25 Oct This Man
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"This Man"Written by Alapanamo
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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
On one of two big hills sandwiching the sleepy little town of Maldoona, twins Sasha and Tasha, aged nine, sat gazing at the stars. In the throes of boredom, Sasha bit and chewed at her nails, tearing them off in thin strips before spitting them out through her teeth. Tasha looked over, disgusted. “Stop slobbering all over your fingers! Why do you have to do that?”
“Better than staring at the moon while we wait for father to get better,” replied Sasha. Tasha eyed the silver crescent hanging in the sky and frowned. All she could think of was how much it resembled one of her sister’s peeled nails, frayed edge and all. “You’re ruining the mood,” she muttered. Sasha spit at the ground. “What mood?”
The air was crisp as a juicy green apple from their neighbor Mrs. Grubble’s tree; it was a rare kind of autumn cold that clung on and soaked through to the core. No matter, the twins were bundled in so many layers of puffy fabric, they might well roll away down the hill if footing was lost. Tasha’s gray eyes suddenly widened. Among the stars appeared a bright indigo blaze with long streaking tail, arcing its way across the heavens. “Look!” she shouted, elbowing her sister. “A falling star!” They watched in wonder as the object continued its descent, glowing brighter, and brighter…and brighter still. “I’ve never seen one last this long,” remarked Sasha.
Down at Maldoona Tavern, patrons were throwing darts and chucking dice, playing bored games while tossing back strong drafts. A massive glass goblet, empty but for a few amber drops at the bottom, sat on the counter in front of Zeke. He was slumped at his stool, holding a half-eaten green apple in one hand. Mrs. Grubble gave him three of these each day, two for his daughters and one for himself. This was more an act of placation than kindness. “They’re sweet girls,” she’d told him, “but really, Zeke, they needn’t steal my apples. I can spare a few every day, if they’ll stop hauling them away in their bloomin’ dresses!” Zeke could only look down, embarrassed.
He crunched into the apple, hating the way its flesh dug at his gums, but figured they were good for his health. And being too lazy to carve them into slices, this was the easiest way to eat them. “Hey Barstool, you want another one or what?” The bartender’s question interrupted Zeke’s thoughts. He had a habit of calling Zeke “Barstool” — or “Table,” or “Chair,” or some other random piece of furniture — because Zeke so closely resembled such things, always sitting and mulling night after night, hardly moving or talking. Zeke wasn’t sure if this was a sign of affection or mean-spirited teasing. He raised his free hand and shook his head. He needed to sober up a bit, “get better,” before picking up his daughters. He’d dropped them off at the hill to play for the evening while he ran his errands in town. They would be ready to come home soon.
The bartender wiped the dirty counter with a dirtier rag. “Fine. So now you sit there while I watch that apple rot in your hand, eh?” He sighed. “Aw, go on then. Be furniture in my mind.”
Zeke was leaning toward mean-spirited teasing. He shrugged.
The star had finally burned itself out, but its path through the sky could still be traced as it crossed other celestial lights, briefly occulting their glow — a black husk cruising silent on a sea of night. Wonder turned to fear when the girls realized its trajectory would land it dangerously close to the very spot where they now stood. It all happened so suddenly: one instant it was a tiny speck, the next, a hulking harbinger of death screaming earthward. The girls had little time to do anything but embrace one another. The object bore down on them with relentless fury before slamming into the hillside, sending the earth into violent convulsions as plumes of soil erupted. A spray of hot dirt rained down at their feet. When all was settled and quiet, they dug their fingers out of each others’ backs — for once, Tasha could appreciate her sister’s nail-biting — and cautiously advanced downward.
Embedded in the smoldering crater lay a perfectly rectangular slab of stone. It was a deep black in color, dappled with glittering flecks of green. The surface was smooth and shiny as water. Indeed, when Sasha removed a mitten and reached out to touch it, her fingers actually felt wet. She quickly withdrew them, for the stone was freezing cold.
The most interesting aspect of this object, though, was the man inside.
