed and danced around like a child on Christmas morning, marveling at this unexpectedly gracious gift the universe had seen fit to bestow and wondering just what he might have done to deserve it.
He was still dancing about when he thought he caught a glimpse of another man there in the distance, running in his direction with a look of determination etched upon his features. As the stranger drew closer Phil had the feeling that he had seen him somewhere before, but he could not be certain; certainly there was something familiar about him, but it was the kind of vague familiarity that one sometimes feels about someone they only think they might have encountered at some point.
Carrying a broadsword, clad only in a loincloth with a huge battle axe strapped across his back, the stranger sprinted gracefully across the grass and at first did not seem to notice Phil’s presence. In fact, Phil thought at first that he might pass by without seeing him at all. After a moment, however, the stranger slowed and changed direction ever so slightly, approaching Phil with an amused expression. Phil thought that expression may have stemmed from the sight of his own nudity; suddenly self-conscious, he glanced about in hopes of finding some kind of shrub to step behind. There were none.
"Hello, there," the stranger called out as he came closer. "Are you friend or foe?"
When Phil didn't answer immediately the stranger cocked his head slightly to one side, his expression darkening slightly. "Well? Which is it?"
"I... well, I don't know," Phil finally replied. "That depends on you, I guess. I hope a friend. I can't imagine that I have any quarrel with someone I've just met for the first time."
The stranger grunted softly in response. "Fair enough," he said. "Where are you headed?"
Phil looked around again. "That's a good question," he said. "I don't know where I am, or how I got here." He paused for a moment and wrinkled his forehead in consternation. "To tell the truth, all of a sudden I'm not even sure who I am. I remember lying in my bed at home, feeling very tired and light headed, and I guess I must have drifted off to sleep... then I wake up a few minutes ago stark naked in the middle of nowhere, looking 70 years younger and feeling better than I remember feeling in a good many years. It's all very... strange."
A flicker of recognition flashed in the stranger's eyes, and he grinned. "Yes," he said softly. "I remember that feeling..."
Something about the stranger's expression tickled Phil's memory, and he once again found himself wondering why. After a moment he shrugged and surveyed is surroundings once more. After a moment he mused, "I'm guessing this isn't Riverworld then, is it?"
"No," the stranger told him. "It's not Barsoom, either."
Then his grin turned into a full-fledged smile and he added, "It's better."
Phil whirled round to face the stranger again. "Did you say Barsoom?" The stranger only nodded in response, and then it was Phil's turn to grin in recognition.
After a moment's silence the stranger reached out and placed a hand on Phil's shoulder as a gesture of fellowship. "Stay well then, friend. I hope your voyage is a pleasant one." With that he turned and started to jog away in the direction he had been going when Phil first spied him.
At first Phil just stood and watched his departure, but before the stranger had gone very far he heard Phil calling after him. "Hey!" Phil cried as he sprinted to catch up. As the stranger stopped and turned to face him, Phil added, "Please, wait just a minute. There's so much I don't understand, and something tells me you're the one who can answer my questions. So if you don't mind the company, I'd like to come with you."
The stranger gave the request just a few seconds' thought. "All right," he answered. "Here, take this." He handed his sword to Phil and reached behind him, taking the battle axe in hand. "You'll need it where we're headed."
Phil looked upon the sword and smiled, admiring the way it felt in his hands as he used the weapon to cut a swath through the air in front of him. Then he looked up at his new friend. "Thank you," he said with a mixture of awe and respect. "By the way, my name's Phil."
The stranger smiled again as he reached out to shake Phil's hand. "I'm Ed," he answered. "Now let's be off. There's a princess to be rescued, and not a moment to waste."
Phil returned his smile as the two of them set out across the grassy terrain, toward whatever adventure might lie ahead....
(Lovingly dedicated to the memories of Philip José Farmer and Edgar Rice Burroughs)
Copyright 2009 by John Allen Small