When at last through the trees we spot the towering outline of the pagoda, our bodies tense and we creep towards the clearing. We have traveled so far, and yet everything boils down to these last few steps. We tread carefully, knowing that even the slightest sound—the crunch of a leaf beneath our boots, the shriek of a bird in the trees—will give us away.
When we come to the edge of the clearing, we crouch between some bushes. Despite our urge to burst from the jungle and sprint across the clearing, we must be alert to the myriad dangers that surely surround us. The creatures will be here somewhere. They must all be here, crammed into this one space, waiting, watching, ready to attack.
No more than thirty footsteps ahead, the pagoda rises gracefully into the shimmering twilight sky. We allow ourselves a silent smile. It is more beautiful than even we expected—us, whose childhoods were spent dreaming of the vast and exquisite beauty that awaited us here, if, like our elders before us, and their elders before them, we could leave our village and navigate our way to this clearing beyond the desert and the swampland and the dense tropical jungle. The exterior of the building is a dazzling array of reds and greens and yellows. At the foot of the pagoda, as promised, is the outline of a doorway. A shiver of anticipation revives our weary bodies. It is real. The doorway is real. It stands upon a bronze podium. And it is open, just like we were told, awaiting our entry.
In the beginning, as children, when our elders first sat us down to talk of the pagoda, we were attracted mainly to the physical qualities of the building. We saw it, we suppose, as some sort of exotic toy. In the mornings, on our way to school, we would create elaborate fantasies in our minds, superimposing our faces against the vivid colors of the pagoda. We imagined ourselves bursting into the clearing, where we would play for hours in the field of lush green grass—the kind of grass that existed nowhere in our village. We imagined running laps of the pagoda, tracing our fingertips along the smooth, rare timber of the building. At night, in our beds, as the wind rattled the corrugated iron rooftops of our cottages, we dreamed our dreams of the great pleasures that awaited us.
Time and time again, however, our elders reminded us that the extravagance of the pagoda’s exterior is merely a front for the long line of powerful truths contained within. To step inside, they said—the smoke from their tobacco pipes wafting before our eager eyes—is to step into a world that you cannot imagine existing until you have taken that step. Still, we were young and impatient. So, after sittings that stretched well into the night, during which our elders recounted their perilous journeys to the pagoda, we nagged them to tell us what, exactly, lies through the doorway. Was someone inside, waiting to lead us to the pagoda’s higher realms? Would we find an item on a table inside the doorway—a key, perhaps—that would illuminate everything? But again, the only answer we ever received was that what awaits us cannot be conveyed in words. The best they could do, our elders replied, was to say that once we stepped inside, our lives would be forever changed.
And now, at last, our moment has come.
We scan the clearing but still find no sign of the creatures. The only sound, besides our shallow breathing, is the trickle of a stream in the distance. How many seconds, we wonder, would it take for us to spring from the bushes and bolt across the clearing, not blinking or breathing until we reach the doorway? Five seconds? Surely it would take the creatures at least two or three seconds to react? By then we could be halfway across…
But no. We cannot let ourselves be fooled by what appears to be easy access. Even though it could all be over in five short seconds, if we leave the safety of the bushes or make any sudden movements, the creatures will surely emerge and attack.
Luckily, this is something we were prepared for from an early age. Sitting cross-legged in the musty living rooms of our cottages, we listened as our elders recounted stories of savage creatures, creatures of the darkness, who would slither and swoop and strike upon anyone who tried to enter the pagoda. We heard accounts of vicious winged beasts, lurking among the higher tiers of the pagoda, watching the clearing with unblinking yellow eyes, and whose fearful cry would awaken all other creatures to our approach. We heard of enormous snake-like creatures, who stalk the soil beneath the clearing, and who, upon hearing the thud of trespassing feet, thrash up from the dirt and swallow their victims whole. We heard of many other hybrid monstrosities, whose claws and fangs and shrieking attack sounds have haunted our imaginations since earliest childhood.
And yet what troubles us most is that, so far, since setting off from our village, we have not come under serious attack. Actually, we have not come under attack at all. Our elders, in speaking of our journey, described our path as littered with innumerable foes. The only guarantee, they told us, changing the linen on the beds that now claim their ailing bodies, is that we would suffer attack after attack, and that every hour would throw up some new trial to overcome. But we have seen nothing of the creatures. Through the deserts we watched for shifting sands, expecting at any moment to discover the jagged fin of the sand-shark, or the barbed tail of the subterranean scorpion. But we didn’t see either of them. The swamplands were the same. As we sloshed our way through the seemingly never-ending marshes, we were always on high alert. Our stomachs churned with anxiety as we eyed the murky water, preparing for the slimy leap of the fanged-eel, or the piercing squeal of the great swamp rat. But the only movement through those stagnant waters was our own. And when we looked down, searching for signs of the diabolical creatures we had heard so much about, all we saw were reflections of ourselves, our faces muddied and weary and drawn into various emblems of our ever-present fear.
