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Ceremonies

T. E. D. Klein

Prologue: Christmas

The forest was ablaze.

From horizon to horizon stretched a wall of smoke and flame, staining the night sky red and blotting out the stars. Vegetation shriveled and was instantly consumed; great trees toppled shrieking toward the earth, dying gods before an angry gale, and the sound of their destruction was like the roaring of a thousand winds.

For seven days the fire raged, unimpeded and unquenchable. No one was there to stop it; no one had seen it start, save the scattered tribes of Mengos and Unamis who had fled in terror from their homes. Among them there were some who said that, on the evening of the blaze, they'd seen a star fall from the sky and crash amid the woods. Others claimed that lightning was the cause, or a queer red liquid bubbling from the ground.

Perhaps none of them were right.

Let it, therefore, rest at this: the events recorded here began as one day they would end In mystery.

At last the flames were dampened by a night of steady rain. The morning sun rose upon a kingdom of ashes, a desolate grey land without a tree left standing or a trace of life-save, at its very center, the charred and blistered body of an ancient cottonwood, the tallest object for miles around.

The tree was dead. But crouched amid its branches, hidden by a web of smoke still rising from the earth, something lived: something older far than humankind, and darker than some vast and sunless cavern on a world beyond the farthest depths of space. Something that breathed, schemed, felt itself dying and, dying, lived on.

It was outside nature, and alone. It had no name. High above the smoking ground it waited, black against the blackness of the tree. Fire had ravaged its body; a limb had been devoured by the flames. Where once a head had been, and something rather like a face, was now a crumbling mass the form and color of charcoal. Still it clung implacably to life, as to the branch round which its claws were fixed. Survival was a thing of calculation; there was something it must do before it died. Now was not the time, but it was patient. It closed its one remaining eye and settled down to wait. Its time would come.

The planet spun; moons waxed and waned; vegetation returned, groping hungrily up through the ashes. The scarred place on the planet's surface was lost beneath a canopy of green, and once again the trees rose straight and tall to catch the sunlight.

Only in a small grove near the center was a difference to be seen. There the foliage was not so thick, and the trees themselves had grown back shorter, coarser, curiously stunted, like the life forms at the summit of a mountain. Others had taken on odd shapes, with trunks split into a hundred branching arms, or twisted, or swollen obscenely like the bodies of drowned animals. When a wind swept westward from off the sea, turning the roof of the forest into an ocean of waving leaves, no such movement stirred the shadowy confines of the grove.

The very earth there was changed. By night it seemed to glow as if a fire still raged beneath. At intervals thin wisps of steam would drift up from the ground, curling past the roots and leafless boughs, obscuring both the treetops and the sky.

The Indians seldom ventured near that part of the forest, and even avoided speaking of it after a woman gathering firewood described the thing she'd seen there, squatting in a dead tree in the middle of the grove.

For the thing, no word existed. But they found one for the grove in which it chose to wait.

Maquineanok, they called it. The Place of Burning.

A year passed. And another. And then five thousand more. The stars had shifted slowly in their courses. The sky looked different now.

So did the planet's face. The Indians were dead, and the forest land had dwindled to a third its size. Settlers had dotted it with homesteads; engineers had crisscrossed it with roads; farmers had cleared off a patchwork of fields for pasturing and corn. Villages had sprouted, townships spread; somewhere a city was being laid out that would spell destruction for another million trees.

Here and there some remnants of the former age survived: hidden knots of wilderness where man had never walked, and where the great trees still struggled as before, unchallenged and unseen. Such places, though, were few, and disappearing fast; soon, within the compass of a century, the forest and its secrets would belong to man alone.

Where the ancient woods were deepest, in the region that the Indians had called Maquineanok, five thousand years of quietude had already been breached. Months ago the grove had rung to the distant echoes of a hammer; now, at any moment, human footsteps might penetrate the silence and the gloom.

Still it waited.

The boy was not yet lost, but he was puzzled. He had wandered into this part of the forest by mistake, trying out the new snowshoes he'd received that morning, and suddenly he'd found himself unable to proceed, his left shoe mired in two inches of mud. Elsewhere the forest floor was blanketed in white, but here the earth showed through in great bare patches, and the grey December sky was reflected in puddles of melted snow.

Stepping back in search of firmer ground, he brushed a pale strand of hair from his eyes and tucked it beneath the hand-knit woolen cap. All afternoon he'd had a steady wind behind him, but now it had stopped; until this moment he had hardly been aware of it. Running a tongue over his chapped lips, he looked around him, ears straining for a sound. His own breathing seemed unnaturally loud in the winter silence.

There was something different about these woods. He saw it now. It was more than just the lack of snow. The trees were smaller here, and queerly formed; a ring of leafless branches, sharp as claws, reached yearningly toward his face, while many of the trunks and limbs were twisted into grotesque shapes, images from half- remembered dreams.

Pulling off a fur-lined mitten with his teeth, he stooped to unfasten the rawhide bindings of the snowshoes. It was growing late, and he was beginning to get hungry. At home there'd be warm eggnog waiting, and johnnycake made of cornmeal, and, in the huge cast-iron stove, a bowl of Christmas pudding. The older girls would be helping his mother in the kitchen; the others would be singing hymns, the younger children joining in as best they could. His two little sisters would be playing on the rug beside the chimney corner…

Around him the dark woods seemed to press closer, as if to cut off his escape.

He paused to wipe the dirt from his leggings and to retighten the laces. Standing, he slipped his boots from the muddy snowshoes and took a step backward, nearly tripping over the exposed roots of an old cottonwood. He reached out blindly, to steady himself With a cry he yanked away his hand. The tree had felt warm to the touch, like a living creature. Yet a glance assured him that it was merely dead wood: blasted by lightning, from the look of it, or scorched as from a recent fire.

Hurriedly he picked up the snowshoes and stowed them on his shoulder. With the cottonwood behind him he began to walk due eastward, the direction pointed by the lengthening shadows. He was just emerging from the grove, still uncertain of his way, when, prompted by some obscure impulse, he stopped, looked back, and saw it – the monstrous black thing staring at him from the tree.

He threw down the snowshoes and ran.

He ran all the way home – almost.

Just before he reached it, the boy slowed to a halt. Turning, he began to retrace his steps.

He believed he was going back for the snowshoes. He believed he would stay only long enough to retrieve them from where they had fallen, before dashing home to the safety of his family.

He was wrong. Across the miles of snow and ice, through the bleak December woods, a call had come.

He had been summoned.

The boy told no one of what he had seen. The next day he returned again, drawn back to the secret place to gaze aghast and wonder-struck at what lived there. Once again the thing rolled up its cold, unblinking eye to stare at him. And nothing moved, and not a word was spoken, and nothing broke the silence of those woods.

The next day was the same.

So was the next. And the next. And the one that followed.

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