It’s easy in the summer to lie under the gold-speckled trees and drowse away unchecked hours while the sun rolls dizzily by, neither searching nor desiring a resting place for its head. Nocturnal sunlight, how it lulls and deceives you as one day melts into another without change and you believe; oh how you believe! That time has stopped for an eternity and all that there is, will motionlessly remain forever, and that you are young and golden and your youthfulness is immortal.
But the sun; oh God, the sun, becomes implacable as one eggshell sky blooms into another, and there is no place to hide from its steady gleam. This is when the madness starts; not in the long, cold nights or the howling wind, but when the sun burns inside your head and you see them. All those rustling spirits, those mischievous sprites that hide things in plain sight and chuckle from some hidden depth out of reach from the spreading radiance. They are dancers on the sun’s rays, they are fiery capped demons streaming in through the windows and settling into corners, under furniture and stairs. There they sit and prepare for winter.
For it’s at this time, when the sun is most intense, that the orchestra for winter sounds its first chord. While the sun rolls so close to earth, even your flesh glows like burning embers, the first claw tipped mountains capture it, then reluctantly lets go as it struggles from one shearing grasp to another. The shredded orb bleeds out, staining the pitted horizon. Exhausted and wounded, the first twilight arrives.
Those few minutes of unblemished evening; how you embrace them, as cooling to your brow as water, but each twilight grows longer, becomes a little darker, until at last you are in the season of the long night. Where the shadows grow, a thousand shapes twist and beckon while a stark moon stares overhead. In the rattle of the naked tree tops, a ghostly light swirls lazily upward.
There is only one thing that keeps the madness at bay. Only one thing separates the multitude of voices reiterating monotonously their singular memories from your own. Only one thing gives you reality; companionship.
It was the beginning of the long winter, that really began in the spring. It began in a passenger plane as I looked down for the first time on the flat, darkly-colored inlet. Grey silt banks broke away from a rolling grey ocean and rambled into a clustered tree line. Beyond that, a speckled wall of mountains held back a giant ice field. Dimly lit through the hazy pale evening was the tiny town of Kenai. I thought as I stared down on this isolated expression of civilization, “what an incredibly brave people. They barely make a fingerprint in this dense wilderness while the enormous forces of nature push steadily at their door.”
Although I had believed the thought to be idle, I felt a sudden disquieting. Why had a people given up the tamed fields, the gentle climate, the cities bustling with technology for this wretched piece of turf hemmed by murky waters, trembling volcanoes and giant masses of ice? Why had I? My life had been comfortable, my troubles no greater than those of any who were young and stepping out on their own.
It was for the adventure. This what I tell myself now, but I wonder if I was running away from something; or maybe I was trying to find something. Something indefinable but that still feels you with a terrible craving, one that can’t be satisfied until you’ve wrestled its secrets from the very bowels of earth.
What had been meant to be a summer visit, stretched into the vivid fall, and thoughts of wondering why I had come became questions of why should I leave. There was a seduction about the town as the tourist season ended and the locals began drawing closer together. They had made a place for me, offering me a job waiting tables at a local drinking establishment. I accepted. I became a part of the community, a community that spent the long evenings in close circumference, swapping stories, remembering long-departed friends, and lapsing into philosophies and wild speculations.
It was here, in this homely tavern with its varnished walls and sawdust strewn floors, that I first met Katy Miller. She was what they called a good ole girl, broad-faced and sturdy, her strong hands able to heft a keg of beer to her shoulders, or wrench the lift of the cranky iron door to the stove to add another log to the fire. She worked the counter, swabbing it down and pouring whiskey or rum for the gentlemen. When Katy told a story, everyone listened.
There was a night that had no ending. The velvet crispness fell into a sullen morning glimmering over a twilight world than shrugged into the darkness again. “Pat Houston fell into the madness today,” remarked one of the gentlemen, thumping his ribbed boots together, knocking off pieces of snow that slowly spread into a puddle around his feet. “We had to hold him down while he screamed that a hand had reached out of the grave to choke him.”
“It’s a serious thing when it comes to you,” agreed another. “It’s why you hold your friends close and never listen to the wild wind’s ranting.”
“It’s the first year that’s most difficult. Remember the fellow that came up from Illinois a couple summers ago? He almost made it to spring, then the madness caught up with him and he killed his whole family.”
“The madness can come to anyone, even those who have been here their whole lives. It can creep up on you without warning.”
“Ah no,” said Katy. “It’s true it can come to anyone, but it does bring a warning. I have seen what causes the madness and the sight of it has haunted my every footstep since then.”
They all waited quietly for her to continue. She came around and sat on a bar stool, folding her capable hands in her lap. “You all remember Jeremy.” They nodded. “It was a night like this, with the cold creeping up from the doorways and windows, wrestling to come in even as the fire burned to keep it out. We shared the wretched night with the crackling spaces and dusky wraiths scurrying from one shadowy corner to another. There we were, Hank Kilpatrick, Celia Morrows, Mark Travis, Jeremy and I, huddled around a pot bellied stove, clinging to cups of hot beverages, laughing away the stark envelope of whispering, swirling sprites and brooding spirits. We defied the shrieking madness that sought to claw deep into our souls and shred us apart like the final sun beams.
