Chapter 1 of the Paradises: The Smoking Pool

By Emer aka Leah Claire

This story and all characters are my own creation, and I claim full copyright over them. And thanks whohasthezebra for the excellent summary! It's definitely better than mine was!

I stumbled upon the Paradises accidentally. I call them by their proper name now, but then I didn't even have words to describe them. All I did was step off the park wall, and twist a bit when I saw an unpleasant piece of metal jutting out of the dirt below me. The other side was supposed to be a landfill. That's certainly what I'd seen and bargained for when I did it-I was just taking a short cut home from work. On the other hand, I'm not one of those people who have problems believing what I'm seeing, even if what I'm seeing looks impossible.

My stomach lurched a bit in mid-air. When I touched the ground, I found myself on a shelf of naturally-formed rock, which abruptly dropped off down into a ravine on my left. Happily, I was standing a reassuring distance away from the edge. Directly in front of me was a small hot spring, bubbling softly with a strong smell of sulfur. In the hot spring sat a naked man.

Obviously, this is not a very normal sight. However, I didn't dither around pinching myself or vainly trying to believe it was a hallucination. I trust my senses usually, and have not been overly prone to hallucination. It's my experience that even in a dream one has a vague sense of knowing it's a dream. This was definitely not a dream. It was not a very good time for coming up with logical reasons, either. I told that part of my brain to shut up, and then approached the naked man.

The first thing I noticed-aside from the missing clothes-was that he was smoking, looking relaxed and at home, as if he were in his own living room. I couldn't see much of him, as he was submerged to his shoulders in the dark water. I stepped slightly closer, into the ring of damp rock directly surrounded the spring. Outside of that damp ring, the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. Curls of steam came off of the spring's surface, but the man's hair was tipped by frost. He was watching me, through several locks of his graying, disheveled, and icy hair. Finally, he took the cigarette out of his mouth, swiped his hair out of the way, and pinned me with a stern look.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"I just dropped in for a visit," I replied, humorously trying to dodge a question for which I did not have an answer, and didn't want to think about just then.

"Obviously," he replied, smiling a little. He took a drag. "But what are you doing here." It seemed like the same question to me, and one for which I still did not have an answer.

"I don't know," I said, shrugging.

"Ah. One of those." He threw the smoldering cigarette over his shoulder, and another one instantly appeared in his mouth. "In that case, hop in and have a smoke."

"But my clothes," I said, looking down at them. "And I don't smoke."

"Doesn't matter," he said dismissively. "Everyone smokes in the Smoking Pool. And your clothes go away when you touch the water." He heaved himself out, and the instant his toes cleared the surface, he was fully dressed. I jumped a little at the abruptness of it, but my curious streak was seriously inflamed now. I lowered my sneaker into the warmth, and was suddenly even more aware of the sharply cold air. I looked down at myself and found an acute absence of clothing. I jerked my foot back before I could stop myself, and then noticed that there was a cigarette pressed between my lips. After a brief moment of not really being able to breathe properly while I adjusted to the smoke and my own shock, I shrugged.

"Oh, what the hell," I said around my cigarette, and walked carefully into the pool. It was wonderfully warm. The man lowered himself heavily back in, across the pool from me. This was, I thought, probably the most bizarre experience of my life to that point, but I somehow couldn't work up much of a concerned attitude. I could, however, think of a thousand questions to ask. My only trouble was picking which one to ask first.

What is this place?" I said finally, gesturing with my cigarette to include the whole cliff, the opposing cliff and the ravine in between.

"I don't know," he replied. "I came out here it in the seventies. Thought it might be some drug's side affect. But then other-real-people sometimes show up. Now, it's been years since I had any chemical help, and I can still come here. This place strikes me as far too clear for a drug flash back, anyway." He put the cigarette back in his mouth and looked directly at me. Something puzzled me about his statement.

"How old are you?" I asked. He looked twenty five, aside from the grizzled hair. He must have been quite small when he was doing drugs in the seventies.

