The first time I saw the Man of Light, he was feeding sea gulls on the beach. The day was cold, bleak, and windy. The sun was little more than a rumor in the afternoon sky. I approached him with my hands buried deep in my pockets and my head tucked against the wind. He was an old man with a stark-white Santa Claus beard, a faded Army jacket, and an ancient pair of jeans with holes in the knees. The birds flocked around him so thickly that he was partially covered by their flapping wings. At a comfortable distance, I stopped to watch, delighted by such an unlikely sight for a day such as this. I had walked miles down the beach in the cold, my steps just beyond the breaking waves, heartbroken for the usual reasons. But the sight of this old man sharing his bread with dozens of ravenous birds caused me to smile for reasons I could not understand.
His expression puzzled me. He must have done this deed for joy, but there was nothing joyful in his manner. His expression as the birds flocked about him was far too serious for the deed he did. I watched him until his bread was spent, and the final bird had given up. He paid me no notice, and I would have continued on with nothing more than a nod of greeting if he hadn’t spoken.
“Hello, young fellow,” he said, smiling.
“Hello,” I answered. I noted that his smile was a beautiful thing. There was a kindness in his eyes I had not expected, although the sadness remained as well. The smile moved me to add to my greeting.
“Cold day for a bird feed,” I remarked.
“Oh, they’ll eat in any kind of weather, the little gluttons.”
“Wasn’t anything wrong with their appetite, from my view.”
Then we stood regarding one another awkwardly for a moment. It seemed, somehow, that we should have more to say, but neither of us knew quite what it was. Just as I was about to bid him farewell, he spoke again.
“How far did you walk down the beach today, young man?”
“I don’t know. Two or three miles, probably. I had some things on my mind.” I was not one to speak personally to strangers, and even this small confession shocked me as it left my mouth.
“Yes,” he said. “I could tell by the look on your face. I ought to know. I’ve had some thoughts in my own mind for quite some time myself.”
I found myself moving closer to the old man, so that we could speak without raising our voices to be heard over the wind and the surf. An onlooker could have taken us for father and son rather than the strangers we were.
“Do you always feed sea gulls on days like this?”
“No. Not always. I came out today to mull things over as I often do. I think about what might have been sometimes. I’ve been coming here off and on for a very long time, actually.”
“I came out for the same reasons, but only for today.”
“The ocean is a fine place for it,” he said. He turned his head to study it and I followed his example. For a time, we watched the waves in silence as they crashed like marching soldiers against the sand.
“Would you like to hear a story?” he asked. “It’s a true story, but impossible to believe.”
“I’d like to hear a story.”
“I will tell it as it happened.” His eyes took on a faraway look, and his voice never wavered.
* * *
“I once lived in a city you have heard of: a place of legend and mysticism. But it was as real as you or I. It was as real as those waters in front of us and the cold wind that bites our faces. I am the last living citizen of that city that was once the jewel of the Earth. It was a city of silver streets and gold-plated buildings. It was a city of peace and knowledge with wise governors and beautiful people. The name of this city was Atlantis.
“I speak of it in romantic terms but it was not without its troubles. People of that city were not unlike people of any city. Wrongs occurred. Crimes were committed. People were treated unjustly in the names of religion and politics. Atlantis was no utopia, but of all the cities in the world, it was the grandest.
“The story I have to tell you is not about how Atlantis ceased to be. I do not know that story. I was not there to witness it. That is why I stand before you now upon this beach rather than reduced to slimy mud and bones on the bottom of an ocean floor.
“I was a youth of great energy and passion for life. Whenever I performed a task, I did so with all the enthusiasm of my soul. In every endeavor to which I set my mind, I became a success. My father was a renowned man of science and would have liked to say that he honed me in his own image, but he could not. His task in my raising was to temper my passions rather than stoke them.
“‘Take your time, young Olars. The world must catch up.’ This was his favorite phrase to me, but one I did not often heed.
“I was a student of immense talent and the pride of my teachers in the school for gifted children that I attended. Science was a passion of Atlantis, and the reason our city stood out from the rest of humanity like a crystal among stones. The city itself was an homage to technology with its nuclear-powered cars that whirred above her silver-plated streets, and the jets that roared from her airports into the sky, with no purpose but to explore the Earth and return to their home; for who would want to live in another place? My father was the first to design a rocket capable of taking men to the moon. When men did eventually land on the lunar surface when I was seventeen years old, he became a man of great fame. My father told anyone who would listen, however, that his son possessed an intellect and talent for science that dwarfed his own. He looked forward to the day when I continued his vision of bringing men to the stars.
