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The Precision of Night

There is a place in the woods, where the shadows do not move as they should. Of course, I didn’t know that. Not for a very long time. The forest was always there, just across that windy field, but it never called to me. Nothing ever called to me. I was an artist, but the appeal of reality paled in comparison to the wonder of imagination. Wherever I was, I was never truly there, lost in a world that only I could interpret. Physically, I could feel the splinters of the pencil in my hand, I could see the shadows span across the paper. I could smell the dust of the attic, and the many years that had passed me by, yet inside, I would dream. String the fragments together, until they created something fantastic. Figments of the mind, captured on paper, but never the physical. Never the real, because it never called to me. Not like Marion. She loved the woods, the texture of the trees, the feeling of the soil beneath her boots. The way the rain would patter on the leaves, and how the branches would creak in the wind. It was like music, to her.

I always regretted not paying more attention. She wanted to see the world. Explore, touch, feel, but I was always there to drag her down. I suppose the forest was a sort of sanctuary, to her. The only way she could witness her dreams, without my own shackling her to the earth. I can’t help but wonder, if I hadn’t been so selfish, if she would still be here.

I wasn’t even looking at the time. I merely glanced up from my work, and saw that the pale light of day, which normally flowed through the cracks in the wood, was no longer there. I looked to the clock, and saw that it was sundown. She hadn’t come home. I called out to her, but all that answered was the low howl of the wind. I searched the downstairs, but she wasn’t anywhere. Her walks could last for hours, but it had been several, and she didn’t leave a note. The telephone was covered in a thin film of dust, untouched for weeks, so she could not have sent for an automobile, and the roads were so overrun by the trees that I doubted they could even reach us. Rationally, I told myself that she was fine. I tried to picture her, walking back through the trails after hours of being so enamored with the wild, just then realizing that the skies were growing dark. A slip of the mind, caught up in your passions. Yet still, I worried.

I put on my shoes, and stepped outside, the chill of autumn biting through my clothes. I walked across the open field, my eyes set upon the black silhouettes of a thousand trees, until at last I stopped before them. I peered between the many trunks, yet spied nothing but the vastness of the thicket. I called her name, tears welling up in my eyes, yet even then, some part of me understood. I knew that I would never see her again.

I was able to contact what few residences remained within a journey’s distance, and organize a search party. They scoured the wood to the best of their ability, but they never found a trace. How could they? How could anyone have known what truly happened? The story they gave me was exactly what anyone would make up in their heads – she went too far, and became lost, left at the mercy of the elements, the animals, wherever your mind may naturally bring you. There were always the rumors that surrounded the forest, but I was not a superstitious woman, and in the end, none of their opinions mattered, for they didn’t know Marion. They didn’t know that she would never become lost in those woods, even if she walked for a thousand miles, because the woods were her home, and she could find her way back from anywhere. The forest was savage, and had taken so much, but not from her. If I even suggested that she be careful, she would laugh, for the implication was genuinely ridiculous. That was the thing about her. She never needed me for anything, or anyone else, yet nonetheless, she loved me, and in return, I weighed her down.

There was a man who helped in the search. He was a monk, before the trees took the temple. He said something, after we had given up. Something that always caught my attention.

“This place has a history.”

And he wasn’t wrong. I would later learn of the disappearances. Old articles in the papers he had given me, back from when they were still being printed. Missing pets. Sometimes, a missing person. They were never seen again. We never noticed it, when we moved in, that we seemed to have no neighbors. The memory clings to tragedy like a leech, but it rarely dwells on little fortunes. Supposedly, it happened over many years. People disappeared, and others became frightened, so they disappeared of their own accord. By the time that Marion went missing, we were the only ones left. The houses and cabins still existed, but they belonged to the forest.

Most nights, I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t eat, and what few faculties I still had left were beginning to fade. It was not only her absence, but the guilt that I felt over pushing her away. I couldn’t even remember the last thing she said to me.

I suppose that is what ultimately drove me to the forest – the thought that I could remember her through her actions, and the one thing that brought her joy.

The day was cold, the branches rustling overhead as my shoes crunched upon the twigs. The trees were taller than anything, the light of the sun filtering through them, and bathing the land in slivers of shadow. You could taste the season, and the approaching winter. It was refreshing, and in a way, I could see why Marion liked it. But I was stubborn. I always fell back to the same reason I had for avoiding the world, even when it no longer mattered. Picture a forest, in your mind, and you get a forest – nothing more, nothing less. You travel for eons, and the forest continues. Picture a lake. Picture a mountain. Call me simple, but I thought, at the time, that if I could see something in the paper or a brochure, I didn’t need to go there, because I’ve already seen the best it had to offer. So, I would fall back on my internal world. I was a visual person. I didn’t think about all the aspects of a place that you can’t get from a picture – the feeling, the motion, the sound and touch.

