The train traveled swiftly, the tracks winding through hollow desert valleys and over canyons of unseen depth. Eliot stared through his window at the sweeping view of wild, barren landscapes—sand so white it reminded him of salt flats. He tried to remember where he had seen salt flats before… and then he wondered how a world without any semblance of physical light could show anything but darkness. Yet, the desert was white. It was white because he could see that it was, even though there was no light to see by.
Turning from the window, he scanned the aisle and the rows ahead of him, only to note the backs of heads forming a pattern of browns and grays, with a few dirty blondes here and there. The car was not lit by anything except the surreal glow of the outer world. Eliot noticed that the seat nearest the aisle one row up and across was headless. Near its base, he saw two slender, denim legs sticking out with a pair of white sneakers as their termini. A child’s wrist dangled over the armrest; he couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, though if he’d had to bet he would have said girl. He scanned the rows one last time, ignoring the person beside him, and turned again to the window.
“You know where this thing is taking us?” It was the person beside him.
Eliot flipped his head round and met the other’s stare. The passenger was a dark-haired man with gray eyes and grim, weathered features, almost like the bark of an oak but not quite as aged.
“No,” Eliot said. “You?”
The man shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “I mean, I suppose I could repeat one of the ten rumors that’s been going around since we got on—that we’re on the trans-elemental railroad headed straight for you know where, or that the train just goes on for eternity and we just sit here waiting to go nuts. Truth is nobody really knows.” The man fidgeted in his seat. “God, I could go for a smoke. I wouldn’t suppose…”
“Sorry,” Eliot said. “Never took it up.”
“And yet, here you are,” the man said, smiling.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Eliot said.
The man threw up his hands. “I’m just in awe of the limitless possibilities. For instance, how did you get here?”
“Well,” Eliot began, and then hesitated. He was surprised that he had not considered the question until now. I remember getting on the train—no, wait a minute, no I don’t. I just opened my eyes and I was staring through the window. My god, how can that be all there is? He wondered about the loss of memory and tried to correlate it with what he knew about eternal torment. He felt his heartbeat or something like it quicken as his lungs sank into the deep of his chest. That’s fear is what that is.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it,” the man said. “Me, well, I just overdid all the things they tell you to take it easy with, I guess. Cigars, red meat, you name it. The name’s Crowe, by the way.” He offered his hand.
Eliot shook it. “I’m Eliot,” he said. At least I do remember that much.
“Eliot,” Crowe repeated. “If you don’t mind my asking, Eliot, what’s your relation to the little girl across the way?” Crowe nodded toward the white sneakers dangling from the seat.
A girl. What in god’s name is he talking about?
“I’m sorry,” Eliot said. “I don’t follow you.”
Crowe just stared at him. “I shouldn’t have asked. The way you two showed up together. Ah, well, it must have been some tragedy. But there I go again, saying more than I should. But you don’t have to talk about it. Nobody should ever have to talk about things like that.” Crowe turned aside and looked across the aisle.
At first, Eliot thought to prod him with more questions, but then doubt gripped him and so he relented, sinking quietly into his seat and turning his inner eye toward some chasm of idle reflection. As if being lured, his gaze drifted again to the lean arm dangling from the armrest, unadorned and pale in the dimness of the car. So it is a girl, after all. The monotonous whirring of a speeding train, coupled with the encroaching darkness, soon cast him into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
When he awoke the train had stopped and people were getting up from their seats. He searched his mind, trying to remember a journey. There was nothing, only some obscure perception of motion through a swirling mesh of darkness. He got up from his seat and followed the crowd out onto the platform.
He looked back at the train and decided that he must have just come from there. He had no memory of having been on a train.
It wasn’t until he was being led out of a cave and into the chilled, open air that he first began to retain his experiences as they came to him, one after another. He looked around and saw that he was among a slow-moving herd of people, all with their eyes on someone at the front of the procession—a man as far as he could tell.
Eliot could not see the man with any clarity, as he seemed to be shadowed against the light of the cave’s outlet. Above the sea of swaying heads, he saw the man lift up a hand and beckon to the crowd with it.
“Keep up, folks,” the man called. “Almost there, now.” His voice broke into an echo that swam along the deepening walls into darkness.
