The Imposition of Darkness

There was a day that I sat down with whom I would consider one of my best friends. This friend of mine was always pretty cavalier about recreational drug use, but kept it light. Then there came a time when I noticed his casual drug intake was trending upward. It was around this time that I got to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with him. Just the two of us.

The conversation began slow. He and I were sitting in such a way that I could only see the side of his face; his profile. He would only turn to face me when he was talking about something that was particularly pertinent.

So at one point, he turned to me and said, “I think I saw the devil.” After asking incredulous and rhetorical questions, I just let him speak.

“It was about a month ago. I was passed out on the couch and woke up in the middle of the night. As soon as I opened my eyes, I knew I was being watched. I didn’t think, I knew. I looked around the room. It was dark but then I saw something darker than the normal nighttime darkness of my living room. It was about the size and shape of a man. I just lay there, staring back at it. I mean, it didn’t have eyes, but I was just staring into it.” He paused here. “It scared me a lot. I mean I know I had a lot to drink, but I’m telling you, I was certain in that moment that what I was seeing wasn’t just my imagination or some hallucination.”

“So I’m staring back at him and then it starts to move closer to me. I don’t know how, but I knew it would do no good for me to try to move or run away from it. I just sort of let it get closer to me. It’s getting closer and it’s just…expanding. It’s darkness I mean, it just starts enveloping the whole room. Then, just before all I can see is the darkness of this thing, it stops so that from the fringes of my sight, I could still see some of the wall and the ceiling and shit. He-he, it, if there is an omniscient being like the devil, I doubt it has a gender-anyway he just stays there so that he is almost all I could see. It doesn’t move any closer. And I can do nothing but lie there and stare at his darkness.

“It never moved again. It just stood there over me as I’m splayed out on the couch. After a while it becomes apparent that nothing is going to happen and there was nothing to do but lay my head down, close my eyes and go back to sleep. And that’s what I did.”

“Jesus, I’m surprised you were even able to go back to sleep. I would have been scared shitless.”

“That’s the weird thing,” he started again, “I was scared but somehow I knew that the only thing to do in that situation was go back to sleep.”

“And you’re positive it wasn’t just a dream?” I asked.

He turned his face away from mine and explained, “I wasn’t so sure at first, but I’ve only told you the half of it. I would have been able to shrug it off as a dream if I weren’t still seeing him.” I stayed silent. “The next morning I woke up and the blackness was gone. Everything in the room was normal. But then I started noticing something: if ever I let my eyes focus on anything for a little while, any time I am at rest, left to my own devices and the silence of my mind, I see him. A blackness not so imposing or large as that night but it’s surely there. A spot of darkness behind everything I see. If I sit and stare long enough, he gets bigger.”

He turned his face back toward me and gazed in my direction intently for a few seconds. I couldn’t resist to ask the obvious question, even though I was frightened to hear the answer and I’m sure he was hesitant to tell me, “Do you see him now?” He maintained eye contact with me and said, “Yes.”

“What does he look like?”

“Like nothing. Like blackness; shapeless but deep blackness.” He broke eye contact with me and looked back in the direction he was sitting, perpendicular to me. “Sometimes I can’t even say that I physically see him, but his impression is there and I’m certain of it. I actually wish I saw him every time because it’s when I can’t see him that is most distressing. I know he’s there whether I can see him or not.”

A better man might know what to say to a loved one that just told him that he sees the devil on a regular basis, but I was at a loss. I’ve heard ghost stories before but nothing like this coming from someone I would consider a very reasonable man, someone that I trusted and frankly, loved.

Indeed, what is there to say? But this is what I ventured: “I can’t imagine how you’ve been dealing with that. But I gotta say, I’ve noticed you’ve kicked it up a notch with the pills and booze.”

He looked back at me and said, “If I focus on anything for too long, in other words, if I’m not distracted, he gets bigger. So, I keep myself distracted.”

“And that helps?” I inquired.

“It does,” he said calmly, “but it use to help me a lot more than it does now. It’s getting worse. It’s getting closer to me. I don’t just see him, he’s in my mind and I can almost feel his weight bearing down on my body. I know I’m not going to be hurt but I know something else, I can just feel it.”

“What?” I asked.

He called me by name and answered, “Somehow, some way, he’s coming for me.”

To this day I couldn’t say with any certainty what he meant by that. All I knew was that I was scared and worried for him. And, as it turns out, I had cause to be. Eight months after we had this conversation, my friend stopped his heart with a lethal mixture of codeine and oxycodone. It wasn’t determined whether it was accidental or intentional. I wept a great deal for my friend but, like he must have, I saw it coming.

 

Stations of the Heart Chapter 18: Jaded One

It hadn’t crossed Jed’s mind- his thoughts while he was in the desert and forest were majorly occupied with finding a way out- but now as Jed was negotiating his way down the wall of his hometown, he realized that soon he would step foot on familiar ground after not having done so for so long. The inside of the wall was textured and craggy so Jed had no problem climbing down via natural foot and hand holds. Carefully he made his way down to the cobble stoned ground. His feet were planted down in his hometown once again and he turned to face it. The streets were dark but dim light from the homes of the fortunate boys who had companions and the weak light from the three crescent moons above made the passageways, avenues, and alleys navigable. Indeed, Jed had known every street and route available in his home town as well as he knew his own name, but what Jed was looking at now seemed completely foreign to him. He stood there looking as far down the major avenue as he could. This place didn’t feel like his home. True it looked exactly the same; the streets, the homes, even the smell of moisture tinging off the cobblestones underfoot, but something was undoubtedly different. As Jed stood contemplating, he realized that it wasn’t the town that was different, it was himself. Jed had always felt content in his hometown- before his journey that is- but now all he felt was contempt. A hollow, empty feeling caverned out his insides as he stared at the streets of his home. When Jed, not of his own volition, set out on the journey, it was with the goal of coming back home. But so much had happened, so much had been experienced by Jed in between then and now that at present, Jed came to a most tragic conclusion: home was the last place he wanted to be. This place was not Jed’s home anymore, he didn’t belong there. Still, there was no going back. Where could he even go? He was shut out of the forest by his would-be spirit companion, and if he wandered the desert alone he would surely die. He didn’t really want to do either of those things anyway, but in that moment, he couldn’t think of a place he actually wanted to be. It was like there was no place for him anywhere, no home. The boy Jed Ano who was taken from his home, traveled a great distance, experienced much, and returned with no companion to call his own, had no choice. All that was left was forward motion. With that, Jed began walking down the broad main avenue of his town, toward his home.

As Jed walked through his hometown, he felt a though he could wretch at any moment. The songs and sounds of the boys who came back with companions made him sick to his stomach. He envied them, he resented them even, and couldn’t imagine how he could cope with hearing those sounds every night from now on. Initially, Jed wrote off the unease of his stomach as his sour emotions being projected on his physical form. But as Jed continued to walk, he realized that his queasy stomach was not a psychosomatic occurrence, but rather the product of a profound hunger deep in his gut. Jed was hopelessly hungry and there was nothing that could be done about it there in his hometown. There was no food to speak of there. Jed wondered how the other boys who ventured beyond the walls of the town managed to quell their hunger. Maybe they had never eaten anything in the forest to begin with and therefore their hunger had never been awoken. This got Jed thinking about the other boy’s journey’s. Were all of our encounters different? Am I the only one who now feels an insatiable hunger? Jed wondered these things but in the background of all he pondered was the physical ailment of his stomach. He had hoped beyond hope that a long, hearty drink from his canteen would help to sate his hunger and calm his stomach. But before he could even reach for his canteen he remembered that it was empty. He drank the last of the water when he had exhausted himself outside the walls of the town. ‘No matter’ Jed thought optimistically, ‘I can just go refill it at the well.’ Jed was grateful for the menial task that now presented itself; it provided him with a goal he could actually achieve, no matter how fleeting or trivial. A distraction from the emptiness he felt inside. So Jed altered his course ever so slightly and headed toward the center of town and the well with its vital content. The waters of the well had been the only sustenance available to the boys of the town, but it was all they needed-Jed included. This was true until Jed was introduced to meat at the feast of Pintiler. It may have been true of the other boys who went away from town as well because most of them never left their homes to collect water after they had returned. Some never left thir homes again at all and were never seen again. Jed wondered if the boys who came back with companions felt the same hunger he did. He quickly dismissed the thought and reasoned that they were in all likelihood too enveloped in bliss to ever be troubled by hunger. Whether they tasted the food in the forest or not. Jed took his conclusion as hard truth because of the few vague recollections he could muster from his time with his phantasmal companion in the house of spirits, he knew there was no such thing as hunger- indeed nothing of the outside world existed at all- when communing in that heavenly state. Jed could not recall feeling anything but an immeasurable warmth and ebullience during his interminable time with the enigmatic spirit. But now Jed was back on earth, mingled in with the rest of the unfortunates, the blissfully ignorant, and select blessed. ‘What a loathsome mixture of individuals’ Jed thought to himself. ‘That we should all have to return to the same place and live amongst each other seems like some kind of cruel joke or criminal indifference. But of who’s design?’ Jed thought about this for a few moments but couldn’t think of anyone to blame when he came to the conclusion that there was probably no one tending the light of the day or watching over the darkness of the night. Whatever the reason, Jed was now alone, making his way to the well at the center of town in the hopes that water would cease the very real hunger he felt within himself.

In short order Jed arrived at the well and found himself a bit reluctant to approach it. After all, it was from the well that the waters that swept him away to that insane forest arose. The well, the heart of the town, the eternal provider of life-sustaining water, it was the last thing Jed saw of his hometown before he was thrust into an odyssey which still had no discernible purpose that Jed could fathom. It was unchanged. Stoic in its readiness to give willingly. Jed walked up to the rim which was as high as his belly button as it had been before he left. From this inadvertent measurement, he realized he had not grown any taller, as the boys who returned home with companions had. Jed looked down and saw that the water was high in the well, almost reaching the rim. The surface was calm and smooth as though it hadn’t been disturbed in hours. He looked down at the water and saw his own reflection in it. He stared at himself for several minutes. It was the first time Jed had ever studied his own face. His jawline was sharply angled. His nose was crooked and a little high off his face but everything else seemed to be in good proportion. Dark and heavy shadows hung beneath deep and perfectly shaped almond eyes. He was struck by the appearance of his own eyes because within them was a profound sadness. A sadness that was transmitted whether Jed could help it or not. ‘What a sad looking person’ Jed observed to himself and tried to force a totally unnatural smile. The reflected smile looked ridiculous to Jed and he gave it up. That was when he noticed something else reflected in the well water. It was a silver crescent. ‘The moon’ Jed realized, ‘but where are the others?’ Jed tilted his head toward the dark sky and say only the silver crescent moon. The red and blue moons had completely disappeared. This saddened Jed immensely but he was at a total loss as to why. Somehow he felt emptier inside now that there was only the original moon he had known his entire life and not the others. Still, even the silver moon before had been a full one, now it was some foreign scythed shape. Not even half of what it used to be. It seemed like every trace of familiarity, every memento of former happiness was taking its leave from Jed’s life, just as the moons above were. Jed could feel the emptiness inside him grow, just like the sky overhead was being emptied of light. A tangible emptiness radiated inside of Jed, so much so that it became a physical aching. Jed bent over the rim of the well and hung his head. “What am I supposed to do?” he whispered quietly down to the water. “How am I supposed to proceed?” Moments of quiet despair often lead to moments of great clarity and in this way, Jed heard a phrase ringing in his head. It pushed through the unmanageable dross that was filling his head and made its way to the forefront of Jed’s thoughts. ‘Forward motion.’ Jed tried to file it away among the droves of thoughts crowding his consciousness but it persisted behind every thought Jed had. ‘Forward motion.’ ‘Forward motion.’ ‘Forward motion.’ ‘Forward motion.’ ‘Forward motion.’ ‘FORWARD MOTION!’ It was as though the words were branded onto Jed’s brain but after a few moments of meditation, Jed knew what they meant and in that moment of clarity and revelation, Jed suddenly felt a great weight lifted from his being and felt himself in a state of odd, empty, peace. Every nagging thought i his mind was suddenly purged and all that remained was his next move. Jed knew what he had to do; he had to move forward. From the moment Jed arrived outside the walls of his hometown, he knew that it was not where he needed to be, or at least he knew it was not where his journey would truly end. Jed was filled with relief, clarity and resolve. He stood up straight, took a deep breath and did what he came to the well to do- draw water from it. Jed took his canteen in hand and scooped up enough water for one single drink.

As Jed walked down the winding streets and alleyways towards his home, he could hear the songs and communions of the fortunate boys and their companions. He could feel the emptiness emanating from the homes of the unfortunate ones because the echoed the same emptiness that rang inside himself. Only, none of these things made Jed sad anymore. He looked upon all of the humble houses and whether they were alive with laughter or dead with silence, he smiled at all of them. It occurred to Jed that he would have liked to see what his face looked like now that he was wearing a genuine smile but, ‘Oh well’ he reasoned with himself, ‘forward motion.’ It was different now that he was walking through the streets of his hometown. Different because he felt everything. He felt the loneliness and sorrow of the unfortunates. He felt the exuberance and elation of the fortunate ones.and all he could bring himself to do was smile upon both alike. Any resentment or envy had dissolved into the ether with the discovery of his new goal. He himself had felt both emotional polar opposites and everything in between and all he could do now was smile at all of it. Maybe he was smiling because it all seemed so petty now, maybe he had finally snapped, or maybe he was smiling because unlike anyone else in his hometown, he knew where he was going next. Jed didn’t know which was the true reason but it didn’t matter in the least. After all Jed had been through, all he had gained and lost, he realized that he never truly lost himself. No matter who he had become in the forest or the desert, he realized now that he had always retained himself, just as Lashpat the great snake had advised him to. This gave Jed great comfort and courage. Jed looked upon all the homes, felt everything, and smiled.

