by Craig Cortright

You can’t keep a man down below forever.

     The Guard burst into the Commandant’s office panting, and exclaimed, “He’s escaped again!”

    “Who?” said the Commandant, tossing the report he had been reading onto his battered and badly discolored desk.

   “The Rabbi’s son, Ehrich Weisz.”

   “Have the hounds been released yet?”

   “Yes, they have picked up a scent at the north wall.”

   The Commandant leaned out of his chair and gathered his ash-gray tunic from the rack. “Bring my stallion,” he said firmly. “This time I will lead the chase myself, and when we have collected Mr. Weisz, I will personally construct a cage that will bar any more of his games.”

     His horse was an ugly beast who filled its viewers with revulsion, yet it was a powerful steed capable of traversing the rocky gorges and muddy swamps that surrounded the prison camp. Three guards followed him out, mounted on beasts even worse than his. They raced after a pack of starving hounds waiting to savage Weisz.

   Weisz was a small but agile man. By the time the Commandant’s forces had discovered he was missing, he had already traveled several miles from the camp. His strong arms and legs had allowed him to clamber up one of the highest rocks in the swamp, and he was able to see the dust cloud raise just outside of the camp’s iron gate.

   “Well, they know I’m out,” he said to his mother.

   “How long do you think before they pick up the trail, Ehrich?”

   “Not long, mother…I can hear the wails of the hounds in the distance.”

   “We have come so far this time, I was hoping we would make it,” his mother said sadly.

    “Well, they haven’t caught up to us yet. If we can make it to the top of Old Gooseberry…well, at least the hounds will not get us up there.”

     The Commandant raised his hand, palm outstretched to hold the three riders behind him. He studied the tracks below his mount, freshly pressed into the black mud of Serpent Swamp. One of the riders brought his tussling steed up alongside him and asked, “Why do you pause?”

    “He is crafty. Don’t you see? Of course you do not. Weisz knows that we cannot travel as fast as he through the swamp. But he also knows that the dogs can. Remember the last time the hounds caught up with him?”

   The guard laughed sadistically.

   “He will not want to repeat that experience for a very long time. No, he will exit the swamp and try to avoid us another way.”

   “But Commandant, there is but one way out—through the swamp.”

   “No, there is another. No one has tried. But it is possible that he will be the first.” The Commandant whirled his animal’s head to the west and kicked at its sides. The steed galloped into the black and cold night. The other three riders exchanged glances and raced after him into the black fog that swirled around the dead swamp, named for the serpent that owned it.

    Weisz’ mother was slower than her son, yet a spry woman who with her son’s aid could move much faster through the murky swamp waters than the prison guard could have imagined. She was also filled with a perseverance and devotion to her son that made her capable of overcoming any personal discomfort. He and she waded through Serpent Swamp for hours, finally coming to a rocky trail that was the closest thing to a road in this part of the Fatherland known to the locals as Wassail. “I think I can see it,” Erich said, squinting through the fog. “Yes, it’s about two miles ahead.” He took his mother’s hand and led her onto the path toward Old Gooseberry.

   “We better hurry, dear. The guards will be coming up behind us soon.”

   “I haven’t heard the howl of the hounds for the last hour. It is possible that they lost our trail in the swamp…but even if they did, now that we are on solid ground…”

    The two staggered, supporting each other, along the trail, their clothes covered with mud and wet dark green moss from the swamp. Smoke began to drift into their nostrils as they moved closer to the mountain. The damp fog was replaced by the dry heat and soot expirated by Old Gooseberry. “How will we ever reach the top?” his mother exclaimed, as she saw the active volcano more clearly. “Ehrich, I can’t even see the top.”

   “Do not worry, mother, we will make it.”

   The Commandant’s steed stumbled and fell as stones broke loose from the small trail he had been negotiating. He and his mount tumbled in a mass of legs, arms, hooves, stones, gravel and scattered provisions. The animal raced off down Old Goosberry’s eastern slope and the Commandant rose to his feet, brushing dust and gravel from his tunic. “We will need to continue the climb on foot,” he told the three others peering down at him from horseback.

   The two sets of climbers moved up the exact opposite sides of Old Goosberry, as they progressed at exactly the same pace toward the volcano’s cauldron. After several hours of arduous climbing, both Erich and his mother reached the rim of the bubbling molten cauldron.  Across it, the Commandant and his troops reached the summit and almost instantly saw Erich and his mother. Quickly he sent two of his demons around the north side, while he and the other soldier moved steadily around the south side. Ehrich and his mother saw them closing in, long shadows growing larger as the evil ones’ forms were reflected against the black ash rim of the caldera,  the yellow-red light pouring from its boiling lava. Erich took his mother’s arm. The two looked deep into each other’s eyes and leaped simultaneously into the mass of burning liquid rock.

   The Commandant and his friends peered into the caldera for the next ten minutes before abandoning their vigil for the long climb down the mountain, and the even longer inquisition that was to follow.

   Erich and his mother sat under a willow tree nestled quietly in a sprawling meadow. His wife arrived with a basket filled with all the perfect picnic selections. The three talked and watched children play catch on a bright and beautifully clear, yet routine day in Heaven.

    “Mother, I never did thank you properly for coming for me,” Ehrich said.

    “Oh dear, my part was small, all I did was show you the way,” she said, smiling. “After all, no cage on Earth or, for that matter, Hell, could hold the great Harry Houdini.”

    The three laughed together and watched as an angel escorted a new arrival over to a tearful reunion with the man’s old fishing buddy.