Nicholas Raithe found himself driving down an open stretch of highway. There was a light drizzle in the air. None of this was particularly extraordinary… except for the fact that Nicholas had no idea where he was.
He knew where he had come from, and where he was headed. But the last span of time was a blank. He didn’t even really know how much time had elapsed, and looking at the dashboard clock didn’t help: he had barely glanced at it when he left home, and his destination was a couple hours away, so really? There were no markers of any merit.
He pulled over to the shoulder, turned off the engine, and got out to take the measure of things.
The landscape was muted by the drizzle. Distances were impossible to determine, and many elements of the land were virtually erased – edges blurred, volumes uncertain. Sounds, whatever there might be, were dulled, tamped down (Nicholas presumed) by the low cloud cover. The world was silent.
That’s not completely accurate.
It was more that he could hear what sounds there were with great clarity. The tick tick of his cooling car engine seemed amplified. Some distant bird chirped arrhythmically – actually not so much a chirp as a hollow “ooooo”, the end of the syllable falling off, dropping half a pitch and then disappearing. No other cars could be heard, however distant; no planes overhead, no human voices, radios, machinery hums. Nicholas could imagine hearing the wood of the nearby split rail fence expanding with moisture, sap circulating in trees lining the road.
A crow cawed, invisible in the undifferentiated sky, then it too was gone, and the unabridged hush reasserted itself.
+ + +
What had he been thinking about in the minutes he lost while he was driving?
It was unlikely anything of significance. There wasn’t really anything Nicholas was dealing with that was so important as to compel him to distraction. Besides, he knew full well how dangerous it was to be distracted while driving: he had seen the consequences. No, as a rule, he was an attentive driver; but since he was so practiced, it was easy for him to slip into autopilot.
It had happened before, actually on a number of occasions. Secure in the container of his car, it was easy to forget he was in fact hurtling through space, speeding his fragile body into the unknown. He would at last come back to awareness, with no sense of how he had gotten to a particular curve in the road, an unknown bridge or thoroughfare. After the fact, it would cross his mind was almost certainly someone else was likewise driving by habit, unaware and unseeing; and how lucky it was that neither of them had drifted into the other while in that state. He wondered how often that kind of near miss occurred.
He took his phone out, but there was no signal, not surprising considering how obviously far from civilization he was. So he reached in, found a map in the glove compartment, and spread it out on the hood of the car.
The map surprised him.
He had forgotten how lovely they could be, so accustomed was he to his phone and its reductivist routings and verbal instructions. The colors, marks, intersections; the blue of lakes and ponds, the topographic lines of mountain ranges; the distance markers and obscure symbols. The map was well used and quite old (Nicholas had no memory of when he had last consulted it), and in the deep folds, whole towns had disappeared.
For a moment, Nicholas felt a pang of anxiety: how would he find out where he was, unable as he was to decipher the ghosts in the folds, and the symbols in the faded legend of the map? Then he realized it didn’t really matter what details had vanished, since he was a stranger to these parts. He didn’t even know which way was north or south, since the sun was obscured by the pervasive grey.
“If there was sunlight,” he said aloud, “I would cast a shadow. I could stretch out my arms and find the way.”
And so it was with that impossibility in mind that Nicholas decided that the only course of action was to try to retrace his steps until he came to something he did remember before he had drifted; reorient himself, correct his trajectory if necessary, possibly even get a signal for the GPS. He started to fold up the map…
But the drizzle had permeated the paper, and it stuck to the hood of his car almost as if it had been glued. With great care he was able to peel it away, but some alchemical combination of moisture and residual engine heat had separated the ink from the map, and a reverse impression of roads, mountains, and icons now graced the hood of his car. The partial name of only one town remained, barely legible. “German – “ something? Maybe. Reversed and smudged, it was hard to say.
At that moment, the drizzle amplified to a light rain, so Nicholas got back in his car. From the driver’s seat, he could see that the rain had no effect on the map transfer image. He would have to attend to it at some other time, when he got back to the city and could pick up some non-abrasive solvent. Or maybe he would just leave it. After all, the curious patterning could be defended as a kind of designer concept of auto detailing, couldn’t it?
Nicholas settled back in his seat, lulled by the rain, tapping out its codes and patterns on the roof. The reverse tattoo of the map faded a bit, but he realized it was only because it had become unfocused by the rain-blurred windshield.
Nicholas turned on the wipers and made a U-turn.
He drove slowly, passing colorless fields and dirt roads that disappeared into the weather-muted void. No cars passed in either direction.
And none of the landscape looked familiar. How long had he been preoccupied? And by what? Nothing came to mind. He switched on the radio, but all he got was static. Lack of reception, absence of cell signal, lost god knows where… Nicholas shifted his irritated attention back and forth from road to radio dial, intent on finding something, anything.
