1979: Inside of the Woods
Septa stooped before the hearth and raised his eye patch so that the toasty air could pool into his void left socket. Greasy tendrils of hair slinked down over his forehead and covered his narrow face. Sneering soundlessly, he spun around without standing and stumbled to the tin basin that sat on the floor in front of his rocking chair. With a hand so caked with soil that it constantly eroded, leaving small skin-revealing chinks behind, he paddled water up onto his face and ran his sodden fingers through his hair, plastering it to his scalp.
Just as he began to shuffle back to the crackling blaze, the door at the other end of the cabin swung open on silent hinges. A flurry of dead leaves, speckled yellow and brown and black, whisked over the threshold. A dark figure, standing nearly the entire nine feet of the door frame, towered on the stoop outside, backlit by the waning sun.
“Is that Uncle Morgan?” Septa said, rising to his full height and flipping the leather patch back over his red-rimmed eyehole.
“You know full well it is, boy. Invite me in before the blusters come about.”
“Forgive me,” Septa said, yanking at his deerskin shirt and stepping around the basin toward the door. “Please come in and doff your cloak, dear uncle.”
The tall shadow did so. His scuffed red boots rattled the wooden floor as he made his way to a row of crooked pegs that had been driven directly into the wall by the door. Sweeping his robe from his shoulders, Uncle Morgan’s face suddenly appeared—liquid black eyes set into puckered lids, scowl lines running all the way down to the ridge of his jaw. Short wooly hair hugged the top of his head, the sides shaved clean. His shoulders spanned no more than a foot and a half across. The young of the village always told cautionary tales about how he was so thin that he could slip right through a door jamb. If a boy was bad, Uncle Morgan would slither right through his, pay him a visit. Then he would pluck an eye right out of his face and use it to watch him for the rest of his life.
“I didn’t think that you’d come today,” Septa said. “I figured you would wait until right when I was ready to leave. I’ve got quite a bit of packing to do, you know. It’s going to be a busy night for me.”
Uncle Morgan strode stiffly toward him and clamped a rakish hand onto his shoulder. Septa shrunk involuntarily and dropped to his knees before him. His remaining eye, wreathed in shadows cast by his quivering brow, burst into a swirling pitch in which no white was visible.
“No one has ever left, boy. We’ve stayed in the forest and learned the secrets of its loam—that’s been the lot of our brood. How do you dare assume that you can?”
A shrieking gust of wind pressed against the long wall to their right, rattling its narrow red window panes in their frames, causing the eaves to sigh in the thick darkness above their heads. A small rodent cried out and scampered along a beam from one side of the cabin to the other.
“I don’t belong here anymore,” Septa said. A clump of oily hair slipped free again and swung like a pendulum across the bridge of his crooked nose. “I know what awaits me if I stay. I can’t do what the rest of you do. What you’ve always done. I realize that I’ll be a disgrace here.”
Uncle Morgan slowly dropped to his knees as well, joints popping like crumbling rock. His green wool pants bagged around his legs, as thin as staffs. Gently draping his fingers over the back of Septa’s neck, he leaned his face forward, as if to kiss him. The tip of his long, thin nose tapped his eye patch. The old man’s breath came boiling out from between his gapped, pinkish teeth, smelling of rich tobacco and raw, salted river fish.
“You must stay. You will stay. You will visit the cabins of your sisters until one of them catches seed and provides a son to give to the hole. Then you will grow old here in your very own cabin and your body will sift, cell by cell, through its floorboards. It’s a privilege, boy.”
The flame diminished, sucking ochre light back into the fireplace. Another burst of wind racked the side of the cabin. Bark-bound tomes plummeted from the mantle and scrabbled across the brick of the hearth.
Septa bowed his head; the rest of his stringy mane drooped, shrouding his features.
“You must obey the order of the village,” said Uncle Morgan, eyes glittering, tarry pustules that danced in sync with the guttering ribbons of flame.
“But I can’t.”
“You, more than anyone here, know that I can take away much more than a son.”
Septa looked up at the taut, severe face that floated inches from his, bathing him in a potpourri of wormy trout guts. Uncle Morgan’s cheeks crinkled impossibly like musty orange papyrus. He smiled and, looming large until all Septa could focus on was his lipless mouth, he planted a dry kiss on his forehead.
His body began to quake, but fell still immediately when Uncle Morgan tightened his grip on his neck.
“Will you obey?”
“Yes, uncle,” said Septa.
1983: The Blusters
The chirr of a morningbird dragged him out of a swirling, deteriorating dream. Sitting up, black spots prickling his vision, Septa kicked the threadbare quilt off of his legs. The image of his sister, Denna’s face, moaning, her plush lips stretching and splitting in ecstacy, faded like an old picture in his head, but remained for the next fifteen minutes as he fried a breakfast of eggs and bangers on a warped iron skillet.
The heat from the fireplace baked his skin. Occasionally, he ran a finger over his eyebrows to ensure that they hadn’t melted away. When the food was well-cooked—eggs springy, marbled with white and yellow, sausages blackened and burst open at the ends—he slipped his hand into a mitt made of beaver fur and pulled the skillet through the black chain skirt that hung between him and the crackling logs.
He dumped his fare into a wooden bowl and retreated to his rocking chair. On the side-table stood a bulbous glass bottle filled with an opaque blue liquid. He shoveled a steaming heap of eggs into his mouth. Then, ripping the cork from the bottle’s mouth, drew a heavy swig. The arteries in his neck bulged and darkened as he took the mixture in, grimacing, and once he had completely swallowed, he expelled a gasp that nearly crescendoed into a scream.
