Monuments to the Dead
I realized before I rounded the corner that this was the place. The tension and unease on the air reached a pinnacle and right on queue the turn-off for the scenic overlook slid into view. I pulled slowly into the narrow parking lot. The place hadn’t changed much and I wasn’t sure why I had expected it to. The parking lot was a little bigger, the guardrail was much heavier, and a larger deck had been added, but the mountain was the same. The view hadn’t changed and that just didn’t seem right. The world sure had.
I ran the big bike right to the narrowest end of the empty lot. A pair of portable johns took up the end parking place so I pulled the Valkyrie up on the sidewalk behind them and shut her down. She would not be visible from the road or parking lot on casual inspection. In the face of the approaching weather I wasn’t expecting anybody to stop here, but it was worth the precaution. I didn’t want to be disturbed.
An eerie silence swept in at the loss of the engine noise. The back of my neck tingled. Dismounting I quickly turned, ready to confront what I was sure was sneaking up on me, but there was nothing there. I shivered inside my heavy leather jacket, and not from the cold. The atmosphere was oppressive, and I could almost taste it. My shoulders and arms ached from the tension. I closed my eyes and, breathing deeply, forced myself to relax muscle by muscle.
Shortly I detected a new smell on the air. Cold, earthy, damp, and a bit smoky, it heralded more problems to come. Snow was falling somewhere. I opened my eyes even as I felt the first flakes graze my face. The ride down was going to get interesting. Even now the winds were whipping up and the visibility was dropping rapidly.
I grabbed the heavy duffel off my back seat and immediately regretted the loss of the long strap to throw over my shoulder. I could’ve rigged something up, but didn’t want to take the time. The spirits of this place were tangible and I couldn’t stay in one place for long. I kept turning to see what was coming and there was never anything there but snow. I shrugged and grabbed the duffle by the handles. I didn’t have all that far to go anyway.
Searching near the end of the guardrail for the small trail I knew was there, I quickly located it and started down. I was carefully noting landmarks as I went, the parking area was difficult to see from below and the trail would rapidly become obscured as the snow accumulated.
A hundred feet along and a switchback later the trail widened and there was a small granite monument beside it. About a foot square at the base; it tapered to a point at about five feet tall. A tall, skinny pyramid. Etched letters in vertical line from thin top to about half way down read, “In memory of”. The list of names was in smaller, horizontal script below that.
Monuments to the dead. I despise them. We build far, far too many of them, and I’m not sure why. The living are left to muddle through as best they can...the survivors ignored...shunned even...but the dead we carve in stone so we remember. I remembered, despite my best efforts to forget. I didn’t need the damn stone.
This monument, like so many around the country, celebrated not the dead, but rather, it commemorated what killed them. A stark reminder. A victory dance. A tribute to the act itself, not the result. I tasted blood and realized I’d clamped my jaw tightly shut. Once again I tried in vain to relax.
I didn’t want to read the names, I’d been trying to forget them for more than two decades and they were still indelibly etched in my memory. I knew what would be inscribed there, but was inexorably drawn to look anyway. Snow was beginning to collect and obscure the names, but I could still make out how many there were. I quickly smashed down a flash of anger. There were enough violent emotions in the air here. Still, I was dismayed. There was one too many names in the stone.
Flushing, I stepped forward and brushed the snow off. I was right...sort of. There had been an extra name, inscribed as the others were, but it had later been crudely gouged out of the stone, leaving a ragged line in its place. That was interesting. Reading the remaining names, I grunted in satisfaction and moved on. Apparently at least one other person still knew the truth of this place.
I walked through two more switchbacks. Several hundred feet down the trail and perhaps 60 feet in elevation below the parking area the trail widened and flattened to a large granite outcropping. This was the place. Sheltered by a slight overhang above, a rock wall to one side, and the steep trail to the other, there was little wind here. That was helpful. I could hear it in the distance whipping through the trees producing a steady roar. The white noise was occasionally punctuated by a long, whistling moan and I found it extremely unnerving.
