It is quite unknowingly that I have, by the stars of a midnight sky, stumbled into the forest of worlds. Many mountains, prosperous with life, have found their place behind me, in the distance of the days gone by.
As night drew near, I ventured out of the tree-line onto a vast open plateau. A carpet of spongy moss, soft under my steps, filling the space between my toes, was luring me forth, to rest. The wilderness entices abundantly, when weary eyes seek, with spared captiousness, a place to ease off weightful legs and lumbering feet.
Ahead, a thick circle of trees loomed, darkening the horizon, as the iris to an eye. My heart grew tense. I knew this at once to be forbidden land, festering like a wound on the flank of the earth. Life seldom pierces through a such barren rock bed as lay before me, but when an evil will inhabits it. Driving its roots like rusty nails down into the dry infertile ground, shattering stone, seeking to draw blood from the innermost layers of the earth’s flesh.
I trudged on, reluctant at first, and afraid, wrestling as I was against drowse, against fatigue; if only to stand unwavering in the face of this menacing sight. I glanced onward wearily at the path ahead. Were I to heed sleep’s persuasive call and nest in the soft greenery, thought I, naively, I might wake to quite another horizon, barren of threat. Barren of venture.
Only, it does not happen so, that one simply stumbles upon evil. Behind happenstance, always the devil schemes. Had I been wise and remembered this in time, the battle for my life would not have already been lost.
Many a Woodsman has wandered their way into woods such as these, only to return, if at all they returned, broken and with fear permanently cleaved into their mind and soul. The dark thick sap that lurks, thumping, trickling sparse beneath the overlaid shards of bark, carving its way ever deeper through the hardwood of their soul.
Strangely, approaching the darksome forest, a surge of vigour, or fight, took a hold of me, fending off the tiredness in my limbs. Impelling me onward, as fiercely as fright would see me flee. I recall the moon rising above the tree-line, a streaming draft drawing my fogged breath away and forth into the sombre woods, and a minacious silence that withdrew all sounds but a faint ringing in my ear. My chest became a hollow chamber amplifying the raucous of my heart.
Drawn by this force unknown, I found myself edging closer, closer and closer still, and by no scheme of my own; until the edge of the woods was but a few yards away, and then afoot. Scrawny branches, like so many frail and bony limbs, interwoven with one another, were drawn into a tightly knit gate, that obscured the impenetrable darkness within.
I took a tentative step forth.
An outreached branch harbouring life at its tip, captured my affinity. A single leaf, dancing simply, outstretched as though in flight from the inhospitable forest, contrasted so dearly with its surrounding that I felt compelled to reach out. My actions came to me by instinct alone and so I thought not to question their origin. The leaf, twisted and squirmed before my approaching hand. Its reaction startled me to a standstill, and I looked on as it promptly withdrew back into the trees, wilting as it went. I then knelt, as to a wounded creature, and gently extended my hand towards it again.
My heart leapt as the first thorn buried itself under my skin. All blood rushed to my head and, for the breadth of a moment, a burst of lucidity unveiled my mind. How had I left all reason abandon me so? I quickly lifted the wounded finger to my mouth, sucking the poison from the wound. I peered deep into the cut. A wound of pride, mainly. The venomous blood, sweet on my tongue, made my mouth salivate so. For a moment, my eyes closed on the sensory dullness that ensued. Then, unexpectedly, I swallowed. The thick acrid sweet mixture slid down my throat slow, sublime.
Again, too late, I awakened to the madness that besieged me. I took a step back in alarm, hoping to escape the cold horror of this reality, but, instead, found my back against a thick wall of brush and branches. Needles and thorns were tearing at my skin. Darkness had fallen, opaque as ink.
The forbidden forest had drawn blood, there would be no turning back.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
For longer than a night, though the sun never rose, I blindly crawled and clawed through the tenacious, voracious thicket and vines, through the dry clumped earth, until I knew not whether I dwelt above or underground. The wind, whistling and howling, threw me forth. Up to the moment when, as though released from a great height, I fell headlong into a muddy clearing. All flesh and blood for my efforts.
I lay there a while, bare of clothes, for not even tatters remained, the air and the moist earth soothing my torn lacerated skin. But for the stars above, I could interpret no orientation to this new land.
I nestled in the mud and slept.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
A tremor in my heart brought on by the raw cold of fright, sundered my breath and jostled me awake. Night had not yet come to pass. The clearing. The stars above. All was as before. Why was nature behaving so?
There was a silence about me, droning. I sat up against the foot of a great tree in an attempt to regain my senses. My left arm had fallen numb. My heart pulsed in the open flesh of my every wound. The cold silver night felt sharp, murderous. My back pressed itself firmly against the coarse bark as once again I became aware of the silence. Oppressive. Almost invasive.
