"In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finger there is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but
the truth. People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives
- James Baldwin
When I finally dared to look over my shoulder after countless years, when no residue of memory remained, the horrors behind me looked tiny in the
distance. An enormous new horizon dwarfed the spectres from my past, stripped them of their teeth and crushed them beneath the weight of time, so
that they ceased to terrify me.
I found myself alone and nearly forgotten in the wastes, and could not even recall what I had been running from for so long. I remembered little of
my exile, and knew only that somewhere in the haze of dust, between dark earth and brilliant sky, the home I had left behind awaited my return. There
existed in me a longing, a need I could neither fully understand nor deny, and below that vague shadow of feeling simmered a very real sense that I
had escaped something, but what? Driven by curiosity and emboldened by my ignorance, I returned to face the past.
A path lay ahead of me; a straight black-rock road that fumed in the heat and was bordered on both sides, as far as I could see by flat, sickly
orange-brown earth that was, like the road, cracked, dried and bloodless under the merciless sun.
Hanging always just above my back was a golden standard in the shape of an eight-pointed sun, draped with an oppressive mantle of heat that hung down
over my shoulders -- it was a weight far worse for it's lack of substance because I could not cast it off.
The choice was simple, continue on into oblivion, the horrible, featureless emptiness that was all I had known for so long, or return to the source
and try to understand what had happened. The first step backwards was the hardest, my body resisted, rebelled against my mind for some unknown
reason, but my will would not be denied for long. Once I got started back, there was no indecision in my step, I was drawn in.
I walked without a destination in sight, trudged ever onwards across the featureless desert, back the way I had come. The sun roared ceaselessly at
my naked back as I plodded on, without rest, down the barren highway. My flesh would not burn, and the designs beneath it would not fade so long as
my will was strong; the symbols of power(guilt?) etched into my flesh and stained with the ashes of the dead seemed to preserve my body. Had I become
immortal, or was it all just an illusion? I tried not to think about it too much.
The desert, the heat, the standard that burned above me, I thought they were designed to weaken my resolve, break me down and reduce me for easy
consumption. In the end they served only to stoke my rage; fuel for the flames that hardened my spirit.
For a long time there was thirst, brought by the withering heat that radiated down like sheets of fire from above, and it was all I could think about.
I walked on and on, just to spite the sun that never deigned to set, and though my throat went from dry, to ragged, to rusted, my strength never
diminished. The path was clear, a black arrow that pierced the heart of the horizon, and I was determined to follow it to the end. To hell with the
sun, and the heat, and the thirst. I put them out of my mind and thought of shelter, even the most humble would do. All I wanted was a change from
the stark insanity of the desert, the sheer emptiness of it depressed me.
I thought at first that the angular shadows I saw in the distance were a mirage, a malicious illusion delivered by the heat or my brain gone over easy
in the sun, but as I closed in, it became clearer, the lines more distinct, and I was sure it was not a hallucination.
It was a town. There were a few dilapidated shacks on the outskirts, close to the road, their windows empty of glass and soaked in shadow. Loose
shutters covered in chipped, weathered white paint banged in a dusty, sandstorm wind. Against airborne sand and the invisble breath that drove it, I
pushed on, towards the center of town, past one abandoned house after another. Had they been like this when I last saw them? They all looked too
empty for the living, clustered as they were like gravestones. Each was familiar, like a family tomb, and the notion came to me that I might yet be
able to find comfort in one of them, out of the dozen or so that were strewn about. The town was like none I had lived in before, but the houses were
different; I knew them, every one.
A strange, blossoming fatigue almost drove me into the nearst hovel, if only for some shade, but I pointedly ignored the idea by picking up my pace.
Something about the place seemed hungry, the wide open black doorway like a mouth that whistled softly in the wind, the chittering of rats from
within, barely audible, sent a shudder through my body and I felt an uncomfortable tightness in my throat. I was afraid to find out what lay within,
even at the prospect of some rest, so I kept walking.
Set into the dense ground at the center of town was a wide-rimmed stone well, and behind it stood a weather-worn gallows that creaked and moaned;
there swinging from ancient rope, a hooded man, bloated in the sun and quite dead.
As I stood beside the waist high stones of the well, about to look down into it, two crows perched atop the gallows screeched to announce their
presence. I looked up and found them watching me intently with a curious expression as they judged me with their shining, golden and black eyes.
That look, recognition?
I was so relieved to see a living creature, I momentarily forgot my thirst and rested my hand on the rim of the well, watching them. They stared,
turned their irridescent, black-feathered heads first one way then back; picked me apart with their eyes, then spoke to me in a language I couldn’t
understand, with their split and bloodied tongues.
I mumbled the words to myself, tried to decipher their meaning, and while deep in thought I looked down into the well. Inside, only a few inches
below the lip, an indigo-scaled cobra swam in a languid figure eight half-submerged in what appeared to be milk. Bright flecks of gilt adorned its
head and neck, and the pattern on it's flared hood resembled the course of its twisting body. I jumped back but could not tear my gaze away,
hypnotized as I was by the light's play between the deep, radiant purple-black of the serpent's scales and the pale, ghostly glow of the milk. The
liquid seemed almost to shed light upward in waves. As I stared I couldn't help but become enamored with thoughts of sipping from the well, draining
it even. What if I could stroke the head of the snake to distract it while I drank it's bath? If its fangs then found my throat, at least I would
not die thirsty.
