by Michael Reeks
1. making scratches or cuts in;
2. lacerating the feelings of;
3. cutting up or softening the wall of a hard seed to hasten germination.
When They woke, the thought of another day at home made their chest seize up like a vine was wrapped tightly around Their heart and within hours They found themselves downtown, through the ticket gates, on the train, racing to nowhere. Indeed the prospect of oblivion had occurred to Them before and this current sojourn was maybe only a slightly more palatable alternative. They had persisted for so long as a blankness, a shadow creeping around the apartment, that They could tolerate no more definite destination than a blank spot on the map.
The train rattled on, north They thought, but They couldn’t seem to focus long enough to remember the compass rose and anyway it sometimes seemed like the setting sun was on the left, and then on the right, and soon it entered a valley where They could see no sun at all, only long bony fingers of light grasping towards the train from every direction at once. The light was cold and white and held no warmth. They shivered and looked around and found themselves alone on the train, and soon They saw that the train was not moving, had perhaps not been moving for a long time. They saw a station platform and the suggestion of a landscape beyond but not another living soul. The sun, wherever it was, seemed to be getting lower, and the grasping tendrils of its dying light were wrapping tighter and tighter around the train car. They thought They had better get off and try to get their bearings.
There was in fact a platform only and no station to be found. The sign marking the stop had been wrapped in something muscular and hairy, and Their heart fluttered for a moment at the thought of the great beast that must be hiding below, before They realized that it was just a great vine furred with moss and long spidery fingers of mold. A mushroom had bloomed and consumed a corner of the ancient metal of the sign, and in the dying light it glittered iridescent and seemed almost to be breathing. They thought they saw a “T” poking out from the overgrowth, but at their next blink it was gone, as though it had been covered up. A vivid purple bloom lazily hung there, and They could see it shivering in the autumn wind.
How sad, They thought. To be tricked by November sun and strange faroff currents bringing their foreign warmth. To bloom in autumn, to be devoured by winter. The plant will die from the effort, or the heartbreak.
They paused only once to look back and saw that the train was gone. Some sleepy, yawning part of their mind wondered at how it had disappeared so quickly and where it was going, but They decided it didn’t matter. Here was as good as anywhere. A skinny cat, its fur dark gray and wild, woke from its nap on the tracks and regarded Them coolly. They saw only one way to go, down some stairs grown over with vines, and took it.
They descended and soon found themselves in darkness. Wild grapevines lurched over the side of the stairs grasping skeletally for the platform, and lashed to their bones were ropes of morning glory locked in somnolent struggle with great mats of sweetpea. A great mass of dead foliage and vine had tiled over the open spaces until something like a tunnel was wrapped over the stairs, just tall enough to walk through. They thought about what the stairs must have looked like in the height of summer, just when the sun reached the valley and the morning glories sang to greet it in a riotous symphony of purple and white while the sweetpea blossoms danced, crazed and vital, about them in pink and blue gowns, twirled and sang until they all dropped where they lay. The music had quieted now and only spiders danced on the surface of the vines. They watched a wolf spider poke out from behind a great umber leaf, consider them, and retreat. They thought about being tiny, about finding homes in leaves and nooks, about nestling into a vine and watching the world walk by in secret. They thought about being tinier still, about the horrors that would lurk behind every leaf, ready to devour Them. They shivered and walked on.
It occurred to them that They had been descending a great while and They could not see the top nor the bottom of the stairway. Smudges of light, impossibly tiny and indistinct, loomed before and behind them, but it was impossible to tell how far away. That’s as well, They thought. I will stay here withered and sleeping with the vines until the spring and then I can join their great dance. And if anyone else comes to the staircase I will warn them that they must join the celebration or leave, for this stairway does not come from anywhere nor does it lead anywhere. We are here to dance and grow and sleep. They closed their eyes and hummed a strange tune that They were sure They had not heard before. It twirled back on itself chirping and joyful and completely without direction. They felt their way down the staircase and sang louder and listened to the echoing measures filling the space and could almost be convinced that a choir of wrens and sparrows and starlings had alit on the tunnel and were joining in, singing the same refrain and adding their improvisations, and the whole staircase had come alive with song. They felt the floor change under them and stopped singing for a beat and all of a sudden found themselves wrapped in silence on a small grassy landing at the bottom of the staircase.
The tunnel opened into a vast clearing papered over with fallen leaves. A great dead oak lay across the middle of the space and rot had split it open all along its length. Vivid fungus seeped out of the opening and They could see other spots where it was about to burst through part of the bark. Tiny holes dotted the trunk where beetles or birds had gone in search of food, and out of several grew tufts of clover or long willowy flower stems: all dead now. Moss wrapped around the trunk and wispy filaments of mycelium fluttered in the wind, gesturing, urging them on. They could hear whispers of fallen leaves and rattling twigs and closed their eyes to listen. When They opened them again They noticed it was dark, impossibly dark though the moon hung heavy and golden overhead, and They could not remember where the staircase had been and could not see it now. They noticed it was cold, deathly cold and dangerous, and a quiet murmur in their head told them They were not safe here, that They needed shelter, warmth, food. It was quickly lost in the chanting of the leaves and They forgot it.
Something told them to enter the clearing and They obeyed It.
They approached the tree and saw that it was alive with motion. Despite the cold, rivers of beetles moved busily between the cracks hard at their necrophagy. A tiny bird, so small They thought it couldn’t be real, hopped back and forth between branches, occasionally stopping to peck at a beetle. A mouse darted under the trunk and disappeared.
Remember, It said, that we continue here. The song does not stop; it only changes key. See that I have died and yet dance still. How sweet the song becomes now. You have forgotten how it goes, and the only cure now is to listen in hopes you can hear it again. Remember that nowhere is a place, too, and the song thrums there. Sit, now, and listen. You have nowhere to be, and nowhere is here.
They sat, and listened. Leaves swirled around them and a centipede crawled over their leg. They relaxed and watched the forest floor dance and let themselves hear.
Consider my children, It groaned. Thousands each year fall and rot and become my soil. Their shoots wither in their shells having never tasted the sun. Yet those lucky few that are taken and cracked will grow. To be devoured is to find a greater freedom, a new part in the dance. Do you see?
They leaned back and rested their head on the leaves. They sighed and thought that They would stay a little while and listen and tomorrow They would return. The stars twinkled overhead and a sparrow landed on their chest, pecking at their coat buttons. They lay perfectly still and felt the ground shift and dance below them.
It sighed and rested, feeling the rot working through Its heart. Tomorrow, It said. Tomorrow we shall have such a dance.
Light does not come to the valley until late morning, and it does not reach the heart of the clearing until later still. But eventually birdsong filled the cold autumn air and a squirrel went to work around the forest floor, readying itself for winter. The last living asters lazily woke and turned their heads to the scant sun, wondering blithely whether they would starve today or tomorrow. They would return, anyway. Finally the pale shafts of sunlight found their way to the great dead oak in the middle of the clearing. Beside it, a sapling stretched towards the autumn sky, dreaming of distant spring.
This article is part of our season on Strange Natures.
Cover image: Lichen / Tony Alter / cc by 2.0