Within the waste, dawn was diluted light|
not yet tinged with colors other than shades
of black. Soon the sun’s flood would stream high
above him, washing the bare world sere and pale
with the heat of desiccation, but for now,
small mercies, it was cool enough to walk
and bright enough to see where others had walked
before him—sunset drained away the light
to a dark unlike any he’d known till now,
no moon nor star, nothing to splash a shade.
He had been glad to rest, though. Taut and pale,
he stood, hiked his battered pack up high
on his shoulder, and continued on to the height
of the next slow rolling hill at a walk.
By the time he reached the ridge, the sky had paled
enough he could see the next had the same light
slope, the same thorn scrub, same lack of shade
as everywhere since the forest, and only now,
after countless stones and dry arroyos, now
he felt despair. After days of dearth in high
plains, after the Dark Wood with its angry shades,
what here drained all purpose from his vain walk?
He couldn’t tell. He stared at the endless light,
at this uncrossable wasteland of Death’s Pale
until he saw them: four buildings of pale
adobe in the wash below, visible now
that he knew where to look within the light
landscape. He hadn’t expected this—a high
tower perhaps, with walls on which guards walked
to keep apart the living and dead shades.
Sun poured in his face, forcing him to shade
his eyes with a gaunt hand. Below, his pale
wife waited, the lodestone of his walk,
his be-all end, his life. It was time now
to do what he had once set out with high
purpose to do but seemed, in this alien light,
a shade of wish: fetch her. But how? Well, now
he must. Before the pale sun surged high
he walked to Death’s Hall under its flowing light.
Larry Hammer lives in Arizona, where the chaparral is dry and the hacienda is far across the arroyo. He wrote “At Death’s Door” to resurrect an obsessive image from an otherwise failed short story.