A song murmured up from the valley below. An old woman’s voice, frail and dry. The dialect strange. With the setting sun and the evening fog, the melody felt ghostly. From another world entirely possibly.
The graveyard below was not haunted however; there were no bodies in this place of death. Only stones and figurines to remember those who were never found, and those who never came home. There were tombs as well, built with old bricks from the nearby crumbling castle wall--but these empty tombs seemed worse corpseless than if they had really contained the bodies of the dead. The little structures were built for the very things they did not have. There was a pointlessness to this that tortured the mind. A hollowed madness. It made the longing for lost loved ones even worse.
Asha Kha Stopall stepped carefully and quietly down the slope towards this place of empty death. The sets of stairs and ragged pathways–which were hard to make out in the coming darkness–leading down to the grave site were pieced together haggardly, and felt very unsafe. There was almost an excitement to this, however. One wrong step could be fatal. One wrong move and it could be all over. The dread of life dealt with, and no more torments to be endured.
She wondered what the world would be like if she were gone. What would happen to the crumbled castle, and those left inside? What would the future contain for those mindlessly trapped in this tired world of the living?
So many relied on her, and yet she felt so useless. So broken and used up.
But she had to keep going forward.
Had to set at least one thing right. She would not fail this time. She would not give in.
Asha attempted to smile, but couldn’t.
As she continued walking down, she attempted the smile again. Nothing came out. Her soul felt mangled. Hear heart empty. She felt like a corpse. A dead one making her way home to her final resting place. To the grave meant for her. To where she belonged.
When was the last time I felt a peace, she thought.
Nothing came to mind. Her thoughts seemed as if they were covered in old, dusty blankets—and beneath those blankets ancient monsters moving awkwardly. Secretive creatures born from the darkest parts of her wounded sanity. Slithering, and plotting, and forever crawling. And not telling her why.
Why did she have to keep on going?
Why couldn’t she just die?
Stop it, she told herself. This is making things worse. You know why.
She made it to the bottom of the final stairway. By this time night had fallen completely, the landscape snuffed out by shadows. The air down here felt strange. Warm but empty. The dark sky above felt almost too broad, and too far reaching. It felt as if it would devour her. Ahead, a multitude of candles flickered through the fog. They were like blurry stars fallen from the horizon, and scattered into an uneven pile in the distance.
She was getting closer now, and the scent of incense lingered. A smell that made Asha that much more uneasy. That much more fearful. It meant that she was getting closer to her destination.
The only sound was still the old woman’s voice in the distance. Getting closer. Clearer. More real. It was Asha’s light to follow. The caretaker of the damned. The keeper of broken dreams. The witch that would set her free.
The first tomb Asha came upon in this place of empty death was short and wide–with long candles perched at the corners, and vast amounts of chalk covering the old bricks. On top of the chalk was what looked like thick lilac colored paint smeared on loosely in the shapes of flowers. It was more beautiful than Asha had anticipated. She stopped moving, and just stated at it. It made her breath short, and her heart hurt. She felt tears in her eyes. She circled around it, but the other side was very different. Dread sunk low into her stomach. The opening of the tomb was an ugly, craggy mouth with a crooked stairway covered in dirt leading downwards. Along the stairs were heaps of misshapen candles, broken figurines, and bowls of burning incense, the smoke rising in tangled wisps. The door at the bottom looked as if it had been torn apart. Whatever had been inside was either smashed or stolen. Reflections from the shattered debris glimmered up from the candlelight.
She began to wander further into the empty graveyard, curious eyes studying the variety of different tombs and grave stones. There were more candles. More incense, and more broken doors. More vandalism. But there were more paintings as well, all of them beautiful against the chalk and old bricks. Most of the paintings were abstract and loose feeling, but a few were quite detailed.
The further in she got, the more everything seemed to be built on top of itself. It felt as if the place had existed for centuries, growing up slowly over time like an old tree. There was also another sensation that Asha couldn’t quite describe, being in this place. It was an out of focus sort of feeling, like something standing at the edge of a blind spot in her mind. Something or someone standing and watching from the shadows of the empty tombs.