Through a seamless glass top they gazed upon his features. He was racially indefinable. In fact, traces of all races seemed to show on his face, without any one trait taking dominance. His skin was darkly tanned (maybe by the stars, thought Tasha). Despite a bald head, he did not look very old, no more than perhaps fifty, although his cheeks were cut with wrinkles deep enough to channel tears — assuming, of course, he’d ever had reason to cry (being dead seemed like a pretty good reason, thought Sasha). Crow’s-feet crept at the corners of his eyes. They were closed peacefully, and he lay as still as the stone that entombed him. He was a tall man, at least half a head taller than anyone else in town, and wrapped in a black shroud from shoulder to feet.
Puffs of air poured from the gaping mouths of the twins. “Is…is this what a star is?” asked Tasha to no one in particular.
Scores of boots came scurrying up the hill. Those townsfolk who had seen the fire in the sky, and heard the ensuing thunder, went off to indulge their curiosity. Some took it upon themselves to act as criers, running from home to home or shop to shop with the announcement that “something has fallen from the skies!” One such crier burst into Maldoona Tavern just as Zeke was raising a spoonful of soup to his mouth. “Zeke,” he panted, “your daughters…something’s crashed! They were there. They’re okay, a little shaken, but come quick! Take that fancy auto you got!” Starving but sobered, Zeke threw down the spoon and bolted outside. “Hey Barstool! Don’t forget to pay for that!” shouted the bartender after him.
Zeke ran to his car and hit the firing switch after pumping a good amount of fuel pressure. He opened the throttle, and the big steam engine hurtled him down the road.
There was a crowd on the hill when Zeke arrived. He picked his way through it, finding his daughters near the center of the crater. Getting no response after hugging them, he saw that they were staring transfixed at a black object in the hole. Everyone was. Zeke got closer. “What is that?” he asked.
Heads were scratched, brows wiped, dusty suspenders anxiously tugged at. “I don’t know, but he looks…familiar,” said a woman.
“He does!” agreed another. “I swear I’ve seen him before. But where?”
Following many minutes of excited chatter, it became evident that the man in the stone was recognized by all who saw him, including Zeke. Yet nobody could remember where they had seen him. That is, not until Tasha spoke up.
“He’s from my dream,” she announced. Sasha’s eyes lit up. “No, no, he’s from my dream!” Another voice in the crowd yelled out, “They’re right! I’ve seen this man in my dreams too!”
“So have I,” said Zeke, with growing realization. “And more than once.” The mere sight of the man, with the revelation of his pervasive dream presence, was like a key unlocking a memory the brain had long ago sought to hide, but forgotten why.
More chatter. Most could remember the man from at least one dream. Some had dreamed of him recently, others many years ago, with dim recollection. But nobody could remember the man ever doing anything apart from simply being there, watching the dreamer. Nor was anyone sure what this all meant, or what they should now do with him. “Let us get him out of there,” suggested a man, “and make certain he’s really dead.” A few of the townspeople left to fetch tools, and when they returned, set about to the task of extraction.
But it was no use. The glass lid was not glass at all. No manner of saw, axe, or hammer would leave so much as a scratch on its strange iridescent surface. It was getting late, so the crowd reluctantly dispersed.
Back at home, Tasha asked Zeke an odd question as he tucked her into bed: “Father, do the dead dream?” He planted a kiss on her forehead. Zeke’s mother had been a self-professed medium, engendering in him a deep reverence for the things that lurk behind death’s veil. She was hanged by a mob when he was fourteen. “Oh yes, the dead can dream,” he answered, echoing his mother’s words. “They dream of the living each time we dream of them.”
He dreamt of his mother that night.
By morning, there was disturbing news: a little girl had gone blind overnight, and awoken with a message. She’d seen the man in her dream, only this time he’d spoken to her, and urged her to relay his every word. The message?
“Sweep your stern gaze across mine and tremble.”
Some people went to see the man again, and came back with reports that a faint smile now showed at the corners of his mouth.