On some level, I knew that it was pointless, but we always fall back into old habits. There were no places but the forest, anymore, and even if there were – even if I had broken free from my narcissistic fantasies – Marion would never see them, because she was gone.

I don’t know how long I walked for. I was lost in thought, thinking about our days together, and then I felt it. The sensation of something not quite right. I looked ahead, and in the distance, I thought I could see a dog. It looked strange – darker than it should have been – its features blending together like liquid in my eyes, yet it was so far away that I dismissed it as a trick of the mind. It was just standing there, staring at me. My gaze shifted, and the dog disappeared, like it was a smear of paint splashed with thinner.

I continued forward, unsure of what I had seen. I reached where the dog had been, my eyes scanning the woods, yet there was nothing. Only the dead leaves, shifting upon the dirt as the wind whistled between the trunks. Only the shadows that spanned from every looming tree, so tall that they pierced the clouds. But that wasn’t quite right. I squinted, looking down at the ground, where I saw a shadow that mimicked the others, yet something about it bothered me. I tried to discover what was casting it, though couldn’t find a thing. Then, I looked back, and it was gone. I tried to convince myself that the light had changed, but I knew that it hadn’t. It was there one second, and gone the next.

My eyes panned across the wood, gnarled roots burrowing through the many paths amidst fallen branches and crisscrossing trees. Logs scaled by shelves of mushrooms. The overwhelming silence, as I realized that I was completely alone. There were no birds. No insects. No animals. Just the shift of the dirt beneath my shoes, and the sound of my breath. My quickening heartbeat, as a slow fear began to take hold. Then, I noticed the shadows. They were all just slightly wrong, offset from where they should have been. I shifted my gaze, and for the briefest of seconds, the shadows followed. I could feel a sense of adrenaline build as I turned, studying my surroundings. Every shadow in the forest was askew. Yet in the quiet terror of the moment, I felt a sense of familiar wonder, and a deep connection that I could hardly explain. The arcane horrors of the imagination suddenly seemed so acutely real, in the very domain of Marion’s interest. An intersection of our respective passions, that I could not help but feel an attachment to, no matter how much my mind urged me to run. In a sense, I could feel a part of her there, somewhere in the shadows of that place. I wondered if Marion knew of it. If that was but a fragment of the awe that she felt for the natural world, stricken between something distinctly unnatural. I wondered why she didn’t tell me, and at the same time, wondered if she did, and in my selfishness, I refused to listen.

I felt a calling, then, like the most vivid of dreams. I could draw this place – capture it. Capture a piece of who Marion was. Something that would always remind me. Something that could bridge the world between us, and help me understand all the questions I could never ask her. I cannot say that I never had the chance to tell her how much I loved her, because I did have that chance. I just didn’t take it. I was a fool, and I deserved all the misery that would ever befall me, but in my misery, I wanted to at least feel close to her. To have something – anything to latch onto. I was so very alone in that place, but I didn’t want to be.

I left the grove behind, and began the arduous walk back to our home. It wasn’t long before the shadows corrected themselves, and everything was as a forest should be. Yet even after I left that place, it never completely left me. It was another one of those things that I failed to consider – the feeling you don’t get from a picture. I couldn’t describe it, yet it clung my skin like an oil. Eventually, I reached the field, the sun corroding to nothing overhead. I remembered when I had stopped at the treeline, staring out into the wild. Wondering where she had gone, yet knowing that it was forever.

I wanted only a single thing: to capture the shadows, like the distilled essence of night, stricken across the waiting page. Again and again, I scrawled my recollections in that lonely attic, erasing, tossing papers aside, trying to perfect the image. To recreate the schism I had witnessed. To recreate her, and everything that she ever loved. Nothing less than perfection would do. Yet no matter how much I struggled, I could not capture the essence. I needed to see.

I slept that night, but I did not sleep easy. My mind was haunted by the need to return to that place, no matter how much it frightened my heart, tossing and turning in my delirium. Yet in time, the nightmare claimed me. I dreamt I was standing outside my home, the cold wind assailing me. I could feel the chill of the earth at my feet, a starless sky stretching into the unfathomable abyss that yawned above me. Across the field, at the forest’s edge, a tall, black silhouette loomed in the darkness, just barely lit by the light of the moon. Antlers bowed above its head, and though I could not discern its features, I knew that it was watching me. Beckoning me.

