Archive for November, 2013

The campfire started it all.  I had never wandered before, preferring to always stay with a group.  I wish now that I had been content to stay with the group that fateful night, but, alas, I did not, and now I must pay the price for it, for mortal eyes are not meant to see what I have seen.

The tents were up, the mood was festive.  We aimed to spend four glorious nights surrounded by nature and good company.  In the midst of the first night, I disentangled myself from the arms of my lover to sit by the fire once again.  The flames fascinated me.  In those blazing embers, I could see the edges of visions and dreams.  Some time later, it could have been five minutes, it could have been two hours, another light caught my eye.  It was not the stars or the moon; it was too low to the earth for that.  Nor was it the light of any road or hint of civilization; we had carefully plotted our destination to be at least two miles in all directions from the nearest manmade edifice.  This light flickered briefly, weakened and then grew startlingly bright.  My friends all still slept soundly.  In my groggy, entranced state, I felt I absolutely must know what made the lights, for they were now multiplied. 

I staggered towards the faint lights, heard a giggle from the depths of the earth, and stopped.  The lights had just vacated the place where I now stood, I could sense it.  It was as if something existed there but moments earlier, something both warm and frozen at the same time, and it had left an impression for me to find.  As I walked to the center of the sensation, I saw more than just the edges of visions and dreams.  I could see all of human history.  Moments flickered through my mind at nauseating speeds. Nothing remained hidden from me.  I fell to my knees, eyes shut uselessly tight against the motion sickness, hands vainly clamped to my ears to block the myriad sounds that formed a mad cacophony.  As suddenly as the visions appeared, they released me.  I fell to the ground, face-down.  That is where my companions found me the next morning.

They claimed I had wandered half a mile from the campsite, though I knew I had only walked a few steps from the fire.  I tried to explain about the lights and the vision, but my friends insisted it was naught but a dream.  I heard then that same otherworldly giggle as I refuted their theory, but within it, I heard also a warning.  I obeyed the obscene chuckle and grew silent on the matter. We joked through the day about my sleep-wandering.  My partner threatened to tie me down should it occur again.  I vowed that that wouldn’t be necessary. 

I should not have made such a vow for it was one I could not keep.  The lights drew me once again the next night.  I made a point to sleep facing my partner, with his arm tightly around me.  No matter how beautiful the fire was, I refused to get up to watch it.  Instead I shut my eyes tightly against the world and feigned sleep.  When I shut my eyes, memories of the visions came again.  They would not stop, regardless of how hard I concentrated on something, anything else.  A shudder passed through my body, but it did not originate within me.  It felt as though something crawled or fluttered over me and under me at once, beckoning me to follow it.  Finally, I could bear it no longer.  I followed the sensation.  Once again, I extricated myself and crept amongst my sleeping friends back into the trees.  The feeling dissipated a few steps further away than my previous night’s excursion.  This time I could still see some of the lights.  I braced myself for another mental onslaught, but none came.  Instead, the lights moved to surround me.  Their warmth soothed me, though still I felt the chill beneath.  The lights floated around me, sometimes caressing my skin, other times wafting around my head.  The headache from the visions finally dimmed. 

I knew then that the lights were alive. They moved.  They saw.  They thought.

They planned.  They planned for me.  In that moment, I knew their intentions.  They saw fit that I should follow them.  Subconsciously, I made the decision to go where they willed, to the ends of the earth if still they led.  They must have read my mind, for they drifted onwards at the moment of decision.  The farther we went the darker and stranger the woods became.  The trees took on dark, living shapes.  They shied away from the lights – which I came to call “fairies” for lack of a better word – but leaned towards me whenever I fell behind.  The bark of one tree gaped as if it were a giant maw, reading to devour anything its vine-like branches could grasp.  If not for the fairy lights, those branches would have had me a hundred times!  I shuddered at the thought of my body being slowly mashed within those ancient wooden jaws.  For one brief moment, I wondered at where the lights led me, but the moment passed quickly.  The only thought now left to me was to stay with the lights.  I was safe within the circle of lights.  The darkness held only horrors.  More than once, I heard the howls and chitterings of unknown creatures.  The sounds were like nothing I had ever heard before.  Indeed, if asked to describe them, I barely have the words.  The most distinct sound was akin to the howl of a wolf, but there was something more wild about it even than that.  A wolf, at least, abides by rules and instincts.  I believe the only rule that this creature lived by was to stay away from the fairies.  But what kind of power could such small things have that even the most nightmarish of abominations stayed well away from them?  I would leave them now, if only I could, but I was in too deep.  To leave them would mean abandoning the safety of the bright circle.  I knew they would not follow me.  I could turn and run and hope to avoid all the terrible creatures I heard and saw, but without a light to guide me, I would run straight into one of the vicious animals or the carnivorous trees.  No, to stay alive, I must stay with the lights.

