RACHAEL COLWELL - THE RITUAL
Rachael Colwell was born in Sacramento and has lived in California her whole life. She obtained a BA in History (pre-1800) and a BS in Biochemistry at the University of California San Diego. From there she completed medical school at Touro University and is now a practicing family physician. She is a long time fiction writer just now breaking into the publishing scene.
Sophie rolled over in her sleeping bag, wincing against a root poking into her shoulder blade like a pointed elbow. Sitting up, she adjusted and lied back down, debating whether to get up or try to sleep a bit longer. A warbler, or perhaps a flycatcher, chirped in the stately spruces. The sky coolly glowed deep cerulean, and two blinking stars shone through the mesh at the top of her tent. Staring up, she watched them slowly fade into the blue with sunrise and additional bird calls joined the morning chorus. Instinctively she reached for her phone, blinked it on, then set it aside - there was no reception, but it was her morning routine. Even a week in the wilderness could not shake that habit.
She sat up, stretched uncomfortably, and pulled out her journal to jot down some thoughts. Of late her thoughts lingered on her parents, immersed as she was in some of the oldest forests in Europe, along the border between Poland and Belarus. Growing up she thought it was normal to live off the grid in tents and dance around fires by night. Their families combined resources to live in a small commune in southern England at one with nature, like their ancestors. A whole different world. They grew their own food for the most part and supplemented the rest from the nearby towns. Their commune grew, but ugly rumors spread - they were inbred, or religious nuts. They were dealing drugs. All false, but a small militia formed and busted in guns blazing to liberate them, killing her parents in the crossfire.
Despite the lengthy, at times traumatic, reintegration process, here she was, enjoying a peaceful morning alone in the woods on a field research trip for her doctorate in forest pathology and mycology. Sophie unzipped the tent and lit the butane to heat water for muesli and dehydrated eggs. Barely visible was the waning crescent moon just above the brightening horizon. The water reached a rolling boil and steam billowed away towards the bushes where new buds were beginning to sprout on the woody stalks. This winter was unseasonably warm, so the forest looked like early spring, despite the equinox still being a few weeks away. Sophie normally did not pay attention to those seasonal milestones, but her colleague had brought it to her notice just before Sophie’s departure.
“Hey, want to come with me on March 20th to Stonehenge?” asked Jessica, a tour booking site open on the computer beside Sophie in their office in the Mycology department in Oxford.
“Sorry, I’m leaving for Bialystok soon and I’ll be gone a month… maybe when I get back?” Sophie suggested.
“Sorry, it has to be the 20th, that’s the vernal equinox,” Jessica stated matter-of-factly.
“Why is that important?”
“It’s one of the four days each year you can actually touch the stones! Normally it’s off limits, but since Wiccans view the equinoxes and solstices as religious holidays, and Stonehenge is a religious site, they make exceptions on those days,” she explained.
It piqued Sophie’s interest, but the tickets she had were nonrefundable.
“It’s a shame, the heads of the different Wiccan and neo-paganism religious orders will be there, head druids, self-proclaimed mages…” her colleague went on, rubbing it in a bit.
“Well, we can share pictures of our trips when I get back,” Sophie smiled, thinking of her own upcoming mushroom foraging plans.
The Bialowieski forest was ancient. Despite prehistoric human presence in the area, the trees and undergrowth hid plenty of secrets. Fungi were a microcosm unto themselves - seemingly endless varieties with different appearances and behaviors, living in diverse communities with plant root systems and bacteria. Many species yet to be discovered could have important medicinal significance or key symbiotic relationships with other organisms in the ecosystem.
Sophie set up a travel-sized lab station at her base camp to preserve and study specimens she identified. The dissecting scope was battery powered and whatever needed further study, she preserved in cross sections or isolated the spores while carefully documenting the specimen’s habitat and appearance.
As she ate her breakfast and mixed instant coffee crystals with the hot water, a chipmunk sat across from her, studying her closely.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything for you,” Sophie chuckled at the big-cheeked rodent and ate the last spoonfuls of her muesli.
She packed up her gear and consulted her map, heading along an old dry creek bed for five miles, stopping periodically to dig along promising tree or shrub bases. Damp decaying logs or shaded overhangs could conceal rare species. The older the log the better. After collecting several promising specimens, she was satisfied to call it a day and set up camp. While looking for a good plot to set up, Sophie spied a few spots of bluish color among the drab leaf litter to the left. She set her backpack down and headed up over the foot-high ridge.
Before her grew a ring of mushrooms with green moss filling the space inside the circle. Each broccoli-sized fruiting body had a warty mottled surface on its pale blue cap. It seemed to glow iridescent. The underside of the cap displayed shocking black and red gills.
