~ a short story

The man walked up behind. This room, this world, was cast dark. Bloody scents and cold air and abyssally complete darkness. These were the permeating factors. {In Reality, or just in his heart?} These were the stimuli touching his frame, his psyche, as he made his way. His approach was neither swift nor slow; purposeful were the steps, grandiose was the intention. Despite his unimpeded progress, the man could not see clearly. Whether this was his own fault, or that of the environment, he did not know. Each step creaked upon wood. Inside. A house with wooden floors, old and creaky. He began to place himself. His intention, though pure and burning white-hot with existent presence, was plagued by an obfuscation that, at the moment of realizing, he could neither name nor bypass.

What am I doing?

His steps eventually took him to where he was going, to what he was doing. A chair. Someone sat in it. Back turned. Even without a face, the man found that he knew them. He knew them well. High-backed leather, this person — his target — sat comfortably, without a care and without a warning. He found himself elated at the prospect. A fireplace lit and fully illuminated with healthy flames licking danced with life before the chair and its inhabitant. Those flames reflected the animus in his well-trained eyes. The bloodlust reserved for this one, captured for no one to see at this horizon. Over the mantle was a painting, one-of-a-kind, beautiful and masterful. A portrait. But the man was not looking. His eyes brimmed over the top of the chair and he tightened the fingers of his right hand around the hilt of what which he had brought as his most potent ally for this trip…

Raising it with lively gusto, the man took in a sharp intake of breath for the sake of the exertion. With that, his target turned, the liquid from their glass spilling from shaken hands. Their eyes widened with an impossible mixing of shock and fear and heartbreak and many other emotives that the man could not comprehend in his rushing heart’s casting of his blade down and down and down…

As the silver-gleaming blade fell and fell and fell toward its destination…

The man awakened then. Still walking over hills and hills of sand, he raised his eyes from his bare feet and to the horizons about him. Desert. Miles of it. A vibrant starscape unlike that which he’d ever seen beckoned skyward. Thirst struck his throat, his mind remembered his predicament. Loosely clothed within the night desert’s landscape, legs aching from so long a wander… He was lost. Thirsty, hungry. Stepping over dune after dune seeking solace. Scruff had become beard. Shirt had become sash. Shoes shredded and buried long ago somewhere within his wake. Marooned. Not his first night here among the sands. And judging by these horizons… the man sighed. Not to be his last.

So it was just a dream.

A chilling one. Murder? Who would I ever kill? Why? The man took a deep breath and kept walking. Despite the exhaustion, he felt as though he could not lay down and sleep. Not with this chill in the air. He’d need to find shelter. As long as he had energy, and as long as he could stave off sleep, he would continue his lurching over the sands, up and down these mini-mountains. Until he saw something. Someone. Anything. Anyone.

Amid his reveries colored with neither hope nor despair, the man witnessed a shining glow birth itself from the theater of dark before him. Coming from the sky, down from the stars? It descended over the horizon directly center before him, but came nearer and nearer to the point of his own fears of its striking near enough to annihilate him overtaking his psyche. Instantly panicked and out of breath, he fell to a seat upon the sand, at the lowest steppes of the latest dune. He slid down, eyes wide and hands up, as the flaming rock or star or extraterrestrial object flew to the size of a full moon bloodied by the harvest, and then even larger. The streaming spectral wisps trailing from the strange comet were auroric, purples and greens and blues, to go along with the white-hot flaming whole. The man found he could not look away. If this was to be the end, then so be it. What a glorious end it would be! Even if no one ever knew of it… He did not blink until the ball of fire finally landed, somewhere within his vicinity if his intuitive spatial awareness could be trusted at all. The trail of its travel fell away on the other side of the wall of sand before him, and by his judgment made its resting place somewhere in the desert on the other side of it.

But there was no rumble or crash. Not a sound or a tremor. Instead, over the lip of the nearest dune, the one he’d been dutifully climbing before this event took his eye, a fresh beam of light ascended. Into the sky, touching the stars back down to its newly terrestrial locale, the luminescent cylinder placed itself there into the man’s purview with instantaneity that made him gasp. He struggled to pick himself up, shifting in the sand, grains digging under his fingernails. The man sprinted up the dune now, eyes locked onto the glowing beam, waiting for it to change or disappear. He wouldn’t miss it for the world. It stayed, grew in its brightness. Instead, along the horizons of this seemingly limitless plane of sand around him, shadowed spirals miles high and miles distant and storming gathers of sand picked up. He recalled now the frequent appearance of such phenomena out here in the desert. Cyclones. Sandstorms. “The Great Night Wind.” If he strained his mind, he could recall the commonplace nature of such environmental phenoms and their quite explicable striking, day or night, at all times of a given season here in these wastes.