I woke in my bed, the light of day spanning across the aging walls. I got up, and looked out the window, peering across the vastness, yet saw nothing but the forest beyond. I tried to eat, that day, but everything tasted so bland. I needed the experience. I felt the calling.

I left for the woods, walking across that field again, yet I did not walk unprepared. I took my easel and my equipment, and I knew what had to be done, for my own sanity, and for her memory. As I breached the wood, I was greeted by the familiar titter of wildlife, birds chirping overhead as they hopped and sailed between the trees, squirrels dashing beneath the roots. Yet they laid claim to no part of my mind, for my eyes were searching for a single thing. A shadow bent out of proportion. Something that failed to fit.

I walked for ages, unsure of how far I had truly gone. I was almost convinced that I was lost – and then, I saw it. In the corner of my eye, I saw something shift upon a fallen log. I turned to face it, and witnessed it in truth. The shadow of a beetle, scuttling along. I moved to set up my equipment, yet as soon as I broke my gaze, the beetle disappeared, its form wiping away from my vision as though erased from a page.

I was in the right place. I continued walking deeper into the wood, until at last I saw the bend of the shadows, offset from every tree that surrounded me. I smiled, taking the equipment off my back, and setting it up amongst the leaves. I drew that day with a ferocity and passion I had never known, tears staining my eyes as I looked upon every stroke with wonder. I felt connected with the forest, some distant part of it leaching into my brain, enrapturing me as it had Marion. Yet beneath it all, I wept for the reality that I would never share it with her. To let her know that I finally understood.

I left the grove of shadows behind, my work secure upon my back, and soon, the land appeared as it was. On one hand, I felt exhilarated, yet on the other, I felt exhausted.

I paused, resting against a tree not far from my home. The cold air rushed through my lungs, my breath misting before me in the shade of the looming branches, yet then, I noticed something peculiar. A black shape upon my arm. It crawled down my wrist, and onto the tree. It was the beetle I had seen in the grove, composed of pure shadow. I didn’t know what to think of it, and before I had the opportunity, it was gone. Had it followed me, all that way?

When I returned home, the first thing I did was take the drawing to the attic. Yet even in my rapture, I noticed the feeling. Something was wrong. The way the floorboards creaked beneath my step, the way the light ran upon the walls, the way the wind whistled through the ancient cracks. Everything was false, like a dread illusion falling away.

I do not remember returning to my bedchamber, yet I must have found my way. The obsession was consuming me, swallowing my thoughts and memories and everything that I was.

In dream, I walked through that ancient wood, following the antlered shade deep into the unhallowed thicket, the trees looming wickedly above us. Then, it stopped. It turned, and though I could not discern its face through the darkness, it opened its cloak like a blot of ink spreading wide across a page. Within it, stood Marion, naked and drenched in blood. Her eyes were filled with terror and pain, locked upon my own as though mindlessly pleading for aid, yet my legs wouldn’t move to help her. No matter what I did, I could not help her.

I woke in a cold sweat, a lingering nausea boiling in my gut. Yet even through the haunting malaise, still I peered at that distant wood, the sun refracting through the glass of the window. The trees seemed closer than they did before.

I donned my coat, packed my equipment, and traveled into the wood immediately, the chaos of the windy field fading to the silence of the forest. That was the first thing I noticed. The silence. No longer did the birds chirp or the flies buzz and clamor. There was only the slow creak of the branches, and the distinct feeling that I was being watched.

I found the shadows, yet I did not have to walk far. Somehow, the grove had expanded, the shade of every tree bending and breaking in my sight. Standing there, I could feel a presence, burrowing deeper into my mind, like every thought and desire I had ever kept was being peeled back and examined. Studied. No longer did my surroundings feel like a forest, but a conscious thing that thought and felt – yet it did not think or feel as I did. It was an elder way, unfamiliar to even the deepest vagaries of the human experience.

Then, I saw it. The shadow of a cat, cast upon a burgeoning trunk. It was shivering, as though cold and afraid, yet then, it fell still. My fascination tore me away from the forest, and I quickly assembled my equipment. I started drawing it, and it remained where it was, as though somehow posing. Yet in my mind, I drifted – lost in the connection between myself, and the terrible beauty that Marion beheld. This was everything that she had ever wanted.