I moved to the far end of the rocky area, right where the trail switched back again and continued down into the valley. Just off the trail and against the rock wall a flat stone outcropping formed a slight overhanging platform. This would do.
I brushed the light dusting of snow off the rock and looked out into the valley as it swirled away in the winds. Everything nearby was beginning to turn white, and the blowing heavy snow obscured anything further away. I looked up. It would be dark soon too.
I knelt and opened the duffel. I was surprised at how warm the dragon box was as I pulled it out. I ran my hands over the wood. It was truly a masterwork of rare design. I could almost feel the two carved dragons moving under my fingers. There was power here, and I was finally ready to admit that, even if I wasn’t sure I understood. I looked carefully at the lid, absorbing every detail of the dragons flying purposefully through the storm. I then closed my eyes, covered them with my hands, and felt them as they came to life...
The great dragon soars, alone, flying and free. Simple joy found twisting on the winds, moving where it wills, blown only by a whim.
Sometime later he detects a pattern to the winds; subtle pressures pushing this way and that. Curious, the dragon follows; twisting just so, tasting the air...carried by intangible guides to an unknown end. Who is calling him? To where? Why?
The pressures vanish. The guide is gone. Expectation hangs on the air and taints the winds. Suddenly the dragon knows he is not alone. Another has been brought here as well. And there is something else...
Jack and I never met before that day. Indeed we came from completely different directions, some quirk of the universe bringing us to that particular place at that exact time. Jack arrived from the west on his 500cc dual-sport at the same moment I slowly climbed the road from the east on my struggling little street 125cc. We were both just young bucks wandering...finding a few days off from work, scraping up a couple extra dollars for gas, and picking destinations on a whim. We both tended to wander often and far.
Two dragons together. Two of one mind, two of common blood. There is no time to celebrate. There is scarcely time to understand. Turning as one, the dragons sense a new presence. Old and crafty. Powerful, fast, and unfettered. Unleashed? Indefinable. Beyond comprehension.
The dragons stir uneasily. The new presence is not a dragon. And it’s hungry...
Hours later, beaten and bloodied, our bodies and spirits numb and abused, we left the mountain riding together. Unspoken agreements had passed between us. We were both proud men that had endured more than we should, and now we wanted nothing more complicated than just to get home. We knew we’d need each other’s help. Besides, we wouldn’t admit it, but at the moment neither of us could stand to be alone. We looked into a place no man should see, and we knew what could be waiting out there. It would be a long time before either of us came to terms with that.
The dragons' fates were linked, and they knew it.
A gas stop in New Mexico had produced the box. Souvenirs were the last things on our minds, but while waiting in line to pay for our fuel, we had spotted it among some Indian merchandise on a small table. Jack and I had both reached for it at the same time. We both felt the energy when we touched it. The old man running the place had laughed.
“Two dragons,” he pointed at the box, then at us, “for two Dragons.” That was when we discovered we both carried the same nickname, “Dragon”.
He gave it to us, somehow understanding there was no way we could pay for it. “It’s yours, and only yours,” he told us, “it holds your spirits,” his eyes had grown sad, “You must set them free.”
We hadn’t understood what he meant, but we had the box. It seemed a small victory, but we needed small victories then.
Their spirts connected, their souls in bond. Neither wanted it. Neither liked it. The price had simply been too high.
The box had gone home with Jack, simply because his bike could carry more. It wasn’t something either of us required possession of, but rather, it seemed enough that we each knew it was safe.
The intricate carved dragons grew even warmer, nearly alive, and I decided it was time. Opening my eyes, I pulled the lid off and carefully dumped Jack’s ashes in a pile on the rock, glancing at and then corralling the old, yellowed newspaper clipping that had been in the bottom of the box. Reaching in the duffel, I pulled the several small sticks of oak I had carried along with the box, breaking the smaller ones as I put them in a stacked square pattern on top of the ashes. I wadded the clipping up and carefully placed it in the middle of the kindling. The rest of the wood and the box bottom followed, and then I propped the lid in the center so I could see the dragons.
I pulled a lighter from my pocket and in one smooth motion, reached over and lit the paper. I could see the headline as the burning clipping uncurled and turned brown, black, and then to ash, “Eight Killed in Accident.”
