A Forest for Hungry Eyes, Part 6

brown wooden kitchen shelf with ceramic jars on top

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

Read Part 5

Part 6 (The Final Part)

This is my pride and joy,” said Mrs. Eplibrod. “My workshop.”

It’s wonderful,” said Mizha. I leaned forward and looked inside. An enormous oven dominated the room, with tables along the walls filled with various baking projects. My eyes darted to a large fish bowl filled with a thick pink liquid, because it was full of candy fish happily swimming about, just like they were real fish. I realized they were real, just not like any fish I’d ever seen.

The oven itself looked nothing like I expected. Far from being a pot-bellied black iron thing, it looked more like the oven back at my house. No, it was more like the oven at my Aunt Mazie’s house, because it was larger and fancier than our oven. It was stainless steel, and was made of two-ovens stacked on each other. Over the top oven was a grill-grate, with blue flames on top of it, burning down.

This is where the magic happens,” said Mrs. Eplibrod.

What kind of magic?” Mizha asked. “What exactly are you? You don’t look like a regular witch.”

Mrs. Eplibrod cackled. “And what does a regular witch look like, exactly?”

You know. Made out of skin. Not bread and raisins.”

Have you met many witches, then?”

Mizha shook her head. “Not yet. Mawbri took me to meet pale people and flying children and a sea-dragon, but you’re the first witch.”

Well, maybe none of us will be what you expect. I’m a Bakavǫlur, just like my sisters.”

Oh,” said Mizha. “Neat.”

I looked at Mizha and furrowed my brow. I appear to have missed something. “You’re a what?”

She breathes vitality into the seeds of the soil,” said Mizha, “and weaves them into constructs of wonder. She whispers to sucrose as it grows its crystals, and theobroma oil as it tempers into form, and wills them to be alive.” I stared at my friend for a second, and she said, “She does baking magic.”

Indeed,” said Mrs. Eplibrod. “Baking and chocolate work and candy-making, these are the crafts of my ensourclement. And this oven is very special, it’s heat provides catalysis for the transformation of prima matter into vitalis materia, and allows me to bake the animating principle into my creations. It also provides electric convection and has a very low heat variability due to the polymer-blend construction, perfect for laminated doughs. And let me tell you it was a bitch to get this model delivered all the way out here. This is a Hobard Professional 2850, normally only available to hotels and large-scale restaurant establishments. But Mrs. Elplibrod knows people.” She brushed her finger against her nose.

Oh,” I said. Then a thought occurred to me. “Isn’t it hot in here?”

Well, you know what they say: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the Baked Forest.”

No, I mean…you’re made of dough. Doesn’t it cook you up?”

She laughed. “You’re made of meat, which cooks up very nicely, I’m told. Doesn’t it cook you up? No, we Bakavǫlur are tougher than that, just as the Master Baker made us. To bake me into a pane-tonne you’d need to put me in the oven, just like if I wanted to cook you into a roast.”

I swallowed heavily. “But you’re not going to cook us, right?”

She sighed. “Haven’t I already said I wouldn’t? Besides, why would I?”

To eat us,” I said. “Witches eat children.”

That doesn’t make any sense,” said Mizha. “She’s made of dough. Dough doesn’t eat meat. It eats…yeast, and sugar, and flour, and spices.”

That’s right,” the old woman replied. “You could eat me just fine, but I’d have no use for you other than maybe to feed you to my cat. And your meat would spoil far before she finished you and you’d rot and your rotting child fumes would ruin all of my recipes. It just doesn’t add up.”

Oh,” I said. That did make sense, but something still bugged me. You might think I’d be too intimidated to keep going, but Mizha’s casual attitude made it hard to be too worried. Plus, the old woman really didn’t seem dangerous. “But what about the stories? In the stories, witches that live in gingerbread houses eat children.”

Do they?” She asked. “Do they really?”

Mizha let out a laugh. “They don’t! In Hansel and Gretel, it’s the witch that gets eaten! The children shove her in the oven!”

I don’t remember them eating her after that,” I said, thinking back. It had been a while since I heard that story.

They would if she was made of bread,” said Mizha.

Mrs. Eplibrod nodded. “You may think my house and garden delicious, but there is nothing so tantalizing as a warm, sweet loaf straight out of the oven. And I’ve had a long time to prove and develop dense and subtle flavors. You have to learn to think about these things, child. Stories are like history. They’re written by the winners. Do you think those children would have wanted to admit that they baked a sweet old dough-lady just because they hadn’t had dessert?”

I guess,” I said. It did make sense. I relaxed a little.

Oh, sometimes my sisters and I have been known to kill the children, but we never eat them.” I gasped. “Can you really blame us? I’ve lost most of my sisters to lost children, and the Master Baker hasn’t made any more of us in a very long time.” She sighed.

It doesn’t happen often, though. It’s not in our nature, no matter how much danger we’re in. And it’s hard to blame the children, of course. Most of them just can’t resist when we’re standing next to the oven. Young ones like the two of you are rare. I don’t see a hungry look in your eyes. I don’t know why we always feel the need to bring them in here. Some of my sisters think that’s what we’re made for. We’re prey animals, like it or not. I’ve been lucky. I’ve always managed to tempt the predators that wandered in here with my special recipes, so they leave happy and well-fed. But it’s bound to happen, sooner or later. One day, a rosy-cheeked, hungry young child or her brother just won’t be able to resist.”

That’s horrible,” I said. In that moment, I found it hard to blame the old lady and her sisters for whatever might happen, all things considered. “How can you live like that?”

Oh, it’s not so bad. I’ve had a very long, quiet life. I’ve lived long enough to see your people finally figure out proper ovens.” She stroked her oven affectionately. “My gingers are far cleverer lads then they used to be, bringing me fish and all. I’d never have been able to keep a proper meat-cat in the olden days. And what is a witch without a cat? The cake-cats I’ve baked over the years could never get the purr quite right.”

I didn’t know quite what to say to that, and I fell into silence. Mizha didn’t, however, but nor did she seem fazed by these revelations. She started asking Mrs. Eplibrot about her baking magic, and the two of them launched into a discussion that was equal parts weird occult jargon and baking terminology. I couldn’t follow any of it. Mizha, for her part, didn’t seem to know what the terms meant either, and asked innumerable questions. The witch seemed delighted to answer them, and the two of them ended by each making a cookie-butterfly and then baking them in the oven.

Mrs. Eplibrot warned Mizha that hers likely wouldn’t be animated at all, and was surprised when Mizha’s black and red butterfly came out moving, flapping half-heartedly like an insect with a broken wing. Mizha was disappointed that it didn’t take to the air like Mrs. Eplibrot’s blue and orange creation, which fluttered all around us. But the old woman assured Mizha that this success was very impressive and something to be proud of. Then each of them plucked their cookies up and took big bites. I at first refused, but after they insisted that this wasn’t any different than stepping on a bug, and that the butterflies wouldn’t live long anyway, I had a piece of each of their wings. They both tasted very good, although Mrs. Eplibrot’s was far, far better. I had never had a cookie that tasted like that, so warm and sweet and bursting with secrets. The fact that it quivered a little in my mouth should have been creepy, but it felt delightful.

Eventually, I realized something that I hadn’t really thought about.

Mizha, we’ve been gone a really long time. Shouldn’t we, like, be going back to class?”

Mizha frowned at me. “Yes, I suppose we should.” She turned to Mrs. Eplibrot and gave her an enormous hug, which the old dough-lady returned. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Eplibrot.”

It was my pleasure, dearies. And keep practicing. You have the making of a Bakavǫlur master, even if you are unfortunately made of meat.”

We’ll be sure to come back and visit,” said Mizha.

Please do. Only, make sure to be careful who you bring along with you. Not all children are as open-minded as your friend here.”

Mizha laughed. “Definitely. I wouldn’t want you to get eaten up.”

No,” said Mrs. Eplibrot with a grin. “I wouldn’t want that, either.”

The trip back was uneventful compared to what had come before. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see that this entire forest was made of edible things. Only instead of being baked goods or candy, it was more like they were ingredients. The trunks of the bare trees were towers of unrefined sugar, like those brown cones you can find in fancy bake shops. Still others were stacks of piles of wheat berries, or enormous cinnamon sticks.

When we got back to the part of the path where we entered, Mawbri took us back to the coat room the same way we had come. I had that same sensation of passing into dark water, only not getting wet. By this point, the strangeness of it all had worn off enough that I was getting panicky how much time had passed. But as Mizha had said, time seemed to work differently. We got back only a minute after free play ended. When we walked past the coat room wall everyone else was sitting in a circle.

There you are,” Mrs. F said to me as we emerged. She seemed to take no notice of Mizha, although from the looks of other people in the class, they had seen the two of us walk out of the private coat room area together. I realized I was going to have to deal with that, but I was more worried about the look on Mrs. F’s face.

Where have you been?” she asked.

Just playing,” I said with as much contrition as I could muster. “Sorry, Mrs. F.”

Just make sure to be on time,” she said. “Please have a seat.”

