Johnny looked positively miserable. His nose was red as an apple and he sniffled constantly.
“Listen, I can handle it,” I insisted. “Go back and get some rest. They don’t want you touching the berries anyhow, the state you’re in.”
“We hab to go in two’s,” he muttered, and then sneezed. A handful of birds dislodged from hidden perches overhead, squawking displeasure.
“You’re not exactly stealthy,” I said through my teeth, glancing around for signs of movement.
We hadn’t seen any myir for a while but that didn’t mean they weren’t lurking nearby. And there had been stories of chlotka prints not far off. You could tell it was chlotka prints when the tracks shifted from one animal to another. Chlotka were the most feared predators these woods had to offer. Nobody was spending any more time outside these days than they had to.
Johnny handed me his empty basket. “You’w wight,” he snuffled. “Be ca-achew!-ful.” He retreated back to the checkpoints and hopefully straight to bed.
Heaving a sigh of relief, I pushed toward the river, where there had to be better options than what we’d seen so far. The berry selections were dwindling near the catacombs, and with summer drawing to a close it had been decided that we’d close ourselves in once the snows came. Every gatherer had been charged with the task of doubling our yields and the kitchens were working extra hours preserving everything possible in preparation. There was an aura of gloom throughout the catacombs, especially with a flu making rounds, but I wasn’t bothered one bit. Being shut in through the winter meant I could go back to exploring the vast number of uncharted tunnels beneath our feet.
Just as I had guessed, a patch of ripe sunberries, so-called for their golden skin, flourished near the river and I had my basket filled in no time. I was just starting on Johnny’s basket when I had that sensation again; the one that makes you wonder whether you’re being watched. I’d had it with some frequency recently.
I turned slowly, and jumped. A woman stood inches away. She was taller than me, with skin an odd shade of tan and large brown eyes. Her hair was short, and matched her skin. She stood without speaking, gazing at me unblinking. I held my breath. Her focus darted down to my filled basket, and cautiously, I extended it toward her.
“I’ll share,” I offered. The woman leaped away and I lost sight of her almost immediately behind the berry bushes. “Wait!” I called, trying to follow. “I’ve picked plenty. Are you hungry?”
Rounding to the far side of the bush, though, I was quite alone. Birds chirped lazily overhead and some small unseen forest critter wiggled nearby ferns. I left a small mountain of the golden berries on a rock and turned back to the catacombs. Not far into the woods, I saw the trail of footprints the woman had left in a narrow path made wet by the mist of a nearby waterfall. After a few steps the woman’s footprints took an odd shape, as if she was walking on the balls of her feet. A few more steps and they were distinctly deer. I stopped and retraced, but could find no explanation.
“Was it a chlotka?” I asked my friend Josh as soon as I got back.
“Couldn’t have been,” he said, helping me with my baskets. “First, you wouldn’t be alive. Everyone says chlotka are pure predator. A chlotka wouldn’t watch you, it would eat you. Second, no one’s ever seen chlotka prints turn into human footprints. What you saw was something different.”
I shivered. “She was standing right behind me. Are you sure she wasn’t hunting me?”
“Could’ve been,” Josh said with a shrug, “but whatever it was, it wasn’t a chlotka. You shouldn’t have been alone. Want me to come with you tomorrow?”
“No,” I sighed, “I won’t go back there. I’ll stay close to home tomorrow. Thanks Josh.”
I headed out in the opposite direction the next morning, aiming for a hilly area with hundreds of hidden tunnels that led back into our hide-out, but the berry choices were poor. By afternoon I set my course for the river. Truthfully, I was curious. I approached with far more caution, taking each step with care and moving slowly. There was a soft breeze, and I made certain the berry bush was up-wind.
The pile of berries I’d left was gone, though it could have been eaten by a great number of forest creatures. It wasn’t proof of her return. But then I saw it. A large doe grazed on the other side of the river. I set down my empty baskets and watched. When she moved out of sight I raced to a stretch of the river littered with boulders and hopped across. The underbrush was taller and thicker on this side of the river, and I heard her more than saw her. It was more difficult to follow without making noise.
Something large negotiated the brush toward her. I only made out glimpses, but enough to see that the doe was joined by an enormous buck. Together they set forth with purpose. Following, I sought out the path they used. It was carved into the earth from frequent travel and the dirt underfoot was thankfully far quieter than the twigs of the forest’s underbrush. They traveled for hours without stopping, which defied everything I knew about deer. I was so immersed in curiosity that I barely noticed the light fading until the forest’s shadows deepened, indicating night. Only then did I stop to consider how far my pursuit had taken me. The temperature was sinking and I needed to get to safety. Trouble was, I had no idea how to get back in the dark. I heard them pushing on ahead and made the decision to continue. Between the path and the noise of their journey I followed blindly through the night. It was endless.