What inner madness however, caused us to call upon the dark knowledge, to lift the gaudy veil between our safe illusions and the terrible secrets of the night? It was Jeremy’s idea. It was the cold and the night, and a daring that throbbed in our veins and broke into bubbling challenges.
I recall now how we beseeched them, those formless powers that whistled in low, throbbing tones over the desolate landscape. White on black, punctuating in clear, sharp cuts, and blacker still the ribbon of trees framed by a pale moon.
“Come, look out the window,” said Jeremy. “See what the evening brings us.”
We looked, and saw nothing but the hard, stern stars. We waited, not believing, dizzy from the lurid dance of stellar displays, still wavering in fish tails across the sky. We waited, believing something, or nothing at all, but the passive evening stared back at us, with nothing but the landscape, white on black, and the dark shadows laying low until, barely perceptibly, something was moving. Something was taking shape and growing tall.
We all saw the man, far off in the distance, coming toward us, but at a quiet, leisurely pace. There was something about him that made me uneasy. Something about this silhouette that betrayed no features, no details, but seemed so full of determination and purpose. We shuddered and broke away, not wishing to discuss this strange apparition, yet making murmuring comments anyway. Then Jeremy laughed and said he had seen nothing.
That was Jeremy for you. Gathering us up to look intently for something that wasn’t there. We blamed it on eye fatigue while staring into the endless gloom. We blamed it on the tricks uneven light and long hours of darkness can play on your mind. But something was different. We had invited the haunted in and it nagged at the cold spots deep in our bones. Prying fingers of frost crept along the edges of our dreams as surely as they curled from the window sills. They were scratching, always wanting to come closer, to damper the warm fire, to claim us.
Jeremy changed. He turned listless and pale. We saw the madness, sometimes leaping into his eyes with wild intensity. Sometimes we would find him breathing shallowly, listening, straining by the door or gazing desperately from the window. We tried to calm him. Sometimes he talked quietly for hours, while the wicked wind moaned and tree branches rattled like bones on the roof top. Hysteria would climb ever so slowly into his voice and he talked of the same things over and over, forgetting, remembering he’d said this, but unable to refrain from saying it again.
We never spoke again of the man. Ask Hank or Celia or Mark. They will not speak of the ghastly vision, but they will not deny it either. At last the nights began growing shorter. How we rejoiced the first time the sun peered hesitantly over the mountains, blinking, yawning, shining on ice crystals sparkling like diamonds before falling back into slumber.
Spring did not come as planned. It was fitful and haphazard. The mornings thundered in with dull skies. Drizzling rain smeared the snow banks into dark puddles and bowed trees refused to open into glory. And Jeremy grew darker, more withdrawn, his face far away. Often, we did not see him for days.
Do you believe in omens? I do. A dependable watch that stops ticking, an unnatural silence, a shelf that suddenly rattles for no reason are all signs of events to come. One last great storm blew over the inlet, carrying the protests of fading winter. It screeched over the low lands, prying loose roofs, destroying sheds and crashing down trees in its wake. When it was over, a great silence fell over the land. An unnatural light, sickly and yellow, cast its glow then wearily gathered into a sunset. The clouds had been shredded, but not just broken into aimless bruised clumps. They fell into a vanishing formation that looked for all the world like a flock of dark winged birds chasing the expiring storm.
I knew then that something terrible had happened. I wrapped my jacket around me and waited. Later, maybe only a few hours later or maybe the next day – I don’t remember – but I heard the news that Jeremy had died in a car accident.
The official report is that he was driving through the pass, taking the slithering downhill curves a little too fast when he piled into the bridge at Hurricane Gulch. There was nothing left but a crumpled vehicle with Jeremy’s crumpled remains inside. There was a lot of head wagging, a lot of tongue clucking. Jeremy should have known better than to be out on the storm swept road, driving as though all hell was chasing after him, but I knew. It was hell coming after him, coming to hold him in its grip and Jeremy was trying to escape the man.
The day Jeremy was buried, the sky turned an egg shell blue. A warm breeze blew in and settled, drying the rain soaked landscape. The leaves unfurled and greenery burst, joyfully triumphant over the earth. The May Day tree blossomed and as I stood under its happy radiance, I thought about how much Jeremy loved this first blooming tree, and how if only he had waited a few more days he could have shaken this terrible fever and welcomed in spring.
I know what brings the madness. It haunts my every footstep. It doesn’t come without warning. It comes slowly, looming larger, closer, relentlessly determined. I know, and when I look out the window, I see its tall, ghastly form coming for me.”
There wasn’t a sound when she had finished. The hour had grown late. The black night stretched in frozen silence while shadows slipped from one snow piled mound to another. When I retired to my room in a loft above the tavern, I turned on the radio, craving the raucous rock and roll music. I flicked on the lights so they created bright squares of yellow in the glistening yard below. I huddled in a blanket in the middle of the sofa, whimpering, for I had seen him. Dark and featureless, slowly coming closer. The madness was coming for me and the long night stretched out into eternity.