They’d had it wrong of course, but history often records only what people want to believe. The truth is seldom relevant.
I pulled the thermos full of coffee out and discarded the now empty duffel to the side. Silently thanking the thoughtful waitress, I poured myself a cup of the hot creamy colored liquid and sipped at it. I sat with my back against the wall just a few feet from the growing fire. I watched the flames lick around the box and did my best to relax. It would be a little while. I had enough wood for a respectable fire there.
Slowly the fire grew, the dry oak crackling. The wind noise faded from the background and the heat bouncing off the rocks began to warm me. Fascinated, I stared at the dragons. They stared back, fighting their way though the storm, flying in the flames. They seemed right at home there.
I could hear the yelling even over my engine as I pulled into the parking lot. I was a latecomer to the scene, but not by much. Smoke and dust still billowed from where the car had accelerated from a standing stop, smashed through the railing, and plummeted over the edge.
I jumped off the bike, peered over the drop. Oh jheeze... Out loud I muttered, “Holy crap!”
I was vaguely aware of another bike sliding to a stop behind me.
One lady stood next to a car, several kids were in the back seat. She was wringing her hands. Yeah, that’ll help. I turned to her, “Is this your car?”
There was no response. She was starting to cry. I grabbed her by the shoulders, turned her away from the scene and yelled, “IS THIS YOUR CAR!”
She seemed to see me for the first time. “Yes...”
I propelled her toward the door, pulled it open. “Go! Get some help. Find a phone. Cops! Ambulance! Something!” She didn’t move. I swatted her hard on the rump. “HURRY!” Relieved to be told what to do, she nodded and quickly got in her car. She was backing out even as I turned toward the trail.
I opened my eyes to falling darkness and the echoes of screams fading on the wind. I was startled; I hadn’t realized I'd faded into sleep. I wouldn’t have thought that possible here. Snow was falling even heavier now, imparting a hushed sound upon the world despite the wind noise. Blinking, I poured more coffee. The fire was more involved now, but the box hadn’t really caught yet.
“Dammit Jack...” I hadn’t wanted to relive this, but it seemed that I must. I stared into the fire, wondering. Was Jack the lucky one here?
Disruption in the patterns, a bad taste on the winds. The dragons saw it then, this thing of dark light. Felt it. Feared it.
Two died in the car. I would later believe they probably died above rather than on impact, but by that time nobody cared.
Two dead. Blood running across the stone. So much blood, its tangy, metallic smell so strong I could taste it. Intense desire to help, but knowing it was already too late for them. Others were hurt too. There had been people on the trail, people on the sidewalk above, maybe others in the car. Passersby wanting to help. Chaos reigned.
Human nature makes us slow to recognize danger. We want to believe the best. The enemy here was the car wreck, and it was finished. Wasn’t it?
The dragons watched the dark light seek out a wind, a motion, a life. Touch it. Surround it. Consume it. They weren’t sure what they were seeing. Finished, the entity looked at the dragons then. Dismissed them with disdain. Turned away and touched another wind. It screamed and was consumed almost instantly.
Two more died while we watched. We were just kids. We didn’t understand.
The dark light moved on to another wind. Another life. Touched it...surrounded it...
Another died even as we struggled to believe. We'd failed her...and I can still see her eyes.
“We were just kids!” I started awake again, snapping my eyes open and sitting up with a gasp, tears streaming down my face and the echoes of my scream...my apology...my pain...reverberating across the valley.
I listened to the echoes die. Please. No more. Nauseous, I snarled, “Fuck this!” and lurched unsteadily to my feet. Struggling not to retch I turned and stumbled up the trail.
I didn’t make it far. The malevolence in the valley was like a wall of brambles. The harder I pushed through it the harder it got to move and the more it hurt. I stopped and stood swaying on my feet, my back to the fire. Unwilling, I turned slowly till I faced it again, the tears still falling. A deep breath, a quiet voice, “God Jack. Why’d you bring me here?”
The crackling fire was my only answer.
Index Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6