A familiar leaden weight set into his groin, seeping into the lowest parts like icy mercury. His spine began to curl. Setting his bowl carefully onto the ground, he shut his eye and allowed his muscles to tighten. His hands balled into pulsing fists and his bare, blue feet swiveled toward his inner ankles. His arms bent at the elbows, the tips of which drew nearer to each other as if pulling themselves blindly along a shared invisible thread.
He went through a cycle of expansions and contractions as the sun ascended the sky, painting his sweat-stained back with squares of bloody light from the windows. When he had finally regained control of his muscles, the fireplace was cold and dead, coils of smoke spilling through the black chains in little ringlets. A mournful tone reverberated outside. The baby bell tolled.
All around his cabin, he heard rasping footsteps—heavyshod feet, tearing through knee-high piles of dead leaves. A vague human shape passed over the nearest window on his right and rapped on it.
“The bell, Septa,” a woman murmured.
Jerking forward and leaping form the rocker, he whipped his head wildly about.
“I’ll be right along,” he said, yanking his brown suspenders up onto his bony shoulders. Crouching, he lifted the bottle of blue liquid by the neck. As he made for the cabinet in the far corner, it slipped through his fingers and fell into the basin. He bit his knuckle to stifle a cry of horror. The light blue contents of it billowed out into the shimmering pool in a jagged, smoky cloud. Septa stood frozen, hands held longingly out to the blooming disaster at his feet. The woman rapped at the window again.
“You’ve got to come right away. You know how Uncle Morgan always looks out for you.”
Pupil glinting, swimming, dilating in the purple-lidded frame of his good eye, he gloomily shut his mouth and, tugging a thin blanket from the back of his rocking chair, draped it over the basin.
“Alright, I’m coming. Just let me fetch my hat.”
His youngest sister, Jula, had been waiting for him outside. She’d stood, staring up at the boles of the surrounding trees which rose several hundred feet into the sky. When she heard him tramp off of his stoop, her eyes widened and her mouth arced into a careful, narrow smile.
“Septa, where is your cloak?”
He pinched a fold of his ragged shirt and shrugged, his mirthful eye clouding over with blackness.
“What do I need a cloak for? We haven’t even seen the first snow.”
“In any case,” she said, her golden eyes flickering between admiration and mild disdain, “you don’t have time to go back for it. Let’s go.”
They set off down the narrow dirt track that ran from Septa’s front porch to the village clearing, winding between the thin, gargantuan trees. Occasionally, they would pass other cabins, some whose doors had been left flung open in the haste of their occupants to answer the bell’s call. It still rang, punctuated in the distance, dinging and donging like a cathedral bell. For a time, Septa and his sister walked along without a word; arm-in-arm, they stared wistfully ahead and counted each toll.
As the clearing came into view half a mile ahead—a wide, flat space, spanning several acres and teeming with a collecting throng of hooded figures—Jula looked up at her brother, batting her ash-smeared eyes and spoke.
“Did you drink the tincture today?”
Septa returned her stare and scratched his nose, sniffling. A brief eddy sent a spiral of leaves swarming about his black trousers.
“Yes. I drank today’s dose with breakfast. But there was an accident.”
“An accident? Of what sort?”
“I spilled it,” he said, looking away and nibbling his lower lip.
His sister kept her eyes on him, black lids narrowing around the amber discs of her irises. The sun’s rays spilled into them so that they seemed to glow with flecks of red. Inky wisps of black began to snake into her whites from the outer edges.
“You spilled it?”
“It was an accident. I dropped it. I spilled it, that’s all.”
He began to walk faster. Jula held tighter to his arm to match his pace; her black boots fluttered along the tamped, tan earth.
“That’s not all. We needed that tincture, Septa. It took D’clare a month to brew it, never mind the risk it’s posed her. What will we do now?”
They had come close enough for the din of the massing crowd to mask their voices. Septa took care not to speak too loudly.
“Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe it’s time for me to leave, after all. I was going to sometime soon, anyway.”
Jula’s mouth dropped open. Her tongue, hedged by small, glinting teeth, was stained a deep periwinkle.
“Run away—let’s not speak about it here. Just save it until we get back to my cabin. Let’s get up to the stump so that Uncle Morgan doesn’t have to search for you.”
They reached the edge of the compact congregation. Jula leading the way, pressing forward between musty blackrobed shoulders, they serpentined toward the center. Bodies pressed against bodies. Here, in the thick of the mindless, impersonal convergence, the climate seemed to change—the air was so humid and thick that a mist seemed to hang above their hooded heads, churning and wafting in subtropical angst.
Close to the place where the people abruptly stopped, mere feet before them, an old man with a nose like a pregnant boil clung to a short figure in front of him, head craned back over his shoulder. His silver eyes darted restlessly, flickering, darting from the sky to the faces of the nearest people. When he caught sight of Septa and Jula, his mouth sprung open. A scaly grey tongue flopped out. Shimmering strands of saliva descended from it onto his greasy tunic.
“Who?!” he blubbered.
The person to which he’d clung spun around. She was an old woman, seemingly the same age as the man. Silky white hair like cords of glacial ice fell in wavy sheets along either side of her olive, wooden face. Her eyes blacked out as if a shade had been pulled down over them and looked like polished marbles. Misty tears bobbed at the ends of her long white eyelashes.
