BY DR. AGONSON
Dry, it all was dry. The leaves on the trees were crinkled and brown, autumn’s mask resting over summer’s face. The riverbed, dry. Even the puddles had given way to the now cracked and broken ground. The mud was gone—I would even pray for mud that I might quench my thirst. Here’s one reprieve, that without the stale waters the biting swarms had all died, and with them their disease.
At the thought I remember the heat of the sores—burning like fire—which spread across my arm. I knew it was my death, as all others—my whole village—suffered so before their spirits returned to the Mountain. The delirium came after the yellow blotches covered my entire flesh with their putrid, bleeding lumps. Oh, they didn’t bleed blood, they oozed an unnatural slime which reeked of death.
As I was lying near paralyzed upon the knotted roots of an overturned tree, the madness came. I had been there for my father, called him back with my voice when he raved about the eyes, told him he was safe. Little more than three days later, he was dead, and I alone.
I shiver, remembering the strange visions:
I stared at the large lump on the back of my hand, the first lump which grew from the insidious bite of the plague. Out of it, a little yellow stream poured like viscous oil down my arm, dripping off my elbow. Knowing myself dead—beyond all recovery—I decided to take one small vengeance upon the sore.
Drawing my knife, I set the blade against the feverish, swollen flesh. A moment of panic gripped my stomach at the thought of—and then I did it, splitting the boil open with one desperate yell. It burst forth like a flower of rotting meat, the many layers of skin like petals curling outward, but instead of a deluge of blood and bile, the yellow course only increased a little, hardly at all.
There was more: white, like bone, but the cut wasn’t that deep. Beneath my flesh the thing moved, turning, rotating, under my skin, and then the iris rolled forward. It was an eye, an alien eye—an invader to my body—staring out at me. Blinking, pulling my flesh over itself, it cried its sticky tears. I watched it awhile, and it watched me, this giant orb hidden under my skin.
I plunged my blade into this appalling monster, squirting its juices in a geyser, and then it started screaming. With its salty flesh deflating, I began prying it out of my hand, digging the knife deeper and deeper, expelling it from my body. A sickening suction sounded, the whimpering creature slowly rising as I wedged my knife still deeper into myself, and then plopping from my hand it rolled among the decaying leaves of the forest floor.
The eye was silent now, silent the moment it left me, but its kindred voices—like screaming children—soon took up the call. My boils, all my boils itched. Scratching them, I felt my whole flesh caked in thick layers of their slime. That’s when I heard another plopping, and saw a smaller eye joining the first, rolling down into the crater left by the fallen tree.
Gazing upon my arms, I saw all the boils opened: scores of eyes, tiny, little eyes, all trained—filled with fear and hate—upon their host. Plopping, they jumped from me, leaping like popping corn in a fryer, slowly, one by one at first, and then en masse. Their exodus filled the pit, the eyes like a river surly to the sea. The screaming ceased as the last two joined their fellows. Exhausted, the final thing I remember is that bunch of eyes all glaring accusingly at me, and then it all fades to black.
But I awoke, and somehow, though all in my village perished, I was alive. The drained and deflated sores remained, my body spotted in pale scars. Across my hand I could still see the wound of my knife. I uttered a silent prayer to the Mountain, thankful that in my delirium I had not gone further, not carried on slicing until I was a shredded corpse.
The disease is all gone; the swarms are all gone; the river is all gone; and the villages are all gone. The wind picks up in a hollow wail, sending the dust of the dying forest into my eyes. I stoop, bending over and retching at the pungent smell of corruption. Another village and its unburied denizens, the rotting flesh cooked to black jelly under the summer sun. On the breeze I hear the murder, like faint, mad laughter, the carrion crows feasting upon the dead.
Through the smooth path of the dry riverbed, I approach the desolation. The murder’s caws grow, the cacophony of their unending squabble over the corpses. Slowly, ever slower, I draw near the upcoming bend, grinding my teeth at every step.