The voice was getting louder.
Reality was setting in deeper.
She turned another corner, and saw the old woman in the near distance. The myriad of candles perched everywhere made it just bright enough to see. The sight was ere–yet strangely enchanting, like a bizarre story book come to life. If gave Asha the twinkling sensations of both fear, and curiosity. Fearful of what was coming–but a sense of curiosity because this woman actually did exist, and therefore maybe hope possibly existed. This woman of fables was real, and Asha had found her after all this time. What else could be possible?
The elderly woman was heavy set, with long raven-black hair. Her nose was short and crooked, and she wore what looked like a mismatch of brightly colored torn blankets. She was looking directly at Asha, and the singing had stopped. An odd silence hung in the air, and at first Asha didn’t know what to do. She stared at the silent, unmoving woman for quite some time. Light from the candles flickered against their surroundings, but other than that everything was still. It was almost as if time had missed a step, and stopped somewhere unknown. The sky was an empty black void above. A hollowed madness staring down from eternity.
Asha noticed suddenly that the old woman was standing near an entrance to one of the tombs, and in her hands was a misshapen basket full of flowers. There were petals sprinkled at the edge of the steps leading into the tomb.
Asha looked down at her feet, and saw more petals. She glanced behind her. A trail of petals from where she had came. Had she been following this trail all through the maze of bricks and paintings without realizing it?
She looked back ahead, and the old woman was gone. For a brief moment, Asha’s heart rose up into her throat, and her hands went numb.
Then she noticed the trail of flower petals continued forward. Not down into the tomb, but around and past it.
She began to follow.
Silence lingered still, and it made Asha uneasy. She was moving quicker now. With the old woman out of sight, time felt as if it had started again, but at too quick of a pace. Her heart was beating fast. That feeling that there was a watcher in her blind spot felt more like many watchers now. Hiding in the shadows behind her–and in her own thoughts even. Monsters with terrible secrets, perhaps. Waiting and haunting, and growing impatient.
Asha turned another corner, and almost walked right into the old woman, who was standing there unmoving and smiling. The woman’s eyes were completely white, except for small black specs in the centers. There was something terrifying about these blank, cold eyes–especially contrasted against the exaggerated grin. Something inhuman, and ancient. Something not of this tired world.
Asha looked down.
The old woman’s hands were long, fat, and covered in paint, the fingertips raw and extra swollen.
She must be the one lighting the candles and incense, and painting everything, Asha thought. It made the once beautiful paintings on the bricks seem dirty in a weird way now. Tainted for explainable reasons.
Was she the one breaking down the doors?
Asha again said nothing, and studied the woman some more. The woman’s wrinkles were endlessly deep, and her nose seemed even more crooked up close. She still wasn’t moving, in fact didn’t even seem to be breathing.
“I’ve been searching for you,” Asha said finally, breaking the long silence. There was a relief to this.
As if in a reply, the old woman opened her mouth wide. Unnaturally wide. Horrifically, and impossibly wide.
Surprised, Asha stumbled backwards, and fell against a nearby wall. The old woman moved a step closer with that gaping mouth, and Asha almost screamed. Her mouth was like the sky. Dark and empty, and overwhelming.
This was not right.
Couldn’t be happening.
In a panic, Asha clenched her eyes shut. She was frozen with fear, and could feel the old woman moving closer. It made her stomach twist, and her skin crawl.
She opened her eyes.
The woman’s mouth was closed, and the smile was back.
Is this woman real?
Have I lost my mind?
“I’ve heard stories about you,” Asha continued quickly, almost stuttering. “That you can speak to the dead. That you have ways of helping the damned.”
The old woman’s smile faded slightly, but Asha–fighting through the fear and the panic–kept going:
“Everyone I’ve ever loved is dead. There are only strangers to me in this world now. I’m the last of my family name, and the last of a failed empire. The last of what once was royalty in this place.
