The eastern sky was a sheet of blood. Overhead, the moon glowed, full and pale in dawn’s light. Shadows lay heavy in the valley, and the mist was a gray blanket that hugged the steep slopes. A bull elk strode out of the forest, his sides wet from morning dew. His front hooves minced delicately and he snorted impatiently, his breath sharp and steamy. He tossed back his spread of antlers and bellowed. The valley echoed his call. Satisfied, he turned and stomped back into the forest, the snapping of broken branches marked his path.
On the small plain below, the grass was tall, wide and spiky. It covered the gently sloping meadow in swying sheets. The breeze reached out in tentative fingers through the whispering grass, keening across the field. The wide blades of grass exposed their silver bellies and bowed after it.
Tall trees that bordered the grassland rustled their yellowing leaves. Wisps of gold, red and orange drifted down among the branches to lay a thick carpet around the gnarled trunks. Deep in the forest, it was gloomy and cool, the stillness broken by an occasional creak of a branch or the sound of soft footfalls as something scampered hurriedly deeper into the darkness. In the forest, the wind did not intrude.
Nearby, bubbling water swirled around moss and algae-covered rocks, gurgled its greeting, then raced down the brook. A tiny green frog raised enormous black eyes above the surface of a small pool and blinked solemnly. Then it leaped. Crickets chattered, secure in their covering of lush grass. A bird, all gold and fire, perched on a twig and voiced its joy.
A shadow drifted slowly across the field. The wind soared, playing with the sunning clouds. It pushed and chased, drawing wispy streamers from the slumbering white masses.
He lay on the grass, hands behind his head, the sky mirroring itself in the blue depths of his clear eyes. The muted buzz of insects filled his ears with pleasant music. Chewing a blade of grass, he smiled at the antics of a butterfly. He peered around a branch as the sun caressed his body with fingers of warmth and pleasure. He chuckled, content with himself and the world.
With a smooth flow of rippling muscles, he rose and spread his arms, twisting his body as he stretched. He was tall and stood with confidence as he gazed around the meadow. He walked toward the brook, sensitive to the grass beneath his feet. The frog sunning itself on a moss-covered rock croaked and jumped into the water as he knelt. He pushed his face into the stream and drank in big gulps. He paused, shook the water off his face with a snort and drank again. Satisfied, he stood beside the brook and looked once again down the sloping meadow.
It was the time of falling leaves and all the herds were moving toward the land of the setting sun. The forests and the plains behind them were already bare, waiting for the sleep that would come as snow started to fall. The older members of the herd like himself were becoming increasingly tense and restless. He would wake in the middle of the night, unaccountably afraid. Images of oddly dressed figures and strange flat shapes in the sky filled his mind with terror. This unease happened only during the time of falling leaves.
The rest of the herd was slowly moving through the forest, picking edible tidbits along the way. A youngster ran from the group and two more followed. They all ended up rolling through the tall grass, flattening it into irregular clearings. Sounds of laughter and gleeful shrieks drifted toward him. He grunted with contentment, his fear forgotten. On the far side of the meadow a youngster ran screaming between trees in his play.
A shadow drifted over him and a chill crept through his body. He shivered and looked about quickly, getting increasingly nervous as the memories returned. Shouts were coming from the herd as they ran toward the forest, fear contorting their faces. He started breathing rapidly and looked up at the sky. He watched the flat shapes fly toward him and felt the hair on his neck stiffen.
In the hills beyond, a flicker of lightning slashed at the ground. Thunder rumbled in the distance, rolling across the hills. With a last glance at the descending flat shapes, he turned and sprinted toward the forest, his heart suddenly loud in his ears.
He did not know where he was running or why. He only knew that he had to get away. His legs, arms and chest was covered with raw lines, scratched by bushes and low branches. He stumbled and fell, sobbing as fatigued leg muscles throbbed with pain. He landed on rotting leaves and the smell of decaying vegetation was strong, but not unpleasant.
He rolled on his back and breathed deeply, shivering as fear rose and receded. The trees were around him, close and comforting. The forest was his. Behind the branches and the leaves, fire colored the sky. Thunder rolled over the forest, its deep voice making the ground tremble. Darkness settled quickly, drawing the shadows after it. The first drops of rain fell.
It was only then that he felt safe.
* * *
He awakened, turned his head and listened. The hushed wind whispered among the branches above him and there was a crackling of leaves as some small creature scampered about. Frogs were conducting a concert nearby. A mosquito buzzed around his head and fled as he moved. He smelled water and dampness. A drop fell and touched his face with cold. He allowed his head to sink back into the leaves and closed his eyes.
A breath of wind stirred the leaf. Clear tears of dawn trembled and merged into one pure jewel. The teardrop slid down the leaf and hung at its tip. A fleeting ray of light, jumping from leaf to leaf, splashed itself against the drop. A rainbow flared in its depths as the drop fell toward the shadowy undergrowth.
He felt the drop hit his face and he opened his eyes. He smiled at the deep blue of a clear sky, the silent trees and the noises of life around him. The air was sharp and alive after the rain and he breathed deeply. Then he felt the pain of memory and hurriedly stood up.
Between the trees, he could see the meadow and the hills beyond. The herd would be there and he longed for the company of familiar faces.
