The blaze of the setting sun lit the tips of the distant, snow capped mountains in brilliant bursts of red and orange. Distance made the features hazy as stark shadows climbed steadily on the western faces of the hills. Larger, more sheer stone shone out behind these, their grey and white contrast profiling the nearer, tree covered hills. A hollow, tucked against the eastern face of a deep bowl in the sculptured landscape, twinkled as lights in the town won out against the increasing darkness. The streets of the town were empty, save some few wandering souls here and there. Onto the broken asphalt, its tattered condition testament to the mild impoverishment prevalent there, a warm red glow shown out from a single, open door. Footsteps came and went, the clink of glassware rang quietly, and the conversations ebbed and flowed in the rhythmic way that conversations do. The subtle flash of coins glinted as patrons traded for a sip. The Keeper stood there silent but watching. The trained eye caught the glint as coins landed before him, souls lining up like pilgrims desperate for the promised land. He looked down at the coins that landed there.
The dark stain of the bar top contrasted sharply with the coins, having filled itself to the grain with a million stories, a million touches. The oily remnants of innumerable fingertips and elbows shined from the muted colors of the wood, reflecting on the dark countenance of The Keeper. His dirty, worn hat draped over his eyes, leaving only the slightest gleaming from under the rim as he gazed out on the patrons so intent on pulling in the fix they needed. His eyes penetrated into the very soul and yet were never seen. Face buried deep in the shadow of the wide brimmed Stetson, stained with the detritus of years beyond measure, he gazed out on the patrons, eyes greedy and offering their gold coins. He both hated and loved them, craving their company yet filled with dark and bitter resentment as they spent their finite lives with him. Once he pitied, now he seldom considered them. He just stood, a vague outline shadowed by the bar-back resplendent with the glistening, glass bottles, full of the various medicines, poisons, that were requested by the many. He traded coins for a libation, a meditation, a medicine. Some were brown and dreary; some were gentle and full of umbrellas and light.... but all were of the same substance.
No one knew his origins. He barely remembered those dark origins himself. He was old. Long he had wandered the shadowed byways of the world, seeking out what man would trade his gold, his wares, his soul for some bit of medicine. Always a face in shadow, be it the old Stetson or a Druids hood or the shadowed corner of a Longhouse. Facelessness was disconcerting to most, but if they stared too long, earnestly trying to discern the darkened visage, they would see their own murky reflection. This was too frightening for all but the strongest and seldom did such a glance remain long. Eyes never seeing in, he was only the eyes looking out. Perceiving the things that separate bone from marrow. For the moment he rested his subtle, penetrating gaze on her. He felt a spark deep within as, for the first time in memory, he was intrigued.
She was beautiful. Astonishingly so. A beauty that would silence rooms in far more cosmopolitan places than this. Here, she was like a white hot, glowing ember in a darkened room. The men would stroll in, look down the row of mismatched stools, and find themselves gob smacked. Her still, level gaze, the classical profile of her face and body. He would see them, gazing in a smitten stupor along the lines of her jaw, down the flawless angle of her neck and across the beautiful and sensuous curve of her breasts, sweetly subtle beneath her arm, then continuing down the gentle curve of her hips. She rendered them speechless, nursing their drink and entertaining fantasies of what they would do, all the while knowing that they would never know how to so much as speak to her. Their incompetence was entertaining to the keeper. He could not help but share the infatuation in a trifling way, but those hard, dark eyes could see what the debutantes could not.
The astonishing beauty (and it was), was empty. She was a shell. It melded into the surface far enough to make a solid impression, but it was like looking at a well-crafted doll. She would look at you, listen to you, run her fingers over your body and bring you to a delicious, longing climax...but there was nothing beyond that. One would reach for some crumb of substance and come up empty. Words, even the most beautiful and profound, would sink into her consciousness and disappear into the dark veil, never to be seen nor eliciting response.
