I search my surroundings for someone familiar, but come to realize I am all I have. Before me, lies a split and two roads. The paths are paved with different substances, and it is obvious each leads to a different direction.
On one path, there are splotches of dried crimson liquid smeared across gravel. There’s a stream of tears too salty to taste, and rags drenched with perspiration strewn about. It’s a difficult road, sure, but the dim light that casts itself upon the artifices of human endurance is warm.
My pupils saunter to the other path— paved with compacted asphalt. But even as temptation of a smooth stroll entices me beyond recognition, I discover something as I glance ahead. My steps grant me no access to whatever lays beyond this road, for everything else is darkened. I cannot make out what would await me during the ease of this path.
There’s just a road.
And nothing more.
So I proceed to the other, entranced by the growing luminosity of the route. The gravel crunches under the weight of my boot. I breathe in the cool air and brave another step. The intensity of the glow burns greater, and I feel the heat of a fire. I search for the reddish-orange hint of flames, but not even flint or a bit of steel exists in these parts.
I continue on, treading across the diminutive rocks until the grove of vegetation thickens— nearly suffocating me. My lungs constrict, thorns prick my bare flesh and tear at the fabric of my apparel. Drops of vermillion stain the rock floor. My knees buckle, and the sight of blood makes my insides curl. I weep and bellow into the aged wood but my cries remain unheard.
After some time, my emotions pass and I reclaim my old stance.
I endure the pain.
I swallow down the tears.
And somehow, I make it through.
I collapse near a speedily flowing stream, my fingers finding the coarse material of a rag. I dab my face, swiping away the excess liquid perspiring across my flushed skin. The salty water dries my parched throat even more, and I realize the stream is poison of its own design. It serves no other purpose than to exhibit what humans give themselves when our fragile walls crumble and our tears cascade.
I elevate myself once more, feeling the lick of flames warm my skin. No fire blazes within my sight, though my surroundings have brightened. I take another breath and continue on.
Every stumbling step. Every aching muscle. Every jagged breath. Every thought of hopelessness. There are so many thoughts. Containing them hurts even worse than any pain I’ve physically endured. For at least those aches have ceased.
A breeze grazes my flushed skin and stirs the greenery. I become subdued by the shifting shadows and the way they morph into silhouettes resembling past heartaches. The air grows stale and their darkened hands yearn to grip my limbs and seize me by my heart. I regress in my tracks, but find that turning back gives me no where else to go. I’ve sealed what was behind me. I can only see it for what it was but I cannot be enveloped by it any longer.
I swallow down the fear, surging forward despite the churning in my stomach. I come back to the shadows. The road is completely blackened by them. A hand shoots out and grips my wrist, another wraps around my waist. They tug at me incessantly and I fear I cannot brave the overwhelming sensations threatening to devour me. I yell with eyes squeezed shut, but no one can hear me. I cry as their holds tighten and my skin burns at their touch.
I am all I have against this darkness. And the thought that plagues me more than anything I’ve confronted… is will I ever be enough?
My lashes unseal my gaze and my pupils discover a small light beyond the reach of the shadowy forrest. My fingers wrap around the claw yanking at my arm and pull back. I shove the sable clouds aside and slam my back against the shadows behind me. The smoke dissipates into the air as I tumble down.
The air is raw with cold and tastes of dew. My skin prickles with a nauseating chill and I feel the blood rush out of my body as I stare above. The billowing clouds of black resurge and threaten me from the boughs of the deciduous wood in which they lurk .
I pick myself up, feeling the strength of my legs and the resilience of my eyes. There’s the warmth of fire flickering around me yet again, and I stare as the shadows retreat. The cowardly beings cannot ignore the radiance of the blaze.
I sprint across the glowing stretch of concrete and am overwhelmed by the light at the end. My vision adjusts to a tall mirror resting in the middle of a clearing. I approach it cautiously and find another self behind the shining, translucent surface. She taps on her chest, where her heart lay beneath, and I notice a golden glow radiating from the spot. My own palm presses against the very place, and I feel the warmth of fire envelop me.
I beam while drops of crystal slide along my complexion.
I glance a far distance away. Beyond the mirror. Beyond the wood. Beyond all else. There stands a kingdom high atop a white mountain— the castle, of which, is a great spectacle to behold even from so faraway.
I take a deep breathe and turn towards the wood from the opposite I came.
I begin my trek and am submerged once again into the thickness of the brush; for there is no going back, when onward is all you can go.
Why journey into anguish or the uncertainty of survival?
Such is life and such is living. And if we hope to ascend the steps of something better, we must learn of ourselves along the way.
-Kiran Bains Sahota