By D.K. Latta
(From Issue #3 September 2020)
Trees thrust up around him like mossy fingers, glimmering sunlight slanting intermittently through the verdant canopy lending the forest a dusky, dream like cast. The ground beneath his feet was a spongy carpet of warmly rotting leaves and decaying branches. Christian squeezed a thumb under the strap of his standard-issue backpack, trying to ease the digging pain of its dead weight.
He was tired. He was lost. He was scared.
No, not scared. Terrified was a better description.
Last night his unit had become embroiled in a firefight with some Jerries; it wasn’t the first time he had exchanged gunfire, but it was definitely the worst time. Christian flinched as memories rushed back.
A soldier standing next to him had split in two, his guts erupting like one of those novelty jars that shot out a coiled snake when you opened it. Christian hadn’t even liked the guy much. Maybe that made it worse. He didn’t know.
Then everybody was shouting, running, even the Jerries (he didn’t think it had been an ambush, so much as just two patrols bumping into each other and letting loose in their surprise and mutual panic).
In Christian’s case—well, he had just kept running. Long after the Germans were no longer shooting at him, long after he should’ve begun circling back to camp. Long after he no longer had an excuse to run. His feet had just refused to stop.
All night he kept hearing ghosts of the gunfire popping in his ears like fireworks; kept seeing that guy split in two. He just wanted to get away from it all.
Now it was morning in a forest he didn’t know, on which side of an invisible territorial line he couldn’t be sure, and an ocean away from anything he could legitimately call home: terrified. Terrified the Germans would find him, and equally terrified the remnants of his unit would declare him a deserter. And he was a deserter—least he had been last night, in the heat of the battle.
But now? In the cold sober reality of day? He didn’t know what he was. But the longer he stayed away, the harder it would be to argue he hadn’t deserted—that he had just retreated, zealously. Unfortunately, he had no idea where he was.
It was quiet, he realized. You’d think that would be a good thing, given he had become conditioned over the last few weeks to jump at every breaking twig, to see in every bird taking flight a possible omen of an approaching enemy.
But it was too quiet. No sound of birds or bugs intruded upon this primordial womb. No rustle of leaves as an unseen chipmunk scurried about. It was as if even the animals instinctively gave these woods a wide berth. Not even a breeze teased the smaller branches. The forest was still. Breathless. Empty.
There was a smell he suddenly noticed. Or rather: he suddenly realized he had been noticing it for a while, but it hadn’t really pushed to the front of his brain past the fear, the recriminations, the exhaustion, before now. A strange scent underscoring the to-be-expected aromas of a forest. He sniffed, rubbing a knuckle under his nose. Not a pleasant odour.
He jumped, whacking his head against a low branch. He froze, heart trampling in his chest like downtown rush hour pedestrians trying to beat the light. His gaze darted this way and that about the still, dense forest, seeking movement among the shadows. Looking for a shape, a flash of uniform that would tell him if he was about to feel the burning bite of a bullet or just the cold roughness of handcuffs. So he could prepare himself, either way.
Then he laughed; a short, breathless gasp, ridiculing his foolishness. A weasel peered at him from beneath a webwork of fallen branches, its wet eyes staring, its little nose twitching.
He was not alone after all. Another lost soul had braved this still and twilight land otherwise shunned by all other sensible beasts. Then he frowned. The weasel slipped from beneath its cover and loped away, revealing matted fur. A blistering red scar, obviously infected, ran along one emaciated side. One ear was missing, as was its tail. Not a voluntary pilgrim, he realized. But one driven from its customary grounds by age and infirmity, no doubt hunted by predators and rival weasels alike.
Just like him.
After a moment, he followed.
The weasel glanced back at him, then redoubled its awkward gait. It was old and frail and couldn’t hope to out-pace him for long. Why he pursued it, though, he wasn’t sure. A sense of solidarity perhaps? Or maybe it was just that one heading was as good as another to a man without direction.
It slipped under a rotted log and vanished into a thatch of interlocked ferns. Christian stopped, realizing by the time he reached the spot the weasel could be away in a dozen directions. His shoulders sagged, his knees ached, and he felt the breath wheeze out of his lungs like a ball with a slow leak. Just for a moment he hadn’t felt so alone. And now he was. Again.
Squealing shattered the oppressive stillness.
He froze, startled by sound, any sound, in this deaf-mute world. Then he ran. Leaping over the log, branches clawing hungrily at his uniform, he burst through the greenery. A Godawful stench exploded in his nostrils and he jerked his head back, nose crinkling, eyes clenching instinctively. Coughing, he covered his nose and mouth and gingerly pried open his eyes.
A pool of milk spread before him.
