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They called me Yan. A name given as nothing more than a form of distinction from the rest of us young ones. Such markers of identity were beaten out of a person from birth. It latched onto me like a thorn, refusing to be expunged. It may not even have been my first name, if one was ever given, the significance of such things lost in the shadows. Yan is who I was and Yan is what it would remain. I was taller than most of the others around my age, but not by much. Could you single me out for that one trait? Possibly. Would you attempt to? It wouldn’t be wise to. I received empty looks whenever anyone inclined their head up. Singularity had become a redundancy over time and we were left with the remnants of a world that had forgotten what progress was.
We had not been beaten into submission by a brutal dictator or an oppressive rule. Nor were we consumed by an all-encompassing war or a viral epidemic that cast us all back to an age of frightened darkness. It was a slow decomposition, a withdrawal of community brought upon by forces that we never fully comprehended. Mankind had found it’s one, irrefutable, inevitable weakness, concealed by the mirrors we held up to reflect the truth that was gnawing at each and every one of us. We had become ignorant and lazy, breakdowns so gradual we barely noticed until it was too late. Apathy had crept up to us. It’s long, white fingers hovered over our long dead children and then when we had completely turned away, it crushed us. Reduced us to lost wanderers, unhinged from what we had before. Nature reluctantly took in what remained of humanity, and we kept to ourselves, barely a mark anymore on this land.
Yes I know of this, the margins of what occurred in our downfall, from a man who could not escape it. But where was I? Who am I? I? That felt like an alien concept to posit. To give thought to what could be perceived as what you are, through action and expression and speech. Was it my own thought or the memories that fluttered out of my reach? The ones who had seen the most spoke little of these memories. Forgery they would say. Naught but trickery from unseen and dark forces. They would shout it out in crazed chants and contort their faces and bodies into strange and unnatural shapes to scare the little ones that would supersede them. Ones like me. If a voice was raised against them that person would be cast out alone for a night in complete darkness. It was a punishment that struck terror in all our hearts
The monsters were inside of us, they said, ripping and biting and thrashing to get out and cause havoc among us. Fear worked for a long time, cloistered as we all were from the dangers of a now untamed and wild world. Throw all open thought into the waiting fire and let it burn, it’s what keeps us alive, they would intone, and so we did as we were told. We would hang our bodies over that fire as close as possible to the hungry flames, the air a mix of sweat, wood and lightly burnt flesh. It was the smell of home as much as the ever-changing earth we laid upon. We would endure nights of blistering winds and strange pulsing lights. Nights that would bring rain that made valleys a rushing river in moments. Nights that would shake the earth. Nights that brought the plague of heat. Seasons would last a day or a year. Sometimes the sun could not be found and the moon proved a weak substitute. Weeks would go by without seeing another tribe until crossing the ruins of the great centers of the world that poked above the ground, fallen idols to some unnamed Gods that were swiftly forgotten. Or at least we were told so.
One day when we found ourselves on the outskirts of some ruins, overrun with makeshift forests and deep trenches. I was sent to scout ahead, something I needed no encouragement to do. I enjoyed the solitude, half a day between me and my people. The running silence kept a steady pace by my side. As often as I could I would strike ahead as far as I dared, losing sight of my tribe behind me, and let the land wash over me. Sun, snow, rain or biting wind, it didn’t matter. In that moment I was part of the vast web of the world. An essential link in a chain that cannot be broken. It was wondrous and euphoric. Existence laid out in all its simple glory.
Back to it then. I had scouted ahead as was my wont and ascended the grey mess of a ridge that led down into the ruins proper. The land was flat enough, though trees had reclaimed much of it, and there was a good view of each compass point from where I stood. At first I thought the ruins an empty corpse, devoid of any shuffling sentience but when I looked to the far east I saw a small tribe passing through the wide paths, trees that stood as tall as mountains watching their every move. They scuttled off into the shadows as soon as they could but I was more interested in where they had come from.
A large, strange structure jutted out amongst the piles of rotted trees. It look desiccated and on the edge of collapse but I approached it with a curiosity that I hadn’t felt before. Descending the ridge the sun slowly seeped away, the cool air felt unfettered, disturbance an unknown factor to it. A deer watched me with its black eyes, I an interloper into its serene rust coloured dwelling I felt I was. These quiet humans that kept to no land anymore. Whether a fly had made its presence felt or it discerned my purpose being here, the deer twitched it’s head to the east. Do not dally, child.
