The eastern sky was a sheet of blood. Overhead, pale stars winked shyly. Darkness 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 swaying 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 disturbed by an occasional creak of a branch or soft footfalls as something scampered deeper into the darkness.

Nearby, water swirled around moss-covered rocks as it raced down the brook. A tiny green frog raised enormous black eyes above the sur­face of a small pool and blinked. 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 across the field. The wind soared, playing with the clouds, drawing wispy streamers from the slumbering masses.

He lay on the grass, hands behind his head, the sky mirroring itself in the blue depths of his eyes. The muted buzz of insects filled him with pleasant music. Chewing a blade of grass, he smiled at the antics of a butterfly. Peeking around a branch, the sun caressed his body with fingers of warmth. 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 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 were slowly moving along the forest edge, picking edible tidbits along the way. A youngster ran from the group and two more followed. They 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 screeching between trees in his play.

A shadow drifted over him and a sudden chill crept through his body. He looked about, 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. He watched the flat shapes fly toward him and he felt the hairs on his neck stiffen.

In the hills beyond, a flicker of lightning slashed at the ground and thunder rumbled in the distance, rolling across the hills. With a last glance at the descending flat shapes, he turned and jogged toward the forest.

He did not know why he was running, but he knew that he had to get away. His legs, arms and chest were covered with raw scratches from bushes and low branches. He stumbled and fell 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 receded, comforted by the trees around him. He was in his element. Gazing up through the branches, fire colored the sky. Thun­der rolled over the forest, its deep voice making the ground tremble. Dusk settled quickly, drawing darkness after it. The first drops of rain fell.

It was only then that he felt safe.

* * *

He wakened, turned his head and listened. The wind whis­pered among the branches above him and there was a crackling of leaves as some small creature scampered about. Nearby, frogs were conducting a concert. 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. A raindrop slid down the leaf and hung at its tip. A fleeting ray of light 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 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 wet grass. A white mist hung low over the field. He ambled 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 heading. Strange noises were coming from behind the next hill and he listened, undecided what to do. Maybe it was the herd, but he could not recognize the sounds. Uncertainly, he walked down and scrambled up the small hill.

Four oval shapes rested on the plain below. People like the herd, but wearing some red covering, were walking among the flat shapes. One of the red creatures looked up and stopped, its eyes seeking him out. His whole body tingled and he felt himself growing numb. His legs trembled and he fell. He whimpered with fear and struggled to his feet, turning away from those terrible eyes. He screamed and ran down the hill toward the welcoming forest.

Sometime later, gasping with exhaustion, he sprawled beside a rotting tree trunk. 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.

As he lay there, realizing he had trapped himself. After an aimless flight through the length of the forest, he saw 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 clouded his mind. Those eyes! He was thirsty and he remembered the brook at the edge of the forest. He could not wait for darkness with his body craving 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 seemed to form 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 terror and ran. After a while, he stopped and looked back. There was nothing.

The trees thinned out and he could see the swaying grass beyond. Slowly, he moved closer to the open meadow. There was nothing threaten­ing out there. When he emerged, the sun soaked him with warmth. 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 wind played with his hair as he listened to the whispering grass and the rustling branches. A 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 compelling fire. They seemed to grow as they pulled at him.

* * *

He tried to look away, but his body refused to obey. He felt some­thing snap and tear in his head as forgotten memories struggled to rise. He was screaming inside his mind, trying to hide from those captivating 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 looking at him was smiling.

Slowly, it moved 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 absorbing curves of the creature’s body.

Its skin was pale and delicate, the body rounded with no rippling muscles. Two upraised mounds of flesh stirred on its chest and he stared at them in fascination. Then the creature stopped smiling, reached out with its hand and touched his cheek. A tingle ran down his spine and he shuddered. Strange sensations raced through his body. Images of sunlight, sky and trees burst in his mind, and then they faded.

He felt his body slowly sink onto 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 old memory surfaced. The creature knelt beside him and stroked his skin, gently moving its hand over 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 and moved its legs to strad­dle him. He gasped with pleasure and moaned.

A cry burst forth as he climaxed. He felt something rip in his head and the eyes staring at him flared unbearably. He grimaced and reached for the woman above him. His mind screamed as he tried to form the strange words forming in his mind just as darkness covered his eyes.

* * *

The flat shapes flew low over the forest, glinting as light skidded over polished metal. A 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 why some of the older ones were not there, but it was warm and laugh­ter behind him made him forget.

Beside the brook, the figure of a man lying in the grass began to change. 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 the form slowly faded.

The leaf rested in the grass where the figure had lain.

This story first appeared in The Altered I, published by Norstrilia Press, 1976
Reprinted by Berkley Windhover Books, 1978

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Copyright © Stefan Vučak 2018