No, he realized. Not milk. Less sheen, it was thick as though some sort of liquid chalk. Or bone. It truly resembled nothing he had ever seen before. And from it rolled a dense smell, soiling the very air. The same smell he had been noticing for a while, albeit in a less pungent form.
But even as he stared at the turgid pond, something grabbed his attention. Near the closest shore the liquid blurped and rippled as something writhed about. The weasel squealed plaintively, half its body submerged, its eyes brimming with feral panic. Christian hesitated, then spied a stick on the ground. Snatching it up, he extended it to the weasel, his brother-in-arms in this dark forest. He felt responsible, after all. If he had not pursued it on a whim, it wouldn’t have stumbled blindly into the pond. The weasel flailed about, its primitive little brain not quite recognizing salvation. Christian pushed the tip of the stick under the weasel’s chest. Finally comprehending, the weasel grabbed onto it with its slime slicked paws. A tenuous grip, but perhaps enough. Christian drew the stick closer, shocked by the resistance, by how firmly the guck gripped the weasel, like quicksand or tar.
Then the whiteness surged.
It curled around the stick with a revolting sucking sound and wrenched it from his hand. The stick sank beneath the white muck and, squealing, the weasel vanished with it. With a ‘glub’ sound, the whiteness closed over both as if neither had ever been.
Christian gawked. The pond now still and placid, offering no apologies, no explanation. He slumped against a tree.
What sort of mud or tar or water reached out and grabbed things from the air? That’s what it had done, wasn’t it? He asked himself this hoping a sensible voice in his brain would quickly fire back ‘no, of course that’s not what just happened, dummy.’ But no inner-voice came forward to salvage his sanity. He rubbed callused palms over his face.
What’s more, the pond had intentionally stopped him, as though wanting its… Its prey.
He gagged as the stench rolled over him again, stronger than before, like some god’s primordial fart. He pushed from the tree, retching. It had to have been a trick of the light, he told himself quickly. He had lost his grip, that was all. And the natural gravitational forces that had dragged down the weasel had claimed his stick as well. That had to be it.
The pond burped.
His eyes flared.
Near the opposite shore the liquid bubbled thickly, like reheated clam chowder. Another stench, altered slightly from before, washed past him as something clawed its way out of the guck. A little shape. He grinned. Whatever had occurred— whatever he imagined had occurred— it was with relief and not a little surprise that he watched the weasel climb onto dry land and shake itself like a wet dog, shucking the white stuff still clinging to its fur. It buried its face between its front paws and rubbed at its whiskers.
Slowly, after a moment, Christian’s grin sagged. There was no sign of the scar that had marked the weasel. In fact, its coat, now that the muck had slithered off, appeared healthy and sheen. More: its missing ear and tail had grown back! He stepped forward, bewildered. A twig cracked beneath his boot.
The weasel jerked its head up and glared at him. Its eyes pinned him in mid stride. It stared—it actually stared, and not with the nervous, slightly glazed gaze of a wild animal. There was intelligence behind those black eyes, a canniness that did not belong, that should not. A comprehension that had not existed scant minutes before.
He felt the hairs bristle on the back of his neck.
The weasel slowly bared its fangs.
He watched, not comprehending what he was seeing. In his heart he realized something had happened to the weasel, that it was not as it had been.
Healthier, yes. Stronger, yes. But also different. And as he observed it, one other adjective came to mind, unbidden: malevolent.
His gaze flickered to the opaque surface of the pond, then up again.
The weasel studied him for a second longer, fur bristling around its cheeks. Then it wheeled and scampered into the forest.
Acting without conscious thought, he started after it. He understood now why animals, even bugs, seemed to be avoiding this area of the forest. Never before had he peered into pools so dark and depthless as the eyes of the little weasel. He trembled uncontrollably as he ran, branches whipping at his face, as if conspiring with the pond to hold him back.
The pond waited for victims. Victims to be possessed, then spewed out. Why? He did not know, any more than he knew how old the pond was or from where it had come. Was it even of this earth? There had been a slight declivity as he entered this part of the forest, as though the area was possibly the remnant of some long-ago impact crater. Perhaps the thing was ancient, existing in this dark forest for millennia, waiting. It waited for the weak or the foolish to brave what the wiser denizens of the forest knew instinctively to avoid.
The how did not matter, nor the when. What mattered was the what. The what and the fact that he, a coward and a deserter, might very well be the only living human to have witnessed it.
And it knew he had seen.
Shoving aside a net of brittle branches, he gasped as a shrieking shape exploded toward him. Burning fangs plunged into his chest, rending soft flesh. He screamed, clawing at it, but paws far stronger than a weasel’s held tenaciously as it gnawed into him. Frantically, he wrenched his army-issued axe from its loop on his backpack and slammed the blunt end into the thing, dislodging it.
