A stunning number of people was out on the street. All moved in the same direction — not hurried; determined, with a sense of direction. Many were dressed in travel clothes and carried luggage, suitcases some of them, others just bags.
I joined the flow and asked questions. — “Haven’t you heard?” someone told me. “They’re going to destroy the town. Everybody is to be evacuated.” — “Where are you all going?” — “To the train station, of course.” The station was located at the fringes of the old town, and indeed, it seemed to be the focal point towards which all the movement was directed. “You better hurry. Go straight and don’t digress.”
But why hadn’t I heard? Was not everybody to be informed in such a case? Shouldn’t the radio and newspapers have said something about it? And why at all so sudden?
“Has something vile happened?” I wanted to ask, but the man had already moved on. None of the others would stop to reply.
* * *
I decided to make a detour. Near the town hall, I slipped into a side road. There were fewer people here, although they too were walking briskly, still all headed in the same direction. I was now the only one swimming against the stream. I reached a small church, walked in, and took a door to the left that led to the stairs of its spire.
Climbing up, I had the occasional view over the streets from one of the small windows. Confirmation yet again: the whole town was on the move, people were out there, with various degrees of travel preparedness, all moving towards the train station. Through those windows that faced directly in the direction of the station, however, I could also see that the crowds had come to a halt there, jammed in the streets and places around it. Nobody actually departed. There were no trains going in or out.
I continued upwards. Just short of the platform, a sturdy door blocked my way. I tried to push it open, but it was firmly locked. As I looked around for a tool to break it open, I was surprised to see a tiny, grey-bearded man sitting in a side niche almost in darkness, with just a glow from a long, thin pipe that hung from his lips.
“It’s no use”, said the dwarf in a low, rumbling voice. “There is no way further up. The steps end here.” He let out a puff of smoke that almost completely enveloped him. “The only possible direction is down. If I were you, I would try the crypt, not the spire.”
“Can you tell me what’s going on here?” I asked. The dwarf shook his head. For a while there was silence. Then he volunteered: “Don’t try the crystal ball. Or the map. They will only mislead you in such a situation.”
He took another pull from his pipe, letting the tobacco glow brightly for a moment in its clay head, and then again vanished in a puff of smoke — this time it covered him so completely that he was practically invisible. That same moment, the light that came in from the small windows suddenly got dulled, probably on account of darker clouds pulling together in the sky outside. It transformed the already dimming glimmer of the day into a murky twilight.
“It would be a good idea to get going, rather than waiting around here”, the dwarf said, gesturing urgently downwards the stairs with his pipe, which he held in his fist now. Then he put it back, took another pull, and gave a final, even stronger puff of smoke. This time, as the cloud dispersed, he did not reappear. The niche was empty.
* * *
The narrow staircase wound down to the crypt in steep spirals. I had to take it very carefully; even so, I slipped twice on the treacherous steps. Only a faint glimmer of light was coming up, as if from a single candle.
When I reached the bottom, I found myself vis-a-vis that candle, held upwards by a hand that stuck out of a wide, black sleeve. The latter was attached to a kind of cowl, wrapped around a tall figure, of whom it was impossible to tell whether it was man or woman, ancient or youthful — even dead or alive: apart from an imperceptible trembling of the coat, it might have been a statue.
I stood frozen for a while, but eventually realized that I had to initiate something, or else nothing would ever move on. The scene had an aura of the unchanging, as if had been exactly like this for ages, and would gladly stay the same for many more.
“I’m looking for my way”, I said, tentatively.
“I will accompany you.” The sound of a voice, somehow both frail and vibrant, had come from nowhere in particular; or maybe that had only seemed so because it was bouncing back from the stone walls of the claustrophobic crypt, its arches and floor tiles. “But first, you need the map.”
I recalled that I had been warned against this. “I don’t need a map.” Although I had tried to make it sound light and casual, it came out rather defensively.
“You need the map”, the voice thundered, now suddenly with deep resonance and an underlying urgency.
I wasn’t willing to give in. “What for?”
Instead of a reply, the androgynous figure thrust its other arm, the one that wasn’t holding the candle, forward until it was fully extended and a white fist came to a halt almost directly in front of my face. Then the long, thin fingers opened slowly. In the cup of the outstretched hand rested a crystal ball which exuded a faint, white light.
And although I had been warned against this, too, I didn’t resist the invitation this time. I gazed into the crystal ball, and there I saw.
I saw the streets, deserted. My eyes traced the route I had been walking just a short while ago. The narrow side alley. The broader roads that connected the different quarters of town. The central square, framed by town hall, library, the entrance to the dome and the facades of the most ancient known buildings. All empty. No living soul, no cat nor birds, not even a piece of paper fluttering in the wind. A dead motionlessness had descended over the entire settlement, restoring to the pavements and stone walls their original, unanimated state. Cold, silence, dusky darkness enveloped it all.