I continued on and reached the ancient structure. From the outside the mass of dead trees made it look encased in a crumbling casket. At the base was a rough-hewn opening, barely touched by the soft light of the sun. I stepped over to it and entered the structure. I was greeted with the smell of still water and rotted plants. The roof had collapsed, most of it whittled away by the constant march of wind and rain and sun, the harbingers of time, so I was granted enough to life to see.
It was a large open area, the places where walls might have been were barely marked, and the ground had eaten the floor. Trees had stretched their elongated arms into any place they could, a forest climate had transformed the place into an untouched, ethereal world. The old structure and malleable nature complementing one another like I had never seen before. I felt welcome here, warm faces in the rock and wood greeted my every footstep as if it was the return of something that was thought lost for all time.
I explored as much of it as I could. Every turn I made felt like discovering new territory, something that had never experienced the presence of a human. Along one side were crude markings worn down with age, whatever they were meant to say I could not understand. At the opposite end of the great structure were rows of solid wooden objects, tattered as they were but still hale and standing firm. Small wooden planks were placed within each one as if they were meant to store something. My excitement jumped across many moons seeing these things. I gently dragged my fingers along each one. Such craftsmanship! The deep contours, the strenuous detail that resisted the dust and gnawing decomposition around them. At the end of one these wonderful works I found an object that was covered in a thick layer of grey dust. It sat alone, if it had kin they had long since perished. Regal in its loneliness and unperturbed by the outside world - I assumed it had been in that same position long before the Still Plague arrived - I brushed the dust off it and carefully moved it out of it’s comfortable resting place.
Its weight was singular and dense in my hands, foreshadowing whatever could be inside it, whatever it was. I traced my finger along the edges, the top and bottom protruded out somewhat and were of firmer material than the soft middle. Across the left side of its thickness, I noticed that the firmer material also covered it. I discerned that it would flip open. I crouched to place it carefully on the floor, sat down in front of it, legs crossed, unhooking the pack I carried to lay it next to me, and gripped both sides of the object with excited, nervous hands. I slowly opened it up to view what was within. Thin sheets of faded white with strange black markings formed a procession of unknown wonder. I could not understand what was being uttered on these pieces but it was surely significant. Turn upon turn it went on, all the world’s knowledge filtered into this one relic, the fact that I could not recognise the markings felt a moot point to me, merely holding this tome in my hand was enough to begin the journey through the history what was being written.
My mind alighted, shooting up to the limitless skies that swam with the most vibrant aqua blue, nothing could hold down this pure, breathless thrill charging throughout me. The air around me coursed with a wild wave of energy. This silent, joyous hurricane that plundered the interior entire, under my precipitous control. A call here or a call there. A flick of my hands, twitch of my nose, widening of my eyes, it refused to fall, to whimper at being the last. Here was a shout so defiant, so visceral, that it shook the pillars of our ancient earth. Pause would be given, the scared and harried and tormented would look up finally. This storm could mark a new beginning - not could, would, for certain, what doubt, no doubt. This was as certain as the sun rising and setting. Nothing could withstand it, I convinced myself, nearing the end of this wonderful piece of lost, yet stubborn humanity.
A skipping sound echoed through the chamber and I looked up frantically, breath held. I had positioned myself to keep a good view of everything up to the entrance but I saw nothing that was out of place. I returned to the remaining sections.
‘I’d be careful with that.’
Faint left, from behind. The deep, halting voice was such a shock in this silent abode that it was as if it came from deep within the red rock of the earth. Even so, the voice sounded strange - distant and used sparingly - not a thing to be trifled with and abused. I turned, still seated, and came upon the sight of a tall, lean man, wrapped head to toe in taut, protective clothing. He struck an easy, defiant pose, receded within a hollow in the near wall. His eyes drew in all that encompassed his vision. I could see them shift colour in the sunlight. He looked like a man who had been on both sides of a hunt before. Silence closed in again. I kept a steady hand on the object to hide the rush of my frantic heart.
His stillness was unsettling, as if he had been sculpted in this place, so I ventured to give myself some leverage. I shifted myself to face him front on and stood up, object cradled in my arms like a newborn.
‘Who are you,’ I asked with as much surety as I could muster. He remained in his position, only continued to stare at me and what I had in my hands. The swift flutter of bird wings sung in the air.
