In a moment of crisis that grips most young men, I found myself speeding away on a morning train after a sleepless and bloody night. This is not meant to sound too dramatic. My father came to me with a broom handle in one hand and a belt in the other, yes, but the resulting donnybrook was two men grabbing and tearing at whatever purchase their overzealous fingers might find, hearts awaiting the first knockdown more than true harm.
The argument began with the ink barely dry on my affirmative invitation to attend university. My father, Heinrich, raised a protest. His given reasons were obvious enough to one such as he—I was his son. His life was a chain-lashed continuation of back-bending labor. He pulled a lode of silver straight from the earth’s veins, then erected a business to extract the stuff, then exacted dominion over the surrounding industries that ran, crawled, swam, and died alongside silver mining. Diligence metamorphosed into obsession. “The mine must survive,” was his repeated credo to me, even as a boy overlooking the hole in the earth he made. “The mine must survive, Keziah.”
For his commandment to be rendered true, as well as a human mind might gather, I must anoint Heinrich an immortal, and lord over his work until time made a fool of him, then further so until death made a corpse of him.
These were the things I considered as he approached me, armed, a foolish murkiness already veiling his sight. I was armed only with my sealed letter, its destination scripted, and my mind cast forward into the coming years and decades. I observed myself dying while my father lived, time’s ravages dripping off his mind, potential well spent lifetimes earlier, and mine never even assessed. It would be the luxurious life bereft of mirrors and wallpapered with portraiture. Men who once painted my father would come to our house one day and paint me, and I would pose as he did, wear my clothes as he did, screw up my brow and knot my nose as he did, and freeze in time beneath the floes of oil and paint. I would never see myself.
I still lament it was a decaying old man that set me on my course in this brief life. This is a trite challenge too many rise to in their youth, prior to witnessing humanity’s enormity—prior to witnessing creation’s enormity. There are countless sins under Heaven, reader, but in the year of our Lord 1891, I was only a child to believe pride was the only that mattered. That I might discover the width and breadth of enormity itself. Beyond the confines of my father’s cushioned trappings, and an inheritance that weighed like an albatross upon my neck, I felt competing against the old man with a different unit of measure was how I might exceed his reach. A university such as Shackleburg would teach me how to accomplish such a feat. There, I might discover how to kill my father’s hate for me.
With ill-obtained tuition socked away in my trunk back in the baggage car and my letter of acceptance—drizzled gently with blood drawn from the cut on my lip the prior night—I was away. Unreachable. Alone. Cold. Alive. Heading east out of Platavilla, toward Pike’s Peak, and perhaps Colorado Springs, beyond. I confess, I did not know Shackleburg’s exact location, only that it, too, lay somewhere in the state of Colorado. This would be no grand deterrent to me, no.
“Further south,” the conductor said, examining my ticket. He waved his hand in a direction as the train car jostled against the rails. “You’ll ride a spur before reaching Cotopaxi. A man will have to take you further to Shackleburg after that.”
The train journey was bitter and mirthless. I woke one morning to an unshakable chill. It dwelt upon my gooseflesh skin like dewy beads frozen to grass. The evening was pink on the snow. The brittle fir trees bit toward the sky, awaiting the fall of an upper jaw to close down on the day. The train had halted some unknown time earlier. Peeking out the window, I noticed the platform with a carved sign gripped by snow that hid some of the letters, but I could still read: Cotopaxi.
Had I come too far? Had I slept through the day and missed my call?
I passed through my car, empty, then to the next, also entirely devoid of human life, before discovering a conductor.
“Have you got a fella to collect you?” the conductor asked after I repeated what I’d been told about the road to my destination. “A carriage’r a sled?”
“No, I understood I could hire one in town,” I answered.
“This here’s the town. If Shackleburg’s where yer headed, best start talking with your billfold.”
“I’ll pay what’s required.”
The man looked me over. He drew in a long breath as if his lungs sought some gas other than oxygen, before at last asking, “Will you?”
I sat as nobly as I could on my trunk while the locomotive bathed the platform in steam, pulling away into the night. The platform was a miserable pile of logs and a cold sign for Cotopaxi. The snow came early and October’s light drained toward the solstice as we all must, until we might find long days again. My mouth was still dry from my unknown length of sleep. I ate snow for a minute and wondered my next action.
Paths led in each direction from the ramshackle signpost. I could not travel with my trunk, it was much too heavy. Perhaps I could hide it and journey one of these paths in search of civilization? While calling them roads would be generous, they were rutted with wheelmarks, some fresh enough to be earlier that day. I could conjure no sense of direction, knowing only the direction of the setting sun, and the mysterious valley descending into night.
With no choice, I dragged the trunk with tremendous effort against the embankment away from the sign. Elastic fatigue shook in my limbs as if I had not slept in weeks. Traction gave way under my boots and mud soaked my trousers and overcoat. It slid beneath my fingernails and worked into the lines crisscrossing my palms. I cried out in the sudden cold. All I could manage by then was to climb again onto my trunk and collapse atop it like a tiny bench.
