by Lauren N. Jackson
My uncle’s eyes have grown watchful of me. I often see him marking my movements and lingering on my face, my body. A pale haze seems to shift about me, as though shielding me from something, or perhaps it is shielding his view of me. Something is wrong.
I have not been able to sleep since the strange dream I had of the balcony, the statue, the crash. But then, was it a dream? There were no shards of stone laying on the pavement the next day, but did that mean it was all the stuff of nightmares? I couldn’t be sure.
But then I remembered, I had picked my skirts up to run recklessly through a puddle in the street and Uncle had gaped at me. I couldn’t understand his shock until I looked down and saw my satin garters skimming my thighs. I felt my face flush scarlet and I stammered something idiotic but his gaze was glued to me. I felt pinned to the pavement. A butterfly on a board.
There’s something odd in the way he moves, and something not quite right with the light. It shimmers on him but doesn’t penetrate. Flesh is illuminated, but his remains in stark contrast, as though he were cloaked in shadow. Or draped in moss. Perhaps he has exposed himself to the elements for too long. Strange things are happening, especially where the spores are free to infect. My uncle has been spending a lot of time in the city, in the church…
They say dead men roam the streets. They say the graves are empty. They say that the fungus is spreading and soon we shall all be overcome. The balcony is turning green. So Mr. Davens, the butler, scrapes and scrapes all day long. I fuss and fidget and wait. How many minutes of my life have I spent waiting on something? How many hours, days, weeks, years?
The sun has settled itself behind a nest of clouds and I look out in dismay to see the city a bustle of purple and green lights flickering, flickering over the vastness. Something is wrong.
A gust of wind sets the curtains to fluttering and I quickly close the window again. I fear my uncle’s dark gaze. He’ll be home soon, and then I’ll have to bear it. What choice do I have?
I busied myself with sketching until my uncle’s dark shape looms in the doorframe. “Hello Uncle,” I say automatically, keeping the sing-song lilt out of my voice.
“Hello little bluebird. How have you occupied yourself this day?” His strides are long and bring him to my side in four swift steps. His brow furrows as he looks down at my drawings.
“These fantastical images are best kept locked tightly in your brain. What would others think if they saw a girl producing images like this? That’s what I’d like to know.” He paused for breath and looked at me more severely, as though searching my face for something. “Have you had the fever dreams again?”
I looked away quickly before he could read the truth in my eyes. They were such an annoying messenger of deceit. “No Uncle, I have merely been exercising my imagination. Taking jaunts through the fields of my mind and discovering the ground is fertile.”
My uncle’s face showed sheer exasperation. He swept all of my drawings up in one hand and his face went white with anger. “You must cease these actions immediately! Or I shall break every last sketching pencil you own and you can etch out your imagination’s delight with your blood!” He swept out of the room with the grace of a sea hawk and I was left with a heaviness draping itself over my limbs.
Drawings like these were not absolutely banned by the Council. Why was my uncle so het up? I stood up and began gathering my charcoals and pencils into a single box and latched it closed. It wouldn’t do to have my uncle making good on his threats. Perhaps the rumors were true. Perhaps something had been awakened in New Italia that would destroy their way of life.
Explorers that ventured beyond the wall had been coming back less and less of late. Tales of spores eating out the eyes of those who ventured too close to moss covered trees, and even more alarming, slash marks like bites gouged into the necks and wrists of some unlucky individuals. The monsters that I’d been dreaming up were probably bleeding through the drawings on my pages. No wonder my uncle was so distressed.
I saw a boy in the market today. His eyes were moss green. His cheekbones were silver slashes, and his chin was strong. His build was slim but lithe, and I could smell sweat and cedar wood on him. For some reason, the lamplight eyes of my dream returned to me.
He didn’t notice me at first. I watched him shyly from a fruit stall. But suddenly it was as though the sunlight struck him and shifted his focus to me. I stood, my feet rooted into the earth, and gasped aloud. His mossy eyes burrowing into mine, seeking knowledge, seeking purchase. I wasn’t sure if he found any, as I was drowning. Moss choked me and I felt I would gag with the stuff in my throat.
A shadow passed before my eyes and I looked up to see a Cardinal standing before me.
“Good afternoon, your Eminence,” I said weakly.
“Do you have a song trapped in your throat little jay?” I had not noticed my uncle standing beside the green cloaked clergyman. They stood like two shadows draped in lichen.