“Now you are unusual beauties…” Sophie breathed quietly.
After photographing the faerie ring and digging along the edges to examine the mycelium, she collected several samples and put them aside with the rest. In her periphery, she saw several quickly darting shadows and heard light cracking of pine twigs. Every time she glanced in that direction, whatever made the noise paused and hid behind the trees. It sounded pretty small, probably another chipmunk, she decided.
The sky darkened with the coming of night and shadows blended together. It was hard to distinguish the trunks of the trees, and every snap of the brush or owl screech pierced the cold air like an arrow. The moon, now diminished to a sliver of a crescent, shone dimmer than the stars. Sophie raised her sensitive gear and bags containing food into the trees as she did every night to avoid them being pilfered by boars or other scavengers. She looked up between the silhouettes of the trees above her, the trunks creaking and aching with the wind. It was eerie watching the endlessly tall pines and alders get tossed about by gusts of air that could not be felt from the ground. It was like an invisible angry force were punishing the trees and trying to break them in half. Sophie shuddered, watching, hoping nothing would fall upon her as she slept. The next day she would return to her main camp and examine the pale blue mushrooms more closely. They were the only specimen thus far that she could not partially identify.
Before turning in, she paused to appreciate the thousands of stars she normally could not see due to light pollution in the city. She stared up in awe, relishing the feeling of insignificance in a vast universe, and the arcane connection with all of humankind. People for ages, since that miracle of consciousness and self-awareness began, had looked up at the stars and wondered, dreamed, imagined. Were they pinpoint holes in the ceiling of the sky? Distant fires of brethren long passed? With those thoughts in her breast, she stole away inside to warm up. As her mind started drifting to sleep, she thought she heard footsteps cracking in the pine needles. Warily she froze and sat up in the tent, staring anxiously through the mesh into the dark. Only the still darkness gazed back at her. The sound disappeared and did not disturb her sleep again, though her nerves remained uneasy.
The next day, she came upon a disaster zone. All her carefully secured materials at her main camp were torn apart, eviscerated. Sophie fought back tears as she collected the scattered pieces of her week and a half of work. All the samples were gone. Knifelike cuts were sliced through the insulated plastic packages. There were no bears in this area, Sophie knew. This had to be a person, or people, but why?
She circled the area, looking for shoe prints or tracks. There was nothing.
“Come on! What the hell?!” Sophie yelled out angrily at the forest, which looked as bright and pristine as all the previous mornings. The birds still chirped. Woodpeckers still hammered into tree trunks. Chipmunks still scurried in the brush. Yet something destructive had come through and destroyed her possessions with malicious intent. The woods no longer felt inviting and peaceful. The calm was broken.
She had to leave that night. After salvaging what she could, she forced herself to pack up and head back to the car parked a few miles away at the end of a fire road. She wanted to get back before it got dark. Maybe she could relocate somewhere else and start fresh. After setting off, she reached to consult her map and it was not where she had left it. Puzzled, she set her bag down and checked every side pocket and the pages of her remaining books. It was gone. Could she have lost it somewhere? Sophie felt a heavy weight in her stomach. She had to go on without it. She pressed her memory and tried to retrace her steps. As she hiked she checked her watch periodically. The sun crept lower. She should have reached the car by now. Sophie paused in place and took a few deep breaths, weighing whether to change direction or keep going. This seemed like the right way, but she should be there.
The birds became quieter as twilight fell. An owl or bat screeched overhead. She kept walking.
Her knees and shoulders were aching. The soles of her feet were burning in her shoes, but she did not want to stop. She had to leave tonight. She felt a pressing urgency moving her forward. Sophie stopped to pull out a flashlight and the sound of her footsteps kept going for a couple more steps. Freezing in place, she kept facing forward even as a chill gripped her in her ribs. She took a few test steps forward and listened more carefully - something or someone was definitely walking in time with her. When she stopped again, the steps stopped more quickly, but it was distinctly there. Sophie’s throat tightened uncomfortably and a visceral panic rose in her chest. Her mind raced desperately. Where could she go? Maybe she could run somewhere and hide. They would be able to follow her if she used the flashlight, she would have to just go for it. She had to ditch the backpack.
Swallowing with resolve, she started walking again, feigning a relaxed pace. She noiselessly unhooked the straps across her chest and hips. Holding the shoulder straps, she lifted them so they hung loosely. The steps were closer. It sounded like more than one pair of feet was stalking her.