I want to die.
But it seems like a selfish thing. Too selfish. My family would have wanted me to do something with this gift of somehow staying alive. With somehow making it through the war, the murder, and the torture–and through the plagues and the loneliness. It feels as if I was chosen for something more–but I want so much to die. I want nothing more than to just end everything. To stomp out my existence forever. To be completely gone.
But I can’t do that.
I need you to help me. It’s all on me. I am the last, and all the dead depend on me. I need a reason to live. I need a reason to why I was spared. I need to somehow bring honor back to what was once honorable. I need a sign, or a purpose. I need something. Anything.”
The old woman’s face was blank now, but she pulled a small container out of her pocket. There was black and white paint in it, and with her swollen fingers, she marked what felt like symbols onto Asha’s face.
The old woman began to speak, but it was in a dialect Asha did not understand.
There was a brutal disappointment to this that hit Asha all at once.
If she can’t speak in my tongue, how will she tell me what I can do? How will this help?
The feeling of being even more defeated flushed over her. She didn’t think she could feel lower, but yet here she was, descending further into despair.
With that, the old woman turned and began walking away, spreading more flower petals, and singing in that strange dialect as she went. Tears streamed down Asha’s cheeks. This was her last attempt at hope. What would she do now?
Exhausted, she lay down on the ground, and watched the murmuring light of the candles as the old woman faded from sight. She felt as if she had traveled to the edge of the known world, only to find there was nothing on the other side.
I give up, she thought to herself.
I give up on what I’m supposed to do, or who I should be. I give up on searching for meanings that don’t exist. I give up on the dead who haunt me, and things that should have been but never were. I give up on staying alive.
As she let herself slip into this state of indifference, things began to move around her. It was as if the monsters in her mind were coming to life. Human-like things covered in foul dirt emerging from shadows.
She sat up.
Reality drifted back into focus.
People surrounded her. Deformed men and women covered in layers of caked on dirt. Their eyes were wild. Their eyes were hollowed and hungry. Their eyes screamed in silent agony, and Asha realized suddenly why there were so many smashed doors in this place. These were vandals who had been robbing the empty tombs. Broken and crazed survivors in what was left of this world.
More of them were crawling out from nearby cracks and corners. There was something in the way they moved that reminded Asha of spiders. Grotesque sort of sharp, slithering movements.
“I’ve got nothing to give you,” Asha said, realizing as the words left her lips that this was untrue.
These people were desperate, and they were hungry.
As they slowly moved closer, Asha could see that it wasn’t only dirt dried onto their skin, but blood as well–especially around their mouths, and on their hands and arms. It was as if the monsters lurking inside of her head really had come to life. They were here in front of her, and had come to collect a long overdue debt. Had come to take away anything and everything. Had come to feast on her living flesh.
Without even thinking, Asha lunged forward, and began to run. Panicked footsteps from the others thudded behind her, panting and snarling from all around. Hands grasped at her arms and legs as she turned the many corners in this tangled maze of tombs–but she managed to slip by them.
In what felt like only moments, she was out of the gravesite, and furiously sprinting into the darkness of a foggy field. Moans and screams echoed behind her, but eventually faded the further away she got. She ran as hard and as long as she could. She ran until her lungs felt on fire, and her legs gave out.
Time was a blur, and eventually she collapsed.
Silence surrounded her, but it was a good silence. It was freeing, hearing nothing. If felt as if she had sprinted past the edge of the unknown and the emptiness, and into some other place entirely.
She lay onto her back, and stared up at the sky. Day was ascending, the sky opening up to clear, warm colors.
“I don’t want to die,” she whispered.
It was a strange realization after feeling as if she had given up on everything.
If I wanted to die, I would have stayed, she thought.
With this new day, and new realization, it felt like a new life. It felt like freedom from all the things she had always assumed. It felt like a second chance. It felt like hope.
Copyright 2018 Justin Gedak
Written by Justin Gedak
Cover art by Justin Gedak
(Model: Toni Becker)