"Land of False Memory"
- Fantasy -
by Steven Benjamin
We’d been traveling for days, I don’t remember how many, before we found the old man. I only call him old because he was the oldest of us there, but it was mostly in his ways, capped off with his dark brown handlebar moustache. He sometimes wore an old woolen cap to keep away the chill from his greying sparsely-haired head. But he was strong; perhaps the strongest of us, because he’d lived in these lands and climbed these crags and mountains many times.
But he needed help, help from us, to get him to a place where he’d remember.
A day or two of aimless wondering through the cold wilderness followed, before we finally found a clearing. The old man led us to the far end of the clearing and then squinted up at the steep slope. He rubbed his arms and then grunted. He left us all behind, striding swiftly, hugging himself against the cold, his legs pumping as he climbed. He must’ve given his coat to one of the women in the team… all he had on was a dark trousers and an old pullover, tattered at the edges. We were left looking at each other, and then watching the figure move, without rest, up the slope with his hulking shoulders leaning into the breeze.
Eventually we followed up after him.
A while later we came up behind him. He was almost lying down on the ground, poking his head up over the jagged rocky ridge every now and then before hunching down again. He was busy. He felt us coming, hearing our footfalls behind him.
“I need to draw it,” he said, scanning the landscape peeking over the ridge again. He’d spread a large white paper on the ground, pinned in the corners with rocks, and was sketching a fairly decent image of what he saw, using a piece of charcoal and dirt.
Some time later, with the group huddled together for warmth, he got to his knees and squinted up at me, then back over the ridge, nodding. The sun was setting in the far horizon, the rays reaching below the cloud cover, casting his face in a burnt orange glow.
“I remember now,” came his raspy voice. “I have to draw it to remember it.” He blew his warm breath onto his dirty fingers, rubbing his hands together and them tucking them under his arms as he got to his feet.
I don’t remember much more of that night or the next morning... what I do remember is like a puzzle, the blank parts filling in as I think about it more, winding the clock back, seeing things I didn’t consciously notice when in the moment.
I remember we’d descended into the valley, coming down from the dragon’s back-like ridge into the rising mist. By afternoon the mist had cleared and there was only this odd hazy steam. We found ourselves at the river’s edge, though it was scarcely a river as the water wasn’t moving. Maybe it was a river once upon a time, but now it was more like a stagnant toxic culvert. The ground and rocks at the edges of the slope, where the earth fell away to the steamy liquid below, was a scorched pale tan colour. In the fresh sunlight at certain angles the surface of some of the rocks reflected a rainbow colouring. The chemical rich liquid was undoubtedly heated by natural underground geysers. It was a strange place that looked dead, but felt dangerous and alive. A place that sought to claim those who ventured in.
Then we heard a rumble. The old man was holding an old rag in his now gloved hands, watching the chute intently. Those of us who could see followed suit, waiting. A deeper rumble, but before it stopped, it grew even deeper, and then a strange sound, of cracking, and scratching.
Something moved in the corner of my eye. It was the bird. It was coming to life. First the head and oddly shaped curved beak. There were pieces flaking off of it, like it was coated in some kind of crust which was now crumbling. Then the chute exploded, and the old man was looking skyward. He braced himself and then stepped forward onto the next rock, holding out his hands. Whatever he caught he almost immediately tossed to the bird which twitched and caught it in its beak, taking no time to swallow it.
“What was that?” I asked of the old man.
He half turned and spoke to me over his shoulder, “An egg.”
The bird shook off its crust, it’s wings slowly and statically unfurling. It hunched over and crawled over the rocks towards the canyon wall, disappearing into the thickening haze.
“Come,” the old man said, “it’s this way.” He hobbled over the rocks in the opposite direction to the bird.
The next few hours was a blur again, traversing lands that were and will forever remain unfamiliar to me and even my cohorts.
Later that day we came to a clearing at the top of another slope. It was more of a small plateau. It was late afternoon but it felt like evening with the generous cloud cover. The hours felt long but the day felt short. We spotted an old house at the far end of the clearing. From the confidence of the old man’s stride I could tell this was the place, this was our destination. As we crossed the plateau I could feel the relief in the group, needing some rest and food.
What we saw from our vantage point was actually the side of the house, the front was facing out toward the landscape below, the view now obscured by the mist and clouds, so we could only make out the tops of the dark green trees but nothing beyond that. The house was built using carved stones from the surrounding crags.
We found a path at the edge of the plateau that would take us right to the front door of the house.
And as we came to the front of the house I realized that it was not an old house at all, or at least maybe it used to be, but someone had gone to great lengths and taken care to restore this cottage. The old stone bricks were only used for the outside walls, but the front door looked brand new finished dark wood. More than that though, the door stood ajar. There was a large front landing or porch and as we climbed the few steps to it, I noticed that the porch floor was also newly laid polished dark wood panels, which continued into the house.
