The slow melodious rhythm of the desert wind formed a landscape of dark beauty in perpetual flux. Possibilities for the poetry of form would settle for a moment before being washed from the vast page. A chaos of fear to the left and right while the path wrote an unnatural and unchanging solitary verse through the desolation. The band of three continued to walk along the path, their footsteps remaining for a mere moment before the wind smoothed them away.
Jason looked at the ground as he hobbled along and noticed Lucia and Derwood also walking in quiet contemplation of their feet. Was the mountain also the instigator of pain for them too, a great jagged rock sitting on the horizon as a taunt to those who would dare to gaze and were foolish enough to hope.
“Why don’t we bleed?” Lucia asked. “I mean, I can understand not being able to eat or drink—we’re supposed to suffer in hell—but no blood? That just confuses me.”
“Maybe that’s the point, to confuse us and make us feel unsettled,” Jason answered as he thought about his missing penis—this made him feel nauseous.
Derwood shook sand from his hair. “The pain still comes but gets no easier to bear. I had pain in me back from lifting sheep out of streams and pulling tree stumps all day, but after a while the pain became part of the background. Here it seems new all the time, ye never numbs to it.”
“Like what you said about food, Derwood, maybe it’s all in our heads. Maybe none of this is real, not in the sense life was, anyway.”
“Like a dream?” Lucia asked. “I hope so, and we will all wake up soon.”
“I wish this was just a dream. No. I mean, this is just our consciousness, our bodies are left back in some physical realm, while our consciousnesses are detached and reside in this metaphysical one.” He saw that Lucia and Derwood were staring at him. “I read it somewhere.”
“Where be all the sheep?” Derwood asked.
“And all the other animals,” Lucia added. “Is hell exclusively for humans?”
“How does a sheep commit a sin? Or a penguin?” Jason joked, although he found shallow humour in his musing. The lack of other animals was curious. Whales, elephants and some other creatures are capable of complex emotions, on a par or equal to humans—possibly even on a higher level than our own—so they too could commit acts that could be considered sinful. They could, he wondered, but do they? Or are humans the only creatures that…
“A penguin?” Lucia laughed.
Jason chuckled. “I had a cat once, I’m sure he’ll be here somewhere. Evil little bastard.”
“A penguin?” Derwood asked.
“Like a chicken but swims in the sea,” Jason answered with a grin.
“If you can catch ’em—slippery little suckers.”
The three walked on, sometimes in silence, and sometimes they would try to talk as they once had, in their former lives. They heard no other voices, no screams of anguish, and saw no one but each other. From time to time, the bank of a dune would fall across the path, but the wayward sand would be removed by the wind with prompt efficiency, returning the way to flat and level ground, devoid of hill or dip. The view of the mountain remained unchallenged as a tantalising view for the damned.
Furious sapphire eyes watched through flaming hair as the three figures approached.
“It tasted like a soggy turd?” Jason interrupted, as he limped along, using the baseball bat for balance and support.
“Aye! Aye, you got the rabbit right between the eyes, a soggy turd. Aye, that’s what it tasted like. Not that I ever ate a turd, soggy or not. Had me a pigeon once… Angels kissing yer lips when there be a pigeon on yer plate…”
“Derwood, I’m happy to let you go on about food, but my stomach is about ready to jump out and throttle you.”
“Sorry. I does go on a bit. Likes me food… Liked me food, is what I meant to say. It’s all up here anyway.” He tapped the side of his head with the blade of the hunting knife. “Johnny told me that.”
“Aye, Johnny. Daft bugger he were. The local poacher. Not much good at it, mind.” Derwood chuckled and then continued, “How he kept his life fer as long as he did I got no idea. Anyways, he spent a few nights as the landlord’s guest, after taking a pheasant or two. They caught him and chained the poor sod up in one of the lower rooms of the big house. The landlord thought it would be fun to throw week-old scraps at him, maggots and all. Johnny told me he’d hold his nose and eat everything that got thrown at him, and while chomping down on all that filth he’d think of a banquet table full to overflowing with all manner of glorious food.”
“Did it help?”
“Aye, so he said. Looked pretty healthy when he told me the story. Although they did hang the silly bugger a week later. The landlord thought a second turn as his guest wasn’t going to be enough for trying to claim one of his deer, so they hung him out for all to see from a tree by the road. Old Johnny dangled from that old oak till folk could hear the local children tapping their sticks on his bones.”
“For stealing a deer?”
“Aye. Deer is good meat, hard to come by unless thee don’t mind decorating a tree… Wonder what the old crows thought about while they ate old Johnny. Tis what I be getting at, see. It’s like sucking on these things, I suppose.” He spat the ruby into his hand, looked at it for a moment, and then put it back in his mouth. “All in yer head.”
“Suppose it is. Pizza, chips and a good bottle of red, that’s what I’m thinking of.”
Derwood scrunched up his nose and had a quizzical look.
“Bread with various meats and vegetables scattered on top.”