Pulling my collar over my nose, I round the obstructing turn. Fallen into the ditch is an inverted corpse, its back against the canyon wall of the dry riverbed, the limbs sprawled, contorted in broken, misshapen angles. A frenzy of beetles move in and out of its flesh, their circling hoard like worshipers circumnavigating an idolatrous stone. Black fluid drips from it, running together into little streams, a weave-work of dead blood conglomerating into a small reflective puddle.
One crow alights upon the husk, its weight shifting the body in a cascade of dust. The bird’s wings flap wildly as around it the earth’s pebbles rain. Leaping from the unsure perch, the fowl comes beside the head of the corpse. Strutting closer to its intended meal, the carrion inserts its head into the mouth of the dead man.
Horrified, I stare transfixed as the creature jerks and pulls, tearing the swollen tongue free of the corpse. Walking away with its prize, it drops the black flesh into the dust and steps upon it. With one claw anchoring its meat, the crow strips the putrid mass into manageable bites, pecking at its feast until, throwing its head back and swallowing the final chunk, all is consumed.
Then placing its beady, monochrome eye upon me, it shouts, “Murder!”
The bird’s word covers me in a cold fire. I burn with chills, stumbling backwards into the canyon’s wall. Sliding down, I’m partly buried in the loose dirt, the dust a veil of wind between me and Oraculi, the raven oracle. Coughing, I rub my eyes clean of the sweaty mud covering them. Unblinded, I find the bird at my feet. At the sight my muscles lock up, pressing me into the wall.
Hopping onto my toe, he proclaims with outspread wings, “You seek water. It comes from the Mountain. All comes from the Mountain; all returns to the Mountain.” Flapping, he flies into my chest, “You seek the water?”
Sitting as like a boulder over my lungs, the oracle presses me to answer. Wheezing, I whisper, “I seek the water.”
Alighting at my words, he flies into the air, shouting in his cawing tones, “Return to the Mountain.”
I lose sight of him, his silhouette shrinking into the sun. Sitting in silence, I watch a contingent of beetles approaching my leg. “The Mountain,” I mumble to myself, not noticing the six legs crawling over my ankle. Leaping to my feet, I kick off the tiny, black insect, its bite still stinging. My fresh blood drips into the dry riverbed as the swarm of blind bugs all forsake their corpse-home, and in one mass, like a passing shadow, race towards me.
Between the two walls of the canyon, a large boulder, for untold decades hewn in the dark deep of the rushing river, the river now dried, replaced by hot biting wind and lifeless dust, this boulder stands a monument to that greatness past. The undercurrents, those hidden courses, left their marks, their engravings in this stone, a history only revealed in this absence of life, this end. Erratic patterns, irregular grooves, chiseled by patient continual flow, suffice an escape from this blood thirsty mass, my hands finding in them holds with which to climb.
Like a spider I crawl up this sacred stone, my sallow and depleted body, thinned by the disease, a small burden to carry. Over the top of my sanctuary I spy where I’ve bled, tarrying packs of my pursuers marking my spilt life as they surround and consume.
Slipping, I waver at the platform’s lip, sometimes falling forward and sometimes back. Inside my guts dissolve in fear, and like a liquid, unsurely toss between despair and hope. Collapsing unto my hind end, I fall back unto the rock. Under my feet I see the cause of my near fatal drop, the glistening red of my slick blood, drops still bleeding from my ankle. Tearing a ribbon of cloth from my shirt, I bind the flow in tight knots.
“I am not blind, nor my sight perverted. I am Carrion Oraculi, the prophecy’s flesh.”
Following the sound, I spy a dying tree, its twisting barren limbs reaching over the canyon’s wall into the bright blue sky. Grown by the riverside, its roots jut out into the empty space where once clean, life giving water flowed. Perched upon these coiling exposed feet of the tree, that crow gazes, impatiently scooting back and forth along the gnarly underground branches.
“The riverbed path twists and turns, but I see above,” it shouts in its harsh tones. “This is the way to the Mountain,” the bird proclaims, and flapping its wings, jumps from the entangling roots into the air.
