The Woods In Which They Play
The willows arched their branches to tickle Vinnes Yoska's fingertips. The ends snaked around his wrists and snugly rested their heads on his upper-arm, and when he moved his arms down the rasping wind brushed his clean-cut jet black hair; slender leaves danced on the nape of his stout neck.
He re-adjusted the collar of his silken chocolate button-down shirt, and brushed mule-road dust onto his sagging dress pants with a groan and curl of his bottom lip. Mud splashed his legs when he hiked up his pants to slosh onto the soaked bank of a gurgling brown river. The foliage all seemed to lean inward, studs of cyprus and gently bobbing bark rot. He cringed, and plunged like an eager labrador into the shallow depths.
Muddy grains drained down his throat with the texture of tiny insects. Water beetles skated across the surface of the river, settling atop his head and hooking their stilt-like feet into his cheeks. He coughed, wheezed, beat his throat with one fist and bolted to the surface for a breath and purging of the waste-water.
The Rom finally touched base with the opposite bank, picking bugs from a tangle of hair with his other hand. He slicked it into a knot between two fingers, and took a moment to plop down in the mud and flirt with the lustful red mandala of poppies sprouting from every crevasse of every tree trunk. A rainbow of butterflies roosted in the undergrowth, wings calmly unfolding and refolding in rhythmic intervals, aroused by the clattering of ginkgo branches.
He extended a finger to appeal to one of the regal insects, watching it extend a feeler to graze the sweat and grime dripping through the cracks in his slender digits. It would trace the joints in his index finger with a blue-speckled proboscis, and he returned the favor with a stroke from the back of his thumb on its pencil-thin abdomen. Back-stepping once, it fluttered its wings in a threatened manner; each butterfly acted in unison with the ambassador.
Touching a fingertip to his lips, Vinnes traced the melding shadow of the collective with a disappointed sigh. His intrigued smile turned upside-down, and his heart skipped a beat; what a beautiful moment that Mother Nature refused to share with her human cancer.
"No need to be startled," the Rom whispered softly, leaning back into the clutch of gnarled ginkgo limbs.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he reiterated, cautiously extending his hand again, "Those patterns are very interesting." Vinnes retrieved the delicate body of a dead butterfly, rolling it over in his palms until its wing-tips and legs became a fine white powder in the creases of his skin.
The design on its wing resembled the distorted image of a face in chaos, lit by a single ray of aqua-neon. He found the jagged teeth jutting off in every direction from the treetops, and the violent eyes: perfectly round punctures in the trunks that wept black sap. The sun was in a partial eclipse behind silhouettes of skeletal branches, and a grey mist swept up the steep bank, leveling around the man's muddy hiking boots.
He looked back into the shallow wood, but the butterflies had vanished like ghosts into the growing fog. When he waved an appendage in the creeping cloud, it would curiously form a heaving ring at his feet, and then ropes of mist slithered up his legs, settled for a moment, and then dissipated when he took a step. With each crunch of dead grass underneath his sole, a geyser of butterflies would suddenly explode into the air from beneath the silvery film.
Vinnes caught five on the underside of his finger, watching their tiny bodies pulse like roosting heartbeats, matching their designs with the swaying of the highest branches. After a few more steps, Vinnes walked right into a nearby tree, and on the edge of the shallow wood the fog had begun to settle once more.
The queer curves of the hooked branches seemed to form some sort of natural tunnel overgrown with weeping willows. This gaping mouth was layered with jagged granite formations that hunched over into the beaten path; wilting brown rose vines strangled the necks of the spires. Vinnes, leaving the churning bay of mist quickly behind, was watching the formations that accumulated from a jigsaw of select sunlight, drawing shadow-blotches of spindly monsters under his feet.
From the perimeter of the wood it seemed like nothing more than a few rows of scraggly little bushes and a cluster of average-height dead trees; he never expected this. The hindrance of the mist was being quickly replaced by a personal midnight; the deeper down the trail Vinnes dragged himself, the bleaker it was becoming. Foliage was becoming splintered and grey; wads of bog moss drained black rainwater atop Vinnes' head.