A dissimulated presence of ill-intent lurked so very near. Stealthy in the shadows of the tree-line, it bode. Awaiting for the torment of my soul. My body erupted in fever and sweat stung my many wounds. Above in the vast star-laden black, I watched as a star fell across the sky in a great stream of light, and as it extinguished in the horizon above the forest, a bolt of pain flashed in my left shoulder. I closed my eyes against it. And it was there, behind closed lids, that it came to me. The answer. Out of the soot of time came forth the memory of the leaf and the thorn. Its poison now in my finger, now coursing through my arm. The image emerged like a verdict, sharp-edged and definitive.
As I opened my eyes, I had already made peace with my loss. Resolute, I reached for my benumbed limb. It felt heavy with limpness. The hand, shrivelled and blackened, bore no resemblance to the hand that held it upright. I looked away as I carried out the sickening deed.
The arm tore away from its socket with nauseating ease. I averted my eyes but could not preclude my ears from the slow sucking sound of tearing flesh, nor my nose from the stale putrescent odour that rose from the wound like a dense cloud. Removing the limb with the self-same release and satisfaction as when dislodging a thorn deeply encrusted in flesh. The slow pulling of a tooth from fresh bleeding gums. This, vilest of pleasures, enlivened by the presence of overwhelming pain and disgust, became the temporary focus of my existence. With one last jerk, the arm gave way and flew from my hand to land before me with a muted thud. And there it lay, with a silence so whole.
The price of my innocence. My sacrificial offering to the darksome woods.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
The moon has risen and still I dared not move.
There is evil here I know. Yet, and although it frightens me to admit it, I have sensed another sinister force at play here. A menacing presence, greater still in its perverse obstinacy, lay hidden in these evil woods. With a will that pertains to a much crueller more debased world than that of forbidden woods. It is evil excoriated raw and stripped away to the source of the most hostile depravity of all: that of survival. And its insatiability will be the catalyst of my downfall.
The bark at my back had encrusted itself deep. Still, I dared not move. My ears stared ahead at the silence of my lost limb, whilst my eyes caught the every drip of my shoulder’s gashing wound with an incisive blink. It is so, immobile, and with eyes wide, that I came to witness the presence I so dreaded. Overwhelmed with the numbness of awe, I looked on as a great colonial being, like an ant colony on foot, an iridescent silhouetted mass, came forth from the darkness, with motions as fluid as algae swishing weightlessly in water, to retrieve my fallen arm. To claim its due. To feed on what’s good in this world.
The many smaller organisms of which the being seemed constituted, gradually elevated the limb, in peristalsis-like waves of dark green and indigo. Not for ingestion, I now understood, as the arm came to rest at the being’s shoulder. Rather, for incorporation. A low groan of pain formed in my throat. My every muscle trembled uncontrollably as I beheld my estranged fingers dance to the command of this foreign being, this monstrous life form. A last spasm shook my body and I lost consciousness. The last I saw of the creature, its newly acquired fingers had clenched into a fist, all but its index, which slowly came to point back at its new master in a gesture of self-declaration. I flourish as you wither, it said. I am, it said. I.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
Snow had fallen in the clearing. The ground had been laid white and virgin for an execution.
I awoke to find a strange warmth radiating from the earth underneath me. I reached over to my shoulder. Quite to my surprise, the wound was blackened, as though charred, yet unsettlingly painless and healed. Of the lacerations and contusions that had previously covered my body, there were no trace to be found, however much I searched. I took in a deep breath and sighed.
No sooner had I felt an inkling of relief, however, than a feeling of shame arose in me. For the fallacious gratitude. The abhorrent thankfulness that, ultimately, my offering might have sufficed to appease the wrath of these woods. A qualm which, although not to be remotely measured against the peril of my circumstance, buried itself like an arrowhead in my pride. Not to ever be dislodged.
With great effort I crossed my legs and, leaning against my remaining arm, I pushed off from the ground. All of a sudden, ahead and all around me, scintillating lights flashed in the clearing, as though in alarm. Despite not having not travelled more than an inch, I fell back down again, panic-stricken. Such was my horror, so submissive had I become, that I no longer possessed the will to move. Only at the receding of the deathly lights, only once the clearing had remained still for a great while, did I even venture to breathe. And, oh how sweet the air felt against the back of my throat! So taken was I with my life, suddenly reclaimed from the clutches of the unknown, that I had not noticed the more immediate cause of my failed displacement.
From my back now came the pain of a hundred searing lashes. The flesh had healed around the rough shards of bark, sealing me to my resting place. Affixed to the very tree, whose protection I had sought against the darkly presence. On all sides, manifestations of evil sought my demise, intricately, secretively, each more wicked than the previous. A visceral weariness settled into my every muscle and joint.
Then, forgetful in my despair, I shifted my torso forward. Skin tore, and the hooks clung stubbornly on. The lights blazed amok. Again I fell, this time forswearing all future efforts.
