“She led me out.”
The old man stooped in his chair and offered his hand to the owl at the window. My friend and I shuffled our feet waiting for his story.
“That’s how I found Dusk. He had a broken wing; we healed together.”
Afternoon sun glazed the panes of the barren cabin. Wood slats held in a musty smell of hay and old soup. There was little more in the one room than a table, chair, and a cot on the floor.
“I don’t know why you want to hear my story,” he continued. “Nothing good has come of it.” The owl walked slowly and perched itself on the outstretched hand.
“I made it out alive,” he said, stroking the feathers of his friend. “That is all.”
“I was young when I found the hidden mountain, but old enough to know better than to go inside.
“Enough souls disappeared unwillingly. To seek it out for its own sake was utter foolishness. But so I did.
“Everyone in the village knew the place. The forest hunters spoke of a garden pavilion with a well; the roof was visible from the main road. Only travelers who knew no better would wander off the path to rest in its shade. It was an easy place for kidnapping.
“I lived close enough to reckon the place. One summer afternoon, bored beyond patience, I packed some ham with bread and walked up towards the mountain. I found the pavilion easily enough. Surrounded by scented flowers and vines climbing upon trestles, its beauty was everything the stories made it out to be.
“But I walked past the pavilion. Barely even looked at it. I was studying the mountain. My heart pounded in my ears and the tips of my fingers.
“I found the entrance soon enough. Didn’t really take too long for a boy wilful with determination. I escaped the afternoon sunshine and snuck into the tunnel darkness.”
The old man paused.
“It was the last time I saw the sunlight for a very, very long time.”
I didn’t even look back. The trees shadowed the light from behind me until I came to the door, charred black with no trace of a handle. A gentle push and it swung easily. Charcoal stained my fingers.
The tunnel that followed was darker still. Shafts of firelight flickered in the distance. A sweet, musky scent wafted near me.
“Who goes there?!”
The bellow in the cave came from a voice deep with gravel and iron.
I have no memory of what happened after that. My initiation was hard and heavy, and I would watch others die in the same process after. Boys in a schoolyard held nothing on this.
By the time I was accepted by the cretins of the mountain, I had forgotten my name. They gave me a new one.
I soon drank the black water of the abyss. Sugared and bitter, every gulp agitated my thirst while promising satisfaction. That was the beginning. With every lusty draught, I became one of them. My skin grew with feathers and fur. Those who were there the longest could barely be recognized as once human.
Some were elders I’d known in the village; I knew not how they came there.
The old man stroked his owl, then looked up. Clear grey eyes looked into mine.
“I don’t know if they recognized me. We never looked at each other. Their eyes were too shadowed to ever look into. Darkened by things men should never let themselves see.
“Mine too, I’m sure.”
“Men, women, children, they devoured them all.
“We did terrible … unspeakable things. I did.”
The old man leaned his face into his hands. Shoulders shook against the elbows which propped up his gaunt frame.
It was a few years before they allowed me to go out on raids. By the time I joined them, my mind and body were changed into that of a brute savage.
We believed we were entitled to the bodies of others. When a fresh batch came in from kidnapping, we stripped them naked, locked them up, and treated them like animals. It didn’t take long for them to think of themselves as the same.
The strength of the body didn’t matter; when the mind was weakened to only think of food and safety, it was then that the human degraded itself. Husbands stopped thinking of their wives; mothers stopped caring for their children.
The old man stared at the corner of the table while his mouth fell open slightly.
“That was how we justified destroying them.”
He shook his head, newly disgusted to discover another layer of an old sickness. He took his dirty thumbnail and dug it into the table.
“The older cretins quite enjoyed studying human behavior. There were always a few humans who tried to be strong, who would prescribe structure in the midst of our imposed chaos. Almost immediately, one would rise to leadership, dictating the portioning of food and sleeping arrangements.
“Most humans found their strength from fear and the need for self-preservation. They put on a good show, but their selfishness betrayed them.
“The cretins saw through this easily and delighted in toying with the facade. Men and women, strengthened to be broken. These were singled out for initiation. For the cretins, it was their only sport.
“The men had it easy. If they survived initiation, they were allowed to drink the black water and made to slave in the furnace. This was a mercy compared to the women.
“If a woman rose to power amongst the humans, she was separated off and made to bathe in the black water until her skin hardened to leather. Then she was married off to one of the leaders. Some drank the water and became strong like us. Others were broken.”
His voice trailed off.
“I don’t know which was worse. We found it amusing at the time but now…”
He shook his head, shoulders heavy with unforgotten guilt. Then his head lifted suddenly.
“There were, however, rare individuals who could not be tainted.”
His eyes glanced towards the window through which the afternoon sun shone. He smiled.
“They could not be tainted, no matter what the cretins would do to them. In all my years under the mountain, I only met two that were so.
“The holy man came through while I was still a young initiate. He slaved next to me in the furnace until he died of thirst.”
The old man looked in my eyes and grinned.