And class resumed. It just went on, as if nothing had happened. I barely paid attention. My mind was full of everything I had seen and done that day. Mizha was now even more of a puzzle than she had been before. I knew that the strangeness anyone could see when they looked at her was a facade. A shroud, covering hiding far, far more strangeness underneath. And I understood none of it. I didn’t know why she looked like a walking corpse, or why she seemed to be incapable of fear. Or, you know, how she had a living shadow-creature for a pet who was able to take her into impossible fantasy worlds for hours at a time only to return a few minutes later.

All of this weighed on me and consumed my mind for the rest of the day, and into the weekend. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Surely, everything was different, now. My life would never be the same. I was enraptured, but also scared that I couldn’t return to my normal life.

But by the next week, it didn’t seem so important. And a month later, it was just one of those things. I was very young, and I had a full life. And I’ll admit, part of me was scared to hang out with Mizha again, even though it was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me.

She didn’t approach me again, although she did give me looks when I caught her eye, and I knew without having to think that those looks were an invitation to play again, whenever I wanted. But there was no pressure there, and when I looked away, every time she did it, I didn’t see hurt or rejection in her body language. It was as if she was saying, “Oh, okay, maybe another time.” I was so inside my own head, and she was so self-possessed, that it never occurred to me that she was lonely. That she really wanted a friend.

And so I didn’t play with Mizha when I was little, not for the rest of the year, and not for the few years that followed. It gives me a sick feeling in my gut when I think about it. Part of that is that I was denying her my friendship. That’s the generous part of the interpretation. But another part of it is selfish. If not for a few coincidences later on, I would have skipped out on becoming friends with Mizha entirely. And then I would never be gifted with the fascinating, intoxicating, and sometimes terrifying life that I have now. I never would have seen the wonders that the world has to offer. Or the horrors. But those are out there, and it turns out that if they’re out there, I need to see them. I would never have known that, and I never would have found out who I truly am. Because it was true that Mizha wasn’t afraid of anything, not even the people that we all are, deep down on the inside.

But that’s another story, for another time.

END

 

A Forest for Hungry Eyes, Part 5

silhouette of house surrounded by trees

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Read Part 4

Part 5

Looking through the arch, it seemed dark, or blurry. But the instant we passed under it, I was assaulted by a thousand sights and smells all at once.

Wow,” I said. It was all I could say. It was all I could do, I was frozen in place by the sight.

Mizha, on the other hand, was not. She let go of my hand and rushed forward to check everything out. I just stood there, trying to take it in.

It was a candy house and garden, like something out of a fairy tale. Only it looked nothing like any of the drawings or cartoons of this that I’d seen, and I’d seen a lot. It’s hard to describe exactly what the difference was, but I’ll do my best. First off, it was busier.

The yard and garden were packed with tall candy canes with vines of licorice growing out of them, and bushes made of spun sugar, and dozens of different flowers, all with petals and stems of different candies. Taffy sunflowers and white chocolate violets and poppies of some kind of sweet-looking paper. Each of them was as intricate and detailed as any flower I’d seen, and they didn’t look like something made by hand in a shop. It was all clearly naturally grown, as impossible as that was.

Some of the candy canes grew into each other, and the flowers had irregular petals and bits eaten out of them as if by bugs. There was a grow-bed near my feet of tomatoes and peas and some other vegetables, all seemingly made of pastry with frosting decorations, but they were in various states of having grown. Some of them were just shoots, and some of them were full grown plants. They had all of the chaos of a tended but slightly wild garden, only everyone was made out of something sweet.

Then there was the house itself, which was far more magnificent than the garden, if that’s possible. The house wasn’t gingerbread, but bricks of what it took me a second to realize alternated between malt and something else that I realized years later was seafoam candy. The bricks were caulked between them in something white—chocolate or frosting, I didn’t know, but it ran down the bricks in places like it hadn’t been carefully applied. The roof looked like it might have been gingerbread, hundreds of gingerbread shingles stacked against each other, discolored in places as if weathered by rain and sun.

The aroma was intense. I could smell candy and pastry and bread and chocolate and a thousand more things, all at once. It was like someone emptied the contents of a candy store and a bakery into a room, then smashed it all together with a hammer.

Ugh!” I heard Mizha let out a sound of disgust near me and it pulled me out of my reverie. All of my gazing at the bizarre wonders around me had taken only a minute at most. But Mizha had wasted no time grabbing things and stuffing them in her mouth. I turned to see what had caused her to exclaim.

Here, taste this.” She pressed a small red thing in my hand. It was a donut hole, only it was a tomato, with icing piped along the top as a leaf. It still had a piece of stem from where she had plucked it off the plant, and when I ran my finger along the stem , I could tell it was some kind of bread.

I’m not eating that,” I said.

She giggled. “Your loss. It’s a tomato.”

Yeah, I see that.”

No, I mean it tastes like a tomato. It’s a donut hole, and it’s sweet, but it tastes like a tomato. Oh look, raspberries! I wonder if they’re made out of raspberry?” She trotted off to try one. I stood there, not sure what to do.

Here I was, standing in a dream. I’d stepped out of the nightmare forest and into a dream, right out of a fairy tale. A house and garden made out of candy, supposedly the thing that every kid wanted most in all the world. I liked candy as much as anyone, but this was weird. I’d always sort of thought it was strange that Hansel and Gretel just started eating the food in front of them when they found the witch’s house. Sure it looked and smelled like candy, but who knew what it actually was? That’s when I put it all together.

Witch’s house,” I said softly.

Hmm? Wugijoozay?” Mizha’s mouth was full.

This is a witch’s house,” I said, more loudly.

At that exact moment, as if on cue, the front door of the house creaked open, and something stepped out.

Well well well,” it said in a crackly voice, “What have we here? Children, of meat and skin, if I am not very much mistaken.”

I froze. At first glance, it looked like a weird collection of goo in the shape of a woman. Then I realized it was a woman. Old and fat, wearing a plain brown dress and a white apron. Only she looked weird. Her skin was a pale beige color, and saggy all over. It was also mottled with warts all over her face and exposed arms. Some of them were black, but others were bright green, or orange, or red, and sort of translucent. Her hair was a single mass clumped to her head, and it was sticky, like it was soaked with hair gel. She was moving her fingers—which ended in point brown nails—in a creepy, witchy kind of gesture.

I wanted to run away, but Mizha swallowed the food in her mouth and marched right up to the witch-woman.

Hi,” she said. “I’m Mizha. This house is really neat.”

Thank you, little girl. And you,” she turned to me, “little…child. What brings you and your tender young flesh to my domicile today?” She reached out to stroke Mizha’s face, and then pulled away as if burned. She leaned down and stared at Mizha’s forehead, and the mark she had drawn there.

Who gave you that mark?” asked the witch.

I drew it myself,” said Mizha proudly, pulling out her crayon.

The witch frowned, and her whole face seemed to droop down. “You didn’t just get lost in the woods, did you?”

Nope!” Mizha exclaimed. “Mawbri lead us here.” She dipped down and patted the ground, and the shadow-creature bounded over to her from where he had disappeared in the candy bushes. He crawled up onto Mizha’s shoulder and squealed.

The witch’s eyes widened, and I think she mouthed the word “pure.” “You’re not an ordinary child.” She turned to me. “You are, I think.”

Yes,” I said. “Perfectly ordinary. Please don’t eat me, Mrs. Witch.”

The witch threw back her head and laughed, a strange, gargled sound. “Me, eat you? Why would I want to eat children made of meat.” She turned her gaze to Mizha. “You’re not here to eat me, are you?”

Mizha paused as if considering. “I don’t see why we should.”

You promise?” asked the witch. “You give me your word?”

Mizha nodded. “Yes, I give you my word.”

The witch sighed heavily. “I suppose that will have to do.”

Mizha took the witch’s hand, and looked her straight in the eyes. “No. I said I give you my word.” There was something different about her voice. She didn’t sound like a little girl.

The witch’s eyes widened further, and I thought I almost saw fear. But by the time she spoke the look was gone, and her tone had returned to mild amusement. “Well, you’d might as well come in and have some proper food, just in case you get any ideas. You may call me Mrs. Eplibrød, by the way. And please wipe your feet. I don’t want breadcrumbs on my nice clean floor.” She turned and walked inside.

Mizha turned to me and gave me an enormous grin, then followed. Mrs. Eplibrød into the house. I hesitated, and then followed myself.

The inside of the house was far less fanciful than the outside, but it was still the same. Everything was made out of something edible, only less of it looked so sweet and delicious. I saw tables and chairs of bread, pretzel-shelves, and throw rugs of woven bread-sticks. The shelves that lined the various rooms had the kind of powders, dried leaves, and strangely-colored concoctions I expected from a witch’s house. They also contained books. Not edible bread-books as far as I could tell. Just normal books. And not worm-riddled tomes lined with human skin. Most of them were paperbacks with white creases on the spines. They caught my attention because they were so out of place, because they were normal. I think they were mostly romance novels.

Don’t get many visitors these days,” Mrs. Eplibrød was explaining to Mizha. “Not so easy to get lost in the woods, I suppose, and children have easier ways of getting sweets. Where are you from, children?”

Aurora Lane,” said Mizha.

Do they have parking lots on Aurora Lane? Are you from somewhere with parking lots?”

Not on the street,” Mizha replied. “But nearby.”

Mrs. Eplibrod nodded. “I’ve always wondered about parking lots. I’ve heard about them but never seen one myself.”

