The day was over, the light finally going soft after the glare of the afternoon. I’d made over ten miles and my feet were tired. I’d found a good place, near the crest of a ridge, and leaned back against the rock to watch the sunset. I took a long pull from the canteen, leaning back and letting the water run down my throat. As my head came forward I forgot all about the canteen, staring with sheer wonder.
I saw the hair first, wind-floated tresses fanning among the flaming colors of the desert sunset. They drew my eyes down to the figure of the woman reclining along the jagged horizon of the mountains. The curve of breast and hip softened the line of the summits, an outstretched arm serving for her pillow. Her hand cupped the light of the just set sun, reflecting the fire which played among the clouds. It seemed she slept, for her ribs lifted and fell in a slow even rhythm, such a fluid motion even the mountains themselves shifted as the suddenly intense atmosphere about her was drawn and exhaled.
Frozen in the wonder of this vision I settled to the ground, never shifting my eyes from the soft curve of lips smiling as she slept, my breathing abated to hardly a whisper lest the sound of my existence disturb the lady in her sleep.
The moon rising behind me threw a silver light, revealing the image in ever greater detail. With the blending of the lights the vision took on such a depth and reality that when she stirred terror shook me, for I feared the lady might take offence at the stranger who most unwittingly observed her innocent repose. But when her eyes opened, such deep blue eyes as to contain all the stars of the heavens, nothing was reflected there save a gentle amusement. She lifted herself to an elbow, turning to face me so that half her face was lit by the set sun while the remainder shimmered in the moonlight. I was held motionless by the lock of her eyes, transfixed by her beauty.
It seemed she took an interest in my awestruck gaze, for after a brief time she brought herself to where I sat, lifting and floating across intervening miles with a motion to twist perspective and confuse the eye. As she drew closer her spirit form diminished in size, condensing into the physical so that as her feet touched the ledge where I sat she was no larger than I, or perhaps a trifle smaller, a vision of such perfection as to deny description.
Speech was beyond me, words retreating from the challenge of communicating with such a deity. Dumb as any beast I looked up at her, and then with a rush of embarrassment dropped my eyes to the sand rock beneath, for she was unclad. It seemed I heard a soft laugh, compassionate and compelling. I was lifted bodily from where I sat to ground on unsteady feet within inches of her person, so close that when very amazement opened my eyes no more than her face and shoulders were within my vision.
She put a forefinger on my shoulder and walked around me, the trace of her touch so thrilling and so light. Rounding back within my view she was nude no more, a floating wisp of white cloud concealed all that modesty demands. She smiled, and the cloud arranged itself into clothing, seamless trousers tight fit beneath a floating peasant top, her hair bound back beneath a glowing daisy. Her face set into benign smile, and she addressed me by name. “Michael, I mean no harm. Will you speak with me?”
I could not find my tongue. I am a man of words, and yet my heart was so overfilled that words failed me for a painfully long moment. "I, I am unsure how I should address you," I stammered at length.
Her finger had not left my shoulder, now it was joined by the others of her left hand as it found my face. She caressed my cheek, touched my lips. "My given name is Gaia," she said. "You know of me?"
"I know that name as a spirit of creation, the mother earth," I replied, the primal terror in my soul abating beneath the gentleness of her touch. Her hand explored my face, jaw to brow.
"I am that spirit. I gave my name to your ancestors, I am pleased it has been remembered." Her hand passed behind my head. "Much has been learned of my subtle thought," she said, "and yet much of what is simple has been forgotten. You will need eyes to see," she said, and passed fingertips over eyelids that closed to her command. I perceived a light, soft and focused entering my mind through her touch. It found a center, and spread, and then faded.
I opened my eyes, and the cry was ripped from me before thought had formed. So bright, so terribly bright is the spectrum of her vision. I closed eyes dazzled into blindness, and shuddered.
"Oh, goodness," she said, "I am so sorry." Her right hand found my shoulder and a sweet peace washed over me. I shrank to become an infant cradled against her breast, and then her lips were against my forehead.
"Open your eyes, Michael, " she said, her voice the song in the last raindrops of a spring shower, "Open your eyes."
When one is commanded by a deity holding you in the crook of an elbow it is wise to obey. I opened my eyes, timidly, afraid of the light. The entire frame of my vision was filled by Gaia, still holding me as a mother holds her infant. Her eyes widened, oh so slightly, and the universe spun around them. When the horizon leveled I was my proper size, and Gaia had just taken her hand from my shoulder.
"Look about, Michael. Is everything as it should be?" she asked, moving away from me with a dancing step. She spun, bounded, and then gathered herself and sprang into the air, rotating around the axle of her hair. Her landing was flawless, arched, arms sweeping back. Her top floated up, and I stared. I couldn't help it. No belly button. Perfect muscles, but not so much as a dimple in the center.
