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By C.M. Wolfram
In the forest there is a path. It is thin and wild, but the ground is soft and when she walks on it she does not wear shoes. On either side of the path, saplings are growing and they are as tall as she is. They seem weak but their green trunks are fertile and bend easy. Their leaves are soft and covered in herbaceous fur. The air is a well-lit ether, thick and damp with the smell, but the path below her is a river of dirt and owns no source or cessation. Beyond and above there are dark evergreens. They are tall as buildings, and together they form a blackgreen wall that is heavy but distant. The needles cut sheer shapes into themselves. Their oppression above is so total that she cannot see the sky, if there is even sky to see.
But on the pathway, all is light, and she follows it further. Her dress hangs loosely around her thin body like so many willow branches. Soon she arrives at a pond. Crossing over the pond are two wooden bridges. One connects to the path she is walking and when she stands on it and looks back, she sees that the other connects to a path that winds back into the forest at a similar but inverse angle to her own. Beneath the bridges the water is unnaturally still, mirrored. When she looks into it her face is reflected back to her in perfect opposition. There is no movement but her own, and though her footsteps are not light the water remains silent. She herself does not make a sound, but the air begins to vibrate and her ears begin to ring louder until she is forced to cover them.
In front of her, there is a table where two women are talking. It is obvious they are friends. She can sense that Naomi is walking behind her. It is dark in here, and loud. Not a singular loudness, but the loudness of many people speaking at once. There is a lamp hanging low over the table that illuminates the women as if they are actors and this is just play. She can see little beyond them. There is an empty seat there, and she sits down, though any reason to escapes her. The woman quit speaking as soon as she sits.
“Hello,” she says to them.
“Aislin,” Naomi says. Her name is lucid, but when she turns Naomi has gone.
Chairs quietly scrape as the women get up to leave.
“Please,” she says to them. “Don't.”
She stands up from her chair, but all she sees are the backs of the women as they melt into the crowded dark. She follows them. She sees only shapes and hears only noise, and she uses her hands to feel the walls of a hallway. It is difficult to tell if they are hand-built or human. The thickness of the air clings to her back now, and soon she is outside.
The crowd is still there, but they are dancing. They form a large, swollen circle and they are dancing in rhythm. The crowd is noisy still, and their figures seem to bleed into one another, forming a single gray-brown mass. She listens closer for a moment but hears no music. She feels the rhythm of their dance in her fingers and then her feet but resists the temptation to move. She looks down and sees that her feet are bare.
“Aislin.” The woman swaying in front of her has red hair and her skin seems illuminated in contrast with the rust-color of the rest.
“Naomi,” she says. Naomi is dancing with a man indistinguishable from the crowd itself and reaching her hand out to her. She reaches her hand to take it, but pulls it back when she sees that her skin is brighter than even Naomi's.
“Do you see him?” Naomi points towards the middle of the circle. There is a tall man there. He is illuminated like Naomi. He is spindly and boyish, and he stands in the center of the dancers, motionless except for the smile he offers to the couple nearest him. “Do you know who that is?”
“Yes,” she says. “He is the director.”
Naomi smiles and laughs in rhapsody. “Yes,” she says. “He is the director.”
The dancers continue in their circle, but she only watches. She notices that this space is surrounded by buildings that have been dilapidated by age. They are are tall, but not for buildings, and their walls are made of old wood or brick or plaster and form a fence around the space. The air above is thick with rusty clouds through which only a few pieces of starlit sky are visible. Even the clouds are spinning.
She watches Naomi's glow as she dances with the crowd, moving inevitably in a slow spiral towards the center. When she reaches the director, he takes her hand and leads her out of the circle. The dancers around them slow and make a pathway. The director leads her behind a woodslat wall, and she does not need to see the sheen of skin shining from the cracks to know what they are doing. It surprises her that she feels sadness, and she wades through and out of the circle, looking for the place she came from.
She is walking the path again. It is not silent any more, there is the audible rustle of leaves among the saplings that line the path. When she reaches the pond this time, a man walks onto the bridge opposite, unanimous with her. He is boyish but his hair is dark and he looks almost unshaven.
“Hello,” he says to her. She nods to him. “Do you see that?”
She looks down at the pond beneath her bridge. There is a yellow-gray shape floating in the water. She gets on her knees and reaches down to the thing and picks it up. The water remains undisturbed as stone, and the thing is not wet to her touch. She stands up and looks at what she is holding. It looks like a goose that was recently alive, though it is now stiff and half-covered in a yellowed plaster. As if when it died it was immersed in a shell, or worse, emerging from one. Where the bird is naked of plaster its feathers are mussed and greasy and devoid of any softness. It's eyes look like they have not yet let go of the life that was in them.
“It was alive once,” he says. She nods, still examining the strange carcass. When she looks up, he is standing next to her. He does not touch her, but his proximity is a comfort and his eyes feel warm when he looks at her. The rustling has stopped, and the pond and trees and the air among them are silent and moveless.
“Is this real?” she says.
“Do you really want to know?”
She does not respond and he takes her by the hand and holds her close to him.
It seemed like no time at all. They have a home now, and a child. A baby. He holds the baby often, wearing a blue sweater that matches the baby's own clothing. The house is white inside, nearly everywhere, except for the wood paneled flooring on which she walks without shoes. It is a habit she has never left.
It is she that is always following them, or at least it seems to her. To the kitchen, down the hallway, into the parlor, where the windows were lit so well the light was often suffocating. This is how her time is spent, wandering. While he carries the baby around, holding him closely and rocking him, til she feels as if she were all but forgotten. Least of all to herself.
She cannot remember when it started, but whenever she looks down now she sees gray feathers beneath her dress. Her legs have kept their shape but it is as if some awful night previous she had grown a bird-like layer on her skin. When she asks him about it, he only says that she looks fine and carries the baby to another room. He does not allow her mirrors, saying that they lead only to vanity. But she wants one, needs one, to see truth reflected, refracted. Whole and then broken.
Most days she thinks of the pond as it was before. She is unsure if it was a dream, the perfect silent stillness accompanied only by the beautiful water and whatever movements she chose to make. She was following nothing, no one, only herself.
It is in the parlor that she first notices the gray feathers on her hands. She is shielding her eyes from the window light when she sees that her fingers are not gray and blurred simply from proximity. She looks at her hands and they look longer now, lighter, slightly more curved towards the ground at the tips of the fingers.
He enters the room with the baby, walking behind the couch on which she is sitting and into her field of view.
“Do you see this?” she says. “My hands?”
“You look fine.”
He begins humming to the baby, though it is hardly crying. She closes her eyes and leans back on the cushions. She can hear him humming, he has left the room. It begins to resonate with the wood of the floor, shaking the boards, her bones. If it did not begin as a waltz, it grows into one, and she stands up from her sitting, the floor shaking beneath her. She begins to move, first with her hands and then with her feet. Simply swaying to the rhythm. She moves faster. She is spinning now, spinning in a wild circle, but she touches nothing. It is only the spinning, only the circle. Only the music. One two three, two two three. Three. Only the movement, only the sway. Only the movement, only the dance, and then she is lost to it and she becomes it. She is nothing now. Movements so quick they becomes stasis. Only a statue of what she was, frozen by feathers and drizzled with plaster, stuck in the midst of a spin, as her eyes refuse to let go of the life that was in them.
C.M. Wolfram is a writer, musician, and vegan from Seattle, Washington. He loves the taste of coffee with almond milk, the smell of a well-read book, dusk in autumn, and the word “vetiver.” His goal in his art is bring the dead leaves to life and make them sing, to wake all the old ghosts and wish them good morning.