Chapter 21: "The Portrait"
The swirling effect that had begun just in front of their faces now crept out in all directions. It pulsed and undulated all around them. Soon, as the final glimmer of light faded from their eyes, the world peeled back and the travelers found themselves seated on a flagstone in the center of a town. It was lit from sconces at every door and lamps at every corner. Large clay and stone spires lifted up from all sides and protected the ornately decorated homes within. Glossy wooden rooves and soft multicolored flags adorned everything in sight. All the metal was gold. All the stones were polished. All the lights burned bright enough to frighten off the night.
The Old Man’s eyes had teared without him even being aware of his own emotion. Through the blur, he could see a fountain-pool at the town square. It was being fed by a series of waterfalls, cascading down from a nearby mountain…a mountain that had also not been there before nightfall.
“Devona,” the Old Man whispered almost instinctively. As the word escaped his mouth, people began to pour out of the buildings. They gathered together and smiled at one another as though greeting for the first time after years apart.
“Look, over there.” Marielle was pointing at a bonfire being lit just outside of a huge brick building. This particular building was clearly the center point of the village. Once the Old Man’s eyes settled on its lovely brick façade, it was as though something lost had unlocked within him. He could see that the entire village had been constructed around this single structure. But it was so much more than that; somehow he just knew that the island of Devona itself had also formed around this point. And the sea had pulled itself in from all sides to meet the shores of this island. And the other landmasses of the world—perhaps worlds—had grown and risen obediently to orbit this one spot. This building, whatever it was and whatever it represented, was the central point of everything. Maybe of existence itself. The Old Man was shaking as these realizations…these certainties washed through him.
The four friends climbed to their feet, somehow no longer hampered by weakness, hunger, or thirst. Compelled to move forward. Everything made sense in this place, though it wasn’t knowable by any human standards. Somewhere deep within their cores, there was profound understanding as they opened the door of the building and stepped within.
The Woman was there in the main hall, waiting. “Welcome, friends,” her voice sang out like the most melodious song, “to where the dreams of men and women come from. Welcome to where all things are known while the world sleeps. Welcome to Devona. I am so happy that you made it.”
Kori pulled Marielle close to him and wrapped his arm around her. She lovingly took hold of his arm and kissed it. Marielle smiled at the Woman and, as the first to grow the courage to speak, she asked her question. “Thank you for having us. But…why us? What makes us special?”
The Woman flipped her hair aside and allowed her eyes to glitter upon them. “What makes you all so special is that you are here. My dear Marielle, everyone is chosen. Everyone is called to this journey at some point in their lives. Not everyone heeds the call. And the few that do, often lack the fortitude to stay the course. I believe you’ve met several of the less stalwart followers scattered along your path? The Mountain Men, The Island King and his minions, even the inhabitants of The Great City. There have been so many called before you and there will be an infinite number after you. But only a handful are strong enough to find their way to these halls. You did…you all did. That is what makes you special. It wasn’t because of what I did; it was because of what you did. Together and on faith alone.”
The Old Man stepped forward, tears streaking his face. “I…I feel like I know you somehow. I imagine it’s the feeling that a man would have after returning from war…to see his family again. I’ve never felt such joy.”
The Woman smiled and a perfect tear formed in her eye. “Yes, dear man, I feel it too. Your journey and mine were always meant for this moment. Take my hand.”
As his hand closed around hers, the feeling of her luminous skin set something within him ablaze. The Old Man reached back and took Kori’s hand. Kori took Marielle’s and Marielle took Felix’s. The Woman led them ceremoniously through one final door…to the heart of the building and of everything.
The room burned with intensity. The entire ceiling seemed poured from stained glass which cascaded down the walls. Lights flickered in staggered synchronicity from unseen sources. And everything in the room…in the city…in existence bent slightly to serve the room’s centerpiece. A lone portrait.
The Old Man found the portrait to be much like the Woman: indescribable and impossible to fully understand. It had no real face or features, not even what anyone might call shape or size. The portrait seemed to have every color variation in the spectrum in every brush stroke. It was glorious and enchanting. The travelers stared forward at this wonder, dumbfounded yet entirely at peace. The Old Man’s eyes drifted down to the portrait’s lower right corner; a piece of it looked to have been torn away and missing.
“What is this amazing picture?” Felix stammered out.
The Woman put a gentle hand on his back. “Felix, there are no words to answer your question even halfway. Because, truthfully, the Portrait itself is the answer. It is the answer to all questions asked and unasked. The truth behind life, behind death, behind wonder and imagination. Behind love. To truly gaze into the eyes of this portrait is to truly know. There is no more need for uncertainty or worry or fear. Clarity stands before you on this wall.” The Woman walked around them and touched each on the shoulder. “It is this that has led you here, my friends. Home at last.”
The Old Man reached into his pocket and ran his hands along the piece of canvas that was tucked away there. It had been badly weathered by the sands and seas of the Island King’s shores, but the Old Man had felt its importance right from the start. Could it be? He drew out the scrap and approached the portrait cautiously. He held it up and pressed it softly against the torn corner; the piece fit perfectly. The whole of the portrait began to hum and glow as it mended itself.
The Woman began to cry at the sight of it.
Kori and Marielle held each other closely as they gazed into the majestic portrait. They saw love. And, moreover, they understood it in its complexity and its beauty. The feelings washed over them and bound them together, heart and Soul.
The Woman folded her hands in front of her and breathed deeply. “Will you stay?” She took a moment to look each of them in the eye. “It is, of course, your choice. If you do stay, you will be a citizen of Devona for the rest of your lives. You will live here among us and become servants of truth and knowledge.”
“Do…we have to stay in Devona forever? Like, we can’t ever leave?” Marielle asked quietly.
The Woman scrunched up her face playfully, “Not quite. Everyone is free to leave Devona at will…very free, in fact. When they travel forth from Devona, they go as agents of wisdom. Observe all that is. Become the eyes and ears of the Portrait.”
Kori chuckled slightly. “Do we need to cross the Endless Sea and battle monsters each time? Because I’d much rather just hunker down here if that’s the case.”
The Woman laughed outright. “No, certainly not. You would fly, of course. You would leave as a wonderfully free blackbird. I know that it may not be a familiar form to you, but it is perfect in its own way.”
“I want to stay,” Marielle blurted out. “This is my destiny, I think. Everything’s been leading to this. I want to be a child of Devona. I want to be free and filled with knowing.”
Kori nodded. “The bird thing will take some getting used to…but I go where you go, my sweet. And, honestly, I think that staying is what we are meant to do. Let’s make this our home. I love you and I want to share this place of love with you for the rest of our lives.”
Marielle threw her arms around his neck and kissed him fully and sweetly.
The Woman looked to the Old Man with questioning eyes. He laughed, “I am staying. Not a moment of hesitation. In my heart, this place has always been my home somehow.”
Felix was silent for a long time…until the woman turned her gaze on him. “I…I don’t think that I belong here. Not yet, at least. I had something a long time ago,” he looked over at Kori and Marielle, “and I let it slip away. I don’t think that I want complete understanding or truth if I, as a man, am incomplete. Maybe this place will be my destiny too someday. But not today.”
Marielle took his hand, “So, you won’t stay with us?”
“I don’t think I can. Not without Aquila. She’s my destiny now; I have to find her.”
The Woman led Felix into the next room, promising to help him in his quest to find Aquila. The Old Man, Kori, and Marielle laid their hands on the portrait and gazed into its form, pledging themselves to the service of wisdom, truth, and love.
And after a few days, as Felix’s ship left port from Devona, he looked to the skies and smiled as three beautiful blackbirds whirled above him, skimming over the waves, free and happy.