Paradise Found


No one could have imagined that a simple trip to reconnect with a friend would unravel the mysteries of life and our very existence.

It had been five years since Christian last saw Ilsa. He asked to be dropped off at the beach, much to his driver’s disbelief.

“It’s quite a distance from any hotel,” the driver pointed out.

Christian simply replied, “I have a friend meeting me there. She has a car and will take me to the hotel afterwards. Thanks for the ride.”

The driver just shrugged.

Ilsa had always had an affinity for the ocean, so much so that after all these years apart, she had wanted to meet him at the beach in Bodega Cove rather than at her new home.

Ilsa and Christian had a deep connection that went beyond the physical. They would often spend hours discussing spiritual topics and delving into each other’s thoughts. They would take walks in parks and through the woods, and sometimes hold each other for hours. While they did have a sexual relationship, it was not a focus for them. Eventually, Ilsa moved away for a new job, and they lost touch, only seeing each other occasionally over the years when they could. They both went on to have other partners and marriages, but their bond remained strong despite the distance and changes in their lives.

The beach was down a flight of steps from the highway, over a hill. To the north, the foot of a steep mountain could be seen breaking across the sand, creating a rocky promontory that extended into the water. The trees on the mountain slopes were showing the colors of fall. To the south, the beach faded into a hazy distance.

The sand was deserted, as one would expect on a late October weekday. However, Christian saw Ilsa’s green towel with a large, colorful parrot on it, just as she had promised. Ilsa had mentioned on the phone that she would likely go for a run up to the point before he arrived, and he could find her there if he wished.

He left his things by her towel and ran.

Although the sun was shining and the weather was relatively warm for a breezy fall day, there was no one else in sight along the beach as he made his way to the promontory. There were footprints visible, however — Ilsa’s—slightly blown about by the wind, leading out but not yet returning.

The tracks led to a narrow cave in the rocky outcrop, just above the tide line. He thought it wouldn’t hurt to look and see if the opening extended all the way through like a tunnel. He imagined he might potentially find Ilsa resting in the cove on the other side. As he ventured deeper into the cave, it became darker and narrower. He could no longer see Ilsa’s tracks or much of anything else. He was just about to turn back when his foot slipped, and he fell into a hole in the ground. His head struck a rock, and everything went black.

When Christian came to, he had difficulty remembering where he was or how he got there. The cave seemed bigger and brighter than before, and he wondered if it opened out to the other side of the point, with just a drop between two different levels. He was lying on his back in a few inches of water, but there was no evidence of blood, and to his surprise, he couldn’t find any injuries. He struggled to his feet, his legs feeling stiff but stable, and followed the light up and out. As he neared the cave opening, he automatically reached for his phone, but it was not in its usual pocket. After searching all his pockets, he couldn’t find it anywhere. He assumed it must have fallen out during his fall.

The cave opening was wide and tall. To his left rose the mountain — or was it even the same mountain? The ridge behind the cave seemed higher on this side, blocking any view of the ocean. He had to follow the cleft uphill. He could hear birds chirping and the faint sound of running water, possibly from a nearby stream. The sun was bright and unusually warm.

The trail gently descended, surrounded by blue, yellow, and purple flowers, before appearing from a line of trees and leading to a stone bridge over a river gorge. The wooden roof of the bridge was carved to let dappled sunbeams cover the span with a checkerboard pattern of shadow and light.

At the head of the bridge stood a tall and muscular woman, gazing away from it. She was dressed in a burnt orange dress that reached the top of her leather shoes, and her long, jet-black hair was flowing in the wind. The dress was fitted at her waist, secured with a wide brown belt. In her right hand was a long staff that appeared to be made of glass, with a broad, round crescent at the top. The tip of the staff glistened in the sunlight, casting a rainbow on the bridge floor like a prism.

“Hello, miss, can you help me?” Christian called out as he approached. “I bumped my head and I think I’m lost.”

Nothing. There was no reaction from the woman. He stepped around in front of her to capture her attention.

“Hi, I need your help. I’m lost and I think I may be injured.”

She continued to stare straight ahead and without a word, she lifted her staff and pointed the crescent toward the other side of the bridge.

“I could really use your help, lady,” he said more forcefully.

