We walked in silence for some time, only the occasional bird song and my guide’s heavy breathing reaching my ears. I soaked in the solitude, reveling in the pleasures that met my eyes and the peace that had entered my heart. At the moment, I felt thankful for my companion and his leadership; my mind and body felt relaxed, despite the fatigue that gripped both, the virtual warfare and unease that continually engaged them quiescent. In truth, I thought, if this is what I can expect from following George through this forest, I thought I might never want to leave, no matter what lay ahead.
Then the scenery began to change. Ever so gradually at first, the lush greenery of the valley below showed hints of cracking. Verdant meadows interspersed with forests of mixed pine and deciduous trees had marked the dale, but the serenity slowly slipped away.
Here and there, the forest showed signs of wear, lone trees in the midst of a number of their brethren had apparently snapped at the base and lay strewn on the forest floor like so many overgrown matchsticks. The anomalous trees soon became the pattern, though, and the forests below grew threadbare, even the trees left standing losing their vigor. Cracked branches joined discarded trunks on the forest floor as the foliage disappeared in the dreadful destruction. What still protruded from the ground looked more like telephone poles than trees, for the appendages that served as a hallmark of what we call a tree appeared severed, truncated at their origin.
Yet, ‘telephone poles’ does not adequately described the remnants of trees that dotted the valley floor, for it does not capture the burnt, twisted, caricature of living things that these carcasses represented. The scene conjured to mind a monstrous black dragon hovering over the valley and unleashing a maelstrom of fire on a hapless habitat, hoping to destroy by its breath the beauty it lacked and transform the surface structure into something as twisted and malformed as its heart.
If so, it had succeeded, for whatever caused this destruction leveled and desecrated the landscape beyond any semblance of beauty. Actually, I take that back, for a certain perverse attractiveness remained. At least, the scene held some dreadful fascination for me; even the unmitigated splendor of the valley before the devastation overwhelmed it had not compelled my vision the same way this utter absence of discernible life did.
For, you see, in time even the tree carcasses vanished, replaced by blackened earth and occasional remnants of arboreal life in the form of splintered tree trunk and cracked branches. The rolling meadows that had encompassed the portion of the valley not filled by forest had disappeared entirely, leaving uneven terrain draped in some black, soot-like substance. Where slowly meandering streams lolled through the landscape not a few miles prior, now raging torrents of twisted waterways careened madly across the barren terrain. It appeared as if, like molecules heated up past their resting temperature are sent into a frenzy of activity, so the previously gentle water dashed to and fro in mad agitation, compelled into a fury of pointless activity by whatever fire, magma, or other dreadful heat source had scorched this land. Either that, or terrified of the terrain through which it must travel, the waters simply wanted to escape this nightmarish land as quickly as they could and therefore the water molecules piled on top of each other in their haste to depart.
I understood the sentiment, yet oddly felt not the same urgency. It was as if the scene my eyes beheld, which I could only think of as ‘evil’, held me transfixed in its grip, even as its malevolency grew more widespread, consuming the mountainside opposite me in its wrath. I wanted to compare it to the appeal of horror films, that calling, if you will, toward the macabre. Or, perhaps, it was related to human attraction to doomsday scenarios, natural disasters, death tolls, nuclear holocaust, germ warfare, serial killers, lethal viruses, or even the transgressions of the wealthy and famous. Maybe something in me drew my eyes to iniquity as if by natural inclination. Whereas I delighted in the majestic beauty of the valley in its unadulterated splendor but soon found my eyes wandering to other sights, the morbid view below repulsed me, yet also captured my complete, unwavering attention.
Something buried deep within me, perhaps, understood what I saw now better than what I had seen just minutes ago. I couldn’t quite convince myself that my understanding sprang only from familiarity, the constant pounding my senses took from the death and evil that pervaded the world, entertainment, and the news, but rather that it might arise from something deeper. In the same way a child might desire to watch a scary movie despite the night terrors it induces, so might I feel compelled by some hidden desire of my heart to seek those things which harm me, including this scene.
Revulsion twisted my stomach into knots, yet I could not turn away. I wanted to wail, moan, and howl against the horror I witnessed, yet I looked. The suspicion that perhaps it was not the devastation that was the greatest evil present, but my own twisted predilection for morbidity only tightened the knots that threatened to throw my stomach into a massive upheaval. I trudged on, tormented both by the stark malevolence of my surroundings and by my own depravity until I felt a hand descend on my shoulder.
The gentleness evident in this simple gesture,
gentleness that had no business coming from a hand the size of my head, broke something inside of me. Pride, ego, self-respect, the desire to put up a good front, whatever one might call it, the walls that I had so carefully erected around myself my entire life came crashing down in a torrent of tears. I wept and allowed my companion to enfold me in his arms without even the slightest thought of impropriety. Somehow, even the fetid stench that had pervaded this man’s presence vanished, replaced by something like a sweet fragrance, neither the alluring aroma of perfume, nor the bold musk of cologne, but a vibrant scent, one that somehow imparted life, paradoxically intensifying the grief at my own vileness and giving hope that I might attain to something greater, that I wasn’t relegated to the wretched waking death of self-hatred and self-abasement that had soiled every waking thought in my life to date. I bathed in the sensation, trembling slightly at its intensity, not certain of what it signified, but unwilling to depart from it for my need was great.
After a time, I could not say how long, we parted, as if by mutual consent. A hint of embarrassment touched me then and I cleared my throat reflexively in an attempt to divert the conversation to come from what had just happened. George smiled at me kindly. His eyes glistened with tears unshed; tracks trailing through the spattering of dirt that remained on his face gave evidence that many more tears had flowed freely. I felt a sob well up in my throat and turned away, unable to deal with the sensations I had found it so hard to depart from moments ago. Intense emotional experiences, it seemed, proved easier to handle while the feelings coursed through one’s body, but much harder to deal with once a person achieved a semblance of emotional equilibrium. I wanted nothing so much as to flee out from under the shadow of the man who could so easily cut through the tenuous shield and armor I had erected round myself and expose the tender flesh beneath.
My guide must have sensed my struggle for he turned back toward the direction in which we were headed. “Come on, Josh,” he said gently. “I brought you here so that you might gain wisdom regarding the things which you now sense, yet the death you see both around you and in you is not the end of the story. Nor is the beginning, but it is an integral part of your history, Josh, that you must understand; you must also come to know its solution.”