All Aboard to Cravenmoor

Jerome knew that life didn’t often appear this way, at least outside his dreams. Lush forests demarcated by raging waterfalls, dusty mountains punctuated by valleys of swampy marshland and sunlit meadows covered in iridescent flowers – such natural grandeur wasn’t abnormal. He’d even experienced some of it before. Instead, it was the town at the center of this landscape that stuck out in his mind, convincing him that it was little more than a flight of fancy. The town was called Cravenmoor, a municipality of inconceivable age and inimitable design that evoked within him a wistful sense of painful longing.

It wasn’t strange that his thoughts turned more frequently these days to Cravenmoor. He was more alone now then he had ever been. His parents were gone, his siblings and friends distracted. Living in an anonymous any-city in the American West, he worked a job of dubious purpose, coasting through streets of half-urban and half-suburban sprawl in a repetitive loop.

Lately, his outlook had grown considerably darker, shrouded in the malign gloom of events both global and personal. The land near him burned, and those he cared about had become threatened by a habitual gravitation towards carelessness, avarice and self-destruction.

And so, he couldn’t help but dream of Cravenmoor, cycling mentally through the forms and contours, shapes and lines that constituted it. The quaint cottages nestled on the hills of the town’s outskirts eventually gave way to a city center filled with multi-story buildings marked by wrought iron arches, dark-brown brick and towering chimneys. A cobblestone grid crisscrossed the town, even on artful bridges that lifted traffic over rushing white water and foam. The grid was interwoven into the community’s very fabric – from the foothills to the town’s harbor.

During rush hour, these cobblestones would bustle with strange and fantastical vehicles, heavy contraptions of iron, rubber and steam. At dusk, when the streets were quiet, the lights would dim in hundreds of tall, Gothic windows. After that, one could count on the sun setting behind the Arcadian Hills, which always seemed to trigger the croaking of countless amphibians in the expansive Marshes of Mystery that hugged the town’s southeastern border.

If there was one thing that perplexed Jerome, it was that Cravenmoor had no entrance. No roads led to the town – that was a near certainty. He thought there might be a train stop, an old terminal manned by a wizened albeit friendly conductor by the name of William or Blake, but he couldn’t be sure.

Cravenmoor, then, possessed him, hypnotized him, imbued him with a yearning that felt as if it belonged to a period other than his own. It was almost as if he was experiencing a product of antiquity, a type of psycho-somatic remnant from his ancestral past. However, attempting to investigate this suspicion yielded few results. All the genealogy in the world wasn’t going to answer the riddle of Cravenmoor, how this town had burrowed so deeply into the nocturnal happenings of his psyche. It had always been there, and it seemingly always would be.

One day, while driving to work through the sprawl, something came over him. He pulled his vehicle to the left instead of the right, bypassing his work and heading out onto the open plains. The mountains faded into his rear-view mirror and the land became harsh, stark and unforgiving, a milieu composed of little more than barren earth and a solitary tree every 50 miles. He kept driving, stopping for nothing but gas, crossing two powerful rivers before arriving in the east. He was coming for Cravenmoor.

One day while driving somewhere in the Pennsylvania mountains, he stopped his car for no other reason aside from it feeling right. Walking into the forest, he noticed that his body felt lighter, his mind clearer – as if he was laying a particularly onerous burden down. The early morning light, which had just a moment ago been drenching the highway, had been profoundly dimmed by the tree cover, and the air was growing darker by the minute.

He had walked in the woods many times in his life, often with his family when he was a boy. They hadn’t been long hikes, mere two-mile loops in a nature center near his childhood home. But even experiencing the wilds in such an abridged and sanitized way, a powerful impression had been communicated, a paradoxical notion that he was both an alien in the woods and that he had finally found a home.

In the Pennsylvanian wilderness, this thought again returned to him, and it introduced a warm, comforting sensation, putting his mind and body immediately at ease. He could perceive that the air was now not only growing darker, it was also becoming heavier – but not in an uncomfortable or constricting fashion. No. Instead, the wooded atmosphere carried a sweet and pleasant gravity. It blanketed him, ensconced him. And he felt himself growing tired, so tired that when he came across a small clearing full of long grasses and small, trickling creek, he found a comfortable patch near two larger boulders, lay down and fell asleep.

