A boy stands waist high in dead wheat. The rough stalks brush his bare legs, rasping in the storm driven wind. With wide eyes he stares towards the copse, a thousand grey fingers reaching for the mottled sky. Colorless as a maggot in a bleached fish, the field of grain laps against the gnarled roots of the trees. Their barkless hide seems to be bone beneath the weird, roiling clouds. The smell of stagnancy and rot rides the breeze that tickles his hair. It leaches the water from his skin, drier than the moon. Beside him, in the wheat, stands the Creature. His palm presses against Its waxy skin. Slick black thorns caress the little boy's wrist, the nails of long slim fingers like candles.
The cry of a raven echoes. He looks for it, amongst the branches, beneath the abhorrent clouds. He twists his head to look at the endless dead field behind, the pitted dust road. He fidgets, itchy at the rubbing stems. He gazes up at the Creature, waiting. Slowly, It turns Its pasted-on face to him.
"Are we going to the woods?" he asks the red diamonds of its mask, the only color amongst the light and dark of the landscape.
The frayed mouth says nothing. The blind eyes turn back to the copse.
He stands still, ignoring the dead buzz of beetles beneath his feet. Eyes water at the dust coating his pale skin, his dusky clothes. The field rustles with unliving movement, the hush and whisper of ghosts among the grains. He watches the violent clouds that bring no rain to the circle of trees. The wind teases his face with biting licks and he sneezes. The Creature twitches, a spasmodic jerk of thin limbs and ragged pinstripe suit. He rubs his face guiltily with a grubby hand, but It does not look at him. In the stillness, silence casts a pall over the two figures, the stalks quiet, the wind quails, even the clouds seem to freeze in their cloying entanglement. The dry air crackles across his skin. He glances at the Creature in Its rumpled suit, the wispy hairs on Its pale bald skull shuddering across the wrinkled scalp.
The soundlessness and the eerie calm frightens the boy. He clutches Its hand, presses against the chill of Its leg. Still It does not look at him, white eyes never straying from the white trees. Its knotted arm reaches across Its chest, cloth hissing, and places waxy fingers on his dark hair. Together they wait, with the stillness and the silence. The whole world waits.
The copse shudders. With the screams of ravens, the trees shiver as one. The ground bulges beneath the fleeing birds as they paint the dark sky black. The forest bellies upward, branches tear at one another and the clouds. The boy trembles as the earth before him heaves, like a behemoth breasting from the roots. The Creature does not move, and Its hand falls back to Its side. Like a dying bubble of noxious mud, the land collapses. As the ravens' cries fade away, the ground slowly settles and the trees cease to quaver.
The last ripples in the gray wheat subside. He looks up at the Creature's face, at the flaking paint and fraying edges.
"Are we going now?"
It does not turn to look at him as It nods. The Creature begins to walk towards the unmoving copse. The boy follows, feet aching to match Its ponderous strides. The stalks scrape along their legs, a biting hiss against Its battered suit, a dry crackle against his bare, dusty skin. Each step stings the bitter earth and pervades the dull air with the stink of moldy hay and rotting mice. The copse grows closer, eats more and more of the horizon. The trees beckon with dead branches, and only darkness looms between their trunks.
At the boundary between field and forest, he hesitates. The Creature stops, casts moth-eaten eyes upon his face. The boy stares into the dark. In a whisper so faint as to be lost in the still wind, he asks,
"Is it safe?"
It looks away. Its blind eyes stare into the nothingness beyond the bleached wood, and shakes Its head. The boy nods despite the fear in his wide rabbit eyes. Holding tighter to the Creature's hand, he follows It into the copse.
The dim light of the wheat field is sucked into the shadows stretching from the canopy of branches. Nothing can be seen except the faint illusions of tree trunks. They rise from the pall of twilight like specters, row upon unnatural row of dead soldiers. No leaves coat the ground, only crumbling earth that sinks beneath each step. The air smells of a tomb, of things never touched and long forgotten. Only the movement of the Creature and the boy intrudes any sound on the breathing of dead things. Dry brambles clutch at his clothes, bite his flesh. The ground seems to lap at the dark drops that fall to its thirsty soil. The Creature does not pause for the thorns, and the boy swallows his whimpers of pain. The whole forest feels hungry. Through the thin soles of his cracked leather shoes, a heartbeat pulses.