The witch carried on like this as she gave us a tour of the house. Aside from the fact that everything was edible, it was a normal old lady’s house. At one point, a cat poked its way out from behind a couch.

Kitty!” Mizha exclaimed upon seeing her.

Ah, there you are Múli.” Mrs. Eplibrod reached into the folds of her apron and brought out a can. She opened it up and the oily smell of sardines assaulted my nostrils. The cat scampered forward and buried its face in the tin. Mizha knelt down and started petting the animal.

Despite my apprehension, I could never resist a cat, so I approached as well. She wasn’t black, as I would have expected, but a grey and brown tortoise shell pattern.

She looks so normal,” I said as I reached out to stroke her fur.

Of course she’s normal,” snapped Mrs. Eplibrod. “But she’s made of meat, if that’s what you mean. Straight from the land of parking lots.”

How do you get food for her?” I asked.

Mrs. Eplibrod looked over at me and narrowed her eyes.

Why do you ask that, child?”

Well, cats need to eat meat, and everything around here seems like it’s made of, like, cake and stuff.”

The old woman nodded. “It’s not easy. I have to send my gingers out into the Sea, and the pools don’t always bring them back, the poor boys. Lucky they found an old factory that had come to life and eaten all of its workers just a few moons past, so I’m stocked with anchovies.” She turned to look the cat in the eyes. “But you would eat me out of house and home if you could, wouldn’t you, little mouth?”

She stroked the cat’s cheek, who rubbed her saggy fingers affectionately.

Come along,” Mrs. Eplibrod said, standing up. “There’s only one room left, and it’s the one you’ve come to see, I gather. That cat’s not going anywhere, not if she knows what’s good for her.”

Mizha rose to follow. I stroked Múli the cat a few more times and then followed after. Our host tapped on a spot of wall, which stretched and distended, and before my eyes an elaborate bread-sculpture archway grew into being. I watched it bloom out of the center of the wall as uncooked dough, and then harden and darken into solid form. Once it was formed, Mrs. Eplibrod reached out and grasped the handle.

Then it struck me why the old woman looked so strange, with her drooping, beige skin, and the brightly colored warts all over her body. She was made of dough. Dough that had not been baked. The colored marks all over her were candied fruit, and the black ones were…raisins? Yes, I could see it now that I was looking. And her hair was some kind of danish, covered in glaze. That’s why it looked shiny and sticky.

The door opened, and heat poured out of the newly-revealed room in waves. Mrs. Eplibrod stepped in, and Mizha followed. I stood in the doorway, not wanting to enter.

 

A Forest for Hungry Eyes, Part 4

witch-grass-night-1171525-1598x1218.jpg

 

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Part 4

Darkness consumed me as all of my senses blacked out. My mind panicked at the full and complete sensory deprivation, the kind most people never feel their entire lives. A moment later I felt a sensation like being flattened, then after like being soaked with water, only the kind of water that doesn’t get you wet.

Then it was over. I was standing somewhere, somewhere dark, with only spots of light tricking from the sky. The sensations I had just felt were gone completely, with no after effect. I also realized I hadn’t felt liked I’d moved at all. As far as I could tell, I’d taken Mizha’s hand, took a single step, and now here we are. I could see nothing, but the air was rich with the scent of pine and dirt and plants, and other things I couldn’t identify, but were familiar and out of place, and weirdly comfortable. The overall effect, however, was unsettling. I could see nothing but the tiny bits of light, but I heard the noises. Crunching sounds, rustling, what might have been the flap of wings, the hoot of a distant owl. And other sounds that I couldn’t identify and didn’t want to think about. I hugged my arms close to myself and shivered, even though the air was mildly warm. This was not a safe place.

A moment later I heard the WHOOSH of flames and orange light flooded my vision. I squeezed my eyes against the brightness. As I slowly opened them, I saw Mizha holding a torch, surveying the scene.

So this is the Forest,” she said. “It smells like Christmas.”

Yes!” I said, happy to identify the scent. “Snickerdoodles, and grandmom’s Christmas cake.”

Mizha nodded. She looked down. “Oh good. There’s a path. Good job, Mawbri!” She leaned down and held out her hand for Mawbri to crawl up onto her shoulder. Then she turned to me. “Let’s go.”

Without waiting, she strode forward. I shook myself out of the state of shock and scrambled after her.

What is this place? How did we get here.”

I told you, this is the Forest. Mawbri got us here.”

Yeah, but how?”

She shrugged. “He can’t talk, you know. I tried to teach him to write but his little arms can’t hold a crayon very well.”

Oh,” I said. It would be years before Mizha learned about the nature of the Qlippothic Sea, and developed her Traversal Theories. Not that I would have understood any of that. I guess I still don’t really understand it.

She kept walking, and I kept close. This place was strange, and fascination and fear fought for control of whether my eyes would take in the scene around me or fixate on the back of Mizha’s head. But Mizha didn’t seem to be the least bit scared, and so I forced myself to look around. Mizha’s torch let out a wide, clear circle of light. If I’d had any experience with actual oil and rag-type torches this would have been strange, but I only knew how they acted in movies, so I accepted it, and gazed at the dimly lit vista around me.

We were, indeed, in a forest, but one out of a nightmare. A bizarre nightmare. The trees loomed up, dark and foreboding, with a mix of lush dark-green trees coated in moss, and the bare skeletons of trees from the depths of winter. These bare trees seemed to lean towards us, stretching towards the path beneath our feet. The path itself was large, large enough for us to walk side by side and probably fit another small person. It was made of dirt, or some kind of weird looking sand, but was otherwise very well defined. Like the forest path from a movie or a storybook. I also saw things skittering among the trees, though never clearly. Wings and scuttling legs, and glowing sets of eyes that disappeared as soon as I looked at them. Every so often a screech or a howl echoed from the woods, and I jumped. Mizha never did.

This is scary,” I said.

Is it?”

I looked at her like she’d grown a new head. “You’re not scared? Like, not scared a little bit?”

She shrugged. It didn’t occur to me that she might be lying. She didn’t look scared.

That’s weird.”

Okay.” That was her only response. We fell silent, and kept walking.

A minute or so later, she spoke again. “What does that mean?”

Huh?”

Scared? Like, what does that mean?”

My mouth hung open, but she didn’t see it. “You don’t…you don’t know what scared is?”

I’ve heard about it. Is it like when you cut your knee and it hurts?”

No!” I said, too loudly. “Well, kind of. Scared is…it’s being scared!”

Okay,” she said again. She was clearly disappointed in my answer. I tried to find a way to put this into words, but I’d never thought about it. Why would I? I wasn’t a very fearful kid, I thought. I climbed large rocks and talked back to bigger kids and spoke to adults that I didn’t know. Even so, being scared was such a basic part of my existence, and that of everyone I knew, that I hadn’t questioned it.

It’s like, the feeling you get when something wants to hurt you. Or something could hurt you, if it wanted to.” I thought about the many-eyed monster I sometimes thought lived behind the desk in my bedroom, and how my parents told me it didn’t exist. “Or when you think there’s something that can hurt you, even if it isn’t real.”

Yeah, that’s kind of like what my brother said when he tried to tell me about it. I don’t really get it.”

I let this sink in. “You’ve been scared?”

I don’t think so.”

What about spiders?”

I love spiders. They drink with their eyes.”

What about creepy basements?”

What makes them creepy?”

They’re dark and…creepy.”

She shrugged. “Dark can’t hurt you. It’s just dark.”

So what about…what about this?” I waved to the forest beyond. “Can’t this hurt us?”

Not if we stay on the path,” she said. “That’s what paths are for. It’ll keep us safe from the Hungerwolves and the Underbeds and the Skin-eaters.”

I swallowed. “Skin-eaters? There are..skin-eaters?”

Of course. Something’s got to take care of the extra skin.” That was her entire answer. I had no response to that.

Some day, I would learn that when you find a well-maintained path in a Deep and Dark forest, you’re almost certain to be safe. The Things that maintain these paths don’t want travelers harmed by anything that hides among the trees. No, those Things are careful to make sure travelers can reach the end. They want us all to themselves. I’m glad I didn’t know that, then. I might have turned and ran, if there was anywhere to turn and run to.

Oh, that reminds me!” Mizha said a moment later. She fished into her pocket and pulled out my crumbled cookie bits, as well as another baggie containing crusts of bread. She opened the back and dumped a little of each onto the ground.

What are you doing?”

Feeding the path.”

Feeding the path?”

Yes. Paths get hungry, too.”

I’d never thought about that before, but I decided it made sense, in this place. Why shouldn’t paths get hungry? She clearly knew a lot more of this than I did. We kept walking. She “fed the path” every five minutes or so. I spent the entire journey in a bizarre, frozen place between terror and exhilaration. A huge part of me just wanted to be home in my bed with my dad reading me a story that most definitely did not contain forests. Maybe some fairy tale about a mall, prominently featuring cinnamon buns. But another part of me knew this was an amazing adventure, and didn’t want it to stop. Maybe it was Mizha’s calm demeanor, or the fact that she had a clump of living darkness for a friend.

We must have walked for over an hour, maybe two; I had no way of keeping track of the time. I never worried about the fact that free play must be long, long over by now, and that logically we’d been missing and Mrs. F would be panicking and calling our parents and the cops were probably already involved. Walking on crumbs in the Christmas-scented forest, thinking about that felt meaningless. Maybe I trusted that Mizha knew what she was doing, and she’d always managed to get back to class in time before. Or maybe I just had too much on my mind.

