by C.E. Wilder
All the world is quite literally a stage in this surreal kafkaesque dreamworld.
There have been times when I've felt as if there were a great audience surveying my life with only the mildest of interest. Their dead eyes followed my days, line by line, glazing over as They waited for something amusing to happen. On occasion, if the silence welled up in my ears like high tide, I could even hear Them. Their laughter and idle chatter would wash over me, leaving behind bits and pieces like sea foam clinging to the shore.
Never more so have I felt this way than the day I awoke to find a strange transformation had occurred in the night. My vision was certainly the first change of which I was forced to take note. I could see to the left and right of myself all at once as if something had split my face from within and cast each eye to the side.
What I could piece together from this strange view was wholly unfamiliar though as I tried to recall what would be, I came to realize I had no basis for comparison. In fact, I couldn't recall a thing of my former life. I only knew that I had definitely been human. And now I couldn't be sure what I was.
I could feel Them watching as my fingers slid across this new face of mine, through feathers black as coal, to find my nose and mouth had become a long, hard beak. They waited for my reaction - for the panic, for the confusion. I could hear a seat creak as one leaned forward and then another. Vacant, bored eyes focused in with laser precision. Something was happening now.
What would I do? They asked.
I could feel their Interest even as I lowered my hands to my sides calmly. It perched upon my shoulders and coiled about my neck, at once serpentine and feathered. Talons pricked my skin as it shifted restlessly, throwing its heavy shadow over my hunched form.
Twisting my head first to one side and then the other, I tried to take stock of the rest of my body. From all I could see and recall, no further disfigurement had occurred. My still human fingers touched tender skin as I explored the folds of fabric gathered about my legs. Once satisfied with the state of my physical being, I righted myself and attempted to once again ascertain my surroundings.
The ground beneath my feet being of hard and highly polished wood, it was my natural inclination to assume I must be indoors, but as I turned my bird eye to the rest of the uncertain world, I was promptly proven wrong. A cluster of dwarfed trees grew before me so naturally I began to question what few certainties remained in the hollow annals of my mind. I approached this miniature grove cautiously though only at first, for what danger could there be in a tree?
Upon touching the foremost member of this leafy congregation, it became immediately clear that the structure was light and hollow. It tilted easily one way and then the other as I investigated. But in all other respects, it was as much a tree as any I had surely seen before. The texture of the bark seemed natural and the roots reached deep into the floorboards, holding loosely to their strange soil even as I disturbed their order.
The centerpiece of this arboreal gathering drew my eye. Being the height and width of at least two men, it towered over its fellows. I attempted to shift this tree lightly as I had the others, but it refused to budge. This deserved further exploration, They decided. Their eager curiosity exhaled deeply into my lungs, crawling beneath my skin as my fingertips followed jagged trails around the trunk.
Where my fingers drew aimless lines, the bark began to crack and crumble away. At any other time, this may have given me pause at the very least, yet They compelled me to continue. The decay spread upward, overtaking withering branches and crackling leaves until there remained only the trunk. Stepping slowly backwards, I watched as the bark continued to break and fall away.
An archway began to take shape in the decay and something could be seen stirring in the hollowed space beyond. The Interest curled about my neck slithered down my arm and wrapped Itself around my ankles, halting my uncertain retreat abruptly.
What dwelt within? They wondered.
Their Interest pulled me forward, one step at a time, until I found myself at the broken cradle of the trunk. To say I had expected anything in particular would be a lie, but I can say with complete conviction that what I found lying there took me fully by surprise.
Upon his back he bore the garb of a common clown, white on white with splashes of black. He curled in upon himself all the tighter at my approach, burying his face deep in the folds of his arms. Afraid my ghastly appearance would only startle him further, I stepped out of view before speaking.
"Excuse my intrusion, sir," said I. "If this is, in fact, an intrusion. May I be so bold as to ask...are you quite all right?"
