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The World-Enders


Jon Harding

I remember it well, the night I lost my mind. I set this down, not as a cry for help, but for understanding. It is terribly important that you understand.

I was on a plane, a big 747 getting ready to leave on a red-eye flight to… nowhere. It occurs to me now that such details are really insignificant, so suffice it to say that I was on business. Besides, given the strange occurrences of that night, and my own questionable behaviour, it is probably for the best that I remain anonymous.

I can’t say that I felt out of the ordinary prior to the incident – I boarded the plane when I was called, and made my way to my assigned seat as I had done countless times before. I found myself sitting in the window seat of an emergency exit aisle, something new to me, but not at all out of the ordinary. I glanced out the window at the wing beneath, and the flashing signal light caught my eye for a second, not in a conspicuous way, but in a way that seems to me noteworthy. I am unsure why. No matter.

I entertained myself with a few small, commonplace thoughts for a while – I thought of my wife, our daughter, Emily, and my elderly father, who has lived
with us since his last cardiac attack. I thought of our yellow Labrador, Malcolm. I thought of my work, and the purpose of my trip, which was a truly insignificant detail of the tasks that I perform from day to day in exchange for a salary. In short, there were absolutely no stimuli to speak of that a reasonable person would think to have caused the events that followed.

It was not a succumbing to madness. I suppose I may be unique among lunatics in that respect. My insanity was not lurking just beneath a mask of civility, waiting for a moment of stress or anguish to strike.  My descent was a conscious choice, a decision that I made wholeheartedly and willingly, without a hint of reservation. The hows, whys, and wherefores of it elude me now, as they eluded me then.
I don’t know. I suppose it was just time.

When the change came upon me, I was not sure what to make of it. It is difficult to see madness for what it is, especially when the perspective is first-hand.  I simply knew, suddenly, that something was different. Whether it was myself or my surroundings that had changed, I could not tell.

A sane person lives his life according to his impulses. There is an impulse which makes the sane man awaken in the morning in time to catch his ride to work. There is another which makes him choose what colour tie pleases him the most on that particular morning. Another impulse causes him to treat his co-workers with courtesy, so that they will think him pleasant to be around, and their lives will be better for his presence than his absence.

There is an impulse towards self-preservation.  A person who is insane also lives a life governed by impulses.

For instance, when the change came over me, I decided that I should dearly like to open the emergency hatch and walk out onto the wing of the plane.  An alarm sounded as I pulled the lever, but it seemed little more than a minor annoyance to me, and I paid no attention. Heads turned to look at me, and I saw expressions of shock and distress on the faces of my fellow passengers, so I smiled amiably at them, to show I meant no harm.

Then I pushed the emergency hatch out onto the ground (as I had seen outlined in the safety handbook in the pocket of the seat in front of me) and stepped out
onto the wing.

The night air was cool and pleasant, as I had known it would be. The plane was taxiing slowly down the runway, and the effect was that of a gentle breeze cooling
my brow, which had suddenly taken on the feeling of being a bit overheated. This seemed inconsequential, though, as did the shouts emanating from within the
fuselage. I regarded the panicked voices telling me to come back inside with a certain annoyance. My calmness, however, did nothing to assuage the fears of the
flight attendant, who beckoned frantically to me from the open hatchway. Her concerns seemed to me silly, even childlike. I perceived them as a parent perceives a child’s fear of monsters under the bed, unfounded and superstitious, needing only the enlightenment of adulthood to banish them to the far recesses of memory.

It was then that I gave in to the next of my newly insane impulses – to hop down onto the runway and walk away. I walked out into the darkness, my mind resolved to heed nothing but this wonderful new alignment of my perceptions. I decided that I simply must explore my new madness to the fullest, as it might disappear as
easily as it had arrived.  As I walked down that glorious runway, breathing the
air that seemed beautifully pure to me (though it was probably befouled with the exhaust of jet fuel), I knew that I had never felt so incredibly alive. I was
rapturous with it, as though I had discovered a wholly new life, lying hidden just under the surface of my old one. Such pleasure is a rare thing for Man to know.

I began to run, cherishing the wind on my face, whistling past my ears as a mighty hurricane roaring across the surface of my mind. I ran until I reached a tall fence at the boundaries of the airport property. This I climbed with little difficulty, and
vaulted myself over the top, landing with tense, coiled muscles on the other side. I paused in this position, catlike, for a few moments, savouring the feeling of alertness, the complete attunement to my surroundings. I became suddenly aware of every movement of the air around me, of the softest sounds of the wilderness ahead. The scent of pine filled my nostrils, and a sense of belonging came over me such as I had never felt before. I felt as though I was finally, truly, home.

My sinews exploded forward, and I ran into the forest with a boundless energy that seemed to seep from my every pore. My clothing felt terribly constrictive,
and I tore it off and discarded it. As a snake sheds its skin, so would I shed the skin of my former life, and embrace the gifts nature had given me. As I ran, I contemplated many things. Though I was insane, I was not yet completely animal, and my ever-questioning human nature still had some sway over me.

How would the society I had forsaken see my newfound enlightenment? Would they search for me, capture and cage me, try to reclaim their lost sheep? Would they leave me to my own devices, slowly building up the stories about my disappearance into legend, until I became little more than a faerie-story told to
their children as they were tucked in at night? The Beast-Man, who runs through the night, living as the animals live, pure, unchained, and free.

I contemplated the world I had left behind. I thought of my co-workers and their small, tedious lives. Never would they have the courage to see the things that were now abundantly clear to me. Time would pass, and all the things that once worried me would fall into obscurity, but I would live forever.

I would be immortal as the forest, which was now as much a part of me as I was a part of it. I ran, and I ran, and I did not falter. I would never falter. My madness, precious madness, would sustain me always.

