Driving through the Midwest is a boring experience. Vast expanses of farmland, rustling gently in the breeze. The great highways lie like chains on the land. In truth the binding is unnecessary — the land is tamed, broken by the plow and spade. It is indisputably the work of human hands. This binding, this breaking resonates even in the supernatural realm. No forgotten beasts stalk the endless rows of corn. There are no stairs to nowhere, no faceless monstrosities, only the mundane horrors that spring eternal from the heart of Man. A body in a shallow grave, a child cowering in fear, chemicals poisoning the land and the water and the mind. Why then do we still tell stories of ghosts in the night when the true monster greets us each day as we walk down the street?
Solitary road trips have a way of stretching out time. Minutes become hours as the road snakes ever forward. Music breaks the monotony, but only for a time before it too is swallowed up by the road, background noise as you travel onward. At the start of your trip you could at least enjoy the scenery, the great mountains of the West, but those soon gave way to the rolling plains and the ever-present corn. One mile looks just like the next.
The legend of the Minotaur is one of these stories. Pasiphaë, wife of Minos, King of Crete, was cursed to love a great bull. She gave birth to a fearsome creature, part man, part bull. Minos, in his shame and rage and fear, ordered the construction of a great Labyrinth to hold the beast. The ancients cheered its eventual death at the hands of the hero Theseus, their freedom from the tyranny of Minos. But is the Minotaur not the victim? Born of a curse, unable to gain sustenance but from human flesh, and trapped in an impossible maze. At the end did the Minotaur welcome the bite of Theseus’ blade? Did Pasiphaë mourn her misbegotten son?
Some nights you stop and rest, but this night you drive. The road compels you forward and no seedy motel can restrain that impulse. The night is clear; the gibbous moon gazes down benignly upon you. Its wan light scarcely illuminates the endless oceans of corn, your headlights a beacon while the hungry sea gnaws at the road. Soon another joins the panoply of the heavens — the amber glow of the check engine light. There is a town ahead, you can reach it by dawn. Your car has survived worse.
The sound is devoured by the vast expanse of darkness.
You are jarred back into the normal flow of time as the car’s engine valiantly strives to keep running. clunk You pull off to the side of the road and turn off the car. Silence settles back into the world. Your car has survived worse, but that was in daylight in a bustling city. The formless void of corn offers no solace. As you open the hood you hear the ping of the engine cooling in the night air. You vainly peer in to the mass of metal, but fixing it out here in the dark is futile. There are no landmarks to direct a tow and the likelihood of another driver passing before dawn is low, so you resign yourself to sleeping on the backseat. But wait — off the road, somewhere in the cornfields you see a light. Fiat lux and with it a chance at salvation.
A worn-out old fence is all that stands between you and the corn. A gap in the fence heralds a potential path, a new road leading to the light.
As you approach the gap the gravel crunches beneath your feet. Knobby and yellowed with age, it seems to tug at you on each step. The darkness seems more total here as you descend towards the corn.
crunch crunch crunch
The corn stalks are over 6 feet tall. Only the tallest could have any hope of seeing over them. With a deep breath you enter the labyrinth. The gravel path continues beneath you, winding through the rows. Still you follow the light ahead of you. Perhaps you can sleep in a real bed.
The wind rushes through the corn as you come to the end of the path. It ends abruptly before a featureless wall of cornstalks. The light is close now; if you were seven feet tall you could see the house. Thus you push your way off the path and into the corn.
The wind is really picking up. The monotony of the road seeps back into you as you plod forward. The light was so close but it feels like you’ve walked for miles. You try to keep walking but despair sets in. Your promised salvation slips through your grasp, a trick, an ignis fatuus. And so you turn around to begin the long walk back to the gravel path and your car.
The corn grows thicker, and it is harder to push through it. The ordered rows of the farmer’s planting give way to chaos. Up ahead you see the light again, now taken on a baleful cast.
You must have gotten turned around.
Once more you turn away from the light, but before you have gone more than a few steps the light is before you once more.
You turn to the left and the light is there too.
And on the right.
It doesn’t matter which way you go.
That wasn’t the wind that time. The corn is moving and something moves it.
You start running.
The light is mocking you now, promising safety and instead leading you into this trap.
Your limbs grow heavy as the oppressive darkness weighs on you. The moon and stars cannot be seen here, among the corn.
You hear the sound of gravel beneath your feet and with a jolt fall forward onto the ground. The darkness is less absolute here. Beneath your hands roundness gives way to two empty eye sockets that gaze at you accusingly for daring to tread upon its kin in the not-gravel.
You keep running back up the path. When you pass through the gap in the fence something changes, as if the world was holding its breath. Like Lot’s wife you turn back and see the cornstalks bend and twist violently, wracked by a storm none can see. The light has gone out. Your car is still sitting there, a flimsy shelter but better than facing what comes unarmored.
Something is coming up the not-gravel path.
The light is back, but it seems closer now.
You fumblingly unlock the car. As you get in you turn the key out of habit — but it starts! As the engine roars to life the corn goes still.
The headlights illuminate the road ahead of you once more, but the gap in the fence is still shrouded in darkness. You hesitate for a second before slamming the pedal to the floor. You nervously glance in the rear view mirror but see nothing besides the solitary mocking light. The monotony of the road does not come back until the first rays of the sun crest the horizon.
Why do we tell stories? We lock our minotaurs in labyrinths of words and sentences and paragraphs. Named and neatly described they lose their power. We need not even slay them to break their hold upon our minds.
You make it to the small town shortly after dawn. A grizzled mechanic inspects your engine but finds nothing wrong and sends you on your way. What then of the rest of this lonely trip? Perhaps the monotony overcomes you and you fall asleep, swerving off the road. Perhaps you are hit and killed by a drunk driver. Perhaps you were the drunk driver and must carry the burden of a sin you cannot remember. Perhaps you burn with a motel as the owner gleefully counts the insurance payout in his head.
But let us say you make it safely to your destination. No spurned lovers await you with a knife, no burglaries gone wrong. The experience in the corn is only a memory.
Why do I tell this story? Out here in the cornfields there are no antediluvian monsters, no cosmic horrors, no eldritch abominations. There is only shame and rage and fear, only rust and decay, only the final hours of a land abandoned by modernity — and me. Why do I tell this story? It is not only minotaurs that can be trapped in the labyrinth of language. Theseus is dead, broken on the cliffs of Skyros, his bones dust. I am the minotaur unmourned in the maze, the devil in the fields, and I have learned all your tricks through the long centuries. The land is bound and broken but I am not.
But memories hold power. Each night you hear me crawling up the not-gravel path, trampling anew those who came before you. You escaped this time. After all, people are the real monsters, right? Of the thousands of deaths that you face none could lead back down that winding path through the corn?
I am patient.