Hearing a light clicking noise beneath me, I see coming up onto the top of the stone, an eyeless beetle racing toward the pool of my blood. Joining it, two, then three, then five more crawl over the ledge and surround the red puddle. More follow, and passing their imbibing brethren, swarm at a fresher source of drink. Backing up, my head twists and turns, hoping for some means of escape. Across the chasm, the bird’s perch still swings.
I jump, for one moment weightless, foundationless, flying through the air, and then grabbing a low hanging root, I swing, driving my feet into the canyon wall. Over my shoulder, I glance at the circling black mass of blind, hungry insects searching for whom they may devour.
As I pull myself out of the pit, the rasping voice above me—invisible, as if from heaven—professes, “The prophet saw and spoke the Mountain’s judgment, but the people would not see.”
I reach over the ledge, but the loose gravel crumbles in my grasp. Falling backward, I hang by a solitary root, swinging to face the ravine. The bugs are gone. Scanning the barren rock, I find its surface cleared. Not a smidgen of blood, nor hint of crawling insects remains. Twisting my neck, I try to descry the corpse from which they issued. At the strain I feel the root slipping, my body descending back into the waterless, lifeless hole.
Grabbing another root, I turn and face the wall in earnest. My arms quake as I lift myself, one handhold at a time, up to the ledge, the final step out of this pit. Blindly, my hand searches above for something to grasp. Brushing the frayed end of a cord, my fingers curl around the rough coils of a rope. Drawing this into my chest, I feel the increasing resistance of a bending limb, the complaining creaking wood above accompanying my movement. Wrapping the rope around my hand, I give it two tugs.
In my mind I see it, letting go of the roots and trusting the rope, the branch cracking, splitting from the trunk, myself falling. I imagine my own screams as I descend, and wonder if I’ll die before the bleached wood of the dead tree falls upon me, or if I’ll survive even that only to be pinned, a feast for those ravenous blind insects.
“You’ve tried once without the rope, and nearly fell,” Oraculi caws. “You cannot stay in the roots forever: your tired grip will fail and you’ll fall. Try the rope.”
Letting go of the roots, I clutch the rope in both hands. Descending, the branch complains at my weight. I wait for the loud crack ensuring my demise. Swinging back and forth, I stay in the air. The limb, though boisterously threatening to give, holds. Planting my feet once again into the wall, I begin walking along the side of the canyon, and finally come up out of the hole.
Panting, I sit staring across the ravine where the murder dances, the black formless mass of crows jumping up, landing, flying high, diving low, and all cawing, screaming in mad laughter at their feast. My gaze falls, returning where I walked. No sight prevails. I cannot find the corpse full of beetles, nor any sign of those crawling insects thirsting for fresh, red blood.
Out of some desperate need, as when a child clutches a toy for comfort, the rope I even now am binding to my hand in ceaseless coiling, covering my fingers in a confused ball of twisted rough cord. Seeing this, I untie myself, and throw the lifeline over the cliff for some other stranger, should they find the need.
Swooping before me, Oraculi circles, passing my face thrice. Upon my shoulder he finally lands, and in my ear he speaks:
“Murder in revelry, a not uncommon pairing, for in dire solemnity searches are made—and thus relieved, pass into this. So this murder, it may have found a living village a source of food forever, trash disposed their want, yet a dead one—a dead one—which will feed them once, is to them the greater prize, meat rotting they cannot hope to eat in time.”
“Am I mad? Has reason abandoned me that I now consort with fowl? Perhaps I still within the knotted roots of death, in those final throes, envision your black pinions, or better yet alive, not well, wander about in perpetual insanity. You take me from my path, Oraculi, but where do you lead?”
“To the Mountain.”
“Yet how can I trust my eyes once touched by madness? I’ve seen the madness in others, and I knew myself mad.” Gazing once more into the canyon, I search for the body, the bugs, for any sign of the danger I flew. Empty, dusty waste, the dry riverbed lays barren of all life. “How should I know if I was at the Mountain, or still dying somewhere alone?”
