Monday, 15 October 2012

The Woods

It was a warm and proud autumn afternoon. I stood gazing down some forgotten opening that seemed to beckon me invitingly, like some deep and curious lagoon. Mottled leaves lay strewn over the path towards the opening as though they were pages from old discarded books. I cast a timid glance over my shoulder.

Far behind me, the party was still in full swing. Chatter and laughter floated on the humid breeze, as light and delicate as bubbles fizzing in the glasses held amongst the many guests. I had slipped away from my own celebration after being admonished in my advances upon a female guest I had been assured was of the same mind as me, that I was handsome and she was fair, and we would both be interested in a small dalliance. I had clearly been misinformed, likely intentionally, and was greeted not with a soft caress of the cheek but with a cold, sharp explosion from a glass of some cocktail or other. She left in quite a flustered state and all about me guests pointed slack jawed or giggling. For a moment I felt embarrassed, betrayed even, but life goes on and I had merely retreated to let the guffaws and cat calls simmer down. It was during my reflection on the events that had passed that I shortly came to notice a faint and sickly smell coming from a part of my garden that I could not quite recognise, not that this surprised me as I did not frequent my garden other than on social occasions. Intrigued by the odour, and uninterested in returning to the party any time soon, I mopped my brow with a handkerchief and set out into the shaded retreats of my estate.

As I forged further into the densely knotted and strangely unkempt foliage, the smell began to deepen. I inhaled great gasps of air, as if addicted to the sweet stench that permeated the surroundings, and became acutely aware of the slowly dropping temperature. I quickly came to the logical assumption that this was due to the heavily shaded nature of the twisted path and made a mental note to enquire as to why the gardening staff had let this area become so unkempt. Rotten leaves were now slicking under my tread, dulling the brittle crunch of the freshly fallen leaves. Still the smell gained more texture, notes of honey and copper milled through the air and bitter tones stung at the back of my throat. The local warmth seemed to sap from all things around me and as I squinted further into the ever dim path I noted the distinct lack of greenery, as if a deathly pallor had befallen the very plants themselves.

A short time after this, I realised that I had been straining to hear any report from the party. A faint panic descended upon me, but I was numbed by the complex aroma which swam between the twisted and gnarled limbs, now thickening steadily around me. As I struggled through a particularly tight knot of rough and unforgiving wood I came across a mess that turned my stomach even through the comforting perfume blanketed my mind. A pool of dark crimson was illuminated by a shaft of dull gold light that speared through the dark mess above. An overwhelming hum emanated from a haphazard array of grey, diseased flesh stretched thinly or hanging in large globules from black and decaying bones. I was appalled not so much by the rancid nature of the dead thing, but the fact that it did not seem to be one solid creature, but many different creatures amalgamated into one mass, as if each discrete form were effluence leaking from another. As I held my handkerchief to my mouth, I became aware of a faint clicking coming from further off through the labyrinthine undergrowth. Feeling somehow braver or perhaps ever more confused and emboldened by the miasmal smell, I steeled myself to tackle the dense mesh ahead of me, unperturbed by the carcass-refuse that I left crawling in that shimmering column of autumn light.

Branches tugged at my clothes roughly, and pushing forward with great stomping footfalls, I noted the entire absence of any sound or feeling other than the ominous rhythmic clicking and the near tangible vapours wafting over me in great tidal waves. Each step felt as though I were stepping through a thick membrane of branch and strangled air. My clothes were tight against my skin, my hair matted to my brow and my ears full and hot with blood whilst my mind fell slowly into a strange lull of general numbness. All signs pointed to me being inches away from fainting in this alien entanglement, what felt like a great aching distance from the safe clinking of glasses and pearly smiles of contented guests. The soporific malaise that choked my very senses came to a thrumming, cacophonous high as the clicking echoed endlessly through my skull. I gave one last fierce, exhausted shove and fell into a stark dead clearing.

Before me, in this abandoned and cavernous expanse stood an obscenity that awoke all my senses at once, as if whatever device keeping me subdued had been smashed upon the very ground before me. My mind rallied against the form before me, as if it were beyond my reason or comprehension. Standing at least six feet to the shoulder, a form that I could only describe as equine stood tapping away at the barren ground with a bone-white hoof. The thing had the appearance of being flayed alive, gelatinous grey flesh drawn tight over thick pulsing ruby and indigo snakes winding themselves at strokes thick and then thin like some complex and macabre road map. The creature breathed rhythmically as steamy puffs of air escaped its lipless mouth. Its snout pointed straight out from its skull, austere and revolting, housing a maw of jagged and uneven needle teeth, luminescent in the dim haze and flecked with deep scarlet threads. As suddenly as the clicking stopped, the glistening demon pivoted its long head towards me, articulating mechanically and bearing upon me with four sunken hopeless eyes. Great black horns curved and split into the air above it like lightning captured in negative and twisted to face the heavens. It began towards me, totting on ivory platforms as it's bottomless eyes yearned at with a raw, desperate hunger that I could not begin to fathom. In a blind and fevered panic I began to run.

Thrashing through sharp and seemingly impenetrable legions of nature, I tore myself from the opening into the titanic maze of the thicket. Minutes passed as I hammered through the now pitch black depths of this primeval wood. I became convinced that I had somehow fallen to sleep back in a recliner at my party and had ended up in this nightmarish copse, pursued by some fevered figment of my imagination. As I searched anxiously for a solid route to take me from this place, I caught a glimpse to my side of the chimeric thing keeping pace some distance away, darting over and around lopsided growths, tapping a terrifying staccato rhythm as two pinpricks of the void fixed me in their sights. Distracted by this grim revelation I fell with a great thud into jumble of leaves and roots that made up the carpet of the insane parlour. Unable to rouse my legs with any speed, the fell-beast rounded upon me and came to a stop regally above me, its flanks pulsing like some devilish heart. Slowly it began to crane its firm neck down towards me me, vacuous and deadly mouth gaping wide and perfuming the air once more with that sickly sweet corruption. Closing my eyes and fearing the curtains seconds from closing, I waited.

Nothing came to pass for what seemed like an eternity until a gurgling sound rattled around my ears. Nervously, I prised my lids open to see the abhorrent form stuck inches from my face, twitching with erratic spasms and spewing thick black liquid from it's throat in lazy, thick strands. From one side of its hellish frame a long and curved shape arced forth, from the other the same smoothly textured material appeared to be reaching forth from high in the grimy forest. A low and impossible howl thundered from above me and the shape retreated swiftly, taking my pursuer with it, as all around me the stark and rib like trees shuddered as if some unknown hand brushed their tops.

Unwilling to meet whatever great calamity rested at the end of that unthinkably monstrous talon I fled faster than my feet had ever seen fit to carry me. Not a single sound stirred around me as I hurried, pale and tattered into a forgiving mesh of shrubbery, amber, emerald, gold and ruby slowly filtering back into my sight, the smell of rain on the wind and the faint whisperings of civilization. What felt like days later, I finally broke through the shade, kicking and hacking with my hands into an unkempt yet familiar part of my own blessed garden, surprisingly near to where I had first entered the wall of leaf and branch, but with no such sign of the opening.

As I looked over my shoulder, I peered through the previously impenetrable wreath and could see the lights I requested installed earlier in the year. Puzzled, I sat and mopped my forehead, transfixed by those serene twinkling beacons, feet away from where I had previously been fighting for purchase through impossible paths. Nowhere in the palette of scents that I inhaled before me could I lay claim to that sickly odour again. I fell back, body and mind aching from the exertion, and I felt the soft warm grass under my skin.

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