“Give me the map”, I said.
* * *
If the androgynous figure hadn’t gone first, I would not have stepped into the dark opening.
It was square, three feet wide, and artless. It looked as if merely one of the stone tiles in the center of the crypt had been removed. In the weak light of the candle, it was impossible to see anything more than a pitch-black segment of the ground. Was it a downwards shaft? An earth-filled trough? A portal into the soft grounds?
The map had been full of cryptic symbols and ambiguous routes. But it clearly designated the crypt, and an entrance in its center, marked expressly and urgently with an arrow. The androgynous figure had quietly pointed at it, then at the dark opening. And then it had, without further explanation, walked towards it, stepped on, and slowly subsided. It wasn’t even possible to see whether the figure had simply sunk in or perhaps trod down invisible steps. Within moments, it had vanished.
There was no other option than to follow along.
My tentative step found no resistance of the ground. Quite the opposite. As I extended and cautiously lowered my right foot into the dark opening a dense, almost material blackness enveloped it and immediately began to pull it downwards. In order to not lose balance and stumble over, I had to follow through with the other foot, and complete the step forward. And then I just accepted what was happening and felt myself sinking down.
All the way downwards, waves of cold blackness surrounded me. They gradually became more thick around my feet first, and from there the feeling crept upwards. That was the only indication that I was still sinking — moving, really, in a fashion, vertically into the depth. I stopped breathing, which was no longer possible in the cold. After a while, my pulse seemed to have stopped. A numbness came over me. Finally, I was no longer so sure where I ended and the darkness around me began. I had entirely flowed out into the shadow.
* * *
Indefinite as I was — no longer a body, but somehow filling the black void as a shade myself, completely without a sense of whether time was progressing or not —, I still noticed when my katabatic movement had come to its natural end.
The androgynous figure was still there, hardly distinct from the surroundings. A shadow in pitch-black darkness.
“You must open your inner eyes”, it said to me. It was more that I found the thought in me, rather than actually hearing it. There was no sound. There was no space in which to move, either. And what was an inner eye, anyway?
“You are floating in the river of forgetfulness”, the voice offered, as if that explained anything. But then it continued: “Past here, there is nothing to be seen, or heard, anymore. The only way to understand is to take it in with your inner senses.”
A wave of sadness swept over me. Forgetfulness, I realized, meant to take leave from my life. I was about to lose everything I remembered, the good and bad of my memories were drawn out of me. So, really, I hadn’t yet become a true shadow. But now I was going to.
I still resisted. “When I do, what will I see?” — “Yourself.” — “Myself?” But who would I still be, after I had to let go of all my experiences, everything I had lived? — “You are not what you imagine you are. Open your inner senses, and you will understand what is underneath.”
I tried to struggle with this demand. But my will was fading.
Finally, I gave in.
When I did, I had a sudden image, flashing before my inner eye indeed — a vision. In it, I saw a figure, projected onto a transparent screen, a two-dimensional shadow only. But in stark contrast to all the other shadows around me, which were still black in the darkness, this one glittered in all colors of the rainbow, albeit watery and weak. Before the screen, evidently the source of the projection, and perhaps also the source of the light that caused it, hovered a tall presence. It was so thin that I could see right around it, and stretched out so much that both its lower and its higher portions seemed to fade into the distance. It moved slowly, and I could see how the marionette figure on the screen was controlled by those movements. But there was something else …
A hot anger and repulsion welled up inside me. I had just recognized the face on the puppet. It was my own face.
The vision stopped as abruptly as it had appeared. Now everything around me, if that was even possible, seemed to press in further on me. The dense, oppressive silence got deeper. The darkness became more intense, and the cold was unbearable. And then, suddenly, a fierce glare erupted everywhere at once. The world exploded, and I felt yanked sharply upwards. The depth was spewing me out.
* * *
I woke up and found myself lying on a stone bench, some trees and bushes behind me, but a wide open panorama in front of me. I was on top of the hill, at a familiar vantage point.
I realized immediately that I had read the crystal ball wrong. What it had shown, when I looked into it and saw the deserted streets, had not been the present — it had given me a peek into the future. My future: the future of the choice I was about to make.
As I overlooked the valley, downwards from the hill, I could clearly see the streets of town in the evening light. The narrow alleys, the broader roads. The town square in the middle, the facades of the library and the dome reflecting the setting sun. They were all empty ruins. Frozen and dead, the stonework preserved, but all living souls long gone.
I must have been asleep among the shadows for aeons.