The magician isn’t one for exploring. She takes the same jobs from the same people. She wakes up and goes to bed at the same time every day. She eats the same food for breakfast, lunch, dinner. She barely has the mind and energy to follow her routine, let alone try new things.
But now, she has the chance to step outside of her comfort zone, as her little indoor cat has escaped while she was bringing in the groceries and darted straight for the trees. He’s young, stupid, and not meant to explore the woods alone.
Before she thinks better of it, she dashes after him. It’s not until she is deep, deep into the woods when she finally stops and realizes what she has done.
“Pepper!” the magician calls, looking around for that familiar gray fur. “Pepper, please, we must leave this place.”
She stops and listens, but only the cursed sounds of the forest return.
The magician sighs and briefly wonders if she should go back for help. The hunter may be able to easily track the cat and bring him home safely. However, just as she’s about to turn, she hears a little meow from the forest and all logic escapes her. She rushes through, running wherever she can hear the constant meows, until she finally finds the cat hiding under a brush.
The magician kneels down and scoops the cat up.
“Oh, Pepper, you naughty thing,” the magician coos, scratching the cat behind the ears. “You could get yourself killed, dashing out like that. Come, let’s go home.”
But, as the magician turns back, she quickly realizes that she doesn’t know where home is. She was dashing so hard, completely blinded with the wish to find the cat, that she hadn’t been paying attention to her surroundings.
She is undoubtedly, hopelessly lost.
“Well,” she sighs, “this is a predicament.”
The magician squeaks, jumping and almost dropping the cat. She turns around, looking behind the tree, expecting a person to be there. A foolish part of her wonders if it’s a faerie or an elf or even a satyr.
But as she checks behind the tree, there is no one there.
Obediently, she looks up and gasps.
There is a person behind the tree after all! But he is not a faerie or an elf or even a satyr. He is a regular human being, swinging from a tree branch with a rope tied to his throat. His face is purple and bloated, but he smiles at the magician as if there’s nothing wrong.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he says.
“Likewise, I suppose,” the magician nods.
“You’re lost, hm? That’s quite the trouble.” The body smirks. “But I must confess, I believe my trouble is just marginally worse than yours.”
“How are you doing that?” the magician asks.
“Oh, well, you just tie a rope to a branch, then you tie it to your—”
“No, not hanging. I know how to hang someone,” the magician clarifies. “How are you talking? How are you alive?”
The body tilts his head and the magician winces as she hears the cracking of bone.
“You know,” he says, “I’m not too sure. But if a doctor could look at me, I believe they’d be able to find out.”
“There’s a doctor in town,” the magician says. “But I don’t know how to get back there.”
“I can help you.”
“Sure! I just need to be let down first.”
The magician looks up the tree. It doesn’t seem too hard to climb and the rope is crudely tied—should be simple enough to let loose.
“All right, hang on,” says the magician as she lets down the cat, motioning for him to stay.
“Hanging is all I’ve been doing.”
The magician climbs the tree, not as deftly as she would have liked, but easily enough. She grasps onto the branch and slips the rope this way and that, until it finally loosens and the body drops.
He collapses to the ground and, for a moment, the magician worries that he is dead after all. But, in an instant, he is up and dashing through the trees, the cat rushing after him.
“Hey!” the magician calls, trying to scurry her way down. “Wait for me!”
By the time the magician finally reaches the dead leaf ground, she’s all alone, with not even any footsteps or meows to guide her.
The magician wrings her hands, her face contorting as she starts to sob. Even the cat is gone, and he’s the whole reason she came into the woods in the first place. Is there any hope in finding him?
As soon as the first tear escapes, the magician wipes it away. Now is not the time for crying. Surely, the body just thought that the magician would be right behind him. And the cat followed, so he will be safe as well. All the magician has to do is find her way home.
And if the cat is still not there, well, she’ll just pay for the hunter. She’ll be able to help.
Shakily comforted with a plan, the magician moves one leg after the other in the direction she saw the body and the cat rush through.
The sky has darkened incredibly so that the magician keeps bumping into trees. Her nerves must be getting to her, as her mind keeps ping ponging to senseless things. She’ll never see her cat again. She’ll have to sleep on a bed of leaves. The milk has definitely gone bad by now. A bear will kill and eat her. Someone has broken into her house and stolen all her eggs.
“She will lose her mind and hang herself.”
The magician stops, just moments before running into another tree. She looks up and, though it is dark, can just make out the outline of another hanging body.
And another one.
And another one.
And more, and more.
There must be dozens of bodies hanging from the trees. How long have they been there? How long has she been passing them?
The magician swallows and addresses the one that just spoke to her.
“Good evening,” she greets, even giving a curtsy. “I’m sure it is no shock to you that I am lost.”
