01 Feb On the first of every month, a road appears by my house. It leads away, beneath the shadow of a titan.
On the first day of every month, a curious road appears by my house. I’ve never actually seen it ‘appear’, as such, but from the first rays of dawn it pushes aside the hedges near my garden fence, and carries itself off along and over the fields beyond. And today is the day that I follow it, I have decided. I stand beside my bike and look down the overgrown road. It seems too bumpy and rough for a car, not that I own one, anyway. Wild grass pushes up through the cracked and long-broken tarmac. The white lines, where they are visible, are faded to a greenish-grey. I rub my eyes. The sun has only just begun its rise above the hills ahead. I’m tired, but honestly it feels kind of good to be up this early. To actually be up before noon. …To actually be up. I can always rely on the appearance of the road to motivate me out of bed, though this is the first time I’ve made plans to follow it. Usually I’m content to just look. To watch it shift from shades of green to gold in the layers of light that wash down over the far hills. The breeze is cool and pleasant against my skin. And I clamber onto my bike, and start to peddle. The road is just that, at first. Interesting in its lack of maintenance, its state of outright abandon, but otherwise quite unremarkable. I follow it through the fields beyond my house, leaving the building behind me as I pedal gently along the broken tarmac. I’m in no rush. The fields are ones I recognise. I can see them from my windows. My parents drive past them to leave the neighbourhood. You can find them quite easily on Google maps. They are bright grass-green and shimmering flax-yellow, and they stretch far and over the hills. I’d expect to see some of the farmers out at this time of the morning, but there is no-one. No people. No farm machinery. Only nature. Nature and the road. And my surroundings, gradually, begin to change. As I pedal onwards, my house now barely visible in the distance behind, the world around grows more vibrant in its colouring. I pass by fields of rich purple lavender. Insects buzz between the stems. I pass by a wizened old tree, thick-trunked and chestnut-brown, bent with a head of thick, gently swaying leaves. And I ride by a field of blood-red roses. Glittering patiently in the light of the sun. And this is perhaps the most curious. There are no fields of roses near my house. Nowhere anywhere near me. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen such a field in my entire life. And thinking about it, none of these fields should exist at all. There’s supposed to be a main road here, I realise. It splits off and leads to a nearby town. There are streetlights… At least, there’s meant to be… But I keep pedalling. I am set on my mission. I will follow the road. And I will find out where it leads. On I go. On and on and on. It keeps mostly straight, but occasionally curves around, or over, a hill. I’m not keeping count, but it’s over the fourth, or perhaps fifth hill that I start to see it. The titan. So far away at first that it only appears as faint and shimmering highlights, barely different in shade to the blue of the sky behind. But as I pedal, the sun rises, and the wind rises with it, and the titan becomes clearer. It stands high, high up above all other things, and its shadow is cast long and dark out over the fields. It stands behind the furthest hills on the horizon, about 45 degrees to my left, and I have my head turned to it as I ride onwards. As the titan becomes sharper, and the dread it arises grows stronger, I get a better sense of its composition. A monstrous blight on the landscape. A colossus of rock and steel. I can just about make out a series of chains that wind up and around one of its legs and into the bars and gears of its torso. I watch as they slowly, slowly, almost imperceptibly turn; I watch as the chains are dragged up and around and back down their steady path. Half of the titan’s chest is made of mountain stone, bolted and connected to the dark, connecting metal. Chimneys rise up from its shoulder, and pale, cloud-like smoke climbs from them, little by little up into the air. The titan’s eyes are black, all the darker in the shadow of the sun. Its jaw hangs open. A great, low, and thunderous metallic groan rolls over the hills towards me with the wind. It takes a long time. I can see the tall stalks of flax in the distance waver… I watch the bright lavender in the field before it bend in turn, a great wave pushing them to the side… The flowers in the field by the road rustle and stir violently, and then the gust hits me. The bike wobbles as my hair is forced into my eyes. I grimace with effort and come to a stop, hopping off the seat and shielding my face as the gust passes, the wind returning eventually to its former level. “I’d keep pedalling if I were you, cyclist”, says a high-pitched voice by my ear. I stumble hastily away in alarm, dropping the bike to the ground with a clank; but there is no-one there. Only a sparrow, brown and white, flittering in the air besides me. I watch as it flies over to a rotted green wooden fence, settling on one of the posts. I stare at it in disbelief for a moment, then it opens its beak, and speaks again. The voice is a girl’s. “The road isn’t kind to travellers on foot”, she says. “Less so to those who have