Jed stood before it, staring at it. He smirked at it lovingly as a proud parent would when watching his child at play. He never paid more attention to it in all his years as he did now. He ran his hand gently across its solid surface, feeling the grizzled grains against his palm. Finally he reached for the knob and entered the door to his home. A stagnant cold overcame him upon entry, he felt bad for leaving his faithful home alone for so long. He walked all throughout the interior of the house, which didn’t take long at all, it only consisted of a few empty rooms with maybe a chair here and a table there, but Jed sat in every chair and leaned his elbows against every table as if to make amends with the old house for being absent for so long. He ran his fingers along the cool walls nostalgically as he made his way to his bedroom- the room where he had spent so many dreamless nights in blissful ignorance. That all changed of course, when the night came in which he had had a dream and his life would set out on a course that would change him forever. But in this moment, Jed only remembered those peaceful nights when he would sleep soundly and unperturbed by any cryptic nocturnal messages. He made it to his bedroom, looked upon his bed…and smiled. As Jed walked toward his bed, he took a quick inventory of all the possessions on his person: one raising tree seed, and a canteen with enough water in it for one drink only. Jed sat down on his bed and took a look around his mostly empty room, held the makeshift pouch containing the raising tree seed in one hand and his canteen in the other and thought to himself, ‘I can’t believe this was all I needed.’ At this, Jed chuckled to himself. Then Jed looked out his window as he had done so many times during those peaceful nights. Only this time, instead of seeing a full, bright, and somehow wholesome silver moon, he saw only darkness. Not even the meager crescent shaped remnant of the silver moon hung in the sky. It had completely disappeared. At this, Jed smiled. It was time for Jed to move forward. Jed took the last raising tree seed from his pouch and put it in his mouth. His tongue balanced it flat inside his open mouth. Jed hesitated for a moment. and let his mind settle into some serious thought. He looked around his room, closed his eyes, and imagined, as hard as he could, all the places he had been, all the creatures he had seen, all the sounds and smells and tastes that washed over him like a tidal wave. Then, with eyes still securely shut, all of these images disappeared and Jed suddenly felt like he was a gigantic empty room all by himself. A heavy lump grew in his throat and a warm tear streamed down his face. He open his eyes and declared to himself and to all that is unknown, unseen, and to those who will never know these words were spoken but to whom they were certainly addressed, “As much as this is for me, it is also for Lashpat, Iparel, the poor giant desert lizard, and even the ever-confused Nashper and Railnia. Forward motion.” With that, Jed raised his canteen to his mouth, gulped down the water, and swallowed the raising tree seed. It was Iparel’s last beautiful gift to Jed. His canteen was now completely empty and he placed it on the small table next to his bed. He laid down flat on his back, closed his eyes, and slept.

A beautiful dream: Something light but at the same time dense with moisture was yielding to his moving body. Hes eyes were closed, but he could feel a vast space with nothing in it both above and below him. Cool air was whisping past him at brisk speeds. It was a new sensation to be sure, exhilarating but peaceful and calming at the same time. He could hear the wind rushing in his ears and he wanted to embrace it because it was so soothing. Though his eyes were closed he could tell it was night time because the darkness behind his eyelids was deep and absolute. He wasn’t cold but he wasn’t too warm either, he was somewhere in the zone of tolerably cool. Comfortably cool even. Sounds of wind blowing by at a healthy speed filed his ears, steadily, consistently, almost like white noise. Great open space above and below him. ‘Open your eyes.’ Fog surrounded him and he was definitely moving. No concept of orientation. Up? Down? All he knew was that he was moving at a cooling pace, but neither of his arms or legs were in motion. Fog still surrounded him. Fog? No, maybe, possibly clouds? The it all breaks away. Staring down at the ground, but from an apparently great height. ‘I’m flying. Effortlessly flying.’ the ground below is featureless. Just some sand dunes and consequential shadows. It’s night time, but he could see clearly. It is still unfathomably comfortable. The breezy night air caressing his body and filing his lungs with serene vitality. Then he sees something break the mostly featureless landscape. Birds? ‘Why do hey look so familiar?’ A small flock of them. ‘Wait, are they upside down? Eyes?!’ A great ‘GRRROOOPPPPP!’ is heard like a ghostly echo from across a great bay He feels a definite sense of familiarity but can’t place it. The upside down birds with eyes in their wings are flying far below him but he follows them from above. The moist clouds disappear from him and just as he notices this, an undoubtedly familiar sight sprawls out underneath him. He is now flying above his hometown. He sees the walls surrounding it, the homes that populate it, and that is when he sees it. In the space that the boy Jed Ano’s house once occupied, a huge, mighty tree now stands.

 

-The End

Stations of the Heart Chapter 17: New Perspectives

Jed stepped back and looked upon the place he had lived his entire life, the place he had existed contently before being stolen away to the eccentric forest and abandoned in the desert wasteland. This was the place Jed was trying to return to all this time. Wasn’t it? As Jed looked at the walls of his hometown he felt something he hadn’t expected to feel upon finding his home: ambivalence. He didn’t know if this was the place he had wanted to return to after all. So much had happened since he had been there last, he had changed so much. There were new desires and cravings that now dinned deep inside of him that being in his hometown could not fulfill. Jed had never looked upon his hometown from the outside, but still, there was something different about it. The pale and insufficient light from the three crescent moons was cast down on the structures of the town and gave it an atmosphere of foreboding emptiness, as though the streets and homes inside were inhabited only by ghosts.

He continued to gaze at the walls of the town while Nashper and Railnia were stoic in silence, one of the rare times the duo were not bickering. Jed turned and looked at the giant tortuous. Nashper with his big, perfect orb, black eyes. Were they his mentor? Were they his tormentor? Jed wondered. On one hand they deserted him in his times of need and danger, but on the other, they had ultimately delivered him back to where he supposedly wanted to go. Mentor or tormentor? Jed was still unsure but he supposed that it did not matter anymore, his journey was over. Likewise Jed was unsure as to whether he should thank or curse the enigmatic turtle. He decided to make one final attempt to communicate with Nashper and Railnia. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth, “Where will you go now?” but it was no use, the words came out in an incomprehensible chorus. Jed was now completely unable to say anything that wasn’t in song-speak.

“Once again my dear boy, I’m afraid you’ve lost me. But I suppose it is of no consequence anyhow, this seems like a natural point to part ways. I don’t know what this place is but you seem to have some kind of connection to it so we’ll leave you to settle accounts.” Nashper replied. The something began to happen to the tortuous’ shell. The designs on it became animated and started to flow and shift. Jed could make out faint colors on the shell blending into one another and crawling back and forth. The curved, flowing design that adorned the turtle’s shell completely rearranged itself into a new pattern but with a similar aesthetic. Then something even more surprising happened: Railnia began walking forward in the direction the three of them had come from. Railnia was now the front-facing head and Nashper the stern. They were walking the other way, back into the desert, Jed noticed.

“Forward movement!” Railnia called out with a hearty laugh.

Nashper with black, lifeless eyes still locked on Jed’s commented, “Indeed, forward movement is all that exists.” as he was now backing away from Jed. Jed watched as they slowly moved away and was yet again filled with ambivalence; sad to see them go but glad to be rid of their perplexing influence. As he watched them fade in the distance he realized that that part of his life was now over and it was time for him to go home. What else could he do? “Good luck getting over that wall.” he heard Nashper call out.

“No blue light?” he could hear Railnia ask.

“He’s not an idiot.” Nashper replied.

“That’s not what I meant at all. Once again you are confusing the…” Railnia’s voice drifted out of range and they disappeared over a dark desert dune. Jed turned back, looked at the enormous wall surrounding his hometown and realized he had no idea how he planned to get over it. He had been too caught up with finding his home that he had yet to give any thought as to how he would get into it. The surface of the wall was smoothly planed, no doubt the work of sand-laced wind, so there was nothing in the way of footholds. Climbing it was out of the question. ‘No blue light’ Jed thought, ‘What could Railnia have meant by that?’ Jed began to walk along the perimeter of his town, searching the wall for any clues as to how to get in. He walked for hours but the wall yielded nothing. It was the same the whole way around. Jed grew frustrated and impatient. ‘Have I come all this way to find my hometown only to be forever sealed outside of it?’ he wondered achingly to himself. He sat down with his back against the impenetrable wall that threatened to rob Jed of his very sanity. He hung his head downward and stared at nothing in particular but the ground. It was a course mixture of sand and soil, but soon Jed noticed something more pertinent about the inconspicuous earth beneath him. There was a faint reddish hue to it. He had seen that exact hue somewhere else before, he was sure of it. It quickly came to him. He looked up at the now emaciated moons and saw that the color of the red crescent moon was the same as the ground beneath him. Indeed, Jed realized it was the very light of the red moon that was coloring the ground. There was a red moon, a silver moon, and a blue moon. ‘Maybe…’ Jed had an intimation and immediately sprang back to his feet and began walking the perimeter of the wall again. He upped his gait into a jog, all the while observing the ground below him. Still red. He continued his trot for some time until he came to a hopeful point. He stopped. It was a point where the ground reflected not red light, but silver. Jed advanced his output to a full-on sprint but even after what seemed to be a full hour, the ground was still awash in silver moonlight. Jed’s lungs were pinching, his muscles cramping, and his aching body pleaded for him to stop but his mind was much too anxious and it overrode the desires of his body which, in that moment, Jed decided was subject and slave to the mind. Then Jed’s hopes were affirmed and his discipline was rewarded. The silvery ground gave way to a blanched, blueish hue. Jed finally stopped, bent over, resting his palms on his knees and panted furiously. His head swooned and he nearly passed out but he revived his tapped resources by gulping down the rest of the water in his canteen. It was all gone now and Jed had placed everything he had on this one bet. If it did not work, he would surely die outside the walls of his hometown without any water. After regaining his composure and reigning in his frantic breathing, Jed reached into the makeshift pouch hanging from his belt and pulled out one of the last two raising tree seeds he had inside. The blue coloring projecting onto the ground was indeed sallow but its hue was close enough to that of the raising tree seed that it gave Jed an idea. Indeed, the idea that would spell success or certain death for Jed. “No blue light?” Railnia had asked. Well Jed found blue light, ‘And it better yield some good results.’ Jed thought. He knelt down and with his hands, dug a hole in the sandy dirt where it reflected the blue light of the moon. It got to be several inches deep and Jed stopped. He sighed, held the raising tree seed over the freshly dug crater, and in a low voice he sung-spoke, “Please Iparel, take me home.” The he dropped the blue marble-like seed into the hole he dug and proceeded to cover it up with the displaced dirt. Jed stood back up and waited but nothing happened. He had hoped that a great big tree would come rising up from beneath the ground and that he would climb it clear over the wall, but several minutes passed and nothing of the sort happened. In fact, nothing was happening at all. No noise, no rumbling ground beneath Jed’s feet, and certainly no sign of an enormous life-saving tree. Jed was staring at the patch of earth that he had disturbed, imploring it with his mind to yield what he had counted on so desperately, but no matter how hard he stared or how much he psychically pleaded, the ground did nothing. Jed collapsed to his knees next to the planted seed and banged on the ground with his fist. Pummeling the ground, he became energized with desperation, trying to beat some sense out of a cold indifferent earth that would one moment, follow the laws of logic and reason, and then the very next, confound Jed’s mind to the brink of madness. Nothing made sense and just when Jed thought he had a handle on the workings of the outside world, it proved just how little he really comprehended. It did so now at such a pivotal and deciding moment.