I noticed the change in scent before Mizha said anything.

Do you smell that?”

She paused for a second and sniffed the air. “That’s different. Candy canes? Unhappy candy canes?”

Life Savers,” I said. It was the scent of Wint-o-green. I could tell it anywhere because my dad carried them around and was always giving them out to anyone to help with their breath, including me. It was a little bit different a scent than the peppermint of candy canes. “What does it mean? Is there some kind of LifeSaver monster?”

It means we’re almost there,” Mizha said.

Almost where?”

The end of the path.” She turned to Mawbri. “Here, hold this please.” She passed him the torch. As I watched the tiny creature sort of inverted himself and stuck his head in the ground. His four limbs stuck upwards, and as Mizha placed the handle of her torch in the new Mawbri-Torch-Holder, it fit like he was made to be there.

So…what’s at the end of the path?” I tried not to sound scared. I have no idea if it worked. Mizha only grinned.

We’ll find out, won’t we? Now stand still.”

She walked towards me and took out her crayon. I flinched as she pressed it towards my face. I tried to ask what she was doing, but she interrupted.

Don’t talk. It’ll interrupt the lines.”

She drew something on my forehead, then turned it away and started to draw it on her own forehead. Her hair, for once, behaved itself and stayed out of the way. When she was done, I saw it was some weird symbol.

What is it?” I asked.

It’s a Don’t-Touch-Me mark. It’s useful to have a Don’t-Touch-Me mark to wear against certain Uncles and also monsters. Come on!”

She pocketed the crayon and took my hand in a single motion. She whisked up the torch and Mawbri quickly and pulled me onwards. I could tell she was excited. I didn’t know what to feel.

Less than a minute later I saw light up ahead. It was clear and white, like fluorescent lights. The mint smell grew stronger, and soon we found the path studded with glowing white irregular crystals set atop sticks about four feet high. They gave off far more light than the torch, and once we got into their radius Mizha tossed the torch out into the forest. I balked—after all, only we could prevent forest fires. But the torch snuffed out with a hiss as it landed in the bushes, and I couldn’t even see an ember. Besides, Mizha was pulling me forward too quickly and energetically for me to say much of anything.

Then Mizha stopped. We had reached a fence, or at least, that’s as close as I can describe it. It was made of tall posts, much taller than me, of many different colors as bright as a carnival. Blue and red and yellow and green and purple. At the spot right in front of us, the posts leaned together in a wobbly looking arch made of smaller rods of the same brightly-colored material. Mizha turned to look at me. Her eyes were wide. Incredibly wide. Had they grown? The image ran through my mind of touching her eyes and falling into them, drowning in the ocular pool of her gaze. They also seemed to shine, but I didn’t know if they were actually shining. It was almost stranger than the sight all around us.

Let’s go,” she said, and pulled me in through the opening.

 

A Forest for Hungry Eyes, Part 3

shallow focus photography of mirror with raindrops

 

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Part 3

 

I counted the minutes. I wasn’t usually an impatient person—okay, that’s not true at all. I was impatient in all of the ways an excitable kid who always wanted to be busy was, when there was something I wanted. But I usually found something to interest me in the here and now. Not that day. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t concentrate. I had no idea if the letter F was for french fries or latkes. It definitely had something to do with potatoes. All I could think about my afternoon appointment, and whatever was going to happen behind that coat room wall, when no one was looking. My normal life was full of new things, things I didn’t know. But this was different. This was something I Didn’t Know. It was going to be amazing.

Or at least, it better be. I had traded three of my Slim Jims to Sally for one of the shortbread cookies she always brought to class. The possibilities of what was about to happen with Mizha filled my mind to bursting, from climbing onto the roof to be introduced to the king of the bird people who roosted there, to some secret passage in the coatroom that would lead to the underground spy facility under the school. I just hoped we didn’t end up in some kind of death puzzle that could only be solved through the clever application of Slim Jims.

The time came, and I was nervous that my friends would come to get me for some game. But they didn’t. Mizha gave me a look as free play was announced, and the two of us slipped away, out of the crowd. It was like whatever secret was hiding her from noticed that extended to me, too. I followed her over to the coat room, alternating between anticipation and apprehension with each step.

Then we got to the coat room.

Did you bring some bread?” she asked immediately.

I balked as I pulled out the cookie. “I didn’t know it had to be bread. You said, like, any baked cook.”

She snatched the cookie from my outstretched fingers. “A cookie is bread.” She pulled a small plastic baggie out of her pocket and put the cookie inside. She dropped it to the floor and stomped on it with her shoe. “As long as it makes crumbs.”

I stared in horror at this act of pastricide, but I said nothing.

So what are we doing?” I asked as she picked up the baggie and slipped it into the pocket of her black dress. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the dress didn’t have pockets.

We’re going to the Forest,” she said. “Have you ever been?”

I could hear the capital F in the word. “What, like, the woods?” I asked. “I’ve been to the woods near Devin park.”

No, those are just trees. And even if there were more trees that would just be a forest. This is The Forest. There’s only the one. Well, there’s others that there’s only the one of. But this is one of them. The one. At least, for now.”

I didn’t follow this, but before I could ask further, she turned to the coats and started running her finger along them. “Now where is he?”

Where’s who?”

Mawbri, of course.” She said the name with a strange sound to it, like some kind of foreign accent.

Oh.” I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled out her black crayon and started sort of tapping it in the air in random places. “Who’s Mawbri?” I asked after a few seconds.

He’ll lead us to the Forest. I just met him last week. He had a sunbeam jammed in his paw, the poor thing. But I pulled it out and we’ve become simply the best of friends. He’s been leading me to all places. Now where is he? Mawbri, dear? Where are you?”

She kept tapping in the air with that crayon. “He likes to hide in the branches.” Tap, tap, tap.

A sinking sensation began to form in my stomach. It suddenly occurred to me that this weird girl who had just destroyed my expensive cookie and was now jabbing bits of nothing with a crayon might not be about to take me on some grand adventure. That, in fact, she might just be a loon. The sensation grew worse as nothing continued to happen. I wanted to kick myself. Right now, I could be playing GI Joes with my best friend. Finally, I made myself talk.

Mizha?”

Just a second,” she said, continuing her routine. “I know he’s in here somewhere.”

Mizha? There are no branches. We’re in a coat room. Do you think, do you think we’re in a forest right now?”

Of course not,” she said, not sounding offended. “They’re shadow branches. See?” She pointed at a spot with her crayon. For a second it looked like nothing, just an empty space in the coat room. But I told myself, what the hell? I might as well try. I was already here. So I narrowed my eyes, and I looked.

And I saw it. I saw what Mizha was tapping with her crayon. All along the room, the shadows of the protruding empty coat hooks were cast onto the floor by the light behind and above them. They stretched into the air and formed lines of shadow. Not normal shadow, but solid shadow, as solid as rods of wood. Mizha was tapping them with her crayon, and whenever she did, they shook. Just slightly, but now that I was looking it was unmistakable. The shadows shook. I reached out and touched one. At first my finger passed right through, and the effect was gone. Then I closed my eyes tightly, and shook my head. I opened them slightly, and extended my finger out, slowly, towards one of the shapes. My finger stopped, colliding with a shadow. It felt like silk against the tip of my finger. Silk, and water, and darkness.

The instant I touched it, something shot out from behind the branch of shadow and zoomed past my eyes. I stepped back and shrieked, which made Mizha giggle. It sounded just like the giggle of any other little girl. I watched with my mouth open as something bounced around the room, off the wall and the ceiling. Black and shapeless and shiny, like a streak of ink. It did this for a few seconds, and then crashed into Mizha’s shoulder. She didn’t flinch as the thing splashed against her, dark even against the black of her dress. Then it spread into a pool on top of her shoulder, and a shape rose out of the pool.

It had four legs, or maybe tentacles, that stretched several inches up and then met into a spherical lump that must have passed for its head. I could only tell it was a head because it ended in a tiny little top hat.

Mawbri!” Mizha exclaimed with delight, as she stroked the thing’s “face” with the side of her finger. It shivered in ripples across its entire form with apparent delight, and made a strange, humming sort of coo.

Mizha turned to me with a grin, which widened when she saw the look of incomprehension frozen on my face. “This is Mawbri,” she said. She held her arm out, and the creature crawled down it and perched on her hand. “Say hello, Mawbri.”

The thing turned to me, and made a noise. It clutched its tiny top hat with a tentacle and gave me a graceful bow. I reached out a tentative finger towards it.

Go ahead,” said Mizha. “He won’t bite. He can’t make teeth. The worst he could do was lodge himself down your throat. But he wouldn’t do that, would you, Mawbri?”

As reassuring as that wasn’t, I reached out to the little creature. He inched onto my finger, then took several uncertain steps up my arm. It felt strange against my skin. These days I would say it felt like touching darkness and not bat an eye, but I hadn’t ever touched actual darkness up to that point, so I had no basis for comparison. Once Mawbri had taken a few more steps and seemed to trust his perch a little better, he squealed and ran all the way up my arm. He alighted on my shoulder and brushed up against my face. I couldn’t help but laugh.

