In A Forest Frightful (Part 7)

All right, so it’s going to be quite a bit confusing now if you don’t start at the beginning, so here. ; )


I have to go back out there.

From the safety of the crevasse Eugene can see his pack, papers strewn about. He cannot see if the hooded man also lingers about, waiting to see if his quarry emerges from hiding. After a little under an hour with no signs of movement, he takes a deep breath and starts to worm his way outside. The mid-morning light lends even the skeletal white trees some semblance of warmth, and the mist has cleared. There are no signs of animal life or otherwise, not even a bird in the lightly-clouded sky, simply the unnatural quiet that has reigned since his entry into the forest. Poking his head out, the silence is reflected in his surroundings. Twisting until he is free from the stone coffer, he walks over to his scattered cargo and looks at it, hands on his hips, then glances back at the hole.

“Well, would have probably had to take it out to squeeze in there anyhow. No way I’m climbing over these peaks.” As if to echo this sentiment, there is the sound of rocks falling in the distance. Eugene raises an eyebrow. “Guess I shouldn’t really be surprised at this point.” He gathers up a stack of papers, stops for a moment, eyes angled upward, snaps his fingers, and grabs a match as well. It takes a bit longer, but once inside he lights the match and stares at its flame. It leans toward the back of the cave. The cave itself is littered with fragments of stone, slate walls smooth where not lined with diagonal ridges. He moves further down the passage, eyes upon the crumbling floor. The thin line of light from outside is now barely visible and he once again holds up the tiny matchflame, its stick now half the length it was. This time the flame leans toward Eugene, who sighs, extinguishing the match.

“Oops.” There is the sound boots upon rock and light floods the area.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing in here?”

Eugene starts and drops the stack of paper he was holding and turns to face the glaring man who has stepped out from a barely visible side passage. He holds up his now-empty hands, palms facing out. “My apologies, is this your cave?”

“It’s mine and my partner’s gold mine, I’ll have you know. You’d best vacate it if you know what’s good for ya.” It becomes apparent that the man is holding a sharply pointed pickaxe, the haft of which he smacks against his palm.

“I’m sorry, I had no idea. I’m simply trying to get to Fencepost and, well, I didn’t want to go over the mountains. Am I right in assuming that this is a tunnel that leads to the other side?”

“Yep, it leads right out… hey, how did you know that?” He points the less threatening top of the pickaxe at Eugene in what is obviously meant to be a more threatening gesture, seemingly unaware that a pickax is much less dangerous when the pointy bits aren’t aimed at you.

“Ah, well, I’ll show you.” He repeats his match experiment, and the flame bends obligingly away from the depths of the tunnel. “See? You can tell by the air that’s flowing and causing the flame to lean towards the opening of the cave. I read about this technique in one of my books.”

“Well how about that! All I know is breakin’ rocks, none o’ that science business. ’S long as you’re not after the gold I’ll show you the way through. But how did you get in here, anyhow?”

“Well, if you see over there,” he gestures with one hand toward the light coming from the entry crack, “your cave has an alternate entrance, though I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Are you serious? Even if I’d know about it I wouldn’t have thought it were possible to fit through that pinhole, though you are a skinny one.”

“I was also a bit desperate at the time,” and he tells Robbie about the hooded man.

“No kiddin’? I thought the most dangerous things in these parts were the wolves, and they mostly keep to themselves, ‘specially if you keep a fire going.” Eugene raises an eyebrow but makes no comment. He follows as they walk through the much more hospitable, if a bit lengthier, main tunnel. “And you said you’re delivering papers to Fencepost? Once you pass through here you’ll be about halfway there.”

“Thank God. I’m well-tired of these parts. You’re sure nothing strange has happened to you and… was it Jim?”

“Only strange thing is the trees, but who knows. Probably some tropical breed that took over. That, and how little gold we’ve found, curse this mine. Our buddy John said he was sure this was a prime spot, though where he got that information I don’t know.”

They emerge into the afternoon sunlight, each squinting at the abrupt change from the dry darkness of the tunnel. Eugene gathers up what’s left, puts it into his now-deflated pack, and they head back into the tunnel. Once inside he stuffs the rest in as well, a mishmash of books, paper, and wrapped food, which goes on top.

“What’re they gonna do with all that stuff in Fencepost?”

“My father seems to think there are people there who have an interest in printing. I’m simply the errand boy.”

“Ha! Sound like you’re going to have about as much luck as me and Jim’ve had.”

