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Soup, yes. Some soup, the man thought.
Slipping off his horse, he thudded to the ground, stowed his gun, limped out of the wood into the field, and stretched his legs. His stomach rumbled, and fatigue seemed heavier than the sack lashed to his shoulders.
A little snowflake spiraled down, prompting the hunter to tilt his head upwards, to look at the colorless sky. Ahead, the pines, impervious to the chill, breathed silently under thick, white cloaks.
Soup. He chuckled. At this time and place, the prospect of soup seemed comical. He found a stump in the middle of the field, sat down, and shielded his body with his furs. Carefully, he removed his sack and untied a frozen knot.
Yes! There it is!
Uncapping a bottle of vodka, the hunter drank deeply, allowing the fluid to dull his mind, numb his senses, and let him disappear. His lips cracked into a smile, and he exhaled, his breath disappearing quickly. Finding himself unable to stop, he drank until the bottle grew heavy in arms, and he finally fell off the stump, asleep in a stupor.
Three hours later, his eyes slid open. Finally regaining focus, the hunter was pleasantly surprised that the snowfall had absolutely stopped, and, strangely, his head was clear. After hoisting himself into a sitting position, he narrowed his eyes and let his gaze wander. Not more than ten yards in the distance, across the sunny space, a door stood, stuck in the face of a shack. As if he had no control over his movements, the hunter took hold of his sack, rose to his feet, walked thirty paces, extended his hand, and turned the knob. Using the slightest of pushes, he opened the door soundlessly, sniffed, and immediately recognized the smell of baking bread. He flung open the door, his mouth watering.
“Hey!” he yelled.
Not a sound. The shack was bathed in darkness, save the light spilling in from the cold outside.
“Hey!” He adjusted his pack.
No response. On a whim, he decided to explore. He struck a match and his brow furrowed; ahead of him extended a long, whitewashed hall, longer and wider than the shack had appeared from the outside. When a searing pain erupted on his thumb and forefinger, he dropped his match, and the shapes were consumed by the returning dark.
Click! – The slightest of sounds, only apparent in the complete silence.
A flash of light brighter than a thousand candles filled the space in a fraction of a second. The hunter shut his eyes and opened them, squinting, until he adjusted to the brightness. He felt a tap on his back. He whirled around.
“Hello, sir,” a man greeted.
“Hi…” The hunter’s sentence trailed off, and he took a step back. The man’s eyes glinted and bulged out of a pink face encased by a loose, airy hood that extended from a diaphanous cloak.
“Welcome to the factory. You are here. Feel free to follow me.” But the man stopped speaking, waiting expectantly, despite the hunter’s confused expression.
“Who are you? What is this? Where am I?”
“Let me show you,” the man commanded calmly and imperiously, his cloak shifting as he spoke. A warm, dry hand applied pressure to the hunter’s back, and he allowed himself to be led forward, walking for an eternity, a day, an hour, or a second; the hunter did not know.
“I’ve looked forward to meeting you, and I am pleased that you have arrived exactly as planned. It really means so much to me,” – he paused – “Please look to your left,” the cloaked man said.
The hunter turned his head and saw a second door, a wooden one, with a golden knob and a keyhole.
“Look into the room.”
The hunter kneeled down and peered through the hole. He saw a wooden chair, pulled out from a desk. On the desk lay a quill, which rested in an inkwell. The quill pointed to the room’s left wall.
“Let me answer your first question,” the man began, speaking from the folds of his clothes. “Who am I? I am a creator of sorts. I know how the story begins, plays out, and, after all the work, ends. Come, let us enter…”
The hunter walked forward and pushed open the door.
“Look to your left,” the man commanded.
The hunter turned his head and saw a floating, pulsating bubble the size of a grapefruit. He walked forward and saw that hundreds – no, thousands – of shades swirled around the bubble’s surface. They danced, sparked, spiraled, and came into being, and then disappeared as soon as they were created. The chaotic, terrifying beauty both repulsed and attracted the hunter. Finally, the cloaked figure’s voice pulled him out –
“Look to your right.”
He looked and saw the simple desk, the chair, and the feather quill. A white paper lay on the desk.
“Can you write? Read?” the man asked.
“No,” the hunter responded. He knew that he did not possess such skills, and he had a suspicion that the man had already known this. He ached to look at the bubble, but he restrained himself and looked into the man’s deep blue eyes.
The cloaked figure dropped his gaze. “Fine. Then let me read what I have written.” The figure paused and his cloak shivered. The hunter picked up the page and handed it to the man, who began:
“A little snowflake spiraled down,” he read, “Another snowflake followed, landing on a withered blade of grass. Soon, the pines, impervious to the chill, breathed silently under thick, white cloaks.”
“You wrote this?” asked the hunter.
“I did,” the man replied.
“Where is that place?” Somewhere in his peripheral vision, the bubble changed color again, this time to a pure white.
“It has no name yet.”
“Who are you?”
“The question you, sir, should be asking, is, ‘Who am I?’ Do you know? Do you care?”
“No,” breathed the man. “I have never cared.”
“Then you must go. I am sorry.”
“No. Don’t make me go,” the man pleaded. He had begun to love this place, its solace, and its endless possibilities.
“I’m sorry. You must.” The man gestured from his clothing’s folds, and the bubble began floating toward the hunter, a white streak. It hovered until it floated level with his eyes.
The man closed his eyes and opened them. A bottle of vodka lay next to him, and he rose, picked up his gun, mounted his horse, and galloped into the forest.