"Sixty," he replied easily, gazing out over the ravine. I said nothing, adjusting. This seemed like a relatively small impossible thing to stomach, considering the ones I'd had so far. "I think it's this pool and the cigarettes," he concluded, simply. "They're backwards smokes. As far as I can tell, they go in and take the bad stuff out with them. I don't have one damn bit of smog in my lungs and I've lived in L.A. for fourty years." I looked down at my cigarette, contemplating the incredible notion that it had prolonged someone's life. I gave it up with a shrug.

"Other people come here?" I asked after a silent, smoke-filled moment.

"Yes. Not so many, but some. And they aren't all from where we come from, either." he paused and threw out the stub of a cigarette. Another appeared promptly, and he took it out of his mouth in order to continue talking. "Some come from beyond that cliff," he pointed across the drop. "Some come from down inside the valley. And once I even encountered a person from the other end. You can't even see it from here. We're at one end of this rift, but there is another end."

"If they can come here, can we go over there?" I asked. He looked at me a bit sharply.

"I suppose you could," he said softly. "There are paths. But I've never been on them. I found this pool here-and that, with the occasional visitor, is enough for me."

"Oh," I said simply.

I turned my head and began to contemplate the valley and the cliffs. I couldn't see much of the valley from my vantage, but I could see the other cliff quite clearly. It appeared to be taller than this side, and much more snowy. The top was obscured in mist not very far back from the edge. I squinted at it's wall, and noticed that there seemed to be a distinctly worn area just across from us. In fact, it looked like a regularly climbed wall, with little knobs that could be hand-holds. It must be one of the paths that my companion had mentioned, I decided. I started to lay plans.

We sat and smoked for an uncounted instant. Time runs funny in that place. It seemed as if I'd only been there minutes, and yet a deep clock inside of me insisted I'd been there hours. I made an executive decision over the two clocks and decided it was time to go. Just as promised, my clothes reappeared warm and dry when the last part of me left the water.

"Good bye," I told the man. "Thanks for sharing the pool."

"Anytime," he said, calmly puffing away. I started to turn and then something else occurred to me.

"Um. One more thing," I said. He nodded politely, an inquisitive eyebrow raised. "How do I get back here?"

"The same way you got here the first time. But don't be fooled into thinking it has to be the same place. There's a difference." He took a thoughtful puff. "If you really can't remember how to do it, go to the Celts. They were right about some things."

"Ok," I said.

"Wrong about a lot of others, though," he muttered at my back. I took a running jump, and scrambled back over the concrete wall.

I lived in an interesting old house in those days. It was three stories and at least a century old. The woman who rented out the rooms had inherited it from her grandmother. My apartment was on the top floor. It used to be a nursery or something, and had a convenient adjoining bathroom. The wall paper was yellow, and that always reminded me of that story, about the woman going insane because of the yellow wall paper in her room. It hadn't driven me around the bend yet, but I wasn't ruling it out yet. Especially not that night as I walked home from my first visit to the Paradises.

I was plagued with uneasy sensations. What unsettled me wasn't the strangeness of the experience or the impossibility of what had happened that day. No, I was most worried that I wouldn't be able to get back. There was such a mystery, such a fabulous allure about finding something like that, that I was nearly shaking with the excitement of having been there and the consequent fear of not being able to find it again.

When I'd come back over the wall, I'd looked down into the landfill-and giving a shrug-jumped down into it again, just to make sure. But I had landed in the ordinary landfill, narrowly missing the same piece of metal. There was no pool, no man, no cliffs. I remembered what he'd said in parting, of course, but I had just been there. I couldn't resist trying once.

I'd detoured on my way home and gotten a bunch of Celtic mythology books from the library. When I got to my room, I threw them all on the bed, shed my coat and shoes, and let my mind boggle as it had been wanting to do since I'd stepped into a place that most definitely wasn't a landfill.

