Her eyes opened wide at the sight of blue sky. She was jolted into full awareness with a sense of foreboding. Beams of light reflected off of yellow, red, and orange leaves. It was beautiful. Even the bed of leaves she was laying on added to the golden luminous effect of her surroundings.
Too many questions swirled in her mind, each vying for an answer, but her memory was clouded over. Her heart raced and her hands trembled as she searched her pockets for a clue. In her front pocket she found a piece of paper and quickly unfolded it.
In the middle of the small square, written in black marker, was the number 5. Her pockets were otherwise empty. After a careful inspection of the ground around her, she knew there would be no other clues. The number wasn’t much of a clue either. It held no particular significance to her and did nothing to stimulate her memory.
Curious about her surroundings, she wandered away from her bed of leaves. The silence in these woods felt unnatural. There were no birds chirping or small critters scurrying along. Nature’s sweet melody was conspicuously absent.
Trees obstructed her view of the sun, making it impossible to judge the time of day. The luminous quality of the woods never changed however, lending to the impression that time itself, stood still. She couldn’t be certain, but she suspected she was walking in circles. It all looked the same.
The further she meandered, the more compressed the trees became. She was canvased by a ceiling of foliage that prevented her from seeing the sky beyond. After wandering for what seemed like an eternity, she eventually saw a break in the lush foliage, a spot where the fullness of the trees receded and she could see a sliver of blue. She rushed forward, anxious to get out from under the trees, and almost fell haphazardly into an opened field.
At the last possible moment however, she was able to break her forward momentum by bracing herself as she collided into a large oak tree. Quickly she ducked behind it and knelt to the ground. From there she could see the entire clearing, which she guessed was about an acre in size. Although it looked innocent enough, given the circumstances on how she got there, she wasn’t taking any chances.
The field was a bright amber color beneath a heavenly blue sky. Towering trees encased the area forming a physical barrier between the woman and the field. Motionless blades of wheat mixed with tall, reedy cattails to prevent her from seeing what was hiding there, for surely something was hiding. She remained wary.
A sharp pain shot through her knee. She tried to move quietly but it was impossible not to rustle the leaves around her. She grimaced at the noise, so loud to her own ears, especially given the unnatural silence. She looked around anxiously.
Just then, out of the corner of her eye she saw something move. A strange mixture of relief and fear washed over her. She wasn’t alone, there was at least one other person in this forest with her. A woman silently emerged and stood on the edge of the clearing. Apparently not prepared for her hike in the woods, she wore a housecoat and slippers. She also wore a look of concern on her face and was visibly shaken.
The housewife searched the perimeter of the clearing looking for something out of the ordinary. The woman behind the tree thought the housewife looked directly at her and lowered her face for additional concealment. There was no indication that she had been discovered. More people stepped out of the shadows, until hundreds of men, women, and children stood side by side along the edge of the clearing. They looked at one another, bewildered.
Several minutes went by before one brave soul did what seemed to be the next logical thing. His pants were held up with a pair of red suspenders and his beard was long enough and wide enough to hide the tube that ran from his nostrils to the oxygen tank that he pulled behind him. He took a tentative step forward, and then another. Perhaps it was to steady himself, or to test the ground before him, but before taking a step he first poked the ground with his walking stick. She doubted he noticed that the field was coming alive, that the wheat was swaying and shifting in the otherwise static climate of the woods.
Whatever was crawling around out there, it was headed directly toward suspender-man. With every poke of his walking stick, he took a step closer to the center of the field. Several people on the sidelines followed the elderly man, until many dozens of people disappeared into the tall reeds. The wheat and cattails now swayed wildly as some unknown manifestation moved raced across the field toward them. She held her breath in anticipation.
Those in the field were urging their comrades on the sidelines to follow them when she caught sight of something moving through the spikes of wheat in front of her. The creature was long and black with a yellow stripe running the length of its body. Fifteen feet of constricting coils crossed her line of vision. And he wasn’t alone. Dozens of exceptionally large pythons advanced upon the unsuspecting people. Their imminent destruction was apparent to her.
A black, vaporous smoke rose all around. She hears blood-curdling screams the moment the slithery, legless monsters attacked. The pythons surrounded them, curling and looping around their victims. She felt helpless because there was nothing she could do to help them.
It seemed to be a coordinated attack on the people because they began screaming at the same time. Once wrapped in snake coils however, they stopped screaming as the life was slowly squeezed out of them. When their prey went limp the reptiles retreated back to where they came from, with people in various stages of consumption dangling from their dislocated jaws.
Still kneeling in her hiding spot, she waited a very long time before she felt safe enough to move. She was in shock. The mammoth pythons left no evidence of their silent massacre. The woman imagined their lyre somewhere in that field and envisioned them feeding on the people she had seen alive just moments ago. She shuddered.
Slowly moving to the edge of the tree line she craned her neck to the left and right. The few remaining people who did not venture into the field stepped forward as well. They, like her, had remained in the woods and watched the horrific scene play out. Instinctively they moved together and formed a small group of twelve. Two children with tear streaked faces hugged one another, the younger of the two sucking on his thumb and staring blindly into the distance.
“Does anyone know where we are?” a young woman who might have been their mother, asked.
“What just happened?” another woman asked. She was trembling and on the verge hysteria, which was understandable considering what she had witnessed.
“We need to get away from this place,” one man said nervously.
“How did we get here?” someone asked.