“A year later, his heart was broken when I informed him that this was not my intention. My passions were aimed in other directions than space, and it would be in those endeavors that I would make my mark. It was not that I wished to hurt my father; it was only that I intended to make my own way. The world of technology and mathematics left me cold with its focus on utter objectivity, and the necessarily sterile world of the laboratory. I longed to be in the world, to think of it, to feel it with all my senses, and above all, to write about it with the same skill of the masters who had come before me. I pored over the classics of my time and learned the wisdom of the great philosophers and thinkers who came before me.
“My father did not understand. He interpreted my reluctance to follow in his footsteps as betrayal. When weeks, then months passed and he saw that I truly intended to follow a different path, he became cold and distant.
“‘Because you have rejected me,’ he told me once, in a huff of anger, ‘I must do the work I would have left for you. A good son would further his father’s legacy rather than to waste his time with foolish indulgences!’
“I was hurt by his words, but refused to show it.
“‘Why should I be jerked about by the nose in the name of your science, Father?’ I shot back at him. ‘Do what you must! I intend to blaze my own path through the world!’
“My teachers too were crushed by this decision. ‘You were born to be a scientist,’ they would tell me. ‘You are the most talented boy we have ever taught. It is fine and good to read and write, but keep these hobbies in their proper place. These are frivolous activities. Not a path to greatness!’
“I knew what mattered to me, however, and strayed from the mundane academic world I had grown so tired of into the forests and meadows beyond the city to read and write without distraction or reproof. Many days I wandered to the edge of the island and looked out upon the ocean waters with longing. It called to me and I longed to answer it. The stars, too, called my name when I turned my eyes upon them in the night. But I considered them to be my father’s domain, and did my best to reject them.
“Atlantis was a wonderful place, but far too small for me, I told myself. I vowed to be a well-traveled man and record my travels in my writings. In this way, I would achieve as much fame as my father. But soon after, I fell in love, and forgot these thoughts. My pursuits of the mind as well, were put aside as all my energies became focused on a single being.
“It was in the meadow that I met her. On that day, I absorbed myself in the work of Iotoces, an Atlantean philosopher who believed that man was meant to find God by searching for him throughout the Universe. I had put down my book to ponder his teachings when I saw her in the distance, making her way in my direction. She walked through the grass without watching her steps, her head buried in her hands as she wept. She was a vision of loveliness in spite of her obvious grief. Even from a hundred yards away, her brilliant red hair shined in the sunlight, mesmerizing me.
“I stood and went to her, leaving the book behind and plucking a bouquet of wildflowers from the meadow to give to her.
“She sat on a rock before I reached her and sobbed like a child into her hands. I marveled at the golden bracelet on her wrist and mistook it as a shackle for a fleeting moment. I wondered what tragedy could have preceded such weeping and stood above her unseen, before gathering the courage to place a hand on her shoulder and offer my gift. She flinched at my touch, and regarded me with fear for a moment. Then her eyes softened and she accepted the flowers with a smile that thrilled my heart.
“‘I could not bear to see such beauty in such pain, and hoped to comfort you,’ I told her.
“She took the bouquet and held it against her heart. ‘You are sweet,’ she told me. ‘What is your name?’
“‘Olars,’ I told her.
“‘I am Velynia,’ she said. ‘I know of your father.’
“‘I believe that everyone does,’ I said, without hiding my exasperation.
“She laughed, forgetting her tears for a moment. We sat and talked in the meadow until darkness fell. It was not until then that I dared to ask the reason for her grief. In response, her eyes filled again with tears, and I was sorry to have inquired.
“‘I will tell you when the time is right,’ she told me.
“We made promises that we would see each other again and were soon inseparable. She became the object of all my energy. My academic aspirations were placed on hold. My differences with my father, too, paled to insignificance now that my relationship with Velynia consumed me. But he was forever absent when I made my way into our dark and empty house, no matter how late the hour. I saw him only briefly when the needs of his body forced him to return from his lab to eat or sleep. He took on a haggard, wild appearance, and spoke to me in monosyllables. On one occasion, he did take the time to tell me how his work was coming.