Between the whispers skittering through the tangles of pronged, bare branches and a deadened chanting the air was feeling denser and more humid. Sticky grey lines of sweat ran down the Rom's cheeks. The last butterfly that had clung to his finger was now a colorless corpse slowly decomposing into patches of heather powder which stained Vinnes' dark clothing.
When looking straight into the thicket through a powder cloud, Vinnes noticed a crouched child-like shape a few inches from the edge of a deeper drop-off. Fumbling for a flashlight zipped in one of the smaller side compartments of his hiking sack, he shined it in the shadow's direction, and stumbled backwards when pointing up to the canopies. The apparition had vanished, but Vinnes was hardly convinced it was mind tricks.
"Who's there," The Rom muttered, managing to find his back up against the nearest trunk, "don't pretend like you're not there; I saw you!" Grass-woven strings rattled from the branches, human skulls and cracked animal bones thumping him on the back of the head. Vinnes jumped; the ghastly thing re-emerged a few inches from his heaving chest, when he breathed the insect-dust into the heavy air. One of its' lanky arms began to rise, and the man recognized the glint of something precious clutched in the thing's oozing hand. His entire world went a stark red.
Vinnes matched eyes with two frigid slate orbs. He blinked a fine pale color from his world, which came off in thick ashen motes. A looming shade began to shift into focus, coupled with chinking golden strips of beads which ticked his nose and quivered like an angler's line. Weakly, the man attempted to catch one strand between his fingers, but it hopped right out of his reach just second beforehand. A voice emitted from the bowels of the shaking being, a sort of rasp southern French accent,
"Il est éveillé. Il est vivant!" Two more took the person's place.
"Dites-le chef des chasseurs de retour mai," one shoved the other, "attrapez-le, maintenant!" Vinnes had never bothered studying the French language, but could tell that by the urgency that one bolted off into the dark, there were details being thrown around that Vinnes was missing out on.
The remaining form arched its' neck a wee bit lower to be level with Vinnes, "vous ne souffrent pas de fin; ce sont nos bois, c'est notre sanctuaire."
Forked ivory antlers jutted from the captor's matted clumps of grimy black hair, and it donned a mess of worn wolf skins; Vinnes was beginning to adjust and light was flooding into his surroundings. A pungent black-brown slobber down on Vinnes' forehead. It curved around the creases encompassing his drowsy eyelids, and cried off the tip of his nose; the taste was something like week-old roadkill, and it smelled of rot and fresh vomit.
"Who are you? Where am I? Wh-" Silence, and Vinnes was cut off by a firm hand muzzling his nervous mouth.
"Calme. Vous allez à la chef, maintenant," the palm was caked in dry blood, "enlevez vos vêtements." The child dragged the grown man to his feet, annoyingly splashing him with wolf's blood and more butterfly residue.
"I do not speak French." He grunted, almost waiting for the dweller to begin spouting out fluent English, but it just continued to ramble inaudibly to itself in foreign tongue, "je no speakay Français, comprende?" He snarled, quickly realizing that he was being unwillingly dragged toward the dingy woodland depths. His leader stepped off the path and into a waist-deep stream of sludge, grip getting ever-tighter each time Vinnes attempted to pry the petite yellow-nailed claws from his wrist.
It hissed and swayed with each step, bent low to the ground with its' shoulder-blades arced like a stalking predator's, olive green fumes steaming from its' nostrils. The shredded, bone-pierced remains of a scarlet tongue dumbly hung between two pointed teeth; its' gums were an inky black, and all of those broken and lost teeth had been replaced with the dull tips of oxidized knives, bundles of firm rose thorns, strips of hanging barbed wire, and a few serrated wolf's canines. Vinnes sighed, reluctantly allowing the three-foot child to shove him viciously along, whilst paddling right behind.