“No Uncle, I was just shopping…” I trailed off, my eyes catching on every stranger’s face, hitching in loss each time I did not find the mossy-eyed boy. My uncle regarded my empty basket and shook his head slightly. I sensed fury seething below his serene surface.
“These are dangerous times for a young lady to be out unaccompanied,” the Cardinal said. Though the market was bustling, and people jostled one another endlessly, a quiet bubble had formed around the Cardinal. No one dared come near enough to him to accidentally bump him. I felt suddenly isolated.
“Ninette,” my uncle began, “I think it’s high time you returned home.”
“What is there to fear Cardinal?” I asked, suddenly bold.
“Unnamable things child. Say no more of the matter. The Council will protect its citizens, so long as the citizens maintain the laws.” The Cardinal’s craggy face made me feel ill. So many planes in which to hide lies and deceit. So many lines that folded over the truth. His dark eyes bored into mine, making me feel uncomfortable, naked.
My uncle suddenly snapped his head in the direction the mossy-eyed boy had been. I watched him scan the crowd eagerly, hungrily. “The Song of the Mourning is in the air.”
“Just as I feared.”
I looked on in confusion but my uncle and the Cardinal were hurrying away from me, a flutter of his green cloak flapping in the wind. I could smell wet earth, mud, rain, earthworms, shredded dreams. And I knew that the Cardinal knew.
I step fully into the room, and am surrounded by clocks. They are ticking endlessly on, their beating filling my head, stuffing my ears, coming out of my mouth. I want to scream, but I know the sound will be swallowed up by the ticking and the reverberating of the clocks. Moss coats them, cloaks them, eats them, yet they tick on.
They are unburdened by the floating specks of green. They tick to the beat of their aerial spins and dives. A sickening squish sounds at odds with the rhythmic pattern, the staccato anthem of the clocks. I turn in time to see a shape rising from a pool of fungus on the ground. Mushrooms dotting its surface, making it glow with twinges of red and purple, green and yellow. First a head unfolds, then arms and torso, then knees and ankles. A figure rises before me etched in moss, cloaked in fruiting bodies, shivering in mushrooms. My knees shudder below me, threatening to spill me before him, to stretch myself in worship.
My eyes rebel, working their way off of the figure, knowing that to see him is to create him. If I can just unsee I will be safe.
My eyes snapped open to sunlight filtering through the curtains, yet I was certain it was not yet day. A green cloak was lying on top of my quilt; who had been in my room? My uncle?
“I watched you,” he said, stepping from a shadowed corner. Spores danced in front of his form; swirled behind it. “You had a fever dream.”
“No Uncle, I—”
“Tell me! Tell me what it was about!” Frothy spittle flew from his mouth and flecks in the corners of his lips. Green dotted the foam. I shuddered.
“Tell me now or I’ll have you brought before the Council for witchcraft!”
“I dreamed a vampyre and a statue fought with one another. I slipped in the fungus and cracked myself open; I was a doll. A porcelain doll.” I bit my lip hard, waiting for a dot of blood to bead and remind me that this was not a fever dream. Fantasy had become too entwined with reality. Was I not even now aware that a moss formed figure ran by the wall? Should shadows not move of their own accord? Was fungus breeding with darkness?
I knew I had offered up a piece of truth to my uncle, as I had dreamed that dream before. But this new one could not be shared. I was too afraid that my uncle was the moss figure. Some evil spooling together to unfurl itself on me. To choke me in its softness, and drown me in its mud.
My uncle did not seem displeased. He gathered the cloak from atop me and retreated from my room. But what meaning could such silly dreams have?
I suddenly realized that my lip did bleed, but that the blood was not red.
It was green.
The café was busy this time of day, and gossip spilled forth like the green wine of the Cardinals’ gatherings.
“They say the water is coming nearer, that the forest marches with it and acts as sentinel in the night.”
“No! I know a man who’s a farmer down by Plain Valley. He says the forest used to be borderlands, and now….now their branches knock against his windows at night. He says they pray and lock their doors, as there’s nothing to be done.”
“I think we’d notice if trees picked up and walked over to us.”
“I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as that,” the moss-eyed boy said as soft as a sigh.
I looked up at him with a confusion muddled face.
“Excuse me, I could not help but overhear you see.”
“Well young man, your manners may leave something to be desired, but I believe it will be quite a sight to see the Woods knocking at our wall.”
“The wall can only keep so much out, eventually we will be overwhelmed.”