come to a complete stop. You should get back up onto your bike. Don’t worry, I can keep up”. My heart pounds, but anxiously, I do so. With shaking hands I lift up the bicycle and clamber back up onto the seat, and I start to pedal on. The sparrow rises from the post and flitters alongside me. “So, tell me. Why are you here, Cyclist?” she asks me. I shoot the sparrow another glance. I swallow nervously. “The road appears every morning, on the first of every month. No-one ever sees it but me. It’s meant for me, it has to be. So I’m following it. I’m following it and I’m going to see where it leads. I need to find out what’s at the end”. I nod to the titan, watchful and dark, a tower on the horizon. “Does it lead to him? The road? Will it take me to the titan?” The sparrow adjusts her position and flies a little further ahead, looking back at me. “Do you want it to?” I shake my head. “Not particularly, no”. “Then you’re in luck. The road goes nowhere near him. He stands miles from the road, in the middle of the fields. Of his fields. They’re all his fields, actually. Everything you see around you. They belong to him. And I should warn you, he cares very little for guests”. I grunt. “Then why did he show me the entrance to the road?” The sparrow chitters and flies across my vision to my left. “He didn’t, silly. I did. I thought you could use a break from that bedroom of yours. A prison, really. I hoped you might take an opportunity to admire something other than your four walls”. I stare at the sparrow a little more carefully, and she stares back, cocking her head. “Who are you?” I ask quietly, but she does not answer. “Isn’t it nice though?” the sparrow says after a moment of silence. “The fresh air… the rush of life, of vibrant greens and the smells of the late summer… What’s not to like? Well, other than the obvious, of course… But don’t tell him I said that”. She chitters again, and I shoot a glance at the shadowy titan, watching from afar. “So why doesn’t he like ‘guests’?”, I ask, “This place is beautiful. It’s like a dream, or something. Some of these trees, these flowers, I’ve never seen anything like them in my life…” I gesture to one such field. It is full to the brim with tall, white-stemmed flowering plants, their petals large and flayed, fading from orange at the edge to blue in the centre. A tree that looks initially very much like a redwood, though stooped near the top like a willow, stands alone in the centre of this field. “You know, I’ve never asked”, the sparrow replies. “I don’t think he likes to share. Selfish”. The sparrow speaks of the titan as if they were old friends. Friends after a falling out perhaps, or good-natured rivals. But I don’t get that sense at all when I look at the titan. The longer I keep my eyes on him, the longer I watch his gears slowly shift, the spokes rolling steady round, round… the greater the apprehension grows. A terrible and malicious disquiet that draws the moisture from my mouth, and redirects it to the back of my neck. To my palms. I wipe my hands alternatingly on my shirt before returning them to the handlebars and looking away, back down the path of the road. I can still see him out of the corner of my vision though. He’s too massive to miss. Watching with those black and soulless eyes. “Anyway”, the sparrow says, flying a little higher. “I should be going. Remember what I told you, and one more thing- no matter what your instincts may tell you, I would highly advise you not to leave the road. That does make him really rather angry”. And then the sparrow flies up and away. “Wait!” I call after her, “what about the road! Where does it lead to? What’s at the end?” But she either cannot hear me, or has chosen not to reply. She’s too high up. And she veers off and away, up, and quickly out of sight. * I’m starting to get a little tired by midday. The sun is high, directly above me now, and the breeze is no longer offsetting the heat of the sun to a sufficiently comfortable degree. Little buds of sweat are pinpricked across my skin, and I need a drink. My water bottle however is in my backpack, and I need to stop to draw it out. I know what the sparrow said, but I can’t just keep pedalling and pedalling, can I? That’s not fair. I’ll need to stop for the occasional rest. I slow the bike, as if testing the waters, and slowly, carefully, bring it to a stop, watching the titan nervously for signs of life. …He does not stir. Cautiously I step off the seat and pull off my backpack, reaching inside for my water. I take a healthy swig and look around me. It really is beautiful here. It’s like someone turned the natural bloom up to ‘11’. The clouds drift leisurely across the sky. The fields shimmer in their patchwork of colours… I reach down to pluck a flower from the grass at the side of the road. It’s like a miniature sunflower, its petals silver, in place of yellow. But as I draw it out of the ground, the petals disintegrate at once. Then, the entire flower along with it. It dissolves into dust, grey and lifeless, and falls down through my fingers to the ground below. A breeze a little stronger than the rest blows cool down the road, and I shiver. Awkwardly, I clamber back onto my bike, and continue on along my way, my water hooked now in the bike’s holster, by the handlebars. On I pedal, on and on. A heavy cloud passes across the sun, its shadow falling quickly over the fields. And a figure