Eliot looked down at the dusty floor ridden with pebbles. He had not imagined it being anything like this. He tried to remember how he had imagined it, but couldn’t remember what it was. He didn’t know what this was either. Still, one thing he knew with certain and definable resoluteness was that, if the chance came, he had to escape—whatever that meant.
A little girl came up to him and tugged the sleeve of his sweater. She had dark hair that shined even in the tunnel’s hollow luminance. Her eyes were like olivine crystals.
The color green. Light and color. The shock of such a memory was profound to him because he had nothing to connect to it except some former rendition of himself. Who and where but never why. But that was something, wasn’t it? He knew they were green eyes and he had always had such fondness for—
Again the girl tugged his sleeve.
“What is it?” Eliot said.
“I can’t find my daddy,” she said. Daddy, fathers, children. That must have been life for some. But what’s it to you, now?
Eliot took her hand in his and held it tight. He did not feel as if he should or should not—he took her hand, considering the action like he considered the air he wasn’t breathing. One cell bonding to another, unconscious of the act.
“I’ll help you look for him as soon as we get out of here,” he said. Help her? Why? Help yourself. If escape was the ultimate goal, then taking up with a child was anything but conducive toward that end. You could let go. Twist free of her frail hand and lose her in the crowd.
“I don’t think he is here,” she said. “But I bet you could find him if anyone could.”
What is that supposed to mean? Eliot looked down at her face and traced it—eyes, nose, lips, chin—but found no match for his memory. Her hand was wrapped so tightly around his that he could feel the blood in his fingers pulsing, a sensation he had not felt until now. Until her.
Keep her close for a while longer. See what comes of it.
“Maybe he is here and maybe he isn’t,” he said. “Anyway, we’ll look just to be sure. He may be with another group.”
The little girl seemed satisfied with this and stuck close to Eliot the rest of the way. He didn’t know if there were really other groups, but something in him felt inclined to keep the girl close, at least for the present. When they came out into the light, hand in hand, he realized that it wasn’t light at all. He didn’t know what it was because he had never seen anything like it before.
“Is that a sky?” the girl asked.
Sky… clouds… strobes of white in the black, black airy chasm. Eliot could not remember what a sky looked like, or if it were something to be touched as well as seen. But the girl remembered. Come to think of it, she seemed to remember lots of things that he could not. Keep her close.
“Doesn’t look like one,” he said. And for a while he gazed up at what was not a sky, wondering at the invisible weight he felt sinking to the bottom of his soul.
Along a wide ledge overlooking an empty valley, he and the little girl followed the crowd. The grass in the valley was a rich, dark green; much darker than the girl’s eyes. From far off, the fields appeared both holy and at peace under the grey light that was not a sky. An opaque mist hung about the ridge, bending upward against the valley walls and curving down again like the bowed necks of clerics in prayer.
“I’ve seen this place before,” the little girl said. “In a dream.”
“Really?” he said. “I think I have too.”
Dream… is that like a sky? No… no, it’s something we do. As he looked out beyond the sloping grass toward the high-rising cliffs guarding the valley on the far side, he saw a dark recession high up in the face of the precipice. Another tunnel or cave by the look of it. He wondered where it might lead. Up out down in.
Guardians were posted along the ledge to keep people on course. One of them heard Eliot and the little girl talking and, stepping into their path, snapped his finger at them.
“No talking during the procession,” he said. His lightless eyes, drawn together in the perfect symmetry of a porcelain mask, stuck to them as they walked past in silence.
Eliot remembered something being said earlier about the need for silence during the journey, but that had been right after a shrill whistle; the slithering of a hundred shoes on a dusty floor as he floated among the herd; colorless eyes that looked neither up nor down nor forward. Then, a little girl had tugged his sleeve and he remembered the color green.
“Why don’t they want us to talk?” the girl whispered after they had walked a ways.
Eliot shook his head. “Just the rules, I guess. Oh, before I forget, what does your dad look like?”
“I… I don’t remember,” she said. Tears began to form in her eyes; olivine turned to emerald.
Eliot could hear her sniffling, and for a moment was startled by the memory of tears. Eyes alight with fire of Zeus god of thunder a cloud is asleep and is not a cloud when he wakes he floods mankind and cleanses their shadows by removing their bodies. For a moment, he wasn’t sure what to do, if anything. He kept walking, pulling her along with him as if he were a little boy dragging a stuffed animal. She continued to cry, inhaling long sniffs.