Jed knelt with his face to the floor like a zealot bowing in the presence of his god. But worship was not what prompted Jed into his current bodily position, it was despair and exhaustion. Without the life-sustaining water from the well just on the other side of the damnable, dooming wall, Jed would bake in merciless sun that was well on its way, dried up and dead. Jed thought of Railnia’s words, “no blue light,” ‘Just more nonsense’ he dejectedly concluded. He thought of the seed that had failed him. The seed that he planted in the ground that did not grow. The seeds that he procured for the sake of the beautiful and benign Iparel. The seeds he would never be able to give to her. In this moment he wanted to be there in that meadow with Iparel. He wanted to be there and not locked out of his own home with no hope of getting in. He remembered his brief time in the meadow with Iparel and realized it was the only time in the forest or the desert that he felt happy. He had felt happy there in the meadow with Iparel. He remembered the little tune she played on her rounded flute that caused the light-bugs to dance and a new tree spring forth from the ground. That tune was vague in his mind. The long arm of pertinent and demanding occurrences had since pulled a thin veil over the notes. But Jed focused hard, he had not recalled the tune since Iparel herself played it in the meadow but there was no way Jed could have completely forgotten it. As he lay face-down on the ground the melody was slowly coming back to him. All of his cognitive faculties were now commissioned with unearthing the structure of Iparel’s melody from the musty recesses of his memory. It was coming back. The memory traveled from his brain to his lips and he hummed the opening notes of the tune in confirmation. For the first time, the fact that Jed could only use song-speak actually became a benefit and the song came forth from his lips in perfect translation. His recollection yielded more of Iparel’s tune and his tongue and lips transcribed it into audible sounds. As he sang, jed felt the vibration he had come to know so well in the outside world. It was weak beneath his body but Jed repeated the notes of Iparel’s song over and over again with more intensity, pronunciation, and volume until the timid vibration grew to a tumultuous quaking. Jed now unleashed the full capacity of his song-speaking abilities and belted out the tune in high volume to the night sky. The walls of the town themselves shook with reverberations of the forest tune and the ground was rent by the powerful upward thrust of a mighty evergreen tree. Jed quickly grabbed hold of one of its hearty boughs and was elevated higher and higher until the height of the tree surpassed the height of the wall by several feet. The song brought the seed to fruition and yielded a, tall, straight, life saving tree for Jed. Jed, who was now perched in the upper canopy of the great tree, took a minute to admire it. It was the most beautiful tree he had ever seen. A beautiful gift from Iparel. While grasping on to the sturdy bough, Jed lowered himself and dangled his legs down toward the narrow top surface of the wall. The tips of his moccasins grazed the solid surface and Jed slid the bough slowly through his hands until he was planted firmly standing atop the great wall of his hometown. Jed Ano stood there for a while, perched on top of the wall, looking down on the town. He had never seen it from this vantage point before. It looked so small and insignificant to him now. It had seemed so encompassing and daunting before his journey. As he looked on his home, he wondered what it was he would be returning to. The town looked dead and lifeless. He heard the faint, eerie songs of the boys and their companions and felt the emptiness of the houses of the boys who were companionless. He considered his fate. Jed Ano stood tall above all of it in this moment, but his destiny lay in descent.

Stations of the Heart Chapter 16: What Lies Ahead

The darkness that a human being is accustomed to when one has their eyes closed was not what Jed was experiencing now. It was not so deep, it was lighter. He felt his body bob slowly up and down. A hard curved surface against his back. The sunlight continued to filter through Jed’s closed eyelids until it became too invasive for him to keep them closed. He blinked rapidly, weaning his eyes to the immensely bright sky that the cloudless desert day was providing. Jed was woozy but conscious, and more importantly, he felt more or less alive. He propped himself up backwards, leaning back on one planted arm. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand. Up and down, rhythmically and slowly. The curved surface on which he sat was ridged. Then it came to him  as plain as the blistering sun above him, that he was once again the lone passenger atop Nashper and Railnia’s tortuous shell. Then Jed considered that the lizard had eaten him and that he really was dead and this was some kind of eternal hallucination- doomed to ride through the desert slowly on top of a two-headed tortuous that argued with itself. But then Jed abruptly recalled the track record of the goliath reptile to show up arbitrarily and thought better of his death theory. He was definitely alive, he could hear them blathering on about something or other. “We never make it to any one destination because we are constantly moving away from things!” Jed heard Railnia’s multi-toned voice contending hotly. Who knows how long this unresolvable debate had been going on. It was like pulling teeth with Nashper and Railnia – one could never for a second consider the point of view of the other. They would never realize that their innumerable points of contention were all based on their respective perspectives of the world.

“We are always moving forward you lunatic! We are always moving forward!” Nashper rebutted.

Despite the hazy state of Jed’s mind and consciousness, he had an epiphany at this ridiculous argument and interrupted, “You don’t get anywhere because you are always moving forward. How can you arrive anywhere if you are constantly moving?” Jed’s words came out with very subtle peaks and valleys of melody. He was still vaguely song-speaking though he wasn’t even trying to. He was surprised at this.

“Ah, the boy is finally awake, fancy that.” Nashper said. “Talking a bit funny too, but we did find you in a pretty rotten state so I suppose the slurred speech is accounted for.”

Jed felt that Nashper was no one to talk about the peculiar manner with which anyone spoke. After all, the forward-facing head of the dual-cranium tortuous had a funny was of talking too. Very funny indeed, like four distinct voices talking at once but all saying the same thing. Still Jed suddenly became conscious of the involuntary song-speaking. This concern was quickly replaced by the many unanswered questions Jed had for the tortuous. The first of which was how the turtle escaped consumption by the giant birds on the bridge. Somehow Jed knew he wouldn’t get a straight or satisfactory answer from either of mouth of the shelled reptile so he began with the most important question. “What happened? What happened with the lizard? I thought I was dead for sure.”

Again, the words came out with a tune. This time however, Nashper ignored it and got straight to the point, “I can’t rightly say my boy. We emerged into this desert through subterranean means and when we did, wouldn’t you know it, you were plopped quite unconscious atop our carapace.” he gave a little chuckle, “it was quite a serendipitous occurrence.”

Jed thought about this. The rumbling he felt just before he lost consciousness must have been Nashper and Railnia somehow rising up from the ground beneath him. “But what happened to the lizard?” Jed inquired, his question tinged with song.

“Damned if I know. As soon as we emerged we did the only thing we know how to do…move forward. That unpleasant lizard you speak of was slapping at our shell with its tongue for a while as we walked. That was when I realized that you were on top of us. The damn wretched thing was slapping a bloodied tongue as far up to the top of our shell as it could trying to get at your pouch.” Jed was confused at this. His pouch? “After a while of fruitless effort, the weary thing gave up, stopped keeping pace with us, and we walked on like normal.” Nashper continued.

“No, you don’t understand, the lizard was after me, it was trying to kill me. Or eat me, either way I was going to be dead.” Jed lilted back

“Once again you are confused, boy. That lizard was clearly after one thing and one thing only and it sure as hell was not your life. No, that miserable creature wanted nothing more than to consume the raising-tree seeds you’ve been carrying in that pouch of yours. That lizard was so tired, it just wanted the seeds so it could go to sleep.” Nashper gave another little derisive laugh after he said this, as though he was laughing at a joke he told to himself in his own mind. Then he continued, “If you had any trouble with the thing, all you would have needed to do was to throw that pouch at it and been on your way.”

Jed looked down at his belt with the pouch still hanging from it. ‘It wanted the seeds?’ he thought to himself. Then he recalled the creatures eyes: weary, tired, wild and haunted by desperation. ‘It just wanted to sleep and I almost killed it.’ Jed felt now that he had done a cruel thing by depriving the beast of its sole, simple desire. Still, how could he have known that the seeds were what the hostile reptile was after? There was no communication between himself and the lizard, no dialogue. Just a clash of interests leading to a grand misunderstanding. No one talked, no one even tried communicating in any way, verbal or otherwise. The two just acted. Acting out of pure necessity and purpose. Nonetheless Jed felt sympathetic toward the creature whom he had thought was trying to take his life. He was concerned and asked, “Do you know what happened to the lizard?”

Nashper answered, “No clue, we kept walking, he was out of my sight and that was that.”

Jed turned to the rear end of the giant land turtle and asked Railnia, “Railnia, did you see what the lizard did after he stopped following you?”

“Sure I did. It turned into a little dark dot on the horizon and then disappeared, isn’t it funny how things tend to do that?” Railnia’s rear-facing perspective did not give Jed any real answers. The world was constantly dwindling away from her. Jed could only assume that the horned reptile was wandering in the desert somewhere, still searching for something that would put it to sleep. This thought cast a sadness over Jed’s mind, but at least it momentarily distracted him from the reality that had been thrust upon him. He was to be alone. He had been given a small taste of something that he now must be deprived of for the rest of his life. Something he liked immensely and now, most of all, felt was a necessity in his life.

The hours were passing monotonously as the boy Jed Ano and the two-headed tortuous Nashper/Railnia continued their slow trek through the desert. The sun now hung just above the horizon before them and Jed had his tunic pulled up over his head to protect him from the harsh rays. Jed had not spoken for some time now and his thoughts became a fusion of his own terminal self-concern and brief considerations of the many debates the reptile below him was having with itself. He would never be able to make them see the futility of their quibbles – simple clashing of perspectives. The day was disappearing and Jed thought it an appropriate time to ask where they were headed. “Where are we going?” the words came out in a delicate three-note melody. The song-speak was becoming more pronounced.

“What was that, boy?” Nashper asked, genuinely curious. “Not sure I understood that one.”

“Nor did I.” Railnia added.

Jed couldn’t remember the last time he heard the two heads agree on anything. He was afraid to say anything else lest it come out as a full-fledged song. He concentrated as hard as he could and forced his tongue to speak flatly and slowly, “Where are…we…going?” It barely helped, the involuntary melody that invaded his speech was scarcely impeded, but it was enough to make the tortuous understand. Still, Jed got yet another less than satisfying answer from the massive turtle…

“Forward,” was all that Nashper said in reply.

Jed went back to not speaking but this time it was because he was afraid to. The song-speaking was getting worse. He couldn’t help it. It came out with every word his tongue produced. The two-headed turtle continued to argue amongst itself while Jed closed his eyes and listened in silence.

More hours had passed and Jed opened his eyes to see that the sun had gone away and the three moons were perched high in the sky, but something was different. All three moons seemed to only be half full. Half-circles of light affixed to the heavens, yet another sight Jed was now seeing for the first time in his life. Their light was not as filling so the desert seemed a bit darker but somehow eerily peaceful and benign. There was no wind whisking sand into Jed’s eyes and skin. Jed looked in the direction they were moving toward. That was when Jed caught sight of a broad flat anomaly on the dimly moonlit horizon. They were definitely moving towards something but Jed couldn’t tell what. Jed kept his eyes trained on the object in the distance as they meandered toward it. Bobbing rhythmically towards it, up and down, Jed stared ever more intently, never taking his eyes off of it. It grew bigger, wider, until it became apparent that whatever this mysterious object would be massive by the time they reached it. Jed’s mind was racing. He wanted to tell Nashper and Railnia to move faster but didn’t because he knew that even if they could understand him there would be little chance that they would obey. Then, Jed considered the enigmatic tortuous. ‘Why would they show up at such arbitrary times and abandon me at a moments notice?’ he wondered inside his head. Nashper and Railnia was the only creature that continued to come back to Jed in this place, but why? It didn’t seem to Jed that they particularly cared about Jed’s well-being or his plight. They just dropped in and dropped out seemingly whenever they pleased. Jed thought, ‘Many creatures in this place seem to want to sleep, many of them want the raising tree seeds to put them to sleep.’ He focused again to try and speak comprehensibly in a non-melodic tongue so that he could ask Nashper and Railnia one last question. “Nashper, Railnia-” the first time he addressed them both simultaneously- “why did you never want any of the raising tree seeds I have in my pouch?” The words came out as lyrics behind an ethereal tune but the reptile with two heads and two distinct characters apparently eeked out their meaning because this is how they answered:

“No need for them, we are a tormentor.” Nashper answered first.

“You mean mentor. We are a mentor. You are confusing the words.” Railnia objected.

“No, I know what I said, we are a tormentor.” Nashper rebutted.

“I know that’s what you said, that’s not the problem. You meant to say mentor, you are confusing the words because they sound similar but their meanings are completely different.” Railnia replied.

“I know what they both mean and I meant tormentor.” Nashper chided back.

“Then you have the meanings switched because a tormentor is not what we are, we are a mentor!” Railnia demanded.

Nashper sneered, “At any rate, you can’t have one without the other.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Railnia commented, “You can have mentor without the ‘tor.'”

“Now that doesn’t make any sense!” said Nashper.

“It makes perfect sense.” Railnia defended her statement.

Jed, for what seemed like the hundredth time, got a cryptic and useless double answer from the giant land turtle. He asked a pertinent question of the creature and like many times before, it only served to spark an argument between Nashper and Railnia who would soon forget the question altogether and freeze Jed out of the discussion until he was forced to interrupt, only this time, he knew he could not interrupt. He felt that he was no completely unable to speak in a normal tongue and was unwilling to try. So the reptile continued to talk amongst itself, making Jed feel as though they forgot he was even there and that he had asked a question of them.

Jed turned his attention back to the formation on the horizon. They were getting closer. It was much bigger but somehow at the same time, more vague. It was darker and harder to see. Just a big, dark presence looming ahead of them. Jed found it strange that they could be moving closer toward the thing and yet it was becoming harder to make out. Then, he realized why. He tilted his head back up to the heavens and saw that the three half moons had been reduced to three thin crescent moons. They looked to Jed like three sharp scythes and they provided a meager pale light. That was why Jed still couldn’t figure what was ahead of them – the night had indeed become darker. It was like the moons were fading away the closer they came to the mysterious structure. Jed squinted into the night. Neither fear nor anxiety filled him, but rather a sense of wonder. He guessed and guessed in his own mind what the structure could be, testing his theories against the vague clues that his sight afforded him. They were very close to the thing now and it truly was massive. It Very tall and it stretched to forever on either side. In all of Jed’s life, he knew of only one thing that fit the dimensions of the edifice that Nashper Railnia and himself were now soundly in the immediate presence of. Nashper and Railnia ceased their march and Jed slid off of their shell onto the ground. He walked over and placed the palm of his hand against a hard, cool wall and fought back an immediate deluge of tears from being released from his eyes. A stunned and overwhelmed Jed Ano now knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was standing outside the great wall of his hometown.

