The day was dark, and save for the calling of crows and the clattering of hooves, it was quiet. The road on which I drove the wagon was enclosed on both sides by tress of an ancient and foreboding quality. I turned and chanced a glance into the rear of my cart and looked at the body wrapped head to toe in a dusty white cloth that I was charged with transporting to his family for burial. How sad, I thought, that the story of the man’s soul goes not forever in synchronization with the story of his body. The wind whipped viciously against me, and I cracked the reigns and my horse hurried forward, his black mane flowing behind his black body, and his black hooves that crunched the dying leaves on the dirt road. The sunlight waned in the sky and from the other side of life rose the moon, and though it stretched its tendrils out to touch the Earth, the road remained dark. Only a small lantern provided light in the shadows.
After some time on the road, I glimpsed the smallest light in the distance, miniscule but bright, like that of a wandering firefly. As I neared the light’s bearer, I could make out the ragged, tattered cloak and undergarments of a dismal, dirty hermit. I slowed the wagon to a halt. He walked toward the cart. He had an obvious ailment, a missing leg replaced not by a prosthetic but by a wooden oar attached to his hips at the base of his torso. As he came forward the oar leg would swing wide in a circular motion and land with a glum clunk-thud on the ground with every step. He leaned against the passenger side of the wagon and placed a lumpy, gnarled hand, complete with untrimmed nails, on the wooden bench seat. His head was lowered, a hood covering his eyes so only his rotting teeth, a few missing, could be seen when he spoke, and he spoke with a raspy, shuddering voice that raised goosebumps from the deepest places in my skin.
“Where are you headed?” the hermit whispered to me.
“I’m bringing a body up a few towns to be buried. I’m double timing it and I haven’t got much time for stops,” I replied.
“Certainly you wouldn’t mind if I joined you only until the next town. I know these parts very well, and perhaps I could be of use to you… as a guide of sorts.” He spoke with odd intermittent pauses between his words. Admittedly, I did not know all the way, and I had planned to ask for further directions in the next town I stopped through. I was unfamiliar with the area, and it was beginning to look all the more dark and foreign as time passed.
“Where exactly are you going?”
“The place is called Sticks County. It’s a township supposedly some forty miles the way I’m moving now. You know it? I’d never heard of it.”
“Of course. I know the way there very well, and I’d be happy to guide you there, uh-for a ride along of course.” I took a deep breath and supposed it would be alright. Reluctantly, I let him clamber into the cart. He hoisted himself up slowly into the passenger side of the bench, and I cracked the reigns, and the wagon lurched forward once again. The man turned to me and withdrew his hood. He had a beaten, bumpy face and a flat nose. He had not one hair atop his head at all. I stared into his eyes. Odd. There was something odd about those eyes. For a moment that lasted forever, I stared into those eyes and recognized the peculiar qualities which paralyzed me in them. Pools of amber yellow sat in his eye sockets, shimmering and moving. Looking into them, I saw horrors untold. In his eyes little figures danced and moved around a fire performing some violent and demonic ritual. My jaw loosened, and I sat frozen at the reigns unable to take my eyes off of the devilish ambrosia that was his gaze. As the horses continued, and as I sat still, staring into those soulless pools of horrible terror, the hermit’s other hand, previously concealed in his cloak, emerged holding a pair of long, rusty scissors. They looked as though they had been used many a time for a long time. Paralyzed, I sat as he brought the scissors up and cut a lock of my hair. He tucked it into his cloak and patted my shoulder with his grizzled hand thrice, bringing me out of my trance. Shocked and dazed, I said nothing about the incident to the hermit, and we would never address it once in our time together at all.
We traveled hours more until we were in the thick of the night and the moon loomed large overhead.
“You don’t know the place your headed well, do you?” the hermit asked.
“Scarcely at all,” I replied.
“Well, let me warn you now, it can be a place of the most macabre happenstance and vile elements. You have accepted a journey,” he said looking back at the covered body in the back of the wagon, “that is rather challenging indeed.”