The beast landed on all fours. Face matted with gleaming dark blood, his blood, its eyes sharp and hard, it looked at him gleefully. It pounced again. Christian struck it with the flat of the axe in mid-flight. As the weasel hit the mouldering ground, with all his strength Christian brought the blade down upon its head. He expected a spurt of blood, a surge of brains. Instead, from the smashed fragments of skull oozed white, rancid muck, and as he gawked, the body of fur and bones dissolved into liquid. A second, albeit much smaller pond, a puddle really, stood in the weasel’s stead. It roiled and burped. Waiting.
He stumbled back, mouth flapping loose. How? How could living, animal tissue break down into, into— what? he wondered, mind reeling. Then he groaned as the fire in his chest flared up, his gnawed flesh unwilling to be ignored any longer. Grimacing, he turned and staggered away, stumbling over roots and dead sticks.
Breaking through the wall of branches, he stopped before the placid white surface. Even lacking eyes, the pond seemed to stare back at him, knowing that he knew. Knowing with the same eerie intelligence that had gripped the weasel.
Then his jaw sagged, his searing pain momentarily forgotten. On the shore, cast like flotsam from some great sea, was a small, white skeleton. The picked clean bones of a weasel, to be precise. He glanced back in the direction of the thing that he had assumed to be the weasel, albeit altered. Then he looked again at the little skeleton. He realized how truly wrong he had been.
The pond didn’t possess creatures. It processed them, digested them, and then created its own vile imitations of them. It could even extrapolate from an incomplete creature, given its weasel had the ear and tail and unmarked skin the original lacked.
Horror lent unsteadiness to his limbs, and the wound in his chest burned angrily, his own blood soaking the front of his shirt. He wanted to flee. And what then? If the pond knew he knew, what might it do? Could it ooze away, seeking some new, more secret refuge before he could return with help? Then he stopped. What help? Who would believe him? He’d have enough trouble talking his way out of a court martial, let alone convince the brass there was something other than Nazis to fear in these old woods.
Last night he had fled in fear, deserted his duty. Was he going to do the same now? Or was this maybe a second chance to wrestle his cowardice to the mat? He touched his bloody shirt and winced. What could he, alone, hope to accomplish against the thing spread before him?
Then he noticed something else: it wasn’t a weasel alone the pond had regurgitated. A brittle, bleached white stick also lay upon the shore—the desiccated husk of the stick with which he had attempted to rescue the weasel. Meanwhile, floating upon the pond’s unmoving bosom, its pond-created duplicate languished. Inert. The mechanism by which the pond shaped doppelgängers apparently worked as well on the inanimate as the animate. His tongue worked over his teeth for a moment as he considered. Turning, he hurried back to the puddle formed from the remnants of the disintegrated weasel. He scanned about the brush, wincing at the painful tightness in his chest, then settled on a fallen branch. He hefted it, hesitated, then plunged it into the white liquid. The puddle bubbled around the stick, rolling, slowly sucking it down even as a duplicate instantly began emerging.
Halfway through the process, though, it ceased. The half digested stick tumbled beside the half formed imitation. The puddle was no more, having used all its matter to compose the stick.
Shuddering, he forced himself to reach down and retrieve the false branch. He flinched at the coldness, its unnatural aura. But slowly his distaste was replaced by grim satisfaction as nothing further happened. Indigenous people in his native Canada spoke of Manitous: the spirits that inhabit all things. But whether a stick had an evil, tainted Manitou, or a benevolent one, it was still just that: a stick.
Ignoring his chest pain, he lurched back toward the main pond, axe swinging almost jauntily in his hand. He stopped before an unhealthy, rot eaten tree sprouting near the white goo, and then grinned humourlessly at the pond. A ripple shivered across its opaque surface, as if sensing his intent.
Without a word, Christian set to work chopping down the tree. It was harder than he expected, his chest wound weakened him. But arms aching, sweat dribbling down his back, at last he sent the tree toppling over into the pond. The liquid seethed and surged, and a stench cascaded over him like sewer water. Unwilling to submit to his weakness, he immediately went to work hewing at another of the surrounding boles. It fell over in due course as well, as did the next and the next. The pond was now crisscrossed by a grid of bleached white, desiccated trees while belching up their vibrant, evil copies; copies unmoving and incapable of harm. The pond level had dropped considerably, its finite form being exhausted to fabricate the motionless trees.
Staggering just a little, panting, Christian drew the back of his hand across his drenched brow. It seemed to him one or two more would do the trick.
Cautiously he circled the pond toward another tree.
His foot snagged on a root.
In an instant, the world froze in place. For a moment he saw the whiteness, felt himself fall, and he knew utter and complete terror. Then he twisted in mid air and landed with a grunt, centimetres from the grasping muck. He lay still, face pressed into the moist dirt, gasping, half sobbing with relief. He raised his head to stare at the still surface of the pond.