“He wouldn’t drink the black water. Only recite The Lord’s Prayer under his breath every moment he was awake, and even when he fell asleep.
“The cretins were revolted by his purity. They vented their anger upon him, then threw his body into the abyss. The last time I saw him alive, his skin glowed white and his face was calm.
“That,” the old man squinted and pointed a calloused finger at me, “that was a true man.”
“She was the same way. No matter the inconvenience or indecency, she organized and comforted the other humans as best she could. Even when they disrespected her.
“The oldest cretin singled her out early on, by showing her favor and inviting her to bathe in the black water. But she refused to cow to the pressure. When temptation would not work, they brutalized her until she cried.”
The old man squinched his eyes with a scarred hand.
“There is so much I wish I could unsee, so much I wish I could undo. These memories haunt me both in daylight and at night. One day … one day! I will forget all, and know, truly, I am clean.”
I was the last one to touch her when she died. Her skin glowed white like the holy man’s, so much so that the light reflected off the graphite-encrusted roof of the cave.
My hand - the black claw that was my hand - clenched her arm. I wasn’t even sure if she was dead or alive. Then I threw her into the abyss.
The others turned away as the white light disappeared with her. But I stayed, staring into the depths long after I lost sight of her.
I didn’t know what I was looking for, until I saw it. A delicate tendril of white smoke rose from the depths and escaped through the peak of the mountain
Something awoke in me. An awareness and disgust towards the darkness that had overtaken my soul.
From that moment on, I was haunted by the memory. Nightmare dreams of white smoke filled my slumber until I could bear it no more. The black water could not satisfy me. It never truly had.
Finally, I determined to leave the mountain. Next raid, when the chaos was strong, I made a break for it.
I knew I had to run fast and hard or I’d be reinitiated and made to rejoin the slaves at the furnace. The night was dark and the forest thick. Not knowing where I was or what direction I was running, I kept on. Village lights twinkled in the distance but I kept from them.
Losing my breath, I heard the faint tinkle of a stream nearby. When I searched it out, I found a bridge crossing over.
“I’ll take a drink,” I thought, “then sleep under the bridge through the day.”
As my hands reached into the water, I felt a soft sting that I did not expect. When I lifted the water to my tongue, my throat was so seized with burning that I coughed and sputtered until I was hoarse, almost dizzy trying to catch my breath.
It was then that the moon came out.
Shafts of clear light enlightened the world around me. I happened to look at my hands.
The old man halted his words.
“Children, let me tell you something…” Hesitancy and conviction mixed inside his face until he spoke again.
“There is no sight so fearful as the moment you realize what you have become. My nails were ridged and my skin was black. Not brown-black or even ebony. Sickly black, with scales that glistened green in the moonlight. Nasty feathers protruded from my forearms. I dared not look further. I feared to see my own face.”
“Someway, somehow … I crawled underneath the bridge and cried myself to sleep.”
The old man stood up from his chair and stretched his pale, weathered arms over his head.
“I slept my first night under the bridge crossing where Brickell Lane meets the highway.” He pointed off yonder towards the road. I nodded, knowing where it was; I crossed that bridge every day.
“That is not the end of the story, but I need something to drink.”
He reached for his tin cup hanging on a hook and then looked at us.
“I would offer you some but I only have one cup.”
I assured him we’d were fine. As he stepped outside to drink his fill, my friend turned to look at me. His face could hardly contain his awe and amazement.
Soon, the old man returned, whiskers wet with clean well water, and resumed his tale.
My nightmares inside the mountain were nothing compared to this torment. I even dreamed of going back to the mountain, but knew it would only end in greater despair.
This was when it happened: The Great Holiness that had lured me away would not leave me empty.
In my dreams, I saw the wisp of smoke - her soul - travel to another mountain, a holy mountain. And upon the peak of this mountain grew a very great tree, covered in diamonds. In the diamonds, I saw the soul of the holy man and others we had tortured who were weaker than he. Her wisp rose to an empty place on the tree and she crystallized into one of them, a perfect, pure diamond, glistening in the moonlight.
I let out a breath of relief I didn’t know I was keeping.
The harm I had done her while she was alive no longer mattered: all was well with her now.
A peace washed over me and I began to turn away.
Before I could walk away, to God only knows where, a great shining came up over the mountain. Brighter than the sun, the moon, and all the stars combined, The Great Holiness bathed me in its light.
The awe that filled me overwhelmed every memory of darkness. Then, in a voice as gentle as a candle and as thunderous as a bolt of lightning, it spoke.
“Wash, and be clean.”
From the roots of the tree, a red river ran forth. As I waded in, every inch stung my skin worse than the water of the creek. I cringed as I splashed my face. Then I looked at my hands.
They were as soft as I remembered in my boyhood. Not a scar remained, not even the gash from the nail in my father’s woodshed that I caught when I was five. I looked into the light of The Great Holiness.
“Thank you,” I said.
Then with a breath and a sigh, I woke up to the light of the sun.