"Oh, I'd forgotten how much fun this can be," she said, and then she laughed. "I don't have one, Michael. I've always been my own mother."
She was bouncing, entrancing, utterly delightful in motion. Did I mention ageless? She could be sweet sixteen or the perfect thirty-five. Or at times, hell, what am I saying? She was a fiction, a hallucination. She had to be. No belly button? Gaia, mother earth herself? He'd been a bit rough, but the old man had sworn he would show me God. Sorry, compadre, I want half my money back, you gave me the magic powder for a goddess instead. I'd blink here any moment, and she'd be gone. I turned my back on her and blinked, three or four time, very deliberately. Enough is enough. This was getting scary.
She was still there when I looked back, standing with her arms folded and an amused look on her face. "Oh, Michael, Michael," she said, taking my hand. "Come, now. You know I'm real, you can feel my hand. You saw me sleeping. I know, you have reason to doubt your senses, or your sanity. But I'm real, and so are you. Just let's be for a time, don't be concerned. I promise, no harm will come to you. You'll be a better man for having known me."
I could feel her hand, warm against mine. I could smell her, a subtle scent that reminded me of patchouli. And there was an air about her, this sense of an immense oldness that made the youth she wore seem, well, out of place. Mother nature, nine billion and some change, standing next to me setting the standard for every flower-child sweetheart on the globe. An incredible standard at that. If my subconscious had such need for maternal council it would be a fool's game to lie to myself. And otherwise, she'd know anyway. She'd picked up on the belly button thought, one way or another.
"Flower children, Michael? What a lovely title. Are they happy children?"
"They, we, try to be. Try too hard, sometimes." I answered without thought, and then shook to my core. Her question had pulled a thought I'd been hiding from for too many years, pulled it painlessly. We all tried so hard to be happy, and most generally didn't even really know what it looked like. "Jesus, how did she do that?" I thought. I still don't know if I spoke aloud.
"Jesus? I know Jesus," she said, like a schoolgirl telling me we had a common classmate. "He was such a sweet boy, such an incredible man. The Father has every right to be proud of him."
I turned to face her, and she caught my other hand. She had arranged for me to be slightly the taller, so her face would lift to look me in the eye. She stood quite still, and I knew she was waiting for me to speak again. "Were you ever known as Mary?" I asked, amazed at my own question.
She shook her head, and there was reverence in her voice when she answered. "No, that was not I. The Goddess herself incarnated to carry the Father's child. Jesus was not illegitimate. But I, oh drat, what is the word, yes, I was midwife at his birth. And I was his secret tutor. Like I said, I know Jesus. I love him, Michael. Even now I sometimes go to him, when his burden becomes heavy. He is allowed to accept comfort from me, and I am honored to give what I can."
Her words put a vision before my eyes, Jesus reclining with his head in her lap, her hands soothing the brow that bears the sins of our world, the sadness and the despair. I heard, I thought I heard, the melody she was singing, a melody taken form and wrapping them both, giving him time out of time itself to restore himself to carry on his task. It was only a moment, but in that moment a light shot through me and I understood. I've heard of Jesus since my beginning, but Gaia taught me more about him in that instant than all the Sunday schools rolled into one.
Gaia was watching my eyes. She smiled, an impish, playful grin. "After all, we had to make sure his belly button was in the proper place," she said. And then she poked me in the belly, two fingers, hard enough I was glad she hadn't put one more erg of force on her fingertips. And then she laughed outright, and ran.
Gaia can move. I'm in good shape, very good shape, and I couldn't keep up. She bounded like a gazelle, leading me up the slope, jumping rock to rock, slowing only long enough to show me the direction she would go. Perhaps half a mile later I caught up to her, sitting at the summit of the ridge leaning back against a fallen tree. I was out of breath after a half mile sprint up a climbing arroyo. I flopped down beside her, working to drag breath without panting.
"Fancy meeting you here," she said, and then she grabbed me in a headlock, rubbing the top of my head with her knuckles. "Not bad, for a mortal. Not bad at all." My big brother used to do the same thing. She released her arm, and smoothed my hair. "Why did you chase me, Michael?"
"I, I just didn't want to lose you. You make me, well, you make me feel safe inside."
"Michael, you don't feel safe inside?"
I leaned back on my elbows, let my head fall to the side to face her. "Gaia," I said, calling her by name for the first time, "I don't think so. I don't even feel safe trusting what I see, not right now. I don't feel safe in my home, I don't feel safe at my work. And now I'm talking to you, and I should know you're a peyote hallucination, but I don't believe it. And that doesn't make me feel safe, either. You are so big, so powerful. So old, Gaia, you have to be so very old. And I'm scared of old."