Stations of the Heart Chapter 15: The Consistently Unstable Ground

Jed knew this feeling all too well. He had felt the earth tremble beneath his feet many times since entering the forest, and now, in the desert, he was feeling it again. Without hesitation, Jed darted up the basin, climbing upward on all fours. The sand flew out from under his feet and palms but Jed raced like a rabid animal to get out. Jed stumbled over the rim of the basin and recovered himself. Wild-eyed, Jed looked down into the basin he had just escaped and saw still another piece of vegetation push its way up from underground, but this time it wasn’t an old, regal tree. It was a wicked-looking giant cactus. It pushed itself up, violently quaking the earth as it did, until it was about thirty feet tall off the ground. It had leveled the ground inside the circle of flag staffs, and the basin was no more. What stood in front of Jed now was a crooked, giant cactus with needle-point thorns as long as Jed’s body but a thousand times thinner. They were packed together incredibly tightly so they numbered well into the millions. At the top of the cactus, unblemished by thorns, was a beautiful flower colored the same majestic blue color of the raising tree seeds, of which Jed was still carrying a couple in his pouch. It was an insane looking plant, with eight arms that bent like elbows in all directions; one down, up, forward, backward, and every direction in between. Jed was backing away from it, but kept his eyes affixed to the deranged cactus that was still cascading sand from its twisted form. He wanted no part of the malevolent-looking cactus and he began to try to decipher the direction the flag staffs were leading him in before they dead-ended at this enigmatic cactus. His hand still stung from being pricked by the thorn of the cactus; a smear of damp blood was congealing in his palm. The cactus stood quiet, towering over the desert like a gnarled sentinel. After Jed decided on a direction, he walked on cautiously, keeping an eye on the cactus and making sure to walk well around it. After a while of uneventful walking Jed became more assured that the cactus posed no threat to him, but it still lingered in his thoughts. He couldn’t shake a feeling of strange pity for the odd plant. Its contorted form almost gave it a demeanor of resentment. It stood completely alone in the desert. Jed imagined that it was once a straight, normal-looking cactus and over time, it wrenched itself in defiance of the desert it so resented for making it live an existence of solitude. Now it was an ugly mutation of what it use to be. These thoughts provided Jed with a transitory distraction from the reality that he still did not know where he was going. He continued to imagine what the cactus may have looked like before it became warped and crooked. Then Jed grew cynical of his own thoughts and figured that he was giving too much life to an object that was not even alive. Jed checked himself, ‘Of course it’s alive’ he thought, ‘ it pushed itself up from the ground, and even if its body is dead, that beautiful flower on top of it was definitely still alive.’ The flower. The flower that was the same color of the raising tree seeds he kept in his pouch. Jed stopped his aimless trek. The cactus was now well behind him but Jed turned around and looked at it. He was far enough that it looked to be only half of its actual size, but still close enough that he could see its crooked profile in the distance clearly. He took a few steps forward to get a better look. He was curious. Just how similar were the colors of the flower and the raising tree seeds? When he got close enough to see the color of the flower, he pulled out a seed and held it out in front of him so that in Jed’s view, it was juxtaposed to the flower, still well off in the distance. He closed one eye and compared the two closely. There was no mistaking it; they were exactly the same color. At the very moment Jed came to his conclusion, he detected some movement in the cactus. Subtle at first but as Jed squinted his eyes and studied the giant plant he could see that it was…writhing. It’s giant stock was swaying and its bent limbs were reaching in all directions for some invisible prize. It was almost as if the cactus was squirming in pain, or reaching for something. But what? Jed held out the seed further toward the cactus and when he did, the plant twisted and roiled more intensely. It sensed the seed, it wanted it. Then the squirming stopped and the great cactus fell over and crashed down on the sand. The impact sent a veil of sand over the downed cactus and sent a shock-wave that Jed felt under his feet, even at the safe distance he stood away from the desert plant. When the cloud of sand settled, Jed could see that the cactus lay completely felled on the ground. Jed’s pity for the cactus evolved into full-fledged sympathy. He no longer feared the now defunct cactus off in the distance. Instead, he felt an inexplicable kinship with the solitary vegetation, like they were the same on the inside. Against all the logic that plead for Jed to stay put in that moment, Jed began walking back toward the cactus. As Jed got closer, he noticed the flower, which was now level with the ground, was still writhing as though pained, and its blue color was radiating and becoming intensely deep. Now Jed was standing only a dozen feet away from it. It struggled more fervently as Jed got closer. He stopped. The flower was alive with movement. Its abysmal blue pedals were flowing so languidly that it became impossible to tell where one ended and another began. They undulated like the fluid swells of the deep sea. Then the flower began to unfurl. Jed was put on guard again. Something was happening. Slowly, the flower was spreading itself open. A translucent ooze began to seep out at first. Jed stepped back. The flower now heaved in pained, sequenced, pushes. Then something began to emerge from its center. It was some kind of tail. It was spiked and covered with the natural, gooey sap from the flower. A pair of rough, scaly hind legs pushed free out of the flower now, then a long torso, and finally, with one last great heave from the flower, the creature was completely emerged. It was covered in the sticky slime of the flowers innards. The flower itself now lay emaciated, pale blue, and dead. There was no movement for a while and Jed began backing away in fear. Then the creature that emerged from the flower began to move tepidly. It shakily rose to its feet and turned to face Jed. It was a giant lizard four times the size of Jed. It was covered with horns and spikes so that it resembled the cactus itself. Spikes ran the length of its spine down to the tip of its tail. Four great spikes stuck out of the crooks of each of its elbows. Its body was covered in thick scales like plates of armor. Rows of spikes ran down its back. There were horned-plates protruding from its face and spikes lining the ridges of its jaw. Its chest was furrowed with thousands of sharp-pointed plates. The eyes were rimmed with spikes and its brow was jagged and hardened. Atop its massive head were six huge, curved horns. It looked like touching the softest part of this creatures body would cut your hand wide open.

Jed was stunned. The lizard was obviously disoriented and as Jed looked into its wild, searching eyes, he could see that it was incredibly weary. The lizard caught sight of Jed and Jed turned to run for his life. The massive lizard shook off what he could of the gunk from the flower but it was still dripping with it. It staggered maladroitly after Jed who was running at top speed. Its eyes were half-open and tired even though they were well protected from the flying sand with narrow eyelets and rough scales. It desperately chased after Jed who was able to keep a distance of about ten feet between he and the creature as he ran. Then the creature spewed forth from its mouth a long gluey tongue and whipped it toward Jed. Jed felt air rush by his face and caught only a glimpse of a fast moving object that struck the ground next to him and flung up granules of sand before flashing out of sight. Jed stopped to turn and face the lizard, he knew he could not outrun it for long. The lizard stopped running as well as Jed examined it to see what kind of weapon it had used to try and strike him, but Jed saw nothing but the lizard. They squared off for a few seconds then the lizard lunged at Jed but Jed rolled under it as it jumped so that they ended up facing each other again but now on opposite ends. The lizard was done sizing Jed up and this time there was no squaring off. Instead, the lizard immediately shit its viscid tongue out at Jed so that Jed could now see what had nearly struck him when his back was turned. Jed could not react in time. The tongue was whipped out quicker than Jed could blink his eye, but luckily the weary lizard’s aim was off and the syrupy tongue struck the sand at Jed’s feet. Another lightning-quick strike hit nothing but air above Jed’s head as he ducked just in time. Jed could not dodge the tongue, he knew that. Each strike had been closer than the last and the lizard, with half-open eyes, was correcting his aim with each attempt. Jed knew the only way to avoid the lizard’s lingual weapon was to anticipate when it was going to be deployed. Jed strafed slowly to his left studying the lizard carefully. The lizard was aiming. Jed focused on the monstrous reptile’s eyes- there was a slight twitch. Jed leaped to his right and sure enough the lizard’s tongue darted toward where Jed was standing. He had found its tell: a subtle spasm of the lizard’s bulging ocular muscles. Jed had bought himself some time, but how could he escape this situation? Jed thought rapidly as he kept his own eyes on those of his reptilian menace. Another twitch, another lunge, another near miss. The lizard roared a raspy, high-pitched squeal in frustration. Jed knew he couldn’t keep this up for much longer, but then an idea hit him. Jed slowly but steadily backed up, back toward the giant felled cactus. The lizard pursued its prey with single-mindedness and determination. The cactus was close now. Jed backed up close to it, waiting for the moment. The ocular twinge, Jed jumped forward and the sticky tongue darted above his head and struck the cactus, only this time it did not recoil back to the lizard’s gaping mouth. The tongue was impaled in at least a dozen places by the tightly packed spikes of the now lifeless cactus. It was stuck.The lizard wheezed and wailed shrilly in pain. It’s mouth was still agape and its long, pink, soft adhesive tongue stretched out straight between it and the cactus to which it was now stuck. Jed had to act quickly, he knew the spikes that stabbed the lizard’s tongue in place would not hold for long. Then Jed carefully approached the cactus and cautiously put both hands on an individual spike. He braced himself, dug his heels into the sand and began pulling hard. The spike, its host now dead, was brittle and did not offer much resistance. It broke off after a moderate use of force on Jed’s part, and he now held in his hand what may as well have been a rapier. He gripped the base of the long, narrow, but still incredibly sharp spike with both hands. Jed knew the long needle would have no effect on the reptiles skin, but Jed was eying its open mouth. He walked close to the incapacitated reptiles head. It was struggling mightily. Jed raised the spike, intending to thrust it into the lizard’s open mouth and down its throat. The spikes would not hold the creature’s tongue for much longer so Jed had to act quickly. He primed himself but he was hesitant. The beast thrashed and Jed heard the creaking of the spikes that were stabbed through its tongue. It was now or never. “I don’t want to do this!” Jed spoke to the lizard. “I shouldn’t be made to do this, it’s not right.” Jed looked into the eyes of the lizard. They were filled with fear. It looked so desperate, so weary. Jed held the spike to the lizards mouth, raised it above his head, and thrust it down harmlessly into the sand near the lizard’s long, cloven forelegs. Jed couldn’t do it/ He was sympathetic toward the creature. In it’s eyes he saw the same fear and desperation that Jed himself had felt so many times in this place. But Jed knew the creature would not be bound for long so he began to run. He hoped the lizard would be stuck long enough so that he could run over the horizon and out of sight. He did not get far. Jed failed to mind the lizard’s vicious tail and before Jed was out of its reach, it whipped Jed across the head in a final desperate attempt to subdue its prey. It worked. The impact sent Jed flying and he hit the ground just a few lengths away from the momentarily downed reptile. He had been hit so hard, he could not get up. he felt a haze creep over his mind. He was losing consciousness. The spiked tail had not only blunted Jed but also opened up a gash across Jed’s forehead and down to his left temple. The slashed flesh was bleeding bountifully and flowing into Jed’s eyes. He struggled to keep them open but unconsciousness was overtaking him rapidly. He couldn’t move. He felt a sensation of slipping calmly away from himself. Jed summoned all his strength to fight the sensation when he heard a sound that jolted his very core and ignited a deathly fear inside his mind. It was the sound of spikes snapping off of the dead cactus. Through a milky, crimson veil provided by Jed’s own blood, Jed saw the giant lizard break free and slowly lumber towards him. He saw the bloodied beast get closer and closer through a filter of blood-red until it was standing directly over him. Jed felt the hot breath of the creature as it belted out a triumphant, droning roar. Jed was terrified. It was over, Jed knew, and as the last bit of awareness seeped out of Jed’s mind he felt the all too familiar sensation. The sensation that seemed to define all of Jed’s experiences in this place. Jed felt the earth shake beneath his body. then he slipped into unconsciousness.

Stations of the Heart Chapter 14: A Desert That Stings

Jed looked to his left. Nothing. Jed stayed staring to his left. He didn’t want to look to his right. He knew that if he saw nothing, he would have to travel the desert without a guide. Even worse, if he saw nothing beside him to the right, he knew he would never feel how he did inside the roundhouse again. Jed gulped hard. He twiddled his fingers, and licked his lips.’Of course it will be there, it has to be. We became one, I know it felt the same thing I did in there. It wants to be with me just as much as I want it.’ Jed thought to himself. He was confident now and smiled. “I feel you there beside me” he said quietly to the wind, still staring toward his left. There was no doubt in his mind that he would be one of the fortunate boys from his hometown who returned with a companion. Jed licked his lips again, closed his eyes and turned his head to the right. He opened his eyes. He saw nothing. Jed was alone, and he was doomed to be alone for the rest of his days. He fell to his knees. He couldn’t understand why he had been abandoned by the spirit. Even more confusing to Jed was hat he was so disappointed by the fact that he would be alone from here on out. He had been alone his entire life and it never bothered him in the least. Other than wandering through the desert in search of his hometown alone- which was merely a secondary concern- Jed couldn’t figure out why he had been so distraught by the concept of being alone. He was alone in his hometown and he never wanted for anything more. But now, being alone filled Jed with a hopelessness he never knew before. He knelt there on his knees, head hung low. The grass of the meadow was cool under his knees but he knew just beyond the meadow was the harsh unforgiving desert. Jed was overtaken with fear, regret, and emptiness. He turned back toward the closed door of the roundhouse. Pounding on the wall he screamed and wailed. He wanted to go back, anywhere. The roundhouse, the bridges, the forest hall, Iparel’s meadow, anywhere. Jed nearly broke his hands banging on them against the wall. His voice grinded to a wretch as he screamed savagely. In pain and exhaustion, he collapsed against the wall. Defeated again. Utterly spent, Jed’s mind went blank. He resigned. He was ready to give up and die there in the meadow, tilted up against the wall of the roundhouse, begging to be let back in. Through the nothingness that passed through Jed’s brain in this state, he heard words. The words of someone who sounded just like himself. They were the words of Lashpat, slithering back into his mind. They said ‘There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back.’ There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back. “There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back.” Jed chanted aloud to himself. He repeated it over and over again, each time louder until he was shouting the words into the meadow. Then he slowly rose to his feet and turned around. He could hear the howl of wind whipping sand just beyond the trees of the little meadow. The wind grew to a rush. Jed took a deep breath, faced the uncertain void, and for the sakes of Iparel and Lashpat, he moved toward it. It was by their strength and wisdom that he was able to continue on to his murky fate. As he walked into the desert, he said to himself, “Ok, what next?”