He had no way of knowing how long he slept – but it felt as if whole days had passed. Like so many other times, his dreams took him to far-off places, drew him into encounters with people that he hadn’t seen or thought of for years. In his dream he walked with his father through a landscape of gently rolling hills, past groves of white and brown birches and along a well-worn path adjacent to a bubbling brook. They discussed many things in the dream, and he knew that, even if their rapport wasn’t strictly-speaking perfect, his father cared for him and loved him.

He woke with tears in his eyes to the sound of something splashing nearby. An animal that he thought might be a fox was racing through the creek, galloping in an ungainly fashion towards a thicket of maples that rose up at the opposite end of the clearing. Rising slowly to his feet, Jerome stretched and yawned, his arm extending upward towards the verdant canopy. He couldn’t really describe it, but something about the fox’s movement compelled him forward. Clearing the creek in a single stride, he entered the maple thicket, pushing aside smaller patches of brush that blocked his path.

For a moment, he saw no trace of the fox; its small form was lost in the dense maze of branches and brambles that shot out in every direction. Then it appeared again, racing along a ridge a few yards ahead of him. He quickened his pace and spotted it heading for the trunk of a massive tree that must have only recently fallen. The animal sprinted towards the tree’s exposed roots and then crossed through it, disappearing amidst a web of soil-encrusted wood.

Jerome stopped short, unsure of what he had just seen, shaken by the mystical tilt that had just transpired in his reality. But he didn’t stop for long. The animal spirit – or whatever it was – had led him to another clearing. It was lighter here, and faint clouds of mist hung lazily in the air. Like the last clearing he had just left, this area was also covered in tall grasses. Unlike the last clearing, this opening in the woods was dominated by a man-made structure: a train terminal of incomprehensible origin stood next to an ancient strip of train tracks.

A light went on inside in the station’s window, almost as if the building had been waiting exclusively for Jerome’s arrival. And before he could give it much thought, he was walking towards it. The station was small – no more than a large shed really – but beautifully designed. Cast iron pillars stood on both sides of the door, arching upward in support of a pyramid-like roof composed of darkly colored shingles. At the top of each pillar, ornate, long lanterns hung from steel beams, standing guard for a large, golden clock that was built into the structure and positioned squarely over the station’s entrance.

He couldn’t help but be awed by the clock, whose circular frame was constituted by a dazzling array of gold and silver, and whose brass hands ticked by the elegantly drawn roman numerals on its face. Opening the door, he walked into a cheery room with walls of reddish wood, four comfortable benches, a welcoming ticketing window and a furnace whose long pipes crawled up the wall behind it and disappeared through an opening in the ceiling. He walked over to the ticketing window and was amazed to see that a ticket was sitting on the counter, as if someone had placed it there just for him. Scooping it up, he took a seat on one of the wooden benches facing the door that led out onto the platform and waited for something to happen.

Almost all vestiges of light had been swallowed up by the woods, plunging the platform outside the station into shadow. But then gas lamps sprang to life on the other side of the door, allowing him to admire the artful design of the metallic and glass awning that hung over it the boarding area. The light seemed to signal something, because after another second or two he heard the slow chug of an approaching train. Hoisting himself upward, he strode through the doors leading out onto the platform just in time to see the most miraculous vehicle he had ever seen pull slowly up to the quiet forest station.

The train’s gate was low and narrow, scraping against stray grasses and weeds that popped up between openings in the tracks. A cone-shaped protrusion of indecipherable purpose stuck out above that, and on each side of the train, myriad pipes and stacks could be seen belching steam and smoke into the air. Interspersed between these were turrets and steeples covered in windows, architecture that was almost church-like in nature. Underneath all of this, wheels that resembled clock gears creaked along on the rails, slowing inevitably to a stop in front of the platform where Jerome was now standing.

When the train came to a complete stop, it blew a whistle, a piercing sound that was augmented the stillness and serenity of the woods. The doors creaked open and he didn’t hesitate, boarding at once. He knew somehow that the train was for him. As the doors closed, he quickly settled into a seat; there was an abundance to choose from. From what he could tell, the train was deserted, just as the station had been.

Something must have been controlling the train, however, some force and entity that he just couldn’t see. After idling for a moment at the station, gears began whirring somewhere in the bowels of the train. The engines began to roar. Outside the train’s large, arched window, steam poured out of innumerable pipes. And finally, a shrill, ear-piercing whistle erupted through the night sky, signaling the train’s imminent departure.

