Do you know that sound that slate makes? It is not the nut chewing crunch of public gravel, but the hollow clap of dried bones as the tiles shift and meander and drift past one another. There is a moment - you hope and wish that it was a careless foot placement - you stop breathing and fear a full foliation of the path. The sudden rush of blood to your ears, to strain for every chord of data the stone will yield, will be just as loud as the lethal avalanche you nearly caused.
The slate glistens by moonlight. The path is a dark maw tunneling through this husk of a forest to a dark of the sunless tomorrow. Endless rows of obsidian teeth lay in wait. One of the teeth shifts sickeningly below my foot and I halt, hesitant and confused. Vertigo strikes me as the right side of my face insists it is progressing down the path. I reach up to remind my temple I haven't moved, and am surprised to find a crusted bandage.
I jerk out of this reverie when the woman steps forward from behind my left side. Her jet hair melds her outline to that of the path behind her. Her eyebrows pinch inward, tugging my vision from her edges to her center - the thin nose with imperceptibly flaring nostrils. She looks back over her right shoulder and purses her lips agape. My blood rushes away from my ears. She walks directly in front of me and the moonlight catches her just so; hair voluminous with a hale, predatory sheen. The pursed lips have hardened to a sneer. She speaks...
Her voice hits my face like smoke. I cringe my nose, twist my face away, and the meaning dissipates into the cool air.
I shake my head to clear the vertigo and look back at the woman. It is only now that I see the needle in her hand, the tip slick with liquid danger. I raise my arms, and turn to flee.
The path is blocked by a couple, huddled within a single deerskin. They look at me impassively. The needle bites my ass and the pain of the slate digging into my kneecaps is the opening salvo of a thick-tongued darkness that blankets my senses.
The slate path looks inviting, cradled amidst the falling snow. The air is cobwebbed with flakes, but the storm is so young that the ground is not yet convinced to suffer its accumulation. It is the magic hour and the wet bark, with snow-capped boughs and slate-mulched roots, is the deep brown of a lover's eye. I draw in a full carriage of crisp air, uncork and take a pull from my canteen, and wipe the froth from my beard. I have been walking for what seems like my whole life; I know I will be walking for the rest of it. I turn to admire the climb from the valley below to this elevated byway - the immense openness of the landscape taunts me; dares me to descend and tarry from my mission.
There is a rustle of wings. I spin, wide-eyed and hopeful; a raptor might imply game nearby, a jay might act the game itself. Three quarters of a spin to my right and I see it - a gray owl with strikingly white contour feathers shrugs after landing in a nearby tree, shuffles to a more amenable resting spot, and hugs its wings tightly in front of its body. It's only then that I notice... they aren't contour wings, but rather a complete skeleton denuded of flesh and feather. There is a bit of moss tufted between the tibia and fibula, a bit more stuck to some ribs - otherwise it's a perfect skeleton preserved in the middle of an abandoned forest. I laugh at my imagination making me believe there could be a living owl this far out.
Slowly, purposefully, the head of the skeletal owl twists to the side, bringing the empty sockets about to be perfectly aligned with mine.
The hair rises off the back of my arms.
thump     thump     whoosh
thump   thump   whoosh
thump thump whoosh
I see twin, red starbursts dance across the interior of my eyelids. My eyebrows tug to open them, and the harsh orange glow on the conical ceiling makes me slam them shut in recoil. I haven't spent a night under a roof in years. I calibrate my senses to take stock of the situation. I am indoors, with a fire, which was certainly not built by myself. I am sweating, and restrained to the bed I lay on. I am concerned, but a minute wiggle proves my primary captor to be a heavy blanket, weighted down at the edges by stones. I focus on breathing out for twice as long as I breath in... I focus on regulating my heart to calm my pulse...
I focus on the awareness of something else in the room.
snick snick tck
snick snick tck
My senses are coming fully back to my control, I access a mental gyroscope to triangulate the source of the methodical, rhythmic intrusion to my slumber. The sound is emanating from the foot of the bed, off to the right. I let my head roll to the right with the careful mimicry of something that is still asleep. I listen to make sure the noise is uninterrupted.
snick snick tck
snick snick tck
I draw my eyes open like a bucket from a well. I drink in the image of the interior of the yurt-a-la-sweat lodge I'm recovering in. The woman from beneath the deerskin is sitting atop a low stool, knitting with an unbleached yarn. There's a half ashen branch atop a bed of red coals producing much less smoke and more steam than I first thought. My eyes linger on the coals for a moment, jealous of its comfort and enraged by its waste. I glance back at the woman -
The knitting needles are frozen at the apex of a pencil hold. The ball of sand washed yarn has dropped to the ground and rolled harmlessly away from her foot.
Her eyes are perfectly aligned with mine.
