A Visitor in Valhalla
by Ward Webb
October 15(?), 2086
This morning he was right where I’d left him, but in the sun he looked much more mysterious. At first his skin had seemed dried and leathery, like all old men’s; now was far more speckled and living than I’d thought before. It had a golden, rich luster I’d never seen on any other person. It was hard to take my eyes off it, because it seemed to have been dipped in caramel, and as odd as this sounds, it was perfectly natural.
His eyes were the color of dead grass and a tiny web of creases trickled down from the corners of his eyes and drowned his cheeks in a mesh of fissures that were hardly visible. His lips were pulled back tight. They parted to reveal sullen, yellowed teeth in a smile as I stepped out onto the porch and said, “Good morning.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Plato said as he turned and gazed off toward the rising sun with admiration. His eyes glimmered with joy almost as if he were in love with that cloudy, rusty disc in the sky.
I had tossed and turned all night. After laying down this book, I struggled to make sense of all the events of yesterday, but one problem nagged me more than any other. I’d wanted so desperately to find other people and end this era of loneliness, and now that the very answer to my pleas was sitting on my front porch, I wanted him gone as quickly as possible. What was causing that feeling?
When I should be rejoicing at finally ending this solitude, I felt suspicious. I felt as if I needed to watch over my shoulder and be on guard. How could someone so old, so fragile, so feeble be of any threat to me? I knew down inside that I could take him in a fight if it ever came to that, but I just didn’t understand why I had this feeling gnawing at me.
He was friendly enough. He wasn’t brandishing weapons and hadn’t asked me for a single thing, only a glass of water. But there was that feeling that something wasn’t right. That he was not what he seemed to be, simply a crazy old man, as far as I could tell.
“They’re all the same.” I answered his optimism with truth.
He turned to face me and began to stand from the rocking chair with great grunts and groans. “That’s where you’re wrong, Will. No day is the same as another. Every time we see the sun, it’s the first time we see that sun. Every time we watch it disappear, we have to say goodbye forever. It’s never the same. You shouldn’t think that.”
He brushed his robes and smoothed the folds gracefully against the dull morning sky. The pyre had dwindled down to a vapid gray mist in the distance.
I bit my tongue and realized if I engaged him, he’d just stick around longer. The key was pressing him down the grass-choked Bronx River Parkway and getting him out of my hair. He just stood there basking in the sun like a badger almost as if he were daring me to respond.
I did, but only to remind him. “So you’ll want the quickest way back to the city, I take it,” I hinted, tempting and seducing the weary traveler with my local expertise.
“Yes, most definitely, Will. I am not sure how many more miles these old sandals have in them. After that I’ll go the rest of the way barefoot if I must. Any directions will be most appreciated, son. My journey has been long and I am anxious to rest.”
I pointed off toward the intersecting road in the distance. The stop sign sat leaning out over the cracked pavement as if it were equally anxious to rest. “You see that road down there?”
He looked and squinted in the direction of my finger, “Yes, I see it perfectly.”
“What you want to do is take a right there and just keep walking. You’ll cross a bridge which is plenty sturdy; don’t worry about that. It’s going to take you about an hour, but you’ll come to a big overpass, you won’t miss it. Vines are dangling down so low it kind of looks like a wall, but that’s the road you need that’ll take you straight into the city. From there you’re on your own.”
“How far is it once I’m on the highway?”
“Well it took me a good two days, walking hard. It will probably take you a little longer because there’s no telling what kind of condition those roads are going to be in once you get closer to the Bronx. Things fell apart there man, and they fell apart hard.”
He scratched his scalp and the sound was like crumpling paper. “I suppose we’ll have to take more care in the future then.”
“Sorry? What do you mean ‘we’?”
Plato waved me away like a fly. “Never mind, son, I was thinking out loud. I’m just worried about everything. Worried about me, worried about you. Just worried, that’s all.”
“No need to worry about me... er, Plato,” it was the first time I’d said the name. It felt odd and lingered there in a cloud between us so I continued. “I’ll be fine here, don’t you worry about a thing. Take care of yourself out there. It’s a bleak place you’re heading to. Did you want to fill up a water jug or something to carry with you? The lake is right out back on the other side of the fence and the water is like apple juice...”