Jerome’s heart leapt with excitement. The world and the future opened up, flooding him with the enlivening sensation of unlimited possibility. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt something akin to this. It had likely been years ago, back when he was a much younger man, attending university on the South Side of Chicago. He had already been dreaming of Cravenmoor before these college days, circling the Imperial Fountain in his mind, passing by the Grand Obelisk and finally entering the hallowed halls of the Sagemarry Library, which compiled the town’s collective knowledge. But he had never put any of it down, never transcribed the wonders of Cravenmoor or tried to communicate his preoccupation to anyone of any significance.

And so, he started to write of Cravenmoor, outlining the community’s city center, the lush fountains and pools, the handsome brick of its buildings and especially the geodesic dome that sat in the center of the library. He described the municipal bridges on the town’s eastern side, which rose over the half-dozen waterfalls that crashed off the jagged peaks of Champlain Ridge and splashed through the town in a chain of natural gorges.

These frenzied scribblings brought Cravenmoor more fully to life, channeling his dreams and injecting them into his waking life. But when he tried to share them, he received at best laughter and at worst derision. So after a time, he largely kept his writings to himself, and finally he ceased to write entirely. As he grew older, he continued to withdraw from the world, even while he tried to move on from the town. He tried to forget about it, compartmentalize it – but it was a futile effort. Cravenmoor never left him. It refused to let him go.

The train was now backing up the way it came, slowly crossing the clearing and entering thicker groves of trees. He heard thin branches scrapping against the train’s metallic sides. It chugged along, wrapping around rocky outcroppings, steaming past looming coniferous trees of every variety. The landscape was dark and unfamiliar, but he passed through it unafraid. He knew that – sooner or later – Cravenmoor would appear to him, and then all would be well.

And it was through this journey that Jerome finally came to the town of his dreams. He had been dozing in the initial stages of the trip, lulled by the subtle rocking motion of his car. When he woke, he was overjoyed to recognize some of his surroundings. The darkness had fallen away, and the train was trundling down a steep, mountainous decline covered in endless flowers. They were entering the Valley of Etoni, a large meadow marked by brilliant colors and awe-inspiring rock sculptures of ancient deities. As they passed by his window, Jerome felt himself waver between excitement and nervousness. In many respects, the sculptures were horrifying, ghastly amalgams of animal parts he both recognized and he didn’t. And then he remembered that the people of Cravenmoor did not prescribe to any of the world’s major religions. Buddha and Allah, Jesus and Mohammad held no sway in Cravenmoor; the community’s pantheon was older, wilder and infinitely more unknowable.

The train pulled to the right, crossing the tempestuous River Mize before zipping through a gaping tunnel in a steep cliff and finally slowing as it approached Cravenmoor station – which lay adjacent to the Marshes of Mystery. The station was just as he suspected it might be – old, quaint, covered in fraying white wood and manned by an old station master, although this one’s name was Homer.

The denizens he met near the station were gracious and welcoming, seeming genuinely happy to receive him, to bring him into the fold of Cravenmoor. They said simply, “We’ve been waiting for you,” and then moved aside, giving him wide latitude to walk into the town, explore it in a carefree and self-directed manner. He passed through the bronze gates of the wonderful city and then walked past the cottages that comprised its outer boroughs. The sea was barely visible over their sturdy roofs, and he could smell the fresh salt and brine. Above him, a small, postal airship floated amongst the clouds, drifting across the neighborhood toward the center city.

Cravenmoor’s main cobblestone street took him to the Bridge of Caracase, where Cravenmoor’s highest waterfall plunged downward in a 50 foot drop, and where the spray and the mist from the falls perpetually coated the roofs of the surrounding cottages – requiring frequent upkeep. He passed the city’s main entertainment district, a series of narrow, winding roads that were full of restaurants that would make even those who lived in food paradises like Paris or New York salivate. And then at last he came to the Sagemarry Library – its marble facades, circular windows and majestic dome standing proudly behind the Pool of Meridian.

Everywhere he walked, Cravemoorians received him graciously, gregariously, flashing large smiles in his direction. And this continued in the Sagemarry Library, where the town’s bookmasters showed him around the cavernous building, explaining about the wealth of knowledge contained in the many halls that emanated out from the building’s atrium. “It is open to all,” they said, gesturing to the stacks, which ran from the floor to the ceiling. “Except the northwest corner.”

