"If the dead are only sleeping, then why don't they ever wake?"
This is a question that haunted me from the time I was a little girl. Back before I came to understand death. To understand separation. Back when I was human.
My name is Kaahna and I was six years old when my sister died. Her name was Suyoku and we did everything together. She was eight, just two years older than me, and we were the best of friends.
I remember the day it happened. It was the middle of Autumn and the trees had all turned red. For a couple of weeks the sky had been gray, the blue of Summer having faded, but the rains had not yet come. There was a chill in the air that came with the wind that blew over the lake near our home and I was bundled up in a fluffy jacket over my pink dress and mary-janes.
"Wanna play hide and seek?" I heard my sister from behind. Her voice had startled me. Suyoku had a knack for sneaking up on people even when the crisp leaves were covering the ground and she had to dodge them on tip-toe. She laughed when I jumped, but it was a good natured laugh. I remember laughing too.
"Ok," I said, "but you have to be it."
Soon Suyoku was counting by the biggest tree in the clearing. "One... two... three..." As I rushed away to find a place to hide, her voice grew softer and softer until the wind blocked it from my ears completely. If only I had known that would be the last time I would hear her voice.
Within minutes I had found the place I wanted. It was the same place that I always chose when I hid from Suyoku. It was our secret place, a small cave right on the shore of the lake. You couldn't see the opening until you got right down in front of it, climbing over the rocks and the logs that had floated there during the last rainy season. Giggling to myself I started to climb down. But after the first few steps the wind started to blow harder and I nearly lost my balance. I managed to keep myself upright but the wind was splashing water up over the next set of rocks and when I heard the echo it made in the cave itself, I got scared. So I climed back up and made my way back to the trees where Suyoku was counting. I knew that I didn't have much longer before she would come looking for me so I found the quickest hiding place I could: A nice big pile of red crunchy leaves. I got down on my hands and knees and wriggled my way in until I was right in the center and waited. A few minutes later when I heard Suyoku come past, I held my breath.
I don't know how long I waited in those leaves for Suyoku. It must have been hours. I had fallen asleep at some point, wrapped and cozy as I was in my furry jacket. When I woke up it was dark out. Jumping up I ran quick as I could for home. I wasn't supposed to be out after dark, especially without Suyoku. Soon enough I reached home. All the lights were on and the front door was open. I remember how glad I was to see the warm light spilling out onto the cold ground. I rushed inside to tell my mother that I was back, to explain that I had fallen asleep, that I hadn't meant to worry anyone. I never had the chance to say anything at all.
It was my grandfather who told me what happened. The sun had set and niether Suyoku or I had come home so our father had gone out looking for us. After a while he had come home to get others to join him. Suyoku had been found by the lake alone. She had drowned near the mouth of a hidden cave. The neighbors had gone out again with both of our parents to look for me and grandfather alone had stayed home in case I returned. I asked grandfather if Suyoku was in our bedroom. I wanted to see her. I remember the sad look in his eyes when he picked me up and held me close. I didn't know what "drowned" meant.
"The dead are only sleeping, darling." That's what my grandfather told me at Suyoku's funeral. "Only sleeping."
Let's skip ahead now, shall we? There's no point in telling you all that happened in the years that followed. How my family slowly began to heal around me. How my grandfather taught me about the Spirit Realm Suyoku was with now. How I became ever quieter, and ever more often visited that place where we used to play. How I came to understand what it meant to be truly separated from the one you love most. The next event in my life that really matters didn't occur until much later, when I was a grown woman, standing on the shore of that very lake with the Autumn moon shining down on the mouth of that cave.
"Suyoku..." I don't know why I said it. I don't think I expected her to hear me. I didn't speak the name with the intention of it being heard at all. But it was heard.
"Kaahna? a small voice floated on the wind. It sounded like my sister's voice. Kaahna, is that you? It's getting late Kaahna, we have to go home. Come out of the cave." I stared open-mouthed, not knowing what to think. Could this be her spirit? As I stood listening I began to shake. And then something caught my eye. Floating above the middle of the lake I saw a tiny light like a firefly. And below it, floating, a small figure in a white dress. Suyoku.
I rushed into the water, swimming for the middle of the lake, never taking my eyes off the white body of Suyoku. When I reached her I found her just as I remembered her. She had the most peaceful look on her face, as though she were sleeping. I remembered then what my grandfather had said. "Only sleeping." I reached out to touch her arm to wake her but stopped, my hand barely an inch above her skin. There was a coldness coming from her body. Something about her felt wrong. As I watched, wondering, I noticed, she wasn't breathing. This body didn't feel like Suyoku.