Taking a deep breath she hoisted the pack off her shoulders and threw it backwards, bolting into a desperate sprint. The steps behind her quickened. As she ran, she kept her hands in front to guard her face from pine branches. She vainly tried to make out obstacles in the moonless night. The blood coursed through her thighs, burning as she raced forward. Suddenly she felt pulled down, as if someone had roughly shoved her. Sophie cried out in surprise and pain, realizing as she fell that a root had caught her foot. As she scrambled to stand up, hands pushed her shoulders into the ground and yanked her arms behind her. Something was fastened quickly around her wrists and ankles. She tried to scream but a thick gag was pulled across her mouth, muffling her protests. As she struggled, someone put an arm tight around her neck and covered her mouth, suffocating her. Her head swam and lungs ached as she fought to breathe before disappearing into a darker blackness than the surrounding forest.
Sophie awoke. She smelled damp earthy grass, like molding hay. Beneath her was a layer of straw piled into a springy sleeping mound. She awkwardly sat up, wrists and ankles still bound. The leather gag in her mouth was moistened from saliva and tasted like wet dog. She was alone in a small room constructed from wooden planks. A wooden pail was near her and a larger bathing basin in the far corner. The smaller bucket she imagined was for toileting. Flickering orange light projected through the slight spaces between the wall panels. Crawling on her hands and knees, she inched towards the light and pressed her face against the crack, trying to see outside.
A bonfire roared and figures wearing thick furs passed along, casting shadows from the center like spokes on a wheel. Several figures bore headdresses with horns or antlers, and there was a low thrumming murmur of voices. Sophie tried to make out any clue as to who they were, where she was. Huddled groups periodically looked or gesticulated in her direction, freezing with a sense of morbid reverence that sent goosebumps along her arms.
Footsteps pounded on the steps leading to the door of her confinement. Quickly she backed away onto the straw heap, holding her arms and legs tight in front of her. If she was going to be tortured or raped, she was not going to make it easy. The door opened with a creak and she saw two burly men standing guard outside, long beards growing down to their sternum woven in complicated braids and knots. They stared straight ahead, like statues. She only saw them in profile. Between them, entering, were two young women - one carrying several bags and the other gazing intently at Sophie.
Even backlit by the bonfire, Sophie caught her breath when her eyes met the woman’s, captivated by her tigerseye golden brown irises. An otherworldly intensity emanating from her, matched by a similarly strong curiosity and fascination. They brought bags and a stack of rags. The other woman opened a steaming animal skin and poured hot water into a cup, which she then mixed with dried leaves and powder. She handed the hot animal skin to the woman whose eyes burned golden in the dark and excused herself.
The other woman left and they were alone. She handed her the chalice with hot liquid and untied the gag around Sophie’s mouth, gesturing for her to drink. The cup was carved from wood and finely polished. An aroma of pine resin and earthy sweetness rose to her nostrils. Sophie held it reverently and lowered her lips, then thought better of it and set it down in front of her, shaking her head. The woman, her eyes glowing with frustration, picked up the cup and hoisted it back. Sophie shook her head again and the woman looked nervously at the door behind her. Seeming satisfied no one was watching through the slits, she took a sip of the drink and made a visible show of swallowing it before passing it back to Sophie.
Sophie hesitantly took a sip, washing away the wet dog aftertaste from the gag with the bittersweet hoppy pine of the infusion. The flavor was not unpleasant, and a savory undertone gave the drink a curious umami characteristic. She had not eaten dinner so her stomach was growling impatiently. Abandoning caution, she drank the entire mixture down while the woman silently observed her. When Sophie finished, she set the wooden cup aside and the two of them sat tensely in the dark, thin flickering lines of orange and yellow dancing across them.
“Who are you?” Sophie asked, met by a blank stare. Those eyes.
She tried again, “Do you speak English? Parlez-vous Francais? Mówisz po polsku?”
Recognition flashed over her eyes when Sophie tried her limited Polish, but it did not elicit a response. Instead the woman pointed to the larger basin and indicated for Sophie to stand up. Sophie’s ankles and wrists were still tied, so the woman gingerly untied them, careful not to touch her as she removed the bonds. When she stood, the woman gestured at her clothing and imitated taking off her leather tunic to indicate she wanted Sophie to undress. Blushing, Sophie backed away.
“No, I’m fine. I can wash alone,” she tried in broken Polish.