I had been in another, well, world. Something I couldn't even name properly. It was awfully real for something that wasn't supposed to exist. Realizations buffeted me right and left. The universe was not quite how I'd imagined it. Before today it had all been plain and there, in one place. It was a very vast place, yes, but all in the regular plane of existence. I had figured that we just hadn't gotten around to exploring it all yet.

Now everything was strange. I had stepped sideways through the thin air and come out in a place that had no truck with my concept of reality. It seemed to work with the rules I was accustomed to, and yet it didn't completely. It was almost as if it was a mix of different sets of rules-and they sometimes contradicted each other. Cigarettes didn't just appear out of nowhere and neither did clothing disappear. On the other hand, gravity and the natural formations of rock and the meager greenery I'd seen had been intact. I let the problem wrestle with itself in the back of my mind as I turned to consult the library books.

The first book-a history book-talked about a series of invasions. I was interested to find that the fairies (so the book said authoritatively) were actually an ancient race of people calling themselves the Tuatha De Danann. They'd come from four cities in the unspecified north and had burned their boats once reaching Ireland so they could never be tempted to return. Then when they were defeated in war with the next invaders, they'd gone "Underhill", again an unspecified location.

Of course, I'd have to have been unobservant and deaf to have missed references to those things when they flooded so many of the fiction stories-old and new-that I'd read over the years. But I wasn't sure if the place I'd been was at all the same thing as either Underhill or the mysterious "four cities". For instance-my visit had been to the top of a sharp cliff, hardly fairyland and certainly not underground. There had been a human waiting there and no one else, though he'd hinted that a variety of people came through. The trip had not involved "wading through red blood to the knee," like Thomas the Rhymer had had to deal with. I didn't have to do any rituals, or find a hidden door. No Fairy Queen had captured me. I'd just dropped down into it. It simply couldn't be the same thing. Or maybe it was different for every body. Or maybe it changed over time. How many different ways were there to get in to whatever-it-was?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me as if people had been wandering into "other" places accidentally for a long time. Some of them managed to get home, but could never get to the valley again. Some of them had the opposite problem of not being able to get home. The Tuatha De Danann, for instance hadn't wanted to go home. Had there been some mention of war in their cities?

In the fourth book, something caught my eye. It was a simple enough paragraph, having to do with religious significance in ancient Celtic culture. This passage talked about places that are neither here nor there-places that are in between two states of being. Doorways are the most obvious examples. They're neither one room nor the other. But the Celts went further than that. Twilight was significant because it is neither day nor night. The beach is a place which is not quite land or water. And a wall separates two places-but isn't one place or another itself. For a brief moment that day, I had existed nowhere. In fact, the more I thought about it, it seemed to me that the whole valley was just one large nowhere, maybe the place where all the minor nowheres led to. And in itself it was the doorway to any place where those nowhere had collected from.

"But," a part of me objected, "Millions of people every day cross doorways, go to the beach, and jump down from walls. What was so special about what you did today?" I had no answer to that. The question nibbled on my brain all through dinner (half a sandwich I had lying around, and an Orange) and all through my preparations for bed. I lay in the dark and let it keep nibbling. How had I jumped down from that wall differently from millions of other people before me? Did it have to do with me alone, or was it something unrelated to me-a fluke?

Just before I dropped off to sleep I managed to grab onto a thought. I had jumped off the wall normally enough. But a split second before I hit, I'd noticed a piece of metal just below me. I'd twisted out of the way, and my stomach had felt like it was jerked sideways. In my state of sleepy semi-consciousness it seemed obvious to me that what had happened was that I had not only physically twisted to avoid the scrap metal, I'd twisted something in a deeper level than physical at the same time. I was too far gone into sleep to wake back up fully at this insight but I could remember what the twist had felt like, what the slight movement of an unknown muscle had done.

"Tomorrow," I promised myself. "Tomorrow is Sunday. You can get back there, then." And I slid into sleep.

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