Lightning caught in a legion of tears the sky weeps for it knows not whom it knows not whom.
Eliot stopped, looked around, then knelt down beside her. His knee stuck through the hole in his jeans, grinding into the hard path. He felt the abrasion of pebbles against his dry, bare skin, and wondered at the sensation. Physical pain was something to be remembered, something to seize and even protect.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “We’ll find him. All right?”
She nodded, wiped her eyes. He felt guilty for lying, but he couldn’t stand to see the girl cry. Things were heavy enough without a child’s tears.
“Promise?” she asked.
He looked into her sad, watery eyes and felt something cold press against his heart. He had not anticipated that she would ask him to give his word, and yet more startled was he at the power that concept held over him. Speak and be bound forever.
“Do not stop!” It was the same guardian from before, glaring at them with an outstretched and bony finger. Mene mene tekel….
Eliot got up and, taking the girl’s hand again, moved back into the solemn procession, or what was left of it. Forming the tail-end of the line, they followed the ledge along the jagged cliff walls until the path opened out onto a flat shelf overlooking the valley. From his position in the rear of the group, Eliot could see that everyone was being rallied together on the shelf. He felt the little girl’s eyes on him.
“What’s your name?” she whispered. He was glad that she seemed to have forgotten about the promise.
“Eliot,” he said without looking at her. “What’s yours?”
“Eliza,” she said. “Our names are alike.”
Don’t get to know her. Don’t get comfortable with her. She’s not the plan. He looked down, saw that she was smiling, and then looked up again to see another one of the guardians eyeing him suspiciously—this fellow had the same face as the one before.
“I think we better keep quiet until this is over,” he said after they had passed beyond the guardian’s view. Eliza only nodded. She was a strange girl, Eliot thought. He glanced down at her again, noticed that she was actually very pretty. He thought about her father and felt pain at the thought. She was so young. Not your concern.
As they halted on the wide ledge, he felt her hand tighten around his own, then felt it tremble as a chill wind blew through the quiet throng. He could not see very far over the crowd stretching on like a field of somber statues. Nobody moved; nobody breathed.
“Eliot,” Eliza whispered nervously.
“Let’s just wait and see,” he said, trying to comfort her. He felt her hand loosen a bit. He looked back at the way they’d come, only to see three of the guardians forming a phalanx across the path. He turned away from their hollow stares and looked out over the crowd. As far as he could see, the only other path led toward the end of the shelf, toward the enclosure of the valley. The only visible outlet was the dark, gaping hole in the far precipice.
wait, wait, always and forever and give give give and wait don’t touch don’t speak don’t think just wait
Amid the silence, they listened, watched and waited. Eliot saw a man step onto a rocky platform overlooking the crowd. His thin, white hair slid behind his ears—an extension of his skin’s pallor. His eyes were cold and grey, while his lips seemed eternally drawn into a knowing grin that spoke of supernovas and the unraveling of time and space. When the man spoke, Eliot recognized him by his voice. It was the same guide that had led them all to this point.
boots heavy black blundering boots and a cape a swaying cape tattered and slit the man the cloak his steps echo the thunder and the thunder cries his name
“All right, folks,” he said. “Pay close attention because I will not be repeating myself.” His voice carried over the platform, echoing down into the valley. “Most of you are probably wondering where you are, and with good reason. Well, let me start by saying that this is not Heaven.”
A few people in the crowd gasped; others seemed less concerned. Eliot was among the latter. He could remember something of what he thought Heaven was supposed to look like—white-robed men and women, golden gates and light, lots of light, so much light you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face—and this place did not look anything like it with its sloping green valley, its overhanging shrouds of mist. He looked down at Eliza. She appeared calm, unmoved. He wondered if she even knew about Heaven.
“It’s not Hell either,” the man quickly added.
Whispers of relief fluttered from mouth to mouth as the frightened people in the crowd settled along with their cooling blood.
“No,” the man said, “this is the place that exists between the world you came from and the world into which you are headed.”
Again rose the cohesive murmuring of muted voices. When he heard the guide’s affirmation, he saw the logic of it almost as if he had anticipated it. He realized why the valley had the aura of something both desolate and peaceful. It was the place between places, a mere interstice in the spine of worlds.