The woman grabbed the fabric of the outer jacket and tried to pull it off her but Sophie pushed her away. Angry, the woman gestured out at the door and back at Sophie, along with a string of words that seemed to say, “Undress yourself or they will make you.” Sophie felt tears welling up and unsuccessfully fought to stifle them, realizing how powerless she was in her situation. Choose your battles, she thought to herself. Turning slightly from the woman, she obediently disrobed, leaving her clothing in a pile beside the straw bed. Still trying to cover her nakedness, Sophie stepped into the basin as the woman indicated. She sat with her knees up and the woman poured water from the animal skin over her. Using a soapy lather that smelled of pork, lavender, and ash, the woman scrubbed her roughly, alternating with the water and the rags. The suds and water pooled at her feet in the tub, growing cold and slick with soapy residue as it slowly drained through the slats in the floor.
The woman toweled her off methodically and handed her a plain off-white tunic, which Sophie pulled over her head. It came down just past her knees. As the woman turned to leave, carrying the things she came in with along with Sophie’s original clothing, Sophie called out to her.
“Wait, please, look at me,” she begged. The woman turned slowly, reluctantly.
Holding her eyes, Sophie gestured to herself, “Sophie. I’m Sophie. Who are you? You?”
The woman’s eyes glinted with understanding and quietly, as if betraying a secret, answered, “Milena.”
Sophie teared up, nodding with gratitude, “Milena. Milena.”
Without another word, Milena left and swiftly locked the entrance behind her. Sophie ran up to the door and peeked through the cracks. Around the bonfire were a dozen huts, larger ones than hers, constructed with similar material. The townspeople still milled about in small clusters. The fire was flickering down, and the new moon left the sky eerily black. Once the bonfire was reduced to embers, the inhabitants returned to their shelters. Sophie waited until the last person in view disappeared then sat on her straw pile, hugging her knees to her chest. This had to be a bad dream, or a hallucination. Nothing made sense. Why would they capture her, only to clean, clothe, and feed her? Why was no one asking her any questions? What did they want? With those questions and dozens more in her mind, she fell into a fitful, restless sleep.
The next days passed the same. Milena entered, sometimes with a helper. She would only bring her the herbaceous tea, or was it soup? Its flavor was so hard to place. Sophie tried to catch Milena’s eyes to convey meaning, beg her for help, for answers. Milena’s eyes glinted with specks of green dioptase in the daylight, and Sophie said her name whenever she saw her, like invoking a prayer. She tried asking more questions, usually in broken Polish. Occasionally Milena would pause, or her eyes would dart in a way suggesting she understood, but she deliberately ignored Sophie’s grasping for information. The brothy infusions left a residual hunger in her stomach and she tried to ask for something more substantial. She smelled smoking meats from outside and it sent her stomach into violent hunger pangs. Her mouth would salivate uncontrollably and her throat gagged as she saw them feasting outside. They had other foods, but all they gave her was the strange concoction. Were they deliberately starving her? To what end?
Sophie started making marks on one of the panels in the corner by her bed to count the number of sunrises since her imprisonment. She observed the guards; there was no gap in their duties. Despite her pleas for them to talk to her, or bring someone to see her, they never answered. One time when she was too insistent, the woman who sometimes came with Milena stormed in and slapped her roughly, no word or warning. The message was clear.
After scouring every inch of accessible surface, Sophie fell into despondent resignation. The edge of the door was too narrow for her fingers to reach through to work the lock from the other side, even if the guards gave her an opportunity. Every wall panel was several inches thick and fixed solidly in place; she had no hope of breaking off a piece to create an escape. And with each day she could tell she was weakening. After several days, her forearms looked longer, gaunt. Her belly was flattening. When she felt her face, her cheeks were more concave. Even her skin smelled different.
She came to know the activities of the camp. Sometimes the inhabitants stopped and looked in her direction, but mostly they carried on seemingly as usual. Chopping wood, tanning furs, cooking, cleaning. There were some children in the town, and they would chase one another and get scolded by their parents. In the day, their voices were more distinct and Sophie strained to pick up bits to use later. It seemed like a blend of Polish and Italian to her untrained ear. Beyond the edge of the town, she spied them bringing wooden branches and pails of stones, but could not see what they were building. Most nights she heard a low resonance of voices chanting and singing in unison around the fire. It filled her with dread fascination. She learned the general pattern and could not help but hum along, letting it vibrate in the base of her throat.
The highlights of her days were the visits from Milena, her only human contact. She tested out some words she picked up, and sometimes Milena would smirk and correct her under her breath. Sophie even laughed a few times, hoping those chatoyant golden eyes would mirror her mirth. There were pregnant pauses, where Sophie knew Milena was sharing her feelings, was in tune with her and understood. When she gave her the bowl-like chalice to drink the infusion, Milena’s fingers might linger just slightly, giving Sophie a transient warmth that spread up her arm and into her chest. When Milena left her, she might look back and pause, tightening her fist as if conflicted. It gave Sophie hope.
