Over the past year, friends and acquaintances will ask me ‘ So, how’s the writing going, Derek???’. I usually grimace and give some sort of a half-answer. I sat down today to write a seven-eighths answer, and this is what I wrote.
A traveler came to a city on the edge of a forest. The windows were dark, the chimneys were cold, the few people he passed had empty faces and sharp teeth. This was a place where Hunger wed Time, and he could see that soon their vicious children would be born. He had no wish to enter this city, but his shoes carried him down into its red tile streets all the same.
The traveler carried with him a box — a box wrapped three times in cords of silver. He did not know what was inside. Along the path, next to fire and under the moon he had told himself many times what the treasure might be. He knew it was no heavier than so, no more fragile than so – but the silver cord was wound too tight for even the tiniest peek at the contents.
A long time ago perhaps, he had promised to carry the box to the city. Of that he was sure. But as Night gave slaughter to a legion of days, the rest of his charge had grown hazy. Was he to give the box to someone? Was he to perform some task with it? Were there other preparations he had needed before arriving at the city? He did not know, was not sure if he had ever known. Only the familiar weight of the box in his pack, only the road blooming in front of his feet, only the city waiting on the edge of a forest.
He wandered up and down a few streets, uncertain. Fewer and fewer people could be seen – and those he did see were walking knives. The sun was dying, so he hurried on. He found an abandoned house on the end of a narrow street and slipped inside. He laid out his bedroll in what must have once been the dining room of the house. He ate a few meager bites of his provisions and listened to the wind hoping it would have some suggestions.
The traveler went to sleep, his pack and the silver-wound box tight in his arms.
In the dark he dreamed of nothing, the lonely house swaying in the wind.
He awoke and his arms were wrapped around nothing. His pack was gone and the box.
The traveler cried out in fear, then in anger. He ran to the door, the morning sun beaming down on him and an empty street. Not even stopping to retrieve his meager bed roll he ran out into the city. Up and down streets, past empty buildings and broken windows. He saw no one. Not even the few hollow people that he had seen the night before: the city was empty. Nothing but red tile streets and shattered doors and the sound of his feet hitting the ground. He ran for hours, until at last simple exhaustion brought him to a halt.
The traveler sat on the edge of a dry fountain and felt the sun’s heat. His charge was gone, he was alone, and there was no one to explain. He groaned into his hands and took a long breath.
After a time, the traveler stood. He took one last look around and then shrugged. It took him some time but he retraced his steps to the abandoned house where he had slept and found his bedroll tangled and waiting. He folded it carefully and slung it over his shoulder – it was all he had left to carry. Taking a loose nail from a broken cross-beam he took a few minutes to scratch his name on the outside of the front door.
Then he shut it behind him and walked out of the city, beyond the city. Into the dark forest, the road blooming underneath his feet.