Long Journey

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Upon a vast and vacant plane of existence a lone figure scratched its form against the withered blue etched along the horizon. The dull, bleached soil offered little resistance to the vagrant interloper. Her limp clothing hung in such a way as to give no clue to the length of her travels, those passed and those yet to come. The ringing silence seemed only to be cut by the dull impact of her footfalls that issued in a wavering, yet ultimately steady rhythm. The landscape undulated to obscure the way ahead just enough so that she could not be sure of the true measure of her view. Hardened swells of earth stretched forth beyond time and reason, daring her forward while holding her back. With nowhere distinctive to go in sight, yet no reason to stay, desperation for relief pressured her on. The daylight was bleak and undefined, doggedly resisting its duty to track the passage of time.

Her mind was adrift in its own endless void too full of dangling questions. How many times she had sifted through them like searching for something lost in the sand, only for the grains to run out yet again with nothing gained. The coarse shifting of the perplexities grated uncomfortably on the inner lining of her skull. Flitting contexts evaporated before her gaze when she attempted to focus on any of the tangled pieces. It was as if the universe had melted into a pool of intangibility, and the firm ground below each soft sole was of some dreamt constant.

Her choice to embark on this quest (she wondered if it could still be called so when so directionless) was not easily understood by her family and community. The town she vacated was populated with enough kind people who kept, for the most part, tidy houses and tidy yards. Distant enough from larger municipalities to maintain a rural warmth, but close enough that the inhabitants, for the most part, wanted for nothing. The shapes of houses, the unassuming smiling visages, the lounging lawns, and the wearied oaks had grown hazy in her mind’s aging eyes. The blurred images seemed to fade behind her in wavering blinds of heat distortion. The crumbled rocks whose elders were now the soil they rested on were more real and tangible than the past that was no longer present.

The Long Walk, as she had come to call it, from there that was safe to where that is unknown. At first she hadn’t considered how long it might extend. One day it had been an inch too much, a casual word too far, and she had to start out, to escape. At a certain point after hours had passed, her body had signaled various discomforts, and she considered it might be reaching its certain limit. But the miles behind her acted as momentum too potent to overcome, and so she hadn’t paused. Now the pressure had eased on her back to a mere white-noise push. The complaints in her muscles and bones had woven into the reality so as to be present but not hindrances. She did have a submerged sense that if she stopped, even for a moment, her legs may not be able to resume the course having lost a balance of movement like a toppled-over top. With no source of an external factor that could reset and replenish the spinning, she dared not tempt the truth of this feeling.

She drifted back into herself. There was no telling how long she had spent in such a mental morass. Small memories flickered to life as if thrown on a screen by a projector. Countless times she had willingly and unwillingly turned the crank on the ancient machine, reviewing and renewing each scene. A sentence uttered that was incomplete and underdeveloped which generated confusion that refused to be remedied. A sentence too carefully crafted during hours of introspection died on her tongue over and over in the face of its intended recipient, for it to finally emerge at the wrong time, in a voice distorted by mixing emotions, with words butchered and fighting each other.

Interspersed in reruns of the most taxing episodes intermingled the unnoticed events, the mundane missteps that haunted her well beyond a reasonable lifespan. Those which she knew at heart no one really remembered, or acknowledged in the moment. A room full of those friendly faces and their amiable chatter was a maze without a map. As she listened to the discourse she crafted a piece to contribute, but where to insert it? In the time spent calculating an appropriate opening, her heart rate elevates and tongue swells with the anticipation. One pause made for such verbal additions comes and vanishes, another, and another, each generating silent curses to herself for an opportunity wasted. Gathered courage prevails at last, but the comment is not quite relevant anymore. The audience reception is a polite, lukewarm stillness while the more adept speakers work out how to reignite the sudden dampened social spark. Of course they do, and the world revolves again as if it never stopped.

The world halted for her so many times, sickening and robbing her of oxygen. The moments inscribed into memory in vivid, putrid shades ready to be seen, demanding to be recognized. A terrible dread emanated from them, the threat, no, guarantee there would always be another hidden ahead.

Why couldn’t there be one bird, one insect, one sickly scrap of grass, she wondered unconvincingly. The empty patches of land had been growing in number and size for years, barren scars on the surface of an ailing planet. All the inhabited places were in the lush environments, and the inhabitants cared only that their homes were in safe places. If they experienced this waste, would they become invested in saving what wasn’t theirs?

These bitter thoughts had driven her out. The nice people often failed to have a certain depth of consciousness, of concern. Good people, but something was missing, something she could not readily identify. That something, or the lack of it, ate away at her like her own memories. It gradually became overwhelming, so to reduce the inner tempest’s howling she escaped. A few faces had called after her: Where are you going? When will you be back? The answers were not important enough for any follow-up when none came.