Eighteen hatch marks on the wood. It was almost three weeks now. Sophie curled up on the straw bed and stared wretchedly at the roof of her hut, her bellyache now a familiar friend. Rain pattered down rhythmically on the roof, muddy water seeping in at the edges of her prison. Her stomach hurt and she wished for Milena to hurry up and visit. The brew they gave her better than nothing, but it was hardly satisfying, and Sophie felt herself wasting away more each day. Pacing took more effort. Sleep came earlier each night. Her once firm resolve to fight their plans for her, whatever they were, dissolved.
That evening Milena brought in the rags to bathe her per usual. Sophie offered to do it herself, but Milena always insisted. Sophie had stopped resisting it, and over time Sophie noticed Milena scrubbed her gentler and took more time on her long blond hair, admiring her flaxen locks. This time, as Milena meticulously cleaned along her neck and arms, Sophie daringly reached up and held her hand, driven by a subconscious need. She held her breath as she waited for Milena to pull away and chastise her. Milena did not recoil. That hand, foreign but now familiar, turned and caressed her wrist gently, drawing closer. The anticipation wrenched Sophie’s stomach more than the days of hunger. As they embraced, Sophie felt touched by more than her lips and hands - each daring moment filled her with adoration, trust, joy. Even as Sophie was more aware of how frail she was after days of inactivity and undernourishment, she felt cradled with unfathomable care in Milena’s arms. As those intense eyes looked back reluctantly in parting, Sophie could not help but wonder what change this discovery might bring about. She began entertaining thoughts of joining them, being accepted, freedom.
The next morning, there was no Milena. Eagerly, Sophie waited, looking through the wooden panels, but it was unusually quiet. The guards were still stationed, but morning and midday passed without interruption. The agonizing stomach cramps and hypersalivation came back and Sophie took to chewing and sucking on her tunic sleeve to stave off dry heaves. She held her body tight and wrung her hands as waves of intense food craving came and went rhythmically, sending her into shivers and teeth chattering. Sophie had never known such hunger and felt herself falling into inanition. Was this what dying felt like?
Finally, after sunset, the door opened. It was not Milena. An ancient man entered, his beard down to his belly and set with several twists in ornate designs. A headdress of black feathers and antlers adorned his brow and layers of wrinkles cascaded down his face. He carried a covered bowl and set it in front of her. After murmuring an unfamiliar chant, he left her alone with the bowl. On lifting the lid, she saw a glistening, almost glowing light blue porridge with streaks of black and red fibers.
Her heart sank when she saw the preparation of the unknown mushroom. What was this? Had they been deliberating this whole time and ultimately decided to kill her? Were they punishing her for stealing mushrooms from some sacred place? Sophie pushed the bowl beside the door and turned her back to it, lying down on the straw and willing sleep to come. As she shuddered under her thin dress, she thought of Milena and wished she was with her now to reassure her.
The next morning, a hand shook her roughly and the bowl was hoisted at her. The older man’s weathered face was no longer placid, but livid and unyielding. The guards were just inside the door, staring dispassionately at her. Her cold centurion watchmen. Sophie shook her head, saying their word for “No.” This angered the man even more. He stood up indignantly and spoke fiercely to the guards - Sophie caught one words and her heart leapt. Moments later, Milena entered, her face betraying her reluctant presence there. Trying not to feel hurt, Sophie sought her eyes but Milena kept looking down, only nodding in response to the elder’s admonishments.
Wordlessly, her gentle loving friend knelt in front of her and handed her the bowl with the now cold mushroom preparation. Sophie stared at Milena, not accepting the food. Milena lifted her head and faced her. Her eyes were red and puffy, and there was a purple bruise along her jaw and forehead. Sophie’s heart broke for her. She wanted to reach out and touch her face, but knew they would be in more trouble. Milena’s eyes pleaded with her to take the bowl. She did not want Sophie to take it, but they had no choice. For you, Milena, thought Sophie, so be it. I’m tired of fighting.
After Sophie took the bowl and spooned the bluish blend into her mouth, Milena stood and turned away. The mushrooms tasted alien, a bitter savory mixture. After a few minutes Sophie felt her mouth tingling. Once she ate a few more bites, the older man was satisfied and they left Sophie alone again, leaving her to her task. As she ate, her stomach churned in a way she barely remembered - it had something solid in it. Her wariness gave way to ravenous zeal and she nearly choked eating so fast. After cleaning the bowl and licking away every last morsel, Sophie left it by the door and paced uneasily. Initially only her lips tingled but now she felt the inside of her throat alight with a cold tickling sensation. Anxious pounding in her chest distracted her thoughts and her hands clammed up as she folded and unfolded her fingers over her belly.