The Clown gave no reply save a stray whimper. I watched as he turned slowly, unfurling like a filthy sail. He kept his hands to his chest, fingers occupied by the large pompoms cutting a dotted line down his middle. As he began to remove himself from his bizarre prison, I felt the feathery grip of Their Interest shift. Its shackles fell from my ankles and Its talons loosened in my shoulders. They leaned forward again in vibrant anticipation as debris fell about the rising Clown.
Then, quite suddenly, his foot caught on the jagged edges of the tree trunk, and he toppled out end over end. I could hear the roar of Their laughter as he sat there, stunned for a moment. He looked down slowly, hands rising to meet a spot on his chest just below the comically large ruffed collar that fell over his shoulders. His face screwed up in pain as blood trickled from between his fingers, shoulders heaving in silent sobs as I watched in stunned horror.
Regaining my senses, I ran to his aid quite instinctively, sweeping my skirts aside as I knelt. Pushing his hands away gently, I lifted the stained collar to find the source of his injury. The shirt itself seemed to be intact, but in its current state it sagged and sank into a very obvious wound beneath. I stared dumbly down at the pitiful Clown, feeling a sympathy pain in my own chest as the injury gaped back at me. It must have been the size of my fist. Yet, for all the seriousness of such an injury, the Clown reacted as if it were merely a flesh wound.
"Who has done you such grievous injury?" I asked, placing a gentle hand on the Clown's shoulder.
He fiddled with his fingers nervously before gesturing wildly to the right. His hands snapped back immediately to grasp at the tufts decorating his shirt, and he turned his face away. His eyes watered again, as if merely looking in that direction caused him more pain, and it instilled in me a foreboding unease the likes of which I will never know again.
I turned very slowly as I felt their Interest tighten around my throat. A sense of dread filled my chest. It overtook me like crashing waves, drowning out even the sound of my heart pounding away against my rib cage. The floorboards stretched out before me, and I, too afraid to let my eyes stray, counted the feet, the inches, the very molecules of the wood, stalling the inevitable. They had to find their end in time, and an end they found.
In the distance, nothing but darkness seemed to wait. An all encompassing void. I could feel Them out there, staring back. The living noose tightened again. They weren't laughing now. I turned my face away, forced to rip my eyes from the eerie vision. Even so, it remained in the periphery, waiting. I wished with all my might I had remained oblivious to its existence.
I turned instead back to the Clown who shook in terror. Whatever wound he'd received from Their cruel mockery seemed to be stabilizing. The red stain around his chest darkened and dried quickly. The hole closed in on itself, weaving flesh from fabric. When it had closed completely, it left behind a pristine shirt, as if the wound had never been.
"I know of Them," I whispered, leaning in close. "I hear Them. Do you?"
The Clown shook his head frantically and put trembling hands to his ears, pressing them tightly to his unnaturally pale skin. The very mention of the mysterious entities in the dark had upset him again. I took an arm and lowered it gently, keeping my voice soft and comforting.
"It's okay. I understand. We won't speak of Them if it vexes you so."
He lowered his hands slowly to his lap and gave an exaggerated sigh before nodding weakly. I placed my arm around his shoulders and held him to my side, hoping to bring this stranger some small amount of comfort if I could. I knew nothing of him, from whence he came, or how he had found himself locked away. But I felt a string looping about my heart. It hooked an anchor deep inside and pulled me to him.
He leaned into my embrace and I rubbed his shoulder soothingly. We stayed that way for quite some time in silence. As far as I knew, there existed no sense of urgency. I certainly had no pressing engagements. But the darkness loomed just beyond. It set my hair on end and chased goose pimples up and down my arms. Finally, I gave his back a gentle pat and found my feet, offering him my hand.
"We should keep moving. There must be a place without this oppressive darkness."
He took my hand readily, but did not release it on standing. Instead he began towing me eagerly back to the tree from which he'd fallen. Before he could reach it, I stopped abruptly. He snapped back and we knocked against each other. Again I felt Their amusement, heard a light chuckling, and the Clown clenched a fist in his shirt, emitting a hiss of pain.
