The road runs from my farthest descendants to my inevitable progeny. It twists between the great pines of the Far East and curls beneath the Iron Mountains just behind me. I look up to their craggily peaks, briefly and with reasonable disdain recalling my trek over that treacherous stone obstacle.
I have followed the road my entire life, just as my mother before me and her mother before her.
Letting out a sigh, I gaze idly into the campfire at my feet. Above the flames, a pot of river-water tries to heat to a boil, and I wait for it in low spirits, uneager to begin my morning hike.
Impatiently, I withdraw a scroll from my pack, hoping to distract myself from the familiar spectacle of boiling drinking water. My fingers unfurl the raggedy scroll, careful not to harm its delicate material. I look down over it.
I hold in my hands a map of the east.
My mother had entrusted it to me as she lay dying by the sour bogs. An infection had swallowed her leg, and we had had the common sense to amputate it much too late, letting the foul flesh spread to her vitals. In the damp air of the swamplands, her illness overtook her. I will never forget the look in her eyes as she handed me the map, her most prized possession. She looked deeply sad, and at the time, I had assumed it the result of her own inability to complete her quest.
Looking over the worn chart, I find the bogs and let my finger press quietly against the simple illustration that adorns the map. Sliding my finger forward, I follow the path I had taken.
After the bogs, I crossed the hanging woods. Massive trees had lined the road, each oddly stripped of their branches. The bare trunks stretched undeterred up to the sky, towards a sun that seemed to have abandoned them.
Past the woods, I had come to the charred remains of a village. I’ve never seen an actual town before, but mother always told me that ruins like these had once housed numerous families all at once. The families here apparently had interest in some kind of lizard/bird hybrid deity; I found numerous statues and idols devoted to this winged-lizard creature littering mantles above empty fireplace and standing vigilant before collapsing doorways whose masters had long since left them behind. One massive stone figure kept watch at the center of the settlement, and I couldn’t help but feel somber as I looked over the divine, scaled being.
Whoever lived here had truly loved that god they had invented. I suppose it’s not too crazy though; everyone needs something to live for, even if it is all made-up.
Beyond the burned village, I had spent ages traversing the sea of salt. As I look over it now on the map, I cannot help but appreciate its sheer magnitude and feel at least somewhat impressed that I had overcome it. Truly, it had been one hell of a trial: The sun had dried up all the ocean water that legend claimed had once lay there, leaving a massive patch of salted earth. Nothing grew and nothing moved, and to pass through, I had hoarded dozens of canteens of water. I had crafted the canteens from deer stomachs that I had painstakingly hunted down one at a time.
Those dead-lands had marked the edge of the map, and as I sit now, I grow sad that that scrap of paper could not have guided me longer. From then on, I simply followed the road blindly, hoping that after every hill or bend in the trail my eyes would find the end. I could never get a precise answer of what lies at the end of the road, but mother once called it ‘nothing short of paradise’.
The end never came, so still I walk.
After I had passed the sea of salt and moved off the edge of the map, I found myself in a jungle. The utter shock of seeing green after that dessert nearly drove me mad, but once I had gathered my wits, I entered the dense trees and took advantage of the significant animal life. Hunting there came easily, but I soon found that I wasn’t the only hunter in those lands.
Great reptiles that crept on six legs would stalk up beneath the foliage and lunge for my feet. The first caught me off guard and nearly took my leg, but somehow I managed to stick my dagger through his eye socket before it had the chance to shut its jaw.
I roasted the scaled beast over the fire and rather enjoyed its meat, though it had an odd, overly chewy texture. As I bit into its hind leg, I wondered if that winged-lizard god of those villagers had somehow been inspired by creatures like these or perhaps even existed in the flesh somewhere beyond the horizon.
Just past the jungles, I had to make my climb over the Iron Mountains, a task that had nearly killed me on numerous occasions. At that point, the road climbed almost vertically, and I had to construct some grappling tools from some vine and bones out of the jungle. I constructed four of the things, two of which broke into pieces upon hitting rock and one of which fell down a seemingly bottomless crevasse not too far from the peak. I fell down a shallower pit as well at one point, spraining my wrist pretty badly and hurting my ribs. All the skin beneath my left breast is still discolored and bruised from the rough landing.
As I recall this last step of my journey, steam rises gently from the pot. I tuck the map away in my pack and pull the pot off the fire. After letting it cool, I drink down as much of the water as I can stomach. I chew down several large nuts that I had gathered just yesterday and pack the metal pot back in with my other belongings. Getting to my feet, I sling the weighty pack over my shoulder and take the first step onwards. My dagger hangs sheathed at my hip.
Rain begins to drizzle down.
Sighing, I cast a patched-up hood over my head. I had seen the storm resting on the southern sky the night before but had hoped that it would have held out until tonight.
Regardless of the weather, the walk is going to be a monotonous slog. After the Iron Mountains, the ground levels out into flatlands that stretch out indefinitely far in every direction. I strain my eyes in an attempt to establish where on the horizon the earth meets the sky, but I fail, finding an endless wall of gray greeting me.
The rain progresses into a downpour and the wind picks up in severe gusts.
I lower my head and clutch my cloak over my face, heavily restricting my vision but offering some protection against the elements. With squinted eyes, I struggle to make out my feet under me, taking one blind step forward at a time. Even if I wanted to stop, it would be pointless; with the flatlands all around, there would be no place to take shelter.
