fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

I could have followed. The road to the mountain, made by so many feet, was obvious and wide enough. When they passed through the forest, they hewed a straight path over grass and through streams where none had been before; however, wherever the first untrampled flower stood proudly by the side of the road, I paused to admire it. In the middle of their passage, whenever a stone was kicked over exposing a wriggling earthworm beneath it, I stopped to watch it seek a different sanctuary. I was a distractible child, but I committed to memory each thing I witnessed in the forest that day.


Teachers ignored me while they had an opportunity to do so. I could not blame them--my attention was all about butterflies through the classroom windows that vanished whenever we took recess. When the schoolmaster pulled me to the front and swatted me while my peers laughed, I could only look at my situation with a dissociated anger--why is this happening, I would wonder, finding it hard not to blame the chipped edges of the wooden floorboards I was looking at while bent over the man’s knee. Classmates, their parents, teachers, and the master all expected the same end result from me--failure.


All of them are gone now. Providence was kind to me eventually; I’m a warden of this forest now. An influx of new neighbors made me essential. The trees are so dark at dusk, and no one can discern north from south in this part of the country. My memory of the path, a route of several hours heading southeast from town in nearly a direct line, made me best suited to the task of finding lost souls.


Until today, I did not dare linger on or re-enact the path made by the children. I always clipped it while navigating to quickly discern the cardinal directions, but I never walked it for long. A distraught parent, frightened by our town’s history and the absence of their seven year old daughter called for me. I found the child an hour away and an hour down that trail, even though the path was overgrown with vegetation from the first moment I dawdled along it as a child. I remember glancing back where more than a hundred bare feet had flattened the grasses, watching them bounce up again and rapidly mend broken stems.


I’m asking the flowers now whether something still calls to young children, but I know that the way is shut at Poppenberg. I watched my peers, always separate, always special, vanish into the mountain’s stone before I could reach it.


The flowers say nothing, of course. They only guide me. No one else is allowed to feel the pull of the mountain song.


I was nine when I walked with bloody feet back to town the night after, stumbling out of the trance. No one believed me, of course, even though they had scoured the countryside and found no other trace besides me. The prevailing opinion was that the children had, while the adults were in church, mutually decided to wade in the Weser but were swept away with a strong current. When they saw me and no one else, they knelt on the cobblestone streets and clutched their mouths and held their garments to their eyes, screaming through the fabric.


Around that time, I nearly died. The community held me responsible. My mother, a widowed woman, bolted our door and moved her bed against it to bar entry to the groups of men and women who waited with torches each night. I had thought that the cruelty of children was an isolated blossom, but I learned well that it grows from a sturdy branch on a stronger trunk. I don’t remember the faces of my peers as they taunted me--I do remember the expression on the man’s face when he broke the door of my house with an axe and reached through to grab my mother’s sobbing body.


Now, as I was then, I find myself drifting between the trees, lulled by a subaudible song played on pan pipes. This time, I am prepared. At a good pace, it takes less than a day to reach Poppenberg. I move through the forest with keen insight, crossing several new roads with an insatiable need to follow this one, rugged course to the end.


Eventually, the townsfolk believed me. The man responsible was differently garbed in my account than in their recollection. He wore a red hat, hunter’s clothes, and a tight lipped smile as he danced away from town with an entire generation of children--his pipes made the shrillest sound I had ever heard, but it didn’t hold me as firmly as other children once I started following him. Even with that trance, I could not stay focused. I had to touch every flower in the forest. After I was found, I told the warden where to go and he found the threads of shoes that fell to pieces on the trail, leading right to the mountain.


When I mentioned the pipes, adults shook their heads and mumbled about debts unpaid, growing pale. Young families started to move away, afraid that the town itself was cursed. The mayor died pining for his lost daughter, and most of the teachers and the schoolmaster left to seek employment elsewhere. Older teachers who could not survive travel became my tutors. It was then that I excelled as a student. Left alone, I ascended beyond my ascribed destiny.


My tutors are all dead now. My mother is dead. Nearly the entire town has either uprooted or perished, leaving behind empty houses for newcomers. I let them know about the Mayor’s last decree when they profess to know little about our small town’s grim history: in memoriam of vanishing children and young adults, there is to be no music, whether pipes or drums, on a street five minutes from and parallel to the Weser.


I make camp not thirty minutes from the foot of the mountain. In the night, as I drift into sleep, I can hear the crescendo of shrill piping as all other natural sounds leave my mind.


When I wake up, I’m there already. Even in a trance, I’ve still packed my bag. Now I produce my pickaxe and attack the stone. The pipes are strong. The trill of airy pitches in the instrument reverberates through my bones. Sliver and chunk of stone crack away from the rock as my blows fall upon it for each day of a severed youth. Providence was kind to me, but Providence left me behind.


I work without exertion. I was destined for this. Hours or days later, a hollowed sound begins to emanate with each strike. Finally, each crack of the pickaxe begins to reveal a cavern beyond the stone. The door to the children is ajar, at last.