Such is the nature of a grave. Again his gaze drifted toward the black cavern, set high in the cliffs, at the far end of the valley. That’s it. It has to be. But how to get to it? And with the girl dangling from your arm. You’ll have to lose her. She’s not your concern.
He felt Eliza tug his hand and so he looked down into her questioning eyes.
“I don’t want to go to another world,” she said.
“It’ll be fine,” he whispered. “Don’t worry.”
The guide began to speak again. “But before you go on to the world that awaits you…” he paused a moment, observing the crowd, preying on their anticipation. “…it is your right to be granted an opportunity.” He smiled.
Eliot found something about that smile unsettling, almost as if there were a malignant thought at the root of it. But then he was looking at the man from far away, and the light—or the indescribable substitute for it—was just odd enough to play tricks. Still, his strange offer roused Eliot’s interest. Maybe this was the chance he was looking for. Don’t count on it. Don’t count on anything they give.
A man’s voice rose up from somewhere in the crowd: “What’s the meaning of all this mystery? What the hell kind of place is this, anyway?”
The guide shifted his eyes through the ranks of people, all dying to know what he was going to do or say next. Eliot could tell that the man was enjoying himself; and why shouldn’t he? Why should anyone dispute his right to toy with beleaguered souls? This was his stage, his circus of fear and wonder. The guide turned his head toward the valley.
“Bring up the first glider,” he called.
A sound came from somewhere beyond the edge of the cliff, a sound like metal wheels rolling on a track. People near the back were standing on the tips of their toes, trying to see what was coming.
“I want to see it,” Eliza said. Her fingers formed a steel vice around his wrist as she pulled him into the crowd.
“Eliza,” he said. “Wait.”She’s going to get you penned up for sure.
“Come on,” she said, and pushed forward through the ranks, tugging Eliot along with her. They bumped into someone different at every step. Eliot tried to ignore the bounty of irritated looks he won as Eliza forced her way through the crowd. He glanced up to see the guide eyeing him from the platform. The man still had that curious smile on his face, as if he were delighted by the sudden stirring of inquisitive souls. Now everybody was looking at them.
“Eliza,” Eliot said, “please stop.” Shake free and be done.
“We’re almost to the front,” she said.
He only followed because he was afraid to pry her fingers from his wrist—it never entered his mind to hold her back with force. As they neared the edge of the shelf, the sound of machinery grew louder. The people near the front saw them coming and stepped out of the way, though Eliot was certain it was not out of reverence or consideration. Good luck getting out now.
Eliza halted as the valley opened before her. Beyond the ledge, the green fields rose and fell like waves in a thunderous ocean; the sharp points of smoke-colored rocks broke out from beneath the hills. Eliza looked up at Eliot and smiled.
“That was easy,” she said.
Eliot just stared down at her in silence. Then, gathering himself, he took a quick look around. He stood now at the edge of the road, with only a steep and deadly drop before him. There wasn’t even a path leading down to the valley. No way down. No way out. Suddenly, he saw the grey edge of a triangular shape peek above the ledge; the rolling of mechanized wheels could be felt coursing through the rock on which they stood.
“Looks like a kite,” Eliza said.
To Eliot it looked like a hang-glider, only bigger. He was surprised at himself for making the connection; he knew what hang-gliders looked like, only he didn’t know how he knew. It was being brought up by a rising platform that looked metallic, only it didn’t reflect light because there was no light to reflect. The wings of the glider stretched out beyond the edges of the platform, casting no shadows. He heard the metal wheels lock as the platform leveled with the edge of the flat shelf. There was a boom that resonated in the cliffs at all corners of valley, then died out somewhere among the empty glades and scattered rocks. The glider rested in silence.
“Does it really fly?” Eliza asked. Eliot started to answer—
“Magnificently,” a voice said.
They both looked up to see the guide standing before them; he had come down from his pulpit to walk among his sheep. He smiled at the little girl without showing his teeth.
“But don’t take my word for it,” he said. He looked up at Eliot and frowned. “So you are to be the first to fly it?”
“Uh, I didn’t…”
“He was in the back of the group the whole time,” a voice spoke from behind. It was the same voice that had spoken out earlier. Eliot turned to see a grim, aged man scowling at him from the front line. The man stepped forward.
“He shoved his way to the front only a second ago,” the man said. “Hell, you saw him do it. Why should he get to fly it first?”
