I remember that bickering, shuffling crowd and those forever nights so long ago. We all marched along, sometimes stumbling, but ever forward we went — never stopping, never thinking, never saying no.
Oh, it wasn’t a silent crowd, by any stretch of the imagination. Although most just grumbled too quietly to be heard by anyone but their closet neighbors, still quite a few raised their voices loudly and indignantly over the least little thing. Most of the time, I had no idea what was shouted nor did I care, since I had long ago tired of listening to it. Yet, I do know that almost all stridently agreed on continuing the course we were on. Those who said otherwise were always shouted down as the evil enemy or derisively hooted into embarrassed silence as the crazy ones.
I was never exactly sure of the shape to that marching crowd. Some thought it to be amorphous and impossibly wide, but the only thing we ever really knew was that we were all marching forward, towards some final destination, of what we knew not. I often gave thought to the further sides, maybe off someplace to the left or right of me. But never could I see much other than bobbing, gibbering heads surrounding me. And it was dangerous to turn around and go backwards — the pressing crowd would quickly overwhelm you and grind you into the ground.
I’d asked those around me where we were going a million times. Everybody seemed to have some idea, but they didn’t really know when you got right down to it.
The crowd was being guided by unknown people with electronic bullhorns off someplace to our sides and as we went along, we were alternately prodded and cajoled with syrupy pleadings, needling commentaries or occasionally, explosive exhortations and demands.
The apparent purpose to these bullhorn messages — disguised in dripping altruism — was for us to mix together into a babbling, chaotic and diverse mass, one that would not even know who we were, let alone think or talk about what was going to happen to us down the road. They seemed expressly designed to divide up any like-minded individuals, making it impossible to form any coherent strategies to deal with our plight — or to set our own direction.
I noticed that the unseen bullhorn people on the right, often accused the unseen bullhorn people on the left with trying to run things and vice versa. Often, fellow marchers would make their way over to one side or other, and actually take sides with those people, adding more acute and vitriolic voices than even the bullhorn people themselves. Most of us just tried to gravitate toward the middle so we could have some measure of peace while lost in the crowd.
We were a confused and easily frightened herd — who only thought it safe in the middle, away from any extreme. To be surrounded by ourselves gave us cold comfort, so that we would seek the center mass, even if it meant knowing nothing at all. Especially if it meant knowing nothing at all.
This effect propelled us marchers along the way, at first heading off to the left, but soon it came back towards the right before being lost in the distance. Often, we heard rumors about people off to the sides just disappearing, possibly being plucked from the ranks by sinister unknown forces, or maybe they were lost in the miasma we could see surrounding us. These disapearences created a sense of panicky urgency to move away from the dangerous, troubled sides.
I could see that this back and forth rhythm was actually the method that fueled the crowd ever onwards. I realized that it might be possible to find out what was going on by moving towards the sides to get a look around, yet it was also riskier since I did not know the real fate of those who became lost. It was easier to stay in the middle, where it was safer and faster to gain ground on your neighbors. Which everyone seemed eager to do.
I also thought about just stopping right then and there, but that too was impossible with the immense crowds behind me. Some would appear to want to help you along by grabbing and lifting you back up, but most were quite willing and eager to walk right on over you, forcing you down into the dirt. This allowed them to get to the front sooner and this alone was enough reward for them.
A lady that I was walking along with for a long time said she knew exactly what was going on and where we were headed. She was so sure about it all. She had talked to some people before joining up with me and they told her about this hill awhile back, that allowed them to see the final destination. And it was all so beautiful: Bright sunlight, white marble columns shrouded in gold and purple banners, blue skies and fluffy clouds — all surrounded by green fields and rolling pastures!
But after talking to her more closely, I could see that no one else had actually seen it for themselves. Only others had told them about it and none had actually laid eyes on it. I asked people around us if they had seen this vision; many had heard the same thing but wove different descriptions into it. Her ideas were fascinating to listen to, but never could I get a word in edgewise nor convince her of her fallacies, so I tired of her and eventually edged away.
Although it was difficult to make out in the continual gloom we were in, I could note the vain preoccupations of the marchers, who seemed more concerned by petty status symbols, as if that made the least little difference to their situation. Small bits of individualism were rewarded by fellow marchers by hearty slaps on the back and envious looks, while others sporting the wrong symbols were sullenly ignored or laughed at.
So I decided to see what was on the sides, unobtrusively easing my way laterally in-between other marchers who would then quiz me about my beliefs and direction as I tried to slip past them. After listening to the arguing for so long, I knew exactly what to say and when.
As I gradually made my way further to the outer edge, people seemed angrier and continually bitched about why all the rest could not see what they did of our marching direction. The attitudes became increasingly belligerent the further I went along, with much shouting and demonstrances. After being surrounded on all four sides with people my whole life, suddenly, there was just three sides. It took me a long time before I even had the guts to look over to my right to confirm it.
I could make out nothing but a heavy and dark, fog-like gloom mere feet away to my side. Looking closer, I thought I saw faces — dark faces with thick, bulbous noses and heavily-lidded eyes that followed me closely or so I thought. Some spouted slanderous threats at me, some whispered tempting offers of secret advantage and when those didn’t work, resorted to calling me insane that I didn’t take back my presumed, privileged place in the middle. Just looking over at them seemed to increase their interest in me. Mortally afraid, I felt that I had to stay in the column or else fall victim to whatever fate those alien faces held in store for me.