"Is it Their laughter that causes you such pain?" I asked gently.
He gave a single nod of acknowledgment and his eyes were deep wells of sorrow as he turned them back to his prison. I could feel a pained longing burning down the string from his heart to my own. It wasn't a prison at all, but a sanctuary.
"Did you create that tree to protect yourself?"
The Clown nodded again, gazing down at his feet ashamedly. Then he looked me in the eye and poked a finger into my shoulder pointedly before turning it to his chest and moving towards the tree once more. When I didn't budge, he turned confused eyes back to me.
"I'm very flattered you would extend your defenses to me," I replied gently. "But I don't think hiding is the answer."
He gave me an incredulous look and rolled his eyes as he leaned back towards the tree.
"No, I'm serious," I laughed. "Come with me. We'll find somewhere safe together."
He released my hand and turned dramatically to the tree, dropping to a knee and waving his hands in presentation.
"Somewhere safe and pleasant," I corrected. "It must have been very lonely in there."
The Clown hung his head before nodding it reluctantly. Returning to my side, he placed his hand back in my own. Together we ventured onward into a great unknown.
It became difficult to tell how much time had passed. The light only ever dimmed and never went out completely. We slept together when we grew tired and when my companion woke in the night with terror in his eyes, I would hold him. At times, it felt as if we walked upon a great conveyor belt. Though the scenery changed frequently enough, the ground beneath my feet stayed ever the same.
Hard pressed was I to let it vex me while my friend faced trials far exceeding my own. The frequency at which he experienced his peculiar affliction never dulled my alarm. But always the wound repaired itself and my Clown friend required no greater elixir than my affections which I gave freely. If I were to ask a fee for such services, it would merely be some semblance of speech for in all this time he'd uttered not a word.
I did not begrudge him this decision or disability, but I grew lonely for deeper conversation. Perhaps conversation could even jolt my memory. The notion grew in my mind in the days to come. It reproduced and multiplied, buzzing about my thoughts as flies over a corpse. As these days passed, the landscape grew sharp and unforgiving. Spikes jutted from the floorboards at odd angles, searching for flesh to appease their raging discontent.
One night, as I struggled with my intrusive obsession, I felt a break. My Clown friend had been gesturing uselessly in an attempt to communicate, shaking the bees nest that had become my mind. My skull crawled with a thousand itches as I held it in my hands until finally I scratched furiously at my scalp, ruffling inky feathers and turning to him abruptly.
"Can't you speak?!" I demanded cruelly. "I don't know what you're saying!"
He flinched away from me, fingers tangling in his shirt before he cast his gaze to the ground, shoulders hunching. The anchor deep in my heart twisted painfully. I choked on the tears my beady eyes could not produce.
"Please, my friend, I'm sorry. I'm just...so lost."
He came closer and I leaned my head against his shoulder, hoping my attempts at reconciliation would not be rebuffed. He wrapped his arms around me easily, stroking my back in a soothing motion. As I sank into his embrace, he pressed his cheek against the top of my head. I reveled in his close comfort, lost in the folds of his sleeves. Had I not become suddenly aware of a cold, trickling sensation between my toes, I may have remained there.
Streams of water spilled over my bare feet like waves of ice as I pulled away. A sinister noise arose, cutting through my lungs like a sharp winter breath. It took but one look to see my companion heard it as well. He gulped and grabbed at the pompoms on his shirt, looking about wildly like a suffocating fish. I peered deep into the darkness, searching desperately for the source of this sound to no avail. It echoed, a haunting, low laughter until, slowly, a grin curled into view. And then another. A set of reflective eyes blinked open independently of one another as the whole group bobbed forward, tilting to and fro. Laughter dripped from sharp, jagged teeth like thick tar as it approached.
"You have no idea what you've stumbled into, do you?"
This query came from one mouth as the laughter continued occupying the other. So disoriented was I, being addressed this way, that I could scarce manage a shake of the head for in all honesty the apparition sounded the truth. My Clown friend hid behind me, fingers grasping frantically at my sleeves as he crouched low, pressing his face against my back.
