When there is only the darkness, silence, I am comforted. There is peace in not remembering. But sometimes I go deep into the maelstrom, down into the abyss between realms. That is my dread, whenever exhaustion forces my eyes.
It is not a dream. There is an awful clarity to every little thing. I could describe, if you were to ask me, the shape of each rock on that damnable plain. But at first I am only aware of dread, not merely the feeling of it, but a pervasive, palpable reality, like a knife in my being causing me to sweat and tremble.
There is no sun in this land. No stars. No moons. What dim glow permits my sight to function, I cannot say. The sky is the wrong color, perhaps you could call it violet, the deepest shade one could fathom, but is in truth like nothing the eye can perceive. For a thousand-thousand leagues around me, there is only rock and gravel, bottomless trenches and distant mountains. Even in the most arid of deserts, there are cacti and lichen, worms and lizards, serpents crawling the earth. In this place, there is not a soul. I look for direction, some sign to lift my spirits, but am utterly lost. The terrain is without feature but for the hilly silhouettes on the horizon. Might those peaks promise better pastures, a city perhaps, a place where vagabonds gather? I wonder, holding fast to hope, and yet the way the mountains are arrayed, how they loop and twist at impossible angles, disturbs and disheartens me.
Who am I? What is my purpose? How did I come to this unfinished creation, this place abandoned by gods? And how can I still breath where there is no vestige of life? At the fringes of my mind, my name teases me, but it is a long lost memory. I cannot even be certain as to the nature of my existence, whether man, woman, or other, or if, before this very moment, I ever lived at all. The only clue to my identity is a tiny wooden carving in my palm, a trireme the length of my forefinger, meticulously engraved with a battering ram and a double tier of oars flat against the hull. The standard etched into the lateen sails, the trident, is familiar to me also. Was I a sailor once? A captain? I only know that the ship is dear to me.
The carving is the one constant, for I sometimes find myself in rags or in the full regalia of a centurion, or else entirely naked. It matters little, for clothing is unsubstantial here, as is the flesh. My body is numb to cold, and though I have long to eat or drink, thirst and hunger are but wistful thoughts. Rocks tear across my soles, but there is no blood, no pain. I am a hollow vessel adrift in the waters of beyond.
Solitude consumes me, and I long for escape, to expire entirely, to cease my tired and tormented being. I have fallen through all the layers of existence and can fall no greater depth, and still, in this remotest of hells, there is light. I cannot describe the nature of it, whether a sun or star or some lighthouse fire calling lost souls to hopeful shores, but dread and despair recede from it like the night shrinks from the day. The light is life. Hope. I cannot but follow it.
For how long do I trek across that plain, a day, a year, a hundred-thousand years? There is no answer, for in this otherwhere, time does not exist. And yet, however great my travail, the light remains beyond reach.
At last I come to a pen for goats and hens and other livestock. The fence is unremarkable as fences go, with rivets showing between the seams, but to me it is a work of exceeding beauty. Anything aside from rock and gravel is a sight for weary eyes. Even the earthly feel of it—the course cedar grain against my fingertips—gives waves of pleasure. Oddly, I wonder where the farmer must be and his animals. I stand awhile, delighting in my discovery, as the ethereal light continues to beckon. But I fear to leave that place, because it is a place, a memory, a tether to my childhood.
Beyond the pen, shapes flit to and fro, inking the ground with elongated shadows. Only living things move about so, and whatever its manner, I think it of no consequence. To escape my loneliness, I would befriend a bogren, but the fence prevents my crossing. It stands to my thigh and yet I cannot climb or leap over it. Some force keeps me and does not let go. With every part of my being, I struggle against that barrier, until I surrender upon the railing, resting my palm against it, and the fence is suddenly behind me. It was the little wooden ship, my key, permitting me passage.
The space beyond is choked with people. They press me should to shoulder, knocking me about as they bustle past. Some are dressed in rags, others in fine embroidered silks or gleaming mail, and more than a few are utterly naked. Paupers and merchants and soldiers, high-born aristocrats and priests and kings, they are all mixed like fish in a fishmongers net. I recognize the garb of the Hedonian, a man from my own city, and a great many from Thetis, Thalassar, Northendell and Shemselinihar. But an even greater number are foreign to me, whether races from beyond the map, or extinct peoples from the pages of history.
They do not seem to notice me, nor do they speak to or acknowledge their own in any way. Here is a continent-sized population—a host too vast to measure—and yet they are blind to themselves, each man and woman and child a stranger. Their eyes are soulless, lost and bewildered, but some power drives them, causing them to swarm about like gnats, searching, eternally searching. It is a placid mob, a procession of the mad, and a thought seizes me with terror, that I must count myself among them, that I am surely no different.