Mothers have a look. It's the look they wear when they are thinking about what to say, and they really, really want to say just the right thing, because they suspect you will take their words to heart, and their words will go to seed in your heart and grow. Gaia was that look head to toe, for more than a moment.
"Old, Michael? Yes, I'm older than the rock we sit on. Far older. And I am powerful. I'm an old spirit, Michael, one of the first. But I wasn't given my abilities to play with. I have responsibilities, too. We all do. I do, you do, every one does.
"But in this body I'm as young as the moment I first touched you, when I chose clothing from your memory. Time is not the same everywhere, it's slippery. And I like feeling young. I like it when you look at me, and I feel you call me beautiful. The woman you see before you is just a tiny part of me. I'm very busy, there are a great many things I'm tending too. But right now this is my favorite part of me. I like being in this form. Old is relative, my young friend.
"As to fear, ask yourself this: who does your fear serve? Does it help you be better prepared to meet danger? Or does it serve another, to make you more easily deceived? Always challenge your fear with that question. At times fear is your best friend. Other times it is a tool of the danger robbing you of your strength. It's one of the key lessons, Michael. I can tell you no more."
I'd come to the desert to confront a fear. I hadn't thought it that way, like most everyone I'd made up reasons that were half right, three quarters right, but never just right. She'd done it again. She'd made me speak out my secret thought, where I couldn't hide it again. Old is weak, old is ugly and decrepit. And I won't be young much longer. I only know two words, and one was slipping away. The other is terrifying. But she was right, damn it, she was right. Who gained by my fear? But that question could wait. It was to big and to tiny all at the same time to take up any more time.
I sat up, and turned to face her. "Gaia, are you really a woman?" I asked. I can't speak to the rest of her, but that part was. She did the last thing I would have expected. She distracted me with a sweet smile, took control of my hand and slipped it under her top to plant my palm against her left breast.
"What do you think, Michael? Feel me, I'm warm, I'm soft. And if you were just one order older than you are I'd jump your bones and leave no doubt." She moved my hand for me, rolling her flesh beneath it. She has nipples. And apparently a libido. Who would have thought?
She laughed. "Of course I do. How else would I feed my babies? I have more babies in my charge than you can imagine." She gave me back control of my hand, and put her hands behind her head. "It's quite all right, Michael, touch me, please, I like it. Of course I know about libido. It's there for a purpose, just like everything else. I designed it."
She has a heart, a real one. I could feel it beating. And ribs, and dammit, freckles. I don't have that good an imagination. My hand was on a woman, a mortal woman who was having a good time playing mother earth for my benefit. Right. A mortal woman who can read minds, fly at will, make clothes out of clouds and run like a gazelle. Sure thing. I ran my fingers over her tummy. Just perfectly smooth flesh where the double dome of muscles meet. The light had faded, the stars were full out, and it dawned on me. How was I seeing freckles on a face in the shadow of moonlight?
Gaia patted my knee. "A small gift I can leave with you. You won't have any vision problems, not anymore." She stretched, and sighed as she did. "Oh, drat, drat, drat it all. No. No matter how careful I might be, it wouldn't be fair to you, and it really wouldn't be fair to Cathy." She could have clocked me with a branch and I wouldn't have noticed. Where did she get Cathy's name? I hadn't even thought it. Not fair to me, ok, but how did Cathy fit into the picture? My Cathy?
She turned her back to me, and leaned back. I had no choice, it was catch her in my arms or let her bang her head.
"Oh, this is nice. It's been so long since someone cuddled me."
"Uh, I suppose so," I said. I'd been fourteen the last time I was this utterly confused. "But, Gaia, why?"
She turned in my arms to look up at me with that smile boys treasure. "Because I'm horny, Michael. And we can't do anything. And a good cuddle is the next best thing. C'mon, Michael, you know me as mother earth. Don't you know how mothers get to be that way?"
"I think so, at least, among my kind," I said, and then I kissed her. Let the lightning come and get me, but she needed a kiss. Just a smooch on her cheek, but what the hell. It was sincere. And she was blushing as she turned away.
"It works pretty much the same way among my kind," she said, scooting around and adjusting my arms so they lifted her breasts. "It's hard, Michael. When I take this form I'm everything I helped build into it. If I stayed here a month or two the weathermen would be tearing their hair out and cussing me for two or three days a month." She giggled. "And I'd deserve it."
Thermonuclear war, massive asteroids, these are things I can almost imagine, almost figure a way to have a chance for survival. But mother earth suffering PMS is just way to scary for me. She heard my thought, and laughed. But her laugh had just the tiniest sad note to it.
"That's why I only take this form every couple of, oh, you'd call them centuries, and I stay at most only a day or two. I almost lost it once, the Goddess herself had to steady me. It wasn't pretty. I was just so upset."
"Gaia, what happened?" I asked.
