How we think the fight will go
I’m sixty-three years old now. Sometimes when I smell chocolate I do not have to scream. This is no small thing.
When I was a kid I lived with my Dad—just him and me, no brothers or sisters or anything. He said Mom ‘ran off with a goddamn Jarhead from Camp LeJune,’ and maybe that’s true. I still remember her, a little—a pretty red-headed woman in a polyester skirt and high heels lying on the floor with two black eyes and blood trickling out of one ear. I’d like to think she’s at Camp Lejeune, but ‘buried in the woods’ is a possibility as well.
We lived in a single wide trailer in the middle of eighty acres. Dad actually wasn’t a half-bad guy most of the time—my best memories of childhood are the two of us fly fishing on this little creek in the Nantahala National Forest—but he got paid, he drank. On those nights I slept in the woods.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
When I was about eight I found a treehouse on the corner of Dad’s land that bordered on the Nantahala. Supposedly the treehouse was built by my uncle when he was a kid. It was a wonder, this treehouse—three separate floors linked by rope bridges, a shingled roof, shutters to keep out the rain, all wrapped around a giant oak tree that had to have been full grown before the first shots were fired in the Civil War. In summer the mosquitoes would drive you nuts, but when it rained you stayed dry.
One of the three floors was a ‘bedroom’ just long enough for a sleeping bag. That was where I first saw her. I was lying with my headphones on, reading about monsters and trying to figure out where I might get some mosquito netting when I heard Misty—my German Shepherd—give her “somebody’s coming” bark. That put my stomach in knots—about this time a year ago Dad had stumbled out here looking for me, pistol in one hand and Jim Beam in the other.
When I peeked out the window it wasn’t Dad I saw, but a boy and a girl. They were about my age, but I didn’t recognize them from school. Also, they were dressed funny, like the kids in that Christmas Carol movie. I figured maybe it was some private school thing. It crossed my mind to just sit there and wait until they went away, but I’d been by myself for a couple of days. I risked another peek.
The boy had squatted down to be at eye level with Misty, maybe pet her, but she wasn’t having any of it. That was odd–normally liked people, even strangers. The boy reached out to pet her and she growled a little.
“Better not,” I called out, but not quick enough. The boy moved to pet her, and Misty snapped at him. Not a hard bite, just a nip, but still.
The girl jumped a little bit, then looked around, trying to figure out who was talking to her. My treehouse ‘bedroom’ was about forty feet up, and the leaves were in full bloom. I would have been hard to see. “Misty! Dammit, no!”
Misty backed off. I scrambled down the rope ladder and grabbed her by the collar. “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what got into her.”
“We probably smell strange.” The girl had an English accent, jarring here in the North Carolina woods.
I sniffed, but they smelled okay to me. It crossed my mind to wonder what I smelled like to them after three days in the summer sun, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. “Your hand okay?”
The boy flexed his fingers, his wrist. Nothing was bleeding. “Eh. S’alright. Just a nip. It was my fault anyway—I shouldn’t have touched her.”
I nodded, grateful he wasn’t going to make a big thing of it. “What y’all doing all the way out here?”
“We’re on a field trip to Roundworld,” the girl said. “It’s very educational. We’re looking for the Fifth Clearing. A very dangerous–”
“Twyla,” the boy hissed.
“I mean—um, gathering mushrooms.” She made a show of scanning the ground. “I found some morels earlier but, um, Gawain ate them.”
“Mushrooms, huh?” I said, knowing that wasn’t it. I wasn’t that dumb. “There’s a moss oak about a quarter mile that way.” Then, smiling, “No clearings, though. Not around here.”
The girl gave me a sly smile in return. “Have you checked lately? The Fifth Clearing moves around a lot. Felurian gets restless, especially in–.”
She made a sour face. “Hmmph. Well…nice to meet you!” She turned to go.
“Hey, wait up a sec.”
She turned back.
“I really am sorry about Misty. Are you guys thirsty? I can get you a Coke or something.” It was true that I felt bad about Misty nipping the kid, but I’d also been by myself for three days. A little company would be nice.
“A Coke. I got Dr. Pepper too.”
“Your parents don’t let you have Coke?”
“Um…I really don’t know.” The girl called over her shoulder. “Miss Susan? May we have a Dr. Peepers? I think that’s a sort of drink.”
A thin woman in a black, hooded cloak stepped out of the woods. “No, I’m afraid,” she said. “Come along, children. We really need to be—“
“I’ve got Doritos, too,” I said. “And some chocolate bars.”
The woman looked up sharply. “Dark chocolate or light?”
She pulled down the cloak’s hood. She had platinum blonde hair with a wide black stripe. It made me think of the Bride of Frankenstein. “I suppose we could stay for just a few minutes.”
