They headed straight into the night. Underneath the clock tower, out of the enclosure again, past dwarfish houses with white lattice windows, up forgotten lanes, beyond any attempt at tarmac and on to a tight-winding dirt trail whose end kept eluding them behind the huddled houses and further yet, enfolded in the indiscernible mountain woods. A dog went wild when they passed the outermost hut with the suddenness of a last warning.
“I forgot to ask how far it is”, Peter said in the way of a joke, slightly out of breath. “Not that it mattered much now.” A vague question as to the wisdom of his decision to take up Andrew’s hospitality was starting to take shape. The Best Western would have been so easy. All knobs known.
“Mhm, don’t worry, it’s not as far as it seems to be”, Andrew replied with a smile melted in his voice. “Some ten minutes up that slope.”
“Which slope?” Peter enquired with a chill and halted.
Andrew’s dark figure turned round to face him and Peter heard his soft, nearly whispering voice.
“That way”, and Andrew’s shadowy arm rose to point indefinitely towards the mass of darkness. “You can’t see it now, it’s quite natural you can’t, so don’t worry. Seeing is not so important at night, you know. Just like the dog behind us”, Andrew added with a quick but faint sniff of amusement. “So don’t worry about the dark, I know the way with my eyes closed, we say in Romanian. And I tell you, it’s not far and we can get there pretty soon. When you feel tired just stop and catch your breath. No problem, I’ll wait for you. And then we go on.”
Peter stood still for another few moments. He was realising that he had already gone too far to just abort and turn back. Going back would now be costlier than carrying on, at least if Andrew’s estimate of the remaining distance was correct.
“OK, let’s go then, it’s fine.”
There were hard, edgy stones being kicked against and stumbled upon, on a steep track going up and up and up, steadily. An all-enveloping black cocoon, unmoving as they were stepping ahead, black in black in black, sucking them deeper in as it seemed, their kicking and tripping and stumbling and heels gritting against the frozen rubble amid an unchanging sphere of darkness hanging, suspended, in the universe, clutching them pulling them one step at a time, no getting no reaching no breakthrough, but unfailing nothingness. Just the sky over their heads, glimmering, hard in its deep ink-blue glassiness. Another stone, another step up the slope, nothing on either side nothing ahead. Turn head up look away from the feet away from what cannot be seen anyway, end the pointless strain, keep eyes up glued to the sky to whatever sign of existence. Of light. Of visibility. There will be an end. There will be an end to treading watery, glassy emptiness suspended in a black cocoon. There will be a getting somewhere.
“We’re almost there”, Andrew whispered.
“Oh are we?”, Peter gasped. “Can’t see anything for that matter.”
“No you can’t. Not much to see in the first place”, Andrew added jokingly. “Just a small hermit’s hut, that’s all.”
“Hermit? You?” Peter felt he had to keep the talking going to make up for the nothingness in view.
Andrew gave a short laugh as he was leading the way in big lunges.
“Yes, me. In a way. Now we’re on the last few yards. See something whitish over there ahead?” And he stopped short, Peter almost bumping in.
Peter squinted and willed himself into seeing something. A few seconds of stillness did the magic, and some milky blot like the careless brush of an amateur painter slowly clotted up in sight.
“Yeah,” he replied cautiously, “what’s that supposed to be?”
“That’s the gate. Wooden. Which makes it brighter to the eyes.”
“That’s like a beaconing light, just not for ships”, Peter attempted a joke.
“Yeah, sort of”, came Andrew’s somewhat thoughtful assent. “The way into the haven.”
“The heaven? God, no!” Peter sniffed amused, mimicking revolt.
“The ha-ven”, repeated Andrew leniently. “You mentioned ships and beacons, and I said harbour, haven. That’s my haven. My home.”
“In the thick of the dark ocean”, Peter added.
“Sort of, yes”, Andrew’s kind voice was heard before he swivelled back to resume walking.