stands ahead. Silently waiting at the side of the road. My heart begins to pump desperately in my chest. I stare at the figure as I approach, bringing my bike right down to its lowest speed without stopping. It is hooded in black, a long robe that flows down its legs to just above its feet, clad in iron shoes. Thin, rusted chains hang from the hood and its face is shrouded in darkness. Appendages unseen stir against its chest and torso, twitching and rustling the robe. It’s horrific. I can’t pass it by, I just can’t; so a good distance before I reach it, a few metres away, I bring the bike to another stop, resting with one foot on the ground and staring right at it. “What did I tell you about stopping?” whispers the voice of the sparrow in my ear, and I jump for a second time. “What the hell?” I shout at it, as it chitters and flies up out of my reach. “What the hell IS that thing? What’s it doing there?” “An acolyte of the titan”, the sparrow replies, flittering away and playfully twirling around the hooded figure’s head before returning to the bike, “he can’t hurt you, Cyclist. Just as long as you keep pedalling. So come on, ride right past, it’s okay”. “What the… I don’t want to do that! Maybe I should turn back?” “Turn back?” the sparrow laughs. “Oh, Cyclist. You can’t turn back. Not now. It’s too late”. “What do you mean it’s too late?” “Questions questions. If you try to go in the direction from which you came you will find, eventually, that the road has ignored you. That it carries on ahead regardless of your decision. You have committed. You wanted to see where it leads, you said. You want to find out what’s at the end”. I do not reply. “So come on”, she says, flapping her wings, “ride on by. Quick as you can”. I’m not convinced, but warily, I climb back onto the pedals and push myself off, watching, unsettled, as I pass the acolyte by. The air around it feels cold, very cold indeed. I swear when I’m directly across from it, I catch the hiss of whispering beneath the hood… but it lasts for only a second before I lose it under the rush of the breeze, and I leave the figure behind. I shoot one last look over my shoulder, but realise, to my absolute horror, that the figure is moving. The hooded acolyte drifts into the road. Hovering just above the ground, its feet completely still. The chains that hang from the hole in its hood jangle softly as it abruptly turns, and begins to follow me down the road, well behind, but keeping pace. “FUCK!” I shout, swivelling round, my blood running like icy water through my veins; the bike wobbles as I peddle faster, harder, “I thought you said it wouldn’t hurt me!” I shout to the sparrow, “what the fuck am I going to do!?” “You can slow down for one thing”, she titters. “You’re just going to tire yourself out. And then you’ll have to stop. And as I said, Cyclist, you really don’t want to stop. Not again”. “But it’s going to catch me!” I pant, pumping my legs round the pedals, shooting another look behind. The acolyte drifts over the road, following me, its shadow darker against the broken and overgrown cobblestoned tarmac than perhaps it should be. “No, it won’t. It’ll never catch up. It’ll stay at that distance and will come no closer, nor fall back any farther. It won’t, and can’t approach. Just as long as you keep moving, Cyclist. So don’t stop, okay?” “Okay”, I grunt, struggling with my fear, “okay”. I look over my shoulder as I try reducing my speed just a little. And sure enough, the acolyte slows too. It matches my speed as the sparrow said it would. “Holy hell”, I mutter. “What does it want? Where did it come from?” The sparrow turns to look at me. She cocks her head. “We all make mistakes…” she says quietly. “I was only trying to help… Just stay on your bicycle. Please, keep moving along the road”. “I will”, I reply, glancing again at the acolyte. “I will. But tell me, what’s at the end? What’s at the end of the road?” I turn to look at the sparrow, but she has gone. I look wildly from left to right. “Wait! Come back! Don’t- Don’t leave me with that thing!” …But she is gone. I shoot another glance back over my shoulder. The acolyte follows. Drifting. Floating above the road. Whatever it has concealed beneath the robe around its chest… They shift and squirm beneath the dark material. I turn back to the road ahead. The beauty of the world around has become sharper, somehow. Bladed. More menacing. I notice more easily the glistening thorns of the roses. The hills in the distance appear taller, and less forgiving. And the moss-covered, worn old wooden fences no longer seem rustic or charming. They instead stand as a warning; a bitter warning from the forgotten and the abandoned. I can no longer enjoy my surroundings as I did mere minutes ago. I cannot remove the constant, lurking presence of the acolyte from my mind. It poisons everything I see. Even when I ‘m looking forwards I can feel it. I can sense it just behind. The only thing stopping me from constantly twisting to look behind me is the fear that I will hit a bump and fall from the bike. I’m taking the sparrow’s suggestion not to stop a little more seriously, now. The road goes on. The acolyte follows. And the titan watches from afar. * Evening now. I’m starving. And my legs ache. I’m not going particularly fast, but I need to stretch them. To stretch them properly, instead of just raising them alternatingly from the pedals for