Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Destinations of Joy

from The Lost Traveler’s Tour Guide

Ever since the discovery of the eighth continent, we’ve all had to come to terms with the presence of a landmass we never knew existed. In this age, wherein it often feels like every inch of mountain and valley has been charted, crossed, and geocached, how could we have been blind to a continent floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? We suppose, like the mapmakers of a millennium ago, we were blinded by our self-assured scientists and their navigational tools. And troubling as this may be, more vexing are the suggestions of our quantum physicians, who hypothesize that the eighth continent was always there, simply a parallel dimension away.

By necessity, our tour guide is an evolving work, offering travelers a compass to the wonders and perils of the new continent as we discover them. In this extract, your guidebook writers describe the Destinations of Joy which the continent has provided us—cities and countries almost entirely like ours, with daily rituals and routines as closely aligned to our own as the skin of an onion.

In fellowship with all of you who seek joy, we wish you safe travel to these newly charted destinations.

The Cities of Dunlo and Sunra

It’s rare that two cities should share the same squares and markets, schools and museums, or that its citizens should live among one another as neighbors. But the cities of Dunlo and Sunra do precisely that. They are bound together by the same misfortune, differentiated only by the smallest variance. For in Dunlo and Sunra, life has become an endless succession of disappointments and disasters. Every morning divorcees awake to empty houses and children scrape their knees on their way to school; picnics encounter storm clouds; the stock market, which recently was cause for hope, plummets; cars are stolen; jobs are lost; new love fades; and the shadow of depression stretches from everyone’s footsteps.

And yet, rare as catching a hummingbird in flight, in these dual cities the sun breaks through the clouds every so often. A man, whose bank account has been overdrawn for months, buys a lottery ticket, and scratching away the small foil numbers, finds match after match. Single men go in to buy a loaf of bread and find their future partners smiling at them. Flowers push their way from the earth along sidewalks, and musicians who’ve practiced fruitlessly for years find their instruments bringing forth song.

It’s during these brief moments of joy wherein the two cities diverge. For the citizens of Sunra, aware of their sudden fortune, claim their scratch tickets and splurge on champagne. They invite neighbors to celebrate at backyard parties which last long into the night, flowers are plucked, jobs are shirked, and for that brief respite when the gates of happiness are open, the citizens of Sunra celebrate its joys, which, alas, disappear just as quickly as they arrived.

The citizens of Dunlo, on the other hand, are a more cautious bunch. From their office windows they watch Sunra’s citizens below bicycling in the sunshine and mutter that tomorrow is bound to bring rain. The fortunes they’ve suddenly acquired are deposited into long-term bonds, and they sit solemnly at neighborhood parties watching others get drunk. They know if they fill vases with flowers today, their gardens will be barren tomorrow, and upon the arrival of new love they remember past heartbreaks and proceed cautiously, doling out small parcels of affection in hopes that their joy will last a bit longer.

It’s impossible to say which city is preferable. We can only tell you this: The citizens of Sunra, though they find themselves happier for a while, fall much harder when heartbreak strikes. In the morning, their bank accounts are empty, their newfound fortunes squandered, and their budding love affairs have run their fiery courses. Yet, the inhabitants of Dunlo, wiser in their preparations, never seem to enjoy the fortunes they’ve stowed. They find their walkways scattered with wilted petals and their houses remain empty of the sound of love. Every day they take bite-sized portions of joy, fearful of the moment when their supply should run out, and in doing so, squander their pleasures just as successfully as their fellow townsmen of Sunra.

The Island of Ahuoa

Let’s be honest: Our homelands are filled with too much work and not enough love. There are errands to run, bills to pay, alarm clocks to set, doctor’s appointments to schedule, and we find ourselves in cars, driving to or from some place we really don’t want to go. We’ve spent far too many seasons longing to dance in our kitchens or sleep until noon, rather than crawling from our beds in the dark of morning, our faces crinkled from pillows with a weariness that comes from waiting too long for a vacation.

It’s for this reason that many travelers seek the island of Ahuoa, where we discover the best versions of ourselves. In Ahuoa, we’re far from the mainland and our cell phones no longer get reception. It may be this respite which leads visitors to improve their lives. They frequent hotel gyms, enroll in dance classes, and gather on beaches for sunset meditations. Many guests ask the front desk for pen and paper so as to finally embark on the novel they’ve always wanted to write. Others do nothing more than walk the shoreline, listening to the local fishermen hauling in their catch, the birds chirping overhead, or a child as she toddles toward her parents.

Ahuoa is the destination we’ve always dreamed of, and given the abundance of joy we experience on the island, it’s curious that as our vacation reaches its end, we find ourselves longing to return home. We’ve been in bliss far too long, it seems, have marinated in freedom until we’re tender. We’re on vacation, after all; the real work is in our hometowns. And so we write notes to our post-vacation selves with reminders of how best to live: we create checklists; we make promises to revitalize our jobs and love lives; we google fitness classes; and upon return, we watch as our lives blossom. We wake earlier, eat better, laugh more frequently, and we make headway on our novels begun in Ahuoa.

It is, of course, inevitable that as our vacation recedes, so does the newfound self we encountered on that faraway island. We barely notice how our shoulders begin to slump as we carry groceries home from the market, or how our inboxes fill with one after another demand. The hotel stationery on which we’ve written our self-improvement checklist settles to the bottom of a pile of bills only to be discarded with our junk mail. We watch our gym memberships go to waste, we binge on television shows, and we check emails with alarming frequency. And then, one day, with an unacknowledged sigh, we find ourselves back in our cars, rushing to and from all those places where we never wished to go.

