Gently fading light peeked through the tangles of moss that hung from branches above. The waters pressed against the grassy bank as if they would shove it aside and swallow it up if only they had their chance. A sweeping fog came from somewhere beyond my line of sight, ever advancing, deliberate and ravenous. With it came a moist chill that seemed to seep into my flesh, eliciting the hairs there to prick up attentively. The uncertain colors of night drug invisible claws through the sun’s setting trails.
In that momentary pause where one song fades out to make room for the next and headphones dull to mere pieces of shaped plastic in your ears, I heard it. The something that sets you on your guard, not quite ordinary but not entirely threatening in its simplicity either. That something that coils in the back of your mind, feeding a strange paranoia that we’ve all experienced. It’s the something buried in our brains like a dragon sleeping in a cave, just waiting for us to stumble inside.
It was getting late, I reasoned, rather than accept so childish a fear of the unknown, and decided to depart.
As I stood up from the solitary bench, I gave the river one last lingering gaze. This was my spot, my place to think and to breathe, and that fact alone assured me of how foolish my unexplained apprehension had been. Rough rocks shifted under my sneakers, stressing to adjust to the sudden weight that gravity had forced on them. The area became less splintered farther down the path, trees grew closer together here and yet all pulled away from the beaten path I traversed.
Friends had told me it wasn’t safe lurking these hidden trails all alone, bottled up in my silence. Friends, family, others… All of them said the same things, over and over. A track forever on repeat. Was it so horrible that I thought my obligations lay not in their laps but closer to home, in my own hands? Why wouldn’t I come to this one place where I felt truly at ease?
“Demons grow in pairs,” I breathed, the air condensing at the base of my lips, forming a fleeting cloud of white which was swiftly battered away by a scoff. They had said that once. I couldn‘t remember who exactly. I never put much thought into it. Still, something was unsettling this evening, I had to admit. There hadn’t been as much to follow with my wandering mind--or maybe I was just more distracted as of late.
The boughs of an old trunk to my left seemed to quiver as I passed, unnoticed. Behind me, they swayed and creaked, strung along by invisible chains. In the quiet of another transition, the surrounding canopies rustled, shaken by turbulent winds that didn’t seem to reach my level. Some cultural sensation sang into my eardrums and I forgot the sound with his words. I bobbed my head with the beat, moving my lips to the syllables lazily. None of it stood out or struck me as odd.
I was oblivious. That is, of course, until something quite literally and physically struck me. I gasped in surprise, stumbling forward a few good steps. Pivoting on my heel, I found nothing behind me, and still I swore that it had been two hands that had pressed against my back. An enemy without identification clung at my soles, lurking out of reach. Then it happened again, still from behind me. I pivoted and there was nothing.
The dragon tucked away in my brain was beginning to stir, his presence a fiery haze dressed in a frantic heart’s beating. My eyes darted about the landscape, searching shadow after shadow for the missing assailant. All at once, everything that should not have been was animated, caught in some rhythmic dance. I couldn’t catch the beat, it was entirely random, and everything seemed as if it would lift into the night and flap away.
The goose bumps, the thumping in my chest, the ethereal performance of forced activity. Every element stacked onto the next and before the thought had fully crossed me, I was running full tilt, back to the bench. It had all gone wrong when I left, when I opened myself back up to this insanity, the chaos of this life. My headphones were lost in my sprint. There was no way of telling if they hung from my pocket still or if their shape in my farthest peripheral vision was actually the tail of a nameless monster. Drops of rain like molten lead slapped into my face, blurred each step ahead. I slipped. No, I tumbled.
I could see and yet I couldn’t. Whatever had pushed me, whatever had birthed my fear, surrounded my trembling frame. Beady balls of shimmering black glinted from behind the straggling vegetation. Those hands smashed into me, holding me down to the ground and swarming each side of me. I fought to stand, to crawl away. If only I had something to protect myself with. It grew cold. It was the coldest cold I had ever experienced and it whipped at me, wiping everything clean and coating it in white.
For a singular moment, I watched as my limbs were spent by a raw ache that painted my fingers a blistered black. The violent ink dripped up my arms. I screamed, scratching and rubbing away at it. My voice pierced whatever else had flooded my ears and it was all that I could hear. Howls of wild dogs, guttural snarls and distinct yaps mingled in my sorrow. The hands stopped. I crawled, grasping at whatever I could the moment I felt I could.
I was drowning in a river of oil. With each sheet of rain, another layer of my existence was cleaned away. I lost focus.
When I came to, a hurricane of voices whirred in my throat; they choked me so that nothing could come free of me. They circled with worry in their irises, concern pinching their brows. Relatives I was close to and relatives that I hadn’t seen in years. People I didn’t know and people I had known all my life. They were all here. With me in this obscure hour.
They spoke but there was no sound to be heard. It was all muted, nonsensical noise. Was it a horrible a dream or a long awaited nightmare that I was witnessing? I sank into the soil at their feet, my clothing shed in my descent. I lay in formal attire, a chic black, firmly pressed for just such an occasion. I could feel the weight of makeup on my cheeks, oppressing any fault in my appearance that there may have been. The beating of my heart was slower now, almost nonexistent and yet it overwhelmed my senses.
Progressively, I was emptying out. All that was left on the outside was a thin layer of paper skin and my insides were following suit. They stopped lowering me, leaning closer to inspect my visage. Who was this person that they buried with all but forgetfully dry eyes? Had I not struggled for them? Amongst them? How could they seem so collectively bemused? It was like they had never even known me at all. I was a sheet of parchment dried beside the river in a sea of burning sands.
I searched the tight congregation for some sign of familiarity but all I could see were skeletons as hollow as myself. Body after body, piling onto the next in a cycling genocide, down to the youngest spectator. They had no names or outstanding features. Adjacent to my tomb, at its very tip, stood the shadows that had danced and leapt at me. The dragon in my heart lay himself to sleep and all the universe lost my name in its sighing. Soil served as my final cleansing shower.
A distant baby‘s wail echoed in my cavernous skull, and one concluding flutter complained beneath the earth.
Question of the Day #2: Do you get it?