Her center of gravity evolves towards the door the way the moon revolves towards the distant horizon. She leans far enough that her brunette braid slips off her shoulder in a sudden victory of gravity over inertia. Her mouth is open and I can imagine the air carrying words flitting over her teeth into the shimmering air of the lodge. My temple throbs sharply a late summer stalk of sunflower bends towards dawn with every lip-carved syllable and a mewling hatchling stretches its neck towards the yawning, inverted beak of its parent my head aches with the arcing pain of cloud to cloud lightning as every word a thin river tumbles over a ledge to a stagnant, reedy pool escapes my comprehension.
The deerling woman has shifted her needles in such a way as to evoke a show of empty palms. She blinks, quickly. The woman with obsidian hair studder-step skids into the doorway. Her eyes are devoid of anger as she takes a step into the room, then caresses the shoulder of the seated brunette as she looks down at her and nods affirmatively, reassuringly. She looks back to me with the tilted head of a rook come across a tumbled beetle. She steps over to the bed and climbs on top of me; knees tight into my ribs, she sits back comfortably on my blanketed hips, pendulums the tilt of her chin, and exhales through her nose.
Her eyelids close gently, reassuringly.
Then she shifts her weight, leans forward, and reaches forward with her left hand for my forehead...
thump thump whoosh
thum thum whoosh
whoosh whoosh whoosh whoosh
The yurt vanishes. My blanket vanishes. The hardpack floor has become a seaside dune and the doorway a gentle surf etching a sinous boundary between ocean and earth. The fire, the bed, and my nightmare savior remain. She sits across my hips but the angle of her body is... different. Aggressive, and welcoming... taunt, and relaxed... The forest garb is gone and she wears a gossamer spun dress of emerald thread which captures every breath of breeze like a sail and pulses with the vigor of her fluttering heartbeat.
She is looking down at me with a toothy and dimpled smile and is caressing the side of my face. "Why are you giving us such a difficult time?"
My eyebrows leap with the elation of understanding - every word hits my eardrums like a wolf note and I smile broadly. "What do you mean?"
"After the hillside - after what came after - you've caused trouble for my den." She lowers herself, her dress scratching my bare chest with the ferocity of a nuzzling hummingbird. "Why?"
My smile wanes, then rebounds. I shake my head to clear it. "What do you mean?"
She sits up entirely straight and lowers her eyes to her hands. "When you wake up..." she pushes down on my chest and dismounts the bed on the leeward side. She begins to walk towards the shoreline fussing with a knot of fabric at her shoulder before craning her neck back to me. "... we will need to talk."
She turns away again and lets the dress slide off her shoulder, pooling on the last outcrop of dry sand. She wades calf deep in the sparkling and kicks some foam towards the glowering sunset. I squint as the horizon and surf line blur and sparkle, dance and hug. I try to focus on the woman with the jet hair tumbling down her backside and my vision keys on her locks before my periphery fades to black.
Twin, red starbursts orbit between the centers of my eyelids. I draw them open like an animation of a retreating glacier. I find myself back in the yurt, on the bed, laying on my side. A slit in the ceiling admits stark moonlight, which illuminates a tendril of a dying fire.
An arm's length away from me, the man who had huddled beneath the deerskin is kneeling, facing away from me, working his elbows as if a bellows fueling his rotating, clacking hands. He raises his head and the hair on my arms. He rotates his hips and rises into a kneeling lunge. His eyes seek mine. I have eyes only for his hands, holding the script painted face of a silver axe. The man has been lashing coal hardened reeds about the hilt of the weapon. Seeing my gaze, he shakes the axe. I turn my face and my panic away. The man stands, too close to the bed, and tilts the axe face to send specteral lunar spectra across the walls of the yurt. He growls, lowers the axe to my face and runs a thumb across the edge.
He jerks his injured thumb away. My blade will protect me even when I cannot. The evil man sucks his thumb, greedy to reclaim his own cuprum salts. He begins chewing words out of the air, spitting across me and my bed, gesticulating with my own axe. The meaning of the words dangle above me like the last ripened apple of autumn. I think of the burn of a sore throat. I think of the eye watering heat of a seven foot high bonfire. I think of the protesting thighs burning while running uphill. I think of -
The man stops talking abruptly. He grabs the handle in both hands, and raises it far above his head. He closes his eyes and begins muttering. I think of the cooling pile of ash at the side of the bed. There is a flash of flesh above me as the man is tackled against the bench by a pile of black hair. The brunette woman runs in the door and around the bed, tossing my axe outside the yurt before reaching down to slap the man full across the face. There is a howl of indignation and when I look down to the side, the women are kneeling on the man's arms as he lays face down.