By the time we reached the jungle, and still no creatures had beset us, we grew especially fearful. Why, we wondered, had we been allowed to move so freely? Why, after all we had heard, had we faced no opposition on our path towards the pagoda? Had all the creatures died out? Was that it? Had something changed in their environment and they had gone the way of the dinosaurs? Or were we simply moving in the wrong direction, even though the landscape itself was exactly as it had been described to us? In those dark days we longed for one last sitting with our elders. We longed to be children again, back in the warmth of our cottages, relieved of the independence we had so desperately craved.
(Still no movement in the clearing, or at the doorway of the pagoda…)
But then, thankfully, the answer came. It arrived one moonless evening, deep in the jungle. It was as if, sleep-starved and sick with nerves, we had come into communion with our dying elders. As we sat in the darkness, listening to the forlorn croak of the frogs, we realized suddenly there could only be one explanation: the creatures, having learned of our coming, had abandoned their old haunts and were amassing all their forces here, in the clearing. The reason our elders had not mentioned this, we realized, was because it had not happened to them. During their journeys, they had faced constant and relentless attack. In us, however, the creatures have seen something that makes them want to consolidate their forces at the pagoda. The only explanation, as far as we can tell, is that they have learned how rigorously prepared we have been for their attacks. They have heard of how our elders, having passed triumphantly into the pagoda many years before, dedicated themselves to readying us, to ensuring that we, unlike them, who set out so blindly from the village, are always acutely aware of the dangers ahead. And so, hearing of this, the creatures have decided to undertake a radical change in their method of attack.
Accordingly, the last leg of our journey was one of polar opposites. On the one hand, sensing ourselves to be under no immediate danger, we proceeded with a confidence that bordered on recklessness. After all, our path was easy, untroubled. We raced through the jungle, not bothering to stop at every crest or gully to carefully consider the terrain ahead. For the first time in our journey we spoke above a whisper. We lit campfires of an evening. We allowed ourselves the luxury of relishing the natural beauty of the landscape. On the other hand, as we surged closer to the pagoda, our minds began to fill with an almost unbearable dread. We saw before us a nightmare mix of all the horrific creatures we had heard about. We had no problem picturing them, flocking en masse for the pagoda, a sickening army of pincers and tentacles and fangs and beaks.
Yet in a few minutes night will have settled across the clearing. All we can see of the pagoda is the outline of its ornamented tiers, jutting out from its shadowy mass. The doorway is still visible—a tantalizing shape on the nearby podium—but only just. In a few minutes the doorway, like the clearing, will be swamped in darkness. Then there will be no hope of entering the pagoda till first light tomorrow. Because going blind across the clearing, no matter how short the distance, would be suicide. The creatures, with their voracious nocturnal eyes, would be on us in a flash. We have to go now. We have to make a run for it. And yet even if we did they would still be on us in a flash, just as our elders described, but even more so, because they have all assembled here. At the same time we have longed for this moment for an eternity already. And besides, for the life of us we can still—still!—not detect the slightest sign of the creatures. Where are they?! When will they make their move?! It seems impossible for so many to be concealed in such a small—
Then it hits us.
We stand from the bushes. Slowly, we set foot onto the clearing. The grass is soft and spongy beneath our boots. The night is hot, but pleasant.
Around us, darkness has finally blanketed the clearing. But we are no longer afraid. We are no longer afraid because, in the end, there is nothing to be afraid of. The creatures are not real. The creatures were never real.
We set off towards the pagoda. In the darkness that surrounds us, we hear no wings thrashing in our direction. We hear no claws or paws or hooves breaking the calm of the jungle night. We smile freely, reflecting on the gallery of elaborate nightmares that, almost inconceivably now, caused our young minds so much grief. We remember the distant morning we left the village, when, believing we were heading out to do battle with the many creatures that blocked our path, we were really setting out on a journey to overcome our irrational fear. And now we have overcome it, we think back on our elders, who, despite the many horrors they stenciled into our minds, taught us exactly what we needed to know, and who, as we left the village that morning, dragged themselves to the tiny windows of the cottages, where they watched us leave, their heads so old and shrunken behind the cobwebbed glass. But how towering they really were, with their imaginations of fire and wonder, those architects of everything we have become.
Finally, unbelievably, we arrive at the pagoda. Grinning, we eye the three bronze steps that lead to the podium and the doorway. We are here. This is it. Three short steps and we will pass through to the other side. During our journey we have tried hard not to dwell on this future moment. We have tried to banish it from our minds because, quite simply, it has always seemed so far away. Secretly, however, it has always been with us, driving us to continue despite the many hardships we have faced. How could it not? And that, again, has been the wisdom of our elders. To ensure we would never fall prey to their band of fictive creatures, they furnished our minds with a goal so powerful, so alluring that we would never let ourselves be defeated. This pagoda is theirs. They built it for us.
