The midday sun hung like a single flaming eye in the burning azure sky. My rough-spun robes of coarse hessian trailed lazily in the dusty sands. I had been walking for hours, and even the sap in my gnarled walking staff seemed to boil in this inhospitable terrain. I paused and sat carefully upon an ancient weather-whipped rock. Every bone in my worn-out body ached and throbbed. I reached for a battered old flask, uncorked the stopper and tipped the contents down my parched throat - nothing. It was empty. Sighing, I slowly stood upward again; sinews and joints groaning and creaking noisy protestations. Lately I was beginning to feel the weight of my years pushing down heavily upon my spin like a mounting load of bricks. Every time I made this journey, I though it would be my last. Perhaps today I was right.
I scanned the horizon. The cottage should be here. Despair, fear and loneliness curdled in my stomach. I was lost. I gazed to the South, as the heat wavered and flickered, swimming queasily like oil on a pool - and saw it. The cottage arose spectre-like for the briefest instant amongst the snaking fronds of scalding air currents. It was a mile off, so I reckoned.
The sun was still searing like a whetted knife by the time I drew up to the old, blistered gate. I paused before I lifted the rusted latch. The sands twisted round my ankles and whistled about the barren garden. In a distant corner, a sullen, stunted olive bush, cast wiry, clawing branches toward the sky - its few shriveled, wrinkled fruits hung limply swaying in the breeze. Close by, an elderly pomegranate proffered rotting orbs of scalded fly-infested flesh for the rancid sun to taste. I also noted a fig - though it bore no fruit at all.
I drew back the latch, and closed the gate behind me. As I stepped forward, crinkled, frail bay leaves, crackled and crumpled under foot. Despite the obscene heat, I shuddered.
The cottage was squat, formed from a medley of rough-hewn stones, worn smooth over many years by the grit of the howling winds. Two dark windows stared out vacantly, encrusted with dirt and spiders' webs. I tried not to speculate on what kind of spiders could thrive in a climate like this. I leaned on my staff, catching my breath, then I knocked on the paint-crackled door of bleached wood. Some moments passed, and then over the chaffing winds, I heard shuffling steps approaching. Next, there came the sounds of several rusted bolts being slowly withdrawn. Then with a jittering yawn, the door creaked open.
Old Mother Cripson blinked in the light. Her tiny eyes wrinkled, like little snails left to dry and shrivel in the sun - her few teeth rattled in her head like clothes-pegs on a washing line, some blusterous day. She ushered me inside smiling gummily, brushing dust from her apron.
Once I was in the narrow hallway, where strange herbs were hung to dry from the ceiling in fragile clusters, she fussed me into the confines of the cluttered parlour. I took a seat at the well-serviced oaken table, scrambled with pots, pans and containers of all shapes and sizes. Despite the heat and noise outside, it was cool and quiet here; only the old grandfather clock sounded with its heavy basal strokes. A fire had even been lit, and it roared in the grate. Old Father Cripson stood with his back to me, roasting his large vein-ravaged hands over the flames, slowly rubbing them together in silent meditation. The windowsills were lined with the corpses of long departed flies and an assortment of insects; forming miniature graveyards.
Mother Cripson set the kettle on the fire to boil and joined me at the table. I coughed, but the sound was swallowed up in the claustrophobic silence that encased us. Father Cripson tottered round to face me, a weary smile struggling to his weak lips. I coughed and put a handkerchief to my mouth - when I drew it back, it was wet with blood.
"How are you keeping, Founstone?" His voice sounded like an ancient wooden chest creaking painfully open.
"Not bad, not bad. I think I'm getting better, I..."
A fit of vicious coughing beset me which lasted several minutes. My handkerchief was drenched, I tucked it hurriedly away into the folds of my robe and tried to give the couple a cheery grin. They were sat, hand in hand, watching, with eyes full of pity and sadness. The tick and tock of the old grandfather clock seemed somehow louder than before.
"When do you expect him?" I managed finally.
"Ooh" Mother Crispon murmured as she mechanically ran a duster along the mantelpiece. "I really can't begin to guess." "You know how he is."
I nodded glumly. "You don't suppose there's any chance he might forget, do you?"
"I don't suppose so. He never has so far. Always very...punctual...." her words trailed off as the grandfather began striking noon. It was a horribly discordant sound - each note seemed to resonate and reverberate off all the walls, echoing back more disembodied and dismembered than before. I was glad when the final shuddering tones died away, and that sweeping hush descended again. Somewhere in the walls, a rat scuffled. I fidgeted restlessly.
"I've come a rather long way if he's not going to make an appearance." I tried to inject some indignance into my voice, but when I heard myself, I just sounded shaky and uncertain.
"He'll come, he'll come" Mother Cripson wheedled.
The winds dashed and chased outside, the clock ticked and tocked still louder - the old couple drew closer to each other. Then, there was a rapping at the door, though I had heard no footsteps, hard as I had listened for them. The rapping continued slow and constant, stroke after stroke, matching every beat of the grandfather clock.
"It'll...it'll be for you" Mother Cripson spoke very softly, she was trembling now and tears shone in her tiny eyes.
In a panic, I pushed my chair back, where it fell to the floor with a clatter. I grabbed both my friends by their hands and squeezed them tightly. Mother Cripson brushed some dust from my robes, then I moved for the door - as fast as my buckling knees could carry me. That dreadful monotonous rapping continued unerring, as I drew near. I paused to collect my thoughts. Finally, pale and clammy, I rested my hand upon the one drawn bolt, and pulled it scrapping hideously back, like nails down a blackboard - my skin crawling. All the while that constant knocking continued, and the grandfather clock was striking each second with a hollow boom, shaking the house to it's very foundations. Dried herbs showered down upon me, as at last I opened that forbidding door.
Blackness. Absolute blackness. I spun around, but the house was gone. Everything was clad in absolute ebony darkness. I couldn't see my robes, I couldn't feel my body. Silence washed over me, complete and unconquerable. Then everything, the nothingness, began to slowly fade away; soft lulling unconsciousness slipping over, like warm silk. The scent of flowers, more enticingly perfumed than any I had known in life, drifted by and I heard the harmonious chirping of a thousand birds. The darkness lifted, and I felt long grass tickling my skin. I knew that when I opened my eyes, I would be in Death's garden.
My journey had not been in vain.