During the long hot days of late summer I would wander deep into the forest and lie beside trembling brooks nested among mossy stones…

During the long hot days of late summer I would wander deep into the forest and lie beside trembling brooks nested among mossy stones. One day towards the end of August I was tallying bird calls when a man bounded over my recumbent form. I rolled over and looked up to address him. His mask was obscured by long silken locks braided in some form unfamiliar. His ensemble was beautiful and equally alien. He burped and opened his velvet cloak to release a small gang of crows. They flew upwards, roosting in his enormous hat. He sat down suddenly and pulled off his long brown boots. Uprighting the boots he shook a few small frogs onto the ground. They made their way towards water.

I felt quite uneasy in the shadow of this interlocutor and wished that I could disappear from his gaze. We sat quietly for some time until he pulled out a deck of cards and began shuffling.

‘Do you know the one they call “Ave Maria”,’ he asked. I told him I didn’t.

‘And “Sitwell’s Fancy”?’

Again, I told him I didn’t.

‘Just as well,’ he said and tossed the cards behind him.

‘Have you come to see my tattoos?’ I asked.

He glared at me from behind his mask.

Not knowing what else to do, I unbuttoned my shirt. My tattoos were the only part of me from which I suffered no embarrassment. His mouth fell open – not to gasp, but to burp again.

‘It took them years to formulate ink that complimented my pale skin. As you can see, the tattoos are perfectly indistinguishable. I was told later that the pigment came from the now extinct Hepaphasius. That is why the forest is so quiet now. Volumetrically, I am the last of their kind. A monument to their sacrifice…’ I trailed off.

‘Silence!’ he screamed hysterically. His gloved firsts were clenched and I could see his eyes refracting an incalculable rage somewhere inside. Standing, he spun away from me and let his cape fall. I could see him fingering the knot of his mask and heard it shatter as it met the ground. He turned back and as his form became comprehensible I fainted.

I have no inkling how much time had passed when I came to, but I was travelling at great speed. Judging by sensation alone I imagined we were atop some loping beast. My arms hung uselessly. I tried to right my head in order that I might take in my surroundings, but found it could not be motivated. I fainted again.

I awoke next in a large room – perhaps a hundred meters long, half as wide, and twice as tall. I sat in a large chair with my arms and legs tied. Before me stood a large crowd of boar, deer, bison, and other creatures of the forest. They were dressed in finely detailed formal wear. Some of the creatures towards the front of the room wore distinct hats or sashes that seemed to designate rank or stature. Suddenly a party of exceptionally large cats came out from behind a curtain, pulling a large mirror atop small brass casters behind. They stopped just as the mirror was positioned directly in front of me. I heard a familiar voice then.

‘Do you know the one they call “Apostate”?’ It was the masked figure from the forest. Surely he was responsible for my present situation.

‘I do not,’ I replied cautiously.

The disembodied voice burped then continued, ‘Well, know him now for he sits before you. I declare you guilty of all charges past, present, and future as they become clear to me in the light of this day.’

It was unimpeachably quiet in the hall. I have no idea how much time passed before the cats stirred again, pulling the mirror away. The crowd was still present though their disposition had changed greatly – foaming and frothing mouths soaked the stately uniforms. Hats fell as those in front began loping about in violent ecstasy. I closed my eyes but heard the metallic sound of claws and talons scratching at the marble floor. This was soon replaced with the unearthly racket of a hundred beasts lunging in my direction and, along with my baleful cries, a single plangent belch.

Nick LB Mack is a carpenter living in the western United States. His poetry and fiction has been published online and in print. He’s almost almost always writing.

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