“Forgive my brother,” she said, taking one of his hands off of her shoulder and holding it against her sagging cheek. “the blusters came for him yesterday when he was chopping wood out behind his cabin.”
“Busters?” croaked the old man. He looked at her, tilting his head like a perplexed child. Septa and Jula sucked air through their teeth, bowing their heads in pity, then pressed further to the front. As they shuffled away, the old woman continued to speak, weakly, her voice succumbing to other voices.
“He doesn’t even remember our first son. He doesn’t remember any…”
In order to reach the edge of the stump, Septa elbowed two young men in the neck. They crumpled to the ground and, standing back up as if nothing had happened, held his good eye with banal, identical faces and turned away to melt into the crowd.
The stump was waist-high and over fifty feet wide. Its roots, fat, knotted tentacles, swathed in a tapestry of green and brown moss, wormed through the black sod for a quarter-mile in every direction. In its center was a perfectly round hole, about ten feet in diameter. The rings of wood closest to it were liquefying, rotting from the inside, out. The lurid odor of earthen decay wafted out of it. Thousands of flying insects roared in a column just above the hole, extending several feet into the sky.
On the other side, the crowd opened up, hundreds of feet knocking against roots. A narrow path formed and Uncle Morgan approached, holding a white, shifting bundle. Somewhere at the edge of the forest clearing, the bell, which had been ringing ceaselessly, suddenly went silent.
Shadowed, stalk-like, he mounted the stump and strode to the moldering hole, hefting the bundle as if to test its weight. Rolling it carefully into the crook of his elbow, he used his free arm to grasp the top of his hood and peel it back from his head. Steely, cropped coils of hair came into view, then his dim, orange papyrus skin. His eyes and mouth were smothered with sloppy rings of ash.
A puttering sound drifted from the shifting thing in his arm, followed by the piercing wail of a newborn. Septa unconsciously raised a grime-specked hand to his mouth and winced. Jula slid her small, pale fingers around his wrist and squeezed as she looked on. The other men and women in the crowd had fallen dumb and still, some gazing at the scene with a stupid, serene smile stretched across their faces.
Uncle Morgan surveyed the gathering. His lips contorted restlessly, puckering and widening, occasionally lit up by his whitish tongue as it slipped out between them. The sun, a blistering white hole in the silky blue sky, bled down on the clearing, shafting through the column of flies. Spokes of whirling shadow fell from them onto the wood. Daintily securing a corner of the bundle between his fingers, he unwrapped it. The interior was a bright, clotted red. All Septa could see from where he stood was a warping, shrieking little face.
“My dear nieces and nephews,” Uncle Morgan said, his words resounding as if caught in a crystal bowl, “we have gathered here today as we do every fifth morning. To pay tribute to the land of my brother’s dreams. The land that spoke to him, urged him longingly, each night of our voyage over the Atlantic in that meager, crumbling ship. This land has been good to us.”
He began to pace around the edge of the hole with measured steps, looing down at the infant who was still streaked with the messing of his birth. Uncle Morgan’s robe shimmered as if it were coated in powdered diamonds; it trailed him, circling the hole like a snake’s tail.
“It has been now five hundred and eighty years since we made landfall. I remember the day we arrived. Your father, Agrin, had leapt from his bedding at the sight of the sweet, undulating coast. For a moment, the deep sickness that had sunken into his bones seemed not to plague him. His flesh was livid once more. We had come at the burnished blink of dusk and a soft, cool breeze sauntered out of the whispering woods and over the pale beach to greet us.
“We abandoned that ship of old and began the final leg of our journey, just the four of us that had survived. We walked long through the night, as you know, with neither moon nor stars to guide us. All we had was our family runebook from the old lands and the rags on our backs. The trees which bent and thrashed and hemmed us in spoke to us in the voice of the New World. They guided us this, our home and, all along, instructed us on how we should serve it so that we might enjoy not immortality, but something perhaps greater.”
He halted and sunk onto his haunches before the hole. The knobs of his spine described a mysterious mountain ridge all down his back. The column of flies descended and condensed. Some landed on the child and, moored on his trembling forehead by the sappy placenta, spasmed in a frenzy. The baby screamed and kicked, cherry-headed, grublike. Uncle Morgan’s mouth wrinkled open revealing long, smoky teeth.
“This New World said: ‘Give to me thy most precious sons by feeding them into my mouth. There, at the end of my gullet, lies another existence where nary a death or a life can travel. Do this every fifth day and, in time, your brood shall come to realize the other natures which the world hath forgot. Then will know my gifts.’”
He caressed the infant’s head with the tips of his long, grey fingers and then, raising them ceremoniously to his hanging mouth, licked them.
“My dear nephews and nieces,” he said, skipping his eyes wildly across the faces of solemn spectators, “it was just after we had heard these instructions that we arrived here—to this very spot upon which you all now stand. Agrin fell to the ground. Our sister, Enfa, rushed to hold him as his flesh turned to ice. There was no light by which to see. We blindly passed our hands over his face; his last breaths swept our palms. Then, as if in a stupor, we all fell bonelessly to the ground and slept. We were asleep for a long time. Years.
“When we returned to wakefulness, we sat up to find that there remained only three of us. Our brother was gone and, in the place where he’s lain, this beloved stump had grown.”
The masses pressed inward with blissful sighs, converging on the twisted trunk. They scuttled over its fat roots. Septa and Jula were forced against it. The pressure numbed their legs. Hundreds of earth-stained fists beat on the damp, mushy bark. Small, dazed children squirmed between the packed bodies in the hopes of joining the revelry.
