After four hours of writing, Matt Bell has composed this 2,451 word story, which Michael Kimball will be editing tonight at 9pm, here at MeetingWords.
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 the once-promises we were given. 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 hare 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. The dagger hangs in the minds of all but it is the hand of Elgar that brings it to my tent, that employs it to open my shoulder. I sunder his thread with my own blade, but my injured arm has already been diminished of its strength. No more will it hold my lance, nor the staff of my office. It is not by their authority that I rule, so this changes nothing. I regird myself in fresh leathers and tunic, hang the symbol of my station around my neck. To my men I must show no weakness, must remain the avatar of authority so that they might not doubt my commission.
Beneath leather and cloth the wound festers and leaks. First yellow then green. What morning is it when I awake to the first maggots crawling from the puncture, stinking the space of my tent? I send my manservant Harlan out into the dew and the dark while I pour holy water across my shoulder, rub in the blessed salts taken from a nearly empty vessel. The wound burns, but what grows inside me is deeper than my fingers can reach. The birthplace of flies, or else those in the form of flies. To be betrayed from within so that later I might be betrayed from without.
With prayer and sacrament, I fast my body. What lies within hardens even as my shell collapses. Bina urges me daily to take a horse, to ride so that the men might not see my stumblings. I refuse his request. There is neither luxury nor convenience in the testimony of my example. We fill my tent with incense in the mornings to cover my decay, but still the men sneak away, first one by one then in pairs.
One in the form of a gorgon gores Cheva, then turns his brother Emir to stone while my men batter their blades agianst its iron skin without effect. They brought this on themselves, I say to Bina. I say, This is the demonstration of their doubt. The next day there are less tents in the camp, but it is no longer possible to reckon the differences between the missing, the dead and the deserted.
And then I am alone, even Harlan gone off into the forest or else laid to rest by some beast. A fever overtakes me, but still I dress. Still I belt my blade to my waist, strap the book of the living and the book of the dead into their harnesses. Everything else I leave behind. I have no need of tent or horse-tack, no want of rations. I do not require a lantern because I myself am becoming light, blaze, beacon. And so I shall know the way.
In the fire, I have seen the sea, have seen the adversary tumble into its waters by the hundreds. Only the faithful will be there when I arrive. I have seen their shapes, shrunken as my own, standing on the shore. They are waiting to deliver me my reward, if only I can reach them to receive her.
The forest darkens, or else my eyes shrink to slits. The forms that haunt the trees grow closer. I sense them around me, before me and behind me, waiting, watching. I reach my hands out, feel forward. Across the years of my command, I never once wasted prayer upon myself but now that I am alone I am all I care for. I beg for the thinning of trees, for the coming of cliffs, for the switchbacked descent to the shore. I beg for the scent of the same, the strength to go on. I receive no appeasement, no boon granted for my long service. There is only dark to see, only the ones around me to hear, only the rot of my right arm to smell. I stumble and I stumble and I stumble.
Breton. Chocma. Kether. Hod. Jesod. Tiphereth. Gebura. Nezach. Taschen. Roob. Keenan. Elgar. Cheva. Emir. Bina. Harlan. On and on. So the book of the dead reads. An alphabet of absence. I long to add my name to the end of the roll, so that whoever finds it might remember me as I have remembered all these others. I am not dead. I write nothing. My flesh tumbles from my shoulder, slips to the forest floor until it exposes bone, and still I am not satisfied.
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.