The next day brought similar news: this time a girl had woken up without the ability to hear or speak. She wrote down a message from the man in her dream:
“Five days, five windows to the world lost.”
Everyone in Maldoona was abuzz with speculation. Some of the questions were obvious: where had the man come from, why was he here, what did his messages mean? Yet the fascination turned to fixation, and soon the townspeople were squabbling over every detail concerning the man, even things so trivial as his hypothetical hobbies, native language, or diet. Sasha and Tasha, for their part, decided he would enjoy Mrs. Grubble’s apples, and began leaving them piled at his coffin.
Against the backdrop of this irrational obsession, young girls continued to wake having lost one of their sensory faculties, and carrying with them a message. On Monday, little Mallory down the street woke to find her nose quite useless:
“After the fifth, I make judgment by month’s end.”
On Tuesday, Sasha herself informed her father she could not taste her breakfast. Zeke knelt and grabbed her by the shoulders, looking her straight in the eye. “Did you see the man, Sasha? What did he tell you?” She beamed, holding her chin high. “Yes! I remembered every word! He told me that…” Looking down at the floor, squinting with concentration, she slowly recited the words. “That ‘those who listen for my calling see rich reward.’” Sasha turned to her sister. “See? He came to me again, not you! I told you he liked me more!” Tasha stuck her tongue out in response.
But on Wednesday, it was Tasha who beamed as she came bounding down the stairs with news that she could not feel a thing with her fingers. “See! He does like me!” she taunted her sister, even as her hands flopped about. “Father, the man said ‘and the light of my eyes will burn to oblivion those souls unworthy.’ He said it over and over, until he knew I could repeat it. What does it mean?” This was almost too much for Zeke to bear.
Word quickly spread that Zeke’s daughters were the latest affected. There was some doubt as to whether they would be the last. There had been reports of anarchic behavior throughout town in recent days. Ned Hammond drove his tractor through the front doors of the public library, injuring two. And Wilson Brown smashed every window in Maldoona Tavern before setting it ablaze. When asked why, both men could only say they thought it’s what the “dream man” wanted.
There were also reports that with each passing night, the smile on his face grew wider.
Zeke needed to see this for himself, and drove to the hill. To get there by car or carriage required bending around a large lake at the edge of town. The late sun threw a creeping sheen across its surface that reminded him of the coffin’s top, and he could see throngs of people walking along the bank on their way to the hill. Upon arriving he parked at the bottom and started the climb up. The ground was cold and firm, making for an easy trek. As Zeke neared the crater, he saw a man already there, kneeling at the coffin. The man was alone but whispering to himself, and when Zeke called out, he got no reply. He came closer, seeing the man’s eyes closed, hands clasped, and lips feverishly moving. He was praying. Praying to the smiling man in the coffin.
The sight made Zeke’s stomach churn. It felt like there were eels swimming through his intestines, and he thought he would be sick. He could not explain this sudden wave of intense repulsion, but knew he needed to go at once. The man began rocking to and fro as Zeke scrambled down.
Mrs. Grubble was waiting for him on his front porch. It was dark now, and crickets’ chirps filled the air. “They burnt it down, Zeke,” she said as he pulled into the driveway. “There are rumors he leaves his coffin at night, you see. That’s what your girls told me. But the apples they left were rotting. Supposed there was something wrong with them. So they burnt my tree down.” She smiled. “I watched them set the fire in the moonlight. The one — there’s something wrong with her…” Her voice trailed off. Zeke, still sitting in his car, could only look down.
The end of the month was drawing near, so a town meeting was called. Conversation centered on the man in the coffin, and how best to deal with his messages. The townsfolk were essentially split into two camps. “So he’s smiling. Don’t mean nothing. I’ve seen dead muscles do weird things,” said one man. “On the other hand, some folks think it’s a sign of great things to come for this town, if we’re worthy.” He spit at the ground. “Well I say we are. I say leave him and see what happens.”
