Perry had always loved the woods. He enjoyed the sense of being far away from people, time seeming to slow down as he explored the paths and walked among the trees, and the sense of being quietly welcomed into a sacred place. Nature's church.
He was hunting today, but from the moment he walked into Blue Moon's forest, gun in tow, he felt unease come forward and protest. It isn't a good day for this.
But it was. The sun was out, bright and blazing but made more than tolerable by a breeze from the mountains. The air was sweet, autumnal. It had rained lightly this morning but the heat had already dried most of it up.
Bands of sunlight trickling through the canopy gave everything an out of focus, dreamlike quality. The leaves were painted gold, making his honey-colored eyes shimmer with many reflections.
After standing next to his truck, considering, Perry entered the forest through the marked path. He moved at a leisurely pace, admiring the scenery, feeling the earth breathe, and momentarily forgetting his troubles.
He followed the path he always took, could have taken it with eyes closed because of how well he knew it. Then he walked more quietly, tuned in for the movement of prey. Even if nothing surfaced on this beautiful day, he would be happy.
Perry lost track of time. He walked and walked, and not once did he see or hear a single creature. No birds chirping, no insects buzzing, no rustle-snap of furtive somethings taking note of his presence and darting off into the undergrowth.
It isn't a good day for this.
One thing he was beginning to hear was the trees. T hey were speaking, their tones conspiratorial.
Ridiculous. Perry mopped sweat from his brow and stopped for a moment, squinting. Everything seemed too bright, too intense, as if he had just opened his eyes after a long, restless nap.
He wished he had remembered to bring a watch. Judging from the sun's point in the sky there was probably only a couple of hours left of day. He ought to get home soon.
A gust of wind made the trees speak up again, and their voices seemed harsh, as if expressing annoyance. He wasn't the kind of man to let his imagination take over but he could have sworn they were talking about him. Today is definitely not a good day for this, he thought, looking down at his gun and realizing just how unfocused he was. No wonder he didn't hear any animals. He was too out of it.
But Perry had gotten more than enough sleep the night before, and had been wide awake up until this point. He was troubled, and couldn't really place why. The forest was beautiful and it welcomed him, and there was no reason to fret. He kept walking.
The sun dipped lower in the sky faster than it seemed possible. This time he was definitely fully conscious, no time lapses of fugue states. Perry had his eyes peeled and his mind sharp for signs that something was not right. But he suddenly found his mind wanting to drift off, to find--
calm forgetful sleep under our branches.
Perry stopped, jarred by the otherness of this thought. It had stabbed into his brain like sharp splinters, like the voice of a thing in a dream you couldn't really remember but would always know if you heard it again. He found himself checking his gun again and again to see if it was still loaded. He found himself going back, still trying to find any sign of animals and progressing light on his feet but for more than one reason.
The forest was aware, a patient, watchful presence drawing him further and further into the labyrinth of leaves and limbs.
Each tree branch was a hand, reaching, grasping, and each gust of wind was an exhalation. The silence in between carried the sense that something was listening for him as intently as he listened for it. He knew it was ridiculous but couldn't get that notion out of his mind; that sense of being intently regarded. And it welcomed him somehow. He would stop, looking around in paranoia, wanting to go back, wanting to get some caffeine to dispel this mental fog, wanting to call a friend and forget the day's weirdness, but then a little voice would seem to speak up in a pleasing rhythm, soothing him until he kept walking, for a while unsure what had been so troubling.
Night would arrive shortly. The clouds gathered lazily over the sun, a pupil rolling back into the eye until it disappeared behind cataracts.
Yes, the forest was full of eyes. And all of them were open now.
For Christ's sake! He thought angrily, shaking his head.
He was stopped briefly by a particularly persistent branch tugging on his shirt sleeve. Stay, stay, it seemed to titter, and the wind blew again, seeming to speak up in agreement.
He freed himself and carried on, not wanting to even consider the fact that he might be lost.
Perry had been in this forest before and never had it been quite like this. It was no more unsettling than the thin patch of woods behind his house that he always liked to play in as a child.
But now, it whispered, gently catching his attention, telling secrets. Fascinating secrets that would drive you mad if you considered them too long, ancient secrets passed among the trees and the earth for millennia. Perhaps even longer.
He wouldn't make it out of the forest before dark. Each step made his fear grow, and as if the forest knew it was beginning to agitate him it grew suddenly silent.
In this quiet, he heard another voice.
We see you.
Perry flinched as though he had been struck. The voice had been loud, even on the inner, it had been unnervingly loud, not like the whispering of foliage but like a real, audible voice.
As if to drive the point home it repeated, we see you.
Do you see us?
The question had an almost playful lilt to it. He looked around, seeing only the leaves shifting and waving, as if to direct to some important sight.
“Who are you?” He said.
