The Endless Night
by John W. Steele
part 1 of 2
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return. — Job 7:9
There was no sun or hint of sun. A moment earlier, golden solar rays reflected from an ocean of white crystalline snow that spread from horizon to horizon. But now, as if possessed by an evil deity, the sky grew an ominous shade of pewter and a gray pall hung over the landscape.
It made no sense. The man turned to look for Martha but she was gone. She’d been with him throughout their cross-country ski trek, sometimes trailing in his wake like the faithful companion and lover she was.
The man raised his cupped hands to his mouth and called out her name. Only a hollow echo replied; a ghost voice void of emotion.
It’s so damn cold. The man pulled the wool knit cap over his ears, and cinched tight the drawstring at the waist of his parka. It seemed like he’d been skiing forever and a great sense of fatigue ached deep in his bones, a weariness that seemed to ooze from the marrow and caused his body to feel like a statue made of lead.
The man journeyed along the trail that ran atop the high earth bank, following the rolling white undulations that curved and twisted through the sprawling spruce forest. The trail ended at the shoulder of a wide old road. Field stone walls marked its boundaries. The anemic evergreens gave way to hardwoods, their limbs heavily laden with snow and barren of leaves.
Darkness gained strength like some kind of menacing premonition too inconceivable to be true; the man shuddered, and a sense of foreboding surged through him.
In the distance a bell chimed, its voice a sweet baritone against the howl of the frigid gale. Like a beacon of hope, a steeple peered out from the gloom, and soared into the sky.
A little church stood in the clearing, its buckled exterior made of weathered gray clapboard. Stained glass windows adorned its walls. At the entrance, a white dove with wings unfolded, and an olive branch grasped in its beak, hung in a leaded panel directly above the carved oak doors.
The man felt comforted by the structure. His heart warmed, and his eyes grew wide. So enchanted by the church was he, that he failed to notice the three men standing on the steps. When his eyes fell upon them, he sighed with a sense of relief.
Two of the men were tall and lean, the other one squat and portly. All of them wore dark wool overcoats and black wide-brimmed fedoras. Shaggy beards obscured their faces, and their eyes were gaunt and hollow. A stoic expression molded their features, as if they were victims of some terrible disaster.
“Wow, am I glad to see you,” the man said. “For a moment I feared I was lost.” The bearded ones did not respond. “Where am I?” He asked.
“We call this place Purgatory,” the fat man replied.
“Did you see a woman come through here? My wife Martha was with me, but I can’t find her. She’s disappeared.”
“We’ve not seen a woman pass through here today, my brother,” one of the tall men said. “But we shall surely keep an eye out for her should she cross over.”
“I’m worried about her. Darkness is approaching and the storm is gaining intensity. I want to go home. How far am I from Watertown?”
The men gazed at each other and shared a long sustained look, as if savoring the irony of a private joke. “You’re a long way from Watertown, pilgrim,” the portly man replied.
“How far?” The man asked his voice tense with anxiety.
“At least a year’s journey, maybe more,” a tall man said.
“A year’s journey, that’s impossible! I could not have traveled such a distance in so little time. Can you give me a lift? I’ll gladly pay whatever you ask if you help me find my way home.”
The clergymen lowered their heads and stared at the steps. “We are simple country folk, we have no automobiles,” the short man said.
“You have a cell phone, don’t you? I need to call the authorities so they can find Martha.”
“I’m sorry sir, we don’t believe in that sort of thing. There are no telephones here. What is your name?”
The man’s jaw hung agape and his tongue felt heavy and uncoordinated when he spoke. “Becker... my name is William Becker. You’ve got to help me. How can I get back to Watertown?”
The men formed a huddle and talked in a whisper. When the conference ended the short man turned and said, “If you follow this road north for twenty miles you’ll end up on route 79. From there it’s a short journey to Watertown give or take a few...”
“A few what?” William barked.
“It’s hard to say,” said a tall man. “No one really knows for sure.”
“Are you psychotic?” Becker cried? “I’ve got to find my wife.”
The fat man rubbed his beard; when he spoke his voice flowed in a somber monotone. “We understand the upgrade can be traumatic.” He gazed into the distance, as if pondering some esoteric mystery. “If you’re in a hurry it’s quicker to take the shortcut at John Thule Pass. Either way you’ll end up at the same destination.”
Becker ran his hand along his cheeks now ashen and numb from the biting cold. “Where is this pass, and how do I get there?”
The portly man cleared his throat. “When you leave the church, follow the west road for about ten miles. At the fork bear to the left. From there you’ll come to a bridge. If you head north and journey up the river you will arrive at the destiny you seek. But I must warn you, it’s safer to cross the bridge to route 79, even though it’s quicker to take the shortcut and follow the John Thule trail. I wish I could tell you more, but you’ll have to make your own decision when you get there.”
William started to protest, and one of the tall men intervened. “Don’t waste time trying to understand; it will do you no good. This projection is obsolete. You’d better hurry, your energy is fading and a great nor’easter is on the way. Now go, you have no options.”
Becker rubbed his eyes hard in light of the painful revelation. The portly man made a symbolic gesture with his hand. One of the tall men opened the door. The clergymen entered the church and the door creaked closed behind them.
William stared into the blizzard. His feet stung and tingled as if the nerve root to his toes had been constricted by a surgical clamp. The flesh of his hands felt like raw clay; numb and rendered useless by the blistering cold.
He focused on his legs, grateful that they still obeyed him. His skis plowed mechanically through the icy drifts and his frozen eyes followed the sway of their measured cadence. His expirations formed an achromatic mist that condensed to ice and clung like wet plaster to his matted beard.
Becker followed the road to where it crossed a wide flat abounding with a tangled morass of thorns and briars. He fought his way through the brambles and the prickly dried clusters clung to his trousers and mackinaw. When he tried to pick them off, they crumbled and fell to pieces, leaving their pointed barbs impaled in the fabric. With every movement the thorns pierced his flesh and clawed at his skin.
His body itched like a shell of coarse leather. He grew insane with itching, and scratched his ribs and arms with his mittens in a futile attempt to relieve the torment that enveloped him like an infestation of scabies mites.
The rutted lane meandered on until Becker feared he’d become lost. His strength evaporated and he floundered in the drifts, unsure of the direction from which he had come.
When he felt he could not endure another step, a cantilevered truss appeared before him. The bridge spanned a wide frozen river far below and Becker stared at the span with unfeigned anticipation.
The steel plates of the ancient structure were deeply corroded and some of them were missing. Its rivets lay rusted and worn away by the merciless winds and ice crystals that drove like a raging sandstorm through this arctic wasteland.
A crumbling asphalt deck littered with gaping craters so big that a horse could fall through ran precariously to the ice-jammed riverbank on the far shore. Twisted wire and broken re-rod poked out from the rims of the potholes like the spiked jaws of a bear trap cocked and eager to shred flesh or impale a body in their jagged tines.
In some places the deck had caved in completely, leaving only pitted and oxidized I-beams hovering bent and cracked above the yawning chasm.
Any attempt to cross this trestle of frayed cables and treacherous barbed scrap would be the equivalent of suicide. Becker understood this and he didn’t want that. He planned on living for a long time... a very long time.
Copyright © 2011 by John W. Steele