“I am not afraid.”
“Most aren’t.” He hesitates before adding, “but they all should be.”
After two hours more, when darkness still blanketed the world, but the moon was clearly setting, we came to an abrupt stop in the road. At the roads end, a wide river, unsurpassable by all but a boat. At the river’s edge, a small wooden hut and a dock with a rowboat. I jockeyed the horse and wagon near to the hut and the rivermaster emerged. He wore on his tall and thin body a red tunic and conical hat. He had a beard, rather unkempt, and a large, crooked nose.
“Aye! What can I do ye for?”
“Is there any way ‘round this river?” I asked. “I must get my horse and wagon across.”
“Aye. There’s a way through the woods yonder, but they are dangerous people there that lurk in those woods, and if y’aint know them proper prior to your trip, then they’ll have their way with yous in the most unspeakable of manners.”
“Actually,” the hermit interjected, “I know the woodsmen enough to pass through. You,” he said pointing to me, “would not be able to come along though. They aren’t real trusting of strange folks.” I considered my options, and they were limited. I reached the conclusion that I had to trust the hermit.
“If I cross by the river can you meet me on the other side with my equipment and charge?”
“Yes I can,” whispered the hermit in his raspy voice like the slithering of snakes or the shaking of leaves in the wind.
I handed him the reigns and jumped down off the wagon. Before he left, he gave me one last look with his amber eyes. They loomed large as if they were the eyes of some owl, round and filled with wisdom granted only to a select few. But there was no comfort in those intelligent eyes, rather, there was nothing but the dismal color of yellow. He nodded once to me and grinned a grin of missing teeth before driving the wagon slowly into the nearby woods, where the darkness welcomed and surrounded him like a group of old friends.
I turned to the rivermaster. He stretched out a long-fingered hand and his lips curled into a smile. I saw, now, up close, that he was of a skeletal and disconcerting figure. I plunged my hands into my pockets praying to find the necessary coinage to fill his outstretched, wanting hands. I found some change, change I do not remember putting in my side pocket. I guess I must have picked it up from someone along the way. The rivermaster accepted my payment.
With a wink, he added, “Lucky ye found something. If ye hadn’t ye’d have needed to stay here and wait a while.” I was not sure what he meant but I found myself rather disinclined to press the issue. He placed the coins in the folds of his tunic and turned and walked away in silence. I followed.
The river boat rocked gently like a crade as the water slapped quietly against its side. The splashes of the oar entering and exiting the water filled only some of the eerily stretching silence. Occasionally, the boat would creak or groan, a result of exhaustion from a lifetime of trips made across the river. The rivermaster stood in the back rowing while I sat toward the front. Trees lined the river on its northern and southern banks, so it oddly felt like I was trapped, trapped in the journey across the river.
“Who do you ferry across usually?” I asked the rivermaster.
“What kind of people do I ferry, ye mean? Oh, all kinds of ‘em. Who’s for the Rest from every pain and ill?”
“You ferry people across often?”
“Every night.” When we reached the other side, I climbed ashore and bid the rivermaster farewell. He began his long float back the way he came, and as he started to float away I noticed that his eyes, like the hermits, were odd. They were completely black like two circles of cold obsidian. He looked on at me as he floated away, those cold, unfeeling eyes taking in every aspect of my condition as if to indicate some definite finality to our knowing of one another.
After some brief walking, I came across my wagon and horse in perfect condition. I looked around for only a short time, but it quickly became clear that the hermit was not there, and for some reason I knew I would never see that man again. As I clambered aboard, I checked that the covered body was still in place. As the moon finally set on the night and the sun’s rays began to peak out on the horizon, I cracked the reigns and continued on.