She missed the company, but not enough to turn around, yet. Admittedly she did miss the old explorer, her neighbor. He had offered a small reprieve from the usual struggles of community life. Afternoon tea looking out over a garden embellished with exotic plants, and the living room walls sparsely scattered with photographs of exotic scenes. He filled the air with stories of his explorations of distant lands when he was a scientist employed to survey the world outside the settlements. He spoke of towering jungles dripping in emerald, of townships built into mauve mountainsides in harmony with the landscape, of expansive lakes and oceans undulating beneath sapphire skies, of thrilling storms lancing lightning among torrents of rain.

There were of course dangers abound, and not every location was paradise. He rarely spoke of the Outer Wastes, and his wizened eyes darkened at their mention. He had returned from his expeditions to recommend, implore, beg the populace to take the gradual decaying of the land seriously and seek out solutions to stay the unraveling. The soil was empty, the flora and fauna collapsing, the weather increasingly extreme. Yet his warnings and pleas fell on contented people, who felt their duty was accomplished by simply listening to the discoveries of faraway places.

She loved a story well told even when it was harrowing, and it allowed her not to worry about manufacturing contributions. She was free to listen, and ask questions when she was inspired to. Questions were marvelous, they expressed interest in a subject, they promised to procure greater understanding, and the onus was on the person answering.

Questions are also dangerous, spoke the unanswered heap of her inner turmoil.

If she had had the energy she would have scowled, but she did not, so she did not.

Despite the unmovable sun and the unalterable paleness, the horizon bore an emerging feature that barely registered apart from the bleak browns of the plain. Dry and aching eyes stared ahead, knowing they ought to narrow to discern the subtle change. The patch of distorted air shuddered in a manner that defined it against the otherwise regular currents. It seemed the woman’s feet were closing the distance between her and the developing mass of rippling browns, whites, and blues, but progress unfolded slowly. She clenched and unclenched her hands, hearing the parched skin sliding against parched skin as her fingers rubbed each other.

Finally the next patch of earth ahead fell away in a gentle dip that revealed a field of pointed spikes protruding from the packed dirt. As she drew closer, her eyes widened, straining against the tautness of the surrounding skin.

Stines. The elderly explorer had on occasion told her stories of the strange phenomena to be found in the Outer Wastes; swirling columns of dust, immense lightning with muted thunder, unpredictable splitting earth. Seeing these translucent formations recalled his descriptions of stines; glass daggers protruding from the ground, striking up at the sky. The ones before her angled this way and that, and as she drew nearer she discerned their heights varied just as much.

A destination, a curiosity, they pulled her closer. She searched for extra details on the looming figures among all the faded pages of stories her memory had tried to maintain, unable to turn up anything more than fragments; ancient lightning stines in sand, millennia of erosion, did not have the time or will to explore further. His frown had deepened.

Nearing the outermost stines she slowed her pace, still unwilling to tempt fate by stopping. Here they were several armspans apart, most reached below shoulder height though some struck up above her head. The edges were warped yet smooth, nonetheless dangerous. Whatever she had imagined back in the living room with the cherished garden and aging photographs, these shapes before her were far more captivating. The cloudy saffron and ochre coloring the glass blended easily, appearing to undulate subtly when the light slid over the polished surface.

As her feet finally took her in past the first sentinels silence deepened like a fog trapped in a forest. Thick and patient, it clung to her limbs, tempering the rustles and footfalls. She softened her breathing, awed by the mystic setting.
The frozen audience to her travel consisted of a marvelous myriad of stature and dimension. The deeper into their midst she was drawn, the greater the variation. Higher, narrower, shorter, wider, perhaps these inner stines were protected from the elements by the less diverse outer ring.

Were people this way? The more dense the population, in the city, the further in would there be an increase of variation and character? It hardly seemed possible, as the larger the crowd, the more oneness it seemed to possess. The faces blended further into a single visage, moving as a homogenous entity.

She caught herself just as she was about to step on a particularly small stine. That was not an option out here. Any injury, let alone a foot injury, could prove fatal. She had never truly been in a situation where life trod so close to destruction and death. It thrilled and trembled her heart.

With the near encounter she had been drawn out of herself again. Now it was clear that the distance between the stines was decreasing. She had lost all sight of the horizon, only surrounded by the shimmering sea of softly scattered light. Greater care was needed, else a limb brush against a passing blade. Perhaps it was time to alter direction, lest the gaps shrink beyond her width.

Progress slowed, but it afforded her the opportunity to observe the finer details of each spear. In this far, the edges were rougher, reminiscent of obsidian arrowhead artifacts. The points reached high as trees, and widths ranged from tree trunks to cars.

The ground had become overgrown with their semi-transparent shadows, patches darker wherever they overlapped. Then vexed sun, still pale and loosely veiled, wandered through the gathered tips winking in and out. It hung aloft in resoluteness, continuing to resist the passage of time and space. Yet despite its stalwart insistence, the atmosphere began to change. Clouds stirred slightly and the vacant air shifted. The stines awoke with the slightest touch of a breeze, murmuring somber tones to those nearest to them. The gentle vibrations traveled through the narrow channels of loose air between their slender forms, adding a greater tactility to the lost zephyrs entangled in the planar labyrinth.

