It is said, in the village, that there is a Night Man who rides over the hills. It is said, that if you see him, even for a single second, you will never be seen again.
There is a story. It came from long long ago. It tells of a man who rides a fantastic beast over the hills near the village, every night a full moon shines. They say, if you see him, you will never be seen again. I looked for the man, whenever I could, each night, before I went to bed. But I never saw him. But still I looked, though over time I would only glance at the hills, and only half-hope. I was not afraid, no not I. For I was bored with life, and I wanted adventure. I wanted to be taken away. But I did not think of what had happened to those who had disappeared. Indeed my great aunt had disappeared one night at the full moon and had never been seen again. I still do not know why I looked so hard. Perhaps I never will. But all old tales have some truth in them.
It was a dark night, when I was walking home from a friend’s house, over the fields. I had stayed late, and I knew my parents would worry if I didn’t return. I took the shortest, easiest path. It looked over the hills, and the twisting paths that lead over them. I remember that the hills looked so beautiful that night. The moon lit everything with a silvery glow. Like the whole world was crowned with light, that only I was there to see.
I do not know exactly when I noticed him. I was more a gradual seeing. Like he faded into existence on top of the hill. But then I saw him. For the first and the last time. He was a shadow, sitting on a large shadow. I know that the moment I preserved him, his eyes fell on me. As if my acceptance of seeing had brought him to me. I was not afraid. I had no reason to be. They had never said what happened to those who disappeared, and I wanted to go. They only talked about the Night Man, the Dark Man in hushed grim voices, how was I to know. I was young, but old enough to have lost a lot of my imagination. I could not even begin to imagine what horrors could happen, as some young children can. I was sixteen, and I was determined not be a child.
But as I saw him, all my childhood hopes came back to me. I did not want to hide, cower behind a bush like some coward. Instead I stood as straight and tall as I could, as he rode towards me. The speed of that Monster! I have never seen the like. It moved like noiseless thunder, sweeping across the ground like a wave leaping joyfully towards the shore. It was so joyful, the way it glided over the ground.
But it was a monster. As it neared I could see it wickedly sharp teeth bared in a frightful snarl. It’s sleek black coat, did not reflect the moonlight and its eyes glowed like red hot coals. It hooves, that seemed not to touch the ground, were as sharp as knives. Next to his marvelous fiend, the man was ordinary. His face was mostly enclosed by a hood, and his body was wrapped in a cloak. He leapt of his steed gracefully, and regarded me with hidden eyes.
I did not speak. What should I have said? No form of greeting seemed appropriate. To address this man, who seemed to have stepped out of a fairy tale, seemed blasphemous. Instead I waited, for a long time, for him to speak.
At last he spoke, and when he did his voice was not as I expected. It was hoarse and cold. ‘Why do you not run?’ In the way he spoke, he seemed indifferent to the answer. His beast growled almost imperceptibly.
‘Why should I?’ I said shaking my hair away from my face proudly. Yes I was proud, and I was foolish. I could see his lips and they were stretched into a half pitying, half patronizing smile.
‘All the others have done’ he replied. ‘They run and they try to hide. They beg me not hurt them.’ He sounded amused. ‘Perhaps they are smarter than you?’ It was more a question then a statement. But I knew he thought me thoughtless or careless.
‘No, they are just afraid.’ I said quietly. ‘I have…I did not look every night when I was younger, to see you, to run away now!’
‘You should be afraid’ he said, his smile widening. ‘Though you are not. You are still a child, and children should be afraid of strange men, who take people away from their homes and into Oblivion’
‘I am not a child’ I said indignantly. Realizing only after how childish I must have sounded. As do we all when we make such comments. ‘And I am not afraid’ I said trying to redeem myself, ‘I have often hoped someone would take me away from this life.’
His smile faded slightly, and he regarded me curiously. ‘Perhaps, you should see why you should stay. The real world is cruel and hard, little girl. I have no doubt you would survive, with your stubborn refusal to be afraid of what you should be afraid of.’ He sighed then, almost indiscernibly.
‘Perhaps, it is you who should understand that I would rather die then continue to live here. Where my words count for nothing. When I become a adult, I will be forced to marry. Perhaps, you should understand that I do not want to become an obedient housewife.’ I glared at him.
