Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Edgar

by Jonathan Stefanovic




I


He was going down. This he knew as surely as he knew that someday he would die. The signs were ubiquitous and inescapable, present in every moment of living and every aspect of being. Every thought was corrupt, every act perverse. He brooded endlessly on past failures. Entangled by self-doubt and mired in remorse, he could not sustain regular intercourse with others and stumbled on every step towards intimacy. Isolation claimed dominion. The world withdrew while the self decayed. The confusion in his head complimented the chaos of his reality. To himself he became a stranger; men and women became foes and deceivers. And as the madness waxed it asserted control, gaining its own volition as it spread from thought and perception to words and deeds. He said what he did not mean; he did what he did not desire. A black tide welled up in his soul, spilling from his mouth and fingers, indelibly staining all he touched. All was wrong. He could not think straight, nor could he act right. In the desperation of despair, he forsook the refuge of drugs, returning to an older haven: books. He read the dark fantasies of a troubled heart, the pristine productions of one erudite in misery. Three lines he particularly cherished, secretly repeating them until their sad song became part of him and bridged the gulf of centuries to that lost soul, the doleful bard. These are the lines:

“’Over the Mountains of the Moon,

Down the Valley of the Shadow,

Ride, boldly ride,’ the shade replied.”

And this is the change those lines wrought in him who sought solace in their mournful melody.


II


He sat in his bedroom, alone. A cold silence prevailed, a deathly stillness. There was an itch in the crook of his arm. It felt like something was stirring from a nightmare, rasping against chainmail wrappings. He scratched at it, shedding scales with each drag of his nails. Deeper he dug, peeling strips of dry skin until the whole sheath slid off to reveal raven feathers pressed down hard against bone. He did the same to his other arm, tearing furiously at the false human exterior. Both arms turned into wings. He looked at his hands: they were claws tapering into glinting ends. Shaking out his molting feathers, he felt within an upward rush. It was the summons of the skies.

He left his room, not out the door but through the window. Flight came to him effortlessly. Before he had time to think he was airborne, rising into the black night. The ground fell away below as with each wing-stroke he gained altitude. Above a mass of clouds loomed vast, stretching across the heavens in an infinite canopy. Higher he hurtled, seeking to burst through their ranks to the emptiness beyond. Shock: he slammed into the base of the cloud cover. It was solid, smooth and hard like sculpted marble. For a moment he hovered beneath that colossal ceiling, stunned and thwarted. Then he flung himself headlong at it, gouging out scabs of congealed cloud with his claws, burrowing up to the empyrean wastes. It was like boring up out of a mountain, but he managed it with the same instinctive ease with which he had taken to flying. A demon of fire had taken possession of him, filling his limbs with strength and his head with fever. With one last swipe of his claws, he burst forth at a cloud zenith, emerging into the star-studded expanses of sable space. Before him, huge and warm, hung the moon.


III


Oceans of golden ether swam around him, the lunar atmosphere caressing him as it had so many supernal poets before. He alighted on a plain of palely glimmering pearls. His wings were no more. Picking up a handful of the pearls beneath his feet, he let them slip through his grasp in a tinkling fall. One orb remained in his palm. Up to his eye he brought it, filling the whole of his vision with its wan beauty. It was flawless, as the moon once was before the battery of myriad meteorites pitted her face with craters. Weeping for the ravaged glory of the Lamp of the Night, he let fall the last pearl. It struck the ground like a gong, heralding the imminence of the alabaster steed.

From afar neighing sounded, followed anon by the thunder of hoofs. It was as if a herd of wild horses were stampeding over the plains, recklessly yoked to whim and reveling in their free rein. But only one steed appeared, wondrously carved of alabaster, endowed with the Spirit of the Wind. It came before him and bowed its proud neck with mane rippling like a cataract. He mounted. No sooner was he on the broad back than the steed charged, shooting across the plain of pearls like a comet. So swift was its stride that the cosmos streamed by in rivers of light. In mere moments the great plain was traversed. Ahead reared the six conjoined peaks of a sepulchral massif, the redoubtable walls of the Mountains of the Moon. Horse and rider proceeded as one.

Up a way winding beside bottomless chasms they climbed, threading through cliffs that frowned forbiddingly upon their ascent. Behind them the plain sprawled illimitable, reaching to the boundary of sight, there where the sun lurked under the horizon. Fierce stars glared down from their lofty thrones, firing fragments of flame in a storm of self-immolation. The ground shook with every meteoric impact, toppling cliffs into the maws of the insatiable chasms, but the alabaster steed never faltered, as steady and sure-footed as a mountain goat. Step by step they conquered the mighty mountains together, until at last they stood triumphant on a plateau between the tallest twin peaks of the massif. They surveyed what lay unveiled to them: a host of mountain ranges, sheer and stark like the skeletons of a slain host of giants, with a yawning black pit at its heart. They had come to the Valley of the Shadow.


IV


The steed was gone. He was falling, sliding down in a roaring avalanche that threatened to bring the entire massif down with him. He thrashed wildly about, clutching at the rocks and dirt only to find that they composed the scree which bore him down. Raven wings had taken the place of his arms once more, but they were broken, and flapping them only made them bleed. Terror froze his heart as he slid helplessly into the waiting darkness of the Pit.

At the bottom he picked himself up out of the inert rubble. All around was a stifling blackness that pressed against his eyes like blindness. He could not see out of it: the mountain peaks were gone; the stars had ceased to show. Through this midnight of the soul he stumbled, trailing his broken wings on the broken ground. Where he went he knew not. He was part of a nightmare: he watched himself moving in the heart of the horror for no reason at all. When the cracked rocks underfoot turned to moist soil, a knowledge was born in him. He was drawing near the end. Dim lights, naught more than hazy aureoles hovering about distant skulls, began to appear in the Valley of the Shadow. About his head vampire bats fluttered and chittered; at his heels ghouls grasped. He could hear them slavering in anticipation of feasting on his flesh. He ran, panic-stricken.

And came to the cypress crowded banks of an asphalt river. Across its sluggish ooze, he espied the white door of a tomb. Ravens congregated upon an arch carven with arabesques, and lying on the threshold a flawless maiden, dead as dreams and lost to hope, rotted in the vise of oblivion. The darkness streaming around the pillars flowed into a single shape. A Shadow crept toward him to stand on the hither bank. Sovereign dread prevailed. The Shadow raised a scythe dulled by eons of carnage and pointed ruthlessly at him. It spoke in satanic sibilance: “Welcome!”



THE END


2018 Jonathan Stefanovic

Bio: Jonathan Stefanovic is a student. He lives in Orlando, Florida and enjoys reading, particularly the works of Poe, Lord Dunsany, and Ursula Le Guin.

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