They did not urge me to address and explore this strange creature, quite the contrary. I felt their Interest drawing back from the beast, beating its wings as if to take flight. Yet still it held me tightly in its grasp, pulling and tugging at my skin. This only whet my own curiosity. What could possibly frighten Them so?
"Who are you?" I ventured.
"Who are you?" the voice echoed in response.
"I don't know," I answered honestly.
The second mouth laughed gently along with this statement as the face drew up next to mine. She possessed the gray pallor one might expect from corpses bobbing to the surface from their watery graves. No sign of a nose graced her face, perhaps to make room for her additional grin. Her arm, which appeared from nowhere, slithered around my shoulder and pulled me close to her side, leaving my friend exposed and visibly shaken. I found myself enveloped in long gray robes, tattered and moist. Her dark hair pressed against my cheek, cold and slimy, as long, sharp fingernails hooked into my arm like a bird of prey. Had I the mind to pull away, I doubt I would have found much success.
"I'll take care of you, my love," the stranger hissed into my ear. "You could use a friend in a place such as this."
"I have a friend," I stated, keeping a bird eye fixed on my companion. "We're looking for a place without this oppressive darkness. Do you know where we might find it?"
"Will you show us?"
She turned me suddenly to face the void and drew a sharp finger across the darkness, stopping dead center. I shuddered at its depths. Her breath grew hot against my neck as she pressed her face in closer, pushing my feathers out at odd angles.
"I don't understand," I replied, feeling their Interest tugging on my shoulders once more.
"That is the only place without your 'oppressive darkness,' my friend," she hissed. "The only way out...is through."
"Through? To what?"
She watched me tilt my head curiously to one side and then the next, eyes amused - almost affectionate.
"Oh, poor child," she sighed, patting my beak with her free hand. "You don't see Them, do you?"
A spark of hope for camaraderie with this stranger blinded me of all suspicion.
"You know about... Them?" I asked carefully.
"Of course I do," she replied, pulling back at last. "I see Them out there. Watching us."
"I feel Them. Sometimes I hear Them," I confided eagerly. "What are They like?"
I awaited her answer with terror and curiosity, uncertain if I truly wanted to know. They must be monstrous to inflict such torture on my friend. But the stranger laughed.
"They're cowards." Instantly, she found my ear again, whispering soft and menacing. "If you stare back, it unnerves Them greatly."
I watched as she turned her eyes slowly from place to place on the great black sheet before us, and felt Them suddenly withdraw. The aversion of so many an eye relieved some of the pressure that had plagued me throughout this journey. And then she turned her sharp eyes back to me.
"But you don't want to go there, do you, now? Stay with me, my love. I'll keep you safe."
She steered me away from the void and I lost sight of my companion. All I could see of any consequence were the jagged teeth of this stranger as she led me away with a gentle, coaxing touch. But she had the look of a starving animal in her eye. Desperation oozed from her clammy skin. How could I refuse without angering her? The tremble in my voice betrayed any attempt to keep my composure.
"I can't leave my friend."
"But I'm your friend now," one mouth stated while the other ground its teeth.
Her nails pierced my skin as her grip tightened. I felt their Interest dig in with its own talons and pull, but it was too late. Something coiled about my legs and slithered around my waist. She turned to face me, eyes shining bright with angry tears as her mouths curled down in tight frowns. When she spoke again it was no soft echo. I could feel the roar that erupted from her gaping maws to the very core of my being.
"You can't leave me!"
Terror gripped me as the monstrosity rose ten feet into the air. Tendrils erupted from the shallow pool, as if from the floorboards themselves, each one leading straight back to the creature. She pulled and I hit the water, spotting my Clown friend through the splash. He charged forward bravely as I sank beneath the waves. I thrashed against the binds that held me, pushing me further into an ocean of darkness, but her grip only tightened.