“Oh, aye. Peat’s chips?”
“Pizza. The chips are just sliced up potatoes.”
Derwood looked at the knife in his hand and then murmured, “Ye better have this back.”
“I don’t want it no more.”
“Friends are hard to come by, Derwood, in life and more so here. If…” Jason corrected himself, “When we run into another problem, another bloody freak comes our way, I’ve got your back, like I hope you’ve got mine.”
“Ye mean that? We be friends? I never had a friend before. I call everyone friend, but nobody ever called me one before.”
“You hold onto that knife, Derwood, and we’ll both get out of this place.”
“Don’t think I’ll ever be leaving…”
“Yes, you will. In fact, I know you will. That bitch Lilith told me you will; in fact, she said you did. Hell and time travel, what a mindfuck.”
“Like I said, we’ve met before, Derwood. You don’t remember. I don’t know why you don’t remember, but we have met, and soon after, Lilith told me you worked up the nerve to go into the cave.”
“She be evil like I never knew. Telling such lies, and does things to ye… Horrible… Poking the fear inside, until ye agree to do her bidding.”
“We’ll get out of here, Derwood, I know we will. I know you do, so it follows that if I’m with you, I’ll get out of here too. Stick together, watch each other’s backs, and we’ll beat this.”
“Wish I’d spent more time talking to God, praying and such…”
“Forget about God. I didn’t like him much when I didn’t believe. I like Him even less now that I know He’s real. What kind of God would allow something like hell to exist? He doesn’t give a shit about us, so why should we care about Him? If we get out of hell, it’ll be because of our doing, nothing to do with God. Just as in life, you want something to happen, you make it happen. Supreme being? Supreme shit…”
“Don’t like God much, does ye, Jason?”
“Are you kidding me? With all the shit He allows to happen in the world.”
“I once asked a holy man about that very thing, and he asked me if I be blaming the father for the sins of the child…”
“You’re damn right I would,” Jason snapped.
“I don’t know. How free would we be if God interfered?”
“Okay, maybe, but why punish us like this when we screw up. It’s like giving a box of matches to a baby and then getting mad with the kid when your house burns down. There are children here, Derwood. Children are in hell. I found one locked in a cage. How is that right? I know kids can do bad things too, but… hell? It makes no sense to punish people like this. What would be the point? If anything, it makes us more sinful and barbaric. When I think of some of the things I’ve seen and… things I’ve done since coming here.”
“I don’t understand all this, no spark for the whys and wherefores. I thinks that, maybe, if I had tried to talk to God and listened really hard, me head wouldn’t be so fuzzy about it now.”
“You make it out of here, Derwood, I know you do. Although, I can’t help thinking there is more torment to come for me… I wasn’t with you when you went into the cave, so…”
“So, it be a mind doodah. Me and thee will walk into that cave, and our footprints will be side by side. Ye said it yerself, Jason, we be watching each other’s back now. I won’t let my friend down.” Derwood looked at the knife and then at his feet. “Before, I… but… not now. I won’t do what she asks.”
“What would thee do, Jason, to be with yer daughter again?”
“Anything. Anything at all. What’s the matter, Derwood? What did she want you to do?”
“Nothing… A bad thing… I just wanted to get to the mountain and leave this place, tis all. But… every time I get close, something happens… Someone does something to me and I have to start this nonsense all over again. The beast woman said if I… If I did something for her she’d take me straight to it. She said it would amuse her, that’s how she put it, it would amuse her—she’s an evil witch. Well, I ain’t going to do it. Ye better take this back. I’ll just cut me self with the damn thing anyhow.” Derwood held the knife out, handle first, towards Jason.
Jason didn’t take it. “What did she want you to do?”
Derwood shook his head as if being bothered by a wasp. “It don’t matter no more, because I ain’t doing it.” He threw the knife to the ground and then looked up and shouted at the sky, “I ain’t going to do it. Ye hear me, old hag. He’s not hurt me, he’s me friend. Ye be nothing but a dead crow, able to peck at us no more.”
Jason leaned over and picked up the knife. “She wants you to send me back to the start?”
Derwood looked at Jason with tearful eyes. “I’ve been here for so long, please don’t think bad of me for telling her I would.”
Jason heard his name on the wind. He looked back along the path and could see someone running towards them. A moment later he turned back to Derwood and smiled. “Three. There are three of us now.”
They both watched as Lucia drew near.
“I saw the carriage back there,” she said with a bright smile. “You let them go?”
“I’m sorry I left you,” Jason said as he embraced her.
Lucia held him tight for a long moment. “I’m just glad you let them go.”
“I should have come back for you…”
“Damn fool if you had. Not the place to play hero. Our paths have crossed again, and that makes me happy.”
“Me too, Lucia. Me too.”
Lucia smiled at Derwood. “Hello. Another stray joining our little band in paradise?”
“This is my friend Derwood. He was thinking about killing me, but he’s a good man, so he’s decided not to.” Jason handed the knife back to his friend.