“Sophie,” she heard a whisper. She turned, thinking she had heard Milena. Sophie went up to the door and looked out, pressing her ear but hearing nothing. Swallowing, her hands now starting to shake, she walked to every corner in her prison, sometimes hearing Milena’s voice utter her name in a ghostly call. Anxiously, she sat on her straw pile, rocking back and forth.
As she breathed, Sophie felt her chest falling in on itself. In and out, that hollow echo in her chest, and if she stopped breathing…
She stopped, holding her breath with anticipation, finally exhaling fearfully. It felt like any moment if she stopped concentrating, her lungs would stop working. Lying back, she stared at the ceiling, panting faster, her chest rising and falling, time seeming to dilate.
She clenched her sweaty hands together, tight, her nails digging with a surreal pinch into her skin.
Clenching tighter, Sophie curled into a ball and felt her whole body rigid, muscles spasming. Her stomach twisted with nausea. The ceiling stretched farther like in a fun house and the natural lines of the wood undulated, making her motion sick. As she reached up, her skeletal limb upward looked inhumanly long, her hand still balled in a contorted fist. She slowly opened her fingers, revealing a few bloody marks in her palm. The most vivid red she had ever seen. As a few drops dribbled out, she gently licked her wound and started laughing uncontrollably to the point of tears. It was so salty! The realization seemed hilarious to her and she savored the taste of iron and salt on her tongue, flavors she had nearly forgotten. Even once her blood stopped trickling out, she continued laughing, feeling an odd euphoria swelling in her chest. As she breathed the walls seemed to breathe in time with her and her head swam dizzyingly.
In a trance-like stupor, she stared unblinking at the walls and the patterns emerging before her eyes. Whatever came to mind materialized before her. Waves from the shores of Brighton. Cartoons she watched as a child. Animal and human figures from the Lascaux cave paintings moved across the ceiling, acting out hunts and paleolithic indigenous celebrations. There was chanting outside. The sound grew louder until it was all she could hear, and she felt the pulsing of their voices in her flesh. She opened her lips and sang aloud with them, not knowing the words but making them up as they came to her. Her vocal cords moved, she arched her back pushing her chest towards the sky and let their heathen mass flow through her body, the words emerging changed from her throat as if in tongues.
The night passed slowly. Each breath, each blink, slowed to a quarter of its usual speed as she laughed and cried and visions faded in and out across her eyes. Then, like a cool veil lifting off of her, she took a deep breath and her body relaxed from its contortions. Before she could form a cogent thought, exhaustion from the night’s exertions overcame her.
She awoke to someone gently dabbing her brow with a cool cloth. Her head ached painfully, and her arms and legs extended with effort. Sophie turned her head towards the person and smiled in relief.
“Milena, oh Milena, please, what is happening?” Sophie tried to reach up to touch her face but instead her hand fell on Milena’s forearm.
“Shhh… Sophie. Shhh…” she cooed soothingly. Her beautiful lips smiled sadly, the purple blotches on her cheek contrasting dazzlingly with her brown green eyes.
“Milena…” Sophie murmured softly, closing her eyes and appreciating the touch of the cold dampness on her skin. The elder man waited outside the doorway. The sun hung low in the sky. In his hands was another bowl with the luminous bluish concoction.
Sophie hung her head forward when she saw it, a sudden burst of despair hitting her chest like a sucker punch. She was so tired, her body weak and aching, and they wanted her to go through it all again. Bawling uncontrollably, she buried her face in Milena’s bosom, her tears soaking into Milena’s top.
“Please, no more, Milena, please, I’ll do anything, just… I can’t take more of this! Save me! Can’t you save me?” Sophie cried, knowing Milena would understand her meaning, if not her words. Milena said something reassuring and calmly caressed the back of Sophie’s head as the man approached.
Sophie shakily extended a hand to take the bowl and began eating as she knew she had to. She still did not know why they were making her do this. No explanations, no questions. Her mouth numbly worked as she swallowed the gloppy preparation of the mysterious fungus. She gestured to Milena and said the word she had learned for water, which thankfully they did not deny her. After sweating and crying the entire night, her lips and throat were parched and skin salty with residue from dried sweat.
As the effects began to flow through her again, she took note of the onset and sequence of sensations. First the tingling, then restlessness and anxiety, carnival room visual distortions, nausea, cycles of elation and anxiety. Eventually muscle contractions, visions, hallucinations.