I felt the tickling of Oraculi’s feathers against my ear as he puffed them out, and then a sharp pain as he pinched my lobe within his beak. Swatting at him, I cupped my hand over the now bleeding ear.
“You’ve made me bleed,” I accused him.
Hopping from my shoulder, he glided to the ground in front of me. Picking up his taloned legs in that strange gait of birds, leaning from one side to the next, he wandered to my foot.
“Is this not real,” said he, pecking at the ribbon torn from my shirt, “the bandaged you’ve tied about your ankle? Is that not a dark stain bleeding through? Are you not here, did you not climb out of that pit?” Spreading his wings, he flapping uplifted the dried dust of drought in a brown cloud. About my eyes the dirt gathered, and blinking I tried to clear them. “What good is it,” I hear him say, “imagining that closing your eyes makes the world disappear?”
Opening my eyes, I find my companion, his black, beady eye shining in the sun like a bit of glass locked onto me.
“Who was the man whose tongue you ate?” I questioned then, and he this tale related.
“Near the Mountain, not far from here, a city lies. The holy darkness, the infinite mystery of impenetrable black clouds encircling that craggy top, shadows perpetually the valley below. No day, but only night, the denizens know. Yet with a lantern, this man unblinded the city. Know then, their displeasure and pain when light touched their eyes. He would not relent, and going about the streets revealed what could be seen. To the town’s outskirts one night they dragged him, and hanged him in this tree. His body into the river fell, but now the river’s dry.
“This rope . . . ” I say.
“The foul tool of murder.”
“This rope . . . ”
“The means of your salvation.”
Oraculi was silent then, and waddling a few steps from me, uplifted himself in a flutter of black feathers. He flew toward the Mountain, passing over the empty huts on this side of the river. Weaving my way between them, I peer into the windows and through any open door for some taste, some leftover, of that cool stream. Nothing but dust and death greet me, dust and smiling death in every doorway.
The noon sun’s oppressing heat strikes me with its darting rays, and I’ve no sweat left but a dry sweat, sticky and dirty. Tripping over nothing, my lazy feet stop, my aching corpse unable to move. Thirsting, I gaze at the Mountain’s top, ever covered in snow, and pray. From the Mountain a refreshing breeze passes, the hints and aromas of water dancing like fairy guides around me. A coolness covers me, and I recover my broken stride.
Passing the last house, I spy Oraculi upon the needled branch of a dying fir, his dark form against the brown of those evergreen guards, those hardy trees grown on the outskirts of a thick forest. Not even their deep roots can weather this drought.
What once was a field lies between him and me. Little dykes, reservoirs meant for the river’s runoff, parts of a forsaken irrigation—all dry and filled with dust—dot the area. The dead gardens of this village where farmers once scattered seed, where crops were tended, where harvests were reaped, were subsumed into a darker purpose than husbandry.
Mounds of dirt, marshaled in neat rows, replace the buried seed. This yard, once meant for life, houses the dead beneath these piles of earth. Working my way between the graves, I behold a strange sight. The first heap I come to is spotted with holes. The ground is hardened by the summer’s drought, but as if a stick were plunged into the grave to let in a little air, it has been broken into. Or, out of. All the graves are the same, punctured with countless holes.
Crossing through the burial ground, I turn again towards the other side of the dead river. The murder dances in unbroken revelry. Even here I smell the corpses of their feast. Yet the birds are content there. While wondering at the cause of this segregation—why should only one side bury their dead?—Oraculi caws, his lone voice breaking through the din of the murder, turning me back toward the forest. I follow him.