But now, as the man ventured to the horizon of his dune, sandy stripes licking off the edges of it, casting grains into his eyes and face with violent animation, the sudden appearance of so many distant cyclones, dozens now in the last few seconds, and the darkening of the stars above, blotted by the storming sandscape’s rising, and the wind now ripping the last vestiges of his shirt and pants and cutting into his skin already dried and tanned and weakened by his many hours of exposure… the man could not feel anything but fright at it all collapsing into this reality of his at once. Dread. A nameless and impossible fear at his position within this impossible place fell into his heart, sinking it amidst an existence of precarity already made so fearsome.

Am I do die here tonight?

The man decided to close his eyes as he crossed over the top of the dune, so as to block out that world and its fearful spiraling for a spell, for this most important maneuver to cross this final barrier and go toward that light. That new and extraordinary thing within the scape so ancient and dull and continuous… That shaping beam from the great beyond, it was all he had.

Legs churning, arms pumping by his side, sweat breaking upon his brow and body, the man broke over the top of the dune. He opened his eyes as soon as the light graced his closed lids, as soon as he tripped, aided by the wind’s displacing of the sand and by its sudden northward pull, toward the opposite end of this shaking hill of scintillas. He tumbled headlong, down the dune. Toward the light, though he could no longer place it before him in the violence and motion. Sand layering itself deeply into his wild scalp, the man slapped his hands and feet against the sloping sands to slow himself. It only worked partially, scraping his palms and his sole, burning them with the speed. But eventually, he came to the base of the dune.

And the base of the light. Though it dissipated from a rich aurora of nearly blinding glowing into lesser shades, transparent and merely illustrative of that which it bathed, the light ended at a discernible place. The vortex fell upon the earth at a spot the man could see with clarity, as though the finger of God’s hand was pointing down upon it. Walking distance from where the man had tumbled, the light fell upon a structure. Grey stone pillars marked an entrance that he could see. A mirage, certainly… This was the first thought he had but as he gathered his steps and approached, staring at the place — this face — with an unblinking gaze, the more he began to believe.

Before him was a face. A gaping maw, a skull without features, screamed its silence into an awning. The mouth was an entrance. A temple made of a giant’s head, stripped of its skin, impossibly grand, half-submerged in the sand, its lower jaw was disappeared. The man walked to it with faltering steps, uncertain but wondrously curious. Intact and bleach white, all the top teeth were still there, the abyssal eyes were wide and less dreadful that the man might have anticipated. The prime oddity was the size. And its place. Here, in the sand of this nameless waste, buried but unearthed. The man’s eyes turned away from the skull as he drew nearer, toward the pillars leading up to it. In varying states of decay and crumble, each pillar featured words. Or characters. The man found he could not read them. Written vertically, like Japanese or Mandarin, but not resembling such writings, he could not decipher them. Though he did recognize that the ‘words’, or symbols, were unique upon each pillar.

The etchings were profoundly chiseled, by hand, of that he was certain. Each of them was a story. Or a characteristic. Attributes. Features. Not something so simple as first-person tales of triumph or cave-delving adventurism. Not words accounting for virtues as concisely meaningful as “Courageous” or “Patient.” No. As the man passed them by, heading unconsciously toward the darkness within the maw of the skull, he understood them to be singular. Like a face or fingerprint, these symbols and their underlying meaning were utterly unique.

Like the individual grains of sand trickling still from my hands…

The man crossed the shadow into the skull’s abode. As he did, he realized that those words and stories and singular etchings upon the pillars leading into this giant’s head were written in the “language of the dead.” The knowledge zapped into him, as if by cosmic divining. Though it was still only the concept; it was implicit that the language could not be deciphered by someone like him. Someone still alive.

His gaze alighted to his surroundings within. Not so dark. Instead, quite bright and clear and consisting of an architectural fullness that could not be ignored. Inside the skull, this building more than a ruin, alive and well-maintained, was a complex array of furniture and lanterns and pillared support structuring and decor and art and books. So many books. Shelves as high as the towering ceilings, every place filled with multi-colored spines. Was this place a library? A chandelier’s bright beaming struck down upon a ballroom. Was this place a mansion built for old royalty? A room of sculptures, settled onto pedestals equidistant from one another, with more plaques written in such dead language graced an entire wing. A museum? A cathedral? A temple.

A place of magnificence. The man ran between the effects, observing them with timely attention. The words in the books, the symbols upon the walls, the tales jotted upon the base of these statues, even the expressions of the people in the portraits upon the walls — all of it was copious but incomprehensible. Artful, yet inexplicable. What was this place?

