I looked up. The sky was as blue as the Mediterranean sea, as soft as the softest pluck of the string in the most soothing love song. In the horizon, far beyond any length of distance I could imagine, a slowly moving torn blanket of clouds lined the edge of the world. As I watched it flow gently from one reach of my view to the other, I imagined an endless stream of formless nomads walking towards a land undiscovered. One they would never reach, eternally thankful of the everlong journey.
I peered down. I stood in black water that seemed to stretch beyond the furthest floor of the deepest point, flowing up into the sky on the other side of the world. It looked like a sleeping sea bathed in moonlight, quiet and calm yet so unyielding and impenetrable. So close you could reach down and pick the stars from its surface, yet so vast and mysterious you could never find its hidden treasures. An invisible enigma hidden in a glass jar. Your heart could freeze in awe as its immeasurable ends whispered silent truths about how small you truly are.
Yet I hadn't sunk beneath its waves.
The waters began to twirl and writhe as if trying to hide some ancient unquelled turmoil beneath a masque of slumber. Trickles of water flowed over my feet and between my toes like little serpents, silky and playful. I let out a shy, muffled laugh, yet grew quiet quickly as I realized no echo came to meet my voice. As I looked around for land to no avail, the dead wind swept to life, carrying a greeting.
"So you found your way."
A disjointed, furiously reverberating voice spoke with soft words from afar and close by, yet I saw no one. It was as if the voice stemmed from the sea, from the sky and from my own body, resonating wildly around me like a jolt of light shot into a room of mirrors. My head swung with fast, curious thrusts as I peered in every direction, then again, then once more for good measure. Only the still skyline was gazing down upon me.
"Yes," I replied with a trembling voice, "I believe it was the jackal that guided me here."
"Ah, that playful wretch," said the voice. "A hard one to tame, yet never a hair's length less than exactly what it is. Perhaps that is the lesson you seek here."
I looked around again, searching for my hidden companion. Then I suddenly realized something: the sky was as bright as a summer afternoon, yet the water was as black as midnight. Locking eyes with my reflection upon the water's surface I shuddered with shock and shouted: "Why is my hair gray? And my skin, why is my skin so pale?"
"We do not understand your 'colors' or 'time' here," the voice replied. "These things are alien to us. What we make here is what you make here. You guide us and we deliver as best we can."
"Perhaps this day finds you feeling gray and pale."
I rubbed my cheek and shook my head in confusion. Looking down to see if I had truly seen what I thought I had, it occurred to me that my right eye seemed to be glimmering. I crouched down and opened my eyes as wide as I could while exchanging bewildered looks with my reflection. As the faint sparkle grew and grew, I realized it was something rising from beneath the waves.
"He will help you," the voice said. "Have faith."
I stumbled backwards as a small human body flew from the splashing water and took to the sky with a trail of spatter in its wake. It tossed around and shook aimlessly like a leaf caught by strong wind, like a bird escaping from a lifelong cage. Then it suddenly stopped, turned and began descending towards me. Dripping wet, the being was white as ivory and stood no higher than the length of my arm, crowned with hair so golden it looked like fire in slow motion. It had no eyes or lips, no curves to carve or fill its body, no lines or wrinkles decorating its frail little shell. But in the strangest way... it seemed familliar.
A low, tender voice crept from where its mouth should have been: "Skin. Call me Skin."
I tried to reply: "But..."
Silencing me with a swift gesture of his hand, Skin sunk back under the waves and said: "First and foremost... first things first."
A flash of burning pain slashed my back as my body began to twist and contort uncontrollably. I lunged forward as my head pulled back violently, then the other way around. Grasping at the emptiness around me, I could only hear my teeth grind as my sighs became groans, then screaming. A rush of warm blood spilled through my skin and onto my back as the sound of ripping flesh and crackling bones made my stomach turn. My cries turned into a bellowing howl as my spit and tears trickled down, creating small rivers of spiraling technicolor nightmares with the streams of blood running down my arms and shoulders. I fell to my knees whimpering. My hands sank under the surface and the cold water shocked my senses.
I forced my eyes open and saw the silhouette of giant red wings pertruding from my body. Skin appeared again, twirling his hand like a magician at the apex of his most prized illusion.
"There. That's better."
Steeling myself, I lifted my head and stared at him. In his faceless face devoid of expression I saw a mirror for my own determination, spiriting me onward. My mouth widened into a ferocious snarl and a final tear ran down my cheek as I willed the wings to move. First a small wave, then longer strokes, then smaller sways again. My heavy breathing grew like a crescendo of white noise, so thick in my ears it sounded like the murmur of angry thunder.
Each motion whipped my shivering body with sharp agony, yet the pain was slowly becoming bearable. I clenched my fists so tight my nails broke the skin. I arose from my knees and then, ever so slowly, off my feet.
Skin signaled me to follow. Without hesitation, I did.