Encounters in a Forest

Chapter 2

We don't speak for a while. Moving single file along the path's edge, we trudge onward through the fog. I do not feel the pull, but I know our destination looms out beyond the fog, only a short distance ahead of us. We are progressing swiftly now, although our haste comes less from a desire to get where we're going than from a mutual compulsion to get away from where we've just been.

Mutual between myself and Leander, at least. After the vehicle left, taking the ostrich with it, we both stood staring at the suddenly empty path for a long while, still mesmerized by the lingering imprint of the events we had so recently witnessed. When I finally did turn to look at Leander, I was half expecting him to hand me a "Coping with Trauma" pamphlet. Instead, his face was drained of color and his mouth was opening and closing wordlessly like a guppy. It was only once Vitus began snoring loudly that Leander's trance was broken, his expression reflecting the same envy that I also felt in that moment toward our comatose companion.

Now Vitus is walking ahead of me, with Leander out in front. As far as I can tell, he managed to avoid waking up throughout the entire ordeal. He seems just as placid now as he was before. I wonder if any of it has managed to seep into his dreams.

No sooner have I begun to ponder the likelihood of this occurrence than, with a jolt, Vitus begins to run. He brushes past Leander at full tilt, showing no hesitation as he continues his forward sprint.

"The pull?" asks Leander, whirling around with a startled look.

"I don't feel anything. Do you?"

Leander shakes his head, then turns and dashes off in pursuit. Before I can call out for him to wait, he has already vanished into the fog.

Why is it that the pines blur? My gifts are few in number, but valuable beyond reckoning; to be impervious to the whip of loneliness is no trifle. Why, then, do I find myself rushing after the others when there is no cenophobic impulse to spurn me forth?

Horror vacui. I've often heard the sentiment expressed, typically by those who hold their own in wisdom in high esteem, that nature abhors a vacuum; my own nature, however, says otherwise. Yet I give chase.

Someone is screaming nearby, but it barely registers as I hurtle through the fog. All that matters is that I catch up to my fellow travelers. I charge the grey line, make it retreat, force it to reveal the scene. The shrieking subsides into a low wail, but the source from which the noises emanate is undoubtedly getting closer. Then, all at once, the curtain draws back and I am upon them.

Vitus and Leander have stopped running. In fact, they have ceased moving altogether, and are now frozen in place by the roadside.

Just ahead of them on the path is a woman, crouching down in the dust with her back turned. Her feet are bare, and she has an unkempt stream of dark red hair pulled back in a long ponytail. She wears a red dress covered in a pattern of black crow's feet, the colors of the garment contrasting sharply against her skin, which is so pale as to seem almost translucent. She is hunched over beside what appears to be a large turtle, her head turning left and right frantically as though she were examining it. She reaches out, hesitates, then lays a shaky hand on top of the creature's shell.

Evidently she hasn't noticed us yet. I take a few furtive steps closer, bringing myself beside Leander. I am still winded from our impromptu sprint, but after a moment I manage to gather enough breath to ask him what happened.

"I don't know. Vitus just stopped. If he hadn't I would have crashed right into her."

"I heard a scream."

Leander nods surreptitiously toward the woman. "It was her. She's been alternating between shouting and weeping. I tried to ask what was wrong, but she I don't think she heard me."

I linger for a long, silent moment before finally mustering enough courage to take a few wary steps forward. Even as I force myself to dredge up every remnant of will I can summon, I'm unsure whether it will be enough to overcome the instinctual timidity that would seek to reduce my voice to a whisper.

"Pardon me," I say, the words surprisingly audible considering that I feel as though I am speaking them from underwater. "Are you alright? We heard shouting and thought you might be hurt."

Her hand snaps backward from where it was resting on the shell, but she does not turn around. Instead, she raises her forearms and pulls her shoulders back into a taut, rigid posture. The gesture seems vaguely pugilistic for a moment until I notice that her hands, rather than being curled into fists, are pressed against the sides of her face. Just as quickly they move from there to the ground, her shoulder blades jutting out as she pushes herself up. As she stands, the curve of her back accentuates her spine, revealing the shift of each individual tectonic ridge along it.

