The Crystal

My name is Odis Din, I am a lighthouse keeper, I am eighty-eight years old--nearly as old as the lighthouse I keep--but none of that is really important. What is important is my story. That it occurred late in my life is a blessing, for had it occurred when I was young, I would have spent the majority of my days in the most abject misery; that it had to happen at all, however, is a curse--for it has left me frightened and confused. It could have happened at any moment, though, and that is what truly frightens me.

I was born in Ere, a small town in Northern Europe, located on the edge of the great blue sea. The wise men of our town say that the sea stretches clear around the world, but I do not believe them. The world--as I know it--is flat, and how could the sea be so immense? I have not traveled very far, however, so I cannot say for certain. I am not one to prejudge the bizarre. Listen: once I pulled a dying mermaid from the ocean; I nursed her to health and set her free in a cove not far from here. I found her again, several weeks later, washed up on the shore; I tried to touch her, but she drew away and returned to the sea. I never saw her again. And once I saw a majestic sailing ship, the pride of the King's fleet, an enormous vessel, swallowed up in calm waters--the sea simply opened, as the land does when the earth trembles, and the ship disappeared into the earth. I heard the cries of a hundred seamen--cries of surprise, of disbelief, and of anguish--as the sea closed over the ship. True stories both--though no one has ever believed me. When I was young, I made plans to build a boat and sail the length of the sea--if such a thing was possible. I said I would end up at one of the stars in the sky. My sister called me a foolish child. "Everyone knows the ocean empties into the mouth of a great dragon," she said. "If you embark on such a journey, you're sure to end up in the belly of the beast!" My sister died--one awful night she was swept away by the raging sea--and I vowed never to think such wild thoughts again. To believe that I, a mere mortal, could conquer infinity!

I lied a moment ago. I do not really know how old I am. I do know that I was born in the year 1860, or thereabouts. But what year it is now I have no idea. I no longer think about the years as they roll by. I stay secluded in the lighthouse--the lighthouse bequeathed to me by my father--I no longer venture into town. There I am known as a strange, old man. But why should that bother me, a man sick and tired of the world and its strange ways? The sooner man destroys himself the better. That is what I say.

One night not long ago I heard footsteps approaching the lighthouse and then knocks upon my door. Since I could not recall the last time I had had a visitor, I was startled. The door opened to reveal an elderly man, though not nearly as old as myself. He was wearing a gray overcoat. His face was weather-beaten and his eyes were sad. He was also quite tall; indeed, I had never seen such a giant of a man.

"I need your help," he said. "I am from the province of Ambriilon and am traveling to Ungerston; but I fear that I have lost my way."

I invited him inside. He smiled and told me his name. "Clancy Barrows," he said. "Pleased to meet you." He had an awkward way of speaking.

"Yes," I said, after a moment's pause. "Ungerston is many miles to the south. I fear you have been traveling in the opposite direction." His sad eyes looked even sadder now and a low moan escaped his lips. "Do not worry," I continued. "You look hungry and I am about to have my evening meal. Will you join me at the table? Afterwards, I will give you directions to Ungerston. If you travel through the night, you will arrive before morning."

We ate a simple meal--muffins, eggs, and tea--and when we were finished he thanked me for my hospitality. A crash of thunder warned of a coming storm and I offered him a cot for the night. Now I am not the most sensitive of men, but even I could tell he was relieved.

I awoke several hours later. It was pitch black and the storm was raging. The lightning was magnificent--we are prone to brilliant displays of nature out here on the edge of the sea--and the thunder was deafening. I looked over towards my companion and I saw that his eyes were staring vacantly at the ceiling.

"Do not be afraid," I said. "The storm will pass. The storms are always violent on the edge of the sea."

"No, I have nothing to fear," he said. "The crystal will protect me."

I remember being puzzled at his words, but sleep overcame me and I said nothing more.

When I awoke the next morning--it was half-past five; one hour before the dawn--the storm had subsided. My visitor was still asleep. I arose and, since it was quite cold, started up the fire.

When he awoke, and after we had eaten, I asked him what he had meant by his words of the night before. He smiled and pulled from his pocket a silver box. He opened the box and took out a tiny crystal ball. It gleamed faintly like highly-polished translucent glass. "This will protect me," he said. "It protects whomever possesses it."

Intrigued by his words, I asked him to elaborate.

"The crystal contains light," he said. "It is the light of the beginning of time, of the world, of existence itself. Nothing is purer and nothing can be purer, for it comes straight from the heart of our Lord. This crystal ball, which most men would not even notice, is mightier by far than even the King's armies!"

Now my curiosity was aroused to the extreme. Could this be the infamous philosopher's stone of which my father had often spoke? Or the black diamond of Karuka, which was rumored to lie deep within the heart of Africa? Many men had come to ruin in their search for that treasure. "Can this really be?" I said. "It sounds like such a wonderful gift."

"Ah, but it is true," was his reply. "This crystal protected me from the seven twisted horsemen of Narobe, who wrought havoc on the plains of Gall; it sheltered me from the women of Illad, who delight in a peculiar brand of torture; it cured me when I lay dying from the Black Death when all my friends around me had perished."

