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I woke up with a start, gasping for air. The bright colors of morning swirled around my vision as I staggered out of my tent, retching. Another dream. Every night I’ve been out in the wilderness has been the same; visions in the night in which I meet my death, only to wake up the next day disoriented and sick. Only indistinct memories tell me that it’s always the same, always the same dream, night after night as I wander the outback: a dark man, a fire, a tree, and something that swings back and forth in the night breeze. And also the leering visage of a face, so strange and yet horribly familiar to me, the few details I can recall sending a chill down my spine…
I sipped my warm coffee as the morning sun lit the grasslands all around me. Today marked the beginning of my second week lost in the wilderness. I had set off to explore the great unknown wastes of the northern Australian outback, hitching a ride to the edge of the great expanse, and then trekking my way inwards for days and days. I had chosen this place for my walkabout because it was an Aboriginal holy land; not that I cared about the spiritual implications of the area, but its sacred status insured that I would not run across anyone. I carried with me only the barest essentials, just enough supplies to survive. I had come to prove to myself that I could survive on my own, with no friends or technology.
And then one day the compass and the map disappeared, and the dreams began. At first I was scared, but soon I realized that I knew enough about the wilderness to survive alone for months. So each day I set off into the horizon, searching for the signs of a civilization I had come to escape.
I scratched my chin and squinted into the sun; what direction, I asked myself, was I going to walk today? All around me was the same grass, the same red dirt, the same blue sky. Any direction I took could lead me closer or further away from rescue. As I stood frozen in indecision, a cold, dark memory of last night flashed into my head:
In my dream I had risen from the ground to see a man peering out of the darkness at me. He was an Aborigine, dressed in the traditional garb of a holy shaman; a dark mask of tree bark covering his face. He thrust his wooden staff at me, reaching around my arms and pulling me outside into the silvery night. He dragged me along behind him, traveling south for miles and miles through the coarse underbrush as a giant harvest moon hung above us like an ornament.
We reached the edge of the grasslands, beyond which only blowing sand covered the ground. Suddenly, the medicine man thrust his arm outwards along the plain, staring deep into my eyes. As he pointed off into the distance a flicker of light began to dance around his dark features. He stared at me, arm outstretched, as flames sprouted from his chest, enveloping his head in a wreath of fire. As his features burned to ash and bone, flames flew down his arm and across his finger, shooting into the depths of the dark desert beyond. The fire spread along the ground, melting the sand into a liquid that cooled and flattened into a shining path. A gust of wind tore at my chest and the ashen corpse of the Aborigine dissolved before my eyes, leaving me stranded at the edge of a glittering trail that curled across the stretches of the desert…
I stood silently as the midday grasshoppers chirped and buzzed around me. The vivid images that had suddenly burst into memory had left me stunned. What did it all mean, the dream of the holy man leading me across the grasslands? I’ve never been one to believe in precognition or fortune telling, but stranded as I was in the featureless outback, I felt compelled to head south, the same direction I was dragged last night by the man in my visions. And so I hiked south for hours and hours, into a burning wilderness seen by few and inhabited by none.
I began to regret my decision as the raging red sun hung low in the sky. I had wasted twelve hours pursuing an impossible vision. I was angry at myself for believing that a dream about a glittering path was some paranormal indication of escape. I cursed as I scanned the horizon for a patch of ground flat enough to set up camp.
And that’s when I saw it…
In the distance a mysterious figure towered over the grass, an arm raised before it, pointing off into the horizon. Pointing south. With my heart hammering I tore across the brush until I stood before the unknown sentinel.
It was just a wooden sculpture; an exquisitely carved Aborigine man, wearing clothes sewn from grasses and leaves. His splintered eyes gazed at me while his outstretched wooden fingers gestured out along red dunes that spilled over the grasslands. As in my dream, he stood at the very edge of the desert.
At the base of the sculpture was a small pile of bones. So, I had stumbled across the native burial grounds.
Before me lay the first sign of man I had seen in days. From the base of the statue a narrow path wound out into the desert. The trail was old, but perhaps, just maybe, it ran back to a highway or even some remote cabin. I glanced at the darkening evening sky once, and then decided that I would continue onwards in the night. If I was lucky, maybe I could find my way out before the moon rose. With a new surge of hope I stepped away from the dried scrub of the Outback and plodded down the path into the gently stirring sands of the Australian desert…
My hope to reach civilization before the moon rose didn’t pan out. It hung above me, transforming the dunes below into a sea of glittering silver as I felt my way along the worn trail. By this time I had passed several more statues, all of them strung out along the path, all of them pointing onwards into the dark night. Their wooden gaze was making me nervous. In the white light of the moon my eyes would play tricks on me; every now and then one of the statues in the distance would seem to move, and as I passed them I couldn’t suppress the thought of them blinking, swiveling their fake eyes to follow my progress across the desolate sands.
That I was intruding on ancient Aborigine burial grounds only exacerbated my fears. White bones, gleaming in the light from the stars above, jutted out of the ground, strewn haphazardly across the old path. Ribs sprouted from the ground like patches of lily stalks and bare skulls grinned at me from their dark hollows. Thousands upon thousands of skeletons littered the ground around me.