The icy water filled my lungs as every inch of my body became pleasantly numb. It trickled in through my pores and invaded my blood stream. My mind became sluggish and strangely soothed as gray matter wrinkles filled with delicate patterns of ice crystals. Quite against my will, I could feel my thrashing slow until I hung limply in the monster's grasp. I remained suspended in the void, entranced by my skirts billowing towards the surface for endless moments.
All about me were currents of motion, disturbing the serenity of the deep. Tendrils of some strange creature tickled my neck as it passed, darting through my hair and slithering over my skin. Unseen creatures from unknown depths rose to nibble at my toes and make their homes in my skirts. Every instinct told me to thrash against this new sensation, but my body wouldn't listen. I could only await death.
Just as I thought I would lose consciousness , a rush of water pressed heavily against my body as the creature drew me toward the surface. The air pricked my skin like hot needles as my useless body was thrown from the monster's coils. I sputtered and coughed as I hit the ground again, searching for the sight of my companion as desperately as I sought air to replace the icy water in my lungs.
He seemed frozen in time, standing over the creature as she writhed in agony. The coils of her serpentine lower half flailed and twisted as she lay impaled on a spike. Her robes were stained with bright blood as it spurted from the angry wound in her shoulder. At last my companion's eyes turned to find my own, a clear message running down the wire between our hearts.
We both scrambled away as she began to extract herself. As we ran, a low growl vibrated the floorboards and I knew she had given chase. I tried desperately to catch up to my companion, but the spikes around us began to sprout. Branches grew from the bases, sending bursts of pine needles exploding in my face. I lost sight of him! I tried to call out to him, but only desperate, senseless cries befitting my deformed visage escaped for I had no name by which to call him.
I found the sense to quiet myself, and glanced over my shoulder for any sign of our pursuer. But all I could see were the trees. They crowded in, smothering and confusing me, pushing me, it seemed, into a barren meadow. The floorboards here were scuffed and faded as I fell upon them. I remained there in shock, breathing heavily as my mind reeled.
Their voices washed over me so clearly now - clearer than They ever had in times past. Get up! Some commanded loudly. How could I stop here? How could I stop now? They demanded action, cooperation, perseverance, but I had nothing to give Them. I didn't know who I was, I didn't know where I was, and I had lost my only true connection to this world.
I could feel my insides set fire and burn until there remained nothing but ash and dust, leaving only a hollow shell. This shell wilted beneath the weight of Their scrutiny until I hugged the cursed floorboards, pressing feather and beak against the one constant in this strange world. Their Interest crouched over my near-corpse, pecking casually at cloth and skin alike. I could hear Them speculating beyond the darkness.
Would this be my end? Would I go on? Or would I die here?
Their mutterings meant nothing to me. Soon They would realize I meant nothing. They would each and every one turn their attention to some other meaningless distraction and finally leave me be.
In time They grew quiet but still They waited impatiently. I felt Their eyes upon me, weighted with expectation and curiosity. It filled my veins and rang through my ears, until I could stand the pulsating rhythm no longer. My limbs ached as I pushed myself up from the hard floor. How long had I wallowed there in my misery? Stiff-limbed and blind, I shuffled forward aimlessly. So downtrodden had I become that I hadn't even a thought to spare for my misplaced friend. The dark and barren world welcomed me into its embrace and I lost myself there for an indeterminable amount of time.
All was a blur of monotony as I pushed onward until I found myself climbing a set of open-faced stairs quite suddenly. This drew me back into the world as I put one foot in front of the other, eyes cast downward as I lurched upward. Their Interest grew heavier upon my back. I carried a world there, sinking under its weight as I ascended. I pulled time along behind me, a dead weight bound to my ankles, but we went nowhere. Surely, I had died. This tortured existence must be my limbo, ever climbing heavenwards as hell held me down.
At last, I found the strength to lift my head, expecting to see a bright light in the distance - a small sign of the paradise I would never reach. Instead, to my dread, only darkness greeted me. But as I grew closer, for I had indeed been making progress, I could make out the faint shapes of rafters. And then a platform opened up before me. I hesitated a moment, uncertain. But one step at a time, I edged my way out and looked down.