"Not me."

She turns, looking through me with a faraway gaze. Her eyes are heavy-lidded and ringed in darkness, the only pigmentation in a visage that is otherwise overwhelmed by a ghastly pallor. Her face is severe, all cheekbone and jaw - little more than a skeleton over which someone has poured out a thin coating of white candle wax. Her body is an anemic husk, resembling a scarecrow only half filled with straw. Nevertheless, she possesses an indelible beauty that shines through her withering countenance. Though her sadness is evident, it seems to suit her somehow; it hangs upon her like an ornament.

"They killed my friend."

She gestures toward the turtle, taking a faltering step in the opposite direction and wiping away a tear with her other hand. I'm still not even sure if the creature is a turtle - it looks massive enough to be a baby stegosaurus. I move up cautiously to take a closer look.

It's a gruesome scene. The creature's shell has been cracked and split open in multiple locations. Within the largest fracture, the soft meat beneath the shell has been exposed and flayed into a garish pink mess, dappled with splotches of darker red where the flesh was excoriated. The colors are so lurid that just looking at them is starting to make me feel disoriented. Some things were never meant to be exposed to daylight.

My words emerge slowly, once again lagging behind my thoughts. "What happened? Who killed it?"

She turns back to look at the creature's remains, one hand over her forehead and the other dangling at her hip.

"Some fuck in a dump truck," she hisses. "That's who. Plowed right over him and didn't even blink, just kept going like nothing happened. I was too far away to stop it, but I saw him."

Her eyes begin to well up again, and she shuffles to the creature's side and collapses on her knees next to it.

"He was such a good friend. He lives nearby - I visit him every time I pass through and bring him cabbage."

She turns to me with a sudden smile, through her tears.

"I used to call him Pretur for short. He's a prehistoric turtlesaurus."

She covers her face and begins to cry softly.

There is a stillness in the air. I want to reach out, to offer some gesture of comfort to ease her sorrow, but I'm unsure what to say and don't wish to disturb her. While I am busy wavering, the sound of approaching footfalls greets my ears and I turn to find that Leander has joined us, and is also now watching her intently. For some reason, and I am overcome with a sudden feeling of intense dread.

"Be strong," he says, his mien conveying both sympathy and confidence in equal measure. "He would have wanted you to."

She uncovers her face and looks up in surprise at this latest intercessor. Her brow is furrowed, and she is biting her lip.

"Oh? I didn't realize you knew him."

Leander's expression betrays little beyond infuriating tranquility. My sense of foreboding is rising exponentially.

"I didn't," he admits, his tone softening slightly but still infused with the same unwavering conviction. "But I do know he's in a better place now."

She looks at him in disbelief for a moment, then recovers and quickly claps her hands together in a display of indignant mockery.

"Already? Gee, that's comforting. I thought it might take a little longer for a turtle."

"I know it's difficult to accept" Leander says, apparently unperturbed. "But everything happens for a reason. It was just his time to be summoned."

She pauses for a moment, her mouth contorting into a grimace. She turns toward me, her eyes filled with a kind of bemused exasperation, as if she is hoping for some confirmation that this is actually happening. I quickly look down at the ground.

"Did somebody here order the platitude platter?" she calls out. "Because it definitely wasn't me."

Her eyes are now fixed, cold and unblinking, upon Leander.

"Listen, counselor," she says, pushing the words through gritted teeth. "I don't mean to offend you, since you're clearly an expert and all, but you can just keep the pearls of wisdom to yourself, okay? In fact, next time you feel some kernels of sage-like counsel threatening to tumble out of your mouth, try washing them back down with some nice warm milk. Then, maybe take a nap like your buddy back there because, with all due respect, he seems to be the most helpful member of your little group."

