"This is new behavior."
Dayus found me that morning, floating on my back down the babbling brook. I'd heard him coming, of course, but I was sure he knew where to find me, so I made no effort to find him, and refused to let him interrupt my lazy reverie.
"Don't read too much into it," I said, slowly spinning around in the current. It was more than just pretty scenery. With a little imagination and initiative, I could occupy myself with it for hours, as I had already managed to do that day. I climbed trees, I jogged through the field; I even built little sand castles in the soft mud by the banks. Now I was cooling off, relaxing, floating in the water, "getting back to nature" in a snow globe.
"By the way, the sun here isn't going to burn my skin, is it?"
"Unless we have over-estimated your resilience, nothing in this environment should pose a any danger to your body."
"That's good. Very good. I don't have any sun screen."
"This activity is purely recreational, then?" I closed my eyes at his question, amused by its ridiculous nature, and promptly drifted into a sand bar. I used my hand to push myself back to the middle of the stream, gently resuming my place in the flow.
"I guess so. I suppose you could also say it's hygienic, but I don't have to leave my apartment to get clean."
"No other purpose?"
"Nothing springs to mind."
"I wonder at its recreational appeal." What an odd way of putting it, I thought.
"Well, it's quite relaxing. I don't have to do very much, but I get to move through the water anyway; looking at the trees, and rocks and stuff. It feels good on my skin. And even if I stop moving, the water keeps flowing, so it feels like I'm still moving." The sound of wildlife might have improved the experience, completed the illusion, but I was feeling generous so I didn't bother to mention it. All things considered (how familiar these words had become in my mind), the world that Dayus built was good: sterile, but clean, beautiful in an idealized and classical sort of way.
Dayus was silent for a while, walking slowly along the bank, keeping pace with me (it wasn't hard). I watched his bizarre profile from the corner of half-opened eyes. I wondered if the setting more resembled my world or his; if he ever walked alongside the rivers of his home, or even swam in them.
And then he spoke: "Jonah, as you are probably aware, this place has finite boundaries. In a few minutes, you're going to bump into a wall."
Sigh. "I guess it's time to get out then." Dragging my fingers in the dirt, I came to a slow stop, and then I stood, thigh-deep in the center of the current. "I need to go back and get my shirt and towel," I said, as I waded back to shore.
"They are here," he said, producing them from a fold in his robe. "I found them hanging in a tree, before I found you."
"Thanks. Yeah, that's where I left them." I took the towel and dried myself. It might have been my imagination, but I thought that the water came off very easily. "Now, which way back to the apartment?"
Dayus indicated a direction, saying "your home rests in the center, so we can reach it simply by moving away from the wall."
"Makes perfect sense," I said, pulling my shirt on over my head. "Let's go."
Remarkably, I did not feel sunburnt at all; whatever kind of radiation that light in the sky was putting out, it had no ill effect on my pale skin. If Dayus and his people knew enough to censor the electromagnetic spectrum in their efforts to make me more comfortable, then our bodies could not be too dissimilar; unless, of course, they already knew more about humans than they were letting on.
As we walked I felt quite peaceful. That dip in the river had been very good for me. The touch of the grass between my toes was even better. I smiled inside as I asked Dayus, "What are we going to talk about today?"
"It does not really matter," he said. "The main purpose of these conversations is to observe and record your natural behavior, so whatever you want to talk about will do."
"Well that's helpful," I said, frustrated again. "There's a million things we could talk about; it's hard to pick one." And then I tripped, stumbling on an exposed root, and realized that my bubble was more dangerous than I thought.
"Lately, you have shown an interest in the nature of your present habitat."
"'Interest' is putting it mildly." I sighed, and stretched my arms, and folded them behind my head, as I became aware of a small itch that needed scratching on the back of my neck. "I don't know, Dayus. I like this place well enough, whatever I've said. But somehow, it's still not satisfying."
"It can be modified with any additional comforts you require."
"I'm already 'comfortable' enough, thanks." I shook my head. "I suppose I'm just not satisfied spiritually." We came upon the meadow where my home was situated; I noted that the pillar was still submerged in the ground.
"Now that is interesting," he said, in his curiously enigmatic way.
Inside the house, I started brewing a pot of ice tea. I put on a Coltrane album and went to my room to get some dry pants. "By the way," I shouted over the music, "if there's one more 'comfort' I could use, it's a machine for washing my clothes. I'm running low on clean ones."
"We have machines like that. I could bring you one tomorrow."
"Beautiful," I said, returning to the living room in fresh, dry pants. Dayus took his seat, as usual, and we were silent as the tea brewed. I poured him a cup after it was done.
