The end of Season of Mists sends stray characters on mostly separate ways, cleaving them from their pasts and their partners. The only pair that survives this chapter intact is that of Remiel and Duma, the “winners” of Hell (though Duma seems to have gone mute). Nada gets new life, Loki is given indebted freedom, Nuala is cast out of Faery and consigned to the Dreaming, Lucifer is briefly befriended alone on a beach in Australia before he is left to himself and the sunset, and Destiny, alone in his Garden of Forking Paths, reads the tale and closes the book.
We can look back, then, at Season of Mists and see it as a series of meetings and partings, a search for knowledge and power and forgiveness and contentment. In the Prologue, the Endless congregated, and at the gathering, Dream gained a quest and left early, heading to Hell on his own. In the first chapters, Lucifer gathers everyone in Hell and reveals his abdication, sending them all away. Dream returns to his realm and summons all those who desire to rule Hell to a banquet. In Chapter 4, which at first seems disconnected from the others, Charles Rowland begins alone at St. Hilarion’s School for Boys, then is joined by ghosts, and, at the end, flees with one friend toward a new fate. The patterns of gathering and leaving, of gaining new destinies, are therefore shown to be patterns common to the living and the dead, the ending and the Endless. The next chapters return us to Dream’s banquet, and we see pairs and small groups of petitioners pleading for power over the province of Hell. The decision of who gets to rule there is made by the monotheists’ god, and the place is given to a pair of angels commanded to fall. In the Epilogue, this duo ushers back the two types of denizens: demons and the damned.
One becomes two, two becomes one. Group disperse and reconfigure. Yin and yang dance solo and together.
The doubleness of some of the characters is stripped away. Nuala must discard her glamour; Loki must reveal himself beneath his disguise. Dream talks with Nada in the form she has known him in, that of Kai’ckul, and he gives her a new form, resurrecting her as a male baby in Hong Kong.
We die alone and are reborn alone. To go down a different path in the garden, we must shed the clothes we traveled in on our way to the crossroads.
The necessity of individuality does not preclude the possibility of later community. The gates of Hell opened, the residents scattered their separate ways, but they were able to return. No return is simple, though. This is a new Hell, with new rulers and new rules. Remiel discovers and inflicts punishment for the demons and damned: he enforces small bits of goodness, self-sacrifice, and love on creatures for whom those are the only true horrors, the only source of unpleasurable pain.
Nada’s return to life may be more pleasant than the new pains suffered by the creatures of Hell, but birth is certainly no guarantee of happiness or pleasure. She has an advantage, though: Dream tells her she is always welcome in the Dreaming. She is reborn as a he in a bright, clean hospital to a smiling mother; the traditional miracles of the world she was first brought into have been replaced with the miracles of modern medical technology, and Nada now has as strong a chance of prospering as history has yet offered. And the dreams are likely to be sweet.
Just before she consented to rebirth, Nada asked Dream if she could have walked out of Hell. He responded with one word: “Perhaps.”
Story by story, The Sandman has offered tantalizing glimpses of the power of free will and desire within the realms of the Endless. Do believers breathe life into the gods with their belief? Is any fate entirely unsought? Where are the crossroads of will and action? What are the lineaments of gratified desire?
Could Dream have defied the deity and given Hell to someone other than the angels? Perhaps. Could the inhabitants of Hell wander elsewhere? Perhaps. Could the story have been a different one? Perhaps.
The garden has many forking paths.
Season of Mists ends with a quotation from an unwritten book by G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was October, a sequel, perhaps, to The Man Who Was Thursday. Happy endings, it asserts, are easy enough to acquire, if one can find “a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.” Happy endings, then, are a matter of will and desire. To reach a happy ending, the reader need merely stop reading and accept contentment. Tales themselves, which thrive on conflict and agony, offer only discontent.
Destiny stands amidst the forking paths and holds a closed book in his hands.
We then close our book and stand on the path of everyday life. Where I stand, it is night and the garden is buried beneath mounds of snow and ice, but I know there will be golden light one of these days, and the ice will melt and the grass will return, reborn, like we readers are reborn, along with our delighted discontent, on the first page of every book we open.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.