“No, thank you, William, I should be on my way,” he replied, stepping down from the porch. “I appreciate your letting me rest up on your porch here. If there had been more kindness in the world, perhaps it wouldn’t have come to such an end.”
I thought about what he was saying and as he lifted his small sack from the steps, I responded from my perspective of the jaded city dweller, “There can’t always be kindness. The world has to have screw-ups in it too or else it’s no fun...”
He spun on his heels and said, “No fun? No fun? Is all of this fun to you, William? Have you been having fun since those things fell out of the sky and killed everyone?”
“No that’s not what I meant to say...”
“I know exactly what you meant to say, but you have no clue what I meant at all. You look at me and you see some crazy old man, right?”
I didn’t move, confirm, deny or breathe. I just let him continue.
“Let me tell you something, maybe I am just some old crazy man. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re the real crazy one. You and the whole human race. Crazy fools who had a paradise and squandered it. Your kind deserved what happened, but we all learn from our mistakes, and as soon as I get to New York we can focus on fixing things right once and for all.”
I sneered as I said, “You talk as if you’re not human. Are you above all this mankind nonsense? I mean is that what all ancient Greek philosophers do, just sneer and mock the people around them as if they’re so much better off? Is it cold up there on your pedestal?”
Plato stood defeated on the sidewalk, his bag hanging limp from his hand and he laughed. “I see what the problem is now, William. I see the cause of this confusion and I apologize. Perhaps I wasn’t abundantly clear when you ran away from my friendly greeting, but I’m not a human being at all. I never have been and surely never will be. You assume too much; you know that?”
“If you’re not human, what are you?”
“I’m afraid there would be no easy explanation for that question, William. The best way I know to explain it would be that I am what you call a spirit. Only I’m not a spirit as in a lifeless soul that drifts aimlessly through the world and haunts churches and such nonsense. I am the spirit of a living, breathing being who is alive and well... Just somewhere else right now...”
“So you’re like a hologram of... Plato,” I stammered, trying to hold back my laughter.
“So to speak, yes. I think of it more as a shadow of my real self. The real me is sitting comfortably in a chamber far, far away from this nasty little planet in a big room with the others like me who have walked among your race since the beginning of time, coaching you, guiding you, selectively handing you things you needed to advance as a society just so you could all destroy it with your own greed. That’s where the real Plato lies. Not here. Not on this dusty street, but millions of miles away...”
“So who are these others you’re going to meet up with anyway? The other alien prophets, I mean... do they have names?”
“Of course they do. All you had to do was ask. I believe everyone will be there. This is our third attempt with this experiment. If we fail again we can no longer be chosen for advancement.”
“Experiment? Chosen?” I interrupted.
“I can’t wait to get there, William. I haven’t seen some of my friends in hundreds of your years and I look forward to the reunion. Galileo. Copernicus, my old teacher Socrates. Oh, it will be a great event. Of course that’s not all.”
“Of course not.”
“Aristotle, Aristophanes, Da Vinci and Rembrandt and that mouthy little German fellow. Of course Dante and Pope Pius and Sartre will be there. And oh, yes, Gandhi. He’s such a great man; he tells the most poetic tales, truly. And I’m almost positive Mr. Roosevelt and Churchill will both be in attendance since Warhol and Bosch RSVP’ed...”
My foot tapped on the porch with impatience. “So everyone who was a great mind throughout all mankind was simply planted here by your mysterious alien race to enlighten us and usher us along. Is that right?”
“My God, he gets it,” Plato shouted. “Oh, yes he’ll be there too. God, Jesus... all of the holy rollers. They’re bringing the hors d’oeuvres. They always do. Oh and the music, William! You can’t imagine the music that will flood down from the skies.”
“I’m sure I can’t,” I stated, easing backward toward the open doorway. I’d had enough, but the old man continued without pausing to breathe. No wonder he didn’t want water, apparently he didn’t need air either.
“You should really come along with me and see these things for yourself. You could, you know? If you were to go with me I’m sure they would be quite happy to see a new face. It’s been ages since we’ve had any fresh perspectives. Perhaps you could be beneficial on our next trial.”
