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I sat between the rocks and watched the town simmer. The brightest lights of its highest points flickered, and once again, I saw the serpents' eyes. They were no strangers to me; I had met them in a dream - they had told me not to panic. All was well. They had comforted me as I felt their tongues wrap around my brain in a descending spiral of blinding heat. I had allowed them to lead me up and away from the twitching lake of fire; through my closed eyes, they had shown me futures and pasts, depths and heights that had sent chills down to my shaking fingertips. I cannot describe the places they showed me - my skill with words crumples far beneath even the lowest of their star-sprinkled heavens; my descriptions drown in the shallowest of their forbidden lakes. The pictures I paint are barely visible through the flames their visions have left me.
So it was a Friday that found me climbing Mount Lirpa on the north-east side of my sinking city. The serpents had told me my life would end on the first stroke past midnight, on the first day of May. With a trembling piano score that dripped with sorrow, I was allowed to watch my demise on the face of a mountain. I stood motionless as the future's Mount Lirpa leapt to boiling life, spewing its molten anger down upon the city which lay fast asleep in the hill's protective shadow. The fear of a million citizens flashed across the rock as the liquid fire swept the tears from their eyes. I recognized many faces as they fell beneath the lava - their arms reaching out for an escape that was simply not there. Their fingers slowly dripped away; silent, last words bubbled to the surface of a fire that poured over houses and under beds. It left nothing in its wake to smell the acrid smoke.
And I saw my face, reflected off the graphite cliff. It screamed in horror and twisted away in a sizzle of steam. Suddenly, I crashed back into consciousness and the serpents slowly slithered back under the rocks.
I sat between the rocks and watched the town slumber. The brightest lights of its highest points waved to me, daring me to forget the serpent's eyes. But for the life of me, I could not. I checked the face of my wristwatch, and was relieved to see the time was 11:04. Only fifty-six more minutes until May the first: the end of my nightmares. Finally, I would be able to sleep again, without the sinister strains of piano-music accompanying the angry snarls of the treacherous snakes. No longer would their tongues flicker up to caress my mind, their angry snarls whispering into my burning ears the terms of surrender. I could dismiss the images of death as madness. For madness - that I could accept.
11:05. The minute changed with a silent tick that seemed to mock me - as if this great step towards my salvation was No Big Deal. I almost screamed, but decided not to, passively deciding to vent my anger by kicking a rock off the edge of the plateau. I lashed out with my left foot at an uncommonly smooth boulder beneath my perch. It was heavy, but it turned part way over. And then it stopped. I gave it another kick and it completed its roll before settling again. That was when I saw the poem scrawled upon the bottom of the stone:
Behind my eyes
Her shadow sings
Through my soul
The echo brings
Breath so cold
But never wanted
She gives me life
And leaves me haunted.
And what is life
If nothing's in it?
My perfect love,
I stared in quiet awe for several minutes, not noticing the minutes change on my watch, not watching the serpents peering out from beneath the slippery stones. I read and reread the lines of verse, unable to comprehend their reality or purpose. They appeared to be carved into the stone, but without the chips and scrapes that accompany even the most carefully formed carvings. All the letters were perfectly spaced apart, their curves and lines the exact same height as the next. Besides the visions of my burning city, it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my nineteen years.
And the words' perfection did not end in the quality of their form. The meaning trapped within seemed to hold a mysterious ray of hope - a hope I could not quite see. The person who had written it obviously had deep, infinite feelings for a woman named April. He had laboured - probably for months - to carve a reflection of his perfect love into this stone overlooking his city. His city. I wondered if perhaps I knew him - could he be a neighbour, a relative - maybe even a friend? Could someone I have known come up here and set his poem within this rock? I didn't think I knew anyone with that brand of determination - at least not anyone who would spend so much time to complete something so terribly anonymous, so impossible to assign a name and face to. Also, I was quite sure I knew of no one named April. I didn't even think there was anyone in the entire town capable of possessing a man's soul as completely as the haunting April so obviously had. Maybe this was written years, or even decades before. Maybe I was the first to stumble upon this great ode to love and pain and emptiness since it had been carved. It was hard to say. And even harder to stop reading the poem over and over again.