Beneath me there lay a stage. It came to me in an instant. The same wooden floor I had been traversing all this time had been naught but an enormous stage. Now I stood above it all, watching the lights stream over my beloved Clown as he stepped forward. He turned his face out towards....
The multitudes which had plagued me all this time sat now below me. Many eyes remained glued to the stage, but others turned slowly up to meet my own. It sent a thrill of terror down my spine and I jerked suddenly backwards. My vision went black. Blinking, I realized what lay before me was only the infinite void I had followed all this time.
Gathering up my courage, I moved back into the void, emerging once more on the other side. Below me, my Clown friend adjusted a microphone stand, pulling too hard and smacking himself in the face. But as the crowd roared, no sign of pain or stain appeared. I stepped forward cautiously, to the end of the platform. He straightened his collar and stood back from the microphone before gesturing grandly as he opened his mouth and began to sing.
I felt the anchor deep in my heart pull me forward as I listened in awe. His somber voice filled the room and the audience settled down as it washed over Them. I sat heavily on the edge of the platform, transfixed. Their Interest's wings, which had grown exponentially in the climb, fell over the edge of the platform, brushing my legs softly as it wilted about my shoulders.
For once, I watched as he effected Them. Tears rolled down cheeks all throughout the audience, his gestures beseeching Them to understand his pain even as the sweetness of his voice dampened it, making it palatable to Their ears - to Their hearts. His brow wrinkled in frustration as he surely realized that They could never feel the fullness of his sorrow this way and the gestures became more desperate. Someone had to understand, the clenching fingers groaned as his whole body sagged downward.
As he lifted again, drawing his hands up toward the sky, he suddenly caught my eye. Turning away from the audience, he held me captive with his gaze. I reached down for his arms and found myself gliding to the ground, the wings of Their interest billowing behind me as I descended. As my toes touched the stage, my fingers grasped the baggy sleeves of my companion. His found my elbows and we stared into one another's eyes as his singing trailed off into silence. The audience held its breath within me.
"Who are you?" I breathed out.
It wasn't what I had intended to ask, but I needed to know more than anything. More than I needed to know myself. He opened his mouth and I felt a sob lodge itself deep in my chest as I waited. But he did not speak. He shuddered and choked, falling into my arms. I crumpled beneath his weight, trying to cradle his head from the fall. No one laughed. His mouth hung open even as the choking abated.
Where usually his chest would sink and bleed, it began to bulge. Bit by bit sprouts of leaves jutted out from beneath his skin, twigs reaching for the rafters. I pushed him from my lap and scrambled away as they grew into branches, flowers bursting from blossoms. Right before my eyes he sprouted into a tree, spotlights shining between branches dripping with blood as the roots burrowed deep into his corpse. My hands searched for something to hold onto and found only my face.
What had I done?
I lowered my hands slowly to find feathers between my fingers. Hands shaking, I ran my fingers over my face frantically. More feathers. More and more and more. Until skin met my seeking fingertips, my nails scraping across tender flesh, peeling it away in bloody strips. I couldn't control myself. There crawled beneath my skin a thousand mites, a thousand itches, and I could not rid myself of them. I felt the gasps and shocks and thrills that went through every member of the audience as they sat out in their own world, watching this horror. Finally, it was as if my face fell off into my own hands and I held it there, staring in shock.
With a clatter, the beak fell from my fingers and I backed away from it all, gasping for air. In a moment, my fingers were searching again, but gently this time, to find a human face. Soft lips and a nose, teeth and ears, until they ran through long hair, pushing it away from the marvel of mundanity I had become.
An ocean roared in my newly freed ears. I looked out into the audience slowly to find them rising to their feet. Their applause washed over me as memories dripped back into my mind like a leaky faucet. Neither this nor their cheers and whistles could comfort me. Their Interest's wings draped over my shoulders still, weighing on my tired limbs.
Where would I go now?