It was not the emptiness of the feeble. One could look into those eyes and see a sparkling intelligence, muted somewhat but not absent. It deceived the viewer with its light. Extended exposure to her countenance soon became disconcerting to the observant. The eyes looked over a deep and fantastic chasm that contained nothing but a void. Inquire further as to what wonders might lay below and the admirer would be exposed to a flash of irritation before the emptiness returned. What horrifying tragedy had occurred to hollow out such a one, it was hard to say. ...but the keeper suspected. He had not always been the morose and distant figure he now struck. Through many eons he had seen, he had known, and he had watched the depraved mechanization of the human soul that could take such delicious beauty and render it impotent, capable only of the most base and perfunctory interactions. She stood a solemn, disconcerting monument to the ability of men to take things of beauty and render them horrific and grotesque. Oh, at first glance one would not see it. It may well take many days. ...but it would arise. A slight, sickly notion that there was no substance beneath the words, the openness. It had the veneer of introspection, of observation. ...but it was not. It was a shell. A mysterious window within which was an eternal void that one could pour blood sacrifice within for decades and yet never notice the void reducing. For seven nights he had offered her the exchange, such as it was. A golden coin for a draught of mild comfort. She never asked for the hard stuff, likely afraid of what it might unearth. He did not offer more than was asked for. He struck the bargain. It was a tradition millennia in the making, no sense in changing it now.
No one knew where he came from, the keeper. He stood silent, face eerily shrouded in darkness no matter the light, his stained cowboy hat and vest the only characteristic anyone seemed to be able to remember in the cold light of the morning. He made the exchange. A golden coin for the libation that reached in and soothed the soul of the recipient. Oddly, the ones with the gentlest appetites were the deepest wells of anguish. Red wine, an ale or two, these folks would sit alone and entertain demons of the sort that most any suburban housewife would scream in terror at the sight of. The whiskey folks, he liked their lot. He liked it in a pedestrian, childish way. A coin of gold, a shot of some powerful juice, and they would become lovers, seldom fighters. Most were looking for nothing more than the gentle smearing of the lines of bitter reality and the suffering inherent in the emergence of life. They would laugh and stagger and fight and yell, ending the night slowly weaving to their beds, requesting nothing in exchange for their gold pieces than the temporary respite from the suffering of existence. This was enough.
It was those with the pretense of moderation that he would look deep into their eyes and see the caustic tears of horrifying agony only wounds deep and profound could create. ...but there was a bit of the Keeper that loved that deep tragedy welling up in empty eye sockets. He felt the deep anguish of too many years of the pain, the emptiness. It was a counterfeit camaraderie of which he alone was aware. It was why he liked the Empty Beauty.
He was temporarily distracted by the Disheveled One. She was significantly more predictable, more consistent. She offered a solid trail of gold passing over the subtle stains of the hardwood, but was much less interesting. Now she required a filling of her cup. He reached for the earthen jug she sipped the nectar of. It was of the basest quality. Simple mead and honey. She asked only for something to numb the pains of existence, though her unsophisticated approach to the world numbed most of them anyway. The simple mead was a placebo as much as an intoxicant. The keeper drew the draft she requested with grace and longsuffering, and he smiled as he did. None would see that smile, hidden under the impenetrable darkness of the wide brimmed hat, but they might feel it, an icy blast of frightening good humor, as they sat at the bar top. She was the lesson the mass of humanity would never see. They spent long, agonizing days searching for the peace and contentment she could find in that simple draught...ironically never to find it for lack of looking. The tragic irony of it filled him with a morose, delightful, but unsatisfying mirth.
The Keeper jolted himself back from the revelry with mild, mirthful irritation. These ordinary kinds of troubles were the sort he had seen for untold ages. It was the deep and penetrating pain of the sort that twisted the soul and left one reeling with tragic horror that brought him interest. The others were so.... ordinary. With steady resolve he twisted his attention back to the Empty One, if only to see the futility of the attempts at interaction.
The Stranger approached her. His face was unfamiliar, but he had the simple grace of one who has seen little of import. He had the physicality of someone who was no stranger to a hard day and carried himself with an easy confidence. The limited conversations the Keeper had overheard from him were relatively consistent and lacking in any real profundity. He was.... ordinary. She was not, but the horrors living deep in her soul created a certain appreciation for the unsophisticated that her conscious mind never recognized. He ambled over with his shallow eyes and she watched him approach. For a moment the Keeper felt he was watching some predatory dance. A vole approaching the den of a snake perhaps? No. It was not so subtle. It was a mouse approaching a trap. All the Stranger saw was the delicious morsel perched atop the trigger. There would be no delicate interplay between agile prey and manipulating predator, just a simple triggering of the lever and his hope and vitality would be absorbed into those deep, seducing eyes and he would be gone. The Stranger offered some perfunctory greeting. The Keeper heard it but it was so unremarkable there was no retention. He had heard it in a million variations before. She spoke.