I could tell from the amber glow on the wall just inside the doorway, that there was a light on.
We all gathered on the porch whilst a friend and I took to the task of entering the quiet cottage. The first thing I noticed was that it seemed bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. Perhaps there was a portion of it carved into the slope. We first entered the room to our left. There was a light shining from somewhere but it was a different light that cast the amber glow I noted earlier. This light was obscured by some furniture. It must be coming from a lamp set on the floor on the other side of the couch. My friend went in first, careful not to walk on the wood floor but on the narrow carpet laid over the main walkway areas. He then climbed up onto the couch.
“The floorboards might creek.” He whispered, so I followed him up onto the couch. The room looked odd from the higher view point as our feet sunk into the cushioned seats. The curtains were drawn, that’s why we didn’t see this light from the outside.
On the other side of the couch the light was actually below a small table, and on it was three stacks of books, the tallest stack was the same height as me if I’d been standing on the floor.
“These books are all new.” he whispered.
After looking down at some of the titles I had to concur, they weren’t only new, they were brand new, like the door and the flooring.
“I used to read some of these books as a boy.” I said. It was puzzling.
A moment later we decided to go deeper into the house. We walked back to the corridor and then followed it toward the back of the house. It led us to the kitchen. It was here where we found the source of the first light. It was in fact a lantern, set on the counter between the wash basin and fridge against the rear wall. There was doorway to our left, leading to a bedroom.
We went in.
The room was cluttered, there were unopened boxes on the beds to our right and left and beyond each bed were two cots but we could see no babies in them. The room was lit by another lantern on a small cabinet in the near corner on our right, so there were a number of shadows on the walls.
There was what I thought was a shadow of an object, or perhaps a domed lampshade on the other side of the cot on the right. But then it moved.
It dark shadowy arch straightened. It was in fact the arched back of a large bald man. Only he wasn’t really a man. What I thought was a dark gray pullover was actually his skin. Like the dark matte grey of the kind you normally see on car seats. He stood up straight and moved backward. He stood bare-chested, wearing only a dark trouser pants. He was staring, not so much at us but passed us. It was like he never even saw us. We stood dead still, too shocked to move or speak, waiting, for what I do not know. His face was featureless, no expression with a smooth flat nose over small line of a mouth and dark recesses where his eyes should be… though perhaps it had something to do with the dimness.
He turned around and opened a door behind him that I barely noticed was there before. As he did so, something small emerged from behind the cot. It was a little girl, no more than a toddler, wearing a brown dress with white lace along the hems. She too had no hair though her skin was a normal tan colour. Her clothes though seemed to be more suited to that of a doll. On closer inspection, as she walked toward us, there seemed to be something odd about her. The man creature had disappeared into the shadows of the open doorway behind her, but before we could regain our faculties to act, the little girl ran passed us. I took a breath. We glanced at each other and then ran after her, partly to catch up and partly to flee the room with the creature.
When we came back to the corridor, Ellie, one of the women in our group, cloaked in the old man’s coat, was weeping. She shrieked when she saw the girl, falling to her knees to embrace her. The little girl had no time to react, her little arms trapped between them.
“I lost you,” she said through her sobs, “I’m sorry. Oh, but you’re alive. How are you alive?”
Eventually she pulled away to look at the girl, holding her by her small shoulders. “My girl. How are you alive?” slowly her face changed as she took in the features of the girl she thought to be her daughter. She shook her head slowly, “Why are you so small? What are these clothes?” she looked at us, “what’s wrong with her?”
“You are my mother.” The girl whispered in a flat voice that didn’t sound like a child’s at all. There was no emotion in her small face. “Why did you kill me?”
Ellie’s jaw dropped, her breathing intensified. She pulled her arms back, shaking her head, “What is this?” Some of the women came in and helped Ellie, half dragging her out of the house. By now she was beside herself, her sobs echoing.
The little girl looked more and more like a doll than ever before. She scooted passed us again, back to the back of the house, disappearing in the dark doorway on the other side of the bedroom. We all moved back outside. I was trying to think of why there were details to the house that were familiar, and why was Ellie the only one deeply affected here.
As I walked back to the pathway outside I heard Ellie say “What is this place?”
I could hear Ellie mumbling something else as the others comforted her. I couldn’t hear much of it but she said her daughter had died of an illness.
I turned around and a few of the group was looking at me.
I shook my head saying “I don’t know.” Turning to look at the darkening gloom of the horizon.
Inwardly though, I got the sense that this was a place I would see again, sometime in the future, at a time I least expected.
Maybe I would find myself here again someday, confronting something, and as I turned to look at them, all starting the return journey, their faces began losing all familiarity.
We would leave that far off land as strangers.
This land of vague familiarity, was actually a land of haunt. We were brought here I think.
This was a land, not of truth, but perhaps of guilt, or a reflection of it. Remembering what was not. It is a taunting world making the untrue sound convincing.
A land of deception.