He is pretty cute,” I said as I reached up to pet him.

Mizha nodded. “He’s a great guide, too. Okay, Mawbri, that’s enough showing off. We’re going to the Forest! Can you take us there?”

Mawbri reluctantly pulled away from his nuzzling of my face and leapt onto the ground. He started walking around and sort of leaning against spots in the air. If there was something there, like the shadow branches, I couldn’t see it. I was about to ask Mizha what her friend was doing when he gave a burbling squeak and stretched out and upwards to half-again his height. He poked a tentacle out into a bare spot in front of him. I saw the air ripple, like breaking the surface of a pond, then the tentacle disappeared. Mawbri pulled it out, and it reappeared.

Mizha smiled, and held her hand out to me.

He’s found it,” she said. “Let’s go.”

I hesitated. This was all invigorating and fascinating, but I had an unformed sense that if I grasped her fingers right now and followed her into the darkness, there would be no coming back. Not no coming back in an “Abandon All Hope” kind of way, just that everything would be different. Maybe if I’d been a year or two older I wouldn’t have done it. Maybe if I hadn’t spent the whole week building this up in my head, or if I hadn’t already invested two valuable Slim Jims and an entire free play period, I would have backed down. Life is full of maybes.

This was a long time ago, and I have no idea who that person is who didn’t make that decision. But it isn’t me. My fingers grasped around Mizha’s. She stepped forward, and I stepped along with her.

 

A Forest for Hungry Eyes, Part 2

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Read Part 1

Part 2

The months went by, and I didn’t pay much attention to Mizha. She was there, in school and around the neighborhood, and like I said, it was impossible to not feel her in the room. She didn’t slip into the background, so much as that her presence demanded to not be paid attention to. It’d be like if a second, black sun appeared in the sky, and everyone decided the only response to this horrific, impossible thing was to pretend it wasn’t there. And there I was, the child who’d been born into this black-sun world. I couldn’t imagine the sky without it.

Maybe that’s why I noticed. It took a while to put my finger on it. Every day in the middle of school—I can’t precisely remember my kindergarten schedule—we had free play. We could draw, or play with the blocks, or pretend to cook with the faux-kitchen in the corner near the coat room. That faux-kitchen was crazy cool, and you could mix up imaginary batter and pour it into the cupcake trays and leave it in the oven overnight, and the next day it would be full of cupcakes. Mrs. F—or some cupcake gnome, I suppose—did it, and aside from giving us kids an unrealistic expectation about baking time, it was pretty amazing.

I usually liked to spend my free play with as many other kids as possible, playing some kind of group game, with or without action figures. I was quickly becoming the leader of the class, with Art as my right-hand-man. Or at least, that’s how it was in my mind. I have no idea how accurate that was. Most of the rest of the class was part of my group. There was a small group of girls who always wanted to play house, and I only sometimes played with them. And there was a small group of boys who liked to play physical games and get rowdy, which I wouldn’t have minded except they had no self control and Mrs. F was always having to break them up. That kind of reputation could follow a kid all the way into elementary school, and I didn’t need that. Also I think I subconsciously picked up that the boy who instigated the rougher play, Jason, was secretly practicing for future violence of the more serious variety. But that’s another story.

No one in the class was left out. There was even one wiry kid who was always blowing his nose, Sam, who I think would have been left out of other groups. Certainly he had a hard time of it for the rest of elementary school. But we made sure he was always included. No one was left out. Except for—and I’m sure you saw this coming by now—Mizha.

She spent her time drawing in the corner, or making weird piles of toys in unsettling configurations that made sense only to her. Sometimes she just stood in the darkest corner she could find and swayed, like there were somber cellos whose music couldn’t escape the darkness. Just like in the neighborhood, part of me wanted to invite her to bake imaginary cupcakes or help me organize a coalition of heroes to take down Skeletor. Or just to join in making one of her piles. But I didn’t know how. Even when she was three feet away from me she stood behind a locked gate, and I had no idea how to open it.

She was always there. Another kid might miss a day of school, and unless it was one of my close friends or one of the really loud kids, I wouldn’t notice. But I would have noticed with Mizha. Everyone would have after a while, I’m sure of it. She had her own gravity.

So that’s probably why it was so obvious to me when, in the middle of a free play session, Mizha was nowhere to be found. I was playing with Art at the time. Sometimes it was just the two of us. Even I needed breaks from the crowd.

Hey,” I said, as usual vocalizing my every thought as soon as they came to me. “Where’s Mizha?”

He put down his ball and looked around.

I don’t know. Is there blood somewhere?”

Huh?”

I mean, like, is there somewhere with blood?”

Huh?”

Like, blood for her to drink!” Art said a little too loudly. “Cause she’s a vampire!”

Oh. I don’t think so.”

He scoffed at my serious reaction to his ridiculous question. “That was a joke dummy.”

Right.”

But I don’t know where she is. Why do you care?”

I shrugged. “I dunno.”

And I didn’t. Except that it was strange. She definitely came to school that day, and she definitely wasn’t there during free play. It occurred to me that maybe she’d just gone to the bathroom, or gone home sick. But she was missing for the entire free play, once class started up again there she was, sprawled over her chair like the creepy rag-doll none of the parents would buy their children.

It probably would have fallen out of my mind. Life is full of mysteries, and a five year old hasn’t yet gained the human delusion that we’ve figured most of them out. But she disappeared again the next day. And the next.

On the third day I got worried. Something was going on with Mizha, and dark, unshaped thoughts formed in my mind about what happens to little kids while they were missing. So I went to Mrs. F.

Mizha’s missing,” I said to her.

I’m sorry, what?”

She put down her book, which she read during those few moments of free play she didn’t have to do anything with the kids, and looked up at me.

Mizha,” I repeated. “She’s not around. Maybe something bad happened”

Mrs. F frowned, then stood up and surveyed the room. “There she is,” she said. “Right over there, in the drawing nook.”

I turned behind me too look, sure that Mrs. F had lost her mind and that I was going to have to be the one to deal with that. Then my mouth fell open. There was Mizha, sitting at the table, drawing with a black crayon on a piece of black construction paper. There were plenty of other kids between me and her, but the moment my eyes fell on her strands up black hair she looked up. She stared straight at me, her eyes met mine for the first time ever, and she smiled.

I…didn’t sleep well that night. There was something very strange about that girl. I already knew that, of course. By this point I’d already heard the rumors from my classmates with older siblings about our street being haunted or whatever, and I’d already figured out that Mizha had something to do with it. But it was a weirdness that didn’t affect me. Until that smile. Until I saw those eyes.

I had to figure this out. So I hatched a plan. A brilliant plan, I was sure of it. I was basically Indiana Jones, or Ms. Marple. Or some kind of grandkid of theirs. Hell, maybe I was a grandkid of theirs, and my parents weren’t going to reveal it until my thirteenth birthday when they passed me The Artifact, and my destiny truly began. Assuming, of course, The Others didn’t get to me first. It was these comforting thoughts that finally helped me fall asleep.

The next day, I told my friends and admirers that I wanted to spend free play today drawing by myself. They stared at me like I’d grown a new head, because I had never, in the entirety of our shared four-month school career, wanted to spend free play by myself. But they got the message. Then, as free play approached, I planted my gaze on Mizha, and watched. Wherever she was escaping to, I was going to follow.

Mrs. F called free play, and I watched Mizha stand up. I almost missed it. She almost slipped out of my vision. I could feel it happening, and only my obsession allowed me to resist. It was as if her usual aura of being a brightly burning spot of blackness you could neither look at or ignore flipped, and she became a shadow. Out of sight and out of mind. But not out of my mind. Not quite. She slowly stood up and slinked out of her chair and across the class. Into the coat room. I grinned at the effectiveness of my brilliant “watch her and then walk in that direction” plan I’d spent several hours concocting the night before, and followed.

I stepped into the coat room—which wasn’t a room but a wall that blocked off part of the room and was open on both sides. I had all sorts of plans of what I was going to say when I caught Mizha doing whatever nefarious thing she was up to. It ranged from “Gotcha!” to “Smile at this!” to “Hey, Mizha, what’s up?” I’d feel it out. I stepped into the room confidently, smug in the satisfaction that I’d won this little game of ours. But it didn’t last, and I didn’t get to use any of my clever lines. Because Mizha wasn’t there.

I searched around the small room, I looked back out in the main kindergarten room. I even searched through the pockets of some of the coats, feeling exactly as ridiculous as I should have. She was nowhere. She had disappeared. I thought about going back and telling Mrs. F, but I was sure she wouldn’t believe me. Adults have no imagination. Plus, chances were as soon as I said it, Mizha would be back in the room. Drawing, and smiling, and staring at me with those eyes.

I barely spoke for the rest of the day. My father asked me what was wrong on the way home from school, since I hadn’t been quiet a day in my life up to that point. I didn’t tell him. He wouldn’t understand. But I was worried, because the next day was Friday. It was my last chance. The way I figured it, this had been going on all week, and so I had one more day to get this right. After that, it’d be the weekend, and…everything would reset, or something. It might not make much sense, but it did to me. Over the weekend I’d watch cartoons and I’d play outside and maybe by Monday, even if Mizha kept doing it, I’d figure I’d made everything up. Or maybe it’d become normal by then. Something very strange and miraculous was going on here, and no one seemed to notice or care but me. Some part of me had no doubt that if I missed this chance, I’d stop noticing, too.