"I saw you come in. It is so unlike me. I felt.... drawn to you..." She said the words with a gravity that was moving, even to the Keeper. Not a glimmer of a smile, the dark eyes penetrating into the Stranger's own and hinting at some deep and universal connection imagined, then perceived, then realized. Closing the words, she leaned almost imperceptibly forward, her lips ever so slightly apart, an artificial flush of rouge on her cheeks. The hook was set. The intimation of destiny, the quiet hint of some deep profundity and purpose in the meeting and his simple mind took the liberty of making all the connections needed. The Stranger never noticed the sexual receptivity of his mind open, the veiled fantasies and noble illusions burst in a slow, oozing agony, but just below his perception. He felt a primal desire to mount this magnificent specimen like a stallion offering his services, then silently boast that the universe willed her to be with him, though this pounding need was effectively cloaked in a white gown of virtue.
Her stark, subconscious understanding, albeit via nuanced annunciations, of these intricate relationships blossomed forth as spurious, weak connections. It made no difference though. Like the plaster of Paris mountains and foam filler of a well painted movie set, they did not need to have solidity and longevity, only create an aesthetic. Masticate the detritus of a sensuous word, an emotional reaction in a primate brain, and the social mechanisms evolved over the ages would kick in and fabricate the details of the low fidelity mockery. All she needed was that he wanted it to be true. Once that milestone was reached, the flimsy under-girding of it all would be promptly ignored.
The Keeper was pulled away suddenly. Far to the end of the blood-stained bar sat a man as dark as he, but with a face. Penetrating eyes looked out from a wrinkled visage, pruned with age. His hat sat upon the bar before him and his gold was strange. It had no stains. It was as if the fires of the bowels of the earth had touched the Stone Man's fingers and the gold he touched was cauterized and did not exude the pain of the others. It made the Keeper uncomfortable and irritated. The Stone Man was full of quiet mirth. Not the dark variety that The Keeper entertained, a mirth pure and light. He saw the futility of the world, but did not mock it. He danced within it. To add to the chagrin of The Keeper, The Stone Man had ordered a different exchange for his clean, shiny gold each of the six days he had patronized this establishment! Today he may pour a neat bourbon, he may order a wine, he may foam his mustache on a pilsner. There was just no way of knowing. These were an irritant, but it was the Stone Man's eyes that quite nearly sent the Keeper into a fomenting rage. They were alive with the fascinating joy of beholding all the beautiful delicacies of the world happening around. He beheld the pain, he comprehended the pain, he even empathized and offered solace on occasion, but he was untouched by it. He calmly sat and watched, as if waiting with otherworldly patience for his time to come.
The eyes positively sang with a tale of how engaging all the most mundane of connections could be...and yet, the Keeper could not see beneath them. All the others that darkened the door of the place he would peer into the open and pallid ingress and delve into the quiet discomfort of the deepest caverns of their soul. Not the Stone Man. That soul was deeper and far wider than any he had ever felt, this he knew instinctually, but he was powerless to see it. And the Stone Man KNEW it! The Keeper would be desperately excavating and striving to burrow into the soil of the Stone Man's soul and become suddenly aware of his joyful gaze. The Stone Man was aware of his intruding, yet was pleasantly amused as the Keeper wore his fingers down to nothing in the attempted excavation. Their eyes would meet and an exchange would occur, delightfully entertained on the part of the Stone Man, but bitter on the part of the Keeper. The Keeper satiated himself by saying it was an impasse, but he knew it was not. It was a wave breaking upon the shore. A thousand years of breaking and you only find more shore.