I studied him as he talked to the table behind me, two old ladies with queer expressions peered back at him. They squinted their wrinkled eyes at him, as though they could not quite catch his shape. In a huff, they clattered their floral teacups down sharply onto their saucers. Soft humphs filled the silence that followed.
He turned from them and pulled a chair out at my table and sat down. I choked on my tea.
“Good afternoon Miss.”
“Good afternoon,” I parroted, then blushed. I felt that if I looked in a mirror I would find my cheeks tinged with green instead of pink.
“The Spore Guild is interested in you,” he said suddenly and slid a thick cream card across the table. A splash of mold was in the right upper corner, and black block letters in the middle read only ‘The Spore Guild’. My heart tightened.
“An Explorer,” he finished for me.
“Is what they say true? Why are you interested in me? Do you know what the Song of the Mourning is?”
A dark green look crossed his face, his silver cheekbones flashing in the sunlight.
“You were warned not to leave without a chaperone. Your uncle has sent Marshals to guard you. The Council’s interest in you is what sparked our interest in you. No more questions can be answered here. Return home, I will meet you there.”
Abruptly he stood, the chair scraping back, leaving tracks in the mossy stones, and departed.
When I returned home I found myself pacing, my thoughts outpacing my steps. I finally collapsed into a chair and began furiously sketching. I let the weight of my dreams and the fear coating my mind to release itself on the paper. The itch that had been nagging my heart suddenly trembled into the void and I was released.
A flutter of the curtains revealed the explorer.
“Who are you?”
“I am a member of the Spore Guild.”
“Yes, an explorer,” I said with a slash of sarcasm.
“Yes, do I not look the part then?” He smirked and pretended to look himself over.
I threw my hands up in exasperation, not willing to let him draw me in.
Slowly I watched him approach my table and look at my drawings. His look was veiled but his eyes remained questioning. “Why do you draw such things?”
“I offer up the fantastical to make sense of the mundane,” I shook my head. “No, perhaps that’s not true. Perhaps I know that the fantastical is the mundane, and in my attempt to leash it, to harness it, I draw it. I capture it on paper and then the reality is less real. It’s mine now, instead of everyone’s. I’m tired of a collective truth. I want a singular Truth that only I ascribe to and know.” I paused and looked at him shyly. “But then, I often burn the pages to keep that Truth. To protect it.”
He studied me for half a heartbeat.
He kissed me with moss covered lips. I was afraid I wouldn’t feel it, but I did. It was like the kiss of wind, and a whisper of the forest. It murmured to me in the language of trees, creaky and wise. His lips danced over mine, filling me with colors, saturations of green and hues of sapphire. I could taste the salt of him, the very essence of what made him real. A headiness filled me and made me needy. I nibbled at his lips, delighting in the small spores that invaded my mouth, attaching themselves, burying themselves in me. In what I am.
I was hungry, hungry for his words. Hungry for his language. Bloated on it. He filled me up with stories, images, truths half-spilled, half-imagined. Broken things and hollow trees, felled before their time.
I was cut free from the moorings that lashed me down. No uncle to chastise me, no Council to monitor me, no Cardinal to curse me. I roamed above the lands and looked down on all with a fierce blankness.
His lips traced a path down my neck, trailing a line of freckles. Those lips danced there, naming each blemish, carving a place for it, and intensifying my need. I put my hands to his head, digging my nails into his hair. He let me go.
I plummeted back into my body and felt my skin flame hot and cold.
“We have to go to the Woods.”
“The Council forbids it,” I answered without thinking, my lips tingling with the cold of the fungus.
“The Council forbids most anything. You cannot read certain books, perform certain plays, go certain places, eat certain foods, draw certain pictures, speak certain words, write certain stories, divulge certain truths!”
“They merely guide us, keep us safe. They tell us what will harm us, nothing more.”
“I would think the girl who follows a Truth would see the lie in that. The Church has hold over the Council, they will do as they please. You know the Cardinals are evil. The Church has awakened something that should never have been,” he said softly, his green eyes meeting mine. “There are things happening that will destroy us all. And they have set it free!”
“Whatever are you talking about?” I asked desperate with fear.
“The Awakening. It has begun.”
“You cannot speak in riddles!”