I fetched the chocolate and drinks from the ice chest—most of the ice was melted, but the cans were still cool–and shared them around. It was almost a party.
The woman didn’t want her Coke, but she took two chocolate bars. “Thank you. My name is Susan Sto-Helit. I see you’ve already met Twyla—“ the girl waved “—and Gawain. You may call me ‘Miss Susan,’ if you like.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am. I’m James.” Twyla and Gawain were having trouble getting their cans open. I figured they had to be private school kids, for sure. “Like this,” I said, popping the top on mine.
Twyla’s eyes went very wide when she tasted the Coke. “This is wonderful!” she said. “Thank you so much!”
We chatted a while. They told me the blonde woman was their governess, then explained what a governess was. I told them how to find wild morel mushrooms, and gave them directions to the moss oak.
The blonde woman didn’t say much. She was really into that chocolate, though. She ate the first bar, then hid the second one away in her cloak for a couple of minutes, then ate it too. When that one was gone she eyed the box with real longing. “Here,” I said finally. “Help yourself.”
She took one bar, then raised her eyebrows. I nodded. Giving her that fourth bar only left me with two in the box, but I did it anyway. I sometimes wonder if doing so saved my life.
“We have to be going now,” Miss Susan said after about fifteen minutes. “Children, what do you say to our host?”
“Thank you,” Twyla and Gawain chorused.
“Ain’t no problem. If you want, there’s—“
“No,” Miss Susan said, rising. “It will be twilight soon.” She was right. Out in the woods, the crickets were starting to tune up for the night’s performance. “But the chocolate really was exquisite.” She gave me a small smile, then pulled the black hood of her cloak over her hair.
Without another word, the three of them set off back out into the woods. I watched the shadows swallow James and Twyla. Just before she disappeared from sight, Miss Susan turned back to me. “James?”
“I don’t know what your circumstances are. And it really isn’t any of my business. But… you should go home. Stay out of the forest for the next few nights.” Her eyes burned into me. “It isn’t safe out here. The Fifth Clearing is in motion. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand, but I nodded anyway. I was thinking it’s not safe at home, either. But I didn’t say it out loud.
A moment later she disappeared into the woods. I watched for a second, then gathered up the empty Coke cans and chocolate wrappers, then took what was left of the Doritos and chocolate up to the treehouse ‘kitchen.’
That’s when I realized that my dog was gone.
“Misty?” The crickets were really going now. “Misty!”
I called for her as the sun set, waiting a few seconds each time, hoping to hear her crashing through the underbrush. Nothing.
It wasn’t the first time Misty had run off—she was a smart girl, but she was still just a dog. Squirrels were her Jim Beam. But something about the silence and the crickets made me nervous. Stay out of the forest for the next few nights, I thought, shivering a little despite the heat. It isn’t safe.
I decided that as soon as I found Misty we would go home. Maybe we’d wait behind the barn until Dad passed out. Maybe we’d sleep in the back seat of the old Caddy. Whatever. We’d get out of the forest.
“Misty?” I called again—well…not really. ‘Called’ is the wrong word. By then the hair on the back of my neck was standing straight up, and about the best I could manage was a whisper. I very nearly turned around and went home.
But then I thought about the time in January when Dad found me hiding in the little closet with the water heater. It was cold that night, and I didn’t want to go to the treehouse. Dad broke my nose and three ribs. Then he stopped for a minute, puked, and set back to kicking. I believe he would have kicked me to death if Misty hadn’t clamped down on his hand. Dad was too drunk to feel much pain, but by the time he managed to pull Misty’s jaws apart you could see the tendons of his hand working under a flap of loose skin and three of his fingernails were gone.
So I set out into the dark after my dog.
I knew those woods as well as anyone, but I got lost almost immediately. The forest I grew up in was mostly pine, but before long I found myself in old growth—really old; ancient oaks that made my Civil War tree look like a sapling, Douglas fir, even something that might have been a redwood.
Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of starlight through the canopy, impossibly high overhead. But for the most part I moved in what amounted to total darkness, feeling my way from one alien tree trunk to the next. Sometimes the moss squirmed under my hands. This went on for a long time—hours, at least. It could have been days. Maybe even weeks.
Then the moon rose. I thought at first this was a blessing. I could see again, a little. I was still lost, but at least I didn’t have to keep feeling my way along those dark, mossy tree trunks, waiting for something to reach out and grab my wrist.
Every now and then I even managed to remember why I had come, to call out for Misty. My voice had been changing that summer, along with the rest of me. I wasn’t quite a man yet, but sometimes when I opened my mouth to talk a rumble would come out and I’d think ‘who said that?’ But when I called out into the dark for my dog I did so in the voice of a child.
Eventually, something heard my call.