If she stared too much in any one direction, she would feel sick, like riding in a boat on rough seas. The first two nights she did not vomit, but by the fifth day she was regularly retching half a dozen times throughout the night. Sometimes blue mushrooms, sometimes yellow bile. The contractions got worse. After a week, she was so weak that Milena had to hold the water cup to her lips, which she did so gently, caressing stray sweaty locks of hair from Sophie’s face. She was unable to sit up in the basin, so they began to simply sponge her skin with cool cloths where she lay.
After a particularly wretched series of vomiting one evening, which mostly landed in the refuse bucket, Sophie thought she heard a different voice. Not her own, not Milena’s, not anyone from the village. She crawled weakly back to her straw bed and saw her mother’s face materialize in front of her, loving and clear like in her photographs. Her strawberry blond hair curled and flowed in leafy spirals. The voice was soothing. Everything was okay, she was where she was meant to be. They were taking care of her.
“I don’t understand, Mom,” she moaned in anguish, “I miss you so much. Mom, I want to go home. I want to go home with you and Dad, back to our place where we were all together.”
The hills of southern England open up in front of her. Though unable to move, she floated through field of deciduous wildflowers and among old gnarled trees. She heard their old songs and sang them joyously, feeling her mother and father’s hands clutching hers. Her heart soared in her breast, rising in triumph. She was home. As her eyes open and closed, she was still in the same green world from her memory. Sophie rubbed her wet cheeks and felt her energy fading again as the effects of the mushrooms wore off. The effects seemed to last longer each time.
When she awoke next, Milena was holding her and Sophie tried to embrace her but her arms hung weakly at her sides.
“Milena, mother, father, I love you, I love you,” she said softly. As she spoke she felt Milena stiffen, then become soft again, dabbing her neck gently with the cool cloth. Once Sophie had quenched her thirst and been cleansed again, the elder came to the door with her bowl. Sophie limply reached for the spoon but was unable to lift it and the elder said something to Milena. Milena responded angrily and left, so the elder sat beside Milena and held the spoon to her lips. His hand was etched like clay, infinite folds and scars from decades of toiling rippled in front of her. A musty perfumed scent emanated from him, reminiscent of incense shops. Obediently she opened her mouth and swallowed the gruel, lost in her world. He clucked encouragingly in their ancient tongue. The sun set by the time she finished and he took her face into his hands, gazing upon her with a detached regard. He looked so ancient, beyond knowable time and record.
She went through the stages anew and became feverish. Despite how weak she was, her muscles still managed to tighten and torture her. Images crowded over and over in front of her eyes, leaving her semiconscious and delirious, like a lucid dream from which she could not wake.
The door flew agape. It was night. The full moon hung at the apex of the sky, overwhelming and blinding. It grew in size, crowding out the stars and the black of night. Her eyes hurt to stare at it but she could not look away. A bluish ring of light spread out from the border of the sphere and the dark patches of the moon’s face changed into an animalistic grin. Steps reverberated loudly on the wood and people entered the room, lifting her up. Sophie could not make out faces as she was carried, her feet trailing on the dirt as they pulled her upright. They supported her arms over their shoulders and chanted louder and louder, a constant thrum in the crisp forest air.
Her bare feet passed over lines of pebbles. She looked down and saw a labyrinthine design of rocks in the earth. A bonfire was alight at the center and a chair of pine and antlers waited for her at the Eastern side. She was placed on the makeshift throne, needing to be repositioned a few times so she sat upright. The trees glowed green, triangular geometric shapes mixing with the darkness. The circle glowed in front of her and faces blurred and morphed. The elder to her right chanted loudly in their unfamiliar language but she felt like she could understand him. It was their night, their clan together under the moon as in days of old, and she was going to carry them with her as she faded between the veils. Sophie stared at him and time froze, glowing specks like sand meandered slowly through the air. Her eyes lolled back to the fire at the center of the labyrinth, the burning wood a deafening roar. The colossal worm moon of the vernal equinox shone above and melted down, enveloping her in its enormity.
Her breathing changed and he brought a primeval headdress to face her. It was constructed with deer jaw bones and had a stained, off-white animal hide cover forming half a face. A dark circle of charcoal had been drawn onto part of the ancient face cover to imitate the eye. The other eye was missing, torn or mangled through hundreds of years as the crown had passed from generation to generation. The partial face stretched and she heard screams echoing in her mind as she stared, the black eye widening - she felt herself fall into that dark endless pit.