It was still night when Jed stumbled into the desert and though the three moons hung low in the sky, Jed could barely see them. The terrain was mostly flat with only a few rolling dunes so the wind whipped at will. It blew an endless stream of sand through the air that veiled the sky. The moons were in fact waning and a new day was just beyond the horizon but Jed was none the wiser due to the coverage of the airborne sand flows. Jed’s eyes were barely slit open to minimize the affect of the wind and sand. The sand under his feet was fine and was very hard to trek through. His footing faltered as soon as he lifted his other foot to take a step. It was a very tiring endeavor to make ones way across this desert and Jed felt the energy being sapped from his body with every difficult step. There were absolutely no features in this desert other than the interminably rolling dunes. Jed wondered if he was even going the right way. He couldn’t see the sky or the moons so he was very much wandering through the desert blindly. Before long he was faced with a large steep dune and since any direction was as good as any other he began climbing up it. This may not have been the wisest choice for Jed however, because the steep grade of the hill taxed Jed’s virility twice as much as the generally flat plain he was wading through before. It was cold, but Jed was sweating as he lurched up the dune. Stumbling here and there, Jed finally broke down and began scaling the slope on all fours, abandoning his humanity in a wave of hopelessness and exhaustion. ‘At least this dune will be tall enough for me to have a good look at the desert ahead once I get to the top.’ Jed clung to any hope he could in this moment. Jed was breathing heavy now, and sucking in sand with every labored heave, so he pulled his tunic up over his mouth and nose. He saw the frames of his vision grow blurry and he felt like he might collapse at any moment from fatigue, but he continued upward on hands and feet feverishly like a rabid dog. Jed closed his eyes and pushed on, and just as he felt the final drop of fuel escape from the pores on of his forehead, the sand abruptly gave way under his hands. His balance was thrown and he almost fell over, but he opened his eyes, shifted all his weight back to his feet and saw he was standing on the crest of the dune. The whipping wind seemed to have lost some of its sting atop the dune- naturally there was less sand in it at this elevated height. Still, it was difficult to see very far. Jed shielded his eyes with his hand and squinted hard. ‘What a contrast’ Jed thought as he surveyed the landscape, ‘from a lush, green, forest to a big, grey, lifeless desert.’ He wondered how two such differing terrains could exist so closely juxtaposed. He scanned the area but saw nothing but sand and the little dark shadows nestled in the crevasses of other dunes. Then, to his right he spotted an oddly shaped formation. He couldn’t tell what it was but it stuck out of the sandscape like a beacon. It was so faint that Jed almost missed it altogether so ‘It must be a long way off’ Jed concluded. Still, there was absolutely nothing else to go on in this desert. Jed caught his breath and headed toward the strange formation.

Jed, having been reinvigorated by the hope of finding some sort of direction through the desert, and a deliberate, energy-conserving march, traveled a great distance between the dune and the unknown landmark. But finally, he had reached it. It was a large rock formation. It was in the shape of a simple vase- narrowly cylindrical at the bottom, widening to something of an orb in the middle, then tapering back up to a narrow barrel at the top- not unlike the shape of his canteen. Jed wandered its perimeter, studying it until he came across a large split in the rock just below where it begins to jut out and widen in the middle. Jed found some footholds in the craggy rock and climbed up toward the split. The rock that the formation was made of was jagged, rough, and porous and Jed had to be careful as he climbed lest he feel the sting of the omni-faceted stone. He reached the split and saw that it was just big enough for him to wedge himself into. He wedged his right fist into the corner of the split’s crooked mouth. With his fist firmly in place he lifted his body upward and grabbed hold of a chunk of rock inside the mouth with his left hand. He removed his fist, braced the right hand on a sheer wall inside the mouth and raised his right foot to where his fist just was. With an easy pump of his right leg, he hauled his left leg into the mouth of the opening and he was in. It was dark inside the split and there was no real floor to speak of so Jed braced his palms and feet against the inclined innards of the opening like the spokes of a wagon wheel. He walked in this manner- an arm and a leg at a time- until he saw a thin light above him. There was another opening above him. He climbed up to the opening and stretched his hands up inside of it. His palms felt an incredibly smooth, warm, stone. He pulled himself up by his hands, then his forearms, lifted a leg onto the surface and rolled himself in. It was bright, Jed stood up and found himself inside a roughly round chamber. Moonlight flooded into the chamber but it was exclusively the light from the silver moon. Jed immediately noticed the absence of the stinging sand-wind that had been a constant throughout his occupancy of this desert. He was inside the orb-like middle of the formation itself. It was big inside, and smooth. It confounded Jed as he figured that by all rights it should have been the other way around. The outside of the rock should have been blown smooth by the grating wind and the inside should have been dangerously jagged as it was completely sheltered by the wind. Jed hadn’t the strength or the will to ponder for very long. His eyelids were heavy with fatigue and the crisp silver light of the moon that filled the chamber beckoned him to sleep. It had been a punishingly long night and one that was especially physical. Jed pulled off his tunic, folded it tightly and placed it on the concave portion of the smooth chamber wall. He sat, leaning against the subtle curve of the wall and laid his head against the folded up piece of cloth and fell asleep.

When Jed woke up, there was a clear, colorless, light filling the chamber. It was the sunlight of the morning. Jed stood up and put his tunic back on. It had been a refreshing slumber, but Jed’s mind was preoccupied with what the new day could possibly have in store for him. The sunlight invaded the chamber through an opening near the top. ‘Forward motion’ he thought to himself and decided to exit the structure through its apparent skylight. He stepped back a few feet, then ran at the curved wall in an attempt to climb it and reach the opening. He scampered up the wall a bit, jumped off it toward the opening, but slid back down in failure.He tried again, stepping back further to gain more speed, but still did not succeed. The third time he stepped back all the was to the opposite wall, ran with a full head of steam, got two great vertical steps off the wall and pushed off as hard as he could. This time he made it. His arms reached to the point of strain and his hands grabbed hold of the rim of the opening. He was hanging there by his hands in the middle of the chamber for a bit, then he pulled himself out. He found himself standing on top of the rounded portion of the formation right next to the tall, tapered, tower that led to the top. This time Jed didn’t have to scour for a circuitous route to the top because there was, in plain sight, a staircase carved out of the stone winding all the way around the cylindrical rock and up to the top. He climbed it, naturally. When he reached the top he was standing very high above the sand and dunes of the desert below. The day was bright and clear and the sandstorm was apparently over. Jed could see much further into the distance now. As he looked down at the aforementioned desert floor, he noticed that the rock under his feet had something etched into it. He knelt down, it was clearly made by someone or something. It was a simple drawing: a triangle with an ‘X’ drawn through it. Jed couldn’t even begin to decipher what (if anything) it could have meant. It was too simple a design, too vague. Still, it puzzled him and remained behind his thoughts.

Jed climbed back down into the chamber and out of the formation and continued the hunt for his hometown. The sand was still difficult to walk through and the terrain was still withholding any hints as to whether Jed was headed in the right direction. But before long Jed saw something that claimed the whole of his attention like a massive planet crashing into the sun. It was a tall staff with a triangular flag flying at its top. The triangular shape of the flag was identical to the triangle from the stone carving- two legs longer that its base- except it didn’t have an ‘X’ drawn on it. It was a faded blood-red that must have lost much of its hue in the sting-winds. The similarities struck Jed and he was too smart to believe that this flag and the drawing were a coincidence of similarity. Still, he couldn’t figure out any significant correlation. ‘One is definitely in reference to the other’ Jed deduced, ‘but what manner of reference is it?’ He stood near the flagstaff and looked forward into the landscape. He saw another flag flapping in the wind not too far off. They were markers. Jed walked over to the second staff. It was exactly like the first. He saw a third marker off in the distance and concluded that they were markers that led the way to something. At this thought, Jed’s palms became sweaty and his mouth began to salivate. He had to check his glands with a sharp mental smack lest he overflow and drown in an ocean of his own saliva. The initial conclusion he drew from the realization that these warped, weather-beaten, wooden flagstaffs was that they led to his hometown. But the psychic switch with which he checked his excitement into line was the possibility that the flagstaffs could be leading him away from his hometown…or to something even worse. The ‘X’ drawn through the flag at the canteen shaped rock formation suddenly became a warning. ‘Maybe the ‘X’ meant not to follow the flags’ Jed stirred the possibility in his mind. ‘But what else can I do? I was headed in this direction anyway.’ Jed continued. Defiance rose up in Jed. ‘Why should I alter my path just because of some stupid old gnarled pieces of wood with ratty cloth attached to them appear in it.’ Jed thought as he was marching rebelliously to the next marker. ‘And some incoherent drawing? I’ve been in this damn place too long, it’s affecting my mind. I can’t take every little insignificant detail to mean something grand in this nonsensical place. That’s absurd. I have to get home, soon.’

‘But what if you are not going toward home?’

The words reverberated in his mind, caroming against the thoughts he had hand-picked to occupy the precious space in his mind, trying to knock them out of place. The words stung Jed’s thoughts just like his body had been stung so many times in this desert by wind-whipped sand and loathsome jagged rock. But Jed wrestled them into the dirt of his mind as he continued his strong-willed if not entirely sufficiently debated trek to the third marker. Indeed there was nothing else in the desolate desert that indicated any sort of direction. ‘If these things don’t lead me back home,’ Jed concluded ‘at least they will  lead to something.’ The empty nothingness of the desert was getting to Jed and he began to welcome any sort of change, perilous or otherwise. Most of all, Jed didn’t want to be alone. His stomach grumbled in vain which only triggered his mind to recall that he was alone, utterly alone. Jed wiped a single tear that was substantial enough to escape evaporation by the sun which was now beaming hot, and ran the length of his face down to his chin. Jed reached the fourth marker and immediately started for the fifth. When he reached the fifth, he spotted the sixth quickly. He barely had to search for it. They were getting closer and closer together as Jed advanced. Jed didn’t know what these stoic markers were guiding him to and he became less and less hopeful that they ended at the wall of his hometown for no rational reason, but he marched on in resentful disregard for his own well-being. After all, what did Jed have left to fear? He had already explored the most frightening and intoxicating poles of his existence there in the forest and came away with nothing to show for either extremes except his life. He was cast out to try to live life as it use to be somehow. He was dulled and assured that the worst things that could happen to him have already occurred; taken from his comfortable life, shown beauty only to realize he could never see it again, given food only to be left to starve, and experienced ecstasy only to be expelled from it. Danger would be a welcome distraction and the visit of death would at least mean he wouldn’t be alone. Jed pressed on, losing count of the staffs he had passed. The sun was growing stronger by the minute and the heat that was bearing down from it intensified proportionally. Jed took his tunic off once again and wrapped it around his head like a turban to keep cool. He wanted to drink the last bit of water in his canteen but resisted lest his journey was nowhere near its end. He marched on, perspiring intensely, having passed at least a couple dozen flagstaffs until he reached their goal. Jed was hardly disappointed when he saw even more of the wretched flagstaffs formed into a large circle instead of the walls of his hometown. there were about fifteen wooden flagstaffs forming a circle around a basin of sand that sank down about thirty feet like a massive bowl. The flagstaffs were sticking out all along the ridge of the basin. Jed peered down into it but saw nothing but sand down in its center. Then, a mighty gust of wind blew Jed off the ridge and he tumbled down toward the bottom of the basin. Jed tumbled with much dumb momentum, unable to stop himself, until he rolled to the center and felt an extremely painful sting pierce the skin of his leg. Jed gathered himself, spit sand out of his mouth and examined the sand at the bottom of the basin for the source of his pain. There was nothing but fine, soft sand all around him. His eyes saw nothing that could have caused such a sharp pain in his leg, which was now letting a bit of blood from a pinprick perforation, so he got down on his hands and knees to search for the culprit. He crawled around for a little while until his right palm was suddenly and shockingly subjected to the same sting that his leg had just felt. Jed lifted the afflicted hand slowly and examined the sand directly under it. There was a small but very sharp thorn sticking out of the direct center of the sand-basin about the size of Jed’s pinky. The phrase ‘A needle in a haystack’ came to Jed’s mind. Jed looked at his palm, it began bleeding too. A few drops trickled down and fell on the miniscule thorn. That was when the ground began a gut-dropping rumble…

