10/20/06

The Black Emperor



A slightly younger me:
Not completely inebriated as was a high probability at this hour on most nights, I walked the deserted streets alone. A promising evening cut short, roommate and friends fleeing to the cozy dens of lovers, and me, as usual, with not enough money for a train home, I headed away from the bay in the general direction of North. It was the middle of February and the world hung suspended in the frozen static of a winter night.
Walking was my main means of transportation and most areas towards the center of the city and the area where I lived were more than familiar to me but I had never walked home from the bay. I was not lost though, the blinking red lights atop great buildings towering off in the distance acted as my guiding stars. I could keep them just in front of me and to the left and know I was heading North, or if I was completely confused I could head towards them and then find my way home from there. I did not live far from my guiding stars.
So I could not get completely lost, but I could get stuck. Not knowing an area there was always the possibility of getting caught in a network of alleys that have no way out and being forced to backtrack.
Coming out of the bay area and into some hilly terrain I realized that the area would require some backtracking. As has been the case centuries, the hilly, elevated region of the city was populated by the powerful and wealthy and as if to physically maintain this status they protected themselves with high walls, long winding driveways and security cameras. This was also an area spotted with embassies so occassionally I would turn a corner to discover figures dressed in long dark coats and carrying staffs. Quickly would I turn the other way. I did not want any security guards thinking I was intending to enter an embassy in the middle of the night. I did not want any trouble at all. I simply wanted to cross through these hills and find my way home.
I climbed a steep hill in a narrow pass between two steep walls topped with iron spikes and reached the top of what I beleived to be the tallest hill in the area that night. Before me the hill dropped away behind some buildings and brought the great buildings beyond it to eye level. Off in the distance my guiding stars twinkled above all the surrounding structures. I knew I must be at the edge of the hill area and would soon be entering into familiar territory. And then I would be home.
And then I could sleep.
I noticed then, while staring off into the distance, a presence and saw security guards standing up and down the street I had entered onto. I hurried straight across this street and down the one before me. It descended sharply and surely, I thought, this will take me out of the area.
Halfway down I came to a point where the road split awkwardly in two. To the left I could see where it emptied into a heavily trafficked street but there was some kind of tollbooth with security guards both inside and outside it. To the right the road descended into a partially submerged parking garage beneath what looked like a high class apartment or a government building. The guards at the toll booth were looking up at me now and I knew I would either have to confront them or figure out a different route. To my right there was a small street that after a ways turned to the left and out of sight. I did not know where it would lead but I took it. I did not want interaction this evening.
I headed down the small street, turned its one corner and came to a deadend. It seemed there would be no way out for me. Large houses stood on all sides of this cul-de-sac with high walls protecting them from me. I was at a loss. I would have to head down the hill and try to talk my way past the guards. Perhaps they would say nothing to me and I would be able to just go by, I thought. But they had seen me. I had crossed the line of confused passer-by. I was now suspicious and they would surely want to know what I was doing.
Standing alone in the cul-de-sac I noticed that one of the walls had an opening where it met the dividing wall of another house. Looking down it there was a path of large flat rocks set in a well kept lawn that lead straight against the house and out to a point where the hill dropped steeply. There were some trees on the side of the hill, as if a forest had impossibly escaped the desctructive grip of the city, and beyond this was the open city! Bright lights and cars and shops open at all hours and people walking along the sidewalks! All I had to do was cross the path, descend the hill, pass the forest and I would be back.
It sounded like a fairtale in its simplicity and nature.
I tiptoed across the stones, silenty passing against the house and taking care not to touch the grass or make a sound. I reached the hill and peered down it. To my right I noticed a tall shadow that was not a tree. It was the silouhette of the tollbooth I had seen earlier.
My heart stopped.
The tollbooth light switched on.
And there inside stood a figure in a long, dark coat and carrying a staff: a security guard.
"I-" I stammered in my broken tongue, "I'm sorry."
The guard stared at me and took a step out of his box. I could not see the expression on his face. He said nothing.
"I don't know where my house is."
"Are you staying in a hotel?" The guard sounded more confused than I did, but probably not because he didn't know the language.
I didn't want to make things complicated, "Yes."
With one finger he traced the shape of a flat, backwards 'L' before me, "Go back to here and then take a left."
"Yes. Thank you so much! I'm so sorry!"
I backed quickly out into the street and watched at the guard returned to his tollbooth and turned out the light.
I had escaped one potentially catastrpohic confrontation and was releaved. But now I was faced with the guards at the bottom of the hill again. I did not think that they might be just as helpful as the guard in the forest. I simply saw another potential danger. And as I thought on it I realized I could not return up the hill either as the guards up there had seen me pass through as well and would be suspicious of my coming and going.
In a moment of senseless confusion I turned down the hill, took the road to the right and walked directly into the parking garage.
In my attempt to avoid interaction and appear as normal and unassuming stroller at two o'clock in the morning I had managed to turn myself into a fleeing trespasser. Surely the guards had seen me again heading down the street and this time heading into the garage. I could not return to the street now. I had to find a way out from the garage.
The building was raised up from the ground on an elevated concrete foundation, affording a space large enough for motorvehicles to be parked beneath it. This space was only partially submerged however, and near the ceiling there were open holes in the concrete that were flush with the ground.
Pulling myself up through a concrete window facing down the hill I exited the parking garage and landed in a cemetary.
There was no light here. The cemetary covered the remainder of the hill and ended on the street the tollbooth road connected to. I simply had to find a way out of the cemetary and I would be on my way.
The street was not far away. Colorful and noisy it waited just beyond the iron fence of the cemetary. The cemetary, by contrast, was as cemetaries always are: dead. Clusters of large, sharply cut stones rose up at every turn, and ancient trees grew on the edges of the grounds, leaning over the property and swallowing any light. Even sound seemed to be muted here, absorbed by the dark.
I could not see my guiding stars.
Trying to follow a path the graves marked out I barked my shins and fell over lower stones. Whenever I thought I was descending towards the street the path would loop back up the hill. Looking at the gate I could not see an opening out of the cemetary. There seemed to be no way about it except to climb over the stones and over and then over the fence in order to get out.
And then I noticed the crows.
They were hard to miss. Although black as the shadows of the cemetary their eyes and wings shimmered purple when they moved. And through the muted, dense air their cries cut, to ring in my ears. They appeared suddenly and out of nowhere.
I could not tell how many there were but a number of them, at least five, would fly up to the trees and drop down at intervals on something in the middle of the cemetary.
I could not see what it was. I feared it was something dead. I carefully found my way along the winding paths to the center.
The space was slightly sunken and descending into it almost all light disappeared.
But through the darkness, there at the center I could make out a stone birdfeeder. Glaring its one dead eye up into the night the crows were falling to drink from its glassy vision.
I approached it and the crows took to the trees above, crying like babies.
Gripping the edges of the stone feeder with my cold, bare fingers, I peered into its inky depths.
And here at last I encountered the Black Emperor.

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