Uncle Morgan shut his eyes and raised his sooty jack-o-lantern face to the gaping sky, eyebrows rising piously, nostrils flaring. The infant raged. It choked on its rosy snot and wailed in hacking little gasps. The ancient trees that ringed the clearing began to clatter against one another. Hundreds of feet in the air, their lowest branches parried one another like boneswords. An unruly wind clamored in the woods.
“Enfa gasped to find her stomach stretched and teeming with waiting life. She had taken with child during our slumber and the voices that had whispered to us as we had thrashed about in the woods returned to guide us once more. They told me and my sister, Sere, to help Enfa up onto the stump and to lead her to the middle—to lay her on her back. That we did. Her water rushed out of her immediately, spilled out in a wide circle. She set into her labors.”
A vague furor broke out from the congregation. Someone’s fist sailed over Septa’s shoulder, narrowly missing the back of his head and, instead, wrapping around his neck. He wrenched it off of him and tore into the back of it with his teeth. Behind him, the man who had tried to hit him yelped in falsetto and yanked his arm away, bleeding profusely. He glanced at Jula who was hunched over the edge of the stump, averting her eyes from the wispy man who was now holding the child over the fly-bogged hole.
“Laying there,” Uncle Morgan screamed, hoarse yet controlled, “My dear sister gave birth to a boy and a girl. The girl had come first, in the natural way. I bit through her life string and handed her down to Sere. When I came back, I found that the second child, the boy, was crawling out on his own. He was not like his sister. With skin, rough like the bark of these trees and separated into scaly quadrants, he came. With sepulchral black-beaded eyes, surrounded by squirming darkness. He emerged and sat silently, just here, and the stump began to fall into itself. Before my very eyes, Enfa and that strange, dark nephew went plummeting; the hole expanded and yawned, belching forth a terrible new silence. And no noise ever drifted out of it from the boy and his mother.”
Swiftly, he whipped the cloth into the air and the baby spun out of it, eyes crinkled shut, his mouth, a tiny, perfectly round black hole of despair. In an instant, he was gone. His cries had been swallowed up. The flies swarmed in after.
Suddenly, the entire world was bereft of sound. The people stood like scarecrows. Uncle Morgan straightened up and turned to face septa, his robe twisting around his impossibly narrow torso. His eyes were blasted, ashy pits.
The wind picked up as they walked to Jula’s cabin. They had fallen into the slow, somnambulant procession of sweeping robes and passed back into the trees; the empty clearing, a wide, sweltering circle of black soil, baked under the blinding sun. Stuttering gusts of wind wobbled the trees, heaving them in one direction and sucking them in another moments later. The villagers drifted into their cabins, lining the road among tall mounds of fallen leaves. The mass-exodus had thinned out until only a few bobbing figures could be seen in the distance up ahead. Septa looked over his shoulder to see a wispy, glistening silhouette walking behind them.
“He’s following us,” he said, looking forward again.
“I know,” said Jula. “He may mean to listen in on us going at it.”
“Do you think he knows what’s in my heart?”
Jula looked up at him, her pale lips pressing upwards into a smirk.
The network of ropes groaned under their weight as they crawled into the sagging bed. Jula nestled herself into her usual divot, knees drawn up together, her bare breasts looking like globes of porcelain in the gloom. Septa rolled onto his side to face her and ran a hand through her silky brown hair. The wind blew continuously, humming a haunting tone overhead. Brilliantly deceased leaves, flaming yellows, burgundies, smacked against the blue-tinted window across the room and remained there, fluttering for a few seconds before zipping out of sight.
“I have to leave tonight,” said Septa, gazing pas his sister at the dust-carpeted floor. “I can’t stay here any longer if Uncle Morgan has any suspicions. He has known for a long time what I’ve longed to do. I can’t let him do that to any son of mine.”
“But how can you? Uncle Morgan watches you so closely. Even if he does know what you desire, he may not know what you’re planning. Just think of what he might do if he were to catch you. Think of what he has already done to you.”
“What he’s already done to me,” he said, stroking the edge of his eye patch.
“Will you show me?”
He laughed, narrowing his good eye, and pushed the leather flap up onto his dingy forehead. Jula gasped and sat up. Her narrow mouth fell open in curious horror. Shards of milky blue crystal filled the cavity, jutting from the flesh at isometric angles. They lit his socket from within; the hole in his face was like an enchanted ice cavern. His withered, useless lids hung loose around them like baggy, forgotten curtains.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“No. It just feels very cold. It’s as if there’s a tuft of unmelting snow always there, floating around. I’ve mostly gotten used to it.”
Jula brought a hand to his cheek and grazed the empty socket with the tip of her thumb, recoiling at its immediate coldness.
“It’s frigid,” she whispered hoarsely.
“It won’t be for long now that the tincture’s gone.” Septa lowered the patch and reclined on his elbows. “That’s why I have to try, Jula. I have to go now because, tomorrow, we’ll already be at risk. You and all of the other sisters. It only takes five days to come to term. You know that. What choice do I have?”
There was a small rasp of shifting leaves on the other side of the cabin’s door. Someone was standing there. Jula’s eyes, still smudged with remnants of ash, darted to the source of the sound. In a second, she had flipped over and, straddling Septa, lowered her face to his. She reached between her legs and took hold of him.