"Je vous laisse ici. Le chef vous attend dans sa masure... vous mourir honorablement cette nuit." The child giggled, and shoved him with a wicked cackle onto the opposite bank of the thin stream. It restrained his arms, spit in his eyes, and was gone like a shadow in a pitch black room. He rubbed them with extreme distaste, groaning at the putrid smell that permeated through his oxygen all of a sudden. Firmly planting his boots in the swampy soil, the Rom noticed lights; he watched hundreds of tiny emerald fireflies blinking like stars in the night sky. They orbited in an upward spiral around his waist steadily, and then would ribbon back down into the grass. Each insect marched into place, creating an equally divided incandescent path winding uphill. The forest had diminished into clumps of stunted cinquefoil bushes and an expanse of quilted hills.
A towering arboretum bloomed up into the dusky overcast, silhouetted against a navy-blue sky canvas. The gargantuan birch's structure was sturdy enough that overgrown potted gardens were being cultivated amidst it's twisted branches. Ivy-woven drapes, trimmed in dangling gold chains of skulls, swayed gently in a pleasant breeze. The chipped grey papery bark was flaking in massive sheets scattered at the base of the diving serpentine roots, and speared through were wolves' blood-matted heads lopsided on sharpened wooden pikes.
From the bowels of a crude gnawed out portal in the front of the stalk, there glowed a homey aqualescent fire-light. Turquoise smoke gently wafted from pores in the trunk, adding to the after-fragrance of a fresh rainfall. Wet grass clung to the soles of his boots as he took careful steps towards the arboretum, mesmerized by the thought of furthering his escape into what had begun to feel like an antagonist to his skeptical outlook on the surreal life.
Vinnes truly felt small when he finally reached the first of the seven-foot tall roots, looming over him like a drooling serpent; a foul-smelling thick black sap secreted from scars in the living green tendrils. Children's stick-drawings were chiseled into the sides, and swirl-eyed tribal smiley faces were painted in, what was now, rotten chunks of gore. Pushing past these growths, the man groaned when stumbling over tinier roots, and eventually hit his head against the blunt doorway with a hand planted in a batch of butterfly-dust.
He rubbed his eyes, unknowingly regaining the sight once again. Ducking into the grotto, Vinnes flinched. For a split second, the flood of blue hearth-glow was blinding, and then settled down to an intense accent on every original color in the alcove. Woven leather thongs stapled with strings of rancid vegetables, decaying body parts, and vials of steaming earth-tone concoctions were strung from tightly bound hairy roots. A stunted pyramid of twigs stood at Vinnes' feet, coughing up wild sparks of blue-green atmospheric haze. They seared black dots on the tops of his feet as he bent over to remove his boots; Vinnes politely tossed them aside, feeling the warm ashen floor between his toes. He looked down, and flinched.
Vinnes was staring into the eyes of the saddest excuse for a civilized being he could have ever imagined. The African seemed a year or two older than the previous child, perhaps seventeen.
"Sit." Her voice was like an untuned instrument, scraping sour notes against his ear drums,
"what's going on?" Vinnes seemed at ease with a savage who finally understood some English, "sit." She repeated, her burn-tipped finger motioning downwards, and drew a crude circle in the fine grains.
He hesitated for a moment, and then proceeded to sit cross-legged in the designated spot with a snivel. The man twiddled his thumbs uncomfortably, and then scratched his nose with a pinkie finger.
He observed her closely during what seemed to be a meeting of perfect silence. The top-half of an alpha wolf's elongated head was threaded to the white-dotted lines running down either side of her pronounced jaw. Her lips were dappled in blood. She donned a willow leaf veil coupled with a bark-chain choker and fluffy fern anklets which jingled from nut cases tied to the ends. A heavy butterfly paste doused her otherwise naked body with an intricate smiling sun design, and a few thorny swirls.