Hands pushed her shoulders forward and she bent her head, eyes closed but still seeing as he lowered the headdress, the bones cutting into her scalp. She cried out in pain, her agony partly concealed by the flap over her face. Fresh warm liquid dripped down her cheek and the elder’s tongue lapped it up reverently, his lips smacking against her skin. There was a new silence, filled only by her struggling breaths and the pounding of her heart furiously keeping blood pumping through her veins.
After what felt like hours, the elder spoke again. He let out a triumphant proclamation and Sophie felt the ground shake with the clapping of dozens of footsteps approaching her. Along her arms, she felt innumerable sharp pricks and hands and lips upon her, kissing her, draining her. Her skin was already tingling and each touch created a conduit, connecting her with everyone who approached and drank her intoxicating lifeblood. She laughed and cried, feeling embraced by all, by Milena, her mother, her father, drowning in indescribable ecstasy. The moon above her pulsed and shone like a beacon, warming her as she was moved and loved.
When the crowd withdrew from her, they took their places in the circle and chanted and moaned, joining her as she fell one with the chair, the mask, the forest, the moon, the sky. She looked down and saw her bloodstained arms, some cuts still dripping onto the dark wood of her alter. Her life was draining down to the earth and all she felt was a boundless connection to this place, the people, their world. A boundless connection flowing out endlessly.
She did not remember falling unconscious, but when she came to she was in a brightly lit room with white walls. White sheets. Electric lights. She blinked awake and tried to find her voice. Someone walking in the outside hallway saw her waking up and called for others to come. The nurse approached her and checked her heart rate with a plastic stethoscope.
“Miss Murphy? Sophie Murphy? Can you hear me?” the nurse asked expectantly.
“I...that’s my name, I’m Sophie,” she said quietly. “Where...how did I get here?”
“You were found in the woods by some rangers. You were reported missing, there was a huge manhunt for you, you were all over the news.”
“I... how long was I gone?”
“Over a month. When they found you, you were unconscious and suffering from severe malnourishment and dehydration. Your liver was inflamed - you almost needed a transplant. Your kidneys were so bad they had you on dialysis for a short while. Can you remember anything that happened?”
Sophie looked at her arms. There were dozens of healing razor cuts and her fingernails were long and craggy. Silently, she shook her head and calmly asked for some water. The nurse seemed disappointed and left to fetch her something to drink. She was asked questions by many people afterwards, doctors, psychiatrists, her friends from work - but remained silent, saying only that she got lost, that was the last thing she remembered.
“Given the state of your liver and blood test results,” one of the doctors remarked, “and the fact you were studying wild fungi, it could be you accidentally contaminated your food after touching a poisonous specimen, which could cause hepatotoxicity and memory loss.”
She considered that, wondering if perhaps that could be what happened. Everything she remembered seemed like a dream, obscured in fog and mist. If she said it aloud, she was sure that she would be laughed at, or they might go searching for her supposed captors. She did not want them to be found. Eventually she left the hospital and returned home to her small flat. Several of the bills were overdue. The electricity was off when she entered her apartment. She sat on the couch in the dark in the cold room, leaving her bags packed on the entrance mat. She sat there for a long time.
Weeks went by. She tried to fall back into her graduate school routine, went to research meetings, worked on her thesis, but it all flowed past her without evoking any emotion or feeling. Going through the motions was easy enough, but her heart tugged and she could not stop thinking of that place. Her people. Milena. Their world. Before the end of the semester, Sophie packed up her things. She put her belongings into marked boxes as if she were planning to move. When everything seem squared away, she packed a few changes of clothing and bought a ticket back to Bialystok. From there, she paid a taxi to take her into the forest, up the same fire trail she had parked at a few months ago. The tire treads from her car were lost among the countless other tracks from the search teams.
The alpenglow and scent of spruce trees welcomed her home. Pine needles crunched under her shoes as she crossed back over the threshold. She walked, instinctively, retracing her steps, guided by an unseen hand. They would hear her. They would feel her. They were there, waiting for her. As Sophie walked, she touched the trees and relished the sticky resinous sap. The same birds and small mammals chirped and skittered in the branches. She found the old creek bed she had followed and sat along the side near some dense bushes, feeling the layers of detritus between her fingers. She waited, thinking of when she would see those boundless golden eyes greeting her once more.
Her backpack, shoes and clothing were found at the lower edge of the forest without a note or tracks. A manhunt was performed for days, but no trace was ever found. Her colleagues chipped in for a memorial plaque in the mycology halls at Oxford and her story was whispered around the campus, morphing with each iteration. People were curious about her and learned bits and pieces about her past, her parents, her upbringing, adding colorful details to every retelling. The same basic story remained - a young woman entered the woods, returned a stranger, then found her way home.
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