“It would drain my heart to see you go, brother. But look into yours. Do what you must if there is nothing else for you to do.”
Back at his cabin, Septa shoved jars of spice and a pot into the stitched hunting bag, stained with blots of old blood, lying at his feet. He had lit a final fire in the knobby stone hearth; it spat glowing cinders at him as he tromped across the floor, grabbing flimsy scraps of clothing and tossing them over his shoulder into a pile. When he had filled the bag to the brim, he slung it over his shoulder and rushed out the door, orange erratic light chasing him out into the twilit woods.
Twigs snapped underfoot as he set off down the narrow path, unsure of his heading. He had decided, as he left Jula’s heaving body to go back to his cabin, that he would walk to the clearing and then strike out in any direction, marching for as long as it took to rid himself of the woods. Now, with the sun vanished and the stars, like snags in the deep blanket of night, the only things casting light down through the trees, he kept his eye on his moving feet and braced himself against the wicked wind.
Off of the path to his right, he heard delicate legs tramping through the monolithic piles of leaves. Narrowing his eyes and leaning to the side, he peered at the source of the sound, finding nothing but the piles, themselves, which stood nearly twenty feet tall, climbing up the bases of trees. A sudden gale cut perpendicularly across the path, carrying half of the piles with it and nearly burying him. He set into a clipping jog and continued onward.
In minutes, he had reached the clearing. The stump was perfectly visible, drenched in soulless starshine. All around him, the wind battered into the trees, which knocked into each other as they had done that morning at the ceremony. They made a hollow, threatening racket. Looking warily around him, he walked toward the center, hands tingling with the strange urge to touch the stump’s soft, impressionable bark. He thought of the legions of hours-old faces he’d seen slip immaculately into its rotting throat.
Before he reached it, he caught sight of something that made him freeze in his tracks. Someone else had slipped into the clearing—a twinkling robed pillar, moving with slow, vicious purpose. Septa sucked in a ragged breath and began to walk backwards, stumbling over his heavy boots. His heart beat so thinly and rapidly that he couldn’t sense his pulse; all he felt was a constant, sluggish vibration. The figure had closed the distance between them at an inhuman speed, but with an almost admirable grace.
“Going somewhere?” Uncle Morgan asked in an arch, velvet voice.
His face was invisible under his hood. With each word, a stream of twirling smoke curled out from where his mouth was. Feet still working toward the tree line, Septa spoke back to him, fighting to keep a shrill edge out of his voice.
“You know that I had to do this, uncle. I can’t stand the life I’ve lived here for all of these years. I have to try to leave, even if I never make it out of this forest.”
Uncle Morgan kept pace with him, but maintained a rough distance of five feet. He swayed dexterously as he walked, placing a heel directly in front of the opposing toe as if navigating a tightrope.
“You do realize how likely it is that you wouldn’t make it out of this forest, even if I weren’t here, don’t you?”
“I’d take any risk as long as I never had to witness another fifth morning.”
“Surely you’re aware that the blusters are out,” Uncle Morgan said, sweeping his hand out across the trees at his back. His fingers were splayed, long, and spindly like tongs on a pitchfork.
Septa glanced around as he continued backwards. An arctic blast of wind drew water into his darting eye.
“Let them come. It would be a mercy to come face to face with one. With all of my memories gone, I’d be a happy, slobbering fool indeed.”
“You may find that wish granted by daybreak. I could even arrange it. Then you might not make such a fuss about staying.”
“You talk so bravely about it, but you’re at risk, too. It must be very important to you that I stay for you to come after me like this. Just imagine: centuries of the village history, turned to dust in your brain. Who would conduct the ceremony then, uncle?”
Uncle Morgan’s hooded head twitched as if to look behind him, but stopped in an instant. Quickening his pace, he drew closer. His slim legs tented the skirt of his robe like the spines of a flapping batwing. They were very close to the edge of the forest now. In less than thirty seconds, they would be out of the clearing altogether.
“Septa, try to understand,” said Uncle Morgan, taking on a completely different tone. His voice was small, tinny, desperate. “You come from the original generation. Your blood is more precious than the others’. It contains the memories of the first black night under this vacant sky. I gave your older brother up to the stump five days after we awoke. I admit, I was full of sorrow. I understand your feelings. But the New World gave me comfort when it spoke to me. Its voice whispered out of that dead hole as I stood over it, staring in. Do you know what it said?”
A dry sheaf of bark crunched under Septa’s foot. He had almost reached the first tree.
“It told me, ‘Be happy, because what lies at the end of my gullet is pure bliss. A timeless, fleshless, landless place where everything looks in on itself and is ignorant of woe. You will eventually die but, if you continue to offer the gifts of your blood, your kin will inherit the heaven within me. And, until that day, the world which encloses you will become more and more like my paradise.’” As Septa passed between two bleached, narrow trunks, Uncle Morgan hastened toward him, but kept a slight distance. “It told me that the world outside of this one would move on, would become cold and mindless. Deranged. And, my boy, if you leave, that world will spill into ours. The New World will turn its back. You leave your ten sisters behind if you go. You will bring hell here and they will suffer.”
Septa fell into the striped shadows behind him and, almost immediately, found himself dredging through dead leaves up to the knee. The wind glanced against the ground and a momentary riptide of them crashed down onto his head and shoulders. Uncle Morgan cut through the piles and piles of them like a steel wire. They pressed onward, nearly blind.