And just then it occurred to me: how could such magic ever come into the arms of man? "You seem like such an ordinary person," I said. "Why were you chosen to receive such a treasure?"

"I was given this crystal ball by my father," he continued, "who received it from his, who received it from his, who stole it from a great king who is no more. All one needs do to summon the powers of the crystal is to speak the word."

He did so then--a word which filled me with awe; a word which I will never ever repeat--and suddenly the room was filled with a blinding white light, emanating from the very center of the globe.

I covered my eyes; the light was so bright I could make out only his face: radiant and pure, shining forth with a splendor all its own. I was silent. I would do nothing (and I am convinced to this day that I could have done nothing) to break the inner peace of that moment. Some time later he passed his hand over the crystal ball and the light subsided. Then he put the crystal back into its silver box and he put the box into his pocket.

I expected him to leave but instead he sat down on the floor in the middle of the room and folded his arms across his chest, staring vacantly at the opposite wall. I asked what he was doing. He did not respond. I looked into his empty, gray eyes. I snapped my fingers. Nothing. Well, I thought, there is nothing to be done. Leave him where he sits. He is a strange fellow. Sooner or later he will depart.

I was preparing lunch when I heard a second knock on the door. It was the village constable, a stout man with a serious face and coal-black eyes. He asked if he could come inside. I said no--not unless he had a warrant. He smiled. He told me a man had disappeared from the local hospital the day before and had been seen heading in this direction. Had I seen him? What did he look like? I asked. The constable described the man who had come to my door the previous evening.

"No," I said. "I haven't seen him."

The constable eyed me closely. I don't think he believed me. "Well," he said, "if he comes this way, let me know."

I assured him I would. He turned to go and I added: "What is wrong with him, anyway?

The constable tapped the porch several times with the heel of his boot. He flicked his tongue across his thick lips. "He's under observation," he said.

"What do you mean?"

He paused. "Clancy tried to kill himself three days ago."

"Oh."

I shut the door and went back into the living room. I had to get this man out of my house. Whatever became of him, I didn't care. He was still there, sitting on the floor in a trance-like state. I called his name. He did not acknowledge me.

"Wake up," I said, shaking him by the shoulders. "The day is half gone. If you don't leave now you won't make Ungerston by nightfall."

He stared at me with rheumy eyes. "The crystal..." was all he could say.

"You haven't a moment to lose."

Slowly, he rose to his full height. He rubbed his chin and scratched his nose. He seemed puzzled.

"Why didn't you turn me in?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"It would have been the simplest thing to do."

"Perhaps."

He looked around the room, studying its layout. Eventually, his eyes settled on the fireplace. The fire I'd started an hour before was going strong.

"Have you lived here long?"

He looked at me uneasily. I felt my palms beginning to sweat.

"Thirty-odd years," I said.

He said: "If I were to leave the crystal with you--only for a short while, mind you--would you promise to keep it safe?"

I was taken aback. I didn't know what to say.

"Well?"

"You hardly know me."

"Let's just say someone wants it and I think this is the last place he'd look."

Perhaps it was because I felt sorry for him, or maybe it was simply momentary weakness on my part, but I put aside my concerns and told him I would do so.

The man was gone for three days. On the first day I took the crystal out of its box. I set it on the kitchen table and examined it. The stone seemed ordinary now, like a schoolboy's marble. I passed my hand over it, as the man had done, but nothing happened. I put it away. Towards evening I wandered down the shore and gazed out at a blustery sea. The sky was pale-green and the wind was blowing in from the south. The clouds lowered darkly.

Nothing happened the second day and I began to wonder if my fears had been unfounded. But the afternoon of the third day I once again heard a knock on the front door. I opened it--but saw no one. I went outside and looked around. Only shadows stealing across the yard in the waning light. That was odd. I had heard a noise. Perhaps the wind had blown a branch against the house? I looked up into a sky the color of lead. A dark sky that seemed to press down upon me. Dead black trees towered overhead, trembling in swirls of earthy wind. I went to the back, looked up and down the dirt road that ran past the lighthouse. It was empty. I shook my head. I went back inside--and received the shock of my life. There on the kitchen table, in plain view, was the silver box. The lid had been raised and the crystal was gone. Just then I heard a sound coming from my bedroom at the back of the house. I hurried down the hallway. The bedroom window was open and the wind was blowing the curtains back and forth. I saw the outline of a man disappearing through the window. I saw his bird-of-prey hands. I sighed. I could only hope Clancy would never come back.

It was the very next day when the constable returned. Did I have any news to tell him? I shook my head, no. Did he? As a matter of fact he did. Clancy had been found the previous evening, lying face down in the creek on the outskirts of town. The coroner estimated he had been dead no more than six hours, but, strangely, his face was already bloated and the flesh was peeling from his bones. Needless to say, I was shocked. The constable eyed me closely. I think he may have suspected me of something. I told him it was a shame. He nodded. He just wanted me to know, he said. In case I'd been worried. I told him I appreciated his concern.

