While Matt Bell went to a concert, Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody and How Much Of Us There Was (Tyrant Books 2010), took over the reins of the story. Michael was able to get through about the first third of the story (compare Matt's last draft here) before he had to pack up and leave for a film screening in Hollywood. Check back with the story at 1pm EST to see Lily Hoang take over the editorial duty.
Our charter does not include the killing of them. We can only drive them out. In the forest, we find them now as cat, as hog, as black bird and rat. They can steal any shape, so are often indistinguishable from the other animals we must hunt when our supplies run low.
We yell warnings, but the snake twists her mantled collar up around Barton's face. Two days pass before she finishes swallowing Barton, another four before she can scuttle her swollen body across the cracking leaves. We follow her until we are sure Barton is gone, until she passes what is left of him out her body, then we set fire to her pit and to the woods around the pit. The stink thickens the air as we pry her scales free. Hours pass and Birn argues for haste, but we must finish our task. We can't leave any bit of Barton behind.
We were promised a lifetime of service for a wife. It is only the length of that life that we take issue with. The spires of our homes are so far behind us. The ocean is never in sight. These woods expand in every direction. We have pledged to push into the sea.
We circle our tents tight around our dwindled supplies. The strictures of my station demand that I hunger and thirst. No such vows guide my men. Their bodies require rations we no longer possess. They hunt the forest or steal from those who live in it despite what haunts these woods. We burn them from their homes, so that one day this forest might be emptied of their forms.
I brought my men forth from the bright city before this swell of trees. My beard has grayed since, my limbs braided with muscle. Our scouts, the cut and gelded men sent before us, theylead us to new holdings set among these dark woods.
They are now possum and badger and muskrat. The names of the men I lose are legion. I remember each of them into the book of the dead. I drive us on. I will return word of their sacrifice to their widows-in-waiting.
Others have attempted to flush this forest. Some believe those first battalions still exist further into the forest. I do not care if the forest is full of men or empty of them. It is not men who refused the new order of our cities who I came for. We are resolved toward our duties.
Even in the day we rely on our lanterns and torches. The men complain of their hunger, their cold. A hare leads one of the men away from the camp. I holds the other men back as a worm and a fly lay their eggs in him. We wait until he is covered and set him alight. For a day, it lights the way. 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.