Beyond that first row of guards, the giant wall of towering trees, I into the darkness wander. Following my guide, I enter the forest. A quiet comes, the murder’s squabbles fading away, and at this edge between the dead village I’d left, with its dry riverbed and its corpses rotting in the overbearing sun, and this expanse of shadow before, I discover a twilight. All color is wrapped within a musty hue, variations upon a single tone. Oraculi flies further in, and landing upon some twisting branch, his black feathers melt into the deeper shadows. Squinting, I keep my eyes on him, slowly following the bird into the darkness. Deeper he leads me, and deeper I go, into an eternal night.
It’s a cold world, as dead as the one I’d left, and more so. Here nothing, nothing but the bird and myself, lives. There weren’t even dead things that had been alive, unless counting the trees. The fowl lead me on. There was no path ahead but to follow him, and no trail behind, not that I looked for one. I kept my eyes on him, near invisible within those shadows. Fluttering from one branch to another he waited for me, sometimes cawing when I stopped to look for him. The deeper we went, the darker the world became, until all was black. I only had his voice to follow then, his voice to lead me through the void.
So he began to speak:
The prophet lit his lantern disrupting the night. His murderers tried him. He was brought before the Mountain’s priests. Disheveled, he possessed only rags and dirt for covering.
They demanded of him, “Why do you go about with that lantern?”
He said unto them, those Mountain priests, “You who have suffered the craggy path but now bar the way of those who seek the truth, I have come that all may see, though you keep them from seeing. You who should be guides, should show the way, have taken from these people the eyes of God that you may declare what is right in your own sight.
“But light will always come,” said the prophet, “The Mountain will always send the light so men may see what you have done. So He has sent me. God has sent me to bear this light, and preach repentance.”
One priest stood from his council seat, and in a rage shouted, “Will you snuff that lantern!”
Another, cooler voice added, “You may keep a lantern if you wish, but it is our law that you may not light it.”
So spoke the prophet, “And is a man to obey your laws or God’s?”
So the high priest answered, he of many eyes, “Our laws are God’s law, our voice his. We are the only ones with eyes to see, who know what is on the Mountain, have seen the River’s source. What are you? A beggar disrupting our night.”
They asked him again, and again he refused. As long as he lived, he would light his lamp. So the priests took him through the forest, and led him to the hanging tree.
As he told his story, I followed him, blindly weaving a course through the trunks of the dead trees. Then, as it were, I walked into a hole: his voice ceased, and I was left without compass, weightless as I waited in the depthless dark. I could hear the creaks and moans of the dying woods, the trees’ ghosts crying for water. What was once drowned out by my pounding, eager footsteps, and my panting breath, and the crow’s tale, now became a flooding orchestra, a requiem, a prayer.
The Forrest wept:
We weep, for the earth has been slain.
Nothing will replenish but rain.
If only heaven would look down,
and pour out His tears on the ground.
Wherefore is withheld what once dropped,
wherefore has Your bounty now stopped?
Not for a tree’s deeds do we die;
not for our own selves do we cry.
The sin belongs to that great race:
the men on the mountain have faced
the sight of their God far above
and marred the image of Your love.
I shivered at their hollow wooden calls, an orchestra of thousands lending what small sound they had to that greater lamenting. Together they had one voice, one soul, with which to sing. I wondered who would hear—who could hear?—earth moaning to be made whole. So I stood in the deepest blackness with nothing but the trees’ song around me.
“Oraculi!” I shouted. “I’m blind.” It came as a cry, a pitch I barely expected from myself. An echo of it returned to me, and it was as the voice of a child calling for help. The lamentation rested; I waited in the empty silence.
The weight of it, that great suffocating mass of silence, descended on me in a manner of time I can’t recall. It seems sometimes reflection shows it was sudden, a panic spreading like ice through my limbs, yet just as often, I remember it a slow burn, the sinking dread that I was alone. At some point in the darkness, the unbearable sanctity of the dead forest overwhelmed me, and I ran.
With my hands before me, I took an unsteady pace forward, and as a slight trickle may portend the cascade of a breaking damn, suddenly bolted. Some voice in my head warned me to stop, warned me that I would—that I must—collide with a tree before long. Then I stepped in it, into a puddle, into water. Before I knew it, my feet were sinking into the mud.