“Incredibly so,” says the body, but it’s not the only one that speaks. The other bodies repeat after it. “Incredibly so. Incredibly so.”
“If you would be so good as to tell me the way to town?” the magician asks.
“We can’t. We can’t,” says the bodies. “We’re up here. We can’t show you the way. But if you let us down. Let us down. Let us down.”
“If—if you could just point—” the magician tries, but she’s drowned out.
“Let us down,” they continue, one after another. “Let us down. Let us down. Let us down.”
“I can’t,” says the magician. “You’re all supposed to be dead. Dead people aren’t meant to walk.”
“Dead? Dead? Dead? Dead? We’re all supposed to be dead? All dead?” they say, a breeze whistling through their limbs. “You must be mistaken. Dead people are buried. And here we are, swinging from the trees.”
“I’m sorry,” says the magician. “If I let you down, I don’t think I can bury you all by myself. But if you can point me back to town, I’ll ask someone there to help.”
“No, you won’t. No, you won’t. You’ll leave us. Leave us. Leave us. Just like all the others do.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you,” the magician pleads. “I just want to go home, please!”
“Let us down!” the bodies scream. “Let us down! Let us down! Let us DOWN!”
The magician yelps, desperately covering her ears, but the screams seep through and pierce her brain. No matter how hard she presses into her ear drums, the screams are still clear, loud, overwhelming, taking away the magician’s ability to even think.
“OKAY!” the magician yells desperately, and she just now realizes that she’s crying again. The bodies fall silent and she allows her shaking hands to drop from her ears. “Okay…I’ll let you down.”
It’s dark; it’s so dark, yet she can feel each and every one of the bodies stare at her, boring into her soul, demanding that she lets them down, lets them down, lets them down.
She climbs the tree closest to her, much clumsier in the dark. Eventually, she’s able to feel her way to the branch where the rope is tied. As she gropes for the rope, all the bodies giggle, laugh, chortle in anticipation of being let down, being let free.
The magician fiddles with the knot, feeling the weight of the body she’s about to release. She looks down and the moon gives just enough light to see its outline, the rope burning into its skin, its cheek bloated and rotting. The magician even thinks there may be pus dripping down and she imagines it looks like a rotten pimple.
They’re evil. They’re all evil. She can’t free them. It’s bad enough that she let the one go; she was stupid to trust it.
But she won’t be so stupid this time.
Instead of untying the rope, the magician claws her painted nails into the body’s eyes. It screeches and yowls, almost like a cat, as she digs deeper and deeper, hoping to reach its brain, hoping to kill it.
It flails around, its arms flapping, but not quite able to reach the magician. It shakes and snarls and attempts to bite her fingers. The other bodies no longer laugh and are now shrieking, burrowing their screeches into the magician’s brain, so much so that there are moments where she wonders if she has passed out.
The flailing body causes the branch to shake and the magician slips off. She tries to catch something, anything, even the body itself, but it’s quickly out of her grasp. Did she fall that fast? Did she lose consciousness for a moment?
She hits the ground. Her back, her legs, her head, they’re all throbbing. Worst of all is her brain, not only aching, but being bombarded over and over by screams and screeches.
Again, the magician tries desperately to cover her ears, but it’s no use. The screams seep through. They get louder and louder until the magician has a hard time comprehending sound at all.
Finally, with no ability to do anything else, she opens her mouth wide and screams along. If she can’t kill them, she can at least beat them. Prove to them that she’s better. Prove to them they have nothing on her.
She screams, they scream, the entire forest is filled with screeches and wails.
Until all is silent, as no one can scream anymore.
Miss Gunner is just about to enter her home after a long day of tracking a bear when she hears a small mew behind her. She turns to see a gray shorthair cat staring up at her.
“Well, hello there!” Miss Gunner smiles as she crouches down. “Where did you come from?” She reads the little purple collar around his neck. “Pepper, huh? Where’s your wonder?”
“There you are!”
Miss Gunner looks up to see a man she doesn’t recognize. He doesn’t look very well—his skin is sullen and gray and his throat looks burned and dented–but he smiles nonetheless as he looks at Pepper.
Miss Gunner picks Pepper up and walks over to him. “Is this yours?”
“Yes. He got away from me.”
“I don’t remember seeing you around,” Miss Gunner says as she hands him Pepper. “Did you just move in?”
“Yes, today, actually. He rushed off while I was in the process.”
“Nasty rascal,” Miss Gunner chuckles. “And what’s your name?”
“Damon. Damon Swing. I’m a musician of sorts.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Swing. I look forward to seeing you and Pepper again.”
“Likewise,” Mr. Swing grins before turning and taking his leave. Miss Gunner watches for a moment. It’s been a while since someone new moved in, and it’s nice that it’s a musician. There’s so little entertainment here.