He emerged out of the forest and ran through the dew-sprinkled grass. A white mist hung low over the field. Loose tendrils slowly reached toward the sky. He jogged to the top of a small hill and looked down, but there was no sign of the herd. He was puzzled, but not overly concerned. He knew where they were headed. Strange noises were coming form the other side of the rise and he stood, listening, undecided. Maybe it was the herd, but he could not recognize the sounds. Uncertainly, he walked across the meadow and scrambled up the small hill.
Four oval flat shapes were resting on the plain below. People like the herd, but all in red, walked about the flat shapes. One of the red creatures looked up and stopped. He was already turning away when he saw the eyes. His whole body tingled and he felt himself growing numb. His legs trembled as he stumbled and fell. He whimpered with fear and struggled to his feet, feeling the staring eyes on his back. He screamed and ran over the crest toward the welcoming forest.
Some time later, he fell in gasping exhaustion beside a rotting tree trunk that lay sprawled on the forest floor. He could run no farther. His lungs felt filled with tiny thorns. It was agony to breathe and he ached everywhere. The scratches on his arms and legs stung painfully.
He lay there moaning, realizing he had trapped himself. After an aimless flight through the length of the forest, he discovered nothing but meadows and valleys all around. There was no way out and he did not dare venture into the open. The thought of those strangely clad creatures waiting for him out there made the fear cloud his mind. Those eyes! He was unbearably thirsty and he remembered the brook at the edge of the forest. He could not wait for darkness with his whole body demanding water.
The forest was something he thought he understood. As he walked toward the brook, he kept glancing at the shadows around him. The trees were shifting strangely and shapes formed in the gloom. He was on the verge of panic barely controlled. There was no safety anywhere. Dry leaves rustled behind him and he yelled in panic and ran. After a while, he stopped and looked back. There was nothing.
The trees thinned and he could see the swaying grass beyond. Slowly, he moved closer to the forest edge. There was nothing threatening out there. Haltingly, he emerged into the open, soaking in the warmth of the sun. He knelt beside the brook and glanced around before plunging his face into the water. It was icy and tasted delicious. After washing himself, he drank again. Then he laughed, his skin tingling with the radiant feeling of life.
The breeze played with his hair as he listened to the whispering grass and the nodding, rustling branches. A dry twig snapped and he whirled, looking into the forest. A slim red figure stepped away from behind a tree. The figure was in shadow, yet the eyes burned with inner fire. They seemed to grow, pulling at him.
* * *
He tried to look away, but his body refused to obey. He felt something snap and tear in his head and long forgotten memories struggled to rise. And it hurt. He was screaming inside his mind, trying to hide from those compelling eyes.
Musical sounds came from the creature as it walked slowly toward him. The sounds were soft and soothing, calming him. It was very confusing. The creature looked like one of the herd, yet it was smaller and thinner. The red covering ended at the neck and wrists and did not look like skin. The creature stopped before him at arm’s length. He watched with interest as the wind played with its streaming yellow hair. The pleasant face that looked at him was smiling.
Slowly, it lifted a slender hand to the top of its red covering. The hand moved down the center of the body and he could see white skin beneath as the covering parted. The creature stepped out of its false skin and more soothing noises came from its mouth. He was fascinated by the false skin lying crumpled on the grass, but the eyes pulled at him and he could not look away from the compelling curves of the creature’s body.
Its skin was very light and delicate, the body rounded with no rippling muscles. Two upraised mounds of flesh stirred on its chest as it breathed and he stared at them in fascination. Then the creature stopped smiling, reached out with its hand and touched his cheek. A tingle, not unpleasant, ran down his spine and he shuddered. Strange sensations raced through his body. He felt hot and cold as images of sunlight, sky and trees burst in his mind and faded.
He felt his body slowly sink into the grass. The creature stood looking down at him and smiled. Its eyes flared, boring into his. A gurgle rose in his throat as an ancient memory surfaced. A memory of silver towers, the sky filled with flying disks. A memory of a past long ago. The creature knelt beside him and stroked his skin, gently caressing his body. He felt himself respond and reached out with a trembling hand to touch the rosy tip on one of the fleshy mounds. The creature smiled broadly, murmured something softly and moved its legs to straddle his body.
With the climax of pleasure, he felt something rip in his head and the eyes staring at him flared unbearably. He sobbed and reached for the woman above him, for he now knew what she was. His mind screamed as he tried to form the strange words he suddenly knew, just as darkness covered his eyes.
* * *
The flat shapes flew low over the forest, glinting as light skidded over polished metal. A young male child ran from behind a tree where he was hiding and watched the shapes grow smaller and vanish into afternoon haze. He shrugged and ran toward the others. He wondered briefly why some of the older ones were not there, but it was warm and laughter made him forget.
Beside the brook, the figure of a prone man began to change in the grass, became translucent. A leaf detached itself from an overhanging branch, fluttered toward the brook, hovered above the semi-transparent form before it settled on the ghostly outline of a face. The outline blurred like a patch of mist, and slowly, the form faded.
The leaf hesitated, then settled gently where the figure had lain. The flattened grass slowly straightened around it.
This story first appeared in The Altered I, published by Norstrilia Press, 1976
Reprinted by Berkley Windhover Books, 1978