After three hours of drafting, here is the first version of Matt Bell's work-in-progress. Click here for more info on the project, and here for Matt's introduction. And TUNE IN HERE to watch Matt continue his writing at 12pm EST.
Our charter does not include the killing of them except in self-defense, and so we can only drive them out, drive them on. In the forest, we find them in the form of cat, of hog, of black bird and rat and cock. They are not shapeshifters but can steal any shape, and so are often indistinguishable from the other animals we must hunt when our supplies run low, that we must make new clothes of when our own tear loose their threads. Breton drags one in the form of a giant snake from her hole, the task focusing him so he sees only the slip of her tail sliding from his hands and not what comes out the other entrance to her pit. Our voices holler warnings, but Breton does not understand until the one in the form of the snake twists her flared and mantled collar up around his face. She sinks her teeth through his cheek, flays him with her fangs, exposing his own cracked and yellowed molars. Two days pass before she finishes swallowing Breton, another four before she can scuttle her swollen body across the cracking leaves. We follow until we are sure Breton is gone, until she passes what is left of him out her body, and then we set fire to her pit, to the woods around the pit. The Breton-stink thickens the air as we stick deep our hooked poles, our lances and spears, pry her scales to leverage her free. Hours pass as we harry her toward flight, and the whole time my good man Bina argues for haste. He is eager to be moving on, but backs down against my insistence that we finish our task. Like all of us, he knows that if he leave any bit of Breton behind, then one day we will find one in his form, that much harder to drive out, to drive on until it reaches the sea.
A lifetime of service for a wife. This is what we were promised. This is what we agreed to. It is only the length of that life that we take issue with. How it goes on and on. How the spires of our homes are so far behind us, and how the ocean is never in sight, despite our once-promises that it would be just a further on. Now these woods expand in every direction, endless as our enemy, who we have pledged to push into the sea.
We circle our tents tight round our dwindled supplies, our lack of foodstuffs and whetstones. The strictures of my station demand that I hunger and thirst, but no such vows guide my men, whose bodies still require rations we no longer possess. They take to hunting the forest, or else stealing from the folk who live here in spite of what haunts these woods. These others have made their peace with them, or else have other ways of ignoring their influx. Once we did too, but it was the will of our leaders that we ignore them no longer, and instead pierce their sides and burn them from their homes, so that one day this forest might be emptied of their forms.
What long ago year was it when I brought my men forth from the shining city of our youths, that last bastion of goodness before this swell of trees? How my beard has grayed since. How my limbs have grown braided with muscle, a lean strength denser than the cords that once girded my bones. How my heart has grown cold enough that temptation touches it less than it touches even our scouts, the cut and gelded men sent before us, to lead us down new paths, new holdings set among these dark woods.
New variations abound: The form of a possum. The form of a badger. The form of a muskrat. Each new form brings with it surprise, renewed possibility of losing a man despite our long experience. The names of the men I lose are Chochma and Kether, are Hod and Jesod, are Tiphereth and Gebura. Their names are legion, and I remember them all into the book of the dead. This is the second of my duties, behind only the driving, which is the first. I write their names so that upon their return I might return word of their sacrifice to their widows-in-waiting.
We are not the first to attempt to flush these woods, and some among us believe those first battalions still exist, further into the trees or else on the other side of the forest. They believe there is no sea beyond, just more prairies and plains like those that once ringed our city, or else that there is a sea and it is so beautiful that none would return to our own city, that place where a man must earn what what was once given freely. I myself do not care if this great woods is full of men or empty of them, because it is not men I came for, it is not the power of wilded men that I have been tasked to push into the sea. The ones that an age ago entered this forest--the ones who refused the new order of our cities, the reconfigured structures of what lives were meant to inhabit it--these are the beginning and end of my task. All other conjecture on the part of my men is to be ended by the lash, so that it not dilute our purpose, our resolve toward our duties.
Little sun filters through the thick of the trees, so even in the day we rely on our lanterns and torches to light the path, what path there is. We see no details in the dark, do no great distance either. The men complain of their hunger, their cold, and no reminder of what they have been promised will undo the bleakness of their moods. One in the form of a hair leads Nezach away from the camp and into a bramble where the thorns tear at his flesh. My voice holds the men back as others come for him in the form of worm and fly, the better to lay their eggs in him. We wait until he is covered, and then we set the bramble alight. For a day it lights the way and for a day we lose no more men.
We only rarely catch one still in the form of a woman. Always the prisoner is young. Always she is comely. Always she tempts me with her want to steal from me what I have already pledge. In my tent, I ready myself with prayer and fasting, until my body is shriven against all possible wants, until my gauntness achieves its furthest prominence, so that my shoulderblades press against the paper of my flesh. I call for the prisoner only then. To do less is to risk too much.
In our twelfth year, Taschen begins to recognize his childhood in the faces we push out. In the form of a hare he sees the eyes of his nursemaid, then in the gait of a deer a girl he chased when he was young. His fantasies persist until they awakens the imaginations of the other men. Soon their hands hesitate, hang back from their spear-hafts. The next time I urge them into the brush, they balk, question my orders, and so also the older orders that inform my own. At my command, the men who are still loyal to me turn on Taschen, hold him down while I help him with his delusions. If it is his sight that gives him trouble, then it is his sight I will remove.
The scout Roob captures one in the form of a crow. Rather than push her on, he cages the bird, hangs it from his wagon. For a week, the men busy themselves with superstitions. They sit below the cage, listen for signs of the witch within, test it in the ways the book instructs us to test. On the eight day after the bird's capture, Keenan wrings its neck, then opens it with his knife. He scries its innads, asks its offal how long until we reach the sea and complete our journey. Despite the sin, I let this continue, let Keenan prove there is no prophecy, no answers but my answers. Afterward, he spits and cooks its flesh, shares his kill with no one.
There is the book of the dead and the book of the living, but it is only the first that I write in, that I amend with the scripted names of our fallen. The book of the living is already perfected, absolute. Its commands are infallible. It is against the law of the book of the living to question its contents. When the men become pestered with endless questions, the book proves itself true with shapes new to this forest, taken from our oldest stories: First one in the form of a griffin, then of a three-headed dog, then a scaled woman with hair made of snakes. We have no right weapons with which to challenge these foes. One by one they fill the pages of my book with the names of my men.
We are already diminished when we return to our camp to find our wagons shattered, circled around a wreckage of human bodies. Atop the piles stands the form of one of our brothers, armed and armored but no longer of his own mind. We test the one inside him with our lances, tatter his uniform, ribbon his flesh until he yields. After he is subdued and shackled, we drive him forward into the forest, then burn what fallings our blades left behind.
After the wholeness of our covenant is broken I watch the faces of my men for signs their nature has turned. What more is it to give up sleep. When exhaustion cracks my spirit, I cry out the names I have written, and also the prayers, the apologies meant for their unfulfilled brides' ascension to their absented pyres.
Too long I tolerate their grumbling, their blacked glances. It is in the minds of all remaining but it is the hand of Hod that brings the dagger to my tent, that opens my shoulder.
Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, forthcoming from Keyhole Press in October 2010. He is also the editor of The Collagist and the series editor of Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series.