Their progress is marked by a rapid decrease in the level of light. This time it is Robbie who starts rummaging in his satchel. The crusty, gritty hand emerges with two thick sticks, the end of each wrapped in fabric that stink of sulfur and lime. He holds one out to Eugene.

“Torch for ya,” Robbie says and passes it over, quickly lighting his own and using it to light the other. The light struggles against the confined space, throwing the pick-scarred walls in sharp relief. Further and further they go, descending on a gentle slope, the moisture and the walls and ceiling steadily expanding. Occasionally a drop hits one of their torches, which has much the same reaction a cat would have to water, hissing and spitting. After around twenty minutes of walking, the tunnel becomes a true cave, angular rock replaced by stalactites, tips gleaming in the unwelcome light. “This space here gives me hope. There’s still a lot of explorin’ to do. Gotta shine our light on those gold veins!”

“I wish you all the luck with your endeavor.” Myself, I’ll stick with less luck-based prospects, he thinks as he surveys the expansive subterranean cavity.

“Appreciate it. I’ll not bore you with that now, though. Let’s lean a bit to the right, that’s where the connecting tunnel should be.”

They both walk in that direction, hopping over the cracks of varying widths and depths that criss-cross the fragmented floor. Just as the light of the torches reaches the far side of the cavern there is a low moaning. Eugene halts and stands up straight and stiff, looking all around.

“What is that.”

“Could be some wind or an air pocket, pretty common,” but as Robbie says this the moaning becomes louder and more pronounced, and is now accompanied by trudging, heavy footfall. “Uh…” A liquid growling slowly fills up the room and then becomes a deep screech.

“I knew it! I damn well knew it! Every bloody time!” Eugene’s cries echo all around as he runs yelling and disappears into an opening on the far side of the cavern.

“Wait! Wait, ya bleedin’ idiot!” Robbie calls after him in vain. “That’s the wrong tunnel!” The screech cuts off and is replaced by coughing and then the sound of someone spitting and laughing. “Jim! Is that you?” A curly-haired man emerges from the shadows, a wide grin upon his stubbly face.

“Aye, ’twas me. That was me best howl yet, and you didn’t even react. But who was the flagpole walkin’ with ye’?”

“Oh ye’ know, just some traveler you’ve sentenced to a slow death with your silly spookery.”

“Hey, a man shouldn’t be that scare-able anyhow!”

“Be that as it may, we gotta go find him. Though I didn’t see that passage over there before. Did you know about it?” They walk over to where Eugene was last seen.

“No, never saw that one before. Maybe flagpole will lead us to luck.” They walk together over to the wall, hopping over the cracks and avoiding the numerous water-slicked patches.

“What in the…”

The smooth stone of the wall is unbroken and impassible, and there is no sign of Eugene.

( ©2018 Sean Dorsey )

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Forest Frightful (Part 6)

What’s that? You don’t remember this series? I don’t blame you, it’s been awhile since I updated it. You should go back to part 1 so you can understand what’s going on here!


 

As the-wolf-that-is-Eugene retreats, memories rush unbidden through his head, some of his experiences as a member of the pack and some from his carefree days as a layabout in his hometown. In the forefront of these memories are images of his younger siblings as they all made something of themselves, pretending that he couldn’t see the disapproving gaze of his father, and then the final moment when he was sent away, the entire reason I’m now being chased by an ax maniac, he thinks. Let us go together with him back to that fortuitous day and see what set poor Eugene upon this path.

The sound of the stamping machine can be heard from the paper mill, pressing the fibers repeatedly into flat sheaves for binding. Eugene sits outside, freshly printed book flat on his lap and head leaning back against a tree trunk, eyes closed and mouth parted. A careful observer could connect the sounds coming from within the mill with the rotating of the wheel on the side of the weathered wood building, and then they would become curious about the other noise coming from the mill, an unpredictable tapping that starts, stops, starts. And then a harsher noise, a cracking, and there comes shrieks of pain from the mill punctuated by quick silences as the screamer takes breaths. Eugene starts awake but does not get up immediately, first looking to either side with sleep-swollen eyes and then scrambling to his feet, the book falling from his lap to the grass below.
Within the mill, two of his brothers are pulling a young boy away from the still stamping machine, a thin trail of blood traced across the floor as they retreat. The boy is panting and crying. A fifth person enters behind the group as they struggle with the writhing boy.
“What in the world happened? Eugene? What’s going on here?”

Eugene turns back to face the man, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. His eyes flicker to the red line that now extends out through the doorway.