The waves of sound passed over and through the woman’s skin and bones, making her shiver involuntarily. The gentle cooing and humming lulled her senses, causing the world to melt further into a dreamy torpor. Eerie sighing pitches wound in her hair and caressed her worn fingertips. The swelling songs seemed to her as sympathetic vibrations to her heart’s mourning, mourning for whatever it was she knew she had lost but could not name.

The twisting breezes grew in strength, and likewise the volume and intensity of the gathered solemn choir. Individual pitches clashed more harshly, arguing and pressing uncomfortably against each other. The atmosphere darkened into an unnerving twilight. Her pace quickened as agitation bloomed in her chest. The spell was cracking, fracturing, breaking; it was time to be out in the open. Desperate eyes scanned for any hint of an escape route, to no avail. A deeper frown pulled at stretched facial muscles as panic took hold of her distressed form.

The disappointment she found around every stine she looked wore on her, an increasing weight behind her forehead. The thick mass of sound gathering threatened to choke her, muscles straining and burning. No free air, no space to think, no time to waste.

Yet there were no signs of paths to the outside world as minutes filtered by. The adrenaline of her fear ebbed and finally vanished, leaving little residual energy. Eventually her body gave her no choice; she had to rest. At the next reasonably open clearing six or seven paces wide, she dropped on her knees, and sunk her face to the gritted ground. Now below the main vibration areas of the stines, she found some relief from the assaulting sound waves. Over an anguished interval the rise and fall of her chest laxed and the wind above drained back into gentleness. Cradled by the murmurs now again free to float among themselves as passersby, she entered into a subconsciousness in hope of rest.

Eons of ambient life later, a spark of self stirred from the dimmed eyes. Not a whisper of air rustled the dirt, and the blanketing silence had returned to the stine field. Or perhaps it was better to call it an ocean, she thought. It held the sense of vastness, of omniscience, of possession that the explorer had once described to her of the faraway undulating depths of water. Thirst, hunger, were she not full of other sufferings she may have felt them. That may be sense enough to attempt to stand and press onward. Her legs protested every moment they were asked to defy gravity, which seemed to have doubled since she had last been upright. The spinning in her head took several long breaths to stabilize the ground beneath. Turning in the direction of her best guess as to the way forward, she pushed on through the aches, pains, and exhaustion.

Why did she venture forth? Why did she leave home? Why was she drawn into this perilous trap? Why had she not been allowed to be happy with herself? Why did she choose to make so many mistakes? The questions added to the contorted mass of their predecessors weighing on her soul. Her legs felt as if they were wading through the mental muck built up within.

With uncharacteristic might, the sun broke through the dim atmosphere and threw its unfiltered rays on the sea of glass. The stines became hideous mirrors; when not reflecting their prisoner, they cast treacherous, glancing blows on her brow. Stumbling ahead, shielding her eyes from the blinding lights, she careened between the punishing incisors. Anxious panic returned from before, but now she was even less in control of her mutinying limbs. Pausing to pull air into her lungs, she dropped to the ground among coughs and wheezes. Regaining some control, she looked up to meet the eyes of a hideous visage. Gaunt, lips cracked and pale, cheeks stained in dirt, eyes trembling full of wildness, it gaped at her in a mute moan of dread.

The woman recoiled with a wail and caught her hand on a stine edge, which sliced a clean cut across its back. Her wail birthed a scream that tremored through the neighboring glass. The stines hummed to life in its wake in eerie mimicry.

She threw herself on her feet once again and tore through the razor forest, leaving a dripped trail of crimson behind. Lancing light and vivid reflections blocked her way at every turn as tears clung painfully to her eyes. Raw frustration coursed in her veins driving her frantically forward and chasing out caution. Scratches, scrapes, and slices decorated her brittle skin as she howled. The heat, the sounds, the reckless pain, and the hopeless view threatened to burn away her last scraps of sanity.

The stines thinned and she found herself out towards the far-flung horizon once more. Blinking and gasping in disbelief, she tripped and fell down flat knocking the air from her lungs. After the shock evaporated, scrabbling hands pushed her back up enough to see the surroundings.

To her sincere relief, she was free of the stine field. Glancing back, a contorted laugh of defiance broke out of her hoarse throat. Turning to survey her new space dismay worked its way across her features.

A barren, vacant plane of weakened dirt and promiseless sky lay stretched before her. No fleck of green, no hint of water, no sign of any possible destination other than the flat line that defined the vanishing point.

“Can this be over? Can I find my way home? Will time resume and find me peace? Let there be sense and meaning for me again!”

And the world said no.

Submitted: April 26, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Random Thorn. All rights reserved.

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