The small rat-infested apartment, strewn with litter, was dimly lit with a smell of stale smoke, flat beer and musty linen saturating the air. Slowly he eased himself into a shabby chair, torn and tattered from years of abuse. His mind was blank from a long day's toil, digging ditches in the torrid sun. Gazing with empty eyes, he thought, I hate this life.
Faintly, in the shadows of his mind, a memory flickered. Dreams of a happy child, full of spirit. Quickly the memory disappeared as sounds in the horizon roused him from the trance.
Rising, he stretched his stiff, aching muscles as bones cracked inharmoniously. His head throbbed from cheap bag liquor shared with pals after work. In a sour short-tempered mood, he cursed black roaches scurrying behind the counter as he neared. Drawing back the sheet curtain, his red, bloodshot, bleary eyes focused on an approaching storm.
As he peered through a dirty, weather-worn pane at the dark graying clouds, he noticed a peculiar light shining with a puzzling glow that frightened him. Strange, he thought, something like this in such a foreboding storm.
Looking again, the light was creeping, dim, barely noticeable, approaching at a snail's pace. Gazing, as it moved closer, he envisioned either a figure or an apparition; he couldn't tell for sure. Spellbound, his feet had become heavy. The vision grew in size, then diminished. Back and forth this suspicious show continued. Suddenly it was squinting through the window at him.
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He'd never observed such a sight in his pathetic life. Then, waking from the dream, he understood. The reflection was that of his own. Or, was it? Its resemblance was remarkable, yet distinctly different. The eyes were ablaze like wild fire in an open forest. It startled him. He flung back, swearing off the image.
Staggering to the ragged refrigerator he grabbed a tepid beer, numb to the filthy scum that lined the peeling shelves. Screaming, he cursed his lot in life. He snapped off the cap and put the bottle to his sun-parched lips, emptying it.
"That will keep away wretched memory creeping around," he muttered, collapsing in his chair.
He deceived himself, the nightmare lingered. It was cleverly obscured by the stench of rotting garbage that permeated the room. Sleep would be its time to rise and deliver a message from the dead. Patiently the vision would tarry, until the right moment, striking in full fury.
Nodding, chin drooping to his chest, he fought sleep, knowing the demon from within would emerge, wreak havoc, torturing him unmercifully. Finally, he drifted off to his tormented nightmarish dream land. A land filled with evaders and losers. A land black and unforgiving, one only the mind could create, a dreamland of fantastic tales with tragic endings.
At first the dream was pleasantly mellow. Trees swished briskly in the autumn afternoon breeze as green grass waved a greeting of welcome. Children romped in a meadow, playing tag, laughing and shouting. Celebrating the freedom only a child knows. The afternoon sun, friendly and peaceful, caressed their unblemished faces. Their cheeks, rosy from the chilled air, complemented their tangled hair.
Unknowingly he grinned, breathing easily in the night. As his dream continued, a boy approached the field filled with expectation and excitement longing to talk to his companions, speaking as only children do. Nearing his playmates, they cheered and cried for him to hurry and join them but he could make no progress. His legs grew weary, becoming leaden as the beautiful green meadow transformed into a mire of ooze.
His silenced companions were no longer in sight. He was alone. Struggling to understand, he saw a curious sight. A tree, he had never before seen in this field where he had so often played, had suddenly sprouted. It was the size of a waking giant. Approaching slowly, legs, abruptly mobile, he imagined a haggard and tired face in the wrinkles of the aged sinewy bark.
Withdrawing in fear, he soon realized the tree offered no threat. He talked to it as if it were his shadow. To his surprise the tree answered, whispering in a mysterious voice that only the boy understood. It urged him to put his ear to its fleshly bark. Hesitantly, he conceded. The tree spun a sad tale of woe and regret. It was a yarn of a fellow consumed with anger, hate, and mistrust.
The story began as a wanderer meandered down a winding wood-lined lane passing an emerald pasture. A cold, rapid flowing brook bordered the trail. Speckled trout harvested mayflies from the stream's surface. Birds filled the air with twilight songs. Everything was peacefully serene.
The wanderer rested on a small boulder abutting the stream. Picking berries from a nearby blackberry bush, he pricked his finger on a thorny branch. He sucked a droplet of blood that rose from the wound. Swooning, he collapsed. The earth, blanketed with ants, spiders and other crawling pests, overwhelmed him in bewildering numbers. Awakened from pain of insect bites he lunged into the icy stream. Dragging his body out, shaking and shivering from the frigid water he searched for shelter.
A cave appeared in the side of a nearby hill. Entering the nightmarish haven, he huddled against the rear wall. Deep in the shadows a figure appeared. An obese man clad in warm mittens and winter coat. Asking what his business may be in his refuge, the traveler reluctantly recounted his tale.
The wanderer's mind raced with indecision. He despised the corpulent fellow, craving his dry, warm clothes and mistrusted him as a stranger. The wanderer stood, advancing toward the fat man. Not moving a muscle, the massive man remained stoically impassive. Lunging like a cat, the wanderer attacked, killing him with a single blow.
Quickly disrobing the corpse, slipping on the coat, he detected an odd exotic fragrance emanating from the lapel. Breathing in the bouquet, he fainted falling to the ground. Paralyzed by the narcotic aroma, his eyes could see the keeper's image looming at the cave's entrance, risen from the dead. His immobile prey shrieked in mortal fear. Retaliation and retribution would be pay back for the wanderer's senseless deed.
Then quickly, the tree's dream story was over. The boy stood back wondering what this tale could mean. Shrugging his shoulders, he turned scurrying away. Then a voice called to him, he turned, and there dangling from the gallows tree he hanged.
Jolted from his sleep, he was unnerved and drenched with perspiration. Rising from the sheetless, sweat stained, soiled mattress he groped for a cigarette in the dark. Swearing, he lit one to calm his shaken nerves. The storm still raged as lightening flashes illustrated eerie figures on the window shade. He pushed the curtain aside. There, to his shock, on a stout branch outside the window he witnessed an appalling sight.
He, dangling from a gallows tree, hanged.
© 1998 Paul Matson, all rights reserved
appears here by permission