Vivisection

It's easy to get lost. The forest is thick with paths that lead in a hundred different directions, and I have no calling to one over another. The path I have found myself on is a mere wandering of dirt, where the trees stretch overhead like lonely mothers crying out to children lost in the wind. It's this wind I can't stand, driving at my clothes, pushing leaves and grit into my face. Despite the setbacks, I press on undeterred.

But lost.

A faint tinge of worry begins to darken my thoughts as I continually find myself at a crossroads or a fork. I've long been without a map, and my compass is of no avail. The magnetic tip simply dances back and forth as if mocking my efforts. Finally at a point where the road diverges in two trails to the left and to the right, I stop.

My hat having blown away with my map in a careless moment a few hours ago, my hair blows freely, a few dark strands trailing into my eyes. Sighing, my aching legs begging for rest, I lean back and glance at the sky. The dying embers of sunset can vaguely be seen still but night is clearly taking over. A cloudy, gusty night with no stars to divulge a proper path.

Finally I rely on intuition, simply allowing a gut feeling to tell me which path to take, and am soon stumbling down the left road. The trees cling together even tightly here, barely allowing a road to separate them. The bushes are still more social, growing straight across the lane or even right in the midst of it. It isn't long before a light rain begins to drizzle down, soft like a mist at first and then harder until my clothes are soaked through.

It takes an hour of this before there is finally a change. The winding path curves and turns right, and to the left, a clearing opens up. A shockingly beautiful clearing thick with flowers and carpeted with loam and grass.

My astonishment grew as I stepped off the path and the wind ceased. For a moment I just stood there sopping wet. After a moment I realized the rain had stopped and the sun was peaking through the branches of the forest. Thick fat rays of pure orange light began to warm the air.

The clearing stood pinched between the dirt path and a small river fed by the recent rainfall. Flowers of nearly every sort I had ever seen carpeted it, with a ceiling of creeping vines and dangling branches creating an emerald roof that filtered the sunlight. Wiping saturated locks of hair out of my face, I began to walk deeper into the beautiful glade.

In disbelief I bent down and plucked a flower. It wasn't even wet. How-

"Hello."

I started and dropped the lily I'd picked. For a moment I couldn't see anyone and then realized that a little girl was standing about ten feet off. She was holding a large bundle of flowers up to her face and breathing in their scent. She looked over the bouquet at me with quick-witted green eyes and for a moment we just stared at each other.

Letting the flowers fall to the ground, the very young girl took a step towards me, the simple yellow dress she wore swirling above her ankles. Her toes dug heedless into a small clump of pink tulips as her small, bare feet glided through the grass. A small, crimson flower of a sort I'd never seen adorned one of her ears.

As she closed to within five feet of me, I saw she couldn't be more than eight years old. And yet, she didn't look at all bothered to be deep in the forest by herself. She must live near here. Perhaps she can show me the way out.

I smiled and finally made a reply to her greeting. "Hello, young lady. I wonder, could you tell me whether or not I'm on the proper path to get out of the woods? I'm not quite sureā€¦"

The girl returned my smile politely, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. "If you were already on the right road, you wouldn't be here."

At this I lost my temper. "What do you mean? How should I know which route is correct when I'm lost? I can't tell one path from the other in all these damnable trees."

The girl gasped and then leaned forward and pressed a finger against my ribcage.

"Evil." That was all she said, just that one word.

"Look, I'm sorry for cursing but-"

She shook her head and cut me off, and then mashed her finger against my chest again, and this time after her fingernail pressed against my wet shirt, she nodded as if she'd been confirming her diagnosis and then stretched out all her fingers and clapped a thin hand against my ribs. "Evil."

"Who are you to judge me? Filthy little brat. I was only asking for directions. What's so awful about wanting to reach the town on the other side of the woods?"

"There is none who does good," the girl whispered. "You don't believe me. You need to be shown." She glanced about her at the flowers at our feet and then dove for one. Her fingers wrapped ungently around a small white flower and yanked hard. I heard a small snap and then she stood, holding up a daisy and grinning, a bit of juice dripping from the vivid green stem onto her fingers.

"To see what's wrong, you have to breathe the air of what's good." I found myself growing more and more angry, and I was ready to walk away, but I still held out hope that she would help me find my way if I played along.

She stretched out her arm and I took the daisy. Obviously she wanted me to smell it. I glanced at the flower for a few second, watching its white petals flutter in the wind, and then I lifted the yellow disk at its center to my nose and breathed in deeply. The girl whispered again.

"There is none who does good."

Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my nose and felt scales rubbing against the skin of my palm and realized I was holding a snake in my hands. I dropped it in horror and realized I'd been bitten.

I raised a hand to feel my nose and saw that horrible red blotches patched my skin. I screamed as I looked about me and saw that the beautiful clearing had been replaced by a dry, barren field teeming with snakes of all sizes and colors.

The trees were now withered and barren and gray. The river was dry as a bone. The warm sunlight had been replaced by a stifling gray twilight. An unnatural vacuum of silence weighed down on me as I stood suddenly beginning to feel sicker and sicker as if my body had been filled with poison all my life that was only now claiming its victim. My stomach burned as if it had been placed over a fire. My palms grew cold and clammy, and my throat dried up and seemed to come close to constricting.

As I looked around me in horror and confusion I realized that the little girl was totally unharmed. She didn't even appear perturbed. The snakes slithered over her bare feet and one was steadily moving through her hair.

"You see." She said simply. "You see inside yourself. Given time, you'll begin to fold up." As I watched, the trees began to rot. A hideous, thick, purple mold began to grow all over them. From the drooping branches where leaves had once grown, shriveled black fruit began to grow.

Meanwhile the snakes began to grow in number. The two of us were soon up to our knees, with no sign of an end to their increase in sight. I wanted to run, but I was too afraid of being bit. Too afraid of sinking into the sea of shifting scales. And through it all I felt the pain growing. An ache welled up in my legs, joining the awful burning. My knees began to shake with effort as I fought to stay up. Finally I could stand it no more. I collapsed and landed face first in the snakes.

The first bite came to an ankle. One of the reptiles tore through my pant leg and dug deep into the flesh, and sent knifes of pain slicing into my body along with a healthy dose of venom that I could feel, the excess dripping down into my shoe. Then another bite came, one to the shoulder. Then two to the face. More, and more and more began to take chunks out of me while the fever wracked my body. Finally I felt two massive fangs wrap around my throat and what was left of the light vanished. The last thing I saw was the girl, my sight of her half-blocked by the snakes. She was shaking her head.

"The innocent are the greatest of all." She whispered, the last words I heard before the world went dark.

I awoke suddenly what seemed like a few seconds later, my face crushed into several flowers. I pushed myself up with a start and found that I was back in the clearing, back in the beautiful clearing as it had been before I'd touched the flower. At first I simply sat in disbelief, and then I leapt to my feet and began to laugh, hardly able to believe I was still alive.

And none the worse for the wear, I noticed. My clothing was hardly even disheveled. Looking around, I noticed the girl was nowhere in sight. Had she been some sort of hallucination? Had I been drugged somehow? As I gathered my thoughts together and prepared to try my luck on the path again, the wind whipped through the branches and I heard, or thought I heard, a voice whispering.

"Without innocence you will never reach the end of the road."