As I walked down the hallowed path I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I realized that I had walked this path before, last night, as I slept:
It was the same then as it was tonight. As I drifted along the path in that graceful movement so prevalent in dreams, I realized that I wasn’t traveling alone. Behind me, a line of people was forming along the trail; they crawled out from under the sand and marched along the path in an endless procession. Their faces were covered by pieces of bark and long robes were thrown over their thin bodies. They passed me wordlessly, some of them stopping long enough to gaze at me from behind the holes in their mask. For hours I walked alongside the mysterious shrouded crowd as the convoy traveled deeper and deeper into the desert. More people joined the group as we walked, the sand on either side of me swirling and boiling as hundreds of bodies dug their way up. After hours of marching the group reached its destination, an impression in the ground where the sand dunes gently sloped downwards. At the very bottom stood a dead tree, its bare windswept branches arcing into the sky. A dark figure hung below one of the thick branches, gently swinging in the cold desert breeze…
I shivered in the warm night. Even if it had just been in a dream, I had been on this path before. As the moon settled beneath the jagged horizon, I knew I was reaching the end of the trail.
It wasn’t long before I came upon the hollow again. One last wooden sentinel stood before me, both of his peeling arms pointing up into the heavens. Behind him and a tangle of buried skeletons the desert dipped into a gentle depression that formed a perfect circle.
And of course, in the center of that circle, stood the tanned bark of that deceased tree…
In a trance I walked down to it. Its thick trunk broke apart into a tangle of branches that spread across the sky, cutting across the shining stars like a thousand shattered splinters. Far out upon its bent and twisted boughs a rope hung down to head height. It was frayed to the point of complete dissolution, when I tugged it a flurry of fibers broke off and drifted away across the night breeze.
I could go no further tonight. The moon was almost below the horizon, only a few scant streaks of silver still peppered the landscape. Soon the desert would be shrouded in complete darkness and I would doubtless lose the trail if I tried to continue. The only thing I could do was sit and wait for dawn. With gloom settling upon my chest I lay down at the base of the trunk, lowering my cap over my eyes…
I was woken by a soft knocking sound. As I raised my cap I saw that the moon had not quite settled. A few rays of light still shot down upon the tree, staining one side white but leaving the other inky black. I heard the knock again. I rounded the broad trunk to see what had disturbed my sleep.
In the scant light I saw a boot floating above the ground; it would swing outwards into the darkness, then arc back and knock against the trunk with a soft “thunk”. As I stood frozen, watching it sway back and forth, I heard another sound, a blubbering, gasping gurgle emanating from above my head. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I noticed a dark pair of legs attached to the boot. Above that was a torso, and above that a head, tilted away from me, behind which a long rope curled down from the dead branches of the tree and snaked around the man’s neck. Slowly, the body swung back and forth as it hung from the rope. A few final gurgles left its lips. And then, the wind shifted and the body rotated, its face coming into view.
I saw my own lips, stained blue, opening and closing wordlessly, gasping for air. I saw my own bloodshot eyes swivel as rosy bruises swelled around their sockets. Little rivers of blood flowed out of my neck and down over the rope, blooming across my white shirt. I saw myself struggle for breath one last time before my throbbing heart finally beat its last. I gaped as my dead body stared emptily down at me, my discolored lips pulled back into a grotesque smile…
The vision disappeared and I awoke, curled up against the roots of the tree. The moon had set; the land was bathed in complete darkness.
With my heart pounding, I bolted away from the tree and up the steep faces of the sand dunes, piles of ancient bones scattering away beneath my feet. But as I tried to flee they arose, bony hands closing upon my legs, pulling me back down. A hundred cold, dead fingers prodded me, bearing me into the air; a thousand sightless sockets gazed upon me from beyond the veil of night. All around I could hear their gentle clacking and rattling. Above me the thick branches of the hanging tree crossed the stars in the sky. I felt the dead hands lift me up. They placed the rope around my neck, tightening it until it cut into my flesh.
And then the hands let go…
A crushing, burning pain spread outwards from my chest as the glimmering stars above me slowly faded into oblivion. I could feel my slowing heart pounding in my ringing ears, and knew that I was dying slowly, painfully. I tried to scream as the darkness folded in, but no air came out. The last thing I saw was shadowy figures creeping back into the dissolving night, leaving me to die. The pain began to fade and I felt myself slide backwards down and down and down into an endless black pit…
I woke up with a start, gasping for air. The bright colors of morning swirled around my vision as I staggered out of my tent, retching. Another dream. Every night I’ve been out in the wilderness has been the same; visions in the night in which I meet my death, only to wake up the next day disoriented and sick. Only indistinct memories tell me that it’s always the same, always the same dream, night after night as I wander the outback: a dark man, a fire, a tree, and something that swings back and forth in the night breeze. And also the leering visage of a face, so strange and yet horribly familiar to me, the few details I can recall sending a chill down my spine.
Credited to Black Fedora.