The view was magnificent. I could have sat there forever, just watching; letting the moment linger. If left to myself I suppose I would have. I was content to just sit. Sit and think and drink the spiced sangria that tasted both sweet and sour at the same time. To sit and look out over the fields that spread toward the West rolling and vast and full of color. To sit and be sleepy and let the world roll over me and past me. I would have been content. But I wasn’t because of the large leather armor-clad man thumping his fingers on the table top. And the tiny blue leprechaun dancing on my foot, of course.
The Café Asphodel where I sat was carved into the Peak of Red Mountain itself and stood just inches from the Grand Falls that plummets nearly a thousand feet down to the River Lethe below. It could hold dozens, perhaps hundreds of patrons in its half-moon crescent shape. They would wonder around or sit at the twisted iron tables in comfortable chairs talking and laughing, sharing drinks and raising glasses in toast. I never saw anyone there who was not happy, in their own way. But it could not be missed that everyone, no matter what persuasion, would from time to time turn to gaze, either directly or glancing from the corner of eyes down the mountain side to the river and upwards to the horizon across the fields that some called Elysian, but most knew simply as the West.
A heavy leather boot kicked the blue leprechaun from my foot and sent it rolling across the floor toward the edge of the café where it stood, brushed itself off and walked away in an indignant huff. “Nasty little things,” said Solomon the leather dressed man who did the kicking, “Why anyone thought of them is beyond me.” Solomon stood up to his full height and ran his fingers through his blonde hair. I had known him for years and he always stayed the same, he never changed. I often wondered if that’s why he was so impatient with me. “We’ve been here forever!” he bellowed. Not many people can bellow the way Solomon Santarus can, deep and rough, the sound of skin scraping on gravel in the heat. “We need to go now!”
“Okay,” I said finishing my drink, “fine, how?”
Solomon pointed to the edge near the waterfall, “The plunge,” he said.
“I’ll take the stairs,” I said.
“That’s the hard way, it’s so much easier,” Solomon walked to the edge and turned to face me, “to just plunge,” he stepped backwards and disappeared over the edge. I walked over to where he stood and looked down into the distance full of mist and fog and the sound of crashing water.
“Yeah, I’ll just take the stairs then,” I said and made my way to the back of the café. The stairs spiraled down the spine of the mountain. Carved from rock and polished slick, the stairs could be a treacherous way to travel when the conditions were perfect. As I started down the lights suddenly went out. There were no handrails so I clung to the walls in the darkness feeling my way down. Carved into the wall were various symbols; runes and hieroglyphs, letters and shapes. Entire histories were written there, on the walls and in the stone. In the darkness my fingertips touched them randomly, making out only vague impressions of what was intended. Occasionally I would make out a word, sometimes an entire sentence, but most of the time the meaning escaped me.
I’ve always hated the dark. It frightens me. I never tell anyone this, least of all Solomon. He wouldn’t understand. It’s not in his nature, not in his character. He wouldn’t understand the idea of shapeless danger, of things hidden in the empty black, waiting. Nameless.
I remember once, as a teenager, I walked home from a friend’s house at night. Wanting to get home quickly I took the back way, through the graveyard. There was no moon that night. No stars, all hidden behind clouds. The darkness was pitch and I found myself feeling my way past headstones, some smooth and others rough and uneven. The air was wet and heavy and it smelled of a thousand different flowers left at the foot of the graves. I began to imagine the spirits around me rising from the soft earth to surround me. I scolded myself, there is no such thing as spirits I said out loud. But every breeze was the touch of a finger and every rustle in the leaves was the voice of the dead. I began to panic and so I ran. I ran through the zig-zag of stones in the dark. Until my foot hit upon something soft and large and I fell forward into a wet liquid. In that moment there was the briefest of flashes of light from a star as it came from behind a cloud before disappearing again. And in that flash of light I could make out the body of an animal. Gray-white hair course and sharp, it was the body of a possum freshly dead. And I knew then that the liquid I sat in, was covered in, was the animal’s blood. I stumbled to my feet and I ran, I ran in the darkness covered with the stench of death. And I was afraid.
When I arrived home, panic filled and panting for breath I found that I was covered in mud. Just mud. What I thought was blood was just a puddle, dirt and water. It was just my imagination. It had gotten away from me. Somewhere in the dark my imagination got away. When the lights go out I always remember that fear.
When I reached the bottom of the stone stairs I stepped blinking into the afternoon light to the banks of the river. Solomon was there standing with arms crossed. “Why do you always take the long way?” he asked.
“Habit I guess,” I said. Solomon made a noise like hiss of air from an emptying balloon. He shook his head. “Can we rest?” I asked.
“No,” he was waving his hands over his head in large arcs, “We must get there before the sun goes down.”
“There’s an age before sunset,” I said, “Why rush?”
“You,” Solomon said through clenched teeth, “If I had a nickel for every time,” he pushed his fingers through his hair. I knew that gesture. It meant he was frustrated. He only did that around me. “No resting,” he said, “It is time to run.” And with that he was off across an arched wooden footbridge, across the river and into the Fields headed West. I ran hard after him trying to catch up.
The Fields were even more impressive up close. There were grasses of every color. Some were azure blue like ocean waves and emerald green that seemed wet and sticky with dew. There were dark areas like black goo and yellow areas like wheat grass in autumn. And it was golden and it was brown and red and orange like Halloween. And all around us there were flying things. Beautiful metallic blue birds with long tails of silver and there were ominous skeletal things with wings like fire. At all at once we were met by others – old and young, groups and individuals – and they were running with us trying to keep up, to get ahead. I wanted to remember it all. Every detail, the smells like strawberries and basil, how the wind fell on my cheeks and the way my feet hit the ground. I knew that I would not.
“It feels good to run, yes?” Solomon was grinning.
“Yes,” I said. But I did not know how long I could keep up the pace.
To be continued.