Again, with the talisman in my hand, I find my way. The ship is my identity, my purpose, my very existence. Holding fast to it, I push through the mob, shouting and beating them with my fists, but my blows do not sway their desperate course. No matter, I am determined to persist, to not become one of them. The light is my salvation and the ship my passage.
Guided through that sea of faces, I find them at last, and know myself at once. Ages ago, I leapt from a high place, and the ground raced up to meet me, and I found myself in this dreadful place. Now they are within my reach, the two I came in search of, the people for whom I surrendered everything. She is in the same black tunic and shawl. Our son has her hand, and she is leading him through that awful gathering, despondent and lost and broken. Her hair is ashen and her face is like a drowned woman. The boy at her side, despite his age, shares her deathly aspect.
I push bodies from my path, reaching, screaming their names lest she move away and is lost to me again, but she cannot hear. Fighting for every step, I grip her by the shoulder, forcing her around to see my face.
She stares and stares, as if through a window, offering no reply.
“Don’t you recognize your husband, Niobe? It’s me . . .!”
I tilt her chin, so that she might gaze fully into my eyes, but she is dead to the world. The boy holds to his mother out of some habit, I realize, like the fingers of a corpse stiffened about some precious remnant from life. There is no tenderness in their clasping hands, for he does not know his mother, nor she him. And the thought occurs to me how the two came to be joined for all eternity, yet strangers to one another. Before my fall, Niobe came seeking our son, and after finding him forgot herself and was lost—lost like the others. Surely, I am to follow . . . but do not accept the truth of it.
I shake her, lovingly, angrily. “Say something, Niobe! Speak to me, I beg you.”
And I do plead with her, and embrace her as if she might become immaterial and slip away, and still she does not know me. On my knees, sobbing and quaking, a terrible certainty takes root in my mind. It is imperative that they know me. If they do not speak my name, I will soon forget it, and by not knowing it will cease to exist.
Surrendering hope for my wife, I turn to my son. How often has he run into my arms? For how many countless nights have I cradled his head and heard him whisper that he loves me? Surely, he will remember, gods be good, let him remember!
“Astor . . . look upon me . . . look kindly upon your dear father, so that I know that you know me.” But he only stares, his face contorted, as though searching for a memory, and at last speaks not a word.
I can feel his wrist, slender as a sapling, and yet there are no veins, no pulse—he is just as I found him all those many years ago, the day my Niobe came down to this place in spirit. I touch his side and recoil. The gash is still there, from when the creature spilled his entrails on the sand, and I reach for my face, finding my own scarred face, the reminder the monster left me, of the life I failed to save. He had been playing by the shore that morning, playing with his . . .
“Wait!” I cry, “the token!” Pressing the wooden ship into his palm, I watch as he ponders it and looks at me and then his ship. It was my gift, given to him on the day I shipped out for war. He loves his toy, is never without it, a reminder of his absent father. He will remember the ship and remember me. I do not doubt it.
My son does not speak, but I can see the change in his eyes, a spark of recognition. Niobe is also beginning to see me, and I come to her aid, recounting memories, from when our lips first touched on the shores of Sarnath, to our wedding day when we danced on gold painted litters, to the evening when our newborn son first wailed and trembled in my hands. Slowly but surely, they are coming to know me. We will exist together, even in this horrid place, never in solitude.
But in piecing together my identity, I become recognizable to others I knew in life. Like vultures to carrion, they swarm about me, whispering awful things in my ears. Shame falls on my heart like an anchor, and everywhere I look, there are faces—faces without bodies—growling and hissing and murmuring. This one I slew in battle when he was very young. Another was unable to pay his taxes and so I had his home burned to ash. Still another lost his sons at my commands. They are pulling me now, tearing my clothing and hair. I try to fight them, but am overwhelmed, outnumbered. Hands pin my arms and legs. Niobe is calling to me, weeping for mercy, as is my son, Astor. They know my name, but not my misdeeds, and those I have wronged will not let me go to them. I am dragged away from my family, watching my wife and son shrink from my eyes, framed by those horrid faces. Fingers fill my nostrils like worms, bury my mouth, dig out my eyes. Having given my token to my son, I am dragged back across the fence, to the blasted plain of the damned. My eyes are gone now, yet still I can see it, somehow I can see the light. The faces press upon mine, enveloping me like the mouth of some demon, swallowing me whole, and in that last moment I recognize the source. A city. By the gods, the light is a city!
I do not fear to die as other men do. It is not the great mystery that causes me to dread my eternal sleep, but the certainty of that undiscovered country, in knowing what awaits me.