For fifty years the road stood unchanged.
The road upon which an old man appeared. It was a cold day, gray as the man himself, who stood fixed upon the near ancient gravel glowering at the brownish cottage with white trim standing upon his right hand. His eyes turned away but his step failed to advance. He simply stood immobile, as if lost in thought, his weathered face and narrowed eyes reflective of a man struggling with a memory, a pattern of thought that would not form.
The old man stood thus for several long minutes. Repeatedly he seemed verged upon continuing, only to pause and glance rearward the way he had come, as if fearing perhaps someone or something stalked his steps until, at last, hesitation abandoned, he turned fully to the house and approached. He moved uncommonly quiet, his worn loafers barely scuffing dust, his outdated seaman’s coat and worn trousers emphasizing the contractions of his presence.
Though not visible, the weakness of his step and hunched shoulders betrayed frail limbs and tired bones. From beneath a faded ski cap, a few strands of unruly white hair showed upon a brow creased with wear. His face and hands exhibited the color of old mud, the mark of a man used to many days spent toiling under the sun. In his right hand dangled a length of chain to which he clung with exaggerated earnest.
He now stood facing the front door. It was a simple cottage of no remarkable qualities. A few low bushes, tended flowers, white painted shutters. Yet the man gazed upon it as if before a church. His eyes distant and dreamy. Was it a memory he recalled or was his mind so lost he knew neither the where nor the why of moment.
And then the door opened. It opened to a young man of full black hair, solid of mind and bone. A man and third the age of his unexpected caller. In contrast to the benign equanimity of the elder man, the eyes of this younger soul fairly burned in emotion. His clean, clear eyes scanned the path before him but he saw nothing.
Something in the old man yearned the young man would see him. A distant hope he could define nor dissect. Why was it the young man did not espy him when he stood so plainly before his door?
But he did not see him and if he did, he did not recognize him and so the young man turned away and reentered his home. There came a touch of grief to the old man’s heart. A pain whose full thrust had come long ago but still ached his gut, haunted his sleep. He longed so to enter that house himself, a longing always in his thoughts, in his dreams. But all his dreams were distant as yesterday’s dawn.
The old man turned away. He scuffled along the path to the road, his bloodshot eyes revealing a tired, tired soul. But then, at once, he seemed to have acquired a purpose. He walked with a steady if hindered stride. The road became wider and paved. Ahead rose a farmhouse that had not been there a scant few breaths afore. When he reached the point where the road curled inward, the old man followed it, fondling his chain, beginning to mumble to himself.
He came boldly to the house and knocked upon the door. The minutes dragged along. A rooster crowed. A few birds came and lit upon the eaves above the door. The door did not answer. A gust of wind blew down from the north. It licked his face and placed tears in his eyes. He raised a hand as if he would knock again, then withdrew it and himself from the farm. He knew no one would come forth. They never did. Not yesterday, today, or tomorrow. He simply could not knock loud enough that any could hear.
Again, the old man returned to the road only now it was path meandering through a forest lain with leaf mold and twigs. A forest of tangled depths, of trees that crowded and cramped. The sun only a mottled intruder playing among the bent and sagging boughs.
The old man slogged on, grim and determined, hearing the wind, feeling cold in the breeze chilled air. The journey felt endless but he knew better. All journeys end. So it was he reached the end of the forest and saw before him a sprawling village. A scene lifted from a Dicken’s tale. Homes and shops and busy streets, children playing and birds singing. But it was a village as old as he, older still, the village he recognized of his father so many, many years passed before him.
It drew him as few things ever had.
There again he saw that particular house and the young man. He saw too the farmhouse only now there stood framed in the doorway. She was very young, and beautiful, but with eyes holding a sadness far beyond her suggested years. The old man wanted to talk with her, oh, how he wanted to talk to her. He raced forward swift as his ancient legs could carry him but with every foot gained the road grew longer, the faces and places retreating. Bu going where? Where was there for it all to go?
Soon the old man lost all breath and was no longer equal to the chase. The village raced away, swam as in a haze leaving him feeling dizzy and weak. At last, he turned away. His eyes closed. When he found the fortitude to open them again, there stretched before him a new trail that wound upward upon a sloping mountain to a broad, beckoning ledge near the summit.
“A place to lie,” he spoke aloud. “Yes. I have slept there many times. Every night within my memory and God only knows how far backward or even forward that memory spans. Only that each and every night I must return there if I am to sleep. If I am to dream again.”
And so he climbed the spiraling hillock.
As he went, he found himself growing incredibly tired. Fatigue such as no man should ever know. And sounds came to him. Unnatural, uncomfortable. First there were screams, as if tortured souls flew upon the wind wrapped in the devil’s embrace. Then bodies materialized, sweating and swearing, climbing with him. They did not see him, they simply surrounded him, pacing him under a black sky and booming thunder born without rain. There was fire too. The heat ravaged his eyes, causing pain and an inability to see the rocky trail ahead. Still he went on, now moving on instinct, realizing it was like this every night. Every journey to his place on the ledge an ordeal beyond comprehension. His legs ached, his chest heaved, he nearly fell to his face but staggered on. And never did he lose hold of the chain now wrapped tight about his fist.
Only a few more feet. Only a few more painful steps.
Then he was there. The ledge where he could rest, the precipice to which he so desperately yearned. But he was not alone. No, before the old man stood that young man again. What was he doing here? And beside him stood that young woman of the farm, calm and beautiful. Yes, it was she who would not answer his knock. And now the old man saw that she had the eyes of the young man, eyes filled with tears and it gave him pain to see it. And behind the woman and the boy miraculously crowded the entire town of his father. To the man, woman, child and dog they were there and they too cried and called to him.
Into this bizarre image walked the old man and he was invisible. He expected it for he knew this was not new occurrence. It was an oft repeated nightmare. Resolved, he found his spot and lay town. And though all about him peppered him with question after question, he did not answer. He had so much to tell them, so much about the fifty years passed. So much pain, anguish and suffering that it tore at his soul and robbed him of his peace.
None would ever know his trauma, his travails, his constant journey to and from the place of his sleep.
Once more, the old man stepped across the threshold of infinity. Once more his body curled in sleep while his spirit fought on for his life, rebelling against the unkind, unforgiving fate he shared which all those who had raced up the hill shared with him. A thousand men, a thousand dog tags never returned.
Such is the eternity of the old man. Fifty years passed missing in action.