I needed a new strategy. Just chasing Mizha down wasn’t working. I didn’t know if she was avoiding me on purpose or if I was just…breaking the rules, somehow. No, if I was going to figure out where Mizha was going, I’d need a drastic strategy. Something I would never have thought to try, that violated everything that was normal. I’d have to do the unthinkable.

The next day, as soon as I got to school and everyone was milling about waiting for the day to start, I walked right up to Mizha. She was standing in a corner, humming softly to herself.

Hey Mizha? Do you want to play together today, during free play?”

She narrowed her eyes as she looked me over, and tilted her head to the side just a fraction further than is normal. “Why?” she asked. She didn’t sound accusatory, or even confused. Just curious.

I swallowed. I felt the urge to glance around, to see if the rest of the kids were staring at me, as I felt they surely were. But I forced myself to continue. “Cause I saw you disappear yesterday and I think you’re doing something weird or awesome or both and I want to do the weird awesome thing, too.”

Mizha tilted her head still further, and looked me up and down, as if drinking every molecule of me in. It went on far, far too long, although this time it probably only was five or ten seconds. Then, finally, she said, “Okay. Meet me by the coat room at free play. Bring a cookie, or some bread, or anything baked, and don’t bring anyone else.”

I grinned, either out of joy or to hide my nervousness, I didn’t know. “Cool. I’ll see you then!”

I turned away to deal with the social fallout from all of this, but no one seemed to notice. When I found Art a minute later, his only response was, “Hey, when did you get here?”

A Forest for Hungry Eyes, Part 1

I wrote this story a few months ago and then totally forgot about it. It was just about finished save some editing. I’ve wanted to do some writing lately and I have been, but nothing is more motivating to me than sharing my stuff. The internet has a lot more amazing platforms, especially for fiction, than it did when I first started blogging 6 bloody years ago. But…this is the one I know! So this is the one I’m using.

This is a pretty long story, it’ll be in four or five parts. It’s sort of horror-themed but not really horror, which I’ve been really obsessed with lately. There isn’t nearly enough of that out there. Anyway, here we are!

Through the Leaves

A Forest for Hungry Eyes

 

Part 1
I didn’t play with Mizha when I was little, even though we both lived on the same street. It was an unquestioned fact about my existence, the way things are when you’re little. But I couldn’t have told you why I didn’t play with her. None of the kids in the neighborhood did. We all just knew that there was something creepy about the Morgan house at the end of the block, nestled in against the dead end, where the road went to die. Only, there wasn’t anything creepy about it. It was a normal house, with a flat roof and orange siding. The mom of the house grew sunflowers that grew tall in the summer, and should have made it look pastoral and inviting. But it didn’t. It couldn’t.

Nor was there anything creepy about the Morgans themselves. Mrs. Morgan was tall and blonde and always smiling, and she organized the block party every spring and baked lemon squares that were almost too tart to eat, but in a good way. Mr. Morgan was shorter, balding, and kind of nerdy. He was some kind of computer genius which is probably why he had a low-grade model for a wife, but he looked like the kind of man who wouldn’t threaten a fly, even if the fly was coming after his family. And their older kid, Brant, looked so All-American he probably grew up to sell red wagons. He didn’t, by the way. He runs a liquor store. But it’s the liquor store kids won’t even attempt to go into to try to buy beer. Brant Morgan won’t have none of that, not in his store.

No, the only thing creepy about the Morgan place was Mizha. It gave the house a creepy reputation. It gave the whole block a creepy reputation, which I didn’t find out about until I went to school. No one knew why they found the dead-end of Aurora Lane, on the other side of High Street from M’s Deli, creepy. There were stories—a murder had taken place there in one of the houses. Some people thought it was my house, which looked much creepier than the Morgan’s, with our wrought-iron fence and constantly dead flowers from my father’s terrible gardening. Five year old me thought the prospect of living in a murder house was awesome.

Some people said the whole block was built over an ancient cemetery that went back to Egyptian times. Never mind this was in Pennsylvania. I spend two weeks in the summer before kindergarten with my friend Art and his older brother, digging up the empty lot behind their property, looking for the bodies.

But there were no bodies. No murder house. No dark rituals or history of witch burning. The rest of town didn’t know it, and the older ones wouldn’t have believed it, but the creepy reputation of Aurora Lane was down to a single five year old girl. It didn’t make any sense, until it did. A single look at her explained everything.

“Maybe she’s a vampire,” Art said to me, that same summer as the body-hunt, the summer before we started school. “Have you ever seen her play outside during the day?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yesterday. She’s was playing in her yard in the morning.”

“You saw her in her yard?” Art asked with a gasp, like I’d done something brave and morbid. Found a dead body in an ally and poked it with a stick. “What was she doing in her yard?”

“She was…” I hesitated. “Playing with the worms. They’d come up out of the ground.”

“See?” said Art, like he’d just won some argument I didn’t know we were having. “Playing with worms after the rain. It was all cloudy. Right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“That’s what I said. Vampire.”

So none of the kids played with Mizha. I never even saw her brother playing with her. Her parents brought her to the block party that year, and everyone stayed away. Her father sometimes brought her to Miller’s Park a few blocks away, and it was like she formed a vortex around her into which no other children could enter. She would just sit there, rocking back and forth on her lonely swing, that strange look on her face. In my memory I can hear the swing creaking. Just like we always remembered the Morgan house to loom, dark and foreboding, over all the others. But the swing didn’t creak, and the house didn’t loom. And when Mizha was there, the other kids dared not come closer.

It wasn’t out of character for the other kids. Kids are like that. But it was for me. Even at five, I went out of my way to include everyone I could in whatever game I was playing. There was a kid who lived in the gray house across from mine with a developmental disorder, who the other kids called Sprinkle because he had a long, strangely shaped head. I called him James, and I invited him to games whenever I could. My dad thought it was because I was heroic, trying to stand up for the little guys. I thought that, too.

But that wasn’t it. I wasn’t including the marginalized kids out of kindness. At least, that wasn’t the only reason. I was looking for the strange ones. (I had some deep sense that most people, deep down, were terribly boring, and that the day I figured that out life would suddenly become awful.) I just didn’t know it yet. But I stayed away from the strangest one of all. Just like everyone else.

Maybe it was because of the way her black, scraggly hair always clung to her pale face like it was wet, no matter how hot or dry it was outside, making her look like a drowning victim. Maybe it was because her strangely-shaped bones made it so no outfit ever fit well on her frame. Or that her clothing always seemed to be in tatters, no matter how much her poor mother sewed them back up or bought her new ones.

Years later I told Mizha about these theories. She smiled, and told me what she thought.

“It was my eyes,” she said. “Even at that tiny time, I had these eyes. They were always hungry.”

Maybe she’s right. It made me feel weird whenever I thought about it. I felt bad for not inviting her to anything, but that wasn’t the whole of it. Part of me wanted to crawl out my bedroom window—maybe at midnight—slink over to her house, knock on her door, and call her out into the moonlight, so she could show me the things that hid there, that eyes like mine could never hope to glimpse. The part of me that liked being scared, that liked hearing a creek outside my door at night because I didn’t know for sure it wasn’t a monster. But the other part of me was terrified. So I, to my shame, never played with Mizha.

Until the day that I did.


I’d been looking forward to Kindergarten, because it meant I was basically an adult. As far as I was concerned, there were two types of people: little kids, who had no obligations and no power, and adults, who had Places to Go. I know plenty of kids are afraid of the changes that school will bring, but I wasn’t one of them. I was highly ready to have a Place to Go. Sure, I’d done pre-school and various things at various times, but it had never been that as consistent. But this was elementary school. This was The Show.

I strolled into my first class like the cock of the walk, and started the 5-year old equivalent of working the room. I talked to the other students and their parents, giving them the elevator-pitch of my plans and ambitions. My poor father could barely keep up. I found Art, who was starting at the same time as me. We greeted each other enthusiastically, like long lost friends, almost as if we hadn’t had breakfast together that very morning. Then the two of us traveled around the room and I introduced him to everyone I had just met two minutes earlier, forging friendships and connections and bonds that would surely follow us for all of our days. All in all, Kindergarten was turning out exactly as I had been hoping it would, I had absolutely no doubts that this trend would continue indefinitely. Then she walked in. And everything stopped.

I was in the middle of a conversation with Art and another boy debating the finer points of the Thundercats opening theme, and I was none-too-pleased that all attention in the room seemed to be turning away from me. I turned to look at what it might be. I hadn’t heard anything. There hadn’t been a bang, or a shout, or anything to pull people’s attention, so I was confused at how immediate the effect was. Then I saw her, standing by the door, and I understood.

She floated at the edge of the door, unwilling to fully enter, perhaps unable to escape. Not that she looked frightened, or intimidated. She never did. She just stood there, her pale skin seeming to drink all the color from the room. She held her mother’s hand, or rather, her mother held hers. Betty Morgan stood there, all smiles, radiant in a bright yellow sundress in the unseasonable heat of early September. She and her bright-white teeth should have taken up the room, but I don’t think anyone saw her at all.