Pursing her lips, the chieftain leaned over the scalding coals of the colorful fire, tugging viciously at the sleeves of his jacket. The shadows accented across her features made her face resemble something of a freshly lit jack-o-lantern. "Off." The young woman groaned, tangling her bony fingers in the nest of matted hair plastered to the curves of her thin cheeks.
"Excuse me?" Ideas of slapping her hand away, screaming, or even bolting were arguing in his head at this point, but it all died and he was left sitting motionless on his dirty rump, head sort of slacked to the left. The sharpened points of her nails tip-toed down his arms, cutting thin ribbons in his beaten old dress jacket; he removed it quietly. She shook her head disapprovingly, seeming reluctant as she wrenched him to his feet.
With her other hand, she felt the closest moist wall, picking through rotting bark to expose a selection of tanned bone-stitched leather pouches concealed within. The container she retrieved was dyed an olive green, and by the smell of it, with a manure and soaked leaf mixture. Faded French cursive script had been burned into the hide, still indented enough that Vinnes could still make out 'Un lutin du reste.' She sneezed, sniveled, and brushed the snot from her nose with her right wrist. Unraveling the pouch into a petite mat in Vinnes' outstretched hands, she motioned for him to take the contents.
It consisted of a shard of amber a tad smaller than his palm. Sealed inside of the stone was a perfectly preserved dove-white luna moth. The casing felt sticky and cool to the touch, and if he applied enough pressure with his thumb, he could make a light imprint on the shell.
"You want me to have this?" Vinnes closed his fingers around it, then dropped the stone back into it's pouch; the pouch went in his breast pocket.
The chieftain croaked. "Il chante pour vous tous les soirs. J'ai du mal à supporter... yes." She cleared her throat and turned her back to the man. On her knees, the girl tightly shut her eyes and extended a fingertip to the crackling flame. Her nail curled upward, melting like hot wax against the underside of her wrist. Between her toes, she clutched his dirty jacket, and while standing on her scorched hands, she sacrificed the article to the greedy blaze; it erupted in a wailing onyx flare that gleamed like spurting oil. She moved spinelessly; as her soles touched back to the earth, her scarred palms stroked the sharp edges of a makeshift hollowed out alchemical workstation.
A ward of cobwebbed skulls strung together with knotted fishing line hung next to hand-blown glass vials of exotic local insects suspended in some dusky gelatin substance. Wild streamers of various sized canine paws dipped onto the stump table, and a yellow-paged tome was wide open upon it. Vinnes sucked in his gut and, at noticing that the chieftain was not paying the least bit of attention to him, casually leaned over the page to see if he couldn't find out anything more about these children, children who seemed like they had toppled right out from the stone age. Waving a spout of dust motes from his nose, he buried it in the musty old codex,
Un mot à la dame tranquille: elle dit peu, mais ce qu'elle a fait parler de mon intérieur fondu comme quelqu'un avait poussé ma poitrine dans un feu. Elle se cache quelque chose. Il est bleu et bourdonne apocalyptique carols la nuit.
Elle est à venir, et elle est très fort bourdonnement. J'ai entendu quelque chose de fort dans sa main. La façon dont elle touche elle dégage une légère grincent.
Elle est heureuse, parce que quelque chose est forte dans sa main. Bonne nuit.
and, by habit, softly hauled the covers together; his heart sank. Earlier, when first examining the volume, Vinnes half noticed a dim silken gleam trickling down the spine. The material was squishy and rank; it was only when Vinnes jumped at accidentally puncturing a fat thumb-sized hole in the cast, that he figured out the slimy skin of the work was a re-stitched human carcass.
"I really think I should go." The man choked, adjusting his collar uncomfortably.
Feeling the chieftain's eyes boring down on the nape of his neck, he swung around with the mistake of still clutching the oozing tome. Hastily scrambling to claim a rain of loose pages, the man awkwardly squatted to collect; she rapped a calloused fist on his forearm.