Jason sat and reclined against one of the rear wheels of the carriage, looking back along the path and watching the wind as it formed pirouetting columns of sand, erasing all footsteps and lines left by the carriage wheels. Any tracks left by predators would also be removed before they could give fair warning. He expected Lilith to appear and force him to keep moving, but she didn’t come. Muffled screams and desperate calls came from far off over the dunes.
Aching thoughts sat with Jason and infected him with lethargy. He would never reach the mountain. And even if he did, could he escape all this and be with Emily again? The message scratched into the carriage door proclaimed he wouldn’t. It was foolish to believe a demon would give him a chance for redemption. The mountain was Lilith’s mirage of hope in her desert of futility.
“Hey there, friend, shame ye got no horses to complete the set.”
Jason turned. “Derwood?” He was sure it was the man he’d met before, even though his clothes were different. He was wearing a baggy white shirt, black trousers, and brown boots, with no thick thread holding it all together and no loose leather around his feet.
“How’d ye know that? Have we met before? Me memory’s a bit fuzzy most of the time now, so don’t take offence if I is a bit sketchy ’bout things.”
“Yes, at the mountain. We met at the mountain. Gert! You were telling me about Gert, your chicken.”
“Your hen, yes. And you were looking for something.”
“Yes, it was you. Your name’s Derwood. It’s good to see you again.”
“I haven’t got to the mountain yet. I is on me way there now. Moths in my head, no doubt about that, but I think I’d remember if I’d been there. Is ye going too?”
“I was… We have met. We were talking and then I disappeared. Don’t you remember?”
“Sorry, chum, no. Yer not gonna get all violent, is ya? I’ll say far thee well if ye wants. Ain’t interested in getting into any more scuffles.”
“Me dumb clubfoot,” Jason said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Aye, me dumb clubfoot. Madness here, the bizarre wandering free. Managed to avoid a fair few, but not all. When they get me good, I wakes up back at me old farm. Well, what’s left of it anyways. Think this is the furthest I’ve been so far. Thee looks pretty harmless, though, so thought I’d tip me hat. Ain’t got no hat, I knows, but ye gets me meaning. Gets awful lonesome here.”
“Yes, it does.”
“Derwood’s me name, friend.”
“I know.” Jason started to climb to his feet. “Jason.”
“Hang on there, I’ll give ye battered soul a hand.” He helped Jason up and gave him the baseball bat that leaned against the wheel. “Looks like ye taken a fair beating or two.”
“Thanks. Yes, not at my best.”
“Yer still here though, so me thinks the other guy is sure to look a lot worse,” Derwood said with a laugh. “I’d offer you me flask, but water seems as evil as everything else around these parts.”
Jason opened the carriage door and picked up two gemstones from the floor. A ruby and a large yellow diamond.
“Here.” He dropped the ruby into Derwood’s hand.
“No need to pay me, Jason. I just helped ye up, tis all. Not worth anything in this place anyhow.”
Jason smiled. “Put it in your mouth. Don’t swallow it though. It’ll help with the thirst.” Jason threw the diamond into his own mouth.
“Oh, aye.” He looked at the gemstone in his hand, a dubious yet curious look upon his face. “Have the cows been smiling at thee much?”
“It works, trust me.”
Derwood popped the ruby in his mouth. “What should I do with it now?”
Jason laughed. “Nothing. Just let it do its thing.” He offered him the hunting knife. “For the bizarre wanderers.”
“Me legs seem to be the best weapon in this place. Run like a scoundrel at dawn. Me fast pins got me out of more than a few scrapes in life, and here, too.” Derwood took the knife. “For the time when me old legs cramp up.”
Jason looked back along the path and then down at the ground.
“What’s up, chum?”
“I made a mistake.”
“Hey, I’ve stacked up a few of those. No point ye be going for a swim in the murky waters, as me dear old wife used to say, ye can drown in regret.”
Jason smiled at Derwood. “A wise woman.”
“Aye, her mind was a bit scattered most of the time, but when her moths flew, she was sharp as the morning sun. Make a rancid rabbit fit for the king’s table, too. Wonder of nature how she could do that. Pretty as a summer rose, so she was.”
“A good woman,” Jason said, thinking first of Lucia and then Zoe.
“Aye. Tricked the Devil, so I did, when she came me way. Must’ve had the sun at me back and me club foot in the mire. I loved her… Still do.”
“How far do you think it is? The mountain, I mean.”
“Oh, it not be far. Used to walk further after me old sheep when they’d go off a-wandering. I think they were off wandering when God handed out the smarts because they got none. Sheep ain’t too bright. Taste good and keeps ye warm, but dumb as the landlord’s son.”
Jason looked to the mountain. It seemed no closer. He must have travelled thirty or more miles since leaving his house, yet the land remained unchanged. The far off remained far off.
“If we can see it, we can get to it,” Derwood assured him.
Jason took a final look back along the path and then they both started walking.
“If we can see it,” Jason reaffirmed, “we can get to it.”