"I remember mostly his face, I think." Mack's voice had become somber and deep, as if he were delivering a eulogy. "And the words he said. Those frightful last words!" His tone rose for a moment and fell again. "I still hear them echoing off the walls of those angry mountains."
"What words, Mack? What did he say?" another companion asked, his voice wavering slightly.
"Don't be so impatient," another voice cut in. "Let Mack finish his story."
"It was still two days from Keiter's site. The sun set just as a small town appeared on the horizon.
"'One hour,' the golem next to me grunted. I had grown cold as the darkening night advanced on us. The nights in that country are something to behold. The moment the sun set, it was as though all the warmth was sucked from the world and a harsh cold cut through my clothes. The darkness fell on us like a thick shroud and the whole world became as silent as the deepest bowels of a catacomb.
"I wrapped myself in the clothes I had and sat, shivering. The driver looked at me for the first time in hours. A fleeting change fluttered across his face and I swear I thought the man smiled! But his face was returned to its former state before I could determine whether or not I had imagined it.
"The first thing we encountered on the outskirts of this village were large, haphazardly arranged stones. In the darkness, I thought they were sleeping animals, like a pack of petrified wolves. As we got closer, I realized that we were passing by the town's cemetery. Parts of an ancient fence demarcated the former boundaries of the place. A plank of wood rested on two stones, where a row of five black, human shapes. On each end of the bench, the women held flickering gas lanterns which gave off just enough light to reveal their ancient faces staring at us from the black scarves tied around them. The graveyard stretched behind them and disappeared into the thick night.
"Suddenly, amidst this scene, a tall, blond woman came rushing toward the donkey cart. I swore that she was some figment of my imagination. Her slender figure stood against the flickering lights of the town behind her. She wore a crimson sweater, the words STANFORD emblazoned on the front. Her jeans were clean and without holes and I swear as sure as I am here today, she wore Birkenstocks. A brand new pair of brown leather Birkenstocks. Stranger still, she had a permanent smile on her face. She greeted the driver in a manner so profuse I became embarrassed. In her strangely accented Bulgarian, she poured forth, "Thank you so very much. It is so nice of you to drive all the way out here." He grunted back at her but she remained perfectly unaffected.
She turned to me suddenly, her golden hair framing her fair skin and smile which seemed to pick up whatever little light there was and reflect it three fold. She had the features of a child. I doubt that her eyes had ever seen anything upsetting, they seemed so untouched by the world.
"'Aren't these people so sweet?' She drew out the 'e' in sweet and I muttered a polite agreement. The driver produced a bottle from inside his coat and took a pull on the yellowish liquid and offered it to me. It smelled as though it could be used to power one of the tiny, puke-orange, Soviet-made cars that occasionally roared past us on the road.
"He made a gesture with the bottle toward the woman. She smiled and said in Bulgarian, 'Why, no thank you! I don't drink.' This went uncomprehended by the driver who extended his arm more insistently. She laughed. 'I don't drink, thank you!'
"He shrugged and returned the bottle to his coat pocket. Suddenly, children began to swarm like a pack of hungry monkeys. The children! They came at us shouting gibberish in imitation of what I assumed was English.
"'Hallo! Hallo!' They shrieked. 'How you! How you!' They moved quicker than I could keep track of all of them. I never got a proper count, as I made sure to pull my valuables closer to my body. 'Kvo e?' they repeated, pointing at everything on my body. I looked to the woman for help.
"'Oh, they're just so sweet!' She laughed again. 'C'mon! Let's get you set up!' She almost giggled each word out. Clutching my bags, I followed her down the dark streets, which were lined with ancient, staring eyes. Dust-covered faces, wrinkled and worn sat on bodies wrapped in blankets and jackets that may very well have been from the previous century. Their mouths, scowling or blank, didn't move once as this woman, leading me smiled and waved at all of them passing by. A herd of chickens roamed in front of a bar at the end of the street. An ancient specimen sat on a stump, ostensibly the keeper of the chickens. He enthusiastically smiled at the coming woman, revealing a gummy cavern.
"We walked into the smoke-filled tavern through the dark wood paneled door. I felt the air hit my face and invade my lungs. Tobacco and burning trash danced in the air and began immediately to burn my throat. Twenty blank eyes immediately turned toward us as we walked in and a silence as dense as the smoke fell on the room. I remained astounded as she walked confidently into the room and sat at a table, unaffected by the stares and the smoke.
"'I would like a mineral water and a salad, please.' The waitress grunted and turned toward me. I pointed at a squat bottle with a long, slender neck sitting on the bar. It contained the same yellow liquid the driver of the donkey cart offered me earlier.
"'Oh, that stuff is just awful! I don't understand how these people drink it.'
"What we discussed that night was simply baffling. This woman seemed perfectly unassailable in her optimism. I wondered if she had been in fact living in the same town we were now in. I am certain that she lived in some other world, much more beautiful and safe than any world I have ever seen.
"On all sides, we were surrounded by men and women, slumped over, weighed down by some invisible burden. Yellowish eyes, the same color as their liquor, struggled to remain open. It was as though these bodies had been in this tavern for eternity, part of the dismal decor. Occasionally, the low buzz of voices would be punctured by slurred yelling about trivialities like the weather, anything except the true source of their anger, which was something deep and ancient and entirely inscrutable. These people were all burning inside and were desperately dousing the flames with their drinks. So long as they lived, however, there was fuel for this fire.
"The fire that burned within these people was a slow one, as if it were deprived of just all but the very necessary amount of oxygen to keep it alive. The fire that burned in him, though, was a wild one, uncontrolled and completely destructive. Nothing in its path was spared. It was all consuming and raged. It flared for a brief moment and left nothing but a dead, blackened world in its wake. It destroyed more completely than anything I had ever seen.
"'The people in this town are just so sweet,' she smiled again. 'I think they are really grateful to have someone like me. It really is only a matter of time before this place becomes much like the rest of Europe. We really are just doing a small part toward that!' Her enthusiasm fed on itself and as her ideas grew grander, she spoke faster and with more gestures.
"'I've only been here for a few months, but already I see so much potential!'
A lull in the conversation came when she had clearly exerted herself too much.
"'What do you know about Keiter?' Her abstract ideas and grandiose designs conspired with my drink to make me dizzy so I seized the opportunity to redirect the conversation to something more concrete.
"'I've only met him once,' she answered. 'It was at the beginning of his service. He's really nice, you know. I real volunteer! They say everyone at his site loves him, truly loves him. I wish I could be like him!' Her voice trailed off. I sipped my drink.
"'He was full of great ideas when I met him. When he talked about the professional standards we were bringing to Bulgaria, it was impossible not to believe him. How much hope he carried with him!' I swore she was describing some prophet or saint and expected that she imagined he traveled with a host of angels. 'He truly believes in what he's doing! He's not cynical and jaded like the rest.'
"'I hear that some people think he's gone... overboard.' I offered the bait gently and she devoured it ferociously.
"'They're fools! You can't judge him like that. Look at his work, then judge him. Look at what he's accomplished. Do you know how much it takes to accomplish what he has? You will see when you meet him. You will see.' This was the first time I had seen her smile leave her face. She stared at me with a violent intensity as she repeated those words... 'You'll see.'
"And I did see all that he had accomplished. I saw the monstrous thing those beautiful ideals had become, there far away from friends and family. Far away from the comforts of home. There, where introspection becomes a deadly tool against yourself, where no one is there to pull you back from the abyss, where your sanity is as tenuous as your internet connection. That's where you discover the empty truth about yourself. I have come back, but Keiter didn't. He couldn't. He had gone too far.