Nicole led her to the rear of the Sanctuary, guiding Celeste toward a large gray cube that filled the back third of the hall. Like a cross between a miniature Kaaba and a confessional, the box dominated the Sanctuary. It had to be over eight feet tall and equally as long and wide. Soft bluish light flickered around the edges and through the square of decorative lattice- work on its front facade. When Nicole pressed on this wall, a small door opened. At Nicole’s urging, Celeste stooped, then stepped through the door and into the box.
There sat Larry, covered from head to foot in a hooded green robe, his fleshy face peering at her in the eerie blue light. When Nicole closed the door, Celeste waited for claustrophobia to overtake her. Instead she floated on the sense of deep calm.
“Welcome, new Dreamer. We’ve been waiting a long time for you. Sit down,” said Larry, pointing to a three-legged stool at his feet. He towered over her, and it took her a moment to realize he was seated on a raised platform almost hidden beneath his robe. “What you are about to experience must never be discussed outside this building. Understood?” His voice was like a far-off breeze, and he spoke in a lofty tone she’d never heard him use before.
The tiny room darkened. “Close your eyes,” Larry instructed. He hummed and chanted, his wavering voice almost drowned out by a whirring sound while Celeste shifted nervously on the stool.
She blinked hard, wondering what she was seeing. Larry floated in the space above his seat. Transfixed, Celeste shrank back as his feet and hands morphed into great furry paws, and his mouth and nose elongated into the muzzle of a lion. Before her eyes, his hair and beard grew long, thick and wiry, merging at last into a magnificent golden mane. The only hint of Larry were the eyes, which bore into her as he opened his huge maw and blew forth a gust of turquoise wind, unfurling from the chasm of his lion mouth against the star-studded night that now surrounded them.
In the midst of this howling banner of breath sprouted a tiny green seed that grew rapidly and unfolded into the shape of a mermaid that swam in the star-spangled firmament above. The mermaid’s silvery tail shimmered in the great ocean of lion’s breath, flicking in and out between sharp, shiny teeth. Slowly, the mermaid spun around, revealing her face, Celeste’s own face, or more specifically, the face she’d worn as a thirteen-year-old girl. Small, pink-nippled breasts budded from the mermaid’s naked torso. She laughed, her tinkling voice high, watery, and melodic, and then she wiggled her tail and began to sing in a voice like shimmering glass—high and fragile and heartbreakingly beautiful, though the words were in another language.
The song washed over Celeste, flowing through and across her body like ocean waves, soothing even her deepest wounds. The warring voices in her head stopped as her mermaid drew closer, closer, riding on a towering blue wave, the wave she’d dreamt about that night with Jake.
The wave lifted her into the arms of the mermaid, but instead of comfort, fear swamped Celeste. She forced her gaze away and tried to latch onto something solid. She stared down at her lap. The boundaries between her legs and the stool dissolved, atoms bouncing and weaving wildly between them. She held on tight to the seat as the soft, liquid laughter of the mermaid filled the tiny space.
Then, as if someone had pulled the plug from the kitchen sink, the whole vision—mermaid, lion, and starry night—spiraled down an invisible drain between her feet and Larry’s. Celeste looked up. There he was again, sitting right in front of her, the same man she visited every week in his plain old office in the back of his plain old brick house.
“What was that?” she asked, barely able to open her mouth. Her body tingled from head to toe as if the molecules still danced between her skin and the air.
“Your totem, ‘The Little Mermaid’, the one who traded away her true voice, her Vital Self, for a pair of human legs, and ya know what that got her.”
Celeste nodded. The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale her mother had repeated for her every year on Cape Cod. “Each step was like walking on swords. And she never got the Prince.” But how had Larry known? Celeste was certain she’d never told him about that bond with her mother or about the mermaid she often carried in her pocket for luck. At least, she couldn’t remember telling him anything like that.
“Ya gotta hold on to your Vital Self if you want love. Quit denying the pain of those swords, the pain of pretending you’re something you’re not. Cel, get rid a those fake legs, that false bravado, and start swimming with your mermaid’s tail.”
Larry didn’t realize that if she did, she’d swim straight for Jake, and that once he’d slipped that ring on her finger, she’d keep on swimming away from the Dreamscape.