“He’s right,” Eliot said. “We did push our way to the front. It wouldn’t be fair. And besides, I’m not sure why I would want to fly it.”
“Why indeed?” the guide said. “For where would it take you?” The guide stepped past Eliot and addressed the crowd. “I spoke of an opportunity. Here it is.” He motioned to the glider. “On the other side of this valley,” he continued, “there is a tunnel.”
He pointed to the dark spot Eliot had been evaluating since he first set eyes on it. Once more, Eliot gazed up at it, noting how small it seemed. To accommodate something as big as the glider meant that the tunnel was a lot farther away than the eye made it appear.
“This tunnel leads back to the world from which you all came,” the guide said.
“You mean back to our lives?” the man from before asked. “We can go back to living again?”
“If you make it through,” the guide said, the lack of confidence evident.
“What happens if one of us goes and doesn’t make it?” the same man asked.
Eliot noticed the guide brighten at this question, almost as if he had been waiting for someone to ask it.
“If you do not succeed…” he began, and then he looked at Eliot, who was standing off from the rest of the group with Eliza hanging at his hip. “Then you die the real death,” he said.
A shudder swept through the crowd. Whispers and murmurs rose together and blended into that single, inarticulate voice which Eliot knew so well.
“My daddy is on the other side of that tunnel,” Eliza whispered.
“You don’t know that for sure,” Eliot said. You can’t take her. Don’t even think of it.
“Yes, I do,” she said.
“Those of you who are unwilling to take the risk,” the guide said, “will accompany me by train to the next world, where you will be dealt with justly. Of that I can say no more.”
“Eliot,” Eliza said, her voice pleading, “I don’t want to go to the other world. My daddy is not there.”
Eliot stared at her for a while, thinking. Then he looked back at the glider. The great wings seemed to linger in the air, sometimes lifting at the slightest force of wind beneath them. Once, the glider leapt up as if to fly, but the ropes tying it off at the bottom held it in place. It settled again onto the platform as the breeze dwindled.
gust, gust the thund’rous bellows will he find faith
“Is there only one glider?” Eliot asked. He remembered the guide had called it the first glider.
The guide laughed. “Good god, no. There is one for every person here. But, usually no more than one ever goes out.”
“Why is that?” Eliot asked.
“Because nobody ever wants to follow the one who failed, especially after they see it. So, who will be the first to fly?” The guide turned back toward the people. The same man who had complained about Eliot pushing through the crowd stepped forward.
“I’ll fly it,” he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the guide said, “our first volunteer. Your name, sir?”
“Crowe,” the man said.
“Mr. Crowe. If you will follow me, please.” The guide led Crowe onto the platform.
Eliot felt his sleeve being tugged.
“What is it?”
“See what?” Eliza asked.
“What are you talking about?”
She sighed. “He said that nobody ever wants to fly after they see it. What do they see?”
Eliot thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said.
As soon as Crowe was secure in the glider’s harness, the wind began to blow hard, pushing up against the wings. The glider leapt up into the air and hung there, pulling the ropes taught. Crowe seemed tense but collected, holding the bar with both hands. Eliot noted that he never once looked back.
“You’re right,” Eliot said. “It does look a lot like a kite.”
“Let her go,” the guide called. The ropes uncoiled by themselves and fell back to the platform. The glider shot out over the valley and rode the wind over rolling green hills. Crowe flew as if he knew what he was doing, Eliot thought. The guide walked back over the platform and stopped next to Eliot, who watched the glider get smaller as it traveled into the distance. It wasn’t long before it looked like a speck in comparison with the dark cave—an open mouth in the face of grey cliffs.
Then Eliot saw something move inside the mouth, or thought he saw something.
“What was that?” he asked.
“What?” Eliza replied.
Narrowing his eyes, he searched for several moments but didn’t see anything.
“What was what?” Eliza asked.
“I saw a shape inside the cave, like a shadow or something.” He looked over at the guide. The man stared blankly across the valley as if he had heard nothing.
“I see it,” Eliza said.
“It’s gone now,” she said. “It did seem like a shadow, though.”
“Like black outlined against black, right?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
The glider was close to the tunnel now. Eliot turned toward the guide.
“You didn’t tell him everything.”
“Didn’t tell who everything?” The guide continued to stare out into the valley.