But it is time to go.
We take a final glance behind us.
Then, with eyes shut tight in blissful anticipation, we take the first step…
It is not easy for us to describe what has happened. There must be some mistake. Perhaps we have come to the wrong clearing? Perhaps this was a dummy pagoda and the real one lies somewhere out there in the vast jungles? Perhaps this was only another obstacle on the way to reaching the true pagoda? Yet we know it is not the case. This is the pagoda. This is the building upon which all our hopes and dreams were based.
It started well enough. As we filed through the doorway and into the gloom of a narrow front passage, we found a single oil lamp waiting on a hook, which we lit and held in front of us. Standing there, inside at last, with everything perfect and as it should be, we were sure we felt the first pangs of a dawning enlightenment. The lamp threw brilliant flickers of dancing light onto the walls. The air around us grew suddenly cool. The walls themselves seemed to hum. Holding hands, we readied ourselves for what was coming. We readied ourselves to be forever changed.
Then a cockroach was scuttling across the floor, breaking the spell.
No matter, we told ourselves, the magic would arrive soon enough.
With the lamplight as our guide, we headed into the pagoda proper. Emerging from the tunnel-like passage and into the heart of the temple, we were prepared for all range of possibilities. We were prepared for a sudden blaze of mystical light. We were prepared for the ghost of one of our elders, standing at the foot of a grand staircase, come to chaperone us to our higher destinies. We were prepared for golden keys. For elaborate doors. For celebratory music. For a disembodied voice to congratulate us on completing our arduous journey. We were prepared, at the very least, to see before us an interior that matched the beauty of the pagoda’s exterior.
What we were not prepared for, however, was the ruin we were confronted with.
The lamplight became our enemy, showing us things we did not want to see, could not bear to see, and yet still, despite everything, knew we somehow had to see. The timber walls were a rotting disgrace. We pressed our fingertips to the wood, hoping that beneath the crumbling surface there glowed an inner magic. There was nothing. We felt nothing. The floors, too, were splitting at the seams. In fact the more we went on, the more we had to keep the lamplight trained at our feet, to help us from falling into the gaping holes that peppered the floor, giving it the look of some great ugly chunk of mice-ravaged cheese, which was fitting in its way, given the number of rats scattering over our boots and fleeing into the darkness beyond the lamplight.
Still, we are by nature a very positive people, and were not about to give in. Hoping the higher floors might somehow still contain the vision of splendor we’d imagined, we took to the spiral staircase. Climbing it was a nightmare. Every step was a landmine of collapsing timber and festering rats. Eventually, though, we managed to make it up.
If anything, the second floor was in worse condition than the first. The third floor was worse still. Same as the fourth, and finally the fifth. To rub salt into the wounds, at every level we were confronted with signs of our elders having been there before us. A bootlace dangled, snake-like, over a banister. An empty can of beans lay discarded on the floor. Most painful of all was the black and white photo of us, as children, playing happily in the dirt and dust of our village, left crumpled by the far wall of the fifth floor.
Through the long hours of the night we searched every inch of the pagoda, praying for a miracle and receiving nothing. Finally, defeated, we emerged from the building as dawn broke over the jungle. We trudged from the podium and flopped onto the clearing, where we sat then and sit now, with no idea what to do or where to go. Our eyes are vacant. Our bodies are weary beyond belief. We do not think of our elders for fear of the anger that threatens to consume us. We do not look at the pagoda for fear of what could—and should—be done with a match and tank of gasoline. Instead, delirious in the tropical heat, we are beset by visions, startling feverish visions, of children, our children, not yet born or even conceived, yet already swimming towards us like divers from the bottom of the ocean, coming with their smells and their smiles and their laughter, which we will cherish, but also with their curiosity and their questions, which we will answer, we must answer, even when the subject turns, as we fear it must, to their fated journey to the empty shell of a building above us. In the moment before answering we will feel a hesitation. Perhaps, we will think, we could be the first generation to put an end to the pagoda. Perhaps it could be us who quashes it once and for all. But then we will see the eager eyes and expectant smiles of the children at our feet. And so, pulling up a chair and filling the tobacco pipes we will no doubt be smoking by then, we will take a deep breath and begin to speak of a journey, a journey that begins in the village and must pass through a brutal barrage of ever-fiercer creatures, a journey which will begin in the heady days of childhood and end here at this clearing and this pagoda, with its three bronze steps and its open doorway, which, when entered, will change their lives forever, as it has changed our lives forever.
Wayne Marshall is an Australian writer and musician. Previous work of his has appeared in Writers Bloc, Seizure, Tincture Journal and Islet. He tweets @wayneamarshall1
Artwork: Hiroaki Takahashi, “Crows at Sunset,” c1930s, public domain.