The language of the dead

Impossible. Could there be such a thing? And how can I come to know it…

Nevertheless, the man continued his explorations. How could he not? He did not need to read the words to know this place was wondrous. And impossible. But not a mirage! The warmth washed over him with steady realization. The comfortably cool feel of the marble flooring upon his tired soles struck him. He finally rested himself upon a velvet couch placed within the gallery, off his feet, where he studied the paintings upon the wall, near and far from his seat — each a portrait of a man or a woman. Every single one: a shining artistic expression of a person glowing and existent, their lives traced upon the bends in their necks, the lines upon their faces and hands.

Following these portraits from a somewhat arbitrary starting point, the man came to see that they were a lineage. The paintings were organized in a progression, a family tree. Resemblances, the matching of characters quite clearly depicting their surnames, this revealed to him that the portraits were of a family, extended into generation after generation. When the man finally rose to inspect them more closely, he saw that the paintings — the gallery itself — stretched into room after room, wing after wing, into regions of the temple where the marble floor eventually ended and the sand returned. Where the abyssal darkness returned. The chill of the wind wafting from that darkness drew the man away, back into the other zones of this strange structure.

Family. Lineage. A tree of life… in a place full of a language only singing to the dead… What is this place?

The man went to the books. Inside them, through the gibberish of the individual words, he found the structure to be the same. Each was a three-act play of a kind. Each was a story of a singular life. A person’s whole life written as a play. Or as a literary novel. Or as an adventure genre thriller. To each their own, the books were consistently about people. The same people as those in the paintings? He could not be sure… Carrying a handful of books back to the plaques under the paintings, he took several titles to heart, searching for matches under the portraits. Eventually, out of breath but wired with adrenaline from his conscientious investigating, he found that each of the books he carried — seven in total — were represented with paintings of their own. Individual faces, frowning men and smirking women and stolid, gritted grins from babyfaces and bearded elders. Each of the paintings, skin tones and hair colors varying over the years, the decades, the generations, had their own associated stories from the library. These people… When the man went to the room of sculptures, similarly sprawling into successive wings of continuous artfulness, he inspected the nude forms and their faces for matches to the paintings, cross-referenced their descriptors to the surnames of the books and the portraits… confirming all.

Everything here was dedicated to these people. This lineage. These trees. All connected. But, as he soon found out, more than one tree, to be sure… A forest. In his searching, he realized the sheer amount of persons here was incalculable, as the man tried to traverse once again to the edge of the marble, where the sand and darkness beckoned, he counted the portraits and the paintings along the way, already with the size of the many-layered shelves of that magnificent library in mind… There were millions. Tens of millions. He could not be certain of his sanity in keeping so large a count going. But he had and he did. As he studied the surnames and their progressions, sometimes leaping without logical reason into entirely different symbols and characters upon the plaques, the man came to understand that these artful depictions of people were not just one family but many. They were connected, to all be here, but not always by blood. What did this mean?

In his traversing, it took the man many hours, (many days?) to realize that hunger and thirst no longer plagued him here. Within the light from the candles and the lanterns, he was free from worries, free to expend his mind into these strange ventures, these strange interdependent family of beauties and rogues and past persons. It was only the chill from those darkened zones at the edges of the gallery that reminded the man of his own mortality. He did not venture there again in his experimental counts, stopping well short for good reason.

Fully naked now yet comfortable, all of the man’s clothing had loosed from his form in his mad dashing through the temple’s many rooms. Eventually, he returned to the warmth and leisure of that velvet couch in the gallery. To think.

What is this place? And why am I here?

Questions recurring from his momentary resting, without conscious intellectualizing upon his sudden movements, the man found himself returning to the entrance. Tears were in his eyes. Why?

He walked through the light and returned to the howling sands once more. The great wind tunneling down past those ancient pillars and upon his body inflicted all the aches and pains and inadequacies of humanity upon him. Everything returned. And the memories

The man walked through the sandy steps, his own reverse-aimed prints still there somehow upon the shifting grain. And he turned. He turned to look upon the skull making up the abode housing that humane tapestry of lore, the interweaving forestry of trees of so many lives within it

The skull, this final symbolic sphere of death, was now returned to the face it bore in life. Skin and hair, eyes alive to the fires of that immortal pneuma captured only for a transient spell. Gigantic but humane. Awakened to life again, to the animus of the own man’s memory in his sighting their resumed portrait. The man was alighted to this skull’s identity. To the last scream they ever screamed. To the reflection in their eyes upon their assailant, the silver dagger and the face of passion — the last things they ever saw.

The man fell to his knees, arms enveloping his wasted, sun-baked torso in a sickly embrace, elongated fingernails digging into his thinning sides, where blood began to stream down his back and onto the sand, shivering and weeping inconsolably. The man kept shifting his gaze to the sand pooling around his digging knees, now wetted with his tears and his blood, and then back up to the screaming face of the one he knew, infinitely uncertain if this strange realm was an omen or a hell, a place of admonition or a plane of punishment. ~

~ art by Martin Blanco