“He stood from his table after a cursory meal and grabbed my arm so tightly it left a bruise. Then he looked into my eyes with an expression of frenzied fanaticism.
“‘I am making progress, my son. Such progress as you have never imagined! Wait until you see what I will do!’
“Then he left with great haste, forgetting to take his coat, although the day was quite cold.
“‘My father has lost his bearings,’ I thought. But he was forgotten moments later when I held Velynia in my arms, completely absorbed in my love for her. It occurred to me later that we had both lost our bearings in our own way.
“It was four months after we met before she allowed me to meet her parents. I had begun to believe she was ashamed of me although she insisted her delay was only because they were a peculiar set of people who had very different viewpoints than my own. I pressed her on the subject until she reluctantly relented.
“Her parents were kind and charming people, but Velynia had spoken truthfully. It was the first time that I realized Science was not the only religion adhered to by the people of Atlantis. Her parents were devout Gaiyans. I knew little of Gaiyanism except for the whispered rumors that they practiced human sacrifice and believed that all science was evil and against the will of their temperamental god. But amidst the hospitality of her parents it was easy to dismiss such rumors as superstitious nonsense.
“The warmth of her home was in sharp contrast to the comparative coldness of my own. They had prepared a feast for me, and were more than receptive to my every want. Beneath the surface, though, I detected an undercurrent of tension among them. Velynia had never spoken of her religious beliefs since our relationship had begun, but I surmised that she was not so devout in her practices as her parents. It occurred to me that her parents must have possessed extraordinarily open minds to allow their daughter to date the son of the most famous scientist in all of Atlantis.
“I left her home that night, satisfied that I had established a solid rapport.
“In my mind, the next step was marriage. The first time I broached the subject with her, she nearly broke down in tears as she had done on the day of our meeting. The time was not right for such a thing, she told me. Beyond this, she refused to elaborate. Afterward, I treaded lightly on the subject, and yet it was all my heart desired. I grew fussy and irritable with my love over petty matters, unable to express the real source of my anguish. I noticed too, that she began to grow distant and silent for long lengths of time, and developed an odd habit of holding and squeezing the golden bracelet that adorned her wrist. When I implored to know the cause of her distress, she refused to say. Insisting would only lead to tears.
“I began to grow suspicious of her almost to the point of paranoia. Did she have a secret love? Did her parents disapprove of me more strenuously than I believed? Had they already arranged her betrothal to a proper Gaiyan? I became convinced that she hid a secret, but no matter how pitifully I pleaded for an explanation, none was offered. Our once harmonious relationship became bitter and strained. Still, she was all my heart desired.
“At last, I made a decision. A day before a year had passed, I took her to the meadow where we had first met. I dropped to a knee and offered her a ring I had bought with money earned through odd jobs throughout the year. Its humble diamond paled next to her golden bracelet, but shined with all of the love and commitment that burned with such fervor within me.
“‘I love you, Velynia,’ I told her. ‘I do not understand why a distance has grown between us in recent days, but today I want to close that distance. I want to marry you and share all of my days with you forever.’
“I delivered the proposal with all the sincerity in my soul, but to my horror she did not allow me to place the ring on her finger. Instead, she took it from my hand and held it against her chest. She collapsed to a knee and placed her face against my own. Tears streamed down her face and found their way to mine.
“‘Listen to me, Olars,’ she whispered with intensity. Her voice had never held such a tone. I listened, baffled by her manner. ‘I wish to marry you with all my heart. But I cannot. Do you hear me, Olars? I love you as you love me, but I can never marry you. I am sorry!’
“She tried to give me back the ring, but I would not take it. I only stared at the ground in desolation. Hot tears streamed from my eyes.
“‘Why?’ I managed to croak. ‘I do not understand. Tell me why, Velynia. I want to understand.’
“She stood and took a step backward. I thought she would leave me drowning in my grief. But in the end she couldn’t. Instead, she knelt down beside me again and took my hand.
“‘My love,’ she said in a softer voice. ‘I will tell you everything. I should have long before.’ I looked up, wiped away the tears that blurred my vision, and braced myself.