The Creature leads him on through the cadaverous forest. His tired and stumbling feet belie the memory of a small copse in a wheat field. Eyes droop with weariness, but the cold hand and claws will not let him rest. Its steps have grown quicker. The trees are smaller, more space breathes between them. A wan light begins to glint on the sickly wood. It fills the places where the darkness swamped, drives the shadows to cowering in the nooks of branches. The golden luminance probes his skin like an eye, more sinister and more frightening than the dark. The stunted, twisted saplings give way to a clearing. The barren earth crowds thick beneath the monstrous clouds. A tunnel yawns at the center of the empty circle. The cloying amber light spews from its mouth, swamping everything it touches in malevolence.
He stops at the final tree before that terrible clearing. The talons tighten on his wrist, and the Creature halts. It stands in the golden light, casting a blissful shadow upon the boy's skin. He stares into the eyes behind the holes in Its mask and whispers.
"I don't want to go."
It only nods. A tear spills from the tattered mask, and brightens the dusty red diamonds. It gives his hand a gentle tug, and walks toward the gaping maw. The boy follows with feet slipping in the dry, crumbling soil. Together they stand on a lip of earth, gazing into the sloping tunnel. The poisonous light pulsates forth, the sound of an insatiable heartbeat throbbing in the mound. The dry air moistens, as if the breath of some monstrous beast was belching forth from moldy lungs. Sweat beads his forehead, tracks through the dust on his cheeks like tears.
For the first time he can remember, the Creature releases his hand. The cold candle fingers slip out of his. His skin tingles as if asleep, and the sickening light seems to burn. The Creature raises one thin arm, ragged clothes dangling, and points a silent claw to the gaping threshold. The boy steps down, into the tunnel. The ground sinks beneath his feet, wet and warm with the texture of flesh. It seems he stands in a cruel gullet, that waits to swallow him whole. Everything in him screams to turn and run, back to the horrible copse, the empty field, anywhere but here. He shuts his eyes to stop the horrid light, but it oozes through his lashes and caresses his mind with dirty, hungry fingers. With trembling skin and a frantic heart, he begins down the long throat of the tunnel.
He does not open his eyes. His outstretched fingers feel the tepid air before him, and his feet lead onward. He does not know how long he walks. There is only the tunnel, and the heartbeat that is not his own, and the light that is not light. The memory of the Creature and Its cold, comforting hand has long faded, never was. He does not open his eyes, even when the tunnel falls beneath him and the light rises up to swallow him.
His eyelids flutter open. The world stabs his eyes with color, the air smothers him in smell, his skin screams at all that touches it. He sits in a chair, the elaborate iron-work branding him through pristine clothes that drown him in their softness. The chair, with him in it, rests amongst an explosion of green. The garden surrounds him with life, trailing vines draping from vibrant trees, flowers buzzing with insects that are more than husks. Hedges rustle in a breeze smelling of cool water and moist earth. The sunlight glints off the glass doors like water on fish scales. The bricks beneath bleed red, brighter than the Creature's mask.
Across a daintily set table sits a woman. The yellow of her dress soaks up sunlight that no longer seems so noxious. Her chestnut curls bounce in the shadow of an elegant straw hat, perched upon her head like a bird. White gloves make her ivory skin glow. He stares at her, and does not know if he feels terror, or adoration.
She looks up from the book in her lap. Berry lips smile at him, flashing tiny teeth.
"How is your tea, my love?"
She cannot seem to see the paleness of his skin, the thorn-cuts and tangles. The dead branches reaching out from his hollow eyes mean nothing. She keeps smiling, and does not stop. He sits there, in the golden light, in the garden, and wonders at how his new mother does not know. Does not know that he is not her son.
In a copse of fish-bone trees, another small boy cries in terror. The world is dark and empty, and there is no color anywhere. The air stinks of dry death. Clouds roil above his head in silence, and the screams of ravens tear at his ears. The faint remnants of an afternoon's light flicker and die behind him in the mouth of a gaping tunnel. Before him stands a terrible monster, a rake thin man in a pinstriped suit. The thing has no face, only a dirty checkered mask, out of which stares two blind eyes. The caustic wind teases the fraying edges of the false face, bites the boy's skin with dust. It reaches towards him with horrible claws, its hand wrinkled and pale like something dead. The cracked lips say nothing, but he knows its silence means come.