‘I do not pity you’ he said after a while. ‘Many would envy the life you have had. In the future when you are starving to death, you might realize then luxury of having a meal on the table, a husband who earns money and family who will support you. But you are young and you wish for something more. In time you will realize that there is less to life than you think. Being an obedient housewife is better than being enslaved to work, or to an oath’. He stopped and looked at me. ‘But I have wasted too much time. Get on the horse’.
‘A horse?’ I said incredulously. ‘You call that a horse?’ The ‘horse’ turned its head and snorted a puff of smoke at me. ‘That is surely not a horse’ I said stepping back, away from it.
‘It is horse,’ he snapped impatiently.
‘A horse bred with what?’
‘You’d be surprised’ he said coldly. ‘If you don’t get on the horse I will drag you onto it’
‘Wait’ I told him impatiently. ‘A horse bred with what, exactly’. I eyed it suspiciously. It was beautiful, but terrifying in its own right. There as no way I was getting on it without knowing what it was.
‘You wouldn’t know’ he said. I glared at him.
‘A what?’ I said trying to sound it out ‘A mer-amble-what?’ He didn’t bother answering. Instead he grabbed me about the waist and threw me onto the horse-thing. ‘Whoa’ I said. The horse-thing was a lot bigger than any horse I’d ever ridden, and I had never had much talent for riding horses. I fell off, a lot.
He swung himself up behind me. ‘Hold tight’ he whispered into my ear. The horse-thing leapt forward, with the same excited joyfulness I had seen as it had approached. It was so fast I began to feel slightly queasy.
‘Where are we going’ I shouted, over the wind, which was rushing into my face.
‘How should I know?’ he shouted back, sounding happy for the first time.
‘You don’t know?’ I yelled back feeling slightly worried.
‘Oblivion is oblivion. It isn’t exactly anywhere’
‘Oh’ I said it quietly, but he must have caught my words because he laughed. I gave up asking him questions, because his answers seemed to lead to more questions and concentrated on hanging on. The ground rushed past. Green spun past us, then brown. Then a strange grey-gold colour that I could only guess was sand.
Eventually the horse-thing stopped. It twisted its head back and whacked my foot none too gently. ‘He wants you to get off’ the Night Man whispered. I looked down. The ground seemed a long way away.
‘I’m not sure I can’ He sighed again. His breathe brushing the back of my neck. He slid off and somehow managed to lift me off. I’m not sure how seeing the horse was taller than him at the shoulder. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I stumbled. He laughed at me again.
‘Stop it’ I said crossly.
‘You wanted the adventure’ he reminded me. He sounded happier.
‘Not one that would make me sick’ I muttered, feeling a wave of dizzy nausea pass over me. I closed my eyes until it had passed. As I waited I could hear the man talking gently to his horse-thing. I opened my eyes.
‘Where are we?’ I asked curiously. We were standing on a grassy hill, looking over at a great big blue thing that moaned and whispered quietly. ‘Is that the sea?’ I asked.
‘Oblivion’ he said peacefully. ‘Well close enough anyway. Just beyond that horizon is Oblivion’ He rocked slowly back and forth and then sat down on the grass.
A blazing sun shone overhead and there was not a cloud in the clear blue sky.
‘What’s oblivion like?’ I asked quietly, trying to look past the horizon. He shrugged. ‘Don’t you know?’
‘It’s whatever you want it to be’ he said carefully. ‘If you are afraid of it, then it will respond as such’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘What is it like to you?’
He regarded me carefully before answering. ‘To me it is home’ he said and then lay down flat upon the ground and ignored me. I sat on the grass next to him, picking pieces and shredding them between my fingers. The horse-thing was eating grass a few feet away.
The sun moved constantly over head, and was beginning to fall the next time he spoke.
‘In my home the sun shone almost every day,’ he began. ‘The skies were blue and there were no clouds. Once a year it would rain, and it would rain until the fields were drenched in it and the houses were flooded. We grew crops like maize and corn and that was what we ate, mostly anyway. Animals were only slaughtered for feasts, and there were little occasions for them.’
‘What happened?’ I asked gently. He spoke of his home sadly, longingly.
‘One year it didn’t stop raining. My sister, Annie went to save some of the crops with my mother. My father and I stayed to look after the animals. They never came back. One of the mud walls holding up the river had collapsed and they were swept away and they drowned. We never found their bodies. We looked so hard for them, so we could give them a proper burial, a proper ceremony, so they could rest in peace. But we never found them. So I searched for the Master. The creator, the god of life and death. I found him.