We are always here for you, the voice promised, and he wasn't comforted by this development. It wasn't just the 'we' that clued him in to their number, it was the quality of their tone, one that reminded him of many wind chimes twanging and jingling. Only it sounded off, like an instrument you didn't know how to play.
They seemed to react to the word play as it registered in his mind. They repeated it with excitement. Play, play, play with us? Play with us?
“I have to go home,” he said, feeling silly, because he was of course just conversing with empty air, with himself. That seemed about right. He was overly tired and he really needed to get back home before darkness descended. Not that darkness was frightening to a 38 year-old man, but—
Home. They seemed to mull over this, as if questioning its validity. Where? Where is home, where is, where is....?
The voices thrummed with disappointment, a chorus buzzing like insects, like bad dreams, like nothing at all. He had the urge to ask the question they refused to answer, and this time he spoke up louder. “Who are you?”
They fell silent.
Dusk now, only blotches of pink and orange on the horizon steadily deepening to purple and blue, and a blanket of gray that would soon fade to black.
You are lost.
He was surprised they spoke up again, as during the silence he'd actually convinced himself it had merely been his thoughts, chasing each other like dogs at play.
They had piped up on their own volition, and their tone was different now. Like a stern parent.
You are lost. You will not be found.
Forgetful sleep under our branches....
“No!” He shouted hoarsely. “God damnit, no! Enough already!”
He took a few steps forward to see what lay past a thicket of branches and bracken, and saw a deer.
It didn't seem to notice him at first, so intent on its task of munching at a withered bush. The sound of his shouting should have scared it off, his heavy footsteps should have alerted it, and the dissonant serenity deepened his fear.
He raised his rifle and got ready to fire.
The deer lifted its head, cocked it to the side. Its movements were odd and jerky, its deep black eyes almost accusing, as if he wasn't supposed to be here; an interloper.
He couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. The deer's stare was too intense, too knowing. It should be running off, shouldn't be standing there like this. Its was if it were waiting for something.
We see you.
The deer didn't move. Neither did Perry.
We see you. Look for us.
He averted his eyes and looked behind him. In that moment a damp shredding sound made his gaze snap back to the deer.
At first Perry couldn't even register what he was seeing. The deer had changed somehow in that brief second he hadn't been watching.
Its head was bent backwards, split open into three halves, like the petals of some strange flower. He could see the wetness of the creature's insides, dripping thick gooey strands of blood. It was still standing. Its neck was twisted, broken, but it didn't crumple to the ground.
Horror struck, he waited. Waited for the revelation, for whatever they were trying to show him. The deer's head appeared to have collapsed in on itself, and the neck was, impossibly, lengthening, the whole time bobbing madly in the air like a high pressure water hose left unattended. It was something that had been torn apart and put together again, and it pained Perry, not because it was grotesque, not because it was unnatural, but because it was somehow still alive, aware.
We are here. See us, see us, know us.
He pulled the trigger and the deer jolted to the ground, not spasming in pain but falling over and instantly going still like a discarded toy.
It wasn't the trees that were calling to him. He realized that now as he ran through blinding dark and suddenly frigid air, painfully aware of the things that were pursuing, delighted by the chase.
Their eyes twinkled and flared from all angles, all the same shade; a gas-flame blue. Perry felt like he were running through the void of space, surrounded by stars that were dead and cold but somehow still burning.
They were right about one thing, though. He was lost.
He ran for hours, never getting any closer to finding an exit to this beautiful, horrifying forest. And the trees braided together like a hunter's net, moving in a way that plants should never move.
And the animals that he hadn't seen and heard earlier could be seen now, sitting and staring with mindless intensity. Everywhere he looked they were there.
There were rabbits and wolves and foxes and squirrels and birds and more deer, sitting side by side like some painting of the Garden of Eden.
Garden Of Eden? More like Garden of Nightmares, he thought desperately, willing his aching legs to move faster, faster, as if that would forestall what was coming, was was already here.
Despite his blinding terror, despite everything inside that was recoiling against the hideous force of wrongness that compelled the animals to unite in silent adoration, Perry stopped.
Look for us.
He did what he was told.
The trees surrounded him, but they were not trees. They towered and they whispered and they heard things no man could ever hear, and their eyes shone not with malice but with a terrible, impartial hunger.
Those eyes. Perry remembered those eyes. He had seen them as a child, knowing in the way only children knew that they belonged to nothing on earth.
Their appendages came to rest on his shoulders in twisted mimicry of a comforting gesture. They felt damp like dead things, but their grip was harsher than life. They wrapped around his torso and arms and legs, and worst of all, they burrowed deep into his mind. So deep he would never be able to get them out.
The gun slipped from his grasp.
And for some reason, Perry looked toward the sky. The branches above seemed to part to improve his view, and hanging in the void was a full blue moon, its glow too vivid to ever belong.
The same color as their eyes, he thought, and then he knew no more.