The young children sat on the ground, their arms wrapped around one another. Several women stood nearby in an expression of maternal instinct.
“My mind is blank. I can’t remember anything,” another man added. “Not even my name!” His voice rose at the last, betraying the composure he was trying to project.
“Neither do I,” said one of the teenagers. It was the same for all of them. Their memories before arriving in this place were gone.
“I found this in my pocket earlier,” she said. She held out the piece of paper with the number five written on it. “Do you think it means anything?”
“I have one of those,” a woman said. She showed them an identical square of paper, only with the number four written on it. In fact, each one of them had found a small piece of paper with a number between 1 and 12 written on it.
“You can call me Number 8,” said a heavy man.
“And you can call me Number 4,” the woman replied.
A hush fell over them when the unexpected sound of a gong broke the silence. No one moved, waiting for what might happen next.
“What’s that?” Number 1 whispered.
“I don’t know. Should we check it out?”
Speaking in whispers they discussed their options. It was agreed that they would investigate the source of the sound. Not many options available to them. It was either follow the gong or continue to wander in the woods, looking for a way out. Maybe other people who were lost somewhere out there and they were sending out a signal.
“Hey, I found something,” Number 4 called out. They had been walking for at least an hour and were unsure if they were going in the right direction. It would have been helpful if the gong had sounded, but it didn’t. So it was welcomed news that Number 4 had found something else.
The dozen gathered around her to look at what she wanted them to see. She pointed to a board that was fastened with a shiny spike to the tree in front of them. It was white, smooth and glossed over. Written on the polished wood, as if it were a road sign, were the words “Path Narrows” in large block letters.
An arrow was drawn beneath the words and it pointed toward a path just beyond the tree. It seemed they were headed in the right direction after all. The gong sounded, further urging them on. They took to the path and walked on for many more miles. Just as the sign had warned, the path they traveled was narrow, making it necessary for them to walk single file, with the women and children setting the pace toward the front of the line.
“This is so strange. Where do you think we’re going?” Number 9 asked.
“I don’t know, but we’re not the first to travel this way. The path has to lead somewhere,” Number 11 replied.
“Yes, but where?” Number 2 asked. “I feel like everything’s closing in on us.”
“I wish we’d see another sign. It’s been a while since we’ve seen anything,” Number 2 chimed in.
“I think I see something ahead,” Number 1 said, excitedly.
“I think I see it too,” added Number 2. “Come on, hurry!”
They were at the base of a long hill, and the path they were following led up. The two men took off in a jog to get a closer look.
“What do you see?” asked Number 7, himself only half way up the hill.
“It’s some kind of weird rock formation. It looks like a pyramid.”
Slightly winded from the climb, they gathered around the rock formation.
“It’s a cairn,” offered Number 8. “They’re used to mark trails.”
The large rocks that formed the base of the pyramid structure got progressively smaller as it rose to a height of three feet. Unlike the capstones of traditional pyramids, this capstone was flat and on its surface was drawn an arrow pointing into the woods.
“It wants us to go in that direction,” Number 1 stated the obvious.
“Listen. It’s the sound of the gong again.”
“We must be close. Listen to how loud that is,” said Number 8.
It felt to them as if they were being reeled in. There was someone holding the strings, pulling them closer, and they were helpless but to do his bidding. They were left with few, if any, options. The summons of the gong grew louder still as they moved along the path, getting closer to the source of the sound.
They covered their ears in an effort to muffle the sound. The golden hue of the forest was quickly being replaced by a fluorescent white light. They were forced to squint against its intensity.
“I can’t see a thing,” Number 11 said. “We must be walking toward the sun.”
They continued to march, although the sound of the gong was becoming unbearably loud. It was impossible to see or hear. With eyes that rolled back in their sockets, all twelve of the travelers collapsed to the ground. Overwhelmed by intense stimuli, their bodies were brought low and they instinctively curled into a fetal position.
The torment didn’t stop until she was on the very edge of consciousness. When it did stop she was plunged into complete darkness, the silence so complete that the beating of her heart filled her ears, making her acutely self-aware. The darkness was a vacuum-like void. The woman was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go home. The endless walking, the horror of the pythons, and now this; it was too much for her.
In no hurry to get up she simply lay there, on her side, in a fetal position. Eventually she opened her eyes just a sliver to take a peek. Directly in front of her, far off in the distance was a dim light. The gong sounded once again, this time a pleasantly soft vibration.
“Number 1,” a loud, authoritative voice broke the silence.
Surprised, she sat bolt upright. The woods looked very different now. In fact, she was no longer even in the woods. Straight ahead was the light, from which an anonymous voice was beckoning them forward. She glanced behind her, and there were the woods. It could have been a picture hanging on the wall, if she didn’t know the truth. She felt detached from what lay behind her.
The place where she found herself now, although very dark and barren was where she belonged. The black holding area was only a temporary condition. She knew this innately. The woods were still a memory, but soon she would completely forget her time there. Her future now lay ahead of her, toward the light.
Thousands of souls waited with her, filling the void between life and death, a layover to their final destination. The voice beckoned souls forward, in sequential numbers between one and twelve, at which time they moved directly into the light and disappeared. She waited for her turn with bated breath.
“Number 5,” the voice called.
She felt weightless as she drifted through the air toward the uncreated light. A sense of peace settled over her, and she didn’t feel tired any more. She was anxious to be reunited with those she had lost, so many of those who had arrived before her. Number 5 had completed the journey, and it was her time to return home.