The whiteness surged.
He barely had time to scream before it curled warmly around his hand and yanked with the strength of ten men. His forearm vanished into the liquid, but a savage pain in his foot halted the rest of him from following. His boot was wedged under the very root that had tripped him.
He sprawled there in the preternatural stillness, stretching down the slope leading to the half-drained pond, his arm held by a constant, insistent pressure, subtly dragging the rest of him in. All that resisted was a bit of tree root and a size eleven army boot. The pain in his ankle was excruciating.
After its initial surge of effort, the pond seemed unhurried. It had him now. A piece of him at any rate. It was content to be slow and steady.
That was how the tortoise won, wasn’t it?
A dull popping sound sent new agony lancing through his leg from the ankle as the bone dislocated. He screamed, but still the leg held.
His vision wavered in and out of focus as his body registered the incredible, agonizing pressure being exerted upon it, stretching his spine like the work of a mad chiropractor. He felt delirium eating away at his mind, could picture himself slipping into the whiteness, so warm and comforting to his arm, so inviting. And then he saw himself being deconstructed, analysed. He could imagine something that looked exactly like him, but was not, emerging. What would the pond do with the shape of a man, and not just that of a weasel? He shook, rousing himself from his momentary stupor. There was more at stake here than his life or death. Much more. An evil that swallowed normal beings and spat them out as soulless automatons. Like the fascism they were fighting elsewhere.
He squirmed. He tugged on his arm. But it was as if it were embedded in cement. He screamed, knowing no one would hear, but crying out just the same. Like the weasel before him.
Something more crunched in his ankle and he slipped a half centimetre. The pain was unbelievable. In another minute, or ten, or an hour, or however long it would take, his foot would give way and he would slip into the muck. He would be absorbed. Imitated. And then sent out. Different. He flailed about and his fingers struck something cold and hard. Slowly, numbly, he turned his head. Within his grasp lay the axe. His fingers pulled away, recoiling of their own volition.
There had to be another way.
His spine ached and his knee felt ready to pop. He sobbed in his agony, then grunted as his ankle shifted again and he slid another millimetre. With one watering eye he watched the axe. Haltingly, he reached for it. Fearfully, his fingers closed about the cold, smooth handle. Breathing heavily, desperately, he hefted the dead weight.
The pond seemed to sense his intent. He cried out as the pressure redoubled and whatever was left of the bone in his ankle gave. It was just skin and muscle holding his limb together. For a moment. With a scream of fury, he brought the axe down on his own arm. He snorted from the pain, bile rising up into his throat. He struck again and again. Blood spewed. So much blood.
The pond pulled harder, straining, seeking to draw him in.
The axe bounced as it struck bone. Barely conscious, he whacked again and again, like a macabre woodcutter, screaming in a kind of ritual unison with each blow. And still the pond pulled.
Something cracked. Something came free. He watched as the bloody stump of his arm vanished into the whiteness, leaving no trace, no streak of red. Not even a ripple.
He pulled back from the edge and flung aside his gore drenched axe. Shivering uncontrollably, he yanked off his belt and knotted it around the stump still spitting blood. It no longer hurt as badly, not the foot, not the arm. He supposed this was what shock felt like.
He tried to stand but collapsed instead into a limp heap upon the ground; his ankle would have none of it. Teeth gritted and half slithering, he crawled. What direction he didn’t know. It didn’t really matter. He wasn’t convinced he would make it to any place where he could be found.
Without eyes, the pond watched him crawl into the brush.
The lieutenant waited restlessly outside the medical tent. As the canvas flap was pushed aside, she stepped quickly forward. “How’s your patient, Bob?”
The medic slipped a cigarette between his teeth and offered the pack to the lieutenant who shook her head. “He’s lost a lot of blood.” He lit his cigarette and shook his head. “It could go either way, I’m afraid. What happened to him?”
“Not sure yet. He was found sprawled by the edge of some trees by a bike messenger. The arm doesn’t look like a combat injury, though. My guess is he got pinned under a fallen tree or something and had to cut himself free. Damned way to lose an arm in the middle of a war,” she added ruefully.
“Least he’ll get to go home—if he survives,” the medic said pragmatically. “He’s pretty delirious though. Keeps muttering something about ‘I did it’ and ‘not a coward’.” He exhaled a smoke ring and squinted at the lieutenant.
The officer was looking perplexed. “Just something that doesn’t add up—probably a miscommunication, the usual army SNAFU. But I made some calls, was able to locate his unit. Apparently, they were caught in an ambush the other night, and scattered, which must be how he came to be wandering on his own.”
“Okay,” said the medic, not seeing the problem.
“The thing is— the guy I talked to said that fellow in there has already turned up, reported for duty, and shipped out with his unit. And he had both his arms.”
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