The moon basked everything in a most unnatural glow as it rebounded off the silk white crystals of snow, so that I could not ascertain neither the source nor the authenticity of my perceptions. Scattered here and there odd perforations in the snow came into view. It was as though something had burrowed itself there by melting the snow. Carefully, I reached far into the hole nearest me, and came away holding a small viscous stone. The stone, mucoid as it was, instantly slipped from my hand and fell to my feet, where it promptly burrowed itself in the snow anew. All the while gleaming violet and crimson red. My hand too was ablaze with glowing slime. It felt peculiarly cool in the wake of the stone’s warmth.
Soon the entire clearing was alight once more.
When had I left the known world for this, a world bereft of laws and saturate with ill-intent?
ϒ ϒ ϒ
The moss. A few hours of troublesome swaying between the waking world and that of dreams passed while the moon set behind the forest and the trees. No amount of sleep could soothe such a restlessness as now burdened my soul. From the varied phases of my struggle between worlds, one thought transcended to my conscious mind. As certain as I sat there trapped by this cursed tree, I became starkly aware of one notion: it was the moss and its invitation to rest in the softness of its bed, after a long spell of lonesome travel and short nights; that had landed me here to sit amongst the evil and the cruel things of this world. The moss had baited my pride in the presence of the menacing woods. It was then, far before entering these forsaken woods, that the battle for my life had been lost.
Now, sitting condemned in the victors’ chamber, where body parts are mere spoils to be fought over and divided, it all became brutally clear. My life had not been mine to claim since, soft under my steps, filling the space between my toes, I stepped onto the deceitful carpet of moss.
That was many moons passed now. I raised a hand to my cheeks, to brush away the warm trickling drops of my hopelessness. My fingers felt painfully coarse against my the skin of my face. I sighed and closed my eyes, for I had seen it. Seen what new torture would befall me. Seen the foreseeable end. My eyelids remained shut, as I relinquished the world outside.
The darkness inside was other. Soft and mine, still.
This too came to pass. A lonesome drop of emerald ink came to trouble the waters of my exile. And as it swerved and spiralled, it came to take the shape of a twig and a leaf, such as now protruded from my every fingertip; and of the thorns, such as my nails had become. The nights of fright and despair were long behind me. I cared not to repress the images any longer. Instead, I merely watched the thick green cloud shifting shapes against the dark skies of my eyelids. I abandoned myself to it.
What worse could it reveal than the fate I had already endured?
I watched as it showed me the dark woods in a land that bore much semblance to my home. And a young Woodsman, eager in his gait and proud in his stance. I watched on as darkness drew its curtains around him. Birds flew off like frightened shadows. I knew not whether I figured in this vision, whether the young man could see me, yet I could not resist waving to him in warning. I shouted for him to flee this place at once. A wind stirred the leaves of the sombre forest. The young Woodsman heeded the calling of the woods and marched on, curious and bold. Again, I motioned for him to leave this land, and again the leaves trembled around me. The vision darkened further. It became difficult to distinguish shapes as they merged into one another. Then, suddenly, the young man resurfaced a few paces in front of me.
I was startled. I could not recall the last time I had seen another living person. The urge was strong to reach out to him, and I could not resist the impulse, if not as a helpless man to his saviour, at least as to a fellow Woodsman. He too reached out a hand. And it was then that the horror bloomed within me. I saw the leaf dancing at the end of my fingertip. I saw the thorn lurking underneath. I withdrew my hand with great haste and jarred my eyes open. But the worst had come to pass. I knew all too well what would follow.
Curse you, I screamed at the forest and the clearing. Curse you, to the stars and the moon. Filled with madness and inexhaustible ire, I pulled violently at my fingers, and one by one, they broke away like the dry branches that they had become. There was no pain. Only the sharp resonance through the silence of the empty clearing. There was much agitation above me as the tree bemoaned its loss. I felt the wrath of its vengeance digging deeper into my back. I was beyond knowing pain. The metallic taste of blood came to my mouth. I spat in protest.
A burgundy stain in the glittering snow.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
The clearing stirs in the perpetual night. There are things here that have been set in motion anew which for aeons have slumbered in silence. The lifeless discover warmth, the inanimate awaken and brew in the dark. Symbiotic relationships enliven the dormant to fashion little worlds of balance and subtle alliances, witnessed by none.
A new force is awakening in the cycle of life, and I, alas, have been but an instrument of its perpetuation. There is a rustle in the tree line now. My time has come. Thunder has troubled my sleep, I can feel the rumble still, in my bones. The great being lurks in the shadow of the forest. A star has fallen, and I, fastened to my sombre grave, have lost yet another limb to the deafening numb.
The moon has risen, fallen and gone, and this forest of worlds will have me all before the night is done.
© 2021 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.