“It’s already hell here,” Septa said. “And I have never heard the voice of the New World. I don’t know anyone who has. I wondered for the longest time if you hadn’t made it all up. You’d always spoken about how men used to die before sixty years in the Old World, but where is the proof? None of us have ever died.”
“It’s true, boy. Oh how it is true. Our bodies would fall and never again rise. Our flesh would melt from our bones as the graveworm had its meal. But that’s not remotely the worst of it. There were kings there, in that wicked old realm, who would send armies into our villages and tear us to shreds. They would rape our women ragged, cut the necks of children and throw them into a blood-drenched pile. They set fire to the bodies like so much offal to be eradicated and forgotten. And we escaped it all with the help of our brother’s dreams. We left on a ship and crossed the ocean and got away!”
The leaves had risen to their waists. As Uncle Morgan spoke, voice growing older and weaker, he came closer to Septa. Now he was almost within an arm’s length. The wind became relentless, raising torrents of the dead leaves and hurling them down at the two as they pushed through. Some were dry and sharp and left small, painful nicks on Septa’s face as they sliced the air.
Then the world fell still. Septa and Uncle Morgan went rigid and listened, dampness from the lower layers seeping through their clothes. The invisible sky pressed down on them and, from all around, the leaves were crushed patiently into the ground as if several giant granddaddy longlegs were methodically closing in on them.
“They’re here!” Uncle Morgan seethed under his breath. “You puling little-“
Septa broke into a run and the world burst into sound. He heard their followers shred through the leaves in pursuit. Uncle Morgan tailed him as well, braying in a deep, liquid voice unlike the one he had spoken in moments before.
“Come back, boy! Come back or I’ll plow your sisters one by one until their stomachs are tearing open with sons!”
He moved as an unfeeling force, brutalizing a nearly unyielding wall of decayed vegetation. A strange calm came over him. It began to feel as if the ground were moving under his feet while he maintained his position above it, encapsulated in papery bits of leaf. A sliver of vertical, white light began appeared up ahead. Waves of warmth washed out of it.
It grew rapidly wider and suddenly there were sounds beyond it—bleating, unnatural noises, erupting from close up and far in the distance. The sounds scared Septa but, at the same time, seemed inviting to him. He burrowed toward the blinding ruckus through what now seemed to be a collapsing cavern of petrified leaves. Uncle Morgan was close behind, but he had given up his screams early into the chase. The blusters were close too, whatever appendages that carried them forth, skittering against the walls and ceiling. The slit had grown into a round, tall opening and, beyond it: flashing, metal towers; hoards of city dwellers, brushing by each other under a bright, amber sun.
He scrambled desperately towards this second New World, five feet away, then three. Uncle Morgan was inches away from him now, breathing foul fishrot on his neck. He looked over his shoulder and saw something like ghostly, pitted orbs, pulling themselves along the shifting walls with spiked, jointed stalks. There were over a dozen of them, leading back the way they had come. They lit the tunnel with a dim, feverish light, like moons with spiderlegs.
Septa tripped over his legs and he felt himself fly forward and out into a vast, buzzing space. Light was all around him, bleeding over dark human figures who moved so slowly that it was hard to tell that they were moving at all. Then, like a thundercrack, the back of his skull connected with something hard and gritty. Black tadpoles drifted across his field of view. He tried to sit up and felt a sharp pain in his ribs, then the world sharpened and blared at him from every angle.
A man in a grey three-piece suit stumbled over him, spilling coffee on the sidewalk and down his arm.
“Fucking bums!” he said smugly, flicking his hand to shed the dripping excess. Without stopping, he glanced over his shoulder; his fiery eyebrows crinkled over frameless oval sunglasses.
Septa blinked rapidly and tried to breathe. People were walking past him from both directions on the sidewalk, now giving him a wide berth, seeing that another deranged vagrant was running amok in the city. Looking for the hole by which he had entered the world, he saw a narrow alley, full of shadows, blocked off by a chainlink fence. Blood pounded sluggishly in his neck. He became dizzy.
After a few moments, he eased himself onto his feet and moved toward the fence. At first, there seemed to be nothing behind it: just a strange blackness. Then, he found that he could see the leaf tunnel again and his uncle was still inside of it, leaning forward, one skeletal hand outstretched. The blusters had gotten ahold of the tail of his robe. One had climbed onto his back and inserted a pronged stick-like leg into the base of his skull. There everything was—an unmoving portrait—the new Old World.
Before he realized it, he could no longer see anything. He blinked and rubbed his eye.
“Hey, bozo,” a whiny voice said behind him.
He turned and saw a squat, balding man in an orange down vest and blue jeans, thumbs hooked into his belt loops. He had a piggish nose, nostrils almost completely exposed, and muddy eyes that fled from each other to the edges of his face. Septa’s hunting bag was splayed at his feet.
“This yours, guy?”
“Yes, that’s,” Septa mumbled. He found it hard to keep his focus on the man for, all around him, the new scenery loomed. A train was screeching along on a stilted wooden track which skirted the block, winding around an enormous brick skyscraper at the corner.
“Hey, bucko, eyes front. I know you’re probably hopped up on somethin’, but you need to get out of here. I’m about to set up shop and I can’t have you scaring the customers.”
Propped up against the building to the man’s left was a folding metal table with a blanket draped over it and three duffel bags. One was navy blue and had a pouncing silver lion on it.
“Where am I?” Septa asked, leaning against the corner of the building and struggling to keep his knees locked.