Off in the distance, I caught a flash of motion—an animal’s hindquarter, disappearing into underbrush. Then a strangled whine. “Misty!”
I sprinted to the bush where the animal had disappeared. Briar branches whipped at my face. I raised my forearm to shield my eyes from them and ran on. Three paces later I realized I was clear, skidded to a halt, looked around blinking.
The moon was full that night, no matter what the Farmer’s Almanac said it should be. It lit the clearing with silver light, glistened off dew-covered ferns, played over the pale silk sheets of the grand bed.
“hello,” she said. “and aren’t you a handsome one…”
I imagine most people, men and women alike, have in their mind an image of one person they caught a glimpse of just once, years ago—maybe crossing the street, or riding the elevator, or sunbathing on the beach as you drove past—and as they slipped away forever you thought to yourself ‘that is the most beautiful person I have ever seen.’ Perhaps you take this memory out and examine it in private moments. If so, I hope you are able to stop. I cannot. The image of her burns in my mind always. The memory of her is a twilight that has no end.
“come closer. tell me your name…”
I went to her, fell on my knees before her. I tried to tell her that I was James, but my mouth was too dry to speak. She laughed and turned away, reached behind her and poured something sweet into a golden chalice.
When she looked away from me I blinked, and came back to myself a little. I realized that Misty was barking at me. I thought perhaps she had been barking for a long time. I turned to the sound. Looking over my shoulder I saw my good dog, her tail tucked, trembling a few paces behind me. She pleaded at me with soft brown eyes.
“come here, little one…”
Misty didn’t come. She even managed to back away a step or two, barking and whining, imploring me to follow.
I did not. I could not.
I could hear the irritation in her voice. Not wanting to, I turned to look at her face. She made a gesture in the air. There was a cracking sound. Something wet hit the back of my neck. Misty never barked again.
“…here…” she said, holding out the chalice. “Drink.”
I did. She smiled at me, touched my face, asked me my name. I told her, then waited, trembling, for her to speak.
“I am Felurian, and I find you beautiful…”
When I heard this, I moaned. Felurian took my hand in hers, then traced the skin of my palm with an almond-shaped fingernail. She raised my hand to her bare breast, placed it there. Her nipple came erect under my palm. If there has ever been a man who felt greater need than I felt at that moment, I pity him.
Then from behind me, another woman’s voice.
“You…you wretch.” Miss Susan spat out the words as if they made her physically ill. “He is just a child. You will release him, and you will do it…right…now.”
“…oh? will I…?”
“Yes. This instant.”
“but he does not want to be released. do you james…?”
Oh, I said. Oh. Oh no. Felurian patted the bed beside her on the left. I crawled there, to be where she told me to be.
Felurian patted the cushions on her right. “why don’t you join us? plenty of room for all three.”
“Oh, please,” Miss Susan said. I saw her eyes roll under the shadows of the cloak’s hood. “Perhaps I should call for Gawain and Twyla as well?” She waited.
“Hmmm? No? Nothing to say?”
Felurian had eyes like twilight. They narrowed now, the way a wolf’s might narrow when scenting blood.
“You disgust me,” Miss Susan said.
For a moment, Felurian’s face clouded—but only a moment. Then it was as if the moonlight pulsed. “forgive me…I had no wish to offend.”
Miss Susan pulled down the cloak’s hood. She looked…not softer, precisely, but distracted, even confused. “Forgive…you? For what?”
“…I am a poor hostess…you are quite right…” She smiled. The moon pulsed again. I pulsed with it. I could feel it pounding in my neck, my temples, my crotch. I was not the only one. Miss Susan’s pale hair moved in time with the rest of us, here under Felurian’s moon.
“my home has other pleasures to offer as well. perhaps they will be more to your liking?” She gestured across the clearing.
Miss Susan and I followed with our eyes. There, on the far side of the clearing, stood a banquet table, framed in night flowers, covered in gossamer and lace. It was heaped with the finest delicacies imaginable—Black Forest cake, mousse, tray upon tray of truffles, mugs of cocoa milk. Dark syrup steamed in a silver chalice. When Felurian summoned the breeze I smelled the chocolate, sweeter and richer than anything made by men.
“please,” Felurian said, “help yourself.”
Miss Susan went to the table, fighting each step. Her limbs jerked as if pulled by an incompetent puppeteer. But she went. On the last step she turned to me. Our eyes met, but she did not see me. Then she turned to the table, selected a truffle, and took her first, hesitant bite. Chocolate dust drifted down, glistening in the moonlight. Miss Susan shivered with pleasure.
Felurian took me by the hand.
I do not know how long she held me there. I remember part of it—the touch of warm flesh, nuzzling the nape of her neck, burying my face in her hair. She smelled like ancient spice, carried across a far, forgotten sea. I was young and strong, and held out longer than others might have done. But eventually my strength failed. I slept then, and Felurian beside me.
