This Week’s Prompt:5. Narrator walks along unfamiliar country road,—comes to strange region of the unreal.
The Research:The Wild Wood
I know that the road goes from Matthew’s farm to Martin’s store. I know this like I know the shape of a house, or that the ring on my hand has a matching one on my wife’s hand. I know this, and this I know. But last Thursday, it wasn’t. It was the same road, the same mile of stone and dirt through woodlands, at first.
In fact, it seemed rather dull and familiar. Not a noise along the entire way as I stumbled along. It wasn’t well lit, but I knew the path well. A river runs beside it, so its hard to get lost. In time, I saw another ligh in the distance. A flickering signal of another traveller coming the other way. I grew tense, and should have trusted my heavy heart beat then and there. But I was cordial as the man drew near.
“Howdy, fine night isn’t it?” I said as he drew near. His face was long and his eyes seemed pushed back into his head. He smiled, a mouth full of yellow stone teeth. He had on a small hat, an old cap like you see Civil War men wear. A coat of dulled red slumped over his body, with faded gold touches.
“An excellent nocturne indeed. Do you mind if I share it with you?”
“I believe I have been misled. Is this the way to Matthew’s barn?”
“Your going the wrong way, friend. I can show you there,” I said, gesturing with my head behind him.
“Misled indeed. Yes, that would gracious of you,” he said,turning the other way.
We walked a good way in silence, his boots dropping beside mine to keep pace. I tried, as best I could, to discern his age. His hair, if he had any was tucked underneath his cap. His face looked worn by the sun, but there were lines that could be wrinkles, but could be from lack of sleep. Nothing that betrayed his age, his steps an even disciplined pace.
“What brings you out this late?” I said, smiling as best I could.
“I have a private time to keep this hollowed night,” he said, smiling back.
“Down with the Matthews?”
“No, no, beyond the fields of the Matthews family,” he said, smiling still, “Your own person?”
“I have poker with Jim Matthew and some of the farmhands every Thursday,” I said with a shrug.
“Ah, something similair with myself. I always get lost on the roadways, though,” he said turning his head about.
“Really? How do you manage that if its every Thursday?”
“Roads, the world over, are all the same in form as they are in substance. Even Plato could reason that. I mistake roads for their erstwhile kindred, typically in different places,” he said, in the sort of matter of fact tone that you use when explaining things to a kid at a college.
“Poor sense of direction, I gotcha. Never noticed much passed Matthew’s barn except the field,”
I said, shrugging off the response.
“Its off past the horizon, my good man. Far past the agricultural institute that Mr. Matthew runs.”
We came to a big tree, hobbled over in the road. It was an old Southern oak, branches gripping the ground like an octopus trying to stay at the bottom of the ocean floor. A second road struck out to the side, one I did not recall being there.
“I’m afraid I did not receive your nominative, good anthropos,” the man said turning to me.
“Never wonder, apologies. Your name?”
“They call me Mr. Keen, Jacob,” he said, now turning to the tree.
“Did someone make you aware yet, good Jacob, that this tree is an unfortunate plant. Ten score ago, maybe fewer, men in carnal and wanton malignancy hung grown children from its arms like puppets. It was so robed in tenebrous corpses that from afar a cemetery it seemed to be,” he said, tracing the thin lines and creases on the tree.
“No, I didn’t know any of that. You said you were going past the Matthew’s farm?”
“Affirmative, Mr. Jacob. Would you care to attend?” he said, gesturing at the second road.
“I don’t know, crossroads are bad places to make decisions.”
“I have always found crossroads the most serendipitous and serene of places. Come, you will enjoy our company,” he said, taking me by the arm. And I ought to have known better, but my mind was addled and I felt dizzy, my ankles bending in on themselves. I struggled to walk with my new friend down the road.
The trees, the trees became first columns. Tall, perfect columns of bone white stone, a great rib cage jutting out of the now dark black grass. The road ran along hills and vales I had never seen, and in the distance I saw it, the Matthew’s house. Far far away. Briefly, I thought Mr. Keen’s legs grew rather than walked. Grew and shrank to simulate stepping feet as we seemed to fly. Eventually, though, he began slow.
“Where are we?” I asked, as I survyed the surroundings. The bushes were great polyps and mass of meat, bleeding from the sides.
“We are past the fields you know, to the fields of mine. I, after all,have an appointment to keep,” he said. And he walked again, as if nothing had changed.
But the grass was black and sharp, and things loped from tree to tree. Smoke seemed to rise form the earth, despite there not being a pothole insight. I turned my eyes to the heavens, and only the moon looked down. A dark blue moon shined down, its lights dancing among stars of yellow and green. None were arranged in constellations I had seen, not a dipper nor a bear nor a dragon to be found.
“Mr. Keen, what buisness do you have out here? This is far from the Matthew’s farm,” I asked, not taking another step. My traveling companion halted but yard past.
“I have compacts with a man of fraternal relation. And as I disclosed, I am easily confused by roads. Do not worry, the lands known to men are not far yet. We are simply at the woods that Sothan keeps. They are habitable to men such as you, I swear by long dead Jove,” he said, twirling about to face me. His head was tilted down, his hat hiding his eyes.
“Pardon me, Mr. Keen, but this place seems far from hostpitable,” I said, backing down the road again slowly.
“Dear Jacob, sweet Jacob, amorous, gracious, kind, humble, and luminous Jacob. You are free to find the road again,” he said, gesturing out a hand, now with a thin white glove.
I looked behind, and in the distant hills I saw something like a house, perhaps it was Matthew’s farm. But from here, it could be nothing more than a pile of stones.
“If I follow, will you return me home?”
“I will lead you to your place, I swear by the deepest of places,” Mr. Keen said, rotating to point down the road. Slowly, I followed. The road seemed to seep beneath my plodding feet. Like mud, but with stiffer.
As we went, the ground began to bleed and seep black tar. In time, I saw a great pale tree, branchless, rising from the surface. A huge spire that we approached, growing larger and larger as we drew near. It seemed to pierce the sun.
And it moved. The great needle like tooth moved, roots ripping themselves free of the ground, cracking and splinter stone. A hundred small grasping hands wrenched free now clambered out toward Mr. Keen and me.
“Ah, so the appointing rendevous makes himself known. Mr. Jacob, stay but a while, and you may learn a bit,” he said, turning toward the structure.
I ran. I ran and ran and ran and ran. I ran until my legs were a blurr beneath me. I ran until the trees melted into a long corridor of pale wax walls around me, until the ground felt solid and the sky was blue. I ran back to the fields I knew.
I stopped when I was home again, in bed praying to a God who was too far away to care. I stayed up all night, looking for his face in the window. Mr. Keen, I thought, surely would find the path to my home. After a week, I left my refuge. After a month, I took the road again.
But now, along the second path is still clear, waiting like an extended tounge. And sometimes, in the distance I see Mr. Keen’s shape walking along. And a taller shape, a great bent beast shuffling behind him.
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