When I finally stopped to rest I was many kilometres from the place I had shed my clothing. I crouched down to the earth, feeling the grass and soil under my bare feet, listening to the blood roar in my ears, as the wind roared in the trees.

And then… I became aware of a Presence. Something that watched me from the trees. Lurking in shadows, espying me with cold animal eyes much like my own.
I sniffed the air and stood completely still, every muscle in absolute readiness. I could sense the Presence with every one of my new senses, but I knew not yet whether to be wary, or to welcome the newcomer as one of my animal brethren (to accept, you see, is a luxury afforded only to the predator, and I had no idea yet where I was to fit into the new scheme of things).

I remained stock-still, and watched with feral eyes as the creature stepped out from behind the trees. It was a great grey wolf. It approached me cautiously,
trying to determine whether I was predator or prey. I believe that it sensed that I was somehow like it, although I appeared different. No doubt I still reeked of man’s artificial stench, the smell of polyester and gasoline and fast food. The smell of
industry and business and conquest. The scent of slow death, unmerciful and sure.

The wolf circled me, and it was then that I began to sense other Presences in the shadows around me. As if they knew they could hide from me no longer, they began to reveal themselves, first two or three, then more, until the whole pack of hunters stood around me, fur bristling, waiting on the command of their leader.

The alpha male paced in front of me. I remained absolutely still, so as not to arouse his suspicions further. His eyes were questioning, ponderous. Slowly, I extended my hand to him. The wolf paused, and then gently licked my outstretched fingers.
I was accepted.

The alpha male threw back his head and let loose with a wondrous howl that echoed through the forest like the voice of God. The other wolves joined in the
chorus, and the song was joyous and wonderful, rebellious and commanding. It was the cry of the true World-Enders, those whose spirits had existed since
the beginning of Creation, and who live with the terrible duty to one day preside over its erasure.

And I realized then that I howled with them, and they were my brethren as surely as by birth. The moon shone down, clear and full, and we howled so as to call it from the sky, and my madness was complete.

It was wondrous.

Then the howling ended, and a change came over the pack. Fur bristled, and noses sniffed the air with new purpose. The hunt was on. Powerful muscles sprang to action, and the pack surged forth as one. We had caught a scent, and our animal instincts urged us on to the kill. Our prey was close; we could smell sweat, and blood – the scent of fear, pure and sweet.

As we bounded amongst the trees, I began to understand the nature of my madness – for I was insane, make no mistake. No matter what I say here,
no matter how coherent I may sound, you must remember that. Mine was not a madness of the mind, however, something that could be cured from the comfort of a psychiatrist’s couch. This was a madness of the soul, and the impulses that drove me were the manifestation of the bestial nature that lies at the core of each
human being.

Looking back, I wonder if “ancestral memory” is a more accurate and appropriate term.  It mattered not to me at the time, however – so absorbed was I by the hunt, by the sound of the ragged breath coursing in and out of my brother wolves as
they ran alongside me, by the padding of their paws in the soft undergrowth as we pursued our prey.

When the hunt culminated it was fast and merciless, swift and deadly. The pack exploded into the clearing where the deer lay with their young. Quick as a flash
they were on their feet and running, but there was one who was not fast enough. The alpha male’s teeth sank into the soft flesh at the hapless creature’s throat,
and the rest of the pack converged, and it was over as swiftly as it had begun.
How sweet was my first taste of fresh blood!

Savagely I tore at the corpse with my teeth and consumed the deer’s flesh. A new energy ran through me, and it was bloodlust that ruled my being then.  Blood was the impulse of my madness, now closer to consuming me than ever before. I reveled in it, and I was the Beast-Man of the faerie-stories, and I loved
what I had become.

Our triumphant howls cut through the night for what seemed like hours afterward. Bathed in sweat and blood, I bayed until my throat was sore. Then, tired and panting, our lust for prey sated, we began to make our way back to the den to sleep. The alpha male and some of the others took some of the deer’s remains
with them. At first I did not understand, but the alpha male bade me follow him.
We crept, exhausted, through the undergrowth until we reached our destination, and then I saw the alpha male’s intention. For there lay a majestic grey female nursing four tiny pups.

The alpha male gave the meat to his mate, and they nuzzled one another affectionately. Then he looked at me where I knelt before them, and I was assailed by images of my former life. I thought of my dear wife, and our daughter, Emily,
whose high school graduation was coming up in a few weeks. My father, attached to his heart monitor, hanging to life by a thread, but still always having a warm smile for anyone he came to meet. Our yellow Labrador, Malcolm.

I thought also of my new life and my beautiful madness. And I knew what I must do.

I chose sanity once more.

As I stood up, I realized that I was cold, and I wondered where my clothes had gone. The alpha male, my wolf-brother, sensed the change in me, and he growled. You are welcome, he seemed to say, but only as you were. You are Man now, to be feared and shunned.

I looked at my brother sadly, regretting that we had known each other for such a terribly short time, but thanking him for the wondrous gift he had given me. I
knew now the better of the two, and I was glad.

I left my wolf-brethren and my new life behind in the forest, and walked out of the wood exhausted. I managed to find some of my clothing, and made my way
back past the airport and out to the highway, where I flagged down a ride.
The authorities have been looking for me, but I know I have nothing to fear, for I am sane, reasonable and happy with my life. I have known what madness is, and
I found sanity the better path.

But I know that there will always be times that I will think about my wolf-brethren and the wonderful lunatic state in which they exist. I know that the song of the World-Enders will forever echo through that part of me that sleeps always. I know that sometimes I will wish to rejoin them in that mad dreaming.

I know that the other life is never far from any human being. Each man can choose which impulses to obey, and which to suppress. Insanity, the Beast, is closer to the surface than we think.

I know this now: it is a better thing to be sane.

At least for now.

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