For a while I watched the shimmering scales of the serpent's body methodically churn the milk into wakes that lapped against the interior of the
well, listened to the scrapes of its beautiful, terrifying skin against the stone. I could think only of how it would feel to brave the creature's
bite and slake my thirst. I shivered instead, cursed my weakness and dropped my hands to my sides, then looked up sharply when I heard the thick
timbers of the gallows creaking. One of the crows began to laugh.
The dead man swayed, the dusty wind blew, and nothing changed. How long had it been like this? My gaze found his black hood; I wondered what he
looked like underneath. His frame was approximate to mine, tall and thinly muscled. His flesh though, was different; where my skin was white,
untouched by the brutal sun and resplendent with black tattoos, the dead mans' was charred, rotted and peeling in places to reveal raw, red meat
beneath. I couldn't even make out the original color of his skin, or any markings he might once have worn.
The two crows turned their heads away to the east, then in a sudden rush of flapping wings and angry screeching, flew up from the gallows into the air
and away in the direction they had looked.
I heard the sound of a stream, remembered in a flash my raw, thirsty throat, and whirled around, frantic to find where the melody of moving water
flowed from. It was a small, delicate sound, sweeter than angel's trumpets and seemingly no less distant. The town around me was still all dust and
dead silent, no river had appeared behind my back. Still, I heard water, somewhere. The thought of a drink tantalized me, and my curiousity left the
dead man to hang for a while, left the snake to it's milk. On a hunch I headed in the direction the crows had flown, away from the road. The birds
were gone, but had led me well; the lovely noise got steadily louder as I strode through the graveyard of skeletal houses.
I followed the sound of the water, past windows that moaned in a gold flecked wind and doors that opened inwards as I passed, inviting me to rest, and
forget. My thirst was too pressing to ignnore, so I continued without question towards the promise of water.
About thirty yards away I saw, set back from the empty houses, a cluster of mostly submerged round granite boulders that diverted a wide river's
swift, bubbling current around a large limpid pool. The secluded little pond was presided over by a stately weeping willow and a stand of tall, green
razor grass that scraped in a gold-flecked breeze. In a rough circle all around the oasis, grass had overtaken the dead earth, the cracked and
bloodless desert had given way to a vibrant green, dew-soaked paradise.
Between the river and the pond, upon a mound of small, smooth stones, stood a gilded peacock, surrounded by a subdued waterfall; the rivulets trickled
through and over the mound of rocks and all around the ornate bird's glittering feet. The feathers of the peacock were irridescent, burnished metal,
in shades of purple, blue, and green. Its brilliant laquered crimson head glistened like fresh blood under the sun.
I was almost in tears at the sight of the water, dizzy from the beauty of the place and the intoxicating smell of moisture in the air. The banks were
a mix of golden flakes, yellow sand and rich brown mud. Cattails, tall and fat, grew in clusters up and down the river; nestled in short clumps of
grass, they bent gracefully back and forth in the shifting, sultry breeze.
The water fractured the light of day, broke it apart and cast it back into the world, changed. All around me the sky took on the orange tinge unique
to light that's about to die. Could it be, I wondered, the day that had lasted forever, finally retreating into the purple and grey shadows of dusk?
It seeemed impossible, but I could not deny what I saw.
I knew something had changed the moment I knelt for the first time in the Grove of the Peacock. The sun would set, if I so desired, and finally I
would be able to rest. I breathed deep of the place, tasted the thickness of the air, but it seemed to evaporate in my burning throat and did nothing
to quench my thirst. Inside my chest I could feel the heat of all my untold time spent wandering in that acursed desert. I bent down to drink from
the pool, cupped sparkling handfuls only to watch most of it slip through my fingers. I was so thirsty, too damn hot for living, my hands just
weren't big enough to slake my thirst, so I crawled on hands and knees into the center of the water. The freezing cold soaked through my burning
skin, painful at first then soothing; shivers ran in waves down the length of my body.
When the shock subsided I leaned back into a boulder, listened to my own heartbeat like a bellows within my chest, and bore witness to the weakening
light. I closed my eyes against the fading sun and grinned -- I had won. A great swell of pride ignited within me, and with it came a trickle of
memory. One small victory, enough to stir the coals of appetite. The Golden City, my home of long ago. Where it lay I could not say, somewhere over
the horizon, across the desert, over frozen peaks and through a jungle valley, an impossible distance. I had been gone so long. I remembered, with a
twinge of regret, the glimmering spires, the golden towers, the multitude of shining souls collected beneath a banner of progress. So much beauty,
and also, something else...
My mind drifted away with the currents of wind and water. Sleep was a funny thing in that place, I couldn’t remember resting during my trek through
the wasteland, but in the grove it came easily, too easily almost. It was as if the dreams had lain in wait, ready to pounce, and were at my throat
the moment I closed my eyes.