"Vous avez souillé notre ancestrales mots, étranger. Mai, le brouillard n'ont pas de pitié de votre départ. Mai, elle sera longue et douloureuse." She howled raspingly, repulsed by his skin; her nails scraped jagged lines down her scalp.
"I don't know what you're saying!" Vinnes flipped, grabbing tufts of his own hair in panic. "No. Speak. French!" He debated attempting to knock the girl out and make a run for it. She was built like a pillar, steadfast and unmovable; instead, the chieftain beat the backs of his legs with her knees, and wildly tackled him to the floor, his head lay just inches from the wailing ooze of thick black oil slithering over the teepee of charred sticks that had once held a brilliant flame. He could make out burn-ended scraps of jacket popping at the foot of the structure.
When he attempted to reclaim footing, not only did he slip with a spray of mud spotting his face, but the chieftain dug hook-sharpened nails into his chest upon slipping two toes through a crack in his shirt, and prying back a few buttons. It felt warm at first, the blood forming tingling channels that highlighted the contours of his breast; the liquid was viscous, like syrup trickling from every pore. Although she was unusually strong for her tiny physique, the soles of her filthy feet were surprisingly slippery, and she was struggling to keep balance; Vinnes noticed this, and took initiative.
He sucked his gut in, popping her up and off for a split second; it was just enough time for the Rom to roll away from the gurgling oil, scramble to stand in a pathetic stupor, and stagger to the close mouth of the voodoo parlor. Gripping a fat bundle of maggoty roots for balance, he peered over his shoulder, in sudden terror, at his pursuer, who was regaining footing on all fours. This was an appropriate situation to let out a silent scream, and dash without every looking back; he began to do so with the majesty of a wasted ostrich.
Vinnes was sleek with sweat and sludge, rancid with the stench of mildew and death. The short distance between the arboretum and the copse felt like it was taking years off of his life with each step; the fierce snarls of the enraged girl, gaining on him, helped nothing. Branches had begun drawing red lines on his cheeks, and leaves made crooked wreathes in his now-shaggy hair. Heavy cobwebs were glued like a wet bridal veil against his face; he couldn't stop long enough to pick the spiders from between his yellow teeth.
Every shadow that danced on the trees was hers', almost like the forest was bending to her - like it was too afraid to get involved. Every beastly eye that glowed from the black was hers', and the whistles on the wind were yowling for him to disappear. Those scarlet teeth reflected in each moonlit dewdrop, and the fog wafted upwards making shifting apparitions of her perched atop low limbs.
"Off with you! Off!" He tripped backwards, skidding onto his back with a grunt and a wince.
Waving his hands madly in the air, essentially thrashing at nothing, it took the Rom a moment to realize that the feral chieftain had evaporated, as did any trace. Despite his knowing he was completely alone, save nature's careful eye, Vinnes was jittery and embarrassed. Whilst ripping strips of cloth from the bottom rim of his dress shirt, the man cautiously turned three-hundred and sixty degrees to observe his surroundings. Hand shaking uncontrollably, he sloppily bandaged ribbons of exposed wound from head to toe. Vinnes' legs were numb; he didn't think he had ever run so fast in his life.
Dropping down on a moss-slick boulder, he lifted a palm to his chest; the Rom's heart was beating like a rabid animal rattling the bars of his ribcage. Sticky globules of blood webbed from his fingers when he touched his face; Vinnes scowled, tasting it on his lips. A shiver slithered down his spine; he was dizzy and every joint cracked long and loud upon movement. Clamping his fingertips around the queer fragment of amber the chieftain had procured to him, he shook it once or twice, and then proceeded to hold it up to sunlight beginning to bleed through the canopies. A perfect prismatic cut connected the design, in faint waves of rainbow, with those found on the wingspans of the previous butterflies. When he blinked, the maddened faces lingered in laughing speckles within his shut-eye dark place. When he kept his eyes wide open and gazed through the prism, the suspended body of the moth almost seemed to become transparent; beyond plain sight, once again, lay something very out of the ordinary.