‘I begged him to let my mother and Annie rest in peace. He laughed at me. But I tried and I tried. At last he grew weary, and told me he would let them into the afterlife, if I agreed to serve him until the world died. I agreed. The deed was signed. He told me I was to ride the hills and mountains of the world, and bring to him any soul that saw me. If I did not my sister and my mother would be rejected from the afterlife. So I did
‘After a long time, I became tired of taking innocent lives. I struggled with myself, and then I returned to the Master. I begged to die. For days and days I begged. Again I wore him down. He chose a compromise. He said that I could choose to return some, but only a few, and I could leave any child under the age of sixteen behind. That is why you never saw me, but I saw you. Every day you looked. Everyday I watched you look. I watched you grow older, and I knew that one day I would have to take you.
‘I did not want to. For I watched you, and you reminded me of my sister. Of Annie. I was grateful that you stopped looking. If you had not walked home, you would have been safe! Why did you walk home then?’ He sounded anguished.
‘But I was greedy. I wanted you to look. I wanted to meet you. I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to meet my sister again. But you are not like her. You are more stubborn, more proud than she. More foolish.’ He sighed and fell quiet.
It was several long moments before I could look at him. He was looking at the sky, his hood thrown back, the rays of the sun on his face. He looked sad, his face unlined but shaped with years of misery. It was an ageless face. He was dark skinned, the colour of stained wood. His eyes were closed, as if he was sleeping. I watched his face for countless moments. Enraptured, taking in each detail.
Hesitantly I touched his face. He twisted violently. Grabbing my hand and pinning me down in one fluid movement. He leaned over me breathing heavily, and for the first time I was frightened. His face was screwed up as if in pain. ‘Please do not touch me?’ he said quietly, in a tightly controlled voice. ‘I do not think I could bear it.’ His hands were gloved I finally noticed. I wondered how long it had been since he had been touched by someone, years, decades, centuries? Perhaps longer. I had never heard of the place he had mentioned. Maybe it didn’t exist.
Finally he threw himself back and stood up. I sat up shaking slightly.
‘Sorry’ I muttered in a small voice, though I do not believe he heard me.
‘We have to go’ he said stiffly. I stood up and walked over to the horse-thing. I didn’t attempt to climb up. He again swung me up onto the horse-thing. Silently he climbed up behind me again. Without command the horse-thing took off but not in the direction I thought. That I hoped. We headed away from the sinking sun, away from the horizon. I did not say anything. I pondered his story. Maybe life was crueler than I had thought. Maybe. Much too soon we had returned to the hillside.
He lifted me down from the monster, and looked me in the face. ‘If you ever run away from your home,’ he said ‘Go south. To my people. Go south. Their world is very different to yours, my pale pale lady of the north.’
I looked at him closely. ‘Where will you go?’ I asked.
‘Who knows?’ he said with a small smile. ‘Wherever I shall go I shall go’
‘Will I see you again?’ I asked, sadly. For I liked the Night Man.
‘Yes’ he said after a minute. ‘Yes, you shall’
‘Where?’ I asked, ‘When?’
‘Who knows’ he said and laughed. Then he grew serious. ‘But do not look for me, my pale lady of the north.’
‘I won’t’ I said, after a minute. ‘Because you asked nicely, I won’t’
He laughed again. ‘Goodbye’ he said, ‘my pale pale lady. Don’t forget me’ he said, and then laughed.
‘I won’t’ I promised. Then he rode away, and within seconds he was gone, faded away as quickly as he had come. I did not cry. I did not shed one tear for him. I did not look for him either. If I looked at the hills it was to see the sunset.
I did not go south either. I stayed in my village, the only place I had ever known, except for that grassy hillside by the sea. I became, years later a not-so-obedient housewife to a man ten years my senior. I endured this, because I knew that one day, my Night Man would come back to me. He would come back to me one day. I was sure of it. I would wait. Is that what love is like? Or was it just that he was so different? Or was it that my heart was reaching out for affection that no one had ever given to me? The fact that he listened to me, albeit very little. But he still answered my questions. He still talked to me.
And I will wait until he calls me his pale lady of the north. I will wait until the very ending of the world.