I asked again. ‘Tell me, who are you?’
‘Can you read that,’ he nodded at the object.
The question didn’t make any sense. ‘What do you mean, read?’ I replied.
A shadow of melancholy darkened his features. ‘You don’t know what that is, do you?’ His voice registered with a slight crack in the last two words. He stepped forward, bringing himself further into the light. He looked up at the open roof as if it played a cruel joke on him. I kept my new acquisition between me and this haunted man.
‘What do you want?’
‘You sure ask a lot of questions. A rare thing in these lost times. I have no interest in harming you, nor do I wish for anything to befall you. To be honest, I was surprised to find someone wandering this place, most people I’ve seen have turned a blind eye to it.’
‘What is this place’ I asked, easing my suspicion slightly.
‘It was a centre of knowledge, there was much light to be found in places like this. It was called a library. Much light. Fires forever burning, the world a window of limitless possibilities and wonder. What you have there is the last of it’s kind in this part of the world. There are others I hear of that still exist and some I maintain in my possession. A word I see that you chafe at.’
At the time these words were an incoherent mess coming from him. This man was breaking every law that governed us wandering folk with such dismissive nature that I thought at first he had screamed out the remnants of his mind like so many others that surrendered to the memories of the dark past that threatened our survival, but his presence countered all of those assumptions. Nothing looked out of place, there was no rash zeal in his eyes, no rough twitches manifesting. He was, as the elders would say, a ‘son of the earth’. He took a few steps further toward me but his eyes looked past me to the chamber beyond. His hands gently finding a broken stone or piece of wood, as if it was a most sacred thing.
‘You might not quite be like the others,’ he said whilst he strolled.
‘There is nothing more necessary than truth, and in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value.’ He spoke as if he had forgotten I was there. I stared after him, hesitant to follow, afraid of this new curiosity that sparked within me. I would be sent out alone for nights on end if they knew of anything that transgressed here. The terror of that thought quickened my heart. This had become too dangerous with his appearance. I had to leave. The man kept walking, his ignorance of me seemingly complete, so I made as much haste to the escape this place. I rushed past the large wooden objects, evading the twisting roots and leaping over the unsteady masses of ruins. The entrance was just ahead, the man a still remnant to my right and not at all in this world, every level of interest and wonder had drained out of me. I needed to cleanse myself.
I emerged from the building into the familiar, desiccated air. I didn’t dare look back, fear had seized me absolute, too far I delved, blind to the risks, the threats that would watch me, my people. They couldn’t know. The wide path echoed my frantic steps and the deer watched from its home this silly creature. I ascended from the ruins and saw the first of my tribe appear out of the distant and dark forest.
They caught the scent upon me immediately. Memory! Thought! Silent killers. The monsters are coming, the monsters are coming! The way to oblivion. I was stripped and rolled in purifying dirt. Tired eyes watched me. A fire was lit and I was held close to the flames with my screams echoing deeply into the fading day. The sun hid as if embarrassed of what it witnessed. I was tossed into an itchy green blanket, sweat coalesced instantly, I could barely find my balance, my centre point caught off guard as they pulled a cover over my eyes, the pink sky was wrenched away from me. The grass scratched against my face as they dragged me away from the camp.
I was shoved against a tree, the rough bark dug into my skin even with the blanket protecting me. I heard their plative shouts and cowering steps, their fearful breaths choking them being so far away from the safety of the camp. The smell of dead leaves wafted past me and through the blackened vision I could still see hazy figures drifting in and out of sight.
Soon I was alone, my kin receding as quick as they were able to, and I was slave to the sweet melodies of the land. The creak of the trees in the wind, the distant trickle of a creek, the birds chirping and darting, their wings a wisp of noise; all this that surrounds us yet we hide from, only acknowledging it’s existence when need dictates. I let myself settle into the night.
Don’t be naive, an undercurrent of fear took a familiar hold of me. Covering the eyes was to keep the gateway to memory and the dark thoughts locked, and tying the person to a tree or whatever else could be found wrapped in the thick canvas was meant to ward off any wandering spirits seeking a willing mind. Strange notions, I am well aware of that. Unfortunately it also made the person vulnerable to much more immediate and dangerous threats. Predators lurked the many corners of the land and it wasn’t uncommon to find the poor soul feasted upon in a most terrible manner. The best chance of surviving the night unscathed was complete stillness; to be the tree or the stone or the hill. The land could save you.