The trees were squat and droopy, sobbing their grey rainwater to the forest floor. Viewed through the terra-cotta shard, that thicket of hardwoods was now an elegantly blooming botanical tunnel, alive with vibrant blossoms of shimmering gold and shades of a fluorescent ruby blush. He felt compelled by a thirst for curiosity; so many bizarre happenings, and as obviously nervous as he was to proceed, he did so in strife, nevertheless. As he squinted, the arbor spiral seemed to stand on the tips of it's roots, lifting their branches as to not snag him upon entry. A gold-tinted vapor exhaled from the opening; the trees tickled the air with their limbs, beckoning him to step forth. Fixing the amber shard in a makeshift pouch from a strip of the silken fabric of his shirt, Vinnes propped it up against one eye, tucking the loose ends of the strap behind his ears.
The Rom inhaled, plodding his first foot into the earth of the steamy path. The glistening sheet of mud underneath his feet was irritated with popping bubbles, spitting freckles of gritty slime all over his legs. Neon blue butterflies roosted on the mossy black bark of each tree branch; the refined bugs pruned their mosaic wings tirelessly, respiring hushed whispers amongst themselves. When touched, they would hiss defensively and back-step to the concealment of the smoking wood.
The pathway expanded just a tad when the overgrowth began to lessen and be replaced with massive slavering monoliths. These towering statues were feminine in nature, outfitted with a garnished ivory gown. Morasses of damp ivy framed their slender marble hourglass figures, and fresh rose-wreathes decked the effigies' broad foreheads. Each clutched a slightly unique column between her stiff legs. The weathered primitive paintings depicted on each column matched with the one directly adjacent to the next, and appeared to tell some unfamiliar story which Vinnes paid little heed to. He noticed the stone-mold skeletons of dove's wings folded on the statues' backs, adorned with mucky white feathers, although most had dropped to the ground by this point; they must have been hundreds of years old.
"Angels." He rasped to himself aloud, connecting his fingertips with hers'.
Each statue's gouged eye socket wept a sweet smelling honey-water, collecting in nooks grafted into their wrists; the water felt like an expensive lotion atop his calloused hand. Suddenly his dehydration caught up with him; he had not consumed much of anything for about two days, and the stench of new honeysuckles lingering on the slight breeze was more than appealing. Cupping two hands beneath one of the scars, he greedily drank of the tangy waters. Tugging on an overhang of wilting rose vines, he felt hollowness behind the natural barrier.
Throwing them aside, a frigid torrent of heavy wind slowed the blood flow in his veins, and nearly stilled his rapidly beating heart. For a split second, Vinnes felt blinded by a sudden flood of sun rays washing in from above; it took a moment for him to realize upon what territory he stood. The amber-sight faded briskly, as the makeshift blindfold dropped like a lead weight to the floor. A spacious, musty vestibule lay sprawled before the Rom.
About one-hundred and fifty feet high of decrepit gothic interior encased Vinnes, now. Vast black archways outlined with chipped pictogram inscriptions were kept guard by another set of stagnant obsidian sculptures. These were much less human in physical appearance, painted in shimmering white ice from the subzero temperature permeating through the structure. Said sculptures resembled squatting raven-folk, crudely carved bare man-chests scarred and speckled with dry blood. Their crests were woven with jet plumes, and screens of gold swayed gently from the rims of their elongated avian scalps.
Ossified stone talons all extended to point at a single half-sunken portal, crowned with pointed drip-castle cones. Every hunchback sentry turned his head with a resounding grating of rusted gears. Their bony hands caught the wood of exposed ribs beneath the eroding plaster wraps covering their emaciated cheekbones. Stepping over fallen pillars and rotten splinters of long since forgotten church benches, Vinnes reached out to grasp the allure of a monotone hum that leaked from the melted spires trickling down each leg of the archway.
With scalding wax sizzling in his hair, the man ducked through the portal and into a blissful gateway just brimming with sunlight.