As she points toward our dozing counterpart, her eyes narrow. I didn't think that she had even noticed him. Unimposing as he is, I had actually managed to briefly forget about his existence myself even without the myopia of grief serving as a distraction. Indeed, only now does she seem to have become fully aware of his presence, and it seems to me as though her eyes betray a glimmer of recognition. She stands and takes a few steps toward him, her formerly combative expression melting into astonishment.

"Vitus?" she says incredulously. "Is that you?"

In the back of my mind there is a gnawing insistence that the fog has been slowly, inexorably gathering around us ever since we stopped moving. Accompanying this realization is a strange and jarring sensation that this inward encroachment is in fact willful, as though the fog were being summoned by some insidious force seeking to obfuscate our path.

Right on cue, the fog rapidly moves in and envelops us completely, hemming us within a claustrophobic curtain. I sense with mounting certainty that we have been snared by some unseen hand, like a group of insects that have unwittingly wandered into the wrong home and been imprisoned inside an inverted cup by an irate occupant. No doubt our jailer is now busy deliberating over the most suitable method of disposal.

Nearby, I hear the familiar rumble of treads on the path. Immediately ahead of us, I see the blinking of the warning light through the fog. Each flash of red casts a bloodthirsty aura upon the crane that now towers over us, coiled and ready to strike.

The floodlights hit and leave me blinded for a moment. I try to coax my recalcitrant vision back into functioning, but all I can make out are vague silhouettes. More than enough, really. I already know what happens next.

The drinking bird lowers toward Pretur the turtle, moving to gather him into its mechanical embrace. There will be no moment of silence, no reverent contemplation prior to the deed - only the efficient completion of an errand. If there's even a modicum of grace to be found in the proceedings, it derives from the fact that it will be enacted upon mere flesh. Mercifully, Pretur does not appear to possess any remaining vestige of consciousness; there will be no clinging, no unheeded struggling, no futile awareness on the part of the beast as in our last exposure to this transaction.

A flash of movement. Before the bird can reach its target, a figure emerges from the shroud and stands directly in its way. She is paler than the fog itself, and her scarecrow skeleton forms a protective stance over her friend. Her arms extend in warning, one hand open in a crossing guard "STOP" gesture and the other clenched into a diamond-furnace fist. The crane seems to halt in its descent, as though suffering from a momentary lapse in confidence at the sudden appearance of this fearsome sentry.

No. The crane may not be moving, but judging by the sounds of straining metal that fill the air it is not at rest either. There is some other force at work beyond sheer intimidation.

Beneath the groaning and creaking, a faint sound begins to rise. She is speaking, but I can't seem to make out the words. Her voice has the rhythm of a chant, as though she were invoking some ritualistic incantation, but the scattered pieces I can pick up all sound like nonsense.

"Sanitation. Sanity Citation," she intones, the syllables flowing out in a singsong stream of gibberish verse.

The fog around her begins to lift and dissipate. She now stands within a bubble of immaculate clarity, encircled by a squall that seems to grow and strengthen as her voice continues to amplify. With each new phrase she speaks, the bubble expands and more of our surroundings come into view.

"Protect and serve. Appease and placate."

The crane begins to rise, pushed back by the rushing wind and goaded on by her voice. The entire vehicle is clearly visible now; in every way, it looks the same as the contraption we previously encountered. The driver, however, is different, though his expression remains every bit as stoic as his associate from our previous encounter. Even as he reaps the whirlwind, he looks more apt to stifle a yawn.

"National cull. Nervous system."

He won't need to wait long for a wake up call. A torrent of air bends the crane backward and then rips it away entirely, sending the drinking bird flying off on the into the forest, turning cartwheels in midair as it is buoyed by the screaming wind currents.

"You should have helped. Not hid beneath the ancestral rug."

