Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Black silt surrounded the mountain, so thick men sank to their waists in it. The mountain, according to the old geographies, was a former volcano, blown clean open several hundred years ago. It was silent now. In the rain, a column of men marched. Their feet slipped in the silt and some fell from the path altogether. They struggled in the blackness. The guards would rush to them, pull them free from their entrapment and set them marching again. The column marched, but the mountain grew no closer. Their boots filled with water and silt; each footstep caused their feet to slosh like pigs in a sty.
At the mountain’s lip, five bonfires lit the darkness. No man could say what time of day it was, and all were too tired to ask. They stood on the lip of the mountain and looked down. Below them, indistinct in the rain, ran path upon path. The paths had been carved into the rock with great intricacy, as if designed by some mathematician. There was a true perfection to this horror. Far below, the men could see others, clad, like them, in simple prison tunics. These small figures stumbled and several, in a lamentable state, crawled.
The guards beckoned the first men of the column over, and, one by one, they began to walk down the steps between two of the flaming bonfires. There was no food or drink before the journey began. The last man in the column was held back, taken aside, and told to wait under a leather cowl some distance from the bonfires. He shivered under the shelter, quite imperfect, with many holes and tears in it. He knew better than to ask the guards why he had been spared the descent.
After a few hours, the column was lost in the pathways of the mountain. The last man sat on a relatively dry pile of ash and tried to sleep. The rain dripped into his ears and down his neck, it was cold; each drop reminded him to stay awake. Morning was announced when the fires were extinguished by the guards. The last man stood at the lip of the mountain and jumped to warm himself. A few birds, very black, studded the skies above. The guards bought him some hard pieces of bread and brackish water.
After he had eaten, the lead guard returned. “Look! Just go and look,” he said. The last man walked to the lip of the mountain. He could see every man in the place, each man was illuminated by a halo that glowed over his head. “What do you make of that?” asked the lead guard. “I don’t know,” the last man replied. They watched the men below all morning, still walking and stumbling and tracing glowing lines through the infinite paths of the mountain. They saw one man fall, and he did not get up again. The halo above his head slowly extinguished itself; he was lost from their sight. It was as if the pathway, the dark, had eaten him. Finally, towards the end of the day, the halos began to die. When the last spot of light was gone, a great wailing went up from the bottom of the mountain. The last man was taken back to his shelter.
In the morning, the guards prodded him awake. They seemed a little disturbed and their actions were urgent. In the distance, the last man could see that they had packed their mules and were ready to return to the city. The lead guard took the last man to the entranceway. “Here you are,” he said. He gestured with an open palm to the space between the two bonfires. The last man stepped between them. The path was hard under his feet; there was no trace of silt or ash here, though the material was very black—almost a slick mirror. He kept walking along the path, ignoring its branching ways. Behind him, the guards departed.