Once again silence, and with a small flick of the staff, she motioned again for Christian to cross the bridge.

California, he figured. At least she didn’t seem dangerous.

The trail on the far side of the bridge ran down through a field of purple, yellow, and blue flowers, leading to a crystal-clear lake surrounded by mountains stretching to the horizon. Christian saw no sign of the highway. However, there was a sailboat anchored in the shallow waters with two men nearby and what appeared to be a woman lounging on the deck.

As he approached the sailboat, he shouted out, “Hi, I sure could use your help.”

“Certainly,” one of the men responded as they both turned toward Christian “How can we be of service?”

“Hi. My name is Christian. I’m a bit confused. I came to visit my friend and was looking for her on the beach and…” He recounted the series of events that had led him here, including the silent woman he met on the bridge.

“Oh, that’s Nola,” the second man said. “She doesn’t talk. That’s not her purpose.”

“I’m Alexander,” said the first man. “That’s Stephane, and over there is Olivia.”

The woman glanced at Christian, then turned her face back to the sun and closed her eyes again.

“Forgive me, but where am I?” he asked.

“You’re in Divenire,” Alexander replied.

“Never heard of it. I was on the beach in Bodega Cove.”

“Can’t say I know it.” Stephane looked at Alexander and cracked a smile.

“Then how did I get here? How far is it from the beach?”

“Well, I can’t help you there, Christian. This is Divenire. That’s all I know.”

Alexander interjected, “Christian, it looks like you’ve been through a lot. Let me get you some food. We have wine as well. We can try to answer your questions as best we can.”

He must have wandered to the wrong side of the point and stumbled upon a cult compound.

This had to be a cult. He must have wandered to the wrong side of the point and stumbled upon a cult compound. Christian had read about these types of situations. He wondered if Ilsa had also fallen victim to these people — or if she was already a member and this whole plan was an attempt to get him to join. He thought it best not to show any of that, though.

“Sure,” he said, “I’d love some wine—but one question first, if you don’t mind. I told you I was looking for my friend. Her name is Ilsa and she’s about five-seven, blonde…”

Olivia suddenly sat up. “Ilsa! I loved her. She visited with us a bit ago. She’s fine. I have something to settle you and I’ll tell you how to get to Isabella and Sophia’s place. She went to visit with them. How lucky you are to have her as a friend, she’s sweet.”

Stephane went below to retrieve some wine and bread while Christian joined them on the deck, still wary but trying not to show it.

“So how do you know each other?” he asked.

“We’re from here,” said Olivia.

“You have homes on the lake?”

“No, we live on the sloop.”

“Well how do you know each other?”

“We met and just hit it off.”

“What do you all do for a living?”

“Do you mean work? We don’t work, we just enjoy sailing on the lake and soaking up the sun.”

“But what did you do before you decided to… throw it all away?” Christian asked, choosing his words carefully.

Alexander said, “Some time ago I was an accountant. Olivia was a webcam girl. Stephane was a bodyguard for CEOs, quite well known and sought after. But that was a long time ago. We never think of it anymore. We live in the moment now and just enjoy life.”

Despite further questioning, the most Christian could learn from the people on the boat was that Ilsa was at a cottage about a mile from the lake.

“You can’t miss it. It’s bright pink; there’s nothing else like it in Divenire,” they said. They didn’t mention belonging to a group, but Stephane did speak excitedly about “Simpson,” who often met with visitors. Christian presumed this was the cult leader.

The path wound around the blue of the lakeshore. Christian could see fish darting just below the water’s surface, and the breeze gently brushed against his neck. There were more flowers here, the same as near the bridge, and the smaller trees up ahead were still in bloom. How is this possible in October? he wondered. There was even a hint of lilacs in the air.

Despite the oddity of the situation and the strange residents of Divenire, Christian found himself relaxing in the unseasonably warm and fragrant air. Work felt very far away. The cottage he found was exactly as described — bright pink and situated behind a stand of trees, off the path. It was a single-story building, about twenty-five feet wide and deep. The windows were open, with a potted flower on each sill.