"Jonah, what did you mean by 'spiritual' satisfaction?"
"I don't even know. This place is amazing, but on Earth, everything seems...uh, well, perfect. I just feel like there's something subtly wrong here, I guess it's kind of a soul thing."
"Is that religious terminology?"
"Yeah, I suppose it is. Why, do you want to talk about religion?"
"Yes," he said, his eyes exhibiting the rarest of twinkles. It still surprised me how familiar and human those eyes appeared, set within his alien facial structure. "Comparative religion is a subject of great interest to me."
"I would have thought that your people would have...evolved beyond religion, or something like that."
"A people do not 'evolve' beyond religion. It is religion, and religious understanding, which evolves within the context of a society."
"Yeah, I guess that's true."
"How do humans presently understand their religion?"
I thought hard, and tried hard to show it too, with my chin resting on my hand. How to even begin an answer? "I have books which could explain it better."
"I believe your insight would be invaluable, regardless of their content."
"Then I don't know," I said. "There's no consensus, only a thousand different 'understandings;' I don't think humans as a whole 'understand' religion at all." I stood up to reach the stereo, and turn it down to a volume more conducive to serious conversation. "For one thing," I continued, "there's hundreds of them; religions, I mean. They all agree on some things, most of the time, but the rest of the time, they're at each other's throats. Literally." I tried to show with my eyes how serious I was, without having to go to the trouble of spelling out "w-a-r."
He didn't seem very surprised. Maybe I should have been offended by that.
"So, there are no religious principles which can be said to characterize the whole of human belief?"
"Huh," I thought, "well, most people talk about a supreme being, called God, who created everything, and controls everything, and stands for everything good."
"Well, some people think there's more than one. Or that he doesn't control everything; or that he is everything. Or even that he isn't actually good. And some people think he doesn't exist at all, and that religions are nothing but hoaxes for keeping the superstitious masses happy."
"And some people hedge their bets, and say they aren't sure if they believe in God, or they say they do, but he doesn't actually do anything, so it doesn't actually matter."
"There are many choices, then."
"Yeah, except most people haven't been allowed to 'choose,' and just believe what the people in their community believe, and take on all their traditions and practices. Most people just worship how their parents worship. And frankly, when they change them," I paused to take a sip of tea, "I mean, if they convert, their basic ideas don't really change. They just adopt a more appealing mythology."
"You are saying, then, that religious differences are merely culturally aesthetic."
"Yeah, but that's not really it either. On the one hand, yeah, all the holidays, and ceremonial clothes, and customs and rules, and sacred books, it's all just a big piece of aesthetics. But it means so much, it moves people so much, it's almost twisted. You know," I laughed, ever so slightly, "they say religion is the number one cause of death in human history. To think of all the wars that have been fought over what God said and when, all the murders, and the martyrs, and the suicides, and it feels like a huge waste of everyone's time."
Dayus was quiet for a moment, perhaps expecting me to go on. And then he said "but are you confusing religion with mythology?"
"Maybe. I don't really have a problem with either one."
I finished the rest of my tea in a large gulp, holding a portion in my mouth, savoring the taste, before I swallowed it all. I felt the chill on my palate, between my teeth; it was refreshing.
"But, I guess that's a lie," I said. "They're both infuriating questions, questions with no right answers, and all the baggage that goes with them just makes it worse."
"What do you believe?"
"What can you believe when there's a million possibilities and no way to know for sure?" My mind was excited, my pace quickened. "I could pick one at random and justify myself with faith, but I wouldn't know anything I don't know now; how can you say something is true just because you believe it?"
"Logically, it's untenable."
"You got that right," I said. "But at the same time, something tells me it's right to ask about God."
"An intuitive feeling."
"I suppose. And somewhere inside me, I feel like I know that the answer isn't 'nothing.'"
"That may be because there's no answer at all."
"Dayus, do you know something that I don't?" I looked at his eyes, which depicted some unknowable emotion, or a mix of familiar, disconcerting ones. "What do your people believe? What do you believe?"
Dayus smiled. "That there are a million possibilities."
Soon it was time for the good doctor to leave again. We walked to the pillar and I felt solemn, almost inappropriately so. Again he stepped on the platform, and I felt the repulsive force of some invisible barrier. I'd learned my lesson, and I didn't try to cross it. But before Dayus left, I had one more thing to say.
"You know, when you brought me here, before I knew what I know now, I thought it was some sort of...religious experience. Like I'd died and gone to heaven."
"That is common," he replied. "However, you're not dead, and this is not heaven."
"I can see that," I said, wryly.
"But that doesn't mean you were wrong."