“I think I’m going to stay here for a while, Plato. I appreciate the offer but I think I’ll pass. Remember now, right at the stop sign and...”
“I know how to get there William, don’t insult me. Go back inside and lock the door if it helps you feel safer. I’m not going to New York without you.”
I did what he said. I rushed back inside and slammed the door as hard as I could. The panes of glass wobbled in the front windows, but luckily the curtains were still closed so I didn’t have to see him. I rushed back into the house and away from the door. My heart slammed against my ribs with the fury of a trapped sparrow.
“William,” his voice called through the thick plank of oak. “Look: this doesn’t have to be scary for you, just open the door and let me explain.”
I pressed my back against the wall in the dining room and called back, “Get off my property old man! I don’t want to have to defend myself.”
“And you won’t need to, William. Just let me explain!”
“Do it through the door then,” I snapped back and looked around desperately for something I could use to clobber him in the head should it come to that.
“William, I am not here to force you to do anything you don’t want to do, I just don’t want to see what will happen if you remain here without me. Please listen to me, William. Open the door and let me explain.”
I burst across both rooms and stood defiant, facing the sealed door and shouted, “Get out of here, Plato! I don’t want to listen to any more of your nonsense. Take your crazy ass to New York or wherever, just get off my porch.”
I could hear him sigh through the door.
“William, there’s another meteor. If you don’t come with me, you’ll choke to death on the ash. And it won’t happen fast this time. Please open the door.”
I did, but I blocked him from entering and glared out at the frail old Greek. “How do you know there’s another one coming?”
“After everything I’ve already told you, you’re asking me how I know? I’ve seen it, William. It’ll be here by evening so we have to hurry.”
“Even if I go with you — not that you could save me — even if I did go, we’d never make it to the city by tonight, so forget it. I’d rather die here than out there on the road with some crazy old man.”
“Take my hand and everything will be as it should,” Plato offered his open hand for the second time. “There’s no other way I can make it make sense until you trust me, William. Just take my hand for a second. What can it hurt?”
So I guess I went crazy for a second, or something happened, but I took his hand and shook it vigorously. At first his flesh felt cold and clammy against my hand, but then slowly as if being filtered in through thick wool, a heat flushed my hand and burned down into my bones.
It didn’t stop there. The searing heat rippled up through my wrist and my arm. It spread so quickly and the feeling was so indescribable I didn’t know what to do other than stand there holding hands with this creepy old guy.
When the heat hit my shoulders and billowed out across my back and chest in a sweeping fan that spilled over me, enveloping me, I lost the ability to see. My forehead sizzled. I tried to release his grip on me but it was like my hand was sealed in a vise. I looked down but could only see his tiny, bony fingers wrapped around my magenta fingers.
I turned to face Plato and my vision was swaying in front of me. It was like looking up at him from the bottom of a swimming pool. But there behind him, stood others similarly dressed. I blinked to clear my eyes but it didn’t help. The heat was overwhelming me and I struggled to gulp air into my lungs. With my mouth gaping open I stared past the old man to the other shapes dotting the yard and street in the distance.
They didn’t move other than to raise an arm, shuffle a foot, roll their shoulders. It was like the entire group stood watching and tirelessly waiting for... something. I think that’s when I fainted or fell... or something.
I woke up here in bed fully clothed and hurried to write everything down. My watch is gone but there’s a bald spot on my wrist where it used to be so perhaps the old man stole it. I’m not sure.
I poked my head out of the bathroom window and looked down at the porch and he was still down there in the rocking chair. Just rocking and smiling to himself with such a glow of contentment there was almost a halo hovering around him. Swaddled in an aura of amber he rocked gently and hummed into the sulfurous night breeze.
I don’t know what happened after that burning heat took over. It’s like everything went away, including me. I don’t know how I got from the front door to my room, but I intend to ask him. I don’t know if those other shapes were really people or delusions brought on by the wave of heat, but I intend to ask him about that too.
As soon as the sun comes up. Well, you know.
Copyright © 2012 by Ward Webb