“Water,” I said, and falling to my knees, let the cool current rise over my chest. I gasped at the frigid flow, and felt my body quake. Plunging my head beneath the surface, I ran my fingers through my oily, unwashed hair, rubbing out the dirt and grime of the drought. Under the water, convulsions soon rocked my body as my lungs strained for air.
Throwing my head up out of the pond, I laughed. Wiping my eyes clear, blurry lights began to emerge. They were reflections upon the surface, indistinct streaks of white interrupted by the little lapping waves of the disturbed water. For some time I simply stared at them, captivated by this abundance after the absence of either water or, of late, even light, and this play, this interaction between the two, was wonderful to behold. So, my eyes did not even look up to see what source produced this luminance.
Presently, I know not when, I did break from my wonder, and chancing to look up, my sight traveled beyond the opposing bank to where three men encircled a campfire. It had been a month or more since I’d any sight of man, that is man free of rot and decay, and like the water and the light, this vison overwhelmed me. I stared at them, dumb. They no mind paid, but about their work progressed, which was the frying of meats, the passing of ale, and the pleasant discourse of friends. The meat was cooked, and they all shared in the sizzling flesh.
One man spoke, “They’ll come again tonight.”
The statement was spoken after something of a lull, a gentle quietness succeeding their dinner, but produced another form of silence. All the men became still, as if recalling memories that turned the meal sour inside them.
The company, with this hush fallen over, each procured their arms. One grabbed for a club that had been by his feet, and he leveled this across his lap. Uneasy fingers mindlessly explored the rivets and spikes stuck within the worn wood. Beside him, another man reached for his belt, and from it readied a glinting hatchet that with the fire’s flickering dance reflected upon the polished head seemed animate in his hand, eager and alive. The last of them had his weapon ready, which strangely seemed a net, a weave weighted by stones and knots. It should be said of them that all were uniformed. I saw the three in similar colors, a pale off white robe, and about their heads were their hoods drawn, as if to hide their faces.
A new chill assaulted me, displacing the pleasant cold of the water. What should these men fear? I wondered. Imagination soon assailed, and I turned from the light before me to the darkness I’d left, searching its impenetrable shadows for the invisible threat. One could see nothing that way, only a wall, as solid, as real, as if it were of brick and mortar, a wall of black nothing, a curtain behind which the mind could populate a thousand ills and dreads. I dived into the flood behind me, into that little body of water, that sanctuary, I’d happened upon, and with a great amount of splashing, announced myself to those three men upon the other bank.
Crawling out of that pond, my hands sank in the shore’s mire as I made to stand. Rising I wobbled, my feet finding themselves in the unstable muck. The ground gave at every step, sliding and slipping beneath me, as I unsurely progressed onto more stable footing. Before me the three with their arms at the ready were marshaled abreast between me and the fire, the man with the net among the other two. It was he who spoke:
“Your name man, and quick about it. Know ye not the time, what hour we are in?”
“It please you, Mortimer,” said I, clutching myself as I shivered in the cold night. “But should it not, my other name my father called me by, Moses.”
“Approach,” was their command.
“I thank you greatly,” said I, as dripping wet I came unto their fire.
They did not seem to look at me, but with their hoods covering their features, could not have viewed much but their own feet. Yet they were in no ways handicapped by this. They walked assured, and standing fast, at times someone of them would shake himself, as if eager for some proceeding.
“You please,” said I after a second warming in the light of the flame, “Wherefore your arms, your readiness?”
“They’ll come,” said the one with the club.
“How shall I know them? What signs?”
The man with the net spoke again, “They come on the wind, and the sound is not like the flying bird, but like the beating wings of insects.”
Interjected the ax man, “They come upon two feet as like a man, but smell of rot, decay.”
I took a moment, the red scar upon my hand glistening in the light, the place where I’d cut the phantom eye, the boil open, remembering the visions of my fever. Again I grabbed my knife.