Eliot gestured toward the glider off in the distance. “The man—Crowe.”
“I made the risks known,” the guide said. “And then he chose.”
Eliot turned away, disgusted. More and more he found himself hating this place, this desolate place with no sky and no light and—
“Eliot,” Eliza cried, “look!”
He looked out over the valley just in time to see the thing erupt from the cave’s shadow. The wings unfurled to reveal the muscular, bird-like legs curving down toward buckled claws. The skin was as black as obsidian, yet opaque and dull as ash. The narrow head coned up behind the spine just like… like…
“A pterodactyl,” Eliza said.
Eliot heard her speak but could not lay hold of her words, could barely comprehend what he was seeing. He felt like a child and an old man all at once and neither of them resembled the Eliot he thought he was. He watched the glider turn away from the winged monster, then saw it bounce through the air as though it were in a panic.
The beast brought its wings up and snapped them down, folding them inward with ageless grace. The glider spiraled downward, its flight broken by the new force of wind. Then the beast swooped down, caught the glider in its claws and in one motion tore it apart. Shreds of lacerated fabric floated like strings of confetti, at last vanishing beneath the hills. The creature never roared or gave any kind of cry as it flew back toward the cave; the only sound came from the resonant beating of its wings.
Eliza’s voice seemed to come from somewhere afar off. He looked down at her with vacant eyes, saw that she was in tears again.
“What?” he said. “What do you want me to say? That everything is going to be all right?”
“Eliot, please.” She began to cry harder as she pulled at his shirt with aimless hands.
“Nothing is all right.” He squeezed her tiny arm. She stared up at him, helpless. “Because in the end,” he said, “it’s always the same monster. Always. So stop standing there expecting me to sing you back to sleep. This is not a dream, and I’m not your father. I’m not… I’m not…”
He fell down into her arms, hugging her as if she were his. Her tears seeped through the fabric of his sweater, felt cold as ice against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean…”
“I know,” she said. “I know.”
He looked into her green eyes. He knew now the truth he had to face: that escape was a dream far beyond reach. That was the point of this place, he realized now. To break even the most stubborn will and tame the rogue spirit. Perhaps that was why he had found her. Perhaps she was to him a measure of grace—a small parcel of joy to be had in a world where little remained worth hoping for. Keep her close.
“We’re here for good now,” he said. “Do you understand? We have to face that and move forward, whatever the outcome.”
“But I can’t go to the other world,” she said. “I can’t. My daddy is not there.”
“You really think he’s on the other side of that tunnel?”
“I know he is,” she said.
“How? How can you know that, Eliza?”
“I know it the same way I knew you were somebody I could trust,” she said. “I knew it when I saw you back on the train.”
“Train?” he said, his eyes floundering about, searching within. “What train?” smoke whistles white deserts starless deepening canyons
“See?” she said. “You’re already dying a real death, Eliot. I know because I can feel things slipping from me, silently, under my nose. Like my daddy’s face. I lost it back in the tunnel when I found you. What else I’ve lost I can only wonder.”
“You don’t talk like a child.” It was all he could think to say.
She smiled through her tears. “So you remember how a child ought to talk, then?”
Yes, I remember that. A way of talking.
“You’re really not afraid to go? Even though you know we have no chance?”
She took a deep breath. “I didn’t say I wasn’t afraid. But I know what I have to do, Eliot, and I’ll do it with or without your help.”
god give me a child’s courage
With her, everything was clearer: memories, sensations, everything that mattered. He had felt that from the moment she touched him but only now did he lay hold of it. Without her, he would have been like all the other empty souls standing out in the crowd: lost, alone, afraid. If she was resolved to going, then there was no question what he had to do. Taking her hands in his, he looked into her eyes ablaze with green fire.
“All right,” he said. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
it is a promise to be much loved and so awake, awake it is time to go
Eliza only nodded, then looked up at something behind him. Following her gaze, Eliot turned to see the guide staring down at them. The man appeared perplexed, as if he had never seen two people crying before. Then, the guide abruptly turned toward the people—rows of headstones staring out into the valley. “Who will go next?” he asked. The crowd rustled; a bed of dead leaves suddenly windswept.
“We will go,” Eliot said, rising to his feet. The guide looked at him, then down at the girl.
“Both of you? At the same time?”