Many hours (or possibly days; time loses all meaning in the eternal darkness of this accursed forest) later, the fairies led me to an impossibly dark tunnel.  I thought I had known darkness in the wood, but this darkness seemed palpable.  I balked.  The darkness beckoned me even as it swallowed the lights.  My sole companions and protectors in this malevolent wood had led me to this place.  Surely they had some reason for doing so.  Mayhaps a paradisiacal utopia lie just past the oozing ink of the tunnel’s mouth.  Or maybe there exists at least an escape, a way out of the nightmarish copse back into the ordinary world.  But even then, I knew that I could not return to that world unscathed.  My wandering days were over.  I knew that I would forever be haunted by this ill-advised adventure into the unknown.  The knowledge that, just beyond our everyday experiences, dwelt a place so bent on unhinging the mind would forever infect my thoughts.  

I dove into the mouth.  Immediately, a hollow coldness seeped into my very bones.  I shuddered.  Ahead of me, in the eternal darkness, the fairy lights were just barely visible.  I hurried to keep up pace with them, refusing to be left alone any longer in this abysm.  The shaft felt to be leading downwards.  I longed to touch something, anything to give me an idea of what type of pit this was.  With outstretched arms and still moving feet, I felt neither side of the passage.  The sense of sight was long lost to me – I could still see the moving orbs, but even their bright star-light did nothing to penetrate the black – and now the sense of hearing seemed to vanish as well.  No echo announced each footfall.  It was as if I walked upon a thick sponge that absorbed all sound, though the surface of the floor seemed solid enough beneath my feet.  Even my shallow breathing did nothing to alleviate the perfect silence.  Again, I could feel the action, but no other senses accompanied the sense of touch.  They say that sensory deprivation is the surest way to drive the human brain insane.  Suddenly, I understood.  Even with my sense of touch still intact, the lack of my normal capacities left me reeling. 

As I walked, blind and deaf, contemplating my own growing madness, I became aware that my orb companions had stopped.  Here the floor leveled out and I stopped beside the lights.  The lights grew in size and intensity until I thought my eyes would burst.  Still, they illuminated nothing besides themselves.  Or perhaps the light so overwhelmed my dark-acclimated vision that all else became unimportant.  However it was, I soon felt the warmth of the lights wrap around my shivering body.

They say I dreamed this all – the fairy lights, the forest, the tunnel, and what came after.  Would that I could share my discoveries with all mankind, but the revelation of such things would drive all to either madness or despair.  I saw the world.  I saw it as it was in eons past, when massive creatures trod all to dust beneath their heels.  I saw it as it will be in eons yet to come, a fire and plague scarred flatland, devoid of people save a few scrawny, naked humans.  I saw them rediscover fire and later writing and all the things we say make mankind ‘civilized.’  I saw them begin again to…but no, I can say no more.  The lights gave me to understand that this is our fate.  I cannot by telling change the way it shall be, but I can spare others the grief and hopelessness. 

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The first “adult” story I remember picking up and reading on my own was “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.  I was, perhaps 7 or 8 when I discovered a collection of thin books in bright hues on the bookshelf at the base of the stairs up to my parents’ room.  It was at the little window there that I used to read, by early morning light, the stories that would become my oldest and most cherished friends.  Each book was a classic work of fiction designed for children.  Pictures opened worlds on every other page.  How a collection of Poe stories, including “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Raven” came to be in a child’s book, I will never know.  Rats have terrified me beyond rational reason and ravens have become wise seers in my mind ever since.

But I digress.  I remember devouring every single one of those books in the mornings before the rest of the house stirred.  I didn’t like being downstairs alone, so I would read until I knew an older sibling or a parent was awake.  Huckleberry Finn, Romeo and Juliet, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and, of course, Poe – the master of darkness – entertained my mornings.  Something about “The Telltale Heart” made my own heart beat faster.  The narrator’s descent into madness was evident to me even as a child and yet, there was something chilling about the old man’s eye and his heart’s incessant beating even after death that made me grieve for the narrator.  The same first-person view that would later draw me into many of H. P. Lovecraft’s most unsettling stories hooked me from the beginning.  I think the viewpoint is what really hooked me from the first sentence.  “True! nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

As I grew older and, primarily through books and other entertainment, came to realize that mental stability is a highly questionable thing, I found myself latching on to “The Telltale Heart” more and more.  The idea of a mind unhinging both fascinates and terrifies me.

Though it was such a short story (the children’s version was barely pared down; the only true differences I’ve found from the original are a couple of word choices), it’s clung to me all these years.  I’ve since read everything Poe wrote.  Some of his poems oddly comforted me during my teen years.  “A Dream within a Dream” accompanied me to bed many nights.  “Kingdom by the Sea” gave me a reason to cry.  “The Raven”…well, it’s “The Raven.”  It’s beautiful and haunting.   But the one story that I’ve read countless dozens of times and still, though I practically know it verbatim, makes me hunch over my book, eyes wide, heart racing, deaf to the world, is “The Telltale Heart.”

If, somehow, you have made it this far in life without having read Poe, I highly recommend you read it as soon as you can.  Every decent library ought to have at least one copy of his complete works.  Or you can just go here.

What story first truly captured you: heart, mind, and soul?  Tell us in the comments.

This post was inspired by the Creative Task of the Week in the Future of Storytelling MOOC.