“You’d better come with me.”

Eugene and his father are seated in a room, windows covered, the afternoon light squeezing itself through the gaps around the blinds as if curious about what’s happening within. The only furniture is a table and two chairs, and few odds and ends lay scattered about the floor. Eugene’s father stares across the table at him, arms folded and mouth set in a grimace. He is the first to speak.
“So? How did this happen?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You were supposed to be watching him! My God, can you not do the simplest of tasks?”
“He was playing and I was reading and… I must have fallen asleep.”
“Your nephew is going to lose two fingers because you didn’t have the patience or care to watch over him. You need to get out of here – your sister truly may kill you.” He glares at Eugene and Eugene glares at the ground. His father looks away. “Perhaps leaving is a good idea. Take this delivery to Fencepost. That’ll give us some time for Layla’s anger to disperse.” Eugene finally looks up.
“What? That’s… that’s miles and miles away! Not to mention they have no use–”
“That’s the entire damn point. And I’ll have you know I have reliable word that there is a burgeoning interest in printing there. And it was not a request. You are going to take responsibility for something. Just because you don’t usually see the consequences of your inaction doesn’t mean they don’t exist, Eugene. This is not the first time you’ve created trouble by doing nothing. I’ve turned a blind eye to your laziness for long enough. I’ll put the delivery together for you… and if you can’t even do this simple thing, don’t expect a prodigal’s welcome upon your return.”

Eugene skids to a halt, his eyes closed and lips curled up in a snarl. He turns back to the scuffle, still visible in the distance as a blur of grey-blue shapes that swarm at the feet of the hooded man. I only seem to be able to run away, but perhaps my flight can at least be of use to someone, he thinks as he sprints toward the scuffle.
The wolves are not losing the battle, but neither are they winning. They jump and snap but the whirling axe keeps them at bay, its edge flashing through the night air, seemingly in all directions at once. Just as soon as one of them lunges for the man he strikes and they twist out of the way in midair. Nevertheless, the blood that drips upon the grass below is all lupine, and the hooded man shows no signs of tiring; instead, he stomps the ground with quick steps in a manic show of glee. And then a howling breaks the fighters’ concentration and they turn as one to look at Eugene, his head thrown back. Wolf eyes meet human and Eugene growls. The hooded man immediately moves toward Eugene, kicking one of the real wolves out of the way. They are all panting and wobble upon their feet, and the look they give to Eugene is clearly one of gratitude to be able to take a break from combat. He turns tail and starts running again, the hooded man in pursuit. This situation is becoming far too familiar, he thinks to himself. And it was a gamble that he would even respond to my taunt but… why is this maniac so fixated upon me?
As far as the chase is concerned, though, the tables have definitely turned. The hooded man can hardly keep up with the now four-legged Eugene, whose easy stride propels him between the trees as though he were a gust of wind rather than a physical being. In fact, it is so easy that Eugene can stop and look back at his pursuer, ears pricked and not even panting. Contrasting this, the hooded man’s bare chest is heaving and mouth wheezing, the fabric fluttering over the concealed maw. Each time the wolf looks back at him he waves the axe through the air, the strokes visibly slower than when he was fighting the pack. Just a bit further and I’ll leave this devil far behind. As Eugene thinks this, he notices that the light is changing in the forest, becoming brighter by small degrees, shining refraction through the early morning mist. Up ahead, through the obscurant water vapor loom grey shapes, and Eugene’s heart drops. What in the world are those? But as he comes nearer the shapes sharpen and become the low slopes of what appears to be a mountain range. Sun breaks over the peaks, the bright, focused rays shining into his eyes, and the leafless trees become more sparse the closer they get to the stony spires, the grassy ground slowing morphing to rubble. And then he is tumbling head over heels, papers flying from his pack. He sits up, dirt on his elbows and streaked across his legs. When he looks back this time, the hooded man has stopped, but only for a moment before dashing at him, the sight of the pack-laden human figure apparently invigorating. Eugene scrambles to his feet and runs, his lungs burning almost immediately. There is a dark spot at the base of the mountains, a tiny sliver that could just be shadow, but there is no other choice at this point, no turning back and no climbing the steep slopes, so he dashes for it, rewarded when he sees it is a narrow crevasse curving under the looming mass of stone. The sliver of darkness appears almost impassible but Eugene shrugs off his pack and dives for it, the brim of his hat bending as he passes through the gap, sucking in his stomach and turning his head sideways. Even so, the jagged rock drags at the fabric of his clothes. There is a rush of air that he feels on his ankles, and then the ringing sound of metal chipping rock, but the tall, skinny Eugene has safely wormed his way into the hole and under the mountain, crawling on his stomach and then on hands and knees as the space begins to gradually grow larger and more comfortable, but darker. He does not see the arm that reaches in after him, grasping hand grabbing at void and then smacking the ground before retracting back into the open air. Part 7 →