"I was in mortal form when the brutes killed Jesus. It just hurt so bad I couldn't keep my composure. And I knew, Michael, I knew the full truth. And it still rattled me. I don't know how Mary Magdalene survived it. She loves him as much as I do. She was a sensitive woman, she could feel him."
When Gaia hurts you can feel it. She was trying not to let me feel it, but I did, just this tiny leak. It was enough for me. Any more might have killed me. I started to ask a question, but she didn't even let me finish thinking it before she answered.
"Because it's the only way to learn, Michael. That's what you're here for. You have to know, inside yourself, and choose. That's why we build mortal realms, so the younger ones can learn."
We sat quiet for many minutes, the longest minutes of my life. I tightened my arms around her, and put my cheek on her head. If mother earth can take pleasure, comfort, whatever, from a tiny little mortal like me then that was the time to offer it. From the large to the small or the other way around kindness is always appropriate. I wanted to protect her, put a balm on the hurt place. I would feel it, and then tell myself I was being ridiculous. She could deal out of hand with things that would vaporize me, how could I protect her? And then I would feel it again.
Gaia forgot herself, for just a moment. I looked down, and realized we were floating a few feet off the ground. She turned so she was laying across my lap, and we settled back to earth. There were tears on her cheeks.
Her lips were quivering when she spoke. "Oh, Michael, Michael, don't ever doubt that noble feeling. You're a huge creature, so much bigger than you know yet. And that is the very essence of being noble. You touch me, touch me to my heart. I'm so glad I've gotten to know you. You give me hope."
That was the scariest thing she ever said to me. Why would mother earth be running short of hope?
She flowed to her feet, and taking my hand lifted me up to stand beside her. "It's free will, Michael. Once a realm gains free will we never know. The Father, the Goddess, they won't know, so they don't influence you. And we, myself and the other guardians, we don't know. We watch and wait and hope. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes an entire realm corrodes and collapses. And it is so sad, so sad. I cry for weeks when that happens. Well, I call them weeks. You'd call them eons. But they're weeks to me."
She started walking, back down the arroyo, and I walked with her. When someone like Ghia tells you you're not only being noble but huger than you know, yet, it does funny things to your perspective. I was quiet, trying to fit it all together.
I was getting used to her company. I stopped, halfway down, and she turned to me with a perky little smile on her face. "A woman's time moves in a different manner than a man's time. Remember that. When you understand how her time moves, when her moments are long and when they are short, then you'll know when it's time to be close and when to give her room." We walked a few more steps, and this time it was Gaia who stopped.
"I'm going to cheat, just a little bit," she said. And she was gone, for an instant. I could still see her, but she was gone. And then she was back, and her smile was very wide. But she didn't say why.
We walked in silence the rest of the way back to the trail. When we were back on the path, back where I'd stopped to watch the sun set she turned to me, and that look was back on her face. She grew, just a little, enough to put my head at the level of her lips. Then she kissed my forehead for a second time, but this was not the gentleness of the first time. This kiss was everything a perfect first time is supposed to be, all over, a rush that empties your heart and fills your soul and leaves your body quivering.
"We'll meet again, Michael. Not in this realm, but we will meet again. I'll be patient, I'm good at that. I want to wait for you to grow up enough I don't have to be careful. And then, Michael, I know a place, a place where stars are born, I want to take you there. I want you to take me there. I'll be looking forward to it. Till then, farewell my friend." And she began to go away.
She left slowly, letting me see her as she took apart the body she had donned to spend an hour with me. Her clothes went away, and she was again nude, but this time I felt no embarrassment looking at her. I did look, very deliberately, and she smiled and turned so I could see all of her, the down fine hair on her legs, toenails and eyelashes and rosy brown nipples and everything except a belly button. Such a beautiful woman she is, when she comes to visit. And then she became transparent, a little at a time, soft globes of light floating away and vanishing long before they were out of sight. Her outline faded, and I was alone.
Gaia was right, I had eyes I hadn't had before. The night wasn't dark. I picked up my pack, and hiked out. I got in my car, and I drove. I thought about going home, but I didn't. I went to Cathy's house. It was almost dawn when I pulled up. There was a light on in the living room.
Cathy opened the door, and turned back into the room without really looking at me. "Mike, how in the world did you know I wanted to talk to you? I had this, this incredible dream, and I can't get over it. I've been awake for hours now, I tried to call you but you weren’t home. Where have you been?" She turned around as I set my pack down, and her mouth fell open. "Mike, my God, Mike, you have one too! There, on your forehead!"
"What are you talking about?" I asked, but I was suddenly almost certain I knew. Cathy shucked off her shirt, and pointed. And sure enough there on the soft curve of her breast right above her heart, glowing softly in a frequency I couldn't see yesterday, was a perfect imprint of lips.