After some time, the sun reached that ever so pleasant point between its start and its apogee, where it lights your way but the air remains cool. The breakfast sun of fall, it could be called. The road was now as it had been before the river. Trees enclosed me on both sides, their branches sometimes stretching out and tangling with each other as a result of their closeness in proximity. Pebbles kicked and shot from under the wagon’s wheels as it bounced along the dirt. The wind was slowly picking up, and the trees were waving ever so slightly, though barely visibly, in the momentum of the cold breeze. A while down the road, I noticed that a turn was coming where the road veered to the right. As I came to the turn and I began to ease my wagon to the right to follow the path, I came across a sight of the most horrifying and foreboding nature. From a thin, dying tree, a branch extended out over the road. And from that vile branch, three strings hung, each with the head of a dog dangling on the end. As the wind whistled through the enclosed road, the strings began to sway, and the dogs’ heads began to move. They twisted and contorted themselves in a way which caused their eyes, cold and dead yet still open, to look down on me. They looked me over and in their eye,s I saw a warning, a warning that was encapsulated by the sign attached to the thick trunk of the tree at its base: “Judgement awaits.” I continued on down the road and before they disappeared from view, I took a look over my shoulder to see the heads once more. They were perfectly still, standing guard in waiting for the next passerby.
After working my way further down the road, I came to a place where the trees dissipated, and the road opened up into a massive wheat field. From the start of the field looking in, it looked as though the field went on forever. I could not see anything but wheat for what seemed like miles, but I decided to venture in nonetheless as I knew no path but the one ahead of me. The wheat was tall, and it brushed against my knees as I pushed my horse and wagon on. There was a dusty quality to the wheat, and I thought that its yellowy-brown color was one of my least favorite in all the spectrum of colors that could exist. It seemed to me that one could easily get lost in a field like this one. From my position atop the wagon, I could see just barely over the top of the plants. When I entered the field, I thought it would take a milenia to get through, but I found, surprisingly, that it took little time at all. I found that point most peculiar.
After emerging from the field, I trekked on, until I came to a fork in the road guarded by three robed men. Their faces were hidden by hoods and in their hands, each held an axe, as if they were stopping something from going further. As I neared, they all three in tandem raised their hands, palms out and fingers up, drawing me to a stop.
“I am bringing a body through here to the next town,” I called, “I have to pass through here.”
“We will decide that,” one of the robed figures responded.
“On whose authority?”
“That matters little,” another called back to me. They stared at me for a long time, at least I thought that was what they were doing, before they walked toward each other and circled up. They leaned together and looked as though they were engaged in some sort of debate or conversation. After reaching some conclusion, they raised their heads and turned in unison and looked at me.
“Head back through the field and maybe you will come to a new road. You are unable to pass here.”
“You are not capable of coming through here. These roads are far too dangerous. You do not have the facilities nor the abilities to come this way.”
“There is no use in arguing. The judgement is final. Neither of these roads will suit you. Turn back and head back through the field. Maybe you will find something there.”
Slowly, reluctantly, unable to fight and too tired to argue further, I turned my wagon and horses back and started back through the field. I would have to go back and look for a path in the road that I missed before, one that maybe could get me to the next town.
I rode through the field looking everywhere, but I saw nothing but wheat. Eventually, I realized that my trip back was taking far longer than before. Minutes turned to hours, and hours turned to more hours. I kept riding, but unlike with my first hasty trip through, my trip back was refusing to end. I realized suddenly an oddity with the light. I had been experiencing the same light for hours. I looked up at the sky and saw the most unnerving thing: the sun was in the same spot it had been when I made my first trip through. I moved about the field, wandering, and wandering, and wandering still more. Slowly, I became horrified. I watched as those dusty browns of the wheat and the reds and oranges of autumn turned slowly into grays. The world around me was changing, morphing into something awful. The sun’s bright yellow-orange light slowly changed too, from its budding color to a state of dismal and dull gray. All color eventually gave way to a land of gray, a hollow land for hollow men, death’s other kingdom. As everything seemed to become one and total banality enveloped everything, I glanced back at the body wrapped in cloth and thought that I would like to see the man that forced me on the trip that led me to my apparent demise. I reached up my hand and pulled back the cloth, revealing, to my utmost horror and surprise, a face that was no other than my own.