“Aria!” called a distant voice. I startled, dropping my pencil as my heart thundered in my chest. The voice of Marion. I could not mistake it. I looked up, and the cat was gone. I quickly ran to where I heard her, the leaves and twigs crunching beneath my feet. “Aria!” she called again, from deeper in the wood. I kept hearing it, over and over, yet I drew no further, and every time it echoed from beyond, her voice seemed to change. It sounded more like a question, like she was somehow confused. I stumbled to a halt, catching my breath as my muscles burned with strain. The shadows of a hundred birds rushed across the earth, and I looked to the sky, yet saw no flock to match them. A foreboding chill ran down my spine. I knew not how, but I was in danger. I wanted to keep going, yet everything in my mind screamed for me to turn away.

The sky was growing dark. Much darker than it should have been, the sun swallowed behind the clouds. How long had it been?

I retraced my steps as best I could, and to my fortune, I found my easel. I looked down at the drawing of the cat. She always wanted a cat, but I always said no. I don’t even remember why.

I packed everything up, and began my journey home, breaching the windy field in naught but a moment. The field seemed smaller than before, and the saplings of trees were beginning to sprout amongst the grass, growing before my very eyes if I paused for just a moment too long. I returned to our house, and went straight to the attic, placing my drawing next to the previous one. For some indiscernible reason, they looked incomplete. There was something missing. Another sketch – another moment of potential. A psychic lure, drawing me in as I imagined all the wonders that I could see. The sky had darkened, the light of day sapped away by the coming night, and all that I could ponder, was what a forest of shadows was like in the dark.

I was afraid, but I was also curious. Desperate. Perhaps I was addled from a lack of sustenance, yet I didn’t feel as though I needed it. The shadows were my bread and wine, and I wanted more.

I left for the forest with a fresh page, lantern in hand as the fear and adrenaline pulsed through my veins. The light flooded across the field, its many saplings now towering above me as the forest true scraped the sky like a battlement of knives. The wind howled against me, and upon it, I could hear the whispers of a thousand ghosts, so distant and rasping that I could not discern their meaning, yet when I entered that horrible wood, everything stopped. The air was still, and quiet, save for the sound of my movements. The rush of the air through my lungs. The quickening beat of my heart.

I did not have to travel to find the grove of shadows, for the shadows were already wrong, spanning across the earth as the rays of my lantern shone betwixt the infinite trees. Then, I saw it. Standing tall across a trunk before me, the shadow of a woman lurked upon the wood. I felt my heart seize in my chest, a wave of dread flooding over me, yet she held deathly still, as though frozen in time.

Carefully, I assembled my equipment, every movement of my trembling hands slow and deliberate, as though I were afraid to make a sound – yet I pushed through the fear, and began to draw the shadow of the woman. Every line and shade felt cursed, staining the page with the same unsettling aura that surrounded me. The more I drew, the more confused I became. Everything about it felt wrong, yet Marion was so utterly divorced from such a sensation that I struggled to comprehend how she was connected. She was good, and kind, far more than I ever deserved, yet the things that I drew reflected none of that kindness.

Then, the shadow of the woman began to grow. I dropped my pencil, and backed away, a flood of panic overtaking me. It continued to swell as the light of the lantern glared against it, as all shadows do when their source draws near. It was coming straight toward me. I snatched the drawing, and ran as quick as I could, sprinting through the forest until I breached the field, and arrived at our home. I burst inside, slamming the door shut behind me, and locking it tight.

I collapsed, out of breath and filled with adrenaline, yet in my trembling hands, I held that crumpled page. It felt unclean, and as I gingerly revealed it, I saw the shadow that I had drawn. It was only half-finished, but I couldn’t stop looking at it. I took it upstairs, and placed it next to the others, completing the triumvirate. It felt whole – it felt right – and yet so wrong that I could not help but shudder.

I stared at them for much of the night, lost in my thoughts. It felt like I was standing back in the grove, yet the bond that tied me to Marion had slipped into the blackness, and all that remained was the horror. I raised my gaze, and found the shadows of the attic askew, my delirium humming within my mind. I lit a candle, its fiery light spilling out around me, yet the shadows did not change. They only grew. A tangle of branches swirled for a second upon the wall, despite the absence of trees, before conforming into the shape of a cat. It walked by, glanced back, and then quickly dashed behind the many boxes, as though frightened. They were here.

I ran. I don’t know why I thought I could escape them, but I ran, down into our bedchamber. I locked the door, and lit a candle for what little light it could offer me, but it did not help. I couldn’t pull my mind away, wondering what else might occupy our home, the silhouette of the woman in the woods still carved into my brain. Worse still, I wondered what truly happened to Marion.

I tried to sleep, but I was lying to myself. I constantly felt like I was being watched. The shadows of trees blowing in the wind flowed across the walls from my rattling window, yet there were never any trees close to my home. The night howled, the air whistling and creaking through the endless cracks in the wood, yet I tried to focus on my breathing, the glow of the candle flickering around me. The shade of the branches swayed and bent while I shivered in place, eyes locked upon my sheets, until I raised my gaze, and my heart dropped. The shadow of the woman stood against the door.