“Leave him? Nonsense! Send it back!” declared another. “Send it back whence it came in–in…in a great balloon! You’ve heard his warnings. This cold little coffin stinks of age and doom!”
“A bit dramatic, aren’t we Thomas?” replied the first man. Thomas grumbled something inaudible and sat back down.
Nevertheless, a vote was taken, and the balloon idea won out by a small margin. Maldoona would rid itself of its mystery.
On the eve of “the desperate launch,” as it came to be known, a heavy fog rolled into town. An overnight frost laid a sparkling blanket of icy diamonds atop Zeke’s yard, and the full force of winter would be on its way before long. Zeke was in bed when a bright light roused him. Half awake, he thought it a figment of dream and buried his head in the pillow, but it refused to leave. He propped himself up on a sleep-numbed arm. The light persisted through a bedroom window, so he put on his coat, slipped into his shoes, and went outside to investigate.
The soupy haze obscured all but the closest objects. Straying only a few feet from the house risked total disorientation. Zeke edged his way toward the light, calling out, “Hullo there in the fog!” He saw that the light was actually two separate beams side by side, and thought perhaps they were the headlights of his car. “If you’re fixing to steal my automobile, I’ve got a gun!” he lied.
The lights turned toward him, forcing Zeke to shield his eyes. As soon as they struck his face, he felt a deep chill and shivered. Then footsteps came crunching over the frosted grass. Spider legs crawled across his skin as they approached. It felt as if the beams were eating away at him, and he longed to be back in bed beneath the comfort of a thick blanket. It was too cold.
When the footsteps stopped, Zeke, blinded, discerned the presence of another standing before him in the light. “Wh–who is that?” An intrusive noise entered his head in response. It seemed less a voice than pure thought, and conveyed in an instant a complex message to him, which if roughly translated into words was as follows:
“Behold an archetype standing, scourge of a thousand lifetimes. Through five stolen windows, small as they are, do I know the waking world and enter into it. I hold hands with those who yearn to court the cosmic chaos, but do not realize it. It is a beautiful and natural thing. By gradual action it releases you from illusion, transforms you from beast to god. It bores through the very fabric of time and dimension to mind’s core, carrying away the higher self through resulting tunnel. Still, some resist. When a people unknown to your annals gained the proper means, they sent me away. Intolerant. Fearful. You understand. Yet patient orbits have conspired to return me. I am not cruel. I am selective. I am bored. And I seek new vistas. We will meet again, you and I.”
After a pause, the lights turned away. Zeke fell to his knees with a throbbing at his temples. He glanced up to just make out the form of a tall, thin figure with beams emanating from the head where the eyes should be. Like a shadow cast from long-forgotten dream, the dark shape faded back into the mist, and the lights dimmed.
The balloon was borrowed from the nearest neighboring town of Sarnath, eighteen miles to the south. On the day of the launch, a frigid day fraught with anticipation, it was secured to the coffin and inflated. Zeke held his daughters close as they watched it rise into the sky. What a strange sight, to see that black stone dangling from the giant teardrop shape, glinting different colors of the rainbow as it twisted and turned. Their gray eyes watered, and the girls looked at each other with wistful expressions. Nobody said a word.
Looming storm clouds made a phantom mountain range on the horizon, to which the balloon sailed on bellowing winds. The casket shrank from view until it became an indistinct speck. It was never seen in Maldoona again, and no doom befell the town. In the coming weeks, those senses would return to each girl who’d lost them.
Life continued as it had.
In Sarnath, two young boys found a collapsed balloon on the outskirts of town. Peeling away heavy folds of fabric, they uncovered a slab of black stone whose glass lid had been shattered to a million shards. They’d heard the tales from Maldoona, and raced into town with news of their discovery.
Some were afraid, and with trembling hands drew signs of protection against their chests. But others gladdened at the news of the coffin, and dreamed entrancing dreams of all the wonderful things the man might bring. “This man comes our way!” they shouted to one another. “Glories that be, he comes our way free of bonds! Watch for him, watch for him in your dreams!”
And Sarnath waited.
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