Finally, when I had lost the faith that anything existed beyond walking and darkness, the path before me opened to a clearing. The moon shone brightly on the buck and doe as they walked to the center, where animals of every conceivable variety were gathered. I lurked in the shadow of the trees and watched as large cats mingled with lanky wolves and snakes wriggled around unflinching mice. Several of the animals transformed into human forms and gathered together in conversation.
A sound behind me indicated that something else approached on the path and I crept into a bush to hide. A minute later a woman drifted by. Everything about her was luminous. Her skin radiated as if she held the moon inside and her long dress sparkled in a way that left light behind, diffusing on the edges of all it had touched. She trailed her fingers against leaves and I watched silvery dew drops glisten in her wake.
The woman stepped into the clearing and lifted her face toward the moon, now barely peeking over the rim of trees at the far end. She seemed not to see the clearing’s inhabitants, and as if in respect to that, they held still. The woman opened her mouth and a song issued from her that evades description. It was something heard with the heart instead of the ears. A thin shining tether drifted down from the sinking moon, joining with the woman in song until at last severed, as if the tips of the trees had cut it. The woman turned then, and sang a golden thread now over the trees sheltering me. This song buzzed through me like an electrical pulse. Slowly, starting with a few golden patches, light drifted across the clearing as the sun rose, infusing the sky with color. The woman stopped singing then, and as she walked back into the trees, it looked like she winked. I wiped dew from my cheeks. My skin tingled, and seemed to hold on to a small glow of her light, like the leaves around me. I watched as together we faded back to ourselves.
It was some time before I remembered the animals in the clearing and turned back to see what had become of them. The deer woman and man stood feet away, staring at me from the other side of the bush.
“You were not meant to witness this,” said the woman.
“I – I won’t tell,” I stammered, rising to my feet.
It wasn’t just the deer people. I could see movement as several creatures skulked around my feet. There was only hostility in their gazes. Two wolves slipped into the trees nearby and the instinct to flee took hold of me. I raced down the path, which I could see now in the morning light, but the creatures were on me in an instant. Snakes snapped at my ankles, the buck and doe thundered toward me, the wolves lunged out of nowhere, one catching hold of the fabric at my shoulder. I landed on uneven ground and slid down a gully, my landing softened by ferns. The ground vibrated with the footfalls of my pursuers. I slithered into the shadow of a tree’s exposed roots and tried fruitlessly to slow my breathing. There was more room than I would have guessed behind me so I burrowed deeper. A snake slid back and forth at the edge of the shadow cast by the tree’s roots, but didn’t pursue further.
“Why do you stop?” accused the buck. “It is cornered. Drag it out to the light.”
“Tik’ha’ssssssshe’tik,” replied the snake.
“Are you certain?”
“No missssssstake,” answered the snake.
“Dangerous,” nodded a squirrel hesitating near the snake. “We are unwelcome down there.”
I shifted nervously, taking a look around. It was difficult to see much in the shadows, but I could feel a cool draft rising up from behind me, and it smelled just like the catacomb tunnels I currently called home. Surely I was too far away for this tunnel to be connected to the ones I knew, though… which meant this could be the home of whatever creatures had built the catacombs in the first place. I shivered as I thought I heard something scrape a short distance off. ‘The imagination plays dirty tricks when you’re frightened,’ I reminded myself.
“Very well,” said the buck. “The trespasser is welcome to take its chances with Tik’ha’she’tik.”
“I’ll stay and watch, jusssssst to sssssseeeee if it comessss back this way,” offered the snake.
“Good,” said the buck. “Their kind aren’t meant to witness the elements.”
“I’ve watched this one,” said the doe. “It might not be like the rest.”
“Let’s hope,” said the buck.
“I won’t tell,” I said.
“I hope that is not true,” said a voice from behind me. The animals outside scattered, save the snake, which made its patrol on a wider circuit. “Countless times I’ve listened to the woman who lights the world,” said the voice. “Her song is… hope and life. I have never once seen her.”
“Okay,” I bargained, turning to face the darker shadows of the tunnel behind me, and its inhabitant, “I’ll describe her to you. And then I won’t speak of her again. Do you hear that, snake?”
“Yesss,” answered the snake. “If you mean it, we have no more quarrel with you.”
“I promise,” I vowed. “After this, for as long as I am in this world, I won’t tell. In return, you and your friends won’t harm me,” I added.
“Agreed,” said the buck’s voice, though I couldn’t see him through the opening. “Tell of her now, and speak of her no more.”
I turned to the shadows and sought for words to describe unending light.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!