“Who’s that?” asked a parent behind me, in a tone I was too young to understand parents really shouldn’t use when talking about five year old girls in crowded kindergarten classrooms on the first day of school. I turned to see a pinch-faced woman I didn’t know.

“That’s Mizha,” I said.

“Artemizha Morgan,” my father supplied.

“Brent Morgan’s little sister?” the pinch-faced parent asked. “That’s Brent Morgan’s little sister? Oh, yes, there’s Betty.”

All eyes followed the pair—or rather, they followed the dark little girl—as they entered into the room and began to mingle. Eventually, the babble of greetings and the play of children started up again. Eventually. But it wasn’t the same.

She didn’t talk much for the rest of the day, which of course felt spectacularly long to me. It was my first day ever of school. The only time Mizha spoke was when we the teacher—whose name I honestly can’t remember, although I think it started with an F—was going over the alphabet. She brought out a little model, kind of a puppet, of an apple, and told everyone that apple starts with A.

“Now what’s this in my apple?” she cried in mock-alarm as a little green worm popped out of it. It was a puppet thing that she navigate with her finger, although in my mind’s eye it wriggled with all of the realism of an actual crawling thing inside an actual apple.

Half of the class yelled out, “ewww!” and the other half, in direct answer to Mrs. probably-an-F’s question, yelled out, “A woooooorm!” I was in the latter half.

“That’s right,” said Mrs. F with enthusiasm. “It’s a worm, and…oh, yes?”

My eyes turned to where Mrs. F directed her attention. It was Mizha, and her hand was thrust into the air. She was staring at Mrs. F with those eyes. No, that’s not right. She was staring at the worm.

“Yes, Artemisia?” the teacher asked.

“It’s not a worm,” said Mizha. There was a long pause. Then she spoke again. “It’s not an annelid. They sing the song of separation. It’s a lepidoptera. They sing the song of becoming.”

Mrs. F blinked, not knowing what to say. The class hushed. I know how you’re imagining this, like the whole class was awkward and quiet for five or ten seconds, which only felt a lot longer. But that’s not what happened. Everyone fell silent for over a minute, maybe two. The teacher just stared. The kids just gawked, myself included. Sure, it probably felt longer than it was for me because I was five and time is so stretched out at that age. But I know that it was long for two reasons.

The first is that I remember starting to get panicky. It seemed so, so long, and no one was doing anything. It just felt wrong. This wasn’t how people behaved, and it certainly wasn’t how adults behaved. Mrs. F was right there! Why wasn’t she fixing this? I felt like I couldn’t move. Not like I was paralyzed or anything. I just felt like it wasn’t okay to move, like when something awkward happens and it’s not alright to speak. Only weaponized.

The second reason I’m sure it took so long is that since that day I’ve seen this loads of times. Mizha eventually got so good at that once, in high school, I saw her freeze the class into one of her trademark silences so complete that she was able to stand up and move around, while everyone stayed perfectly still, like statues. She even drew a Snidely Whiplash mustache on one of the cheerleaders.

After an agonizing 90 seconds, Mrs. F forced a smile, and said, “That’s right, Artemizha. What we call a ‘worm’ in the apple is actually a type of caterpillar. Very good! Isn’t learning fun?” She couldn’t quite keep the desperation out of her voice.

That was the last we heard from Mizha that day, and it was the last time I remember her speaking out loud in class for a long time after that. Mrs. F was one of those teachers who did a wonderful job of calling on all of the students to talk during group lessons and discussions—or whatever you call discussions in kindergarten. But somehow she always managed to miss Mizha. I don’t know if she was aware she was doing it. Maybe not. But Mrs. F probably had restless dreams about it. She probably felt some kind of gnawing in her gut that she was doing something wrong, even if she could never identify what it was. And the next year, once this black patch she dared not look where a little girl supposedly disappeared from her brightly colored classroom, Mrs. F probably felt a light enter her life, like she’d just had an entire year of night without a dawn. The paradox of Mizha. Her presence was so so difficult to ignore it made everyone try as hard as they could to ignore her.

So that’s what we did. By the time my dad came to pick me up that first day, I wasn’t talking about the weird comment about wormsongs, and the long moment of shared paralysis. I was talking about the picture of the dinosaur that I drew, and the big tire in the playground and how Art fell off of it but he was fine, and about how I had made two new best friends. It was one of the most exciting days of my life, because I didn’t yet realize just how amazingly boring I actually was. I didn’t mention Mizha at all.

 

The Bell, The Silence, And The Hour That Never Was

bell

I just got back from my first meditation retreat, at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center. If you’re not familiar with meditation retreats, they are an experience where you go to a secluded place for a while–in this case 3 days–and spend the entire time meditating. With no talking, no electronics, no reading or writing material of any kind. Just you, and yourself, for 15 hours a day.

I’ve wanted to do this for a while, because the science shows that the lifetime benefits of continued meditation practice are even more correlated to time spent on retreat than they are with daily practice. Also other reasons, but mostly science.

The experience was many things. Amazing, bizarre, challenging, effortless. It was too short, and also I couldn’t wait to come home. I plan on scheduling a longer retreat as soon as I can, and also I don’t know why I anyone would do this to themselves. It’s hard to describe what the retreat was like in a substantive way. This kind of thing is extraordinarily experiential. More than almost anything else a person can do, I think. Because all of the practical details are just there to make room for the more rarefied stuff.

I could describe the tangible features of the experience, and I plan to do that in a subsequent post. But I had a specific experience while I was there that captures the surreal feeling of the whole endeavor. It involves a bell.

I pulled into the parking lot at Cloud Mountain, and my chest was full of that feeling that includes discomfort, excitement, and the almost-comfortable confusion that comes when you’re in an unfamiliar environment and you have a rock-solid excuse to not know what the hell you’re doing. I followed various signs to drop off my things, I wandered aimlessly for a bit, and finally I found the registration room. Which was also the dining hall.

I entered a door to find several tables full of women and various forms. They were very friendly, and each one walked me through their part of the process, told me what I needed to fill out and what I need to know, and then passed me onto the next woman. I got my room assignment, signed up for my “working meditation” (which means the chore I had to do; I chose chopping vegetables over any of the cleaning tasks, because duh), and got a map of the grounds. There was a building called “Mist Haven.” I was instantly enchanted.

The last woman, Diane, helped me with my chore assignment, then passed me a slip of paper with various times on it and slots next to the times. Most of the slots had a person’s name written in. I looked down at the paper, then up at the Diane.

“There are a few times here for bell ringer,” she said. Then she stared at me. I expected her to keep talking, but she didn’t. Apparently she thought that sentence she just said was somehow a complete explanation.

“What does that entail?” I asked, after what I’m fairly confident was 25 minutes of awkward silence.

“It’s to ring the bell to call people to meetings,” she said. “Here are the times available.”

Almost all of them were filled. The only open slots were 6:20 AM, and 6:00 AM. Next to 6 it said “Wake up bell.”

I laughed. “I guess no one wanted to do the morning.” I started to fill out the 6:20 slot.

“Yeah, no one wants to do the early morning,” said Diane.

I paused. I was here. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it. I filled out the 6:00 AM slot.

“There’s a training this evening after dinner,” Diane told me. “You meet up at the big temple bell and they’ll show you how to do it.”

“Actually, the wake up is a hand bell,” said another woman. “You take the bell and walk around.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“Yes. The bell is in Diamond Hall, on top of the shoe rack? And the instructions are there. You can take the bell and the instructions to your room. Feel free to come back here and ask us if you have any questions. And thank you so much for volunteering to do this.

She really emphasized the “so much.” As in, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” What the hell had I gotten myself into?

“No problem,” I said.

I found the bell easily enough. It was a small hand bell, the kind someone might walk around ringing in Victorian London to let people know about an upcoming event. Which made sense. I also found the instructions. They managed to fit them all on one page.

I took them back to my room and read the card over and over. My job, it turned out, was to wake up before everyone else, then tour the entire grounds, walk into each of the residential buildings, and ring the bell outside of everyone’s rooms in an attempt to wrest them aggressively from their peaceful repose. Hopefully, no one brought any rotten fruit to throw. Or if they did, I’d be able to run away quickly enough.

The instructions also had a suggested route, and most of the buildings listed in the instructions were on the map. Most of them. I had to find out about the other ones. Also, I had no idea how long this would take, so I had to do a practice run. Anything I had questions about I had to figure out before this evening, because that’s when the silence began.

I need to explain about the silence. This retreat, like most of them, is held in Noble Silence. That’s a translation of what I assume is a much cooler word in Pali or Sanskrit. The way that vipassana is more beautiful than “insight.” Or saying that the first Noble Truth is Buddhism is “life is dukkha” is much more nuanced and interesting than the usual translation, “life is suffering,” which just makes the Buddha sound super emo.

In practical terms, it means that no one talks for the entire retreat. The teacher talks to give lessons, but the practitioners do not unless it’s completely necessary. I was looking forward to the silence and it did not sound difficult, despite how hilarious the idea of me not talking for 3 days probably sound to my friends. But I will admit that I thought that the silence was an incidental feature of the retreat. Like the vegetarian menu and the Buddha statues, something that is part of the spiritual tradition but not vital to the mechanics of the meditation practice itself. I was completely wrong.