“‘The golden bracelet on my arm means that I have been chosen by Gaiya.’
“‘Chosen for what?’ I asked stupidly.
“She sighed and continued. ‘Do you remember the day you found me crying in this meadow?’
“‘Of course,’ I said. ‘How could I forget?’
“‘That was the day that I was chosen. Tomorrow, I will stand before my family and all of the Gaiyans of Atlantis and drink a poison that will kill me. After I am dead, my body will be preserved and placed in a sacred place in the temple where the people may come to speak to Gaiya through me. Gaiya is a demanding goddess who requires a virgin to be sacrificed to her on the same day each year. If the sacrifice does not happen, she will destroy Atlantis with a mighty earthquake that will sink her so far beneath the sea that she will never be found. I must die tomorrow, my love. That is why we cannot be married.’
“I stared at her, too shocked by this news to speak at first, but at last found my voice.
“‘Velynia, my darling, you cannot go through with this. It is barbaric! It is unthinkable! How have you borne this year with such knowledge in your mind?’
“‘I could not have done it if I had not met you. Perhaps Gaiya sent you to help me through. My death will bring great status and pride to my parents. The parents of the sacrificed are held in very high esteem by those of our faith.’
“‘But what of your feelings, Velynia? How will you benefit from your family’s rise in reputation when you are dead? Do you truly believe in this cruel goddess? In a year’s time, I have never seen you pray to her. I have seen no evidence of the slightest bit of religious fervor about you? Will you die only to please your family?’
She stared at the ground in anguish and hopelessness and I did not believe she would respond.
“‘You are right,’ she finally said. ‘I do not share my family’s beliefs. But I cannot dishonor them by shirking my duty. What I believe in my own mind is of no consequence. I will not bring shame to them. This year has been difficult for my parents as well. They do not wish to lose their only daughter, but we all must do our duty. That is what my father has told me countless times over the past year.’
“Anger surged through me. How could she march to her death so passively? I would not see my love’s life snuffed out by such an idiotic and savage tradition.
“‘No!’ I told her. ‘I cannot allow this to happen! I love you and I refuse to give up my dream of making my life with you so easily. Think of yourself, Velynia. What do you want to do? Die to bring honor to your parents, or live to bring joy to yourself?’
“In the meadow where we met, we silently studied one another’s face for a very long time as she struggled to decide.
“In the end, she placed my ring on the ground at her feet as her face contorted with grief. ‘I am sorry,’ she said. ‘I must accept my burden. It can be no other way.’ Then she turned her back to me and fled. It was the last time I ever saw her.
“Frozen with grief, I fell upon the ground and grasped the hateful ring tightly in my fist. Too grieved to weep or move, I laid on the ground of the grassy meadow deep into the night until a million stars glittered above me. The stars reminded me of my father. I knew that he was my final refuge.
“I left the meadow and made my way back to the city and to his laboratory, knowing he would be there in spite of the late hour.
“I still had his key and entered without knocking. Deep in the bowels of his sanctuary, I saw a light pouring beneath a door and the sounds of his toil behind it. This door was unlocked and I stood watching him as he worked, utterly absorbed with a metal suit covered with circuits.
“‘Father,’ I said.
“He regarded me with a start, as if I had wakened him suddenly from a deep sleep. I watched him shake off his initial annoyance to find his smile. It gladdened my heart to see it. He stepped forward to shake my hand.
“‘My son,’ he said. ‘I see from your face that you come to me with sadness. Is it because I have neglected you for so long with my work?’
“‘No, it is not that.’ I could not bring myself to speak of her.
“‘Velynia,’ he said, simply. I was surprised that he recalled her name.
“‘Father, I am ready to help you now. Tell me what to do.’
“As I looked at him through my tears, I caught a glint in his eyes in spite of his show of compassion.
“He picked up the metal suit of many circuits and held it before me.
“‘Carry this suit and follow me,’ he said.
“The gleam in his eyes had now spread across his face. For a moment, I was afraid to know what he had in mind.
“‘I will tell you of this suit as we go. It is my proudest creation. It is a device made to transform its wearer’s body into a beam of light. In this way, you may journey through space at your whim. Its sensors can read your brain waves so that you may steer yourself. It has a force field to protect the wearer and to control his speed. The speed of light is a constant, but if you activate the force field correctly, you can control your speed and thus your landing. You may also re-assume your physical form again with only a thought.