He could hear voices coming from the back of the cottage, where Christian discovered a stone patio with a tall, wide rock wall that was comfortable to sit on. Beyond the patio was a flagstone path leading to a garden in the back, where rectangular and circular beds grew various plants — tomatoes in one bed, corn in another, and peppers in yet another. Some areas had flowers, while others were bare and raked as if they were being prepared for new seedlings. In the center stood a pergola covered in blooming lilacs.

Three women were crouched down, working in one of the beds, accompanied by a small dog that barked and ran towards Christian. At the noise, one of the women turned around and exclaimed with delight, “Christian, you’re here!” and rushed towards him.

Ilsa flung her arms around him and hugged him as close as two humans could get. Then she turned and pulled him toward the other two, saying, “I can’t believe you’re here, too. What a surprise. Come meet my friends. Sophia, this is Christian. Christian, meet Isabella.”

Both looked harmless, if a little New Age in their hair and clothes. They seemed older than he and Ilsa. Isabella spoke first. “Ilsa’s told us all about you. In truth, I thought you’d be taller.”

Sophia laughed. “Not as geeky as I’d expected, though.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said. “Is it okay if I talk with Ilsa alone for a moment?”

Ilsa shook her head. “Christian, they’re fine. Whatever you say to me, they can hear as well.”

There was nothing in her eyes to suggest she was one of them, but he wasn’t wholly sure. “Fair enough, maybe Isabella and Sophia can help. I had some questions about this place and how I got here. And more importantly, how can we get —”

“Christian,” Isabella interrupted, “I can understand why you’d be impatient, but there’s no need to be hasty. Simpson is the caretaker of this place. He can provide answers to any questions you have. That’s his purpose. We promise. Let me show you our garden before you go.”

Ilsa took Christian’s hand, and they followed Isabella and Sophia around the growing plots, taking turns to describe each in detail until they came to the last one, and a wistful look came over Isabella.

“I planted this dwarf cherry when I arrived here,” she said, looking at the spindly tree heavy with blossoms in front of them. “Not much different from you, in some ways. I’d like to think someone, maybe Ilsa or yourself, would look after the garden when Sophia and I eventually leave.”

“So, people do leave?” Christian seized on her words. “Can we just get out of this… compound or whatever it is?”

“You should talk to Simpson now. There’s a skiff drawn up on the beach below us.”

They made their way down to the water. From the beach, Isabella pointed to a building made of glass that rose from the mountainside across the lake, surrounded by trees. “That’s where you should go,” she told him. “He’ll explain everything.”

The skiff was long and narrow. It reminded him of the boats he had seen in documentaries about Vietnam. The thin paddle laid across its seats had the same crescent symbol he’d seen on the staff of the woman on the bridge, whose name he now knew was Nola.

“If you want me to help with the garden, I could stay,” Ilsa said, but the two women just shook their heads.

“You know you need to go with him. That’s your purpose right now,” Sophia replied. “We’ll be here when you come back.”

Christian was somewhat surprised when Isla initially expressed a preference for staying with her friends rather than going with him, despite him having traveled a long way to see her. Although disappointed, he was thankful she had changed her mind and would now be joining him after all.

Christian hauled the boat out into the shallows and helped Ilsa aboard. It was surprisingly easy to paddle. Behind, he heard Isabella call out, “See you two soon,” as the women turned away to return to their gardening.

Not wanting to upset them or Ilsa, he murmured to himself, “Hopefully not.”

He had a hundred questions he wanted to ask now that they were alone — who were these people? Why were they here, and how could they get out? But before he could speak, Ilsa reached out and gently took the paddle from his hands, placing it in the bottom of the boat to let them drift. She looked deeply into his eyes as she slowly sat in his lap and kissed him like she was savoring the sun.

“We’ve got all the time we need,” she murmured. “And it’s been so long.”

She removed her bralette and pulled her skirt to the side. Christian quickly undressed, the intensity between them growing. He gently entered her.

Afterwards, he lay with his eyes closed and counted his blessings. He was with Ilsa, who lay nestled in the crook of his arm, and under the sun with not a cloud in the sky. Despite being knocked unconscious and getting lost in a cult compound, it was a glorious day. He reflected that things could be much worse.

Ilsa woke him when the skiff’s hull scraped against the far shore. “Christian, we’re here,” she whispered.