Cautiously, I break enough rock to move easily in and out of the cave before proceeding. If I am to face the demon who danced into the dark, I must be cautious.


I move through the cavern holding a torch. It is dry enough that I can still see the undisturbed footprints in the dirt. I carry the flame at my side so that it doesn’t blind me to this and what lies ahead. Eventually the cavern narrows into a slim passage too tight to squeeze through. I reach for my pickaxe again but stop and listen. I hear, through the passage, something more than the throbbing pitches of the piper. There is a shuffling sound.


Leaning into the crack as far as I am able, I can see a faint light. I put out my torch to see it more clearly.


There is a man in hunter’s clothes and a red cap dancing while playing the pipes. He has two braziers burning dimly at his feet, and the light produced by these flames is terminated by hundreds of shadows that move in a circle around the dancer. It is hard to get a good glimpse until they slow their rhythm as the pipe pitches drop into a low, raspy moan.


The shadows slow to a stop and turn towards me. One face is illuminated across the fire. It is the skeleton of a young child with an extra row of undeveloped teeth visible in a brilliantly white skull.


When the piping ends, the shuffling recommences towards me. I can hear the sound of bones scraping against rock, squeezing and clamoring through the crack to grab at my cloak and clothes. The trance snaps away, and I run even though I have no torch.


The caves smash against my body again and again, and the sound of dead children scuttling across stone drives me harder. I see the light of day and lunge for it.


I return to the forest. The sounds do not abate in spite of the daylight. I begin running but quickly realize that nothing is familiar anymore. When the piping stopped, though it was always in my head, so did my memory of the path. No need for the piper to play when the last of the children has come to join the dance, I think, as I flee deeper into the forest.


*****


If some traveller should happen upon this record, they should know that I eventually died. Where it’s found is a good indicator of how much I managed to travel before I was caught. Maybe I was lucky and died of exposure or hunger. Even so, even in a city when I can beg for an innkeeper to let me in for the night, I hear the rustling of bones in the alleyways outside the windows; my exhausted, fearful breaths play the pipes of death in my chest.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Before that golden eyed woman met him on the open sea, the old mariner decided to brace himself for death. His gloves gave his clenched fists an additional tightness equal to his resolve, if somewhat doused by the sea spray crashing against his small skiff. A small number of fishing spears would hardly be sufficient to stop the deep lurker who awaited those who traveled too far into the horizon. He was going to die.


But no one ever dies now, he thought, as he unfurled the sails. That's why my wife…


He could not decide what brought him to the ocean. It was well known among the very few people that Jonathan had met that the ocean signified death. The wind never changed, the weather never changed, even the time of day, a concept from Jonathan's youth before he himself  had stopped aging, never changed.  Only about fifty years past, death had stopped happening to people. The lack of fish, the silence in the sea, and the eyes of that creature proved this--the ocean was no friend nor tool of man any longer.

It was the way she would chop onions in the kitchen, eyes watering, but there were no onions, nor cutting board, nor knife- only her hand, jerking up and down, tightly curled around air while tears streamed down her vacant face. It was the way she had left doors open before and now silently closed them. It was the way she returned, mute and expressionless, living with her old husband--probably for several years, but who can say for certain--existing and living as if she was dead. Every morning, even as early as Jonathan could wake, he would see her standing at window staring inland, showing the only true expression he could remember from her now- a broad grinning, wide eyed stare, completely without context.


The water splashing against the boat seemed colder now.


Everything about her after he had lost her to the surf and pulled her out again, everything was wrong. She used to noisily trudge exhausted up the stairs towards bed, but, after being rescued several hours after falling into the water and being carried by that ever consistent outward wind and riptides, she moved with no sound when her husband called for her. And she always attempted to climb one more step than the stairs had.


Stumbling only slightly and yet soundless, her face made no attempt to register this mistake on any of the hundreds of times Jonathan had watched it happen.


It should have been no surprise to him, then, finding that note yesterday morning--always hard to determine the day when it is always dark--on the table. Only six words. Words that made no sense to a old man who had lived in a tall but narrow cottage with his old wife ever since the day the world had ended and aging had become obsolete. An old wife who had died and lived but never returned; this time, she was truly gone.


He wished he could understand what the note meant when it said-


a deep howl filled his ears and the sea split, just as it had the day his wife went missing. She was coming. Her golden hair and golden eyes on pale skin were all he had seen that day, her attention directed elsewhere. He could see her now, an enormous shadow darkening the black waves underneath his boat. The head began to peek above the waves in front of his skiff- before long, a woman who would have been beautiful were she normal size floated in front of the boat. She was many times larger than Jonathan's house, with skin so pale that it blinded him to the rest of the universe. Desiring an end, Jonathan hefted one spear in his hand and prepared to strike, when the eyes, as large and radiant as the sun he had once seen and vaguely remembered, wiped his mind clear.


He fell to his knees as the great maw of razors opened and began to drag seawater inside.

-"Find me in the silent city."

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