a moment’s respite. I managed to pull a couple of energy bars from the front pocket of my backpack, by shimmying it round to my front, but the more substantial meals are in cans. I don’t really have a hope of getting those open in my current state, let alone finding a chance to cook them. The sky, like the flowers I saw earlier, fades from blue to orange. Clouds gather towards the horizon. Full clouds. Heavy clouds. I have been cycling, effectively, non-stop all day. I was able to piss, with some effort, and with a lot of veering across the road, but not without dousing one of my legs in the process. Disgusting, I know. But I daren’t stop, not even for a moment. I have travelled for miles upon miles, but the titan is so far away that from my position it seems like he has barely moved at all. My morbid curiosity has long since given way to a cold, yet simmering fright. I hit a bump in the road and lean forwards, gripping tighter to the handlebars, and to my right, a blur of white and brown tells me that the sparrow has returned. “This is torture”, I mutter to her. “What kind of a place is this? I just wanted to know what lay at the end… This is what I get, is it? For getting out of bed this morning?” The sparrow laughs, in her high-pitched sing-song voice. “You can keep struggling if you wish, for as long as you like… Along the road… Along the road… And you can keep trying to find what lies at the end of it, Cyclist. You’re more than welcome to; this is your journey. Or, if you’ve seen enough, just say the word. And I’ll show you the way home”. I’m about to leap at the chance. A large part of me wants this nightmare to end. I turn to look behind me again. The acolyte follows. The titan watches. My legs are starting to burn… …But… But the secrets of this place… The road and the fields… Where did they come from? What is the titan’s true purpose? And the acolyte… I have no answers. No answers at all. My deliberating silence is, it seems, enough of a response for the sparrow. She titters, sadly. “So desperate for knowledge… For the ultimate answers… I’ve met so many like you, Cyclist”, she says sadly, her head turning momentarily to look over my shoulder. And then she is off. She soars up and away into the sky. “NO!” I shout after her, “WAIT! PLEASE! I’m done alright, I’m done! Please, take me home!” But I am too late. Once again, the sparrow has maddeningly flown away. I swear and slam my hands against the handlebars, grunting with effort as I force my legs to push on. * The sun sinks low in the sky, a sky that has become covered and clustered completely with simmering storm clouds. Shivering and set to burst. The scene around me is now a curious one; the sky is dark, but because the sun is below these clouds, my way ahead is still quite clearly illuminated in the red-gold light of the sunset. I savour it greedily, because I know that it will soon be gone, and I will be left with nothing but the darkness. And the darkness falls without mercy. It brings with it great sweeping sheets of rain, and to my utter dismay, more of the hooded figures, stood waiting by the side of the road. The air is totally cold now, all around, and as I pass the acolytes by they fall into step with their comrade, and they follow on, drifting tirelessly over the road. I can hear their whispering clearer now. The jangle of their chains is a rusted and terrible melody. I shoot a look behind. Something comes untucked from the front of one of the acolyte’s black robes. Just for a moment, but it reveals, potentially the source of the squirming. What looks like an enormous, spined leg of an insect juts out, cringingly, before retreating back beneath the robe. I suppress a gag, swearing with distress and wiping the rain from my eyes as I squint and steer on, pumping my fiery joints, commanding my legs to keep pedalling. To keep moving. But my progress has become so much slower. I’m having to be careful to go around the growing puddles, since I cannot be certain how deep they are, and I cannot risk coming off the bike. Not now. I see something up ahead through the rain, something new that I have not encountered before. An old and tall wooden sign, with something inscribed deeply upon it. I push my soaked-through hair away from my eyes and peer at the sign as I pass it by, to see what it says… …But it doesn’t say anything at all. There is an arrow that points ahead, and an ‘O’. A circle, I guess. And then the sign is gone. I pass it by. I turn to look behind me, to see if there is anything written on the other side, but it just shows the same. The arrow, and the ‘O’. Fuck this place. I think to myself. I should never have come here. The night draws deeper. Panic starts to set in. I think about my life. I wonder if I will ever make it home. Whatever may lie at the end of the road seems less important to me now, drenched in this tempest. I think about the days of my life that I have thrown away. The days spent turning from side to side in my bed. It would have been so easy to have just gotten up. To get up and do something. To commit to doing just ONE thing. ONE thing that entire day. Then, after a week, I could have looked back proudly… I could have looked back on the seven things I accomplished… …Instead of the zero. I shiver with cold, and with deep regret, completely and totally rain-drenched. I didn’t need THIS though, I think bitterly. This Hell Road. That sparrow… That