He opened his eyes, smiled, and said, “Maybe all’s right with the world after all.”

“We can keep it that way.”

After a moment, she pointed to the hill just off the shore and the glass building they had seen from the other side. As they walked up the narrow path towards it, Christian could see directly inside. It wasn’t a house so much as a single room, and in the center sat an old man, gently rocking back and forth in a chair. He had long white hair, deeply tanned skin, and a blank expression on his face.

As they approached, a door slid open to admit them, and the old man, who Christian assumed was Simpson, gestured at the floor as he rose smoothly, with no sign of age or stiffness.

“Sit right there,” he said.

“Mr. Simpson, I’d like —”

“I know what you would like.”

“You know, I wish just once someone here would let me finish a sentence.”

I’m the caretaker of Divenire.

“Well, we do have all the time in the world, so I could patiently listen to your stories of misfortune, but why? I’m the caretaker of Divenire. It’s my job to know everyone here. Christian, you want to know how you got here, what this place is, and how you can leave.”

“That’s right, I do.”

“As I said, I know. First, there is only one way out of Divenire. And that cave you came from is not it. That was just your way in.”

“That’s crazy.”

Ilsa touched him on the arm. “It’s not, Christian. It’s true.”

“There are people here,” Christian said. “They have food, homes, and lives. How did they get in?”

Simpson sighed. “All in their own ways. They come past Nola to Divenire, just like you did after your fall in the cave. She’s the guardian. That’s her purpose.”

There was that “purpose” nonsense again. Best leave it alone, Christian surmised.

“And you keep everyone trapped here once they get here?”

“Do you feel trapped? Has anyone trapped you?”

“I…” Christian stopped. “I don’t know.”

“Go to the bridge and see Nola with Ilsa. Then decide for yourself. I promise you, you won’t be able to return the way you came. I can’t explain why, but Nola can. You’ll have to understand it on your own. You need to so that your time will come. Ilsa understands better than you do.”

With that, Simpson went back to rocking in his chair and the door behind them slid open again, suggesting he was being dismissed.

“Do you?” Christian whispered to Ilsa as they left the house again.

“I remember the cave,” she said, linking her arm through his. “I remember what happened to me there. Better than you do.”

They walked around the far side of the lake. There were many paths, but each either led back to the water or ended at a rock formation, cliff, or ravine. Eventually, they entered the familiar field of flowers, and Christian knew the bridge was just a short distance ahead. The sun was still high in the sky, though his arrival felt like it had been many hours ago.

Nola stood at the far end of the bridge, just as she had when he first crossed, with her staff still in her hand. He edged out onto the span, moving Ilsa behind him for her safety. Nola didn’t move.

“What is this place?” he said. “Simpson said you’d show us.”

Nola said nothing. When Christian cautiously stepped forward, she suddenly stamped the end of her staff on the ground and declared, “None shall pass this way.”

She could talk after all. Then, her staff lit up with a brightness akin to the sun and she looked up into the sky. As Christian had experienced since arriving in Divenire, the sky was always impeccably clear. However, in the direction that Nola was now gazing, a cloud appeared suddenly and rose above them. The cloud displayed an image of a woman in a delivery room, along with a nurse and midwife in scrubs, holding a newborn baby that had just appeared from the woman’s body. The infant could be heard crying as it inhaled its first breaths of air.

This is for each of you, to be born again.

He heard Simpson’s booming and thunderous voice roll from above and proclaim, “This is for each of you, to be born again.”

As Christian pieced everything together, he realized that the cave, the fall, and Ilsa’s comments about him remembering more than he initially thought all made sense. It was peculiar to consider that they likely passed away close together in time. He pondered what the person who discovered their corpses would make of the situation. He found that he felt no sadness at all. He already knew what came next, where he was, what his existence in Divenire would be.

Ilsa slipped her hand in his. “You knew already,” he said.

“I remembered a lot more of what happened to me, and I worked it out much faster. They told me everyone needs to come to terms with Divenire in their own time. Are you okay?”

He smiled at her. “I couldn’t be better. This place couldn’t be better. Let’s go swimming. Afterwards, I want to plant some sunflowers in Isabella’s and Sophia’s garden.”