"Not asleep," I whispered. "dead."
As I spoke these words the body of Suyoku began to sink. All around her the water began to grow cold. I could see ice crystals forming on the surface. I knew that I had to get back to the shore. But as I turned to get away from the cold spreading toward me, my foot bumped the edge of Suyoku's skirt. Immediately the coldness spread through my leg and up into my body. Within moments I couldn't move. I felt myself sinking. As the darkness swallowed me I heard my sister's voice again.
"No! Kaahna, you can't go under! Kaahna!"
When I awoke I felt strage all over. I opened my eyes and looked around myself. Nothing looked familiar. My head was swimming. I tried to sit up and couldn't get my arms to move. In fact, I couldn't feel my arms at all. It took me a minute to realize that I was under water. And another minute after that to see that I was no longer human. I had become a fish. All around me I could see other fish in the water. They drifted slowly, not really swimming, as if pulled along by a current. I alone seemed to be able to move of my own choice.
It wasn't until three nights later that I came to know what had caused my transformation. I was swimming with my face out of the water, still trying to understand what I was seeing, when hovering just over the water I saw tiny lights, just like the one that had been floating above Suyoku's body. There were dozens of them, all moving gently as if on a current in the air that corresponded perfectly with the one in the lake. I moved closer to the nearest of these lights and just like before I found the body of a human, lying as if in sleep. But this time, the body felt warm and alive. It was the body of a young boy. As I looked at his face his eyelids flitted and then opened. He looked around in panic for a moment until his eyes found me beside him.
"Where am I?" he asked. "I have to get home. It's dark out." The boy began to cry. I tried my best to comfort him but he just kept on. Finally I had to leave him and as he drifted on I saw that he began to relax and eventually his eyes closed again. Curious about the state of the others floating in the lake I began to make my way through the water, stopping to check every tiny light, careful not to get close enough to wake whoever I found. There were so many people in there! And not only children. I found adults, old men and women, and at one point even a small family who seemed to drift together. They must all have been victims of this lake. I came to realize that if I searched long enough I might be able to find Suyoku again. I wouldn't wake her of course, but I could at least look at her.
As it turned out, I didn't have to look. Suyoku found me.
"Kaahna? came a small voice. Kaahna, is that really you? I looked and saw her floating next to me. But she wasn't lying on her back like the others. And she wasn't scared either. She just looked at me and smiled. "I finally found you. I've been searching for so long. But-" She stopped and looked a bit sad. "Why did you come into the lake? I wanted to see you but I didn't want you dead with me."
Dead? The thought hadn't occurred to me. I was a fish, wasn't I? A living fish. I asked Suyoku what she meant. How can I have become a fish? And was I really dead?
"You died three nights ago when you touched my spirit, Kaahna." she answered gently. "Those who are still living can't touch the Spirit Realm without being dragged in. I'm so sorry that it happened to you too. But I'm so happy to see you again." She smiled and looked down into the water. "You became a fish because your spirit is stuck in this lake. Everyone here has the form of a fish. You've seen them under the water right? It's just above water that we look like ourselves. And our lights shine for those on the shore to see so they can remember us and know that we're still here. Look above yourself the next time you're under water, you'll see."
And that's exactly what I did. I went down into the water and looked up toward the surface, and just as Suyoku had said, there was my body. I drifted along peacefully just like all the others. And above that shone a tiny bright light. My light.
As time went on I learned more about the spirits in that lake. Some had come to realize that they were no longer living and built a new existence for themselves in the lake. It was those spirits who were able to swim about and talk to one another. Those who didn't realize where they were just floated with the current until something disturbed them and they woke long enough to wonder why they hadn't returned home yet. As for me, my life had always been in this lake, with Suyoku. That's why I never had trouble swimming. I knew where I was even if I didn't know why. I was with Suyoku and I was home. Suyoku didn't drift anymore either, because I was the one she was looking for and now she had found me.
Now Suyoku and I spend all our time together, talking and laughing like we used to. And when we bump into one of the other spirits who are still lost, we do our best to guide them. To teach them about where they are and that they don't have to search anymore. Some of them even swim with us now.
So when you're walking at night near a lake or an ocean and you see those tiny lights, remember that they're so much more than just fireflies. And if you ever find yourself adrift in one of these lakes or oceans, without any memory of how you got there, desperate to find your way home, ask yourself this: Are you ready to give up what you've been searching for and start a new life? Or would you rather just go back to sleep?