Stations of the Heart Chapter 13: Back to the World

At this point, no one can ever know how long Jed Ano existed in this state. Seconds, hours, months, decades- no one will ever know, not even Jed himself but one thing is certain: it did not last forever. This is known because Jed slowly felt himself regathering his consciousness. The warm cocoon that had enveloped him seemed to now be pushing him out, back to reality. Jed slowly began to regain his sight like a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time. He was unaware of the rest of his body or of where he was or what he was doing. All he could do was see. All he could feel was something like a slow awakening. Through half open eyes he saw walls. Walls of a place he had been before but he couldn’t place. He studied the walls and saw that they were moving. Then he realized that the walls themselves weren’t actually moving but rather the designs on the walls. Curvy, vine-like, sinews were slithering across the wall languidly. It was hypnotic. ‘Where am I’ Jed thought to himself. The thought seemed to spur another level of consciousness; Jed was now aware of his head. He continued to study the wall. The designs were slithering, ‘Slithering like snakes’ Jed surmised. ‘Snakes’ the word hung in his mind prevalently and then Jed became aware of his torso. ‘Snakes, snakes. Why does that seem so familiar?’ Jed continued on a speeding train of thought. ‘I’ve met a snake before, talked to one, but what about?’ Jed’s thoughts grew bolder and more distinguished from one another in his mind. He became aware of his arms. ‘The snake warned me of something’ he thought. He studied the flowing walls ever more intently. They sleeked slowly and fluidly and familiarly. ‘Don’t lose…don’t lose…don’t lose something’ he pondered. ‘But what?’ With eyes fixed on the wall, he noticed one large, distinguished sect of the design move ahead of the body of flowing art from which it came. It flowed faster and began to shine a blue light. Jed followed it as it moved along the wall. ‘Don’t lose…’ Jed chanted. Then the tip of the rogue design formed into the head of a snake. Something clicked inside of Jed and he remembered. The snake on the wall mouthed it at the same time Jed said it aloud, “Don’t lose yourself!” In an instant, Jed was aware of his legs, entire body, and everything around him. He was standing, once again in the great roundhouse. ‘Had I ever left?’ he questioned himself. Everything was as he remembered it; the glass ceiling, the brilliant moons and stars above it, the walls, it was all the same except there were no other spirits in the room with him besides the familiar orange one whom he was standing in front of once again. It was just the two of them. All the other spirits had disappeared.

This had been by far the strangest experience Jed had been a part of in this place. The strangest atop a long list of incredibly bizarre events. At this moment, Jed rather felt like he did when he climbed out of the stone structure where the Pintiler feast was held and realized he could not get back to Iparel: woefully defeated. Though his eyes saw many weird sights, and his ears heard many odd sounds in this forest, nothing could compare to the utterly alien experience his very being was made subject to. Jed felt he was no longer the same. He had nearly ceased to exist altogether and although he managed to pull himself back to the world, he knew he had come back with something missing. His spirit had been invaded and he felt rearranged, sullied, sifted through, and undeniably altered. Everything he had gone through to this point- nearly drowned and washed away to the forest, the upside down birds, the giant birds, the queer game between spiders and birds, meeting Iparel, the crab chef, the savage feast, talking serpents, and an ever self-contradicting tortoise with two heads- was somehow leading to this. He knew his journey was coming to a conclusion. He wondered what had become of Iparel, Nashper and Railnia, and Lashpat. Lashpat had warned him well. In fact, he surely saved Jed’s life. He warned Jed to not lose himself. Lashpat also told him that he would have a pivotal choice to make in the roundhouse- Jed supposed that choice would be presented to him shortly. Jed looked down at his canteen- now nearly empty- and his pouch of seeds- now with only a couple of seeds left- then at the phantasm in front of him. ‘Was this thing to be my companion like the other boys had? Or would I return home alone like the others? Would I return home at all?’ These were the questions hanging in Jed’s mind at the time. ‘I suppose those are the kinds of decisions I am to make’ he concluded. He attempted to communicate with the spirit. “How long have I been here with you?”

The stars inside the cloud of the spirit flickered alternately in response. It sang its answer as well and Jed couldn’t understand at first. He tried to understand the sounds, but instead, he began to feel and intimate the words in his mind. They said, “There is no way to tell.”

Jed was taken aback at this communication. It was more of a transmission of attitude, feeling, and intent. Jed began to ask another question but as he spoke, he instinctively turned the words into airy notes. “Why was I brought here?” Every word sounding more like a song that the last. He was song-speaking: the language of the spirits. The language that the boys who came back to the hometown with their companions spoke in the night as Jed laid in bed alone. Now Jed knew how they learned this language. In fact, it was not learned at all but rather given. Jed had been given the ability to turn his thoughts into song just as they other boys must have been given as well. But Jed wondered if he still possessed the ability to speak normally.

The spirit sang back, “You were brought here so that you may change. This place is a place of change. No one who passes through this forest comes out the same. It is a place of transition. Your life was becoming stagnant in your hometown and you were ready for the change. This is true because only those with the right eyes and spirits can see the signs of change. Only those who are prepared for change have the right eyes and spirits. That is why you were able to see that the sun in your hometown had changed colors and that is why the flood that swept through your hometown affected only you. It was a necessary change for your life. It must happen to those with the strongest minds.”

Jed replied in full song-speech, “I don’t feel like it was necessary and my mind does not feel very strong. In fact, all I want now is to feel how I have felt in this place, and to eat, I’m so hungry.”

The spirit replied to his mind, “Your mind must be strong, you dove deeper into the abyss than anyone before you and you somehow found your way back.”

“If my mind were strong in the first place I wouldn’t have dove so deep.” Jed retorted. the orange-hazed spirit said nothing to this. Jed waited for a response but it gave none, almost as though it was trying to come up with something to say but couldn’t. It conceded to Jed. “So what now?” Jed sang.

The spirit intimated back, “Now you choose whether you wish to stay here or return to your beloved hometown.”

“What will happen if I go home?” Jed submitted.

“You will be changed” The spirit replied.

“And if I stay here?”

“You will be changed.” The spirit answered. He knew that it meant that he would be changed into a snake. But he wasn’t sure what change was in store for him if he went home. Maybe just the change he now felt inside of him. Maybe he would gain height like some of the other boys in his hometown after they returned. The spirit felt Jed’s wondering. “You will be changed, that is all I can divulge.” The spirit conveyed to Jed. It continued. “Be warned that if you choose to go home, you will have to cross a vast, desolate, and lifeless desert wasteland.”

“Will you come with me?” Jed got to the point.

“I cannot say. I will be yours if you walk out of this house and I am on the other side of the door with you. You will be alone if I am not. But I can not tell you whether I will be with you or not.” The spirit answered.

“Why not?!” Jed desperately pleaded.

“It is simply impossible to say. I can not know.” It replied.

Jed was angry at the words, ‘I can not know.’ Defeat and submission washed over him again. He sighed heavily as he had done so many times before in this place. He thought in vain for a while but he knew all along that he yearned to go back home. To try to live a normal life again. But he yearned for so much more now. This place had made him to long for things he hadn’t before. He never wanted for anything before but now there was a powerful craving inside him for many things. He wanted to be with Iparel, he wanted to eat food again, he wanted to be merged with the spirit again, but he had wanted to return home all along. Even now. ‘I may not survive the desert, but if I stay here as a snake at least I will be safe. Maybe I could even look for Iparel.’ Jed thought for a long time, then sang his decision. “I choose to go home!”

“Very well.” Intimated the spirit. “Jed Ano, your mind is strong whether you accept it or not. Despite all of your new-found hungers and desires, your resolve remains steadfast. Your odyssey through this place has not stripped you of who you truly are. You retain some of the same Jed Ano you walked in here with. You choose to brave the desert wasteland knowing that you may not survive.”

Jed did not communicate it, but the spirit was feeling inside of Jed and it felt a fear of traveling through a dangerous terrain alone. But more powerful than the fear was Jed’s desire to return home, with a companion or without. His resolve had been shaken but not toppled. Jed felt fear, but it was only a novelty sensation. He knew that there was nothing he could encounter anymore that would shock or derail him, not even the peculiar visit of death itself. Anything he would encounter on the road ahead would only become fodder for the long list of weird, frightening, or elating things he had come across already. He was sort of, dulled in this sense. A gift and a curse. Nothing would ever be new for Jed anymore but nothing could ever catch him off guard again either. From now on, he would just be simply living. Walking. Walking through the earth, living for what it’s worth.

“It is time to embark on the final leg of your journey Jed Ano. Just beyond the exit of this house is a small meadow, past it is the desert, and on the other side of the desert is your hometown. I will open the door and you will be free to go. If I am not beside you on the outside of the house immediately after the door closes again, you will be alone. If you look beside you and see me, I will be yours forever.”

Two halves of the single, circular wall that enclosed the perimeter of the house were rolled back by the swirling designs, pulling opposite each other. Jed began walking toward the exit created by the opening walls while the spirit stayed in place. Jed approached the exit, looked back at the twinkling aura and said, “Maybe I will see you on the other side.”

“Maybe you will.” The spirit said to his mind.

Jed walked through. The walls rumbled slowly back together. They met with a thunder. The door was closed…

Stations of the Heart Chapter 12: Inside the House of Spirits

Jed stepped into the roundhouse. It was dark and completely silent. The door closed behind him. The darkness was total and the silence was overbearing. He couldn’t see his own feet below him so he stood in place, waiting for something to happen. As he waited, he felt the immenseness of the place surround him. In the complete darkness, it felt as though the house was a hundred times larger than it seemed on the outside. Jed looked up toward the ceiling but could see only blackness that stretched endlessly into an infinite void. He felt so small and alone in a place that was so big and empty. Then, Jed felt something brush against his right shoulder. It felt like someone had bumped into him. He felt the same sensation again seconds later on his left shoulder, this time a bit harder. Then again on his right, and again and again on both sides of his body until he believed he was in a massive crowd of invisible people all walking in different directions. Jed fought against the invisible crowd but couldn’t manage to move by his own volition. Instead, he was being jostled around by the phantom rabble, this way and that. It was still pitch-black but there was sound now. The sound of a million people having a million conversations at once. Incredibly loud but hopelessly incoherent. Jed could not make out a single word. Then frustration set in; Jed was being pushed and prodded and he could not gain a steady footing. He tried pushing against the other entities but to no avail. Suddenly, all the movement ceased at once as if millions of people walking in a crowd all stopped in unison. The interminable conversations had stopped as well, but now Jed couldn’t move at all. The enormous space had become oppressively stagnant. It seemed now that Jed was packed inside an enormous room shoulder to shoulder with millions of other people. He couldn’t move an inch. As much as he squirmed and writhed he couldn’t gain an iota of space. His frustration was mounting and quickly developing into panic. He struggled harder, jerking his shoulders violently. His arms were pressed tyrannically against his sides and were rendered useless. He tried stomping his feet but his knees were quickly met with an unseen barrier and couldn’t lift his foot an inch off the ground. He was completely bound by unknown forces depriving him of the slightest freedom of movement. As his panic grew, so did his futile efforts to break free. He contracted every muscle in his body feverishly and gained no results but he continued his physical exertion in a blind, desperate, angry, and frustrated defiance until he reached his breaking point. Jed lifted his head toward the infinite ceiling of the round house and belted out a profoundly afflicted scream. That was when something incredible happened. At the very moment that Jed let out his desperate scream, it was immediately drowned out by a million heavenly voices singing a single uniform note and sustaining it. Lights jolted on in side the roundhouse and illuminated every square inch of the structure. He was suddenly free of the forces binding his body and could move at will. Jed’s head was tilted upward still but he ceased his screaming because he was amazed by the instantaneous change in light and sound in the room. As he stared up he finally saw the ceiling. It was so high up that it reached the clouds and it was made of glass. He could see the stars burn brilliantly in the night sky as if they were so close he could snatch them down from the ether. The three moons droned in their light through the glass and were like three huge eyes in the sky. Tears welled in Jed’s eyes for he had never seen a sight so beautiful. There had never been a moment so awe inspiring in Jed’s life as he gazed at all the celestial bodies in perfect clarity and magnification while a seemingly massive choir held a single glorious note with impossible beauty and volume. It was as though the glass ceiling was a magnifying lens to the heavens and a legion of angels were lilting with infinite sustain all around him. Jed then closed his eyes and covered his ears because he couldn’t take any more. He was overwhelmed by visual and aural beauty. He crouched down with his hands sealed tightly around his ears and his eyes shut with much force. In this position, he wept. He had been drawn from a state of sheer panic into a moment of unimaginable beauty all in an instant. It was too much for him. He had never felt such polarizing feelings in all his life and now they had been thrust upon him in a matter of seconds. Then, the singing stopped and there was silence again. Jed, still crouching on the ground with eyes closed took his hands from his ears but he was still reluctant to look. He breathed steadily for a moment and gathered himself. Deep breaths, in and out, in and out. He stood up, opened his eyes and looked around him. Jed’s face was still wet from the tears but he did not know how to react to what he saw. Millions of luminescent clouds just like the one he saw at night in the streets of his hometown when everything began to change. They were all different colors with points of light- like starlight- dancing inside them. They were all hovering about the room silently. Jed stood silent and amazed. They all seemed to be staring at him without eyes.Somehow looking at him, or rather, through him. There was nothing but a faint, soft, and somehow soothing hum in the room. Jed had found the source. The source of the mysterious singing spirits. The spirits who for some reason came and stayed with some of the boys from his hometown but not others. This great roundhouse, deep inside the strange alien forest is where they came from. It made sense to Jed. Everything that was unknown seemed to flow from this strange forest. Jed began to slowly and carefully walk through the myriad of ghostly clouds. There were millions of them. He found that he could pass right through any of them. They filled the colossal roundhouse. In fact, the interior of the roundhouse was completely bare except for Jed and the countless spirits. As Jed walked cautiously amongst their number, their conversations slowly began to pick up again. Jed still could not comprehend their ethereal speak but as he carefully walked among them they began to move and dance all around him as if he were not even there. Jed was at first anxious and a bit frightened at this foreign scene but grew more at ease as the spirits seemed to be going about their normal business as if unaware of a strangers presence. The incomprehensible conversations grew more lively as did the dancing and Jed felt more and more that he was going unnoticed. He moved about a bit more confidently, observing the room. At the point Jed stopped and stared at the walls of the roundhouse. It was hard to tell at first because the entire room was moving and dancing but after a little while Jed was sure that the walls were moving. The walls themselves were actually quite stationary, but the designs on them were definitely animated. Great flowing swirls just like the ones on the bridge, Nashper’s shell, and Lashpat’s skin were undulating and flowing all over the walls. They were all the different colors of the spirits in the house and were flowing with their dancing. Circling all around the huge room, the designs moved cyclically along the walls. The whole room was very much alive. The stars and moon still shone in as they peered into the house at the spectacle of light, color, and sound inside. Jed continued to wade through the congregation of spirits inside the room still hearing no words or sounds that he recognized. Jed began to wonder why he had been brought to this house. Once again he was wandering aimlessly.

