She spun about sprightly and headed back toward the hut, practically skipping as she went. I remained for a few seconds, still taking in the bizarre array of antics all those around were thusly absorbed in. Not a single other person as much as raised their eyes from their business as I emerged from the trees into the starkly unnatural circular clearing. Of the diversity of people around, the girl was clearly the youngest amidst them. I was puzzled momentarily as to why she was the only one who seemed awake. She was standing with one hand on her hip, motioned for me to follow, and gave another exasperated sigh. I obliged, quickening my pace across what was now sand beneath my feet, until we came to the purple curtain.
“I can tell you haven’t been here very long- have you. But have they?” I pointed as discreetly as I could muster at the others, ever engrossed in whatever each took fancy to.
“Nope,” she chimed, “my parents just finally brought me out here for the first time, after my 12th birthday this last April. Just like they-”
“And you’re not the least bit weirded out?” I interjected.
“I can tell you ask too many questions.”
I couldn’t help but allow a glimpse of amusement to cross my countenance at her tone- like a chiding parent, in a squeaky little voice.
“Go on, go in and talk to him! “she gestured again toward the entrance.
I hesitated still. Equivalent to my inclination to simply barge in, was my desire to even be there- much less to get at all involved. I already had more than enough confusion in my life. Despite finding her feisty spirit refreshing- I was still reasonably uncomfortable about the whole scene. I looked back over at her, and back at the doorway, which at a closer vantage was interwoven with shining gold thread. I instinctively recognized a small, metallic sound resonating from up above us, and glanced up to see a tiny red-throated hummingbird glaring back down, scarlet chest glinting in the dying light. Chirping in such a manner that I guessed he may have been reciting avian profanity; I had always wondered why it was generally accepted that hummingbirds were of docile nature, I knew firsthand that they could be little devils if in a mood.
The girl was making play fists and rolling her eyes again, so concluding that there would be no knocking, I pushed the curtain aside and furtively stepped inside.
The space was surprisingly large and well-furnished for the base state of everything outside; filled with a warm energy, I saw that the walls were in fact made of rich, sturdy oak logs behind the brittle sticks and straw. There were bookcases both short and lofty, stacked and filled in disorderly array with hundreds of shabby leather- bound, paperback, wooden, and hardcover books. Many were exceedingly thick, with the initial appearance of research and reference documents and journals. I didn’t see or sense anyone at all, and continued to observe the spread of tubes, vials, darkened bottles, syringes, papers, and seemingly plant matter strewn about on two rectangular wooden tables. There was a third table, bright red and only the size of a square end table, with three broad candles exuding a fragrance that brought me to feel of a frustratingly indescribable nature.
Time seemed to be crawling at half speed as I loitered around waiting for someone potentially as disconcerting as the public outside that violet tapestry. I decided to further tarry only long enough to study a staff leaning in the corner. It appeared to be made of a finely smoothed Yew wood, carved as one piece with two snakes encircling its length, heads nearly meeting at the top. I flinched to suddenly sense a hand on my shoulder.
I turned about, looking behind but beheld no one, until I spied the man sitting in a chair at the little red table. Only half veiled in shadow, he was an unshaven man of considerable years. Had he been just sitting watching me? Whose hand grabbed my shoulder? I had been standing back by the door, about to leave after I had been examining the staff; I marveled at how I had missed something so obvious.
“Rather captivating craftsmanship eh?” “Yes, particularly the eyes of the snakes…”
I was embarrassed by how oblivious I had been but was then also grateful I had not indulged my curiosity to look inside the darkened bottles with various tags on each.
“well it doesn’t mean what it used to to me- that’s for sure. Take a seat if you will?”
“I prefer to stand,” I instinctively countered.
“so be it,” he laughed. “So. No need to explain why you’re here, I would gather for the same reasons as most everyone else…”
“Irrelevant-” he said, holding up his hand with an exaggerated emphasis on every syllable. “That is, the past has passed. What can I do for you today?”
“I wouldn’t know. I can’t even figure out what this place is. What the hell is this camp doing here? What’s wrong with all of those people?”
“Ah, straight to the questions- straight to the point. I do like you…” he trailed off, as if carefully measuring his answer. “I cannot tell you definitively, but I can tell you that we all come here, and we are all subject to the Laws of this place. Some stay, while others do not- both either content or discontent.”
“I hear a lot of riddles and nonsense.” I replied curtly.
The illuminated half of his face cracked a smile, “Ask better questions.”
My stomach protested loudly in reply.
“Oh yes-” he rose, moving to the tall bookshelf and retrieving a burlap bag. Producing two substantial sheets of dried meat, he placed them on the red table across from the chair, of which he was again seated. I began to feel foolish standing there, unsure of how to hold myself so as to not appear as weary and ill as I felt.
“I should have remembered- you’ve likely been walking a couple days.. Come now, eat. I’ve got better things to do than to poison those who don’t ask for it,” he chuckled, apparently quite pleased with himself. “Eat so we may continue this discourse with no unnecessary ill-will.” I acquiesced and divided my attentions to sating the fierce aching in my muscles.
“And do you have a name, or shall I simply call you the Guarded One Who Stands?”
“That works,” I managed between laborsome mouthfuls.
The food was already taking the edge off of my hostile delirium and I paused chewing, realizing it had been a while since anyone had asked that. “I guess I don’t have a name- not yet I suppose.. I usually don’t think about it until someone simply starts calling me something for one reason or another. My name was once Zakuw- I don’t know why, but an old friend of mine way back in the day used to always call me that and then laugh. I never did figure out why or if it even meant anything. Funny how we met, in that day we used to walk the Catacombs at night for kicks. Peaceful place…Why am I even telling you this?..”
I could still hear his trademark laughter ringing in my ears. For the longest time he was the only person I ever spoke to, until he simply disappeared. One night he never showed up to walk along in the dark with me, and I was never any the wiser of where he went. But I eventually understood his disappearance when some decades later I developed the inclination to do the same thing. Friendships and relationships were too risky. Since then, I’ve long preferred to share my secrets with strangers, those of the Asylum who would not remember my name or face, or those I crossed paths with in the Silent Places- but never for long.
The old man wistfully nodded as if he perceived my thoughts.
“Anything in your pockets?” he proposed.
“No, I didn’t bring anything with me but these clothes.”
“Clearly you’ve no others…” he laughed again. “check anyways.”
I reached in my pockets and to my surprise was something, pulling out of the depths of my left pocket a tiny parchment scroll, about the size of a matchbook. I opened it to see only a few indiscernible symbols, appearing as that of a foreign language, and handed it across the table to him.