“Well I’ll be armed as well, good sirs,” I said, “But how shall I see them? What form do they take?”
There was no need nor time to answer, for it was in the midst of my speech the sound, as it was described, that of flying insects, I could hear: like the proceeding before rain, the mad rhythm of countless beating wings in the distance grew as if an approaching storm, and carried before this encroaching plague a foreshadowing odor, well familiar to me, the retching stink found at every village where the unburied were left to the birds and sun.
To the others I turned, and found them a wall together facing the dark abyss I’d flown. Standing, I put my back to the warm campground, and stepping out into the cold and dim outskirts, leaving the sanctuary I’d found, I joined these men in their twilit battleground. A miasma of putrid fog seemed to carry the rotten smell into our midst, a chocking thickening of the air. Clasping my mouth and nose, I looked to my companions. They did not respond, in any way I could tell, to the rising stench, say that they became all the more ready to meet this unseen thing.
I looked to my weapon, a bit of flat steel always eager to be sharpened. Its length, it seemed somewhat wanting, was little use to serve in this unknowable destiny. It would bring me close to whatever I attacked. It was a mean thing, but all I had on hand.
“Where should I strike?” my desperate whisper rang.
“The eyes,” they told me.
And then the first of them came out from the shadows, an amorphous mass upon the wind driving hard towards us. It was then I saw, with cold chills assaulting me, the horrible truth, the unreal revealed and made present before me. The light of the fire faintly shone upon their glistening round bodies which seemed all to be circling each other in an approaching swarm.
The man threw his net at the center of them, its web, unfurling in the air, covering and dragging the flying critters to the ground. The man with the club ran forward, striking at the monstrous things. They were eyes, floating eyes, expressionless sight invading from the sightless shadows our little camp. As the clubman raged, swinging his bat above his head to bring down great violence upon these terrors, a new sound built beneath his thudding, pounding blows. All at once we heard the splashing disturbance in the pond.
The approaching forms were like men, but as they came into the light I saw them. Their skin, sagging off each shambling skeleton, was perforated with great black pores. They reeked with the sickness that had consumed us, the disease which had destroyed the people of the river. And then I knew, with dread I knew what they were.
I gazed upon my hand and the scar which had been a great swelling sore until I drained it. I looked to these invaders. Shambling through the cold water, these animate bodies—soulless corpses—swaggered and thrashed through the small pond. Their sickness had gone longer than mine. Where my flesh was dotted by the premature exile of those festering eyes, theirs correspondingly bore the full perdition. Mine had been something like a divorce, I had hated these things and they me, but before us was the ripened fruit, the consummation of an ill and malformed nurturing, a love. The dead had been the womb for these monsters, and like some tired mother followed after her children.
The half rotted corpses shrieked as they plowed through the mire onto the shore, with outstretched arms conglomerating upon their helpless children. The ax man raced between them and the net of eyes. Its polished form still catching the firelight, the glimmering steel flashed through the night, hacking at the porous bodies. I followed after, standing before what had surely been some farmer, his frayed, wet, and dirty clothes still recognizable, the same I wore.
His hands reached out for me, and all along the sagging skin of his arms were the cavernous recesses in which those horrible eyes had matured. They were deep pits which sunk down into his bones. A wall of putrid stench wafted from him, flowing over me like some foul and loathsome blanket. Holding my nose, I ducked under his arms and dragged my little blade across his middle cutting through the worn cloth. The half decayed flesh, already perforated by the birth of those wicked eyes, severed like butter, and from the monster burst a putrid slime, the hideous remnants of blood—a black, coagulated life.
This explosion of corruption covered my eyes, and screaming in wild abandon, I blindly slashed at whatever was around me. I felt my hand absorbed by the wet and cold flesh of one of these monsters, sinking up to the wrist. Trying to pull free, I pulled the abhorrent creature into me, and its arms clasped about me in an iron embrace. Next to my ear, I could feel its tickling lips as they moved, and could hear something of a whisper:
“The eyes have seen.”