I backed away, terrified. I didn’t know what to do – what I could do. It blocked the only way out, except for the window, but could I open it in time? Would I survive the fall?

She did not move, remaining utterly still. I knew that she was watching me, yet strangely, in the deepest recesses of my mind, I did not feel threatened by her. I felt threatened by something else. From her, I felt only a pleading sadness. A desperation that would never leave. Perhaps she was asking for help, but didn’t know how, or how I would even help her, or perhaps she was warning me. Perhaps it wasn’t too late, that night – but on the surface, I was petrified. Those little thoughts in the back of my head didn’t matter. All that mattered was the fear, and eventually, it took me. At some point, I must have passed out from the exhaustion, and when I closed my eyes, there was only darkness, and an unrelenting cold.

The cold never left me, but the darkness did, parting into the vastness of night, just barely lit by an unnameable glow. I was standing in an open glade, a ring of trees surrounding me, and the limitless forest waiting beyond them. A freezing wind blew against me, though it reeked of blood and meat, the metallic taste clinging to my senses like a parasite – and then, I raised my gaze to the abyss in the sky. There were no stars, but from the blackness of space, a hand of woven branches descended, and its colossal grip wrapped around me with an unforgiving cruelty. Everything was dark, and the only thing I knew was that I belonged to it. There was no escape, and there was no hope.

I woke to the fractured light of day, lost in delirium as all the colors of the world blurred and vibrated with despair. A tree was pressed against the window, like it was staring inside. The shadow on the door was gone. It felt like a part of me was missing, though I could not understand what had been taken, or who had taken it – only that it was gone.

My arm itched, and I pulled back my sleeve to find my skin covered in bruises, red blotches tracing out into my veins like a spreading infection, yet I did not feel ill, nor a moment of pain. Only fear, and a sense of impending loss.

I walked downstairs, barely coherent as the steps creaked beneath my feet. Stumbling forward, I peered into our living room, and saw the shadows of men and women, locked in place as though frozen in conversation. Until they turned to face me. I felt their eyes crawl across my skin, yet they remained deathly still, as though witnessing something great and terrible. Broken and confused, I ran outside, my heart pounding in my ears. There was no field. Not anymore. Only the trees, looming forever into the sky as they utterly surrounded our home.

Panicked and afraid, I looked down, and saw my hand melting away, as though boiling off into the air, yet there was no blood nor pain. Only the fear. It was spreading, and upon the rim of my annihilation, a cold, impenetrable darkness lurked, as though I were passing through the void of a black hole. Yet what frightened me more, was my shadow, cast by the light of the sun upon the earth. My shadow still had a hand. My arm began to disappear, as did the fingers of my other hand, and with them, I understood what was happening to me.

I realized that I could still feel my missing limbs – I just couldn’t control them – but I felt the coldness of what surrounded them. The unearthly texture and the slickness of its terror, mimicking the natural flow of wood and bark and winding roots, yet beneath the veil, their disguise slipped free. I felt the other side, where every victim of the forest screamed, their spirits devoured by the trees that had taken them. The trees that had taken Marion, corroded alive into an ethereal state.

I heard the rustling of the trees from all around me, the wood creaking and groaning like laughter, while the branches swayed dizzily overhead, taunting me, and drinking my pain.

I ran. I ran deeper into the forest, tears streaming down my cheeks while I screamed until my throat was raw. I knew not who I screamed for – only that it was something my body needed to do, to process what was happening to it. I ran until I collapsed, for the forest had eaten my feet, my legs slowly fading to nothing. In the distance, I could see the easel I had abandoned, and all around it, eyes split open upon the trees, watching me intently. I could see the shadows clearer than ever. The shadows of everything they had ever consumed. Yet they could do nothing but tremble, for whatever their lives once were, they belonged to the forest.

I laid there, watching as the day faded into night, the darkness swallowing me, while my body slowly withered to nothing – and here, I continue. I feel so tired, and powerless, for I know that when I sleep, I will never wake up – not here. I will never see this place again – and I know that the forest will wait for me. It will wait until I have no choice but surrender, for above all things, the forest is cruel. I can feel the otherworldly chill, and within it, the anguished pleas of the one I had sought.

I imagined her dying alone in the woods, confused and afraid, slowly consumed by the trees.

I can hear it echo in the fragments of her voice, yet I know there is nothing I can do.

I wish I had never heard that voice again.