I slowed my breathing, my rapid heart put on hold at a lethargic rate, enough to keep me alive. I focused on maintaining complete control of each muscle and joint, the slightest shift was too much of a risk. Time was a non-entity so I dismissed all notion of it. Each moment was independent and separate from one another, easily rearranged into any number of patterns if I so chose. Lose the sense of time and you can become infinite.
A faint rustling came with the wind from my left. Every elemental part of me wanted to move, to flee, but I overcame that torrent of flight, remaining in my pose. The rustling came closer, a curious approach, a familiar scent; a thing unexpected out here. Not a predator but not necessarily a friend. I caused to retain my stillness, safety was paramount. The rustling stopped, I could feel whatever it was barely inches from my covered face.
‘They certainly seem to take the notion of hidden to its limit.’ That voice. That calm, free and constant voice. A hand removed the cover around my face and I looked upon the man from the ruins crouched in front of me. His fluid eyes looking deep into my mind. Wariness and friendliness mingled with each other for his expression.
‘You? What are you doing here?’ I asked with a start. He furrowed his brow and inspected the work that was done to me, tugging at the robe and the tight blanket. He leaned in closer to smell it and recoiled slightly.
‘I watched you run out of the city earlier today like a wall of ghosts threatened to bury you, the pace was impressive I must say, but then, you are all used to running away now, aren’t you? I had thought you ignorant to begin with. Curious yes, very curious. Something that’s sorely lacking these days, but nonetheless struck dumb by generations of blank conditioning. It’s truly a terrible tragedy that has befallen you.’
‘My people - ‘
He interrupted, ‘Are far away from here. I tracked you after you fled, watched them do this to you and waited to see if any would return but they have not.’
‘It is my punishment.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ he said. He straightened and walked around the tree that I was tied to. I tried to turn my head as best I can to track him but he disappeared from my vision. I dared to relax myself, take in my surroundings. It was barely light, the moon peeked through the top of the trees. I had a vague understanding of my positioning. The trees were a chaotic pattern that rambled towards the far creek. The man returned to stand in front of me with a distant look tempering his features.
‘If you can last the night, would you be able to recall this place and return to it?’ he asked flatly.
‘I think so, yes,’ I replied as I struggled to discern where his thoughts were wandering to. He gave a small nod as if a piece in a vast puzzle had found its place, and looked back through the now green dark forest. An obtuse feeling came over me that this man was seeing the forest entirely differently to how I would see it.
‘Will you come back here?’ I ventured in a quickened tone. His pose remained away from me but he answered, ‘Possibly. The days do not like to follow.’
Such an odd thing to say. An insane, odd thing. Was he talking to me? The trees? The sky? The great beyond itself? He was crazy, surely he was. Once I was free I would never return. Better still, convince the tribe to leave this place immediately, abolish it from our collective mind. All this played across the frazzled walls of my thought in such a flash that barely an eye blink was evinced before it had disappeared and quiet assurance remained. He knelt down and gently placed the material back over my eyes.
‘Remember this place,’ he said and I heard him walk away. I could have shouted after him to stop, to provide more information - however willing he may or may not have been to do that - to have more than just vagaries floating in front of me. But I didn’t and so he left, returning to the waiting darkness.
He could have been a loose vision, something conjured up in my desperate landscape of thought to provide the temporary fairy tale of escape that constantly rumbled in the depths of my subconscious. An apparition, a fiend, a demon, a being not of this earth or this time. Separate and unencumbered by the laws that bind the rest of us. I did not know if he would return tomorrow, or if there would ever be a chance that our disparate paths would cross again. He could have been a trickster, a thief, canvassing my people to steal away with what little possessions we kept with us.
Yes, he could have been many things, each visage but a piece of something much more than I could imagine, and as I sat there in the ruminating silence, the fabric causing minor itches around the bridge of my nose that I knew would fester into something that would drive me close to insanity to try and scratch, the whisper of the breeze along the tall trees that would turn to a cruel chill wind as the depth of night crept closer without pause, the fragmented memories of what had transpired over the day refused to leave, despite everything that was done to me, it had seeded and become a resilient sprite.
I closed my eyes and saw a strange curving spiral that made me weep in awe.