For what felt like the first time, he saw the sun for what it really was. All at once, a distant star, a comforting ball, an ocean of hell, an impossibly dense core. Jets of plasma exploding out of a nonexistent surface streamed into space above him, and it all owed to the simple fact that there was so much of it. He could feel himself there, part of the source, not just a distant bather in brilliant radiation. And he was also able, lying there on the rough ground, to stare right into it without pain or even the need to blink. I know what you are, he thought. I’m made of your exploded sisters, and I’ll outlive you.

It was a great comfort to the old man that he would soon be dust, which would then be so many unjoined atoms in space temporarily blown apart before, maybe, transmuting in the heart of a future star, before bursting forth as heat and light shining down on a future world and a future dying man.

But the thirst! The agony was still agony though accepted willingly. This is right, he thought. This is good. The sun’s disk in and out of focus. He was aware of the dust covering the dried blood on his peeling lips.

He no longer knew why he was out here, unable to move, miles from his car in the Chihuahuan desert, Elephant Tusk in front of him appearing like his own worn down, rotten molars. He was naked and lacked any possessions. Without wind, it was as if there was no air at all. The man didn’t care to breathe. He knew he’d forgotten why he was here but not the paramount importance of his own death, which had to be in this spot in the desert of his dreams. He knew he wanted it more than anything.

Regularly, time would speed up, and the clouds would stream across the sky, dipping down to the Tusk, the sun dropped from the sky, and all the other stars would roll over him tilt-a-whirl. Then he was gone and flying over the cracked ice of glaciers, perfectly serene as the resultant static image of eons of geological causes yawned at him from below. Ice and rock cast together by a universe that mercifully let them lead just separate enough lives that still other bits of matter would call them by different names.

When he roused, as he always did, he was staring again at the sun and suddenly aware of his thirst and his pain. He’d linger in the oppressive stillness before finally weakening in spirit and calling out to people he could no longer remember. He used made-up names out of desperation. It felt safe, for while he knew he must die alone, no one would hear him scream. And so his yearning for the full presence of love could be given his weak, gurgley voice, even his full conviction, but only because that voice would assuredly fail to find a listener. Only so much vibrating air. He was becoming more sure all the time that there wasn’t any air anyway.

The Tusk stood there, indifferent. His whole life, he felt, he’d thought of himself as wholly unlike the rocks, dust, water, and even maggots and flies of this world. Now that he was seeing clearly, he regarded himself as a virus refined just enough to grow a body and brain. It would become unbearable, the thirst and the pain. His gut was wracked with wave upon wave of empty, twisting torture. The only fluid in his body was rattling in his lungs.

Eventually, he’d have to cry out. It escaped his lips as whimpering, or at least the motions of lips and chest of a whimpering man. There was no air and so no sound. And in the sun, he’d finally see relief. With his pain, so grew the sun. At the zenith of both sun and pain, our star was everything, and in its heart he’d see a human face. Sometimes a woman, sometimes a man, always a stranger. But a stranger with a look of compassion. Their mouths would move, all intent but without effect. The world was the sun, mouth moving. They exuded distant compassion, but the people of the sun were consumed with their own troubles. There to help but not the ones for whom he called.

He felt his hand grasped, though no one was there. The world was fully illuminated and baking and now hands were on his shoulders and forehead and at both his hands and he was crying without tears and asking why he had to do this and no answer came. The sun, smiling serenely, and finally the slightest yet overwhelming sensation of liquid in his mouth, sweet and blissful.

Everything recedes, the intensity of existence retreating even faster than it had come upon him. And he’s dreaming again.