I noticed the moon was coming out from behind the night's shield, and I once again checked the time. 11:28 now. A little over half an hour remained until midnight. I decided I would climb a little higher up the mountain. My feet were still sore from the trek up, but I needed relief from the smooth rock's words. The hopeful emptiness of it all was beginning to get to me. I read the poem once more and began to climb.
I soon found that the hill grew steeper towards the top. I had to begin using my hands to grab onto roots, shrubs - anything that would offer me a little help on my way up. Dirt and pebbles rattled down beside me, springing apart on the wave of boulders far below. The air was thinning now, and I found it a little harder to breathe than it was down on the plateau. I grabbed on to a pine branch with my right hand and glanced at the time again. It was 11:52. Good, I thought, only eight minutes until the end of the day, the end of the month, and the beginning of the rest of my life. Perhaps after the stroke of midnight I could wander back into town and find a coffee shop that was still open. I could call the operator, and ask if there's any record of a person named April. I wondered if I'd need a last name. Then I realized the phone operator probably wasn't even up this late.
At that instant, I heard what sounded like a river opening up right above my head. My eyes were suddenly closed and I felt my head swinging violently to one side. My grip on the tree released, and I began to drift slowly away from the face of the cliff. My feet left the dirt, and I felt the fingers of gravity tugging at my pants, my arms, my back. I felt a crash, and then the warm relief of blood filling my eyes and ears.
I regained consciousness what seemed like an eternity later. My hands trembled with pain, but I got them to work good enough to pick the hardened blood from my eyelids. I slowly opened my eyes and looked up straight into the sky. It was lighter now, and the moon was sinking down towards the horizon. A strange thought came to my mind, and I sniffed the air. No burning embers. No lava. No acrid smell of death.
Slowly turning my head, I saw my foot was pinned beneath an angular stone. It must have fallen down the cliff with me, I thought. And what a fall it was. I was just happy to be alive. A pain shot up my leg, but it didn't matter. I was going to live to see another day.
I gently twisted my body towards the right and carefully propped myself up on one elbow. Moving my left hand along the ground, I was able to position it close enough to my right forearm to pull back my shirt sleeve. 12:39. I smiled, and yelled for joy. However; no sound came out. No surprise, I thought, the fall had hurt my throat. I'd just have to take it easy until someone found me. They'd find my note on the kitchen table later on this morning and read that I'd gone for a walk up good old Mount Lirpa. I managed a squeak of a laugh - fortunately I hadn't mentioned the volcano in the note. That would have been hard to explain. Yes, pretty soon I would hear the delighted yell of one of the members of a soon-to-be-organized search party. Not much longer now, I thought.
Then, slowly, I began to hear something in the trees. It started out as a buzz, and quickly became louder. I strained my ears to hear the sound, but couldn't quite make out what it was. I laid back down, my right ear directly to the ground. Completely still, I listened to it slowly get louder and louder.
Suddenly lightning flashed in the morning sky, and rain began to fall all around my pinned body. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them up again, many minutes later, I found the source of the strange buzzing staring directly into my pupils.
The snake whispered, Check Your Watch. I silently screamed, unable to strike him off my chest. He kept repeating the same three words over and over again - Check Your Watch. Check Your Watch. Check Your Watch. I shook around madly, trying to knock him away from me, but he wouldn't fall. He just repeated the dreaded words - hissing madly in between each syllable, spraying saliva into my terrified eyes. I shook my head back and forth, trying to block the words from my ears. But they kept finding a way in. I swung blindly, hitting rocks, the ground, branches - but he clung tightly around my neck. I gave one last shake, and then, completely used up, I stopped flailing. Check Your Watch.
Keeping my eyes as tightly closed as I could, I brought my hand up to my face. Pain shot up my arm, and I realized the bone was broken in several places. I continued to raise it, though, and when I felt the cold metal of the watch on my eyelid, I opened my eyes and stared into the face of eternity.
The time read 12:41, but for the first time, I noticed the date. April 31. There was no such thing, I realized with instant horror. The serpent laughed, and suddenly, I was covered in writhing, twisting bodies and razor-sharp fangs. As their venom began to enter my flesh, I numbly stared out through a tiny space in between them at a group of words sprinkled across an uncommonly smooth rock, not five feet away:
And what is life
If nothing's in it?
My perfect love,