“Yes,” Eliot said. “Is that against your rules, as well?”
“There are no rules,” the guide said. “But if it is to be both of you, then both must choose. What is the girl’s choice?” He stared down at Eliza while waiting for her to answer.
“I want to go home,” she said.
“Very well, then,” the guide said, and then turned toward the platform. “Bring up the next glider,” he called out. The rumble of machinery echoed down into the valley as the abandoned platform began receding into the precipice.
“Are you out of your mind?” a man from the crowd said to Eliot. “You won’t stand a chance against that… that monster.”
The guide stood by calmly, waiting. Eliot started to speak—
“I’m not going to let you take that little girl,” a woman near the front cried. “You’re insane and she doesn’t know any better. She’s only a child.”
At that, Eliot just stood in silence, holding tight to Eliza’s hand.
The woman turned to the guide. “If he wants to go and get himself torn to pieces, then that’s his affair. But he can’t take her. He can’t.”
Seeing that the guide made no attempt to respond, the woman stepped forward and stretched out her hand toward Eliza. “Come here, sweetie.”
Eliot looked at Eliza. “Stay by me,” he said.
“Don’t you say another word to her!” the woman snapped. “Sweetie, please come here.” The woman took another step and leaned toward them, stretching farther with her monochrome hand.
“I’m going with Eliot,” Eliza said. The woman was about to say something else but the guide stopped her.
“The girl has chosen,” he said. “Now get back if you will not fly.”
“You can’t just—”
“I said, get back.” A crack of thunder came from nowhere and then sighed in a brush of cold wind. the fiery flood of ire and blood
The woman looked down at Eliza, then narrowed her eyes as she looked up at Eliot. She turned and went back to her place among the crowd. Eliot saw a man turn to her, heard him say: “Poor girl. It’s really a shame. You did the right thing, though.”
“They don’t understand,” Eliza whispered. Eliot thought her voice sounded older.
“No,” he said. “They don’t.”
“This way,” the guide said, beckoning them to follow.
Eliot turned to see that the next glider had been brought up, and then he and Eliza followed the guide onto the new platform.
“The girl will have to ride atop your back,” the guide said. “And she’ll have to hold on.”
“Can you hold on?” Eliot asked her.
“I’ll have to,” she said. “I won’t go if I have to fly by myself.”
Climbing into the torso harness, he tightened the straps around his thighs and then wrapped his hands around the guiding bars, all the while trying not to think about how he was going to fly the thing. Eliza climbed onto his back and wrapped her arms around his neck, then fastened her legs around his torso.
“You on?” he asked.
Eliot looked over at the guide. “I guess we’re ready,” he said.
The guide just stared at him. Eliot saw that the man’s curious smile had found its way back to the surface, only this time there was something different about it that Eliot could not quite place. It was as if the smile was such that it teetered on the line dividing true hope from a kind of mockery. Which it was more, Eliot could not say.
The wind swept under the wings and the glider lifted, causing Eliot to center his gaze over the fields—the cave looming in the distance. He felt Eliza’s arms and legs tighten around him. The subtle leap made his stomach rise; he remembered that he had never been fond of flying.
“Set her free,” the guide called, and the ropes holding the glider fell away.
Eliot could feel the wind lifting them up high above the valley and pushing them forward with great force. Flying was easier than he had expected—all he had to do was hold on.
“You all right?” Eliot called, tilting his head to the side.
“Really cold,” she said, raising her voice above the hum of wind.
“Me too,” he said. “Just don’t let go, all right?”
“I’m not going to let go.”
The glider rose and held its course toward the cave, which was growing larger. The rocks and boulders in the valley looked like pebbles. Eliot tried not to look down. He kept his eyes on the cave. They were almost there, but to what end he dared not think.
“Eliot,” Eliza said.
“What is it?” he yelled back.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” she said.
“We will,” he said. “Don’t worry. Just hang on to me.”
The glider lifted higher as another gust of wind pushed against the wings. The cave opened before them, a stygian maw ascending into their heaven, or descending into their hell. For a while Eliot peered hard into the nearing dark—at last he saw the shadow move. The beast dropped down from some high place in the tunnel, its wings folded back behind it, and shot toward the glider like an arrow. Eliot was startled by how large the creature was; its head alone was the size of their glider, perhaps bigger.