Then, something caught the attention of his ears. A sound. A familiar sound. He stopped and listened hard amongst the sea of strange conversations filling the room. It was very weak but he could definitely hear a voice he recognized amongst the rabble. He walked with intent now, trying to find the voice amongst the millions of spirits. When the voice grew fainter, he changed direction. When it got stronger, he stayed the course. The room was round and disorienting but Jed followed the source of the voice until he was certain he found it. A single, ghostly, orange, cloud. The only one of the lot who was not moving. Jed recognized it instantly. It was the same one he had seen in the streets of his hometown and guided him home. Jed stood in front of it as it sang a song he did not understand but recognized easily. The song was beautiful and unearthly. Jed stared into the spirit and realized its insides were infinite. They went on forever. He was enthralled. The beauty and mystery of the spirit combined with the song it sang created a tandem experience that utterly captivated Jed. He moved toward the spirit. Closer and closer. Finally, he moved inside the spirit. It was warm. It was like his entire being was melting away and Jed was becoming one with the beautiful being. Everything else fell away in this moment, the room, the other spirits, the forest, Jed’s hometown, and all that remained was the moment and the hybrid entity that Jed was becoming. He merged his body with the spirit. His mind sailed weightlessly into the ether and he only had a faint and tenuous concept of his own being and spirit. Nothing else existed in this moment. Jed and the spirit were somewhere else now. Somewhere time and space does not exist. Jed felt happy, and at peace. Jed felt almost as though he himself no longer existed, but he was content with it and reckoned that he would like to feel this way forever. Jed heard words in his mind, or rather, he felt a statement in what was left of his mind, they said, “I am yours.” Jed’s being knew these were the words of the mysterious spirit and pondered how he could ever own what he could never understand. But he was addicted to the feeling and soon ceased his quandary. He floated in a warm cocoon in a place where nothing existed. He was content.

Stations of the Heart Chapter 11: A Society of Serpents

Jed continued to hike up the mysterious hill, growing more fatigued with every step. As he climbed, he wondered what he would find inside the roundhouse, what became of Nashper and Railnia, if he would ever see Iparel again, and mostly, if he would ever make it back home. Climbing further still, Jed could feel the depleted weight of his canteen dangling from his leather belt. He also felt the bouncing of the pack of seeds on his thighs, the raising-tree seeds he wrapped up in a napkin and tied to his belt. Jed bitterly regarded the seeds, ‘All that effort to get them and I will probably never be able to give them to Iparel.’ he thought. The nighttime air was cool and thick, and the light of the three moons was pouring down through the canopies of the trees. As Jed approached the plateau of the hill however, the air grew even thicker and it became harder for him to breathe. Also, the light of the moons was diminishing. Instead of a crisp light that penetrated through to the forest floor, it became a vague, hazy, shade that took no angles but instead floated shapelessly all around. Jed stopped and realized he had entered the foggy upper region of the hill. Stopping for some rest, Jed noticed that he no longer heard the eerie singing, just silence now. Jed pushed upward but not only could he no longer hear the singing, the fog became so thick that he could not see two feet in front of his own face. With arms stretched out in front of him to feel his surroundings, Jed attempted to stumble onward. Tripping over roots and rocks, nearly falling on his face, Jed grew frustrated. Then he walked right into a tree, his soft face smacked into the rough bark of a mighty tree. “Ahhhh!” Jed groaned in pain and frustration, and plopped down on the ground in defeat. “I don’t even know if I’m going the right way anymore.” he whispered softly to himself. He sat there for a time, weighing his options, ‘forward movement’ was the phrase that incessantly emerged in his thoughts, no matter how hard he tried to purge those words. Then in the silence, he heard the singing pick up again. It was faint but he was able to pick up the definite sounds as they pervaded the trees and floated on the fog. Jed stood up and faced uphill, still doubting his navigational skills. That was when he saw them. As he looked uphill into the dense fog that shrouded everything in the forest, he saw glimmers of light emerge in the haze. Dozens of flowing lights, moving, moving upward. They moved gracefully and fluidly and were effortlessly sliding up the hill. There were dozens of them. On the ground weaving easily through the shrubbery and foliage of the forest floor. Brilliant vines of light sleeking through the fog, dulled by it, but still easily visible. Jed followed them as they weaved all around him on the ground. Moving like cylindrical streams over the same roots and rocks that Jed was tripping over. Their light became a path for Jed to follow as they illuminated the forest floor even through the fog. They curved and swayed with unfailing phosphorous through all obstacles, even Jed’s own traipsing footsteps. They all gave off a soft yet radiant angel-blue light. Jed could see now that there were just as many of them moving through the trees as well. They provided an overhead light as they moved with the same, grace, fluidity, and brightness as the ones on the floor. The forest was alive with light. The ground was carpeted with vines of illumination, and the tree tops above were strewn with color like the trees of a beautiful garden lit up for the world to see. jed followed these vibrant creatures at a brisk pace, feeling the moisture of the fog crowd his lungs as he breathed it in. Then, very abruptly, Jed could see clearly all around him. He had climbed with the light-vines above the fog and now he stood on a flattened ground in front of the great roundhouse. There were still trees all around, standing in between him and the house, but he could now see them clearly at least. What was more was that Jed could now also see what had been guiding him up the hill. A massive brood of snakes that shone a  brilliant blue light through translucent skins slithered all around him. In the trees, on the ground at his flanks, they were everywhere. Their light was even brighter out of the fog. Jed was frightened at first but saw that they were all just slithering unthreatened all around him, making all the surroundings visible. They slithered in the trees and through his legs so languidly that Jed was becoming entranced by the spectacle. He stood in awe and admiration as they danced between his legs to the angelic songs emanating from the rounshouse. But before Jed could lose himself in the serpents light-dance, he saw a great long snake slink down from one of the trees and ess his way to Jed. Jed was captivated by it, the largest, brightest, and most graceful of all the serpents. Jed was put at ease by their performance and no longer harbored and fear of them, so when the biggest one approached him, he was not afraid. Somehow, he felt akin to the serpents, like he knew them and was the same as them. On the ground, the bog snake winded its way to Jed’s feet, then it raised itself up. It was now looking down on Jed with more than half of its body still on the ground supporting him. Then as Jed gazed at it, a great collar extended all around its head and tapered downward into the midsection of its body. It was some kind of giant, vibrantly-lit, cobra. It’s collar mate it so bright that Jed had to shield his eyes just to look at it. At that point the cobra’s light dimmed until it was a small yet intense orb of light, centralized in the center of the snakes belly. The other snakes followed suit and dimmed themselves to a lower more manageable luminosity. Jed looked up at the cobra. It’s eyes were piercing and intense. The pupils were shaped like diamonds, and the iris’ were colored a very natural hazel. It’s skin was almost completely transparent if not for the swirling, ornate, designs on it that looked exactly like the designs on the barricade of the bridge, Nashper’s shell, and the shell of the moving earth from his dream. Jed was awestruck at the beauty of the serpent. Then, in a voice that sounded much like his own and the other boys from his hometown, the cobra spoke up. “Why have you come here?”

The voice was so normal. Every voice Jed had heard ever since he entered this impossibly fantastical forest had been strange and unlike any he had heard before. Nashper and Railnia both spoke as if they were using four voices at once, the crab cook gurgled with every word he spoke, even the pig whom he sat next to at the feast spoke with a dignity and eloquence unbecoming of swine. But this great snake spoke in a familiar, human voice. “I’m trying to find my way back home. I never chose to come here. The waters just swept me away from my home and brought me to this place. I’ve been through so much in this bizarre forest,” Jed said as he stripped a piece of bark off a nearby tree in an aggravated manner. The snakes still slid soothingly on their bellies all around him. “that I just want to go back home.” Jed realized he was venting to the cobra. He sighed helplessly and let his shoulders drop low.

The cobra stared at Jed, sensing his frustration. “I’m sure by now you know the rule of this place.” The cobra stated in a tone that was half inquiring.

In a low tedious tone, Jed replied “There only exists forward movement in this place.”

The cobra put on an almost human smile. “I can see you have been through a lot in your time here. I both pit and envy you.” He said.

“Envy me? Why would you envy me? I’ve been taken from my home against my will, almost killed, and now I have a hunger in my gut that I have never felt before and have no way of sating. On top of all that I have very little water left to sustain me.” Jed replied incredulously.

“Ah yes, the life-sustaining water from the well in the center of town.” The cobra calmly mused.

Jed was stunned. This was the first time he heard anyone in this forest that knew about his hometown. “How do you know that? Who are you? What is this place?” Jed fired off a series of dumbfounded questions.

“My name is Lashpat , but I can’t tell you the name of this place or the forest as a whole because I don’t know myself. I doubt if anyone does. But allow me to answer your first question as you have answered mine. I envy you because you still have choices ahead of you. I pity you because I know what you have been through, which leads me to answer your second question: I know about your water because I once was what you are.” The giant cobra Lashpat answered.

Jed stood silent and confused. “What do you mean by that?” Jed asked.

“I know your hometown, I know you were taken here against your will, I know your hunger, and though the details of mine and your journey surely differ, I know the hardships you must have encountered in this place. I know all of this because I was once a boy just like you, taken from the hometown and brought to this confusing, nonsensical forest for a reason that is still unclear to me.” Lashpat spoke with deep introspection. His voice was now more human than ever but his eyes trailed off to some place far away as he gave his speech.

Jed was amazed. “The boys that never returned,” he thought out loud as he looked at all the serpents swaying, now deep in some unknowable trance.

“This is us. We were all boys from the beloved hometown once, and we were all brought here against our will, lived here, suffered here, felt joy here, and became what you see before you now: A society of serpents. We all came at different times of course, one by one like you. I came first and was alone for many days. Then we were but a few. Now we are many but there isn’t one among us who does not wish to be back in the hometown.” As Lashpat said this, all the swirling snakes shone a little brighter and danced a little harder.

“What happened to you?” Jed ventured.

“We were all given a choice, as you will be given. I can not say what choices will be given to you as it seems everyone’s options vary, but I can tell you the choice we all made: we chose to stay here in this forest. Because we chose to stay, we were turned into serpents.” Lashpat answered.

“Why would you choose to stay in this place?” Jed couldn’t hide his somewhat condescending surprise.

“Because the alternatives we were given were just too perilous to face.” Lashpat, again with eyes fixed on a far-flung memory, answered.

“What was your alternative?” Jed was almost afraid to ask.

“To brave a vast, barren desert in search of the hometown with no companion…no guide.” Lashpat replied.

The word ‘companion’ jumped out at Jed. He knew what Lashpat was talking about as soon as he said it. “Those strange, singing, spirit creatures.” Jed concluded aloud.

Lashpat looked Jed in the eye gravely and said, “Now it is our job to lead boys like you to them.”

“They live in the roundhouse?” Jed asked.

Lashpat nodded his great hooded head.

“What will they do to me?” Jed asked.

“Impossible to say.” Lashpat replied.

“What did they do to you?” Jed inquired.

“They turned me into what I am today.” Lashpat somberly stated. A long silence passed in which all that could be heard was that slithering of sinewy serpent bodies and the faint siren song of the spirits within the great roundhouse. It was a chilling duet of sounds. Then Lashpat spoke up, “I must ask you a favor for myself and my brothers. It has been so long since we tasted the cool waters of the hometown, and even longer since we have slept. If you could find it in your heart to share some of the water in your canteen with us, we would be forever grateful.”