“Alright, look,” the man said, holding his grubby hands out in front of him, fingers like segmented sausages. “You don’t know where you are? Neither do I pal. You’re gonna have to figure that one out for yourself. Now fuck off.”
Septa looked down at the ground and felt his gorge rise. Without warning, he collapsed to his hands and knees. His hair hung down onto the concrete, still powdered with detritus from the woods. The man hobbled forward and knelt by him.
“Hey, hey, hey, buddy. Alright. No need to go down out here like this. Come on, sit up. There you go.” He got Septa’s back against the wall and fished a bottle of water from one of the duffel bags, fumbling with the cap and bringing it to his lips. He drank it in miniscule sips; his breathing slowed. “See? There we go. Just take her easy. You look like you just went a few rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard, kid.”
Septa opened his eye and stared at him. The man shrunk back a bit, color blooming into his round cheeks, breathing heavily.
“You ain’t about to get crazy on me, are you?”
“Where am I? What is this place?”
The man laughed and plopped down onto his robust ass, crossed his legs and arms.
“This is New York City, fella. The Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps. I suppose you’re gonna tell me that you’ve never heard of it?”
A woman in tights and stilettos stepped into the street as she passed by them, the soles of her heels tocking against the asphalt. Septa tried to look up and see her face, but he didn’t have the strength. Even so, he stared after her. The man scooted to the side so that he could see what had caught his attention.
“There’s a dime for ya,” he said, absently elbowing Septa’s knee. He whistled and the woman turned around, clopping to a stop.
“As if, ya fuckin’ creep. Maybe if you didn’t look like a bald John Belushi.”
Waving her off, he turned back to Septa. The latter’s expression caused him to grab his shoulder.
“Hey, whatsa matter? You ain’t about to faint again are you?”
“I think I’m alright,” he said, looking off down the street. “I’m just very far away from home.”
“And where’s that? Don’t say Mars, okay?”
Septa looked back at him. All of the color had run out of his face. A taxi sailed by, cooling the slimy film of sweat on his temples and forehead.
“I don’t think I ever knew. My home feels like a dream now.”
2001: Ye Bairnhol
He sauntered numbly along the sidewalk, newspapers crackling within his filthy windbreaker. Several blocks down, a fire truck grumbled to a halt at the place where a constant cloud of dust hung in the air, undulating, absorbing the sun’s golden light and trapping it there among twinkling, swirling motes. It had been two days since the towers had come down and, still, the cloud remained. Firemen and police toiled over hills of rubble and twisted rebar, searching for any bodies that might have been overlooked. Behind a ring of yellow, plastic barriers, hundreds of people flocked to watch, standing on tiptoe and contorted their necks in every possible way. Some held large cameras above their heads and snapped photos.
A few of the people who walked past the scene kept their head straight, their stony eyes trained on some invisible point ahead of them as if there was nothing to see. Septa had hung around the site since an hour after the first plane had made impact. He watched both fall, slipping down to the smoky floor of the city like descending waterfalls of glass, and had stood silently to take it all in. While people had panicked around him, he had merely stood there with his hands hanging at his sides and looked gravely on.
Now he moved aimlessly from block to block. All day he had alternated between being close and not so close but, in either case, he still heard the occasional weak cry echoing from the wreckage and the resultant gasp from the crowd. Each time, he had flinched and wiped a tear away from his eye. He didn’t know what he wanted, exactly, but if he’d had a chance to demand something from the gathering masses--from the shrieking car horns and the jackhammers and the constant rolling hum of the surviving parts of the island—he would demand silence.
He began to near the people again, swaying gently as he walked, keeping his shoulder to the storefronts. He walked past a small pizzeria. The door was propped open with a cinder block and, inside, there were over thirty people lined up in front of the foggy glass counter. A chubby middle-aged Indian in a turban stood above them and scribbled their orders onto a small legal pad. Tucked back, sitting at a small round table in the corner, a mother sat with her infant strapped into a carrier on her chest.
It was a little baby girl in pink felt pajamas and her face was bright red. Snot streamed down to her mouth from her nostrils like gleaming slug trails. Her mother craned her neck to watch the news on an old mounted wood-grain TV across the restaurant. The child began to wail and work her face against her mother’s breast. The latter, not looking down in the slightest, shook her head slowly. She gazed vacantly at the people waiting in line, eyes glassing over. She started sobbing.
Septa moved past the sight quickly and slipped into an alley a few feet further down the sidewalk. The buildings on either side were so tall that it almost felt like night there. A river of fluid ran along a divot in the middle, spilling incrementally into a small, round grate. Though the liquid continued to fall, he heard no plink or splash at the bottom. He approached the drain and stood peering down into it. He saw darkness and smelled a mixture of urine and soy sauce. The odor was vaguely comforting.
A few feet away, behind a beaten, green dumpster, he sensed a movement. A shuffling of feet.
“Hello,” he called, unsure of why he was speaking.
For a few moments, there was only more silence. Then a limping figure slouched into sight. It wore a wine red cloak that obscured its face. Septa shivered and took a step back.
“Who is that?”
An inhuman voice answered, the words coming out marshy and distorted as if they were being siphoned through a gurgling hose. He sensed something familiar about it.
“Don’t be afraid, Septa. I know it’s terrible, but I’ve found a way back for us.”
The figure came closer, the bottom of its robes soaking up the fetid juice as it moved. This time, Septa stood still.
“A way back? To where?”
“Don’t you remember?” it said, stopping on the other side of the drain. “Our home? The woods and the cabins? The New World?