I noticed someone ahead of me drift off to the side even further than anyone else ever did. He kept his head up defiantly, but looked over to the side nervously. The fog-like gloom quickly surrounded him and just as I went past the point where he was swallowed up, I heard what seemed to be a muffled screaming or bellowing, away off in the distance.
I kept thinking “oh, to hell with it,” wanting to just step out of this march and get it over with. I had asked people about it all along and everyone told me that would it would be far worse than I could ever imagine. Funny thing, they seemed to have no idea of exactly what that was, only that it was really bad.
With a palpable fear in my gut, but along with a curiosity that had grown into obsession, I decided what the hell and then stepped off to the side.
The fog immediately surrounded me and I felt an odd tingling sensation deep within my head, a dizziness like deja vu, but far more intense then any mere deja vu moment. At first, I thought I was done for, but just as quickly as the sensation had invaded me, it was gone. And along with it, the fog in front of my eyes. I could still see the marchers, slogging along right in front of me. But they now seemed totally oblivious to my presence, for some reason.
It was all so easy. So easy. The dangerous wall that we thought contained us was as flimsy and inconsequential as rice paper.
I tried yelling something to them, telling them I was OK, that I was still alive and it was all cool, but they seemed not to hear me or they cast nervous glances off in my direction, just like I had done when I heard the muffled screaming earlier. I begged them to stop and come through the fog with me, but most shook their heads knowingly or laughed hysterically for no apparent reason.
I felt ignored, naked and very, very alone.
I decided to get a better view of things, if possible. It was still pretty dark around me, but I could make out that it was lighter the further from the crowd I turned. I also sensed, with some trepidation, that if I walked away, the less chance I would ever have in rejoining what I now saw was a long, snake-like column stretching off in both directions as far as the eye could see.
Along with every step I took, my mind seemed to clear more and more, the fog that I once saw surrounding us had apparently seeped deep within my cerebellum. Giddy with surviving the fog and the sensation of a mind now free, everything stood out in a stark clarity that shocked me to the core. And no longer did I hear that continuous bickering chorus of nameless souls, nor the incessant electronic blaring of the bullhorns!
I soon made out a copse of trees sitting on a mountain-top nearby and I made going there my first decision of my new life. I wanted to see those marchers from a higher vantage point and that mountain seemed to fit the bill. Climbing it was harder than I thought. Downed trees and boulders barred my way. Strange animal noises whistled from dark recesses and loose stones made me slip and fall many times.
Eventually, I reached some kind of pathway, weaving up the hill. At first, it appeared to be the barest of animal trails, but then became more defined and much easier to hike.
Right then, off close-by, I saw what I thought was a skinny black dog, his ribs poking out, looking down at me from a opening in the brush. Then I heard a scrambling sound nearby and, looking quickly over to the left, I saw two chubby, well-fed bear cubs come down the side of an old rotten tree trunk, undoubtedly feasting on honey when I interrupted things.
Suddenly, the top of the hill heaved into view. The little copse of trees turned out to be a really beautiful, expansive forest glade. Ancient, knarled oak trees sat on a plateau or mountain saddle of some sort, with no more brambly undergrowth or fallen timbers to impede my way. It was as open and pleasant a place as I had ever seen before.
I couldn’t understand if the sun was setting or rising, since I had never really seen the sun before. The realization of that one hit me like a two-by-four! The rays from the sun slanted in from the side of the glade like a glowing, airborne carpet. A little ways off in the distance, I saw a large cinnamon-colored bear looking back at me, her flanks warmly bathed by the rays of the sun. I instinctively knew she was the mother bear to the three cubs that I just saw, the two fat and happy, the third barely hanging on with starvation. She turned and walked slowly away, probably with her offspring hidden and following her nearby.
I felt myself welcomed by her, of that I am quite certain. And that’s when I noticed that I was not the only person who reached this mountain-top plateau. I could see others here too. A few of them I had seen before in the line of marchers down below. They smiled at me as I recognized them and I plaintively asked them if I was dead. They laughed and said no, that I was now very much alive.
That night was the solstice of the rest of my life. The sun was indeed setting off to one side of the plateau and a full moon was now rising up at the same time on the other. Even with the millions of questions that filled my mind to ask of my new-found friends, I stood there as silently as they did, all of us taking in that glorious oil-painted landscape before us — along with that long dark line of marchers winding their way down below us, bathed in a strange moonlight that I once thought of as daylight.
A large, solitary bird could now be seen circling the marchers which I, at first, thought to be a vulture, but upon looking closer could now see was a coal-black, malevolent war eagle.
Next to me stood an older woman with long blond hair, streaked in gray, bearing a strong, noble countenance and a steely glint in her eyes. This woman then gently tugged at my hand to get my attention and pointed sharply at the distant marchers down below us. She said thus: “Look now and you will soon see what you walked away from.”
That’s when the rays of the setting sun suddenly burst forth from a nearby mountain pass, illuminating what looked like the very head to the column, not too far off in the distance. Only it wasn’t any front edge to a surly or even happy group of marching people, at all.
For the line of marchers was now hemmed in tightly to either side of a steep ravine — leading directly to what appeared to be a cliff-edge, with a yawning black abyss beyond. Even at the distance I was at, I could just make out the marchers bunching up — frantically trying to back-peddle away or climb themselves out, as the unseeing, unbelieving crowd behind pressed onwards.
— Phillip Marlowe