Jed thought hard about this. He didn’t have much water left and he didn’t know how much longer his journey would last. Still, he took pity on the serpents who were once just like him: unjustly taken from home to an unknown and frightening wilderness only to lose their human forms and cursed to the task of leading other boys to an uncertain fate. Jed raised his hand to Lashpat and the giant cobra lowered his head under the outstretched human hand and rubbed against the palm. Jed pet Lashpat’s head softly and affectionately, feeling the rough, perfectly symmetrical scales against his skin. “Of course, brother.” Jed granted and unscrewed his canteen and poured water on the cool grass of the forest floor. The snakes all lapped up a small amount of water, then with a dignified and grateful bow, Lashpat bent low and licked up a small pool of water. The snakes partook until there was nothing left. Jed now only had one gulp of water left in his canteen. “I think I have something that will help you sleep too.” Jed pulled the sack of raising-tree seeds from his belt and dropped most of the on the ground, leaving only two for himself in case he ever saw Iparel again. ‘I will probably never see her again anyway’ he thought to himself. All the snakes took a majestic blue seed into their jaws and bodies.

Lashpat raised his head back up to Jed and spoke, “Thank you brother, what is your name?”

“Jed Ano.”

“We will never forget this, Jed Ano, but now we must guide you to the entrance of the roundhouse.” Lashpat stated. Jed looked hard at the huge house, he saw no doors or gates. Then, the smaller snakes grew bright and moved toward the house. They slithered up the wall of the house and outlined the shape of a door on it. They held their positions and shone their lights so bright that Jed could barely look at them. Then Lashpat moved in front of the door framed out by snakes that use to be boys, jutted his magnificent cobra head forward, bore his immense fangs, and let out a violent hiss. This was the first time Lashpat even remotely sounded like a snake. With the hiss, the door made of snakes lurched open. There was weak light inside but not enough for Jed to see very far inside. Lashpat turned to Jed and spoke, “Your time is now brother Jed, be brave, sharp-witted, may all your perceptions be of the most discerning order.” Jed looked at Lashpat, afraid. “I’ll tell you this Jed Ano, whatever you lose in there, don’t lose yourself” Lashpat straightened his form, looked Jed in the eye, and with his stern, calm glance, gave Jed the courage to continue. “There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back.” Lashpat said. Then Jed stood up straight and marched through the door into the roundhouse. The snakes closed the door behind him, disbursed, and for the first time in hundreds of agonizingly long days, slept.

Stations of the Heart Chapter 10: Crossing the Bridge

“Why didn’t you come back for me?” Jed asked Nashper as he rode atop his enormous boulder-sized shell. They were slowly trekking through the cool, night time forest toward some as of yet unknown destination. The trees that Jed observed around himself were not shaped like the crescent moon, nor were they tall, straight, rigid and sentry-like. These were a new breed of tree altogether; wild, light-colored barks whose heights were much closer to the ground and gnarled like geriatric, old fingers reaching out into the air. They had untraceable trunks but four to six main limbs that crookedly stretched out from the beds of bone-dry, empty creeks flanking the curious two-headed turtles’ path on either side. though it was dark and Jed could hardly see more than a dozen feet ahead of him, he could tell that the path they were treading was not straight. They wound at a snails pace through the dense forest in very serpentine fashion. “Come back for you? Why would I do something like that?” Nashper inattentively mumbled back. “Because you said you would when you left me at that big rock!” Said Jed incredulously. “My dear boy, I told you already, there is no such direction as ‘back’ in this place. Forward movement is all that exists. I have never moved backwards in all my many years.” Nashper replied. The the contradictory Railnia chimed in, “That’s not true, we’ve moved backwards plenty of times.” “It only seems that way to you because your head is on the opposite end of our body” Nashper answered back. “That doesn’t make any sense!” cried Railnia. Jed thought it best to progress the conversation and interrupt the argument, “Then why did you tell me you’d come back for me?” Both Nashper and Railnia stayed silent at this for some time before Nashper finally answered in a genuinely contemplative tone, “I don’t know. I’m not sure why I would have been possessed to say a thing like that. To be quite honest, I can’t say that I clearly recall the incident you speak of.” A million arguments sprang up in Jed’s head as soon as he heard Nashper’s weak reply but resignation was quickly becoming the dominant feeling for Jed in this place…so he resigned. Jed shrugged his concern aside and sat in quiet contemplation atop the tortoise as they continued to bob through the forest slowly. He was not contemplating anything in particular, rather just passing the time by letting his mind wander. Nashper and Railnia were going on about some nonsense; arguing amongst each other. Jed wasn’t paying attention. Cross-legged and with chin in hand he lazily studied the trees that looked like bony hands reaching out toward him. As the trio slowly moved, Jed began to notice the trees getting closer to the ground. It was like they were all slowly sinking into the earth as the three of them moved forward. Jed perked up, unfolded his legs from under him, and propped himself up on hands and knees, looking over Nashper’s shell. He looked as hard as he could and soon concluded that the dry creek that these trees were growing from was getting deeper. Soon Jed was looking down on the tops of the trees. In no time, Jed could no longer see the trees at all, they had all fallen away, deep down in the ever-deeper creek. Nashper was taking them on a path that fell away on either side to depths unknown. Jed grew nervous and ventured to Nashper, “The path seems to be getting narrower doesn’t it?” “I haven’t noticed.” Nasper replied. “I have” Railnia reported. “Seems like we’re getting higher and higher up…dangerously high even.” Jed timidly commented, he didn’t want to startle his navigator, it was apparently a very long drop to the ground. “It’s perfectly safe” said Nashper. Jed could now hear the wind whistle steadily through what was now more of a canyon than a creek. In a noticeably nervous voice, Jed continued, “But if there is no going back in this place, doesn’t it stand to reason that you could never have been to the same place twice? How can you know this path is safe if you have never been here before?” “That’s true. I have never been here before but I know it is safe. I can just tell.” Nashper answered. “we have been here before, I’ve seen it in hindsight” added Railnia. “Now THAT doesn’t make any sense.” Nashper replied. “It makes perfect sense!” argued Railnia. Jed was not reassured by this exchange. By this time, Jed knew that the dry creek was far below them on either side. The three moons shone a strong light but not strong enough to illuminate the depths of the creek far far below. Jed did his best to look straight ahead and not to his sides, lest he be seized by fear of a death-plunge. He stared intently over Nashper’s head at the narrow path they tread and soon noticed a change. The mostly dirt path on which they walked was growing a bit wider and harder. This relieved Jed but before he could revel too long in relief, he was astounded by the structure which now took shape under the bluish moonlight before him. Nashper stopped at the foot of this structure…it was a massive bridge made of stone. “I believe our destination lies on the other side of this bridge.” said Nashper. “Our destination?” asked Jed, “Where are we going?” “A great house” he answered and gestured with his head to a high hill shrouded by fog on the other side of the bridge. “The house lies atop that hill” Jed stared intently at the hill but could make out no house on top of it. “What kind of house is it, and how do you know of it?” asked Jed. “everybody knows this house, simply common knowledge.” answered Nashper. Railnia chimed in directly after Nashper’s response. “This is the first I am hearing of it.” Again Jed’s fears were less than allayed by the exchange of the two-headed reptile, but it was of little consequence as Nashper advanced onto the bridge as he contended with Railnia. ‘Forward movement’ Jed timidly thought to himself.

As much as Nashper’s cryptic comments about the house to which they were headed puzzled Jed, he actually felt a bit more secure and calm as they walked down the bridge. For one thing, it was straight as an arrow not winding like their previous walkway. It was also a bit wider and had barriers of stone on both sides. Even though the stone of these barriers were brittle and decaying and even non-existent in some parts, some protection was better than no protection at all Jed concluded. As Jed rode atop Nashper’s shell these barriers were just enough to obscure how far below the bridge the earth really was. Jed was thankful for this because he was sure he would lose his equilibrium if his eyes were able to probe all the was down to the ground below. As it was, he had a good handle on how deep it was. The bridge itself looked very old to Jed. There were many cracks in its stone walkway and the stone itself was obviously battered by weather and traffic. The silvery-blue light of the moons above revealed old, ornate etchings on the inside of the barrier that were rubbed out presumably by weather and use. These etchings ran the length of the barrier and would have been lovely if they weren’t so corroded; fluid, swirling designs with clusters of what must have been flowers dispersed modestly throughout. The bridge evidently linked the interminable forest with a small range of foothills on the other side over an incredibly deep canyon. ‘If there was a body of water down there’ Jed thought to himself ‘it must have been a huge, wild river that has long since been dry.’

They continued across the bridge for what seemed to Jed to be at least an hour. Jed noticed that the three moons had barely moved in the sky but the crescent-shaped blue one was now completely full. Jed once again held his chin in his hand and wore a bored demeanor, but something soon peaked his interest. He perked his head up when he saw something new on the bridge. It was some kind of perch in the shape of a “T” sticking out atop the bridge’s barricade. It was made of the same gray stone as the bridge and there was one about every twelve feet for as far as Jed could see. Before Jed could wonder what these perches were for, he felt a terrible rumble beneath him. The bridge quaked ad Jed was immediately seized by the fear that the bridge would crumble apart and he would free-fall to his death- but this fear quickly yielded to another. Jed was now staring at a gigantic black eyeball. A massive eyeball at least 14 feet in diameter. Jed was gawking, amazed at it and in an instant it shot up towards the sky. He gazed up, following it until it was too high for Jed to see. Then he looked back over the barricade and saw two incredibly tall black stalks. Then the stocks bent and moved forward. They were legs. Two giant birds-legs propping up the body of a giant black-feathered bird. Jed had been faced with the enormous bird’s eyeball. He looked up and could now see it’s feathery body, long neck and beaked head. It was massive. It walked and every footstep caused the earth and bridge to shake. Then Jed caught another just ahead of the first one. Then another behind it, until he saw one after one shoot up from the empty canyon below. Each one of their legs growing, shooting up at an impossible rate and pushing their heads towards the sky. Soon there were to many to count and their all-black bodies were difficult to make out against the dark canyon. They all tread forward on either side of Jed. Without a word Nashper and Railnia retreated into their shell, legs and all. Jed was alone and frightfully unaware of what would happen next so he did what felt most natural: he ran. He slid down Nashper’s shell and ran as fast as he could to the other side of the bridge. The giant birds noticed him and began lunging their colossal heads downward and pecking at him. Their beaks came crashing down on the bridge walkway creating huge craters in the stone. Jed lunged left to avoid a gigantic black beak, picked himself up, sprinted, then lunged right to avoid another. Each time the enormous heads came speeding downward they created a great ‘woosh’ of air. Jed’s mind was white-blank with fear and adrenaline, but he knew he couldn’t survive much longer. He had to get to the other side of the bridge in a mad haste. He ran as fast as he could to the point where his lungs pinched. A beak came plowing down in the center of the walkway right in front of Jed. Jed jumped hard to the right. He felt the bridge fly out from under him- he had jumped clear off. He reached his hand out and grab hold of one of the “T” shaped perches. He was hanging by one hand over the side of the bridge. Sprinting had sapped the strength from his body. He could barely hang on and surely couldn’t lift himself up with only one hand. Jed hung there, helpless and sure that his time was coming to an end. Then he felt the air grow warm. He turned his head over his shoulder and saw a giant bird leaning over and looking directly at him. Jed was staring down its impossibly long beak and back to its huge eyes far behind. The bird jerked its head and Jed, fueled by primal survival necessity, swung his free arm up and reached as hard as he could and grabbed onto the barricade. With everything in him he pulled himself up and over the the barricade just as the bird shot it’s beak forward and punched a massive dent into the side of the bridge. He gathered himself and started running again, but there was nothing left in Jed’s tank. His breathing turned into a dry heave and he felt himself passing out. His head rolled back but just as his vision became blurry he noticed that the crescent-shaped blue moon was filling up fast. He stopped running, doubled over in labored breathing and saw the legs of all the birds shrink and shoot back downwards into the canyon. The pudgy bodies of the giant birds fell rapidly towards the ground until Jed could see them no more. Jed collapsed to his knees in exhaustion and relief. After a few moments Jed saw some normal sized black birds flying all around the bridge. One by one they all slowly landed on the perches that were posted at intervals on the bridge. Jed looked up again at the moons and saw that all three, once again were full. Turning his attention back to the birds, he noticed a dead silence. The black birds that sat on each perch were now stone. Jed stood astonished. He contemplated to himself while still trying to catch his breath. ‘These have to be the same giant birds from a minute ago’ he thought to himself. Jed never needed a drink of water more than he did in that moment so he gulped down a good amount from his canteen. It was now almost empty. Jed now walked at a cautious pace toward the end of the bridge, still thinking of and looking at the now stone birds. ‘They somehow lost their giant size and gained wings’ he thought. ‘Affected by the phases of the moons.’ Now he walked in silence while the sentinel birds watched him with their lifeless, stone eyes, one at each perch. Jed felt uneasy but soon sighted the land at the end of the bridge. He walked onto the soft dirt and never felt safer.

Once on the other side of the bridge, Jed found himself confronted with a great, steep, hill blanketed in a dense forest. He began to hike up it. Something wafted into his ears. It was sweet singing. Interminable singing. He looked towards the top of the hill and saw it was from a great roundhouse. He pushed on, climbing up toward the house. Jed had never felt hunger before, but now he found himself thinking ‘I’m hungry, I hope they have food.’