The raven-haired woman is glaring at me, face twisted in exertion and frustration. "We. Need. To. Talk. Remember how to speak. Remember!"
My chest hurts from processing the frigid air. I cough, and send a tumble of snow from my head. I twist my neck with a terrific crick of pain, and see that my shoulders are sheathed in snow and frost. I am sitting cross-legged. My screaming hips insist I've been doing so for some time. The skeletal owl is still sitting on the branch. Facing me. The limb it rests on is the only spot in my field of vision devoid of snow.
"You have forgotten who you are." The owl shuffles down the limb, stopping before the first major branch. "Remember."
I feel my cornea clutch at my pupil. I feel my pulse quicken. I'm aware of my jaw opening, and hanging loosely.
The owl seems to be gripping the limb more tightly. Its femur and tibia are bowing with tension. Deep within its face, the hollow shadow of its eye sockets glimmers the faint green of a young lime. It leans slightly forward. "Remember."
My mind is screaming 'run' but my heart replies 'stay'. My eyes are locked on those lacking from the owl. The glimmer becomes a flicker, which feeds upon itself and grows into a flame of verdant barium. The limb begins to splinter beneath the talon vice of the owl, and an impossibly thick vine spurts forth from the crack, sprouting from within itself. The vine spirals outward from the owl, blooming ancient flowers and dripping myriad berries. The owl elongates its neck and shakes loose its wingspan with a rattle of bone. The socket flame is lapping upwards and green sparks break off and float above its skull in an auspicious halo. It screeches with the desperation of a drowning man - "Remember!"
"I remember." My voice, abused by disuse, is a rasp akin to paper being slowly torn.
The woman with the obsidian hair looks over at my sick bed from the low chair in which she is finishing a knit cap. She nods once. "I'll fetch the others."
I gather myself. The bedside fire is burning again, and there's a crude clay pot of water near it. My blanket had been turned back, and my head feels light and smooth. I reach up with my left hand and learned that I have been shorn down to stubble.
My triad of captors re-enter the yurt. Jet. Man. Tree. Their presence triggers a null emotional response.
The midnight woman speaks first. "My name is Lilly." She sweeps her hand towards her conspirators. "This is Johnny, and Emma. Who are you?"
I furrow my brow and move to assert dominance over the conversation. "Water... please..." neither the phrase nor the tone my brain had planned, but the phrase and tone my body demands of me.
Emma slips forward and ducks a small oaken cup into the bowl of water. She holds it out towards me, and then holds my head up off the bed while I slurp at the life saving liquid.
Lilly is not deterred. "Who are you? Where have you come from? Are there others you've found?" Johnny inhales sharply at the last question. He doesn't look at me while he steps over behind Emma. She places the cup down, turns, and pats his hands.
Lilly's eyes are on mine as they close. I breath in the body warmed air. "I don't remember..." I shake my head with genuine regret. "I know that axe is mine. I know you are strangers to me. The rest..." I search for answers on their faces like a parent who's misplaced a child. "I remember you poking me on the slate path, and nothing before or after." I cough, thinly. "It seems you've taken my strength from me."
Silent faces weigh the claim like a farmer accused by the villagers of murdering the wolf.
Emma speaks first. "You have taken my sorrow from me. I have been an anchor... caught in the reeds. When you first reached our camp..." She is reading the floor as if it may contain the rest of her words. "When you first reached our camp, that was the first time in a long time that I wanted to live."
Johnny looks to Lilly, and then faces me after she fails to meet his eye. "You have taken my recklessness from me. Before, I thought I was invincible. Now," he raises his eyebrows, "I think I've just been lucky."
Lilly smiles in my presence for the first time. "We have taken your strength from you, for a bit. First come words, then actions, then trust. Once there's trust," she splays her hands aside her body, "then we can discuss allowing you to recover." She crosses her arms in front of her chest. "What words you have, we would have. Now." Lilly sits down on the chair before nodding at the others, who crouch and sit on the earth. "Tell us your name. Tell us how you found us."
I set my jaw - in defeat instead of defiance. I suck in my lips, slowly shake my head no, and look to the roof of the yurt. The slice in the ceiling is still there from the evening of Johnny's intended attack - perhaps to expedite my soul's exorcism. Today there's nothing existing the yurt by that scar other than smoke from the fire. Thin smoke which is bubbling away from the fire, and catching at the top of the yurt before snaking out of the opening. A cloud passes, and moonlight catches the smoke - just so - illuminating the underbelly of the caught smoke.
I am dizzied by a rush of images the dry riverstone path, the cowering fox cubs, the skyfire that dances before the stars each night, the far away birth of a campfire on a distance hilltop and I gasp.
Lilly is leaning forward on her low chair and I swivel my head to perfectly align my gaze with hers.
"I remember everything."