Another week went by, but I had no more visitors. My life was returning to normal and it was about time. The morning of the eighth day, however, I was awakened from a deep sleep by loud rapping at the front door. What now? Was the constable to arrest me for the murder of a man shrouded in mystery? I pulled myself out of bed, and cursing under my breath, went to the door and opened it. Clancy stood before me. He looked exhausted. His overcoat was muddied and his clothes tattered. He was trembling and there was a strange expression in his insomniac eyes.

"Come in," I said.

He entered the house slowly, walking with a distinct limp. He sat down on the couch in the living room. He stared at the fireplace, as if mesmerized by the flames, but said nothing. There was a presentiment of death in the air.

I offered him a cup of coffee. He nodded. I went into the kitchen and brewed a pot. Then I went back into the living room. He took the proffered cup without a sound. His face looked soft and timid in the first rays of the dawn.

I stoked the fire and sipped my drink. "You're supposed to be dead," I said matter-of-factly. "Do you want to tell me what's going on?"

He sighed. He seemed gripped by an intense sadness. "It's quite simple," he said finally, and as he continued he steadily became more animated. "My father had many enemies. He was a good and decent man and good and decent men are often hated by those who envy them. Let me explain: when my grandfather died, he bequeathed to my father the crystal. Over the years, it brought my father great power--power my father's oldest son came to desire. My father knew of Seth's wishes, but he did not like--or trust--the child. I never learned the details, but apparently there had been several altercations between them. One day my father announced the crystal would be passed on to me instead. Seth never dared challenge my father while my father was living, but when he died, Seth grew bolder. He approached me and demanded I give him the crystal. My father was an old man when he passed away and, Seth said, was not in full possession of his faculties. He had certainly meant for the crystal to pass to his oldest son not his youngest. I was not amused. I knew what my father thought of Seth and I told him. The truth was not pleasant and I did not mince words.

"Seth became angry. He called me names I cannot repeat. How dare I question the motives of an older brother, he said. He grew so upset the veins on his neck bulged. He continued yelling at me, his words growing louder and more vehement until I thought he was going to have a nervous breakdown. I told him to leave my sight. I never wanted to see him again. He stared at me helplessly and an ugly silence fell between us. Then he slunk away."

Clancy stopped. His face was red and puffy and his hallucinatory eyes were bulging. I had never heard such poppycock. Without a doubt, the man was a lunatic. "I thought you were supposed to be in a sanitarium?" I said.

"I am not yet finished with my story," he said. His head tilted to the side and I detected the ghost of a smile. "The crystal has incredible power as I have told you. And it would not let Seth be. He pursued me far and wide, so strong was his desire to possess the crystal, until I sought refuge in a sanitorium near here. It was the one place he would never dare enter. He knew he was mad and that once inside he would never escape."

And then Clancy did what he never should have done. From beneath his overcoat he pulled out the crystal. It was glowing brightly, the light shining into my eyes like a beacon of truth. I gasped. For I saw in the crystal the world--and in the world the crystal--and I realized the true meaning of the wayward traveler's words.

"Where did you get that?" I stammered.

He laughed. "Seth stole it from you," he said. "But it did him no good. I was waiting for him by the creek and I killed him when he passed by. When the authorities came upon the body, they mistook him for me. And now I am free--and free of my brother forever." He paused, then added (somewhat smugly, I thought, since, after all, I had failed to protect his magic rock): "I simply wanted to thank you for helping me."

He turned to go.

Why is it that what we want we will never receive? And why is it that what we don't want we will always receive and always at the most unpropitious moment? So it was to be with me. Suddenly, and for some unknown reason, my mind was seized by the strangest idea: I must have the crystal, I thought. Because it is so beautiful. Imagine me, an old and dying man, overcome by an insatiable urge to possess! To this day I have not the slightest idea what overcame me. I offered him coins of gold and silver, which I had locked away in a strong box underneath my bed, everything I owned, but he refused. "Then I would no longer be safe," he said. "And besides, your earthly possessions mean nothing to me." He buttoned his coat and turned to go.

With one swift movement I pulled the poker from the fire and plunged it into his back. He fell dead without a sound. I stripped off his clothes, threw them in a ball into the corner, dragged him down to the edge of the sea, and with a groan, heaved his body in. The tide was going out and soon he was lost to view.

I returned to my room and unwrapped the clothes to reclaim my treasure. The crystal was gone. (Should I not have foreseen it?) At that very moment the sun broke over the horizon--I shall never forget that moment...a moment of revelation and despair--and the room was flooded with light. I thought that perhaps the crystal had fallen to the floor when I had stripped the man naked. I cursed God under my breath and, getting on my hands and knees, searched the room. I found nothing. Realizing that he must have hidden the ball in his mouth, or, perhaps, placed it in the palm of one of his enormous hands, I ran down to the sea and waited for his body to wash up on shore.

I know that he will eventually return, but I doubt that he will still possess the crystal ball. The sea is not one to easily give up her treasures.

Such is my story and may God forgive me my sins.

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