She is leaning forward now, angling her upper body toward the vehicle and stepping closer. Her movements are swift and harsh. She directs her body as though it were a piece of chalk, a tool designed to disturb the surfaces of pristine blackboards with some scrawled invective. As she turns and shifts, violent gusts of winds follow her lead and she conducts them in stride. They lift the entire front end of the vehicle up at her behest, upending the giant drum at the back so that the opening on its top tilts toward the ground and threatens to spill its contents out upon the path.

"Now the rotor."

Every inch of her focus is fixed upon the mechanical predator that she now holds in thrall; each muscle fiber is pointed at it. She transforms her entire being into a single, accusatory finger. Though she continues to speak, her words are carried away and lost in the storm. Her voice lifts and transmutes into a turbulent chorus, becoming one with the sound of the rising wind. She is poised at the center, the unwavering eye of the hurricane.

She thrusts her arms outward, slipping them into the jetstream that surrounds her. Her palms are open and her fingers splayed, allowing the air to rush through them in rivulets. She brings her fingers together and her hands catch the wind like spinnakers, the force of the cyclone sending her into a chaotic spin cycle. The speed of her winding gyre escalates until she begins to lift off the ground, carried upward as effortlessly as a samara caught in a gale.

Her form blurs into a swirl of color. She is axle and crux, conduit and funnel. The wind flows into her, channeled through one arm and dispersed from the other. With each revolution, she cracks her arm like a whip, sending visible shockwaves lashing out at the vehicle from the core of the tempest.

The waves blast the vehicle in rapid succession, growing in intensity with each strike. They slice through the chassis, reducing it to rubble. They shatter the floodlights, and tear the treads off like roof shingles. Within moments the entire frame is dismantled, leaving only the drum at the back, intact but still leaning on edge, precariously close to the tipping point.

Before the balance can tilt either way, the final exhalation is loosed. It lands dead center, throwing the driver clear and off into the distant trees before reaching the drum.

No fog remains to obscure what happens next: the drum shatters the instant the wave hits, jettisoning its contents in all directions. A rain of refuse is expelled, hurled into the open for all to see. At least, for those who wish to see. My own eyes close instinctively, and I am once again sheltered by the glory of elision.

When they open again, the formerly pristine path is a grisly mess. Amid the scattered debris, the ruined shells of animals are strewn across the ground, their corpses in varying states of decay and disrepair. Just ahead of me, the limp and unraveled figure of a hedgehog is sprawled in the dirt. It seems that Pretur now has plenty of company.

The wind has tapered down to a mild breeze, and in the distance I can even hear bits of disoriented birdsong. I try to focus on the sound, averting my eyes from the wreckage on the path before it makes me nauseous. Instead, I keep my head up and attempt to regain my bearings. Scanning for the others, I spot Leander just a few paces back on the path. He looks rattled appears to be relatively unscathed; he is looking on with rapt attention, unable to turn away from the source of the storm.

She hovers in midair above Pretur, looking down at him. She does not float too high - just far enough from the ground to be out of reach. All of the inclement forces that she had wielded with such righteous furor now seem to be gathered within her, and she looks upon her fallen friend with an expression of profound grief.

Deep inside, I feel an old familiar ache. It tugs at my essence, uproots my feet, sinks its hooks into my marrow. Inexorable. Irrefutable. The pull.

"No!" she says, emitting a brief, subdued groan of despair. "Not now."

Could it be that she feels it, too? The probability seems high, though I hesitate to believe it for her sake. You often meet others along the path, though the encounters are rarely so fraught. Most often, they provide little more than light conversation - idle banter exchanged between fellow travelers.

"Please, not yet."

Even as her plea rings out, she is being dragged away. She strains against the pull, bellowing and howling, too distraught to recognize the futility of her struggle. She flits desperately from side to side in a vain attempt at resistance, but she is a kite leashed to an unbreakable tether. The more she fights, the quicker she gets reeled in. Before long she is out of view entirely.

Exhaustion settles over me. I close my eyes and stretch out in the empty spaces, letting myself be towed along with the rest of my coterie by the call of our mutual destination. We are summoned to court, and haven't far to go. I hope that we will see her there.