My eyes began twitching in a frantic pattern, attempting to force tears out, but I found my eyes clogged. I rubbed at them hastily, frantically, manically, when I discovered moss growing there. I wanted to scream but suddenly heard the loud ticking of clocks filling my head and I simply stood there. I let time buffet me, caress me. It rooted me to the spot, as time often does.
When I blinked again, he was gone.
I thought I’d start keeping a journal of my every encounter on the off chance, or more than likely chance, that I die before talking to anyone about this.
I walked outside today without a chaperone. The brilliant sunshine was a deceit for the darkness that lurks so close to the town. The forest is closer, the woods are nearer. I was never able to see them from the market square before, yet now they stand like soldiers against the backdrop of the city. I walked there in my riding boots, a sketching pad under my arm. I saw the vast valley to my left, the path ahead of me into the forest, switch-backing out of sight and a group of people coming down from the mines and fields. Marshal voices rang out to the left too, coming back, coming to guard us. I dashed off to the right, where a tunnel of trees arched in and spread back up into the forest. Their branches all intermingled, holding one another, and embracing. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I darted into the tunnel, knowing I’d been spotted. I brushed my right palm against the roof of the tree tunnel, feeling the bite of the bark and the soft give of the leaves.
When there was a wide enough gap in the trunks, I ran out and into the open forest. I dodged between trees here and there, hearing the shout of given chase behind me as they lost their visual of me in the tunnel. I’d meandered slowly in there, but a bend in the tunnel had given me my chance at freedom.
I ran so fast that I tasted the breeze around me, whipping me wildly, allowing me to reach close to my full speed. I continued to zig zag in and out of clearings and pathways, putting trees between myself and the line of sight of my pursuers. Large tree trunks began appearing in an odd row ahead of me, and I decided, as the trees fell away and the clearing opened up, that I’d have to hide behind one of these to maintain my cover as my pursuers drew nearer.
The trunks grew larger and larger as I approached, all laid on their sides, all looking hardened and decayed and brittle. Yet the further along the line of trunks I got, their shapes started morphing. These were not all tree trunks. As I neared the end of the line, I saw that these larger than life trunks were in the shapes of people. They were easily as big as my uncle’s house, dwarfing me to the size of an ant in comparison. I was struck with fear and sadness, the people looked to be mourning, or writhing in pain. There was such a bleakness etched into these figures. But something about them made me hesitate, perhaps these weren’t just figures, perhaps they were….something else.
They were starkly black and white and brown against the lush emerald green backdrop of the fluttering grass and the lively forest. My fear overwhelmed me more and more, what evil was this? What dark magic? The people looked native, how could I call them people? They were giants.
I turned and ran; back to my pursuers, longing for their cold embrace. Longing for my cage.
They caught me up in their arms and their faces were straight lines. Hard and cruel. But fearful as well. They studied the huge blocks of people, their faces wrought in stillness and sadness for eternity.
“What are they?” I gasped.
“They were having miscarriages, their births were coming too soon, or their births had begun. They started to bleed. Either way, they sought their help.” The look the Marshal gave me was one that was far away. “They would give them a draught. Only the most desperate would seek their help you see, only the most afraid. But sometimes they gave the people the right drink, sometimes their babies were born without complications. And sometimes…..sometimes they gave them a fungal draught. And you see, don’t you? You see what happened. The Song of the Mourning dies here.”
The words chilled me. And the petrified people before me scared me now more than anything ever had.
“Why are they so big?”
“The drink bloats them until they are as large as small mountains, then they turn to rock and stone. Their blood salts this earth and is a warning to everyone else. It poisons all it touches. You didn’t touch the bare stone did you?”
This last was said with a piercing look that brooked no answer except for, “No.”
How often have I scoffed those who went to bed happy at night, only to be gone in the morning? Only a cool depression left in their sheets the only sign they ever existed.
When the Marshals returned me to my uncle’s, his fury was turned upon me with full force. He lifted my skirts and whipped my thighs. I barely noticed, I was half-frantic from the frozen pain of the people trapped forever in the forest. When my uncle was finished with me, my thighs sticky with blood, I’d begun raving. Mrs. Penney, the housekeeper, tried to give me a remedy to calm me but I wouldn’t hold still. I began thrashing and muttering about mushrooms until Mr. Davens was forced to hold me down.
Mrs. Penney said I actually scratched Mr. Davens open. She had to wrap up his hand and he left with his dignity more sorely injured than his body.