The Stone Man watched with a glint of a smile as the Empty One engaged the Stranger. He did not take it in with the dark anticipation of the Keeper. He understood. The Stranger would be pulled in, would likely find himself enmeshed in some incomprehensible quagmire for a time. ...but it would resolve. He had the easy buoyancy of a simple life and perception and could not long be pulled under the dark surface of that bog. It was the bane of such connections. Like trying to hold a balloon under your arm as you sink into the depths, the deeper you go the more difficult it becomes to hold on to it....The Stranger would soon, in his beautiful simplicity, become more than the Empty One could hold on to and he would rise to the surface in a flurry of mess, popping out onto the shore no wiser than before. No matter. He was hardly a worthy target for her. He may well be grabbed by another such as well, but the result would be much the same. It is difficult to puncture the robust exoskeleton of the one who has embraced simplicity, whether by default or by choice. Perhaps he is lucky. Perhaps he is the personification of karma that the universe serves to those who would try to drown others in their black misery.
This strange mechanism by which the Stranger would inexplicably rise from the morass he would inevitably be pulled into was a mystery to the Keeper. He only saw the dark, the stained, the putrid, long since forgetting the light, the airy pleasantries. Like the proverb of old, light shined in darkness but darkness comprehended it not. That one could remain untouched by the murky decay, despite being immersed in it, was profoundly inexplicable to the Keeper.
Bursting in the door came the Caller. Burst is perhaps a strong descriptor. He rolled across the threshold in a lumbering, oddly choreographed stagger. His jaw was limp and etched in a permanent half grin, the results of staggering quantities of mirth stretched out from early in the morning. His history was hardly sordid. It became painted as such as he found increasing quantities of liquid joy. The Keeper tolerated him, though he was an infernal distraction. Well beyond the capacity to make a contribution to the black jocularity of the Keeper's observations, the Caller none the less thrust himself into the thick of the stage and created a banal, yet overwhelming, focal point in a field of characters that should have easily drowned him out. At first, his narrative had the trappings of some great and somewhat epic tale, no less because he presented it as a narrative that smacked of some powerful intricacies. Quickly though, one found that his tale was no different than most anyone else's, it was simply colored with the desire to draw in others in hopes of gold sliding to the Keeper and a glass newly filled. He was harmless, but only the most patient of patrons could endure his lengthy conversations. The Stone man alone endured the winding and meaningless conversation with no protest. Ever the student of the human soul, he would find some nugget of wisdom, some tiny droplet of truth buried in the meandering utterances. Sensing the alchemic mystery floating in hollow pheromones through the atmosphere, he did not endure him today. There was no rebuff, simply inattention and the caller moved on to more receptive pastures.
The Stone Man was intent on the Empty One and her unwitting prey. They saw her hand, quietly and with delicate purpose, touch The Stranger's arm. It lingered a moment longer than needed and her dark lashes lowered slightly as she gazed into simple eyes and began to draw them in. Most other men in the room watched with barely concealed desire as they subconsciously slipped their own skin beneath the fingers. It was a fruitless effort on The Stranger, The Stone Man could clearly see. Guile assumes guile. Her methods, her nuanced, practiced tact, was designed around the shapes made when men attempt to be clever, attempt the mild deceit of seduction. There was no wit in The Stranger's intentions, no subtle deception. He was pure. Simplicity distilled with no pretense. The hooks would set, intended for the hollows where men place their lies, and would slide harmlessly off. He looked at her, saw she was beautiful, wanted her. No more. It was brutal in its unpretentious intention. It fascinated The Stone Man and delighted him to see. This Empty One, so astute at turning the common deceptions of men in on themselves, was utterly unable to penetrate, or even perceive, the Stranger's frank innocence. He wished to take her and lie with her, yes, but he made no move to veil this desire. It was pure. Thus, it was incomprehensible to her. The Stone Man smiled a wide and knowing smile behind his whiskey, the glass distorting the visage into a caricature, a cartoonish grinning figure. With no effort at all, The Stranger had achieved what men spent years attempting to practice. He was completely present, living wholly in the glow of his current feeling and situation. He had no thought of yesterday, no concern for tomorrow. There was only now.
What fascinated The Stone Man would ordinarily infuriating to the Empty One. Profoundly skilled in the entrapment of the wary, she had no tools with which to address the heedless, the unattached. The Stranger wanted her now, but tomorrow? Who could say? Not even he, though he never so much as considered the possibility or lack thereof. It was not that she held him in specific regard, he was a tool to an end, nothing more. All the same, she should be able to entice with veiled promises of some ill-defined future seduction. Always it had succeeded. Here it was like rain rolling off thatch. There seemed an indication that a dampening had occurred, but the intended target stood dry all the same. The Keeper, unaware himself how engulfed his attention had become, quietly sneered his own lack of comprehension. Ever suppressing the need to react, she sat quietly and made no outward indication, but The Stone Man saw the flash in her eyes. In grotesque contrast to the dark, quiet exterior, it was a white-hot blade of ice that sprang from that deep abyss, exposing itself for the briefest instant before a cloak of deepest darkness was thrown over it to conceal. The Stone Man saw it.