Then – on one of his momentary shifts of attention – there was a disturbing thud as something glanced off the windshield.
He pulled off, got out, and looked back the way he had come. Nothing was apparent on the road itself, so he walked back along the shoulder, keeping his eyes on the scrub between the road and the woods abutting it. For a hundred feet or so there was still nothing.
Then he heard the sound of erratic fluttering.
As he got closer to the source, he could see the weeds moving weakly, until at last he saw a small black bird lying there. Its eyes were staring at nothing, and there was a smudge of blood on its little head, the neck canted off at a wrong angle. As Nicholas watched, the quiverings thinned and – a moment later – the bird stopped moving entirely.
Nicholas carefully picked up the creature, cradled it in his hand.
Close up, the bird was not simply black, but an array of deep purples, shades of dark, flecks of grey. He stretched out one of its wings, fanning the feathers and revealing even more subtleties of color. It was so light, barely a notch above weightless – and so absolutely beautiful. One seldom got the chance to see such creatures close up. The only time you really did was if it was a pet, or dead like this.
When Nicholas was a kid, once in a while he managed to scare the cats away from prey they had caught (mostly mice or the like; maybe a chipmunk, once a squirrel), and he discovered how compelling it was to hold their little bodies. They were always arresting up close. But he had never held a bird in such perfect condition, and had the luxury of investigating it. Now, rather like the way he approached many things, Nicholas allowed himself the time to take in the details, the textures and – what would you call it? – the essence of the dead bird.
Then, regardless of the wet weeds, Nicholas picked his way down into the shallow edge of the forest and laid the bird to rest under a cover of damp pine needles.
That’s when he noticed the road.
He would have supposed it was an old logging road, but for the fact that there was a yellow ‘curve in the road’ sign down along it in the woods. So Nicholas made his way back up the slippery bank to his car, and continued up the main road.
100 yards on, there it was: a road leading off into the woods that one could easily miss, even if you were looking for it, barely marked as it was with a fading sign on a pole, canted off at a wrong angle. But still: a paved road, an official thoroughfare. Reassured he still had plenty of time, Nicholas turned and headed into the forest.
This was the payoff for following your nose, just this kind of adventure; an impossible thing unless you avoided the interstates, which flattened the entire experience of traveling, keeping happenstance discoveries at a safe distance.
It was really quite lovely, this forgotten road. The canopy of trees kept the rain at bay, and since the trees were mostly pines, there was little undergrowth, lending the woods an open, cathedral air. He rolled down his window and enjoyed the damp, lukewarm air.
A small flock of birds – looking much like the one he had inadvertently killed – descended from above and passed him, heading directly down the middle of the road as if leading him on; then changing direction and sweeping up and away into the heights. Nicholas drove on, the road curving gently through the seemingly endless forest as it shifted from pine to birch and back again. Once in a while, a directional sign alerted the driver to an impending curve in the road; but these were considerate curves, almost apologetic. It was as if the engineers had put bends in the road so they wouldn’t have to cut down any trees or move any boulders. The road felt integrated into the land. A soothing drive.
A short time later, he ascended a gentle slope, the apex of which appeared to lead into nothingness. It was like when you’re driving towards the shore and the road ahead seems to lead nowhere, because just over that rise is the sea.
The forest was indeed ending, and when Nicholas got to the top of the climb, everything opened out, the feeling like a sudden lungful of air. Ahead of him, the road snaked on for quite a distance, disappearing over another far away rise.
+ + +
As he drove on, he noticed – tucked into the bowl of a valley – a town with the glancing appearance of a classic New England hamlet. There was even a church spire maintaining dominance over the scene - - certainly the way God always intended. So Nicholas pulled over onto what little shoulder there was, making certain he was far enough off the crest of the hill so that any other car coming the way he had come – as unlikely as that seemed – could see him. He got out to get a better view. The light grey sky, the deep green of the valley, the town nestled into the hills...
A hundred years ago, someone would have tried to paint what Nicholas was seeing, and a hundred years ago you might have appreciated their effort – the view was really quite picturesque. In more recent times, someone would pull out their phone and take a picture, which would look absurd and pale in comparison to what it was like in person. Nicholas kept his phone in pocket, deciding the view would be better left as something for which his memory would be the crucible.
But the more he looked at the scene, the more it seemed to him that there was something odd about the town below.
At that moment, the grey clouds parted, a few shafts of sunlight beamed down, and he realized what it was: the town was a ruins. He could see sunlight filtering through gaping holes in buildings, and there was no sign of life. That might have something to do with his distance from the scene, but still the whole place seemed quite deserted.
The flock of birds that had teased him through the woods flew past, close enough that he could hear their wings, then glided down into the valley. Nicholas accepted the invitation, got back in his car and continued on the main road. Sure enough, a short distance further on, there was a secondary road that headed down valley-wise...