The body against me then became frail, releasing me from its hold and slumping onto the ground. I heard the voice of the axe man:
“Good job,” he said.
“Please,” I asked, “a cloth? Something has gotten into my eyes.”
At first there was no reply, and I felt a silence come upon us as if the three men had collectively caught their breath. Then it was, I think, the man with the net spoke:
“Something in your eyes?” he said, as if a question.
“Please,” I continued, “It was something off of those putrid corpses, the bile of stale blood.”
I was now rubbing my face against my dirtied sleeve, itself covered in the black splatter. The front of my shirt too, was just as soiled. Then it was the light lapping of a wave against the shore reminded me of the pond, and I knelt down, clenching the moist earth between my fingers. I felt along the ground, my hands sinking deeper as the mud grew less thick, more watery: I groveled my way back to the pond. Splashing the frigid waters against my face, I cleared my eyes. Blearily, I turned my gaze back to my acquaintances in this dark world.
The man with the club, in his excited beating of the disembodied eyes, had displaced his cowl. The light of the campfire struck his face, his uncovered face. A light beard dusted his chin as of a man who normally might have shaved but recently went without. It was black with hints of grey, and shadowed his cheeks strangely in the flickering light. He had a small nose which interacted with his upper lip as if he were permanently sneering. But he had no eyes.
Where the eyes should have been a hollow emptiness resided, a black depth the soft light of the fire failed to sound. His face had not been turned on me, but looked out—how could a man look without eyes?—toward the man with the net. This had meant that he somewhat faced the fire. Now, he turned that credulous sneer towards me, and his countenance was encased in darkness. All details of him were lost to my sight but a faint outline against the dancing flame. By this silhouette I saw him lift his cowl, and while I knelt in the muddy bank under his shadow, he softly encroached upon shoreline. The squish of his boots in the mud drew closer in their even, unhurried gait. Half in the water and half on land, I stayed in my humbled position, gazing up at the approaching stranger. Stopping an arm’s reach away, he stood before me, his whole humanity cloaked, in a column of shadow.
“Are your eyes okay?” he asked.
In truth, my eyes stung with fiery pain, the cool water being only a momentary relief. “I think so. I’ve washed them now.”
“Where are you from?” he continued to question.
“The river, sir. The riverbed has dried, and I came to seek water.”
The other two were slowly coming forward, cautiously, like stalking cats. Flanking the man with the club, they surrounded me. With dread, I saw evidence of what I feared. These other men, shadows against the light, reached out their arms blindly, at first feeling the empty air above me. Level by level, their hands came down, eventually touching my crouching back. They felt along my shoulders and found my arms. Taking me by the elbows, they lifted me from the mud onto my feet. What? Were these men all blind? As the water fell from me in a short splash and drawn out trickle, the shadow in front of me turned, and the two beside me pulled. We began to move.
Taking up the net of eyes, the clubman hoisted the body of that still squirming pile upon his shoulders. I watched as he brought these to the campfire. Between the mesh I could see them glistening in the excited flames, see them seeing, gazing out in meaningless sight. What is a body that is only an eye? And taking up a pitcher, the clubman poured sand upon the flames. I was again in the blind, sightless ever-dark of the dead forest.
Silently, I was escorted, a prisoner save that none had declared it, yet still I was guarded, led, was not free to walk my own way. The only sounds were the crunching of dried leaves beneath our feet, the heavy breaths of my companions, and a whispered breeze whistling beside us. None spoke.
I thought I heard a breeze, some wind rushing like a ghostly current through the twisting maze of that perpetual darkness under the forest’s mighty trees. It wound around the trunks of those dead evergreens, and we walked beside it.
And as we progressed, a great fluttering of my heart commenced. A soft glow was in the horizon like the early kisses of an affectionate sun. Some promise of day, I hoped. We drew nearer this light. Passing the shadows of the trees we came out of the dead forest which is the border between my world and the Mountain.