This the Keeper saw as well. He could only perceive the Stranger in the most rudimentary way, but that spire of intensive malice that sprang out for but an instant was like a beacon to him. His dark countenance swung from all other attentions and rested in cold observation on the scene. No longer concerned with The Stranger (what portion of him he could perceive), his focus honed in like a razor on The Empty One. He liked her emptiness before, now he was compelled into her eyes. The deep cloak tossed over the malice did not conceal from The Keeper. He saw the furious intensity churning deep in that abyss where others only saw blackness. He saw the sucking need, the singularity that could only consume but could never be satiated. Reluctantly, he felt it whet his dark appetite. The Stranger was irrelevant. If he was not consumed, she would quickly move on to another. His unseen grin washed out over the room and, for a moment, winning hands suddenly lost, dice refused to roll, and the Eight Ball veered into the nearest pocket.
The Caller bellowed and pulled The Keeper from his intoxicating revelry. Well into far too many comforts, The Caller was requesting more, but with questionable coherency. The Keeper had no concern with the wellbeing of his patrons, but he had deep concern with the trade, with the coin. The dark, glowering gaze fell upon The Caller. He had the means, ultimately. This The Keeper knew. He must have the coherency to initiate the trade. The rules had been established long before them all. The Keeper could not compel the trade, could not reach for the coin. It must be offered. As he began the irritating dance with the Caller, a puff of darkness blasted out and a man at the back briefly experienced heart palpitations and sunk to the floor. The intoxicated man drew his purse and slowly began to scroll through the detritus therein, spilling the worthless papers and odd bits of life onto the weary bar top. After an agonizing wait, he produced a single coin. With a victorious leap, he slapped the gold onto the oaken surface and leered at The Keeper. His gaze averted quickly as the darkness under the stained Stetson penetrated deep into the marrow of his soul, a sordid grin emanating forth, felt, not seen. The Caller received his libation and, barely aware of its essence, slowly meandered away, his steps, a jagged outline on the hardwood floor, left a hazy path of indifferent fortune and soiled language. The Keeper, whole but unsatisfied with the trade, turned his attention back to more intriguing things.
He looked around for The Stranger, conspicuous in his incoherence. In his mind, he could see with grim amusement the contraption she used steadily failing as his simple but authentic ruse effortlessly tore free of all the fetters she tossed about. Irritated, he looked around, failing to see the pair. The white-hot fury burned and sparkled.
A tug at his sleeve and he turned to face the drab and ashen face of the disheveled one. Another mead was required. She held his sleeve with a desperation utterly unwarranted. In her eyes was the calm abiding sought by all and unrecognized by her. These were the negotiations most tiresome. She had the gold. He possessed the mead. ...but she must haggle. There was no cause for such a thing. Far into the deepest caverns of his ancient mind he could feel the instinctual drive to avert his attentions, to focus the powerful and dark atrophy of his spirit upon another place.... but there is no disputing the trade, the gold. A small and suppressed rage flared as he felt the opportunity to observe the purity of darkness slipping away, The Stranger already escaping the tangles. The disheveled one haggled, she offered less than was the value that all knew to be the cost. Negotiations erupted and he countered with the cost set by the ages. Bitter protests greeted his offer and he watched the artificial tears as they streamed. She countered some pitiful thing, then another. Each time and with increasing irritation and an inexplicable dread he offered the price set forth. The disheveled one burst into tears of nearly believable horror and produced the coin. The exchange was hurried and improper, particularly for The Keeper. He maintained his countenance always, yet felt the urgency of the emergent.
Turning, he sought The Stranger. The absence was absent. Nowhere in the dimmed room. In his periphery he thought he saw him, door swinging closed behind, and a pang of anger smote him as he considered the falling he had not witnessed. The Empty One had drawn him away and he had not seen the final conquest. His unseen lip snarled back and he cursed. The Caller clutched his abdomen and fell. The Keeper swore bitterly at having failed to witness the entertainment he so reveled in and the disheveled one felt a discomfort in her core, then continued to sip the mead.
