Early on a June morning the Poet was wakened by the noise of thunder. He rose swiftly and went to his window, which was clouded with million shades of grey and blue and grey-blue-black, rent for a moment by a bright blazing trail of lightning. The day had not yet come, but it was too beautiful an hour to miss, for thunder is the drumbeat of nature, which to the Poet sang a throbbing poetry, a battle-march or something like it, into his very veins. He had never been able to render the poetry he heard, in this and in many other things, into words that pleased him; but a wise man once said that just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet. He could not pour the music out in words, yet he thirsted to drink it in. He dressed in the dark, slung his satchel over his shoulder, and went out.
A light, chill wind blew down the street, flapping the corners of his coat, rain spat fitfully against the pavement, and the sky slowly lightened from dark blue-grey to pale blue-grey as he walked. A narrow dirt trail wound across a sodden field, and he was inspired to follow it, though the wet grass soon soaked his shoes. At the far side of the field, where his path met up again with the road, stood a tall sign supported by two metal posts, requesting passing motorists not to throw stones at it. The bottom of the sign was about level with the Poet’s head, and he thought whimsically that it looked rather like a doorway from nothing into nowhere. Laughing a little at his own fancy, he stepped through it.
Instantly there was a blinding light and a sensation as of every nerve in his body being set a-tingle, and he found himself facing—what? The grey pavement of the road was gone, the dirt trail and the field were gone, and instead he was looking on a landscape unlike any he had ever seen. Perhaps it might best be described as a collage or combination of all the loveliest landscapes he had ever seen, but with something more that surpassed and crowned them all. There is a kind of beauty that stirs the heart, perhaps more in poets than in most other people, though we all have felt it: when some odd detail of sight or sound—a note of music, a sudden word, an arc of sunlight or a lover’s face—suddenly seems to contain the secrets of the universe, but only for an instant and then it is gone. And here was a whole world, a vista full of it. It was too much, he could not take it in; he stumbled backward till his back struck against the metal signpost, and crouched against it, hiding his eyes in the crook of his arm. The light seemed to press through sleeve and flesh, and the sound—was it music, like a far-off orchestra?—could not be blocked out. He tasted salt and realized that he was weeping profusely, and tried to wipe his streaming eyes on the rough coat-sleeve; he had not cried like this since he was a little boy, but this was like something other than pain or even emotion, coming rather from outside than within. When he had shed many such tears his vision began slowly to clear, and he was able to take his arm away from his face, and to open his ears to the sounds all about him. At first they were so bright and full of beauty that he still felt almost blinded, but slowly his eyes and ears adjusted, and he got up and leaned against the metal signpost, drinking it all in. The thunder and rain were gone, but their terror and grandeur were not lacking from this place with its brilliant sunshine; the sky above was a sort of golden color, but it thrilled him with a sense of poetry even more than the grey dawn had done, and this poetry, rather than catching wordless in his throat, sprung forth in words such as he had always felt but never been able to find, till suddenly he stopped, overcome with embarrassment in the sense that someone was listening.
“Joy cometh in the morning,” murmured a voice at his elbow, and the Poet turned to survey the strangest person he had ever seen. He was tall, almost superhumanly tall, and so thin that he looked almost emaciated; the lines of his skull were visible through his pale skin, but he was not less handsome, or less noble, for that. He was clothed in something long and black, glittering with gold at neck and hem, fastened about the waist with a gold belt encrusted with diamonds, and wore a similarly-wrought diadem atop his head. From beneath it flowed long locks as black as his robe, so that the Poet could not at first tell where they ended, and his eyes were deep-set in the skull-like face and blazed with a gold-tinted light. A being more royal in appearance and bearing the Poet had never seen, and he knew at once, somehow, that this was ruler of this place. He would have got to his knees, but the stranger forbade him with a slight gesture.
“Welcome, Poet,” he said, in a voice so deep and cavernous that it might have sounded sinister, had it not been for the joy and warmth that filled it.
“Where am I?” asked the Poet. “How did I get here?” For despite the beauty and wonder all about him, these simplest of questions pressed upon his mind as they must upon all humans.
“You passed through a door,” said the tall man, and the Poet suddenly remembered the signposts which had made a sort of doorway, against which his back was still pressed. He turned to look through the arch, but saw only more of the same lush beauty upon its further side; he walked around the door, and then through it both ways, but no trace did he see of the stormy sky and damp grass he had left behind.
“Do you want to go back?” asked the man, who had been watching him closely, but without moving more than his eyes. “Unfortunately, it is not possible.”
“I do not see how anyone could want to go back,” exclaimed the Poet. “I was only looking to see whether I was imagining all this.”
“Some who come through that door do wish to leave,” said the stranger. “The beauty of this place is too much for them; they cannot bear it. It was almost too much for you, when you first arrived here, was it not?”
“It burned my eyes,” said the Poet.
“For some it does worse than burn—it drives them mad, and they leap off cliffs or hide in dark caves, trying to escape it, since they cannot bear either to remain here or to follow the path,” said the man. He gestured as he spoke, and the Poet noticed for the first time that a winding path, lined with gold and precious stones of all sorts such that it was almost too bright to look upon, began a few feet beyond the mysterious doorway and led on and on toward the horizon. He could well see that such brightness and glory must cause fear; indeed, he himself trembled at the thought of setting foot on it; but at the same time, he yearned to do so with a greater desire than he had ever yearned for anything in the world.
“Where does it lead?” he asked.
“To a kingdom of which this land, beautiful though it is, is merely an outlying province,” said the stranger. “A law has been made that all strangers wishing to go there must pass through this land first, for otherwise the greater glory of that place might be too much for any of them. This is a sort of anteroom, a preliminary trial, if you like. But lingering here is not permitted for long; one must either choose the path or forever forsake it.”
“What happens to those who forsake it?” asked the Poet.
“They are doomed to remain here forever, struggling to close their eyes and ears to it, which only makes them burn the more. Yet that is easier to them than being forced to journey on to that place where the beauty is so great that their torment would be infinitely more.” The man in the black robe looked suddenly grave and stern as he said this, and the beauty and the sweet noises of bird on branch and wind on water were momentarily dimmed, as if his mood were perceptible to all things, animate and inanimate, in this world of beauty.
“And to those who choose the path?”
“That remains to be seen,” said the stranger, watching him.
The Poet stepped eagerly forward, but as his feet touched the first stones of the jewel-encrusted path he stopped suddenly and turned.
“One more question,” he said; “what is your name?”
The stranger’s face split apart suddenly in a smile.
“Death,” he said.