Septa shut his eyes and tried to remember but nothing surfaced the inky ocean of his thoughts. Over the years, he’d fancied that he could remember some great lost thing in his past. Some place where he knew people. But he never came to any conclusions. There was nothing to recover. But now. He felt that he was remembering something because of the voice he heard now.
“I want to remember,” he said. “I lived there once? Was it different from New York?”
“We lived there, Septa. We lived there for a very long time and, when you left, I had to come find you because it got very bad without you. The blusters got almost everyone after they got Uncle Morgan. I almost didn’t make it, myself.”
“The blusters,” he said. “I think I remember them. And I remember something horrible that happened all the time. Do you know why I left? Is that why?”
The figure bowed its head and brought a thin, scarred hand to its face. Its shoulders began to jitter and small tears pattered onto the dirt-blackened cement. Septa made as if to approach, but the thing held its other hand out. The palm was stippled with hundreds of small, deep gouges. The blood around them had just clotted. Struggling through its tears, it spoke again.
“You left because you believed that what was happening there was wrong, but it was a mistake. We truly had a gift and we didn’t know. But it’s okay now. I can see your face and know that I have saved you from your folly. The New World came to me just before the blusters could take my mind and said that there would be one final invitation.”
“But how? How do we get away from all of this?” he said, raising his arms and looking around him. To his horror, he realized that he couldn’t see the sky when he looked up. The sounds of the city were gone, too. Behind him, the alley ended in nothingness—no cars, no sidewalk, no daylight.
The figure now raised its hands to its hood and held them there. The brick walls of the alley were losing definition. The dumpsters and the fire escapes seemed to be morphing into dimpled lumps of clay. And the grate between them disappeared. The hole grew expanded and became a gulf. But the cloaked being on the other side was still perfectly audible and visible when it spoke.
“It’s really quite simple. It’s perfectly simple. We are already invited.”
Then, lowering the hood, its mangled face came to view. The eyes were still perfectly intact, fiery, piercing. Jula’s crisp, soulful irises had been preserved. Below them, her jaw was severely dislocated. Both of her cheeks were split open and glistening, almost black from dried and drying blood. Most of her teeth were missing. Her tongue was only half there and what was left lay mulched at the entrance to her throat.
Septa looked on, unable to move. Hot tears tracked down his to his chin from the corners of his eye. Jula lowered herself onto her knees at the edge of the hole and gazed mistily up at him.
“We’re not going back to where we were,” she said, a crimson mist spraying out of her demolished face with every word. “We’re going where they all went. All along, it was a better place.”
Then, like a diver, she allowed herself to fall into the darkness, her cloak fluttering behind her like a rich flag. Septa leaned over the hole and dug his hands into the pockets of his oily jeans. He still couldn’t remember it all, but her eyes had assured him that everything she’d said was true. Unsure of why he was doing it, he spoke a single word down into the yawning void before him.
A word came back, almost as a whisper, but too unrelated to sound to actually be heard. The word was rather inherent. He felt it more than heard it.
I chose the title of this story before I had really figured out what it would be about. The word—a single word, mind you—simply popped into my head a few days after I had decided to start writing the first few pages: “Babyhole”. Having the mind that I have, this was not a disturbing word to happen upon in my own psyche, but it was compelling. When I first thought of it, I thought of the most obvious image: a birth canal. But then this sudden and almost horrid reversal made itself apparent in the importance of the word. It was not about birth, but about movement and the escape from the horrors of the worlds that one is familiar with.
Of course, at the time, I had also in mind the pending birth of my best friend’s son. He had been staying with me in my apartment at the beginning of 2013 when a ridiculous court subpoena (he had been in the backseat of a car whose driver had hit the sign of an apartment complex and was being “fined” as a result) forced him to return to Georgia. Ironically, it was dismissed immediately. Not too long after that, though, he got involved with a girl that we had both gone to high school with and hardly knew and, in a matter of days, got her pregnant.
The next nine months were seemingly a living hell from what I gathered. He was alienated from his friends. He lost his social life and had to work constantly to keep an apartment for the two of them. Also, the girl whom he had “knocked up”, as it were, was clinically insane. When his mother came to visit him from Germany, she made it all but impossible to see her. At one point, the girl even accused her of having sex with her son. I was getting depressed just hearing about it until the week that the child was due.
Suddenly, all of those nightmarish details seemed to deteriorate. The people involved who had been lamenting the whole ordeal up until that point were rejoicing and I realized something then. The baby’s escape from the womb wasn’t quite the miracle of the situation. Hell, why would a baby want to escape a womb, anyway? It’s so much safer and more blissful in there. No, the miracle was in how my best friend escaped from his depression and anxiety. He was in the liveliest spirits I’d witnessed him in all year. He even worked on his new album in the delivery room and this man had hardly been able to do anything creative for the entire term beforehand. It really was amazing.
And so, we come back to the title which, as you can see, isn’t “Babyhole”, but “Bairnhol”. “Bairnhol” is a direct translation from the Old English versions of the words. I decided to change it when I realized that the denizens of this nameless village had migrated, around the time of the discovery of North America, from feudal England. I got to thinking again of escape from the horrors of the world, but then I asked myself, “Can you ever really escape or do you just keep moving and hope that you might?” It’s a question which I hope becomes apparent as you read the story.
If this all seems depressing to you, there is another question to consider that might at least make you shrug and think, okay, well at least there’s that: “How much worse would the horror be if you just stopped moving and accepted it?”