He felt Eliza bury her head into his shoulder.
He looked for the eyes—he wanted to look into the eyes of this terror before he conquered it, but there were none. Where eyes should have been, there were only black folds of calloused skin. The creature was blind, and yet it saw everything. The world it saw with blind eyes was lightless and yet the world was there to be seen by any who would choose to see it. Wind blew from all directions and yet the grass in the valley below lay still, and with every burst of wind the glider grew more unruly—with every burst, Eliot grew more afraid.
“My god,” Eliot said.
“What?” Eliza cried, barely lifting her head.
“I know how to beat it.”
“How?” she cried.
He could not believe what he was thinking, could hardly bring himself to say it. It was one of those thoughts that intruded upon the flow of logic, the kind that contended with the reason of the articulate self. He saw the beast’s wings rise up high into the air.
“You have to let go,” he said.
“What? You’re insane, Eliot. I’m not letting—”
When the wings came down, the blast met them head-on and sent the glider spinning. Looking away from the whirling horizon, Eliot focused on harnessing the undercurrent. When that failed, he focused on harnessing his fear… a little dying star that spits and sputters gust, gust the thund’rous bellows against the torn black sail but will he find it when he comes… He brought the glider back up to ride the wind, then turned it around to face the cave. He saw the beast fly upward and then dive after them. He pushed that sight from his mind and held his gaze on the tunnel.
“Eliza,” Eliot said, “We don’t need the glider. Let go. I can’t climb from the harness with you on my back.”
The beast swooped down, claws outstretched. Without seeing, Eliot anticipated the creature’s movement and pushed his weight forward, diving out of the monster’s path. The glider plunged toward the hills and then shot upward. He looked back to see the beast coming around, its wings flattened against the grey world behind it.
“Eliza,” he said, “I can’t keep this up. You have to trust me.”
“I’ll fall if I let go,” she cried.
“That’s just it,” Eliot said, “You can’t fall—not here. No rules, Eliza. It’s all one big trick. You can fly out on your own.”
“Eliot, I… I’m afraid.”
He felt a shadow rising, felt it swallowing the glider. Again he didn’t see it, but he knew that it was there. nothing is seen only felt in this place we are all blind
“Eliza,” he yelled, “Let go!”
He felt the weight on his back lift off. For a moment he wondered if he had done the right thing in telling her to let go. Looking to his right, he saw a little girl flying through the air, her hair blown back and dancing like a flag in a storm.
“That’s it, Eliza,” Eliot cried. “Now fly home! I’m right behind you.”
He watched her vanish into the cave’s enveloping dark, then turned the glider down and to the left just as he felt the shadow enfold him. He pulled at the bands securing him to the torso harness, then went for the leg straps. He was able to get the right one loose.
The claws tore through the wings. The glider lurched to the side as the beast caught it and lifted it up toward its narrow mouth. With its jaws it caught the wing. Eliot looked up into a fold of black skin, into the eye that was not. He ignored the sound of fabric tearing, the razor-tipped teeth gnawing away the metal braces inches away from him. He unstrapped the final band from his left leg and fell free.
As he felt the cold wind rush against his chest and into his lungs, he thought he was going to keep falling until his body would be thrashed against some jagged rock in the field below. But flying came so naturally, so quick. All he had to do was ride the wind and let it carry him, just as the glider had. He never looked back to see if the monster followed, but kept his eyes on the tunnel. As he flew under cover of the cave’s top rim, he could hear the sound of metal rods snapping as the beast tore the glider to ruin.
As he drove deeper into darkness, he saw the tunnel curve up toward something… something that had the look and feel of light. As he rose toward it, he thought he heard a shrill cry coming from over the plains outside the cave. It rose like a gusty howl atop a stormy sea, and at last dwindled into a beleaguered moan—a cry to tear asunder the fabric of worlds.
* * *
The light began to dissolve and through the white haze he glimpsed the form of a little girl. She was lying on something white close by and all around her everything was white. She was staring at him with half-closed eyelids and for a moment he felt as if he knew her or had known her once in some other time or some other place. She was beautiful, fragile, alive.
She whispered something, called him by a name that he wasn’t sure belonged to him. She called him the name again and then he knew who she was to him, and who he was to her. He wanted to speak but no words would come. He wanted to tell her that she was right, that she had been right about everything.