I woke to someone pulling my toe. I didn’t think I could go again, not yet, not even for Felurian… but it was not in me to deny her.
But when I opened my eyes, instead of Felurian, I saw Miss Susan. She held one finger to her lips. Her mouth was stained with chocolate. As I slept, it had begun to rain. The raindrops hung in the night air, not falling. Miss Susan locked eyes with me. Something about that brought me back to myself, and I jumped. From beneath her cloak she drew a fireplace poker, a thick metal thing.
“What are you—“
“Shh!” Then, whispering, “I’m sorry James. I should have protected you. But she’s so strong.” Miss Susan raised the poker over her head like a sword, carving a trail through raindrops that did not fall.
“What? No! Don’t hurt her! Felurian!” I reached out to touch one smooth and perfect calf, shook it. “FELURIAN!”
“She can’t hear you,” Miss Susan said. “We are outside of time.”
But of course, she could. We were in her Fifth Clearing. In this place there was nothing she could not do.
Beside me, Felurian stirred. “my, my.” she said. “so soon? such a strong boy…”
“Oh,” Miss Susan said. “Oh dear.” She tried to bring the poker down, but could not. The best she could manage was a little twitch, barely enough to knock hanging raindrops aside. What little color she had drained from her face.
Felurian rolled over, saw us.
Then Susan Sto-Helit’s voice rang out across the clearing like an iron gong. “James. Look at me, James. James!”
I looked into her eyes and came back to myself, a little.
“Go,” Susan said. Her voice was ancient, undeniable. “Go, James. Right. Now. Run as fast as you can, and don’t look back.”
I sat up, blinking.
Felurian gestured with one delicate finger. The hanging raindrops began to fall.
“No,” Miss Susan said. “No, no, no!”
Felurian reached out and touched me.
“Go!” Miss Susan said. Her eyes blazed like dying suns. “Go, James! Go! You have to go right now!”
I turned, meaning to look at Felurian. But in turning, my eyes happened upon Misty, my good dog, bloody and ruined in this unholy place.
That night was half a century ago.
I did as Miss Susan said. I ran away, as far as I could—first to the Nevada desert, then other places. I live on a different continent now. The sun is very bright here, and there are no forests. I live alone. I did not see my father again, nor speak to him. I never married. I do not have children.
I am, in fact, still a virgin—at least, ‘virgin’ in the sense that I’ve never had sex with a human. This is the state in which I will die.
I do not know what Miss Susan was. I have looked everywhere I can think to look, but found nothing that seemed even close to naming her. I do know that there was something about her, something ancient and strong, that did not abide nonsense. I would like to believe that she won that night. Her fireplace poker looked to me like cold iron.
Felurian’s kind, though—they are not unknown, even in this day and age. I have learned a little about her, about them. They are known to be vengeful, and cruel. If Miss Susan did not win, I think Felurian will come for me eventually. Even here in this bright place with no forests, I could make a wrong turn down an alley, or step into a garden and find it suddenly and impossibly thick.
There is such a thing as too much risk.
No American surgeon would do the job. Only a few used the word ‘insane,’ at least out loud, but I knew what they were thinking. In the end I did not have the will to do it myself, though I did try. They locked me up for the attempt—three years of thorazine. It probably would have been longer, but there were budget cuts.
I had to go all the way to Algeria to find a surgeon—well, a nurse–who would castrate me in a surgical setting. He did it for seventy One Hundred Dollar bills, American.
I would have paid more, but he wouldn’t take it. He was actually quite sympathetic. I think he may have understood why I needed the procedure, or at least suspected. He was from Belarus, and had grown up near the Bia?owie?a Forest. The old stories are not entirely forgotten there.
That was forty years ago. I relaxed a little, after the anesthetic wore off and the stitches healed. I’ve relaxed a little more every year since. Even if she does come for me now, I don’t believe she can have me again—not in the same way, at least.
I work alone, in a quiet place where I do not have to see women. I look after the old men whose sons were killed in the war. I help them go to the toilet and clean up when they don’t quite get there in time. At night I mop the floors. It is not as bad as it sounds. I think that I bring comfort to these childless men. Sometimes we laugh together. They do not ask me why I have come here.
On the nights when the moon is full I sit in the corner of my windowless room with all the lights burning. I hug my knees to my chest, try to make myself as small as possible. I wonder when she will find me. I wonder what she will do when she does.
Still, it is not so terrible. Some of the old men are my friends. Last week, one of them offered to share his chocolate bar with me. He did this out of kindness.
For my part, I did not have to scream.
This is no small thing.
Predicted Winner: Felurian
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Thursday, March 26, 2015, AT 11:59 PM, EST
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