“You can, on this night, become the first Man of Light to streak through that infinite space that lies above the Earth. Of course, there are great risks as well, and I would gladly assume them myself, but I offer this chance to you as a gift of gratitude for the pride you have always brought to me as my son.
“Tears came into my eyes once more as I listened to his words. I did not realize until that moment how much I needed his approval, and how badly I had missed it.
“Then we stood outside with the night sky above us. The night was cloudless and I felt the call of the stars as they looked down upon me. I could think of no better way of forgetting the pain of Velynia’s loss than to be among them. I had no fear. The suit I held was created by my father, who I believed to be as infallible as a god.
“I removed my shirt and replaced it with the Suit of Light. He applied a cap to my head and connected the circuits to their places. Then he donned a pair of dark glasses as he prepared to watch his son become a beam of living light.
“‘Touch the button on the chest-plate,’ he said. ‘That is all you need to do. I trust you will learn the finer points as you go.’
“‘How will I come home, Father?’
“‘The suit knows the way.’
“I accepted this.
“I hesitated for another moment as he waited, his eyes opened wide in anticipation. I thought one last time of Velynia. She had chosen a duty of death to honor her parents over a life with me. I told myself that there was nothing left for me now that she was gone. The truth was that the stars called to me and I heeded them. My finger found the button on the chest-plate and I turned to my father and nodded farewell to him. He returned my gesture with tears in his own eyes. My finger pressed the button and suddenly my body was liquid brightness. The Universe was filled by my silent scream as I surged far above the boundaries of the Earth in a single second. My thoughts were chaos and all of my father’s simple instructions of a moment before were rendered meaningless. I lost all sensation of time or place, and for a moment my very identity was forgotten to me.
It was her memory that gathered me again. I suddenly realized that it was my duty to rescue her, even against her will. How could I abandon her during the hour of her greatest need? My father had said the suit knew the way home and this was true. In a moment, I saw the Earth again as it hung so serenely in its place in space like a cerulean jewel amidst the endless darkness of the Universe. In another second, the Earth’s atmosphere wrapped itself around me, and having learned to control my descent, I hovered above the ocean searching for my home, the gleaming city of Atlantis.
“Though I searched for many days across every speck of ocean, it could not be found. Despair settled blackly upon me. At last, I landed on a beach far from where my home had once been. In time, I learned that hundreds of years had passed during my brief foray into space at the speed of light. Atlantis, I was told, was a place of myth and legend, supposedly destroyed in a great cataclysm. Perhaps, the Gaiyans had died out at last, and their god had carried out her threat. I wandered about the Earth in a state of great loneliness, forming only the most casual relationships among those I encountered. I have never again sought love or friendship. These things I left forever in Atlantis.
“Periodically, I return to space and when I come again to Earth, the landscape has always changed. The politics have always shifted. Generations have come and gone in my absence. But human nature remains a constant; the same desires and fears in every age, the same pettiness and prejudices, the same virtues and heroism. I am an observer of the human condition, but rarely a participant. This has been my way for millennia. It is a lonely existence and yet not without its rewards. The Universe holds many marvels that still fill me with wonder. At least I knew love once, fleeting as it proved to be. I still hold the ring meant for her on that day.”
He opened his hand and showed it to me. The diamond in its center still shined with brilliance. The ring was without a trace of tarnish. But I knew that it came from a lost age.
* * *
The old man had finished his story. Now, the tide was moving in. Menacing clouds filled the sky, and the formerly stiff wind had increased to a gale. I realized I was quite cold now that the spell of his story no longer bound me. I believed in the truth of his words. I looked into his eyes and wondered of the marvels he must have witnessed. I understood his loneliness and his grief.
“I do not tell this tale to every stranger,” he said. “I choose those who will gain from listening.”
“What will I gain?” I asked.
But he did not answer my question. He spoke no more and his eyes wandered to the horizon. I followed his gaze and stood there beside him until a cold rain began to fall against me. *
About the Author: Charles Parramore works as a counselor at a state institution and has been writing a lot in his spare time. He lives with his cat and his wife, who seem to find his company tolerable. His work has been previously published in peridotbooks.com and astoundingfiction.com.
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is a man of illustrations.