fucking sparrow…Somewhere in between the two… The road, and the room… Somewhere in between the two would have been just fine, just fucking fine indeed. I can no longer feel my legs, and my lungs ache with the exertion. Rough and painful calluses form from the reddened skin of my hands, clutched tight to the handlebars. I am going to fall, any moment now. I can feel it. The sparrow has abandoned me. And the acolytes will have me. I look over at the titan. A dark silhouette through the walls of icy rain. Stood alone. All alone, gears turning, smoke rising, but going nowhere. Does he see it? I think to myself. Does he see the beauty that lies all around him, every single day, through those black eyes of his? I shoot another fevered glance over my shoulder. The bike wavers. Or… or is the titan too focused on the people like me? The ‘intruders’? I didn’t mean to trespass… I only wanted to see… I only wanted to see where the road would lead… I release a sob as I force my legs around and around, pushing the pedals down, allowing them to ride back up, and then pushing them down again, over and over and over. The bike hits a puddle, deeper than the rest, and it wobbles violently. It takes everything I have to keep myself upright, to keep myself from falling down onto the road. If that were to happen… I don’t think I’d have the strength to get back up. I’ve cycled well into the depths of the night, now. But it’ll still be hours and hours before dawn. “Why would you tempt me with this road, sparrow!?” I shout up into the storm. “Why would you put me through this!?” “I have put you through nothing!” comes a sudden voice from behind my ear. The sparrow flies just in front of me and looks back into my face. “It was YOUR choice to follow this road, Cyclist, you were never under any obligation to go down it. It’s a relief to me, honestly, that it was able to tempt you at all”. She looks me over, flitters down, raindrops splashing off her feathers as she examines my bike, wavering and rocking dangerously from side to side. “I’d really been hoping that you weren’t going to fall, Cyclist. My conscience could do without the burden of any more fallen…” the sparrow sighs. “This is your last chance. What’ll it be?” I push the cryptic meanderings of the sparrow’s little speech to the side. The priority shines through like a ray of sunlight. “HOME!” I shout, rain flying from my lips, “Please, just show me the way home! FUCK the road!” The sparrow laughs and flies away. “SPARROW!” I call out, “SPARROW COME BACK!” And after a minute, she does so. She returns to me, lands on the handlebars, and I push on through the rain. Another long minute drags by, and a fork appears in the road. The first I’ve seen. One path continues gently veering to the left, and the other branch leads off sharply to the right. Another sign stands in the fork. The wet wooden plank that points left is carved with an ‘O’; the plank that points right, carved with an ‘X’. “Take the path on the right”, the sparrow chitters. “The path on the right, Cyclist”. And with a grunt of exertion, I bring the bicycle round, and follow the rightmost branch away from the road and round the edge of a weather-beaten hill. A glance over my shoulder reveals that the acolytes no longer follow. They carry on along their original route, down the path on the left. Hovering, drifting through the darkness. But I still don’t feel safe. Not yet. I keep pedalling through the rain. The road becomes much windier. It twists and turns between hills and trees, and I lose sight of the towering titan. The fields of flowers, difficult as they are to see in the shadows of night and the ripples of the rain, seem to start giving way to simpler fields of tall grass, of wheat, of oats. And I pass them all by, slowly, but steadily. Ever-moving. The sparrow hops up onto my shoulder. “It was nice to meet you, Cyclist”, she chirps softly into my ear. “Don’t be disheartened by your time between these fields. Always remember, there are other roads than these”. And with that, the sparrow flies up and away. I don’t have the energy to form a reply. I just watch her shoot up into the sky, veering off and away into the unknown. And I continue to pedal. * The rain has eased off a little by the time I see the lights. Electric lights of the streetlamps of my neighbourhood, twinkling orange in the distance. I can see houses. Houses I recognise. …And the road comes to an end. Directly opposite the place I had first followed it, on the other side of the street, though I cannot see the entrance any more. There is only the familiar hedgerow that borders my home. As the amber light from above falls over me, I bring the bike to a stop, and I collapse with it, staggering and stumbling to the floor with a series of thuds and splashes, sobbing and laughing in the rain, looking up into the sky as the droplets patter into the puddles besides my head. It’s a time before I can muster the willpower to climb from the street and into my house, propping my bike up by the front door, and painfully making my way up the stairs and into bed. But when I do, I sleep with ease. And curiously, I awake with the sunrise, contentedly. I breathe a little clearer. A little deeper. And despite the fire in the muscles of my legs, I find the strength to clamber out of bed. Why the fuck not. It’s a wide old world. And there are plenty of other roads one can follow, after all.