Now the question I’ve finally allowed on my lips is – what’s out there? What haunts us, hunts us, destroys us? How much longer do we have? Will I go truly mad? What if I already am? Perhaps my whole reality has shifted in my head and I only think I’m living my true life.
I had touched the bare stone. And I no longer know where Truth begins and fantasy ends. Was this all a fever dream? Had I imagined the explorer with the moss-colored eyes who kissed me into the language of the forest and movement of wind? I cursed the bitter language that restrained me to these mere words. They could represent nothing I felt!
Mrs. Penney won’t come near me. She said I’m like as gone to the devil now and she’d rather keep her distance. I hardly took notice of her. Everyone’s nerves were sharpened to little points. They jabbed and jabbed and jabbed until a person was quite certain they were going mad. Theories went round and round in my head whether I was already long mad.
Mr. Davens’ hand has grown worse. The entire house is leery of me and I even caught Mrs. Penney holding up her fingers in a cross when I walked by. Do they think I’m a witch? That I’ve been touched or visited by Hades? What have I done but acted in fear of my own life?
I must watch now. I light my little kerosene lamp by my bed every night. I watch the flame flicker and dance to some wicked rhythm and pray I live to see the morning. Sometimes I wonder if God has abandoned us for our desertion of morals and faith. We would deserve such a fate.
Some days the sun doesn’t rise at all, and we shiver and chatter huddled around the hearth. Mrs. Penney blows on Kitty’s hands, rubbing them roughly in her starched apron until they’re red from the effort. My chapped lips crack and recrack as my tongue licks and licks making the cuts worse.
My nerves are shattered, but everyone’s are. When the wind rocks the house, everyone screams. We never know if the sun will rise the next day or if we will be plunged into eternal darkness. Mr. Davens has stopped scrubbing the moss off the balcony. I have not seen the moss-eyed boy in a week.
No one went out to feed the animals today. I’m not sure how long this will last. There are five horses in the stable, and my uncle has shares in farmland in Plain Valley filled with livestock. What of them?
The darkness hasn’t lifted and no one is brave enough to journey out of the house. Many have been discovered dead in their beds, their throats slit, moss pouring forth from the slashes, on day four of the Awakening. It was before we really knew what would happen. Before we were truly afraid.
But we need milk and we need meat, and the horses offer a chance at escape should one come.
Mr. Davens’ hand has festered and his arm is turning a funny color. The servants won’t speak to me. They think I’ve cursed him. If anyone is cursed it will be me. I was the one to venture out.
Mr. Davens’ hand has disintegrated into nothing. Ashes that blew away on the wind and tasted of death. Mrs. Penney’s scream could be heard down to the river I’m sure. I gasped in horror to see it happen. And it didn’t stop there. Like a poison, an acid, this blackness spread from his hand, up his arm, and across his neck and face. He writhed and moaned and yelled until the rest of him turned to dust too.
“And so to dust shall we return,” intoned my uncle.
Everyone was still. I feel you would believe us to be made of wax had you gazed in the windows at us. Though of course one couldn’t, the windows being blacked out.
“Please,” Mrs. Penney’s final gasp before she collapsed into a sweaty pool of fungus on the floor. No one moved to help her. We all left her there and sought privacy. For this, surely, was the end.
A long, sustained growl emanates from outside. I dropped my pen for some time before I could gather my strength to hold it steady and return to my words.
Why do I save these words? Why tie language together on paper? Who will read this? Who will survive this? But perhaps, perhaps it is the cathartic function of writing that sustains me. Perhaps this is what will save my life. I must write it all down. If not, who will know should things come to pass? Someone must know of those who came before. Those who walked on earth before the Awakening.
Someone may look at these pages in the future and believe them to be the ramblings of a madwoman, instead of history. But these events are true! If you are reading this now, you must know, you must know, these things happened. Perhaps they have made you forget. Perhaps you have been brought up in a world where we no longer exist. But we did. We do. Do not forget us.
Lauren N. Jackson graduated from the Ohio State University with her BA in English. Her nonfiction work appears on Six Word Memoirs, The Anne Boleyn Files, and On The Tudor Trail. She has served as an editing intern for Six Words, local novelists, and OSU’s own publication The Cornfield Review. While at OSU, Lauren received the Howard Honors Reading Award and Undergraduate Academic Excellence for her pieces. Lauren and her English cohort began a writing collective called The Blue Stockings Society (www.blue-stockings.org) and partnered with their local library system to educate and stimulate the community.
(Art by Vincent van Gogh.)