( ©2018 Sean Dorsey )

Forest Frightful (Part 5)

At this point Eugene is a sight that would make your eyes sore. His clothes are sweat-stained, his hair is plastered to his forehead, and his steps are heavy upon the ground in spite of its relative softness. There is truly something wrong with this region. I’ll be glad to be done with it. Hopefully it will not be much longer, or shall without a doubt run into some new monstrosity, he thinks to himself as he tries to keep moving. However, his legs are sore and resist the commands of his brain, and he catches himself dragging his feet and stumbling even more than usual. I don’t think I’ve run so much in one day since I was ten years old, nor had so little sleep. He looks around and, seeing a patch of sparsely-leaved bushes, walks over to them and drops to a seat. I’ll just rest a moment, he thinks, but barely a minute has passed before exhaustion catches up to him and his eyes shut. In spite of of all the recent danger or perhaps because of it, the lure of sleep proves irresistible, and his eyes close even as he worries about what new or known oddities might assail him while he rests, the memory of the hooded man at the forefront of this lineup. Before consciousness leaves him, there is the sound of a howl in the distance, and he has time to think that surely it is too far away to worry about. The last thing he remembers is a faint smell, almost like wet dog, that seems to be emanating from the bushes that surround him. Read on →

Forest Frightful (Part 4)

Not far outside the pit where once there was a graveyard stands an old church, white siding chipped and weather-cracked. A steeple rises up from the center of a roof that has a scattering of missing shingles, patches of brown amidst the black panels. A pile of wood is stacked outside to the right of the tall, double doors, a well-ordered pyramid of damp brown cylinders with a short-handled hatchet protruding from the top middle log. The fog has started to recede a bit as night begins its daily, gradual overtaking of the daylight, but the residual wet of the weather lingers on. There does appear to be a light from within the church, so Eugene makes his way toward it, his mouth still slightly open from the spectacle through which he just passed, his expression otherwise neutral aside from this dazed look. A knock upon the door makes a dull noise against the thick wood, but it is barely thirty seconds before it creaks open, revealing a wrinkled face with round, clean spectacles perched upon a thin nose that resembles an upside-down ’T.’
Go on →

Forest Frightful (Part 3)

The sun is starting to fall before Eugene sees anything other than trees and grass. Or rather, it is at this point that he starts to see nothing, as a thick fog creeps up from all around, and before he knows it envelops him in its damp embrace. Moisture beads upon the exposed skin of his face and hands, making the already difficult trek unpleasantly soggy as well. Several times he almost collides with trees, such is the opacity of the billowing vapor. The third or fourth time this happens, his now halted and much more hesitant steps are overlapped by the gentle crunch of foot upon grass from behind. He hesitates and then turns around as the noises continue, a regular rhythm that comes to a stop as he sees his companion in the mist.
Read on →

Forest Frightful (Part 1)

It was a forest where the trees were bare no matter the season.
Summer, winter, fall – there was always an unclothed and bony brown tangle that arched out above and, in many places, would nearly blot out the sun. That’s not to say that the trees were dead, though, as they would invariably reveal a light green flesh if scraped with knife or nail. And the region was warm, a humid area that persisted even through the colder seasons, striking many that passed into it with illness at the sudden change.


Nevertheless, the trees never put forth any noticeable foliage.
As if to emphasize the oddity of it all, there was a very clear border where normal-leafed trees grew. There was grass below the naked trees, but even this was of a fainter green than its healthier-looking counterparts. A bird flying overhead could look for miles and miles and see no signs of habitation.
Something flying higher than a bird would see that the region was an irregular shape, a dollop of brownish paint in the middle of otherwise healthy green land, broken partially by a line of red-grey mountains.


When the occasional traveler comes across this strange region of false autumn, they invariably pause for a moment at the threshold before either plunging on ahead as if they could speed through the entirety of it or, if they have heard the tales of this particular neck of the woods, retreat several paces from the interstice between life and seeming death, taking the long way around rather than intruding on the silent and interminably long stretch of wilderness.


And then there was Eugene. Go on →