To pass the time, I sing gently to myself. The words have carved themselves into my memories, a lullaby mother used to softly lend to me.
“Don’t go in the river, heaven knows where it goes.
It could lead anywhere at all, but will never flow back home.
All along the waters, the spirits sing and moan
That the river flows forever but never flows back home.”
I sing it over and over, a quiet mantra to keep me sane. Until mother had died and left me alone, I had never realized how valuable something as simple as a song could be.
In time, the rain slows again, lowering again into a drizzle. Losing my hood and finishing the song, I lift my head to survey the way forward.
A figure stands ahead.
I freeze in surprise, staring in alarm. The silhouette stands fairly far away, mostly obscured by the steady rain. At first, I consider the possibility that it could be a tree or even a rock formation, but I soon notice faint movements, as though the thing is slowly approaching me. A gut reaction tells me to find someplace to hide, and as I look around I find to my dread the same empty flatland that had surrounded me before the rainfall.
A chilled wind gust by while I consider retreat. I could turn back or even make a run for it, but then again, that would waste a lot of energy and erase some of the progress that I had already made. Besides, the stranger could always chase me down if I try to make a get-away; it can clearly see me if I can see it. Running in any other direction would yield the same problem as well as risk losing sight of the road.
With no other choice, I resume my steps forward. Looking ahead to the mysterious figure, I let my hand drop to my dagger.
I wonder what sex the stranger belongs to. I have never actually seen a man, but mother had warned me about them. From this distance, I struggle to tell the build of the stranger, unable to even determine a vague estimate for a height.
The wind lets out a howl as the stranger and I maintain our steady approach. I find my grip tightening over my dagger’s hilt and can’t help but notice that the stranger holds some kind of long instrument at its side. After a few more paces forward, I realize that the item is in fact a spear. In response, I draw the dagger and hold it at the ready.
At about twenty steps apart, we stop.
Neither of us speaks, standing out in the rain. It wears a heavy coat and mask, hiding away any features I could use to learn more about it. My eyes lower to the jagged spear hanging from its grip. The stranger appears to have crafted the spearhead from a jagged shard of bone and bound it to the pole with what looks like hair. With careful movements, the spear’s wielder holds up the weapon at the ready before speaking in a clear, ringing voice:
“Lower your blade and I’ll do the same.”
After overcoming my surprise that it speaks the same words as me, I gently let my dagger back into its sheath. In response, the stranger points the spear up to the dull sky and holds the weapon as one might a walking stick.
“So you came from the east?” the stranger asks.
“Yes,” I reply, “from far past the mountains.”
“Could you tell me what lies that way?”
“I have a map,” I state, removing the scroll from my pack, “If you set your spear down, you can have a look.”
The stranger considers this for a moment.
“Alright, but you need to set down you knife as well.”
At the same time, and keeping an eye on the other, we set our weapons down on the road. The stranger pulls off the mask and we step forward to meet in the middle. From up close, I can tell with near certainty that the stranger is also woman.
“We’re off the map,” I explain, pointing past the edge of the page, “If you follow the road over the mountain, there’s a jungle. After the jungle, the road leads through the sea of salt, which takes it onto the map, here.”
“I see,” she says before glancing up over the mountainside.
“What lies to the east?” I ask, pointing forwards.
“I actually have drawn out a map myself,” the stranger says, taking off her pack and digging through her supplies.
“Here,” she says, handing me a tattered page. Upon the page, a hand-drawn map has been scrawled revealing a vast landscape that I’ve yet to encounter.
“I’ve followed it as far as I could,” she says, “But it ends on the mountainside. Would you be willing to trade maps, seeing how you seem to be through with yours?”
I hesitate, remembering how preciously my mother had cherished it.
“Alright,” I agree at last, realizing that knowing the way forward must be more important than knowing the way back. After exchanging maps, we stand in silence for a while.
“You know,” the stranger says, “My family has followed this path for generations. Has yours done the same?”
I nod quietly in response.
Rain keeps its steady descent as we both consider the implications of our meeting. At last, and with a sigh, I speak:
“I need to keep going. Best of luck on you travels.”
I step back, picking up my dagger and sheathing it away.
“Good luck to you, as well,” the stranger nods, grabbing her spear and lowering the mask back over her face.
We step around each other in a wide circle before continuing on our way. My steps ring against the stone road, and I keep my gaze forwards as I walk. I keep walking until the stranger disappears from my sight, far behind.
Once again in solitude, my pace slows to a halt and I stand motionless.
Is this the end of the road?
How on earth could I still believe paradise lay ahead? How could any of what I’ve been told, what I trusted in for my entire life, possibly be true now? Has my family toiled away for nothing, hunting down a red herring lifetime after lifetime? How much has been sacrificed to seek out this wretched end?
Rain-water runs slowly down my face as I realize the answers to my questions:
I don’t care.
Gradually, my despair gives way to understanding, and I slowly pull myself back together with a shrug. Looking down the road, I realize that it’s the only thing that has kept me human over the years. It’s the only thing that has given me purpose of any kind.
I get back to my feet and take the first step forward towards a false goal. I hold the stranger’s map out ahead of me, knowing it could take lifetimes to pass through.
As I move along, I realize that I can’t help but hope to meet another stranger down the road.
Only maybe this time, it will be a man.
Written by Levi Salvos