The teacher explained on the first day that the silence is the most important support structure built into the retreat to assist in the practice. This is because–and these are my own words based on her explanation–the silence makes it so the retreat is not a social activity. It’s a group activity. Normally those are the same thing because humans are so social. And we can still be sociable in silence. But Noble Silence takes away the social element.

Let me explain. Normally in a group, we put a lot of time and effort into other people. Into the way we come off, into following social norms, into assisting others or definite our relationships to them. Silence takes all of that away, or at least most of it.

Here is an example. When we sat down the next morning, and the teacher sat in front of us, she looked out and said, “Good morning.” This is common for the start of a class. Normally, when a teacher says that, there is an expectation of response, and that creates a host of complexities. Maybe you don’t want to respond because you’re tired but you feel obligated to anyway. There might be some resentment there. Maybe the class half-half-heartedly responds, and you feel sorry for the teacher.

Also, is that an indication that this is going to be a low-energy group? Is the teacher about to be one of those people who says, “I can’t hear you!” and then everyone has to shout? Is that the miniature hell we’re about to be subjected to? But with silence, there is absolutely no expectation of a response, from you or anyone else. She says good morning, and that is as far as it goes. You can respond how you will on the inside, but that’s as far as it goes. It is yours and yours alone, and you owe nothing to anyone but yourself. Noble Silence is very, very important.

It also meant that anything I needed to ask, I needed to do it before the silence. So I did that, and I felt reasonably confident. After the evening practice, I went to my room, set my little digital clock, and tried to go to sleep. It didn’t work. I knew this would be my biggest struggle.

I felt coming in that I could meditate and do nothing else for 15 hours a day, but fall asleep without an audio book or a TV show to listen to, the way a normal person does? What do I look like, Spider-man? Oh…really? Well, thank you, that is a very flattering and justified comparison, but I assure you, I’m only a man. Specifically, a man with ADD who hasn’t fallen asleep without the aid of electronic narrative for something like 19 years. Not once. I’ve tried it a few times. A few nights of sleeplessness and misery.

But I had no choice. I did fall asleep at about 9:30, almost immediately. For 20 minutes. Then I woke up with the energy of a toddler whose DNA was spliced with that of a ferret. I tried to go back to sleep. I went for a walk in the dark, I went to the dining cabin and had some toast and peppermint tea. I lay in bed for an hour. Then another. During the third hour I tried to run through the soundtrack of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical episode in my head, but it made me too depressed. Then I tried Steven Universe songs, which was better, but I got stuck after Strong In The Real Way I couldn’t remember what came next. I felt grateful that I hadn’t bought a phone charger. If I had, I might have plugged my phone in and cheated my way to the ecstasy of unconsciousness.

I did, eventually, fall asleep some hours later. I woke up every hour after that. Finally, my alarm went off. Most people at the retreat didn’t need to set an alarm. But I did, because of that damn bell. I woke up and immediately turned off the alarm so I wouldn’t disturb my neighbors. I got a single room–one of few–but the walls were thin. I looked over at the clock.

5:45

This was it. Time to get up. Time to walk outside in the dark, head towards every other person’s room, and clang my bell outside their door. I walked to the window and opened the blinds. It was black outside. There were some lights on, but nothing like what I was used to in a city. There was nothing to indicate that it wasn’t still the middle of the night. Nothing at all. I looked back at the clock.

5:46

All I had to go by was that tiny digital clock. The one my wife dug out of some recess in the archaeological dig site that is our house. The clock that probably dated from the Carter administration, and might well be full of vacuum tubes. What the hell was I thinking? I couldn’t clang people awake solely on the word of this thing. It didn’t ping any cell towers. It wasn’t verifying the time with any cesium-based atomic clock in Virginia. No, I couldn’t trust it. So I did what I had to do. I turned on my phone.

It had power, but I didn’t want it to die before the end of the trip. I also didn’t want to check my email, or even know if I had any text messages. I would just power it on, look at the time, then shut it off. I waited as the Samsung logo lit into being. Hopefully no one would be able to hear it. That would be embarrassing. I watched, and I waited, and finally it came on and I saw the time.

4:47

I paused. That couldn’t be right. I looked again.

4:47

I looked back at my digital clock.

5:47

What the hell was happening? I looked at the cell phone again. Its answer didn’t change. I knew that my clock had been right the previous evening. Had I changed it unknowingly in the night? I took a deep breath. I was exhausted, in an unfamiliar environment, and I could barely think straight. What was going on here.

Then it struck me. Was this a Daylight Savings Time thing? Was last night Daylight Savings Time? I never know when it is. It was fall. The end of September. That could have been daylight savings, right? God damn that stupid phenomenon! No one ever knows when it is, so it’s distinctly possible it passed me by. Maybe everyone else knew and didn’t think to mention it? Or, no, everyone always seems to realize it just before bed time. So maybe it occurred to people, but they couldn’t spread the word because we were already in Silence. Dammit, was that it?

Not for the first time, it occurred to me that this retreat would be a fantastic setting for a slasher movie. The twisted paths through the old forests. The patches of light at night that created tiny islands of illumination amidst the pervasive darkness. It could see it now.

The killer would roam the grounds, murdering meditators and covering them in foliage and prayer beads in a sick imitation of the local shrines. Revenge, no doubt, for his apparent death when he attended the center years ago, due to a prank involving a Buddha statue and a vat of overcooked millet. A prank that went horribly, horribly wrong. Only in the version of the movie that occurs to me right now, none of the victims scream as they’re being murdered, and no one who finds the bodies tells anyone. None of them want to disrespect the Noble Silence.

Then I realized that I was holding my smartphone in my hand, and I could look up when daylight savings time occurred in two seconds. So I did. It’s happening in November. I looked back at my clock. It would have been very easy to set the time an hour forward during the night. It took one button press. I turned off my phone. Apparently I had another hour before I needed to get up.

Jesus Christ. I had come very close to wandering every residential hall and ringing my damn bell an hour earlier than I was supposed to. What would have happened? Would everyone have showed up to the morning sit an hour early? They would have been confused. But these people took the silence seriously. Would they have discussed it? That would have been a disaster. Enough so that I still didn’t trust my sources. I had an hour to kill and a 0% chance of falling back asleep. I decided to walk to the dining hall and check. They had a clock. It confirmed what I phone told me.

So an hour later, I gathered my bell, and set off on my route. It felt very weird. Darkness still blanketed the sky. Dawn hadn’t yet arrived. It didn’t feel like 6 o’clock, whatever that means.

I trudged up the paths towards the first hall, climbed the stairs, and walked through the door. It was black. I’d seen people in this hall and in these rooms the day before, but now there was no evidence anyone was awake. No evidence anyone had ever been there. I’d hoped someone would be around, or their light would be on. No such luck. So I took a breath, and did my job.

It went fine after that, although it didn’t stop feeling strange. I walked all around, ringing my bell outside of everyone’s door. I tried to hold it with the bell upright at first, and it didn’t sound right. Eventually, I figured out I should grip it handle-up, like a dinner bell. I ran into someone coming out of their hall a little later. That made me feel better.

I got back to my room and checked the time on my clock.

6:06

The whole thing had taken be six minutes. Well, I wanted to be fast. Wake up time was supposed to be 6, not 6:15, after all. Still, part of me didn’t trust my assessment of the time. So I lay there, in nervous silence. Until the temple bell resounded throughout the grounds. It was supposed to happen at 6:20. The ringer was a little late. They rang the bell at 6:22. Amateurs.

Later on, I sat down on my cushion to meditate with everyone else. As strange as that experience had been, it wasn’t until that moment that it fully struck me how bizarre it was. Because I couldn’t do, right then, what I would normally do in a situation like this.

I couldn’t tell anyone. These people had very nearly had a strange, confusing, and likely unsettling morning. It might have disrupted the tone for the entire retreat. Maybe some of them, already anxious from the challenges of the retreat itself, would have go into full blown panic and never recovered because the reliable routine had lost all trust and descended into chaos. That had almost happened. I had almost done that.

And none of them, not a single person to whom it was relevant, would ever know. It wouldn’t be a funny story I could share. A way to bond, a way to mark myself in their memory. Those are my tricks. That’s what I do. But not this time. This experience, what was, what could have happened, and what would never be, they were for me alone.

On the third day of the retreat, a fog descended onto Cloud Mountain, and shrouded the entire grounds in mist. On the walk back to my room after breakfast, I looked up, and the sight took the breath from my lungs.

The trees–towering maples and even taller Douglas firs–stretched into the sky. The kind of moss that only grows in old forests clung to their branches, and billows of mist clung to the moss, as if it, too, was growing out of the wood. Rain pattered down, but the forest canopy let none of it through. That water belonged to the trees, and they chose not to share. It was the world, singing softly to the earth, as I stood upon it.

I wanted to stop the other people as they walk by, and tell them how beautiful I thought it was. I wanted to do this so I could share it with them, because maybe they hadn’t noticed. I wanted to do this so they could know how beauty affects me. I wanted to do this just to express what I felt to another. Maybe I had all of these reasons, or none of them.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t and so it didn’t matter. In that moment, I felt connected to the world, but at the same time, all that mattered was inside of me. The entire world was inside of me, and I was inside of it. Just like the morning bell and the hour that never was, this, too, belonged to me.

And to me alone.