Curses against life and my own frivolity muttered across my lips, certainly blue with chill by now. I tugged a shaky glove from my hand to find it drained of color. I clenched into myself a hate. What foolishness I was suffering! A victim of some terrible ambition to overcome a copacetic status quo that could have sustained my livelihood until I was lowered into the cold ground by the soft hands of those who loved me. Now, an acquaintance with the cold ground rapidly approached. Arms hugged against my chest, I lifted my eyes to a sound arriving on the wind. Footsteps? Hoofprints. Against mud. And the creak of a wooden axle.
A new gravity raised me, counterweighting my trembling body until I was fully upright at the moment of this carriage’s arrival.
The figure driving the pair of horses wore a death angel’s pelt, furs and skins pouring over every limb as a warrior with claimed prizes. “Have you been waiting long?” It was a woman’s voice. Her features were hidden behind a mask.
“I don’t—no, I don’t believe so,” I said.
She slid down from her seat to stand before me in the mud. “I understand you need ferrying to Shackleburg?” the woman said. She nudged my trunk with her bootheel. “This all you intend to carry then, lad?”
“Yes. It’s all I have.”
“Have you your letter?” the woman said, removing her gloves, her sunlaid skin a stark departure from my expectation. I could not estimate if she was Black, or Native, or some other manner of person. Her eyes set cold on me. “Your acceptance letter?”
I slid a chilled hand into my coat and reached to find the thing. For an instant a speckle of blood on the envelope clung to my fingertip when I passed it to her, and it fell to the mud. The woman nipped it clean between her thumb and forefinger before it could suffer any stain at all.
“That’s addressed—” I protested.
She’d already slit the seal and unfolded the letter. Her eyes scanned the writing while her armor of pelts bit back at the gust of Colorado winds, forever victorious.
“You plan to study Ontology under Professor Kendrick Loomis at Shackleburg,” she read. She examined the envelope. “A bank check is enclosed to the correct amount. Very good. My name is Madam Vestoff. I’ve traveled these roads all my life, and I will take you to Shackleburg. Climb aboard—” She read my name at bottom. “Keziah Keyes.”
“Thank you, Vestoff,” I said. We bent on either side to lift my trunk. “Madam.”
We raised the trunk over our heads and lashed it to the carriage’s roof without another word. “In. Inside,” Vestoff said when I prepared to climb up to the driver’s seat. She opened the carriage door.
“I’ll endure the cold with you to provide company,” I said.
“I need to remain separate from you,” she informed me.
Separate? This woman had come to my rescue and she deflects my offer of commiseration as we set across this peculiar wilderness? I realized I didn’t know if she was sent by the university, or she was familiar with arriving students’ schedules, or if this was entirely by coincidence our paths crossed? But she was insistent.
I climbed into the carriage. Its sheltering surroundings were an instant relief, despite the chill I still felt on my bones. With a small cry of encouragement to the horses, Vestoff pulled us away, and we began our climb.
The carriage’s window curtains were already drawn and the night did the rest. The world beyond was black forest, mud, and dying trees. The horses maintained a strident canter and I believed at first the ruts in the road were the cause of my pain. This was not the entire truth. A strange tickle entered my breath after climbing into the carriage. All at once, I felt all the air in my lungs at all times, and that I must focus each time I inhaled. I completed the motion each time, only to find my thoughts dominated by the idea that there was no air left to breathe. I focused again. I felt no suffocation. I was being strangled slower. The pain was not in my throat, but in my chest itself. I attempted to cough it up, finding a ragged, sick sound, and not even clear bile to accompany the motion. My shoulders bent to cough again, harder. It rippled cold down my spine. I put my hands to my knees and wretched—still nothing.
When I laid upon the cushioned bench, it was as if a stone had been lowered onto my chest. As my breathing continued to find no certainty, my heart raced. For the first time, I felt color in my face. Blood bolted through my lips and dripped from the raw cut my father had given me with the belt clasp the night before. I struggled against the stiff, leathery pain squeezing my chest, and felt darkness take me.
I will not posit that so begins the story of a great man. I will be no great man that alters the course of human history, reader. The myth of the Great Man is one foisted upon history by Terrible Men that would make status life’s most magnificent prize. To say those that alter the course of humanity’s destiny are great and good is to misunderstand our species. In truth, I am a mere cipher, a ready lens that you might gaze through and notice diversions from the grip of reality requires many men and many women.
In this first lesson, just as you must understand there are no Great Men—not in the way you’ve been taught before—you must understand there is no great conspiracy. Most answers are obvious. Most cruelty is reliable. And most people are simply frightened of their own reflections, of their fathers, and of the embarrassing failures their brief moments upon this planet may represent. This is a miseducation, one that would be reversed during my yearslong stay at Shackleburg University.
-- Alex Crumb
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