Jerome spent the next few months dwelling in Cravenmoor, experiencing many delights: moon races off the shore; the Festival of Aggath, which occurred around harvest time. Each morning, he would walk from where he was staying on Apexel Hill down through the Avenue of Pillars and along the Cravenmoor sea wall. There, he would revel in the salty air, wonder about the city’s neighboring community and main trading partner of Nadirian. Sometimes, he would pass the entire day by the shore, buying his lunch from cheerful street vendors pushing brightly colored carts up and down the lane, and watching the blazing sun eventually dip below a shimmering horizon.

His life was happy and serene – in every which way but one. The northwest corridor of the Sagemarry Library continued to preoccupy his thoughts, even while he was being lulled to sleep by the town’s many falls. During the countless hours he spent reading in the Sagemarry reading room, his eyes would drift towards the northwest corner, wondering habitually just what was contained there.

One day while the bookmasters were having their morning tea, he seized an opening. He scurried into the northwest corner, eyes darting about for signs of the mystical or the macabre. The shelves were empty, covered in nothing but heavy layers of dust. At the end of the hall, a table pressed against a window looked out into a white wall of water. The book sat on the top of the table, its cover black, tattered, encircled by old, crinkly leather. It was chained to the table, and yet it seemed to advance towards him. A low moan trickled out from under the book’s cover – although it was quite possible he was simply imagining it. Then the room went deathly quiet. He walked toward the book, his curiosity overwhelming his dread, and cracked the cover open as far as the heavy chains would allow. Before he knew it, he was back in his apartment out West – as if nothing had happened and no time had elapsed. Panicking, he raced about the small, enclosed space, but the town of his dreams was gone.

In the weeks that followed, Jerome took to his bed, but he found himself incapable of major tasks and uninterested in everything else. He stopped taking care of himself, and inevitably, his health began to decline. The few acquaintances he had through work expressed momentary concern but quickly ceased to express anything at all. He was back in the world yet removed from it. He was existing yet barely alive. And yet despite the malaise largely confining him to his bed, Jerome found his few waking hours to still be abhorrent and insufferable. He began to search everywhere for a solution, purchasing medications to help him sleep longer and harder. These high-powered barbiturates weakened his body but triggered dreams more evocative and potent than he had ever imagined was possible.

His nocturnal wanderings brought him to far-flung places, far past any of the swirling dreamscapes that he had previously traversed. He spent time in the bewitched city of Orhan, sailed the Strait of Zambeen. He saw his sister again in a twilight version of Chicago, a twisted incarnation of the metropolis far denser and darker than the real city – full of labyrinth corridors that snaked through looming, hellish towers checkered with ruby-red windows.

But try as he might, he could not find his way back to the fabulous city of Cravenmoor. Each night he searched, but there was no sign of its turrets and towers, the amphitheater that was reachable only by the steam-powered gondolas. His memory of its denizens, which had never failed to doff their caps or remove their mechanical goggles in his presence, was becoming progressively unclear. He could also no longer hear the pitch-perfect vibratos from the Cravenmoor a Capella group, which typically assembled each evening for a free concert near the Pool of Meridian. And finally, it was slowly becoming impossible for him to accurately picture the collections lovingly compiled in the Sagemarry Library, whose myriad texts included notable lost works such as Lucan’s Salticae Fabulae, Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio and the missing sonnets of Ihara Saikaku.

Each night he tossed and turned, his distress only quelled by the forceful chemicals surging throughout his wasted body. His rent went unpaid, and his bills piled up into a teetering tower. His fever spiked, further escalating his journey into what was becoming an eternal illusion. His small apartment, which was normally bereft of visitors, was now a nexus of activity, a gathering place for creditors and landlords to commiserate upon an absence of sudden and surprising notoriety.

Like his surroundings, he was burning up, his fever further tormenting an already agonized brain. From dry, cracked lips, he called for Cravenmoor, and while this exclamation was eclipsed by the sound of his door splintering off its hinges, of walls literally disintegrating all around him, he knew that it had not gone unheeded.

Because he had found his way back to the city of his dreams, to the highest ideals of his feverish imaginings. The city spread out gleaming before him, and at last he knew acceptance. From the shopkeepers and the fisherman to the city planners and bookmasters, the town exploded into the throes of exuberant jubilation; for a new citizen had finally come to stay. And they would all be together – enjoying the balmy summers near the sea-shore, traipsing along in the Forest of Time, giving thanks during the Feast of Wandango, basking in the glow of a euphoric forever.

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