The Keeper, heedless of the crowd, needless of their attentions, elbowed the bar-back and grumbled to himself. He looked deep into the stained oaken firmament. It swirled and gyrated and the tears and the blood and the bile and the pain opened to his sight and he reveled in each and every drop as he traveled through the ageless repository of suffering represented there. For what seemed like days, but was moments only, he whirled through the kaleidoscope of them all, drawing them in and pulling what tepid darkness could be found. It was little enough. He drew back to the place he stood and raised his eyes.
A single coin lay upon the bar top, resplendent against the dark stained wood. It was not gold, it was not silver. Quite nearly transparent, it drew his eyes into its core and he felt his soul swirling and gyrating and pulsating with a strange vacancy, strange to one who was born of darkness.
A slim finger lay upon the coin. His eyes, veiled in darkness, followed it. The nail was painted a deep crimson, flawless in its outline. The slim, pale hand, blue veins pulsing with subtle but quickened beats was delicately draped with the uneven ends of a lace sleeve. Past this he could see the slim waist, the heady invitation of inguinal line shadowed on the front of the dress. Breath drew in and he was keenly aware of the delicious rise of her full breasts beneath the thin fabric. Her neck was exposed and the skin was smooth and flawless. His gaze followed the majestic lines, warm and inviting. The line of her jaw drew him up over full and parted lips, cheeks slightly flushed and finally, with profound and weighty impact, came to rest upon the dark, haunting eyes.
The Empty One stood there, inches from The Keeper, eyes locked on his. He perceived her, the depths of her, the unfathomable nothingness, the singularity, and he felt the compelling pull. To withdraw his gaze was not an option available to him. He drew ever closer. Their eyes were one. Her face upon the veil that sat dark and impenetrable beneath the ancient Stetson.
He did not see, for his eyes were burning into hers, rather he felt that pale, lovely hand, begin to lift. It parted the wind before it with a sordid malice, delicately penetrating the space between. He felt the inexplicably gentle fingertips as they probed the veil of darkness, effortlessly entering the blackened morass. His body was immobile, his desires hijacked, his emotions flat. As if flowing through innumerable eons of pain and acutely observed discomfort, the pale, lovely hand delved through the veil.
He felt her then. A gentle sensation stroking against a cheek he had forgotten he had. It touched tissue and marrow and essence long bereft of sensation. ...and it was cold. So cold. He could feel it with razor sharp clarity. The singularity. It pulled at him. The Keeper, one who had observed so much darkness, one made of darkness, was being drawn into the emptiness. The terrifying understanding settled into his consciousness. Emptiness rings hollower than darkness. He heard her soft, beautiful voice.
"I am drawn to you"
For a brief, fleeting moment, he glimpsed the blood-stained bar top. He willed himself to leave her cursed coin upon the stained tannins. His hand, driven by an eternity of the exchange, acted of its own volition. Horrified and unable to withdraw his gaze, incapable of extracting himself from the aching streak of ice touching his cheek, he felt, rather than saw her pick up the coin and place it into his outstretched hand. The stab of pure, vacant agony engulfed his palm as the coin, cold beyond his imaginations could comprehend, dropped into his possession. The boiling, festering terror crawled up his arm like ants consuming an abandoned morsel and left him gasping in ragged breaths. He felt the damp clink of coin as it bore down to bone, to marrow. The exchange was complete. His vision drew down, starting from the peripheral. The singularity, with slow and deliberate decadence, drew him in. He felt his very soul overwhelmed with the sharp intoxication of pain and he cried out in silent, petulant protest... and then he was gone.
The Empty One sat at the bar, content but desirous, for appetite feeds appetite.
Slowly strolling over, a clean white apron around his waist and drying a tumbler with a towel just as white, The Stone Man stepped up, joyful mirth echoing across his countenance. With eyes hard as earth and stone, yet not without pity, he placed a hand over her own, unmoved by the unquenchable hunger, unconcerned with the need. His words carried the finality of the Gods.
"You have had enough"
The Empty One smiled a radiant smile and rose, drifting into the cool dark of the evening.