What we ultimately find is that there are two versions of ourselves. There’s the person we are now, with all our bills, dishes, and daily to-do lists, and then there’s another self, nearly foreign, who was left behind on the island of Ahuoa. We think of that self as we sit at work, daydreaming about tropical swims as we stare at the snow. In truth, given all the time we spend dreaming about Ahuoa, it’s fair to say that though we stayed no more than a week on that marvelous island, our other self has spent most of its life there. We can almost see them, tanned and happy, waving to us from the shoreline, as if forever awaiting our return.

The Country of Solgläd

By now, most travelers have heard of the Northern country of Solgläd, which often appears amid our internet ads. Why, only a few years back, our travel magazines declared the country not merely the best destination to visit, but its citizens as The Most Loving People on Earth. And while such statements might sound like hyperbole, you need only purchase a plane ticket to see the truth for yourself.

We recommend flying Solgläd Air, with its inexpensive fares and nonstop flights. Unlike its competitors, the airline charges no fees for baggage and offers first class luxuries for economy prices. Kindly stewards give complimentary drinks, attendants entertain toddlers and rock crying infants to sleep, seats recline into beds for the trans-oceanic flight, and there are always free headphones and films for entertainment.

If any of these amenities cause surprise, it’s nothing compared to our arrival. On exiting customs—where we were told humorous jokes, given chocolates and a pat on the back—we reach the entrance hall where a crowd cheers, waving flags and offering welcome. One might think the crowd is there for Solgläd’s King and Queen, but no, in fact local commissions have been established for the express purpose of welcoming us, and citizens happily take turns as Solgläd’s receiving committee. They shake our hands and ask about our flight while helping with our luggage. There are toys for the children, water bottles for our thirst, and theater tickets are placed in our hands as we climb into hailed cabs.

The warmth of Solgläd doesn’t end there. It’s found in the greetings of the hotel’s concierge; at restaurants where waiters bring glasses of wine to pair with our meals or put candles in our children’s desserts as if celebrating their birthdays; shopkeepers are as concerned with satisfying our needs as grandparents; and passersby alert us to unzipped backpacks or rush to help if we stumble and fall.

Yes, in Solgläd we’re struck by the potential for true human kindness. It must be their debt-free universities where students major in Kindness and Compassion rather than Business and Economics. Maybe it’s that Solgläd’s citizens all receive maternity leave, universal health care, unemployment benefits, subsidized housing, and paid vacations. Or perhaps it’s Solgläd’s music, whose pop stars sing about generosity rather than fortune and fame.

As for those who claim this is an elaborate scheme to attract tourists, note that it’s not only travelers who are treated kindly in Solgläd. The sudden news of a neighbor’s promotion is cause for festivity. So is the good luck of an old woman who has found love, and often one sees courtyard parties in celebration of a couple’s romance. Mourning is similarly shared, and the passing of loved ones affects one and all. Work stops, businesses are shuttered, and the bereaved is cared for by neighbors, friends, and family. Perhaps, this is why heartbreak doesn’t last long in Solgläd. Those grieving a break-up open their windows to find an assembled crowd ready to offer hugs, kisses, and cocoa.

It seems impossible that a place like Solgläd can exist or maintain its joy so fully. But indeed it does, and we tourists find ourselves hugged by strangers in a way that even our own families seem incapable of. Your guidebook writers acknowledge this with a kind of awe. It’s miraculous that the people of Solgläd should work together so invisibly to produce this collective warmth. Mayors make sure flowers are planted every spring, the baker sends you off with a free roll, and lamplighters ensure the streetlights burns sweet and clear. And though the citizens may seem separate in their daily duties—from opening flower shops to starting steamrollers—every worker who empties a trash bin or signs papers for the city’s expansion is working in quiet unison to sustain Solgläd’s heart.

When our vacation comes to an end, and we must leave Solgläd’s hospitality, we’re surrounded at the airport by the very same shopkeepers, servers, and pedestrians who have come to see us off. They wave their small flags and lift their children onto their shoulders as they watch us go, and we wave back, thinking how in our darkest moments we need only recall that there are places such as this: a country where locals are willing to provide us with an extra blanket to keep us warm; to share their rarest bottles of wine; and to pause on a city sidewalk, look at the scribbled directions we extend to them, and say “Of course, my friend, come, it’s this way.”

It must be this tenderness which leads to our increasing dismay upon departing the main terminal. There’s never a flight back with Solgläd Air, just the competitor’s airline, full of crying babies and economy-class peanuts. The airline loses our luggage and customer service agents treat us like whining children. We fight for a cab; the driver curses traffic; and arriving home, our neighbors don’t welcome us back, simply carry their garbage to the curb. Soon the weather changes for the worse, we catch a horrible flu, and our bosses extend brief condolences but make sure we know we’re expected back to work on Monday.

Against this steady barrage, our memory of Solgläd sours. Most loving people on Earth? Ha, we say, certain their joy was phony. There’s no way anyone can live with so much kindness, we gripe, and we write blog posts critiquing The Dangers of Too Much Love in Solgläd. And soon we find ourselves cursing the country beneath our breath as we crowd onto busses and push past others on the subway. To hell with Solgläd, we grumble as we settle into our office cubicles without a single coworker wishing us good morning. Why, even its restaurants were awful, we think as we eat our lunch.

“Excuse me,” we say to our server and ask if we could have an extra napkin.

“Of course,” he says, pointing to the counter where they sit. “Help yourself.”

Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections Universal Love (2020) and Children of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR and Electric Literature. He is a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories and interviews have appeared in Rolling StoneWorld Literature TodayBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University.