A sheet of blood covered the eastern sky. Overhead, the moon glowed, full and pale in dawn’s light. Shadows lay heavy in the valley, and the mist lay like 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, a gentle wind sent sheets of tall, spiky grass swaying on the sloping meadow. 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 gloomy, cool forest, the silence broken by an occasional creak of a branch or the sound of soft footfalls as something scampered hurriedly deeper into the darkness. The wind did not intrude here.

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. Tall, he 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 a time of falling leaves and all the herds were moving toward the land of the setting sun. The forests and the plains far 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 herd slowly made its way through the meadows, 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 ran or why. He only knew that he must get away. His legs, arms and chest were 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 inhaled the strong, pleasant smell of decaying vegetation.

He rolled on his back and breathed deeply, shivering as fear rose and receded. The trees were around him, close and comforting, and he felt united with them. Behind the branches and the leaves, fire colored the sky. Thun­der rolled over the forest and its deep voice made the ground tremble. Darkness settled quickly, drawing the shadows after it. The first drops of rain began to fall.

He lifted his face and licked the wetness off his lips, at last feeling safe.

* * *

He awakened, turned his head and listened. The hushed wind whis­pered among the branches above him. Leaves crackled as some small creature scampered about. Frogs conducted 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 cheek 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 sharp and alive after the rain, 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 he could see no sign of the herd. Puzzled, but not overly concerned, he knew where they were headed. Strange noises were coming from the other side of the rise and he tilted his head, listening, undecided. It might be the herd, but he could not recognize the sounds. Uncertain, he walked across the meadow and scrambled up the small rise.

Four oval shapes rested on the plain below and strange creatures walked among them. They looked like the herd and had pleasing faces, but from the neck down, all had red skin. One of the creatures looked up and stopped. About to turn away, he saw its 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 as the image of those eyes consumed him 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. With no way out, he dared not venture into the open. The thought of those strangely clad creatures waiting for him out there made fear cloud his mind. Those eyes! Unbearably thirsty, he remembered the brook at the edge of the forest. He could not wait for darkness while 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. On the verge of panic barely controlled, he pushed through the undergrowth. There was no safety anywhere. Dry leaves suddenly rustled behind him and he yelled in alarm and ran. After a while, he stopped and looked back. Nothing pursued him.

The trees thinned and he could see the swaying grass beyond. Slowly, he moved closer to the forest edge. He could not see anything 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. Still in shadow, its eyes burned with inner fire. They seemed to grow and pulled 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 screamed inside his mind, trying to hide from those compelling eyes.

Musical sounds came from the creature as it slowly walked toward him. The sounds were soft and soothing, and gradually calmed him. Confused, puzzled, he could not pull away from those compelling eyes. The creature looked like one of the herd, yet smaller and thinner. Seeing it close up, he realized it wore some sort of covering that ended at the neck and wrists. The creature stopped before him at arm’s length. He watched with interest as the wind played with its streaming yellow hair, never seeing anything like it before. The pleasant face that looked at him smiled.

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. Fascinated by the false skin lying crumpled on the grass, burning eyes pulled at him and he could not look away from the compelling curves of the creature’s body that stirred some ancient memory.

Its skin light and delicate, the body rounded with no rippling muscles. Two upraised mounds of flesh shifted 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 pleasant, warm tingle 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, then faded.

He felt his body slowly sink into the grass. The creature looked down at him and smiled. Its eyes flared, boring into his. A gurgle rose in his throat as another memory surfaced. A memory of silver towers, the sky filled with flying disks. Creatures dressed in many colors walked along the broad boulevards. Little ones scampered among them. He knew that place from a memory of a past long ago, but did not understand it at all.

The creature knelt beside him and stroked his arm, chest, and gently moved over his body. He felt himself respond in a way he never felt before and reached out with a trembling hand to touch the rosy tip on one of the fleshy mounds. The creature smiled broadly, murmured something, moved to strad­dle his body, and touched him.

After a time, with the climax of pleasure, he felt a sharp rip in his head and the eyes staring at him flared. He sobbed and reached for the woman above him, for he now knew what she was and why she sought him out. His mind screamed as he struggled to form the strange words that came into his mind 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 hid and watched the shapes grow smaller and vanish into afternoon haze. He shrugged and scampered toward the others. He briefly wondered why some of the older ones were not there, but in the warm air, the sounds of laugh­ter made him forget.

Beside the brook, the figure of a prone man lying in the grass began to change and 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.


An earlier version of this story appeared in The Altered I, Norstrilia Press, 1976.

Reprinted by Berkley Windhover Books, 1978.

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

Copyright © Stefan Vučak 2019

error: Content is protected !!